Sunday 30 December 2012

The ianssmart Review of the Year

And now, the end is near.

With the exception of one week in the high Summer, personally I have not had the greatest of years but at least I've survived it.

However it is traditional at this season to announce awards due, in the opinion of the writer at least, to those of conspicuous the year almost past.

So here are the traditional, inaugural, ianssmart Scottish Political Awards for 2012. All ten of them.

Most Important Sentence of the Year

Most (indeed all) of the other awards go to human beings but this, arguably the single most important award goes simply to 29 words of the English language. They are contained in the fourth paragraph of the Edinburgh Agreement and they read this:

"The date of the poll will be for the Scottish Parliament to determine and will be set out in the Referendum Bill to be introduced by the Scottish Government." (my emphasis)

Now since I am conducting a (relatively) impartial review of the year I won't pause to gloat over how these words come to appear; they mean that there will definitely be a Referendum in the Autumn of 2014. Because the date has to be in the Primary Legislation that then once passed would  require different Primary Legislation to call it off. A majority for which would be unlikely ever to be achievable even in this Scottish Parliament. To that extent one is drawn to the analogy of Marshal Zhukov on the 19th of November 1942. All that is left is to close the trap.

International Politician of the Year

Well, obviously well done to Francois Hollande although, to be honest, he seems to have been elected as the default option without many positives to commend him. And well done to Barack Obama too, although he perhaps needs to realise more that he was elected as much more than the default option.

But my award goes to the Vice-President, Joe Biden. Let's be honest, the first Presidential debate was a disaster and we suddenly panicked that despite all the arguments being on our side we might actually lose to these odd balls and lunatics. In the Vice Presidential debate, Joe Biden reminded us that we had all the arguments on our side. And then went on to get out our vote. Well done Sir. If you were only ten years younger you would yourself have made a great President.

Rising Star of the Year

Back to more domestic concerns. A few contenders here. Certainly Willie Rennie, although he might better be categorised as Survivor of the Year. And a few of the new Labour Group: Jenny Marra, Kez Dugdale, Drew Smith did nothing but improve their reputations. But my winner is my very own MSP,  Jamie Hepburn, even though I most certainly did not vote for him to occupy that position.

To rise in any Party requires a bit of internal Party rebellion, without actual success, and then a willingness after the event to go out and defend the Party line against the "real" enemy. To that extent Jamie has played a faultless hand in 2012, effectively blowing away any of his internal contenders.

Post 2016, he will have a good chance of being the man charged with of picking up the pieces. Assuming, of course, that he is still an MSP at all.

Comeback of the Year

Again, my ultimate winner is a Nationalist, of sorts, but first a word for the other nominees. Brian Wilson is a propagandist of the very first rank and his return to the fray in his columns in the Scotsman has brought a proper heavy hitter back to the front line. He's not going away and the cybernats at some point are going to have to realise that he wont be persuaded to do so by unfocused abuse. Jim Sillars is also a man reborn and his constant, logical, demolition of the current case being made for what some still describe as "Independence", unless accommodated,  will ultimately serve only the interests of the other side of the argument.

But the winner is my old comrade Dennis Canavan. If we are being honest about this, he is the one member of the Yes Scotland campaign my side truly fear. And once the utterly inept Blair Jenkins has been binned (surely soon), the danger is that Dennis will become the public face of that campaign.

But we might console ourselves with the thought that the reason Dennis is so feared on our side is that he is a man of unparalleled integrity. And that, from that position, when he was asked by Isabel Fraser back in October  if he believed Alex Salmond was a man he could trust, he refused to answer. He will however, at some point, be asked again. Or maybe they'll just stick with the Yes man.

Colonist of the Year

Let's be honest, the SNP leadership would have preferred if Alasdair Gray had kept his mouth shut. Just as Nicola makes a speech (hopefully) categorising supporters into exclusively existentialist or utilitarian Nationalists, the last thing they wanted was one of their grand old men popping up to remind us of the third, anglophobic, chip on the shoulder, strand of that persuasion.

My colonist of the year however is a man who I really do not like but who shows the absurdity of the colonist categorisation.

Charles Green, I suspect, prior to eighteen months past, had spent no more than a few days of his entire life in Scotland. Today however you would think he had been born on the Copland Road and spent his formative years fostered to a family from Larkhall on condition that they enthusiastically encouraged his flute lessons.

But nobody, and I mean nobody, while readily cursing him as an orange b or or a ruthless b or even a chancing b, has ever thought for a moment to describe him as an English B. Although English he undoubtedly is. Because, outwith the world of a rather pathetic strand of nationalist opinion, that doesn't matter. Even if he does head back to Yorkshire after he has succeeded....... or failed. Just like Fergus headed back to the Bahamas.

Settler of the Year

It seems to me that one of the big, missed, stories of the year has been the renewal of the Scottish Labour Party.

Now I know there will be those who will be rolling about at this statement. We got gubbed in 2011 and, while Johann has done better than I expected, nobody seriously thinks of her as an alternative First Minister, even after the Referendum. And while we did better in the Local Government elections than expected, the best we could truly claim was a close fought score draw.

But throughout this slightly surreal period of Scottish Politics, nobody has ever disputed that in the big elections, the elections where most people actually vote. Labour remains the overwhelmingly dominant Party.

And nobody, thinking about it for a minute, doubts that if Labour wins in 2015 (and I accept that is an if) Scottish MPs are likely to be major players in any Labour Government; just as Brown, Cook, Reid, Darling and Browne were between 1997 and 2010.

And, at that level, Labour has surely renewed itself. For not only would Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy be likely to have prominent places but so also, surely, would be many of the 2010 intake: Gemma Doyle; Ian Murray;  my own MP, Greg McClymont.

But the primus inter pares, for the moment at least, is surely the MP for Rutherglen, Tom Greatrex, who happens to have been born in Kent.

On any occasion he appears with Stewart Hosie to discuss Energy Policy you sense. long before the end,  the unspoken demand fot "Haunners" on the Nationalist side but he's also more than up for the greater challenge presented by the Coalition. Definitely one to watch in 2013 and beyond.

Journalist of the year

A few contenders but one obvious winner here again. Robbie Dinwoodie remains the man most likely to be first to a major political exclusive. Isabel Fraser is surely on her way to being the new Kirsty Wark, the only fear being that, like Kirsty, she'll conclude that she's too large a fish for a small pond. All of the Scotland Tonight crew are also entitled to take a well deserved bow.

But the winner by a country mile is David Maddox, who wins for having his own newspaper apologise for a story he wrote that turned out to be true! Barroso did think that automatic EU membership for an independent Scotland was a non starter. And he had  written a letter to that effect.  Poor show on the Scotsman for temporarily backing down in the face of protestations to the contrary from people who were already established to be practised liars.

Columnist of the Year

Now, when I trailed these awards on twitter someone on "my" side suggested that this must surely be Euan McColm. And, if the category had been  "Columnist I most readily agree has expressed my own ideas more succinctly" then Euan would undoubtedly be the winner.

And for those of us who read "serious" newspapers, there remain the usual other contenders:  the imperious Angus McKay; the impertinent Alan Cochrane; McWhirter and Bell at the Herald; Severin Carrell, when he get the space, at the Guardian. Ian Jack, also of that organ, who. when he wants to, cuts through Scottish politics like a knife through butter.

But, in my opinion, whether by accident or otherwise, the most perceptive political columnist in Scotland is the guy who writes for Scotland's biggest selling newspaper, the Sun: Andy Nicoll.

Now, of course "nobody" reads him, meaning nobody among the twitterati. But actually, more people read what he has to say than probably all of the others above put together. And the single most incisive column I have read all year was one he wrote about why, in the aftermath of a no vote, devo max would be dead in the water. In half the words that would be allowed in a broadsheet.

So the accolade goes to him. He can add it to his "Scotland's most underrated novelist" award.

Scottish Politician of the Year

And so we come to the penultimate award, the biggie. And I'm afraid it goes to neither of the big Parties, Anas, even his opponents would concede, is a man on the rise; Nicola remains the single most impressive politician at Holyrood by something well beyond a country mile. Catherine Stihler can probably claim the single biggest political coup of the year.

But the winner, on any categorisation, is the man I myself admit having once denounced as a "numpty". Just shows I'm not always right.

Looking back on the year past the one politician who can truly claim he has achieved everything he set out to at it's start is the Secretary of State, Michael Moore

The "Edinburgh Agreement", more correctly the "Westminster Terms", have been forced on the Nationalists.

Thanks to his efforts, in Scotland at least, and despite the best efforts of Danny Alexander, some distinction remains visible between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

Most importantly of all, to him at least, he is established in a position from which he could be moved only of his own consent.

