Thursday, August 23, 2007

She isn't Labour's Scottish leader - that's the problem.

The Scottish Labour Party elected a new leader this week - except that it didn’t. The new nominal leader, Wendy Alexander, is only the leader of the Labour group of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and she was elected to that position unopposed. Never has Labour’s North Korean predilection for single candidate elections been more self-defeating. It has undermined the new broom even before she has begun to sweep.

Wendy Alexander is a capable and intelligent politician with a lot of support across Scotland in the media and academia. She is also the first woman leader the Scottish party has ever had and the party’s best chance of escaping from its male-dominated West of Scotland political ghetto. But she will have to take on the Labour Party in Scotland if she wants to have any chance of taking on the SNP.

Yesterday she announced that: “I will lead the Scottish Labour Party. I am my own person with my own causes.” She has already contradicted the Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, by saying that she wants to enter the debate - begun by the SNP last week - on new powers for the Scottish parliament. She is letting it be known that she favours further tax powers being devolved to Holyrood including possibly stamp duty and corporation tax. Mr Browne has said there is no need to change the devolution settlement.

Labour MPs have lost no time in failing to support the new leader, just as they failed to support her predecessor, Jack McConnell. Scottish Labour MPs were contemptuous of his attempts to make a positive case for progressive home rule
and blocked moves to make the party more Scottish and autonomous. This was regarded by Westminster MPs and Lords as presumption by a second-rate politician getting above himself. The press was continually reminded that Jack McConnell was not the leader of the party in Scotland, Tony Blair was.

Gordon Brown may look on things rather differently. Wendy Alexander is the sister of his closest confederate, Douglas Alexander, and regarded by some in the party as the more able of the two. Brown understands Scotland and the subtleties of the home rule debate rather better than his predecessor and might well be minded to give Wendy her head. He certainly understands the need to take on Alex Salmond on his own Scottish ground, and dispel the impression that the Labour Party in Scotland is under remote control from London.

But he will have to move quickly. Wendy Alexander needs to be clearly in charge of the party before the Scottish parliament returns in September. The carping from Westminster Labour has to stop and only the firm smack of authority will do that - and no one smacks firmer than Wendy Alexander. Colleagues and civil servants who have disagreed with her in the past have been left smarting after being “Wendied” - a new Scottish political verb which means being subjected to extreme verbal attrition.

Brown should also endorse proposals for a second referendum on the constitution which is being called for ten years after the devolution vote in 1997. With support for independence running at less than thirty percent in the polls, there is a clear opportunity here to resolve the constitutional debate for a generation. But it will mean a new round of constitutional innovation in Holyrood, and a constitutional convention to give them authority. Such a process is now explicit policy of all the main political parties in Scotland, including the Conservatives. The sooner they get together and decide just what kind of parliament they want, the better.

Monday, August 20, 2007

How Wendy could change things

Sales of Wendies collapsed yesterday, as confidence slumped in Labour’s leader-in-waiting. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times suggesting that only 7% of voters would like to see her as first minister has led political forecasters to mark her down. Only bankrupt Nicol Stephens are selling worse in the turbulent post-Salmond market.

Her failure to come up with any new political products has also damaged Wendy’s share price. She marked her candidacy by promising to combat “electronic stranger danger” - which is omething to do with paedophiles on the internet targetting “cotton wool kids” kept at home by parents are fearful of abusers on the streets. But creating yet another nameless dread to keep parents awake at night is not the ideal way to herald a new political dawn.

Some hope might be nice; a vision or two; perhaps a great speech of reconciliation with middle Scotland, promising to challenge metropolitan centralism, London dominance, of everything from broadcasting to the Olympic Games. Come to think of it, she could borrow from Jack McConnell’s valedictory interview in the Sunday press yesterday in which he suggested British institutions like the BBC, sports organisations and energy regulators were a greater danger to the unity of the UK than the SNP. “It’s almost like we’re under the radar”, said the soon-to-be-former First Minister. He also criticised Scottish Labour MPs for undermining his attempts to fly the Scottish flag.

There is an obvious agenda here for Wendy and doesn’t mean dressing in tartan and singing Scots Wha’ Hae’. She needs to take on the city state of London, which is draining the life out of the rest of the country - not just Scotland, but all non metropolitan areas. It is not acceptable for organisations like the BBC to slash their investment in Scotland, or for the London Olympics to rob the national lottery fund, or for Ofgem to charge discriminatory grid connection fees.

