Saturday, February 13, 2010

Scotland - know your place

We've heard a great deal in recent days - indeed for a lot longer than that - about how a Cameron government will show "respect for Scotland and strengthen devolution". This, however, is quickly qualified as having very little to do with what others might regard as showing respect or strengthening devolution - 'respect' seemingly does not cover respecting Scotland's right to have a voice on an issue as vital as Trident. Rather it is a "mutual" respect, which roughly translates as "Scotland - know your place". And 'strengthening devolution' does not appear to involve actually transferring further powers to the Scottish Parliament as proposed by the Calman Commission - you know, that body the Tories helped to establish. Instead it's all utterly cosmetic stuff about UK government ministers coming before the Scottish Parliament to answer questions - fine as far as it goes, but it does all seem eerily reminiscent of the non-reforms the Tory government introduced in the 1990s (ie. John Major going before the Scottish Grand Committee - wow) to avoid actually having to address the real issue of the Scottish democratic deficit. As Canon Kenyon Wright memorably said of those 1990s 'reforms' - "interesting, but appears to misunderstand the question".

As an aside, there is something that comes around for the 'Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party' only once a year. It's something called a 'Party Conference Broadcast'. Wouldn't it have been a mark of Cameron's professed 'respect' for Scotland to take just an hour out of his schedule to record a Scotland-specific broadcast, rather than recycling one of his English 'Cameron Direct' meetings? A trivial point maybe, but such things can often be the most revealing.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Dealing with idle dreams from the fringe

Watching the edition of Question Time from Northern Ireland, I genuinely surprised myself by how irritated I became at the treatment of anti-agreement unionist Jim Allister. He undoubtedly is, as was pointed out on the programme, a real political dinosaur who offers a thoroughly uninspiring prospectus for Northern Ireland's future. But the rhetoric deployed against him, especially by the Labour (also ex-Tory) NI Secretary Shaun Woodward went considerably further than that - at one or two moments it even seemed vaguely reminiscent of the treatment of Nick Griffin on Question Time a few months ago, ie. implying that he is a politician who operates outside the bounds of mainstream and legitimate discourse.

There's a supreme irony here. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, another party played the 'untouchable' role that now seems to have been bestowed upon Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice - and that party was Sinn Féin. Even before the broadcast ban, it was considered almost a thought-crime to say or do anything that implied Sinn Féin were a legitimate party. It wasn't enough to condemn IRA violence as utterly repugnant - John Hume spent his career doing so, and yet in the early 1990s he was demonised by the establishment for holding talks with Gerry Adams and trying to bring Sinn Féin in from the cold. There was no room for subtlety or shades of grey - 'talking to terrorists' was simply wrong and immoral regardless of circumstance. But can anyone now doubt that Hume's courageous thinking 'out of the box' was absolutely correct and necessary?

And now we have moved miraculously and seamlessly on to a situation where Sinn Féin are in the mainstream, and the designated untouchables are on the completely opposite end of the political spectrum. What was so objectionable about Woodward's attack was his cynical blurring of the distinction between Allister's opposition to power-sharing on the one hand, and a support for a return to violence on the other. However misguided and backward-looking it is, opposition to mandatory coalition in the Northern Ireland Assembly is a perfectly legitimate policy for a political party to put forward and argue the case for in a democratic election, and for Woodward to speak of it as if it was somehow akin to, say, the BNP's repatriation policy was thoroughly disreputable.

