Parliament: September 2008 Archives

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highlighter.jpgWhile searching for a particular response to our 2007 manifesto, I found an interesting document published under FOI - a review (580k pdf) of that manifesto by a Scotland Office civil servant. 

Specifically, it's a "Selection of material focusing on those aspects of the Manifesto which could impact on relations with the UK Government and the pattern of the Devolution Settlement."

The highlighter pen got quite an outing. Tackling climate change and airport expansion, opposing nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and reversing rail privatisation all got blue-inked, and that's just from our key pledges. 

Some of these are understandable, especially nuclear weapons. But airport expansion in Scotland is a planning matter for local authorities, Scottish Ministers, and the Parliament. And why did the regulation of supermarkets not get highlighted? Or the defence of civil liberties? Given Westminster leads on the abolition of civil liberties you might have thought otherwise.

Anyway, I was interested to see what they made of us. And it turns out it's not just the radical Greens who had The Treatment. The equivalent exercise was also conducted on the SNP, the Liberals, where the author speculates fruitlessly about coalition, those dangerous constitutional rebels, the Tories, and even the Scotland Office's supposed friends in Scottish Labour.

Impact on relations with the UK? We all do it, apparently. And now you know a little more about the constructive way the Scotland Office spends its time.

Second class response.

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shutletterbox.jpgSome three weeks ago Robin put down a motion here which invited the Nats to offer to bear the cost of loss-making post offices, and to recognise the essential social role they provide. Currently just one other MSP has signed it, and you won't be surprised to know it's Patrick.

Next time you find yourself listening to an MSP from any other party blathering on about saving their local post offices, ask them why they didn't sign up to the only proposal yet that would have saved the lot in one go. I'll tell you why, though. It's a dirty little secret.

These people actually love post office closures. At the Meadows Festival, it's all the Liberals wanted to talk about (although I insisted they talk about airport expansion). A threatened closure is a perfect campaign opportunity, a way to get local members motivated and to get into the local media. The printers here on the fourth floor whirr with little else.

The scandal is that they don't want to fix the problem, and one way to tell is that they only want to save the specific ones in their constituencies. I don't know about you, but I sometimes find myself in other parts of the country wishing there was a post office too.

Some are more hypocritical than others - and yes, Nigel Griffiths, I mean you, because you did vote for closures and then you campaigned to save them. But the same lack of an alternative applies to Liberal, Tory and SNP campaigners. As far as I know, anyway. Perhaps they've got a great plan - I know the Liberals considered privatisation, which would be one sure way to get as many closures as possible in the shortest time.

The bottom line is this. If they don't sign the motion, and they don't come up with an alternative of their own (which I would love to hear), you can tell they have no interest in fixing the problem, and just want to profit from the consequences. 

If they sign up, we could build a common campaign, and make post office closures a thing of the past. For instance, 43 closures were announced today, and Jamie Hepburn railed against them. Sign the motion, Mr Hepburn, start the ball rolling, then we'll know you're serious. 

Prepare to be boarded.

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Today is, as you landlubbers have no doubt forgotten, International Talk Like A Pirate Day. By what is nearly an extraordinary coincidence, Parliament was yesterday discussing buccaneering of another sort. Here's Patrick challenging the consensus:

If you want to go a bit further back and look at what happened to our old mutuals, this educational film by Terry Gilliam really is the best summary. It also sets out how the fightback might look.

Part 1, Part 2 below.

The title, incidentally, is my favourite pirate chatup line.

Financial mathematics.

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bankmaths.jpgIn the beginning, there was the Bank of Scotland, the Halifax Building Society, Lloyds Bank and the Trustee Savings Bank (wikipedia links). In 1994 Lloyds took over the TSB, and in 2001 the Bank of Scotland took over the Halifax. Now, all four are one megabank.

Both these original mergers saw high street banks take over organisations which had begun as very different beasts, operating on less purely commercial lines.

155 years ago, the Halifax began as an extremely prudent building society, operating "for the mutual benefit of local working people". In the mid-90s the lure of unsustainable profits proved too much for the Halifax, and £19bn of wisely-saved assets were just given away during the demutualisation. 

This was the beginning of the end of Halifax, and just four years after it was floated on the stock exchange, it was swallowed up by the Bank of Scotland. I know it's unfashionable in Scotland to care about what happens south of the border, but at the time it was clear that the town of Halifax had lost a substantial asset, as had the working people who were the original intended beneficiaries.

