Tuesday 29 March 2016

Scores on the doors from STV election debate

For the Daily Record

It is the tax election, the politicians keep telling us, and tax was certainly the issue in the opening sallies of the two-hourathon debate that was the alternative to Scotland vs Denmark last night. 

But that is missing the point. This is not a tax election, it is a Nicola election.

Senior SNP strategists predicted long ago that 2016 would not be about the party, the policies or the constitution. It would be about locking in Sturgeon’s relationship with the voting public to the same extent as it is with the SNP.

So every outing is about reinforcing that trust with the voters, in the knowledge that almost half of them are won over already.

To do so she has to fight through the noise of opponent and make sure she does not “drop the vase” as she crosses the polished floor to the finish line.

The STV debate format of cross examination worked well, revealing as much about the politician asking the questions as the person under pressure. 

Sometimes it was all against one, but Sturgeon is used to handling that each week at First Minister’s Questions. 

But with everyone feeling the heat for the same amount of time, the SNP’s record of nine year’s in office was not on the rack and that serves Sturgeon well.

She is the dominant politician of the decade, and she will remain so until one of those opponents becomes strong enough to tackle her and bring her down.

Here's the scores on the doors:

Ruth Davidson (5 out of 10)

Davidson is a new kind of Tory, arriving at the debate hand in hand with her partner, but under cross examination she struggled to get away from the mantle of being the same old Tory.
She was accused of being “full steam behind George Osborne’s budget”, carried the can for the bedroom tax and would charge £8 for prescriptions and £6000 for student fees. 
Getting rid of prescription charges is a good dinner party discussion, but in the real world people don’t vote to have free things taken off them. Tough cross-examination for her in a campaign in which she has to prove herself or be busted.  

Kezia Dugdale (7 out of 10)

Dugdale majored on health inequalities and how she would use tax powers to tackle the issue. 
However, she gave the impressions of having spent too much time on these nursery visits, with a slightly learned by rote explanation of Labour’s policies. Less earnest, more passion will be the lesson of the night.
Sturgeon found Labour’s bruise, standing with the Tories in the referendum, and punched it again. Ruth Davidson did the same from the Unionist side. Dugdale punched back, but there was a two minute lesson in why Labour is still on the ropes in Scotland,

Patrick Harvie  (6 out of 10)

Mr Witty and wily in the waistcoat. Always presents himself as the outsider of the panel and politics, a neat trick that avoids him being pinned down but also means he is not taken so seriously, and he ought to be. 
He turned the “hated, unfair” council tax back on Nicola Sturgeon while defending the new Green local tax plans. Harvie is allowed free jabs at opponents but, apart from being coshed by Sturgeon on the Green’s radical tax plans, he was also given a free pass. Wants to be a “challenging, constructive, critic” of the SNP, which reads as being a client state of the government so he needs to differentiate himself even more.    

Willie Rennie (6 out of 10)

In a debate that was as much about the past as it was the future Rennie proved that no matter how able his party is not forgiven for being in coalition with the Tories.
Like Labour, Rennie wants early years education to be dividing line between himself and the SNP. But Sturgeon is used to running rings around the Lib Dems, even though some of his sallies cut through. 
He was at his best on SNP tax proposals: “The timidity of Nicola Sturgeon is letting Scotland down”. Liked the tie.  

Nicola Sturgeon (8 out of 10)

Dominant, and dominating, but by resorting to the tried and tested, interrupting style that forged her reputation when she was on the way up, and which divided public perceptions of her.
For the SNP this election campaign is about cementing Sturgeon as the national leader, yet at moments she forgot she’s not the rebel alliance anymore.  
Attacked on plans for another referendum by Ruth Davidson, tackled on tax by Dugdale, pulled up on declining education standards by the Lib Dems - it all just bounced off. 
Sturgeon will defend her do nothing tax proposals, she calls them “fair and reasonable”, until she’s blue in the face because she knows despite what people say they do not vote for higher taxes. It’s a strategy for winning.

