Saturday 27 February 2021

Anas Sarwar for First Minister

At the end of last month, I wrote this blog, A Simple Question, . It is in some way a companion piece to a blog, Numbers, that I wrote last November. But last November, under Richard Leonard, I was resigned to Labour coming third in May and my blog was predicated on that. I fear it was as a result of my conclusions then however that neither Monica nor Anas thought it appropriate to answer my more recent question. For they thought that my conclusion in November was my preferred answer now. But it wasn't

For now we have Anas and I will be surprised if that doesn't give us a wee bump in the polls. And only a wee bump might get us back to second place.

And I will be surprised if the Salmond affair isn't now finally having some cut through with the general public. We didn't get an answer from the Lord Advocate on Thursday as to whether representations were made by a "third party" before their unprecedented decision to threaten the Parliament with prosecution for contempt of court. We will however get an answer to that when the Lord Advocate returns to give evidence to the committee on Monday. Or a refusal to answer, which of course would be an answer in itself. Mr Salmond's (and the Spectator's) lawyers have written to the committee to say that in informal discussions with the Crown prior to the hearing of the Spectator's case, the Crown advised that only one small part of Mr Salmond's evidence in the Spectator gave them cause for concern. That then was voluntarily removed before the same evidence was sent to the committee. If that is correct then, at some point on Tuesday the Crown, in insisting other parts of the evidence should be removed, changed their stance. If that changed as a result of an intervention by a proxy of the Scottish Government that would be a very serious matter indeed for the principle that the Crown should be politically independent. 

And then on Wednesday we will hear from the First Minister herself. A lot of what was taken from Salmond on Wednesday was irrelevant to the central issue. But the lethal bit was the evidence elicited by Jackie Baillie. Salmond told the committee that when his aide, Geoff Aberdein, met with a very senior aide to Nicola Sturgeon, a political appointee, not a career civil servant, on 9th  March 2018, Mr Aberdein was given the name of one of the female civil servants who had made a formal complaint against Mr Salmond. If that is true, it destroys the argument that there was no political involvement in/knowledge of the process which had ensnared Mr Salmond until 29th March. It raises two further  questions. If this aide knew to tell Mr Aberdein, when did she know herself? And secondly, is it remotely credible that being in possession of this information and willing to share it with Mr Aberdein, in early March (at least),  the aide nonetheless did not share it with Nicola Sturgeon, her boss? An honest answer to that second question on any view would constitute a very serious breach of the ministerial code.

Now, all I'm saying is that this will have some cut through but even "some" might suffice to deny the SNP, even with the Greens, an absolute majority in the post May 6th Parliament. There are clearly reasons they are so desperate to hold onto that date.  So what happens then?

I explained, back in my November blog, the rules in a post election period. In summary, there must be a new (although it can be the incumbent) First Minister elected within 28 days of the election. Otherwise there is another election. And in a vote for First Minister it's a yes/no choice. So the Nats/Greens could not cling on to power unless another Party voted with them or abstained. (In 2007 the Tories and the Lib-Dems abstained). 

Now, I get the difficulty of a "Grand Coalition" for many in the Labour Party but, if we were second, would Labour need a Grand Coalition? If we, hopefully with the Libs, put forward a a candidate for First Minister and vote against any other candidate, as the twenty eight days approached, the Tories would have to make a choice. Do they abstain on an SNP Candidate, leaving the Nats, having won the Holyrood vote, still in power? Do they just keep voting no until there is another election, or do they, through gritted teeth conclude that ultimately, their enemy's enemy is their friend. I know where my money would be. And, after that, the Nats would be stuck in five years opposition unless they were willing to "vote with the Tories" to bring down a Labour Government. And we know that doesn't have a happy provenance. 

So don't rule out at all that Anas Sarwar, having today been elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party will, within three months, be the First Minister of Scotland.

Friday 19 February 2021

An Anniversary.

I have taken the day off completely because it is my wedding anniversary.

When you are married you inevitably mark the major occasions of the year together. Easter, the Glasgow September Weekend, Christmas, New Year. But you do that alongside the rest of the western world, or at least alongside the rest of the west of Scotland. And you also obviously celebrate each other's birthday and, if you are fortunate enough to have them, your children's birthdays. But these are more or less randomly arrived at dates and even when, in respect of the latter,  if they have to be chosen, chosen out of necessity rather than pre-determined....... choice. 