The TSB, for its part, was an aggregation of small savings banks, run by trustees along "democratic and philanthropic guidelines". By 1970 there were 75 such banks, holding the then substantial sum of £2.8bn in assets. In 1984 they were united by legislation, and the TSB became virtually indistinguishable from the other high street banks.

It took just eleven more years for this new more commercial entity to be swallowed by Lloyds Bank, although in this case a small element of the philanthropic guidelines were retained, as 1% of pre-tax profits still go to charity.

In both these cases, creative and prudent Victorian financial structures were gradually stripped of their purpose and their capital. Private and secure institutions floated on the stock market as the short-term gains from speculation, massively leveraged loans and exotic derivatives grew more appealing. 

The depositor was essentially forgotten, and these banks competed to throw more and more money they didn't have at the mortgage sector, before trading these worthless debts as if they were actual assets.

Looking at the latest merger, it's dependence on exactly this money-go-round which caused the collapse of HBOS. Lloyds was a suitable buyer precisely because it had retained far more prudent approach to the secondary markets.

Personally, I am convinced that there are clear models we should pursue if we want to see a sustainable future for financial services. First, there are still building societies. The Nationwide in England may be the largest UK-wide, with £159bn of assets, but we have our own mutual stars like the Dunfermline Building Society. There's definitely room for more.

Second, there are banks we will surely never see a run on, prudent organisations which invest in society and which rely on deposits, not inter-bank lending. The Cooperative Bank and Triodos are the two most obvious examples. The Royal Bank of Scotland would be well advised to get on board with this more sustainable model as quickly as possible (and, while we're on the subject, to reject schemes like Sakhalin 2), although I know it'd take a massive amount of work to do so.

Thirdly, we are seeing a small rise in the role of credit unions, which operate in line with many of the original social objectives of the building society movement. 

In the longer term, if we have institutions which are based on this limited element of Victorian values, we will be able to weather these storms. They're traditional Scottish principles, too, as Patrick pointed out at First Minister's Questions today. Thrift, self-reliance, sustainability, and even prudence. We'll be lost without them.

Update: here's what that ??? should look like.

Cyber anti-nat.

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I've long bemoaned the poor standard of discussion on newspaper websites, with slavish, abusive and irrational SNP supporters usually the main culprits. A challenger arrives today, though, on this Telegraph article (note: I hit the complaint button, so the comment may disappear). 

Now, plenty of cybernats use appalling comparisons, with Brown normally compared to Mugabe using the super-clever phrase "ZaNu Liebour", but this comment goes right to the classic idiot's favourite - Hitler. 

Thumbnail image for cyberantinat.pngIn case anyone's not familiar with Godwin's Law, the original states that as time passes in an online discussion, the probability of a Nazi analogy tends to 100%. More recently, it has been redefined to mean that anyone making such an analogy automatically loses whatever argument they're engaged in. I hope we can all agree that's what's happened here.

Note: I am not related to this particular "James", before anyone suggests otherwise.

First nomination in.

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tennant.jpgTo no-one's great surprise, Patrick Harvie (pictured) has today put his name forward to succeed Robin as co-convenor of the party. 

More than one journalist observed that "Patrick Harvie Not To Run" would have been more newsworthy, but they will have to be disappointed.

Just to be clear about the process, the fact that we have only two MSPs for the next two years and seven months does not mean Patrick will automatically be selected. 

Unlike certain other parties I could mention, the ballots have to be issued, and any two party members in good standing may nominate another to stand.

With this in mind, I will remain scrupulously neutral, despite having a desk mere feet from Patrick's. As the role is co-convenor (male), I also get to use that much-deprecated phrase - may the best man win.

Dog's dinner.

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doggy-dinner.jpgTim Luckhurst wrote an extraordinary piece for the Guardian yesterday, full of praise for Iain Gray, yet I feel the new LOLITSP won't be pleased by it. 

He is not a "standard-issue numpty" like Jamieson or Kerr, Luckhurst says, backed up by the evidence that Gray had a public-school education. 

He's "open-minded", which is confirmed by the fact that he's been seen reading the Guardian. Surely a low bar, especially for a Labour politician?

Tim then advises the LOLITSP to call on Gordon Brown to resign, which sounds like friendly fire rather than advice intended to be helpful. I know Ministers down south are eyeing Brown up like a well-done roast (Cabinet pictured above), but the rest of us know a change of leader won't solve their problems.

