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Robert Burns statue, Stirling <em>Picture: Andrew Smith</em>

Robert Burns statue, Stirling Picture: Andrew Smith

By John Knox

One of the delights of the Burns Supper season is watching every political party claiming to be his true inheritors. Each can ransack Burns’ life and his works for samples of their philosophy – though it must be said from the outset that the Tories’ claim is about as credible as Tam O’Shanter’s account of his journey home after a night out among the honest men and bonnie lasses of Ayr.

But let us start with the Tories in any case. Burns was a self-made man, the son of a hard-working gardener, farmer and entrepreneur. Like all lower and middle class Tories, he laughed at the toffs “who strut and stare and a’ that”.

He was prepared to get on his bike, or at least his horse, to find work – in a linen mill in Irvine, in the plantations of Jamaica (very nearly), on various farms in Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire. And at the end, he despised himself for being forced to take a job with the government as a customs officer. But hey, he had a large family to look after and writing poetry was not “wealth creating” work.

And didn’t he join the Royal Dumfries Volunteers to put down those revolutionary Frenchmen? “Never but by British hands / Maun British wrangs be righted!”, he wrote in his patriotic poem Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?

If we look more closely at this Tory Burns, however, he begins to fall apart. Hugh MacDiarmid tells us Burns only joined the Volunteers to spy on them. Only months before, he had tried to send four cannonades to the French Assembly – guns he bought at the sale of the smugglers’ ship, the Rosamond, he had helped to seize.

Burns had also written approvingly of the “deserved fate” of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. And it is no coincidence that he sent his revolutionary poem Scots Wha Hae to his publisher on the day the rebel lawyer Thomas Muir was being tried for sedition. And even earlier, he had written an Ode For General Washington’s Birthday, in which he praises all revolutionaries and appeals to Scotland to revolt too:

But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columba’s offspring, brave and free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man!

So does this make Burns a patron saint of the SNP? It is certainly a stronger case than that for the Tories. I am not convinced, though, that he wanted a totally independent Scotland. He says nothing in all his poems and 600 songs about the Jacobite rebellion which took place just a generation before him. His praise for William Wallace and Robert the Bruce was more to do with opposing tyranny than seeking outright independence. And the sentiment of A Man’s a Man for a’ that is of international brotherhood, not nationalism.

Even the much-cited poem A Parcel of Rogues can be taken two ways:

But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold –
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

It can either be read as “Scotland should never have sold its independence”, or “Scotland is a parcel of rogues and cannot be trusted with independence”.

Officially, of course, Burns was a Whig. He joined “honest man” Patrick Heron’s by-election campaign in 1795 in the seat of Kirkcudbright, writing three popular election ballads against the local Tory lairds. He managed to recycle some of his better lines from A Man’s a Man:

But why should we to Nobles jouk,
And isn’t against the law that?
For why a Lord may be a gowk
Wi’ ribband, star and a’ that.

For a’ that and a’ that,
Here’s Heron yet for a’ that!
A Lord may be a lousy loun
Wi’ ribband, star and a’ that.

But being a Whig was not quite the same thing as being a Liberal or a Liberal Democrat. The Whigs (originally a name for Scottish cattle drovers or cowboys) came in a broad spectrum of colours. Some were followers of Tom Paine and his Rights of Man, while others were happy to go into coalition with the Tories under William Pitt. Burns probably regarded the Whigs, whoever they were, as the lesser of two evils.

Had the Labour party existed in the 1790s, there is little doubt that Burns would have been a member. He even presages the name in his Address to a Haggis:

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reeking, rich!

Throughout his poetry and songs, Burns champions the working man and insults, lampoons, despises, rages against the upper classes and their hangers-on – the clergy, the fawning unco-guid, and yes even white-collar government employees like himself, as in The Deil’s awa’ wi’ the Exciseman.

