Wednesday 29 June 2011

How Scotland fares in tomorrow's strikes

Scotland is facing the biggest public sector shut down in a generation on Thursday as thousands of workers take strike action over Coalition government cuts to their pensions.

There are close on 30,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) in Scotland and many of them will join 750,000 public servants across the UK on strike in a row over pay, pension and jobs.

Staff in government departments and public agencies in every part of Scotland will walk out with their counterparts in England and Wales in the fight to protect their pensions and jobs against cuts.

One of the biggest picket lines in Scotland is expected at the Faslane nuclear base on the Clyde where civilian security staff are due to strike in large numbers.

Glasgow’s George Square will host the biggest trade union rally in years while in London all police leave has been cancelled as the city braces itself for mass protest action against the government.

The 24 hour walkout by public servants across the UK, joined by teachers in England and Wales, is expected to cause major disruption.

International airline passengers have been warned to expect delays at Scotland’s major airports at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Prestwick when immigration and passport staff leave their posts.

Benefit offices and tax offices across Scotland will shut and court services could be hit where clerks to the court go on strike.

The Scottish government itself is preparing for paralysis as over 7000 staff in finance, administration, and ministerial drivers and security staff could walk off the job.

There will be pickets outside government headquarters at St Andrews House and Victoria Quay in Edinburgh, forcing Ministers to break the strike if they cross the lines.

There will also be picket lines at many prisons where prison officer and ancillary staff are members of the PCS union.

There will pickets at the Scottish parliament and Edinburgh castle, where members of Historic Scotland staff are striking. The Museum of Scotland staff will walk out and the National Galleries in Edinburgh could close due to staff shortages.

But the effects of the strike will be visible across Scotland. The Scottish Public Pensions Agency, at Tweedbank in Galashiels will be on strike; Forestry Commission staff, hit by massive job cuts announcement in Edinburgh, will be out.

The Students Awards Agency, in South Gyle in Edinburgh will be affected and the Student Loans company in Glasgow too.

The Accounts and Bankruptcy Agency Kilwinning in Ayrshire is expected to be 100 per cent solid behind the strike

The biggest, and perhaps most symbolic, picket line in the whole country will be at Faslane where government security guards are due to strike, forcing the military to take on civilian roles.

"I have never seen a build up to a strike like this," one of the trade union organiser told me.

Some 48 per cent of the public are sympathetic to the aims of strike action but there is a sustained media and government campaign to divide the trade unionists from other sections of the population.

Debtocracy, alternative view of Greek tragedy

Greece's parliament has just approved a five-year austerity plan with 155 votes in favour and 138 votes against. This will open the door to the next stage of the EU bail out, but the Greek tragedy is far from over.

The MPs voted through the package in the face of a general strike and a two days of rioting on the the streets of Athens.

Tomorrow they will focus on raising taxes to secure some 14bn euros over the next five years and introducing 14bn euros in public spending cuts.

To meet EU demands, Greece must sell 50bn euros-worth of public assets by 2014, almost 20 per cent of GDP. Public sector pay is being cut 15 per cent. It kind of puts Britain's economic situation in the shade and makes comparisons between tomorrow's public sector strikes in the UK and the pain being inflicted on the Greek public pretty spurious.

The UK media have Greece typified by early retirement, tax dodging and corruption. For an alternative view of how this is all impacting on ordinary people here's a link to the English language version of the Debtocracy documentary which has swept Greece in recent weeks.

Hail Margo, Queen of Scottish columnists

I didn't know Margo MacDonald was on the blogosphere, but there she is posting her Edinburgh Evening News columns onto her Mxrgo website.

(Does that not put her Labour contemporary Brian Wilson to shame, his Free Press columns remain in the inky darkness despite repeated appeals. Someone is on the case, I hear)

Anyway, there's Margo on the SNP defence policy, on the Greek crisis, assisted suicide and much else beside. A voice worth listening to.

