Thursday, July 19, 2007

The BBC is giving up on Scotland

You may not have noticed, but over the weekend that the BBC’s latest trust scandal had effectively shut down Scotland’s independent television production sector. RDF, the company that furnished the BBC controller Peter Fincham with the doctored footage of the Queen, owns pretty much all the Scottish action, since it bought up IWC Media and the Comedy Unit, our largest independent producers two years ago. Now, because of the Queen scandal, BBC and ITV have frozen any commissions from RDF.

IWC had itself been created in out of a merger of Kirsty Wark’s company Wark Clements and the former Sunday Herald columnist Muriel Gray’s outfit, Ideal World. They were formerly the Scotland’s biggest producers - but they eventually sold out to the London-based RDF because it was the only way to ensure that they would get commissions from London channel controllers. I think there is a kind of pattern here.

But it gets worse. In 2008, I’m told, STV is going to be allowed by Ofcom, the industry regulator, to shut down much of its Scottish generated non-news programming. Something to do with digital switch-over and the coming of a Gaelic TV channel. I have great respect for the Gaelic tongue and wish it well, but it is no substitute for a quality service that the vast majority of Scots can understand.

However, it looks like close down for Scottish broadcasting. Network commissions from the four terrestrial channels (BBC,ITV, Channel 4, Five) have halved in the last three years from 6% of total UK spend to around 3%, according to the regulator, Ofcom. That’s a loss of somethign like forty million a year. The BBC should be spending around 9% of its UK budget in Scotland, on a population basis, but it has been spending 4%. If I didn’t know them better, I’d think they were trying to tell us something.

The creative industries in Scotland - which depend massively on the big television companies - are simply being wiped out. Producers, writers, directors, actors, editors, camera crews, make up artists, set designers have all had to go off to London to get work. Or Cardiff, or Birmingham. Scotland used to be proud of its broadcasting and creative sector - not anymore. It’s going the way of the electronics industry.

This shrinkage raises all sorts of political questions. Blair Jenkins, the former head of news and current affairs in BBC Scotland revealed in this column in June that spending on news and current affairs in Scotland has been cut by 45% and news by 27% in the same period. He resigned in disgust - and all credit to him. At a time when Scotland is taking greater charge of its own destiny through devolution, it was an act of culural vandalism on behalf of BBC bosses.

Now, this doesn’t just mark the end of a great tradition of Scottish film and television making, which goes back to the days of John Grierson and Lord Reith. It’s not just that we are losing our stake in one of the key industries in the post industrial economy, one which, according to the DCMS recently, is worth more to the UK than financial services. No, the creative clearances also poses the most fundamental challenge to Scottish society: if there is no medium which authentically reflects Scotland’s culture and politics, how can conduct a coherent national conversation? If we see ourselves through the distorted prism of a London medial, how do we know who we are? And how do we talk to the world instead of just to ourselves?

I will be accused of being parochial for saying all this, but the truth is that the only converstion that matters now is the one that takes place in the West London postal districts. There is no cohort of knowledge workers in the world more narrow minded and parochial than the London media village. Broadcasting in Britain is increasingly run by a handful of metrocentric solipsists who have completely lost touch with reality outside the M25.

At the recent Ofcom conference on public service broadcasting in the the nations and regions held in Cardiff, they revealed their contempt for anyone outside the loop. The ITV chief executive, Michael Grade, said that Scotland just “didn’t have the talent” anymore. The Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson said that Scotland simply “wasn’t coming up with any ideas”. Tough old world. Big boys game.

This is patronising nonsense. I spent over twenty years in the BBC, half in London; half in Scotland, and in my experience there was just as much creativity in Scotland as in London, and a lot more energy. But that creative drive was constantly frustrated by lack of funds and the pull of the south. As soon as you reach a certain level in Scotland - in broadcasting in many other fields of professional life - you simply have to go where the jobs are, which is London. Some come back, but precious few.

