Saturday, June 30, 2007

Brown is the new grey

As terror returned to the streets of London, there was something missing. We had the al Qaeda back-story; the tales of heroism, the stoicism of Londoners who partied on regardless. But it was somehow incomplete, as if the star of the show had forgotten to turn up.

It was of course the absence of Tony Blair that made this crisis less of a drama. He would have been out there among the party people, soaking up the emotion and urging endless war against an implacable foe prepared to die to kill. Nor did we have hotheads like John Reid declaring world war three, demanding the suspension of human rights and sending the tanks aimlessly onto the streets.

Instead we had Gordon Brown urging us to be alert and vigilant, as if he was talking about the latest inflation figures. The new Justice Minister, Jack Straw, told the Today programme that “these things happen”. The manner in which Gordon Brown faced his first test as Prime Minister told us all we need to know about the character of this new administration. This is a government which is determined to keep its head when all about lose theirs, to react cautiously to events, and not hit the headlines with heat-seeking soundbites.

The Brown cabinet is very much in this downbeat image. The interesting thing about Gordon Brown’s new administration was its lack of interest. A monotone cabinet compared to the Technicolor of the last ten years. Grey men like Alastair Darling, Des Browne and Jack Straw. “A government of bores”, said one commentator, “the snoozers, the narcolepts and the headbangers”. The press are distraught at the prospect of a cabinet bereft of attention seekers of the Blair era, like Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn and Tony Blair himself. There’s not even a comic turn to replace John Prescott. The first act of the new government, a constitutional review, looked like an exercise in anti-politics - trying to put the nation to sleep rather than wake it up.

Brown’s halting and awkward victory address before Number Ten was pure bathos. I mean, who talks about school mottos and ‘doing their best’ in grab-it-now, private-equity Britain? Dowdy Sarah Brown looked like a harried mother who’d just dropped off the kids on the school run. I think we get the message: that there has been a change.

So is this fade to grey some cunning plan by Gordon Brown to draw a line under the Blair era of glitz, spin and freebies. Or is the lacklustre quality of the new administration a sign, like John Major taking over from Margaret Thatcher, that Labour has simply been exhausted by a decade of reckless charisma an unable to renew itself?.

Well, it’s worth remembering that the Chancellor isn’t just some accountant who happened to stumble into the Treasury. Gordon Brown was on of the architects of New Labour and is himself a genius of spin, a master of media manipulation. He knows all the angles, and his wife Sarah - who is the best-looking Prime Minister’s spouse in modern history - used to run a London PR company. So they know that stage management is essential in politics, and undoubtedly calculated that there was simply no point in trying to compete with the tawdry glamour of his predecessor and his celeb entourage. Beter to play to your strengths - dignity, probity, prudence, diligence.

And with the Prime Minister fingered for the third time by PC Plod over cash for honours last week, and more coffins coming back from Iraq, a bit of sobriety in government may be no bad thing. Faced with a Conservative leader who for some inexplicable reason wishes to be the “heir to Blair”, it makes sense to adopt the style of an older patrician conservatism, which melded “one nation” social concern with economic realism. The Daily Mail really, really likes Brown.

The new PM’s focus his administration on domestic policy, rather than foreign policy adventures. He’ll leave that to David Miliband, who is the keeper of the Blairite tradition. The kind of issues that Brown intends to address arevery different building houses, cutting personal and public debt, getting value for money in the public sector, improving social mobility and child poverty figures. These are actually rather dull issues, compared with starting foreign wars and crushing the Left, and they can’t be dealt with by emotional speeches and market fixes, like the disastrous privatisation of the English NHS. These problems require sobriety and hard graft - or at least the impression of it.

And yes, perhaps a certain anonymity doesn’t do any harm. The godfather of this cabinet is Alistair Darling, who has managed to hold down most of the jobs in government competently and without any media fuss. He is the opposite of John “fit for purpose” Reid, who progressed with much fanfare from ministerial post to ministerial post leaving a trail of high profile disasters behind him, from the NHS consultants contracts to the war in Afghanistan, which he said would be over “without a shot being fired”.