It is difficult to know what Robert Burns would make of the modern world – which is why those Burns Supper claims by the political parties are so quaint. To ask if Burns would have approved of New Labour or the new Tories or independence in Europe is absurd – all is utterly changed since the 1790s. And Burns would not be Burns if he was alive today.

As for his political philosophy, all we can say is that he was egalitarian, patriotic and against hypocrisy of any kind. This is the appeal of his poetry for the working class everywhere, from Ayrshire to Azerbaijan.

But Burns was not really a political animal. In fact, he despairs of politics, as in his Ode to the Departed Regency Bill, in which he attacks the shenanigans at Westminster – “All would rule and none obey”.

He was much more interested in people, their lives and loves, and in animals and plants and landscape. He wrote about mice and men, women and wine, songs and sinners, a fly on a lady’s bonnet, a family round a fireside, the nagging pain of a toothache.

In the end, Burns remains a floating voter. He casts a critical and twinkly eye over every party, indeed over politics in general. And he would be most amused by the attempt to wine and dine him every 25 January.

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<em>Picture: Willem van Bergen</em>

Picture: Willem van Bergen

Today the Scottish parliament’s health committee is due to start hearing evidence on the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill. We’ve been here before, of course, although the last time the health committee discussed the issue, circumstances were very different.

Then, the health secretary Nicola Sturgeon was trying very hard to build a consensus with other political parties so that she could get the measure passed as part of the wider legislation that was to become the Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Act 2010. As we know, this she failed to do.

This time, with a majority in the Scottish parliament, Ms Sturgeon probably doesn’t have to worry about making friends with the other parties. Presumably, however, she would still like to have cross-party backing – if nothing else, to give the likely new law more legitimacy and to make its passage through parliament a bit easier.

So far, that’s not looking too likely. Although the Lib Dems have changed their pre-election position and have withdrawn their opposition, Labour and the Tories remain intransigent.

I, for one, find this more than a little depressing. I really believe that Scotland needs this legislation and I fear that those who oppose it have (often understandable) vested interests, or that they are missing the wider point.

Scotland has an alcohol problem: nobody is denying this, not even those who oppose minimum pricing. The evidence is plentiful and compelling. I’m not going to relist all the frightening statistics about numbers of alcohol-related deaths, A&E visits and illness, nor the social and economic consequences – the devastating effects on communities and families – because I don’t think anyone disputes them. Suffice to say it’s a major, major problem.

Lots has already been done, and is being done, to try to alleviate it – for example, changes in licensing laws and crackdowns on promotions. These are good measures, but they don’t go far enough. We need to do more, and I would argue that minimum pricing would be a step in the right direction.

So why do I think this? Perhaps strangely, it’s not primarily because of the research that’s been done on the effects of pricing. The modelling done at Sheffield and elsewhere, showing that consumption would go down if prices went up, might be perfectly valid – but it’s not, for me, the most compelling reason.

Looking at the personal experiences of other jurisdictions is rather more persuasive. Tonight, the health committee members will sit in an evening session to hear evidence via video conference from Professor Timothy Stockwell of the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Professor Stockwell has become a bit of a poster boy for those in favour of minimum pricing since his visit to Scotland last year. I attended one of the events at which he related the Canadian experience, where a form of minimum pricing has been in place for more than 20 years. Many different forms, as it happens, as each Canadian province applies its own rules.

Of course the circumstances aren’t identical – Canada has a state monopoly on alcohol, and I don’t hear anyone suggesting that for Scotland – but to say we can’t learn from the experience would be narrow-minded, to put it charitably.

From the Canadian example, it would appear that minimum pricing is most effective when it is index-linked and where it is accompanied by other policies such as incentives for low-alcohol products. But the effects of increased prices are clear. In British Columbia, where the government monopoly has set minimum prices for more than two decades, only spirit prices have been updated in line with the cost of living. Here, a 10 per cent increase in minimum price has shown decreases in ethanol consumption ranging from 1.5 per cent for beer to 8.9 per cent for wine, and 3.4 per cent for all drinks.

