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Liberal Democrats

By Arthur Midwinter, University of Edinburgh; John Curtice, Strathclyde University; Karly Kehoe, Glasgow Caledonian University, and Neil Blain, University of Stirling

Former UK defence secretary and NATO secretary general George Robertson dipped a toe into the independence debate this week and found the water scalding hot.

In return for his comments to hawkish think tank the Brookings Institution in Washington DC that a Scottish yes vote would be “cataclysmic” and music to the ears of terrorist “forces of darkness” around the world, Better Together insiders were soon briefing journalists that this was “hardly helpful” at a time of distinct unease for the campaign.

The yes side remains behind but has been making steady progress, most recently culminating in a poll last weekend that suggested there are now just five percentage points between support for yes and no.

This helps explain why some unionists have been calling for a more positive campaign. While campaign leader Alistair Darling is still insisting that the yes side are the negative ones, we asked our panel whether they thought Better Together should change tack.

John Curtice, Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde/ScotCen Social Research

My impression is that the no side feels somewhat chastened that its big idea, which was to tell us we could not have the pound, has not worked. And neither has repeating statements of varying degrees of ambiguity about whether or not the financial institutions would relocate in the event of independence.

In the wake of this failure, you are certainly seeing signs of disquiet from parts of the campaign. Liberal Democrats such as Nick Clegg, Charles Kennedy and Willie Rennie have all publicly called for the no campaign to adopt a more positive tone. So we perhaps should not be surprised that George Robertson’s comments were greeted with disquiet by some in the no camp.

My view is that being negative is not necessarily a problem. The problem in the past few weeks has been ineffective campaigning.

Negative campaigning is more likely to work if you are telling people something new. Even before the currency intervention, it was already clear from the polling evidence that quite a lot of people in Scotland had twigged that they might not be able to use the pound as part of a monetary union. Whether or not they thought they would be able to use the pound also seemed not to be making much difference to whether people were likely to vote yes or no, as we saw from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013.

The source of the information has to have credibility. Telling people that, “a banker told me this” is not necessarily the most effective way of persuading people given their views about bankers as a class. And though businesses are not as unpopular as bankers, they are not that popular.

Equally, it is unwise to use a Tory to sell a big message in Scotland. They are not the most trusted source north of the border. Meanwhile, your claims should not be challenged by “experts” and quite a few senior economists have disputed George Osborne’s arguments against sharing the pound.

The problem the no campaign now faces is that nearly half of the Scottish population has decided it does not believe the claim that Scotland would not be able to use the pound, And having lost credibility on that issue its other claims about the risks of independence may now be regarded more sceptically too.

To be effective, negative campaigning also needs to be followed by the offer of a solution. But while the no side points to Scotland’s potential future economic difficulties, they are less effective at advising how the union will supply a solution.

Trouble is, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not necessarily agree about how the UK economy as a whole should be run, let alone Scotland within it. Thus the no side finds it difficult to offer a united alternative vision that could be a vital ingredient of a more positive campaign.

Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History, Glasgow Caledonian University

With George Robertson, we need to keep in mind that he was speaking in Washington, DC. He was talking to quite a reactionary audience and not to people in Britain. There were specific things that this audience would have wanted to hear from a former secretary general of NATO.

But his speech indicated that he’s already questioning Scotland’s loyalty to the West. If you suggest that an entire nation can’t be trusted, of course that’s going to alienate people. It’s very condescending. That obviously isn’t good for the Better Together campaign and that’s probably why they wanted to distance themselves from it.

I can’t agree with Darling’s argument at the weekend that those in favour of a yes vote are inherently negative in their opinions. To assume that the majority buy in to what the pro-independence cybernats are saying is irresponsible. People are paying more attention to the mainstream media.

Arthur Midwinter, Visiting Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh

George Robertson’s record on these issues is not great. He said before devolution that it would kill off the SNP. I just about choked at the time.

I have never regarded what Better Together is saying as negative. That’s a phrase that comes from Salmond. If people regard it as negative to be criticising your opponents, there’s something wrong with the quality of the debate in Scotland. You have to make arguments about the weaknesses of the economy and the fiscal position after independence. That’s not being negative, but robust and critical.

The notion that Better Together can come up with a plan for after the referendum is silly because it depends on who becomes the government. There will be some form of extra devolution, but not necessarily one that is agreed by all the major parties.

Better Together has probably been affected by the turn in the polls, though it’s difficult to tell what the causes are. Appointing Jim Gallagher as strategy director has made a difference to the tone. His advice would be that they should certainly be making a more positive case for the union, which has been a good change.

You have to separate the response to the SNP and the case for the union. The case for the union is now being made more positively, but I don’t regard what they are saying about independence as negative.

Neil Blain, Director of Media Research Institute, University of Stirling

George Robertson’s comments almost worked as an unconscious satire of the no campaign. It reminded me of websites such as bbcscotlandshire.co.uk that have been inventing scares about alien invasions and such like for months. Talking about forces-of-darkness type stuff at the Brookings Institution is not going to go down well.