Thursday 17 March 2016

Shrapnel - a toirt an drama gu ìre nas àirde

Sùil Eile airson an Daily Record

Tha an dealbh-chluiche Shrapnel air turas an-dràsta; feuch gun dèan thu cealg air do charaid gus an ticead aca a ghoid.

Tric tha laigse anns an t-slabhraidh a’ leigeil sìos dràma sa Ghàidhlig.

Ach an seo tha stiùir chinnteach a’ coinneachadh ri sgioba-chluiche neartmhor, a’ toirt an dràma gu ìre nas àirde.

Tha shùilicheadh tu nas lugha bho chleasaichean mar Iain Rothach, Mairi Mhoireasdan, agus Artair Donald.

Ach tha am prìomhachas air a thoirt do chluicheadairean nas òige, Calum Domhnallach agus Iain Beggs gu h-àraidh.

Airson Catrìona Lexy Chaimbeul, a rinn ath-sgrìobhadh air nobhail a h-athar nach maireann, tha a h-uile mionaid prìseil.

Chan e dealbh-chluiche fhurasta a th’ ann. Tha riaghailt ann gum feum prìomh character a bhith tarraingeach, neo airidh air maitheanas. Ach ‘s e anti-hero a th’ ann a MacLugran, duine le smùid air ann an saoghal a tha bun os cionn.

Le sin tha obair ann greimeachadh air an sgeul an toiseach ach ‘s math is fhiach e.

Facal air na facail - tha na ard-thiotalan teignicheach gu leòr ach a’ tarraing aire bhon an actadh làidir, far am bu chòir dha a bhith.

Sharpnel, the play, is on tour just now; make sure you fraud on your friend to steal their ticket for the show.

Often a weakness in the chain lets down Gaelic drama.

But here some sure direction meets a powerful cast, notching the drama to a higher level.

You wouldn’t expect any less from actors like Iain MacRae, Mairi Morrison and Artair Donald.

But precedence is given to the younger actors, Calum MacDonald and, in particular, Iain Beggs.

For Catriona Lexy Campbell, who scripted from the novel of her late father, every minute is precious.

It is not an easy play. There is a rule that the central character has to be attractive, or worthy of forgiveness. But MacLurgan (Iain Beggs) is a drunk in a chaotic world.

With that it is difficult to grasp the story at the beginning, but worth the effort.

A word on the words - the English sur-titles are technically competent but distract from the strong acting, where attention ought to be.

Friday 11 March 2016

The SNP's inside trading on Sunday trading

John Hannett of the shopworkers' union, USDAW, summed up people’s mystification with the SNP’s antics this week pretty well.

He said: “Shopworkers across the UK will be relieved the SNP have eventually made the right decision to oppose Sunday trading changes.”

“We don’t know why the SNP have been through such a major internal discussion in order to confirm a position they took before Christmas when nothing had changed and the Government had not addressed concerns about Scottish shopworkers pay.”

Well, the SNP did get there in the end. But why go through the rigmarole of being opposed to Sunday trading last year, then opening the door to abstaining this week only to flipflop back a day before the vote?

The inside story of the Sunday trading vote makes the SNP leadership look like craven amateurs in the political jungle.

A basic rule of politics is to make the deal before you take the position. On Sunday trading the SNP took a position, flirted with a deal, then double-crossed. 

The issue only returned to the Commons because George Osborne was convinced the SNP would not stand in the way this time.

“Plausible deniability” is built into backstairs accords, but Whitehall sources are adamant a deal was on offer, not on the Fiscal Framework or the status of shopworkers in Scotland, but the status of the SNP leadership.

The tawdry offer was to allow SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie to join Angus Robertson, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon on the Queen’s Privy Council, the ceremonial body at the pinnacle of the British establishment.

Opposition leaders and heads of devolved governments are automatically enrolled. But the privilege is only extended down the rungs of a party if an MP has special status, which the office of deputy leader of the SNP must surely be worthy of.

To smooth the path the SNP was also to be granted an extra seat on the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.

This would have given the nationalists a controlling committee majority, and with other minor concessions the SNP would abstain on Sunday trading.