In Saskatchewan, however, which adjusts minimum prices to take inflation into account, and which prices high-strength alcohol more prohibitively, a 10 per cent increase led to an overall reduction of consumption of 5.2 per cent. In addition, a reduction of taxes on low-alcohol beer, combined with a reduced tax on low (up to 4 per cent) beers, mean that the latter now account for more than a third (37 per cent) of the beer market.

So far, so convincing – to me at least. But still, that’s not my main reason for believing that a legal minimum price is the right thing to do. In my view, it’s vital that the Scottish parliament passes this legislation because it sends out the right message. You can argue all you like that it will benefit only the supermarkets, who will be able to charge more for products, or that it will be difficult to police, or that it won’t actually help the health of all of those who are drinking dangerously or riskily. But the fact is that we need change at a cultural level, and legislation is one of the levers to help accomplish this.

Scotland as a whole needs rehab – and while legislators don’t take the opportunity to send out a clear message that drinking can be dangerous, then they are copping out.

This is why the alcohol industry – much of it at any rate – is against minimum pricing. What they don’t want is a clear governmental message that their product can be harmful – and who can blame them, as that’s how they make their money? And they have a good point in many cases – minimum pricing would have no actual effect on top-of-the-range malts, for example, because they already cost more per unit than even the wildest dreams of the pricing advocates. But the message that sends out – that alcohol can cause harm – could cause sales to take a hit.

What’s more, if Scotland pushes ahead with this, then she certainly won’t be alone. Other parts of the UK are already signalling pretty strongly that they are likely to follow suit, such as Northern Ireland (a fellow nation with an alcohol problem). Look at what happened with the ban on smoking in public places. Once a couple of jurisdictions introduced it, then much of the rest of the world followed like a set of dominoes.

Alcohol is different to smoking, of course – drinking in moderation can even confer health benefits, unlike the evil weed. So it’s understandable that the alcohol industry does not want to be (low) tarred with the same brush.

Our politicians don’t have the same excuse, however. I do them the justice of not assuming that they have opposed and continue to oppose the SNP’s plans simply on party political grounds. Their reasons for opposition might feel perfectly valid and justifiable to them.

But they are missing the bigger picture. As Professor Stockwell said at that meeting in September, the eyes of the world are on Scotland. Scotland has a long tradition of health and public health innovation – here’s hoping our politicians don’t lose sight of that.

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<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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snp1Alex Salmond described as “fantastic” a new poll which put support for the SNP on 49 per cent.

The poll in the Sunday Express was conducted by Angus Reid and showed that SNP support has risen since what was supposed to be the high-water mark of 45 per cent that the party achieved in the election.

The poll also shows how far the Liberal Democrats have fallen. The Lib Dems only got 5 per cent in the poll, just above the others on 4 per cent, with Labour on 29 per cent and the Tories on 13 per cent.

“This is a fantastic poll,” the first minister said. “45 per cent of Scottish voters backed the SNP in May and, as we deliver our ambitious programme for government, that support is rising.

“The SNP now has the support of some half the electorate, and there is growing support for Scotland having the full range of job-creating powers we need to boost jobs and recovery, and becoming an equal and independent country with access to the record tax revenues being generated by Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas.

“The people of Scotland spoke in the election, and the Westminster parties all lag far behind the ambitions of the people.”

And he added: “With the Lib Dems relegated to minor party status and leadership contests causing confusion and division, both Labour and the Tories are on the run in Scotland.”

The polls follows two others published last week which show support for independence rising – but not yet to the level which could command a majority in a referendum.

According to last week’s polls, support for independence is up from 35 per cent to about 39 per cent.

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Tony Blair <em>Picture: Remy Steinegger</em>

Tony Blair Picture: Remy Steinegger

Tony Blair – how can we get rid of the man? – is on the warpath again. Plugging his book (which has been around but which I won’t name) in a BBC interview, he outlined “our” plans for the Middle East, explaining how “we” must ensure that the Arab Spring blossoms into Western-style democracy and religious freedom across the region.

