Ferrets in a sack

June 30, 2008

No sooner has Wendy Alexander left her role as leader of Scottish Labour MSPs than a succession of candidates are being tipped to replace her.

Andy Kerr, Iain Gray, Cathy Jamieson, Margaret Curran, Charlie Gordon, Tom McCabe and Malcolm Chisholm have all been mentioned.

Under Labour election rules each candidate needs the backing of 12.5% of Labour MSPs to run. That’s 6 MSPs out of the 46 Labour MSPs.

Given that the seven pretenders wouldn’t back each other; each candidate would need 6 MSPs from the remaining 39 MSPs.

But 7 candidates with 6 nominations is 42 MSPs.

One candidate mentioned has to drop out.

So we could be facing six candidates vying for the leadership.

It just goes to show that there is no obvious successor to Wendy Alexander. She was seen as the most capable in the Scottish Labour MSPs in a limited talent pool.

Whats more, these seven leadership contenders mentioned do not show a strength in depth of Scottish Labour.

Any one of these, like Wendy Alexander, would be outclassed at FMQs by the First Minister, Alex Salmond. Indeed, they would struggle against any of the SNP cabinet.

But that is not the issue now. The new leader has to have a clear vision of where Scottish Labour is going:- is it to be London-led or will it have a more Scottish face and stand up to Westminster? Will Wendy’s policy of backing a referendum be maintained? Will Scottish Labour develop clear policies instead of nat-bashing?

In short, they need to become an effective opposition.

Many analysts consider that whoever the new leader is, they should be aiming for the 2015 election. I think that is pessimistic, though I do think the SNP will win the 2011 election.

A week is a long time in politics, and there is always a chance that events, dear boy, events! will derail the SNP bandwagon. If the new leader leads an effective Labour opposition perhaps events will conspire to give Scottish Labour a fighting hope in 2011.

Perhaps.

What is more likely to happen though, is that the new leader will be sanctioned from Westminster’s shortlist and Scottish Labour MSPs will still be in feu to Westminster.

And the leadership contest is more likely to amplify the divisions in the Labour Party. Divisions that are already apparent.

No wonder the SNP Finance Minister, John Swinney, said today: ‘We’re not really too worried about who the Labour leader is in Scotland. Labour have no idea where they are going.

‘They’re already fighting like ferrets in a sack, as they always do – which is at the root of the Wendy Alexander problem by the way – about the issue of the independence referendum, it’s all over the newspapers, they’re taking different views, they’re all bad-mouthing each other in the process.

‘That’s all part of the furniture of the Labour Party’s contribution to Scottish politics.’

They may be ferrets but they all want to lead the Scottish Labour MSPs? I wouldn’t be in their trousers!


Wendy Alexander resignation

June 29, 2008

Well she finally did the decent thing and resigned.

It was seven months ago the Sunday Herald broke the story about her dodgy campaign pledges.

Seven months since campaign manager Tom McCabe admitted live on television that she had broke the law in obtaining an illegal donation from businessman Paul Green.

Six months since we learned that she also broke the law when not registering these ‘gifts’ in the MSPs register of interests in due course. Jim Dyer, the Standards Comissioner, refers the matter to the Procurator Fiscal in February.

The Electoral Comission also decide in February that although Alexander broke the law over donations they would not refer the matter to the Procurator Fiscal as it was “not in the public interest”!

The Procurator Fiscal also announces that it would not be pursuing further action to the Standards Comissioner’s complaint in March.

The Standards Comissioner hands his report to the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Committee in June. They agree with the conclusions of the report which indicate that Wendy Alexander broke the law. As a consequence they ban Wendy Alexander from the Scottish Parliament for one day.

Wendy resigns. “It is with deep regret that I write today to tender my resignation following the decisions of the Standards Committee this week.”

It was a resignation speech which lacked grace and one which tried to blame her situation on nationalists citing “SNP inspired complaints and investigations”.

That is laughable. She broke the law, and the Standards Commitee has punished her by giving her a one day ban of the Scottish Parliament. In my book, that’s getting off lightly.

The Sunday Herald today quotes : “Seven months after the Sunday Herald revealed her dodgy donation… Wendy Alexander finally resigns.” and largely takes credit for instigating her demise. Hardly an SNP investigation or complaint – or did the Sunday Herald’s unionist editorial policy suddenly shift whilst I was on holiday?

There were nationalist supporters who complained about her illegal conduct. Rightly as it turns out – so what’s wrong with that? Alexander’s comments could be likened to a Scooby Doo villain complaining that they only got caught because of pesky kids.

Finally, the claim that she had asked clerks for advice on registration, and they told her she need not register the donations…

This was a quick email, an afterthought by Wendy Alexander. She had already not declared most of her donations in the thirty days grace period. She had already broke this law.

The advice given to her by the clerks may have been inaccurate, but since the law was already broken I suspect they had little incentive to check its validity. Besides, the rule for all donations and gifts they most often quote is ‘If in doubt, declare it’.

The email afterthought shows that Wendy Alexander had doubts; otherwise why ask their advice in the first place?