Darling has turned no-being there into something of a political art. In government since 1997, he has served in almost as many roles as Reid: Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Social Security Secretary, Work and Pension, Transport and Trade and Industry. Oh yes, and he was Scottish Secretary as well while holding down transport, but no one remembers. It is as if Darling has one of those pen-shaped devices from Men In Black which erases all memory in a flash. Brown clearly thinks that this is the way to do things, and has been looking to fill his cabinet with the men who weren’t there.

Instead, Brown intends to co-opt a bit of glamour by co-opting big names like Paddy, Lord Ashdown from politics, and people like Alan Sugar into his council of business advisers. Brown used outsiders very effectively when he was Chancellor to introduce unpalatable measures. . Independent commissions like Lord Turner’s on Pensions, Lord Wanless on the NHS, allowed Brown to introduce compulsory pension contributions and a tax increase - both of which would have been electorally difficult to sell had they come from his mouth alone.

In many ways the most intriguing appointment of all is Baroness Shirley Williams with some brief on nuclear non-proliferation. Perhaps this indicates that, as this column argued, Brown is indeed concerned that renewing Trident could help encourage a new arms race. Countries like Iran can point to Britain’s nuclear deterrent as a sign of western hypocrisy when countries like Britain are trying to stop them creating their own deterrents. Brown may be looking for ways to make multilateral nuclear disarmament a reality, and to provide moral leadership in the run up to the 2012 renewal of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.

So a cabinet of grey technocrats beavering away in obscurity while a few charismatic individuals, very much at arms-length, are used to generate some excitement. That, I believe, is the Prime Minister’s general intention. He will set the moral tone for this administration by embodying an unashamedly old-fashioned, even conservative approach to public service. People may not be excited, but that won’t matter as long as they have confident that the country is being well run.

However, there is more to politics than competence and hard work. Modern leaders need to be good communicators with a sense of theatre and an ability to empathise - in short charisma. Clinton had it, Blair had it, Thatcher had it, Churchill had it. Brown doesn’t have it. If that alleged car bomb had gone off in London, Brown would have had to be down there, on the pavements, feeling peoples’ pain. Brown doesn’t do empathy , but he’s going to have to learn. We live in an emotionally incontinent age in which people are expected to bare their souls to the camera in time of national crisis.

Brown is more in the line of Clement Atlee, Labour’s post war Prime Minister, of whom it was said that “a car pulled up outside Number Ten and nobody got out”. Brown would no doubt point out that Atlee was responsible for creating the National Health Service, the education system and social housing. It was a towering achievement. But Atlee, who inherited a Labour landslide, also lost government to the Tories

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Scottish takeover of England

At last, the master plan is nearly complete (fiendish cackle)! Scotland’s reverse take-over of England is now unstoppable. Gordon Brown is Labour leader and will enter Number Ten on Thursday, swathed in plaid, bible in hand, casting out all symbols of English frippery and decadence. Merrie England will be turned into a dour, Scottish workhouse. An end, you might say, of ye olde song.

Broon cronies, led by Alistair Darling, will move into the Treasury to oversee the continuing transfer of English taxes to Scotland and subvert the other great offices of state. Meanwhile, in the wings awaits another perfidious Jock, the LibDem leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, waiting to step in as co-ruler of England, if Brown loses his Commons majority because of an English voter revolt. Yes, it’s a very tartan coup.

Now, you know I’m joking, but a lot of people reading this on the internet won’t be laughing. They are the thousands of irate posters who really believe that English democracy is being extinguished by a Scottish invasion. On the political blogs and websites, from the Guardian’s Comment is Free to the Online Telegraph, there is now a kind of paranoid consensus that a Scottish Raj - as Jeremy Paxman called it - really is taking over.

This paranoia has infected large parts of the metropolitan media. A number of really rather influential people in the London who I have spoken with recently genuinely seem to believe that Scotland is, at best. meddling in English affairs, at worst, staging a kind of constitutional take-over. People I respect tell me that having a Scot in Number Ten is constitutionally untenable because English voters will not have a say in things like health and education in the future Prime Minister’s own constituency. I’ve never actually met any English people who want a say in Kirkcaldy’s schools, but that is what the editorials all claim, so it must be true.

