Saturday, March 10, 2012

Prondzynski Report: the Principals Fight Back.

    It didn't take the University Principals long to mobilise against the reforms to Scottish higher education governance recommended by the report last month chaired by the principal of Robert Gordon University, Ferdinand von Prondzynski.   Universities Scotland - the principals' trades union - has condemned attempts to rein in principals' pay - Prondzynski said bonuses should be frozen until further notice - as an invasion of academic freedom.  They are appalled by the suggestion that staff and students should be involved in the selection and remuneration committees for principals.  They don't want trades unionists on university governing bodies and they hate the idea of elected chairs, even though the four oldest Scottish Universities already have elected Rectors chairing courts.

   So, we must have got something right.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The status quo isn't what it used to be.

 The status quo isn't what it used to be. In the old days, you knew where you stood when you voted No to constitutional change. You would be voting for things as they are - whatever arrangement happens to apply at the time of voting. Not any more. This weekend it is impossible to say what the current state of play is on the constitution because all the unionist parties are proposing radical changes to it.

The status quo is now a process not an event, to paraphrase Donald Dewar. There was David Cameron last month, after his meeting with Alex Salmond, announcing that there could be “more powers” for the Scottish parliament. A week later, Alistair Darling – no enthusiast for fiscal autonomy - caught the bug and announced that to be responsible a parliament “should raise the money it spends”. Last week, leading figures in all three unionist parties got together to promote “devoluton plus” under which Scotland would acquire powers to raise income tax, corporation tax and oil revenue, while leaving VAT and National Insurance with Westminster.

Now, this weekend, the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, has announced that she will lead a new commission on devolution, a kind of Calman plus, to look at new fiscal powers. This parallels the commission already set up by the Scottish Liberal Democrats under their former leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, to look at a federal option. And there is the Future of Scotland initiative – an umbrella of various “civic Scotland” groupings like churches, charities and trades unions, who met last week looking at form devolution max .

Suddenly you can't move for commissions on fiscal devolution. It makes the unionist demands for an early referendum on independence look oddly premature. If there were an early ballot, what on earth would Scots be voting for? Independence is clear – sort of. Alex Salmond at least seems to know what he is talking about. But on the other side there is now a shifting kaleidoscope of constitutional formulas occupying the unionist space.

The unionists' priority of course is come up with a something, anything, to block the march of the SNP, following its election landslide victory in  May. Figures like Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, have been urging the Scottish Labour party up to understand the extent and significance of its defeat and start thinking constructively about more powers for Holyrood. But Lamont, who says she will be leading the No campaign with Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown in support, is still grudging about what she calls the “virility” test of more powers. She is even hinting about powers being taken away from the Scottish parliament – not so much devolution plus as devolution minus. Right now, bizarrely, the UK Labour party seems more radical on the constitution than its Scottish counterpart.

So, where does all this leave the state of the union? Do we have any clear idea where the status quo is going? Well, they haven't said it explicitly, but the parties are clearly heading very rapidly towards a consensus on devolution plus, if only because there really is nowhere else to go. The Scottish parliament, to satisfy voter opinion, simply has to have a new funding arrangement more radical than that offered in the current Scotland Bill. The idea of splitting income tax between Holyrood and Westminster, proposed by Calman in 2009, was always a difficult sell and it is now well past it. Devolution max is a bit too like independence, since it involves Scotland raising all taxes and sending a contribution south for common services like defence.

Devolution plus is the only credible unionist destination short of independence. It is the unionist Maginot Line – the line beyond which Alex Salmond shall not past. It is also almost certainly what the Scottish voters would vote for – if the unionist parties would only let them. Perversely, all three unionist leaders are still insisting that there should be no opportunity for Scots to have a say. But how else are the voters to have any confidence that this better devolution will actually happen? Unionists can't simply offer promises of what might be if the Scots are good boys and girls and reject nasty Mr Salmond. Everyone knows that if the referendum returns a No to independence in 2014, then the unionist parties' enthusiasm for more devolution would rapidly evaporate. If they refuse a second question or a second ballot, then the only alternative would be to move a new Scotland bill, replacing the one limping through the House of Lords. But come the referendum, if all the unionists offer is jam tomorrow, I wouldn't put it past the Scottish voters to back independence in order to be sure that they get a better devolution.

Pandagate. Those independence scare stories in full.

But they will never take...our pandas! I don't know where the Mirror got the story that, because they were gifts to the UK not Scotland, we would lose Sunshine and Sweetie if Scotland voted for independence. The paper cited government sources.   But apart from being straight wrong - the pandas were lent to Edinburgh Zoo, not the UK - it only drew attention to the First Minister's quip that there are more giant pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs.

Pandagate provided an element of light relief among the increasingly bizarre scare stories that radiated across the media since January. The defence secretary, Philip Hammond, warned that, after independence, Scotland would have to pay “billions” for the cost of relocating Trident. This wasn't quite in the same league as losing the pandas, but was equally daft. I don't recall the Ukraine being required to build bases in Russia for the nuclear weapons it returned in 1994. Scotland never asked for weapons of mass destruction in the first place. Anyway, there's a simple enough solution: Trident nuclear warheads are moved by road convoy every year from Coulport to Aldermaston near Reading. Maybe they could just make a one way trip in 2015. Scotland could pay for the diesel.