And not many Scottish politicians can claim that.

Scottish Role Model of the Year

And so to my final award, which isn't a political award at all, or at least not a Party political one.

There was no more telling episode about the current insular nature of Scottish politics than the debate over the political significance of the Olympics being almost entirely acted out over what it meant for the Constitutional argument.

The real political lesson however was the visible demonstration that we are hugely privileged to live now in such a diverse country. Not only racially diverse in one way obviously visible but when it came to enthusiastic support, completely invisible; but diverse also in the failure to make any distinction in support for the Olympians and the later Paralympians, And the whole thing brought to our screens by a very posh lady who also happened to be openly gay. But amidst all this, the other outstanding feature was the success of women athletes. I hesitate to name them individually for they were so many but their real achievement was almost beyond the medals in providing such positive role models for other young women that there was no need to be trapped by stereotype or outdated social convention.

And none more so than our own Katherine Grainger, finally getting her Gold Medal at the fourth attempt.

So she gets my final award. If Scotland had a few more Katherine Graingers it would surely be a better place.

See you in 2013

Saturday 22 December 2012

Ten Christmas Paintings

So, it's nearly Christmas and I have therefore, in the spirit of goodwill, decided to forgo my political blogging this week in favour of a more festive topic.

I wrote some time ago about my ten favourite paintings and I thought tonight I might indulge myself with ten favourite Christmas paintings. As before, the rule has to be that they are all paintings that I have actually seen, although, as before, I actually break that rule once if only in the sense that it is not a painting I have seen, yet.

It's only right before beginning that I should say a bit about where I stand religiously.

This Summer we took a very devout friend to see Orvieto Cathedral. We had been there before many times but it was her first visit. It is in fact not my very favourite Cathedral in Italy, that distinction belongs to Trani, whose stripped Romanesque style probably still resonates with my Presbyterian upbringing, but Orvieto is only a half step behind. One of the more recent Popes observed that it would surely also be transported up to Heaven on the day of judgement.

Anyway, the late Norman Buchan, just about the most convinced of atheists I have ever known, who saw the Cathedral for the first time when fighting with the 8th Army in 1944, famously observed that you could only be sure of your atheism if you had survived seeing Orvieto Cathedral.

By Norrie's test I have failed, for I remain determinedly agnostic.

So, unlike Sister Wendy*, I commend what's follows in a sort of "make up your own mind" spirit.

*The one's who's a Nun, not the one who was former leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Fra Angelico: The Annunciation 

Diocesan Museum, Cortona (Ar)

Annunciation, 1433 - 1434 - Fra Angelico

I saw this painting as recently as August. Obviously there are a choice of Fra Angelico Annunciations and the most famous are probably in San Marco in Florence. Indeed, I could accompany them with a better anecdote for we saw them on the same day, God knows how many years ago, when we shook hands with Prime Minister John Major in the Piazza della Signoria. He was there for an Anglo-Italian summit. We were there for wee Mo's birthday. Anyway, back to Cortona, and to this painting. 1430 something, early Renaissance. The genius is not in the figures, which are far from perfect, or even in the perspective of the colonnade but rather in the way it conveys the spirituality of the subject matter. Even as I write I realise the hopelessness of the task. It's like trying to provide a written review of a live band. You really need to have been there. The good news is that on this occasion it is a permanent performance.

Perugino: The Marriage of the Virgin

Musee des Beaux-Arts, Caen

File:Pietro Perugino 016.jpg

You may wonder how I might have seen this when it is Caen, where it ended up after it was pinched by Napoleon, but  I saw it when it was part of the big Perugino anniversary exhibition in Perugia many years back. It was for Perugia's Cathedral that it was originally painted. Indeed, it features prominently that town's Cathedral's most spectacular relic, the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary, which I take great delight in showing off to anyone who happens upon my company there. All I can say beyond about the relic is that is that if it is indeed Her ring, Our Lady must have had very fat fingers.That nonsense aside however, the inspiration comes from St Matthew and that is truly miraculous in its language.

Let's move on.

Botticelli: The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ child.

Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Now, if your wondering about the jump here from conception to contemplation then I would refer you to one of my earlier blogs but this being Christmas it is no time to be challenging tradition.

There are a number of reasons I have chosen this painting. The first is simply that it's a great painting in absolutely classic high Renaissance style. Google it and you're told that it is unusual to the extent that the wean is asleep. A good few new parents of my acquaintance might share that sentiment. But Our Lady wears blue and appears remarkably fit in the aftermath of childbirth (make of the word "fit" what you will) so, to that extent it is typical.

But I've also chosen it because wherever you are in Scotland (within reason) it is never more than a couple of hours away. And worth the effort to travel.

It cost a fortune to acquire this painting for Scotland. And yet if that money was to be spent on art (a wider question) then surely that money was better spent than in acquiring this than a hundred or even a thousand "Scottish" paintings on the same subject. Although that's not necessarily everybody's view.................sorry, nearly forgot my no politics promise.

Sempre avanti.

Gozzoli: The Journey of the Magi

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence

File:Gozzoli magi.jpg

Now at this point you have to jump either to St Matthew or St Luke. For, contrary to common cultural perception, if you want the wise men and the shepherds, you cant have both, I'm going for the Tory troop first. This is just an amazing painting, spectacular in its colour, ambition and scale. But that's not the really amazing bit, that comes from the dramatis personae. For the Magi and their followers are in fact portraits of the House of Medici. We complain about the arrogance and self promotion of our current political class but even Michael Gove might have hesitated at this. The irony is that most of these people are now more famous for appearing in this painting than for anything else, although Lorenzo the Magnificent is lurking among the foot-soldiers.

Gentile da Fabriano: The Adoration of the Magi

Ufizzi, Florence

File:Gentile da fabriano, adorazione dei magi.jpg

In some ways "just" another great Renaissance painting. At some point in my art blogs however I like to talk about where to have lunch and as this is the half way point I thought that might be appropriate. In some ways it is invidious to choose a restaurant in Florence, as I've never eaten badly anywhere there, but my purely anecdotal experience is that the food is slightly more "tipico" (and cheaper) on the far side of the Arno and, having dug out my old Gamberro Rozzo guide, I remember this establishment particularly fondly. Don't have the Fiorentina though. You'll never finish it.

Ghirlandaio: The Adoration of the Shepherds

Sasseti Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence  

So anyway, back to St. Luke. Regular followers of my taste might be expecting the Caravaggio at this point, for there is Caravaggio and I've seen it. It's in Messina, as far mezzo as you can go in the Mezzogiorno. But, somehow, I don't really think of Caravaggio as a Christmas painter, Easter is much more his thing. And I really didn't like Messina. It struck me as a sort of sunny Greenock and you will appreciate that for a Paisley man it is difficult to think of a greater insult. So, instead, nonetheless spoiled for choice, I have chosen a Ghirlandaio. The "problem" with Florence is that there is so much great art, indeed Stendahl found it all just too, too much. So you can easily miss this, in Santa Trinita. If you ever go however, don't. The crowning glory of a wonderful fresco cycle by a slightly neglected genius. And a wonderful subject matter.

Botticelli: The Mystical Nativity

National Gallery, London

Now, if persevered to this point, you are entitled to "the full bhuna" and here it is. I really shouldn't have a second Botticelli but nobody does it better than this. The Holy Family; the wise men; the shepherds; more angels than could ever dance on the head of a pin; even the ox and the ass. Brilliant. If your interested in the wider iconography I strongly commend this

Duccio di Buoninsegna: The Massacre of the Innocents

Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

File:Duccio di Buoninsegna 056.jpg

Where to start. First of all to observe that this is, properly, pre-Renaissance art, painted at the start of the 14th Century. And then to observe that it is both a work of genius and (in the proper sense of the word), a terrible painting. Some years ago I started reading a much acclaimed novel about the holocaust and in the end I had to stop because it was giving me nightmares. This painting had on me the same effect, albeit on a lesser scale.  It is an evil, evil subject made all the more so by the genius with which it is brought to life. The real terror is not in the murdered children or even the anguish of their mothers but rather in the banal, almost routine, way the soldiers are going about their business. It is a reminder of how, while all this great art was being created, ordinary people at least were subject to random and mindless acts of barbarism. If only we could say that, for all our comfort in the west today, elsewhere in the world that does not too often remain the case.

Giotto: The Flight into Egypt

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

File:Giotto - Scrovegni - -20- - Flight into Egypt.jpg

Anyway, to cheerier things.

This is the painting I have not seen for, and here I make a shameful confession, I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO PADUA!

