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Gordon Brown

Spring is in the air

After nearly a week of fine weather, I have finally been convinced that spring has arrived. The daffodils opening their bright little faces was the confirmation I needed. They’ve made me as light headed as William Wordsworth, the man who stole some good lines from his wife and sister to write that famous poem.

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar Castle

I was wandering as lonely as a cloud through the Craigmillar estate when I saw my host of golden daffodils this morning. Of course the snowdrops and the crocuses have been out for weeks and the gorse on Arthur’s Seat has begun to blossom but daffodils, for me, are the real sign of spring.

The cold gales have gone. The deep snow on the Cairngorms is melting fast and the wettest winter for over a hundred years is over. Suddenly life seems easier and more cheerful.

Even the long road to the referendum seems less daunting. We were treated this week to the usual spring ritual of a row over the GERS figures (government expenditure and revenue, Scotland). They revealed an embarrassing public sector deficit of £12bn (8.3 per cent of GDP), caused largely by a 40 per cent fall in oil revenues. It’s the first time in five years that the deficit was higher than for the UK as a whole, which allowed Alex Salmond to claim, at first minister’s question time, that last year was a blip and that new investment in the North Sea will bring in much higher revenues in the future.

Gordon Brown Out of hybernation

Gordon Brown
Out of hybernation

This week also saw Gordon Brown come out of post-prime-ministerial hibernation to enter the referendum debate. He made a speech in Glasgow calling for more tax powers for the Scottish Parliament, allowing it to raise up to 40 per cent of what it spends. He cast it as part of a plan to write a new constitution for the United Kingdom, guaranteeing home rule for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

This came perilously close to the Liberal Democrats’ idea of a federal Britain. And indeed Sir Menzies Campbell – elder statesman of the Lib Dems – said he could see common ground emerging among all the pro-Union parties for more powers for the Scottish Parliament. He called for a constitutional summit of all parties within 30 days of a “NO” vote in the referendum in September.

O dear, there’s been another leak. Actually, it’s a leak about a leak. It all happened at the Dounray nuclear establishment in Caithness in the spring of 2012. A test reactor for the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines apparently sprang a leak and a small amount of radiation escaped. At first this was described as “level zero” on the safety scale and there had been “no measurable change in the radiation discharge”. But the defence secretary Philip Hammond later changed this to “no measurable change in the alpha-emitting particulate discharge.”

Dounreay

Dounreay

Whatever this covers up, he could not disguise the fact that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency was not informed until nine months after the incident – and was asked to keep it quiet. The Scottish government was not informed at all. We only found out about it last week as part of Mr Hammond’s announcement to the House of Commons that he was spending £120m on refuelling one of the navy’s submarines because of the incident at Dounreay. As in most nuclear matters, it’s all as clear and simple as Higgs-Boson.

It’s not been a good week for the Royal Navy. The 800 strong workforce employed by Babcock to service the submarine base at Faslane and Coulport on the Clyde walked out on strike for the first time in 40 years. They’re protesting against a one-percent pay rise at a time when they say managers are giving themselves a 9 percent rise.

Still at sea, on the surface this time, a Scottish round-the-world yachtsman has been rescued after his boat was hit by a huge wave off Cape Horn at the southern tip of Chile. Andrew Halcrow, aged 54 from Shetland, described how his mast was broken by the wave as he lay in his bunk. “It was so brutal, I was sure a ship had rammed into me,” he wrote on his website. It’s the second time Mr Halcrow has tried to sail single-handed around the world. His first attempt in 2007 ended when he became ill while sailing off the Australian coast. He’s now trying to recover his 32ft boat and we should all cheer his bravery if he ever sails it back to Shetland.

Finally, I see that Rangers are bravely fighting their way back from financial disgrace. They’re now unbeatable at the top of Division One after their 3-0 defeat of Airdrie on Wednesday night. They will go into the Championship league next season against the likes of Dundee, Falkirk, Alloa, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South. And if they triumph again, they will be back in the Premier League this time next year. All they have to do now is hold a board meeting that doesn’t end in tears and a court hearing.

Perhaps the only heather that’s caught fire…

by Douglas MacLeod
Author, historian and former BBC producer

Good morning Wee Eck. Wake up and smell the … er … what exactly? Well one thing is for sure, beloved leader, it isn’t the heather on fire. You have achieved something truly remarkable. You have launched a campaign for an independence referendum in an ancient nation and have been met with… nothing very much.

Alex Salmond MSP 'Wee Eck'

Alex Salmond MSP
‘Wee Eck’

A few weeks ago, a former colleague posted on a social network site a plea for anyone in the area of a planned broadcast debate on independence to please come to the venue so slight was the interest.

Such debates as I’ve seen or heard are stuffed full of usual suspect party activists banging old drums.

The ‘Yes’ campaign, showing in enough opinion polls to count as a trend, is stuck in a Sargasso Sea of indifference. Could it be, dear Eck, that your legendary and justified reputation as a savvy political operator, has faltered and that your finely honed instincts have deserted you at the very moment when triumph seemed to be within your grasp?

Gosh. That’ll make a great play one day, a tragi-comedy of positively Greek proportions. They’ve even got the words for it. You know them, that great old double act, fresh from the debacle of the Great Broon of Fife, Hubris and Nemesis.