The UK government also turned its big guns onto Alex Salmond's proposals for an independent Scottish defence force of one naval base, one aircraft base and a mobile brigade. “You can't just break off bits of the army like a bar of chocolate” said Mr Hammond. Which is curious because that is exactly what the UK government has done under its defence review, which reduces Scotland's bases to, er, one naval base, one aircraft base and a mobile brigade. This is a childish dispute because, Trident aside, it would be senseless for England and Scotland not to co-operate on defence, since we occupy one small island.

But divorce is a costly business. “An independent Scotland would be saddled with a crippling national debt of at least £140bn!” cried the Daily Mail, again citing “government sources” Shock! Horror! But, wait: this figure is arrived at by giving Scotland a 10% share of the UK national debt which is estimated to rise to £1.4 trillion by 2014. So, if Scotland is in the red, England would be even redder – and Scotland at least has the oil. I'm not sure who I'd put my money on in this particular race to the poorhouse. The truth is, as far as debt is concerned we really are in it together.

Devolution: plus, max, minus and squared.

 Readers of this column will be aware that I've been complaining about by gob being smacked on a regular basis by the twists and turns of unionist policy. Each week a new destiny is revealed for Scotland: independence light, devolution max, devolution plus, skinny devolution lite with a shot of max... You could be forgiven for thinking that the politicians are few clauses short of a full constitution. But bear with me because there could just be a happy ending here.

This week senior figures in all three unionist parties in Scotland, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour, came together behind a new constitutional settlement called devolution plus. This is essentially the formula devised by the Reform Scotland think tank, which seeks to ensure that the Scottish parliament raises the vast bulk of the money it spends. In other words, that it pays its way. In a sense this is Calman reloaded, an extension of the plan devised in 2009 by the commission set up by the unionist parties after the SNP victory in the 2007 election campaign.

Calman was widely criticised for his plan to split income tax between London and Edinburgh. This was a difficult proposal to explain, let alone to implement, and many economists believe it would be deflationary. But the worst thing about Calman, and the Scotland bill that implements it, was that it failed to live up the principles set out so cogently in the main body of the report - that a parliament should be responsible for raising its revenue in a way that it is accountable, equitable and transparent. Devolution plus puts the Calman principles into practice in a way that is fair and that people can understand.

Under devolution plus, Scotland gets income tax, corporation tax, various other taxes and a geographical share of oil revenue. The UK keeps national insurance and VAT – reasonable because these taxes need to be more or less consistent across a monetary and customs union, which is what the new Scotland would be. This may not be “full fiscal freedom”, as the SNP have described it, or even devolution max, where Scotland raises all tax and sends a contribution south for common services like defence. But it's very close to it. If this scheme were implemented, Holyrood would have the vast majority of the powers it requires to pursue an independent economic policy, to the extent that this is possible within a monetary union where a UK central bank sets interest rates.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Riding for a fall with the Murdoch hunt.

Why do they do it? Why do political leaders, even in Scotland, worship at the tawdry court of the Sun king Rupert Murdoch? What to they think they'll gain? Murdoch is the most toxic brand in British public life, his crude right wing publications a byword for bent news and illegal practices like phone hacking. Yet there he was, the “Dirty Digger” as Private Eye calls the boss of News International,  sneaking into Bute House by the back door on Wednesday for tete a tete with Alex Salmond. Even as the claims of a “network of police corruption” by the Sun,were still reverberating across the Leveson inquiry. And on the very day that James Murdoch resigned in disgrace from his post as chairman of NI. How many votes does Alex Salmond want to lose?

Of course the First Minister insists Murdoch was just there to talk about jobs over "tea and Tunnocks caramel wafers" as one of Scotland's leading employers. But if he thinks Scottish voters will believe that then he is out to lunch. Salmond also says that he made his views clear about Leveson and newspaper ethics. But this came rather hollow from a politician who had just leaked the date of the Scottish independence referendum - 18th October – to give the super soaraway Sunday Sun a front page splash for its first edition. Is that really the kind of behaviour we expect from our First Minister?  That he sells his referendum for a sycophantic tweet from Rupert Murdoch? It's not even as if the Sunday Sun actually supported independence. It won't unless and until Murdoch becomes convinced that the referendum is a certainty. The Sun doesn't lead opinion - it follows it. Why don't politicians understand that.

The new Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, made a spirited attempt to embarrass Salmond at First Minister's Question time. But it rebounded badly, not least because of Labour's own record of cosying up to Rupert. Salmond read out the guest list for Murdoch's summer champagne party, which included Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. He might also have reminded Lamont about that summer sleepover party that Gordon Brown's wife Sarah organised for Rebecca Brooks when she was editor of the Sun - at the Labour Prime Minister's official residence at Chequers. Wonder if she brought her gift horse from the Met?