I love Giotto not for all the technical guff about his use of space and framing but rather because of the simplicity of his style. And this is a perfect example. I'm not quite sure who the other punters are but the principal players are instantly recognisable, even the donkey.

I have resolved that I will see this in reality at some point in 2013, then again I've said that many times before. Nonetheless,  if anybody fancies a wee trip to the Veneto, they should get in touch.

Raphael: The Madonna della Sedia

Palazzo Pitti, Florence

File:Raffael 026.jpg

And so to the final scene.

When it comes to Madonnas, in the end, I remain a Bellini man. To that extent I favour doctrine over scripture. For Bellini Madonnas have an ethereal, transcendental quality. Our Lady is always hovering between this world and the next and the troubles of this world seem almost secondary to Her. And sometimes that can make you gasp at their outright beauty, But this is a Raphael Madonna, a late Raphael. And it tells a different story, one that can still appeal to us mere agnostics. At the very end of his account of the Nativity, St Luke writes this (2.40).

For in the end, the Christmas Story is an adventure, and one, for the moment at least, with a happy ending.

But you also can't look at this painting without thinking also that the child could be any child and the mother could be any mother. The form requires that they look directly out of the picture but the intimacy is in the body language. The comfort of the mutual embrace but equally the impression that Mary is holding the child just a little too tight, perhaps reluctant to let him go out into the world. For this child, that may have been to a unique destiny but that sentiment is surely a more universal one. And never held more strongly than at Christmas.
And with that, I'm done.

It only remains for me to wish you all  a very Merry Christmas (or even Buon Natale!) and to assure you that I will return to more mundane subjects after the festivities.

Sunday 16 December 2012

A Debacle

Too much to do today for a long blog.

I am, as my Twitter followers will know, a devotee of Strictly Come Dancing but it was my office Christmas "do" last night so into an already hectic day I need to find time to watch last night's show before tonight's results programme. Then there is, of course, the Sports Personality of the Year, for which I would enthusiastically endorse Jessica Ennis, were that certain not to be the kiss of death. And then the penultimate episode of Homeland.

And before that I've suddenly realised that some of the people I'm meeting up with next week are likely to expect presents. Which I've not yet got.

So, were it not for a promise made, I would have forgone "the blogging" altogether.

But I did make a promise and that was to respond in some way to the new Nationalist line on Europe first articulated in .Jeff Breslin's  piece in last week's "Comment is free" section of the Guardian and, as it turned out, the similar line taken by Daniel Kenealy in the Scotsman and subsequently by Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament.

They all essentially said: "Alright, we might not automatically be members of the EU in the event of a vote for Independence, but why wouldn't they let us in? We've got oil and lots of fish." Fish, for some reason, features big in this argument.

The increasingly incoherent Blair Jenkins, who must surely shortly receive the dreaded "vote of confidence" from his Board, seems to have tried to make the same argument when debating, or probably more correctly appearing with, Alistair Darling on Friday's Daily Politics. And do you know, they are probably right.

Except they are asserting a counter-position that nobody actually holds. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever said Scotland would be refused entry. What they (we) have always said is that the key issue is terms and timescale of that entry.

And here is where things start, from a Nationalist perspective,  to fall apart.

First of all, it is inconceivable that all the necessary negotiations could be concluded in the period October 2014 to May 2016 when it remains the position of the SNP (but interestingly not the Greens) that the first "Independence" Election will be held, particularly since most of the major players, will supposedly also be engaged in negotiating with the English over Independence and (essentially) the Americans over NATO during the same period. never mind actually running Scotland.

And the problem with that, as I've already pointed out, is that the May 2016 Elections would otherwise become a second referendum, which, if Unionist Parties won a majority would lead to the whole Independence project grinding to a halt. Some of the madder Cybernats reacted to my pointing this out on Twitter by suggesting these elections would then just have to be postponed, ignoring the fact that Countries where elections are postponed would be unlikely to be allowed into the EU on any terms.

But that's just the start of the Nationalist dilemma. For it remains their position that not only will they be in the EU, they must be in the EU. Now, that's no basis for any negotiation.

When I was drafting this blog in my head, I was intending to give some examples of that but I was beaten to it by this piece in today's Scotland on Sunday. You'll see it shares the recurring fish theme.

So I'll just give one further very obvious example. It has always been the objective of the UK Eurosceptics (as opposed to the out and out "outers") to secure a situation whereby the UK not only does not currently join the Euro but effectively secures an outcome whereby, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of the single market, it never will join. And it has always been the objective of the European integrationists to deny them that option. This is big politics, much bigger than the position of one small peripheral Country. Against that background it would be a complete non-starter for Brussels to contemplate two multinational currencies within the boundaries of the EU, not least because it might give other non-euro Countries a strategic alternative to the Euro. Yet the SNP (again not the Greens) propose that Sterling becomes precisely that!

And before anybody thinks we could just have our own currency they should consider why that has been rejected as out of the question by such a die hard Unionist as John Swinney, Standard Life anybody?

The Nationalists must know that the idea that we can not only not join the Euro but even keep Sterling while still being happily invited into the EU is nonsense, or at least surely they must know that.

But again, we are just asked to stick our fingers in our ears, and hum "Flower of Scotland" very loudly. As we are over the USA being entirely relaxed allowing into NATO a Country insistent on the closure of the strategic submarine base of their principal ally; or indeed the English continuing to enjoy a benign attitude to a Country whose departure (on a different Nationalist narrative) will remove a substantial subsidy it has been providing to them for years.

By the end of the week, the Nationalist spinners had moved on to try and  portray this debacle as at least meaning more people were beginning to consider what a Yes vote for Independence might mean. In that one respect I agree with them but not in a way that would make them happy.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Morally Unacceptable

In terms of getting right exactly what I want to say, this is been one of my most difficult blogs to write.

Indeed, I almost abandoned the idea altogether, choosing instead to indulge my "hobby" of Italian politics. For in that latter regard it has been a disastrous weekend. The decision of Monti, the support of the PdL having been withdrawn, to stand down as Prime Minister is not only catastrophic for Italy but might well sound the final death knell of the Euro, at least as far as southern Europe is concerned. And, believe me, that is very, very bad news for us as well.

When I was on the radio last weekend I found myself expressing some sympathy for, of all people, George Osborne. Certainly, he is responsible for his own earlier conduct of our own Nation's finances but he most definitely would not be responsible if the US House Republicans opt to jump off the fiscal cliff or if, in the ultimate example of Berlusconi's cult of personality, the Italians opt, expressly or at least implicitly, to return to the Lira. Either eventuality would almost inevitably throw us back into a recession, leaving to the judgement of history any argument as to whether it needed to be "triple dip" recession or, given a different approach since 2010, could merely have been a "double dip" one.

But, and it is a big but, any sympathy I had for Osborne disappeared on Wednesday.

It's a disguised part of our current political discourse that all Parties are committed to cuts in public expenditure. I'm not, tonight, interested in peculiarly Scottish politics but, in that regard, I include John Swinney, who, strapped to a lie detector would admit such a state of affairs would still subsist in an Independent Scotland.

But back to the real world. Labour's position is merely "too far and too fast", which, for all it allows us to pretend otherwise to all and any plea of a "special case", still cannot properly be translated as "not at all and, even then, not now".

I'm no naif when it comes to Welfare Reform. The implementation of the Work Capability Assessment in the transition from Incapacity Benefit to Employment Support Allowance has undoubtedly been a debacle in its implementation but it is a reform, in principle, introduced, in my view correctly, by the last Labour Government. Similarly, the idea that suggesting that the long term unemployed, whether they appreciate it or not, might benefit from a period of compulsory work, seems to me self apparent: if only, at best, in showing them that work is not as difficult they perceive or, at worst, in sorting out those who are not truly unemployed at all but actually engaged in the black economy. And, as I've said before, anybody, with no particular personal commitments, in London and the south east, who didn't work at all during the long New Labour boom surely can't have been trying very hard.

But, and it is a huge but, every day at my work I deal with a lot of very poor people. Very poor people already who, last Wednesday, George Osborne decided should be poorer still.

I'm not saying that they are all people with children but they overwhelmingly are. And I am not saying they are all without work, for 6 out of 10 children in poverty have parents who are working,. But the parents, or more correctly the parent, or more correctly still, the single mothers who I deal with professionally are, overwhelmingly, without work. For they cannot work as they have children to look after and no one to share that burden. And I'm not even saying these mothers are without responsibility for their own circumstance because.............., with the benefit of middle class detachment,.............. to a significant degree they are.

Young women with children and no reliable "partners" who would, in an ideal world, have to experience neither circumstance.