"Pinkies up, Morningside tearoom independence"

“Pinkies up, Morningside tearoom independence”

Of course some of the cause of the failure of the heather to ignite may be due to the somewhat strange rallying cry of the ‘Yes’ campaign. This ain’t Mel Gibson, daubed in the far from authentic blue stuff wielding a bloody great sword and leading the charge towards proud Edward’s army screaming “FREEDOM”.

This is pinkies up, Morningside tearoom independence. We’re keeping the Royal Family. Same head of state. We’re keeping the pound. Same currency. That raises some difficult economic questions. Defence? We’re keeping NATO. Right, so same foreign policy? Well maybe. More really difficult questions. Better fudge that one. Independence lite.

I think the indifference goes deeper, to the heart of the contempt felt by most people for a political class. Let us search, Wee Eck, for that lost time when there was a dawn and it was bliss to be alive and to be young was very heaven. I refer, of course, to that earlier referendum when the heather did catch fire. The concept of devolved power in general and of the blueprint for a Scottish Parliament drawn up by the Constitutional Convention had a good press.

Yet underneath it all was deep political cynicism. Who wanted devolution? For the SNP it was a transitory stepping stone to independence. The vast majority of Labour’s big beasts simply saw it as a way of shooting the Nationalist fox. Yet they joined forces in a ‘Yes’ campaign, including some well-known Labour figures who were visibly gritting their teeth.

Gordon Brown - Stayed in Westminster

Gordon Brown – Stayed in Westminster

The great beasts of Labour – the Gordon Browns, Alasdair Darlings and George Robertsons – stayed put in Westminster. The electoral list system – devised by Labour to prevent an SNP majority – ensured that party bosses could award sundry apparatchiks with a good crack at putting MSP after their names.

In a piece for the New Statesman in 1999 the veteran Political correspondent Tom Brown, analysed the new intake of MSP’s. There were 33 former councillors; 14 had been researchers, MPs’ gophers and bag-carriers and ‘have never had a proper job’. The result was, particularly on the Labour Back benches, a group of politicians who, to be kind, didn’t exactly represent the sharpest political intellects of our generation.

An old Scots word was brought back into common usage by broadsheets of record and tabloids alike to describe our parliamentarians and their performance in the early debates: “numpty”. In 2007 it was voted Scotland’s favourite word, according to a poll by BT Openreach.

Ex-Councillors and bag carriers

Ex-Councillors and bag carriers

Brown found that ‘Politicos, local government functionaries, trade unionists, lecturers and lawyers make up four-fifths of the parliament.’ This was hardly the ‘new politics’ which had been promised; rather it re-enforced the growing notion of an out of touch professional political class.

The public relations problem was exacerbated because they were being scrutinised by some of the sharpest political commentators around who had cut their journalistic teeth at Westminster and come home to cover the promised excitement of the ‘new politics’ in the Scottish Parliament.

It led to an outburst from Tony Blair: “A bunch of unreconstructed wankers” was how he famously characterised the men and women of the Scottish press in a moment of irritation as those early bad reviews came in. A little later, in March 2000, addressing the Scottish Parliament, then meeting in the Kirk’s Assembly Rooms on the Mound, his language was more measured, but the sentiment was much the same. After accusing the hacks of doing what they could to knock over an edifice that they had been instrumental in erecting, the Prime Minister declared: “Scepticism is healthy. Cynicism is corrosive. And there is no cause for it.”

Tony Blair. Picture: World Economic Forum

Tony Blair
Attacked the media

This was a classic case of trying to shoot the messenger. As Blair castigated the hacks, Executive Ministers were admitting (privately) that parliament did itself no good by setting as its first priorities the business of deciding on MSPs’ holidays, wages and expenses.

There was a barrage of bad publicity to be taken into account: political lobbyists and their high-level connections (“lobbygate” ); the ever rising costs of the new parliament building, where again the new polity did themselves no PR favours by selecting a celebrity panel which choose a daring design and a site bought from one of the Tory party’s financial supporters; meantime ministers and MSPs demanded more and more space for themselves, the building programme dropped further behind schedule and costs soared to an eye watering ten times the original estimate. It is little wonder that public support dwindled.

The referendum would have been won even if the notorious 40 per cent rule that had stymied hopes of an assembly in 1979 had applied. The first election produced a more than sixty per cent turnout, high by modern standards. The second election produced a turnout of just over 49 per cent. The long hoped for Scottish parliament had become just another modern political institution inspiring, at best, nothing very much in the hearts of most Scots at worst the usual justified contempt of the modern voter for politicians. Subsequent electoral turnouts have hovered around fifty per cent.

There, Wee Eck, lies the source of your Nemesis. There was no great landslide victory at the last election. Half the electorate didn’t vote. A mandate to govern through Holyrood? Yes. A launchpad for independence? No. Methinks you fell for the trap that befalls many a successful politician, you started to believe your own propaganda. I asked who wanted devolution? The answer is, of course, the Scottish people. What they got were cynical politicians pursuing their party agendas, and much waffle and ineptitude.

Autumn on Deeside

Autumn has arrived and we are back to business after a long and glorious summer. The air is cooler, the winds are fresher and the leaves on the trees are starting to turn from dark green to brown and then yellow. Sun- tanned MSPs are back in parliament and hostilities have resumed in the war of independence.

