Monday 10 December 2012

Barroso, Scotland and the EU - what he said

Argument and fall out later but this is what the President of the EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso told BBC Hardtalk. Actually he had much more frightening things to say about the rise of the far right in Europe but this is the bit that will put the frighteners on John Swinney ahead of his appearance tomorrow in front of the Lords Committee investigating independence.

Q: The Commission has made it clear that any country, a country like Scotland, that would choose to be independent would need to re-apply for EU membership.
When you think about how that would work, would it just be nodded through do you think?

Barroso: I did not comment on specific situation in member states because I very much respect that it is their sovereign right to decide about their organisation.
What I said - and it is our doctrine clearly since 2004 in legal terms - if one part of a country, and I’m not referring to anything specific, wants to become an independent state of course as an independent state it has to apply for European Union membership according to the rules. That’s obvious.

Q: So It has to re negotiate its terms

Barroso: Yes

Q: Is it re-negotiating these terms from inside, as a member of the EU, or is it effectively re-applying from outside the EU?

Barroso: We are a union of states so if there is a new state, (laughs) of course that state has to apply for membership and negotiate the conditions...

Q: I appreciate you’re not talking about specifics, but say a country like Scotland, it choose independence, it is then like a new state applying for the EU?

Barroso: For the EU purposes from a legal point of view it is certainly an new state. if a country becomes independent it is new state and has to negotiate with the European Union...

Q: What about the rest of the UK that is effectively left behind?
Barroso: There is a princple of continuity of that state...

Q: Does it have to re-negotiate its terms?

Barroso: In principle, no.


Monday 29 October 2012

James Bond and the politics of British identity

Wow, that was a very British James Bond that made a comeback to the screens on the weekend.

Without giving anything away, an austerity budget has forced the Sykfall producers to focus more on character and dialogue rather than the usual reliance on big set piece stunt action.

The result is a witty, grown-up script with brilliant nostalgic nods to the 50 years of Bond movies, and a little flavour of the original novels written a decade earlier. Don't worry, there is plenty of action, but like the gadgets, it is of a more back to basics variety.

Noticeably the CIA don't get a look in. There is no Uncle Sam to haul the little British cousin out of a tight spot. Istanbul and Shanghai appear, old Bond stamping grounds, but the most evocative locations are a wintry London and the wild grandeur of Glen Coe.

What struck me at the end is how homegrown it all felt. The Times film critic, Kate Muir, called a big British bulldog of a movie. And  it was - a china bulldog is even one of the motifs of the script.

Unconsciously, but probably not, director Sam Mendes tapped into that unexpected feelgood wave of Britishness that infused the damp Diamond Jubilee and coursed and sparked through the Olympics.

But Mendes hasn't let that mood die with the tattered bunting. He's taken the spirit of  the UK in 2012 and sewn it permanently and cleverly into popular film culture.

In an age of British  identity politics Skyfall  turns out to be very now - none more so than in a scene when Bond is being drilled by a M16 psychiatrist in a quickfire word association game. "Country?" the analyst asks him. "England," replies Bond.

But ten scenes later the spy's home turns out to be Scotland where a whole chapter of the film, and a lot of James Bond's backstory,  is played out. The film comes to a close, order restored, with a worldweary Bond back in London, atop the National Gallery*, looking south across Whitehall and a sea of British flags.

Bond, then, captures much of the multilayered sense of modern Britain - country, England; home,Scotland; flag British.

When I tweeted  that symbolism on Friday night cybernatspace hyperventilated with fury, which was pretty rich given how much the nationalist cause has dined out on the Sean Connery/Bond persona for the last four decades.

Fictional characters don't vote but culture does shape politics and Bond is back and he's big, but Braveheart he isn't.

It could almost be a conspiracy. Alistair Darling,  playing a platinum-haired master villain lurking in his Better Together bunker, couldn't have scripted a Bond story more sympathetic to his cause.

* I'm told that's not the National Portrait Gallery in the pic, its the roof of the Department of Energy and Climate Change in Whitehall Place. An old M16 haunt, apparently.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Not a bad day for the SNP government, not at all

Please don't anyone think that this was a bad day for the SNP government.

The resignation of two MSPs over NATO, the admission that thousands has been wasted on hiding non-existent advice on EU membership, the revelation that the second querstion consultation came out two to one - it does all amount to a "Meltdown Tuesday" in headlines.

But all this damage has been self-inflicted, no one laid a finger on the SNP today, although Labour MEP Catherine Stiler can crack open a bottle of something bubbly for asking the EU question in the first place. No, for the opposition today was  mostly a case of go for lunch and watch it all disintegrate.

Wait until the scrutiny really starts, wait until the concentrated firepower of every other party and every pro-UK politician and policymaker comes to bear on the case for independence in 2014.

There will be a lot worse days than this to come, when Ministers will have to start making a watertight case for independence or fold like cardboard coffee cups.

I was taken aback at how flimsy the economic argument for the £500 "independence dividend" was at last weekend's conference (and how senior party figures would rather run a mile than spend time discussing it). The figures were dismantled in a few minutes by the opposition, and even by more experienced journalists weary of their repetition.

But now Salmond's assertion that Scotland would be a full member of the EU, outwith the Euro currency and without Schengen border controls, has been fatally undermined. He doesn't know, he has no advice to back up his claims. So what about his claims on defence, on the Bank of England, and on every other worry he needs to ease before convincing a majority they'd be better off going it alone?

Propaganda has its place, both sides will employ stats to suit their purposes, but you can't make up policy  on something as important as the European Union on the back of an envelope and then hope you can bluster through to win the day.

We deserve better than this. If something stunning doesn't come out of the Scottish Government White Paper on independence next year (why do we have to wait that long?) then today will not be seen as bad day at all for the SNP government, not by a long chalk.

Monday 22 October 2012

Breaking news from Oz: “McTernan is a ...”

They say that when the spindoctor becomes the story it is time for the spindoctor to move on. Pity the man then, whether it be Salmond or Cameron, when John McTernan comes storming back from Canberra.

Labour’s former Downing Street adviser, one of the sharpest stiletto hands in Scotland, has been doing for Australia’s Julia Gillard what Machiavelli did for the princes - in spades.
Her one-woman destruction of the oppositon leader’s mysoginy the other week is said to be inspired by him, though her delivery was all hers, and all awesome.

This is from the Weekend Australa, which profiles the, er, “punchy” Scotsman. Haste ye back John, it was more fun when you were around.

Weekend Australian, Page: 15B Tom Dusevic Saturday, 20 October 2012

IN the stomach-churning world of political advice, public mention of a backroom player’s name is customarily a little death for them.

Communications experts try to ensure their boss shines, their ideas capture voters’ minds and opponents implode before the public; as unelected agents working below deck, advisers hope they are heard but never seen, while yearning for those in the know to affirm their utter brilliance.

The fact John McTernan is now regularly mentioned in dispatches within the political class is a sign of several things, not least of which is that he has hurt his opponents and they would like to take him down.

The “punchy” Scotsman, who advised Tony Blair during his premiership, joined Julia Gillard’s staff last November on the urging of key Labor figures.

Take it or leave it, Labor’s short-term messaging is clearer, while its method is becoming a story in itself; the strategy’s brazenness, brutality, riskiness and effectiveness is, to a certain degree, embodied in the signature notes of a little-known foreigner in the Prime Minister’s office.

As Gillard’s director of communications, the 53-year-old McTernan operates in a rarefied realm; his job is to set a medium term messaging strategy, to instil marketing discipline across the government (for officials, media advisers and ministers) and to maintain quality control for the image of the whole messy show that is federal Labor as it sets itself for an election sometime in the coming 12 months.

In a saturated world of brands and seemingly nanosecond attention spans, McTernan is trying to craft enduring messages with edge. Sometimes those ideas are as subtle as a kick in the balls when the lights are out. That’s entertainment. His back catalogue of columns, blogs, speeches and musings is being trawled by the Coalition.

“If you get to senior positions, you have to be able to kill your opponents,” McTernan once wrote. “It is not pretty, it’s not pleasant, but if those at the top can’t kill, then those at the bottom certainly cannot. High politics demands very low political skills, too.”

Labor’s recovery, its relentless attack on Tony Abbott and the Prime Minister’s dictionary busting speech on misogyny last week are viewed as emblems of McTernan’s handiwork. The recent turnaround in Labor’s fortunes, as measured by the polls, is not attributed to one woman or man, because that’s not the Gillard ethos; Rudd Labor is a different beast.

Still, if you are casting for X factors, McTernan stands out as a key, new element. In an office that often has been occupied by capable people who are “like .22 calibre bullets in a .44 calibre gun”, as one government adviser puts it, McTernan is seen as a missile in the Prime Minister’s office.

