The Steamie

Monday, 30 March 2009

David Maddox: Sandi Thom and the First Minister


Anybody who thought that Alex Salmond's recent performance of Caledonia with the SNP supporting pop star was cringeworthy or was outraged by the £10,000 expenses she got from his Scottish Government should read this "scrapbuke,"which some wag has constructed out of the weekend's furore.
If you are a fan of either Mr Salmond or Sandi Thom (right) you should definitely not click on to the link, unless you want your blood pressure raised further.
Needless to say the saga of the "Sandi Thom war" and those expenses continues in tomorrow's Scotsman.

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Friday, 27 March 2009

David Maddox: Who turned the lights on?

There is an international conference on climate change going on in the main chamber at Holyrood today chaired by Louise Batchelor (pictured right), a former BBC environment correspondent who was known at the Corporation as "the Tree Fairy" for her fondness of doing stories on saving trees from chainsaws.
But one speaker has noted that while people from around the world have been blethering on about saving energy to tackle the problems of climate change, he has been "blinded" by the vast array of lights on in the chamber even though "it is a sunny day."
A slightly embarrassed Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson, who is also chairing the meeting, had to explain that the lights were needed for the live broadcast and podcast of the event.
"Otherwise we would all seem to be sitting in darkness," he added.

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Thursday, 26 March 2009

David Maddox: Who turned the lights out?

There was a members debate this evening to support the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour 2009, which aims to encourage millions of people worldwide and across Scotland to switch off their lights for an hour at 8.30 pm on Saturday 28 March 2009, as an act of awareness on climate change and the need to tackle it.
The debate this evening was led by one of the promising new Nationalist MSPs Shirley-Anne Somerville (pictured top right), who represents the Lothians, which has a certain irony to it. This is because, as contacts in both Labour and the Conservatives have pointed out, the SNP, in their view seem intent on turning the lights out permanently in Scotland.
The thrust of the (well worn) argument is that the SNP's obsession with renewable energy from wind, wave and sun and outright opposition to nuclear will leave Scotland without a stable base supply of power. Only time will tell who is right, but if the SNP are wrong then the results could literally send Scotland back to the dark ages.
But the fear of "the lights going out" is hardly a new one to throw at voters. Tony Blair and Labour suggested all sorts of cataclysmic outcomes if the SNP took power in Holyrood. However, after almost two years we are yet to see the four horsemen of the Apocalypse descend on the country.
No doubt Labour remembered well how the idea of turning the lights out managed to put off supporters in 1992 with the infamous front page of The Sun on election day (pictured bottom right), although in that case it was the last person to leave the country who was being asked to press the switch.

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Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Eddie barnes - Griffiths' stock rises

Labour MP Nigel Griffiths will not lose his job as a result of his indiscretions in the House of Commons, as revealed in the News of the World at the weekend. Griffiths declared he was "deeply sorry" and "ashamed" after the Screws published details of the Edinburgh MP's alleged sex session within the parliamentary grounds, but Labour sources inform me that there is no likelihood of one of Gordon Brown's mates being deselected as the next election. He has already been named as the Labour candidate in Edinburgh South.

Indeed, there is some speculation that the revelations might end up actually helping Griffiths' bid to cling onto his seat, which he held last time round with a majority of barely 400. The assumption that philandering politicians are punished by the electorate isn't borne out by the evidence, they point out; indeed, in some cases (see John Major) juicy revelations of sexual indiscretions may actually serve to boost their grey image.

Or as one old hand put it to me today: "Trousers down, majority up."

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Gerri Peev: Smooth as Vaz-eline

What is it about Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs committee, that makes celebrities cling to him like velcro?
Today he is escorting no lesser figure than the Reverend Jesse Jackson around the House of Commons. He did his best to shield him from minor press intrusion (mine) outside the Members' Dining Room which boasts silver service and sweeping views of the Thames. It was also Vaz who hosted Shilpa Shetty (she of Bollywood and Big Brother fame) around Westminster a couple of years back, launching an impromptu press conference on the House of Commons terrace, much to the disdain of the Palace authorities.
He was applauded by Rev Jackson today who cited the "talented" and "right honourable" Keith Vaz as an example of how the UK could one day have its own Obama.

Who would have thought Vaz would reach such dizzying heights? Certainly not Chris Mullin, the former Foreign Office minister, who describes him as a "lightweight" in his entertaining diary, A View From the Foothills. He also calls him a "sleek wheeler-dealer" in the metaphoric sense of course, and says he has the "attention span of a gnat and a tendency to fantasise". No word yet on what Vaz makes of Mullin.

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David Maddox: Houston, we have a problem

It is not often that a meeting of the Scottish Parliament's Audit Committee attracts much interest, but today its members are grilling Guy Houston (pictured), the former Financial Director of Transport Scotland.
He is trying to explain why having shares in the First Group did not give him a conflict of interest when the Transport Scotland extended the First Rail Group's (a subsidiary of First Group) rail franchise in Scotland.
As you will no doubt read in tomorrow's Scotsman Mr Houston has an answer for almost everything and his defence is essentially that he was not in any decision making meetings on the franchise, although he did attend meetings that discussed the issue, and that he has not sold his shares, although he did exercise his options on First shares which have subsequently increased in value.
In the words of Home Secretary Jackie Smith over her expenses claims for her sister's house or fellow UK minister Tony McNulty for claims for his parents' house, Mr Houston says he "followed the rules." But, unlike them, he did resign because he was afraid of embarrassing Scottish ministers.
This is definitely a time for forensic grilling, perhaps from a leading lawyer, and the committee members including the creator of Transport Scotland, former Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen, are taking on the proverbial task of nailing a blomange to a wall. However, they will have the final word in their report.
But one thing they could have done without was the drilling outside the parliament on work for new security measures, which, embarrassingly, was so loud that it brought the meeting to a temporary halt, until the workers outside could be asked to stop.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hamish Macdonell - passing the buck

MUCH interest along the corridors of (devolved) power about the Scottish Government's decision to do a u-turn on alcohol.
What has got the gossips talking is not the u-turn itself (with ministers deciding to introduce their alcohol plans in a proper bill rather than trying to tag it on to existing legislation), that was expected.
What has caused speculation is the decision to give the whole thing to Nicola Sturgeon, the Health Secretary, rather than to rival Cabinet Secretary Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary.
Up until now, Mr MacAskill has been the government's standard bearer on this issue but now his counterpart at health has been asked to take it through the parliament.
A snub for MacAskill? A boost for Sturgeon? Or is it the other way round because the plans will prove extremely tricky to get through parliament.
MacAskill and Sturgeon are the two big hitters who will be vying for the leadership when Alex Salmond eventually does step down so this is a very interesting scenario.
The real answer, however, could be more prosaic. The SNP holds the convenership of the health committee while Tory Bill Aitken is in charge at Justice. This might have been the extra factor which pushed the Scottish Government to give the issue to health.
It might have had nothing to do with Sturgeon or MacAskill at all ...
ends

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Monday, 23 March 2009

David Maddox: Dad's Army routs the Nats in new Battle of Stirling


If there is one group that seems to have the beating of Alex Salmond and the SNP it is Scotland's pensioners.
In November, furious over the increased charges on home care by the SNP led Fife Council, pensioners turned out in their thousands to stop the Nationalists from taking the Glenrothes by-election and dealt Mr Salmond is most humiliating defeat since coming to power in Holyrood in 2007. It perhaps did not help that the SNP candidate, Peter Grant, was the council leader responsible for the unpopular policy.
Now another one of the SNP select - Stirling Council leader Graham Houston (recently appointed by his party colleagues in the Scottish Government to a plum post in charge of the Scottish Qualifications Authority) - has also been done in by the grey army.
It appears his administration wanted to close down some care homes which provoked a bit of a stooshie, so much so that the Mr Houston and his colleagues backed down.
But to mark the triumph Stirling own version of Dad's Army -called Stirling's Homes Guard - made a montage of the bungling councillors on a picture of the original sitcom's cast (above) and recorded a song which can be listened to on their website or by clicking on their new words provided below - Who do you think you're kidding, Mr Houston?