Big Guns back in town

Big Guns back in town

The big guns have been blazing away – Alex Salmond in Fraserburgh and Edinburgh, George Osborne in Aberdeen, Gordon Brown in Glasgow. But the only people they’ve hit so far are the opinion pollsters. They’ve been blown all over the place. A TNS poll says support for independence has slumped to 25 per cent, a YouGov poll puts it at 29 per cent but a Panelbase poll says it’s at 44 per cent. The only thing for certain is that the number of “don’t knows” has increased – some say it’s as high as 40 per cent.

The SNP government’s legislative programme, announced on Wednesday, was all about next year’s referendum, though none of the 13 bills actually mention this. In fact only three of the new bills are substantive measures, the rest are administrative tidying-up exercises. There’s to be a new licensing system for airguns. The sheriff courts are to be asked to handle more civil cases to reduce the long waiting times in the high court. And the right to buy your council house is to be abolished.

The measure that caught the headlines, the ending of automatic early release for serious offenders, is to be tagged-on as an amendment to the existing Criminal Justice bill. And the highly controversial gay marriage bill is already making its merry way through the parliamentary maze…where it may well get lost till after the 18th September next year.

Should anything distract from the referendum campaign?

Should anything distract from the referendum campaign?

So nothing at Holyrood is to be allowed to distract us from the referendum campaign. In his introduction to the legislative programme Alex Salmond talks of little else: “ The case for independence is based on a very simple argument. Decisions about Scotland should be taken by the people who care most about Scotland – the people who live and work here.”

Meanwhile, the Chancellor George Osborne was bravely boarding a Super Puma helicopter – the type which crashed off Shetland last month – to fly out to the Montrose platform to talk about the remaining oil and gas in the North Sea. His message was: there’s not as much value in it as the SNP hopes and dreams. It’s not worth £1.5 trillion as the SNP claims but only £120 billion when you take into account the cost of extracting it. He was also clutching a Treasury report which suggested that the effect of erecting a political border between Scotland the England would leave the Scottish economy £5 billion worse off over the next 30 years. Exports may fall by 80 per cent it claims. The SNP said that was scare mongering, part of “project fear” according to Nicola Sturgeon.

Gordon Brown - entering the referendum fray

Gordon Brown – entering the referendum fray

It seems to have scared off Billy Connelly. He’s put his Aberdeenshire mansion up for sale for £3m and talked of buying a small flat in Brighton instead. But he might be reassured about Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom if he sees Gordon Brown’s plan to “fully entrench” the Scottish Parliament in the British constitution. The trouble is the UK has no formal constitution, though it sounds like Mr Brown is about to write one.

In his speech in Glasgow he said he regretted that while Labour was in power it did not spell out in a constitutional bill what exactly the United Kingdom is for…“not just defence and security, not just trading relationships but to pool and share our resources…”

I wonder if his constitution bill would have included the right to work. Because this week we learned that Glasgow is the jobless capital of the UK. Just over 30 per cent of homes have no-one of working age in a job. The two main reasons given are sickness and a lack of jobs.

What would Adam Smith, who taught economics at Glasgow University, have made of that? One person who may be able to tell us is the lucky purchaser of a rear first edition of “The Wealth of Nations” which sold this week for £46,000 at an auction in Edinburgh.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

And while on the subject of Scottish history, it’s perhaps worth noting that Monday (9th September) marks the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. In one disastrous afternoon Scotland lost her 12,000 “flowers of the forest” and her most popular king, James IV. From that date onwards we have, rightly, begun to doubt ourselves.

The story is told in the sweep of Scottish history that is the Great Tapestry of Scotland. It’s just been completed and now hangs in the Scottish Parliament. Its 160 panels remind us of our fortunes and our folly, from the beginning of time to the present day. See it and be amazed.

My week began in the snow-capped Cairngorms. Blustery showers blew in from the north west but when the sun shone, the rivers sparkled. Spring is late here. The birch trees have only just turned a light green. The grass and heather are still straw-brown, winter-worn. A squadron of wagtails flitted along the shore of Loch Morlich and a red squirrel scampered away from me and disappeared over a fence.

DSCF4982I was here in this wonderful wilderness to gain my mountain leadership certificate but being out of town – for whatever reason – always gives you wider perspective on life, a breathing space. And how we need it after the long winter, now giving way slowly to a cool and indecisive spring.

We are coming into what used to be called Scottish Biodiversity Week (18th – 26th May). It’s been given the more earthy title of Scotland’s Nature Festival and this year it stretches across 150 local events, from a guided ramble around Dunnet Head in Caithness to a “welly walk” at Bowhill in the Borders. It’s all to celebrate the planet’s two million known species – including, of course, our own, which is not yet one of the 130 which are becoming extinct every day.

And our natural environment sure is in trouble. Take our beaches, for example. This week the Marine Conservation Society reported that Scotland’s beaches are in their worst state for five years, with an average of 2,041 pieces of litter per kilometre. Monifieth beach near Dundee was the worst offender during the Society’s “Big Beachwatch” weekend last September.

The Trump Golf Course

The Trump Golf Course

Further up the east coast, Donald Trump has gone to court to protect his beach from an experimental wind farm a mile off-shore. He says it will spoil the view from his new golf resort in Aberdeenshire and he’ll fight his one-time friend, “Mad Alex” (Salmond) to hell if he has to. There is, of course, an alternative point of view which suggests that what Donald has done to the sand dunes was not exactly environment-friendly and Scotland needs to develop its off-shore wind industry for when the oil runs out.

That won’t happen till the end of the century, according to Fergus Ewing the energy minister. He caused expert eyebrows to rise when he suggested that new oil fields west of Shetland would keep us going till well beyond the accepted end-date for Scotland’s oil, 2050.

