Wednesday 30 January 2013

Sweet boundary change blues

The vote on the constituency boundary changes last night produced some contorted political logic from the Commons.

It pitched the Tory Ministers, who backed the changes to even constituencies and reduce the number of MPs to 600, against Lib Dems who wanted revenge for their Lords reforms being trashed.

At one stage the government's front bench was completely empty of Ministers, as the Lib Dems spoke to wreck the bill. This is what a Coalition divorce looks like, but Coalition 2.0 can't be sustained with fall outs like this.

For some, life was sweet last night. Charles Kennedy finally got the Coalition he wanted and was delighted to tweet that he and his Lib Dem colleagues had just voted against the government. "After two years sense has prevailed".

Scotland Offfice Minister David Mundell, ever loyal, was in the position of having to support the changes which would have seen him lose a fair chunk of his Dumfrieshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency. The changes would have seen him standing in Labour strongholds and that could have proved fatal in 2015

Not to worry though, the faithful Mundell trooped through the government lobby, safe in the knowledge that his constituents - Labour MPs Jimmy Hood and Russell Brown - would be voting the other way, to increase his chances of remaining as the only Tory MP in Scotland.

Question sorted, delighted I'm sure, date unknown

The SNP's Annabelle Ewing MSP is doing sterling work on the Politics Show just now, declaring her delight with the neutral wording of the Electoral Commission  referendum question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

I notice Nicola Sturgeon has issued a statement from the same "delighted" script.

The Scottish government's pattern of bluster followed by a swift doublespeak about turn -  "we have always been at war with Eurasia" -  has been a  regular feature of the negotiations over the referendum.

Each time there is an about turn it is presented as some kind of tactical masterstroke that government wanted all along.

There was the smokescreen of two questions, there was the bluster in the talks between the two governments on the Section 30 agreement and then the barely veiled threat that the Scottish parliament, SNP majority, would be the final arbiter of the question. It still is, by the way, so hopefully the rest of the party are as "delighted" as Sturgeon and Ewing.
In truth the SNP had nowhere to go other than accept the neutral recommendations, otherwise the cumulative erosion of  public trust, which rests on all governments sooner or later, would have swung into the negative zone.

Salmond is always jinking and feinting to try and unbalance his opponents and keep the spotlight of uncertainty on himself. It used to look nimble in day to day politics, but when he playing with the entire future of the country I suspect people don't look on swerving and dummying so kindly.

Now the question is sorted, now the spending limits have been pencilled, and now the campaigns are underway, the First Minister should  stop fooling around and just name the day.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Landscape and memory - for Donald Murdo MacDonald

There is something in the unnerving tingle of a phonecall from home at an unexpected hour. You know when the ringing stops bad tidings will begin

There could not have been a darker news at the start of last week than my brother’s call to say that Donald Murdo MacDonald, Mac Mhagan from Knock, had fallen to his death from the Swordale cliffs.

The bare facts of Monday 15th January were too shocking to absorb in just one phone call. Donald Murdo and his older brother had been on the Druim Mhor, the steep rising cliffs that you can see from the Braighe, looking for sheep on a wet afternoon when he slipped on the cliffside.

John Murdo, the elder brother on the cliff top, raised the alarm and in fading light the Coastguard helicopter and lifeboat crew lifted Donald Murdo to hospital. He lost the fight later that evening.

Donald Murdo was only 48, the first of my Knock School year to go before his natural span, death’s first breach into our classroom.

Undoubtedly it is our own mortality that confronts us on days like these, but the stab of anguish was all the stronger because of the messenger. My brother, Domhnall, was the last person these cliffs tried to claim. Monday night's call had a chilling resonance for us.

But the brother left grasping the shattered bond last week was John Murdo. From the loneliness of that barren clifftop a numb grief spread through the surrounding villages.

News of the catastrophe was foreshadowed by a tragedy that had long before touched the MacDonald family. Small communities bestow on us such an intimate history, even if there is little day-to-day connection.

Donald Murdo’s own father fell to his death, from the roof of their old home in Knock. I remember the house, it was a felt-roofed white cottage, now demolished, on the road in to the Post Office, but was too young to actually remember the event.

I do recall it happened on a Stornoway Carnival Saturday and that the three boys were due to go up town to the festival with their father. On carnival days we were sometimes reminded of their forever cancelled happiness.

