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John McTernan

By David Black

Pity poor John McTernan, a perfectly nice fellow – at least so he seemed when I met him some years ago at a social event. His role in life – ordained by a cruel deity, I don’t wonder – is apparently to redeem the terminally irredeemable. This is, of course, a wholly antithetical concept which can only result in failure. So how will he shape up in the great Edinburgh Tram Scam?

John has recently come waltzing back from Australia, where he was charged with rescuing beleaguered Premier Julia Gillard from oblivion. Had no-one told her that he’d once been hired to rescue Labour from immolation at an earlier Scottish Parliamentary Election, and the result had been a landslide for his SNP opponents? Possibly not. Ms Gillard had been cruelly described as a ‘childless atheist ex-communist’ – and that was by her own party colleague, Kevin Rudd! For Johnny boy, there was a mountain to climb. Unfortunately he fell off. Julia was wiped out.

The idea, it seems, was a Down under repeat the outcome of the great Blairite-Brownite war, in which McTernan had played a key role as Tony’s ruthless, scheming attack dog. He had become part of the magic circle during his time as a Southwark councillor, where he chaired the education committee, and was soon renowned for his character assassination proclivities, which ultimately contributed in spades to the annihilation of the Brown premiership. He famously tried, and failed, to save Henry McLeish as First Minister during the ‘Muddle, not a Fiddle’ expenses scandal. He also claims to ‘love Peter Mandelson this side of idolatry’, even though has pulled the master up up on his criticism of Ed Milliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices. He helpfully defended Mandy’s bitch-athon of a book, The Third Man, for telling the truth! Others aren’t so sure.

As a spinner, McTernan prefers stealth and innuendo to Alastair Campbell’s upfront Malcolm Tuckeresque invective, and he is noticeably absent from the pages of all the standard works on the Blair-Brown era, both hagiographic and heretical. It has since occurred to a few of his less dim colleagues that the man’s baleful success as an anti-Brown negative briefer was a bit of an own-goal for the people’s party, since it destroyed Labour’s chances of winning the 2010 election, and handed the keys of the Number Ten door to Dave and Nick. ‘God help the Australian Labour Party’ mused Bob Thomson, former chairman of the party in Scotland.

Having likewise left the smouldering ruins of the Australian Labour Party behind him, and moved on from his illustrious position as ‘Adelaide Thinker in Residence’ (in which role he followed another Blairite policy wonk, Geoff Mulgan) John has returned to Scotland to save the Union, which must be the best news Alex Salmond has had for months! On paper, the so-called ‘global expert on public service leadership,’ who has worked ‘with governments in the UK, Europe, South America, Australia and Iraq.’ should be a formidable foe. His wisdom frequently soars to the level of fluent Demos gibberish – for example he urges the government of South Australia to ‘build a suite of common tools for key government activity areas and mandate their use as the preferred approach’ though he has, to his credit, criticised the risk-averse tendency of Aussie penpushers who have done such daft things as place notices over toilet bowls bearing the words ‘not drinking water.’

It’s hard to imagine that too many of the feral cats in a bag which comprise the ‘ Bitter – sorry, better, Together Campaign’ will be deliriously happy at the thought of Jonah McTernan climbing aboard, given his recent record, so he is keeping his options open, and has returned to the craft he loves second best (after political plotting) namely journalism. He seems sadly out of touch with public sentiment, however, having elected to become that rarest of creatures, a supporter of the Edinburgh tram scheme. At a guess, this cack-handed infrastructure nightmare is probably about as popular as a proposal for a statue of Jimmy Saville OBE in a kiddie’s playpark. It should be recalled that the the public face of the tram disaster, Jenny Dawe, former leader of Edinburgh City Council, trailed in behind a joker in a penguin costume in her last election. John seems to be heading up another mountain here, and can only fall off again.