Finally, he argues that Gray has to prove that "social justice and separatism are incompatible". So, in principle, Scotland would be incapable of achieving social justice without being part of Great Britain? That's a pure faith position, impossible to prove, not to mention counter-intuitive given how badly the status quo has failed to deliver social justice.

Revenge of Iron Claw.

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phonebook.jpgIain Gray has had good coverage with his promise to rip up Labour's 2007 manifesto and start work immediately on the 2011 version. 

While there are parts of it that particularly need to be discarded, like the bit about retaining Council Tax, is it just me who feels queasy about all that policy simply being discarded?

I mean, I know much of it wasn't any good, and it was about as well written as a phonebook, but still..

Let us imagine that you are represented by a Labour MSP, and one way or another, most of us are. 

They all pledged to deliver that 2007 manifesto, and people voted for them knowing that. Despite losing overall, it should be governing their elected representatives' activities in the Chamber and in Committee. Instead it's been ripped up and there's nothing to guide them, nothing to hold them to.

For comparison, here's the executive summary of our manifesto, which Robin and Patrick are working away on until 2011:

o Tackle climate change, cut pollution every year.  
o Deliver world class public transport, not road and airport expansion.  
o Support local business and social enterprise, regulate supermarkets.  
o Keep the NHS and water public, reverse rail privatisation.  
o Say no to Trident and nuclear power, invest in renewable energy.  
o Tackle poverty, provide warm, affordable, energy efficient homes.  
o Stop demonising young people; defend civil liberties and promote equality. 

Also, here's a short video showing Iain Gray actually ripping up their manifesto.


Robin to hand over leadership.

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The Herald ran a big interview with Robin this morning (part 1, part 2), in which he says why he's not standing again for co-convenor, and why he doesn't intend to run again for Holyrood in 2011. I joined the party ten years ago this month, and Robin has been at the heart of the Scottish Green Party much longer than that.

Everyone who was in the party during the dark days which followed the false dawn in 1989 tells me Robin was the glue that held the party together, in terms of energy, drive, and finances. I am absolutely convinced that both the party's hard work and his extraordinarily broad personal vote were essential to the breakthrough in 1999.

Even though he's not going anywhere, really, this is still a pretty emotional day. Thank you, Robin, for all of it.


Agreeing with Henry.

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ziplake.jpgHenry McLeish today pointed out the bleeding obvious: that the £400m in Council Tax Benefit should stay in Scotland to offset local taxes, irrespective of the model Parliament eventually backs. 

Like Henry, I don't think the SNP plans as proposed are the right solution, but that's a different question.

The fact is that this money comes from tax receipts collected in Scotland as well as elsewhere in the UK. Sure, the legislation limits the taxes it can be applied to, but I'd bet the Block Grant that legislation would be changed if a Labour First Minister wanted to amend local taxation. 

Let Labour make the case against Local Income Tax. There's plenty of material there, just as there is with the Council Tax. But simply to threaten to withdraw this money is pure petty-minded-ness, not to mention bad politics. Why give the Nats a new grievance to play with? Don't Labour understand that's still a key part of the way the SNP expects to achieve independence? (Labour understanding of independence pictured above)

A mandate for change.

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carolinelucas.jpgOur sister party in England and Wales just elected their leader, and duly chose the magnificent Caroline Lucas MEP. She's smart, passionate, engaging, radical, and absolutely the right choice. If I were a member and if I had as many votes as Jack McConnell apparently does up here, I'd have voted for her seven times.

Looking around the internet for responses, Tom Harris regrets the diversification of British politics, Iain Dale is more charitable despite being a climate change denier "not [being] convinced by all the arguments on man made global warming", ASwaS backs Caroline to win in Brighton and urges the party up here to change, some Liberals are worried (rightly, I hope), and Jim Jay is naturally delighted.

Note: the update follows comment from Iain Dale below, and I'd be pleased to read any thoughts on the distinction he's describing. I'd also welcome Iain filling me in on the specific arguments he isn't convinced by.

Index-linking the Union dividend.

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brownchancellor.jpgLast week Gordon Brown, the former chancellor, declared himself now open to changes in Scotland's funding arrangements. This was widely interpreted, not least by John Swinney, as movement on fiscal autonomy, but it wasn't anything of the sort. 

He actually said "The Scottish Parliament is wholly accountable for the budget it spends, but not for the size of its budget. And that budget is not linked to the success of the Scottish economy."

What would it look like if the block grant were linked to the success of the Scottish economy? For these purposes let us pretend that growth in GDP is an comprehensive indicator of success.