For John Murdo and Malcolm Donald, the elder brothers, and their widowed mother Jessie Ann, these events will echo from either span of the bridge. Death must have etched the boys’ schooldays too but as children, if these things were ever noticed, they were never spoken.

At school Donald Murdo was quiet, industrious, and clever. He knew the rules of chess before they were patiently explained to the rest of us.

He had wild, straw-blond hair that would put a young Boris Johnson to shame, just as badly styled too, and he was pioneer of spectacles that would now be considered trendy. To adult eyes he would have been cute, to us he was simply Donald Murdo, the boy who somehow managed not to lose or break all the plastic geometry accessories in his neat pencilcase.

He worked for many years with Voluntary Action Lewis, an organisation representing community groups on the island. There he was a mainstay in the organisation and made a valuable contribution to the voluntary sector. Moving to Dundee, he worked in Community Education and came home barely two years ago to care for his mother.

Maybe, as returning exiles do, he went out that Monday with a child’s fearless memory of the cliffs, because they are a place adults rarely venture.

Regardless of their fearsome appearance we never, as youngsters, held these guardians of the Point coastline to be a danger.

Only half-named now, their Gaelic names are slipping from our tongues, the cliffs don’t actually have a great record for claiming lives considering the gauntlet we ran, literally ran, as we scrambled their flanks every summer.

In our own generation my brother - who quite spectacularly, and accidentally, rode his bike over the edge in 1983 - and Fiona MacAulay, Lightcliffe, who fractured her hip in a bad fall as a teenager in 1978, were the only victims.

Alasdair Finlayson, a regular summer visitor, was once trapped halfway up but my uncle, Domhnall a Bhuidsear, and Am Bice came to the rescue. We boys watched incredulously as the two men hauled him up on a looped rope, hand over hand, gripping the rocky knife edge of the promontory with their bare feet.

In their own pre-War generation Alasdair Sheumais, No 12 Swordale, fell out in Ard Chirc and was brought home on a wooden door, torn from its hinges to make a hasty stretcher. He survived and lived to an old age.

Despite the ministrations of helicopters and hospitals, it was not so for Donald Murdo. Gentle, kind Donald Murdo, who came home to care for his mother and lost his life on a winter's day, in a landscape with a memory that none of us can escape.

The funeral was on Friday. The weather could have been much worse they said, which is another way we have of saying we feel a deep pain of bereavement.

Another classmate of Donald Murdo’s, Rev Hugh Stewart from Seaview, led one of the prayers, which couldn't have been easy. 

The next day it was Hughie - the boy with the bow tie and the gap toothed smile in the Knock School class photo that was dusted down after the funeral - who gave the lesson of the week, that love will ultimately triumph over death.

Hughie, a year short of his 50th birthday, announced he is engaged to be married, and a little flame rekindled bruised hearts with a flicker of the continuing thread of life. Beanneachd leat, Donald Murdo.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Cameron throws for a double six on Britain's future

You wait years for a referendum on the constitution, and then two come along at once.

He's already be forced into a position where one dice is being rolled on Scotland's future, and now the right of the Tory party has pushed David Cameron into blowing on a clenched fist and throwing for a second time on the EU.

We have been waiting for what seems like decades for this speech from a Conservative Prime Minister and Eurosceptics like Liam Fox, on the tv just now, can barely conceal their delight with EU referendum pledge.
The right wing of the Tory party has Cameron by the goolies, and they’ll raise the rafters at Prime Minister’s Questions in half an hour.

Finally the Tories have an answer on the doorstep to the threat of UKIP, but will they heed the advice of Lord Ashcroft, who spends a fortune on crunching the numbers in marginal superpolls, and now get on to talking about things that matter to voters?

Ashcroft has the best comment, so far, on what has to be considered an important speech, that for the first time in a generation put the possibility of the UK leaving the European Union onto the mainstream political agenda.

Ashcroft is worth quoting: “The new policy will be in the manifesto. The only question is whether we will get a chance to implement it – and that depends on whether we get a majority at the next election. And that depends on how voters think we are doing on the economy, jobs, public services, welfare, crime, immigration: whether we are on their side and understand their priorities.

He concludes: “It is time for Tory Eurosceptics to declare victory and talk about something else.” Fat chance of that.

