Thursday, 31 May 2012

Enough Leveson

I know it might rather jar with my known reputation as a proletarian struggler but I love the opera.

Really, really good opera is of course only that of the bel canto but Mozart wisnae bad at it either. And, by all logic my favourite of his operas should be the Marriage of Figaro. But, having instantly dismissed two of the big five on the basis that the libretto is in German, a language more suited to sound currency and precision machine tools than a magical suspension of reality; and having dismissed Don Giovanni for its appalling sexual politics (that's my story anyway), you are left only with Figaro or Cosi fan Tutti (or wee cozy as it's known in my household).

Why then do I prefer the latter? Because the former has one Act too far.

Logically, you might reasonably expect that an opera entitled The Marriage of Figaro would finish, or, at a pinch, start, with the errr......Marriage of Figaro. Only it doesn't. Figaro gets married at the end of Act 3. And then there is a 4th Act.

The 4th Act consists almost entirely of concert arias, sometimes quite sublime concert arias, a bit like an extended encore. But it adds nothing to the dramatic action.

So do I feel about the Leveson Inquiry. The concert arias have sometimes been brilliant entertainment:  Ken Clarke; Peter Mandelson; even the bassa profundo of John Reid and the would be Queen of the Night, Theresa May. But they have added nothing to the plot. The extended recitative of Jeremy Hunt and Tony Blair even less so. And the chorus of happy peasants haven't even been very entertaining.

But the drama in Leveson was in the first three Acts. The steady troop of ordinary people, or sometimes accidentally exceptional people who nonetheless just wanted to be ordinary people, who had nonetheless seen their lives wrecked by the excesses of the tabloid press. And frankly, for all the politicians who followed, I at least wasn't interested in their excuses, no matter how self-excusingly, or even wittily, expressed. For we all knew the story there and then.

For the sake of political advantage, these people had been dismissed over thirty years and across administrations of different political complexion, as necessary collateral damage compared to the perceived importance of currying the favour of the press in pursuit of political advantage.

Only, in a properly functioning democracy, the interest of the ordinary person in the street is meant to be the overriding motivation of all politicians. They might legitimately disagree as to how that interest might be served in respect of the balance between taxation and expenditure; or social convention vis a vis liberality but it is difficult to accept a single one of them thought that the interests of the ordinary person in the street were ever being served by the hacking of the phone of a murdered teenager. Or disagreed about it. Yet, although they might not have known of that specific activity, they all knew of similar outrages. And all decided, in their own interests, to do nothing about it.

So, hopefully, no matter how long the extended encore might be, when he comes to report, Lord Leveson will notice that while we will probably never have a more principled press, we did, once, have more principled politicians. And enhort the latter to do something about the former.

Not that they will. For an Election is always coming.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Just a book review

So, the sun is shining and I've been sitting in the garden. And thinking that I should write a blog about why Independence is such a misplaced objective for the Left with reference to the experience of the successors of James Connolly.

But, then again the sun was shining.

And when you’re sitting in the garden, perhaps with a glass of wine, to be honest, politics can wait. Nothing better than a good book.

When I was a very young man, and still at University, I was given a lift back from a Labour Party meeting by a guy called Mike Pepper. He seemed to me to be very wise, for he was one of the few local party members who could properly be described as an intellectual. He had a postgraduate degree and had worked as a senior civil servant in the then equivalent of the Department of Overseas Development. He also seemed to be very old, although I suspect he was more or less the age I am today.

“What” he inquired “are you currently reading?”

Now, I am sure I at first tried to impress him with reference to something by Gramsci,  Luxembourg or Marcuse (in the latter case, never a more wasted hour). He however pressed on. “No. What fiction are you reading?”

I confessed that I didn’t have much time for fiction, particularly in the midst of also having to read the occasional Law book at the time. I would, I confidently asserted, have time for fiction in later life.

“No you won’t.”

And there was never a truer word spoken.

The reality of my life is that I seldom have time to read fiction nowadays. Except on holiday.

But, when the sun shines in Scotland, an admittedly rare occurrence, you can have a mini-holiday. So, over the last two days, in my own garden, I have digested Andy Nicoll’s book “If you’re reading this I’m already dead.”

Now, it is very rare for me to have met somebody who has written a book. By a book, I mean a work of fiction. I know lots of people who have written non-fiction books. Anybody can do that. Well maybe not anybody, but anybody with a commission, time and, not unimportantly, a reasonable command of the language. Whether the result is then readable then kind of depends on whether you are interested in the subject in the first place. I was once, thanks to a luggage disaster, marooned in the Alto Adige with nothing to read but a biography of Albert Camus and, I have to admit, I struggled. Despite the Goalkeeper’s fear of the Penalty, there wasn’t even much about football in it.

But a work of fiction is something else entirely.

And a book written by someone after you have met them is something else again. Before is altogether easier. Christopher Brookmyre is among the elect of the Black and White Army, and, in that capacity, a pal of my brother. So, when I first met him I could happily have ignored his celebrity and stuck to more important matters, such as whether Hugh Murray could play another season at the top level. (Answer: when we first met, certainly; Today, regrettably not)

You could in the process avoid any awkward questions about his oeuvre by pretending to be unaware of it, or, at least, by implying from it lying undiscussed, that it was not really to your taste. Not that, I should hurry to add, that this was required in Chris’s (spot the name drop there)  case; indeed the problem was more rather that he clearly did not feel the North Bank at Love Street was an appropriate location for a “We’re not worthy” demonstration on my part; such obeisances being reserved, at that place and time, for the great Hugh Murray himself.

But it’s altogether more complicated when somebody you already know declares that they have written a book.