It’s not just the loveable buffons like Boris Johnson who rant against the “brooding Scottish power maniac” about to become PM. Guardian columnists like Simon Jenkins can barely conceal their personal loathing for Gordon Brown - he just doesn’t like his face, as he explained in a lengthy piece on Saturday on “the Brown scowl” - and their conviction that Scotland is somehow stealing English treasure. The Tory leader, David Cameron, is under pressure from his English MPs to drive Scottish MPs out of the voting lobbies on English bills and to scrap the Barnett formula.

Scotland, we are told, is living the life of Reilly - or the life of Roddy - at the English tax-payer’s expense. Now, Gordon Brown attempted to explain, in his News 24 interview last week, that the Scottish budget is finite and that Nationalist policies axing prescription charges or student fees, have to be financed by cuts elsewhere in the Scottish estimates. But the message just doesn’t get through.

So, how is Brown going to deal with southern discomfort? Well, in his News 24 interview of Friday he actually indicated that he was going to answer the West Lothian Question, though few in England seemed to notice0. Speaking about English frustration over devolution, Brown said that. “If there are issues that we have to deal with in the future so that the [English] 85% feel all their concerns have been listened to and addressed then we will do so”. Yesterday in his Manchester speech the Labour leader promised a “new constitutional settlement” which will recognise the English dimension to devolution.

But how? Don’t expect Brown to adopt the slogan of ‘English votes for English laws’, which the Tories have been flirting with since the last election - that would lead to the effective creation of a parliament within a parliament dealing with English legislation. It could mean the writ of the government in Westminster would not run over 5/6ths of Britain.

Alternatively, Brown could set up an English Grand Committee to debate, and even vote on exclusively English legislation - but with the proviso that the decisive final vote has to be made by the House of Commons as a whole. The former Tory Scottish Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has proposed something along these lines. This would be a way of recognising the English dimension while retaining a unitary UK parliament. It would not, however, stop contentious measures such as the 2004 Higher Education Bill, which introduced top up fees, being voted through on the strength of Scottish Labour MP. But it would give a formal voice to specifically English concerns, and concentrate the mind of any government minded to ignore it.

The other response would be to cut the number of Scottish MPs further - say to 30 - so that their influence in Commons votes is reduced. This seems to me the very minimum that Brown could do to address the English question, and it is supported by many constitutional authorities. No one argues that Scots should be driven from Westminster, just that they currently exert a disproporiontate influence. The numbers have already been cut from 72 to 57, as part of the constitutional rebalancing, so why not take it a stage further?

These issues, and of course our old friend the Barnett Formula, will all be raised in Gordon Brown’s constitutional review which he promised yesterday. It will also look at scrapping the Scottish Secretary and introducing a minister of the regions, reforming of the House of Lords, and compiling a written constitution. I can’t for the life of me understand why Labour didn’t announce this new constitutional settlement before, rather than after the Scottish elections. It would have shot a number of nationalist foxes.

It makes a lot of sense to review devolution, a decade after the 1997 referendum, and could have answered the charge that Labour was determined to curb the powers of the Scottish parliament. Brown’s favourite MSP, Wendy Alexander, has now signalled that new powers will be something that is examined in this constitutional process, and Brown will have to look at the question of taxation at least.

But will new a constitutional settlement be enough to calm the Southern brow, extinguish metropolitan paranoia and let Englishmen sleep peacefully in their beds again? I’m not so sure it will. One of the unintended consequences of devolution is that the metropolitan media has largely stopped reporting Scotland, believing perhaps, that it is already a separate country. One senior political writer told me recently about how he was asked by his desk editor for a dateline on his story on the Scottish elections, as if it was a foreign report. London coverage of the new SNP administration has been almost non-existent, apart from the airing of grievances about tuition fees.

So, there will be tears before bed. Perhaps the Telegraph and the Tory party should set up an annual football match with the SNP and the Scottish press. Turn the turf war into a war on the turf. Isn’t that the traditional way we resolve these matters in the UK? It’s just a thought.