This is a big moment in British politics but Cameron himself has a lot of talking to do if he is to convince voters this throw of the dice is in the national interest and not to party advantage.

That’s the snapshot Westminster picture - and we’re waiting to see if Ed Miliband has counter-punch or whether he’s willing to be pummelled by that rare thing, a untied Tory party, albeit one out of step with the public.

From the other end of the East Coast line the Prime Minister looks guilty of a constitutional double cross.

After pushing for an early Scottish referendum, and arguing that economic uncertainty would be caused by a long delay, how can he kick his own referendum into the long grass, beyond the next election and halfway into a parliament he might not command?

If he claimed that a referendum on Scotland’s independence causes uncertainty for business, what does this do to an economy ten times the size of Scotland’s?

(Midway into the negotiations on 2014 Cameron did declare that he was “not fussy” about the date of the Scottish referendum, but would rather it sooner than later)

First Minister Alex Salmond was out of the blocks briskly this morning, describing Cameron’s long crafted speech as “fundamentally confused” and “painfully short on detail”.

Salmond said: “On the one hand he is trying to appease the Eurosceptics on his own backbenches and on the other he is trying to appear as a European reformer. He is trying to ride two horses at the same time and it is inevitable he will fall off before long.”

Salmond restated his claim that the biggest threat to Scotland’s membership of the EU comes not from a referendum on independence but from “the persistent undercurrent of Tory Euroscepticism”.

We could see parallel negotiations in the middle of this decade - a breakaway Scotland talking its way into the EU (the SNP now accept there would be no automatic entry) and a rump UK looking for a new deal or threatening to leave.

Both scenarios depend on a lot of ifs and the polls don’t look particularly good for an independence vote or a Tory majority in 2015. But there a hard political furlongs to go before either vote.

Only one certainty, the one thing Cameron and Salmond have in common, deep down neither leader really wants their referendum.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Hard, fast blowback from Mali in the Sahara Desert - and the Scottish dimension

The British government is, it appears, a helpless bystander in the Algerian hostage crisis.

David Cameron was not told that the rescue mission was going ahead until it was underway despite explicitly telling the Algerian government he wanted to be informed if there was a military operation being planned.

A spokesman for Prime Minister told us this afternoon that  they were not given prior notice of the Algerian military operation and would have"preferred to have been informed" - code for being furious at being cut out of the loop.

MoD officials preparing to brief the PM are probably watching images of the violence unfolding in the Sahara desert on footage snatched  from US drones. But we appear to have little eyes and ears on the ground.

Apart from the immediate danger for the hostages what will leave Whitehall reeling is the swiftness of the blowback from France's Mali mission.

It was only last Friday that French jets bombed Islamist rebels advancing on the Mali capital with Britain providing logistical back up for the operation.

Within a week British and French workers hundreds of miles from the action have been brutally attacked by a heavily armed, and highly organised, militia. There are new lessons in asymmetric warfare being taught in the sands of the Sahara right now.

At a human level the situation is still grave and confused as the Cobra committee convenes for the second time today.

There are at least five Britons caught up the crisis and, we think,  up to three of them could be Scottish.
RTE news, quoting the Algerian state news agency, reported mid-afternoon that two Scots were among those freed by Algerian forces.

Speaking on Sky News the brother of freed Irish man Stephen McFaul said he had spoken by phone to the family last night as gunfire could be heard in the background.

McFaul escaped by hiding in accommodation block with a Scottish worker, said the brother, raising some hope that the unnamed Scot may have survived too.

The Foreign Office in London is highly attuned to the Scottish dimension, liaising with Scottish government ministers and making sure the Met police are in contact with the Scottish officers who will be with the  affected families.

The echo of  James Coyle, the Scottish oil worker who phoned the BBC when the Libyan revolution was  kicking off last year, still rings in the ears of the Foreign Office, I'm told.

Coyle, from Erskine, was left stranded with 300 people in a Libyan desert camp as armed looters took advantage of the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi.

In desperate terms he told  BBC Radio how his group has just one day's supply of food and water left. That led to Cameron having to apologise for the government's handling of the evacuation of British nationals from Libya.

This time, despite everyone doing the right thing, the British can only look on as Algeria, perhaps to prove its tough credentials to other hostage takers on its southern border, goes in hard.