If Scotland's economy shrank, the block grant would shrink in tandem. Poverty would increase, and the need for government funding would grow, yet Scotland would be given less money to fund the relevant services. Conversely, the less support Scotland needed, the more money would be provided. 

Let's imagine, though, with their limited economic levers, that Salmond and Swinney manage to engineer some localised Irish-style flim-flam boomlet that didn't spill over into Cumbria and Northumberland. Would UK tax revenues then really be diverted north of the border in massive amounts? Unlikely.

This is a long way from fiscal autonomy, which is the right to raise taxes as the Scottish Parliament sees fit. It's more like performance-related pay.

And because the most important economic powers haven't been devolved, Scotland's budget would be even more directly dependent on the vagaries of economic policy largely set in Whitehall. 

Brown's quote could be extended: "And the success or failure of Scotland's economy is not linked to the powers of the Scottish Parliament." But that would take him places he doesn't want to go.

From Uzbekistan to Holyrood.

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craigmurray.jpgYou may know Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan until he was sacked for opposing torture (his version) or being drunk at work, misusing an FCO Range Rover, etc (their version).

His blog notes that while in Edinburgh yesterday he had a "Quick lunch with senior friends from the Scottish Lib Dems and SNP, to quietly forward agreement on the replacement of Council Tax by a local income tax."

This place was dripping with Liberals yesterday, up to The Clegg himself, but did anyone spot Craig? Or notice who he spoke to? I particularly like "quietly" there. I'm supportive of Craig's attitude on torture, naturally, but my view is that things I do quietly don't appear on my blog. 

Anyway, given the numbers, I'm surprised he didn't drop in and see us as well. Without a discussion beyond those two parties, abolishing the Council Tax simply will not happen. Which would be a shame..

Milton and Keynes.

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keynes.jpgYesterday in the chamber Alex Salmond, Iain Gray, Jeremy Purvis, Margaret Curran, Malcolm Chisholm, Ross Finnie, and Andy Kerr all made reference to the work of John Maynard Keynes. 

But every last one of them pronounced his last name wrong, to rhyme with Beans when it should sound like Canes.

How do I know this? One of our most determined activists is a relative of his, and she listened to the debate, getting more and more cross. His Wikipedia page also confirms it. 

Why do the Liberals not know this, when they claim him as their own? Answers would be welcome in the comments. No tracts, please.

(the title is a random train of thought: perhaps Milton Keynes is named for Milton Friedman and Keynes, and perhaps the pronunciation of the town's name has caused this misunderstanding?)

Requiem for a Tory.

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slatfatf.jpg(note to readers not interested in Holyrood gossip: you can safely ignore this one)

Some people think those of us on the ecologically-minded left should hate all Tories as a matter of ideological principle. But then people think all kinds of bonkers stuff. 

Yesterday Scottish Tory Boy apparently terminated his blog, and we will be worse off for it. How could you not respect someone who did so under a heading taken from Douglas Adams?

However, there has to be more to this than meets the eye. The boy loves gossip, and it'll keep finding its way to him.

STB claims that one of the reasons is that he has no internet at home, and can't afford it. Come off it! You work for two Tory MSPs, and if they don't pay you enough to get the internet at home then there's something wrong with the free market.

No, something else is happening. Perhaps a conspiracy, perhaps a cover-up, or at least a hidden agenda. Here are the top five scurrilous theories currently circulating :

1. STB is terrified that his Celtic-supporting mates will discover he's a Tory and thinks they're almost onto him. 
2. He's about to defect to the Liberals.
3. He's about to divert his attention to some top secret blog project.
4. <deleted for legal reasons>
5. Derek's told him to get back to work.

I just made all five up. But #5 sounds plausible to me. Nevertheless, the campaign to get him back online starts now. I've got a fiver towards your internet, mate.

It's pie time.

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mcaveetypie.jpgStrangely, the Herald's website is claiming it's tomorrow (Thursday) already. I'm pretty sure it's not, but I do like to read the papers as early as possible. 

Anyway, we had a finger in this pie, the 100m and £100 challenge from Frank McAveety to Alex Salmond, and it certainly tastes delicious. The proceeds will go, if Salmond accepts, to Robin's preferred rainforest charity. 

Frank, you will remember, lost his job as Culture Minister partly because of an unfortunate incident with a pie and chips.

