Recently in Parliament Category

Look back in anger.

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libtoryleaflet.jpgThere's a lot of media love for our new masters, especially seeing how comfortable they looked at their civil partnership yesterday. 

Even the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland doesn't seem to have any buyer's remorse, though Seamus Milne never bought in.

It would also be churlish not to point out that there are matters where this administration are better than Labour. On ID cards, the third runway, perhaps even PR for the House of Lords, this is an improvement. 

The nuclear stance is also marginally better than Labour's: the Tory line that they will support unsubsidised civilian nuclear remains, which if honestly implemented would mean no new nuclear power stations.

For now, the National Liberals (or Libservatives if you prefer) are more united than Labour were all by themselves. It occurred to me that during the one day of Lib Dem talks with both other parties they were actually testing the ability of the others' backbenchers to be responsible. The day's events demonstrated to the Lib Dem left that the practicalities of working with the Neanderthal wing of Labour would have been too dire.

But the fact remains that the Lib Dems have delivered government to the Tories. We're being urged to forget about the 1980s as awfully unfair. I beg to differ, and I hope Gary Younge will forgive me for quoting him at length:

"I don't have a phobia about Tories. That would suggest an irrational response. I hate them for a reason. For lots of reasons, actually. For the miners, apartheid, Bobby Sands, Greenham Common, selling council houses, Section 28, lining the pockets of the rich and hammering the poor - to name but a few. I hate them because they hate people I care about. As a young man Cameron looked out on the social carnage of pit closures and mass unemployment, looked at Margaret Thatcher's government and thought, these are my people. When all the debating is done, that is really all I need to know."

Then in turn Nick Clegg looked at David Cameron and thought "these are people I can do business with". I understand they were in a difficult position, having got the hung Parliament they always wanted, but locking us into 5 years of Tory rule cannot be the answer.

It's not very new politics, but I refuse to forgive and forget. The cabinet is now stuffed full of privatisers (both Tory and Orange Book versions) and homophobes (just Tories, as far as I know), people who liked what they saw when Maggie was in power. Beneath the libertarian veneer both parties' leaderships are driven by policies that suit the elites they represent, and the straight line runs from Thatcher through Blair to these two.

My inability to forgive is not restricted to the Tories, though. Labour have left a legacy so authoritarian that they have allowed this new coalition to look progressive on civil liberties. They have pushed politics so far to the right that this new arrangement looks almost centrist. They abandoned the poor to rising inequality, and any new Labour leader will be jeered for criticising the coalition's actions or inactions in this area. War is now totally mainstream, and only the Greens and the Nats provide Parliamentary opposition to nuclear weapons.

Which is why it mystifies me that Labour has seen any recruits from the Lib Dems. Sure, many people voted yellow to keep the blues out, but have they really already forgotten Labour's 13 years of betrayal, lightly seasoned as it was with first-term positives like devolution and the minimum wage?

Hence our year's free membership offer to those leaving Labour and the Lib Dems - extended to SNP members by request. Sign up here.

Tackling the scandal of low pay.

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Apparently there's an election on, and this has rather got in the way of blogging. But today we got the best editorial I can remember, and it was in the News of the World.

They reported our plans to bring a vote to Holyrood on Thursday calling for a living wage of £7 an hour, up from the current £5.80. The national level is set at Westminster, but Scottish Ministers can start right now with the public sector here, where 20% of staff still get less than this living wage.

I will leave the analysis to the News of the World.

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Greens north and south of the border are making the case that in a Parliament without a majority, even a few Green voices can make more of a difference than another Labour, Tory, Lib Dem or Nat member. 

This is the sort of issue we mean - just close your eyes and try to imagine Nick Clegg or David Cameron arguing for a pay rise for the lowest paid in society.

Three equal parts of the SNP.

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coaldigger.jpgWithout wishing to preempt the magnificent Macnumpty Sunday Whip, Thursday's vote against Hunterston and other unabated coal was notable in another respect: every option got support from precisely ten SNP MSPs. 

Here's the list of the virtuous, the villainous and those in between, those who actively abstained. Others, like SNP Ministers, were either absent or didn't press a button.

Those in favour of the motion:
Alasdair Allan
Aileen Campbell
Willie Coffey
Kenny Gibson 
Jamie Hepburn 
Anne McLaughlin
Stuart McMillan 
Shirley-Anne Somerville 
Dave Thompson 
Bill Wilson

Those opposed to the motion:
Brian Adam 
Angela Constance
Joe FitzPatrick 
Christine Grahame 
Christopher Harvie 
Bill Kidd  
Michael Matheson 
Alasdair Morgan 
Gil Paterson
Sandra White

Those abstaining from the vote:
Nigel Don 
Bob Doris
Linda Fabiani 
Rob Gibson 
Tricia Marwick 
Stewart Maxwell 
Ian McKee
Christina McKelvie 
Maureen Watt  
John Wilson

You don't often get to see the various strands within the SNP: in fact, this is the only major division I can remember since 2007. There are a few patterns in it. The three ex-ministers all abstained. The older hands tended to vote against us, as did the most obvious wannabe Ministers, while the newer intake tended to be with us. I'd certainly rather it was that way round.