It raises the real practical question of how the no campaign goes about being positive. If I was in the no campaign, I would find it incumbent on me to point out real difficulties with voting yes. The currency question, banks and GDP issues are real weaknesses for the yes campaign, so of course you would plug away at them.

I was astonished at Henry McLeish advocating going for more hearts and minds. People are going to decide on the basis of the economy. I would predict scare stories right through to the referendum.

But when it comes to making the no message more positive, there is a problem that many people think the status quo is not satisfactory. The SNP as a Holyrood party is enjoying sizeable majority support for a reason. When people were asked about devo max without knowing entirely what it was, 70% plus said they would go for it.

But the no campaign has to span everyone from traditional liberal home rulers who had no difficulty with devolution to hardline Michael Forsyth types. It makes it very difficult for them to put a message together about what Scotland will get in return for voting no.

To read the previous instalments from our panel, click on the links below:

3 April 2014: What does Alex Salmond owe the Poll Tax?

28 March 2014: All about the money as currency debate rages on

22 March 2014: Can we trust the polls?

Panel announcement

The Conversation

As an adviser to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, Arthur was appointed chair of the party’s Welfare Commission, which is putting together a series of proposals for the future of Scotland.

John Curtice, Karly Kehoe, and Neil Blain do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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.”



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.

Is there a ‘Plan B… C… or D’?

It may be St Valentine’s Day but the message from London has suddenly changed from “Love” to a stony “No.” Last week, David Cameron went to the Olympic stadium to declare his love for Scotland and his desire for us to stay in the United Kingdom. This week, the declaration from “Mount Olympus” was followed by a rare trip to Scotland by the Chancellor George Osborne to warn voters that if they choose independence, there will be no currency union with the rest of the UK.

Danny Alexander  Fell into line with the Chancellor

Danny Alexander
Fell into line with the Chancellor

Labour’s Ed Balls and the Liberal Democrats’ Danny Alexander fell smartly into line. The SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon complained that the unionist parties were “ganging up” on Scotland and we were being “bullied” into voting No to independence. It was all part of “project fear”, she said, and it would backfire spectacularly.

The currency question is undoubtedly an important one. It’s something very real, in your hand every day, and something to be worried about. So the SNP and the Yes campaigners have been responding to the London offensive with the assurance it’s all a bluff, that the rest of the UK would find it in its interest at the end of the day to keep Scotland in the sterling zone, making trade easier and sharing the UK’s debt.

Nicola Sturgeon 'Feisty'

Nicola Sturgeon

In interviews this week, the feisty Ms Sturgeon was reluctant to talk about her plan B or C or D, saying she was not going to be bullied out of her plan A, an agreed currency union. She didn’t want to threaten the rest of the UK with plan B which is for Scotland to use the pound sterling unofficially but not take on its obligations, such as the debt or limitations on borrowing.

Plan C of course is to join the euro, which was SNP policy until the global crash and the euro zone crisis. Plan D is for Scotland to have its own currency, the groat or the bawbee, which would float on its own on the turbulent seas of the international money markets. Unpopular though it may be, I think an independent Scotland should join the euro. It would certainly make our entry into the European Union much easier and there are signs that the euro is gradually recovering its credibility.

Scottish Power investing in Ben Cruachan

Scottish Power investing in Ben Cruachan

There were indications from the heavens this week that Scotland is indeed a separate country. We were spared the storms and floods that have swept the coasts of England and Wales and swollen their iconic rivers. The gods have clearly taken the view that we in Scotland are at least trying to take global warming and climate change seriously. We may be still be missing our emissions targets but our legislation is among the most ambitious in the world. And we are making a real attempt to switch to renewable energy.

This week Alex Salmond was in Spain to see a pump storage hydro scheme operated by Scottish Power’s owners Iberdrola. The company is now investigating a £600m expansion of its similar scheme at Ben Cruachan near Oban. When the windmills are turning, water is pumped up from Loch Awe into a reservoir inside the hollowed-out mountain and when the wind drops, the water flows down to the loch again through a series of electricity turbines. Result: the holy grail, renewable energy all the time.

Donald Trump will no longer invest in Scotland (Pic: Gage Skidmore Creative Commons)

Donald Trump will no longer invest in Scotland
(Pic: Gage Skidmore Creative Commons)

One man who does not like it, because he doesn’t like windmills, is Donald Trump. This week he lost his court case against an experimental wind farm in the sea off his new golf course at Menie in Aberdeenshire. “Wind farms are a disaster for Scotland,” he’s quoted as saying, adding (and I can’t quite believe he said this) “a disaster, like Lockerbie.” He promptly announced he was abandoning plans for a hotel and luxury village at Menie and instead he had bought a new golf resort at Doonbeg in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. It’s said to have cost him £12.3m and will be the 16th golf resort in his portfolio.

As I write, Scotland is still waiting for a medal at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Our curling teams are testing our nerves with up and down performances. Team GB is celebrating Jenny Jones’s bronze medal in the snowboarding, said to be Britain’s first ever Olympic medal won on snow. Only, it’s not quite.