Singling out Egypt as a potential blueprint, the born-again former PM acknowledged that this will be no easy task, given that most Arab countries have little experience of democracy or religious tolerance and are plagued by tribalism. So far so good, and fair enough.

But how do “we” shape the Middle East into the kind of region “we” want it to be? “We” didn’t manage very well when “we” invaded Iraq, where violence persists more than eight years on, though that reality has long faded from newspaper headlines.

That wouldn’t stop Blair, though, would it? He seems to be enjoying the daily bombardment of Libya, confident that regime change will be effected there in due course. What happens after that? He didn’t say. He obviously doesn’t know, though he is the EU Middle East envoy – a very big job indeed, as the BBC points out, without wondering why he has the job in the first place.

I suppose Blair wants us to read his book, but life is too short for that, surely. I wonder what it has to say about David Kelly? Blair had nothing to say today.

Closer to home, yet even closer to Heaven than Blair, the Archbishop of Canterbury drew embarrassed, defensive comments from the Tories and Lib Dems after he excoriated them in the New Statesman for ploughing ahead with an agenda no one voted for. He is right, of course, but with the coalition government all over the place on health and justice and the bankers and just about everything else, Sky News thought it pertinent to remind viewers that the New Statesman virtually speaks for the Labour party (what, as the Spectator speaks for the Tories? Tell us something we don’t know).

Boris Johnson, spluttering away as usual on Sky, suggested the Arch Bish (I kid you not) potter along to a community garden somewhere in London to take a look for himself how the Big Society is actually working. I couldn’t help imagining Boris as a vicar himself, dog collar and all, wandering around a church fête. sampling the cakes and sipping tea – surely a job more suited to him than his current one.

Imagine him at the pulpit: he’d certainly get the congregation up, he’d have them in stitches, but as a politician he’s a twit. They seem to know how to produce them at Eton.

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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…

Taxes and opinion polls dominated the political chatter yesterday, as the final poll results were published, the leaders debated on STV, and Labour and the Conservatives attacked the SNP’s plan to fund Scottish independence.

Our penultimate word cloud showing the hot topics of the day in yesterday's political press releases. Common non-policy words were removed, the bigger the word, the more it appreared.

Our final word cloud showing the hot topics of the day in yesterday's political press releases. Common non-policy words were removed, the bigger the word, the more it appreared.

Our cloud shows tax, council, independence and percent, received high usage as the Scottish Conservatives said that only they can protect Scotland from “dangerous and costly excesses of nationalism”, and claimed the SNP’s plans to take Scotland out of Britain could mean a basic rate taxpayer paying almost half their earnings in tax.

Commenting on figures published in yesterday’s Daily Mail, Annabel Goldie, Scottish Conservative leader, said:

“Alex Salmond would turn Scotland into the highest taxed part of Britain. His dangerous plans to rip Scotland out of the UK would hammer hard working Scots, rip our country apart and decimate our economy.

“The Scottish Government’s own figures show that separation means up to a 12p hike on income tax, pushing the basic rate to 32p.

“Added to the SNP’s madcap plans to introduce a local income tax – which the report they tried to cover up said would be 4.6p – and then national insurance contributions on top of that, then it is clear the bill for divorce from the UK would cripple basic rate taxpayers in Scotland.”

Labour’s finance spokesperson, Andy Kerr, said of the report:

“This is a damning reminder of the SNP’s economic madness but we cannot forget that Alex Salmond is using the courts to hide his tax plans from the Scottish public.

“On the big economic decisions, the SNP have called it wrong time and time again and the financial crisis showed how flawed the SNP’s economic approach is. The choice in this election is between two visions for Scotland – Labour’s plan for jobs or the SNP’s plan for independence.”

The SNP laughed off this figure, claiming it was based upon an out-of-date figure of £3.8 billion in the 2010 Government Expenditure & Revenue Scotland (GERS) report.

