Friday, June 29, 2007

Regional Ministers - a clarification

Following this post over on Holyrood Chronicles, RRR can perhaps offer some clarification - eh, maybe. This from the PM's spokesperson at yesterday's No 10 briefing;

"The role of these Ministers was to act as regional champions within the Government, and to represent the Government on parliamentary debate and other forum focussed specifically on regional issues."

When pressed by the assembled hacks, this clarification was offered...

"Asked to say more about the Regional Ministers, and was it right that they would be championing their regions in the Government and not the other way around, the PMS replied that the idea was to ensure that the regional dimension was properly factored into the Government's decision making process in a cross-departmental way. Asked if it would therefore be more bottom-up than top-down, the PMS replied that it was more about ensuring that the regional dimension was joined up across Government. Asked if the Regional Ministers would all have other responsibilities as well, the PMS replied that everyone would have to wait for the detail tomorrow to see exactly how these posts related to other junior Ministerial positions."
Ok – got it?

Red's Rag

RRR’s favourite, and entirely non-partisan, academic expert on all things economic in Scotland ('Red' Midsummer) is riding to our collective rescue again. This time Prof Red has, amongst others, a couple of economic Nobel laureates in his sights. In response to the FM announcement on his Council of Economic Advisers, Red opines in today’s Scotsman:

"This is a waste of public money. The announcement is symptomatic of the SNP having greater concern for the trappings of office than problems of governing. Hopefully, Mr Salmond will soon stop the gesture politics and make a statement on matters for which he has responsibility,"

That’s the boy Red - go get ‘em. Professors Mirrlees and Kydland (afore mentioned Nobel laureates) will be sorry they ever showed their faces in this town…What would they know about economics anyway? Professor John Kay – founder of the universally praised Institute for Fiscal Studies – a total joker, right? And as for the economy – well, I ask you – just what has improving the state of the Scottish economy got to do with the job of being First Minister of Scotland? Jack never saw it that way - right? It gets even worse. What an outrageous waste of public money - they are each being paid (and I hope you're all sitting down) the preposterous sum of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING...unlike the adviser to the previous Finance Committee as indicated (para 17-19) here. Hum-de-hum...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Coffin lids creaking...

As can be seen here, yesterday the Finance Committee of the Scottish Parliament convened in private to consider who should be appointed budget adviser to the committee. Delphic or what? RoadrunnerReturns wonders who got appointed...they wouldn't, would they?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Blog Outing

We interrupt this programme (or should I say succession of rants (I mean, fully reasoned arguments) by RRR) to bring you news of a Blog Outing. Having been visited in March by Pat the Chooks and Her Maj, we decided last weekend it was time to return the favour. So weary of the incessant rain and grey weather in the East of Scotland, we decided to try our luck in the West. Occasional perusals of the BBC Weather website and reading this blog and reports on this blog about beautiful weather on Skye in the last couple of weeks, had convinced us that we should head west. This is, of course, counterintuitive, because typically the East of Scotland does have more sunshine than the West, but not - apparently - this year. We also needed to do a dry-run for the tent, as we shall be spending next weekend in it at this Festival, along with RoadRunnerReturns, the Queen of Scots, and others. Well thousands of others, actually. However, we are also braving the MacNasties and staying in a tent, which may prove a foolhardy decision. In fact, we did manage to put the tent up in Pat the Chooks' garden, but the MacNasties were sooooo bad, that we gave up on the idea of sleeping out, and gratefully accepted a proper bed for the night. No such choice next Friday and Saturday. Anyway, we have a lovely mini weekend, with a visit to the Bonawe Iron Furnace in Taynuilt (where I decided not to buy the latest CD release of the Taynuilt Gaelic Choir in the local shop....), a drive down Loch Awe and a splendid reception at The Grannary. Saturday was not so good, but Sunday dawned bright and sunny and we ventured straight out the back of The Grannary, onto the hills and away, to enjoy splendid views at the top of the local mini summit, from where we could see Arran, Colonsay, Mull, Ben Cruachan, the Arrochar Alps, and many other sights near and far. Sadly, we had to come back soon after lunch, but it was a real tonic to the system.

UPDATE Gordon Bennett. Tetchy or what? First I have RoadRunnerReturns on at me about how I describe his flood of posts, and then Bondbloke gets on his high horse about not getting a mention in this post. Well, yes, BB was there. For record. End of update.