Scotland doesn't do elected monarchs but if it did then I reckon Margo Macdonald would be the Queen by next week. Until that day dawns we'll have to read her edicts online.

Monday 27 June 2011

Inverclyde by-election gets all , er, cuddly

I have to admit I'm baffled by the relevance of the teddy bear in this photo but it must be a vote winner or the most successful election-winning machine on the planet wouldn't have put it on an SNP leaflet.

No one is taking a punt on the outcome of the Greenock and Inverclyde by election this Thursday either. Labour are feeling "frisky", one of their people told me today, and reckon they have the SNP on the run.

With a Westminster majority of over 14,000 they should have the SNP grizzlies chased into the Paisley Braes by now but these are changed days in Scotland.

Duncan MacNeil (big brown bear) scrapped home for Labour with a 511 majority at the Scottish elections so anything could happen.

The SNP (Care Bear Bunch) are playing down their chances in the hope of an upset in another Labour heartland that will continue their May momentum.

That, as they say on the Main Street, would be a "baw breaker" for Labour, already floored by the Scottish election debacle. SNH would have to set up an urban nature reserve for Scottish Labour politicans to allow them to roam around like they did in the old days.

But if the campaign has been more teddy bears than grizzly bears then it will come down to which camp can get their core vote out on the day.

It may even depend on what the Yogi Bears, the rump Lib Dem support in the constituency, decide to do. Like you, I can bearly wait for the result to see if the recent SNP gains have polarised (oh, yes) voters.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Cameron won't play referendum games with Alex

Back from the Prime Minister's Downing Street press conference which was noteworthy for the way he slapped down his military chiefs who have been squealing about the RAF and the Navy "running hot" to maintain the Libyan bombardment.

He said, rather glibly: "sometimes I open the papers and think you do the fighting, I'll do the talking." I suspect he'll pay for that remark down the road because top brass can turn can do into can't go quite quickly for a PM.

Oh, there was a U-turn too, on prison sentencing in England and Wales today. These have become pretty regular events.

On the Scottish question, and at least one is compulsory on the day the Scotland Bill is going through parliament, Cameron was asked by Mike Settle if he would be tempted to short-circuit, the two question/2014-2015 guessing game that Alex Salmond is playing on the referendum issue.

Cameron gave a pretty full answer, emphasising that we would enable a referendum when the Scottish parliament votes for one, but also serving notice that he did not want to "play games" on independence while the First Minister prepares the ground to maximise support for separation.

He didn't quite rule out a short-circuit by calling a referendum himself (which Westminster could do anytime). But he seemed impatient for Salmond to get on with it and warned him to govern for the wellbeing of Scotland not for the circumstances that will maximise support for a independence vote.

Here's what he said in full:

“What I worry about is that the government of Scotland is going to be too much about how to bring about the right circumstances for his referendum - whether he wants two questions or four or six - rather than trying to the right thing by people in Scotland

“I genuinely believe in a respect agenda. I respect the mandate that Alex Salmond has as First Minister, the governemnt here in Westminster will work with him and talk to him about how to amend the Scotland Bill, about how we can make sure everyone can benefit from the policies of the UK government and two government work well together

What I won’t have an endless situation where this isn’t about the health and wealth and wellbeing of Scotland, and it’s just about trying to get to a referendum situation to satisfy his needs. That s not right at all.

“If the Scottish parliament votes to have a independence referendum that is a vote we have to respect that vote and we have to enable that to happen. I don’t believe in Scottish independence, I believe in the United Kingdom and I want to keep the United Kingdom together. I’m not going to play a game with Alex Salmond about the hows and whens and wherefores.

“I think he should get on delivering good government for the people of Scotland and working with the Westminster government to make sure we join in the endeavour and not play games.”

Sunday 19 June 2011

Edwin Morgan - the "Game Maker"

The SNP, and the rest of Scotland, has been stunned by a £1m donation from the estate of the late poet Edwin Morgan.

Personally, I'm stunned that a poet could become a millionaire, twice over, because he has left another £1m to create a poetry prize for young Scottish writers.