Now, here again, I want to jump back into my middle class, comfortable, all knowing, person. Anybody who has ever attended the eighteenth birthday party of a middle class kid can't fail to notice the hormones at play in the room. But they can't also fail to be aware of the barrier contraception lurking discretely in the background or the discrete, distressing but determined, fall back position of early abortion positioned further back still.

And the imagined  but certain conversations that start and end "As your parents, we only want what's best for you but, David and Emma, if you are still together after University, there will be plenty of time for you to have children".

And even someone with reservations about abortion as a morally consequence free solution, someone such as me, must surely pause to wonder if it would not be better if many other unintended pregnancies ended this way.

But they don't. They don't even as the father is already subject to bail conditions as a consequence of domestic violence; they don't even as he's describing, on facebook, the mother of his child to be as a "slag"; they don't even as he's already parading his new "girlfriend" in her face.

This world is so beyond my personal experience that, even after thirty or more years in dealing with it's fall out, I cannot understand it. I cannot understand how any father could drag their child out of bed at 2am for "access" in frustration at being denied sex, as a default option, by their mother. I cannot grasp how anyone would duck and dive over their employment status in order to deny their child (a mere) 15% of their income. I cannot comprehend how anybody given contact rights by a court would then be too busy, or forgetful, to turn up.

But that is the world these kids live in.

And in one respect I blame their mothers for subjecting them to it.

Except. These women really love their kids, at least as much as those financially able to be the most middle class of middle class homemakers. And they would wish them to want for nothing. And, in that regard, every pound is a prisoner. Real mums might go to Iceland but, be in no doubt, it is only because they cannot go to Sainsbury's, or even Tesco.

So, to that extent, Osborne's decision that subsistence benefits for those with children should rise only by one per cent, irrespective of the rate of inflation, is a call neither I nor any Labour politician could ever make. It cannot, ever, be acceptable that these kids suffer by reason of moral disapproval of their parents life choices or by reason of avoiding the case for progressive taxation. For they are just kids.

And, what's more, there is surely no more certain guarantee that this circle of disadvantage will spiral down through the generations than if it is not confronted in this one.

If you look at the comment sections on the internet versions of our press, you see Ed's dilemma in the trap Osborne has laid for him on this. For you see civil servants and white collar local government workers, classic swing voters, posting to the effect that, since they have had no pay increase for the last three years, why should the "feckless" be exempt from similar penalty. The answer is because the self same "feckless" are already at the bottom. There is nowhere further, decently, for them to fall. Ed must make that case and, in fairness to him, it appears he is prepared to do so. And in that he must surely have all our support. And, anyway, no kid is ever feckless.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Some thoughts on Nicola's speech.

Every so often, somebody makes a serious "State of the Nation" speech and Nicola Sturgeon did so yesterday.

There was  bit of "lucky white heather" about the timing but I suspect not even the rabidest of Cybernat attributed that to anything but unfortunate coincidence.

And even when such a speech is made by a political opponent it is important to note its worth and I readily do so here.

It is equally important not to do so in a carping way. I'm sure that, with a bit of minor internet research, I could find easy evidence that Nicola did not always espouse this civic, inclusive, nationalism but, to be honest, that doesn't really matter. It is, I am happy to accept, whether by reason of experience or political realism, where she stands today.

When I was at University, the Communist Party had a theory of "historical accident" whereby any of us in the different parts of the "Broad Left" had arrived there by different routes but that this was essentially unimportant since we were, for the moment at least, agreed on the way immediately forward. And that is broadly Nicola's message today.

Essentially she argues that it doesn't matter if you had started from a "pure" nationalist position that ethnic identity was the principal issue or, contrarily, started from a position that how to advance the class struggle was the main imperative, surely, in the face of a UK Tory Government, we could all agree that the next logical step forward was independence. And that this could, somehow serve both of these apparently contradictory objectives.

It's an attractive prospectus.

Except of course it has been tried and failed in a very near to hand example.

In the recent past I had a long and increasingly revealing conversation with a lefty nationalist stalwart. Drink having been taken, the discussion turned to song. As I recalled the various songs of my youth: Bandiera Rossa: Jarama Valley; Freedom Come all'ye, they insisted these had been sung as enthusiastically on the SNP left. And as they went on to recount various Irish Nationalist songs: The Town that I Loved so Well; Sean South, perhaps most telling, James Connolly, the Irish Rebel, then I readily conceded these had been sung as enthusiastically by us.

Except that the key man in this dialogue was the self same James Connolly. Nobody on the West of Scotland left is brought up to do anything but revere this man. But such is his aura that nobody stops to wonder whether, with the benefit of hindsight,  he made the right call in marching alongside Patrick Pearse and Eamon de Valera on that fateful Easter weekend.

For, for all the faults of Imperial Britain, who in the period 1920 to 1980 would not have preferred to live here than in "free" Ireland? It is a cheap shot to choose the experience of the struggle against Naziism when Ireland sat matters out on the principle that "England's enemy was Ireland's friend". Cheap but true, when one considers the fact that the Arthur Donaldson Memorial Lecture is still considered an acceptable part of the SNP conference agenda. But let's ignore that and just look at the 1960's, a decade that largely passed "free" Ireland by until about... 1985. And even consider where Ireland still is today on, for example, abortion rights.

I'm in no doubt that when Connolly made common cause with the Nationalists in 1916 he believed he would be advancing the cause of progress. That throwing off the "English Yoke" would in itself open up opportunities for the left.  And I am in no equal doubt that history proved him wrong. De Valera had a very different vision of Ireland than had Connolly. And on any view for 70 years that view won out while Ireland not only struggled economically but was isolated culturally and saw its brightest and best leave the Country at the earliest opportunity.

Why, in the aftermath of Independence, would we have any reason to think things would develop differently in Scotland? For, after all, Nicola's own existentialist Nationalists remain, on any view, the overwhelmingly dominant strand in our Governing Party and while there are certainly other pro-independence voices in the Greens and the Scottish Socialists, since very few vote for them in a devolved context, why would there be any reason for them to be more popular after Independence? And sure, Labour would still have support but is it really the case that the most conservative part of a Party she herself attacks in the same speech for being too conservative would suddenly be transformed into a socialist vanguard, all the while being lead (presumablyby Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander and all the while retaining its current level of support?

You can argue whether the SNP are a centre-right or centre-left party but nobody would argue about the centre bit. Why would this either magically change after Independence? Or does Nicola herself believe that in that improbable scenario, support for the SNP would suddenly collapse? Of course it might, but is it really the case that all these former Tory voters now voting Nationalist in the North-East would be transformed by the very experience of Independence into Left Social Democrats? Is it not altogether more likely that, if they changed allegiance at all, it would be back to being (Scottish) Tories? Indeed, to a different audience, isn't part of the SNP argument that greater fiscal responsibility would allow a revival of the democratic right, currently held back by their determined Unionism?

The only certainty of Independence is that as a small country, with our currency controlled elsewhere and dependent on the good will alone of our much larger neighbour (who, on the Nationalists own argument, would have been both outraged and impoverished by our departure) we would have much less freedom of action than that available to the British Government at the moment.

Indeed, if her object was truly a government "we" had voted for and which the possessed the maximum degree of economic freedom of action, then  the very logic of her argument would be that if there was a UK Election before Autumn 2014 which Labour won then the Referendum should be called off until the Tories were back in power. Indeed, to extend that logic, if post independence Scotland had, by a narrow margin, elected a right-wing government and England by a landslide a Party of the left, then the same "Utilitarians" should be arguing for the restoration of the Union!

Except that's not her conclusion. For her conclusion is that no matter who was in power at Westminster, and no matter what their political and economic programme, Scotland would do better on our own. That's a perfectly respectable view but it is difficult to see that it is anything other than existential Nationalism. Or truly got anything to do with advancing social justice except for the purpose of temporary electoral opportunism.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Keep the Heid!

So, Leveson has spoken and the world appears to have gone mad.

I simply have no idea why the Prime Minister required to provide a response to the Leveson Inquiry within three hours of it being published.

No matter what (if anything) the Government requires or intends to do in response to the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, it is a matter of common consensus that any action, whether requiring legislation or not, will take several months. And it is only common sense that no one person, let alone any Prime Minister with a bit of "governing" also to do could possibly have read the whole, 2500 page report, in the day and a bit between its receipt on Wednesday and Thursday afternoon's statement.

So why the Government could not simply have said they had received the report, that they would study it carefully and that they would respond within a given timescale is a mystery to me. After all, Government's take similar stances in relation to other externally commissioned reports all the time.

But what's done is done and that seems to me to be a matter of considerable regret on all sides of this debate.