The Liberal Democrats lose it again

It seems like the only senior politician Gordon Brown doesn’t want in his government is Tony Blair. A cabinet of all the talents is turning into a cabinet of all and sundry, with invitations being issued, it is said, to Tories like Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Liberal Democrats like Lord Carlile, even possibly the former SDP leader, Lord Owen. Perhaps he’ll be knocking on Alex Salmond’s door next.

No one could decide whether the offer to Lord Ashdown was a bungle or a sting. Certainly, the former Liberal Democrat leader rejected it pretty contemptuously, as if Brown wasn’t fit to ask. But I’m not sure myself whether the affair was in the end, damaging to Gordon Brown - revealing him to be an underhand manipulator, or whether it enhanced his reputation for openness. I’m tending to the latter.

Think about it. Gordon has the reputation of being a ruthless control freak, a Stalinist who cannot tolerate the views of his own civil servants and fellow ministers, let alone the opposition parties. Well, I don’t recall Stalin offering many seats in the Politburo to the Mensheviks. A willingness to give a crucial role in Northern Ireland to a man, Paddy Ashdown, who has a world-wide reputation as a tough negotiator, and happens to be a Liberal Democrat, doesn’t look like the action of a politician who is incapable of delegating responsibility, or taking account of other people’s views.

The oddest thing is that the offer was made public at all. Normally, when top politicians discuss things like this, and
it happens more than anyone realises, there is a tacit understanding that confidentiality will be observed. This is especially the case among Privy Counsellors, who belong to a kind of freemasonry which obliges them to observe confidentiality almost as a matter of course. I’m beginning to wonder if Gordon decided he was quite happy to have the offer made public, even though it made Ashdown’s leader, Sir Ming Campbell, look a bit of a chump, since he had earlier made clear that he could not accept any Liberal Democrats serving in a Labour cabinet.

The Libdems have continued to sound distinctly chumpy, fulminating about “dirty tricks” and the Chancellor’s “underhand tactics”. But this is beginning to sound petulant. It mean, it wasn’t exactly Watergate. Does it really make sense for the Liberal Democrats to be so upset at being offered a place in government? something they have been seeking for years? The idea of replacing the shop-soiled outgoing Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, accused of spinning his legal advice on Iraq, with Lord Carlile, head of the independent watchdog on antiterrorism legislation, sounds pretty astute. It would mean that Brown could not be accused of having a tame, in-house legal adviser if he ever has to go to war again.

The Liberal Democrats really have been behaving very oddly recently, refusing to join a coalition in Wales, not even talking about one in Scotland and now turning down a seat in the the next Labour Cabinet. This from the party which has always made a virtue of its support for coalition government and power-sharing. You begin to wonder whether the LibDems are serious about government at all, or whether they have decided to remain on the sidelines of politics as a kind of debating club for eccentrics.

Of course, Ming the Mong - despite what some people seem to believe - hasn’t ruled out a formal coalition with Labour, only “serving in a Labour government”. A version of the Scottish-style Lib-Lab partnership agreement is still on the cards if there is a hung parliament, as many expect, after the next Westminster elections. But it still looks like a funny way to go about seeking influence. Just consider: at the end of this week, the Liberal Democrats could have been in government in Holyrood, Cardiff and Westminster.

So, perhaps Brown - in making this belated bid to co-opt Paddy Ashdown - just wanted to make clear to the wider public what it was that Sir Ming was finding so objectionable. To hammer home the message that the incoming PM isn’t an old Labour tribalist. In future, Brown will be able to say that he offered them real influence and they turned away. It makes Brown seem like the man who does the business, the man who is in charge.

Moreover, as with Brown’s extraordinary decision to overrule the Prime Minister over the Euro-summit last week, the affair adds to the Chancellor’s reputation as a ruthless operator. Telling Tony Blair by telephone that he had messed up on the latest incomprehensible Euro-treaty, was pretty heavy handed - even from the great clunking fist. Blair stands down later this week after all an you might have thought he would have been kinder to his outgoing boss, a little more magnanimous.