“There is no one quite like him in either show with the firepower,” says the aide. “McTernan brings a unique mix of high intellect, self-confidence, a deep interest in policy and a breadth of experience that is unrivalled among advisers.” McTernan is a contemporary of the Gillard government’s mainstays. He’s older than 17 of Labor’s 30-strong frontbench; some advisers see him as an approachable wise owl, others are intimidated by his uber confidence and standing within the government as one who carries sway with the Prime Minister and a Scot who seems to relish a fight.

Inquirer spoke this week to many close observers of McTernan’s methods, including senior ministers, advisers, MPs, progressive activists and Labor identities. The man himself declined to speak on the record, arguing he is not a public figure, and therefore he is not quoted anywhere in this story. It’s a pity because he is an engaging man, given to mirth, the spouter of idioms rarely heard here.

Health Minister Tanya Plibersek says McTernan has brought maturity, calm and experience to the high-pressure environment of executive government. “John’5 approach is strategic, despite the hourly and daily battles in the media. He is able to draw together all the efforts of the government into a cohesive picture, never losing sight of Labor values.” One senior Labor figure says: “It may be harsh on people who gave their all for Labor, but we were all over the place in our communications,” adding that Abbott’s blunt, but highly effective, campaign against the carbon tax meant a perception grew that people had stopped listening to Gillard. “McTernan said, Stop nuancing. Simple, clear messages get through.’” McTernan is lauded and loathed within Labor, in part because of the Gillard-Rudd leadership issue.

“I can write your story in four words,” says a Labor MP. “McTernan is a c. t.” Even in the Slipper Age, in the blood house of Canberra now, it’s a bracing comment The Scot is viewed by the forsaken as having a role in Gillard’s ministerial reshuffles; his hand is seen in the almost deadly ferocity deployed by the Gillard loyalists against the former prime minister in last February’s leadership spill (the record of which will be used against Labor when it mailers).

As well, there is resentment towards McTernan over the Australia Day fracas, with some figures not of the Rudd camp saying privately that the media adviser who lost his job over the incident, Tony Hodges, was the fall guy and the communications director must take responsibility for his junior charge’s behaviour that day.

There are mutters that McTernan extends his reach into areas that are beyond the ken or responsibility of a media adviser.

Clearly, his brief goes beyond the quotidian and his influence is both overt and covert According to those best placed to know, McTernan essentially sticks to communications and Gillard’s style is to draw on the expertise of all her staff and ministers.

One of the characterisations that preceded McTernan is the fictional character Malcolm Tucker from the BBC series The Thick of It, which satirises Westminster. Tucker is a ludicrously profane Scot, chief Labour spin doctor and enforcer. The “Kill Tony” onslaught against the Coalition of the past few months has been therapeutic and galvanising for Labor, although some MPs believe the scale of the campaign, orchestrated by McTernan, has been overdone.

According to former attorney general Robert McClelland, a Rudd supporter who was dumped from the ministry after the leadership spill, “McTernan’s influence has been unhelpful to the government’s cause.” McClelland says: “He has brought a particular, combative media style from the UK that Australians are not comfortable with.” Others in the heart of the Gillard operation are worried that the negative campaign against Abbott, and the so-called “gender war”, is hurting the ability of Labor to talk about the economy, its range of successes and reforms and signature policy advantages in health, education, aged care and mental health. “It steals the airwaves,” says one senior adviser. “The negativity turns people off What if we knock off Abbott? What do we do then?” Those who know McTernan well describe him as a man of warmth, with a passion for music, books and argument. He’s apolitical killer and a great hater, too, and a man not shy of extolling his  mastery of what should be but never quite is the simple art of political communication.

Frankly, Australia has not seen his type: old-school dedication, tribal stickability, American-style professional vanity, pooled in the understated visage of a regional university don. David Hetherington, executive director of think tank Per Capita, has known McTernan for years and describes him as a substantial figure in progressive politics, a thinker several steps ahead of the pack on policy issues.

“His political brain is deeply rooted in British-Scottish Labour’s working class, so he is very good at the modern, contemporary interpretation of what Labor’s base thinks about an issue,” says Hetherington.

He is a Blairite, according to those with a deeper appreciation of these things, rather than a class warrior in the mould of hardline trade unionists who dominated the news decades ago.

By several accounts he does not cultivate the Canberra press gallery (some scribes see him as out of touch and aloof) but McTernan does seek out opinion makers outside the capital, especially those considered hostile to Labor. For a time in Britain he wrote for the high Tory Daily Telegraph.

McTernan has been coming to Australia regularly since 2001 and has established a network of Labor friends and contacts. His outsiderness is seen as a plus and minus; the Scot cannot possibly have the corporate memory Labor prizes and romanticises.

Yet, when it comes to plying his trade, the clear tendency in the engine room is to yield to the messaging expert.

In terms of the next election, Labor insiders believe the communications strategy is still being finessed, even though the long-term direction was set by those who worked with Gillard and her chief of staff, Ben Hubbard, before McTernan’s arrival.

“We haven’t nailed it yet, but we’re moving in the right direction,” a senior minister says of the coming election’s communications manifesto. “McTernan has played a big, big part in our revival.” There’s also no doubt that McTernan has given the frontline soldiers a stronger focus, greater confidence and a sense that they will be tested soon. And that he, a “grown-up”, with a cool head and a taste for blood, will be in their corner. Just out of the spotlight.

SNP bid goodbye to the Dylan generation

That’s all the political conferences done - from the TUC in Brighton to the SNP in Perth I’ve been on the road for almost six weeks and survived relatively unscathed. And now, now I’m stuck at Glasgow airport - Phileas Fogg-bound,

In that time I’ve heard Bob Crow thunder for a general strike and squirmed through Danny Alexander’s excruciating autocue. I was blinded by Ed Miliband’s “look ma, no hands” stageshow, and I rolled in the aisles while Boris called the British Prime Minister a broomstick.

Jaded, yes, but strangely enthused too, because the best was saved for last.

The undoubted highlight of the conference season was the SNP debate on Nato membership last Friday. It was genuine politics in the raw, long held principles at stake, impassioned debate and a knife edge vote as a movement wrestled with its conscience over principle and pragmatism.

This was electric soup for political pundits who thought the days of real party debates were a relic of the 20th century.

And leave the last century is what the SNP did. The party said goodbye to the Bob Dylan generation by voting, narrowly, to accept NATO membership as part of the price of their goal for an independent Scotland.

The leadership won by just 29 votes, leaving 365 delegates gnashing their teeth while Angus Robertson toasted himself with a “who dares wins” text from the court jester, Angus MacNeil.

Kenny MacAskill’s firebrand oratory undoubtedly saved the day for the pro-Nato motion. You can take a rebel boy out of Lewis, but he will never shake off the echo of its evangelical pulpits. But, ah Kenny, what doth it profit a man to gain the world...

Are there any great amount of votes to be levered from effectively sacrificing the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance, because that is where this logic ends up.

It ends, somewhere at the far side of an Angus Robertson rainbow, with an independent anti-nuclear Scotland accepting Trident on the Clyde as the price for EU membership. Forget foreign bases, Trident won’t be going to Brest or Georgia, Trident won't be going anywhere if Scotland is in NATO.

All that might be neverland, but the move on NATO was highly symbolic for the party. Alex Salmond said activists could take credit for the way the debate was conducted, and so they should.

He said this is how they would run an independent Scotland, but the spirit of that debate (some booing apart) is not evident in how Salmond himself presents the case for independence.

Everyone in Scotland should welcome a referendum campaign because it ought to flush out all the arguments for and against and end the national navel gazing, for once and for all. No sign of that from the SNP leadership though.

You can’t, as Salmond does, assert that you are unrelentingly positive and expect people to believe it when you just carry on with a list of girns against Great Britain.

You can’t twist the stats to try and show that every man woman and child would be better off if the figures can be shot down in one minute by the other side’s targeted gunfire. The economic case, the £500 “indy dividend” that Salmond promised, is threadbare and frankly unconvincing.

And you can’t risk an electoral backlash by rigging a referendum, as his opponents accused him of doing yesterday.

Because the conference ended on a note of drama too, with Nicola Sturgeon telegraphing that the SNP government would ignore the impartial advice of the Electoral Commission on referendum campaign spending.

It was chilling for the pro-UK parties to hear the SNP deputy leader, in an otherwise robust speech, try to sneak away from the advice of the elections referees. “Scotland’s future will not be bought and sold for anyone’s gold,” she said.

Well, that was rich coming from a party that has a Euro Lottery millionaire splashing cash on its campaign for the next year and half before the proposed limits on spending come in.