So, when I learned that Andy Nicoll had written a book, I was a bit apprehensive. Because, before he ever wrote any kind of book, I knew Andy Nicoll. He was an acquaintance, perhaps a bit more, as he was a great pal of my best pal, John Boothman. And he was, and here I am descriptive rather than judgemental, a hack. A senior hack but a journalist nonetheless. While he could smell out a story and write it up as well as any; and occasionally contribute a witty comment piece, he was essentially a fact based writer. And he worked, indeed still does, for the Sun.

So, given his employer, the fear was that, as fiction, he might produce some sort of sub-Freddy Forsyth thriller. Full of square jawed former SAS men determined to right the wrongs left un-righted by the fall of Mrs Thatcher.

In fact, his first book “The Good Mayor” could not have been further from that than anyone might reasonably imagine. Indeed, as a secret fan of derring-do, it wasn’t really my thing. It would best be described as a bit surrealist (“a bit” anything being as far as Scottish people ever go). Towards the end the central female character turns into...............I had better say no more in case you some day read it.

I did however, as you will have gathered, read it in anticipation of encountering the author. Only I didn’t; since this was that brief period of my life when I abandoned the company of low-life political hacks to temporarily masquerade as a member of the legal establishment.

And, shamefully, he then wrote another book which I have not yet read at all.

But. It is always darkest before the dawn.

I met the self same author at the last Labour Party Conference in Dundee. Not the greatest event I’ve ever attended; indeed, learning that Andy had written another book was the single thing I did learn. I was even invited to its launch event, at which I was promised “free drink”. I couldn’t manage that, even for the free drink, but I did buy the book.

And, as I imply, after a few false starts when after a long working day a single chapter was struggled to completed before I was overtaken by Morpheus, over the last two days I have read “the book”.

It’s brilliant. When my dad died I inherited a large number of novels given to him as school and boy scout prizes before the War. Memory serves that they were all written by W.G. Henty, although I suspect others were involved. Adventure stories nonetheless. Written in that period Hobsbawn would refer to as the final part of the long 19th Century.

Now, I know, had I been alive in that period I would have spent my time railing against the iniquities of the age in Methodist Halls and Miners’ Welfare Institutes. But it was also, at least in fiction, an era of great adventure. Of perils on the high seas; in “darkest” Africa and, above all, in the Levant, where, almost credibly, the direst of circumstance could be saved by the sudden arrival of the Royal Navy.

Andy has written an adventure story in that tradition, and brilliantly. But he has also coupled it with a rather cynical contemporary and retrospective commentary in the style of (and I mean no false praise) Umberto Eco. As you travel from Budapest to Fiume and then onwards to Albania you turn every page keen to know what happens next but, increasingly, find yourself in apprehension that the reducing number of pages means that the adventure must be drawing to a close.

And when it is all over? You are left reflecting not just on the dangers but also the attractions of the “Great Man” school of history.

Buy this book. Although he doesn’t know it yet, the author has promised me a pint for every additional 100 copies sold. If he turns out to be the new JK Rowling I might never need to buy a drink for myself ever again. This year at least.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Big Mo

In politics, momentum is everything. And loss of momentum is a frightening thing for those once possessed of it.

But there is no more ready way to lose momentum than to be frightened of that very occurrence.

In the run up to the Democrat Primaries in 2008, all of the momentum was with Hilary. She was the presumptive nominee before a single vote was cast. She was the first truly credible woman candidate for the Office she pursued. She inherited an aura of competent economic management from her much regarded spouse. She had shaken the hands and done all the deals that were meant to matter. But, fatally, she decided that the best way then to maintain her momentum was to do nothing. To avoid losing any votes she already thought she had by scaring them off in pursuit of further support.

And then Iowa voted. In some ways it was heroic the way she carried on. Indeed remarkable the residual support she continued to attract. But she could never really get her momentum back. The rest was just process.

Now, it was said of Blair in the run up to 1997 that he was in the position of a man charged simply with the task of simply carrying a ming vase across a crowded room. But, even I , as one of his fiercest critics, recognise that he did much more than that. He did not simply maintain his momentum, he accelerated its pace. Success, he gambled correctly, would not come from slowing down and getting there eventually but by speeding up and arriving at the destination with time to spare.

So, from a sort of detached perspective, I can understand the dilemma which faced the SNP today.

It's all very well to point out that the problem of appearing to want to maintain their momentum for a further 29 months would be, if they actually intended to have a referendum, a problem of their own making. But it is a problem nonetheless.

No matter how they spin it, they know that the Local Government Elections were a reverse. It wasn't just that they failed to take Glasgow, once you look at how the coalitions have settled out, there are an awful lot of places where they used to be in power where they are in power no longer. Not least in my former Renfrewshire stomping ground.

So, today's date having been in too many diaries for it to be quietly called off anyway, any hope of maintaining an already slowed momentum, demanded that they go ahead.

Some of what then went wrong was beyond their control: Anybody planning to go to a cinema at ten in the morning on the hottest day of the year was bound to appear a bit eccentric but the weather could hardly have been predicted; Sir Sean was clearly meant to top the bill and even I don't think his non-appearance was likely to have been because of waning enthusiasm;  a rally weeks in the planning inevitably takes a risk, in this case particularly jarring, with appearing to be hpoelessly out of tune with immediate events elsewhere.

Some other problems might have been anticipated at least to a degree, most obviously something like this morning's poll, the results of which, although hardly unexpected, nonetheless seemed to leave normally articulate performers floundering for an explanation.

All of that having been said, the event was, on anybody's view, a bit ............naff.

There are reasons people gave up on Old Labour. It was a great institution in it's time but it's time has gone. Those of us opposed to the "New" variety didn't object to change, just to the type of change. The kind of male dominated, heavy industry, politics of Dennis Canavan and Tommy Brennan (both of whom remain people for whom I have the highest regard, even affection) belongs over a nostalgic pint in the Miner's Welfare, not as some kind of template for a supposedly modern, Scandinavian style, Scotland.