For the Government, it looks like they had decided in advance that no matter how reasoned and reasonable Leveson's proposals might be they were going to be rejected. A similar criticism might be levelled at the press who, with even less time to digest the report before Friday's editorials, obviously also felt that if the Prime Minister responded instantly then so must they. In this regard they were, I think, too easily characterised as having their head in the sand.

But similarly, the decision of the Government to respond instantly has not served the interests of the other "side". Having on Thursday stated that Labour would implement Leveson in full, Ed himself has since worked out that the proposed role of Ofcom is bonkers (sorry m'lud); meanwhile,the otherwise admirable, nay heroic, figure of Tom Watson, the Party's National Campaign Co-ordinator is still firing out emails urging us Party members to sign a peitition demanding the recommendations be implemented in full. I presume it's not his intention to send it to Ed.

And similarly, Hacked Off have also been forced to rush to judgement that Cameron is unforgivably backsliding and that the only way forward is confrontation rather than engagement. Speaking from years of experience, confrontation with any Government mid-term on a single issue rarely achieves more than a sense of self-satisfaction.

And the poor old PM, who, let's be frank, was only unlucky enough to be holding this particular toxic parcel when the music stopped, is now finding his words of only a few hours preparation analysed forensically for any sign of deviation, hesitation or (some at least would hope) repetition.

This was a crisis decades in the making, years in the unravelling and months in the analysing. Why it should then have required only hours in the responding remains, as I say, a mystery.

I am not always the warmest supporter of the current Scottish Government but I do not think it is unfair to give them some credit for the different way they responded (for example) to the Gill Review of Scotland's Civil Justice system. This was a different area of public life which had also proved increasingly unfit for purpose but on the day Lord Gill delivered his equally reasoned and lengthy report, Kenny McAskill said no more than that the Scottish Government had received his recommendations; thanked him for his work and would respond in due course. As indeed they have (not always to my unconditional enthusiasm but that's another matter!)

Oh but had the Scottish Government been so wise on this occasion!

Press regulation has always been devolved. I've said before that a statutory, purely declaratory, appeal when the PCC declined to investigate or apply its own code (which remains the central problem here) was my "policy proposal" when I put my name forward for Labour's Panel of candidates in 1999. And Eck has been in power since 2007. On any day during that period he could have suggested a separate regulatory press regime for Scotland. Indeed, if he truly thought that the case for the same was "unarguable" (as he said today) then it's unclear who has been providing the counter-argument since May 2007. Or why, having not acted for five and a half years he suddenly has decided he must act in the course of an afternoon and on the basis of a report he didn't commission or, at the time of his statement at least, he could not possibly have read.

What is unarguable is that if the need for such a separate regime is unarguable, then, unarguably, the First Minister has fallen down on the job since 2007.

This is all just nonsense. A common UK wide system of press regulation could patently do the job for Scotland. Sure, our law relating to defamation and verbakl injury is (a bit) different  but, as recently as JUNE 2012 (!) in a legislative consent Memorandum relating to the otherwise English and Welsh Defamation Bill Kenny McAskill himself observed:

"8. Given that much  scientific and  academic research is done collaboratively and
without reference to national  borders, limiting these provisions to England and Wales
only could potentially inhibit constructive and robust scientific and academic exchange.
Extending these provisions to Scotland would  therefore  ensure parity of protection in
relation to these scientific and academic activities."

Now I appreciate that this might come as a surprise to someone mired in the Kailyard but so is much journalistic research. And Scotland would also benefit from parity of protection there.

With one exception, every tabloid newspaper published in Scotland is but the English version of the same product "with a kilt on", and even the exception is becoming less exceptional.

So why did the First Minister behave in the manner he did? As with so much of his recent activity (such as, and I do not make this up, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza) it had little or nothing to do with the issue in hand and everything to do with promoting (if you were being generous) the cause of Scottish Independence or (if you were less inclined to generosity) the self-aggrandisement of one A. Salmond.

Perhaps he imagines the day when, if the press step out of line, he will hit them over the head with his Silver Putter.

But, as with so much of what constitutes the mish-mash that now passes for Independence, highlighting the First Ministers demands in this area just demonstrates their absurdity. Even if Scotland was independent, English newspapers could hardly be banned here. (Hopefully at least!) And even if they were banned, some would surely be available on the black market or even over something called the internet. It wouldn't take long for somebody to conclude that the only sensible solution was common regulation.

As with so much else, not so much better together as only common sense together.

So let's wait and see what happens and if, genuinely, the regime proposed for the UK provides inadequate recourse for the victims of press excesses then let's see what we might do. But let's not kid ourselves that we can isolate ourselves from the much wider newspaper market in England. With or without Independence

Friday 30 November 2012

Upon St Andrew's Day. A miracle.

I was going to write today, St Andrew's Day, on the iconography of St Andrew.

For I've had a really hard two weeks and I'm  not really yet in the mood to return, at length at least, to the political fray.

So nothing better than to divert in to more aesthetic pursuits.

Except that I knew in advance the painting I would finish with. In pursuit of which  I found "accidentally"  the wonderful critique of it to which I will link in a minute. And I thought what a wonderful thing the internet is. That someone I will never meet, thousands of miles away, can express my own thoughts exactly. Brava Anna Vitz. Ti amo.

Thursday 22 November 2012

48 Hours

There is no better example of the steady decline of the quality of the Scottish Parliament than the fact that Tricia Marwick is now its Presiding Officer.

In 1999, the first Presiding Officer was David Steel. Now I am no Liberal Democrat but David Steel is a major political figure. In 1983, given a few percentage points, he could have been leader of the Opposition and, who knows, potential next Prime Minister. Throughout his life he has been a major player in the movement for Scottish Home Rule and he is, even today, a readily recognised public figure throughout these isles.

In 2003, he was replaced by George Reid, perhaps not as well known throughout the UK, but still a well known and respected public figure in Scotland. One, surely, of the more intellectual members of the SNP and recognised even by his opponents as a person of truly independent mind, in both senses of that word.

In 2007 we had Alex Ferguson. Now, no disrespect to him, he was hardly either Steel or Reid in terms of previous record but he was regarded across the political sphere as a decent cove who could be counted on to arbitrate freely and fairly (if not always correctly) on the matters placed before him. And, anyway, given the numerical dynamic of that Parliament, he was one of the few people prepared to stand.

And then in 2011?

No harm to Tricia Marwick but she had hardly set the Scottish Parliament afire in her previous twelve years during which she had only featured briefly on (even) the opposition front bench. She was (and is) the sort of person who can prosper in any Party by working hard for the cause and never saying anything remotely controversial. I could easily identify numerous similar members of my own Party now sitting comfortably on the Holyrood or even Westminster benches.

And politics, all politics, needs such people. Deep breath, she reminds me a bit of Michael McMahon on our own side.

But, in the aftermath of the SNP landslide in 2011, somebody decided that she should be made Presiding Officer.

For what it's worth, I doubt if that was she herself for she strikes me as somebody not driven by personal ambition. Rather, I suspect that more serious operators within the SNP realised the importance of controlling the chair and employed all the tools of flattery to persuade her to put her name forward. Which she did, and then found herself, to her own incomprehension, elected. A bit like Chance the Gardener.

But having been put there as a pawn, that is exactly how she has behaved and in consequence her authority has steadily declined. Leading ultimately to the debacle of the last 48 hours.

Of all the MSPs likely to be suspended from the Scottish Parliament, Michael McMahon would be pretty far down the list. He, himself, is such a decent fellow that I myself have previously railed against his even handedness in allowing SNP members to talk pish, without contradiction, in his capacity as chair of the Welfare Reform Committee.

His "offence" was to express his frustration that in attempting to cover up for her Leader's most recent duplicity, the Presiding Officer was "out of order", as, on any objective view, she was. Her reaction was to suspend him from Parliament.

In the heat of the moment, I made a number of intemperate remarks on twitter about the Presiding Officer earlier today. I withdraw them. She is not consciously partisan; she is simply, out of her depth, unable to resist doing what is whispered in her ear by the same more serious operators. For that is, after all, how she progressed to her current exalted position.

But if she is to prosper in that position she must, in the words of St Paul, put aside childish things.

She could start, any time soon, by pulling up the First Minister by observing that what he had just said was not an answer to the question asked and that he must try again.

Who knows, if she was prepared to do that, even once, she might yet become as distinguished as her illustrious predecessors.

Sunday 18 November 2012

An interrupted narrative

To be honest I'm not really sure what to blog about this week.

