Thursday, 22 January 2009

Pond Life Descends on Pumpherston

A quite disgraceful episode played out in the streets of Pumpherston last Sunday. (For those who don't know, Pumpherston is a small village on the eastern fringe of Livingston and which has been immortalised by the celebrity charity football team Dukla Pumpherston.)

A dinner to raise funds to help alleviate the humanitarian disaster in Gaza was held at the excellent Raj Poot restaurant that night. Sadly, the 100 or so attendees, including 20 - 30 kids, were subjected to a torrent of racist abuse and foul language from a group of 'protesters' proudly displaying the Israeli and Union flags.

I can see why suppporters of the Israeli state might want to remind people attending this event that there are two sides to this story through a peaceful presence. But there is no excuse for intimidating people who are trying to ease the suffering of fellow human beings - and what on earth was the point of the Union flag?

I suspect, and certainly hope, that a peaceful protest on the part of Israeli sympathisers was hijacked by an insidious group of BNP activists who were simply displaying their usual standard of debate and enlightenment.

I guess we'll never know for sure but it is worrying to know that an event which had no purpose other than to help innocent victims of a war, in a place with virtually no political connection to that war, can result in such a poisonous atmosphere.

If this can happen here, is there any hope that common ground can be found between the Israelis and Palestinians themselves? We can only hope that they have a higher standard of awareness and tolerance than the pond life that polluted Pumpherston at the weekend.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Forth and the Fourth Estate

A belated Happy New Year to all!!!

But it’s not been such a jolly start to 2009 for the SNP Government as they have come in for a pounding over their plans (or lack of as some would have it) for the funding of the new Forth crossing.

That this should be causing the SNP so many difficulties is curious; here we have a once in a generation, essential investment in our transport infrastructure which any normal government would finance from the public purse over a period of many years having this perfectly legitimate and sensible funding option blocked by the UK Treasury.

It should have been a PR gift for the SNP. A Labour Government who thinks nothing of borrowing tens of billions to bail out the banks and, in the process, cause the loss of thousands of Scottish jobs, and thinks nothing of squandering more tens of billions on Trident will not allow the Scottish Government to borrow a couple of billion to ensure the heart of the Scottish economy keeps beating.

It is an utterly indefensible position and the UK Government’s language confirms this. Alastair Darling lambasts the Scottish Government for ruling out PFI/PPP on ideological grounds (as if the ideology of a democratically elected Government should simply be ignored) but on the other hand justifies his rejection of the Scottish Government’s preferred option as ‘that is something we don’t do’. Quite unbelievable.

In the afterglow of their election victory in 2007 it is inconceivable that the SNP would not have made considerable bundles of hay out of this. Since then, however, a few things have changed.

Firstly, the SNP Government and its media machine are having to deal with substantial, difficult to explain issues rather than more populist, easy to present initiatives. There seems to be a lack of thought and planning in how policy and initiatives are being trailed which is leaving gaping holes for journalists and opponents to exploit. For example, it is amazing that anything Labour says on funding the crossing is treated with anything but utter contempt as, if things had been left to them, there would not even be a commitment to the crossing never mind a funding package for it.

Secondly, the media have tired of the good SNP governance story and are now ready to hold the Holyrood administration robustly to account. That is certainly no bad thing, particularly if the SNP reacts and ups it game. That is how a healthy democracy with a free press should operate; continually driving standards upwards.

What is missing is a credible opposition at Holyrood and there are still few signs of this emerging from the Labour benches. David Whitton’s appearance on Newsnight the other night was a pitiful example. Yes, Mr Whitton was very eloquent in spinning the line that had been handed down from the UK Labour Government but he had no answer when he was asked how Labour would fund the crossing. That is not going to be good enough when Scotland is choosing its next Government and it begs the question whether Iain Gray and his team have anything to add to the debate themselves or whether they have now been firmly put in their place as Murphy’s Mouthpiece at Holyrood.