Morgan, who died last year aged 90, was appointed Scots Makar, Scotland's poet laureate, by Jack McConnell in 2004.

The SNP is still in the dark about the donation but if confirmed, and there's no reason to doubt the story, the £1m Morgan legacy will be the biggest single contribution in the history of the party.

It far outstrips anything the Brian Soutar gave Salmond for this year's election campaign.(It is ironic that these two big donations come from either end of the rainbow. I'm glad to see that NUS Scotland is at least protesting the Stagecoach boss's knighthood for services to homophobia).

Anyway, the immediate point is that the Morgan money can go straight into an SNP campaign war chest in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour's accounts are about as robust as fistful of Greek government bonds while the party struggles with the existential questions ranging from what it is about to how does it find money to say that.

In modern political campaigning those who spend the most tend to win the most and the Morgan legacy could be a game-making donation to the SNP's independence cause.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Michael Gove, the striker on the strikes

I like Michael Gove, he's witty, polite, erudite, a fellow-hack and a proud Aberdonian to boot.

In fact I like him so much that when we were both young men - and he was a striking journalist at the P&J on the east coast of Scotland and I was a staffer at the radical West Highland Free Press - I used to send regular donations to his cause which became an NUJ crusade.

So, when I heard the Education Secretary on the wireless this morning, I nearly choked on my west London muesli mix. (Ach, we've both come a long way haven't we)

Speaking about the simmering prospect of teaching strikes, Gove the Cove said: "I don’t think a strike helps. I’ve been on strike myself, when I was much younger, it didn't solve anything."

Is that right, Michael? Most reporters remember the P&J strike as a principled stand that delayed by a decade the journalistic deforestation of the Scottish newspaper industry.

We can agree to disagree on that if you like Michael, but what's your address, I'd like my money back.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermour's time of gifts

I am belatedly catching up with the news that Sir Patrick Leigh Fermour, the acclaimed writer and adventurer has died, at the fine old age of 96

From walking across Europe as a teenage boy in the 1930s to kidnapping a German General in wartime Crete, there was not much in Leigh Fermour's life story that wasn't dazzling.

It wasn't just that he was just a man of action, he wrote like an angel. His two volumes about a teenage odyssey from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople are the among the best books I have read.

My friend, Calum, presented me with "A Time of Gifts" and "Between the Woods and the Water" as we prepared to embark on a post-Ceausescu tour of Romania many years ago. I thought we were going to witness the aftermath of a dictatorship, but Calum explained that Leigh Fermour was the real reason we were traveling.

The books were written some 50 years after the event but Leigh Fermour blended the exuberance of youth and the wisdom of age into incredible prose. As an author he rendered the history, topography and culture of central Europe with such vivid strokes of the pen that it changed that trip and ever other journey I have undertaken since. That was quite a gift for any book to bestow.

He leaves a third volume, completing the journey to the Bosporus, in draft form and an official biography, by Artemis Cooper, is due out next year.

The Daily Telegraph obituary columns give a good account of his "Ill met by moonlight" adventures on Crete and subsequent literary career. You read it and you think what a guy, what a life, what a writer.

Monday 13 June 2011

Osborne comes bearing gifts for Scotland

On the face of it the UK government's plans to give the Scottish parliament more financial powers, announced today, seem extraordinarily generous and magnanimous.

Mmm, beware of Greeks bearing gifts, I say, or George Osborne saying that he's giving anything away.

I'm no financial whizz but laid out in their simplest terms these new powers appear to be reflected through a haze of smoke and mirrors.

The big one, which was anticipated anyway, allows pre-payments of the block grant to let the Scottish government put a down-payment of £200m on the new Forth Replacement Crossing.

That allows engineering work on the £1.6bn infrastructure monument to the Salmond era to begin. There's a helluva bill coming down the road, but that's for later.

