Monday, 23 January 2012

Parliamentary gags - it's all about timing

The Daylight Savings Bill was grinding on in the background last Friday, and suspecting that it would be talked out of time, I didn't really watch too closely.

But The Hansard makes for good reading, particularly this exchange between these flashing blades, Angus MacNeil of the SNP and Labour's Tom Harris.

MacNeil, Na H-Eileanan an Iar, was arguing at length against a change in the clocks while Harris was arguing the toss.

Angus MacNeil : "On the data provided by the Lighter Later campaign, which argues that an extra hour of sunlight at the end of the day would be a panacea for the UK’s problems. It claims that people would go outside more, consume less electricity, watch less television, eat better, sleep better, run and swim more, commit fewer crimes, be less afraid to go outside, spend countless billions on tourism and be involved in fewer car accidents. Those projections do not stand up to scrutiny at all, although the change is presented as the greatest thing since sliced bread—

Mr Harris: It sounds like independence.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman gives me a great opportunity to say that independence will be better than sliced bread."


Thursday, 12 January 2012

Votes for 16-year-olds not Salmond's real agenda

One ear, my only ear, on the Holyrood debate on the referendum. Patrick Harvie, the Green MSP has just made a thoughtful speech, and Sarah Boyack is showing some passion.

It seems to be a good, and good-natured debate, although people tell me I missed a cracking contribution by Scottish Labour's Kezia Dugdale, the Shadow Youth Employment Minister.

I've always thought that the votes for for 16 and 17 year olds is as much of a red herring as the Bannockburn anniversary. It smacks too much of rigging the vote to be a red line issue for the SNP.

The point is not to actually enfranchise teenagers for the referendum, though that would probably assist the SNP cause to some degree.

The reason the party bangs on about the issue is to engage young people now so that when the referendum comes, and they are over 18, they will be more inclined to cast their first vote for the SNP.

It's the kind of inch by inch leverage of the independence vote that the SNP is engaged in every day, and there's no reason to think that work would cease on the wrong side of an independence vote in 20-whenever.

Salmond, I assume, will concede the teenage voting issue, as he always intended, to appear as if he his compromising in the wrestle with London. As one contrary wag put it to me the logic of arguing that teenagers ought to get a vote on their future extends to denying the over 80s the franchise because they have no future.

As his old friend Jim Sillars put it on Sunday, Alex Salmond is on very strong political ground but his legal standing is weak. There is going to have to be a great deal of compromise.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Who runs Scotland - Salmond or the Supreme Court?

Like a good soldier I've staked the ground before the battle. After a television piece outside Westminster this morning, I walked across Parliament Square to survey the site for what will be a historic clash.

Really, I don't know why all these tv cameras were sent to Bannockburn yesterday - the real battle over the referendum is to be fought here, in the UK Supreme Court, across the road from Westminster. It's a fine building, and looking back across towards Big Ben I see that Room 2, the Scottish Room of the press gallery, has a view from the high ground.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond are set to meet over the next few weeks, but barring a renewal of respect vows, the fight for the future of Scotland will be slugged out by lawyers in the highest court in the land.

At least now we know why Salmond and Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill went so overboard in their attacks on the Supreme Court last June.

Salmond got his demonising of the Supreme Court in early over the Cadder case, whether an accused person should have access to legal advice where they are detained by the police for questioning.

Salmond knew then what we know now, that his plans for referendum will be challenged in the Supreme Court within 28 days of the bill being passed by majority in the Holyrood Parliament. If the Advocate General. Lib Dem Jim Wallace, doesn't do it then the Attorney General, Tory Dominic Grieve, will. That's is some proto-unionist or legal academic doesn't do so first.

To avoid the courts Westminster and the Scotttish Government, which are both issuing consultation papers on a referendum, have to agree on everything that they can't agree on on now.

You can see the scene in the bleak midwinter of 2015, when the cameras have taken up their entrenched positions to snipe at lawyers coming and going from the constitutional battlefield in the Supreme Court.

George Osborne, Salmond's real nemesis if you read this week's events closely, might be the incumbent in Downing Street, a Tory liked even less in Scotland than the current Prime Minister.