Most curious of those who voted with us is Kenny Gibson, though. I like Kenny personally, and he stuck to his guns on marine reserves during the Marine Bill debate. But as far as I can tell he's also against nuclear power and, notoriously, against wind too. There's your energy gap right there.

All the other parties went by party line, incidentally: Labour and Liberals with Greens, Tories against. The Tories had sounded reasonable in the morning before the debate, so that rather mystified me.

Burying coal.

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nonewcoal.jpgThere's an awful lot of work going on outside office hours ahead of the election, and this week we were reminded what it's all about. 

On Wednesday we circulated a paper calling into question the practicality of carbon capture and storage: in it the Economideses conclude that "underground carbon dioxide sequestration via bulk CO2 injection is not feasible at any cost".

With Labour having a sensible but uncontroversial motion about climate change up for debate on Thursday, Patrick then moved an amendment to add the following text at the end (his speech here):

", and also opposes new unabated coal power capacity, and therefore calls on the Scottish Government to reject plans to build a new coal-fired power station at Hunterston given that large-scale CCS at existing coal or gas plants has never been successfully demonstrated."

Ministers went into panic mode. Despite having themselves laid the groundwork for a possible judicial review by ramming Hunterston into the National Planning Framework 2 after consultation, they decided they could not vote or speak to this issue or whip their MSPs (more on this later).

At this point I thought there was a chance we might win the vote but more or less by default. But at 5pm we got an absolute majority in Parliament, with Patrick's amendment carried by 66 to 26, with 10 abstentions (that doesn't include Ministers, who simply didn't vote).

It's exceptionally significant, perhaps the biggest policy win of this Parliamentary session. The plant proposed would have just a quarter of its pollution captured, even assuming that proves feasible, and it's hard now to see it going ahead. 

That would first require investors to have confidence in the plant, and they're unlikely to if Parliament doesn't. Even if they press on, it'd require SNP Ministers in a minority administration to take a decision against the clear will of Parliament. As Sir Humphrey put it, that would be "a brave decision, Minister".

But the vote goes beyond that - it expresses a clear will against all new unabated coal capacity, not just that proposed for Hunterston. Given there's no majority in Parliament for nuclear either, this is a very clear course set for clean renewable energy as the basis for Scotland's future energy supply. It's also an outcome which more than justifies all the campaigning Greens are doing across the country.

Bridge over troubled voters.

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Thumbnail image for elephantbridge.jpgLast year we commissioned polling that showed 57% of Scots wanted to repair the existing Forth Road Bridge, not build a new one, with just 34% in favour of the SNP plans. 

Leaving aside the environmental issues, the costs are simply incomparable. For an absolute maximum of £122m the cables on the existing bridge could be fixed, and this would allow us to save billions.

But congestion, they say, what about the congestion? And it's true, recabling would require some partial closures. But now we know what extraordinary congestion would come from building the new bridge: there would be contraflows for a "substantial part" of the three and a half years it would take to redo the crucial Ferrytoll roundabout where the A90 approaches the bridges at the north end.

That's just one part of the associated work, if perhaps the most complicated, and it's yet another nail in the coffin of this absurd and deeply unpopular project.

The medium is the massage.

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nationalistrealism.jpgTwice this week we've found out more about the SNP's attitude to broadcasting. First, as the Scottish Government, they paid STV £150,000 of taxpayers' money to promote the Homecoming tartan-fest "for the benefit of the Government". 


I have some sympathy for their concerns here, and the BBC's interpretations of balance are often pretty hard to justify. For instance, "Adolf Brent" had been an MEP for less than six months before getting his Question Time invite, but despite Green MSPs having been elected to Holyrood for more than ten years none of my colleagues have ever been asked on.

Furthermore, there's no question that these debates will skew matters in favour of the three largest Westminster parties, even if they aren't shown in Scotland, given that the papers and news reports will be full of it. Nick "Anonymous" Clegg will get a stature he doesn't deserve in particular.

But the SNP response to the outcome of the debates debate is unacceptable. They're taking a single decision and using it as the basis for threatening the licence fee. Forget saving 6 Music and the Asian Network: it looks now like the whole of public service broadcasting in Scotland wouldn't be safe in their hands.

It's petty, it's childish, it's unprincipled, and it's bad politics.Taken together, these two stories suggest an SNP leadership which supports the Berlusconi model: the broadcasters should serve the incumbents, not the public.

2003 all over again?

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2003MSPs.jpgThe poll in today's Scotland on Sunday has been discussed elsewhere, but not the Holyrood regional voting intention. It's the best bit, and Kenny F sent me out to the shops this morning especially for it.