“Scotland’s Oil” takes us into the big event of the week, the resurfacing of Gordon Brown, once Prime Minister of these islands. He came out of “retirement” to lead the Labour Party’s campaign for a No vote in the independence referendum. This is not to be confused with the No vote campaign led by his former Chancellor Alistair Darling. Mr Brown’s pitch is to the traditional Labour supporters who don’t much like the idea of working with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in the “Better Together ” Darling-led campaign.

Gordon Brown MP

Gordon Brown MP

Described in one newspaper account as “prowling the stage like a bear” at the Commonwealth Games arena in Glasgow, Mr Brown urged Labour supporters to ask themselves: “ Were Keir Hardie and the trade union leaders wrong, stupid or naïve …..to believe that Scottish values could be best realised inside the United Kingdom ? ” I presume there was a loud “No” from the faithful.

Meanwhile, down the road at the Lighthouse (an art centre and symbolic lighthouse) the SNP’s deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon attempted to answer the 500 questions the Better Together campaign have been asking about independence. “Exact answers on some key issues might be beyond reach at this time,” she admitted but she blamed the UK government’s policy of no pre-negotiations for this. And she went on to ask the No campaign a number of “2020 questions” of her own.

One was about the European Union. Would the UK still be in the EU in 2020, given the goings-on at Westminster where Tory backbenchers are insisting on a law promising an in-out referendum in 2017 ?

But while the politicians talk, the economy continues to burn. Retail sales are down 2 per cent, compared to last year. Food sales suffered their biggest fall for 14 years. On Thursday the Royal Bank announced a further 1400 jobs are to go, half of them in Edinburgh. Mysteriously, the official unemployment figure has fallen slightly to 7.3 per cent in Scotland (compared to 7.8 per cent across the UK). But the statisticians let us guess how much of this is due to people finding only part-time work and how many people are giving up the search for work altogether.

Rt Rev Lorna Hood Moderator

Rt Rev Lorna Hood
Moderator

It might help the economy if firms like Amazon were to pay their tax in this country rather than in Luxembourgh. It was disclosed this week that the internet mail-order company, which made £4bn of sales in the UK last year paid only £2.4m in tax to the Treasury, almost exactly the amount it received in government grants to build its warehouses and call centres in places like Dunfermline and Edinburgh.

Finally, to the tale of the Moderator’s ring. From time immemorial, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – which meets in Edinburgh this coming week – has worn a ceremonial ring on his or her ecclesiastical finger. Unfortunately the ring went missing when the out-going Moderator Rt Rev Albert Bogle had his bag stolen at Edinburgh Airport last month. The new Moderator Rev Lorna Hood decided to use a replica ring but when she took it to the jewellers to be altered, the staff became suspicious. They reported her to the police. “I might have ended up on the “wanted” list on Crimewatch,” said Mrs Hood. Instead she has been sentenced to a week in the big chair at the General Assembly.

<em>Picture: John Knox</em>

Picture: John Knox

By John Knox

Now is the winter of our discontent. It began on St Andrew’s Day and who knows when and where it will end.

They came in their thousands, bearing the saltire and the green and white flag of the “Protect our Pensions” campaign. They marched down the Royal Mile to the Scottish parliament in the largest demonstration ever seen there, 7,000 strong.

Instead of a pipe band, they brought their own green plastic hunting horns. Most were middle-aged, respectable-looking people – teachers, nurses, council workers. Many brought their children because the schools were closed by the national day of action. An estimated 300,000 Scots were out on strike, two million across the UK. It was first national strike for 30 years.

The marchers were served curries from a mobile kitchen, rather than pie and chips. They were greeted by pop music, rather than a brass band. But there were the traditional angry speeches from the platform.

There was no great crowd to watch the march-past. MSPs were divided as to what to do. Labour and the Greens joined the march, the SNP, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats stayed holed up in their spiky parliament building, earnestly debating the pensions issue, and no doubt wringing their hands. On the Royal Mile I heard a lady cyclist complaining the marchers were delaying her getting to work. The Queen’s Gallery stayed bravely open for art lovers and well-heeled coffee drinkers. The exhibition was ominously entitled “The Northern Renaissance”.

So has the government misjudged the pensions issue? Will it turn out to be the poll tax of our times, the final insult that drives the people to revolution? Public sector workers are already seeing their jobs go – 700,000 over the UK in next three years. They learnt in the chancellor’s autumn statement on Tuesday that their wages, currently frozen, will be subject to a 1 per cent cap over the next two years.

All this is taking place under a gloomy economic sky, with growth forecast at just 0.7 per cent next year, unemployment at a 17-year high, inflation at 5 per cent, the banks still in trouble and the euro on the edge of meltdown. This is indeed an Age of Austerity and it is expected to last for years.

The immediate issue is the reform of public sector pensions. It is a complicated business – but, as I understand it, the government is saying that employees need to pay 3.2 per cent more in contributions, receive lower career-average pensions, and the retirement age should be raised to 67 (in 2026) if the system is to be sustainable. People are, after all, living much longer and the government, as the employer, cannot afford to raise its contributions. That, it says, would be unfair on the taxpayers – who, by and large, do not have such generous pensions.