This magnetic attraction of London has become all the more powerful since public service broadcasting capitulated to the market. The BBC used to be a countervailing force to metropolitan centralisation; but now it has become an agent of it. Yet, the market doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The broadcasting industry is conditioned by politics - by the funding it gets from the public purse and by the regulatory regime established by government. If the politics is right, the market will follow - in fact, speak to most people in the creative industries in London and they say that Scotland is a fantastic place to do media business - it’s just that there’s no business anymore. If you want to get commissions, you have to do it in London

Well, the time has come to put an end to all that. Scotland cannot allow its most important cultural institutions to be ripped off by people cannot be trusted to uphold ethical standards or to understand the imperatives of public service.

The Scottish political system has to be deployed to redress the balance and revive Scotland as a creative force in the world. The first step must be the Scottish parliament taking on responsibility for broadcasting. It makes no sense that this is a reserved power, except in the minds of paranoid unionists who believe that BBC Scotland is a nationalist plot. I’m sure that Gordon Brown, who is in giving mode, would respond to a clear expression from Holyrood that this is function which should properly be exercised in Scotland.

Then there has to be a regulatory regime established which doesn’t have the metrocentric blindness of Ofcom. The Scottish government also needs to lobby the BBC, north and south, to remind it of its charter obligations and its public service remit. Oh, and there’s the cash that goes to STV for all those public information slots.

The BBC has just opened one of the most advanced broadcasting facilities in Europe, in Pacific Quay. It would be nice if they found something useful to do in it. And it makes no sense for network news bulletins, transmitted in Scotland, to continue to be dominated by the politics of a parliament which no longer has jurisdiction over Scottish domestic affairs.

This is a matter of profound importance to everyone living in Scotland; for every business and for every citizen.
Nearly three years ago the former FM, Jack McConnell, promised in his St Andrews Day address that Scotland would become a “global hub” of the creative industries. No body laughed; they would now.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Salmond in Brussels

Standing anonymously in the concourse of Edinburgh airport with their entourage of young female civil servants, they look a bit like a family off to attend a wedding. The First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, is off on his first foreign visit accompanied by his wife Moira carrying a posh hat in a big box. "John F. Kennedy used to introduce himself as the man who accompanies Jackie Kennedy", the First Minister remarks, "I'm the man who accompanies Moira's hat". Just as well too, because their luggage goes astray and they arrive in Brussels accompanied only by Moira's hat. Fortunately, it's the most important piece of kit, since they are meeting the Queen, for the 90th anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele.

It's Salmond’s fourth close encounter with Royalty and he is very proud of his good relations with the Queen, and with Prince Charles, who was instrumental in getting Dumfries House and its contents saved for the nation, with a little help from Bute House. Salmond intends to go through the formal ceremony to become a Privy Counsellor in a couple of weeks. “All that walking backward and garters?”, I ask him, “Aren’t you worried you’re becoming a part of the Establishment, seduced by the embrace of Monarchy?“ He doesn’t rise to it, saying the Queen understands the Scottish Question a lot better than her government. “She knows a Scot became the King of England”.

For a political leader with a 24/7 schedule, Salmond is intensely relaxed. He exudes it, the way some people exude tension or anxiety; he is the virtuoso of just being there. Whether it is laying wreaths with the Queen at the Menin Gate or sitting in the airport bus in Edinburgh, exchanging banter with passengers, Salmond has an ability to adapt to his surroundings and appear to dominate them without really doing anything.

The First Minister is a big man - though with a rigorous diet trying to get smaller – and he is renowned for having an ego to match. But Salmond seems completely uninterested in the trappings of power or celebrity, and doesn’t appear to have any particular sense of his own personal importance. One of the most intelligent politicians of his age, he has the gift of normality.

There’s no media fanfare associated with his inaugural trip to Brussels, his first overseas engagement since he became First Minister. No motorcades or fancy dinners, just a sweaty reception at Scotland House - a pokey corner of anonymous Brussels block - with the usual tartan tat of whisky and pipers. Salmond works the room, mainly lower order bureaucrats, some business types and local Caledonian societies. “The Scotteratti”, Salmond calls them, “But don’t underestimate the networks of Scots expats. They are a very valuable resource, they know everything that’s going on here, and they tell us”.