Holyrood constituencies (2007 result in brackets)
Labour: 33% (32%)
SNP: 28% (33%)
Conservative: 16% (13%)
Liberal: 16% (14%)
Others: 6% (8%)

Holyrood regional
Labour: 31% (29%)
SNP: 26% (31%)
Conservative: 17% (14%)
Liberal: 14% (11%)
Green: 7% (4%)
Others: 6% (11%)

By Scotland on Sunday's calculations (and mine) that would put us up to seven Green MSPs again. The pic shows what that looked like last time. It's a crude summary, but if this were the actual vote shares in May next year, we'd get a result roughly like the 2003 election, except where the six former SSP MSPs were replaced by the SNP. The obvious post-election arrangement would be another Labour/Liberal coalition, too, although Labour have watched the SNP's minority administration enviously.

Cheering as this poll may be for Greens, it's even more A Bit Of Fun than usual. No Holyrood voting intention will be any kind of worthwhile prediction until the UK election results have bedded in. Will Cameron woo or alienate Scots? Could Gordon Brown even hang on? Might the Liberals get the hung Parliament they crave? Could an AV referendum become a true PR election? Might UKIP get beaten by the Monster Raving Loony Party?

The Holyrood polls will start to get properly gripping for anoraks from September, by my calculation. One last factor which might make a difference is Brighton Pavilion. I'm heading down on Friday to help Caroline Lucas get elected. It should be fun, as well as virtuous, and, if she wins, the extra profile for Greens nationally could help us out in 2011 too.
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Should MSPs should use Parliament's restaurant to raise party funds? The answer's clear if it's for an average backbencher. 

Add access to your actual First Minister and his Deputy in Parliament as a fundraiser for the SNP's Westminster campaign in Glasgow Central and this story turns from a one-day wonder into a serious problem for the SNP.

So chef's hats off to the Herald for lifting the lid on this one. But let's hear the other side. The Herald today has a piece on the subject which, alongside the scoffing of the other parties, us included, contains the core of three dubious lines of argument the SNP are trying to use to exonerate their top table.

For starters, the rules say Parliamentary resources must not be misused. Because meals at Parliament's restaurant have to be paid for it's therefore not a Parliamentary resource, the SNP claim. Here's a clue. It's in Parliament, and if it wasn't there the place'd be awfully draughty. You can't get into it unless you're with an MSP or with staff working at Holyrood. It's subsidised by the taxpayer. Take that one back to the kitchen.

Next, the course of the main defence runs like this: the auction itself took place elsewhere, so the prize itself can't be "a significant political party purpose". Try that logic with a previous scandal and see if you can swallow it. "Sure, the questions were asked in the Commons, but it's fine because I received the money in the Harrods carpark."

Finally, a spokesman for the great puddin' o' the chieftain-race says it wasn't wrong because the lunch hadn't actually happened when they got caught. We planned to break the rules, the excuse goes, but fortunately the Herald and the Corporate Body have saved us from ourselves. Again, like taking cash for questions but being grilled about it before the questions could be tabled.

I'm sure Kevin Pringle's manual for situations like this says "use every effort to make it look like the guidelines are unclear", yet the truth is otherwise. The "campus", which is the whole Holyrood complex, can only be used for "events relating to a member's parliamentary duties". Despite the substantial public funding the First Minister has provided to Osama Saeed's organisation, it's clear that getting him elected to Westminster is not one of the ways Salmond serves his constituents.

That makes this a set of shameless and indefensible arguments. It's like a substandard Chinese meal, superficially tasty but leaving you hungry for answers in short order. But please let's not give it a "-gate" suffix. They're a dead horse in general, but Parliament's already had Piegate and Burgergate. We couldn't handle "blade of Scottish beef with roast onion mash and winter greens-gate".

It was always said that the Tories' weakness was sex, while Labour's was for money. Following the Westminster expenses Salmond claimed for food during a Holyrood election and the use of Ministerial limos to get to his favourite curry-house, it looks like the First Minister's particular weakness is dinner, with a side order of public money.

Budget heads towards approval.

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Finally, finally, we have persuaded Ministers to start a proper insulation scheme, area-by-area efforts to insulate every loft and cavity wall for free. The £10m announced today won't get it done quickly enough, but the principle is there and we will work to speed it up next year.

We've also convinced them to spend the £2m Westminster gave them for boiler scrappage on ... boiler scrappage. You might wonder how difficult that would be, but even last month they were talking about means testing here.

Add to this the £10m we secured to revive the WATES scheme for wave and tidal power, and that's enough improvement for us to support this Budget today.

The Tories have enough to vote for, the Liberals have enough to abstain on, and Labour have their totemic rail line to justify opposition. Their amendment on that will also go down, not least because they've still not proposed somewhere for the money to come from. We did have a suggestion, after all.

What would John Muir do?

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OceanWindTurbines.jpgThe recent much-delayed and much-caveated approval given to the Beauly-Denny grid upgrade was met with many predictable responses. The renewables crowd are delighted, and the Ramblers are appalled. So far so obvious. The environmental movement is generally supportive too, as you'd expect, with one glaring exception.

The John Muir Trust. They didn't welcome the unlocking of Scotland's clean energy potential, or breathe a sigh of public relief for the contribution this scheme would make to tackling climate change. 

No, they condemned the announcement in very clear terms. Previously they have even implied that a judicial review might be in the offing

Don't get me wrong, the failures of administrations north and south of the border have made me very fond of judicial review, but is this a consistent position for the JMT to have adopted? Specifically, is it the position John Muir himself would have taken?