And Dougie McLean wrote a great song, but that kind of lachrymose, here's tae us, wha's like us sentiment is also something that makes not just me but a significant sector of the middle ground more than slightly nervous that this whole project represents a triumph of romance over reality.

And then we had the rather Begbiesque rant by Brian Cox. If you want to rely on celebrities you surely don't let them write their own scripts and, even if you do, you at least check out the accuracy of what they intend to say about their personal history.

Much has been made about the lack of women, or ethnic minorities but, also, where were the young people? Something even I concede is one of the Nationalists strengths.

All in all you were left with the impression of an event focussed on wrongs done to Scotland in the past, often supposedly by the Labour Party, rather than an event focussed on a brighter future.

But I finish where I started. There clearly was felt to be a need to have some sort of event. But there was also a desire not to scare anybody's horses. The result however was not to gain momentum but to continue to lose it.

There's big trouble brewing for the SNP. Salmond clearly wanted to be able to give the impression, when eventually calling off the vote, that he might just have won. And he certainly wanted to maintain some uncertainty on the point for as long as possible. No wonder he was crying at the end.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Bodies of your Enemies

On the day that Margaret Thatcher fell, Ted Heath ordered champagne for his staff. And, as they quaffed, he was called forward to say a few words. Heath, the great sinophile reached for an appropriate remark. "There is an old proverb," he observed "that if you wait long enough beside the bank of the river, eventually the bodies of your enemies will float by."

I'm not a great one for geography, but even I recognise that Scottish rivers flow faster than most Chinese ones. Nonetheless, even I did not think that the flow since May 2011 would have been quite so rapid.

Just over a year ago, Alex Salmond was master of all he surveyed. By tea time time tomorrow I suspect he will be someone to be more pitied than envied. Never was there a more glaring example of hubris.

The Scottish Labour Party is a pretty dysfunctional body. As a feature of that dysfunction it assumed that it could put just about anybody up for election and still win. Last May, it couldn't and it didn't. Quite right too.

Nonetheless, in the aftermath of that defeat, the victors were lured into believing they had won on their own merits, rather than simply by default. Or, at least, their leadership, who knew, from private polling, the truth of their situation, were nonetheless obliged, if only by their own foot soldiers, to present themselves in that manner.

Thus we have tomorrow's cinematic extravaganza.

Now, were the Scottish people being invited to the polls to vote for Independence this Autumn, tomorrow's event would be perfectly timed. Get ahead of the opposition; get your campaign launched; leave the other side to catch up. Only they, the Scottish people,  are......err.....not.

Amongst all the manifest advantages of a "free" Scotland to be advanced tomorrow, nobody watching will be unaware that, if these advantages  were indeed so manifest, outrage would ensue among the general population about being denied the opportunity to enjoy them for a further two and a half years. That is, after all, the example, for good or ill, of Irish Nationalism. Each generation of absolutists turned compromisers is swept away by a renewed generation of absolutists.

As I've previously observed, to date, much of the Scottish press corps has had a self interest in going along with Salmond's fantasia; otherwise Holyrood reporting is only a very small step above filing the report of a local cooncil meeting. But events at Ibrox have hurt the Scottish press; particularly, the suggestion that Rangers only got away with their ever larger bubble blowing because all of those in a position to do so failed to deploy the pin.

I have a strong suspicion that tomorrow we are about to see a debacle on a scale unprecedented since Ally McLeod in 1978. But, let's be honest. Throughout the whole adventure of the last thirteen months nobody has been in any more under the illusion that independence was a real possibility than they were, in 1978, under the illusion that the World Cup was actually going to be won by anybody other than Argentina, Holland or Brazil.

Patently, there is not going to be a Referendum. The rest is just process.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Ten Reasons for Independence

Readers of the Daily Record will this morning have been treated to "Ten Reasons to support Independence" by their Nationalist commentator, Joan McAlpine. I regret to say however that her predictions seem to me to be altogether too modest. They're never going to win a referendum like this. So, in the spirit that saw me offer speech writing advice to Ruth Davidson, I have decided to compile my own list of what she might have said. It is, it seems to me, a more attractive prospectus than that offered in real life. I'm sure readers of both pieces will agree that it's also a bit more realistic.

1. The weather will be better 

On a day like today, you appreciate what Scotland's weather could be like. It is no coincidence that memories of one's youth leads you to believe that Summers were all like this in the past. That's because, before 1707, they were. And even if, post-independence, the weather remains rather colder and wetter than the South of England, since we'll no longer be obliged to watch the BBC, at least we'll be kept in blissful ignorance of that fact.

2.Drink will be cheaper

Given our miserable constitutional status, is it any wonder Scots drink too much? The fact that the only way to address this presently is through higher prices only demonstrates the wholly inadequate current powers of the Scottish Parliament. After Independence people will clearly drink more responsibly and that will allow a reduction in prices. And if, occasionally, you do get too hungover to go to your work? Don't worry, such will be our oil wealth that work will be a voluntary activity anyway.

3.Rangers and Celtic will both win the League every year

Nothing illustrates the weight of the English Yoke more than the taxes that are demanded from our leading football teams. Obviously that would end immediately but it will still leave the problem that, every year, at a certain point, one half of Glasgow ends up miserable. Freedom, however will leave us free to have two Premier Leagues, solving this problem at a stroke, in a way current arrangements would never allow.

4. Everybody will be famous

There is nothing sadder than the dashed expectation facing so many of our young people. Anybody who has ever watched the disgracefully titled Britain's Got Talent, knows that grannies across Scotland are only too aware that there are better singers, dancers, indeed performing dogs in their very own front rooms. Once it is not the limiting concept of Britain but the liberating one of Scotland that is at issue, all of these talents will be recognised.