When Salmond gets up to speak no one expects more than a few pleasantries, least of all Michael Aron, the senior Scottish Executive civil servant whose internal memo about Scottish ministers being kept in the anteroom during UK-led European delegations was leaked eighteen months ago. Officials tell me that Jack McConnell hardly ever spoke at events like these, worried about charges of getting above himself, and preferring to merge into the crowd. But Alex Salmond is all about getting above himself and he doesn’t do merging.

The FM launches into a blatantly political speech, declaring: “I believe that it is time to transform the nature of Scotland’s representation and impact in Europe…Tonight, my message is a clear and unambiguous one – this is the time for Scotland to assume our obligations and responsibilities and to help mould the world around us…to rediscover the sense of internationalism which once defined our nation”. The eurocrats look around slightly bewildered at Salmond's Brussels declaration. Did they hear right? This wasn't a political event , and there was no one of any importance present. Not even the Scottish press, who have given up attending these things because nothing ever happens at them – except this time. For Salmond is making clear this goes way beyond taking the lead in fishing talks. On issues from energy to financial services, if the FM means what he says, Scotland will no longer adopt the agreed UK negotiating position, but will increasingly pursue an independent line in Europe.

The officials from the UK office in Brussels certainly got the message: "This is really heavy”, says one. “If the Scots are going to start making their own policy here, instead of just being consulted, then there could be tears before bed". Later, I ask Salmond why he didn’t seek for a bigger build up to this milestone address. “Some things are better understated”, he says, “like:‘We hold these truths to be self-evident…’” Hmm. I don’t recall Thomas Jefferson delivering the American Declaration of Independence over warm wine and canap├ęs.

How does he respond to the charge that he was getting above himself, exceeding his authority? After all, as a minority leader in a regional parliament, how can he unilaterally alter Britain’s constitutional relationship with Europe, for that is effectively what he is calling demanding? There is no machinery for Scotland to be independently represented. “We’ll see. I think the people here realise what we are about, and that Scotland’s interest has not been articulated in the past. It’s not actually about independence. Look at Flanders, which leads for Belgium on fishing talks”. Indeed, the Laender regional governments in Germany mostly have their own independent representation in Europe, as do autonomous Spanish provinces like Catalonia.

But it takes supreme self-confidence, not to say brass, to get away with this kind of thing. Any less secure politician, might have feared being laughed at - as a kind of political Walter Mitty, going around Brussels making grand pronouncements to no one in particular. If Jack McConnell had delivered the speech he would have been panned by the Scottish press as a jumped-up interloper and an embarrassment to Scotland. But Salmond gets away with it because of his immunity to ridicule and self-doubt, because of the prestige he has built in his short spell in government, and also because he can speak intelligently and with a passion that belies the formal limits of his political power.

As with his minority administration in Holyrood, which has no visible means of support, people suspend disbelief. He sounds like the real deal. Influential people may not have been listening to him in Brussels, but lots of their officials were - the Brussels ‘bureaucratti’ – and they seemed impressed, excited even.

Next day, Salmond did a round of engagements with European commissioners, including Peter Mandelson, one time New Labour “prince of darkness”, and now the commissioner with responsibility for world trade. Salmond claims claimed to have struck up an instant rapport with Mandelson, and to have achieved “a result” over the problem of Norwegian salmon dumping. “I’ve a lot of respect for Peter Mandelson and what he has achieved.”, he says, utterly straight-faced. “Actually, I asked him if he was writing a diary. He said: not one like ‘that’ – meaning Alistair Campbell’s - which he says he hasn’t read.” Salmond makes a virtue of being on improbably friendly terms with everyone he meets, and it seems to work. “People need to understand, I’m not here to pick fights”, he says.

But is he going to pick a fight with Gordon Brown? Tomorrow, on the next leg of Salmond’s grand tour, the First Minister will be face to face for the first time with the new Prime Minister. The occasion is the British-Irish Council in Belfast, where Salmond joins the leaders of the other devolved parliaments and assemblies. Top of his agenda will be getting access to the £1.5 bn in unspent Scottish EYF (End Year Flexibility) cash which he says is sitting in the Treasury because Labour failed to make any use of it over the last 8 years. He seems genuinely annoyed about this: “Scotland is treated with less responsibility in its financial affairs than a lunatic, a bankrupt or a minor”. Unlike a lowly local authority, the Scottish Executive cannot borrow money, or even take charge of its own unspent revenues, he complains.