But Brown realises that he’s never going to be loved - well, except by Sarah. Not with his craggy, dour, lived-in face, with its occasional flashes of inappropriate mirth. Brown realises he is going to have to go for experience, authority, intelligence, competence, toughness and determination. He is looking more relaxed - as his hour long interrogation by the BBC’s editors showed. But he lacks his predecessor’s easy charm and he is not going to pretend that he is everyone’s mate.

Brown will settle for the image of a very serious, morally upright and uncompromising politician who is still streetwise. And that may not be a bad reputation for a leader to have as the world faces a troubled and uncertain future.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Salmond blows them away

At First Minister’s Questions on Thursday Jack McConnell asked: “What do Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Austria and Switzerland all have in common?” Alex Salmond replied: “They’re all independent countries and they all come above Scotland in the index of success compiled by the Labour Party’s former economic adviser”. Ouch.

It was such an obvious trap that you wonder why McConnell set it for himself. Indeed, Salmond seemed slightly amazed at being offered such an open goal and hesitated a nanosecond before blasting the ball into the back of it. The Labour leader had intended his questioning to underline the inconvenient truth that all those countries have light railways, like the one proposed for Edinburgh, but he ended up underlining his own party’s failure to grow the Scottish economy within the union.

It wasn’t the best FMQs, on Thursday, and there were hints of the unloveable ‘smart Alec’ making a comeback. But what no one can deny is that under the new First Minister, FMQs have been transformed. And the audacious self-confidence on display at this weekly joust has somehow set the tone for the entire SNP administration.

The effect of the last six weeks has been devastating . The SNP hasn’t so much hit the ground running as lapped the political field on an almost daily basis. Opposition MSPs are astonished, blown away at what has been happening - and I’m not just giving an SNP party political here. Even one of the most prominent critics of the SNP, who I won’t name for obvious reasons, told me last week that he thought the SNP had “played a blinder”.

And here’s a curious thing: a lot of opposition MSPs, those not poisoned by animus or self-delusion, seem to agree that the Scottish parliament has moved up a gear since the nationalists took over. It has raised the game of everyone in the place. Debates are actually worth listening to; MSPs who have been languishing in back-bench obscurity have started making speeches and interventions that are pointed, intelligent and relevant. Indeed, you could, with fairness, say that the Scottish parliament, this underpowered and under confident institution, has suddenly come alive.

Partly, this is down to the flood of initiatives from the SNP which continues unabated. It has been hard to keep up - look away and you’re likely to miss a couple of major stories. Last week we had a Climate Change Bill setting one of the most ambitious targets for C02 reduction in the world - 80% reduction by 2050 - which has stunned environmental groups. We had the end of private health care in the Scottish NHS - a move which might have caused a massive row three years ago, but which went by largely unremarked. And before we could get our heads around that, the nationalists announced what could be the biggest house building programme in Scotland for three decades - increasing housing supply by 50% every year until 2016.

Now, it’s absolutely true, as Labour point out, that these announcements aren’t all they might appear. The SNP housing policy is still at the task force stage. The headlines about the SNP cutting class sizes to 18 last week were hardly justified by the announcement of 300 new teachers, many of whom might have been trained anyway. Nor has the abolition of the graduate endowment fulfilled the SNP’s manifesto pledge to abolish student debt. Prescription charges have not been abolished, and only chronic sick are likely to see early relief. The new Scottish Executive is becoming almost as fond of consultations, task forces and reviews as the previous administration.

But there‘s no way that a minority SNP government, or indeed any government, could possibly have implemented its manifesto in six weeks. Just being there would be success in itself. But what Salmond has done, most effectively, is stamp his authority firmly on parliament and Scottish public life, and set the political agenda. Salmond has used his executive powers to the full, saving local hospitals, abolishing dawn raids, ruling out nuclear power, reforming relations with Westminster, reviewing infrastructure projects. No one can be in any doubt that Scotland is under new management, and has a new direction.

This is exactly what Labour did Wesminster in 1997. They made such a dramatic statement of intent in the weeks and months after they won the general election, that they changed the climate of public affairs for the next six years, before things went seriously wrong over Iraq. Those early weeks of the Blair administration - the change in tone, the blizzard of initiatives like Bank of England independence and devolution - even the handling of public events like the death of Diana Princess of Wales, showed just how important the first hundred days of a new administration can be.

