Friday, 27 July 2007

From "slippery" to "sharp."

Mr Smith read with interest the apparent praise of the SNP's "sharp" campaign during the May's Scottish Parliament elections from no less than Downing Street's former Director of Communications, Alastair Campbell.

Mr Smith notes that in Mr Campbell's book, "The Blair Years," he includes only two references to Alex Salmond (Pages 365 and 372) the first of which records comments made by late First Minister Donald Dewar in the run up to the 1999 Scottish Parliament in which Mr Dewar said Mr Salmond "was vulnerable to a sense of being slippery." Mr Campbell goes on to say that the objective of the 1999 Labour election campaign was to "put over the cost of separatism."

Well as Mr Campbell knows that tactic worked in 1999, and more so even in 2003, but singularly failed to impress in 2007, perhaps because the SNP had defused the issue by promising a separate and later independence referendum. It's just a pity that no-one in Labour's 2007 election high command seemed to have noticed the change.

Trashy Thursday.

The Scotsman reports on the no fewer than thirty government written announcements which were made on the last day that the House of Commons was sitting before departing on its eleven week recess, which has been christened “Trashy Thursday.”

Now the fact that a government, especially a new Gordon Brown government which is barely a month old, will try to bury as much of its bad news on a day when political journalists will be joining MPs in packing their suitcases before heading off on their holidays isn’t may be all that surprising, but from a democratic perspective it really sucks. Indeed, the tactic featured once in an episode during the first season of cult American political TV series, the West Wing, "Take Out the Trash Day."

Effective scrutiny of our politicians and the governmental machine is difficult enough at the best of times, without letting them control when they release information of legitimate public interest, but Mr Smith thinks that perhaps if more journalists had a less cosy and more questioning relationship with government rather than accepting the planted and very spun stories which they publish just about every day of the week, then perhaps democracy would be better off in this country. Isn’t that after all what journalists are meant to do?

Oh, and buried in one of the statements was the disclosure that £5.9 million of public money was spent on Ministerial cars. Although, the Scotland Office spent the least, buying one car at the price of £62,200. Obviously not a Mondeo then.

The "renegade" Lord.

Now Mr Smith spends a lot of his time pointing out the contradictions in the public positions of our elected and not so elected representatives. So, it is great to be able to report a real moment of political conviction from a perhaps unexpected source.

Speaking during a Debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday 25th July 2007, Scottish Conservative peer Lord Fraser of Carmyllie spoke with great fervour, even rage, in rejecting government plans for increasing the length of detention of terrorist suspects to 56 days saying:

“My Lords, I regard this as the greatest civil liberties outrage in modern times. It is quite outrageous. Whatever conciliatory noises my own Front Bench makes, I shall be a renegade on this. There is absolutely no way that I regard even 28 days as appropriate. Seven days is, in its own way, far too long. What is wrong with hours rather than days? I cannot believe that this will lead to anything other than sloppy and bad policing. I am in favour of good policing. If you allow the police 56 days to agree what should be done, I cannot believe that they will do anything for 55 days other than sit on their hands. That is simply wrong. I do not believe that day one is day one. What will the noble Baroness (Baroness Ashton of Upholland, the President of the Council) do, or am I simply alone in believing that 56 days is an outrage, and that she ought to be ashamed of herself?”

Is it naïve of Mr Smith to expect that just because Lord Fraser can draw on experience of having held the two most senior Scottish legal positions in government, namely Lord Advocate and Solicitor General, that the current government might take his objections on board and amend its proposals? Sadly, it is very naïve.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Tony's Scottish chums.

Mr Smith was very interested to read in today's Times the details of recent visitors to former PM Tony Blair's Official Buckinghamshire country residence, Chequers. Scots were well represented on the list of 85 visitors, but only one MP representing a Scottish constituency, Jim Murphy, managed to make it along Chequers' famous driveway, but TV presenter Lorraine Kelly did manage to have her name added to the guest list.

Mr Smith wonders what new Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Chequers' invite list will look like when we get to see it next year?

Journalistic licence.

Mr Smith is a big fan of journalistic licence and the powerful use of the English language, but even he is overwhelmed by the political imagery conjured up by two of the Scotsman's political reporters in today's edition of the paper.

Gerri Peev excels in the piece entitled "Skilful Salmond returns to Westminster as the political assassin" and goes on to comment "... he (Salmond) started the day with more compliments for his new friend Gordon Brown than a British naval officer returning from Iran with a goody bag." Mr Smith thinks that Gerri may have lost readers with the "naval officer ... goody bag" reference in an otherwise very insightful article.

Not to be outdone, Peter MacMahon, writes that "For McConnell, the night of the long knives may be around the corner." He tells us that "McConnell has spent much of this week in his beloved Arran, working on his golf handicap."

Of course, Mr MacMahon should know a great deal about the dog days of former Labour First Ministers having been the spin doctor and "right hand man" to former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish who was forced to resign from the role after presiding over "a muddle, not a fiddle" with his office expenses whilst a Westminster MP. Mr MacMahon then famously fell out with the brothers and sisters of the Peoples' Party by daring to write about the episode despite his former role as a civil servant.

MacMahon's piece is timely and insightful, if a little fawning in places, "... only Mr McConnell can say whether he is plotting his own future first or whether he is selflessly putting his party first.
Politicians being human beings, the truth is that probably all of these thoughts and calculations are going through his head.

But the Peev and MacMahon articles provide clear evidence of the differing respective fortunes of their subjects: Salmond's star in the ascendant, McConnell's star on the wane. Mr Smith is not sure how many more pieces like this Peev and MacMahon will have the opportunity to write.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Holyrood's leaks.