On the other side of the barricades, the unions are saying that the public pension funds are currently in surplus (£2 billion in the case of the NHS and £300 million in the case of local government) and the 3.2 per cent increase in contributions is going straight to the Treasury to help pay off the huge national debt run up by the banking collapse. As in Ireland, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Iceland, ordinary workers are asking why they should be made to pay for the misdeeds of the bankers, especially when there is no sign of fat-cat pay or bonuses being brought back to earth.

David Cameron says the day of action was a “damp squib”. The unions say it was the biggest demonstration of public anger for a generation. No one knows how this battle of wills will be fought out over the coming months. But for me it has distinct echoes of the old class wars. Gordon Brown was accused of raiding the pension funds of the middle classes with the abolition of tax credits on dividends. The Tories and the Liberal Democrats are now accused of raiding the pension funds of public sector workers. We are falling back into a divided Britain and the Age of Contentment is over.

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<em>Picture: Prime Minister's Office, HM Government</em>

Picture: Prime Minister's Office, HM Government

By Diane Maclean

Sarah Brown was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this evening, discussing her time as the WPM – Wife of the Prime Minister – and signing copies of her book Behind the Black Door.

The tent was full of the great and the good, and those who had read Sarah’s afternoon tweet promising a “special 2 for 1 offer” were in a state of excitement at the prospect of who she might bring with her. There was little surprise, but an uncharacteristically huge Edinburgh round of applause, when she was joined onstage by her husband Gordon, making an unscheduled appearance at the event.

Over the next hour, the two discussed their time in Downing Street; and what has been occupying them both since leaving. First off was the book-writing – Gordon published his, Beyond the Crash, in December 2010, pipping Sarah to the post by three months.

Alongside this, the pair have continued to work for the causes they support. Both have also taken the year to reflect on what they’ve achieved, and failed to achieve, and what lessons they have learned along the way.

Both provided amusing anecdotes from their time in the spotlight. Sarah, responding to the often-quoted remark “But you’re so ordinary”, told the audience that this had never been her “great goal in life, but clearly I do quite well at it”.

Gordon, too, was disingenuous, describing the day he picked up his son Fraser (aged four) from school and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up: “A teacher,” he said, “a builder and a dad.” At which he turned ruefully to his father to say: “But you are just a dad.”

While family is hugely important to both of them, the Browns were never going to settle down in Fife to be just “mum and dad”. Sarah is still actively involved with Maggie’s Centres and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Gordon is still worrying about the future.

What is bothering him particularly at the moment is the rise of youth unemployment and the need for the UK to have a clearer sense of purpose and responsibility – even more so, given the recent riots in England.

He acknowledged that whilst PM he “tried and failed to secure a debate about national purpose and destiny […] on a society based on fairness and responsibility”. This, he thinks, is a more interesting discussion than the present fixation on rooting out violence and punishing wrongdoers.

Both were vocal about the recent News International scandal, while being careful to stress that it was a matter for the courts. Both were keen to emphasise that they agreed with the notion of a free press, but felt that changes were needed to bring the press to order. The intrusion was, according to Sarah, “always coming down the track at you”, and that with phone hacking “a line had been crossed”.

For Gordon, though, the whole attitude of the press has clearly been trickier. Some papers, he believes, have become politicised so that instead of challenging what you do, they “suggest instead you have a malign motive,” undermine who you are and in doing so “try to destroy pieces of your character”.

It was hurtful, he said, that when he was photographed praying at the Remembrance Service, that the Sun wrote that he had fallen asleep – or that he had refused to bow whilst laying a wreath at the Cenotaph.

Sarah’s worry was more mundane, that with the press “you always feel you’re one step away from your greatest mistake”, which she worried might be leaving Number 10 with toilet paper trailing out of her shoes.

Gordon was at his most passionate talking about our “moral obligation to help people”, but at his most political when discussing the economy. “There are only two kinds of chancellors,” he said, “those who fail and those who get out in time”.

He clearly felt he got out in time, but also acknowledged that the failure to push through banking changes “has put us in danger of a ten-year world depression”. The key to solving it – which he says “doesn’t take much money” – is to tackle youth unemployment. “We will pay a heavy price,” he says “if we continue to let it grow.”

The session wasn’t all serious, though, and included moments of lightness where the Browns described the moment that Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife, was being awarded her DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in front of ambassadors and dignitaries. On opening the box that was thought to hold the medal, there was only glitter and a hand-made birthday card for Machel, made by the Brown children.

Then there was the time when Gordon was appointed leader of the Labour Party only to have his son, John, tell everyone that his father was leader of the “Lady Party”.

While in power, Gordon always made time to see his children, for baths or bedtime stories. Now that he is no longer running the country, he can spend longer with his family, but also worry about others less fortunate.

Whether talking about children murdered in the Rwandan genocide, or the millions of children across the world who don’t have access to education, he is as impassioned as he gets. And his time out of power has led him to realise that there can only be one solution. “Where the world has failed,” as he says it has on climate change, terrorism, inequality and poverty, it is because “the world has failed to work together.”

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No sofas at Holyrood? <em>Picture: Lotus Head</em>

No sofas at Holyrood? Picture: Lotus Head

It is slowly dawning on many at Holyrood that the more parliamentary power you have, the less you need it.

Tony Blair was criticised during the early years of his premiership for developing so-called “sofa-style” government.

The then prime minister had such a whacking great majority in the Commons that he didn’t really need to bother too much with parliament. Policy could be thrashed out by a small coterie of decision-makers – usually Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson – on the sofas of Number 10, leaving parliament to rubber-stamp the end results.