Words - The Band of Stirling's Homes Guard
Performed by The Band of Stirling's Homes Guard

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David Maddox: Offside MP - the evidence

Following previous posts on the Steamie regarding how fundamentalism and gradualism in the SNP ranks appears to have gravitated to football from a previous divide over a referendum, I have been sent picture evidence of Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil's gradualist tendencies.
If you look carefully at the team picture above of the GB Parliament team against the US Embassy you will see Mr MacNeil hiding on the back row fourth from the left. Quite a serious let down for his party's opposition to a GB team in the 2012 London Olympics.
My contact who sent me this speculated that Mr MacNeil, more famous for reporting Tony Blair to the police for cash for honours, may get "excommunicated shortly" for his backsliding.
As mentioned previously, others have taken a more principled stand, not least Scottish Government party spin doctor Will McLeish, who as a student footballer turned down the opportunity to take part in the GB team.

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Thursday, 19 March 2009

David Maddox: Separated at birth (Stewart Stevenson special)

My earlier blog on the above picture from 1982 where I mentioned a fellow hack's suggestion that Scotland's Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson (leading the walkout) looked like Peter Sutcliffe the Yorkshire Ripper has led to further suggestions.
The best one came from an unnamed Holyrood source who suggested that there's a vague echo of John Goodman's part in the Big Lebowski (below).

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David Maddox: Why does Labour appear to revel in the economic ruin of other countries?

The answer to the above question is simple- it always applies to countries in the SNP's famous Arc of Prosperity.
Of course, the downfall of Iceland, Ireland et al (with possible exception of Norway) allows them to say that all the models the SNP have for an independent Scotland have proven to be hopelessly flawed and simply underlines the point that Scotland is better off in the Union.
Admittedly, the SNP has been made to look silly for playing up these countries as models of economic paradise for small nations. The success stories are still on the SNP website.
But, there does seem to be a gloating note in Labour press releases, which if I were Icelandic or Irish I might feel a bit miffed about. One always gets the feeling that they are itching for Norway to go under too. There was the incident involving the anti-terror laws and Icelandic assets too.


The latest press release came today undeer the name of Labour Dumfries and Galloway MP Russell Brown (pictured right) entitled: Arc of insolvency continues to embarrass Salmond.
In it he notes that interest rates in Iceland have today been cut to 17%.
The fact that interest rates in Iceland are 34 times higher than in Scotland shows that we benefit from being part of the UK," he said.
It’s not that big countries are immune from the world financial crisis – look at America – but big countries have the strength to weather the storm better.
Today’s news is another embarrassment for Alex Salmond and his arc of insolvency. His belief that Scotland should be more like Iceland is utter nonsense.”

Given the appalling mess we find ourselves across the world, a little more solidarity with smaller countries might not go amiss.

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David Maddox: FMQs - Tories first to get unwanted double

Annabel Goldie (pictured right), the Scottish Conservative leader, made it an unwanted double today for her party after she was pulled up for insulting First Minister Alex Salmond with a nickname - "two salaries Salmond."
The strictures from Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson (Conservative) followed a similar lecture to by Speaker Michael Martin to Ms Goldie's UK leader David Cameron in Westminster yesterday for describing Gordon Brown as "phony" during PMQs.
Mr Salmond speculated that this may have been the first time a party has achieved the double.
Ms Goldie's questions were actually directed at the SNP's insistence (supported by all parties except the Tories) to push forward with free prescriptions for all. She claimed this would lead to £40 million of cuts in frontline health services.
Ironically, considering her foray into nicknames, she accused the First Minister of being "more interested in headlines and sound bites."
Mr Salmond gently reminded her that she and her party voted for the measure in the budget.
Earlier Labour leader Iain Gray accused Mr Salmond's government of not acting fast enough on apprenticeship guarantees. He raised the problems of a 19-year-old constituent Lewis Doig who could lose his apprenticeship just three months before he qualifies as a tradesman.
Tavish Scott, the Lib Dem leader, meanwhile pointed out that the UK government's economic recovery plan had the second least amount of green measures of any major economy after Spain. Mr Salmond happily agreed to publish the equivalent Scottish figures to prove his administration is better.
And stop press (although it was already in a popular tabloid this morning) the Scottish and UK governments at last agree on something- introducing legislation to stop more former prisoners from suing for compensation for having to slop out. In answer to a question from Nationalist MSP Stewart Maxwell (a former minister) Mr Salmond said that he would look at deducting board and lodgings from any compensation awarded.

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Hamish Macdonell - take the short odds

ONE punter has decided that even the short odds from Ladbrokes on the next election are too good to miss.
But given the performance of the markets, maybe it is not such a bad shout. The unnamed gambler has put £9,500 on there being a General Election next year - at 1/5.
Given that the Prime Minister has to call an election by the middle of next year anyway, all the punter is doing is betting that Gordon Brown is too cautious to call a snap election this year which, given his past form, is probably a good bet.
Ladbrokes also offer the Conservative Party at 1/6 to win most seats, with the Labour Party available at 4/1.
The Tories are 4/7 to secure an overall majority.
ends

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David Maddox: Those were the days

There is a fascinating piece by David Torrance in today's Scotsman (page 42) on the 79 Group, set up largely by young firebrands such as Alex Salmond, Kenny MacAskill, Stewart Stevenson and Roseanna Cunningham in the SNP to promote the idea of a Scottish Socialist Republic.
Of course its historical importance is that it modernised the SNP and provided the core of its future leadership. All the above are after all now ministers and Wee Eck is ensconced in Bute House.
But the above picture dug up by Torrance has provided much amusement in the media tower at Holyrood. It has Stewart Stevenson and Kenny MacAskill leading a conference walkout in 1982 because the party was not socialist enough. If you look carefully current Highland MSP Rob Gibson is there too, fifth down the line.
As we can also see those when the days of kilts and Scotland football shirts were still de rigueur in the unreconstructed SNP.
But the amusement was provided by the fashion of Mr Stevenson who depending on which hack you talk to looks like a hired hand for a Colombian drug baron (what was in that brief case?), an also-ran in the 1982 Scottish Che Guevara look alike competition or, rather cruelly, Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper), pictured right.
Anybody who knows what was in that brief case please get in touch.

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Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Gerri Peev: Murphy tunes in to fantasy panel

Back in December, Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary, announced he would convene a panel of economic and academic experts to come up with solutions for the recession in Scotland. This would be a group of people in tune with the problems on the ground, rather than the types to write letters to newspapers, he said.

He promised to come up with a cast list by January. It is now March 18, the official jobless figure for the UK is 2 million and the IMF has warned Britain will weather the recession worse than any other industrialised nation

David Mundell, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, grilled Murphy over this at Scottish Questions today, asking for the reason the delay on naming the experts.

"I am sure that the 1,000 additional people in the dole queues of Scotland this month, and their families, will very be interested to hear the Secretary of State’s solutions. In December, he announced that he was putting together a council of economic advisers, who would be named in January. Since then, we have heard nothing. What is the reason for that delay? Is he trying to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor, who used to vaunt the fact that Sir Fred Goodwin represented Scotland in the Chancellor’s high-level group on financial services? Does the Secretary of State think that his Government no longer need economic advice, or is it perhaps that nobody wants to be associated with his group?"

Murphy hit back: "I made no such announcement, then or since. The announcement that I made was about how to get those involved in academia and campaigning together with experts in poverty to ensure that the poorest could see a way through this recession, so that there would not be a generational legacy as a consequence of that, as there was after previous Tory recessions."

According to Mr Murphy's own speech given at the time, however, (a summary of which was in The Scotsman), he said: "I am announcing this morning that I will establish a new Scottish panel to advise and inform my work in the Government. I will invite experts, advice and voluntary organisations to join this important group. The expertise and local knowledge it will draw on will help our understanding of the specific nature of the impact of the situation facing individuals and families, and how the Government can continue to do what we can to help and support people through the tough times ahead."

So what was wrong with Mundell's questioning? According to sources (or should that be pedants) close to the Scottish Secretary, it was the use of the word "council".

OK, panel it is then. So how many times has this panel met? Er, none, according to the Scotland Office. The first meeting is on March 30 in Glasgow, when an unnamed group of "four or five" academics will meet. I was told that the Secretary does in fact meet individual experts frequently "rather than convening in a formal panel".

Perhaps it would have been better not to publicise something which does not exist and was probably never going to happen then?