Mr McTernan seems to be blissfully unaware of the extent of rampant tramophobia in a city which has endured open heart surgery without an anaesthetic for half a decade, while businesses have gone to the wall as a direct result of the disruption, and the council budget is reaching the point of melt-down. Nothing daunted, he patronises us with his announcement that the tram is ‘social; democracy on slick steel rails – its stops and platforms carve out an oasis of civility in city centres.’ It also ‘improves’ (sic) the look of Princes Street ‘still the ugliest great street in the world’ He then launches off from his tram platform into an anthem of praise for the ruling elites of the modern city ‘Who speaks for Glasgow? The politicians transforming the nature of urban space.’ So that would be Gordon Matheson then, would it? The man who petulantly refused to accept the outcome of an architectural competition to upgrade George Square, and who wanted to clear it of its Victorian statues.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with this outburst of inanity in the tram debate, other than to say that John would seem to be off his trolley. First of all, it isn’t a matter of being anti-tram or pro-tram. Forty years ago Edinburgh had the opportunity to construct a light rail transit system which would have solved the city’s transport problems at a stroke. The proposal was to re-use existing abandoned rail track and link it to the South Suburban rail line – a mere two miles of new linking lines would have been required – in essence, the city already had a metro system; it just wasn’t using it. The response of our bovine council, which then masqueraded under the apolitical label ‘Progressive’, was to reject a scheme which would have involved no disruption of the city centre street network.

Quarter of a century later their Labour successors opted for a scheme which managed to do everything the 1970s proposals had avoided – basically, the city was to be transformed into a film set for Saving Private Ryan. The disruption was of biblical proportions. Even though the press was to be schmoozed with revenue for full page ads (paid for by the hapless citizen) the public disquiet could not be suppressed. One of the most beautiful cities anywhere became an international joke.

So how does John manage to reconcile the idea of the Edinburgh tram system with the notion of democracy? Doesn’t he realise that the disaster began when Forth Ports plc, the former Leith Docklands Authority which had been privatised by Mrs Thatcher, discerned a commercial benefit in foreshore gentrification and the ramping up of land values? Is he unaware of the scandal of the Scottish Office move to Victoria Quay on the back of a trumped-up, and hushed up, asbestos scare at New St Andrew’s House?

There was nothing democratic about any of this. Forth Ports needed a tram link to make its proposed waterfront developments stack up, and offered to pay around £28 million to its costs – equivalent to roughly £1500 per unit of housing, though enhancing anticipated property values by rather more than that. It was also something of a sop to those lower rank civil servants who had opposed the move away from a city centre site which was next door to the main train and bus stations, not to mention the Cafe Royal and the premier shopping street of Scotland.

And what is the result? In effect, nothing more than the replacement of the number 100 express bus to the airport – an excellent existing service – at a cost not far short of a billion pounds. The one bit of the network which made any sense – the link between the waterfront and Princes Street, was scrapped. The profitability of foreshore developers like Gregor Homes plummeted, and administrators were called in. There would be no £28 million contribution. The citizens of Edinburgh will be stumping up for much of this, since, understandably, the SNP government which opposed the scheme won’t be increasing its share of the cost. Siemens and Bilfinger Berger will be cleaning up, while the entire population of Edinburgh will be stumping up, and will have cuts in other council services. 95% of them will derive no benefit whatsoever from the single line between St Andrew’s Square and the airport, and they ain’t happy. One also notes with wry amusement that Bilfinger Berger Australia is now part of Lend Lease, a company not unattached to the catastrophic Holyrood project of not-so-fond memory! Be afraid, be very afraid!

If this is the sort of cause John McTernan is going to embrace, Alistair Darling and his friends in the No campaign might be well-advised to have a whip round and buy the man an airline ticket.

Back to Australia. One way.

qatar1Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, was forced to apologise today after party workers created a poster depicting Alex Salmond in Arab dress.

Mr Rennie said he was very embarrassed by the actions of Lib Dem workers who had been trying to draw attention to the first minister’s decision to compare Scotland with Qatar while on a tour of the Gulf states.

The poster, which went out on the Scottish Lib Dems Twitter feed, stated: “Salmond hails ‘similarities’ between Qatar and Scotland. A glimpse into Salmond’s independent Scotland perhaps?”

Underneath the headline was a mocked-up picture of Mr Salmond wearing Arab dress and walking a camel through the desert.

Alongside were three bullet points: “Absolute monarchy controls all aspects of life; Gay rights suppressed and no legal recognition of same sex marriage; Death penalty used for crimes against the state.”