The Sierra Club, founded by Muir and friends, has posted a decent concise biography if you want to find out more about this remarkable man, born in East Lothian but who is rightly recognised as the grandfather of the American environmental movement.

Earlier this week I got into reading some of John Muir's works for the first time. Many of them are freely available here. Amongst them is "The Cruise of the Corwin", a colourful set of tales from a voyage Muir took through the Arctic in 1881. It's pretty rude about some of the local people, especially the Aleuts, but is fascinating and well worth a read.

One of the Corwin's stops was on Wrangel Island, claimed by the Corwin's captain for America but more logically now one of Russia's most northerly possessions. While there, Muir speculated that "perhaps the ice does not leave the shore free more than once in ten years." 

He also commented on the opportunities scientists have to study "the magnificent polar bear among the ice - the master animal of the north", and noted that "no portion of the world is so barren as not to yield a rich and precious harvest of divine truth".

Far to the east of Wrangel, the Corwin subsequently visited Unalaska, part of the Aleutian chain. There, while considering the mountains in the area, Muir observed the following before going on to consider the changes to glaciation since the Ice Age:

"The noblest of them all was Makushin, about nine thousand feet high and laden with glaciers, a grand sight, far surpassing what I had been led to expect. There is a spot on its summit which is said to smoke, probably mostly steam and vapor from the infiltration of water into the heated cavities of the old volcano. The extreme summit of Makushin was wrapped in white clouds, and from beneath these the glaciers were seen descending impressively into the sunshine to within a thousand or fifteen hundred feet of sea-level. This fine mountain, glittering in its showy mail of snow and ice, together with a hundred other peaks dipping into the blue sky, and every one of them telling the work of ice or fire in their forms and sculpture - these, and the sparkling sea, and long inreaching fiords, are a noble picture to add to the thousand others which have enriched our lives this summer in the great Northland."

It's clear to me that this was an environment he cared about, a harsh but important place he would have fought to defend if it had been threatened in his day as it is in ours. If he had lived in a world where the choice was climate change or radical changes to our energy supply, where pylons would bring clean energy to the grid and help preserve all the world's vulnerable places, I'm sure he'd have seen the bigger picture and have been on the same side as the Greens, as WWF, and as Friends of the Earth


I challenged the JMT on Twitter about this as the Beauly-Denny upgrade was being announced, and got a response from their official account. It read:

"@twodoctors Two words, Hetch Hetchy http://bit.ly/7KwHGP"

Hetch Hetchy, a valley in Yosemite, was threatened during Muir's lifetime with being dammed to provide water for San Francisco. His trenchant views on the issue are here and here, and although his campaign was lost, others have still not given up. If they win, as I hope they do, they estimate it will take fifty years before the valley becomes an "established, relatively mature ecosystem."

There's next to nothing in common between Hetch Hetchy and the Beauly-Denny line as far as I can see. In one case a beautiful natural environment was unnecessarily flooded, erased, wiped off the map. In the other, some pylons will come down and some pylons will go up, but with no permanent ecological damage. 

If the best way to transmit power changes, or our energy network becomes more decentralised, the pylons will come down and the only mark they will leave will be a stub of concrete, soon covered over, plus some photos of what they looked like. It wouldn't take fifty years like Hetch Hetchy - within fifty days you wouldn't know the Beauly-Denny line had ever been there unless you knew exactly what you were looking for.

The logic of the comparison, as I understand it, is therefore as follows:

John Muir was against the Hetch Hetchy development. Beauly-Denny is also a development. Therefore John Muir would have opposed it.

No, he wouldn't have, not unless he came back as a climate change denier. It's false logic. There's a massive and irreversible threat to Scotland's wild spaces, but it's not from renewables, it's from climate change

The John Muir Trust do plenty of other admirable work, including conservation work parties and all the rest, sure. Sadly this work is undermined by their opposition to Beauly-Denny, as it is by their regular opposition to wind turbine applications. These misguided campaigns no doubt bring in the donations, but they also betray a deep disregard for the defining environmental issue of our age, as it affects both Scotland and the planet.
salmondJCB.jpgSalmond's trip to Copenhagen is not going well. His awkward Newsnicht interview on Monday made clear why he's there: promoting his two prime causes, independence and himself (iPlayer link).

The much-vaunted Arnie meeting didn't happen, though the Governor did meet the Welsh FM. Perhaps the delegate from California was impressed that the Welsh, despite more limited powers, have signed up to 10:10 while the SNP have refused

Then it turned out the meeting itself was sponsored by fossil fuel extractors and burners, which led to protests

Jarring as that is, it's not the central weakness in his visit. The main problem is that all he has is a semi-decent target, something which was forced upon him by the non-Tory opposition. Every time he gets a chance to act on climate change, he chooses either to stall or actually to make things worse.

The rumours circulated here last week that the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, one of the most pointless and cynical road projects ever proposed for Scotland, was about to be approved this week. Tory MSPs reported being told by Ministers: "don't worry, you'll get what you want". 