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Tuesday, 17 March 2009

David Maddox: The numbers game (6) - Scottish edition addendum

Following my earlier blog on core support (party brand identity in polls), here is the table dating back to 2005 that Professor Paul Whiteley of Essex University (pictured), kindly sent me.
It shows the fluctuations in core party supporters in Scotland over the last few years, which will make happier reading for some than others. Click on to the link below:
core%20support.doc

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David Maddox: SAS candidate takes on Ming the Merciless (aka Patsy versus Pompous Ass)

Sir Menzies Campbell (top left), the former UK Liberal Democrat leader, has had a tough time this week after being described as a "pompous ass" and "Ming the Meaningless" by his old opponent, Alex Salmond, the First Minister. But, while he laughed off Mr Salmond's outburst, it seems that the former Olympic athlete may be having to look over his shoulder at a threat from some energetic youth.
The "energetic youth" in question is the Tory North East Fife candidate Mile Briggs (pictured right with Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie), a party researcher in Holyrood, who today self-styled himself as being an SAS candidate. This might be necessary considering that his opponent's nickname is Ming the Merciless.
The SAS allusion came with his proposed charity abseil off the Forth Rail Bridge (pictured left in Colin Ruffell's famous painting) to raise money for the RNLI.
However, when I bumped in to him earlier this morning buying a coffee it was his relative popularity to the veteran Lib Dem that he was boasting about.
When on Friday Sir Menzies gave his address to the Lib Dem conference on international affairs - the one where he criticised Mr Salmond's international grandstanding - he attracted about 72 delegates.
On Saturday, Mr Briggs tells me, that over 300 people turned up to one of his fundraising constituency coffee mornings in Newburgh, more than four times Sir Menzie's audience.
However, that said, Mr Briggs needs to overturn a majority of 12,571.
And the obvious put down for the young Tory - one of a legion of Patsies (politically ambitious 20 somethings) employed by political parties in Holyrood - might be Sir Menzie's current favourite Gordon Brown quote, the one he used about Mr Salmond and foreign affairs - "It's no time for a novice."

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David Maddox: The numbers game (6) - Scottish edition

Following my blog yesterday about the Westminster House magazine piece by Professor Paul Whiteley of Essex University on the strength of brand identity for political parties, he has kindly sent me the Scottish analysis.
His thesis is that the figures reveal that there is "everything to play for" in the next general election because the Conservative lead at at UK level is based on "fickle non-partisans."
UK- wide the latest support was 27% of people who identify themselves with Labour and 26% for the Tories.
In Scotland Labour has even more grounds for cautious optimism with 32% and just 25% for the SNP. The Tories are at just 14% and Lib Dems 10%.
"This is not surprising since Labour has a much longer history of electoral success in Scotland than the SNP," Prof Whiteley told me. "It takes time to build up partisan attachments."
As I mentioned in the previous blog, it is swing voters who decide elections not core supporters, but in these tough times Labour at least has a good base to work from.

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David Maddox: Happy Birthday Andy Kerr

You would have thought that Andy Kerr (pictured right), Labour's finance spokesman in Holyrood and recently defeated leadership candidate, would have something to smile about today considering that it is his 47th birthday.
But if he dined in the parliament canteen today the passionate Rangers supporter will not have felt quite at home with the green and white balloons and flags up for St Patricks Day. That after having to endure the gloating in a box at Hampden from the "Glasgow Labour Catholic mafia" (in the words of Frank McAveety, the Labour MSP for Parkhead), as the Hoops beat the Huns two nil in the Scottish League Cup.
Maybe Mr Kerr should take a lead from fellow Rangers fan Donald Findlay (pictured left), one time deputy chairman of the club and Scotland's leading QC, who also was born on St Patrick's Day. He apparently found a prominent Catholic whose birthday was the same day as the Battle of the Boyne (July 12) and did a birthday swap.

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Monday, 16 March 2009

David Maddox: The numbers game (6)

Reading the polls lately has been a form of masochism for members of the Labour Party, although the Holyrood voting intention Yougov poll at the weekend provided some light relief.
But on a UK level Gordon Brown (pictured right in an appropriately despondent pose), has consistently being staring at a double figure gap with David Cameron (pictured left with a big smile on his face).
However, new research from Professor Paul Whiteley of the University of Essex, has revealed that Mr Cameron may not have quite so much to grin about and, indeed, Mr Brown should cheer up.
In a piece for the House magazine in Westminster, Prof Whiteley has looked at the strength of the Labour and Conservative brands in terms of how people identify themselves.
This has revealed that UK-wide 27% identify themselves as Labour, one per cent ahead of the 26% who see themselves as Conservative.
Prof Whiteley's points out that Labour have consistently run ahead of the Tories in this brand identity test.
And as he concluded: "The Conservatives lead in voting intentions has occurred because non-partisans prefer them to Labour. But non-partisans are fickle and can rapidly change their minds, which is why the next general election is still undecided."
However, one warning for any Labourites out their who think this is the basis of them going on to win. Non-partisans are what we normally call floating voters and they have always decided elections, particularly in the swing seats. As things stand Labour is struggling to persuade any of them.
Nevertheless it would be interesting to know the equivalent voter party identity brand for Scotland.

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David Maddox: Is good breeding the secret to political success?


Times have changed since November 25 1882 when these famous words of Private Willis from Gilbert and Sullivan's Sentry Song (in their operetta Iolanthe) were first sung in the Savoy Theatre in London. And circumstances are even more different in Scotland than they are south of the border with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now only occupying third and fourth place in people's affections respectively.
On a good day the Tories and Lib Dems may get a third of the political support between them in Scottish polls and, at least in the Lib Dems case, that share seems to be shrinking rapidly.
So as the Lib Dems are failing to persuade people to support their cause, they seem to have hit on a new strategy - put virile youngish men in positions of leadership and get them to produce supporters for the future. The tactic seems to be working.
UK leader Nick Clegg, 42, and his wife Miriam (both pictured left) have just had their third child - a son named Miguel born on February 22. Mr Clegg pointedly avoided last weekend's Scottish party conference, no doubt to spend some quality canvassing time with the youngster.
Scottish leader Tavish "Viking" Scott, 42, and his new wife, BBC journalist Kirsten Campbell, are due to have their first child in July. It will be Mr Scott's fourth.
Scottish deputy leader Michael Moore, 43, and his wife Alison (both pictured left) are due to have a child in June.

No wonder poor Alistair Carmichael, 43, the party's spokesman for Scotland in Westminster, was gently chided by Mr Scott in his conference speech yesterday for not doing his bit for party membership.

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Sunday, 15 March 2009

David Maddox: Liberal Democrat conference - the history men

An interesting fringe meeting took place on Friday evening hosted by the Liberal Democrat History Group. Its topic of discussion was: "Fighting Labour: the struggle for radical supremacy in Scotland 1885 - 1929."
It was a discussion in which the Lib Dems could look at their forebears with a great deal of pride and regret.
This was arguably the period when the old Liberals were at their height and the very zenith of their powers, following on from the legacy of Midlothian's most famous MP - William Ewart Gladstone.
It was Kelvinside boy, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (pictured left), who led them to power in 1905 and although he had to retire due to ill-health in 1908, he started the historic government which would lay the foundations for the welfare state. Its greatest achievement was the creation of the old age pension by David Lloyd-George, whose good work as we all know was partly destroyed for the private sector by Gordon Brown as chancellor.
Lloyd-George's great friend and cabinet ally was a Dundee MP, who would later as a Conservative become known as the greatest Prime Minister of them all, Winston Churchill (pictured right as Dundee MP in 1909).
But, anybody who has read George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England will see that in their height of success also were the seeds of the Liberals' fall.
Dangerfield's thesis was that a popular Liberal government found itself overwhelmed by three genuinely radical forces - mass trade unionism and general strikes, militant feminism led by the Pankhursts, and the struggle for Irish independence. He argued that the drive to the First World War was a deliberate move by the Liberals to channel their anger and energy in a different direction for a national cause.
Emerging from the war the Liberals were split between former Prime Minister's Herbert Asquith's supporters and Lloyd-George's, including Churchill, who had ended up allied with the Tories.
By 1929, even though the party was reunited, Liberalism was all but dead in England and just holding on in the so-called "celtic fringes" including parts of Scotland. It had largely replaced by Labour on the left and the Tories on the right. By then Churchill had been ousted as Dundee's MP by the only ever successful temperance MP in British history and returned to the Tories.
As Tavish Scott's speech at conference today eluded to, the defeat came despite a promise that the Liberals could end unemployment.
They have never recovered and their only brush with government was as Labour's junior partner in the first eight years of Scottish devolution.
And it is perhaps this ghost that was also lying behind the discussion. Because through the Scottish Executive partnership between 1999 and 2007, the Lib Dems became intertwined in the popular mind, particularly in Scotland, as being Labour-lite.
In his pre-election 2007 conference SNP leader Alex Salmond made a jibe about how they needed to become more than a means of propping up Labour.
What this fringe meeting was maybe trying to remind people was that the Lib Dems need to put a distance between themselves and their old enemy Labour, particularly as that party is on its way down, and remember that the two were in a life and death struggle of ideas when nationalism in Scotland was still just a lunatic fringe.
That is perhaps why leading Lib Dems have been hinting at alliances with the SNP for the last few weeks. But even this is an acknowledgement of history's cruel judgement, that as a force now they can only aspire to be a junior partner.