Coyle eventually made it out of Libya in a convey of coaches to the Egyptian border. The fate of the Britons caught up in the Algeria crisis, the biggest hostage situation in years, is unknown tonight.

Aw no, neverendum

Alex Salmond is to hold talks with the leader of the Quebec separatist party who plans to hold the third referendum in three decades on splitting from Canada.

Pauline Marois, the Premier of Quebec, is to visit Scotland later this month for talks with the First Minister, raising fears that the SNP leader is planning a fall back second referendum if he fails to win independence the first time round.

Marois leads the Quebecois nationalist party which is currently the minority government in the ferderal Quebec parliament.

With the main Liberal opposition leaderless, Canadian constitutional experts expect her to push for an overall majority in an early election next year as a mandate to stage another independence referendum.

She is building on her minority with populist measures like proposing abolition of an increase in student fees, abolishing an increase in electricity bills and medical fees. Is this beginning to sound very 2007 to you?

A majority win for Marois would put Quebec politics back into a "neverendum" cul de sac, a cycle of referenda that opponents fear Salmond’s SNP would try to emulate if they lost the Scottish vote in 2014.

Quebec has already staged two referenda on breaking away from Canada. The first, in 1980, was a heavy defeat for separatists but the second one in 1995 saw 50.58 per cent voting "No" and 49.42 per cent voting "Yes".

Salmond confirmed the visit yesterday during a Q&A with foreign journalists. He said he welcomed foreign leaders of all stripes and said he never looked for exact international parallels. But he declined to say what the subject of the talks would be.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Notes on Salmond in London

The Scottish media was granted observer status at Alex Salmond’s speech to the Foreign Press Association in London today, which gave me a chuckle as SNP policy is to effectively turn me into a foreign correspondent in any case.

It’s easy to see why Salmond chooses to address the foreign rather than domestic press when he comes to London.

As First Minister he is accorded a reverence that he would not be granted by the British political press, and generally gets less awkward questions than Andrew Neil or an irritated Sarah Montague might throw at him.

He starts on the premise that Scotland will be independent, and no one in the room bursts the bubble by pointing to polls that consistently show this is the choice of less than one in three of the population. As observers we remained politely silent for our hosts.

The questioning follows his line of assumption, so he can set the terms of a future prospectus even when he is dressing his own his own party policy that Scotland would have a written constitution as a new development.

Some of the arguments are the familiar backwards and forwards bluster of independence. One of the key messages about renewables - one of the strongest “optimism” cards in the independence armoury - is still a good throw. (I know, only if you dismiss the fact that Scottish renewables are viable thanks to highly subsidised ROC tariffs on English electricity consumers).

It struck me he could have been more radical in his constitutional proposals - the right to edcuation and housing are, after all, enshrined in law and UN charters. The SNP could "own" land reform and a radical health agenda if they chose, for no other party is occupying the territory. But wait, these are issues Holyrood could move on right now, without constitutional upheaval.

I don’t see the First Minster in operation every day, but close up he is still the confident, formidable performer of old, though maybe he had a bit of a croaky, winter cold.

There was a significant change in the tone though. Kremlinologists, or Arbroathologists, noticed the slip of the tongue that had Salmond “hoping” to join the European Union, rather than asserting it as a fact.

But he swiftly followed that with a deft attack line on how Westminster, not independence, is now the danger point for the European Union.

“The threat comes not from north of the border but from up the Thames,” he said.

Also when he came to talking about a post-independence Scotland he emphasised - twice - that it would not necessarily be an SNP administration running things.

The focus groups must be telling party strategists that voters do not like the idea of a hundred year SNP empire. So coupled to the message that “nothing will change” immediately after a Yes vote is the idea that it need not be an SNP-run Scotland afterwards either.

Maybe the idea came from Claire Howell, Salmond’s life coach consultant, who I’m told was a dinner guest at a speech he gave to a business audience last night.

She is credited with both  turning Salmond onto a positive message and banning the word “freedom” from the independence campaign, much to the derision of the opposition.

Funny how the SNP accuse Scottish Labour of getting a London spin on its message but Salmond is rarely picked on for coming south for the services of a motivation guru who, wait for it, has even given psychological coaching to English Premiership teams.

But that’s London, an easy city for anyone to operate in, including Alex Salmond.