Also amendments to the Scotland Bill, made in response to demands from the Scottish parliament committee, will give Holyrood the option of issuing bonds to access cash from capital markets instead of just going on bended knee to the Treasury

The floor for borrowing is £2.2bn, Scottish Ministers could theoretically ask for more. The bond issue, one beloved of Alex Salmond and dismissed a few months ago as a "vanity project" by UK Ministers, will be subject to a value for money review by the Treasury.

The catch, I guess, is that bond issues are usually more expensive than borrowing from the National lending board. Still, if Salmond wants to flash tartan dollars that he's raised himself from Chinese or Middle East investors, or canny Scots, then he has that option. Very gracious of Osborne to allow this but the £2.2bn, obtained either way, has already been accounted for in Treasury figures.

Additionally Scottish Ministers will be able to insulate public services against any variation in the tax receipts they budget to receive. So, if the tax-raising parliament envisioned by Calman sometime after 2016 falls short of cash because the economy is flat-lining it can borrow up to £125m instead of cutting public services.

Similarly, it can protect itself from sudden changes in spending levels by putting up to £125m into a rainy day fund when times are good.

For Chancellor George Osborne it is all about tidying up the rights and responsibilities of the Calman tax-raising powers, and respecting the wishes of the Scottish parliament.

For Alex Salmond it is a "down payment" on future powers that he wants to wrestle from Whitehall. He's had a not bad result today but the bottom line, I suppose, is that nothing is added to the bottom line of borrowing by the UK Treasury.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Tories stand a candidate for Greenock

The Scottish Conservatives have selected local councillor David Wilson as their candidate for the forthcoming Greenock and Inverclyde by-election for Westminster.
Cllr Wilson will be formally adopted at a meeting of local members tonight, as Labour moves the writ for the 30th June by-election in parliament. 
Wilson is Depute Provost of Inverclyde. So far, he'll be facing up to Inverclyde Council convener Iain McKenzie, the Labour candidate and Anne McLaughlin , who lost her seat as a regional MSP for Glasgow, who will contest the seat for the SNP.

Scotland could benefit from Strategic Defence Review

Report on Defence Secretary Liam Fox's evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee yesterday. This dispatch didn't make it into a print version.

Scotland will end up with more defence spending, more defence jobs and more military personnel than many other parts of the UK in the next few years, according to senior government sources.

Plans to move the British Army divisions from bases in Germany, spending on Trident’s Faslane and on new warship contracts will give Scotland a major military role in the UK.

The claim, by senior Minister of Defence figures, was made on the day Defence Secretary Liam Fox insisted that he wanted to maintain a strong military "footprint" in Scotland, amid continuing speculation over the future of two key air bases.

The future of RAF Leuchars in Fife and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, along with RAF Marham in Norfolk, will be decided next month when the Ministry of Defence announces the outcome of its basing review.

Giving evidence to the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee yesterday, Dr Fox said that no final decisions had been made on the future of Lossiemouth or Leuchars, both earmarked for closure under the defence review.

Responding to claims by the SNP MP Elidh Whiteford that Scotland does not get a fair share of UK spending on defence Fox said strategic defence budgets were not decided "according to some ethnic ledger".

The Scottish-born Defence Secretary admitted that over the past decade, the military forces stationed in Scotland had fallen more sharply than across the UK as a whole.

He said: "I am aware of the fact that, between 2000 and 2010, the total reduction was 11.6% but the reduction in Scotland was 27.9%, so over the decade there were bigger reductions made in personnel as a proportion than in other parts of the UK."

But he stressed that the MoD would continue to need significant basing capacity in the UK to house the thousands of British troops returning from bases in Germany.

Fox said: "With some 17,000 leaving the armed forces and some 20,000 coming back from Germany that doesn’t leave a great deal of room for actually reducing capacity for accommodation. So it is a question of how we use the bases in the review," he said.

"I have a very strong view that we need to maintain a strong footprint of the UK’s defence assets across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is one of the things that we will take into account."

Dr Fox said he had not had any discussions with First Minister on the future of the military bases in Scotland, including the Trident nuclear deterrent, which Salmond has declared would be removed from an independent Scotland.