And of course there is the matter of those attendance allowances, which were with held by London after the introduction of free personal care. “It’s a mad mechanism”, Salmond says, “The idea that you can’t change policy in Scotland for fear of losing funding is outrageous.” Labour MSPs in Holyrood are convinced that London will similarly refuse to keep paying £380m in council tax benefits if and when Salmond abolishes the council tax. But the FM isn’t so sure they’re right. He believes that Brown will allow payments to be maintained through the Barnett Formula and the funding mechanism because the last thing Downing St wants is a row over Scottish spending.

Intriguingly, Salmond believes his is close to achieving a “modus vivendi” with the new Prime Minister, largely through the way in which the governments co-operated over the Glasgow Airport attack. He has made a point of setting aside the row over the transfer of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, which Number Ten now accepts was discussed during Tony Blair’s meeting with Gadaffi in May. (though the Scottish press surely deserves and apology for being told repeatedly that Megrahi had been excluded from the secret deal in the desert). Salmond says he deliberately didn’t depart from the “Brutishness” agenda that Gordon Brown raised in the aftermath of the failed terrorists bombings. Nor did he rise to the challenge when he was briefed against for saying that the terrorists weren’t Scottish.

Clearly, there is a mutual respect here; something that makes the FM think that he can do business with the new PM. “What is the difference for you between dealing with Brown and Blair”, I ask him. The answer is surprising. “Well, I wouldn’t lie to him”., says Salmond. “Would you have lied to Blair?” “No, though I didn’t really get the chance, since we didn’t talk, but I wouldn’t have trusted him”. Perhaps because the new Prime Minister, unlike his predecessor, understands devolution and understands Scottish politics, Salmond thinks relations will be better between them.

Chance would be a fine thing. The reality is that Salmond and Brown are deadly enemies, who will look to every opportunity to out-smart each other. There is an epic quality to this confrontation between the two most powerful Scottish politicians of their generation: the lad o’ pairts versus the son of the manse; the quick-witted iconoclastic Scottish radical versus the strict and moralising dominie.

And what an extraordinary stage on which to hold their first skirmish - in Belfast, presided over by the former megaphone of militant Protestantism, the Rev Ian Paisley and the Republican nationalist, Martin McGuinness. No, you simply couldn’t make it up. When Gordon Brown supported devolution all those years ago, did he ever think he would preside as Prime Minister over a gathering like this? With a nationalist First Minister of Scotland and a nationalists acting First Minister of Wales?

Salmond was joined at the Menin Gate cemetery by Ieuan Wyn Jones, of Plaid Cymru, who is co-leader of the new Labour-nationalist coalition in Cardiff. They discussed matters of common interest – in particular finance and how to strike a better deal for the national parliaments in their dealings with London. The whole issue of joint subcommittees between Holyrood and Westminster is on the way to being resolved. Mind you, the question of separate Scottish representation in Europe certainly is not. The government line remains that Scotland is best represented by the UK in Europe, because that way it gets listened to and there is no prospect of there being any change in the constitutional relationship with Brussels – so watch this space.

Salmond returned from his Brussels expedition claiming to be well satisfied with the response, particularly from civil servants. But in the end, what has actually been achieved? A change of tone, certainly, and some big talk – but can Scotland really play in the Euro-league? Who knows. Like everything Salmond does right now, his Brussels trip was an exercise in improvisation, riding on the back of an official engagement. Salmond is a man in a hurry, who has to seize every opportunity to make an impact before being closed down by the logic of the parliamentary arithmetic in Holyrood. He needs to move as fast as possible because a moving target is always harder for the opposition to hit.

"I was determined not to end up like Donald Dewar, that was constantly in my mind". But his real role model comes as a surprise, to me at least. "I'm a great fan of Harold Wilson, you know". I didn't. Harold Wilson a political inspiration? The Gannex-wearing pipe-smoker who became the butt of 60s cartoonists? It's not as daft as it sounds: Wilson achieved a lot in two years, with a minority administration, and then won a comfortable majority in the 1966 general election.