5. You'll can use any currency you like

It is a perfect example of the way in which Unionists try to mock the whole idea of Independence that they say that we can't decide what currency we'd use. Why should our vision be restricted by their terms? People will be free to use whatever currency they like. True Scots will of course use the Pound Scots, but those not sure about Independence will still be able to use Sterling and, indeed, such will be our cosmopolitan approach, foreigners will even be able to use the Euro.

6. People will be better looking

Now, before you think I'm daft, I'm not suggesting that Independence will immediately change the genetic make up of Scotland. That will clearly take some generations of freedom. But, who doesn't look better with a smile on their face? And, after independence, we'll all have a smile on our face. You may have noticed that the First Minister is already trying to set an example in that regard. Particularly when faced with an awkward question.

7. Shipbuilding will return to the Clyde

At the moment, nothing annoys us more than the number of Royal Navy warships built in England. After Independence all British warships will be built in Scotland. There may be some details on this yet to be worked out but that's one of the reasons we're not having the referendum till 2014. One thing is certain however. No warships built in Scotland will ever be allowed to take part in any actual wars.

8. There will be high speed trains. Everywhere

One of the first demands of an independent Scotland will be for the high speed rail network to be extended here. It is simply unacceptable that the UK Government is planning, for the moment, for the network to go no further north than Manchester. Again, this is a matter which will be fully thought through by the time of the Referendum. Even if it's not, once we're free nobody will need to go to England anyway.

9. We will still have a Queen

No one need worry about that. Whether it needs to be the current Queen is something we can decide once we're free. For the moment I don't propose to say anything more on this subject.

10. Lunch hours will be longer

Nothing is surely more annoying than having to hurry your pudding just because, for example, you're meant to be doing the job you're paid for. So, after independence, you'll be able to take as much time as you like. Everybody else will just have to wait. And if they don't like waiting that will only demonstrate how anti-Scottish they are. And, anyway, Alex says Rupert has promised not to report it.

See you next week.


Sunday, 20 May 2012

Al Megrahi

In the late Nineteen-nineties, I was sitting at my desk, getting on with my day to day job, when I was surprised to receive a phone call from the senior partner of a large litigation based firm in Glasgow. He was somebody I knew but hardly a regular correspondent.

The usual pleasantries were exchanged until he eventually got to the point. The word was, he observed, that two Libyans might be about to voluntarily submit to the jurisdiction of the Scottish Courts. They would need a lawyer. They were Arabs and thus would presumably be seeking advice as to who they might instruct. And the only Scottish person they would be likely to know would be George Galloway, who was known to be a pal of mine. So, did I know anything about this and might I be asked to make a recommendation?

The smell of fees was in the air.

I replied with complete sincerity that I knew nothing at all before gently pointing out that my interlocutor seemed somewhat confused between George, who was indeed, at least then, one of my comrades and Ron Brown, the one-time Gaddafiaite MP for Leith, a man I had barely met.

And, professionally, that is as close as I have ever been to the Lockerbie bombing trial(s).

But, of course, I do know almost all of the leading players: Alistair Duff, who was the solicitor originally instructed, together with the initial senior counsel in the case, Donald Macaulay, later to find fame as a distinguished Sheriff and Gordon Brown's father in law respectively; to a greater or lesser degree, all of the Law Officers involved in prosecuting the case and then maintaining the safety of the conviction; the Chief Executive of the Criminal Case Review Commission, who once held the exalted position of my trainee; Tony Kelly, Megrahi's most recent solicitor, who practised beside me at the Airdrie Bar and who remains a drinking companion; Kenny McAskill who I knew both as a practising solicitor and later in his more elevated role; even many of the Judges who sat at various stages in deliberation.

I don't say any of that to blow my own trumpet. Scotland is a small jurisdiction and many, many others would be able to claim equal familiarity with those involved.

But, I can guarantee you this. If I somehow could assemble those of my acquaintance in my front room tonight, and promise them absolute confidentiality for their opinions, there would be no consensus among them as to Megrahi's guilt or innocence.

And trying to get to grip with the case needs to start from that acceptance. Those who maintain his guilt are not perverting their professionalism in service to some CIA/Thatcherite/Blairite/McAskillite conspiracy and those equally convinced of his innocence are not green ink conspiracy theorists. There is evidence both ways, as both sides, in their calmer moments, would concede. 

But, all crimes, even the most terrible crimes, perhaps particularly the most terrible crimes, need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. And my own view has always been that in respect of this accused, for this particular crime, there is that reasonable doubt. That does not mean that I would be prepared to have signed off his ultimate acquittal, as was done for the obvious Irish miscarriages of an early era, on the basis that he would leave the court "without any stain on his character". For the avoidance of any doubt, even by his own admission, Megrahi was never some ingenue "fitted up" randomly from the  back streets of Tripoli, but rather an intelligence officer voluntarily serving a brutal and despotic regime.

But, oddly, I start where I finish. Long before Megrahi was arrested my own view was, with, I should emphasise, no reflection on either of the individuals named, that it seemed to me that those truly responsible for the Lockerbie bombing would have been more likely to have heard of George Galloway than of Ron Brown.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Too much information

In the early Nineteen Eighties, the Labour Party was a mad place. Branch meetings would start at 7.30 and then continue almost indefinitely until one faction or another, if only by a process of attrition, reckoned they had the temporary majority to call a vote.

And I was there. As physically fit as anybody present; if, admittedly, still someway short  of the fitness of the general population.

But that was what you did. You went to your work; you finished your work; you came home; you had your tea and then you went out to a "meeting".

And then you went to the pub; had a few pints; went home and then went to your bed.

And the next day you did it all again. 'til the weekend, when you went "out".

I was also, however, at that time, a busy lawyer. In terms of caseload, probably busier than today. Yet I still got home and had my tea and had time to go forward for the evening.