The Tories and Labour use the £3.8 billion figure, which also reflects capital investment, to claim an income tax rise of 12 pence in Scotland. They then add to this the existing basic rate of income tax of 20p, national insurance contributions of 12p, and the rumoured 4.6p local income tax figure.

An SNP spokesperson said:

“The Tory figures are unutterable garbage – an embarrassing effort from an embarrassing party.

“On the basis of the Tories’ absurd figures, the UK basic rate of income tax would be 63 per cent, and the higher rate would be 83 per cent. And that is before the plans of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems for a real increase in the real council tax of between £200 and £300.

“Labour’s panic and desperation in this campaign is revealed by the fact that they are actually recycling this Tory garbage – another example of the unholy Labour/Tory alliance.”

People, greens, and votes are the next most prominent in the cloud with the final poll results released and the final televised leadership debate airing last night on STV – both boosting the occurrences of percent along with the taxation debate.

The Scottish Greens launched a final push for the Holyrood election, urging Scots to give the party their second votes on Thursday.

Patrick Harvie said:

“While others have run campaigns based on fear and empty promises, Greens have set out a consistently practical and positive programme for the next parliament. Our campaign has made cast-iron promises on keeping tuition free, on insulating every home in Scotland, and bringing in fairer taxes to cut household bills for most Scots and to invest in our essential public services. The polls suggest that more and more Scots are planning to give their second votes to their local Green candidates on Thursday, and we could be on the brink of winning seats in every region.

Elaborating on the importance of the second vote, he added:

“The second vote is vital. It might not tell you who governs Scotland. But it’ll certainly tell you who they have to govern with. That can only mean one of the coalition parties or the Greens. If you want a Scottish parliament that builds a positive alternative to the coalition’s ideological cuts agenda, only a second vote for the Greens can deliver it.”

Yesterday’s TNS-BRMB poll for STV – released to coincide with the final televised debate – shows the Scottish Greens up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent on the regional list, the best result yet for the party during the 2011 election campaign.

The SNP also welcomed the poll which shows them ahead of Labour in the constituency vote by 18 points. Scottish National Party depute leader and deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon said:

“This is an excellent poll – it indicates that people want to re-elect the SNP government and Alex Salmond for first minister because they want to achieve the five-year council tax freeze, protection for Scotland’s health budget, and retention of the 1,000 additional police officers that the SNP have delivered.

Emphasising caution against complacency, she added:

“We are taking nothing for granted. People support our record, team and vision for Scotland – many for the first time – and we will work harder than ever before to achieve the re-election of the SNP Government and Alex Salmond for first minister on Thursday.”

Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Johann Lamont said:

“With over half of all voters undecided how they will vote, this poll show it is all to play for.

“The SNP are arrogantly slapping themselves on the back before a single vote has been cast, but the only poll that matters is polling day and every hour between now and polling day Labour will be fighting for every vote.”

Whereas Liberal Democrat campaign chair George Lyon reflected on his party’s poor scoring – they came in 4th behind the Conservatives – saying:

“Pundits are always interested in polls ahead of elections. What Liberal Democrats are focused on is the poll on 5 May.”

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Dennis Canavan

Dennis Canavan

By Dennis Canavan

In the 1960s, prime minister Harold Wilson famously declared that the Labour Party was a moral crusade or it was nothing. Such language would nowadays be considered politically incorrect or even sectarian, but Wilson did not use the term crusade in its literal meaning of a holy war against Islam.

He meant that, if the Labour Party ever lost its fighting spirit or its campaigning zeal for social justice, it would be finished. Where is that fighting spirit today – and for what cause is Labour fighting?

At the start of the current Scottish parliament election campaign, the Labour leadership apparently thought that the key to success was to bash the Tories and to present Scottish Labour as the best defender of the Scottish people against the cuts imposed by the Tory-led coalition at Westminster.

After four weeks, that strategy has clearly failed, with most polls showing Labour trailing behind the SNP, despite having started the campaign with a ten-point lead.