But your wedding day is different. It is the one day that you have chosen together and the one day that will forever be uniquely yours. 

So, since my wife, Maureen, died in April, this is a date I have particularly dreaded, and I suspect will for the rest of my own allotted span. 

I'll shortly go and lay flowers at her grave, a task I have been putting off. Supposedly, in my own rationalisation, because of the weather but in truth because it will be very difficult. Then, I will probably get very drunk. 

But you can't separate this melancholy from what is happening in the wider world. Maureen died, for reasons totally unrelated to Covid, just fifteen days into the first lockdown. We couldn't have a proper funeral, just a small gathering outside the house who walked behind the hearse directly to the cemetery. None of her brothers, or nephews and nieces, who lived further than Glasgow, could attend. Her best friend of sixty years could not attend, as she was shielding to protect her own husband. We didn't get to go the pub after her body had been received into the church the night before the funeral, as it couldn't be so received anyway. Nor to enjoy a purvey and some inevitably black humour after she had been laid to rest.

But there was more. The last major bereavement I had was when my mother died in 1979. Even between her death and her funeral, I recall I went out campaigning in the forthcoming general election. Not because I was a political fanatic (although I probably was a bit at the time) but because that meant activity, and company, and diversion. And I went back to my work the day after her funeral for that very same reason.

Here I could do none of that. I couldn't go to the court and shake hands and exchange hugs with my close colleagues or accept the condolences of others. I couldn't even speak to my friends and business partners, (not mutually exclusive) except on the phone.

And this has just gone on and on. It was nearly over. I was beginning to think we might finally get our requiem mass and commemorative event, possibly even on the first anniversary of Mo's death. But then of course it started up again.

Earlier in the week, there was a report on Channel 4 news featuring the conservative MP, Sir Charles Walker. He certainly didn't seem to me to be a frothing Coronavirus denier and nothing I have read since suggests he is. But he had a more rational point. At some point we have to consider what the continued lockdown is doing to wider health, particularly but not exclusively mental health. And also what it is doing to the general wellbeing of children.

And we have to apply a cost benefit analysis to continued lockdown. As, I learn from Google, the self same Charles Walker said last Autumn, I paraphrase slightly, no Government can ever entirely abolish death. 

Twenty plus years ago, I was on the Board of the Cumbernauld & Kilsyth Addiction Service. I was mainly engaged by the drug side of its work but I met a lot of people doing sterling work on alcohol addiction. They obviously had hugely disproportionate knowledge of alcohol abuse and addiction, sometimes from tragic direct personal experience. But it became clear over time that many of these people were effectively abolitionists, or at least would have been, had U.S.experience not demonstrated the impossibility of that. But while nobody doubts the negative effect alcohol can have for some you have to set it against the positive effects, in moderation, that it does have for many. That's what has led Government's of all complexions to proceed on the basis of regulation alone, disagreeing only on exactly where the balance of that regulation should lie.

You can't let the rules be set by those with the worst experience. 

So in considering the pace at which the lockdown should be lifted the government has to listen to more than virologists and immunologists. It needs to listen to psychiatrists and paediatricians and simply general physicians of every discipline as well. "But" I hear some protest "there might be new strains, you might get long Covid, you might be someone in a vulnerable category for whom the vaccine isn't effective!" Well yes you might, just as you might be someone for whom an initial half of lager at 16 leads to you drinking a bottle of vodka a day when you are thirty. But you need to calculate that "might" in determining public policy and never confuse "might" with "will".   For the avoidance of doubt, I write that as someone absolutely of the opinion that alcoholism is a disease and not simply a failure of character. 

And Government also has to listen to the public. Once the most vulnerable are all vaccinated, and that appears, thanks to herculean effort, to be possible by the end of March, then if you ask those left whether they'd risk what for the overwhelming majority would be a mild, non threatening illness, which, the odds are, they won't catch anyway, in exchange for fully re-opened schools and colleges,  shops, restaurants, sports stadiums, cinemas, theatres, music venues, hotels, airports, and, yes, pubs and clubs, I suspect you'd get a pretty overwhelming response. I say that, I concede, as someone of 62, who would by then have had the jag, but I am equally certain it would be my view if I was 42, never mind 22.

I finish where I started. Huge numbers have been bereaved during the pandemic and, in truth, their getting over that bereavement has been hugely hampered by continued lock down. They should have a voice here as well.  And I declare an interest.