The rumours then claim that some smart person spotted the possible inconsistency between the FM being in Copenhagen and his team announcing they would bulldoze a motorway through the Aberdeenshire countryside, so the timing got switched. They'll do it next week now, I understand, once no-one cares about climate change any more.

Lagging behind.

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warmscotland.pngLast year, regular readers will know, the Green MSPs proposed a massive national insulation programme to cut household bills, help tackle climate change, and boost jobs. The signals from Ministers were positive until the final hour, then it fell apart. 

It had become clear that the SNP were going to stick to the same old New Labour means-tested approach, despite all the evidence it wouldn't work. 

They were also convinced that we were bluffing about the need to take a more radical approach, and instead they listened to the siren voices arguing for business as usual. The Budget duly fell, and then, because they didn't need Green votes the next time round, they just did the bare minimum to make it look like they'd been listening.

Subsequently, to nobody's great surprise, it became clear that their timid mini-programme was indeed destined not to deliver, nor would their related loans programme, also promised during the Budget.

Since then WWF have published a fascinating report on proper free area-based loft and cavity work (full report as pdf here). The report draws on three well-run schemes, delivered in Hadyard Hill, Girvan and Fintry.

It shows that it cost £1 to allow householders in these three communities to save £1 on energy bills - remember that's a recurring saving. The Warm Deal, the Scottish Government's precursor to the Energy Assistance Package, cost almost two and half times as much to give similar savings.

The main argument against our approach is a seductive one: we should target the fuel poor, and make insulation free for those on benefits or over a certain age. Surely that'd be the most efficient use of money? It sounds it, until you remember that climate change is also an important objective here.Furthermore, in these three places WWF found that between 21% and 69% of all those in fuel poverty wouldn't have met the Scottish Government's criteria, and they'd have had to pay.

The only way that information was discovered is because these schemes were open to everyone. It has to be the way, at least for the cheapest and most cost-effective measures. There's a lot more in the report, and I really recommend it.

The strange thing about last year's Budget was the sheer scale of the opportunity missed by the SNP. Labour's efforts in London have been ineffective means testing, and they had a chance to show they could run Scotland better. They had the powers, and they flunked it. It would have been theirs, not ours: their signature achievement to go into the next election. Who knows what that will be now? I think failure to get the referendum through is a poor substitute.

The model we're proposing, was perhaps counter-intuitively implemented by a minority Tory council, in Kirklees (aka Greater Huddersfield). Dave Cameron noticed, and he launched his next local election campaign there.

He's not forgotten, either. His scheme, announced today to show Labour up during Copenhagen, is on an ambitious scale, albeit with some obvious flaws in it (Tescos and M&S probably aren't the best partners). But compared to the Tories, it's not just Labour who are lagging behind. The SNP are too.

Plaid testicles.

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spquaich.jpgTomorrow night the Holyrood hacks, formerly known as the Lawnmarket, will attend Scotland's most scurrilous awards ceremony, the famous Tartan Bollocks. The Bollocks in question are awarded as a quaich for the most gloriously inaccurate political journalism of the previous year. 

Here's a full list of the winners (losers?) over the ten years of the Bollocks.

1999: Carlos Alba and Dave King, for an SNP leadership challenge that never materialised.

2000: Angus MacLeod, for claiming Robin Cook would be the next First Minister.

2001: Hamish Macdonell, for predicting Murdo Fraser would take over from David McLetchie (note, this was two years before Murdo entered Parliament, and four years before Annabel in fact took over).

2002: Douglas Fraser, then at the Sunday Herald, claimed the Tories were on the verge of coalition with Labour.

2003: Magnus Gardham and the Record mocked up the wind turbines destined for Holyrood's roof. Or not destined, as it turned out.

2004: Jason Allardyce, for a piece about where terrorists would plant their mortars on the Crags to hit Parliament. Contained a handy print-out and keep guide.

2005: Campbell Gunn, of the Sunday Post, won for two pieces, one predicting David McLetchie's job was safe just before he resigned, and the other claiming the canteen was about to ban pies. Quite the contrary: it's one of the only items on the menu here every single day, as Frank McAveety knows to his cost.

2006: Mark Smith got the black spot for a tale of SSP shenanigans including the burning of a wicker Tommy. Turns out it was largely true, although I don't know which bits. Mark has my sympathy.

2007: Paul Hutcheon took the prize for a confident prediction that a Labour MP was about to defect to the SNP. Apparently the defence was that the article itself alarmed the would-be defector, but if one's own article makes itself untrue simply by being published...

2008: Andy Nicoll, whose excellent book you can buy here, had stories on consecutive days which claimed "Wendy bounces Gordon into referendum" and then "Gordon bounces Wendy into referendum". It's not up there with some of the Bollocks from the past, but it seems pretty likely that one of those stories couldn't be true.

The overwhelming theme is, incidentally, predictions. I understand the argument that journalists need to go out on a limb and read the tea-leaves, but it's no wonder that's a bit of a precarious task. My prediction is that tomorrow night's winner will, again, have made a prediction that simply can't be stood up. 

