Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In the name of Gord, Go. Open Letter to Gordon Brown

In the name of Gord, go! It’s over. It’s not just the Crewe by-election, though that’s bad enough, but the weight of evidence from focus groups, opinion polls, the English local government results - the electorate just don’t want Gordon Brown as prime minister. It’s not going to change either, with the economy going down and your authority draining away.

Labour cannot afford to make the same mistake it made in 1983, going into an election with a leader - then Michael Foot - who could not win. That was electoral suicide. This is not time for sentiment - and you showed precious little of that when Tony Blair was in difficulties. Opposition parties do not win elections; government’s lose them, and, I’m afraid, you are a loser.

Cameron was on the ropes only a year ago, lambasted by crusty Tories over grammar schools, coming third behind the LibDems in by-elections like Ealing and Sedgefield. The Tory leader was rightly viewed as a privileged if youthful lightweight presiding over a geriatric party while making inept attempts to look green by cycling to parliament while a limo followed at a discreet distance. The Tories under Cameron were going nowhere - until you threw them a lifeline by bottling out of the election everyone knew you had been planning last October.

Cameron has now been transformed by policy errors like the abolition of the ten pence tax band and the £2.7 billion giveaway to neutralise it. Labour is on a knife edge, facing a major economic dislocation, with no ideas and a tired and morally threadbare image. All those hideous, money-grubbing memoirs by Labour figures like Cherie Blair, Lord Levy, John Prescott. Discredited figures with no redeeming features and zero talent peddling their private lives for profit. It is like the worst days of John Major. The Hamiltons. Then it was cash for questions; now it’s cash for contraceptives.

But the fish rots from the head down. It’s not nice to say it, but the voters have decided that they just don’t like you. They think you lack the courage of your convictions. The backdoor meeting with the Dalai Lama; the dithering over the Lisbon Treaty signing, Northern Rock the Olympic ceremony. Your relentless pursuit of approval from the Daily Mail betrays insecurity, instead of resolve, and it doesn’t make middle England any more willing to vote for you.

I believe you missed a real opportunity to change the climate of British politics after the fall of Tony Blair. People have had it with celebrity politics, with the irresponsible behaviour of the City, and wanted some real substance. But they wanted moral leadership, not toe-curling platitudes about your “moral compass”. You could have reconnected with Labour’s real moral thread - its traditional concern for fairness, egalitarianism and social responsibility.

A bit of hair shirt might not have gone amiss, for we are all going to have to don them soon anyway, with oil at $130 a barrel, house prices falling and recession looming. This would have been an excellent moment for a serious radical political leader of the left to come along, prepared to take the tough decisions, prepared to take on the vested interests in the City boardrooms who have brought the economy to its knees. The furore over the abolition of the ten pence tax band shows that people do want society to be fairer; they are morally outraged by the obscene wealth of the financial CEOs, with their million pound bonuses. It just required a leader to have the courage of Labour’s own convictions.

But enough of the past. The question now is Labour's imminent defeat. The Tories are now within sight of winning a large majority at the next election and casting Labour into oblivion for a decade. it may be too late to save the Labour government, but that is no reason for not trying. David Miliband may not look like he is ready, but a proper Labour leadership election could change that. Desperate times require desperate measures.

This a tragedy for you personally, but it is also a tragedy for the left. David Cameron is right; New Labour is dead. But you had an opportunity to replace it with something better.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The English are coming! London liberals seeking asylum

Prepare for an invasion. Following the victory of Boris Johnson in the London Mayoral election, liberal minded Scots in London are packing their bags and preparing to scarper. Leading the rush north is Ian Jack, the celebrated Guardian journalists and former editor of the literary magazine Granta.

Jack recently wrote that he might find it impossible to remain in London after a take-over by Boris Johnson and his Oxford dining chum, David Cameron. “It means living under a double yoke of old Etonians” he lamented. .Jack compared Scotland to liberal Canada, where many American refugees from Bush Republicanism have taken up residence.

This could catch on you know. For many London-based intellectuals and literary bohos life could soon become intolerable as Boris’s Bullingdon boys take over the cultural institutions and start talking very loudly in restaurants. If the Tories win the next general election, a lot of Anglo-Scots - and some English people too - might start thinking seriously of doing a bunk.