The great difference, of course, is that Tony Blair had behind him a majority of 169 seats; Alex Salmond has a deficit of 20 and no coalition partner. The most astonishing thing about this first ever Nationalist administration is the way it has managed to suspend disbelief and deliver a radical programme without any visible means of support. Of the thirty odd votes so far in the lifetime of this government, Salmond has not lost a single one - at least of any consequence.

No, I can’t quite understand it either; no one expected this. On Thursday, even many SNP MSPs were convinced that the nationalists had lost a key vote on local income tax; in the end, parliament backed the motion by 64 to 62. This doesn’t mean that local income tax is a done deal; but it does mean that the council tax is history. That is a very big hurdle crossed.

Luck? Of course - but self-made luck. The SNP parliament minister, Bruce Crawford, is really earning his crust. This unflambouyant politician is turning out to be as skilled an operator as any chief whip in Westminster. His ability to deliver two votes so far on the vexatious trams issue was achievement enough, but he has also scored a series of unreported successes over votes on skills academies and Trident, both of which brought the Liberal Democrats on board.

What has bewildered the opposition Labour party most is the unexpected competence of the SNP ministerial team. Lacking any government experience, and with no unifying ideology oher than separatism, running a devolved administration should have been a rocky learning experience for the nationalists. They should have been all over the place, contradicting each other, bickering over independence and picking pointless fights with London. Easy meat for Labour, with their experienced ex-ministers and their inside knowledge of public affairs. But Labour hopes that this administration would collapse in a heap have been dashed, and it is Jack McConnell who is floundering.

It can’t last of course, and this week the SNP is likely to lose its first important vote - over Edinburgh’s trams - which the finance secretary, John Swinney, seems minded to ignore. My own view is that the SNP should accept the will of parliament on the light railway, but hand the bill for any cost overruns to the new administration on Edinburgh City Council. That would concentrate minds in the capital.

There is a danger that the nationalists, like the Scottish football team get intoxicated by their own early success and up becoming overconfident and reckless. SNP ministers have yet to be tested in crisis. But Alex Salmond has shown what he is capable of and given the political world a lesson in how to turn an indifferent election result into a political triumph.

It is all so unlike the early weeks and months of Holyrood in 1999, when senseless rows about medals and expenses ruined the show. Perhaps if Donald Dewar had entered government with the same imagination panache as Salmond, the story of devolution might have been very different.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hello? Hello? Is that the Scottish Executive?

”Hello, you’re through to the Scottish Executive. The central inquiry line is now closed. Normal office hours are 8.00am to 5.00, Monday to Friday. However, if your inquiry is urgent, please hold and you will be put through to the security control room.”

That is what UK ministry of justice officials would have heard when they were supposed to have called on 25th May to inform Alex Salmond and the Scottish Executive about the secret talks with the Libyans over the fate of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al- Megrahi. Whitehall claim that attempts were made to contact Scotland but it was a bank holiday and no one was home.

Well, had the ministry officials held on for just thirty seconds, they would have been put through to the duty officer at the Scottish Executive. I tried it myself yesterday. For, of course, when it comes to running the country, there is never simply ‘nobody home’. There are always officials on duty, in case of emergency, and ministers can be contacted at home on their mobiles.

The claim that “attempts were made” to contact the Scottish Executive is so ridiculous that I can hardly believe that Whitehall officials are serious in suggesting it. It is even more disturbing that some sections of the Scottish press appear to accept it as a valid explanation of what happened - that it was cock up rather than conspiracy. Yet London could easily have contacted someone in the Scottish Executive that Friday. The sheer cynicism of this explanation is an insult to the intelligence of Scots, and an affront to the Scottish media, who are being treated as complete idiots.

From the moment this story broke, Downing St and the Scotland Office have been trying to manipulate the truth. I won’t say they have been lying, but their economy with the truth amounts to wilful distortion. First of all, we were told that the memo of understanding, signed by Tony Blair in a tent in the Libyan desert last month, “specifically excluded” Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al Megrahi. We now know that it did not exclude al Megrahi.