It was finished with the question: “Mr Salmond’s independent Scotland?”

Mr Rennie was quick to disown the poster, make sure it was removed from the web and to apologise publicly for the mock-up.

Speaking on BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland, Mr Rennie said: “I apologise for the offence that has clearly been caused by the cartoon on the first minister’s remarks in Qatar. Although I did not approve its publication, I take responsibility for it. It has been interpreted in ways that were not intended. It has now been withdrawn. I apologise.”

However, Mr Rennie’s apology for the picture did not stop others from pursuing the more general point – about Scotland’s similarities with Qatar.

Former Labour Downing Street adviser John McTernan tweeted: “Alex Salmond: Scotland is remarkably like Qatar. How? Unelected government? Sharia law? Anti-gay laws? Foreign workers = 85% of population?”

Despite strong objections from others on Twitter, Mr McTernan continued with other tweets through the day defending his position, at one point adding: “I think while the FM be-struts the world he takes the prize for pompous absurdity.”

Mr McTernan even drew a comparison with previous countries which had been linked favourable to Scotland by senior Nationalists in the past, particularly the so-called “Arc of Prosperity” nations Iceland and Ireland.

“Qataris should be very afraid,” he tweeted.

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<em>Picture: Fiona Shields</em>

Picture: Fiona Shields

Regardless of when the independence referendum is held, the Yes campaign is underway right now. It’s underway on the telly, online and in print. And crucially it’s underway whenever you speak to your friends and neighbours. Here are a few quick thoughts on how to win the argument.

Make the message clear
The great problem that independence has had historically is a vagueness about what it actually means. What will it look like? Will an independent Scotland be like Denmark? Or Ireland? Or Greenland? Or North Korea?

Well, an independent Scotland will look exactly like Scotland does now – but with a far greater ability to come up with local solutions to Scotland’s specific problems.

Here is the core message about independence that the Unionists fear: it’s not that big a deal. It is a tweaking of Holyrood, an evolution from devolution, an efficient relocation of key decisions from an unfocused, one-size-fits-all institution 350 miles south of the Border.

There is no divorce, secession or separation involved in the move to full nationhood. In fact, as was discussed by Hamish Macdonell in these pages, Scotland and England may share supra-national functions – the kind of cooperation common in Europe. This is being characterised as independence-lite, but that’s a misnomer as Scotland will behave in these relationships as a sovereign nation.

That last point means we can opt out of expensive follies like Trident and choose not to send Scottish soldiers off on reckless foreign adventures such as Iraq.

But we need to be specific about how these relationships will affect people’s lives: the days of “blah, blah, blah, something about oil” are long passed. The Yes campaign needs to lay out in concrete detail what independence will mean for the Scot in the street from day one.

Vagueness will kill us.

Not talking ‘bout a revolution
Let us not be distracted by the various red, white and blue herrings that will be cast in the path of independence. The head of state will remain Queen Elizabeth II. The EU will not kick out millions of citizens. You will still be able to watch Corrie. Scotland will not join the Warsaw Pact. There will be no razorwire lining the Tweed and Sark.

The only issue up for grabs at the moment is this: “Are we capable of running our own affairs, at our own expense?” Everything else is a distraction.

No third option
The Grand Unionist Alliance, which was so successful that all three of its leaders have now quit, had a chance to include a Calman-plus option in the independence referendum. They didn’t want it then. They shouldn’t get it now.

If there are more than two questions, we’ll get embroiled in some complex PR farrago because independence will have to be backed by more than 50 per cent of voters. Everyone knows what’s at stake. The choice will boil down to Yes or No. Keep it simple.

The question should be: “Do you think the powers of the Scottish parliament should be increased to cover all policy areas?”. Answer Yes or No.

Keep it joyful
You can’t get more positive than saying Yes.

Barack Obama and Bob the Builder cornered the market on “Yes, we can”. The rallying call for Scottish independence should be subtly different, more personal.

Yes, I can.

Yes, I can manage my own affairs.

Yes, I can pay my way.

Yes, I can solve my own problems.