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David Maddox: Lib Dem conference - subliminal messages

As the final day of the Lib Dem Scottish conference gets underway we are already getting ready for the party's young energetic leader Tavish Scott to get to his feet and deliver his first speech since being voted to the top office.
But, whatever you think about the position of the Scottish Lib Dems at the moment - the polls suggest they are facing a possible doomsday or two in upcoming elections - but one interesting point is that their choice of venue this year is very positive.
The Perth Concert Hall (pictured right) is a new looking fresh location, very accessible and easy to organise in. It gives the impression of a party which knows what it is doing, is up and coming and is very open.
No wonder the Nationalists were also here for their autumn conference and the Conservatives will be here for their Scottish conference.
In contrast last week we all crammed into the Caird Hall (pictured left) in Dundee for Labour's Scottish conference. It is tired looking with stained carpet (not necessarily with blood), peeling wallpaper, difficult to find your way around, generally disorganised and anything but easily accessible. Any party that is on its way down would fit well into it.
Venues give strong subliminal messages - the Lib Dems this week have got it right and Labour unfortunately fitted the image many have of them now.

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Friday, 13 March 2009

David Maddox: Lib Dem conference - finding a speaker

This Scottish Liberal Democrat conference was billed in the run-up by spin doctors and party leaders as the great thinktank on how to get Scotland and the UK out of the recession.
I've just been sitting in their most high profile debate on the issue - An Economic Recovery Package for Scotland.
You might think that given the billing it would have been difficult to get on the stage to speak. But no. It seems though from the introductions of two speakers - election candidate Fred Macintosh, who ticked the wrong box and and ended up having to oppose an amendment he supports, and Edinburgh City Council leader Jenny Dawe - that the chairwoman of the debate Siobhan Mathers was standing at the door trying to persuade delegates to speak.
Sensitive to this Ms Mathers told delegates: "Don't think that I've been standing at the door trying to find speakers" in a classic case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted.

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Eddie Barnes - Swinney needs to up the pace

John Swinney was perfectly within his rights yesterday to complain to Chief Secretary to the Treasury Yvette Cooper about the extent of public sector spending cuts which are heading our way soon. The extent of those cutbacks will continue to be disputed by the two sides but there is little doubt that belts are going have to be tightened drastically in public sector Scotland at a time when costs (see pensions, equal pay settlements, you name it) are going to keep rising. If Swinney can wring some extra cash out of the Treasury by making life politically uncomfortable for them, all well and good.

But the quid quo pro has to be that Swinney starts focussing more on getting a bigger bang for his buck in the money he already controls. I am getting worrying reports from contacts within the public finance field who fear that whilst the Finance Secretary is talking a good game, he hasn't yet grasped the nettle about the scale of the task ahead of him. There is no doubt that Swinney has to tighten the purse strings and has about a year in which to do it before the cuts kick in. But where is the methodology and the timescale? Has he brought in some advisers to run the rule through his balance sheet? Does he have some drastic solutions up his sleeve - which will undoubtedly be required - and, if so, isn't it time he started preparing the ground for them? Or is he happy simply to see services go to the wall and blame Westminster?

Lots of questions, and people are beginning to wonder whether Swinney's got the answers.

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Thursday, 12 March 2009

David Maddox: Spin doctor on-side in the great football debate

MSPs were in the presence of greatness today, although probably most of them did not realise it. Scottish football legend Graeme Souness (pictured right) was in Holyrood's stands for First Minister's questions.
Afterwards he explained: "I'm Scottish and I thought it was about time I visited the place."
The European Cup winner with Liverpool, who also forged a successful career in Italy, may not have been all the MSPs' favourite football figure, especially the Celtic supporters who remember his days as manager of Rangers.
But he remained diplomatically quiet on one of the subjects in general questions which came up shortly before FMQs, the great debate on the GB football team in the 2012 London Olympics.
A question asked by Nationalist MSP Christine Graeme on former Scotland manager Craig Brown's petition against the UK government's insistence that a GB football team will be fielded, brought the usual outraged response from party colleague and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with its apocalyptic message for Scottish football's independence. She promised that the Scottish Government would give a full response to the Petitions Committee.
Now this may be a round about way of coming to the main point, but what we have here may be a new definition of the old and apparently outdated descriptions of SNP members being divided between gradualists and fundamentalists.
The old definition was between those who wanted a referendum for independence and those who just wanted independence without asking anybody, most now sign up to the gradualist referendum view. But the split is now perhaps clearer on the issue of greatest national importance - football.

The other day my colleague Gerri Peev pointed out in on the Steamie how the backsliding SNP MP Angus MacNeil (pictured left) has let the side down a bit by becoming part of the GB parliamentary team - a footballing gradualist no less.
But, it seems that other party members are less willing to drop their principles for a game of footie.
It turns out that former SFA press officer Will McLeish, now one of the Scottish Government special advisers (ie a party spin doctor paid for by the state), who looks like he would fit well into a 1980s team photo, is a very talented footballer.
As part of the all-conquering Scottish universities team, Mr McLeish's name was first on the team sheet. So good was the team that seven of them, including our eponymous hero were selected for the GB University team to play in the World Student Games in Sicily.
Mr McLeish, who was brought up south of the border in Worcester, told me: "The SFA said we couldn't go so we refused to be part of the team. But I would not have gone anyway out of principle because I don't recognise GB as a country."
Now that's real Nationalism!
But it has to be said that Mr McLeish rather spoils the affect by being a devoted member of the Union Flag waving Rangers' fan club and a regular at Ibrox.
I wonder if he joins in with the singing of Rule Britannia.

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David Maddox: The numbers game (5)

I have just been sent the latest Scottish sample results from the most recent UK Populus poll.
Admittedly a sample of 127 people is hardly much of an indicator to write home about, but the SNP member who sent it me clearly enjoyed the effect the results would have in a UK general election.

Conservatives 11% Labour 27% Liberal Democrats 18% SNP 43%

According to Electoral Calculus this would mean the following Westminster seat allocation:

Conservative 0 (-1) Labour 7 (-34) Lib Dems 8 (-3) SNP 44 (+38)

Now that would be a result that would bring about a referendum on independence!

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David Maddox: Going to the wall for women

Many of you will have read today about the search to find a new quotation to put on the Scottish Parliament's Canongate Wall, not least in today's Scotsman.
There are 24 quotes on the wall, mainly celebrating scottish writers and famous sayings. However, amazingly, there are no quotes from women.
This point has not been lost on some of Scotland's resident feminists who have launched a campaign to have a Scottish woman added.
The campaign is based on a facebook page created by Jeane Freeman and Susan Stewart of Glasgow.
One contributor on the site has put forward the Edinburgh author Muriel Spark's (pictured left) name. Perhaps the quote should be from her most character, Miss Jean Brodie, famously played by Maggie Smith (pictured right in the role), although maybe not one of her devotions to the Fascist leader Mussolini. Here are some suggestions:

"Deep in most of us is the potential for greatness or the potential to inspire greatness" - may actually inspire some of our MSPs.
"P-E-T-R-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N. Petrification! I do not intend to devote my prime to petrification" - may serve as a warning to our MSPs who too often seem to be more interested in meaningless, point scoring subject debates rather than doing something to change Scotland for the better.

"Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth, and beauty come first" - may encourage some of Holyrood's more radical thinkers (if there are any).

"I am a teacher! First, last, always!" - Could act as a reminder to politicians that there are hundreds of teachers unable to get a job thanks to the mismanagement of resources.

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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Gerri Peev: MP off-side on football debate

Entertaining debate this morning raised by the SNP's Pete Wishart on the rights - or should I say wrongs - of a Team GB football squad.

The SNP's Angus MacNeil, tried to be helpful to his colleague's argument by saying: "I wonder whether any Portuguese Members of Parliament are looking for unification with Spain for an Iberian team. I would not think so."