Then we were told that it had been made clear to the Libyans during the talks that any deal could not include al Megrahi. This is untrue. Official sources in the Libyan government confirmed to the Herald that the memo was clearly intended to cover the Lockerbie bomber, that this was explicit in the transactions in the desert. The Sunday Herald has discovered that British officials actually told their Libyan counterparts, that Scotland was a “minor complication” over prison transfer that Libya need not “worry about”.

And the Sunday Times reported yesterday, Libyan consular staff had even visited al Megrahi in Greenock prison to tell him that diplomatic efforts were under way to have him transferred. In other words, the Lockerbie bomber was told even while the Scottish Executive was being kept in the dark.

The former Labour minister, Brian Wilson, has said that “the only fact that matters” is that the Scottish Executive would have had to give explicit approval before Megrahi could be transferred from Scottish custody. That isn’t really true either. It is not at all clear, under the Scotland Act, that the Scottish Executive could have blocked the move. The foreign office could have argued that this was part of an international treaty, and could have cited the constitutional primacy of Westminster.

But even if they had intend to secure Scottish approval, it still beggars belief that Downing St. did not keep the Scottish law officers and the First Minister informed of what was going on. It seems the decision not to call was taken by the Prime Minister himself. The Sunday Herald revealed yesterday that senior officials at the foreign and commonwealth office advised Tony Blair that he should Alex Salmond about the deal over al Megrahi.

Which brings us to the final piece of misinformation - the claim that the Scottish Executive had been informed about the diplomatic moves on prisoner transfer on the 25th of May. I was assured that this was the case by a senior UK government source last week. When I asked who had been contacted and what had been said, I was told that no one actually knew. “But the attempt had been made” to contact the Scottish government. Needless to say, the Scottish Executive has no record of any call.

Now, some in the Scottish media seem to believe that this is a storm in a tea cup, and that it’s time to move on. Well, I’m sorry, but this is too important to let go. There was a pattern to events, which betray a shocking degree of disrespect to the Scottish government and to the Scottish people, who were not told the truth about this affair, and are still not being told it.

The people who concocted this misleading account of events need to be held to account, and the UK government should be required to tell the whole truth about this affair. The foreign and commonwealth office should issue an apology to the Scottish law officers for failing to inform them of the transactions with Libya and the Scottish Executive must receive an assurance that nothing like this will happen again.

This is basic issue of trust. If Downing St. really wanted to clear this matter up it should issue a clear statement to the Libyan government revoking the memorandum and making absolutely clear that al Megrahi will under no circumstances be transferred, either to Libya or to another Muslim third country. That he will serve out his 27 year sentence in a Scottish jail.

But why, you ask, would Downing St.. concoct a story that was so patently ridiculous that no one could possibly believe it? Well, one plausible explanation is that Downing St. felt it had to prevent, at all costs, the story breaking in London. It would have been highly damaging, not just to relations with foreign countries, but to the government’s antiterrorism policy, if it had become known that Tony Blair had been in secret negotiations with the Libyan dictator over he possible transfer of the man convicted of the worst ever terrorist atrocity on British soil.

The government killed the story in London by assuring the UK press that the story was pure invention by a Nationalists First Minister determined to pick a fight with London. They knew this was untrue, but felt they were ‘lying for Britain’. This interpretation was accepted by the BBC Newsnight programme and informed the now infamous interview by Kirsty Wark, for which the BBC subsequently apologised.

What infuriates me most about this whole affair is the implication that anyone who questions the Downing St.. account is a nationalist sympathiser. Well, I belong to no party, but I can tell this this much: if they want to hand the political initiative to the SNP, they are going exactly the right way about it. And I say this to UK government sources: in future, don’t ring me unless you are prepared to tell it straight. You might find I am on not at home.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The new Tartan Tories

Back in the 1970s, Labour used to dismiss the Scottish National Party as the “tartan Tories”. It never made a great deal of sense, since the SNP has generally been significantly to the left of Labour. Moreover, the SNP and the Conservatives have been bitter enemies because of the defining issue of the Union.