That also means that those who oppose independence have to say “No, I can’t” – a difficult position to defend.

You don’t have to be a Nationalist to say Yes
Sorry, Braveheart fans, but banging on about “fereedem” will get us beat. This is not about patriotism. It’s about a sensible, efficient and rational reordering of the administration of the United Kingdom. You see? I put the case there without mentioning nationalism, independence or even Scotland.

Target the message
Preaching to the choir is pointless. Those in favour of independence will be very motivated to get out and vote come the day. Trying to convert those who are implacably opposed to independence is also pointless.

As with all advertising strategies, a win will come only from swaying the undecided. All messages and campaigning resources need to be targeted at them. They need to be reassured that what is being proposed is rational and straightforward.

The people who ran the SNP election campaign were “brain the size of a planet” clever. Let’s make sure they’re involved in the Yes campaign too.

Thanks to their incredibly integrated marketing, the SNP will have access to a vast amount of data about voting patterns. It’s harder to predict from demographics where someone stands on a single issue than on party choice, but that intelligence gives a great platform on which to build a sophisticated Yes campaign.

And the messages those voters will respond to have to be calm and sensible.

Independence is not about party politics
To win, the Yes campaign needs the backing of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory voters as well as Nats, Greens and whatever the far Left are calling themselves this week.

The Lib Dems’ desire for federalism sits well with a modern view of independence. Scottish Labour voters will be uneasy with the privatised hellhole being created by Westminster. And there are strong Conservative reasons for supporting independence: if you like small government then surely you welcome (a) the removal of two weighty tiers of it in the Houses of Commons and Lords and (b) the fiscal responsibility inherent in independence.

The Yes campaign will be backed heavily by the SNP, but to succeed it must reach to people of all political persuasions.

Deploy Margo
She’s a national treasure, use her. As the cliché runs: Alex Salmond is the biggest beast in the Scottish political jungle. But Margo MacDonald is the most loved.

Silence of the bams
The No campaign will take every opportunity to brand Indepentistas as boggle-eyed, paranoid racists obsessed with mediaeval power struggles.

And, online, some nationalists will play right into their hands. If I were a No campaign strategist, I’d crawl over every utterance of every cybernat on every bulletin board to build a picture of slavering demonic eBrownshirts waiting to usher the unpatriotic into re-education camps.

Not every pro-independence person online is a cybernat. Not every cybernat is a nutter. But every time a nutter goes off on one then we lose one, five, ten votes. So if you see someone ranting about Bannockburn, the fiery cross or John McTernan, have a word. (I like John. He’s the Neil Lennon of the Scottish political commentariat: gobby, sharp as a tack and a genius at winding up his opponents.)

On a similar note, the No campaign needs to say a quiet “No thank you” to any donations from Brian Souter. Mr Souter’s funding of a “referendum” to keep the homophobic clause 2A (aka section 28) means he is anathema to many progressives. Some 5 per cent of the Scottish population are LGBT. The Yes campaign cannot afford to alienate that many voters for the sake of a few bucks. There are many other people worldwide who will be happy to donate money to the cause of independence, just as there are many south of the Border who will fund the No campaign.

So, ca’ canny, stay calm and responsible. Treat opponents and their arguments with respect or you personally might be the Yes campaign’s “Sheffield moment”:

Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

CameronThe Conservative Party may have fouled up the announcement, it may have made a hash over the presentation and it certainly has issues to sort out over double-income households, but it is right about the one central point in this row over child benefit – child benefit should be taken away from the top 15 per cent of earners.

David Cameron is right for one simple reason – those earning more than £44,000 a year can afford to do without it. This is a benefit, a state handout, and we are giving it to wealthy families who don’t need it. But, more than that, the state can no longer afford to give it to them.

Colette Douglas-Home in today’s Herald says she knows parents who stick the child benefit away in their children’s trust funds and others who use it for family holidays. I know some who put it towards the school fees. Their school fees? Is that what the state should be paying for?

Those middle income families who have started to complain should take a little look inwards. Are they really saying that, despite being in the top 15 per cent of earning households in the country, they are on the breadline? Of course they are not.