What’s to stay for? The latest Rough Guide to England last week portrayed the larger partner in the Union as a nation of “overweight, alcopop-swilling, sex-and-celebrity-obsessed TV addicts”. Ouch. Mind you, in the interests of fairness, I’d have to admit that Scotland pretty much fits that prescription too - only with deep-fired Mars and Buckie on top.

But politically there’s a lot to commend Scotland at the moment to the liberal-minded. Not just free elderly care, free university education and relatively sane house prices, but a government that opposes Trident and nuclear power and seems to believe in the kind of social democratic policies that Gordon Brown used to advocate.

There are so many liberal Scots in London running the media - Andrew Marr, Kirsty Wark, Jim Naughtie - that a trickle could turn into a flood. The Scottish government might have to contemplate temporary border controls to prevent media ex-pats returning en masse and swamping our social services and wine bars. Glasgow’s West End could become seriously overcrowded; congestion on the Byers Road intolerable.

Perhaps it would be wiser for Alex Salmond to ask the Anglo Scots to remain where they are for the time being and instead seek to accession to the Scottish state, following the lead of Berwick which, according to recent opinion polls, wants to rejoin Scotland. Areas of London like Islington and Hoxton could be urged to hold referendums on independence under the Wendy Alexander principle. They could then start electing members to the Scottish parliament and be governed under Scots law. It would be like Passport to Pimlico, only Scottish.

Where might this all end? Instead of separation and the break up of Britain, we might be looking at a reverse take-over. Stick that in your national conversation.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bendy Wendy's Wendyrendum. Labour discovers independence and says the people must decide.

It has been, by common consent, Wendy Alexander’s worst week since she became leader - worse even than the row over her dodgy donations. She began it defying Gordon Brown by calling for an early referendum on independence, making it look as if the prime minister had lost control of Scotland; she ended it with a humiliating u-turn, pretending that she didn’t really want a referendum after all. The press has pronounced sentence of political death and is waiting for it to be carried out. But before she goes to the gallows, perhaps we should for a moment look at what Wendy was trying to do. There was method in her madness.

The situation Labour faces in Scotland is dire and she is not the only one in the party who believes that something drastic has to be done to stop the Salmond steamroller. There’s little point in Labour sitting on its hands and watching the SNP attract more and more Scottish voters to its cause as the Alex Salmond runs a highly successful devolved government - the kind of government Labour should have run when it was in office.

Not only is Alex Salmond’s personal popularity an astonishing 70% ahead of the Labour leader, the polls indicate that the SNP would probably return with a landslide if there were a Holyrood election tomorrow. And in recent polls, such as System Three in the Sunday Herald three weeks ago, there have been signs that the nationalists are beginning to win the argument for independence. Doing nothing wasn’t an option.

Most of Scottish Labour’s political problems arise from its image as a poodle of London Labour. Labour’s former First Minister, Jack McConnell, always seemed to be looking over his shoulder at his political masters, and was - we now know - often treated with casual contempt by the ‘godfather’ Gordon Brown. McConnell was widely criticised for failing to assert himself on issues like Iraq, Trident, nuclear power, attendance allowances, asylum detention. The SNP taunted Labour’s inability to “stand up for Scotland”.

Now, there really only is one way of standing up for yourself, and that is to get up off your knees. And to give Wendy Alexander credit where it is due, this is what she tried to do, even if she has been knocked back down again by a great clunking fist. But there really was no other way - you can’t rebel by consensus.

There is huge frustration in the Labour Party at the SNP being allowed to introduce a raft of popular social democratic policies - like phasing out prescription charges, ending ring fencing, curbing right to buy and kick-starting council housing. Labour had to get the SNP off their turf, by forcing Alex Salmond to start talking about nationalism again - about scary things like currencies, borders, national debt, separatism, Europe. One way to do this, clearly, was to attempt to bring forward the independence referendum and force the SNP to start showing its hand instead of allowing it to shelve the issue until 2010. Hence the “bring it on” declaration on the Politics Show on Sunday.