There is a feeling at Holyrood that we might be entering a similar period in Scotland. Last week, parliament’s main set-piece debate was on the economy and hardly anybody – not even most of the MSPs – paid it the slightest notice.

Today we have a debate on Taking Scotland Forward: a Health, Wellbeing and Cities Strategy. Don’t expect to see columns and columns of newspaper text given over to reports of this debate, because it won’t be interesting enough to excite either parliamentary reporters or their editors.

But these two debates aren’t isolated examples. We are going to see more and more of this. Because of the SNP’s dominance of the chamber, the Scottish government will secure more time to debate its favourite subjects than ever before. Some of the debates they initiate will be worthy and sensible – but, other than that, pretty unimportant and actually downright dull.

And, because of the opposition’s general impotence, no one really cares much about the vote at the end of these debates – or even much of the content – because we have heard it all before and we know what the outcome will be.

At the same time, Alex Salmond is working out how to force changes to the Scotland Bill, how to unify his fellow first ministers into a coherent block to squeeze changes out of Westminster – and also how to organise the substantial background work that needs to go into the referendum.

These are his current priorities and none of them needs parliament. There aren’t any sofas in the first minister’s office, but Mr Salmond can – and will – sit round the table in his office in St Andrew’s House with Nicola Sturgeon his deputy, Stephen Noon his policy expert, Kevin Pringle his spin doctor and the relevant cabinet member for whatever subject it is under discussion – and, together, they will decide on a way forward.

So is Alex Salmond the new Tony Blair? In many ways, he isn’t. He isn’t pursuing a “Third Way”, trying to combine the free market with statist social policy, and he isn’t trying to crusade across the world – but, in one important respect, Mr Salmond is like Mr Blair.

Like Mr Blair, the first minister has the luxury of a parliamentary majority which means that he doesn’t have to fight, negotiate and cajole his way to every successful vote in chamber.

That means he can devote his time and energy to his priorities and leave parliament – almost – to run itself. The Scottish parliament will not be a sideshow for the next five years because it will be the forum to explore the major themes of this parliament – including the referendum.

But it will certainly be less important than it has been. Remember all that budget frenzy? Remember how John Swinney had to play off each of the opposition parties until the eleventh hour every year just to get his budget through? It was fabulous political theatre but there will be no need for that for the next five years. Mr Swinney will set the budget, get it approved by parliament and that will be that.

The will-they won’t-they? cliffhangers of previous years – when no one was quite sure whether the Scottish government or the Scottish executive would get its votes through – have gone, deluged in the flood of votes which brought the SNP its majority.

This may not be a bad thing. It will allow the current administration to forge ahead with its aims with a single-mindedness and freedom that no other party has ever had before – but parliament will become less important.

It will be no surprise if, as happened during the early Blair years in London, press attention moves away from the actual business of parliament and focuses instead more on personalities, on cliques, cabals and gossip from inside the corridors of power as journalists look for something interesting to report.

There will be those who warn that “sofa-style” government is undemocratic. It’s not. It is merely a symptom of the dominance of one party at the polls.

Mr Salmond was elected first minister because of his overwhelming endorsement by the people of Scotland. He now has power and he can be expected to exercise it. Just don’t expect him to bother too much with parliament if he doesn’t have to.

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<em>Picture: Gorriti</em>

Picture: Gorriti

By James Browne

According to a TNS-BRMB poll for STV, the SNP and Greens are on course for a total of 69 seats in the Scottish Parliament, giving pro-independence parties an absolute majority.

But before independentistas crack open the Smoked Salmond cocktails (one part champagne, one part Ardbeg and a dash of Diet Irn Bru), it’s worth noting that everyone – left, right, Nationalist, Unionist, Green, orange and pink – is pouring buckets of cold water on the survey.

It might be a “rogue poll”. It is out of sync with others. No poll can ever give a truly accurate picture of how the constituency seats will play out. There might be huge variations in who actually bothers to vote. And nobody is sure how the constituency/list balance will work for the SNP. Remember: the Holyrood setup makes it very hard for any one party (especially the SNP) to gain total control.

Well, we shall see.

Only an idiot would make predictions this close to polling day. But I feel that makes me particularly qualified to make predictions: Labour are about to have a huge can of whupass opened all over them and the Lib Dems will be marginally less extinct than Liopleurodon pachydeirus.

In the meantime, let’s indulge in what Peter Snow would have called “just a bit of fun”.

If the pro-independence parties: the SNP, Greens and, please God, Margo, are in the driving seat they should go for the referendum on Day One.

The Lib Dems (or Lib Dem if things go really badly for them) will be busy licking their wounds and wondering why they sold their souls for a referendum they could never win on a voting system they don’t want.

Labour will be busy looking for a Scottish leader. The far from prodigious pool of talent on the Scottish benches should make this an entertaining spectator sport, rich in comedic possibility. The “big hitters” brought in to boost the campaign – Gordon Brown and Ed Balls – show that Labour is the party that charm forgot.

Its strategists might also take some time out from trying to tell the difference between their humerus and illium to ponder the wisdom of the parliamentary “Unionist alliance” to thwart the SNP. Traditionally, Labour voters (as opposed to activists) view the Tories as the enemy, not the Nats.

And the Labour message that David Cameron wants us to vote SNP to hurt Ed Miliband is flawed and facile. The problem is that if enough Scots vote for pro-independence parties then Cameron ceases to be our problem.