Alain Baxter from Aviemore won a bronze in ski-ing at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002. The medal was denied him at first because he failed a drugs test. However he was later cleared when it was discovered the banned substance was in an ordinary inhaler he’d bought quite innocently over-the-counter in the USA. The British version of the inhaler, which Baxter normally used, did not contain the forbidden substance and, in any case, the amount was not enough to affect performance. He’s still waiting for his medal to be returned but has meanwhile congratulated Jenny Jones on her achievement.

Olympian justice, like Olympian love, is a fickle thing.

Housing Association properties in Glasgow

There’s been an outbreak of consensus, or at least solidarity. Folk in Scotland do not like the “bedroom tax”, what the Westminster government calls “the spare room subsidy”, and all parties, except the Tories, have united in parliament to put a £50m line in the budget to abolish it.

The Scottish Parliament unites against  the 'bedroom tax'

The Scottish Parliament unites against
the ‘bedroom tax’

Along with the poll tax, the bedroom tax will go down in history as a serious political mistake, foisted on Scotland by a government in London that was addressing an imagined problem in the south-east of England. It meant that council tenants, and housing association tenants, were losing up to a quarter of their housing benefit, if they were deemed to have a spare room. Up to 77,000 of the poorest households in Scotland were affected, many of them sliding into rent arrears as a result – four times as many as the year before.

The SNP government was gathering its brows like gathering storm over the issue and demanding that London raise the cap on welfare spending to offset the tax. Labour and the Liberal Democrats realised this was doing their Better Together referendum campaign no good at all. The SNP finance secretary John Swinney saw an opportunity to do away with the tax altogether and unite Scotland against Westminster at the same time. So he accepted a Labour suggestion that local councils and housing associations would be reimbursed for any losses in rent due to the bedroom tax.

Same Sex Marriage Bill Passed by a substantial majority

Same Sex Marriage Bill
Passed by a substantial majority

It was a marriage of convenience for both parties rather than a marriage for love. That came earlier in the week when MSPs, by a majority of 105 to 18, approved of the Same Sex Marriage Bill. Scotland has followed England to become the 17th country in the world to recognise gay marriage. The main churches argued fiercely against it, right to the end, and are still fearful it will lead to them being forced by the equality laws to offer gay marriage ceremonies in their chapels, churches, temples and mosques.

But the parliamentary consensus did not last long. By Thurday’s question time, Labour’s Johann Lamont was reading out a list of company chief executives who said an independent Scotland would be a more difficult place to do business. They included the boss of BP and the leaders of the main supermarket chains. Alex Salmond replied that whatever their chief executives might say, there was no sign these major companies were about to cut their investment in Scotland.

Ruth Davidson Concerned about abolition of corroboration

Ruth Davidson
Concerned about abolition of corroboration

He was slightly more consensual over pleas from the Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and the Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie for a stay of execution over the abolition of corroboration in criminal prosecutions. Perhaps it was the fact that the parliament’s justice committee had also asked for a rethink. He offered a review by the former judge Lord Bonomy – but only of the additional measures that might be taken to safeguard against the miscarriage of justice, such as increasing the majority required for a guilty verdict from 8 out of 15 jurors to 10 or 12.

The government is still on a collision course with most of the legal profession over what I think is largely a semantic debate. Scotland might be one of the few countries in the world to require “corroboration” before a case can be taken to court, but most countries have some sort of “sufficient evidence” test before a prosecution is mounted.

Two disturbing reports have come out this week about the health service in Scotland. One, from a BBC investigation, found that up to £800m a year was being stolen from the NHS by various frauds carried out by staff and patients. They range from false prescriptions, to theft of equipment, to dentists charging for gold fillings when in fact they were using cheaper materials. Such frauds, identified by health boards over the last five years have risen by 42 per cent. Let’s hope that is a sign that more are being discovered.

Elderly care 'unsustainable'

Elderly care ‘unsustainable’

The other report came from Audit Scotland which warned that the care bill for elderly patients in hospitals and nursing homes was set to double to £8bn over the next 15 years. That’s “unsustainable” it said. Not enough was being done by local health boards and councils to treat elderly people in their own homes. It seems we need to follow through on our pioneering policy of free personal care.

Finally, I see that Scotland is over-represented in the GB team at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. We have 18 sports men and women there, a third of the British contingent. We are, after all, the land of ice and snow. Our best hope is in the game we invented, curling. Eve Muirhead may well lead the women’s team to a gold medal and the men, skippered by David Murdoch will only be a stone’s throw behind. Watch out too for Andrew Musgrave in the cross-country ski-ing. He recently beat the Norwegians at their own game. But, of course, we don’t go there to win but to simply compete.

The poetry of Robert Burns
Hand written manuscripts on display at the National Library of Scotland

It has come three years late but it’s welcome for a’ that. We have finally seen a significant fall in unemployment. It is down to 6.4 per cent, the lowest figure for five years and a big fall from the usual figure of over 7 per cent. (It’s still 7.1 per cent for the UK as a whole.) In particular there has been a very welcome fall in youth unemployment, though it is still nearly 20 per cent.