Of course this might be a kite-flying exercise by Nicola Sturgeon, seeing how far the envelope can be pushed before compromising, toeing the line and putting up a fair fight.

That is the way the SNP negotiated the referendum deal, all bluster about a second question until their all-Scotland consultation persuaded them there was no chance to make it fly. (By the way, where is my consultation response Mr Salmond, and that of thousands of others. I thought it was highly important to you and that no decisions could be made before you read it?)

Putting Sturgeon on manoeuvres yesterday was shabby politics by the SNP leadership after all the grand words in Edinburgh about moving onto a substantive debate.

In high stakes politics, in a once in a generation chance that Salmond has given the SNP for an independence vote, some might be tempted to think that the ends will always justify the means. It would be a dishonour to the electorate and they might not be forgiving.

Meanwhile the SNP still has a lot more questions to answer on defence, a lot of questions to answer on the currency, a lot of questions to answer on EU membership.

A great conference, yes, but a missed opportunity too. Two years out Alex Salmond still has a problem with numbers and letters. He won’t name the date and he hasn’t spelt out the case for independence.

Friday 19 October 2012

SNP prepares to cross the nuclear line in Perth

To Perth for the last, the very last, conference of the season - the SNP.

It was only walking past the boarded-up Perth City Hall this morning that I remembered the first time I came to the city was to heckle Margaret Thatcher at the Scottish Conservative Conference way back in 1980shomething.

These were different days - the Tories were still a force in Scotland, and dominated UK politics. The SNP was a rump vote and the Labour Party,  yes the Labour party,  was anti-EU and had a  unilateralist defence policy.

The dubbing of 1983 forced Labour to cross that anti-nuclear rubicon which the SNP looks set to do today when it votes to reverse its opposition to NATO membership.

The party will remain anti-nuclear and that isn't really compatible with NATO membership rules as George Robertson, former NATO Secretary General, loves to remind them.

Nonetheless the SNP anti-nuclear campaigners think it is compromise too far but they look to be outnumbered by activists who will maintain the discipline and the focus on trying to win a referendum. It doesn't look like it will come to blows but expect a lively debate.

For the leadership, for Angus Robertson in particular, the shift is all about having a more coherent defence policy, although NATO or not, that is under considerable fire from the UK government this week. (See the MoD document on defence implications for an independent Scotland here )

Practically, on the ground, I'm not sure what the policy change will achieve. It feeds into the calm the horses, nothing will change, message of assurance that Salmond wants to send to the Scottish public. I'm not sure if it will swing that many voters to independence. But it costs the party activists on the ground, when you could argue it needs them most, and it creates unnecessary division in the party where previously non existed. No price to large for the final prize.

Speaking of prices, the SNP leaderships seems keen ot prove the  old propagandist's maxim that if you repeat something often enough it will be accepted as the truth.

The one stat that's been trundled out by speaker after speaker in the last two days is that Scotland contributes 9.6 per cent of UK taxes but receives only 9.3 per cent in return. John Swinney did it again this morning and he should know better.

It's not really an apples and apples comparison. In numerical terms that's £53.1bn in to the Treasury pot and £63.8bn back out, as spending is higher than the tax take, thanks to borrowing.

Similary the "Independence Dividend" of £500 for every man, woman and child  that Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond trumpeted yesterday is based on  one year, 2010-11, when Scotland's levels of indebtedness was lower than the rest of the UK.

The "Indy Divi" - and I loved The Sun turned it into a giveaway promotion "Free Offer" -  is just £500 less debt in one year, not £500 in your hand. Plenty more of that "nonsense" before the music ends in 2014. 

Monday 15 October 2012

Poem for the day, read before you sign David.

Whitehall 1212 is stretching its legs after the conference season and has arrived in Edinburgh for the today's great signing deal between Alex Salmond and David Cameron.

Well, they've got a good day for it. St Andrews House, the Scottish government headquarters, is caught in a sharp rays of Autumn sunshine this morning.

Last night, when I arrived, all the windows in the building were a blaze of light, as if the civil servants were shuttling through the late hours in final preparation for the historic day. The scene reminded me of the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall, which was always lit up at night during the early stages of the Afghan invasion, and probably every other conflict that followed.

I was also reminded, while in Sandy Bells (where else?) of how David Cameron mis-quoted, or at least mis-pronounced, Robert Burns last January when he cornered Salmond into naming the date, or at least the season for the vote.

The SNP cabinet, you'll remember, announced 2014 by tweet at 6pm on a dark January Monday, a week ahead of the Burns Night announcement Salmond had planned. This was simply so that the SNP leader would steal the lead on the BBC News that evening. The bulletin was due to be dominated by the UK government's plans to create a Section 30 Order transferring legal powers for a vote on condition that it was a one question referendum within a set time frame.

And so it has come to pass. For all the bellow pumping we'll hear today about this being a great victory, you have to remember that we'd still all be guessing the date and whether it would be one question or two if the Westminster government had not put pressure on Salmond's windpipe.

At the time Cameron goaded the SNP leader from the Commons dispatch box as being a "wee sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie"; though he managed to mis-pronounce the next line, "O, what panic's in thy breastie!". Salmond offered him elocution lessons

At last orders in Sandy Bells my Edinburgh friend was able to recite the entire poem, a feat in itself.

But she did so to make a point with the last two verses where the poet considers how the future cannot be predicted; how the mouse, a simple animal, lives in the present while he, the poet, lives in a nostalgic past with no idea what the future will bring.

Burns is appropriate for any day. Both Alex and David should consider the lines as they prepare to sign:

"But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!"

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Referendum talks - one question, do you agree?

There are several versions of Salmond being ready to give up on a second referendum question in the papers today, mostly spun from a vague answer the First Minister gave to a question from the LA Times.

Below is a full version in the Daily Record story I filed, which was sourced far away from the pages of the LA Times.

In short the referendum is going to be one question -  something the Westminster-Holyrood talks on power transfer have been inching towards since Nicola Sturgeon took over for the SNP.

The Electoral Commission will rule on the wording provided by the Scottish Government - the crucial phrasing "do you agree" that Scotland should be independent is likely to be used. Cameron doesn't think the outcome will be greatly affected by the question.

People aged 16 to 18 will have the vote -  if it is technically possible to get them on the electoral roll in time for 2014. Westminster doesn't believe it is and is leaving the task to Holyrood. Whitehall data and other polling  shows that  Scottish teenagers coming of voting age, like the rest of the population, are against independence by a margin of two to one.

Michael Moore is on stage today at the Lib Dem conference. He may make reference to the talks but both sides have been playing their cards close to their chests.

The concessions allow Salmond to proclaim that the referendum will be "made in Scotland" while the single question means Cameron can be satisfied  the matter will be resolved - one way or the other

Here's the story, for The Record

Alex Salmond is on the brink of agreeing to a one question referendum on Scottish Independence in the Autumn of 2014.

In a major concession to David Cameron the SNP leader has given up hope of obtaining his favoured two question ballot that would give voters the option of independence or a second choice of more powers for the Scottish parliament.

But Salmond has won the battle over the wording and timing of the vote.

The ballot paper is likely to ask people if they agree Scotland should become an independent nation.

Cameron has relaxed about the wording of the question after being assured by referendum experts that the word “agree” will not create a significant bias in favour of a yes vote

The Prime Minister is also willing to concede to a key SNP demand that Scotland’s 16 and 17 year old teenagers will be able to vote in the historic referendum.

The timing of the vote is also being left to Holyrood although the legal powers being granted by Westminster will lapse before the next Scottish election in 2016.

The deal paving the way for the vote is due to be signed off by the UK Prime Minister and the First Minister at a special meeting in late October

After talks between SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore yesterday both sides said that they were still some distance from agreement.

But The Record understands that when Alex Salmond and David Cameron meet in October they will be asked to sign off on a deal that will transfer legal powers for a referendum to Scotland - on condition that voters are asked a single question.

Cameron had drawn a line in the sand over the one question indy referendum, demanding that the poll give a decisive answer on Scotland’s future.

Salmond has been hedging his bets on a two-question ballot so that if he loses on independence he can claim that a majority in favour of more powers support him on a “journey” to home rule with full powers for the parliament.

Sturgeon and Moore are also ready to agree that the wording of the question will be drawn up by the UK Electoral Commission and will be subject to the approval of the Scottish parliament.

Westminster is willing to accept a form of question asking people if they agree that Scotland should become independent despite fears that it will add an element of bias to the outcome.

Experts on referendums have convinced Westminster Ministers that after a thorough two year campaign voters will be highly familiar with what they are being asked to decide on and the outcome will not be affected that much by how the question is framed.

The teenage vote is also being conceded by Westminster because polls show that like the general Scottish population young people are against independence by a margin of two to one.