Today, that lifestyle is almost inconceivable. If I am lucky, I get home from work in time for the Channel 4 News at 7pm. And instead of going out to a meeting I then have to digest, one way or the other, the cacophony of information then available. The C4 news itself; the Guardian that has arrived after I departed  in the morning; but most overwhelming of all, the legion which is the Internet. Not just twitter but the infinity of its links; the correspondents demanding response and the simple suggested avenues inviting investigation.

And then, of course there is the temptation to check your email, where, at best, friends and, at worst, clients communicate with an urgency of response on their part if not on yours.

I'm prompted to this thought by the overload which overcame me on Wednesday. For, in addition to all of the above, there was suddenly a new episode of Lewis seducing my attention and, in the midst of all this, a very good book which I had started but was no way from finishing. Having just managed to take it all in I sat down to write a blog, actually this blog, and promptly conked out on the settee.

It would be nice to have been able to compartmentalise this: giving the time to one or other activity only what it deserved, in much the same way as anxious souls are separated out from legitimate litigants in my day to day practice. Except that in my day to day practice clients come, generally, at their appointed hour. In my own time it all seems to come at once. Because, generally, it does.

I increasingly wonder however what is the point of all this information. Or at least where the point of overload will be reached. I'd like to now go on and reach some conclusion worthy of Machiavelli but, actually, I need to check my email.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Nothing's happening

I always blog on a Sunday night. A bit like I always have a curry on a Friday.

(Alright, those of you who have been following my every move will know that I didn't have a curry on Friday past but that was only because I was "going out". Actually, with the benefit of hindsight, I'd have been better off sticking to my normal routine, but that's another story.)

Anyway, the habit of habitual blogging, ("the habit of habitual"? Can't imagine that's proper usage) proceeds from the assumption that there will be an event or events upon which I might reasonably pass informed comment.

Last weekend was a bit of a bonanza with the fall out of the local government elections. prompting my discourse on not one, or even two, but three occasions, helped by the holiday weekend.

The elections are now over however and what has happened since, involving closed door negotiation to form administrations, doesn't seem to me to be as exciting (or indeed outraging) as some are at least pretending it to be. What's won is won, what's done is done and what's lost is lost and gone forever.

And as for today's salvation of Rangers, let's just wait and see if it lasts as long as last weeks salvation of Rangers.

The English football was exciting but it was a live event and it's over.

And that's about it.

I might claim some credit that my increasingly confident assertion that Salmond has no intention of having a Referendum is beginning to get the occasional outing in the mainstream media but even I don't think he's actually going to call it off, or even start that process, for at least fifteen months. And I can't imagine the "official launch" of the Independence Campaign on May 25th is likely to be a hold the front page event unless May 26th proves to be a very slow news day indeed. Or that the inevitable conclusions from the Scottish Government's "consultation" some time in the Autumn will be any more surprising than we already know them to have been before the whole charade commenced.

Even Westminster politics are in something of a hiatus. Levenson is proving entertaining in a gossipy sort of way but once you've heard once, twice, several times over that politicians were too close to the Murdoch empire then you do really wonder what new you are learning, or even whether any of more of the same is now going to matter very much until the Inquiry actually reports.

Everything else is the economy, stupid. And in that regard the die is cast, we can only wait and see how it rolls to rest. The Tories are clearly intent on seeing out their five years and the Libs still determined to stand by them, if only to maximise their redundancy payments.

The idea of mass popular resistance might yet achieve some sort of policy reversal surely saw its last hurrah last Thursday when, had it not been for the media, the day of action might well have gone off entirely unnoticed. I heard one of the Trots on the radio try to attribute this to the weather! His interlocutor should gently have pointed out that St Petersburg in October was hardly tropical..

And so you find yourself wanting somebody to do something bold. Like the President did last week.

And this, I fear is where Scottish Labour, at least, is still missing the boat. I know there is a logic, in normal circumstance, four years out from an election, not to be making policy commitments. But these are not normal circumstances. The SNP are clearly intent on doing absolutely nothing to offend even the fringe elements of their fragile independence coalition. It's small enough already. So surely it is incumbent on us not simply to criticise their inactivity but to actually suggest some activity they might be getting up to. Johann, not for the first time, seems to have been prepared to tell Saturday's Fabian Conference that everything is up for discussion. And that's good. But how about starting to give some indication of how that discussion might travel?

Sure, the reply will come, there's plenty of time for that, and regrettably on one view that's true. But if people want competent stasis then we should realise that, even without a referendum, the SNP will, come 2016, still be likely to offer that. Our only hope is if we can frame the terms of change needed to Scotland and then become its delivery vehicle. And that is a long term project which will be wholly incapable of being constructed in the few months leading up to the next election, even assuming the will is there.

So let's get started.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Succulent Mince

In a completely different context, the Intelligence services like to talk about "chatter". Sometimes this chatter, regretably, is followed by some outrage; at other times it leads to Police intervention, but its certainly my impression that most often it comes to nothing.

It is this latter phonomenum which seems to be at work today in the "chatter" on the web about how last Thurday's result makes it more likely that the SNP Government will be determined to ensure their is a second question in their mythical Referendum.

Let me make my position clear. Thursday's results do not make it more likely the SNP would lose a Referendum for that would assume there ever was a possibilty of them winning one. It obviously accords with the view of their Partisans to believe this to be some sort of possibilty, even in the midst of the intellectual acrobatics required to explain why one would then contemplate asking another question which, all logic dictates, would make such an outcome less likely. But it also has to be conceded that there are others also with an interest in talking up, or at least not talking down, the chances of a Nationalist victory. They are those professionally engaged to report Scottish politics, who, like, dare I say it, Salmond with Murdoch, are unlikely to dismiss an opportunity to bask in their own perceived temporary importance.

So, in consequence, we've had an almost wilful refusal to pay any attention to all the opinion poll evidence available: that there is no prospect of Scotland voting for Independence. Indeed, even allowing for constrained financial times, one cannot help wondering of the paucity of press commissioned polling on the subject, is, at least subconsciously, motivated by the knowledge that "Salmond has no chance" would only lead to editors questioning why then they were expending such resources on reporting the subject.