Unemployment is down

Unemployment is down

Does it mean the years of austerity are over? Certainly not. Firstly, it’s not clear if the figures can be trusted – they seem to have caught the experts by surprise. Secondly, the bald figures do not give us the breakdown for part-time or temporary work – and the Labour Party tell us that a third of jobs in Scotland are now part-time or temporary. Thirdly, real earnings are still falling behind inflation. And fourthly, the Chancellor seems intent on cutting more jobs from the public sector.

So I’m left feeling unsure about whether we are entering a period of sustainable economic growth or just stumbling towards another quagmire. Certainly the Scottish government has been complaining that the budget it’s been given is still in austerity mode. But when the finance secretary John Swinney outlined its £35 billion worth of spending to parliament this week he did manage to squeeze out a little more money for childcare (£59m) and free school meals (£55m) and £20m to help council tenants offset the so-called bedroom tax.

Alex Rowley MSP Victor in Cowdenbeath

Alex Rowley MSP
Victor in Cowdenbeath

This was enough to persuade the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to add their votes to the SNP majority and the budget was passed by 90 votes to 13. There was a further outbreak of collaboration when Labour’s finance spokesman Iain Gray revealed he was in “constructive” discussions with Mr Swinney about the best way to protect people from the “Tory bedroom-tax”. This is rainbow politics indeed.

While this was going on at Holyrood, across the water in Fife the parties were fighting each other in the Cowdenbeath by-election. It was no surprise that Alex Rowley held the seat for Labour – he is after all the leader of Fife council. On a low turnout, of 34 per cent, the other parties did as expected, the SNP coming second, the Conservatives third. But the Liberal Democrats suffered another disaster, coming in fifth, behind UKIP.

In the wider referendum campaign, we’ve had another of those curious opinion surveys showing that if people thought they would be £500 a year better off, then support for independence rose from its usual 30 per cent to over 50 per cent. And if they thought they would be £500 a year worst off support for independence sank to just 15 per cent. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey also shows that voters are not much influenced by arguments over currencies or membership of the EU. Professor John Curtis says, in his analysis here in the Caledonian Mercury, that this is because opinion on these issues is equally divided among supporters of both the Yes and the No camps. It leads him to the conclusion that the economy is the crucial battle-ground.

Prof John Curtice Are modern Scots just a 'parcel of rogues'

Prof John Curtice
Are modern Scots just a
‘parcel of rogues’

I am reluctant to disagree with the world expert on these matters but here goes. I think the 1500 Scots who took part in the survey were not being serious. They were caught in bar-room mood. We are not such a parcel of rogues to be swayed by a £500 bribe, or by predictions over currencies or memberships. I think as we get closer to 18th September, people will vote with their heart not their head, and cultural and historical issues will determine the matter.

There was evidence of that Scottish heart last week when 3-year old Mikaeel Kular went missing from his home in Edinburgh. Hundreds of neighbours turned out to help the police search for him. And then, sadly, they turned out again to lay flowers and attend a church service to remember him. His body was found in woodlands in Fife and his mother Rosdeep Kular appeared in court on Monday charged with his murder.

We suffered another very different tragedy on the same day young Mikaeel was found. This time there were no crowds, only a mountain rescue team. Donald Tiso (50), of the famous Tiso family of adventurers, died while climbing with a friend on Ben Starav south of Glencoe. He was a director of the chain of 21 Tiso outdoor clothing and equipment stores and a keen photographer and supporter of the Scottish music scene. His father, who founded the firm in the 1960s, was also a keen mountaineer but died in a boating accident when he was just 57.

Burrell Collection  Items can now be leant out

Burrell Collection
Items can now be leant out

MSPs had one final duty this week. They passed the Burrell Collection Lending and Borrowing Bill, a private piece of legislation which will allow Glasgow City Council to lend pieces from the Burrell art collection to galleries abroad. It breaks one of the conditions laid down by the shipping magnate Sir William Burrell when he left his huge collection of world paintings, tapestries, sculptures etc to the city when he died in 1958.

It’s a timely example of Robert Burns’ famous line: “Nae man can tether time nor tide.” Circumstances change. One generation cannot bind another.

To celebrate Burns Night – on Saturday – the National Library has put on public display one of its greatest treasurers, the Glenriddell Manuscript, copies of some 50 poems, all in Burns’ own hand, and 27 of his letters sent to his friend Captain Robert Riddell in the 1790s. They somehow found their way to a gentleman’s club in Liverpool which disgracefully put them up for sale in 1913. Luckily, a rich American John Gribbel from Philadelphia bought them and returned them to Scotland. Unlike Sir William Burrell he did not need a parliamentary vote to persuade him to do the right thing. The collection contains such classics as Holy Willie’s Prayer and the aforementioned Tam o’ Shanter.

Unfortunately it doesn’t contain his later song, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” which is perhaps best suited to these times of austerity and with which I raise a glass to honest Rab on his birthday.

“Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an a’ that:
The coward slave we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that !
For a’ that and a’ that,
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.”