Wilson was a brilliant political improviser also. Somehow, I think Salmond will be in power long enough to get a decent diary out of it al least. That’s as long as some minion doesn’t beat him into print.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Queen and the BBC

So, who can you trust these days? It’s a good question. Politicians? We gave up trusting them long ago, and a glance at the Campbell diaries shows why. The Police? A sixteen month investigation into cash for honours, involving multiple arrests (and the prime minister’s collar being felt three times) produces no charges. As Private Eye’s Ian Hyslop once put it: “if that’s justice, I’m a banana”.

We used to place our trust in the media, but the pillar of public service broadcasting, the BBC, is now in the dock for fixing phone-ins, staging dodgy quizzes, misrepresenting statistics. A BBC Scotland producer has been suspended for creating a fictional winner of a contest during the Children in Need appeal. The Queen herself has been misrepresented. And as we report today, even Newsnight has had to apologise for playing fast and loose with the truth; claiming during a pre-election debate that a survey of 50 top businesses had shown them all opposed to independence, when only seven firms had actually responded.

People have been rushing to defend the corporation in the wake of fiddle-gate, and as someone who worked in the BBC for many years, I willingly join the rush - though with reservations. It is still the honest broker in the increasingly crooked world of modern media. The fact that the BBC bosses have apologised so profusely, and have come clean about cases of abuse the corporation has itself unearthed, shows that at least they can be held to account. (Though I find it astonishing that no one has had to resign over this systemic breach of trust with the viewer. )

As an institution, the BBC remains a bulwark of our battered civil society, and a key element in our democracy. America has nothing like it, which is why their political culture has been debased. The thought of the BBC being privatised - as some have urged in the past week - is unthinkable. The commercial broadcasters are infinitely worse on trust, but because they are not funded by the licence fee, they are somehow allowed to behave less responsibly.

The regulator, Ofcom, was equally scathing about ITV and the Michael Grade, the chairman of ITV, has admitted that there has been a collapse of standards throughout his organisation. Industry sources tell me that a recent internal ITV investigation discovered deception in almost every programme that involved viewer interaction. Why have these not been revealed to the viewer? Is that not a breach of their licence?

The commercial stations also make much of their cash now from those iniquitous quiz channels on digital, which defraud their audiences on a daily basis. A recent commons inquiry into premium rate channels, revealed that questions were shamelessly rigged. One question asked phone-in contestants to guess what things a woman might keep in her handbag. One of the correct answers was: rawlplugs. They also kept hundreds of callers hanging on on premium rate lines, in the hope of being allowed to put their question. The chances of actually being selected was around 800-1. So, one caller gets to answer rigged questions, while 800 sit waiting on quid a minute premium lines. Talk about a licence to print money.

These dodgy practices are rife within the industry, and since the BBC has been casualised, outsourced, multi-skilled and marketised, it is hardly surprising that they are being discovered in the BBC. The corporation is a very different organisation to the one I joined over twenty years ago. Insufferably bureaucratic at times and institutionally conservative, the BBC nevertheless was a secure and confident place in those days, a cultural standard bearer which new right from wrong and observed the highest standards of accuracy.

So dedicated was the Beeb to getting things right that it tended to avoid breaking stories because it couldn’t risk getting anything wrong. Most Westminster stories in the press are based on unattributable, off the record briefings - the practice is institutionalised in the Lobby system. This is an open invitation to disreputable journalists to make quotes up, and to my certain knowledge after working in the Westminster Lobby for nearly ten year, quotes were very often “adapted” to fit, or invented altogether. Boris Johnson, the Tory higher education minister, was once sacked from the Times for falsifying a quote. (Mind you, he got his own back on the BBC many years later when he revealed that the questions on “Have I Got News For You” were given to the contestants in advance).