Chris(t) returns

Although entirely unreasonably, nonetheless it has been put to Roadrunner that since his return to the blogosphere his posts have been characterised by a certain sympathy with - if not predisposition towards - the new SNP administration in Scotland. While confessing to a growing unease that Scotland was coming perilously close to resembling a one-party and fundamentally clientilist state under the previous regime (a view partially confirmed by Labour's on-going inability to come to terms with being in opposition) and thus delighted with the change in government, RR emphatically denies any specific political affiliation. As evidence of this, let RR alert you to this feature in yesterday's Education Guardian which seems to be taking self-delusion, self-importance and self-promotion to new heights. And this from a new intake SNP MSP who has only (partly) returned to the best small country in the world after an absence of 25 years. Oh, and who commutes here from Aberystwyth. But apart from the sheer scale of the ego that is evident from the quotes attributed to Christ, RR is left musing that whilst Tübingen University - one of his current employers - might be "proving flexible about his political involvement" wherey he continues to combine a professorship there with his new job as an MSP, one wonders if the Scottish electorate - his other current employer - will be just as philosophical if not flexible about having a part-time politician looking after their interests.

Lowering corporation tax?

RoadrunnerReturns was interested to read this report about an independent tax and budget review for Wales which has been agreed to by Members of the Welsh Assembly. It is fairly well established that - in comparison to Scotland and Northern Ireland - Wales does less well than could be expected from the Barnett formula, at least on the basis of an objective needs assessment. But what continues to baffle Roadrunner is the persistence of the view that corporation tax rates could legally be lowered in some parts of the UK (Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland) but not in others (England). This is wrong, wrong, wrong. European Union law regards any such infra-national variation in rates of corporation tax as state aid. Unless the UK can persuade the European Commission that regional reductions in corporation tax are justified on a strict economic development needs basis, which is highly unlikely in the cases of Scotland and Wales (and probably also in the Northern Irish case), then for right or wrong this policy is a non-starter.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Devolution's big stick

In all the media coverage of FM Salmond’s away-day to Stormont, little explanation has been offered as to why his visit was so appealing to Dr Paisley and Mr McGuiness. After all, they did invite him. The Scottish media's uniform take on matters thus far revolves entirely around the potential irritation that his visit will cause Whitehall, with the usual spin being that Wee Eck again is just keen to pick a fight with Number 10. By stepping into international relations (rather than continuing Labour’s tradition of running Scotland as a glorified town council) he will do that. Our lamentable media also seems perplexed that a Scottish nationalist should be able to make common cause with a staunch defender of the union of the parliaments, and an Irish Republican. Again what passes for the political analysis here in Scotland misses the point. The leadership in Northern Ireland (and doubtless Wales too in due course) regard (and always has done) Scotland’s First Minister as ‘first among equals’ across the devolved administrations. This reflects the fact that, under the devolution settlements, Scotland emerged as the most powerful of the three devolved administrations. By aligning itself with Salmond, Northern Ireland's leadership can punch above its weight in dealings with London and so get more out of UK Government than otherwise (although EU state aid rules will almost certainly prevent them getting what they want on corporation tax). Seems that the only administration not to have worked out how to deal with the new political angles thrown up by May 7th historic result north of the border is, well, the one in London.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rank awful

Now as a music fan of some vintage, I rather like it when newspapers produce this type of review - a selection of so-called "classic" albums which, in the views of a cross-section of today's well known (or if not well known then certainly credible) musicians and/or record producers, maybye weren't that seminal after all. So, have a read and see what today's crop of music-makers consider to be the less than enduring efforts of their forebears. Oh - and spot which participant is the odd one out. Don't have the time? Oh well then, let me tell you. It's that well known, all-singing and all-dancing top-of-the-pops egoist, Ian Rankin. Not only does he not make music, by selecting the Velvet Underground and Nico as his example of an over-rated classic, he demonstrates that he knows nothing whatsoever about music. As anyone with even a passing knowledge of modern music will attest, had that truly brilliant album not happened, then virtually nothing of merit (or interest) in contemporary music would have happened thereafter.