I confess to encouraging Frank to draw the comparison with Usain Bolt, but perhaps two MSPs renowned for their love of food might prove a spectacle of an altogether different sort. Others have suggested a pie-and-spoon race, and Frank thought the response might be a challenge to an actual pie-eating contest.

Whatever happens, it draws attention to the original issue, the failure of the SNP to include aviation in their climate change bill targets, right? Right?

turbineanddarkclouds.jpgThe SNP set out their programme for government today, including a Climate Change Bill. Their manifesto last time was clear:

"In government we will introduce a Climate Change Bill with mandatory carbon reduction targets of 3% per annum and also set a long-term target of cutting emissions by a minimum of 80% by 2050 - above the UK target of 60%." (2007 SNP manifesto, p.21)

Annual targets are important because they make Ministers accountable. Each year they have to come before Parliament and say something like: ".. last year we achieved a 2.6% cut in our emissions, which is well below the target set in the legislation. With this in mind, we are increasing next year's budget for public transport, we will reject plans for new coal-fired power stations, and require all Scottish government agencies to switch to 100% clean energy."

The simple issue is this. Who will be in office in a year? The SNP, barring something unforeseen. Who's accountable then? They are. Who will be in office in 2050? No-one knows. Who's accountable? No-one. 

Update: Cochrane says "And, of course we won't be able to see if the Climate Change Bill has worked until 2050. I'll keep you posted."

Yet the annual targets have been dropped, and all that remains is the 80% target for 2050. Have the SNP gone native? Or have they taken it away just so they can look magnanimous by putting it back? It was even suggested to me today that annual targets would go back in exchange for our votes on Local Income Tax. I don't think so.

Not least because the votes are there in the chamber. I listened to the debate today and heard the case for annual targets made by (amongst others) Malcolm Chisholm for Labour, Alison McInnes for the Liberals, and John Scott for the Tories. 

With us, that's a massive majority for some kind of annual targets, whatever the SNP do. If they vote against, it's 81-47, assuming Margo votes for targets. So the question is this: what level should they be set at?

Let's follow the science. We back the Tyndall Centre's analysis. 90% is a better longterm target, and that means we need at least 4.5% annual cuts if we want to do our bit. 

I'm delighted to see the other parties, especially the Tories and the Liberals, really standing up for annual targets. Let's see if they back a sensible number, though.

Resisting the "choice architects".

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dungbeetlevsearth.jpgA wee while ago, a pollster knocked on my door and asked if I would like to take part in a study of attitudes to climate change, commissioned by the Scottish Government. Obviously I did, not least because I want to know what Ministers are interested in. I explained what I do for a living, but they don't screen anyone out by employment or similar.

Disappointingly, the focus of the questions was almost entirely on what we, the public, should do. How important is it for me, as a consumer, to buy some kind of notionally happy-pig pork? Tough question for a vegetarian, that. How important is it for me to turn the taps off while I brush my teeth? We're on the record on that one.

There was next to nothing about what Government should do. Do you back binding annual targets for greenhouse gas emissions? No question. If you support targets, what should they be? 3%, as per the SNP's weak manifesto pledge? 4.5%, as per the Green manifesto? Somewhere in between? No question. Do you think the Scottish Government should spend more than £5bn on their roads programme, or put the money into public transport instead? Unsurprisingly, no question.

You can tell a lot by the questions asked. And the SNP's aim with this kind of research is clear - to make the public feel bad for not doing more to tackle climate change, and to shirk any responsibility themselves. Constructing a list of questions like that is the clearest demonstration that the choice architects have been at work.

As a footnote, there was a curious error in the poll. I got given a booklet with numbered answers, each associated with a particular question. For instance, there was a list of sources for information about climate change, and the question was "who do you trust?". Clue: independent scientists, not either Government.

One of the other questions listed opinions from "Climate change is an immediate and serious problem that we should tackle now" through to "I do not believe climate change is happening". I looked at the list, and just said "the first one", or whichever place Green option was listed at. 

The interviewer looked shocked, given that I'd outed myself as a Green, and it turned out the prompts were in reverse order to the options on his laptop. It was just easy to spot the error because he knew what I'd say, and he could tell I wasn't a climate change denier. Who knows how many others have had their views misrecorded on this question?

So if when the poll comes out from the Scottish Government, feel free to ignore the results from that answer. And do please resist the implicit idea that climate change isn't something the SNP administration should help tackle.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Parliament category from September 2008.

Parliament: August 2008 is the previous archive.

Parliament: October 2008 is the next archive.