Perhaps, then, he can explain why he is playing for the unified UK parliament's football team, who will meet the US Embassy's side next week?

On a more serious point, during the same debate, Mark Field, the Tory representing the bankers in the City of London, said that the idea of a Team GB was to part of a plot by the Prime Minister to "disguise the fact" that he is a Scot.

And he also warned that Brown's Scottishness would be used against him at the next general election:

Field said: "He represents or is from a country of 4.5 million people out of 60 million. That will be very evident as time goes on. I would not have wished to make that argument before 1997, but his Government have brought it on themselves. It will resonate loudly during the next general election campaign—very regrettably, in my view."

Regardless of where one stands on the constitutional or political debate, for an immigrant such as this correspondent, it is uncomfortable to think that one's nationality should ever be used against them.

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David Maddox: The numbers game (4)

There are few things that work politicians and their aids into a lather of excitement more than polls and playing around with the numbers.
So attention has been paid to the Scottish sample of the most recent Yougov poll taken on February.
This appears to give the SNP a lead in Westminster voting intentions.

Conservatives 21% Labour 32% Lib Dems 8% SNP 33%

Putting this through the Electoral Calculus test, this translates into the following allocation of Scottish Westminster seats (comparisons with the 2005 general election in brackets):

Con 6 (+5) Lab 34 (-7) Lib Dems 5 (-6) SNP 14 (+8)

Which once again goes to prove how much the boundaries are weighted in favour of Labour over the Nationalists and the Lib Dems over the Conservatives.

But as has been noted previously the Scottish sample is very small (less than 200) and not really a proper indicator. My usual source who keeps a rolling total of samples has sent me the percentages based on the last four which is around 800 people and perhaps more indicative. This gives the following results:

Con 21.75% Lab 34.75% Lib Dems 11.25% SNP 28%

Which put through the Electoral Calculus Scottish page gives the following Westminster seat numbers north of the border:

Con 7 (+6) Lab 37 (-4) Lib Dems 8 (-3) SNP 7 (+1)

Which suggests that either Electoral Calculus cannot be trusted (it certainly does not allow for local quirks) or that the first past the post system in elections really ill-serves Scotland in terms of proportionality, although that is hardly a new revelation.

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David Maddox: Many questions, double standards (2) - Just Labour paranoia?

Had a note from one of the spin doctors for the SNP parliamentary party in Holyrood about Labour's allegations of devious goings on by the Nationalists with written parliamentary questions. See yesterday's blog for details.
She is brief and to the point.
"Much as Labour's paranoia is a compliment, we have better things to do with our time," she said.

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Monday, 9 March 2009

David Maddox: The musings of Mr Toad

As this blog as mentioned before, there are few more colourful characters wandering around the grey corridors of Holyrood than Professor Christopher Harvie, the SNP MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife.
The author of many academic works who spent much of his life in Germany provided some rare interest at the public meeting held by the Treasury Select Committee this morning.
He suggested that in their inquiries into banks the committee members should "read novels" particularly by John Le Carre and recommended a long forgotten tome from 1975 called The Crime Industry, produced by the Scotland Home Office and recently quoted by the German Finance minister as a must read.
It predicted that crime would be transformed by globalisation, tax havens and computers.
"That's why mafia bosses stopped using horse's heads and moved into real estate," Prof Harvie told me afterwards.
Committee chairman John McFall, Labour MP for West Dunbartonshire, politely noted that he had enjoyed reading Prof Harvie's books over the years.
However, he may not enjoy reading the Prof's latest work - Broonland - a publication due to come out in August in time for Labour's main party conference where the historian cum-MSP will chart the downfall of Gordon Brown and Labour, predicting a similar electoral annihilation to the one suffered by the Tories in 1997.
Passages can be found on his website which has another interesting twist for the man often described nicknamed the "nutty professor" in Holyrood.
Just to prove that there are still some politicians out there with a self deprecating humour, it celebrates another one of his nicknames - Mr Toad (as in the some time incumbent of Toad Hall in Wind in the Willows).
His likeness to literature's most famous amphibian perhaps most of all is in his style of dress. And Mr Toad is available to take visitors through his website.
The homepage even opens with Toad's most famous song - readers can make up their own minds on whether this fits Prof Harvie.
Compared with that of Toad!
Know all there is to be knowed.

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David Maddox: Many questions, double standards (2)

Just following up on my colleague Hamish Macdonell's blog earlier on the SNP and their alleged aversion to oppositon MSPs putting down written questions.
The party of Scottish Government appear, according to some in Labour, to have taken up a new tactic to nobble their opponents, particularly their would-be nemisis - Lord George Foulkes (pictured right), Baron of Cumnock, MSP for the Lothians and First Lord of the Twittery.
The SNP cunning plan supposedly is to get one of their backbenchers to put down a near identical question to one tabled say by the noble Lord George after he has submitted his for answer.
They then answer the question from afore mentioned backbencher and send the oppositon MSP an answer referring him to the answer given to the party lackey.
This means that their backbencher gets the answer 24 hours before, but, if the SNP MSP Ian McKee's press release on questions is to be believed, it also costs the tax payer almost £100 for the extra question.
An example of this is below. A question put down by Lord George on February 26 for First Minister Alex Salmond and then a near identical one put down by SNP backbencher Nigel Don (pictured left) on March 4. The answers were given by Michael Russel, the new minister for external affairs, on March 5.

S3W-21418 - George Foulkes (Lothians) (Lab) (Date Lodged Thursday, February 26, 2009): To ask the Scottish Executive what engagements the First Minister undertook during his visit to the United States of America; what topics were dealt with in each case, and whether he proposes to make a statement on these matters.
Answered by Michael Russell (Thursday, March 05, 2009): I refer the member to the answer to question S3W-21578 on 5 March 2009. All answers to written parliamentary questions are available on the Parliament''s website, the search facility for which can be found at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/Apps2/Business/PQA/Default.aspx.


S3W-21578 - Nigel Don (North East Scotland) (SNP) (Date Lodged Wednesday, March 04, 2009): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it will report on the main outcomes of the First Minister’s recent visit to the United States of America.
Answered by Michael Russell (Thursday, March 05, 2009): The First Minister made a two day visit to Washington DC last week to raise Scotland's profile in the US; to strengthen relationships with key policymakers, particularly in the new administration, and to promote the Year of Homecoming in one of Scotland's biggest tourist markets.

The First Minister met with important figures in the new US administration. The First Minister's meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton marked the deepening friendship between our two nations and provided a good basis for further on-going dialogue in important areas of mutual interest, such as climate change and Scotland's renewable energy potential. The First Minister also met with Dr Christina Romer, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, to discuss efforts to promote economic recovery, the US stimulus package, and possible areas for future policy discussion and cooperation between the US and Scotland.

The First Minister's visit to the United States coincided with the launch of a new Scottish Caucus in the US Senate. The newly announced Caucus is one of very few in the US Senate and reflects the ability and efforts of Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) and his colleagues. With 30 US Senators “ a third of the Senate “ now joining the 50 members of the Friends of Scotland Caucus in the House of Representatives, Scotland now has a significant asset to promote our long-term interests in the United States.

In addition, the First Minister hosted a reception to promote scotch whisky, delivered a lecture at Georgetown University, and gave the keynote address at a prestigious symposium on the life and works of Robert Burns, at the Library of Congress. He also undertook various media engagements to publicise the Year of Homecoming and to promote key Scottish industries such as renewable energy, tourism and food and drink, in an effort to spur economic recovery in Scotland.

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Hamish Macdonell - many questions, double standards

THERE appears to be a clear absence of joined-up thinking from the Nationalists at Holyrood.
Ian McKee has just put down a motion condemning one MSP (Labour's George Foulkes) for putting down so many parliamentary questions.
The Nats believe Lord Foulkes is often mischievous and only asks questions to embarrass the SNP.
Mr McKee reckons that, at a cost of nearly £100 per question, Foulkes has run up a bill of £100,000 so far this session, something he condemns in his motion.
Fair enough, if it wasn't for the fact that the SNP use the device of written questions as a barometer of how well their MPs and MSPs are doing.
The SNP regularly publish graphs showing how many written questions their members have tabled.
Just last month, the SNP press office circulated a table showing the vast number Alex Salmond had asked at Westminster to justify their claims that he was a very hard-working MP.
By the SNP's own calculations, Lord Foulkes is not just a hard-working MSP but probably the hardest working MSP in the parliament.
Surely Mr McKee (and his co-signatories Bill Kidd and Christopher Harvie) should have done some research on the SNP's approach to this issue before condemning it, particularly as the motion ends by saying: we "request all members to consider whether their question is really necessary before incurring yet more public expense".
A great ideal, without a doubt, but have they told Mr Salmond and all their colleagues at Holyrood and Westminster?
ends

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Friday, 6 March 2009

Gerri Peev: House price crash across the pond

Here is a terrifying statistic for any home owner in America (as though they needed another negative indicator).

