Parliament: February 2009 Archives

Poacher turned poacher.

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salmon.jpgJohn Farquhar Munro has put himself centre stage on the referendum question, coming out in favour of one just as his leader confirmed, for now, his opposition. I'm still betting they'll u-turn before 2011, but it's fascinating to see at least one of the passengers in the back urging the driver to make the change now rather than blunder on in the wrong direction.

The Nats are clearly right about one thing, as quoted in that Times article above: "Consistency is not a characteristic you associate with the Lib Dems. The only constant is change.

But JFM's position should surprise no-one. His party includes many a stuffed shirt pretending to be a rebel, but he's the real deal. I've been told he also did time for poaching back in the day, and Jamie Stone is on the record discussing it here (after Jackie Baillie's intervention on that page). I particularly like Jamie's followup comment. Classic Stone.

Anyway, Tommy's absence makes the Parliament a less colourful place, in various ways, and I believe JFM is now the only serving MSP to have also been detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. I'm sure Tavish would send him back there right now if he could.

Caption competition.

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freedomwallace.jpgToday's Scotsman reveals Calman's reluctance to discuss the Liberals' preferred option, federalism. I know this sounds like it's going to be dull, but bear with me, it could have much wider consequences.

The rumours have long been circulating that the arguments of Liberalism have fallen on deaf ears within the Commission, with its Labour/Tory majority pushing for the most minor of tweakings, perhaps even including some undevolution

For one thing, there wasn't much else that could explain the importance Tavish put on Salmond's letter to Calman on borrowing powers. It was crucial enough from a Liberal perspective to get them to vote for an unchanged Budget, a spending programme they'd described just a week earlier as "woefully inadequate". 

As Magnus Gardham described it, getting Salmond to restate his position to a body he disapproved of was no more challenging than getting the Honey Monster to eat a bowl of own brand sugar puffs. Why would they have put this at the absolute top of their shopping list? Clearly if they were desperate to be identified with the issue of borrowing powers, and presumably they thought Calman wasn't already planning to recommend this option.

Apologies for it not having gotten interesting yet. Here's the theory, backed up by nothing more than whisperings in the media and second-hand internal Liberal gossip. Hints also appear elsewhere in the world of blogging - notably both SNP Tactical Voting and Mystic Mag.

The Liberals now believe Calman will turn them over completely, thus making them look irrelevant even in comparison with the rest of the Yoonionisht Conshpirashy. The last thing they want with Westminster elections looming is to continue looking like the most inadequate wing of the anti-independence front.

They also want back into government - after all, it's their only guiding principle.

So they are about to offer Salmond a deal, the theory goes. Liberal support for the referendum bill, provided there are three options, independence, status quo, and whatever version of "more powers" the Liberals want, thus sidelining Calman and its Labour/Tory co-sponsors altogether. They'd also be front and centre, which would be a change. Tom Peterkin had an earlier version of the theory last year, incidentally, but I don't think a referendum without a status quo option would fly.

The polls suggest the middle way would be more popular - it often is in STV "preferenda" - and a vote for this option, their option, would allow the Liberals to take sole credit for Scotland's constitutional future, simultaneously scuppering both the SNP fundies (see above) and their two Westminster-led enemies. 

The appointment of gradualist Mike Russell as "the Minister for Tavish Scott" even suggests that Salmond's seen how this end-game plays out.

A failure by the public to back independence would then take it off the agenda for a generation, whatever John Mason thinks. That inoculation against further discussion of the issue, for at least one Parliamentary session, would allow an SNP/Liberal coalition after May 2011, assuming the numbers work out, a pretty big if given the recent Liberal numbers. 

Obviously they'd hope to get a boost from this radical shift, and the referendum would be just a touch over five months from the election, so it'd still be the major story thereof, just as Salmond always planned. Except he'd have lost it, and indeed only the Liberals would be able to claim victory.

Their current denials might seem to get in the way, but their recent history shows that no principle can be left unbent for long, and one eye-watering about face quickly follows another. Tavish even floated this very idea in the chaos of his anointment, before going back on it.

It would also be consistent with their Westminster call for a in-or-out referendum on Europe, the wheeze which cost Clegg his honeymoon. After all, the parallel argument there was that change should be voted down to quell the anti-Europe British nationalist sirens. 

Even the cries of betrayal from Labour and the Tories will work for them: it sets up vague yellow water between those two and them, and allows the Liberals to take the fireproof Salmondite line that "the people must choose", even if the options are the result of a carveup rather than some kind of constitutional convention that the public might be allowed to get involved in.