The empire strikes back

The institutions of the British state (this time the BBC) are not taking this SNP government thing at all well. Last night's interview of FM Salmond by the vacuous Anne MacKenzie on BBC's Newsnight Scotland has to go down as one of the most inept pieces of television journalism since - oh I don't know when (no, just remembered, since crunchy Kirsty's seething attack on FM a week earlier - hey, maybe it's a Thursday thing?). Forget that it was an opportunity of asking our new leader about the 'vision' stuff, or even spending a decent amount of time talking about substantive policy issues. No, let's instead continue to present London's total cock-up over Libya memorandum as nothing other that Salmond picking dare he upset the British government in such a way. Oh, yea, right Anne. Good one. And just how up to speed on the wording of the concordats are you?

Anne MacKenzie and Gordon Brewer really have to ditch their personal attacks, hide their own politics, or be replaced. We deserve better. Before May 7th 2007 I had lost count of the number of times I heard a Newsnight Scotland package being introduced by the comment - "we asked a member of the Executive to participate but none was available". I have heard that only once since the election - and that was the aforementioned AnneMac's entirely gratuitious side-swipe on last Thursday's programme that Salmond had been asked to appear but that "...he never writes, he never phones...", this coming immediately after he'd been so appallingly treated by crunchy Kirsty on the other Newsnight. Who writes these comments - or are they left to ad lib?

It's way past time BBC Scotland reviewed the manner in which it is presenting news and current affairs in a devolved Scotland. This is not about supporting, or opposing, the current Scottish government. It is simply that what we are being served up as current affairs by BBC Scotland is no longer fit for purpose. Changes have to be made or any remaining vestige of credibility BBC Scotland has in presenting and analysing political news in an objective and mature manner (i.e. Brian Taylor) will be lost forever. A very old and dear friend of mine (one AYL) used to describe Scotland's then ageing and quite unprofessional crop of football commentators as "fans with mikes". The same unprofessionalism now characterises much of the political coverage in Scotland. It's time for a total overhaul.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

'Snow Wark-ing, so it isnae

I don't know how many saw this package on Channel 4 news last night about Barnett and all that, but what a muddled presentation it was by the usually excellent Mr Snow. First there was (again) great confusion about what the Barnett formula is - it is not the formula for assigning monies to the devolved administrations. It is the mechanism for adjusting the block grant annually in light of annual changes made to the funding of counterpart (to devolved administration) Whitehall departments. Second, under the 1998 Scotland Act it is for the Scottish administration to determine Scotland's spending priorities for devolved policies, not UK Government. That's what devolution was all about. If the Scottish administration decides that reducing the obstacles preventing students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering the University sector (or to provide free care for the elderly) is a desirable policy, it is for the Scottish electorate to judge whether this is a good or bad use of resources. After all, asigning monies to that end is not a free good - a consequence is that some other policy is not being financed. Of course it was Michael Forsyth's persistent interruption of John Swinney to make the point (sic) that per capita public spending in Scotland was 20% above the equivalent in England that was explicitly intended to whip up the fabled "English backlash" - not the education policy of the new Scottish government. Third the present discussion masks the fact that students ordinarily domiciled in England and Wales have been discriminated against in the Scottish university system since 2001. That was when up-front fees in Scottish Universities for Scottish domiciled students were scrapped by the Labour-led Scottish Executive, but continued to be applied to students domiciled in England and Wales. We heard nothing from the current critics of SNP policy back then, when Labour introduced this element of discrimination. The point being - never believe the Lord Forsyth is worried about discrimination. Had he been he'd have been sounding off way back then. Instead, this is just another simple case of attacking the SNP policy, regardless of what the people of Scotland want or what they voted for. Finally, if English and Welsh voters want University education south of the border to be offered on the same terms as Scotland's then let them campaign for that. I for one would support that. A number of European countries have either no, or merely token level, fees for students attending University. Why not the UK?

I share the concerns of many that the discrimination that is now a feature of the Scottish university system is not desirable. But unless and until there is a change of heart in England, the only way of avoiding this would be to return the Scottish system to that prevailing before 2001. Permitting students domiciled in England and Wales to have access to Scotland's university sector on the same terms as locally domiciled students is just not practical - the system would be swamped. That it is not swamped by non-UK students who, under EU law, are able to access the system under the same terms as locally domiciled students is easily explained by a combination of obvious informal barriers to trans-national student mobility and the existence of cheaper alternatives closer to home.