With the LibDems still struggling to make themselves relevant (and appearing increasingly desperate with their unfunded tax cut proposals) in addition to Labour’s ineptitude and the SNP’s seemingly endless list of challenges, there is a huge opportunity for the Tories to advance at the expense of all the other parties.

I wonder if Thatcher’s legacy has worn off sufficiently to allow 2009 to be the year of the great Tory revival in Scotland?

Monday, 29 December 2008

Scottish MPs - A Waste of Time and Money?

As I said in a recent post, Livingston MP Jim Devine's recent posturing not only says a lot about his priorities but it also raises a very big question which has implications for representation across the UK and possibly for the current devolution settlement.

The question can be simply put:- "What do Scottish MPs actually do?"

Without going to the bother of reading the Scotland Act (and ignoring the grey areas and stuff on the margins), Holyrood is pretty much responsible for all aspects of Scottish life except Welfare and Benefits, Defence and Foreign Affairs, Macro-economic policy and Immigration. With the exception of Welfare and Benefits, these are not typically the kind of issues that constituents tend to burden their representatives with.

The buck stops with Holyrood and MSPs for just about everything which is of day to day concern to the people of Scotland; Health, Law & Order, Education, Housing, Transport etc etc. So in terms of sorting out our day to day concerns, the answer to the above question is 'not very much'.

Sure, these MPs will act as Westminster lobby fodder too, but just how often are the views of the 59 Scottish MPs influencial in the outcome of any vote? Not very often.

Which brings up two interesting follow on questions;
1) Why do Scottish MPs get paid more than MSPs and why do they get staffing expenses which dwarf those available to MSPs?
2) Why do Scottish MPs get paid the same as English MPs and why do they get the same staffing expenses?

Question 1 reflects what is actually an outrageous situation. MSPs who have to do the majority of the work get scarce resources while MPs can afford to pay people to sit around and make work up. (I've heard it said that some MPs actually employ people just to follow them around and take photos.) This is not good for the democratic process and, in my view at least, this is a far bigger problem than any of the Holyrood expenses 'scandals' which have emerged since 1999.

Question 2 is interesting. We often hear how the introduction of an English votes for English laws system at Westminster to balance the devolution settlement would be a bad thing because it would result in two classes of MPs. Strikes me that we already have that; the English MPs who have to run around covering all the matters that Scottish MPs and MSPs deal with and the Scottish MPs who can sit in the bar until they have to follow someone into the lobbies.

Conclusion? If you live in Scotland, even of you have an excellent MP, he or she will be a complete waste of money - at least in comparison to your local MSP. And if you live in England, why the hell do you put up with this?

Sunday, 28 December 2008


I notice that this blog has blipped on the Iain Dale new blog radar. Being naive in the black arts of all things Internetty I guess this must mean that somebody somewhere who isn't so naive is reading my outpourings.

Unfortunately, my work was described as an SNP blog, which it most certainly is not.

I did vote SNP last time but do not always do so. I believe in Independence for Scotland (and England for that matter) and I currently can't see any reason not to vote SNP next time.

But that does not make this an SNP blog. It is my blog and mine alone.

Maybe I'm just getting over-sensitive in my old age and I have certainly had to deal with worse accusations in my time.

Anyhow, if you are visiting via Mr Dale's site, you are very welcome.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

End of Year Report

As 2008 comes to an end, let's take a very high level view of the state of the parties through my own strangely tinted spectacles...

2008 has been a modestly good year for the Tories in Scotland. Overtaking the LibDems in both Glasgow East and Glenrothes was probably as good as they could possibly have hoped for and Annabel Goldie continues to be the best of the opposition leaders at Holyrood.

Elsewhere, Derek Brownlee continues to impress both in the chamber and as a TV performer and Annabel is given strong support by Murdo Fraser, Bill Aitken and David McLetchie.

It is unfortunate for them that their predecessors had such an impact on the Scottish psyche as their poll ratings do not do their capabilities and general performance justice. That being said, the last Westminster poll showed that they have crept above the 20% threshold.