In the city of Detroit, America's car-producing capital, the median house price is now $7,500. I assure you there are no missing digits. That is the equivalent of around £5,300.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-detroit-housingjan29,0,5435392.story

The car industry across the pond is as affected as the banking sector in the UK. What will this eventually mean for house prices around Edinburgh and London if the rot is not stopped?

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Gerri Peev: Wishart off the guest list?

As a former Runrig keyboardist, the SNP's Pete Wishart is used to being catapulted to the front of the queue at private parties.]

Since politics is meant to be showbiz for ugly people [no offence intended here] it is not surprising he is shocked at being left out of many events at the Scotland Office.

Ever since his nemesis Jim Murphy took over at the helm at the Scotland Office, Wishart is convinced that he is being left off the guest list. So much so that he has written to the Scotland Office demanding the official guest list.

Ann McKechin, the minister, has been forced to reply that "The Scotland Office does not hold full invitation lists for the events it hosts". This was because there are "invariably alterations" including late invitations that were not always recorded. She goes on to say that "where third parties host functions at the Scotland Office, they are responsible for their own guest lists and these are not submitted to the Scotland Office for approval".

Wishart has seized on this admission saying, writing back to the minister that "for obvious reasons, that is not a sensible [or] secure arrangement for events hosted in a government building".

He said that the initial claim that the Scotland Office did not hold invitation lists was "not so much unbelievable as it is bizarre".

He reiterated his call for the guest list. The Steamie will keep you updated.

It seems that unlike other SNP MPs who also spend a lot of time questioning the purpose of the Scotland Office, Wishart is unique in being "snubbed". Could it be anything to do with the fact that he and Murphy do not speak to each other?

This correspondent remembers once replying to a Scotland Office invitation correcting her title from "Mr" to "Ms". The response was surprising but hilarious: "Our press officer assured us you were a man". Note to self: need more flattering byline picture.

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Gerri Peev: Washington warns of Brown rot

This was the headline on a press release from the US Embassy in London: International Team Sequences Genome of Brown-Rot Fungus.
Have relations with the US really gone off? We had heard the PM had received the "short red carpet" treatment in DC in contrast to the Messiah's welcome extended to Tony Blair, but this was potentially a real insult.
On closer reading, it is a press release documenting a breakthrough that will make production of fuel from plants more cost effective and energy efficient. Far more important than a diplomatic stand off. Not quite as much fun though.

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Thursday, 5 March 2009

David Maddox: John Farquhar Munro found (2)


Had yet another update from the Lib Dems on their missing pro-referendum on independence MSP John Farquhar Munro (pictured)- Holyrood's international man of mystery.
As you will have seen from the earlier blogs he is missing today's vote on the principle of a referendum, where he would have probably gone against the party anti-referendum line, because he has important business in Germany.
The original suggestion from the Lib Dem press office was that he was there for health reasons, which made chief whip Mike Rumbles rejection of his original request a look a little hard hearted.
But, the latest update is that he is in Germany to be a special guest speaker at the MDS foundation's European patient and family forum in Germany - it was arranged around Christmas time apparently.
According to its website the foundation is "a multi disciplinary, international organization devoted to the prevention, treatment, and study of the myelodysplastic syndromes."
For the non-medically qualified among you, myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are a group of diseases in which the production of blood cells by the bone marrow is disrupted.
So he was there "for health reasons," but not his own health, which, although it is nice to know he is not seriously ill, makes it all the more surprising that he was given such an important parliamentary day off to go there.

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David Maddox: FMQs - Independence defiance


In the face of certain defeat tonight over an independence referendum Alex Salmond made it clear that this is one policy that his party will not be shelved despite the parliamentary arithmatic.
Under attack from Labour leader Iain Gray, Mr Salmond took great pleasure in reminding his opponent that "consistency on the referendum is not Labour's strongest suit."
After all it was Labour less than a year ago, he pointed out, who backed a referendum under the ill-fated Wendy Alexander leadership. And he quoted Mr Gray's own appearance on Newsnight Scotland in May last year when he said Labour would support a referendum "whenever it comes."
But Mr Gray's response may be the historical footnote to the SNP's great missed opportunity.
"It was the First Minister who said 'no!'," he said before underlining the fact that the offer has now well and truly been withdrawn.
Which leaves the question of whether in retrospect the SNP really did miss an opportunity by not going for a referendum when Labour's support was there and Labour was so weak the SNP would have been in a great position to win. Maybe this will in time go down in history as the Nats great missed opportunity.
Both Tory leader Annabel Goldie and Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott asked about the appalling case of the death of the Dundee toddler Brandon Muir, which provoked a strong defence of social workers from the First Minister and an admission that nobody is really sure how many children are in similar circumstances to the little child.
Read more on all these exchanges in the Scotsman tomorrow.

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Ross Lydall: the SNP response to Jim Murphy

Further to my Jim Murphy interview, the SNP Westminster group leader Angus Robertson issued the following statement in response to the Scottish Secretary's claims about the First Minister:

“For Jim Murphy, politics seems to be about personal attacks and he needs to raise the level of his contribution. The Scottish Government is delivering an effective economic recovery programme, and it is vitally important that it is not undermined by Westminster-imposed cuts to public spending in Scotland.
“If Mr Murphy wanted to make a constructive contribution then he should dissuade Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling from slashing Scotland's budget by 500m a year from 2010/11.
“The reality is that relationships between the Scottish and UK governments are generally good, and would be a good deal better without the Scotland Office, which is basically an irritant in the body politic. A much better system would be for the devolved administrations to deal with Downing Street directly via the Cabinet Office.
"Jim Murphy’s typically unctuous attack on the SNP government underlines precisely why the Scotland Office is such an irrelevance.”

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Ross Lydall: That Jim Murphy interview uncut

Due to constraints on space, my interview with Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy appeared in an abridged form in today's Scotsman. For the sake of completeness, I attach pretty much the full transcript. The interview was carried out at Dover House, London, on Wednesday 25 February, immediately before Mr Murphy and the Prime Minister met First Minister Alex Salmond, and other leaders of the devolved governments, to discuss the economy etc.

Question: Will the job of Scottish Secretary disappear? "Not any time soon," he said.... "If, at some point in the distant future, when the devolution settlement has settled down in Northern Ireland, at some point in the future you may have a Secretary of State for the Nations." But such matters had been entirely knocked off the political agenda by the economic crisis.

He said it was "wrong" to combine the jobs of Defence Secretary and Scottish Secretary. "It was a mistake to combine the two jobs. Des [Browne] had an impossible job. I thought he did the impossible really well. But it was imbalanced, particularly when Northern Ireland and Wales had a full-time Secretary of State. It reduced Scotland in the hierarchy of the Cabinet. I think we're back to where it should be."

Is the Scottish Secretary or the First Minister the most important politician in Scotland? "For me it's not a competition about who is the main politician in Scotland. Gordon Brown is the main politician in Scotland, not Alex Salmond or Jim Murphy. Alistair Darling is probably the second most [important] politician in Scotland.
"In terms of public perception, Scottish Secretary - it's not the best job title in the first place anyway, is it? I'm relaxed about it. Secretary of State for Scotland is a bit more understood. Des was spending so much time on defence that you can understood why people would say: What is the publicly understood function of that job?"

Asked about the Labour submission to the Calman Commission and reports that there was opposition among some Scots Labour MPs to borrowing powers for the Scottish Government: "I think there were a couple [of Scots Labour MPs] who were critical but it's the Labour party policy. We went through a process. This is what we settled on. We are a party of thousands of members. There will be people who don't agree. That is fine."

Who drew up the submission? "Iain [Gray] did the vast majority of it, I played a supporting role." He added: "I'm very happy with every word in the document. Iain has crafted it really sensibly and it's the right thing to do."

What is his personal view about borrowing powers, and what the Calman Commission should propose? "Wait and see what the report says, the recommendations say... We set up this Calman process and it has to be independent, I'm not going to seek to influence it. By me telling you a view, I would be misconstrued as trying to influence it. I think Ken Calman has gone about it in an really methodical, extraodrinarily professional way, and I'm not going to second guess his work."