It was all summed up for me by this Labour press release: “Alex Salmond’s obsession with independence puts recovery at risk.” it was prefigured by “Balls:”. Indeed…

The Tories will have a cracking Scottish election in their terms, which means not losing too many seats and remaining on the periphery of Scottish life.

In short, the Unionist parties will be in disarray. The Scottish people will have clearly shown that they reject the Westminster way of doing things. Scotland will have shown its distaste for Tory (and Lib Dem) government.

If that STV poll is right, then there will never be a better moment for an independence referendum.

But it’s only a rogue poll, of course.

Probably…

Gordon Brown on the campaign trail yesterday <em>Picture: Hamish Macdonell</em>

Gordon Brown on the campaign trail yesterday Picture: Hamish Macdonell

In the final part of our series on key battleground constituencies in the 5 May election, we look at four very different seats across Scotland.

Cunninghame North
This Ayrshire seat generated the most bitterly contested of all the Scottish parliament results in 2007.

The SNP’s Kenneth Gibson won by 0.1 per cent of the vote, but that majority of 48 was dwarfed by the 1,015 spoiled ballot papers.

Labour’s deposed MSP Allan Wilson was convinced that the spoiled papers (largely the result of confusion over the local elections held on the same day) were to blame for his defeat.

Now, he is back and he wants revenge. Mr Wilson is fighting Mr Gibson again, and this one is also expected to go down to the wire.

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Expect recounts, angry words and anything else the candidates can use to fight their corner if this one is again close.

Also standing: Mallika Punukollu (Liberal Democrat), Maurice Golden (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Dunfermline
Alex Rowley, the Labour candidate, has been a senior (but largely unknown) figure in Scottish Labour for many years.

He was seen as Gordon Brown’s eyes and ears in Fife when Mr Brown was concentrating on Westminster. He was also, for a time, general secretary of the Scottish party.

Now he has decided to step up to a more high-profile role – and he will never have a better chance than this year.

Jim Tolson, the sitting Liberal Democrat MSP for the old seat of Dunfermline West, holds a notional majority of just 77 in this south Fife seat. If there is any sort of anti-Lib Dem backlash – as the polls suggest – then this will be one of the first Lib Dem seats to fall.

Also standing: Bill Walker (SNP), James Reekie (Conservative).

Prediction: Labour gain from the Liberal Democrats.

Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch
Most of this huge rural constituency – which stretches from the tip of the Black Isle on its north-eastern boundary to far edge of Skye on its western fringe – used to be a solid Lib Dem seat.

Maverick Gael John Farquhar Munro – well-respected locally – retired as the sitting MSP at this election.

The Lib Dems will be hoping that the tradition of voting for their candidate (these voters have also re-elected Charles Kennedy for the last 25 years) will continue and see Alan MacRae elected here for the first time.

But Mr Farquhar Munro has already caused his party problems by endorsing Alex Salmond as the best first minister, and the SNP believe they can overturn the Lib Dems’ notional 2,800 majority to win here through existing list MSP Dave Thompson.

Highland voters are more individual and less party-orientated than most in Scotland, and they are unlikely to back the Lib Dem’s Mr MacRae just because he is a Lib Dem.

Votes up here have to be earned.

Also standing: Linda Stewart (Labour), Kerensa Carr (Conservative), Ronnie Campbell (Independent).

Prediction: SNP gain from the Liberal Democrats.

Stirling
Labour hold a notional majority of 389 in this tight SNP–Labour battleground, but they will be hard-pressed to turn that into a victory on election day.

The SNP candidate is sitting MSP Bruce Crawford, a well-known senior Nationalist and a popular politician in the area.

Labour have put up a solid local campaigner in John Hendry, but the Nationalists are confident that Mr Crawford has the broader reach needed to take this seat again.

SNP leaders believe Labour’s Mr Hendry will do well in Stirling itself, where the traditional Labour vote is strong, but they also believe the rest of the constituency – the rural and semi-rural parts all around the main centre – will give them the edge.

Many voters in a lot of these prosperous countryside towns don’t like the Labour Party – and, if disillusioned by the Lib Dems and repelled by the prospect of voting Tory, many are expected to vote SNP instead.

Also standing: Graham Reed (Liberal Democrat), Neil Benny (Conservative), Jack Black (Independent).

Prediction: SNP hold.

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The 2011 election campaign is in its final days, and our word cloud clearly shows that the issues dominating the first day of the final week are a council tax freeze and Scotland’s problem with alcohol.

A report by BMA Scotland which reveals that GP consultations where alcohol was a factor are costing the NHS an estimated £28 million a year in Scotland, has draw comment from Labour, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Conservative parties, lifting both alcohol and consultations to prominence on the Cal Merc cloud.

A cloud of the most common words across May 2nd's politicalpress releases. The most common non-policy related words were removed. The larger the word, the more it was used.

A cloud of the most common words across May 2nd's political press releases. The most common non-policy related words were removed. The larger the word, the more it was used.

Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Robert Brown said:

“The cost of alcohol abuse in Scotland is huge. It not only has an impact on public health as these figures reveal but can have a damaging effect on wider society. There needs to be stringent action in Scotland to tackle the root causes of alcohol abuse to reverse these worrying figures.

He went on, adding:

“We need to focus on early intervention when tackling alcohol abuse issues, specifically working with families with complex needs and parents with substance misuse problems.”

The report showed that on one day in April, alcohol was a factor in more than 5,500 consultations in general practice – equating to 6 per cent of all GP consultations.