Maybe, with a little more patience and continued improvement, the Scottish Conservatives could be a real force again.

Just where do you start in assessing Labour's year?

Compared to this time last year, we could say that things are pretty much as they were except there is a different leadership team in place. That would be to completely ignore what has been the rollercoster that has been the last 12 months.

Compared to August, post-Glasgow East and pre-Credit Crunch, Labour has to feel good about its current position. Almost everyone had written them off, Brown was described as a dead man walking and no seat looked safe after the outrageous swing against them in Glasgow East.

Since then, we've had Brown the SuperHero circling the globe giving the impression that he is single handedly saving the world, we've had the reinstatement of a full time Scottish Secretary and we've had Glenrothes. Labour looked to have arrested the decline, the SNP challenge was brushed aside in Fife and there was even brief talk of a spring election.

Another couple of months on and things don't look quite so rosy. The poll ratings look to have peaked and the economy is going down the toilet despite all the impressive looking action of Brown and Darling. By all accounts things are going to be much, much worse than anyone previously imagined.

In my view, the LibDems are the big losers of 2008.

If the result in Glasgow East was bad, Glenrothes, after weeks of presenting themselves as credible challengers, must have hurt even more.

Despite a few brief flurries from new leader, Tavish Scott, notably on the HBOS / LTSB merger, these electroal defeats have been reflected in increasingly sterile contributions in the chamber.

The good news, I suppose, is that things can't get any worse, can they?

Like Labour, the assesment of the SNP's position very much depends on your point of reference.
Despite trailing Labour by a few points in the latest Westminster poll, the SNP is pretty much where they were this time last year only a little more seasoned and mature.

Viewed from the immediate aftermath of Glasgow East, this will seem like a huge let down. However, in the context of Glenrothes, it demonstrates that its failure to wrest that seat from Labour's grasp was by no means the disaster it might have been.

It may be a consequence of having got used to him as FM, but Alex Salmond has undoubtedly lost some of his sparkle since the summer. On the other hand, his ministerial team continue to impress particularly Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and, like him or loathe him, Kenny McAskill.

My judgement is that the political momentum, briefly seized by Labour in the Autumn, is now back with the SNP and the Tories and my guess is that this will become more pronounced as the economy worsens.

The LibDems appear moribund and seem to have nowhere to go either in a Scottish or a UK context. Labour are now suffering from the expectations that were necessarily raised by Brown and his team in order to save his job. I fear it is unlikely the public will be fooled a second time.

I'll come back to the LibDems in a future post because I think their position (and future) deserves further analysis.

Looking back, I believe that Glenrothes will prove to be a watershed for Scottish politics. In the long term, it is probably the best thing that could have happened to the SNP - a small advance in terms of its vote but a massive brake on the momentum that was beginning to get out of control.

To his and its credit, Alex Salmond and the wider party, displayed a great deal of humility in the aftermath of their defeat. Indeed, I have even heard it said by some who voted Labour that this humility was enough to persaude them that they had voted the wrong way that day.

And, as I suggested in October they might, Labour seem to have mistaken the result in Glenrothes as an endorsement of its economic policies and a sign that the Scottish electorate had decided that it had been a mistake to flirt with the Nats.

The real lesson from 2008 is that the famous phrase 'Events, dear boy, events.' is as applicable today as it was when McMillan first coined it all those years ago. For the SNP and the Tories, this translates as, 'As long as Labour remain in power, there is a real prospect that they can retain power.' Both would do well to remember that.

Monday, 22 December 2008

At Last Labour has a Plan

Only it's not theirs!!!

The Sunday Herald broke the news of an alleged planning scandal at West Lothian Council and, although I'm not sure his comparison to the Trump fiasco is relevant, Stephen reports further today.

On the face of it, it seems that the Action to Save St John's Councillor, Gordon Beurskens, is sailing pretty close to the wind. My reading of the situation is that he is probably OK by the letter of the law but there are serious moral questions to be asked about his actions.