But, of course, a new, or an old new angle can always be found. So we have the ressurection of the second question. At this point I feel almost like those who report on the blogosphere about the various wild and often legally impossible proposals spun to the "Mainstream Media" in relation to Rangers financial affairs. At least in that context however there is a recognition all round that the passage of the club into administration was an event from which there was no going back.

It is therefore a great pity that there seems to be no equal recognition that David Cameron and Michael Moore's joint's intervention into the Referendum debate has changed the terms of the possibilities in that sphere as decisively as Craig Whyte's decision to call in the administrators has changed the prospects of Rangers survival. And just like with Rangers administration, you can't simply wish that reality away.

A bit like the estimable efforts of Paul McConville to explain, in simple terms, Company Law to Sports Jounalists, I will now, in turn, try to explain some constitutional law to you, dear readers.

The position before 2011 was that the powers of the Scottish Parliament were only those powers given to it by the terms of the Scotland Act 1998. The powers of the Scottish Parliament however were legislative powers over all matters not expressly "reserved" to Westminster by virtue of Schedule 5 of the 1998 Act.

Schedule 5 Part 1 reads 

The following aspects of the constitution are reserved matters, that is—

(a)the Crown, including succession to the Crown and a regency,

(b)the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England,

(c)the Parliament of the United Kingdom,.......

That however was not the end of the matter. The SNP's proposal 2007-2011 was not technically proposing to affect "the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England", it was merely proposing to hold an "advisory" referendum on the subject, and presumably argue in Court, if challenged, that at no part  of Schedule 5 was the holding of advisory referendums specifically reserved to Westminster.

It would be fair to say that even the proposers of this course concede that legal opinion was divided on the subject of whether this argument would hold water if the proposed legislation was challenged in the Courts. Not challenged uniquely, as is regularly mistakenly reported, by the UK Government but simply by any citizen of Scotland who objected to his or her taxes being spent in a [legally] incompetent way. The Scottish Government refused to publish their own legal advice and, since they never actually introduced any legislation 2007-11, the matter was never capable of being tested in a way in which this might be conclusively determined by the Courts. It did however reach the stage of a Consultation Paper published in February 2010 .

Of interest however was the convoluted nature of the question then being proposed.

"The Scottish Government proposes that, in addition to the extension of the powers and 
responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament set out in Proposal 1, the Parliament’s 
powers should also be extended to enable independence to be achieved. 

Do you agree with this proposal?"

In January 2012 however the legal landscape changed utterly.

The powers of the Scottish Parliament are not fixed forever. As we've seen by virtue of this years new Scotland Act, they can be adjusted at any time by virtue of Primary Westminster legislation. But they can also be changed in more minor ways by virtue of  an administrative order made by UK Government ministers by virtue of s.30 of the 1998 Act.

On 10th January 2012, the UK Government announced that they were of a mind to give the Scottish Parliament express power under s.30 to hold an Independence Referendum. This was a dramatic shift. Suddenly the divided legal opinion on the legality of an advisory referendum became irrelevant, at least if the s. 30 went through. How would the Scottish Government react? Would they stick with their advisory plans despite the risk of challenge in the Courts or would they embrace the s.30 procedure? We didn't have to wait long for an answer.

For on 25th January the Scottish Government published its own (latest) Consultation Paper on the subject of a Referendum. All talk of an advisory referendum had gone. The Referendum was to be held on a much simpler question. But the crucial section on the legalities is this. As I go through this, I add my commentary in red.

Powers of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum
1.5 A wide range of opinion has been expressed about whether or not the Scottish Parliament has the power to hold a referendum consulting the Scottish people about independence. The Scottish Government's February 2010 paper set out a referendum question asking whether the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be extended to enable independence to be achieved. The Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate for a referendum as long as that would not change any reserved law or relate to those aspects of the constitution which are reserved by the Scotland Act 1998. The referendum question proposed in 2010 was carefully phrased to comply with that requirement. Much independent legal opinion supports the Scottish Government's view.
The key sentences above are the first one and the penultimate one. They concede, publicly, for the first time that there is some dubiety about the competence of a referendum under the current statutory provisions and  explain the convoluted nature of the question proposed in the 2010 Consultation. The fact the question to be asked has now changed assumes there will be a s.30 order
1.6 What is not in question is the competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum about changes to the powers of the Scottish Parliament within the framework of devolution. Legislation to hold a referendum on "devolution max" for example (see paragraph 1.25 below), is clearly within the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament.
This whole proposition is very much in contention (see the terms of  Schedule 5, part 1(c) quoted above). I said at the time that I was surprised that the Civil Servants allowed it's inclusion. That is not however my "QED" point.  
1.7 In a paper published on 10 January 2012 the UK Government stated its view that legislation providing for a referendum on independence - even on the basis proposed by the Scottish Government in 2010 - would be outside the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament[4]. The UK paper sets out two possible mechanisms to transfer the power to hold a referendum on independence: an Order in Council under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, or an amendment to the Scotland Bill currently under consideration by the House of Lords. The UK paper goes on to seek views on a series of proposed conditions for the transfer of power, including a role for the Electoral Commission and limits on the timing, on the franchise (to exclude 16 and 17 year olds) and on the number of questions to be asked. It also seeks views on whether, as an alternative to the proposed transfer of power, the UK Parliament should itself legislate directly for a referendum.
Indeed they did, and as I have already indicated above, this whole Consultation proceeds on the basis that there will be a s.30 order
1.8 The Scottish Government's preference is for a short, direct question about independence as set out in paragraph 1.10 below. It is ready to work with the UK Government to agree a clarification of the Scotland Act 1998 that would remove their doubts about the competence of the Scottish Parliament and put the referendum effectively beyond legal challenge by the UK Government or any other party. Its preference is for a Section 30 order, [my emphasis] but whichever legislative approach were taken, any change to the definition of the Scottish Parliament's competence would require the consent of the Scottish Parliament as well as the UK Parliament[5].
[again my emphasis]
1.9 The Scottish Government does not accept the proposed imposition of conditions on the Section 30 order. The Scottish Government's mandate to hold a referendum is clear and the UK Government has denied any wish to put obstacles in the way[6]. As a matter of democratic principle it is for the Scottish Parliament to decide on the timing and terms of the referendum and the rules under which it is to be conducted.