Up to a third of tenants in social housing have fallen behind with the rent

The so-called ‘bedroom tax’ has been controversial from the start. Introduced by the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, it’s officially described as a ‘spare room subsidy’, a measure which means that families receive housing benefit for the number of bedrooms they need, but not the costs of claimants’ spare rooms.

Ian Davidson  Chairing the Scottish Affairs Committee

Ian Davidson
Chairing the Scottish Affairs Committee

However, in a pointed report, the Scottish Affairs Committee has called on the government in London to scrap the reforms, arguing that it rather is “a budget cut suffered by those in greatest need”. In the view of the Committee’s chairman, the Labour MP Ian Davidson, it has been a “cruel burden” on the poor.

He explained that the Committee has produced an interim report because, “while the impact of the bedroom tax cannot yet be fully quantified, it is already clear that it is a cruel burden being placed upon the shoulders of those least able to bear it. This tax is little more than a cut in public expenditure, designed to hit the poorest.

“We have produced an interim report because some glaring flaws are already apparent and notwithstanding our call for the tax to be abolished, we wish to draw these faults to the government’s attention while it is conducting a review.”

In a statement, the Department of Work and Pensions claimed that the reforms protected the most vulnerable by ensuring that a disabled child could have their own room and bedrooms are allowed for live-in carers. It also noted that Scottish councils had been provided with over £10m to help tenants through our reforms.

However, recent reports have suggested that rent arrears have risen sharply since the reforms came into effect back in April. Various estimates suggest that local authorities around Scotland could be owed over £3m in arrears. Across the UK, as many as one third of all tenants may have fallen behind with their rental payments. Social landlords have also reported that this was causing them financial difficulties.

David Ogilvie SFHA Tenants should first be offered a 'reasonable alternative'

David Ogilvie SFHA
Tenants should first be offered a ‘reasonable alternative’

Welcoming the Committee’s report, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations described its conclusion as a ‘common-sense call’. for the repeal of the ‘bedroom tax’.

In the view of Policy Manager, David Ogilvie, “when we are talking about social housing, we are not talking coldly about a commodity, but rather we are talking about peoples’ homes and peoples’ lives. Furthermore, we welcome the Committee’s call in the interim, while abolition of the ‘bedroom tax’ is considered, for a series of changes to the operation and implementation of the policy.

“We agree that it should not be applied to individual tenants until a reasonable alternative is offered. This is a common-sense approach that we had fought hard for and won at the Bill stage, before it was over-turned by the Coalition Government who cited ‘financial privilege’.”

Today’s interim report was opposed by Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs but the Labour majority on the Committee resulted in the failure of their attempts to prevent it being produced.

Do Coalitions produce better Government?

This year’s UK party conference season has been concentrating minds on the next general election, even though it is two years away and over the blue horizon of the independence referendum. Each party wants to form the next government in May 2015 but the tormenting question is: what happens if no one party has a majority in the House of Commons?

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg

Most people, of course, want one party to win outright – 67 per cent, according to the latest opinion poll (ComRes for ITV). But, as we all know, it is not what happened at the last election, and the Liberal Democrats seem to believe it is not what will happen at the next election. They have a Rousseau-like belief that it is the general will of the people to see parties “working together” to form a consensus government.

It is not, however, what the opinion polls are saying. Again according to that ComRes poll, 51 per cent of voters want the largest party to rule. And that makes sense to me. As Alex Salmond demonstrated in the Scottish Parliament from 2007- 2011, a minority government can rule well, last the whole term and be successful, as judged by the people at the following election.

Of course, he had to win a majority in parliament for any new law and for his budget. So he had to accept that the Edinburgh trams went ahead, that there should be a thousand more police on the beat, that there was not enough support for a local income tax. On each of these issues, an open debate took place in parliament. And when there is no overall consensus in the country for one particular philosophy, then this is how political business should be done, issue by issue.

The parties are trying to form a coalition in Germany

The parties are trying to form a coalition in Germany

But there’s a curious fashion among politicians these days for coalition governments. The Germans are putting one together as I write, so too are the Norwegians. The Italians, the Irish, the Belgians and at least 20 other countries are keen on coalitions. Only, however, as a last resort and because no one party can win the support of most of the people.

Coalitions are dangerous things. They can fall apart at any moment. They can push through unpopular measures. They concentrate power in the secrecy of the cabinet room rather than in the directly elected parliament. They lead to incoherent trade-offs of one policy against another (eg free school meals/tax breaks for married couples). They can lead to a small party staying permanently in government as it forms coalitions with first one major party and then another. (This can be dangerous for the small party concerned, as the Free Democrats have found in Germany and the Liberal Democrats may be about to find out in Britain in 2015.)

In fact, the Liberal Democrats are the very party that can ensure that we do not have a coalition next time, by promising in advance that they will not enter a coalition with either the Conservatives or with Labour. And I would argue it would be to their advantage. First, it would be a popular stance, likely to win them more votes. Second, it would allow them to say they are breaking the mould of tribal British politics and instead introducing “issue politics”. And third, it would be underlining the power of parliament over the executive…governments propose but parliaments dispose.