Ian Davidson, the Labour chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, said uncertainty over an independence referendum was causing concern in the shipbuilding industry.

Davidson said that trade unions in his Glasgow constituency had expressed concern about the future of work at Scottish yards.

Fox replied that the MoD would continue to award contracts to Scottish defence suppliers , although he warned that the "uncertainty" over the country’s future was not helpful to industry.

"Uncertainty is not good for long-term investment," he said.

Greenock & Inverclyde by-election - Thu 30th June

The Westminster by-election for the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency is to be held on Thursday 30th June.

The writ for the by-election, caused by the sudden death of Labour MP David Cairns, is expected to be moved in the House of Commons this afternoon. This normally happens after Prime Minister's Questions.

Labour’s candidate, Inverclyde Council leader Iain McKenzie, will be defending a majority of 14,416 during the three-week election campaign.

However, in the nearest equivalent Holyrood constituency, also Greenock and Inverclyde, Labour’s lead slumped to just 511 in the Scottish Parliament elections last month.

Anne McLaughlin , who lost her seat as a regional MSP for Glasgow, will contest the by-election for the SNP.

The late David Cairns, who died from pancreatitis on May 9th, was MP for the seat since 1997.

Iain McKenzie, 52, said: "This is an election no-one wanted, because David Cairns was a well-respected MP who served people well."

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Scottish Labour's coming hame

Here's a link to Labourhame, which looks like an online therapyboard to help Scottish Labour think its back from the electoral catastrophe that befell the party a month ago.

It's all the work of Tom Harris, the irascible Glasgow South MP, who actually cares about all this much more than he lets on. It looks good, has people that are worth listening to and, you know, it could have a future.(That's the website, the party is still in intensive care).

Westminster, the one story town for Scots

Holidays over, Westminster is back in harness today with Cabinet meeting, an Ed Miliband press conference, David Cameron promising to protect the NHS (from his own reforms), coastguard campaigners in town and Defence Secretary Liam Fox in front of the Scottish Affairs committee. Rust never sleeps and all that, but every move in Thamesville has to be seen through the prism of an independence referendum now.

Thanks to the genius of Scots Secretary, Michael Moore, the Westminster lobby was left at the wrong end of the "second referendum" story yesterday.

He made his two referendums announcement in Edinburgh where it was lapped up by the Holyrood lobby hacks (The logic is obvious - Michael is trying to do me out of a job here at Westminster, and there's me thinking that was the SNP's mission).

Salmond was scathing, accusing Moore of "withering and irrelevant nonsense" but the SNP will be well chuffed with the extended logic of the Moore doctrine, which is to ensure that everyone can take the option of voting for independence in the first ballot and think again in a second ballot, or vice versa.

I do get the feeling that Westminster still doesn't get the idea that the independence agenda is seriously on the table in the UK.

Labour leader Ed Miliband gave a pretty pat answer when asked about the second referendum at his post-honeymoon press conference this morning.

He talked about making a positive economic, cultural and social case for the Union and said he was confident that there would be no second referendum because the pro-UK vote would win the first one.

To be honest, he didn't sound that convinced himself and there's no sign of that "positive agenda" as the SNP organises for a vote on the question and timing of its choice.

With Labour still getting over a Caledonian mauling there is no one out there every day challenging Salmond on when this first referendum is going to be held, and what people will be asked?

Let's see if David Cameron fares any better tomorrow when all the devolved leaders come to Downing Street for a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee.

Salmond invariably comes out of these formal roundtables and strides straight to a microphone to fill the media maw with his upbeat version of events. You have to wait an age for an alternative account to emerge.

We're promised a joint communique tomorrow (what is this, the UN or the UK?) and I expect the Prime Minister to bang on about his "respect agenda".

What Cameron won't do, I'll bet, is bang the desk in defence of the UK. That's good for First Minister Salmond again, it means two Westminster leaders will have given him another week of a free run for independence.