The easy thing would be just to pile in with everybody else putting the boot in Mike Russell but it's difficult to find anything further to say on this baleful episode. It is trite to say the real scandal is the not the original offence but the attempted cover up but on this occasion the reverse is surely the opposite. Thursday's debacle was great entertainment for the political class but the real scandal is that college funding for support for, overwhelmingly, poorer kids is being slashed to try and desperately preserve the middle class perk of free higher education.

On any view this puts the Scottish administration, on this issue, to the right of every other mainstream party in these islands. But then the SNP have always been a bit iffy on education. Derek McKay, don't forget, was the man who, while leader of Renfrewshire Council, regarded teachers as an optional extra in the schools under his then domain. Such anathema was this to the local SNP that they made him a Parliamentary candidate.

But my heart's not really in this Nat bashing and that, I think , is because our wee problems here seem so trivial compared to what is going on in the Middle East.

But about which I have no magic prescription.

The loss of life is tragic and, of course, the Israeli response  wholly unacceptable in its disproportionality to the provocation. But the provocation was, I'm not reluctant to say, also wholly unacceptable.

The argument just goes round in a circle. It's easy to say that the starting point is the Israeli blockade of Gaza but given the fact that even under that blockade long range missiles have been smuggled in to Gaza from Iran, and then fired randomly into Israel by people who show no inclination to stop such behaviour, it is simply unrealistic to suggest that Gaza should have an open border either.

Then again, while the current Israeli regime shows no real desire to negotiate the two state solution that seems so blindingly obvious to the outside world, what is the incentive for the Palestinians to repudiate those within their own ranks seemingly set on a course of permanent, hopeless, war?

It's just a mess where I defy anybody but the most blinkered of partisans not to accept that there is fault on both sides.

However it can't be the case that the rest of the world community just gives up in despair tempered only by the occasional sorrowful or cautionary word.

And here is where a particular obligation rests with one man, Barack Obama.

It is Second Term; he is not going to stand again and frankly, to date, his foreign policy legacy has been a disappointment.

The Americans can't, realistically, be expected to abandon the Israelis altogether but they could certainly offer more incentive to the Palestinians particularly by making it clear that their UN Veto on Palestinian statehood was not at the disposal of the Israeli Government, no matter how they behave. And they could also offer to consider how the blockade might be policed by others than the Israelis and, over time, relaxed in the process.

But, in the end, the starting point has to be a ceasefire all round. And you can't get round the fact that the Gazans remain, currently, more of an obstacle to that than the Israelis. It's simply not good enough for the Hamas administration to say that if the Israelis stop the attack, they'll stop their own rocket attacks but, unfortunately, they can't control the acts others. Not good enough and not credible either.


Now, I wrote everything immediately above earlier today. I then saved it and went off to do other things intending to come back tonight to finish it off essentially to say that it was unfair that the Palestinians had to take the first step by agreeing to an unconditional ceasefire but that this was, nonetheless, the political and military reality.

Except that this afternoon the Scottish Government decided to issue a statement about the crisis. Here it is.

Commenting on the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel, Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Government’s Minister for External Affairs and International Development, said:
“The priority is for an immediate and effective ceasefire and a de-escalation of hostilities in the region, and the Scottish Government supports all ongoing international diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire.
“The dangers of a further escalation in this conflict are obvious and must be avoided. The killing of innocent civilians, be they Palestinian or Israeli, is to be utterly condemned and we urge both sides to exercise restraint.  The rocket attacks on Israel are wrong and should stop, as should the Israeli bombardment on Gaza which has been heavily disproportionate in terms of the civilian loss of life, and have been rightly condemned as such by many in the international community.
“The voice of the UK Government in making these points and in helping to achieve a lasting ceasefire must be heard loud and clear,.....
Now, as I said, I'd written the rest of this blog earlier today and you will therefore conclude, correctly, that, to this point, I agree with every single word of what Humza Yousaf has to say. However, he could not resist, or at least somebody could not resist continuing......
and I aim to speak to counterparts at the Foreign Office to stress the importance of their role in achieving these aims.
Mr Yousaf does not have "counterparts in the Foreign Office". He is a Junior Minister in a devolved administration. He might like to have "counterparts" in the British Foreign Office but, to be frank, were that ever to be the case, they would surely have no particular reason to pay him any more attention than a spokesman for any number of other small countries. And the irony in his calling on the British Government to use it's influence on events is that he wants to unilaterally surrender any influence that Scotland, through the United Kingdom might actually be capable of having in events on the ground.
For the sake of completeness, I should say that he continues

“If a ceasefire is not achieved quickly, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza threatens to worsen.
We continue to join with voices in the international community in calling for the illegal blockade of Gaza to be lifted.
And again, you will have gathered from what I say above, I endorse these sentiments entirely.
But let's what consider has gone on here? Faced even responding to a with a humanitarian crisis, thousands of miles from home, the Scottish Government could not resist promoting their separatist agenda. These people are beneath contempt.


Sunday 11 November 2012

Proud of my Profession

I promised when I posted my Friday night blog that normal service would be resumed today. Before doing so I'd just like to thank everybody who was in touch, one way or another, in its aftermath.

Anyway, what is normal service at the moment?

I was on the telly at lunchtime today with Kate Higgins, otherwise @burdzeyeview, doing our usual double act.

In the course of the interview, which really devoted followers can find at the end of today's Sunday Politics Scotland on the iPlayer we covered three topics. In the course of the discussion of the last, the launch of Labour for "Indy" (whatever that is this week), I suggested that it contained a solitary member of the Labour Party. Helpfully, this "organisation" was in touch through twitter to protest that there are in fact two of them. I am happy to stand corrected.

The middle topic was that of pay-day loans, on which Kate and I, for once, found little on which to disagree but, inevitably, the main subject under discussion was the debacle at the BBC.

So much has already been said on the specifics of this that I have no intention of adding to it except to say, with some pride, that it shows the value of my own profession. It has already been observed that it was only thanks to their own lawyers that the BBC were saved from an even more disastrous error a week past on Friday. They, if not the journalists involved, realised that the uncorroborated evidence of a witness already described as "unreliable" by the Waterhouse Tribunal was not the basis on which to accuse anybody of a serious crime. And I doubt if, had they been asked for a moment, the lawyers would have thought the use of the weasel phrase"A senior Tory official of the Thatcher era" was ever going to be enough when, truly, the allegation was not one made generically but rather specifically against the man accused. No-one who made the programme, even if they naively took their witness at face value, thought for a moment that he might be talking about (another) "senior Tory Official of the Thatcher era", (because even on the witnesses own, since retracted, testimony, he wasn't) so if the allegation couldn't be reliably made against Lord McAlpine by name, then patently it couldn't be made properly against anyone within that wider group. I simply have no idea why there was no realisation of that except the old saw that the facts were not to be allowed to get in the way of a "good story".

Dare I say it, that's more what you would expect of the Sun than of the BBC.

And all of this, we have to assume, would have been avoided if the most basic of precautions had been taken; the showing of the witness a picture of Lord McAlpine and the question (leading though I appreciate it would have been!) "Is this the man you are talking about?"

No competent lawyer would have made that mistake. Then again, perhaps, so would have no competent journalist.

But that leads me on to more familiar territory; Scottish politics.

There is a skill to asking questions.

At lunchtime on Tuesday 30th October the Lord Advocate wrote to Ruth Davidson. The full text of the letter, somewhat mysteriously, does not appear to be available online but a copy of the letter was sent, internally, to every single Opposition MSP. This is what he wrote in the third paragraph.

"As was made clear by the Deputy First Minister the Scottish Government has now requested specific legal advice from the Law Officers on EU Membership. As you will be aware legal advice on many issues is provided by the lawyers in the Scottish Government Legal Department (SGLD) but in relation to certain matters the government will seek a legal opinion from the Law Officers. That is what is happening in relation to the matter of EU membership"

(My emphasis)

That same afternoon Nicola Sturgeon summed up a debate on this very matter and at 16.38 Of the Official Report said

"Clearly, if ministers have sought legal advice, the law officers will provide that legal advice, so to reveal that legal advice has been sought from the law officers reveals the fact of such advice and puts us in breach of the ministerial code."

(Again my emphasis)

Both of these statements can't be true.

So here, if I had been asking my first year trainee to act up in the role of Leader of the Opposition are the three questions I might have suggested they ask on Thursday 1st November.

1. Do you agree that the Lord Advocate wrote to Ruth Davidson stating that "Legal advice on many issues is provided by the lawyers in the Scottish Government Legal Directorate?

2. Do you agree that the Deputy First Minister said in the Chamber "Clearly (sic), if ministers have sought legal advice, the Law Officers will provide that legal advice"

3. Since both of these statements can't be equally true, on the matter of automatic EU entry, does the Government already have legal advice from the Scottish Government Legal Directorate?