Labour’s response has been to switch from one form of negative campaigning to another. Instead of bashing the Tories, the strategy now is to bash the Nats. It is an action-replay of the tired old formula which Labour has used at every previous Scottish parliament election.

It worked to some extent in 1999 and 2003, but the electorate saw through it in 2007. Nevertheless, by unashamedly raising the spectre of separatism, the Labour Party yet again hopes to terrify enough Scots into voting against the SNP. The Scottish Tories used to describe themselves as “Conservative and Unionist” – but, in some respects, the Labour Party is now more unionist than the Tories.

Quite apart from the arguments for and against independence, it is insulting the people of Scotland for any political party to tell them that they are so collectively incompetent that they are incapable of running their own affairs.

It is also a sign that Labour are so bereft of any “big ideas” of their own that they concentrate so much on trying to rubbish the “big idea” of their main opponents, despite the fact that the policy of the SNP is for the constitutional future of Scotland to be decided not by any political party but by the people of Scotland in a referendum.

It is very tiresome listening to Labour politicians telling us that they do not support a referendum on independence because the majority of Scots do not want independence. If they are so confident of that, then why are they so afraid to let the people decide? A referendum would have at least cleared the air and allowed this election to be fought on Labour’s alternative “big ideas”.

But that might have made it even more apparent that Labour does not have any ideas, big or small, apart from a few populist ideas pinched from the SNP plus the reactionary idea of clapping more and more people into prison.

Gone are the days when socialism or social justice was the driving force behind the Labour Party manifesto. A radical and irreversible redistribution of wealth and power in favour of working people is no longer on the agenda, despite the crisis created by irresponsible bankers, with resultant mass unemployment and the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Spending billions of pounds on weapons of war and mass destruction is a higher priority for Labour than the eradication of poverty at national and international level.

The Scottish Labour Party is not only lacking leadership. It lost its moral compass when it swallowed the Blairite propaganda that it had to ditch its socialist principles and cosy up to the bankers and other big business interests in order to win elections in the deep south. That led to Labour losing its soul, and Scottish Labour is unlikely to recover unless and until it is free to determine policies and priorities which reflect the aspirations of the Scottish electorate.

In the meantime, let’s hope that, for the remainder of this election campaign, fear and negativity will be overcome by a vision of a better future for the people of Scotland.

Dennis Canavan is a former Labour MP and Independent MSP.

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Jobs dominated the political communications yesterday, as first minister Alex Salmond outlined the SNP’s vision for reindustrialising Scotland by meeting the party’s target of 130,000 jobs in the low-carbon sector by 2020.

A word cloud showing the most common words across all of yesterday's press releases. The larger the word, the more it was used.

A word cloud showing the most common words across all of yesterday's press releases. The larger the word, the more it was used.

Speaking on a campaign visit to Steel Engineering Ltd in Renfrew, Mr Salmond said:

“By 2020, our target is to have 130,000 jobs in the low carbon sector. That is a goal which will see the reindustrialisation of Scotland on a huge scale – and just as our shipyards were the workshop of the world in the 19th century, the green energy revolution gives us the chance to become the hi-tech workshop of the world in the 21st century.

Also raising jobs profile, SNP candidate for Aberdeen Central, Kevin Stewart, said Ed Balls had blundered by exposing Labour dishonesty on the issue of changes to offshore oil taxation.

Mr Balls is quoted in the Press & Journal saying the oil tax changes were a mistake but when a vote to oppose those tax changes was held in the UK parliament on 29 March 2011 he failed to vote against them despite voting in two other divisions.

Commenting Mr Stewart said:

“Ed Balls came north to lecture Scots about their country but has now been caught out being dishonest about Labour’s position on oil tax. It is hypocrisy for him to say he now opposes a tax on oil jobs when he failed to try and stop it in a key vote.

“It yet again shows why no-one can trust a word Labour says – that the rhetoric doesn’t meet the reality.”