Murdo Fraser, Scottish Conservative health spokesperson, said:

“It is never pleasant to see these figures and they confirm once again what a problem Scotland has with alcohol. Put simply, Scotland has a drink problem and urgent, effective action is required to tackle it – to change our culture and to better educate people, particularly youngsters, about avoiding the pitfalls of alcohol abuse.

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“We must ensure that those underage find it more difficult to purchase alcohol to begin with, rather than focusing all our attention on initiatives that deal with after the event. Many responsible businesses comply with the law in selling alcohol and we would rather the irresponsible licence holders who sell to underage buyers were made to pay.

“The SNP’s indiscriminate blanket minimum pricing, which had no evidence base, would penalise responsible drinkers, harm the Scotch whisky industry, cost jobs and was probably illegal, was never the answer.”

Scottish Labour’s candidate in Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, Dr Richard Simpson, said:

“These figures confirm that alcohol abuse is a major problem in Scotland and reducing the level of problem drinking should be a priority for all political parties in Scotland.

“Labour believes that we need to start with better enforcement of existing legislation. There should be zero tolerance of rogue retailers who break the law by selling alcohol to children. We will also take action to reduce the caffeine content of alcoholic beverages, because there is growing evidence that the combination of caffeine and alcohol is dangerous. However, we will continue to oppose the SNP’s plans for minimum unit pricing because we do not believe it is right to punish pensioners and responsible drinkers on low incomes.”

From left to right on our cloud, the term council tax freeze is clearly dominant – and five-year can be seen floating under tax – as a result of a challenge by the SNP to the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties to spell out how much they would increase the council tax by after their proposed freeze ends next year.

Finance secretary and SNP candidate for Perthshire North John Swinney said:

“It is time for Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems to end their silence and spell out exactly how much they would let the council tax rip after next year. The London parties all have form on imposing a council tax whammy on Scots. The Tories hiked the council tax by 40 per cent, and it went up by 60 per cent under first Labour and then the Lab/Lib Dem Executive.”

He added:

“The council tax freeze is a major issue in the election, and we will press the other parties daily to tell the people what their council tax whammy plans are.”

As part of his response to the YouGov poll in the Scotsman newspaper, first minister Alex Salmond will say:

“The council tax freeze is the big issue on the doorstep – it is hugely popular when every other bill is going through the roof, and puts clear tartan water between the SNP and the London parties. It provides vital help for families in tough times.

“People back the SNP’s record in government, and the only way for Scots to get the council tax freeze in the next parliament is to grab it with both hands by voting SNP with both votes on Thursday. Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties are all against the five-year council tax freeze – they must end their silence before polling day and spell out exactly how much they want to hike the council tax by.”

Investment is the economic term of the day, used variously by Labour, the SNP and the Scottish Greens.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown attacked the SNP’s flagship policy of an independence referendum, saying it would lead to years of uncertainty and put off economic investment at a time we need it most.

Mr Brown said:

“In the last year, 10,000 Scots joined the dole queue when unemployment should have been falling. The urgent task is to get Scotland back to work, to create jobs, growth and investment. The SNP’s answer, as it is to everything – break up Britain.”

Explaining the risks of a referendum, he added:

“If the SNP spend the next five years making independence the dominating issue in Scottish politics, it will not be risk-free. Investors will look at the debates on what type of economy, currency, tax system, fiscal policy we have and say ‘get back to us when you have made up your mind.’

“In these fragile economic times, this distraction risks the recovery, risks investment, risks jobs, risks prosperity and risks the wellbeing of the country we all love.”

But the SNP dismissed Mr Brown’s claims as a spokesperson said:

“This is an embarrassing effort from Gordon Brown. In the Scottish Parliament campaign in 2007 – before Gordon Brown crashed the economy – he campaigned with Labour’s top business backer in Scotland, Jim Spowart, the founder of Intelligent Finance. In 2011, Jim Spowart is backing the economic record of the SNP Government, stating that we have ‘earned the confidence of the vast swathe of Scotland’s business community.'”

Name-checking several investors, he added:

“Scotland is securing global investment after investment under the SNP – including from Mitsubishi, Doosan Power Systems, Gamesa, and Amazon – and employment has increased in Scotland for nine months in a row, with a higher employment rate in Scotland than the UK as a whole.”

Finally yesterday, the Scottish Green Party began the final week’s campaign push by launching a mini-manifesto for business with policies including support for community and publicly-owned renewables, boosting construction with a house-building programme and plans to reinvigorate Scotland’s town centres.

Alis Ballance, the Scottish Greens’ top candidate for South of Scotland, said:

“During this election the Scottish Greens have consistently offered a positive vision for the future of Scotland. Our plans to support and stimulate the Scottish economy are no different. The challenges ahead for businesses are formidable: the impact of climate change, rising energy prices, and the ongoing financial crisis all threaten to eat away at profits and reduce opportunities.”

She went on to say:

“Scotland is blessed with renewable sources of energy and we can rebuild our economy around these resources. Generating energy generates revenue, and communities and local authorities around Scotland should focus on this as a source of funding to invest in social enterprises, to reinvigorate our dilapidated town centres and to support youth training programmes.

“The new era will need new financial institutions and the Scottish Government is not powerless. We can facilitate the growth of credit unions and mutual societies, and we can back the kind of capital investment that secures long-term jobs, not the short term dead end of motorway building.”

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