It seems to me Northern Ireland politics will only really have come of age when the idle dreams of fringe politicians can be swatted aside in a rather more civilised manner than we saw last night.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's the thought that counts

"What on earth was Nicola Sturgeon thinking of?" spluttered an incredulous Gordon Brewer repeatedly on Newsnight Scotland earlier tonight. Well, whether people agree with her actions or not, I don't actually think there's a lot of mystery about what she was thinking of. She was taking her responsibilities as a constituency representative seriously, and was trying to act in the best interests of her constituents - constituents plural, let's not forget, because the welfare of Abdul Rauf's children was also uppermost in her mind. Brewer (and Richard Baker) continually pointed out that Sturgeon had no duty to act and had complete discretion over whether to do so - and, again, there's no sign that she lost sight of that at any stage. My guess is that she took into account that Rauf's offence was non-violent (however serious), and when taking that fact in conjunction with his apparent health problems and the welfare of his children, felt that the balance of arguments fell in favour of making a representation on his behalf. Other reasonable people may weigh up those circumstances and conclude she reached the wrong judgement, but the suggestion that she lost sight of the proper boundaries of an MSP's role - and more particularly Brewer's bizarre proposition that she would have acted in the same way even if the offender concerned had been a serial killer - is patently absurd.

But what's really dangerous about the cynical calls for Sturgeon's resignation is that it could mean in future that ministers will feel considerably less able to fearlessly represent individual constituents' best interests, which is a vital part of their job. Why should constituencies that happen to be represented by a minister receive a lesser service than those represented by backbenchers? In my view Sturgeon should be applauded for this clear evidence that she hasn't lost sight of her basic duties as a humble constituency MSP - surely the one thing no-one can credibly dispute is that there was no conceivable personal gain for her here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A second-class electorate?

Well done to Michael Crick for pointing out one reason (of many) why the Tories' logic for opposing electoral reform is somewhat hypocritical - the rules for their own leadership contests. Since the 'magic circle' was abolished by Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the mid-1960s and replaced by open leadership elections, there have been many alterations to the exact rules. And yet no system used by the party has ever allowed a simple plurality for the leading candidate in a leadership ballot to be sufficient - if no outright majority is obtained, an additional ballot has always been necessary. Indeed, in the famous contest between Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine in 1990, not even an outright majority was sufficient on the first ballot. Thatcher achieved well over 50% of the vote, and yet a second ballot was automatically triggered because she did not - quite - have a lead of 15% or more over her nearest challenger.

It's worth pointing out that the Conservatives don't make these rules for show, or to indulge anyone. They do it because it is considered so essential for any leader that emerges to command the clear confidence of a majority of the party - when so much is at stake, there can be no room for 'back-door' or 'through-the-middle' winners. Curious, then, that the Conservatives aren't willing to apply the same principle to the electorate at large, when something as important as the governance of the whole country is at stake.

For the avoidance of doubt, though, I'm not in any way an apologist for Gordon Brown's new-found love of the Alternative Vote system. The paradox is that, while it certainly would ensure that any individual MP has the backing of a majority of his or her constituents, it's no better (in some cases it might be even worse) than the present system at ensuring that the government have the backing of a majority of the electorate.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Could Saddam have averted war by looking slightly more guilty?

I finally caught up with Hans Blix's appearance on Hardtalk last night, and it brought home to me the most surreal (and that's quite an accolade) aspect of Britain's after-the-fact rationalisation for why an unprovoked invasion was justified without the presence of WMDs. The interviewer Jonathan Charles put this proposition to Blix - "the problem for Britain surely was that Saddam was never going to admit to having disarmed, because it would have made him look weak in the eyes of his enemies". Blix gave a rather bemused smile, and pointed out "but Saddam told us that he didn't have WMDs".

Charles seemed momentarily confused by this, but of course on that point there is no doubt at all. The most memorable of the many occasions when Saddam told the world he didn't have WMDs was in his interview with Tony Benn, who simply asked him "does Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction?" At the subsequent PMQs, Tony Blair was sneeringly dismissive of Benn's interrogation technique - "I don't think Jeremy Paxman will be fearing for his job". But it seems in retrospect this was one of those instances where a simple, direct question elicits the most honest reply. It's what you might call the 'Fern Britton principle'.

So all this begs the question - what precisely is the difference between Saddam saying something on the one hand, and 'admitting' it on the other? Would it have helped if he had looked slightly more guilty when he said it? On such distinctions, we are expected to believe, hinged Britain's decision to launch an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country.