Until now - for something very strange has happened in Holyrood: The two parties which were at each other’s throats only six weeks ago, have suddenly discovered that they really get on rather well. Before the election Alex Salmond said that the only people he would refuse to do business with was the Tory party. Yet since he became First Minister he has been doing little else. The tartan Tories are back.

The rapprochement is most striking at First Minister’s Question Time, which has turned into the Eck and Bella show. The Conservative leader, Annabel Goldie, has been performing the role of straight-lady to Alex Salmond, feeding him knowing lines like “When will the First Minister next be meeting the Prime Minister, and what will they discuss..” Ho ho.

But Labour aren’t laughing. If it hadn’t been for the Tory refusal to join in Jack McConnell’s ‘pan unionist anti-SNP coalition’ after May 3rd, Alex Salmond wouldn’t be taking First Ministers questions at all. In a very real sense, the Tories gave Salmond his chance to seize power - and they have kept supporting him. After the emergency statement over the Libyan memorandum, Annabel was almost more indignant than Alex Salmond.

It’s not the Green party that has been keeping this nationalist government alive, but the blue party. The Tories have saved the nationalist administration from defeat on two crucial occasions - both times on the vexed issue of Edinburgh’s trams. The Tories support the light rail project, but you’d be hard put to tell, because in the two knife-edge votes they have backed Salmond against Labour and the Lib Dems.

This has infuriated the Liberal Democrats, who simply cannot believe that the Tories - the great defenders of the Union - should be giving aid and comfort to the Nationalists. Last week, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, Tavish Scott, dissolved into rage during the trams debate, accusing the Conservatives of “fraudulent opportunism”.

Indeed, the Tory and SNP elections manifestos disagreed on everything from local income tax to the referendum on independence. But that hasn’t stopped the Tories and the SNP doing deals on policy behind the scenes. This is most striking on law and order. Last week, the SNP Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, adopted the Conservative hard line on sex criminals, agreeing to satellite tracking and even lie detector tests to stop registered sex offenders from going to ground. He is also looking at DNA retention, bail and sentencing policy.

In the coming weeks, the Tories will also support the SNP on issues like cutting business rates, school discipline and hiring 1,000 police. They are hoping to come to an agreement too on cutting council tax. It really is quite remarkable, but if Salmond survives his first hundred days, he will have Annabel to thank.

Now, you might say that it is a pretty high risk strategy for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party to be supporting the separatists in power. Shouldn’t Annabel be doing more to defend the United Kingdom she loves? After all, the longer Salmond is allowed to remain in office, the greater surely will be his ability to foment discord between Holyrood and London.

But the Tories were in such dire straights before the last election, flat lining in the opinion polls and failing to benefit in any obvious way from the coming of David Cameron, that something simply had to be done. Tory was a tainted brand, a four letter word, and a generation of Scots had grown up to regard the Tories as “the English Party”. The Tories had to do something to make them relevant again, to get back in the race, and show they were truly Scottish.

Sensing that the future was minority government, they made a declaration before the election that they would not enter any coalition with anyone, but would work on an issue by issue basis. This insulates them, to some extent, from the charge of opportunism. They can defend their actions by saying they have simply been following the logic of consensus politics and trying to get conservative policies implemented.

The Tories have also been influenced the analysis of the historian and former Tory candidate, Michael Fry, who has argued that nationalism is the future of the Right. Beneath the thin crust of collectivism, according to Fry, lies a true Presbyterian Scotland, with a culture of thrift, hard work and self-reliance. The SNP leadership has always been liberal left, but there is no reason to suppose that its voters are. Most SNP seats in the past have tended to come from former Tory areas like the North East. The SNP is a single issue party, with no firm ideological roots in the left or the right - you can be a socialist nationalist or a conservative nationalist, but you are still a nationalist.

Annabel’s gamble is that they can exploit this fluid situation of weak nationalist government to shift the centre of gravity of Scottish politics markedly to the right, and show that Tories can make a difference. At least until the next general election - for one suspects that, if there is achange of government, and David Cameron takes over in Downing Street, that the Tories may lose their enthusiasm for dabbling in Scottish nationalism.

In the meantime, Conservatism is back in business, for the first time in twenty years. They have become the true tartan Tories.