On the occasions that it does try to run pieces based on unattributable briefings, it tends to come unstuck. I had just moved to the BBC’s political unit in Westminster in 1989, when the then chief political correspondent, John Sergeant, ran a story that Mi5 was investigating Labour politicians’ links with Soviet Russian officials. The story had come from an off the record lunch with William Waldegrave, the Tory minister. But as soon as it was read on the Nine O’Clock news, all hell broke loose, and the foreign office denied it, leaving Sergeant with a credibility crisis. The story would have run on any broadsheet newspaper without any comeback - and indeed it subsequently re-emerge in print.

Of course, different standards are required in political journalism than in pop phone ins on BBC radio 6. But as Michael Grade said, the cardinal rule for all broadcasters should be: “you do not lie to audiences at any time, in any show - whether it's news or whether it's a quiz.' This tradition of authenticity used to be very deeply ingrained in the BBC because it was enforced by editors and producers who regarded themselves as having an almost sacred duty not to deceive. This was often a Quixotic task, since of course, television involves artifice at almost every level. Whenever you see an taped interviewer nodding, smiling or reacting with a knowing or quizzical eyebrow, you are generally watching what are called “noddies” - reaction shots filmed after the interview takes place.

But the people who used to make BBC programmes were real sticklers for accuracy and sometimes went to extraordinary lengths in their mission to be true. I once made a television documentary with a time-served BBC producer about Scottish heart patients who were having to go south for operations because there were no adequate coronary facilities in Scotland. Many of them died on the way. We arranged to film one middle aged man who was taking the long trip as he said good-bye - possibly for the last time - to his wife and family.

Now, I assumed that we would take some shots of the family at the bedside, and then leave them in peace to make their own farewells. But the producer was having none of it. If we were going to say that this was the man saying good-bye, then it had to be the real good-bye - otherwise we would have to say that it was a ‘reconstruction’. I was appalled and stomped off, assuming that the man would surely not allow his privacy to be invaded by cameras and lights at such a delicate and emotional moment. But to my surprise, he and his family agreed.

Now, I could see that this was an ethical dilemma, of course, but it seemed to me to represent an obsession with authenticity, a fetish even. The mere presence of a film crew at the bedside automatically made the exercise artificial. It is almost impossible to make real “reality television” because as soon as there is a camera, lights and microphones, present it ceases to be real. But I couldn’t help but respect the producer for her dedication to what she believed to be ethical broadcasting. There would be no place for her in the modern industry; people like that were “retired” long ago.

The industry is now staffed by very young people, rarely over thirty five, who move from programme to programme on temporary contracts, desperately trying to get noticed. It is a professional environment ripe for all manner of abuses - nepotism, exploitation, deception, sexual harassment, ageism - and all human life is there. Network television is a very nasty place to work nowadays, in the hothouse atmosphere of commercial competition where the only morality is the bottom line. And with digital coming, it can only get worse. Which is why we need the BBC more than ever, even if Auntie has shown her knickers. Let’s hope she keeps them up in future.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Brown answers the English question

Gordon Brown may be running up the Union Jack, but English Tories aren't saluting it. The tousle-haired Tory minister, Boris Johnson, their latest reluctant candidate for London Mayor, last week fulminated against the "corruption" of a Scottish Prime Minister inflicting policies on England which do not apply in Scotland. David Cameron called for "English votes for English laws". A raft of media commentators have also been complaining about subsidies to Scotland, and Lord Barnett is looking to set up a Lords committee to scrap his own formula.

So, what's new? you say. They've been grumbling about the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question since 1978, when both phrases came into existence. But there are three reasons why this is crunch time on both dimensions of the Scottish Question. We have a Nationalists First Minister in Holyrood, a Scottish Prime Minister in Westminster, and a full scale review of the UK constitution.

The Tories will rightly insist that this review addresses the anomalies inherent in the 10 year old devolution settlement. Alex Salmond will egg them on, insisting that it is time Scots "stopped ruling England". Gordon Brown has anyway told BBC on June 28th that he would "listen" to the grievances of "the 80%" who don't have a devolved parliament.

WLQ should be the easiest thing to tackle. Last week Brown, as expected ruled out "English votes for English laws", on the not unreasonable grounds that it would create two classes of MP and likely break up Britain by creating a defacto English Parliament in Westminster. Instead, he has offered a series of committees of the regions in which MPs from the eight English regions can put issues of concern (such as the way that the UK media seemed totally uninterested in the Hull flooding which, had it happened in London, would have been treated like another New Orleans).