No. Mr Smith is not refering to the "leaks" of information which make the job of the political diarist a little bit easier, but rather to the fact as disclosed in the Edinburgh Evening News that three years after the opening of the Scottish Parliament's new £414 million building at Holyrood there are apparently still leaks in the building's car park which the Scottish Parliament is still asking contractors to fix.

Now Mr Smith is all for leaks but not if they involve liquid in a public building. Have the Scottish Parliament's authorities never heard of a snagging list?

More interestingly, Holyrood's decision makers have apparently agreed to spend £10,000 extending Leader of the Opposition Jack McConnell's parliamentary office "to allow larger meetings to be held in the (his) room." Now given the parlous state of Mr McConnell's grip on the Leadership of the Scottish Labour Party, Mr Smith must question whether some Labour MSPs will want to be spending a lot of time in meetings with their Imperious Leader rather than being out and about trying to win votes in the forthcoming leadership election.

The Barca is open.

Mr Smith is willing to bet that when Alex Salmond decided to return from “over the water” of Westminster to contest the election for Scotland’s First Minister, his mind wasn’t really on the perks of Governmental office.

But Mr Smith notes that Mr Salmond has now managed to enrich the cultural life of the Scottish nation with another piece of sporting memorabilia, yes, a signed FC Barcelona football strip shirt which the First Minister apparently intends to “display” in his Official Residence of Bute House in Edinburgh.

Mr Smith looks forward to the “gift” being declared by the First Minister in the Executive’s Register of Ministerial Gifts which features lots of goodies received by previous Scottish Ministers including four cases of one of Scotland’s better known beers declared by the former First Minister in September 2005, and numerous bottles of whisky.


At least we don’t have to worry about Alex Salmond donning the shirt to join in a five-a-side football match as Jack McConnell might have done.

Jack-ing it all in?

Speculation is mounting that Scottish Labour Leader, Jack McConnell MSP, may be about to announce his departure as his Party’s Leader following Labour’s “defeat” at May’s Scottish Parliament elections and their drubbing in the council elections which saw the Peoples’ Party win fewer council seats than the SNP because of the new PR voting system.

The final straw for Jack may well have arrived over his cornflakes in Arran this morning when one newspaper suggested that Labour MSP Charlie Gordon may be prepared to run as a “stalking horse” against his Imperious Leader in order to give unnamed “others” the opportunity to join the race later on without appearing disloyal.

Mr Smith thinks it very likely that Lucky Jack, as he was once christened in a Lorraine Davidson biography of him, will depart the scene at next year’s Scottish Labour Party Conference, but predicts that this won’t be because of the intervention of others. Mr Smith thinks it is perhaps because Mr McConnell will have realised that he has better things to be doing with his life.

The more interesting question isn’t really who will become Labour’s new leader, but rather who will take over from him as MSP in his Motherwell and Wishaw constituency, assuming Labour manage to hold the seat in the likely bitter by-election battle that will ensue in the murky world of Lanarkshire politics.

A toll story ...

So, according to this morning’s Daily Record, not only will the great Scottish public have to pick up the £5 million bill for the construction of the new “toll plaza” featuring air-conditioned toll booths, new traffic islands and a great muckle roof approaching the southern end of the Forth Road Bridge, it appears we will also need to spend an extra £2 million demolishing most of it, because the Scottish Executive appears minded to abolish tolls on the Bridge itself.

Abolishing tolls on the Forth Road Bridge is the right decision for the new Scottish Executive and Parliament to take, it’s fair and equitable given that the Bridge has been bought and paid for over the last forty years, but the waste of public money resulting from the lack of clarity on the issue over the last few years sums up the dismal state of public policy making in Scotland.

The barking dogs in Fife’s streets could tell you that Forth Bridge tolls were going to be abolished within a few years and yet the decision makers at FETA (the Forth Estuary Transport Authority) and a select band of Fife politicians in the Scottish Parliament carried on regardless with the "toll plaza," at a cost of £7 million of public money which would have been better spent on building a new primary school or health centre.

These political “representatives” should be hanging their heads in shame at their cavalier attitude with public money and their “I’m only doing my job” attitude even when they must have known what they were doing made no sense in the medium term.

So Mr Smith will be sending a bill to FETA and to the Scottish Parliament @ EH99 1SP, although they may have some difficulty trying to claim it back on expenses. But then again maybe £7 million is a small price to pay for a bit of regime change?

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Where are they now?

The question was posed in today's Herald as to where some of the thirty or so MSPs who failed to be re-elected to the Scottish Parliament in May have gone.

The Herald points out that former SNP, and then Independent, MSP Campbell Martin has turned his attention to cyberspace and is running, an online magazine for the Ayrshire communities of Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston.

Another of his independently minded colleagues, former MSP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, Dr Jean Turner, according to the Scotland On Sunday, has been named as the new chief executive of the Scotland Patients Association.

Mr Smith also hears that former Labour MSP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Margaret Jamieson, has secured herself a berth working for the new Secretary of State for Defence and Scotland, Des Browne MP.

So who said there wasn't life after the Scottish Parliament?

In the beginning ....

I have been thinking about creating a blog for some very considerable time, but only now have I managed to bite the bullet and actually get on with it.

The inspiration for this little corner of the world wide web is taken from one of the best political movies of all time, Frank Capra's 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This blog is intended to inform, to question, to highlight those little contradictions which make Scottish politics such an interesting thing to watch, but most of all to live up to the central tenet of wide eyed idealist Mr Smith that "the only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes."

Scottish politics has never been so exciting, so different, so very "new." This blog hopes to add a little flavour to the debate.

Enjoy the ride.