No promises, but don't you think it sounds plausible?

Oil be damned.

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Thumbnail image for rigdown.jpgAnother round of 1970s documents about oil and nationalism, another round of nationalist frothing about oil and the conniving English. The BBC claims that "between 25 and 30 billion barrels could still be recovered over the next 40 years", which is presumably what the SNP press release claimed. 

To be absolutely clear again, North Sea oil peaked in 1999. There is still oil out there, obviously, but it's becoming harder and more expensive to access. Chris Skrebowski of the Energy Institute set out the situation we find ourselves in in May last year:

"Alex Salmond's predictions are simply wrong. Even with optimistic assumptions about future North Sea oil production, and even if Scotland was allocated all of that production, an independent Scotland would be likely to be a net importer of oil by 2015 or 2016. By that stage, given the global decline in output which has already begun, we will have to buy oil on the open market for two or three times the current price. It's completely fraudulent to suggest that Scotland can just live off its oil wealth now."

An even more pessimistic prognosis was provided by Keith Kohl of Energy & Capital in 2007, who observed that "the expected rate of decline could virtually eliminate oil production in the North Sea over the next five years!", just after the next Scottish election.

The argument about whose oil it is, or whose oil it was, is therefore irrelevant as well as dull. Whether we become independent or not, our future lies in those abundant renewables Scotland has been blessed with. The same would have been true by now even if devolution had been established in the 1970s.

Every minute the SNP spend attacking Whitehall over oil is a waste of time that could be spent making ourselves independent from oil, as is every minute the Labour Party spends defending itself. Get over it and get on with the job.

The true end of local income tax.

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coyote.jpgWe have long had a distinctive position on local taxation, backing neither the existing failed policy of council tax nor the failed policy-in-waiting of local income tax. Since May 2007 there has been no majority for either, just as there is no majority for our preferred land value tax.

When motions have come forward praising local income tax, we've voted them down. When motions have come forward supporting council tax, we've voted them down. When an excellent Tory motion came forward arguing for a broader consideration of the options, we backed it wholeheartedly. Prior to that, Parliament had backed our position, which set a list of conditions for local taxation which local income tax could never have met.

None of this should have been news to the Government. Oddly, though, it appears that they hadn't noticed our position until last month, when it was reiterated to them very clearly. This policy had long since gone off the edge of a cliff, last month Ministers looked down for the first time, and yesterday their plans hit the ground.

Government's loss.

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fabiani.jpgMy favourite Minister, Linda Fabiani (left, on the left), was today consigned to the backbenches as part of the SNP's first mini-reshuffle. I've known Linda for almost ten years, from the first months of the Parliament when I worked to support the CPG on refugees and asylum seekers, and she has a real passion for human rights, international development, and a range of related issues including East Timor. Not my first choice for a Minister to remove..

Her departure is being attributed to the SNP's loss of the Creative Scotland Bill, for which she was blamed. Personally I think the decision on the day to press ahead with the Bill itself, despite MSPs' concerns about the financial memorandum, can fairly be attributed elsewhere. Whatever. Government's loss is our gain: she's to be our new neighbour at the end of the fourth floor.

Two final Budget postscripts.

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magnus.jpgOn the day the Budget Mark II went through Holyrood, the Australian Greens proudly trumpeted the fact that they'd made the Government see sense on the very same issue of insulation, particularly emphasising the role it can play in regeneration. It's still possible that I'll get to write a press release like that sometime soon.

Until that day, the last word on this issue here goes to Magnus Linklater (left).

"With even Labour voting in favour of the budget, the Opposition these days comes down to the leader of the smallest party in the Parliament. [..] But at least we know where [Patrick Harvie] stands. He is, in a sense, the last man standing. He deserves our applause."

The passage of the Budget at the second time of asking has some odd consequences, I reckon. The dominant narrative says that the SNP turned chaos into triumph, the Tories came off best, and we lost our insulation programme (which was never offered). 

Leaving aside the latter, which I've already covered, here's a few thoughts on what was lost elsewhere. Whatever each party is taking credit for, there are definitely prices to be paid all round.

SNP: The Nats' costs are longer term, and so perhaps not immediately obvious. First, though, their entire aim is to demonstrate competence in government as a devolved administration as the first phase of building confidence in independence. Whatever the result the second time round, the first time was a Ministerial fiasco, and will have seriously undermined this perception. 