Nor is it acceptable for investment and jobs to drain relentlesly south, denuding Scotland of professionals, skilled workers and graduates, year after year. Scotland’s historically deficient growth rates are not a result of lack of talent or some kind of genetic failure of enterprise, but of structural and essentially political imbalances in the British economy. These need appropriate economic and fiscal measures to rebalance the country - it has nothing to do with independence.

London needs to be saved from itself. It has created a monster in the overblown, over-leveraged City, which has crowded out all other forms of economic activity on these islands, and created a perilously over priced housing market. Scotland needs cheaper housing as much as it needs lower business taxes to keep the economically active population in Scotland and prevent the nation becoming a retirement home. But why couldn’t Labour demand both? If the ultra-unionist Ian Paisley can call for cuts in corporation taxes in Northern Ireland, to help business in the province compete with the Irish Republic, why not Scotland?

These are the kind of thing that Wendy Alexander should be saying if she wants to turn the tide against the SNP, not serving up reheated warnings about the economic consequences of independence. At least consider them seriously. She needs to take a lesson from her mentor, Gordon Brown, who lost no time in office distancing himself from his predecessor, even as he praised him.

Brown tossed “sofa government” onto a skip and promised to scrap the constitutional provisions that underpinned elective dictatorship. If Brown can announce the most radical constitutional reforms to the UK in a generation, why can’t the First Minister of Scotland? Wendy could wreck Alex Salmond’s 100 days by calling for a second cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention, to consider the results of the “national conversation’ which has been launched by Alex Salmond. The SNP should of course be invited.

And if the convention decides that a new referendum is necessary to resolve the independence question, then why not? What better way to clear the air? The weekend polls confirmed that formal independence is supported by only around 23% of Scots voters, so this is hardly high-risk option. Alex Salmond has agreed that such a referendum would be a “once in a generation” thing and that the SNP wouldn’t be coming back with yet more “neverendums” until it got the answer it wanted. This is a tremendous opportunity for a confident Scottish Labour leader.

Who dares wins. Of course, Scottish Labour MPs would howl “betrayal”, pour scorn on “lady Braveheart”, dismiss her as naive - but that would be entirely to the good. Wendy Alexander needs to take on her own party before she can be in any position to take on the nationalists. She would find widespread support in Scotland for a determined break with the Labourism of the past, which has led to a moribund, impoverished party barely able to contest elections. As she said to Jim Sillars in that note after she resigned from the executive in 2001, the Scottish Labour Party hasn’t had a fresh idea since 1906. Well, maybe it’s time for some. Come the hour, cometh the woman.

She should be banging her fist on Gordon’s table until he makes her leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, not just leader of the MSPs in Holyrood. She should be given control of all the party functions north of the border, with freedom to develop an independent political agenda, and authority to ram it down the throats of the unionist old guard. That would show Scotland that you don’t need trousers to have cojones. Or a kilt.

After a referendum, she could declare the independence/ unionism dichotomy is history. That Scotland is a confident nation which makes its own way in the world, by taking whatever powers - economic or otherwise - are required, without apologising for itself, and without fearing the consequences. The truth is that Britain needs Scotland as much as Scotland needs the UK, and the threat of an independent Scotland actually is a source of strength for Wendy Alexander. If Scotland broke away, the UK would lose a lot of its clout in international forums, and it would also lose valuable oil and renewable energy reserves. Why should it be left to Alex Salmond to play the Scottish card?

It’s rather been assumed that Salmond and his team regard Wendy Alexander with contempt, as a mouthy disaster with zero voter appeal. I don’t believe that is entirely the case. I haven’t heard Alex Salmond dis her the way he dissed Jack McConnell, and privately the Nationalists realise that with the passing of Tony Blair and Jack McConnell they are losing their best assets. Alex Salmond will treat her, initially at least, with respect just as he treated Brown with respect. And if Gordon and Wendy work apart together, the only way is up.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The National Conversation.

When is an event not an event? When it’s a process. The Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, insisted on BBC’s World at One on Wednesday that Donald Dewar had never uttered his most famous remark: “devolution is a process not an event”. On the contrary, he said, the late First Minister had agreed with Mr Browne’s own constitutional dictum that the Scotland Act was “an event not a process”, a destination rather than a starting point.