Instead of engaging the debate with the SNP over higher educaton on essentially sectarian terms, critics would be better advised to enquire just how the SNP intends to fund Scotland's University sector over the longer term. For if we consider that timeframe, then under the current situation the higher fee-funded Universities in England stand to benefit considerably from a flight of Scotland's best academics to better remunerated and better appointed posts in the University sector south of the border.

Very finally, wouldn't it be really nice if that, for once, a journalist working in a UK-networked current affairs show could be properly briefed.

Hasn't FM Ecky done well??

Those with good eyesight will note that the fifth-from-bottom currency listed on this exchange kiosk in Vancouver is none other than the Scottish pound. And all this after only 4 weeks of a new administration. They are doing well...

Blair's inter-governmental mendacity

Try as he might, and he continues to so do, Tony Blair just can't get around the simple fact that he erred in not informing Scotland's First Minister of the talks with Libya before concluding the Memorandum of Understanding. Getting the devolution project up and running was one of the very first acts of the in-coming Labour Government in May, 1997. Indeed the first weekend of that administration saw a group of civil servants gathering at the behest of the then Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, to begin working on possible post-devolution arrangements for managing relations between UK Government and the soon-to-be-devolved administrations. One of the key principles elaborated then, and which informed the discussion all the way through to 1999 when the inter-governmental concordats were published, was that of "no surprises". In other words if the UK Government was about to embark on a new initiative on a reserved matter which would touch on a devolved competence, the UK Government was bound to give the Scottish (devolved) administration prior notice - it must not come as a surprise. Undeniably this Memorandum came as a surprise to FM Salmond. It is entirely typical of Blair that he now seeks to spin his way out of the trouble his high-handedness has brought him. But of course the former Scottish government must take some share of the blame in this. George (Lord) Foulkes spilled the beans when he opined that all this carfuffle could have been avoided by a simple call from FM Salmond to Downing St once he'd got wind of the Libyan Memorandum. One is left with the deep suspicion (nay, certainty) that such retrospective briefing (rather than genuine prior notification and discussion) had become an all-pervasive feature of inter-governmental relations during the McConnell era. If that is the case, then Jack-the-knife must accept his share of the blame for this muddle by failing to require UK Government to honour what is a central tenet of devolution. On the bright side, I guess the current tenants of Bute House must daily wait expectantly for the postman to arrive to see what presents Tony has sent them this time...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Taking devolution seriously

RoadrunnerReturns was delighted to read that soon-to-be-PM 'Baliff' Brown is considering re-establishing the post of Secretary of State for Scotland - that which presently is handled on a part time basis by Paisley toughie, Dug Alexander brother of Shreek of that ilk. No doubt this is motivated by the Baliff's desire - nay, obsession - to get Scotland firmly back under the control of the one-party system that has served successive Labour Party leaders so well over generations. But of course this also means that FM Ecky will need to bestow upon one among his ministerial number the title Cabinet Secretary for England and charge her/him with the duty of leading inter-governmental coordination between Victoria Quay and Whitehall. After all it would be most unseemly if, in the context of the friends-and-family phone calls that must be positively flourishing in the current climate, any call from our First Minister to Downing St were to be taken by some minion (let's call him Dug) rather than by the Baliff himself.

Prof 'Red' Midsummer

Well, well, well. It hasn't taken Visiting Prof 'Red' Midsummer long to come out of the woodwork to launch his post election campaign to make Scotland ungovernable by our duly elected government. As many will know, Red was the member of the Academy who, in the run up to the May election, offered up the highly objective academic opinion that "the SNP is not fit to govern" (love the picture). Not content with bringing the Academy into disrepute by such self-evidently politically motivated rhetoric, Red has now proposed (Scotsman, 12 June) that the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament should be changed to enable "...committees to be allowed to make amendments [to the budget] rather than make [non-binding] recommendations". This would, of course, rob the governing party of the right to set Scottish spending priorities to the extent that these did not chime with the majority on any specific committee. But wait - has Red considered the melee that will ensue should his latest attempt to undrermine Scottish democracy be accepted? There are to be 15 Commitees in the new Parliament, which gives scope for 15 non-coordinated revised budget proposals. To say that financial chaos would ensue is to put it mildly. But, of course, that is quite probably precisely his aim. I so much wish that Red would simply accept his retirement from active service and surrender the title (sic) that the ever-fawning former Labour spin-doctor Peter MacMahon bestows upon him at every turn - Scotland's leading public spending expert...doesn't seem that smart to me.