Westminster civil servants believe that it will be technically difficult to get all people aged 16-18 onto the electoral roll in time for a 2014 poll. The task is being left to the Scottish government to organise.

In a joint statement after their hour long talks yesterday Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon and Secretary of State, Michael Moore said: “Substantial progress has been made, and at previous meetings, on the ground work for an agreement and in discussing the detail of individual issues. We now need to see these individual issues in totality, and have asked officials to put together a package over the next few days.

‘We will discuss again whether the proposed package has reached a form we are able to recommend the full agreement to the First Minister and the Prime Minister.”

A spokesman for the First Minister said last night: “This is Scotland’s referendum, and the arrangements for it should be made in Scotland, not dictated by Westminster. All of the relevant issues governing the referendum, including that of a second question – which has significant support amongst the public and civic society – must be determined in the interests of the people of Scotland, not in the narrow interests of any political party. That is the spirit in which the Scottish Government is approaching the discussions that are currently underway with the UK Government.”

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Cameron sets tone for Hillsborough apology

Commons Sketch for The Record (a rare thing these days)

A profound quiet settled on the Commons chamber as the Prime Minister announced the results of the Hillsborough Inquiry.

MPs who had been braying across the benches minutes earlier, sat just stunned as David Cameron conveyed details of the shocking aftermath of that sunny Saturday afternoon in Sheffield 23 years ago.

The silence was broken only by collective gasps, as it was revealed how police had sought to impinge the reputations of the 96 dead, running their details for criminal checks and even testing the bodies of children for alcohol.

Former Labour Minister Andy Burnham, who commissioned the independent report, sat on the benches behind Ed Miliband. He had difficulty maintaining his composure, constantly adjusting his cuffs to distract himself.

Maria Eagle and Steve Rotheram, the moptop MP for Liverpool Walton who was in the ground that day, looked equally shattered.

Yet they found their voices, cracking with emotion, in the hushed debate that followed.

The Prime Minister set the solemn tone, sounding just as staggered by conclusions he had read only a few hours earlier.

As he had done for the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, he made a candid, heartfelt apology to Liverpool, and the bereaved who had been slighted.

But important as that was, sorry is no kind of justice for losing your children.

If it had been left to bent police, to doctored ambulance statements, to arbitrary coroner’s reports and vicious media myths the official silence would have held forever.

But the cry for truth from the bereaved of Liverpool would not be quietened.

Ordinary people knew what happened, smelt a police conspiracy, and campaigned against a wall of officialdom for years. Finally, yesterday they were taken seriously.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Back In The Thick Of It

I've been Tuckered - again.

By chance and circumstance I went along to a preview screening of the new series of In The Thick Of It last night. Peter Capaldi wasn't there (the pic is from an earlier encounter we had and, yes, I failed the audition) but the cast who did come along were great fun.

The first two episodes of the new series are hilarious and far more squirmingly uncomfortable for the opposition than for the government. After all we know what the inside of government looks like from earlier episodes but the Armando Iannucci treatment of the politically powerless is, ouch, witheringly funny and close to the bone.

It all kicks off on Saturday night at 9.45pm on BBC2.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Comings and Goings at Downing Street

BBC's Norman Smith telling us who's up and who's down this morning
The Ministerial Jaguars are crowded into Downing Street like airliners stacked over Heathrow this morning as David Cameron's first cabinet reshuffle gets underway.

The street used to be packed on reshuffle days, once an annual event, but Twitter has drained the colour out of the occasion, the announcements are around the world before the new Ministers come smiling out the door. But it was a nice enough day to hang about outside the seat of government even though Downing Street rarely gets sunlight.

The top ranks remain the same with Iain Duncan Smith digging in his heels at welfare. So, the top news so far is Jeremy Hunt becoming the luckiest man in Britain - with the jaws of death ready to snap on his Murdoch-tainted career as Culture Secretary he is promoted to one of the biggest jobs in government.

Ken Clarke having to become the official Shadow shadow chancellor, tasked to sell the economic medicine that George Osborne has become too unpopular to administer in public, is a sign of how much trouble the Coalition is on the economy.

Partick McLaughlin, a former miner, is the new Transport Secretary which means a third runway at Heathrow is back on the agenda. Labour leader Ed Miliband is, remember, opposed to Heathrow expansion.

So too is Tory environmentalist MP Zac Goldsmith who has threatened a Heathrow by-election in his Richmond Park marginal constituency if the government does a loop the loop on its pledge to block expansion.

Devo-sceptic, former Assembly member David Jones is the new Welsh Secretary. There's been no news on the Scotland Office yet but Michael Moore is expected to stay exactly where he is. If that changes my day gets a lot more exciting.

No big intake of women and and reversion to an all-white cabinet for the first time in 15 years, although Warsi  is sitting in on cabinet as compensation for losing her job as co-chair of the party. That's progress for you.

Monday 3 September 2012

Back to school speculation

All this is speculation - and with that qualifier we're all back in Westminster, eagerly awaiting news of the first Coalition reshuffle.

Who's up who's down, will Ken Clarke walk, will Baroness Warsi wail - we just don't know yet. Looks like the prints will get a sniff for tomorrow morning and that the cards will be dealt before cabinet, the timing of which we don't know yet either.

I suspect that by Wednesday our fever will have subsided and we'll be back to worrying about economy. i also suspect that Michael Moore will still be Scottish Secretary, despite the wild, what's the word, speculation about Jo Swinson or Menzies Campbell taking his place.

In the tortoise and hare race to the referendum Moore may have failed to set the heather on fire with his rhetoric. But in a battle for reasonableness, which is where most votes lie, he sounds plain and sensible just as Salmond's excuses for not engaging with Westminster are in danger of sounding less plausible.

George Osborne, assuming he still is chancellor, is due to make a speech in Scotland on the economy later this week. As the chair of the cabinet committee deciding Coalition policy on a referendum, I dare say he'll stir it on the constitutional argument too.

Monday 13 August 2012

Gordon Brown on Scotland's future

Here are some extracts from Gordon Brown’s speech on the future of Scotland, delivered at the Edinburgh Book Festival this afternoon.

It was the former Prime Minister’s first foray into the Independence debate since leaving office, and in a quiet political August people will want to pore over his words.

I’ll leave line by line analysis to others, but in quick reading of his fairly dense Donald Dewar memorial lecture Brown has breathed some intellectual life into the increasingly stale yah-boo of the daily political process.

Gordon Brown coming out in support of the Union is not be a surprise. But his call to raise the debate on Scotland’s future to a new level should be welcomed on all sides.
He accepts that the reasons the UK was formed may be historic, but forged from three centuries of common endeavour is one of the most modern political unions on the planet.

If England brought order, liberty and individual responsibility to the Union them Scotland brought values that have always been part of Scottish politics and culture - equality of opportunity, an emphasis on education, and a sense of common obligation to our community.

If Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony gave artistic expression to that unique mix, a shared sense of Britishness with the NHS at its heart, then Gordon Brown’s lecture gives it high-brow clarity.

But he says the decision on independence has to be about what will happen to Scotland in the future - not what happened in the past.

He goes on to point out that by sharing not just values, but risks and responsibilities, Britain is better off socially than many other countries.

Brown argues that competition between neighbouring nations, and even within nations like the USA, has left other countries with a far greater gulf between rich and poor than Britain has.

Far from leaving the UK, Scotland leads the UK with progressive values, says Brown, and in an interdependent world it has all the advantages over competitors.

That said, the case for the UK does not always have to be articulated by politicians in lectures. Through a festival of incredible sporting prowess the advantage of different parts of small island nation coming together sharing in the joy, the tears and the frustration of competition was clear to one and all.

The script for the UK  has largely written itself in the last two weeks. Here are extracts of Gordon Brown's contribution:

“It is no criticism of the discussion so far to say that, in the next two years as we approach a referendum, the debate about Scotland’s future must rise to a new level.

The future of Scotland - and the fate and fortune of the Scottish people - is too serious - and the jobs of too many people, the livelihoods of too many families, the prospects for too many young people too important - for the arguments of the next two years to be anything other than substantive.

Indeed if we are to avoid the kind of destabilising decade that hit Quebec and its prospects of economic success, and avoid perpetual demands for a succession of referenda, we must take care to construct our constitutional arrangements on the strongest and most enduring foundation.

And so I would suggest that, if we are to do justice to the seriousness of the issues at stake, the debate must start from first principles; be rooted in what really matters to us as Scots; focus on the future not the past; seek to understand how after a half century that has seen not only the loss of empire, and the creation of the European Union but a shift of the centre of economic gravity towards Asia and the birth of a far more interdependent world, notions of nationhood and sovereignty are in flux not just in Britain but almost everywhere; and ask whether in a more interdependent world where barriers are being dismantled everywhere, what new barriers, if any, make sense.