As the legally responsible person she could have just registered the donations anyway.

Blaming the Standards Comissioner is just a cop-out. He needs to be independent and seek independent legal advice. Otherwise he would just be investigating procedures and cases where he has a clear conflict of interest.

I’ll leave the last words to the Sunday Herald: “Her defence against the verdicts of the comissioner and the Standards Committee – that was told by the parliament’s clerks that registration was not unnecessary – was as weak as it was irrelevant.

“Alexander had asked for advice from the clerks in November last year on the status of her donations, 60 days after some of the campaign cheques had been banked, despite the law clearing stating that MSPs have 30 days to declare gifts.

“Put simply, Alexander asked for advice on registration well after she had broken the rules, a fact that rendered any feedback from the Standards Commitee as worthless.”

Much like her time as leader.


Scotland’s rights, by Glasgow

June 27, 2008

The current explosion of pro-independence blogs can be attributed to a hostile media in Scotland – see Declarations of Independence for a summary.

But the history of publishing articles arguing for Scottish independence is not new. It did not start on the creation of the Scottish National Party (1934) or its forerunner The National Party of Scotland (1928). Not even with The Declaration of Arbroath (1320), although that was the first document to outline the modern idea of a nation state.

What about the Picts versus the Romans? Calgacus, the great warrior, addressing his Pictish soldiers: “They make a desert and they call it peace” and demanding that they fight for their land? Alas, this was written by a Roman, Tacitus, and we have no idea if its true. It may have been just his version of ‘bigging up’ his opponent to reflect greater glory on Rome. We will never know. In any case, Calgacus never intended his speech to be published, and Tacitus was hardly arguing the case for Scottish Independence. Whats more, the idea of a Scottish nation would only arise after the coronation of Kenneth MacAlpin in 843, when he became the King of Alba. (Alba was the forerunner of Scotland today.)

One definite place to look would be the Wars of Independence between Scotland and England. The 1290 Treaty of Northampton, insists on a written promise by the English king, Edward I, that Scotland would remain independent of England. This was at a time when Queen Margaret of Scotland, the maid of Norway, died in childhood leaving the Scottish throne open to competitors like the Bruce family, the Bailiol family and the Comyn family who all were relations of the young Queen.

Edward I as a neutral was asked to rule on the matter. That was a big mistake as he demanded that who he choose swore fealty to him and when his choice King John Bailiol of Scotland finally tried to stand up to him – for long enough he didn’t, and he was known as the Toom Tabard – the English king invaded Scotland and tried to take it by force, starting the Wars of Independence.

Obviously, the Scots who insisted that Scotland’s independence be signed off by Edward I were right to mistrust the English king. The treaty was written on the Scots side by several clerics, foremost among them Bishop Robert Wishart of Glasgow. So influential was he that Edward I consulted him on his proposed Governance of Scotland in 1305, when the English king thought he had control of Scotland.

He always supported Robert Bruce’s claim to the throne. When Bruce knifed Comyn in a church, the Glaswegian Bishop quicky absolved Robert and made it possible for Robert the Bruce to be crowned King of Scots in 1306.

Wishart was imprisoned in England and blinded, but was later released to Rome, before returning to Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 finally secured Scotland’s freedom.

The 1290 Treaty of Northampton. Asserting Scotland’s rights to be free of England.

Chief architect, Robert Wishart, the Bishop of Glasgow.


Dual Mandate Band-Aid

June 26, 2008

Yet another Conservative idea to answer the West Lothian question. This time it comes from John Redwood, MP for Wokingham, and former Secretary of State for Wales.

Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own parliaments. Similar to Mark Field’s model the English parliament would be Westminster.

All MPs elected to their national parliaments are dual-mandate MPs – they sit both in their own parliament e.g. Holyrood and in Westminster. Thus, Westminster holds both the English parliament and the UK parliament.

An MSP would also be a UK MP etc.

The UK parliament decides those non-devolved matters not covered by the national parliaments.

It would then be up to the elected English MPs to decide on which office holders they wanted for the UK parliament.

For me, this is another sticking plaster solution. A Dual Mandate Band-Aid.

It may save costs on the English side without having to build a separate English parliament, but I think the English may just view it as Westminster and demand a separate parliament anyway.

And what of the numbers of MSPs and AMs going to Westminster?

There are currently 129 MSPs. The Scottish Parliament needs about that number to function effectively – As there is no second chamber, most of the actual detailing of bills is done by committees made up of all of these MSPs. If the Scottish Parliament had to survive on 59 MPs based on the Westminster model it couldn’t cope.

Given that the Scottish people voted for such a model based on Proportional Representation, I don’t think any external reduction of our MSPs number would be favourable to the Scottish public. Nor constitutional without a referendum. A referendum that Mr. Redwood would lose handsomely.

I expect that would also apply to Wales and Northern Ireland.

In short this Dual Mandate Band-Aid would be unworkable in practice.

A sticking plaster won’t work twice.


Field of Dreams

June 25, 2008

Another Conservative proposal on solving the West Lothian Question is that of Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster.