Labour accused the SNP of the same, however, as it emerged that a flagship SNP council has been forced to admit that compulsory redundancies have not only been made in the last year, but the option cannot be entirely ruled out.

The SNP manifesto states that the party is “committed to a policy of no compulsory redundancies”.

However, documents released by Fife council reveal that the SNP-led administration in Fife made 191 compulsory redundancies last year alone.

As part of plans to axe around 500 staff in a bid to save £16 million over the next year, SNP council leader Peter Grant has admitted that “there will be occasions when compulsory redundancies can’t be avoided” and Sharon McKenzie, Fife council’s human resources manager, has said that “redundancies can’t always be confined to the volunteer pool.”

Scottish Labour’s candidate in Mid Fife and Glenrothes, Claire Baker, said:

“This latest revelation comes as a humiliating blow to one of the SNP’s key election pledges. It speaks volumes that one of the SNP’s flagship councils has already made almost 200 compulsory redundancies and is now admitting that more are on the table.”

Next on the word cloud are the two largest parties’ leaders with Alex, Salmond, Iain and Gray placing unusually highly. The appearance of both leaders’ names is linked to the rather odd appearance of asda, and supermarket – both of which appear on the right of our cloud – as the supermarket’s Ardrossan branch was the site of a clash between the two parties.

Both men were campaigning in Ardrossan last night, when Iain Gray and his campaign team stopped at an Asda supermarket to pick up some provisions on the way to a public meeting in Ardrossan Civic Centre.

Unbeknown to them, Alex Salmond was campaigning in the same supermarket – but Labour claim that he was ushered up the aisles and kept shielded from Mr Gray.

Scottish Labour Leader Iain Gray said:

“If I’d have known Alex Salmond was there, I’d have gone up and asked him why he is hiding his date for an independence referendum. Sadly he was kept well hidden until I’d left.”

The SNP tell it differently, claiming that it was Iain Gray, not Mr Salmond who fled the store after being approached by the local newspaper.

SNP campaign manager Angus Robertson commented on footage taken by Kevin Paterson, reporting for the Ardrossan Herald, which shows Iain Gray leaving the store, turning to avoid an SNP activist and ignoring a question from someone in the shop asking “are you not hanging about?”

Mr Roberston said:

“This footage makes an absolute mockery of the claims in a Labour press release issued this morning and raises serious questions about the negativity, dirty tricks and misinformation at the heart of Labour’s “re-launched” campaign.”

Mr Gray’s comment referred to Labour’s call for the SNP to name the date of their proposed referendum on independence. The Scottish Labour leader called for the SNP to reveal their date saying:

“Don’t hide your plan for independence. Tell Scotland the date you want to hold the referendum and tell us today.

“Don’t hide behind the pathetic excuse that it would be a ‘mistake’ to reveal the date you already know. If Labour forms the next government, we will not be distracted by a constant campaign to break up the UK. It will be jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs again.”

Services, local and communities appear as Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott joined Alison Hay, Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Argyll and Bute and Alan Reid, Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute at Connel post office in Oban to campaign on the party’s plan to continue the Post Office Diversification Fund.

Commenting, Tavish Scott said:

“The Connel post office is a local store, cafe, paper shop and a post office. We want to see more post offices growing their businesses and cementing their place at their heart of their local community.

“They are a genuine lifeline for many vulnerable and older people in particular. We need to protect these services.”

Scottish Greens dismissed this claim, however, pointing to the privatisation of Royal Mail being championed by Vince Cable.

Legislation to enable Royal Mail to be privatised is just weeks away from completing its passage through Westminster. Greens argue that the Royal Mail is a vital public service that should stay in public hands.

Patrick Harvie, the Greens’ top candidate in Glasgow, said:

“It’s bare-faced cheek for Liberal Democrats to be posing outside post offices pretending to care about them while Uncle Vince in Westminster is getting ready to sell off the Royal Mail for a short-term profit. It’s time for the Lib Dems to understand that we are talking about a genuine public service, not just some indistinguishable commercial operation, and that if they had any principles whatsoever they’d be opposing these daft plans.”