Now, there is some evidence that it was actually Ron Davies, the former Welsh Labour leader, who first uttered the words in question in parliament, in January 1998. But I certainly recall Donald using the P word, and so does everyone else, at the time of the Scottish Parliament’s creation. More importantly, his acolyte, Wendy Alexander, has certainly said that devolution is a process, most recently during the Scotland on Sunday debate on the Union in January. This is important since it is she, rather than Des Browne, who will shortly be leading Labour in Scotland, now that Jack McConnell has opted to become high commissioner for smart, successful Malawi.

Except of course, that she won’t, because as Labour MPs always insist, the leader of the Labour group of MSPs is not the leader of the Scottish Labour Party. She will have no authority over Scottish MPs, Lords or the party apparatus in Scotland since she is only the Holyrood parliamentary leader. This democratic deficit in the Labour Party is something she should address at the earliest opportunity if she doesn’t want to share the fate of her predecessor, who had the right ideas but lacked authority over his own party. Jack McConnell’s attempts to make Labour the party of progressive home rule were blocked by elements in Labour who treated him with thinly-disguised contempt. Labour needs a proper leader in Scotland just as much as Scotland needs a proper government.

Devolution is of course a process - whoever said it - and the open-ended nature of that constitutional process is enshrined in the Scotland Act, a remarkable document which few have read and even fewer understand. For, the Act that set up the Scottish parliament specifically avoided defining the limits of devolution and contains within it the mechanisms to devolve most of the responsibilities reserved to Westminster, like broadcasting, firearms, conduct of elections even tax.

Yes, if he wanted to, Alex Salmond could legitimately seize most of the powers he wants repatriated to Holyrood without a referendum. He wouldn’t do so, of course, because he is too clever and realises that there would be an unholy row and a breakdown in the subtle consensus he has forged on the Scottish constitution. The FM rightly argues that some powers are so important - taxation being the obvious example - that there would need to be the explicit consent of the Scottish people to any such developments.

However, the white paper on independence, last week -”Choosing Scotland’s Future” - actually makes a rather strong case for incrementalism, or extending the process of devolution, rather than going for any “big bang”. Full independence is of course still what the SNP wants to see - a constitutional one-off event after which the Westminster parliament would cease to have powers to legislate for Scotland. However, the white paper sets out the home rule alternatives so comprehensively and positively that you can’t help but think that the SNP government is now beginning to think in terms of process rather than event.

Indeed, by the time you get to the section of the white paper which deals with full independence, you begin to wonder just what difference formal constitutional disengagement would actually make if the preceding stages had already been reached. When it comes down to it, we are only talking “macro-economics, defence and foreign affairs” (3.9). These are very important matters, of course, but would Scots want a separate currency and army?

Moreover, the white paper makes clear that Scotland, even under full ‘independence’, would remain part of a political union - albeit one based on the principle of pooled sovereignty rather than incorporation. There would have to be a UK-wide authority, rather like the European Union, which could make laws which applied across the UK in common areas, like the environment, currency, citizenship.

Never has a politically-inspired document given such an even-handed and open-minded assessment of the policies of its opponents, and the SNP government is to be congratulated for starting this debate in such a constructive manner. Its very reasonableness has has floored critics and led the opposition parties to make complete fools of themselves. Labour, the Scottish Tories and the Liberal Democrats united last week to reject the SNP’s constitutional conversation as a waste of time and money, and then announced that they wanted to start one their own, but excluding any consideration of independence. They either want a conversation or they don’t. The idea that SNP voices should be excluded when they have just won an election is so ridiculous it seems incredible that sensible people could actually propose it. Wendy Alexander is intelligent enough to see that this is not a sustainable position and will try to move Labour back into the constitutional centre-ground. But it may be that the horse has already bolted.

For what the opposition parties have done is hand the political and moral initiative to the SNP, and allowed nationalists to appear the inheritors of the spirit of the 1989 Scottish Constitutional Convention - an irony since the SNP boycotted it. Alex Salmond has accepted the founding principle of Scotland’s Claim of Right document that “sovereignty resides with the people” not with any government or party. He has said he will move only as far and as fast as the people of Scotland wish, and the steps are all laid out in the white paper. This is ‘variable-geometry’ nationalism, which will lead to a multi-option referendum if and only when the Scots decide they want it.