Thankfully for shopworkers, Osborne and the SNP leadership weren’t the only ones on manoeuvres.

The STUC was alerted and right on the button issued a tight, three-page briefing paper to SNP MPs spelling out that no protections for Scottish shop staff were in the Tory proposals.

By the time the SNP group met on Tuesday night the rank and file mood was galvanised and the leadership knew not to push their luck lest they face mutiny.

So, miraculously, press releases hailing the SNP as saviours of Sunday emerged from a meeting in a room that has no printer. 

And before churches sing praise, the Fourth Commandment wasn’t in the room either. The SNP has travelled a long way from the land of John Knox. Hosie is still open to a new Sunday trading deal being tabled.

Not that a seething Osborne is likely to repeat the offer. He thinks he’s a Machiavellian, he should have checked history.  

Jim Callaghan, when he was in a tight fix in 1977, put SNP leader Donald Stewart on the Privy Council to get 11 SNP MPs off his back.

Stewart was canny enough to pocket the Rt. Hon. title and went on to vote down the Labour government anyway and usher in Margaret Thatcher.

George, offering nationalists baubles buys you nothing in the end. 

Dan Jarvis, not the Messiah, nor a naughty boy

Labour’s parliamentary coup against Jeremy Corbyn moves at such a snail’s pace that it is more Game of Drones than Game of Thrones.

Fancied Dan Jarvis MP rolled across the plains of Jordan yesterday with a speech that glimpsed Labour’s new promised land.

Jarvis batted away my obvious question about whether he wants to be Prime Minister, and insisted his speech was not a critique of anyone in the party.

His speech didn't change the planet, but seeded the ground for the emerging politician. There were roots in Barnsley, the all-importance of education and opportunity, a nod at the trade unions and business too. Call it middle left messaging that no one in signalling to middle Britain right now.  

There is nothing wrong with the Jarvis message, he fingers the problem facing left-of-centre parties across the western world. 

Globalisation has left too many poor people behind, by the time Labour gets a sniff of power a whole swathe of middle class people will find their jobs offshored or computerised too.

Reconnecting Labour values with fractured communities before other identities takes root is the big ask. Answer that, and the job with Hilary Clinton is yours. 

A Special Forces veteran, a father and widower, Jarvis has all the makings, but the best thing to say about him is that he’s not the Messiah (yet).

It would be a shame to lose him under the wheels of a 2020 Tory juggernaut, so Jarvis needs a John the Baptist, or an Alan the Postman, to pave his way.  

I actually think his military instinct works against him. Any special forces guys I’ve met always strike me as the most unlikely men in the room to be trained killers. They blend into the background, don’t draw attention.

Jarvis has presence, but carries himself modestly. To step towards leadership the Barnsley MP has to discover his inner extrovert, which might ruin him.

Until then, it’s as you were, with the Maoists behind the leader’s chair and the Corbyn-supporting comedians cheering their admiration of the SNP.

Wednesday 9 March 2016

SNP deny secret deal on Sunday trading

From the Daily Record today

SNP leaders have branded as “nonsense” a Tory claim the party were offered a seat on the Queen’s Privy Council in exchange for letting Sunday trading go ahead in England.

The 54 SNP MPs will vote against relaxing Sunday trading rules in the Commons today.

But Government sources claim backbenchers thwarted a move to put deputy leader Stewart Hosie on the council in a first act of defiance against the party leadership.

Treasury spokesman Hosie last night denied the SNP were offered a deal.

He said: “No, I’ve never heard that in my life. It’s absolute nonsense”.

But a senior Government source claimed that under a side deal brokered with Chancellor George Osborne, Dundee East MP Hosie was set to join SNP Commons leader Angus Robertson, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon on the Queen’s Privy Council.

Leaders of opposition parties and devolved governments are enrolled in the council, who get security briefings and information ahead of Commons statements.

SNP oppose the Sunday trading move because they fear it would have a knock-on effect on shop workers in Scotland, who earn a premium for working weekends.

A Tory source said: “It’s disappointing and hypocritical of the SNP to deny people the freedom to shop that is already available in Scotland.” 