That much had been agreed with London. However, it was when Wendy Alexander started talking about holding her own early referendum that thinks started to go pear-shaped. Over the past week Wendy Alexander has been in almost daily contact with Gordon Brown, but it seems the messages got confused. But it seemsBrown thought she was merely challenging the SNP to put ITS referendum bill before Holyrood, instead of waiting until 2010, not proposing an independence referendum as a matter of principle. Brown told the Tory leader David Cameron at Prime Ministers Question Time on Wednesday that Wendy had not called for a referendum on independence “now”, when she clearly had. And she repeated it the next day at First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood - as clear and unequivocal an act of defiance as anyone could have expected.

It looked as if the Prime Minister had now lost control of his own Scottish turf. The exchanges of letters with the Tory leader, David Cameron, did nothing to clarify matters. There was simply no way of reconciling what the Prime Minister said about the referendum with what the leader of the Scottish Labour group in Holyrood said. Something had to give.

As we report today, team Wendy suggest that it was Brown who bottled it and simply couldn’t bring himself to call for a referendum in front of David Cameron - largely because the PM didn’t want to be taunted about of the his reluctance to hold a referendum on the EU Treaty. It was a case of Gordon playing Macavity again - trying not to be at the scene of the crime.

Grumbling erupted almost immediately on the Labour benches in Westminster, where Wendy Alexander was being compared to a “suicide bomber” determined to destroy the political credibility of the UK Labour Party for her own selfish interests. Is this what Wendy Alexander is about? Is she determined to blow Labour’s UK credibility to smithereens just so she can portray herself as the new “Madame Ecosse”?

Well, some in Team Wendy believe that Brown has already blown himself to bits and has effectively lost the next UK general election. This would leave Alex Salmond, holding his autumn 2010 referendum against the backdrop of a Tory administration in Westminster. This could turn the referendum into a vote, not on the constitution, but on the restoration of Tory rule in Scotland, which is why it seemed imperative to force the referendum issue sooner rather than later.

What began as a reasonable political strategy for undermining the SNP turned into a clash of authority between Wendy and Gordon. The Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, was left in an impossible position trying not to say anything at all while being pursued by the Scottish media. If he backed Wendy he risked the wrath of Gordon; if he backed the PM he risked forcing Wendy's resignation.

We are told that Wendy Alexander has now been told to “pipe down” and that the “men in grey kilts” are preparing to give her her marching orders. However, I am not sure if there are any men in grey kilts, and I don’t see any obvious replacement for Wendy as Scottish leader. And she is unlikely to break the habit of a lifetime and stop talking.

However, she has now destroyed what credibility she had left by agreeing yesterday’s abject u-turn and by pretending that she hadn’t been serious about calling for a referendum in the first place. The whole exercise has only confirmed that Labour in Scotland simply cannot go its own way, at least under Wendy Alexander. That in the end, Labour does what it is told and is unable to speak for itself, let alone speak for Scotland.

This should have been a turning point for Labour in Scotland: the moment when it finally asserted itself against London and reinvented itself as the Scottish Labour Party, a political entity in its own right, with its own leadership, policy agenda and organisation. Wendy was right in her analysis of the political situation, but she clearly lacked the political authority to achieve the necessary outcome. She has been slapped down. Labour has been made to look absurd and the only people who benefit are the SNP.

Monday, May 19, 2008

So,what would Junior PM look like?

Hello and welcome to Junior PM, the show where you, the people, choose the leaders of tomorrow and learn to love Gordon Brown. Premium phone lines are open so you can start losing your money even before we introduce tonight's contestants.

First up, all the way from bonnie Scotland is our couthy chum, Alex “Wee Eck” Salmond. Not so wee nowadays, eh Eck? Too many haggises. ha ha. What makes you want to be Junior PM.

“Well, having personally liberated Scotland from the yoke of English rule and provided a focus of leadership for the entire free world, I modestly believe I can make anyone, even Gordon Brown dance to my jig”.

Well, let’s see if any of our wannabes can match that fancy footwork. Nick Clegg was relatively unknown until he became leader of the Liberal Democrats in December, since when he has lapsed into total obscurity. What can you deliver, Nick?