The white paper is silent on who should decide whether and when that referendum happens, and what options might be on the paper. Nor does it specify who would assess the results of the consultation - which has already attracted well over a thousand submissions. It’s now up to Scottish civil society to fill in the gaps and create the appropriate institutions, ‘Convention 2.0’ or whatever, to forge a new political consensus.

My own view is that this process will probably stop short of formal separation, if only because it is not the British way to go in for constitutional absolutes. Our tradition is incremental, ad hoc, issue-by-issue, ‘let’s-see-what-works’ constitutionalism. The Queen will remain head of state, we will have a common currency, a British army and Scotland will still be represented at some level in a UK parliament in Westminster which will legislate for residual UK-wide affairs. We can never cut ourselves off completely, and anyway it isn’t necessary. Scotland could become “independent in the UK” to use another of the late Donald Dewar’s lesser known remarks from 1988.

But the SNP have made a formidable start. The way things are going, Scotland could be functionally independent in ten years, if the SNP plays its cards right and the opposition parties opt out. Perhaps it is time to rephrase what Donald did or didn’t say - it is now independence which is a process not an event.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Great Caledonian Paradox

It’s the great Caledonian paradox: why is this SNP government so popular when the vast majority of Scots appear to reject its defining policy of Scottish independence? Opinion polls last week confirmed that opposition to formal independence is as strong as ever, even as Alex Salmond’s personal ratings have soared.

The SNP registered its highest ever score, 48% in the PSO poll in the Daily Mail, while independence was down to 31% Other polls have put support for independence as low as 22%. Indeed, a recent ICM/Daily Telegraph poll, suggested that there is more support for Scottish independence in England than in Scotland.

Not, you might think, fertile ground for the launch tomorrow of the SNP’s long-awaited White Paper on Independence, the climax to the nationalist government’s 100 days. But that isn’t going to stop Alex Salmond. The Nationalists realise that they have an uphill struggle persuading the Scots of the merits of independence, but they are resolved to push the boulder all the way to the top and are prepared to enlist anyone who wants to go at least part of the way with them. And as long as Labour and the other parties exclude themselves from the constitutional process, the SNP will have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

For, there is of course no real contradiction between SNP popularity and opposition to independence, not if you look at it from the point of view of the Scottish electorate, one of the most educated and sophisticated in the world. Scottish voters don’t see why they should be put in any particular political box. They tell pollsters they’re agin separatism because, well, everyone is against it; it’s a bit like being against racism or sectarianism. No one wants to appear narrow-minded or chauvinist or interested in cutting Scotland off. Registering opposition to independence is also done out of courtesy to England. Very few Scots harbour any animosity towards the English anymore, and saying you don’t want to break up Britain is a polite way of saying that you respect your neighbours.

But Scots want a proper parliament and political autonomy, and opinion polls on that have never wavered. This bedrock of progressive home rule sentiment is the one constant in Scottish politics of the last thirty years. Devolution is a process not an event, as Donald Dewar wisely observed. Voters have called repeatedly for more powers for that parliament, though there is understandable vagueness about what those powers should actually be.

What Scots did not call for was a devolved government which didn’t even have the self-confidence to call itself a government, and which hid behind the bureaucratic gobbledegook of “Scottish executive”. They didn’t want a leadership which was lacked the courage of its own convictions, was constantly looking over its shoulder at Westminster, and forever wondering whether it was getting above itself, overstepping the mark, sounding too ‘nationalist’.

Above all they didn't want a leadership which was incapable of articulating any vision, and lacked the language skills to express Scottish aspirations and celebrate Scottish culture. But unfortunately, that was precisely the leadership it got. An administration whose constribution to Scottish political discourse were the phrases: “do less better” and “the best small country”. History doesn’t award statues for that kind of rhetoric.

Seizing the opportunity, Alex Salmond has delivered a virtuoso performance as the kind of First Minister Scotland really, really wants. He has used the existing powers of the Scottish parliament to launch a blizzard of announcements and initiatives, cutting class sizes, abolishing bridge tolls, tuition fees, nuclear power...showing by example just how unimaginative and unambitious the previous lot were, even within the confines of the devolution settlemement.

Emboldened, Salmond has gone on to challenge big institutions like the BBC, demand a new role for Scotland in Europe and to push the envelope of devolution by arguing for more powers for Holyrood. All this frenetic activity has been to one end: to show that Scots really can and should expect better, and that under independence, anything is possible. If you think this is good, Salmond is saying, just imagine what it would be like if Scotland were a truly self-governing country.