Also campaigning for better local services, Scottish Conservatives unveiled plans for another round of town centre regeneration funding, totalling £140m over the course of the next Scottish parliament.

In the last parliament, Scottish Conservatives delivered a £60m Town Centre Regeneration Fund, which benefited communities the length and breadth of Scotland.

Speaking from Peterhead Harbour in Banffshire & Buchan Coast, where she was joined by local candidate Michael Watt, Annabel Goldie, Scottish Conservative leader, said:

“Scottish Conservatives pledged a Town Centre Regeneration Fund in our last manifesto and we delivered. We delivered £60m of help to town centres and high streets across Scotland, despite Labour and the Lib Dems trying to vote it down.

“That is real help in these tough times and, because we have taken difficult decisions, we can do more to boost local economies and give people more pride in their community.”

<em>Picture: Donald Macleod</em>

Picture: Donald Macleod

Iain Gray relaunched the Scottish Labour campaign today in a desperate attempt to halt the SNP surge which has put Alex Salmond on course for a second term in government.

The Scottish Labour leader made a speech in Glasgow to unveil a major change in strategy.

Instead of pushing a message of “vote Labour to protect Scotland from Tory cuts”, Mr Gray went all out to attack the SNP, warning that a vote for the Nationalists would threaten Scotland’s recovery.

The decision to change tack this late in the campaign is recognition of the failure of Labour’s core message so far.

As the campaign has gone on, so Labour’s vote has fallen away and so the SNP’s popularity has increased – culminating in the two polls over the course of the last week which gave the Nationalists a lead of between 10 and 13 points over Labour.

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With only ten days to go, Labour managers decided they had to do something different. Mr Gray’s switch from an anti-Tory message to an anti-SNP message is part of the new approach.

Labour insiders have also suggested that the party’s UK leader, Ed Miliband, will start taking a more proactive role in the Scottish campaign. Both he and Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, are expected in Scotland this week.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown is also expected to up his campaign appearances this week as Labour throw everything at the last ten days of the campaign – including all their heavyweight figures – in the hope of denting the SNP’s lead.

Mr Gray said: “Scotland can elect a Labour government that will fight for the things that really matter, or they can elect an SNP government that will forever be distracted by its vision of tearing Scotland out of Britain.”

The Scottish Labour leader accused the SNP government of costing Scotland tens of thousands of jobs, and he added: “When they ask you about Alex Salmond, tell them he only cares about one job – his, not yours. And he only cares about one dream – his, not yours.”

Mr Gray confronted the issue of the polls and the SNP’s lead over Labour.

“Today the polls put the SNP in front, they have a real chance of forming a government – and what is Alex Salmond’s first reaction? Not a plan for jobs, not the promise of action on youth unemployment, not a programme to get the economy growing. His only plan is a plan for separation,” Mr Gray said.

And he added: “We stand on the edge now for ten days. The message on separation is simple. If you don’t want it, don’t vote for it, because Alex Salmond says a second term will give him the moral authority to pursue it.”

Today’s speech marked a clear shift in message from Labour. Until now, Labour’s message (as shown by their political broadcast which doesn’t even mention the SNP) has been all about the Conservatives in government at Westminster.

Now, though, Labour have changed focus and decided to attack the party’s main rivals for a change.

In some ways, it is difficult to understand why it has taken so long to come to this decision. Labour managers will be hoping, however, that they haven’t left it too late.

The aim is to try to draw wavering Liberal Democrat voters away from the SNP by scaring them with visions of an independent Scotland.

It might work to a certain extent, but it is also an overwhelmingly negative message and that carries risks with it too, mainly of alienating voters.

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, said in response: “Labour’s relaunch is doomed to sink, because it is totally negative – at a time when the people of Scotland want positive leadership.”

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