Update: My prediction-prediction appears to have been right. Lorraine Davidson of the Times won for this piece, full of prognostications that never happened. A new prize for the "best" blogpost from a journalist's blog was also awarded, with Brian Taylor picking up the Wardog Memorial Trophy for this piece.

Update again: Here's the 2010 winner. 2011 approaches..
andrearnie.jpgThe gap between the SNP's 2007 manifesto and their achievements is a rich seam of opposition taunts for Alex Salmond. It even inspired the LOLITSP to do a notorious impersonation of Andre the Giant (pictured left carrying the Governator) and tear up said manifesto at FMQs.

Your Local Income Tax, they shout, where is it? Your class size reductions? A single thing built by the Scottish Futures Trust? That nice bowl of fruit? This is just a warmup for the forthcoming mother of all "broken promises": the failure to deliver a referendum on independence.

Some of this is fair game. The Scottish Futures Trust was meant to be an alternative to the bonkers PPP/PFI approach shared by Labour and the Tories, and Scottish Government bonds would have been a good way to deliver that. Except that the Scotland Act doesn't permit it. And the SNP really ought to have done their homework on that in advance.

Some of the flak, though, like the Local Income Tax element and the forthcoming referendum round, is simply ridiculous. The Nats are a minority administration. They need the support of Labour or any two other parties to make a majority. Labour opposed LIT, as did we, so they sound absurd when they complain that the SNP never delivered it. It'd be like us complaining that they've not built the Aberdeen Western Peripheral.

My view is this. If SNP Ministers try to get stuff done that we oppose, we'll criticise them and try to find others who share our position to work with. We certainly won't call it a broken promise if the bad stuff doesn't happen. When the SNP come forward with proposals we can back, we'll try to help them get it done. Why is that so complicated?

Thanks to Malc for the inspiration for this post. Get a blog, mate!

Small reshuffle: two demoted.

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russellsalmondcunningham.jpgThe focus of the Holyrood media pack's attention today and tomorrow is on the demotion of Fiona Hyslop from Education to Culture, but that's not the curious part of this mini-reshuffle. 

It might seem a clear jobswap with Mike Russell, but actually he too has been demoted, perhaps for carelessness in his private office.

Unusually, I like Mike. I hold a high opinion of him, although not necessarily as high as he does of himself. But until today he was Minister For Making Scotland Independent as well as Minister For Tartan and Homecoming. Fiona Hyslop goes to a Culture Ministry stripped of that first role, which has gone instead to the Maximum Eck himself. 

It couldn't be clearer. The job of Chief Cheerleader For Independence is what made Mike's old job so central. The constitution might be a side-issue to most Scots, but not for the Nats. As it was, it was like being Minister for the Environment in a Green government, or Minister for Privatisation in a Tory administration.

Reshuffles, like Newtonian physics, are a zero-sum game. The profile and the importance have gone somewhere, taken away from the underlings. In keeping with tradition, Salmond's promoted himself.

The Universality of Shame.

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freedomwallace.jpgThis sort of daft behaviour doesn't predominantly damage the SNP. Like other worse scandals of the type, it mostly damages the reputation of blogging, and more seriously, the reputation of politics in general. 

Getting abusive while anonymous online may feel cathartic, but it tends not to help your cause, even if you don't get caught on the eve of the boss's big day.

For a more forgiving perspective, Jeff has more.

Tom Harris in "wrong on PR" shock.

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TomHarris.jpgYou can't argue with the quantity of blogging that Tom Harris puts in, but he will insist on being wrong. Today's egregious example is on the topic of proportional representation. 

It's perhaps no surprise that someone on the hard right of the Labour Party would oppose fairer elections, and it's also pretty clear why the Scottish Parliament as a whole gets up his nose.

The issues MSPs discuss and decide upon at Holyrood tend to be the main issues of the day: there are exceptions, sure, like the economy, welcoming asylum seekers, and whatever wars Labour's gotten us into lately. Scottish MPs just don't get the limelight any more, and that must sting, especially for an ex-Minister.

Today Tom weighed in against his colleagues' doomed PR for Westminster plan, which is about twelve years too late. "In Scotland and Wales", he opined, ""assisted places scheme" MSPs and AMs represent no-one.."

In fact, Tom, 73 MSPs are elected in a relatively undemocratic manner, usually by a minority of their constituents. First Past The Post "assists" these Members, especially those like Kenny Gibson, who won his seat last time with just 30.7% of the vote. Conversely, 56 of our MSPs are elected to reflect that radical thing: the will of the electorate.

Thanks only to the PR element, the numbers of MSPs in Holyrood aren't that far from the popular will, but those 73 less democratic elections do skew things. The SNP got 33% of the constituency vote and 31% of the regional vote, but 36% of the MSPs. Labour got fewer votes in both, but still picked up 34% of the seats. Conversely, Greens got 4% of the vote and just 1.5% of the seats. 