The SNP formed a minority government successfully

The SNP formed a minority government successfully

Some people say minority governments are unstable. So are coalitions, of course. But we now have fixed term parliaments in the UK and Scotland which make multiple general elections less likely. In the event of a no-confidence motion being passed in parliament, it’s more likely now that another leader from the same largest party would be invited by the Queen to form a government. In any case, why should there not be another election if MPs cannot agree on a government?

Some people say a minority government cannot get anything done. What they mean is that it cannot get its own way all the time. And why should it? It doesn’t mean the country descends into chaos. Ministers would run the administration day-to-day, assisted by their civil servants and systems already in place would continue…budgets, laws, quangos, local governments etc. On major issues, a minority government has to go out and win a majority of MPs for what it wants to do.

Some people say minority government and issue-by-issue politics leads to a decline in political parties and the rise of maverick independents. But there is no reason why this should happen. Campaigners would still need to organise into teams and to work on a local level. And they would still gravitate towards a particular political philosophy…building on earlier traditions. And each party would still put forward a general manifesto on which it would hope to win the popular vote outright.

The advantage of staying out of coalitions is that parties would not have to compromise their election pledges. They could vote in parliament along the lines of their manifesto, without bringing down the government and causing a political crisis.

Will Coalition Government survive the next election?

Will Coalition Government survive the next election?

Some people say minority governments cause uncertainty. Not if the system is that the largest party forms the government on the morning after an election. There is no week of coalition haggling to unsettle the financial markets. And people would be able to form a pretty clear view of which way parliament would vote on each issue. Coalitions, in the end, are a conspiracy by the politicians against the voters.

And it’s not that minority government has not been tried. Norway has had three minority governments since the war, Canada has had 11. In Australia, Julia Gillard ruled for three years with a minority government. Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan both led minority governments for a time. John Major’s government was a minority – if you exclude the Ulster Unionists. Labour in Wales have formed the administration without an overall majority. And, as mentioned, Alex Salmond showed how it could be done in some style.

The Liberal Democrats argue that by being in government they have achieved more of their policies than being outside it. I doubt it. Many of the changes they claim to have won would have happened anyway…raising the income tax threshold, investment in early years education, linking pensions to the “triple lock” of earnings, prices or 2.5 per cent. They claim to have “tamed the Tories”. But we still have austerity in the form of deep cuts in public spending and we have a British veto on a treaty to bring financial stability to Europe.

It would have been easier for the Liberal Democrats to block Tory excesses by linking up with Labour in the Commons on issues such as university fees, NHS reforms, or the spare room subsidy.

The Liberal Democrats will probably live to regret their panic in May 2010 and their leaders’ wish to rush into government. I don’t quite understand politicians’ weakness for ministerial power, when they could have real power as MPs, and a much easier life. They can still see their ambitions fulfilled for a mixed economy, full employment, decent public services, local decision-making, protection for our human rights, care for the environment etc through a parliament with a real say on all executive action.

End the coalition conspiracy now.

Independence March – confusion over the numbers

I could not help being swept along by the roaring tide of blue which surged down the Royal Mile last Saturday. There were 10,000 people carrying Saltire flags, Yes banners, bagpipes, children on their shoulders. I even saw a couple of pandas. It was a huge turnout – by Scottish standards. The march ended with a rally on Calton Hill, addressed by the clan chiefs of the “Yes to Independence” campaign.

Independence Rally

Independence Rally

The police estimated the crowd at 8,000, the organisers said 30,000, which makes me suspect they were speaking about different things. But the thought that went through my mind as I stood by the Tron Church and watched the parade go by was that this was too big a crowd to ignore. Whatever the outcome of the referendum next year, something will have to be done to assuage this patriotic Scottish fervour.

No less a body than the Electoral Commission feels the same. It has appealed to both sides to spell out exactly what will happen after the referendum, whatever the result. It will be a sore and tender period. It may even be angry.

If they Yes side win, the SNP government says it will begin negotiations on separating from the UK and joining the EU. If the No side win, there have been promises of more powers for the devolved Scottish Parliament. Various conventions have been suggested. But the Electoral Commission says there needs to be greater “clarity” from both sides so that voters can make an informed choice.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon sought to sharpen the differences between the two sides this week by suggesting that in an independent Scotland, the retirement age may not go up as fast as in the rest of the UK. She said an SNP government would review the planned move to age 67 in 2025 because Scotland would be more prosperous and Scots, on average, do not live as long as the English or Welsh. Though, of course she was not against people living to a ripe old age !

The UK party conferences are all sending out frantic messages to Scotland to ignore the SNP and stick with Great Britain next year. The Liberal Democrats said they would be “heart-broken” if the Scots left the Union. Instead, they called for one of those “conventions” on more home rule for the Scots.