Salmond will be on Sky News, he doesn't do the British Broadcasting Company first, bemoaning how he would have had a referendum by now, if it hadn't been for that Union Jack court in London.

By then, he'll say, it's too late to have the two question referendum that London (whenever he says that he means "the English") deny him because the next Holyrood election is due in May 2016.

His slogan for the 2016 campaign is already written: "Who runs Scotland? - Alex Salmond or the Supreme Court".

Monday, 9 January 2012

Cameron's gamble on a Wheneverendum

They say fortune favours the brave, and Cameron has certainly taken a bold gamble on the future of the UK by trying to wrest the independence referendum back from Alex Salmond.

The plan to offer the Scottish government the power to stage a binding legal referendum was discussed at cabinet this morning. The catch, of course, is that this would be a limited, once only offer, lasting 12 or 18 months after which the Prime Minister would be forced to consider staging his own, simpler Yes or No referendum.

Because the cabinet was was held in the Olympic Park the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman, who was in Downing Street with us, wasn't able to give a read out of the discussion.

We learned only that the proposal was put to cabinet by Chancellor George Osborne, who chairs the ministerial group on Scotland. (I admit, I didn't know he did but it indicates how seriously the UK government takes the issue).

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander also spoke on the proposal - a read out of what was said later, we hope.

Meanwhile any questions on the implications of Westminster limiting the timing of a referendum were batted away, pending a parliamentary statement on the matter, probably this week.

Asked whether the Prime Minister was "meddling" in Scottish democracy, as SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon has it, the Prime Minister's spokesman reminded us: "In the Scotland Act 1988 it is clear that the constitution is a reserved matter."

There's the iron fist inside the consultative glove which Cameron has promised. Fully aware that Salmond will reject his offer Cameron must then be prepared to move to the next stage, and organise a Yes-No referendum from Westminster. That's when the game get's risky.

I imagine Alex Salmond must be quite relaxed about the latest twist in the game.

A fractious argument with Westminster about the mechanics of a referendum, instead of the substance of independence, plays right into the territory he has been fighting on for the last three decades.

Endless, niggling arguments about Westminster "disrespecting" Scotland will dominate the next year, which makes for a wearisome time for all, instead of a proper debate about whether Scotland would be better in or out of the UK.

(That's to say nothing of the normal political debate in Scotland about health, education, the environment and the economy - all of which is being played out through the prism of the indy referendum)

SNP members are already tweeting that the choice is between an SNP referendum and a Tory one. Given a choice between a referendum rigged by Cameron and one rigged by the Salmond, people would be expected to side with Salmond.

That said, I do recall that one of the questions in a recent poll asking people if they would boycott a Westminster-organised referendum - only two per cent said they would. (I can't reference that at the moment but I'm sure Angus Robertson, who does far more reading of tea leaves on that question than I do, will clarify. Now found the poll, added at bottom of this piece).

Anyway, talk of a boycott, respect, rights and questions are far better news for Salmond than talk of Scotland leaving the UK.

The last thing that Salmond wants is a definitive referendum on independence before the next Scottish election. He knows he would lose, and that that loss would make it more likely he would lose the election itself as well.

Either a legal challenge against his own referendum, or an extended row with the Coalition over their referendum (are you still with me?) is just the way he wants to go into the 2016 election for a third term.

Which brings us neatly, if we put the Lib Dems to one side, to the losers. Scottish Labour could be minced in this wrangling on a referendum.

Johann Lamont is-calling for a referendum as soon as possible but refusing, correctly, to back Cameron's bid to force one. We need to hear from Miliband on this one, and pretty soon, it's the future of the UK we're talking about after all. We also need to hear politicians making the case for Scotland in Britain.

Scotsman poll showing just two per cent of Scots would boycott Westminster referendum.

From The Scotsman - Tuesday 22 November 2011

"More than half of Scots are opposed to Scotland becoming independent, according to a new opinion poll.

A total of 53 per cent of those questioned by Progressive Scottish Opinion were against such a change, while 28 per cent were in favour of it and 17 per cent were unsure how they would vote in a referendum.

A total of 1,233 adults were questioned on the issue last week, with only 2 per cent stating they would not vote in an independence referendum if it was organised by Westminster rather than Holyrood."