Quite literally, the Lord Advocate had passed the Opposition the ball in front of an empty net. And yet they still conspired to miss it in a manner which would have defied even Chris Iwelumo.

Instead, while I know the answer to that question, I suspect even the very politically nerdy of my readership can't remember the questions actually asked at that First Minister's Questions, except that they involved shouting in a generally unspecific way that Eck was a lying toad.

Well here's my final piece of legal advice. I have, over thirty years, conducted numerous trials where the defence consisted, for want of anything better, of accusing all the prosecution witnesses of being lying toads. And I've never secured a single acquittal on that basis.

There is no substitute for actual evidence.

Friday 9 November 2012


This is hard,
It's Friday, thank God it's Friday.

We've had a good week at my work. A few results for the clients; some decent money in the door and some interesting new business to look forward to.

But it's been hard going and, on Friday night, it's not unreasonable to think you might come home, have, perhaps, a small glass of wine and start to anticipate an entertaining week ahead.


Wee Mo has Alzheimer's disease.

When I came home tonight she greeted me at the door dressed to go out. Not to go out to the theatre or the cinema as we might, once, have done on a happy Friday but rather dressed to go "home". As if home involved a long cold distant journey.

And the house itself, which I'd spent an hour tidying after she'd gone to bed last night was in a state of chaos.

Clothes, shoes, food, cups. kitchen rolls and toilet rolls distributed to random corners. The food I'd left  on prominent display for her in the morning left uneaten but a cold, raw, pie somehow retrieved from the fridge and then semi-consumed.

And, even after I'd reassured her that we were already home in the house we've shared for twenty years, and then tidied up a bit, not even the chance to watch the Channel 4 News in some sort of calm as she sat across from me, perched on the edge of the settee, turning over her keys in her hands like some modern day set of rosary beads and muttering quietly to herself.

And so to my legendary Friday night bath, interrupted as I would never confess in the more light hearted banter of twitter by five minute visits to check I was "alright" and even in between marked by her lurking outside the door in want of any idea where else she might go.

I love this woman. Next February we will have been married for twenty five years. When she first started getting unwell seven years ago and when she was eventually conclusively diagnosed perhaps five years back I resolved then that I would be with her to the end and I will, I promise, deliver on that. Although I will not pretend that this is becoming anything less than progressively harder. I recall with a chill that when we had our first visit from the occupational therapist, several years back, she asked if Mo could make a cup of tea and I replied "Don't be ridiculous". Today the same answer would have an opposite meaning.

But it's Friday. This afternoon I was called by an old friend to advise that, at very short notice and thanks to a last minute cancellation, they had a spare ticket to hear Madeline Allbright speak in Glasgow tonight. Now, anybody who has followed this blog will know that this is something I would very much liked to have done. But at such short notice I could not have found someone to look after Mo, so I had to decline.

But at least tomorrow we have another friend who will arrive and indeed stay over so that I can go, in relative relaxation, to see the Saints in the afternoon and, indeed, if I had anything to do, would allow me a night out.

Only I don't have anything to do.

For what do you do on a Saturday night? If you are in a steady relationship perhaps a few nights a year you get a "night off" (ho,ho,ho) to go out boozing with your pals but most of the time you, in middle age at least, to go to the theatre, or the cinema, or a concert with, and here I make no wider sexual orientation point, a woman. Usually "your" woman. If you're inclined to promiscuity, a "different" woman.

I'm not inclined to promiscuity but I'm not "abnormal" either. It would be great to have such a night out. I persevered, perhaps, too long in thinking such nights might still be possible with Mo but at a certain point I came to realise that her behaviour, out and about, caused me more anxiety and occasional, I regret to say, embarrassment, than was worth the effort.

So, I made a stupid mistake. Some months back, I propositioned (for that is undoubtedly the word) somebody else. Somebody to whom I felt, indeed still feel, a warm affection. But her reaction was not simply a rejection of that proposition as more a horrified and outraged response to it. To the extent that she has not spoken to me, other than of necessity, ever since. And who can blame her. For who would want any part of this situation except for love.

I wrote privately to say that it was better to have tried and failed than simply to have always wondered. One of many communications that provoked no response other than "leave me alone", as indeed did my last attempt earlier this evening before I sat down to write this rather self-indulgent and melancholy blog tonight. Increasingly I regret not simply carrying on as before I recklessly broke the spell for at least then I could always have had the consolation of wondering.

So here I am, having got Mo to bed, sitting on the settee blogging and looking forward to another bleak weekend.

This is hard.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Pants on fire?

Here is Paragraph 2.35 of the Scottish Ministerial Code

2.35 The fact that legal advice has or has not been given to the Scottish Government by the Law Officers and the content of any legal advice given by them or anyone else must not be revealed outwith the Scottish Government without the Law Officers' prior consent. The only exception to this rule is that it is acknowledged publicly that the Law Officers have advised on the legislative competence of Government Bills introduced in the Parliament (see paragraph 3.4 below). Views given by the Law Officers in their Ministerial capacity are not subject to this restriction.

Let me deconstruct this.

There are two propositions in the first sentence here: 

1. "The fact that legal advice has or has not been the Law Officers ...must not be revealed...without the Law Officers consent"

2. "The.... content of any legal advice given by the Law Officers or anybody else [my emphasis] must not be revealed....without the Law Officers consent"

And having undertaken that deconstruction let me draw the obvious conclusion.

The revelation that legal advice has been given "by anybody else" does not require the consent of the Law Officers. Only the content of that advice. 

And that is, on any view, deliberately the way the code reads for otherwise the first sentence would be the, much simpler, 

"The fact that legal advice has or has not been given to the Scottish Government by the Law Officers or anybody else shall not be revealed without the consent of the Law Officers."

And that is contrary to the repeated assertion of the First Minister, most recently on Scotland Tonight last week, when he said: 

[Note, this was a baleful interview where the interviewer spoke more than the interviewee and completely failed to focus his questions but, if you won't take my word for the fact that the legal advice being asked about was any legal advice you can wade through the whole thing here here.] 

"That's quite clear in the Ministerial Code. It's both the fact of whether it exists, and the content. I would need to clear it with the Lord Advocate if I wanted to say that I had not sought legal advice."

No he wouldn't.

Now, if Bernard Ponsonby had been prepped to reply to that assertion with the response "No you wouldn't", then I suspect the last few days of Scottish politics would look very different. Indeed, I go so far as to say that Alex Salmond might not now be First Minister.

At this point however I need to engage in a minor history lesson.

Pre-devolution, the positions of Lord Advocate and Solicitor General were political appointments. Despite the fact that they were head(s) of the prosecution service, they were chosen on the basis of  Party loyalty. That was because they were required to occupy two roles, not only as “Chief Prosecutor(s)” but also as principal legal advisers to the Government itself. That was fine in 99.99% of prosecutions but it begged the question of what might happen in the remaining 0.01% of cases in which the Government of the day might have a view on whether the matter might, or might not, be convenient to be brought to Court

That there was a danger in that dual role was recognised after 1999. Although Labour’s first post-devolution Law Officers were Andrew Hardie and Colin Boyd, and then Colin and Neil Davidson, all very able lawyers but also all staunch Labour Men, when, in 2001 Neil stood down Jack started the process of depoliticising the positions. He did so by appointing Eilish Angiolini, an apolitical career prosecutor, indeed, then, a mere solicitor, rather than advocate, to the position of Solicitor General. (Why the "Solicitor General" was not, previously, actually, a solicitor is a topic for a completely different blog!)

And in 2006, when Colin Boyd stood down, Eilish was appointed Lord Advocate. What was interesting however was that the Labour administration did not completely de-politicise the Law Officers at that time for we brought in as Solicitor General John Beckett, again a very able lawyer but crucially also a Labour Party member.

I will return to that point.

For when the SNP first took office in 2007 they decided to complete the process of depoliticisation. Obviously John Beckett had to go but, rather than making an alternative political appointment (and there were many able Nationalist lawyers qualified) the SNP not only retained the services of Eilish but appointed as her deputy Frank Mulholland, also previously a career prosecutor.

Now in terms of the prosecution of crime in Scotland, these were developments that I entirely welcomed. For far too long prosecution of serious crime had been in the hands of gifted (sometimes not even that) amateurs appointed either for reasons of pure political patronage or as a "necessary" career obligation if your true objective was to be able to add the letters "QC" to your long term intention of practising in lucrative planning or commercial work. Professionalisation at the top led inevitably to professionalisation all the way down the process and, as a citizen with an interest in seeing bad guys get the jail, this can only be a good thing.