Of course the British Union was forged and grew when Scotland and England had shared religious objectives, when they sought to share the benefits of empire, and when they had shared interests in European wars.

Now that religion, empire and war in Europe are not any longer the decisive forces, some have argued that the ties that bind us are so frayed that the Union no longer has a purpose. But in fact the real issue is not what the old case for the union was - and how much of it endures - but whether there is a modern case for the Union.


We can of course found the modern case for Britain on the success of shared institutions, on kith and kin because of intermarriage, on our interdependence, on common security and defence needs and on shared economic and environmental challenges.

But I want to start the debate on Scotland’s future from where Scottish people are, from our distinctive Scottish beliefs and how these shape the Union we know today.

And I want to suggest that what we brought to the Union - Scottish ideas of justice and community - when, side by side with traditional English ideas of ordered liberty and individualism, created a British political social and economic settlement which is unique to multinational arrangements anywhere in the world.

Scottish values have, of course, traditionally been best expressed as what is often called ‘the democratic intellect’ - the belief that human dignity is achieved not just by educational opportunity open to all but by a culture open not just to an elite but to everyone, and by the cultivation not just of manners but of our critical faculties by looking at things from first principles.

And there is a second distinctively Scottish idea which became prominent in the Scots enlightenment - the idea of civil society, of a community where we have mutual obligations to each other and where there is a moral core to the public realm.

I would suggest that these distinctive Scottish values which have emphasised justice and community have been vital not only in shaping Scottish society but in shaping the British Union.



For as a result of our interaction with English ideas beliefs, we have established for every citizen of Great Britain not just common political rights but common social and economic rights, something neither the United States of America nor the European Union have fully achieved.

Indeed irrespective of whether you are Scottish, Welsh or English or Northern Irish you will have the same basic insurance against unemployment disability and old age.

Because we have established common economic rights as well as social rights, one part of the UK will in the event of an economic or social disaster have the right to help from the other parts and indeed when the Scottish banks failed the whole of Britain did not question the need to help.


And because of the distinctive ideas that have shaped it, the Union pools and shares risks and resources right across Britain. Pooling and sharing our resources - through a national insurance and taxation system - has made possible a National Health Service where, while we have distinctive forms of local management, the risks of expensive health care are pooled and shared across the UK.

We can point also to the BBC with a common license fee and the armed forces where we are clearly better protected because we pool our expertise and resources -and this week, of all weeks, we can point to all our Scottish Olympic medals - where it is clear from the views of the athletes themselves that a British team (pooling and sharing resources and expertise) was the best platform upon which Scotland’s (and every nation’s and region’s) success was built.


In other multinational states like the European Union, these common social and economic rights - and this pooling and sharing of resources - does not exist to the same degree.

So, as the tables show, inequalities between nations in Europe are so deep that the typical citizen of the richest state Luxembourg has six times the income of the poorest, Bulgaria. And the reason for the difference with Britain is that we have created a social market while Europe still has little more than a single market. And then in Asia, as the tables also show, the gulf between nations on the same continent is so glaring that the richest country has income levels per citizen more than thirty eight times that of the poorest.

Even in the USA, as the enclosed table shows, a federal state which is made up of regions not nations, inequalities are greater with the typical citizen of the richest state earning more than twice the income of their neighbour in the poorest.

I mention all these federal and multinational states to show the uniqueness of what has been achieved in Britain. Inequalities between Scotland and England have narrowed to the point that the typical Scottish citizen has an income of over 20,000 a year just like the English citizen and Scottish GDP per head is 96 per cent of English GDP per head.

And even when we look at states which border each other like Mexico and the USA, Singapore and Malaysia, and Spain and Morocco there is no natural tendency to converge.

Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland stand out as countries that have done more than anyone to minimise the differences in average income per head. We have a long way to go if we are to reduce inequalities within each nation but we have gone a long way in minimising inequalities between each nation within the British Union.

We have done so in a progressive way by establishing minimum legal rights of citizenship; then common and equal social rights of citizenship; then common and equal economic rights of citizenship; and from the pooling and sharing of risks and resources.


I suggest that if through some version of independence we break this apart and set nationally or regionally varied minimum pay rates, nationally varied corporation tax rates and nationally varied social security rates we will start a race to the bottom under which the good provider in one area would be undercut by the bad and the bad would be undercut by the worst.

Because the whole purpose of the break up would be to end the pooling and sharing of resources and legislate for different social and economic rights, the equal rights of citizenship we have built from values we hold in common would come to an end. If we mean by ‘social union’ shared social rights of citizenship, there could be no ‘social union’ after an economic break-up.


So we find that modern Britain is founded on something more important than old sentiment, self interest, temporary advantage, or short-lived tides of emotion - but on shared values – and that these values have not only shaped the Britain we know but can shape the multinational arrangements of the future.

Indeed Britain may yet become a beacon for all those nations across every continent who need to find a way of living together in a multinational world where, more and more, people of different ethnic backgrounds will have to find ways of co-existing side by side.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

London getting into the mood for the Jubilympics

Remember the rain-sodden images of London during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee weekend? The weather hasn't improved any since then, although the mood of the town seems to have deflated.

This week, as Olympic traffic lanes came into force from Heathrow to the city centre,  and we witnessed the grasping appearance of G4S boss Nick Buckles in the Commons, you got the feeling that London is at  tipping point in making its mind up about the Coca Cola games.

The inconvenience, the crowds and carnival of Jubilee events were tolerable because the city, and the country, bought into the occasion. The events were largely free, easy to engage and despite the weather, the whole thing was given the benign backing of the public because it was, after all, for her Majesty.

Yesterday there was a noisy taxi driver protest outside Parliament against the ban on black cabs going into the Olympic lanes. Today the Independent reports how government Ministers are using the event as a massive lobbying exercise for £50 billion worth of global investment deals.

And everywhere are the looped conversations of people who were unsuccessful in getting Olympic tickets or have found the price of the remaining seats too expensive. Either that or the boastful claims of those who were organised enough to max out their Visa card months ago.

The highly commercialised nature of the modern games, the combination of exclusion symbolised by the Olympic lanes and the greedy corporate incompetence displayed by G4S, could swing the public mood against the games before the starting gun is fired. And because London is the prism through which the media sees the nation then that could affect attitudes countrywide.

The Olympic torch, which seems to have a life all of its own, tells another story though. It has been greeted by massive crowds on its sodden journey around the UK.

I'm sure the minute the Olympic flame splutters into life at the stadium that  and Mark Cavendish wins that first medal (if I haven't  just jinxed it) people will get behind TeamGB and enjoy the whole event. It just needs a few good headlines this weekend, some luck, and some sunshine.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Salmond's challenge on same-sex marriage

That lacklustre Queen’s Speech today - lacklustre that is apart from the sight of a crown encrusted with 3000 diamonds getting a lift home in its own carriage -  has an unintended consequence the SNP government.

With enough fires to douse Cameron has backed away from introducing controversial plans for same sex marriage at Westminster, leaving Alex Salmond politically exposed as heading the parliament best prepared to go ahead with legislation.

The SNP has not long  finished a consultation on separate legislation for Scotland, in the teeth of strong opposition from powerful religious groups like the Catholic Church.

A senior government official tells me the "very substantial" response means the government will take time to consider all the submissions and deliver a full analysis (Does that sound familiar to Referendum Bill watchers?)

Anyway, the official said: "We're not at that stage of introducing a bill."

Yesterday same-sex marriage campaigners called on the First Minister to make Scotland a beacon of progress and “lead the way” to bring in “marriage equality”.

There is cross-party support at Holyrood for same-sex marriage, though some SNP MSPs have defied the leadership. So, no real political hurdles to overcome there, and a good opportunity for nationalists to once again differentiate Scotland from the rest of the UK, you'd think.

But crucially one of the SNP’s big funders, Brian Souter, has fundamental objections to the idea.
The bus mogul bankrolled the anti-Clause 28 campaign in Scotland a decade ago. Now, he bankrolls the SNP with a donation of £500,000 for last year’s election campaign.

More to come, says Souter, for the referendum campaign.

This is a test for Salmond in a parliament that is not exactly clogged with legisation - is it big bucks or big principles? Over to you big boy.

Monday 7 May 2012

Hugh MacDiarmid's shady fascist politics

On a bank holiday Monday I'm borrowing wholesale from the West Highland Free Press books column for a guest blog by Roger Hutchinson.

For a few weeks now, after a passing reference to Hugh MacDiarmid's fascist background in a book review, the Free Press has been inundated with letters from nationalists denying the facts about Grieve's sympathies for Mussolini and Hitler, even as WWII raged.