In an offer to smooth the path of the fiscal framework talks, the SNP were also to be granted an extra seat on the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee. An extra MP would have given the party a controlling majority on the 10-member talking shop.

But rank-and-file SNP MPs last night insisted the party bosses maintain their original stance of opposing the relaxation of Sunday trading laws in England.

A vote on the issue was pulled last year when the SNP made it clear they would oppose it because of the knock-on effect on wages for shop workers in Scotland, who get paid a premium for working weekends.

The SNP had come under pressure from USDAW, the shopworkers union, the STUC and the churches in Scotland to maintain their opposition to Sunday trading.

Tory Ministers were prepared to bring in changes to the law to tackle SNP fears about the consequences for Scottish workers.

But a briefing sent to all SNP MPs by the STUC stating there could be no effective defence of Scottish workers’ weekend premiums was influential in the outcome of the nationalist group meeting last night.

Hosie said: “Protecting Scottish workers has been paramount to our decision to oppose the Government’s plans on Sunday trading.”

A Tory source said: “It’s disappointing and hypocritical of the SNP to deny people the freedom to shop that is already available in Scotland.”

Friday 4 March 2016

The EU referendum and the Sturgeon paradox

Well, have we reached peak Sturgeon? 

Until Monday I had thought of the First Minister as the most influential politician in Britain, as many Scots do.

In fact, I’d been counting on it, hoping a timely intervention by her in the EU referendum campaign, an appeal to people across the British Isles to stay in, would do the job on crucial parts of the electorate the sleeping Labour party cannot summon to the polls.

I think I was wrong. In Sturgeon’s first intervention in the EU campaign, a speech in London on Monday, she displayed the limits of her appeal. She went on to show the limits of her ambition.

Of course in Scotland, where the leader can say anything without fear of contradiction, she marches on with 60 per cent of the vote. 

But on a UK-wide platform she is being viewed differently now, and she’s aware of it.

The first thing the FM had to do on Monday was explain how, from a Scottish nationalist point of view, sharing and pooling power in the European Union is a good thing, though maintaining sharing and pooling in a United Kingdom is not.

You know, it didn’t work. Palpably, in the arm-crossed rows of the audience at the Resolution Foundation speech it didn’t work.

All day afterwards it didn’t work, as people with no connection to politics questioned me on Sturgeon’s doublethink of EU good, UK bad.

Sturgeon said it was a “misconception” that a nationalist couldn’t be in favour of pooling and sharing sovereignty, after all 28 independent nations in the EU do it. Yet Londoners saw it as a contradiction, the Sturgeon paradox.

Sturgeon made a perfectly reasonable social democratic case for the EU, I liked the architectural reference to the blitzed and restored roof of the church hall she made the speech in. Her trouble, and her limit, is that she is seen as a nationalist first, a social democrat second.

And there was a heavier irony in her speech. Here was the western European politician who has reaped the most from anti-politics trying to stem the tide.

Essentially her pro-EU message is telling the unleashed forces that have consigned everything from Scottish Labour to the Bush dynasty to the political dustbowl, to go no further. Here was Britain’s most revolutionary politician in defence of the established order.

It is tribute to her skills that she continues as an insurgent while living within another Sturgeon paradox.

We know a Brexit is the first bus to a Scottish independence referendum but Sturgeon made it crystal clear she would not welcome  one in the wake of the UK leaving the EU.

She needs this vote to go for Europe. Otherwise we would be propelled into an unbalanced, German-dominated EU in which Scots would face the choice of being governed from Britain or Berlin.

Sturgeon cannot afford a second referendum now because she knows she’d lose.
The risk-taker in Salmond would pounce at a second go; Sturgeon shows extreme caution on everything from the constitution to the council tax.

She’s radical in one respect. The FM makes a well-finessed case for immigration, and Scotland needs more immigrants.

How far she can push that argument before an immigrant-averse electorate push back I do not know.

But I hope, like Merkel, she is willing to burn some political fuel confronting voters on the issue, because few other politicians show much courage when facing that uncomfortable truth.