Ed Miliband used part of his without-notes speech to plead: “ I don’t want Cathy to become a foreigner.” Cathy Murphy from Glasgow, he told us, collapsed at Labour’s conference in Liverpool in 2011 and was rushed to the local hospital to be treated for a heart complaint. She still goes back to Liverpool for check-ups. “At the hospital, they don’t ask if she’s English or Scottish, they know she’s British.” No doubt we will get more heart-rending stories from the Conservatives in Manchester next week. It’s interesting, though, that the latest census figures for Scotland show that 62 per cent of the population describe themselves as “Scottish” and only 18 per cent as “Scottish and British.”

Kenny MacAskill Justice Secretary

Kenny MacAskill
Justice Secretary

Meanwhile the SNP keep on governing in Scotland. The justice secretary Kenny MacAskill told parliament he was pressing on with his plan to abolish the “corroboration” requirement before cases of rape or sexual assault are brought to court. He said the corroboration rule was unique to Scotland and was formulated in a different age. “It’s a barrier to obtaining justice for the victims of crime committed in private or where no on else was there,” he said.

A review by Lord Carloway found that of 141 sexual offences not taken to court in 2010 because of a lack of corroborating evidence, two thirds would probably have led to convictions. I must say, though, that I find it rather worrying that I could land up in court on a charge of rape, simply on the say-so of a women with a grudge against me. And I am not alone. The Law Society, the Faculty of Advocates and the Police Federation are equally worried about dropping the fairly obvious need for corroboration.

As with any legal matter of course, the debate is somewhat confusing. The requirement for corroboration does not apply in the case of scientific evidence. And on his side, Mr MacAskill is taking the precaution against miscarriages of justice by requiring juries to reach a verdict by a two-thirds majority.

Cyclists - concerned about the court ruling

Cyclists – concerned about the court ruling

Another worrying case – for me as a cyclist – is the appeal court ruling this week that a driver who killed two cyclists should only be banned from driving for five years. Gary McCourt served a two year jail sentence nearly 20 years ago when he killed his first cyclist but he was back at the wheel again two years ago and knocked an elderly woman off her bike. He was sentenced on that occasion to 300 hours of community service and a five year ban from driving. The prosecution service appealed, on the grounds that that was too lenient a sentence. But the appeal court judges didn’t agree.

The cyclists’ lobby are rightly outraged. They want McCourt banned from driving for life. They also want a presumption of fault for drivers in all accidents involving a cyclist. Car drivers, they say, are in charge of a large and powerful machine and it is up to them to avoid hitting cyclists. Too right.

I suppose it’s a case of sticking up for the underdog in the war of the highways. I’m also in favour of the underdog in football. I was glad to see little Greenock Morton beat Celtic 1-nil on Tuesday night and knock them out of the League Cup….even though it was with a penalty in extra time. Justice is sometimes a hard thing to pin down.

We need to think not just about 2014 – but beyond

Are the “big guns” of British politics starting to enter the Scottish independence debate? Until now, it sometimes felt as though this was a question only for the Scots – despite the occasional foray north of the border by people like Prime Minister, David Cameron. But like it or not, next year’s referendum has implications reaching far beyond Scotland boundaries.

Douglas Alexander MP Copyright World Economic Forum, Creative Commons

Douglas Alexander MP
Copyright World Economic Forum, Creative Commons

Enter Douglas Alexander – the Shadow Foreign Secretary. He will deliver a speech in his constituency (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) in which he will accuse both sides of indulging in an “arid, acrimonious” argument which failed to address key social issues such as deep-rooted poverty and inequality. And he will urge the Labour Party in Scotland to consider looking at radical political reform, perhaps in coalition with the SNP, if Scotland chooses to vote no in the referendum.

Mr Alexander has already called for a “national convention” to look at what the post–referendum political landscape should look like. The tone of the speech suggests that he has become frustrated by his own party and its lack of progress towards developing a series of alternatives to independence. In it, he is expected to say that both the Tories and Liberal Democrats have expressed some interest in his thinking – but is also keen that any national convention should be all-inclusive, thus involving the SNP as well.

He will tell his constituents that such a convention would be “a very tangible answer to the question – what comes next if Scotland rejects separation in 2014? The deeper question as to what kind of Scotland we want will not be resolved by the answer given by the referendum,” he will say, adding that no-one appears to see this as a chance to take “the real opportunity to do something radically different” with the political structures of both Scotland and the UK.

Johann Lamont MSP

Johann Lamont MSP

His speech comes at an interesting time – just after the debate in the Scottish Parliament and just before the Labour Party conference. That debate had seen several references to critical comments made by a former senior adviser to Alex Salmond, Alex Bell, who resigned in July after spending two years working on the proposed White Paper on independence. In an interview for the BBC, Mr Bell explained that he had disagreed with Alex Salmond’s strategy of focusing on “simple messages” rather than any detailed analysis of key issues.

This was picked up in the Parliament by Labour leader Johann Lamont, who also drew attention to the fact that two leading international economists had also criticised his policies. As she said in the debate “if the first Minister cannot persuade those he hired to advise him of his case for independence, what chance does he have with the rest of us?” She went on to suggest that he should “really take things a little more seriously”, suggesting that the people across Scotland were finding him “increasingly deluded and unconvincing”.