At each turn Hutchinson has taken a shinty stick to the deniers by simply by quoting MacDiarmid's own arguments in support of the fascism back at them. As you'd expect that has only increased the tempo of denial about the background of this nationalist icon.

Having been accused of everything from "inventing" facts about the poet to the more ludicrous charge of letting his "hatred" get in the way of Scottish "libertation", Hutchinson has issued another devastating response.

What is striking, apart from the subject itself, is that  in another country the continued sterilisation of  a national poet's murky politics would be a raging debate for the great cultural commentators of the day , not the provenance of a local newspaper.

But then,  in another country Roger Hutchinson would be a columnist on The New York Times or the London Review of Books.  All of which makes you kind of thankful for the good old West Highland Free Press, which is quoted below:

The Shady Politics of Hugh MacDiarmid

Seven weeks ago I reviewed in this column a book by Trevor Royle about Scotland and the Second World War. At the end of the review I quoted from Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1940 letter to his fellow poet Sorley Maclean, in which MacDiarmid said that the British and French bourgeoisie were “a far greater enemy” than Hitler’s Germany.

Such views, I pointed out, echoed the fascist sympathies that MacDiarmid had displayed for the previous 20 years. He had even written that fascism offered the best model for a future independent Scotland.

What surprised me was not that MacDiarmid was a fascist (all countries have them), but that so many Scots so quickly chose to forget his repulsive views, and even preferred to pretend he never expressed them. Instead, I wrote, in the post-war years MacDiarmid was allowed to re-write his own legend, and that sanitised story has now stuck.

There followed a series of letters to the Free Press (and a small flurry on Twitter). The letters confirmed my original point. A lot of people are either ignorant of Hugh MacDiarmid’s political views or choose to deny them.

In his re-election address as First Minister last May, Alex Salmond read fulsomely to the Scottish Parliament from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry. The American poet Ezra Pound was also a fascist sympathiser before and during the Second World War. His views were equivalent to those of Hugh MacDiarmid. It is impossible to imagine a President of the United States quoting Pound approvingly in any context, let alone at his or her inauguration address. MacDiarmid has become a national icon. Across the Atlantic, despite being the greater writer Pound is a national embarrassment. Why the difference?

Can we start again from the matter of fact that while, as I wrote seven weeks ago, MacDiarmid was undoubtedly flaky, he was equally undoubtedly attracted to dictatorships in general and fascism in particular?

Three weeks ago John Manson wrote to accuse me of inventing those facts. I offered in return three quotes from MacDiarmid himself which called for a “Scottish Fascism” and which explained in his own words what he admired about Adolf Hitler.

Mr Manson writes again this week to acknowledge that he was aware of some of those statements (although he does not, to my slight disappointment, apologise for accusing me of inventing them). John Manson then picks up the goalposts and moves them on to another pitch. Okay, he says, MacDiarmid supported fascism — but only because he thought that fascism would eventually swing from the far right to the left.

This is worse than flaky, on both Manson’s and MacDiarmid’s part. Neither John Manson nor I were around when Mussolini’s Fascists seized power in Italy in 1922. But Hugh MacDiarmid was. He was a grown man of 30 years. I wish he had been able to run his “fascism with a human face” theory past those Italian communists, socialists and moderate democrats who opposed the Blackshirts’ March on Rome, and were consequently maimed, imprisoned or murdered by Mussolini’s thugs.

That kind of sly qualification, that sweetening of the poison, was typical of MacDiarmid. Almost 20 years later, in 1940, he implied to Sorley Maclean that he hoped Nazi Germany would win the Second World War, not necessarily because of Nazi Germany’s current merits (although MacDiarmid had admired Hitler’s “vital force… resourcefulness and colour”), but because the bourgeoisie of Britain and France “are a far greater enemy”.

A year later, in 1941, he wrote in the same vein: “On balance I regard the Axis powers, tho’ more violently evil for the time being, less dangerous than our own government in the long run and indistinguishable in purpose.”

The Nazis were “less dangerous” to whom? It is worth noting those dates. By 1940, a year into the war and two years after Kristallnacht, what MacDiarmid called the “purpose” of Nazi Germany was well known. We are entitled to ask the shade of Hugh MacDiarmid — or more practically, his modern apologists — how many Jews lived in Scotland in 1940?

The British bourgeoisie might have discouraged Jews from joining their golf clubs. But they were never likely to burn down their homes, synagogues and businesses, make them wear yellow stars while they licked the pavements clean, and force their old men, women and children to dig their own mass graves before being shot in the back of the head.

In 1940 the British bourgeoisie, as well as the British working class, was sacrificing its sons to ensure, among other things, that never happened to the Jews, tinkers and homosexuals of Scotland. Their thanks from Alex Salmond’s favoured poet was to be described as a “far greater enemy” than Nazi Germany. Their government, which included Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison, Ellen Wilkinson and Tom Johnston as well as Winston Churchill, was “indistinguishable” from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Hugh MacDiarmid could hardly be clearer. He hated the union so violently that he would have preferred Scotland to become a colony of Nazi Germany, and Edinburgh a British Vichy, than remain in its democratic engagement with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scottish political nationalists are naturally anxious to forget, if not erase, their poet laureate’s sympathies. So, to its greater shame, is much of Scotland’s commentariat and cultural intelligentsia. MacDiarmid’s attraction to the totalitarian right is an uncomfortable reminder of the horrors that were inflicted on Europe by political nationalism during the 20th century. We are tribal creatures and nationalism is an easy sell until it grossly misbehaves, which it habitually does. As I wrote, unoriginally, seven weeks ago, “the Second World War gave nationalism such a bad name that it made the Scottish National Party unelectable for two generations”. MacDiarmid had personal experience of that phenomenon. When he stood as the SNP candidate for Glasgow Kelvingrove in 1950 he collected just 639 votes, lost his deposit and finished last. But those two generations are passing away, in Scotland and elsewhere. They are taking their life lessons with them.

Judging from the correspondence so far on this matter, somebody somewhere will at this point be striding to a keyboard and preparing to accuse me of equating the Scottish National Party with the German National Socialist Party and Alex Salmond with Adolf Hitler. Let me spare you the trouble. Alex Salmond wants to destroy my country — the United Kingdom — but he is a democrat, and he has no aggressive ambitions elsewhere. They have just one predisposition in common, which they share with other demagogic nationalist politicians around the world and throughout time. They tell their compatriots that they are the victims of alien forces. When that narrative fails to stand up to reasonable examination, they reduce the labyrinthine threads of history to a cartoon strip.

Which brings us back to the rehabilitated legend of the fascist/nationalist/Anglophobe writer Hugh MacDiarmid. Can, as elements of cultural Scotland want to believe, MacDiarmid’s terrible politics be forgotten because he was a very good Scottish poet — because he may have been a nasty old talent, but at least he was our nasty old talent?

Of course we must compartmentalise his utterances, as far as the poetry allows. If I was to read only the work of people who share my political views I would deny myself not only the writing of Hugh MacDiarmid, but also that of TS Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Larkin and countless others, and I am too hungry for pleasure even to consider such abstemiousness.

But a good writer should no more be excused from the ordinary decencies than should a good bricklayer. It is important that we know the true face of an influential poet. Hugh MacDiarmid’s version of Scottish nationalism has been submerged in Scotland, largely by people who have inflated him far above his value as a national sage, and who in their own interests must now protect him from a long, hard fall from public grace.

John Manson says in this week’s letters page that a former lecturer at Ruskin College is working on a monograph about the politics of Hugh MacDiarmid. I don’t envy him, but I applaud the project. Its natural sequel would be a monograph on how so many educated Scots either deny or are genuinely ignorant of the politics of Hugh MacDiarmid.


Tuesday 24 April 2012

The Leveson Inquiry Salmond e-mails

Someone has very kindly sent me the link to the Leveson Inquiry e-mails that mention Alex Salmond.
The relevant pages of the PDF are 20, 26, 80 and 102 and you can find them here:

Thursday 19 April 2012

The Titanic and the birth of modern newspapers

I must admit I didn't read much more than a few words about about the SS Titanic commemoration until last week when the Daily Mirror cleverly reprinted a facsimile of their brilliant edition of April 16th 1912.

For anyone with an incidental interest in the disaster, or anyone mildly interested in the nature of news reporting, the rush of wire copy in  the century old paper captures the immensity of the story and the journalistic adrenalin of covering a mid-Atlantic catastrophe.

The clipped writing style, the sub-deck headlines, the fierce editorial attacking the Board of Trade - it all does what newspapers ought to do - place their readers in the story. (The West Highland Free Press is the only place you find that kind of haughty, old-fashioned righteousness in leader columns these days.)