GB - funny how these initials keep cropping up when there are allegations of skullduggery around - is therefore a legitimate target. He should be fully investigated and Labour are quite right to pursue him.

As usual, of course, Labour's real motivation is nothing to do with morality and righteousness but everything to do with trying to discredit the SNP and this is betrayed by their hysterical pursuit of the SNP Leader of the Council, Peter Johnston, on this matter.

They claim that Johnston is complicit because he did nothing to stop GB after he was copied on some emails sent by GB, in his capacity as a consultant to the planning applicant, to planning officials.

There are several problems with that. Firstly, Johnston would have no locus to formally do anything to prevent a priviate individual from making representations to planning officials. Secondly, who is to say that Johnston did not informally take GB aside and point out that his action was not appropriate? And, thirdly, it seems that the Chief Executive of the council has reported GB to the police. Do we really believe that this would have been done without the agreement of the Council Leader? I seriously doubt it.

West Lothian Council is fascinating. It has long been a Labour / SNP battleground and it is currently a microcosm of Scotland. Like Holyrood, the SNP are in minority control. Like Holyrood, Labour is united only by their passionate hatred of the SNP leader.

Unlike Holyrood, Labour is the biggest party in West Lothian. But it couldn't retain control of the council because the previous Holyrood adminstration's compliance in the gradual donwgrading of St John's Hospital resulted in 3 single issue councillors being elected. That hurt them then and it still hurts now.

With a Hat Tip to Holyrood Patter, where I first read there was a whiff of a scandal on Saturday night, my moles have been out and about trying to find out what is going on.

It seems that ever since the new council administration was formed, Labour have been continuously dangling carrots in front of the Hospital councillors to induce them to switch their allegiance. Now, as many in West Lothian will know, these Hospital councillors are 'unique' in their approach to politics. However, I'm sure even they realise that they could not credibly be seen to be doing anything to help Labour after slagging them off over St John's for the last few years.

Labour has now given up on this approach and is now trying to force resignations in the hope they can win the resultant by-elections and force a change in administration. There has been a succession of local press articles on one of GB's colleagues, Ellen Glass, but in the meantime a whole pile of FOI requests have been made in a bid to dredge up stuff to concoct scandals from.

This story might turn out to be the first of many allegations but Labour's previous record in West Lothian on the corruption front is not good. And those who live by the sword tend to die by the sword...

Interesting times ahead.

The Devine Comedy Continues

I read with interest the indefatigable Jim Devine's blundering attempts to dig himself out of the hole he has dug himself into regarding the troubled Livingston firm, Gemfire.

Regular readers will recall my previous posts highlighting Jolly Jim's will he/won't he plans to organise a protest at the gates of the US owned firm after they had told their employees to go home because they didn't have enough money to pay them.

Amidst severe pressure from some of the affected workers, who were rightly concerned that such action would deter any alternative investors, the PR stunt was called off. The company has since re-commenced partial operations while further funds are sought.

Now it seems Mr Devine wants to pretend that all along he has been trying to 'broker' a deal on behalf of Gemfire. But, says West Lothian Labour's 'Mr Consensus', Gemfire won't return his calls.

Although Mr Devine gives no detail on who he might be trying to broker such a deal with, let's just say for the sake of argument there is some substance to what he is saying for once. Why, then, would he continue to say that Gemfire has 'treated their workforce like a 19th-century coal mine owner' ?

Strikes me that perhaps Mr Devine doesn't want Gemfire to get back in touch. That way the bluff over his potential deal won't get called and he'll be able to continue in the pretence that he is somehow representing the interests of his constituents in the full glare of the media spotlight.

I think this speaks volumes for this particular individual's style and approach to politics and representation. Everything this man does seems to be motiviated by the need to generate publicity.

However, it raises wider questions which need answered. I hate to be a tease but that will have to wait for a later post.