Does the Labour submission mean that Westminster is no longer, by itself, able to fulful all the needs of the Scottish people? "No, that argument was had 12, 14 years ago about can Westminster fulful the needs. That is why we had devolution in the first place. The Labour party has argued since its inception that a Westminster parliament couldn't fulfil its needs. Kier Hardie argued that Westminster couldn't fulfil Scotland's needs. Since the day the Labour party was formed, our view was that a UK parliament by and of itself had to be complemented by a Scottish parliament. It's been the heartbeat of the Labour party since we were formed, this idea that Scotland should have two parliaments."

How has Holyrood performed in its first decade? "Great, genuinely. We are coming up to the 10th anniversary of the first elections and the commencement of the parliament. In the first 10 years, did the House of Commons make mistakes? I suspect it probably made one every day that it sat. I think it's been really refreshing for Scotland. I think it's led the way in some important ways. It has been a real success, and needs to continue to be."

Has Holyrood replaced the Commons as the real forum for political debate? "It fluctuates day to day. I don't see it as a competition between the two."

Is the status quo an option on the constitution/for Calman? "I think there is a general problem, which is that they're {the Scottish Government] not financially accountable for the decisions, the spending decisions that are taken. That is the main point that has got to be addressed. There are other points that have got to be addressed, like the working relationships between the two parliaments and the two governments, which are nowhere near good enough. Calman is looking at this, but the idea that there is not enough of sharing of ideas, sharing of experiences among select committees, for example. The intergovernmental, sub-committees don't cotribute enough to cross-border thinking. There is grandstanding, unnecessary grandstanding. The one that has really annoyed me is this thing about drugs. The welfare reform bill that has come before [the UK] parliament. In future, it will be a condition of people on incapacity benefits, because they are drug addicts, will have their benefit stopped unless they take up treatment. But the Scottish Government are refusing to play ball on that, entirely. I think it's unncessary grandstanding. I'm perplexed as to why.
"More generally, in the economic circumstances, the big story of the year, the only story of the year, in the economy is that I just think too often the Scottish Government in general, and the First Minister in particular, is putting party before country. He is arguing the SNP's agenda rather than Scotland's agenda, and Scotland's priorities... For them, it's a chance to reflate old grievances, I don't know whether in light of their economic model being exposed by the reality that we are going to have to accept this as part the vocabulary of Scottish politics, whereby it's 'blame London' in preparation for their referendum in November 2010."

How does he regard cross-border working? "It works both ways. The Scottish government doesn't come here [Westminster] to give evidence. What I'm saying is that I think we can improve the current system. Again I don't have a prescription for improvement, I just know it can be improved."

Would he be prepared to give evidence to a Holyrood select committee? "I think as part of a wider deal in the future, as part of a new arrangements in the future, not in a haphazard one-off way. There are issues about accountability, but as part of a wider process."
Who would come the other way and give evidence to Westminster? "Having identifed the problem, I don't have a pre-cooked solution. But I think it is the type of thing we could look at. Certainly at least for the time of the economic crisis, it's something we should be doing. I think the working relationship between central government, the UK government, and the three devolved administrations - the Welsh Assembly Government, the Northern Ireland executive and the Scottish Government could be improved. It's not a London-Edinburgh thing, it's a general devolution thing."

Has he any desire to become MSP/Scottish Government minister? "I have got a fantastic job here. I think it's arrogance for me to announce [that I would be going to Scotland]. Iain Gray is doing a great job. I'm confident he will be the next First minister. I got elected against my expectations in 1997, as you know. It was the most Conservative seat in Scotland. It's a fantastic job. I don't want to take people for granted by switching."

But would he not be attracted to a Scottish Parliament with greater powers? "I'm happy where I am. It's also a challenge to stay where I am, with the voters of East Renfrewshire."

What does he think of the standards of debate at Holyrood? "I have seen clips on the news and they seem to shout a lot. But that is up to them. You wouldn't get away with that in the Commons. I don't watch it very often, but occasionally I will see it and they will do a lot of shouting."

What are his expectations of the general election? "We have got a fight on our hands but I'm confident we can win. We have got a real fight on our hands. How did I get elected in 1997? I got elected as a 29-year-old in a constituency where the Labour party hadn't won for 70 years. Why? Because the Conservatives had run out of energy and ideas. There was no purpose in voting for John Major. The contrast between the agenda we had, and the one that John Major had run out of, was pretty stark. That was in retrospect probably the easiest election in history for the Labour party to win.
"The next one is the most difficult, and it's rightly the most difficult. We are trying to double what no Labour government has ever done before. No Labour government has ever served two full terms in its history. Now we're trying to get a crack at a fourth full term. Therefore its rightly going to be more difficult. It should be more difficult. Because you have got to continually prove yourself. You can get frustrated about this, but I don't get frustrated. There is never going to be a belated sense of gratitude for what you have done, there just isn't. In normal times - we will see what happens in the economic crisis - there has never been a belated sense of gratitude to fuel contemporary content for what you do next. Even that 1945 government didn't gete two full terms. It was back out of office a few months after its second victory, after doing all the remarkable reforms. The Labour party doesn't get elected off the back of what it has done. It gets re-elected on the basis of what it's going to do. This will be the toughest. But I am certain we can win this election, certain we can win it."

Will voters not believe it is time for a change? "In politics, nothing is inevitable. You create your own energy."

Would Labour's chances increase if Gordon Brown waits until the last possible minute? "It's not going to be easy regardless of when it is. People will rightly be feeling anxious, worried and hurt because of what the economy is going through. No amount of political argument or speeches or clever documents by any of the parties will be able to ignore that fact, that there will be a real sense of anxiety and hurt among the public. It was really about which party is able to say this is the best plan to get the country [back on its feet].
"We did all the easy terms in the first term in government. You introduce the national minimum wage. It's a legislative command - you pass a law and it has to happen. The harder thing is about trying to drive value for money in public service improvements. You can't pass a law - it's cultural change and it's delivery. All of these things are more difficult."

How will Scotland vote? Will there be the same willingness to vote Labour or a rise in the SNP vote? "We have always got to re-earn people's affections. There is a trend about people being more retail and less tribal about their politics. That is a good thing. It's a reflection of modern society that people be more retail and less tribal. But what does that mean? You have got to be better. You have got to be better than all of the others and not rely on what their father did or what their grandmother did in terms of voting intentions."

Are there lessons to be learned from the Glasgow East and Glenrothes by-elections? "Glenrothes showed that politics is local. The global and national thing sets the scene, but people are increasingly local in how they make their decisions. That I think was the lesson in both Glasgow East and Glenrothes. I think there's lessons for party organisation, but that's for the Labour party to work out, not me.
"I think the next election will be about local responses, community responses and families' feelings about their communities in the context of the global recession. The backdrop is going to be the global recession. I think that, when it comes, this will be the most personalised general election campaign in history."

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: "I have not hidden the fact that I have friendship and affection for Tony Blair. That would be silly. But I speak more to Gordon Brown than I ever did to Tony Blair. Gordon has been remarkably open and really engaged and engaging. All of that stuff is in the past, that Blairite-Brownite stuff. I'm just New Labour. I'm comfortable with that."

Life in Cabinet: "Every meeting is open. I would describe it as open, pretty refreshing atmosphere where you can contribute to your own policy area or anyone else's policy area, and the conversation kind of runs and rolls.... Banks, Royal Bank, HBOS, Calman, these things come up pretty regularly. It's a phenomenal experience. It's all these things you would expect me to say, but I have to say them because they're true. You think yourself, how much would you like to do it? You sit round that table where so many of the big decisions in history were made. And this isn't a kind of mock Glasgwegian working class chip on my shoulder kind of thing, but you sometimes pinch yourself just how fortunate I am. I consider myself to be the luckiest man in Scotland, the most fortunate man in Scotland to have the position I have and the honour that I have. I know that sounds kind of schmaltzy... There is no sense that there are only three people allowed to speak. Everyone has their say when they want to have their say. It's a remarkably open meeting. He runs a very, very good cabinet, he runs it in a very open way."