Despite what the modern eye would see as as acres of close typeprint it all makes for absorbing reading. But The Mirror also had part of the story wrong. The paper reported the "suicide" of Captain Smith, who history later recorded as a calm hero of the Atlantic who went down with the ship.

Some aspects of the coverage are remarkably modern -  the picture spread particularly. There are photos of the Street of Widows in Southampton, with the names of the bereaved marked against a panorama of the houses - high impact without being intrusive. There are photos from New York of posted lists of survivors, amended to take in the latest information, very reminiscent of the "lost" posts that appeared around Manhattan after 9/11.

All the news was relayed by Twitter of course, or the groundbreaking early 20th century version of it, the wireless telegraph. It cost something like £6 to send ten words across the wire, so you understand where the 140 character limit of our modern telegram system  gets its provenance.

Also, a bit like Microsoft operating system, you couldn't send any telegram without sending it through a Marconi set. There were two Marconi wireless operators, and their equipment, aboard the Titanic and all other ships. The two operators on The Carpathia, which picked up survivors, were exhausted by days of continuously wiring details from ship to shore.

As the story developed the world was following. Having done the personal survivor stories, and the arrivals in New York, the Mirror faced the challenge of how to keep refreshing their coverage of the event with a picture splash as the days wore on.

Their edition from the Saturday after the disaster is a piece of newspaper design genius. Everyone knew by then that the band in the First Class saloon had reassembled on the deck and played  "Nearer My God To Thee" as the ship slipped below the waves. The survivors' accounts told of hearing the music drifting across the calm, ice cold ocean.

But no pictures, of the band, the ship, or the damned iceberg. So what did The Mirror do to evoke the image of the musicians playing on the doomed ship? It simply printed the sheet music for the hymn, words, scales and all, across its front page on its Saturday 20th April edition.

The Daily Mail famously got the story wrong in - crowbarring a reference into its Monday edition : "Titanic in collision with iceberg - no loss of life." To be fair that was true for the first few hours after the collison.

The Belfast  Evening Telegraph reported the news the same way on Monday and has been making up for the error with Titanic stories ever since.

The Press and Journal did not report the disaster as "Aberdeen man lost at sea" - that is a myth. The paper gave the disaster extensive coverage over several days but a random newsbill outside a shop declaring "Titanic latest: NE man dead" may have been the source of one the oldest newspaper jokes in the world.  There endeth the Titanic commemorations - not another word for 100 years please.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Fergus Ewing's big, big oil fund dream

That was a bit of a nightmare session for Scottish Energy Minister Fergus Ewing in the Commons yesterday. But it won't be as excoriating as his next meeting with Alex Salmond.

It is one thing to have your boast that an independent Scotland could quickly build up a multi-billion pound oil fund attacked as a fantasy by the opposition - quite another to have it undermined by your own Energy Minister.

Ewing's admission that the Norway-style oil fund for the future of an independent nation could not be done without cutting public services came under duress, it has to be said. He was the subject of hostile, and well briefed, questioning from the MPs on the Commons Energy Select Committee.

Under hard scrutiny from MPs Ewing had to say that the much-trumpeted Salmond oil fund could only be started when “it was financially appropriate to do”.

He wasn't helped by the evidence beforehand of Professor Jo Armstrong, of Glasgow University, who told MPs that an £1 billion a year oil fund was possible but “would lead to cuts elsewhere.”

Armstrong, a respected public policy expert, told the committee: “The current numbers suggest that if you put £1 billion of North Sea oil finds into a separate oil fund then you will have to cut £1 billion of spending somewhere else.”

Labour MP Albert Owen asked Ewing how the SNP could invest £1 billion each year in a fund when public service budgets were being cut.

He said: “Would you be setting £1 billion aside at a time when budgets are being cut right across the board? Would you be setting aside a one billion per annum in an independent Scotland?”

Ewing pointed out in his reply that Norway had set up its oil fund in 1990 but not started investing in it until 1996. That wasn't the answer Owen wanted, so he pressed again on whether an oil fund would start in "year one" of independence.

Ewing gave a lawerly reply: "The desire is to proceed as quickly as possible depending on the financial circumstances at the time."

Now, I think Finance Secretary John Swinney has made the same kind of noises previously but the Ewing confession that the oil fund could not be up and running immediately after independence does take the edge of Alex Salmond's bluster on the subject.

In his speech at the London School of Economics earlier this year the First Minister claimed that over 20 years an oil fund would generate £30 billion that would become the economic motor for an independent Scotland.

No mention though of when that fund would begin, or that these kind of returns depend on an interest rate of over four per cent, a whole lot more than the 2.9 per cent interest the real-life Norwegian oil fund currently generates.

Glasgow MP John Robertson, a member of the Energy committee, said he was flabbergasted by the Ewing's performance.

Speaking after the meeting Robertson said: “This is yet more proof that the SNP and Alex Salmond live in a fantasy world, and dream up ideas for an independent Scotland without thinking them through first.”

“This is a £1 billion unfunded spending commitment that now respected economists are saying it would lead to a £1 billion cut to public spending.”

He called on Salmond to come to the committee to demonstrate where the savings in public spending could be made.

Ewing also said that in an independent Scotland the SNP would refuse to pay the £30 billion clean up bill for North Sea oil rigs.

He told MPs that Westminster had a “moral obligation” to foot the massive North Sea clean-up costs that have been predicted for 2040.

Ewing said: “In principle, given that the UK has received substantial revenue from these rigs, it seems correct that the UK has a moral and certainly a legal obligation to be responsible for decommissioning.”

Cue the chins of Robertson and the usually mild mannered Lib Dem Sir Robert Smith, Mr Oil to you and me, clanging to the floor.

Pressed further, and probably realisng the hostage to headlines he'd created, Ewing said it was possible there could be some form of proposal to share some of the costs. An echo there of Salmond's own assertion he would not take on that Scotland's share of the bill for the massive bail out of RBS and the Bank of Scotland - we didn't create the mess and we're not paying for the clean up.

All in all, not a great day to be Scottish Energy Minister. And when Fergus wakes up today it won't all have been a bad dream, unlike the oil fund which he so effectivly punctured.

Monday 16 April 2012

First day of term, no signs of panic

Everyone back to school today. The Westminster term starts with Cameron, Clegg and looking as if they should be in trouble, but remaining remarkably untroubled.

Pasty tax, Granny Tax, Charity tax, you name it the government are still all over the shop after the car crash budget. The press is hostile, even the right wing press, backbenchers are restive, but the polls don't really show Ed Miliband capitalising on the Coalition woes.

The last poll I saw on the weekend had Labour on 39 per cent, when the opposition should be in the mid to high 40s to have any prospect of being taken seriously as an alternative government.

The latest Yougov poll in key constituencies (in the Sun) shows that the Lib Dems would be left without a single mainland seat in Scotland.

I can't quite believe that Charles Kennedy, the only vocal Lib Dem resistance to the Coalition, would suffer the same fate that Danny Alexander seems to have all but accepted, but them's the figures.

Question is, which party is best placing itself to benefit from the decline of the Lib Dems in rural Scotland?

Highlight of the day on a sunny but chilly Thames will not be the SNP's attempt to stop the Budget in its tracks with an amendment refusing a second reading of the bill on the grounds that the Budget did nothing to help tackle high fuel costs.

That has as much chance of success as Labour's amendments on 50p tax rate later in the week, although an amendment on the charities tax will generate heat if not light.

A moment of colour will come after departmental questions when new MP George Galloway takes his oath of allegiance. Nothing is ever simple with Mr Galloway but he seems to have wrangled the father of the House, Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell, into being one of his sponsors. The two go back some way, but I hear Galloway was having trouble finding an opposition sponsor.

Some left-wingers were on standby but Galloway approached former Labour whip Nick Brown with the conundrum. Only slightly more politically astute than Galloway himself, Brown sidestepped the invitation and said it would be far more politic for another Bradford MP to be at Galloway's side.

Step forward Labour MP for Bradford South Gerry Sutcliffe to do the honours, letting Nick Brown off the hook and making the symbolic gesture that Labour would not deny Bradford West a voice in parliament (and what a voice it is).

Friday 23 March 2012

Cameron to MacTories - get off your knees

David Cameron is just off stage at the Scottish Tory Party conference in the Walker Hall, Troon.

Anyone who's been to one of the early stages of the solo competitions at the Royal National Mod will recognise what the atmosphere was like - a foosty municipal venue, in a provincial seaside resort, filled with loyal but desultory devotees of an inevitably declining pursuit.

Maybe that's a bit unfair to the Mod, I actually like attending the Gaelic music festival and the standard of performances is getting better year by year.