But, politically, I thought it was a mistake, or at least a mistake in the way it was done.

All Government's need, in confidence, partisan legal advice. If anything that is even more so for a government operating within defined statutory powers and even more so still for a government engaged in the process of attempting fundamental constitutional reform within the continuum of the rule of law. 

But there is a dichotomy between having access to that advice and at the same time having a completely independent system of prosecution provided by the same individuals.

Now this dichotomy is not entirely of the current Scottish Government's making. It is, to some extent, built into s.48 of the Scotland Act 1998 which enshrines the position of Lord Advocate and Solicitor General by name as positions which (by implication at least) must be filled by any Scottish Government, and reiterates the position of Lord Advocate as independent head of the prosecution service. (s. 287 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act is worth a look at insofar as it relates to the position of Solicitor General as "Deputy Lord Advocate".)

Anyway, the outcome of this process was that the positions of Lord Advocate and Solicitor General came to be in the hands of apolitical career prosecutors (for the sake of completeness now Frank as Lord Advocate and Lesley Thomson as Solicitor General) and that has proved and will prove to be a major problem for the Government.

Enough history, back to argument.

In modern times, practice of the law requires a degree of specialisation. My own wee firm is described as a general practice but that does not mean we would turn our hand to anything and everything or indeed to anything approaching anything and everything. Despite being a Legal Aid practice we don’t, for example, do immigration work of any sort because we simply have no knowledge of the law in that area. Sometimes we’d refer it; other times simply turn it away.

And the more you climb the legal tree the more even so specialisation is the name of the game. In the big firms, there are entire teams of lawyers who do nothing except, for example, in one department, employment law or, in another, commercial leasing. And they would be no more able to move between departments than they would be capable of moving to Cumbernauld and obtaining a non-molestation interdict.

Now in that spirit of specialisation, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, with one or two minor exceptions, do nothing but prosecute crime and investigate sudden deaths. And Frank and Lesley, as career prosecutors, have worked all their lives in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. If you wanted an opinion on transferred intent in assault or the distinction between embezzlement and theft by appropriation then they would have that at their, very expert, fingertips. But if you wanted an opinion on the rights of potential successor states to membership of the European Union? You might as well ask me.

So if, ex hypothesi, as the post 2007 Scottish Government you had wanted an opinion on the rights of an independent Scotland to succeed to membership of the European Union, you would have had two options.

You could go to the Scottish Government Legal Directorate or you could seek outside opinion either directly or, more likely, through the auspices of that Directorate.

Now my gut reaction is that this is a matter on which you would go “out”. That’s no disrespect to the Directorate. Its head, Murray Sinclair, is also somebody with whom I’ve brushed along in my own past activities at the Law Society and he is a lawyer of the very first rank. His deputy in charge of Constitutional matters, Alison Coull, has a stellar reputation within the Profession.

But it would just be in keeping with normal practice to seek absolutely single minded counsel on a matter of this importance. External Counsel. If I was sticking a pin in a legal map, in the solicitor’s branch to somebody like Michael Dean at MMS or Jim McLean at Burness; within the Faculty of Advocates to Brian Napier or Ian Forrester but, actually, if I could really aim my pin I’d go for Aidan O’Neill. Not because I have any idea of where he stands on the Union but because, within the profession, he is recognised as the foremost of experts in this area. It won’t be the him however, since we already have his view and, despite it being posted on the YES Scotland website by some numpty who didn’t understand it, it is really not what the Nationalists want to hear.

Now, let’s consider when that external advice would have been sought. It would surely have been before Tuesday last? After all, the SNP have been in power since 2007 and in overall majority Government for the last eighteen months. Throughout that whole period their position has been that an Independent Scotland would proceed seamlessly into EU Membership. Is it really credible that throughout that whole period nobody thought, even once, that it might be worth running that proposition past a lawyer?

But, you say, they claim they have not had legal advice. No, actually, they don’t.

Here is what Nicola said on Tuesday

In light of the Edinburgh agreement, by which both Governments have agreed the process for Scotland to achieve independence, I can confirm that the Government has now commissioned specific legal advice from our law officers on the position of Scotland within the European Union if independence is achieved through this process. The Scottish Government has previously cited opinions from a number of eminent legal authorities, past and present, in support of its view that an independent Scotland—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Nicola Sturgeon: —will continue in membership of the European Union but has not sought specific legal advice. However, as the Edinburgh agreement provides the exact context for the process of obtaining independence, we now have the basis on which specific legal advice can be sought. The views of those other eminent authorities will continue to be highly relevant, but the Government’s position in the independence white paper will be based on and consistent with the advice that we receive.

Given that my statement answers the ruling of the Scottish Information Commissioner on the existence of legal advice, there is now no need for the Government to pursue its appeal against that ruling in this specific case, and I have asked our lawyers to advise the court accordingly and to ask that the appeal be dismissed. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. This is an important issue, which has been raised a number of times in the chamber. Please have the courtesy to listen to the cabinet secretary.

Nicola Sturgeon: I should also make it clear that, in confirming that the Government has asked for law officers’ advice, I have sought and received the prior agreement of the Lord Advocate. This statement is therefore consistent with paragraph 2.35 of the ministerial code and the long-standing convention on which that section of the code is based, both of which will continue to be vigorously upheld by ministers. The confirmation that I have given relates to the particular circumstances of the issue and does not
set a precedent.

The two highlighted passages above are mine. Nicola has confirmed that they have no previous advice “from the law officers” but fails, in my view to confirm or deny whether they have previous advice (and here I refer back to the terms of the Ministerial Code) from “anybody else”. The second highlighted passage is ambivalent on that point. If challenged she could, I think, legitimately, say that the “advice” she refers to is advice “from the law officers”.

Now why is any of this important? Because throughout the process, well before Tuesday, Salmond maintained, falsely, that he could not disclose the existence of advice from “anybody else” without the permission of the Law Officers because of the terms of the Ministerial Code. Now why would he bother to misinterpret the code in this way? Because, of course, if he disclosed that they had sought advice from “anybody else” the focus would have turned to who that was and what had they said. And, more importantly still, as to whether his own previous public statements reflected the content of that advice.

Now, I draw four conclusions from this. The first is a purely governmental one. All of this could have been avoided if one of the Law Officers had remained a political appointment. Advice could have been sought without any need for the disclosure of either its existence or its content. Insofar as the Information Commissioner tried to rule otherwise I think the Government would have won in Court. Interestingly, even now, on the point of the existence or otherwise of advice from the law officers, I think the Government would still have won in Court, albeit only at the price of having to disclose whether they held advice from “anybody else”. The very machiavellianly minded might think indeed that was the real game in play this week.

Secondly, this is not over, for Catherine Stihler’s inquiry remains whether the government has been given any legal advice on the matter. Now that they’ve dropped their appeal, that question will have to answered fully. Be very careful how and when they try to slip this out.

Thirdly, the Lord Advocate, whether he wants to be or not, is now in an astonishingly pivotal position. I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see, over the next few weeks, the lights burning even later than usual at Chambers Street while Frank and Lesley sweat over the European Law Textbooks and Primary Materials. Rather, they themselves are likely to go out for external advice. But while having obtained that advice and transmitted it to the Government, they both remain people of the highest integrity. They would not expect their opinion to be made public, no lawyer would, but if public statements are thereafter made by others claiming to be consistent with that advice which are not, actually, consistent with that advice, then I cannot see them willing to remain in office. And if they were to go in that circumstance......? The stakes are as high as that. And, regretttably for the First Minister, since they are, by virtue of his own best intentions, truly independent, apolitical, lawyers so will be any opinion to which they, vicariously, put their name.

And finally, what will that opinion be? Well that I can say. It will be that there is no certainty of anything. I say that not because it’s my opinion but because it is the opinion of much more eminent experts than me. Not only of Aidan O'Neill, helpfully still being quoted on the YES Scotland website but also of the independent experts asked to provide their opinion by the House of Commons (linked to by O'Neill) and last but by no mean least of Professor Neil Walker of Edinburgh University, no Unionist stooge he, as recently as today.

As with so much else, not so much the possibility of an Independent Scotland remaining in the EU as the precise terms on which that membership would be offered involves, at best, an informed prediction or, at worst, a leap of faith. Just like continued membership, on a non-nuclear basis, of NATO or indeed the continued employment of the Bank of England as a lender of last resort.

I have no idea why Salmond allowed a different impression to be created except that again I do. For who, other than a true believer would ever vote to take a leap in the dark?

Ages back, I blogged that I had never seen any poll with support for Independence as low as 20%. Now, however, I wouldn't rule it out.