If we had to abolish one kind of MSP, Tom's preference is clear: he'd get rid of the more representative kind. I can't agree.
elephantbridge.jpgIt's satisfying, commissioning opinion polls, especially on topics where the other side is rich and powerful but hasn't published any poll results. That always makes me suspect our position is popular as well as right.

The one we released today (thanks to Friends of the Earth Scotland and the ForthRight Alliance for co-commissioning it) covered Ministers' plans for a new Forth Road Bridge. 


But is that the real choice that Ministers face? Could they definitely repair the existing bridge? There are two ways it could be delivered. First, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority are highly confident that the dehumidification of the cables will work. It's underway, and it's costing £10.3m, which is pocket change in bridge terms. 

To give the SNP the maximum benefit of the doubt, though, let's assume that that dehumidification fails. We'd then have to go to recabling or cable augmentation. There are three variants of this approach: replacement above, augmentation above, and augmentation to the side. Any of these would simply work, guaranteed: it's a standard operation, with lots of international expertise available. 

A report from FETA in February 2008 showed that this would cost between £91m and £122m, depending on the option chosen. Perhaps by coincidence, FETA just got a shiny new website and the report is no longer available. I'm not saying it's a deliberate whitewashing, mind: as I've recently been reminded, sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice. You can see the Google cache of the report here.

In case there's still any doubt about the potential to fix the existing bridge, the proof is, ironically, in the spin deployed by Ministers in response to the story in today's Scotland on Sunday. They say "we are building a replacement crossing as well as utilising the existing bridge". I can imagine more accurate words than "replacement" to use there. Perhaps "additional"?

So £122m is the top end for fixing the bridge, and that's what YouGov offered as one option. The other, again giving the SNP's spin machine the benefit of the doubt, is their current upper estimate for an entirely new bridge - £2,300m.

Despite the constant deluge of spin, by almost two to one the public just don't think that's a sensible choice. To sum up, the new bridge would be:

Unaffordable. Scottish Ministers don't have the money. They begged Westminster for it, and sensibly, got knocked back. John Swinney and colleagues ceaselessly complain about "£500m of Labour cuts", yet they're planning to blow more than four times that on this structure.

Unsustainable. It's just more road capacity. Labour argued for a "multimodal" bridge, with rail or light rapid transit built in as well as a road route, but the SNP didn't listen. The existing bridge, magically repaired despite all the Ministerial bluster, will supposedly be reserved for buses and taxis, but no-one believes that. As drivers sit in jams on the new bridge and look downstream to the probably empty old bridge, they'll understandably get a bit miffed. If there's one constant since 1999, it's Ministers doing whatever the motoring lobby want, and that reservation for public transport will melt like snow off a dyke.

As a result, there'll be four lanes of traffic feeding into Edinburgh, and congestion levels will inevitably worsen alongside carbon emissions. This ignores the opportunity cost, too - if the same money were spent on public transport, the SNP could be cutting emissions and congestion rather than worsening them.

Unnecessary. There's no argument against simply fixing the existing bridge, apart from the unsubstantiated handwaving about economic impact. The real reason it's being pushed for so hard is two-fold. First, there's a misconception that people in Fife vote for whoever promises them more bridges. Second, Alex Salmond loves his hard hat openings, and who knows, the bridge may even end up being named after him. I look forward to watching the Labour leader's face if that happens.

Unpopular. Our poll had crossbreaks by voting intention, and every party's voters are against it. The closest you come to sympathetic is amongst SNP voters, but even they aren't convinced by John Swinney's arguments. In these times of budget pressure, Tory and Labour voters are the most sceptical, as you might expect, but there's not much in it.  

Going by the constituency vote, here's the specific extent to which all the other parties are out of touch with their supporters:
Conservative » Repair: 64%, Replace: 30%, Don't Know: 6%
Labour » Repair: 59%, Replace: 32%, Don't Know: 9%
Lib Dem » Repair: 56%, Replace: 37%, Don't Know: 7%
SNP » Repair: 51%, Replace: 41%, Don't Know: 9%

Bad politics. Public transport projects across the country are getting put on hold, with GARL just the most obvious example. When the budget and the timescale get blown, and when Fife and the Lothians are snarled up in congestion, the new bridge will plumb depths of unpopularity that will make my time on the Parliament building project look like a walk in Holyrood Park.

Right now there are four opposition parties, and just one, the Greens, arguing against this scheme. I keep expecting one of the other parties to get the arguments against and join us to campaign for repair instead of replacement. Whoever does so can clearly reap a massive political reward, a reputation for prudence, and some pretty substantial environmental credentials.

The alternative is for it to be just us holding the SNP to account while the others go down with them, and while we have to watch the bridge eating a decade's worth of discretionary capital spend. Who's with us?

Why votes at 16 matter.

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youthvote.jpgI've got in my hand a flyer given out by Scottish Youth Parliament activists on the Gude Cause suffragette march the weekend before last. It lists what sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds can do, or can be made to do. 

They point out that this age group can be tried in court as an adult, join the army, own their own home, and pay taxes, but not vote. 

It's a persuasive argument, even if discrimination against the young is in one sense more egalitarian than discrimination against women or members of ethnic minorities. We were all young once, even Bill Aitken.