What they are saying, really, is that they like this little handout and will have to cut back trips to the cinema or days out to theme parks if it goes. They don’t want to see it disappear – well, its free money, no-one would say they want to do without it – but they should look at the bigger picture.

At a time when everything is being cut back we have to make choices and there is a clear choice here: do we keep subsidising those who don’t need the money and cut back elsewhere or do we choose to put the money where it is really needed?

An annual income of £44,000 is a lot of money, particularly when the UK average wage is £25,500. For years the Left have been banging on about ‘progressive taxation’. Well, this is a prime example of so-called ‘progressive taxation’. Mr Cameron is saying we should take from those who can afford it and give it to those who can’t.

Maybe that is why this has caused so much trouble in ‘middle England’ – because ‘middle England’ doesn’t like progressive taxation.

But it should be applauded by Labour. After all, this is the sort of ‘tax the rich’ approach they have been advocating for years.

It seems, though, to have the opposition some confusion. Labour frontbencher Yvette Cooper described the move as an “unfair attack on child benefit”. Labour senior strategist John McTernan criticsed the move in his Telegraph blog today, saying that child benefit was a fundamental benefit because it was designed to go straight to mothers to help their children.

That’s right, it does and it will still go straight to mothers to help their children in the future – except to those well-off mothers who can afford to do without.

But there is a wider issue here, an issue the Conservative Party has seized on but which its opponents are too scared to tackle: this is the wider issue of universal benefits as a whole.

The Tories in Scotland have called for an end to free prescriptions, another universal benefit. This is something which was brought in by the SNP administration as a populist measure. It was supposed to iron out anomalies, those cases where some people with certain conditions were given free prescriptions and others with different conditions were not.

But it was also seen as a vote winner by the SNP, giving them something to champion at the next election.
What has happened, though, is that a significant number of people who can pay for their prescriptions and would be glad to pay for their prescriptions because they earn more than enough to do so, now have these medicines subsidised by the taxpayer.

This is another middle-class tax break and it should be scrapped too. The state can’t afford to pay for it and the middle-income earners certainly can.

If you take a straw poll of doctors and senior health service staff on this issue (which I did in Glasgow last week) the general view is that free prescriptions are a waste of money and that £40 million or so could be better spent and better targeted.

Yes, those anomalies needed to be sorted out, they say, but only eight per cent of people were paying for their prescriptions anyway, before the Scottish Government moved to make them all free, and most of those people could afford them, easily. Almost everybody who needed free prescriptions, got them.

Then there is free care for the elderly, free eye tests – even free travel across the Forth and Tay road bridges. Should we be subsidising all of these things too?

The one central, and real, problem that the Tories have got themselves into over child benefit is the loophole which will allow dual-income families (with each parent earning less than £44,000) to still receive child benefit while single income families earning above the threshold will lose out.

This was a mistake because it has allowed this to be portrayed as ‘an attack on stay-at-home mums’. Without this, the policy would have been hard to attack because it is so intrinsically fair: taking from those who have to give to those who have not.

The coalition government needs to sort this out, and fast and rushing out an announcement on tax breaks for married couples isn’t the solution.

For those on low incomes, child benefit is vital. For many, it makes the difference between feeding a family well and struggling to get by. But, for many middle and high earners, child benefit is a nice little gift – £33.70 a week for those with two children. They don’t need it and they protest too much if they pretend they do.

Yes, it is unfair if dual income families still get it and that has to be sorted out but there is a principle here and the principle is right. If we are asking public sector employees to take pay cuts, if we are asking health boards to lay off staff, if we are asking the police to do the same with less and asking our teachers to educate our children in shoddy schools because we can’t afford to replace them, then we can ask those earning £44,000 a year to forgo the little state benefit they have enjoyed for so long.

They can afford to go without, the state can’t. The Tories have got it right on this one and they should stop apologising for it. Labour have got it wrong because they are attacking a policy which is intrinsically right and they are only doing it for party political advantage.

And, as far as other universal benefits are concerned, we should all start looking at them all. They are all middle-class subsidies, great in the good years but unaffordable in the lean years and it behoves all of our politicians to tackle this problem head on, not duck it for fear of an electoral backlash.