His proposal is a simple federal system. Each country has its own Parliament handling devolved issues. In this case, the English Parliament would be the House of Commons.

The House of Lords would be scrapped.

Then each parliament sends representatives to the UK Parliament to discuss the non-devolved issues; for instance defence and foreign policy.

These representatives meet in the old House of Lords.

Mr. Field’s proposals seem logical and sensible. However I think they would fall apart in the detail.

A Field of Dreams then?

The Commons has been slow to change the House of Lords. I do not think that the House of Lords is in danger of being abolished any time soon.

If the Commons (the new English Parliament) has no second chamber than its EMPs must be prepared to do more work at committee level to scutinize the proposed legislation, as the Scottish Parliament already does.

If the new House of Lords (the new UK Parliament) receives EMPs from the English Parliament, MSPs from Scotland, and AMs from Wales and Northern Ireland – won’t these members be needed by their own Parliaments and parties in their own parliament? It may be a simple matter of walking for the EMPs but those members outwith England are at a disadvantage.

Who would be Prime Minister of the UK in such a setup? How many members does each country get to send?

These and many more details would need to be addressed for Mr. Field’s plans to be accepted. Whilst each detail could be eventually agreed on by the countries, I would be surprised if the political will is there for this Field of Dreams to ever materialise.


The Kent Invent

June 24, 2008

In the light of Ken Clarke’s English Pauses for English Clauses and Malcolm Rifkind’s East Lothian Answer, I thought I would reflect on some other Conservative plans that would try and answer the West Lothian Question.

This time the proposal comes from Roger Gale, a Conservative MP for North Thanet in Kent.

As both Ken Clarke’s and Malcolm Rifkind proposals have memorable names, I feel I should give Roger Gale’s proposal such a name too.

Judging by its hitherto unfavourable reception I think it should be named the Kent Invent. Even Roger Gale himself admitted: “When I first put forward my proposals, … I was regarded as at best eccentric and more probably as plain bonkers.”

Roger Gale wants to abolish the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Then an English Parliament set up, and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies given more powers to become Parliaments similiar to the Scottish model.

Each parliament would elect a First Minister and send two representatives to a UK senate. From these 8 senators a Prime Minister would be picked.

The UK senate would have control over macro-economic taxation, foreign and defence matters. All other matters would be devolved to their respective parliaments.

Personally I don’t see the English in particular buying this. In a UK population of around 60 million they have around 50 million people or 5/6. To reduce their UK representation to 1/4 might suit the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish but is hardly fair.

I don’t actually see the Scots buying it either. Scots – and the current Scottish Parliament – has diverged from Westminster on Trident and the War on Iraq, for example. One of the benefits that independence would bring Scotland is that we could decide on all those issues ourselves. Of course the same would be true for Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

The Kent Invent may have its drawbacks but it fully answers the West Lothian Question but its UK senate idea may prove unworkable.

At best I feel it will just be sticking plaster trying to save the Union. It would only be a temporary measure. Once the parliaments knit in, we’ve always better ripping the plaster off for full independence.


East Lothian Answer

June 23, 2008

With all the fuss regarding solutions to the West Lothian Question – English votes for English matters and Ken Clarke’s English pauses for English clauses – I thought I’d return to a favourite solution proposed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

Dubbed the ‘East Lothian Answer’ as Malcolm Rifkind has a home in Inveresk, actually in Midlothian but east of Edinburgh, it proposes an English Grand Committee.

This English Grand Committee will consider English only bills at the Committee stage and propose amendments. Similarly to Ken Clarke’s ‘English pauses for English clauses’ an English majority at the third stage will pass the bill.

So Scottish MPs will not be banned from voting at the final stage, but their votes will simply be ignored! What difference is that to banning a Scottish MPs vote? None! It amounts to the same thing!

The Prime Minister Gordon Brown has already said that banning Scots from voting on English laws at Westminster would damage the Union. Simply ignoring their vote would do the same!

There have been other objections to this plan:-

First of all, will England be appeased by a Grand Committee when Scotland has a Parliament, and Northern Ireland and Wales both have Assemblies?

Second, similarly to ‘English clauses for English pauses’ it demeans the Scots as second-class MPs, and as I suggested with that plan will damage the Union.

Third, as the Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler pointed out if some amendments affected Scotland would another committee be set up. It also makes the speaker’s job that much harder trying to figure out which legisation had an impact on Scotland.

Interestingly, whether Malcolm Rifkind has predicted that the outcome of the East Lothian Question will lead to two-tiers of MPs or not, he certainly is of the persuasion that two-tier MPs would damage the union.

The Telegraph reported Malcolm Rifkind’s agreement with Gordon Brown on the damage caused by Scots not voting on English laws:-

‘It would create two classes of MPs and added, pointedly: “That really would be the first step towards the end of the United Kingdom.”

However, that was as close as Sir Malcolm got, and he went on to claim that Mr Brown’s attitude on the unfairness of the issue was “spineless and indefensible.”‘

Much like the Union itself, then.