The reason I'm so committed to this cause is a little different, though.

Last year we had a young man in our Holyrood office on a work placement arranged by his school. These can be a bit high maintenance and sometimes of dubious value, but he was smart as hell, immediately got the basics of writing a press release, and fitted in from the start. He was also very politically aware, and pretty passionate.

He was fifteen at the time, and he had done the sums. He knew he'd turn eighteen in 2011, just a couple of months after the next Holyrood election, and wouldn't get a say in a Scottish election until he was practically twenty-two, seven years away.

Another very good friend of mine is in a similar position. He'll be a year and a month too young to vote in the 2011 elections, and (assuming the next UK cycle is four years long) he'll be in his twenties before he gets to vote either for Westminster or Holyrood. He'll just miss the 2012 Scottish locals, too, so won't get to vote for his local councillors until he's almost twenty-three.

Like our work placement friend, he's very politically literate, very knowledgeable and passionate about the issues. But politicians can safely ignore him as long as the voting age remains at eighteen.

The idea you can vote at eighteen is, after all, awfully contingent on there being an election on your eighteenth birthday, and the current arrangement means a lot of people in their twenties will have had no opportunity to vote for at least one of the levels of government that matters. Just wrong.

"Votes at sixteen" is therefore slightly misleading, although I see why they chose it. Plenty of people much older than that will get disenfranchised too, and the problem is much wider than people normally think.

Some patronising fools claim we can't trust these young people to vote responsibly. Just as with the older generations, though, many of those who don't care or don't know anything about politics simply won't vote at all. And who are we to say what a responsible vote is anyway? Let the (young) people decide for themselves.

Greens : Nats :: Nats : Tories?

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equations.jpgAlex Salmond is away this week at the Alex Salmond Annual Conference 2009, and everyone sounds like they're having a lovely time counting their chickens ahead of the UK General.

The Maximum Eck therefore went on GMS this morning to set out his strategically sensible but odd-sounding ambition for this election: a hung Parliament. 

Brian Taylor captures the thinking perfectly. The comparison to Steel's "go back to your constituencies" line may be brutal, but, as BT observes, this approach is much smarter because it excuses Salmond from having to admit he'd love nothing more than a Cameron victory. Apart from a Thatcher victory, that is. Fortunately it's just him and Norman Tebbit on that one.

The SNP attitude to the rest of the UK is changing pretty fast. Salmond said last week that Westminster would be "hung by a Scottish rope", a stark contrast to the more charming line he took before the last Holyrood election. Back in 2007 he said England and Scotland would be "the best of pals, the closest of buddies". I prefer my pals not to try to hang me with a rope, but I'm sure Kevin Pringle knows where he is on the message calendar.

Last year, at the midpoint of the transition from best pals to hanging with a rope, Salmond said he'd "make Westminster dance to a Scottish jig". That might still sound like a relatively friendly metaphor, but note the compulsion. It actually reminds me more of the brutal ending of Snow White, where the evil queen has to dance in red hot iron shoes until she dies

In Salmond's the cause of death is now hanging, not dancing, but dead is still dead. If you like you can also pick a role from Snow White for the First Minister to play. Anyone picking Bashful will be laughed at.

Back to his appearance on GMS. This morning he said that:

"A Scottish block would be influential regardless of the outcome of the election. What I think is true is that a balanced Parliament, a Parliament without an overall majority would be the most influential, give us the most ability to extract concessions and win gains for Scotland. 

"I think there's no doubt that in a Parliament without an overall majority, then if you have a block of MPs then you can achieve fantastic things, and I only point out that of all the politicians in these islands I am probably the one with the most experience of minority government. I'm on the receiving end of it. 

"Obviously, if you take the first Budget the SNP brought in last year then the Green Party with two MSPs were able to have an extraordinary influence because we're a minority government, because it's a balanced Parliament."

(on iPlayer until next week, roughly 2 hours and 10 minutes in)

I remember that Budget. What happened is that a small opposition party (that's us) brought forward an eminently sensible and pragmatic proposal, but an overweening minority administration tried to bully them into accepting something negligible and almost entirely different. When that bullying failed, the Budget fell

What exactly the SNP actually learnt from this process it would be good to know. Was it that larger parties tend to get their way in the end? Pleasing as it is for him to tell a UK-wide audience that Greens are influential, the fact is that he turned us over and the policy never happened.

The equation doesn't hold for other reasons too. Our only objective in the Budget talks he refers to was a policy one, to get the idea implemented, to cut bills and carbon emissions and to boost jobs. There was no hidden agenda, although we'd obviously have been happy to take credit for the idea (which regular readers will know we nicked from Kirklees Greens). 

Salmond, on the other hand, would be going into UK Budget negotiations striving to demonstrate that the new Tory government doesn't care for Scotland, and that only the SNP can stand up to them. 

This would make the SNP almost impossible for Cameron to deal with, just as a minority Labour government found them in the 1970s. The Tory leader's long term future may well depend on ensuring he avoids both their rope and their red-hot shoes, just as the polls predict he will.

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