These are not legal statements, they are political ones. Nothing wrong with that, except that at the start of this section, the SNP recognise they need a s.30 to ask their preferred question but by the end of it, having accepted on the way that a s.30 needs the consent of both Parliaments, they then simply ignore that in the concluding Paragraph.Put more simply the last sentence of this paragraph is a statement of opinion but the last sentence of the previous paragraph is a statement of fact. 

So let me now return to the UK Government proposal. It proposes to give certain powers to hold a referendum. There is however one very big condition to all this.

The proposal from the UK Government is to lay a s.30 in the following terms. (This is lifted from the exact terms of the draft Order attached to their consultation document and again I add my own commentary) 

3. In Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 (reserved matters), after paragraph 5 insert— 
“5A.—(1) Paragraph 1 does not reserve a referendum on the independence of Scotland from the rest of the 
United Kingdom if the following requirements are met. 

This removes any possible current dubiety over the competence of such a referendum. But If Paragraph 1 (as prospectively amended) "does not reserve [the competence of] a Referendum ......if the following requirements are met", then, on any possible statutory interpretation, it does reserve it in any other circumstance. This is key.

(2) The date of the poll at the referendum must not be the date of the poll at any other referendum held under 
provision made by the Parliament. 

This expressly prevents a "different" referendum on e,g, "Devo-Max" being held on the same day.

(3) The date of the poll at the referendum must be no later than ***.  

Self explanatory. Any controversy on this point is not germane to my current argument
(4) There must be only one ballot paper at the referendum, and the ballot paper must give the voter a choice 
between only two responses. 

This is the really key point. There can only be one question. 

(5) The persons entitled to vote in the referendum must be the persons who would be entitled to vote in an
election for membership of the Parliament— 
(a) if one were held on the date of the poll at the referendum, or 
(b) if one were held on that date but alterations made in a register of electors after a particular date were 

Again, any controversy on this point is not germane to my current argument.

(6) The referendum and arrangements in connection with it must be in accordance with Part 7 of the Political 
Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (referendums) as if the referendum were within section 101(2) of 
that Act, subject to any modifications specified in subordinate legislation


So, for the avoidance of any doubt, and without stopping to give any credence to any suggestion  that the consultation itself might provoke any change to the UK Government's proposals on this key point, if there is a Section 30 then it's price will be that only one question can be asked.

Now, you might say, what if there is no section.30?  If there is no section 30 then the Scottish Government can't ask their preferred question. Don't take my word for that. They say that themselves! In their own Consultation Paper.

And,  more glaringly obviously still, any proposal to have any Referendum without a section 30 suddenly places everything back in an area of (at best) legal uncertainty. That's not just my opinion, it's the opinion stated at paragraph 1.5 of their own Consultation Paper which I quote above.

So, if the UK Government offer the SNP to enable a Referendum and the SNP reject it "so that they can ask a second question" that's got nothing whatsoever with a desire to ask a second question and everything to do with a desire to get mired in a legal minefield "preventing" a Referendum taking place at all.


So why are people, even today, wittering on about a second question? For the same reason that sports journalists swallowed the hype of (Sir) David Murray about Rangers competing with Manchester United or Barcelona, despite the suspension of reality over the wider financial environment of Scottish Football that required. They were taken in by smoke and mirrors and, in the process, fed "succulent lamb".

Even David Murray however couldn't commandeer the full panoply of the Scottish local state to endorse his deceit, let alone do so in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle. At least however the sports journos were fed succulent lamb. For the politicos all that was on offer was mince.

There is not going to be a second question. And, unless Cameron forces the question, there is not going to be a Referendum at all.

You read it here first. And read it months ago.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A start of a blog about one thing but a finish about another

So, I'm half way through writing another mega-blog "Succulent mince" about how Scottish Political Journalists have been taken in as comprehensively by one person as their Sports colleagues were taken in by somebody else. Pointing out that, at least, while the Sports journalists were actively misled, the politicos were simply too busy enjoying the hospitality to look at what had been handed to them, in individual copy, within the not exactly secret location of  the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle. And then distracted by Kevin Pringle suddenly announcing "Oh, look, Independence" while pointing out the window.

And, then what happens to the blog? Homeland starts (but, it turns out, does not entirely finish).

In the time inbetween, I've had a drink and maybe calmed down a bit, so the mega blog will have to wait to tomorrow (at least), together with my hopes of the Orwell Prize alongside @RangersTaxCase, or indeed my earlier ambition to be elected, by acclamation, as the one man who could yet return the Scottish Labour Party to its former greatness.

I will however return to the mega-blog. Here's hoping Alex Thomson doesn't re-appear in Scotland in the meantime.

My topic tonight is the death of newspapers.

I've fought, with a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm, every election, local or national,  since February 1974. And at every election since, and until 5? years ago, the first thing I've done on emerging, not so much the next morning but, more correctly, later the same day, has been to go out and get a late edition of a national newspaper. In order that I might read the detailed results.

And then on the Saturday after the election I have bought the next days edition of (probably) the same newspaper in order to get the definitive results and the commentary upon them.

And then I've pored over them for the detail.

I still pour over the detail but, today, I don't buy the first newspaper for, whenever I wake up, it is much easier, and (by the way) cheaper to get the results online.