Now, there are already informal regional groups of MPs so it'snot clear quite what this would achieve. The old Scottish Grand Committee was an insult to Scots and English regional versions would also be regarded as tokenism. Anyway, here is a much better answer. If you further reduced the number of Scottish MPs going to Westminster, you would diminish their impact on English legislation.

Scots should still be represented in Westminster of course, because so many of its decisions, on finance especially, apply equally to Scotland. But there is no need to have so many of them - 59 - in a chamber where, historically, government majorities have often been lower than that figure. Given that so many issues have been devolved it seems reasonable to reduce the number to half that.

There's not, after all, very much for Scottish MPs to do at Westminster. The number has already been cut from 72 as a consequence of devolution, so the precedent is well established. I can't see anyone seriously objecting that 25 or 30 Scottish MPs were "ruling England" in a chamber of 650. They would be a Scottish voice, nothing more.

Barnett is trickier. There have been real grievances expressed at Scots (and Europeans) not paying tuition fees while English students are buckling under the burden. There is an obvious problem if English pensioners are losing their home to pay for care costs when Scottish pensioners are not (and may soon not be paying council tax) ; and if English patients are dying because of being denied drugs that are keeping Scots alive.

Yes,I know - this is what devolution means, and it all has to be paid for in the Scottish budget. But when that budget is underspent by a cumulative #1.5billion (as revealed byJohnn Swinney last month) then questions are bound to be asked.

The English complaint will continue so long as Scotland appears to get #1500 more per head in public spending than England. I say 'appears' because this is all based on the highly dubious GERS estimates for Scottish public spending.

GERS assigns amounts of common spending to Scotland the bulk of which are actually spent in the South East of England. I am thinking of 'non identifiable' public spending on things like defence industries and the civil service which go disproportionately to the south . Also spending on infrastructure projects like the Millennium Dome (1bn), the Jubilee line (3,5bn) and the Olympic Games (9bn plus).

Moreover, since Scotland has one third of the land mass of the UK, but only a tenth of the population, it costs more to administer services like roads and schools in Scotland than it does in densely populated areas in the south. Then of course there is the one billion a month that goes south in the form of revenues from Scotland's oil...

Now, the people who want to scrap Barnett say there should be a needs assessment to find out just how much people should be getting per head for public services. This sounds straightforward but it is not. And no one really wants to see a squalid row over how much it should cost for every cancer case or every school place in Scotland. Even the SNP find this kind of thing distasteful, and they are politically in favour of replacing Barnett with full fiscal autonomy.

So, what will Brown do? Well, I wouldn't bet against him setting up something like a Royal Commission into the funding arrangements of devolution. The Kilbrandon Commission of 1973 still stands as a formidable analysis of the Scottish Question.

It looked at things like oil reveues and taxation, and it would be reasonable to look again now that new parliament has bedded down and is about to be joined by a Welsh Parliament as the Cardiff assembly gains primary legislative powers under the new Lab Plaid leadership. ( another blow to the stand-alone LibDems)

A serious examination of what tax powers the Scottish Parliament could use have is anyway long overdue. There is much talk of fiscal autonomy but no one actually says what the taxes should be. A share of VAT? Drink taxes? Variable income tax? And what implications might the coming of local taxes have? Brown has already indicated that he is wanting people in the localities to have more of a role in spending decisions. He could shoot the Nationalist fox by getting his fiscal retaliation in first.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

But what have the SNP actually done?

For reasons too boring to explain, the Scottish Parliament has its state opening on the day it goes into the summer recess. This year, for the third time, the Queen spoke to MSPs about how in 1999 the parliament had generated “what might now with hindsight seem unrealistic expectations”. Well, I don’t know about unrealistic, but the expectations have gone through the roof.

It is only six weeks since the Alex Salmond became First Minister of Scotland’s first minority SNP government, but he seems to have achieved more in that time than his three predecessors did in eight years. The initiatives and announcements have come so thick and fast that the intensely sceptical Scottish media has been largely blown away.