World Exclusive : Some serious stuff is going down, man

I'm not a regular reader of 'Yapping Yousuf' Hamid, so many thanks to Ezio for pointing me in the direction of his latest scoop. I've always prided myself on keeping my finger firmly on the pulse, so I certainly would never have forgiven myself for missing this jaw-dropping exclusive - Nicola Sturgeon has convened a meeting of the Glasgow City Council SNP group.

That's it.

A small suggestion for Yousuf - I appreciate that genuine exclusives (particularly the golden ones that really catch out your political opponents) are quite difficult for bloggers to come by, however well-connected, so no-one is really going to blame you for slightly over-hyping the facts you actually do have. But to pull that trick off successfully it might be better not to openly concede "I've no idea what's going on" and then to finish your 'story' with the following appeal to readers - "If anyone knows what is going on then please do get in touch!"

But the fun doesn't end there. Yousuf adds a disclaimer that he rarely blogs about pieces of gossip, and only does so "if they are serious and if I am sure that I can believe them". This might have a touch more credibility if he hadn't already revealed that his sole rationale for believing there is any significance to Sturgeon's meeting is that it "must be serious" if she is making the time for it despite "firefighting on so many fronts". Now, for this logic to stand up to scrutiny, Yousuf does of course first have to establish that Nicola is indeed fighting on a number of fronts. So what are they? According to Yousuf, they include boundary changes to her constituency, the fact that she was 'in the cabinet that scrapped GARL', the fact that she once said something unspecified but really rather nasty about Steven Purcell, and the fact that the SNP group on Glasgow City Council 'didn't offer any resistance' to the SNP cabinet scrapping GARL. Crikey. With a diary chock-full of crises like that, Nicola really doesn't have time to do anything, does she?

Future Yapping Yousuf exclusives -

Sturgeon sneezes. No politician in the almighty mess that Sturgeon's in has the time to expel phlegm from her nasal passages. Only possible conclusion - the noise from the sneeze was intended to cover up the latest Salmond gaffe. Don't know what the gaffe actually was, but were YOU in the area? Do let me know what you heard.

Sturgeon visits Mum.
Come on, does anyone seriously think a politician facing calamity on so many fronts would choose to waste an hour visiting her mother? Only possible conclusion - her mother is planning to defect to Labour, and Sturgeon is locked in desperate last-minute crisis talks to prevent that happening. Are YOU Nicola Sturgeon's mother's next-door-neighbour? Does she have thin walls?

Sturgeon goes to the hairdressers.
Are we seriously expected to believe that a woman at the centre of the most perfect political storm the western world has witnessed since Watergate would stop off for a quick trim? Of course not. Now, I must admit I don't know what she was up to this time - perhaps her hair was planning to defect to Labour? OK, maybe not, but there must be something. So, do YOU work at Daphne's Scissor Palace?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Location, location, location

Rather amusing to see Tom Harris take one his blog's regular SNP posters to task for criticising a Labour MP on the grounds of having once served as a councillor well away from his current constituency. Harris observes - "you come across this nonsense a lot: only someone who has lived in a constituency all his life is deemed suitable as its MP".

Quite so. After all, for the last time we all 'came across this nonsense' we only have to cast our minds back three months or so to the Glasgow NE by-election, when Labour supporters (well, let's call a spade a spade - Kezia Dugdale) set off on a comical crusade to establish that the maternity ward where SNP candidate David Kerr was born in 1973 may have been - horrors - just outside the constituency boundaries, thereby apparently rendering his candidacy totally unsuitable!

Eleven years on from devolution, ITN can't distinguish between England and Britain

I happened to be half-watching the ITV News earlier this evening, and I caught the following line in relation to a health story - "Gordon Brown has promised one-to-one care for all 1.6 million patients in Britain". Now, I don't know anything about the details of this story, but I don't actually need to - ITN have got it wrong. For the story to be accurate, the Prime Minister would have to be proposing ripping up the Scotland Act, the Northern Ireland Act and the Government of Wales Act. Health in those three countries is a devolved matter and wholly outwith Gordon Brown's control - end of story.