Second, they decided to take out their frustration on the only party which voted for Salmond to be given a shot at the top job in May 2007, we Greens. We're also, coincidentally, the only other party to have any kind of common ground with them on the single policy they're really committed to: independence. Rather than working in good faith with us, they turned to the "Unionisht Conshpirashy" to help them out. No discernable tactical genius here.

Finally, they missed a golden opportunity to be the first government anywhere above the local authority level to deliver a free insulation scheme. It's proved an incredibly popular initiative wherever it's been tried on a smaller scale, and it could so easily have been one in the eye for Gordon Brown and his discredited approach of endless failed targeting and bureaucratic hurdles. Instead, the Nats have just put a bit more money into that exact same approach.

Tories: Fair play, they got some money to help those town centres blighted by years of out-of-town developments, a problem which really took off in the Tory years. Perhaps next year they will propose something to help former mining communities. However, they have the most to lose as the supposed flag-bearers for the Union, and not just because Dave sounds absurd up here when he claims he's "vigorously opposing" the SNP. 

They prop up the SNP for a single reason only: the short-term tactical advantage they reap at Westminster because Gordon Brown's writ doesn't run in his homeland. Their coalition-in-all-but-name with the Nats can only help Salmond build the appearance he craves of competence and of national readiness for independence. Historians may well look back on the oddity of independence being prepared for by a Unionist-supported nationalist administration. 

Labour: Labour went into this Budget process with one aim, to avoid replicating the shambles of last year. They managed to stay out of the spotlight, so that's a small job well done. However, in doing so, they voted for the SNP's Budget, putting themselves in an awkward position as the main opposition party. If the economy fails to pick up between now and March 2010, they can't blame the SNP for mis-allocating funding, whereas the SNP can continue to blame Labour in London for misusing its remaining macro-economic instruments. 

The wider risk here for Labour is of total impotence, a year spent either backing the Nats or having the finger poked at them for the short-lived nature of their consensus politics. As budgets are squeezed and Labour complain, their dominant narrative in Glenrothes, we can expect to hear Salmond shouting at Iain Gray - "but this was a Budget he supported!"

Liberals: Credibility, credibility, credibility. As the most strident opponents of the Budget in advance, not just for its failure to include Tavish's unfunded tax cuts, their position has been the most inconsistent and absurd. They asked for nothing, to Salmond's glee, and he gave it to them in abundance. Is there a single person outside the Liberal parliamentary group who thought, up to the 28th of January, that the top priority was tax cuts, and who also thought, the very next day, that the top priority was a letter to the Calman Commission? 

Possibly there are households where they speak of little else, but I would be surprised. Next time they try to negotiate on something, anything, Ministers know they can just wait ten minutes for a better offer. Tavish's two performances on Newsnight over this issue were new and extraordinary lows.

The public: They lost chance to get their homes insulated for nothing, cutting their bills, allowing them to spend more on themselves and in local economies across Scotland. Unlike the parties' problems above, though, this wasn't their fault.

The Budget - what we lost.

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There's been some chatter about the Greens' position in the various Budget votes, and plenty of heavy spin from the Nats in particular. First, they clearly briefed after Wednesday's vote that they "punished" us for voting against on the 28th. They may think this makes them look hard, but I suspect the bullying approach won't go down too well with voters. We shall see.

Second, and more seriously, they are making claims about the first time the Budget came up for a final vote. Specifically, the suggestion is that we would have got a scheme just like the one we proposed then, albeit on a smaller scale. Given that we'd voted against, the claim goes, they then made it means-tested as part of said punishment.

The truth is a little different. We argued for months that loft and cavity insulation would have to be free to everyone to avoid the failings of countless other targeted schemes, but until the debate on the 28th we had had no pledge from Ministers on this. Then, during the debate (i.e. pretty damn late even if it had been helpful), we were given a note from the First Minister which said that "the emphasis in the schemes would be free and universal".

No wonder Patrick told the media there were "too many caveats" just after voting against. The fact that we had no idea whether the money being offered on the hoof was going to be chiselled off other fuel poverty programmes was one, and the fact that they appeared to have missed the point of the scheme was another, to say the least. Here's several things that statement above could mean. 

1. Some of the areas will get free insulation, and we will emphasise those areas.
2. Some of the properties in every area will get free insulation, decided by means testing, and we will emphasise those properties.
3. The advice element will be free, which is already part of the Energy Asistance Package, and we'll keep emphasising that.
4. Some part of each job, maybe labour, maybe materials, will be free, and we will emphasise that part.

I'm sure you could come up with others, but, bottom line: we were never offered a chance to deliver what we had proposed, even at a slower starting pace than we would have liked. Chipping some money off the total this week was crass, but essentially irrelevant. 