And as for commentary? Who wants (now) to read commentary on Saturday about an event that took place on Thursday.

But, readers protest, commentary on the internet lacks verification. And of course much of it does. I haven't checked but I wouldn't rule out that Newsnet are, even tonight, reporting that the SNP have taken power in Glasgow.

Except that we, the British, have the unique institution of the BBC. So, if we need to check what is true, we have access to an institutional source more trusted than even Wikipedia. And a source resourced, in the field of news at least, to be on the spot of anything that you would ever be likely to want to know. And not just resourced to report it but then able to report it instantly.

So where does that leave newspapers? They might yet have the ability to function in reporting "news" which the Beeb doesn't think of "news" at all (more or less where you will find most tabloids) or they might, just, have a function in communicating, in sympathetic terms, with those already aligned with their world view, essentially the survival strategy of the Telegraph and the Guardian.

But in Scotland? The fact that we have rival "serious" newspapers in Glasgow and Edinburgh flows originally from an age where it was far from possible to travel from one to the other in 45 Minutes. That gone, you could merge the two, except that by the time you had done so the advertising which within the last ten years provided a supplement to the Sunday editions of both will have entirely disappeared online.

And while the investigatory reporting of both has an undoubted value, that investigatory reporting could not, reasonably, be expected to appear each week. And the paper(s) cannot expect regular sales in occasional expectation of a meaningful such occurrence.

I'm, in the end, prompted to these rather melancholy thoughts by the fact that I did today read both of Scotland's serious papers. They both covered the local elections admirably. Quantity in one; quality in the other. But, in both, there was a distinctive air of a last hurrah. I will be astonished if either is still around too report the next local government elections in such a manner.

And then? It will be "All power to the BBC" who did, without the conscious intention of Newsnet, but as Kate Higgins discovered, inaccurately report the results for the best part of 24 hours.

But without an alternative? Jings, I'm beginning to sound like Rupert Murdoch.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Post election blog

So, where to start. I started my most prescient piece ever with a long anecdote about a particular result being summarised simply as "a good night for the Labour Party" and there is a temptation just to repeat that here.

And in many ways it was. A good afternoon anyway.

And not a result either of the two major Scottish  Parties saw coming. Maggie Curran frankly admitted that on Newsnight. The SNP, I suspect still in something of a state of shock, still can't quite decide between a line that it was a good result anyway and the maintenance that it only accorded with their expectations.

Bravado is in the nature of Electioneering, so too much can be made of Salmond's triumphalist speech to the Glasgow Conference but much more interesting is this written, entirely voluntarily, just over a week ago, by the man many claim to be Salmond's brain. Either he was making this up or the SNP's much vaunted election software is just as fallible (and rose-tinted) as everybody else's. More anecdotally, I have a friend in the SNP, whose task on Friday was to have been to advise on coalition negotiations across Scotland. I suspect that they did not do much travelling.

I don't seek to minimise the scale of our defeat last year, far from it, but it had fooled both sides into doubting the empirical evidence of the campaign. That Labour was doing worse than the response of the electorate indicated and that the SNP must be  doing better. Actually, the result reflected Scottish politics since Devolution. Labour did well in West Central Scotland but the further North and East you went, the more that support drifted away. The only exception being Aberdeen, where I suspect the only really sustainable genuinely different local media in Scotland meant that local factors played a significant part.

But when I say that things returned to normal, I actually don't mean the old normal, I mean the new normal.

From the sixties until the mid 2000's, Scotland had what the theorists describe as a majoritarian system. The best continental example being the Christian Democrats in post-war Italy. While in theory we had four major Parties, actually we had one major Party and three significant minor Parties. Support for each member the latter group ebbed and flowed between them, and sometimes encroached a bit on Labour's dominance but the given was that Labour was a always a significantly bigger Party (in terms of support) than any of the other three. First Past the Post magnified this advantage and, indeed, was one factor that made so many hesitant about the 1979 Devolution Scheme.

Now, all that has changed. Scotland has two major Parties, competing as equals.

So, even if Labour, on what we think of as a good night, has secured more first preferences than the SNP (in the absence of the data still my own strong suspicion), we will not be decisively ahead. Nothing like 1997 or 1999 ahead.

And that's a change. Possibly a strategic change.

It is illusory to try and read across between different types of elections given differential turnouts, differing electoral systems, different candidates being chosen and, indeed, different levels of government being elected. All that having been said, the best possible interpretation of Thursday's vote in a Scottish Parliamentary context is that Labour and the SNP might be more or less tied. That may be reassuring in the context of the new normal but it is far from being the old normal.

So there should, once the understandable triumphalism (or perhaps relief) of the moment has passed, (to which I plead as guilty as anybody) be a realisation that Scottish Labour still has a very long way to go.

What lessons can be learned? First, second, third and fourth, that you must fight the contest that you are actually in. Last May the infamous "Now that the Tories are back" manifesto did nothing of the sort. This year the roles were reversed. It was Labour who fought on what they would do if they ran the Council and the SNP who offered victory only as a "stepping stone".

Fifthly, that personnel are important. The cull of the old guard was surely a key element in turning round Glasgow as was the patent competence and confidence of Gordon Matheson when compared to his utterly inept opponent. Again a complete role reversal on 2011.

Sixthly, that you need to have something positive to say. Across all the local authorities where we did well, we had innovative and identifiable policies; Youth job creation, broadband and pre-school care in Glasgow; a co-operative council in Edinburgh; even some signs of life in North Lanarkshire.

If all of these lessons are taken in, and combined with the quiter but more efficient campaign organising that characterised 2012 as opposed to 2011, then it gives a basis to go forward. That's however all.

And, we don't need to forget that 400 miles away, Boris still won in London, or, perhaps more accurately, Ken lost. Actually, that might be the most important lesson of all.