In contrast Cameron's appearance today was lacking, as if he was tackling a prescribed song without much enthusiasm.

On the referendum he seems to have fought Alex Salmond into an early stalemate on the date and the number of questions.

Urging the SNP leader to "stop dithering and start delivering" on the vote he had one good gag - "I thought we were going to be watching the movie Braveheart, it turns out it's more like Chicken Run".

He said he remained "open minded" about the transfer of more powers to Holyrood. I leave it to Kremlinologists to determine if this a step down from his pledge of "considering" what further powers can be devolved when he visited Scotland last month, or just a different phrasing?

His most important message was to the Tories themselves - time to get off your knees.

"I say its time we stood up even more strongly for what we believe in," said Cameron, referring to the state of the Union.

"Not everyone will agree - but those who do will follow your lead. That's what we've done on the Union. For years we shied away from the subject, scared of saying anything, worried that it would be taken the wrong way."

"Now we're the ones on the front foot - asking for that referendum, looking for the challenge."

Certainly the assertion was brave but his analysis of why people who would otherwise be expected to support the Tories don't simply missed the point. In Scotland they have an alternative anti-Labour vote - it's called the SNP.

Still, the Tories claim to be clawing back support in Scotland. Since the kick-ass new leader Ruth Davidson was elected in November 2500 lapsed and new members have joined the party. That brings the Scottish Tories up to 11,000 members.

The SNP is, of course, streets ahead with its pound for the party membership scheme bringing in over 20,100 members.

The number of members of the Scottish Labour Party is a secret, but its reckoned to be a lot less than 18,000. That's less people than go to the Royal National Mod each year.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Good day for Salmond to bury bad news

The news agenda today will be dominated by the budget so there will be little room for what would have been a front page story for most of the Scottish press - an Alex Salmond capitulation.

Despite the SNP threat to torpedo the Westminster government's Scotland Bill that would give more power to Holyrood, the Scottish government now appears to have completely backed down.

A written Ministerial Statement issued by Scottish Secretary Michael Moore this morning makes it clear that the UK government and Scottish government have reached agreement on the bill.

There's grumbling from the SNP, and concessions not to take minor powers back to Westminster, but both administrations have confirmed they will recommend MSPs and MPs support the bill when it comes before Holyrood and the Commons.

The SNP had vowed to frustrate the process of transferring powers by rallying their troops to vote against the measures in Holyrood, where the party has a comfortable majority.

But here's the bill, at the committee stage in the Lords today, with hardly any significant changes to what the Coalition was proposing in the first place.

Remember, when Salmond won a Holyrood majority he came south with a shopping list of demands he wanted added to the Scotland Bill.

In the glow of election victory the First Minister bid for control over corporation tax and Crown Estate revenues.

He made new demands over alcohol and cigarette excise duty, broadcasting powers and EU representation.

These will doubtless remain SNP demands but there is no sign of them being contained in the Scotland Bill.

What is contained is the biggest transfer of powers since devolution. I know Michael Moore says "since the creation of the UK" but that's too much hyperbole for me.

The measures include:

a new Scottish rate of income tax
the devolution of stamp duty land tax
the devolution of landfill tax
the power to create new taxes
new borrowing powers

There are also legislative odds and ends like power over air weapons in Scotland,
responsibility for drink driving and speed limits on Scotland's roads, and a role in appointments in broadcasting and the Crown Estate.

There's also going to be a new procedure for Scottish criminal cases that go to the UK Supreme Court.

Politically the SNP would have found it hard to vote against more powers anyway, but a few weeks ago the Scottish government was describing the new tax powers as harmful and the whole bill a "pig in a poke".

Now they seem perfectly happy to accept the measures and vote accordingly. As with so many issues for Alex Salmond, he huffed and he puffed, and...

UPDATE: The SNP's John Mason has popped up to call the Scotland Bill "a missed opportunity".

All that does is highlight Salmond's silence on the issue, presume this will be sorted by SNP Central soon.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Gove tells Tories to lay off the Scots

Michael Gove - that rare species, a Scottish Tory cabinet Minister - was our guest speaker at the Press Gallery lunch, just now.

Gove the Cove - a former Press and Journal staffer who was sacked during the infamous 1980s strike - laid out newslines quite liberally.

He made such a strong defence of the journalist freedoms currently being pilloried at the Leveson inquiry that I changed my mind on asking for my contributions to the P&J strike fund to be re-imbursed.

In his first intervention in the referendum debate (apart from helping write Cameron’s speech last week) he called for English Tories to lay off the Scots.

Gove, Education Secretary in England and part of the Cameron inner-circle, insisted The Prime Minister was an asset to the campaign to keep the UK together. But admitted some his colleagues had fallen into the trap of reciprocating nationalist victim culture with grudges of their own against Scotland.

Engaging in a grudge culture against devolution on issues like the Barnett funding formula of the West Lothian Question, the level of Scottish representation at Westminster, only work to open up the divide between the nations of the United Kingdom, he said.

There are always English MPs, Tory and other stripes, willing to trot out the line that England subsidises Scotand (not as much as it subsidises London, I say) and there is currently a parliamentary inquiry into the West Lothian question.

He's a good speaker so here's the unvarnished quotes of what he said on Scotland:

"One of the things I wanted to emphasis is that this is an argument that has to be won on several dimensions. Firstly we have to persuade Scotland that its future is stronger in the UK, than it would be if Scotland were to separate. We are stronger as a result of a our common endeavour over 300 years, we’ve achieved amazing things together, we pool risk more effectively, we safeguard the weak more effectively, we project our values because we stand together.”

"There is a threat to that from Scottish separatism, but there is also a threat, under appreciated, from English separatism as well. I think there is a specific threat from my own political tradition.

"There are some people on the right who say the Scots want to leave - let them. That is entirely the wrong attitude. It seems to me to be saying: 'This used to be a warm house where we all used to live together but, frankly - you daft besom -if you want to leave on your own head be it’. These are not the words of someone who wants to keep a marriage together.

"That is why, when some of my colleagues say we need to re-visit the West Lothian Question, or we need to have a new settlement that is fairer to people in England, I say no. Remember the bigger picture.

"The country was Great Britain for a reason, because we stood together and stand together. if we turn inwards and against each other then I feel we will undermine something that is precious and our country will be a diminished presence in the future.”

Thursday 16 February 2012

Cameron salts his porridge for Salmond

This blog's been gone too long. It's been such a busy month of politics that there's hardly been time to write a line that doesn't go to print - but that's an old excuse.

Whitehall goes to Holyrood today, albeit an empty Scottish Parliament where not even the public are allowed to tour the building while the MSPs are on holiday.

David Cameron is in town at the same time as I am - taking that first twirl on the dancefloor with Alex Salmond in this long elimination waltz to a referendum.

The two are meeting about now, while we all digest the contents of a very coherent speech from a British Prime Minister in defence of the UK.

Cameron spoke for the UK "head, heart and soul", as we had been briefed, but he may have over-extended himself by promising more devolution - if only the Scottish people reject outright the prospect of independence.

He refused to elaborate on what powers he might offer Holyrood, if the Scots choose to stay in the Union. Short of even more tax powers - the Scotland Bill will give the parliament power to raise a third of the taxes it spends - we're at a loss to see what he might mean.

Salmond has been quick to point out that this is an old Tory trick, promised by Sir Alex Douglas-Home a long time ago in the lead up to the 70s devolution referendum.

Without specifics it leaves Salmond facing an easy media goal this afternoon. But as the game is played out this "offer" of Cameron's may become more significant. Of course, it is not Cameron's offer at all, but that of George Osborne, the strategist who knows the Tories can't go into this referendum campaign simply saying No.

But back to the speech, which will be on the Downing Street website. It was far from the "threadbare" reasons for the UK that the SNP described it as.

Cameron began with humble pie, went on to condemn the Clearances (go tell 'em on Jura I whispered where his father-in-law has more deer than people on the island), and made the case for a fairer Britain.

There was a call to Labour arms - for Gordon Brown ,Alistair Darling, and John Reid to add their voices to the UK campaign - that didn't go unnoticed.

Strange to hear the case for social justice across the whole UK best articulated in Scotland by a Conservative Prime Minister. While the speech was good (hats off the former Guardian scribe turned Downing Street scriptwriter Julian Glover we're told) the human deliver mechanism - an Eton-educated, Conservative - might not be the best for Scottish ears.

Cameron acknowledged that in questioning, but his defence was that this, the Union, is what he believes in. With that vague vow on more powers Cameron may have slipped, or stepped on his partner's toe - the airwaves jury will decide. But, once again, Cameron shows he's not afraid to take the lead in this dance.

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."