The Scots aren’t convinced yet, but they are clearly minded to humour Salmond some more - find out just where it is that this political dynamo is going. It’s fun. What they don’t need are patronising warnings from Labour politicians that behind the mask of consensus the SNP are still determined to break up Britain. They can see that perfectly well themselves. But they are using the nationalists to secure a better deal with Westminster and may continue to do so even as many vote for Gordon Brown as UK prime minister at the next general election.

In this game, it isn’t at all clear who is using whom. So, when the SNP unveil their independence white paper tommorrow, there will be a constitutional double bluff: the SNP are using devolution to promote independence, while the voters are using nationalists to promote home rule. Seems a sensible bargain. The SNP realise there is no point in pushing for an independence referendum which will never get past the Scottish parliament, where the nationalists are in a minority. So, instead, they will open a “national conversation” on the constitution, inviting all and sundry to attend, and offer their tuppence-worth.

Broadcasting is the model on which the white paper process will be based. The SNP won widespread support last week for setting up a cross party Scottish Broadcasting Commission - building the case for Holyrood to have power over the media. A few years ago it would likely have been attacked as a nationalist coup, an assault on the independence of the BBC. But Alex Salmond presented the case intelligently and constructively, exposing the shortcomings of the existing arrangements, and inviting all the interested parties to put their case. Expect a similar process to be used over firearms, marine policy, Europe, asylum and immigration, oil and taxation.

If there is a referendum, it will be a multi-option one, in which voters will be able to choose an enhanced Holyrood if they don’t want formal independence. The SNP will offer a review of constitutional arrangements, a decade after the devolution referendum. Labour remain doggedly opposed to this, saying it is a waste of civil service time and money. Well, in that cast, the biggest time-waster of all is the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who has launched a constitutional review in Westminster. This really is a defining moment in Scottish history, comparable to 1997. Labour needs to get its act together if it doesn't wand to be left in the dustbin with the Scottish Tories.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The BBC should show us the Scottish Six

A Scottish six o’clock news? Tartan nightmare. Wall to wall murders, stories about the SNP, couthy human interest tales replacing Nick Robinson and John Simpson - it would be like Newsnight Scotland, only much much worse. Well actually it wouldn’t.

I’m one of the few people in this debate who has actually seen a Scottish Six. In 2004, BBC Scotland produced pilot programmes, for internal consumption only , to show what a Scottish-generated national news bulletin might look like. Surprise, surprise, it worked extremely well. The programmes were well presented and gave excellent UK and foreign coverage while treating devolved Scottish issues with the respect and authority they deserved.

I can well understand why the BBC didn’t show them to the public. As soon as you actually see a Scottish Six, you wonder how we could have tolerated the present arrangement for so long. It doesn’t equal parochialism. All that happens is that irrelevant or positively misleading stories about English grammar schools, A level results and trust hospitals are marginalised. Not excluded, of course, because political events in the largest country in the UK can still be relevant in Scotland even if they turn on devolved issues. But it is a question of the weight given to these items, and the context.

As for the charge, repeated last week by Labour MSPs that a Scottish Six would eliminate coverage of foreign and UK national stories, a look at the running order of the pilots shows this fear to be baseless. With the BBC’s new computerised news gathering, foreign reports filed in advance by BBC correspondents can be accessed by any desktop terminal anywhere in the entire corporation. This means they can be transmitted simultaneously, if necessary, on different programmes or channels. Nor is there any technical obstacle to doing live interviews with BBC foreign correspondents abroad, since the satellite link is already there.

The Scottish Six is not the most important issue in Scottish broadcasting by any means, but it is important - more for what it says about us than what it says about the BBC. There is an assumption that if it is Scottish is must necessarily be inferior, local, trivial. This is understandable given the poor quality of much existing Scottish output, which is systematically under-resourced. But that hasn’t happened by accident. BBC budgets are structured in a way that ensures Scottish programmes are technically inferior, and have lower production values. Funding, like the Scottish Six, is a political issue.

I know this only too well. Back in the 1990’s I presented the BBC 2 network programme, Westminster Live, from the BBC’s parliamentary complex at Millbank in London. This had an entire department devoted to it, with dedicated film crews and editing suites, graphics, transport, countless producers, researchers. The comparable Scottish programme, Holyrood Live, which I returned to present in Scotland in 1999, had a man and a dog. A brilliant man and a brilliant dog, as it happened - highly professional and incredibly hardworking producers, but people who were ground down by lack of resources and constant cuts.