While such comments can be taken are simply part of the hurly-burly of political life, they worry people like Douglas Alexander. In his speech he will warn that there is a growing danger that the debate will become bitter and divisive. He’s afraid that the aggression shown by both sides will last way beyond the referendum. As he put it, “in the last year alone, we seen a debate characterised all too often by shallowness, grievance and personal vitriol.

“There is a real risk that the vitriol, which at times has infected the debate, will simply not fade post-18 September 2014, and when people look beneath the surface of whatever numbers define the results, it will not be a pleasant view. Whatever the outcome of the vote, that cannot and would not be good for Scotland.”

In the Caledonian Mercury, we have said before that, whatever the outcome in 2014, the decision needs to be clear-cut and definite. The last thing we want is a year of negative and uninspiring sparring, not just between the two sides, but possibly even within the various camps. We can only hope that the arrival of this political heavyweight in the form of Douglas Alexander will start to raise the standard of debate and allow us to think about our future – whether within the United Kingdom or as newly independent state.

The UK’s Nuclear Deterrent – Ongoing Controversy

It’s been splendid golfing weather. For weeks now there’s been no rain. There’s been a mild, light, westerly wind and temperatures in the high 20s. The British Open Championship course at Muirfield on the West Lothian coast has been looking its best. And then we go and spoil it all by realising, too late, that you cannot really stage a major sporting event at a men-only club.

Muirfield - Men-only Club

Muirfield – Men-only Club

The men at golf’s governing body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, have been made to look….well, ancient…by failing to spot in advance that someone would object to Muirfield as the venue for the Open because of its male-only membership. That “someone” turned out to be Alex Salmond, an indifferent golfer but a championship politician.

His refusal to attend Muirfield has thrown the golfers into an embarrassing silence while they look for their ball. To the rest of the world his gesture signalled that while Scotland is proud to have invented the game of golf in the 15th century, it aspires to play it by 21st century rules.

Peter Dawson R&A Chief under fire over Muirfield choice

Peter Dawson
R&A Chief under fire over
Muirfield choice

The men at the Royal and Ancient have been trying to argue that a private club like Muirfield is not discriminating against women in the same way as clubs used to discriminate against the working class or Catholics or blacks or gays. “It’s just how things are,” said Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive. “ But we will have a good look at what people are saying…and find the most sensible way forward.”

After this week in the baking media sun, I guess the R&A will not be holding the Open again at Muirfield or Troon until they allow women to join their clubs. The issue is too much of a distraction from the game itself.

And speaking of distractions, we’ve been seeing a lot of film footage this week of a Trident submarine ploughing its way up the Clyde.

The Royal Navy base at Faslane on the Clyde

The Royal Navy base at
Faslane on the Clyde

The issue of nuclear weapons has now entwined itself around the independence debate, with the SNP arguing that the only sure way of getting rid of “weapons of mass destruction” on Scottish soil is to vote for independence. It’s a powerful argument in Scotland where public opinion is fairly evenly divided over nuclear weapons.

The Westminster government’s review of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, published this week, has brought the Conservatives out in favour of a full replacement of Trident but the Liberal Democrats want a scaled down version. Labour have yet to make up their mind. The issue – like men-only golf clubs – poses the question the SNP are asking more and more: what kind of country do you want Scotland to be?

Mr Salmond was in the Isle of Man earlier this week to make the point that an independent Scotland could flourish within an informal Sterling currency zone. Like the Isle of Man it would have a better credit rating than the UK, he claimed, and escape some of the austerity measures being imposed from Westminster.

Shetland and other islands Asking awkward questions

Shetland and other islands
Asking awkward questions

Meanwhile, Scotland’s island communities have been thinking about independence too. Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles have written to Alex Salmond and David Cameron asking 10 awkward questions. Whatever the result of next year’s referendum, could they have more say over their own budgets ? Could they have a share of the Crown Estate revenues ? Could they be exempt from the “bedroom tax” ? Could they have their own constitutions ? Could their island cultures be protected ? We await the answers.

The summer sunshine has not been reflected in the latest unemployment figures. There has been a sudden increase to 7.5 per cent, the first time the figure has risen for the last seven months. The economy is still scraping along the bottom, with many new jobs being only part time and more people giving up looking for work altogether. Scotland is still doing better than the UK where unemployment is at 7.8 per cent and youth unemployment is nearly 20 per cent, 3 per cent more than in Scotland. But the graphs are so indecisive that this could all change next month.

There’s word that the SNP is looking for a senior literary figure to help put some passion and poetry into their white paper on independence, due to be published in November. William McIlvanney has been mentioned. I’d like to suggest Robert Galbraith, author of the sensational new detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling….. though this week Robert turned out to be a woman, an Edinburgh lady calling herself J K Rowling.

I have a feeling his/her next book will be about a female golfer who disguises herself as a man to get into the Muirfield Golf Club. But she is discovered when she runs onto the final green, dressed only in the Saltire flag which she then waves behind the winner of the Open. She escapes in a nuclear submarine and ends up leading an independence movement in Shetland. Oh dear, the sun has gone to my head.