When Salmond was elected First Minister, by the narrowest of margins in May, it was widely expected that his administration would be short lived and ineffectual. With only 47 out of 129 MSPs, the odds against effective government looked overwhelming. But the Nationalists simply carried on regardless, using executive powers to implement large parts of their election manifesto, almost before the other opposition parties had gathered their wits.

The SNP have abolished the graduate endowment (postgraduate fees), bridge tolls and nuclear power. They have extended free personal care, promised a massive house-building programme, frozen council tax, abolished business rates for small companies, cut prescription charges, halted private sector involvement in the NHS, saved local hospitals. They have also introduced one of the world’s most ambitious targets for C02 reductions - 80% by 2050 - in their Climate Change Bill; begun the process of cutting primary class sizes to 18; and reviewed major infrastructure projects in Scotland, like Edinburgh’s light railway and the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL).

In 24 divisions in the Scottish Parliament since May, the Nationalists have only lost one vote of any significance - that was on their attempt to axe Edinburgh’s £650 million tram system. In the closing week of the session, the opposition parties finally got their act together and insisted that the SNP Finance Secretary, John Swinney, give the go-ahead to the project, which has already cost over a hundred million before a single rail has been laid.

The SNP gave in gracefully, accepted the will of parliament, and somehow turned defeat into a kind of victory for the “new politics” of consensus and co-operation that Alex Salmond promised to pursue in office. It was making a virtue of a necessity, but in practice, the Nationalists have discovered that consensus can work to their advantage - especially when the opposition parties are unable to agree on how to take them on.

So, this is an administration with no visible means of support, which has managed to suspend disbelief and govern as if it were a majority party. It has been an extraordinary achievement, and is largely down to the personality and leadership of Alex Salmond, who has dominated the Holyrood chamber in the past weeks in a way none of his predecessors have. Even one of his most prominent opposition critics told me that Salmond has “played a blinder”.

First Minister’s Question Time used to be a dull and inconsequential event, dubbed “hamster wars” by the press, who regarded it as an embarrassing waste of time. Not any more. The gallery is packed for Salmond’s weekly performance and he has provided excellent copy. The Scottish press isn’t easily impressed, but journalists and commentators of all political persuasion and none have agreed that Salmond has made the Scottish parliament come alive. Even many opposition MSPs I speak to agree. The quality of debates has increased, questions are sharper and better informed, and ministerial statements are coherent and .

It can’t go on of course, and the reckoning will come in the autumn when the SNP has to find ways to finance its ambitious spending programmes. Axing projects like the Edinburgh trams was intended to release funds for other uses, but will not. However, John Swinney, announced on the closing day of the parliamentary session that cumulative End Year Flexibilities - that’s the cash the previous administration had been unable to spend by the end of the financial year - has risen to £1.5bn - a tidy sum. Reducing the size of the Scottish Executive should also release cash.

But will Gordon Brown bring the party to an end? The new Prime Minister has been under pressure from the Conservatives and the London media over the alleged unfairness of Scotland abolishing university tuition fees when English students are paying variable top up fees. Brown has argued, correctly, that Nationalist policies have to be paid within a finite budget, and any new spending has to be balanced by cuts in other areas. But that has only intensified the anger of those who believe Scotland receives too much public spending for her own good.

There are suggestions that Brown might seek to reform Barnett but the crunch may com ebefore that - over the SNP’s plans to abolish council tax and replace it with a local income tax. At present, Scotland receives £380m in council tax benefit, and the new Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is believed to be unwilling to keep paying this. No council tax; no benefit, is the line from the Treasury. The Scottish Executive is also demanding back payments of attendance allowances of £23 million a year (in 2000 prices) which was withheld when Holyrood introduced free personal care for the elderly. The cost of this programme has increased from £140 million to over £200 million a year.

Certainly, there will be some hard talking in the autumn, as the next comprehensive spending review is put together. But the Treasury will have to be careful. Salmond is on record as saying that he believes the Barnett Formula should be scrapped and Scottish MPs denied full voting rights in parliament. If Westminster takes a tough line on spending, it might find the Scottish Executive demanding a review of oil revenues and the repatriation of taxation powers to Holyrood.