When I complained about underfunding, as I frequently did, the response was always the same from BBC executives: “Well, this is Scotland. We have a tenth of the population so we only get a tenth of the budget for programmes”. I could never accept this kind of regionalist defeatism, which seemed to me an insult to the Scottish people. Why should political programmes be of inferior quality just because they happen to be made in Scotland?

You might have thought that the BBC would be boosting its Scottish output as Scotland becomes more autonomous post devolution, but the reverse is the case. Ofcom figures, quoted last week by the former BBC executive, Blair Jenkins, chair of the new Scottish Broadcasting Commission, indicate that current affairs spending in Scotland has been cut by 45% in the last few years and news spending has been cut by 27% Scotland’s share of total UK spending by the BBC is down to 4%, when it should be around 9%.

Well, we are told, the BBC has to tighten its belts. Yet this is the same corporation that can pay Jonathan Ross the equivalent of the entire BBC Scotland news and current affairs for asking if the leader of the opposition masturbates to images of Margaret Thatcher.

The broadcasting professionals who attended the First Minister’s speech last week at the National Museum of Scotland last week know perfectly well what is going on, which is why there has been not a cheap of dissent from any of them - even from the BBC itself, which has uniquely failed to rebut the charges that have been levelled at it by the new Scottish government. In the past, media folk might have worried at the prospect of politicians, especially Nationalist ones, meddling in broadcasting - not any more. I have never seen such unity of purpose among the Scottish media.

Devolving responsibility for broadcasting to the Scottish parliament wouldn’t solve the problem overnight, might not solve it at all. But it is difficult to see what else the Scottish political classes can do. At least the Scottish parliament would be able to put pressure on the regulators and the BBC, which has charter obligations to the nations and regions. It would also provide a focus for Scottish public opinion, and an opportunity for the creative industries in Scotland to be given a voice. It would emphatically not involve political direction of the broadcasters by Alex Salmond as Labour MSPs implied last week. Westminster has responsibility for broadcasting, but that doesn’t give Gordon Brown any say in programme-making.

I was saddened to hear the former FM, Jack McConnell, attack Salmond’s “separatism” over the broadcasting initiative, for I know for a fact that McConnell was himself profoundly concerned by the state of Scottish broadcasting, and the media generally, when he was in Bute House.. I also know that he approached the then BBC chairman Michael Grade about the nature and quality of Scottish coverage. He had very good reasons for doing so. Labour MSPs and ministers were finding their constituents complaining about the state of their local hospitals’ finances even though they were doing fine. This was because they were watching the stories about bankrupt English health trusts on the Six O’Clock news and assumed that the same problems existed north of the border.

This is the problem every viewer faces in Scotland. Whenever you watch a network news or political programme you have to deconstruct it in your head. Take Gordon Brown’s pre-legislative statement earlier this month. Important story, new prime minister, relevant across the UK. However, his “overarching themes” were education, hospitals and housing - all of which are devolved. Most of the specific bills he announced - a new health and social care bill, a children in care bill and a criminal justice bill - will not apply in Scotland. Even his constitutional reform bill has a radically different resonance here because of devolution.

But the BBC network bulletin that day made no serious attempt to explain all this. And why should it? It’s viewers are predominantly in England. They are not going to accept Scottish politicians popping up repeatedly giving lengthy statements about the situation north of the border. Or lengthy backgrounders on Scottish child care.

This problem will only get worse as the news agenda moves back to domestic affairs post Iraq. The rational solution is to have a separate Scottish bulletin which can place important stories in their proper context. It’s not about a tartan takeover. The BBC should show Scottish viewers its own pilots of the Scottish Six, and then let them make up their own minds.

I will regret this

Like most political hacks I tend to be a bit of a professional pessimist - if not a borderline depressive. The world of public affairs is not a sunny one, and the reward for optimism about politicians is generally ridicule. So this is one column I will probably regret writing.

For, at the close of this political year, I feel compelled to say that I feel more positive about our political culture and leadership now than I can recall in almost three decades of observing the political game. And it is all down to personalities.

Political enemies they may be, but in Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond we have two astute and even visionary politicians at the very top of their game. They have clear ideas about where they think the country is going and the political skills to make things happen. I may not agree entirely with the policies of either, but I'd have no hesitation in pronouncing them the sharpest tools to have come out of the British political box in the last half century. And no, this isn't a wind up.