But is this just a 'chippy Scot' point? Categorically not. We are now just two months at most away from the commencement of a general election campaign, during which the electorate will be relying on the media to play the vital role of cutting through the dubious claims of the political parties and providing accurate information upon which people can decide their vote. It's hardly going to assist the democratic process if the voters are led to believe it's somehow appropriate to take into account party pledges on the NHS that are utterly irrelevant in Scotland.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A cynic he may be, but Brown doesn't emote on cue

Looking around my old haunt today, I notice that many of the Conservative posters are spreading poison about the revelation that Gordon Brown wept during the recording of the forthcoming TV interview with Piers Morgan, talking about it in terms of Labour 'tactics'. One of the usual suspects rather risibly tries to read some significance into the fact that the 'top rated comment' on the issue on the Daily Mail website accuses Brown of exploiting his grief for electoral gain. Now, I wonder who was doing the rating?

I think Conservative supporters have got to be very, very careful about how they come at this. It's only a few short months since the near-impossible happened and Gordon Brown actually came out well from the controversy over his mis-spellings in a letter to the grieving mother of a military casualty, due to the sympathy provoked by the hysterical over-reaction in the Tory-supporting media. The way I read this is that Brown's decision to do an interview covering personal matters plainly was a tactical decision. It would also clearly have been agreed in advance that the death of his newborn daughter would not be off-limits, and that again would have been carefully weighed up. Tory supporters really can have no complaints about either of these points, given the way that David Cameron has brought his own son's illness and subsequent death into the public sphere, partly to underscore his personal commitment to the NHS - and any questioning of Cameron's sincerity would have certainly been greeted with outrage.

While I yield to no-one in my appreciation of Brown's many objectionable qualities, the one cynical thing he doesn't - or can't - do is emote on cue, in the way a Blair or Clinton could, and repeatedly did. He isn't an actor (at least not one of any quality), which paradoxically has been one of his biggest problems all along.

At last - a Tory with a Target

I know from some exchanges I've had myself that it's startlingly difficult to pin down supposedly 'bullish', 'confident' Scottish Tories on what their realistic target for the general election actually is. Cynics might think that may just have something to do with the overwhelming and consistent polling evidence that any progress the party makes north of the border is likely to be disproportionately limited (to put it mildly) compared to just about everywhere else in the UK. However, to be fair, Scotland on Sunday is today reporting that David McLetchie has nailed his colours to the mast by expressing confidence that the Tories can outperform the SNP.

As thoroughly misplaced as that optimism seems, one distant memory is preventing me from dismissing the idea totally out of hand. In the run-up to the 1992 election, the SNP were generally polling ahead of the Tories, and the projections from the BBC exit poll on election night itself suggested the SNP would end up with eight seats to the Tories' three. But, when the real results came in, the Tories had beaten the Nationalists in the popular vote by 26% to 22%, and by eleven seats to three. As the coming general election may be the first won at UK-level by the Tories since 1992, there's at least a case to be made that the outcome in Scotland may resemble 1992 more than it does any of the intervening elections.

However, for my money the opposite may well happen. This could be one of those key elections, following on from 1959, 1979 and 1987, that shows Scotland completely bucking the UK trend in its response to the Conservative Party's pitch for votes. The Euro elections last June were a pretty strong clue - the Tories secured first place in all but one English region and even in Wales, but in Scotland were left languishing in third place on a dismal 17%.

The reason? Well, it's getting harder to make the rhetoric of a two-horse Labour-Tory race stick, when the SNP have not just consistently been finishing in the top two in Scottish elections, but actually winning elections outright. Not to mention, of course, the credibility that comes from having formed the Scottish government, which takes us into completely uncharted territory at a Westminster election. Whereas in the 1980s under Thatcher the Scottish Tories were hated, nowadays they're to a very large extent simply ignored. It's striking that it's the latter that actually seems set to produce the worse result - for how many people truly think the party will even equal Mrs Thatcher's low point of 24% of the vote in Scotland?