Nevertheless, thanks to the SNP's intransigence, we lost an opportunity to make a real start on cutting household bills, tackling climate change, boosting jobs and doing something radical about fuel poverty. It breaks my heart to see how they threw this opportunity away, but I'll do another post later on what everyone else lost.

Bottom line, this is a good idea, it isn't going away, and one day Government will start doing it. The time until that happens, the weeks and months, will be wasted. Shame.

Punxsutawney John.

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groundhog.jpgYesterday was Groundhog Day, and just two days later Holyrood will redo the whole three-week Budget process in two hours and twenty-six minutes. Stage 1 and Stage 2 are scheduled to take just 10 minutes together. That 48-hour gap is perfectly inconvenient timing for the media, given their love of a good metaphor, but there we go. 

Last week Parliament was uncooperative, partly because the Government wasn't doing enough about climate change, but tomorrow some of the other Parliamentary wildlife are sure to vote for and unfreeze the Budget. But will the Cabinet Secretary look out of his burrow and decide that it's worth delivering our insulation proposal after all? Too early to tell.

Support from unusual quarters.

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Today's News of the World was certainly worth a read, amongst the other good, bad and indifferent coverage of the Budget process from my perspective. 

In it, Euan McColm described Patrick as "head and shoulders above Holyrood's lobby fodder", "a big player who must be taken seriously", and says withdrawal of support from the Budget "was EXACTLY the right thing to do" (tabloid capitalisation, not mine). 

The piece starts by pointing out how he's only 5 foot 5. To my amusement, when Euan asked for that stat, Patrick didn't know, so we had to measure him by comparing him to Green councillors at a meeting until we found one about the right height.

It's not online, like much of the paper (an exception is the November profile of Patrick), so here's a scan. Click for a larger version.


First Holyrood poll for ages.

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The Sunday Times has a post-Budget YouGov poll commissioned by the SNP. The Holyrood numbers look like this: 

Constituency: SNP 38%, Labour 32%, Tory 13%, Liberal 12% 
Regional: SNP 34%, Labour 28%, Tory 15%, Liberal 11%, Green 6%, SSP 4%

An election with these numbers would give roughly the following result, with Margo representing the rounding error:
SNP 47 (n/c), Labour 44 (-2), Tories 18 (+1), Liberals 13 (-3), Green 5 (+3), SSP 2 (+2)

Polling should, as always, only be seen as a bit of fun. Election campaigns matter, and clearly there isn't going to be an election this year. Having said that, some of those seat numbers look a bit unlikely to me. I'd have expected the SNP higher at Labour's expense, perhaps the Tories a bit higher and the Liberals down a bit more, and surely no-one thinks Colin Fox and his merry band are on the verge of getting back into Parliament.

As far as we're concerned, I'd certainly take the prospect of picking up more seats than anyone else, and the softness of the Liberals' position makes that seem at least possible. 

The favourable/unfavourable also got printed, which didn't exactly look good for us, but it's absolutely what I'd expect with so many SNP members rating us negatively just now - there are more of them, after all.

Beyond that, the Steamie claims to have the full list of questions - apparently a Labour activist was polled - and the Nats appear to be holding on to one of them, as follows. 

As you may be aware the SNP government's budget bill was voted down this week. Alex Salmond has threatened to resign as first minister if it is voted down again and has suggested there may have to be a new election for the Scottish parliament. If the budget bill is voted down again and Alex Salmond resigns as First Minister would you prefer:
a. to have the chance to vote in a new election for the Scottish parliament to determine which party runs the Scottish government
b. to leave it to the political parties to decide themselves whether Alex Salmond, Labour leader Iain Gray, Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott or Conservative leader Annabel Goldie should lead the Scottish government?
c. to have chance to vote in a new election for the Scottish parliament?
d. to let political parties decide themselves which party should run Scottish government?
e. Don't know

If a question like this was asked, the results are either being held back for use later in the week, or they may be locked in the safe forever if the numbers don't suit the Nats. What's particularly odd, though, is that answers a & c are identical, and so too are b & d. I smell a rat.

However interesting this is, it'll be a lot more relevant for the longer term to see the next poll, the one conducted after the Budget passes. 

Edit: There were two errors I took from elsewhere: the poll wasn't Nat-commissioned, and the extra question on the Steamie was clearly unreliable. Apologies for taking what appears to be second-hand spin at face value.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Parliament category from February 2009.

Parliament: January 2009 is the previous archive.

Parliament: March 2009 is the next archive.