Both Brown and Salmond strike me as more humane and grounded than Margaret Thatcher, more principled than Harold Wilson, more intelligent than Tony Blair. None of the other post war leaders since Churchill stand comparison, except perhaps the late Donald Dewar, who lacked elementary political and presentational skills.

Gordon Brown, had of course already shown himself to be a politician of the highest quality during his ten years in the treasury. But in the last few weeks he has revealed an entirely new dimension of himself in the sure-footed and intelligent way in which he has taken over in Number Ten.

Brown has made a philosophical and political break with the tawdry politics of Blairism without igniting civil war in his party. That took real class, after all those years of frustrated ambition. But there has been not one squeak of dissent from the remnants of the old regime, even as Brown has dismantled it.

The new PM's sober handling of the attempted London bombings and the English floods was exemplary. He was right to recognise that housing is one of the great issues of the 21st century, right to scrap supercasinos, right to review drug and alcohol laws. He was right to ditch sofa government, begin to put an end the war in Iraq, address the defects in the constitution and promise to clean up party funding.

Yes I know that it sounds naive and even sycophantic to talk this way, but bear with me.For if we don't identify when some politicians are getting it right, how can we expect the rest of them to raise their game

In his current visit to America Gordon Brown is showing that he is capable of achieving distance from the US Republican leadership without compromising diplomatic relations with America. Brown has already shown that he understands the imperatives of climate change and the importance of addressing economic failure in Africa and he is rightly determined to speak over the heads of America's myopic political leadership to the thinking Americans who must be mobilised if these great global challenges are to be met.

And yes, I know Brown voted for the war in Iraq, but I don't believe he would have gone to war on the basis of dodgy intelligence. And his contrition now is sincere. It is rare enough for leader to live up to his or her expectations; for them to exceed them is practically unheard of. But that is what Brown has done. And coincidentally we also have the makings of Scotland's first great political leader in three hundred years in the shape of Alex Salmond.

The FM has shown tactical genius and real political courage in the manner in which he has run an effective government in Scotland with only 46 out of 129 MSPs and no coalition partner. When the Liberal Democrats boycotted the Salmond executive it looked as if Scotland's nationalist experiment would be short-lived. But most independent observers believe that this administration has a lot of life left in it and may even go the distance. Certainly, if there were an election tomorrow, the SNP under Alex Salmond would likely be returned by a landslide.

Of course, no party's success is down to just one individual, and Salmond has had able support from his subordinates. But there is little doubt in my mind that only someone with Salmond's self-confidence, boldness and intelligence could have carried it off. Like him or loathe him, the first minister is a brilliant political operator. Just look at his conduct in parliament, the succession of executive initiatives, the al Megrahi affair, the handling of the trams defeat.

Above all it is Salmond's sense of destiny that marks hin out from other Scottish political figures of the modern age. He is the real deal; the first genuine political leader in Scottish democratic history. A very different character, of course, from Gordon Brown - impetuous, more of an outsider,less pious, much more willing to take a gamble than the ultra-cautious Labour leader. But in a curious way, they are both the right men for the times. Scotland is clearly in the mood to take risks, live a little dangerously as it becomes more culturally assertive. England, on the other hand, is suffering from an excess of charisma and military adventures and wants to live rather less dangerously right now.

But they are polar opposites politically, so how - you ask - can I trust both of them at the same time? They can't both be right. Many would say that it is reckless to applaud someone like the Scottish National Party leader who is widely regarded as an unreliable and devious egotist, or a Labour leader whom many in his own party believe to be a neurotic control freak. But somehow, I do Their positives outweigh their negatives.

Of course, all politicians are fallible; make promises they cannot keep; and are often corrupted by power. Promising leaders become diminished by the compromises of office, and as Enoch Powell put it "every political career ends in tears". But just for now, just for this moment, let's calmly celebrate the fact that we are in a rare moment in history which the nation's leaders are actually doing the business.

And how extraordinary that both of them should be Scottish. What is it about this little country that it generates such a disproportionate share of British political leaders? For, of course the present and immediate past Lib Dem leaders are also Scots, and even Blair was a Jock of sorts. In celebrating the new generation of British political leaders we are also celebrating Scottish society and culture. That's something surely to feel good about.