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David Maddox: John Farquhar Munro found


Well the mystery has been solved. One SNP spin doctor suggested to me that there may be a Nationalist search party looking for John Farquhar Munro (pictured) combing his Ross, Skye and Inverness West constituency to try to get him to Holyrood to support them in the referendum vote.
But, it seems they may be looking in the wrong place.
A Lib Dem spin doctor has just e-mailed to say that JFM is in Germany for health reasons, which is a fair excuse to be away and certainly different to the last occasion when he was given leave to bury a cow.
However, they are a hard bunch in the Lib Dems. According to the Lib Dem press office, chief whip Mike Rumbles actually turned down the original request to be away, even though it was health related. In the end it was party leader Tavish Scott who gave permission for his absense.
But the official line from the Lib Dems, given the nature of today's vote and JFM's support for a referendum against party policy, is that his absense is "a happy coincidence."

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Eddie Barnes - The Ivan effect

Speaking to a well-connected Labour party contact the other day, he suddenly raised the political effect of the sad death of Ivan Cameron. My contact was pretty adamant. "I think it will seal the deal for Cameron," he said.

This might be viewed by many people as a pretty tasteless conversation but I am guessing my friend was only airing what is on the minds of many in the Labour and Tory parties. Ivan Cameron's death will have humanised his father in the eyes of the public more than anything that has happened since he took over the job. Few people feel a natural empathy for the priveliged class which Cameron represents but it is hard to feel antipathy for a man who has lost his treasured first-born son. That is one more barrier to voting for Cameron well and truly obliterated. There is an emotional connection between people and the Tory leader now that wasn't there before - and as has been shown time and time before, people generally don't vote with their heads, but with their hearts.

I raise this now because we're due a few polls, which will have assessed public opinion in the light of the events of the last few weeks. It will be fascinating, if ghoullish, to see what they say.

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David Maddox: Where is John Farquhar Munro?


John Farquhar Munro (pictured) is a quiet man and not one who is often looked for these days.
But his absence is causing great excitement in the chamber at the moment where the SNP's alleged failed record in government is being debated.
Mr Farquhar Munro is a mentor for former UK Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy and the only MSP for whom Gaelic is a first language, but neither of these things are the cause of the agitation.
According to the Liberal Democrats he asked to be excused on Friday for an "unavoidable" constituency matter, they cannot say what it was.
But hold on a minute, say the Nationalists, is it a coincidence that Friday was the day JFM embarrassed the party when he announced that he would support holding a referendum, just days after Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott said his party would vote against one?
And today the Lib Dems have put down a clever amendment to the SNP failures debate (sponsored by Labour) which would allow MSPs a chance to have a vote on whether a referendum should go ahead, in the knowledge that the three unionist parties would vote against.
It is after all pretty unusual for an MSP to be allowed to have the day off on a Thursday, the only full day of debate and votes in the week.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser has suggested that JFM may have been locked in a cupboard by Lib Dem chief whip and former army major Mike Rumbles.
Look out on the Steamie for further updates if we find out where the elusive MSP has got to.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2009

David Maddox: So who is the minister for knives?


The Scottish Government has put out a press release on a knife crime summit this morning which has raised a few eyebrows.
The content is straight forward enough and the issue is of great importance, talking about the 'No Knives Better Lives' £500,000 initiative to help young people and reduce knife crime.
But it is the minister quoted in the press release - Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill (pictured) - which has rather exposed the SNP.
Not so long ago on January 23 there was another knife crime conference in Holyrood which was set up by the scottish Parliament's Petition Committee in response to a petition by John Muir, 69, whose son Damian was murdered by a knife wielding thug 18 months ago.
But instead of going to this high profile conference, Mr MacAskill decided he would prefer to go on a jolly to Canada to attend some Burns suppers, including one in the famous CN Tower in Toronto.
At the time oppositon parties called for his head, but the party spin doctors on the government payroll were adamant that he was not responsible for knife crime and instead the correct minister - Fergus Ewing, the Minister for Community Safety, attended.
One spin doctor said to me: "These attacks are just complete nonsense. Fergus Ewing has always been the minister taking a lead on knife crime, not Kenny MacAskill."
Not long after the Conservatives did a bit of research on who really was taking the lead on knives. This showed that between them Fergus Ewing and Kenny MacAskill had given 25 written answers dealing with knife crime up to January 23. Of these, 17 (68 per cent) were answered by Mr MacAskill.
And, at that time, of the two Scottish Government press releases available on its website that deal with knife crime, both were issued by Mr MacAskill.
And now it looks like Mr MacAskill is "taking the lead" again.
So is the truth about the incident in January simply that a jolly to Canada was a higher priority to him than knife crime? It will be interesting to see what response we get.

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Hamish Macdonell - Interest stateside

GORDON Brown maybe in Washington at the moment, but he is not the only British politician grabbing the headlines.
A piece recently appeared in the Boston Globe, starting like this:
"One of the most interesting politicians in Europe these days is a Scot, and I don't mean Gordon Brown. Alex Salmond is the first minister of a devolved Scottish parliament, a creation of Tony Blair's Labor government designed to take the wind out of Scottish separatist sentiments.
"A few years ago, however, a ranking member of the British royal family, whose members aren't supposed to get involved with politics, committed an indiscretion by telling me that he thought devolved parliaments were a terrible idea because they could break up the United Kingdom. The Welsh would stay with England, and maybe the Northern Irish, he said, but the Scots probably would not. Salmond, the head of the Scottish National Party, is banking on the royal being right."
How fickle the American press is. Mr Salmond got mixed coverage during his recent trip to the States, getting some positive publicity from some quarters and ignored in others.
Now he is back here and getting glowing reports over there. Maybe he should just stay in Scotland.
ends

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Tuesday, 3 March 2009

David Maddox: Still on booze


With images of Carlisle bracing itself for hordes of thirsty Scots pouring over the border in search of cheap booze and threats of the Scottish Government being dragged through the courts one set of supporters of the proposed measures of tackling Scotland's alcohol problems have largely gone unnoticed.
Step forward the real ale drinkers (and I count myself in this crowd) - their time has finally come.
For years people who appreciate good quality drink have been struggling to keep the market alive against the waves of low quality lager washing through the country. Monty Python used to take the micky out of Watney's Red Barrell, but its modern equivalent - usually fizzy flavourless continental lager - can be found in most drinking establishments.
And on off-sales when you realise that four cans of Tesco Value lager costs 88p at least half the cost of a single bottle of real ale, you begin to understand what they are up against.
But the minimum pricing policy will hit these low priced products and, for the purveyors of good quality, will make the market fairer. Little wonmder Camra (The Campaign for Real Ale) was among the first supporters.
Today BrewDog, a Glasgow enterprise that produces hip and trendy real ale (if that's not an oxymoron) with beers like Punk IPA (pictured above), added its voice.
In a press release BrewDog's Managing Director James Watt said: "We feel the more someone understands and appreciates a drink the less likely they are to abuse it. The fact that these Scottish Government plans would level the pricing playing field somewhat between macro and micro brewed beer might just get some more people understanding what beer is all about.
"As a company BrewDog is all about educating the consumer about responsible consumption and changing people's perceptions about beer.
"We want to show the consumer that beer does not just have to be a cold, fizzy thing, watery drink which you drink 10 bottles of merely to get drunk. We want to educate the drinker about the wonderful depth of flavours and experiences available in artisanal craft brewed products
."

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Monday, 2 March 2009

David Maddox: How booze is affecting senior ministers


The day has been dominated by the Scottish Government's long awaited strategy to tackle Scotland's love affair with booze.
But there was an interesting political aspect to the morning's excitement in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, which had little to do with drink.
The press conference and the launch was led by Nicola Sturgeon (pictured), Deputy First Minister and Health Secretary. Sitting along side her, but very much sidelined was Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, whose baby this booze strategy had been.
His well known brush with the law from his Tartan Army days had made him a passionate advocate of tackling booze culture. Nobody stronger than a sinner that hath repenteth etc.
There are a couple of possibilities to why he was sidelined.
First, it may be a reflection of Alex Salmond's view of how badly Mr MacAskill has sold these measures over the last few months, losing votes in parliament and being pilloried for the under 21 ban. Ms Sturgeon, Scottish Politician of the Year, may have been seen as more capable.
On the other hand, it is no secret that Nicola Sturgeon is Mr Salmond's preferred successor in the (very) distant future for the leadership. Mr MacAskill on the other hand is the most likely figure that any challenge from the so-called fundamentalist wing may gather around, if things were to go pear shaped in the next couple of years. So giving Ms Sturgeon the credit for the biggest social reform the SNP can hope to deliver could have a long term tactical play to it.

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