“Well, as a five times a night kind of a guy, I think that I can show that I really have the equipment, in every sense of the word, to make in today’s thrusting political market place. Just give me the chance and I will guarantee satisfaction on the night.”

Er, yes Nick. Don’t call us. Next up: Labour’s David Milliband - the Demented Millipede to his mates - ha ha just alaugh. What could you bring to the job?

“Speaking entirely for myself, I believe that unique among the candidates here gathered, I posses the very real, and very deep, and very profound values, Labour values, which makes me the only man for the job when Gordon pegs it. Also, there’s no one else.”

Final contestant is sleek Etonian Dave Cameron, an international used car salesman. Do you have what it takes to be Gordon Brown’s apprentice?

“Look, I’m not interested in apprenticeships, I am interested in selling. Selling myself. I live to sell and sell to live There is nothing I cannot sell, even a bankrupt Conservative party. Let me prove myself as project leader, I promise you won’t regret it.”

Right we’ve heard from the hopefuls; let’s hear from our judge, Gordon Brown, Britain's most belligerent boss. From humble beginnings in Fife, Scotland, Gordon Brown has built up a political empire which has lasted for nearly eleven years. He has an explosive temper and can blow up at any minute.

“There’s eh no one like me. Uh. I’m er unique. And this is the job interview from hell. Uh. I’m the only person who can make this economy work. Uh I’ve brought back inflation, rocketing food prices, economic stagnation, petrol at 112p a litre and rising energy costs. With a record like this, what can I say except Gordon - Uh - I’m fired.”

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gordon Brown's banking friends desert as UK economy redlines.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make finance ministers. Last week, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announced that the latest cunning plan for the economy was to bung £120 to basic rate tax payers. The purpose, he said, was to boost the economy by putting our money, £2.7 bn of it, back in our pockets - oh, and to compensate for the ten p tax band along the way.

Gordon Brown called it a “welcome fiscal stimulus” at a time of financial difficulty for hard working British families. And what a brilliant idea! Why had no one thought of it before? If consumer demand is failing because times are tough why not just give people more money? Problem solved.

Except that this give-away economics doesn’t seem to extend to public sector workers who are being told to accept a pay settlement lower than the rate of inflation. Surely, this is inconsistent, since this pay cut for millions of state employees will depress their buying power by almost the equivalent of the chancellor’s tax handout. Giving with one hand to take away with another doesn't make a lot of economic sense.

You might well ask why the Chancellor isn’t giving everyone a fiscal stimulus. Following Darling’s logic, if the government just gave everyone a 20% pay increase there would be no economic slowdown at all. Well, not until the public finances cracked under the strain of double digit inflation, fiscal deficits and a run on the pound. What the heck, it’s probably going to happen anyway, because the government is printing money faster than at any time since the 1970s. The results will be similar.

Like most improvised policies, the £2.7bn tax hand out was a sign of desperation. It was a spatch-cocked political bribe by a prime minister who has lost authority and a government running scared of a by-election defeat. The government has simply stopped making sense. Ministers still insist that, thanks to their prudent stewardship, the ‘economic fundamentals’ are strong. Except that increasingly they aren’t: inflation is up, unemployment is up, cost of living is up, the pound is down, housing starts are down, house prices are down etc..

And the government is all over the place. The housing minister, Caroline Flint, inadvertently revealed in her see through cabinet brief last week that the government’s own forecasts see a fall of up to 10% in house prices this year, possibly more. Now, falling house prices should, by the government’s own logic, be a good thing. One of the big themes of Gordon Brown’s premiership was supposed to be affordable housing. If housing is going to become affordable, prices must fall. So why keep this secret? Why not hail this remarkable achievement?

Well, because the government is as obsessed by house prices as Cherie Blair and just as fearful of them falling. So anxious are they that ministers are trying to lure first time buyers into a falling market by offering various subsidies when they should be doing the opposite. Ms Flint should be warning young families NOT to take on massive loans they probably can’t afford at a time when prices are expected to fall. First timers risk being in negative equity within twelve months, making the government party to a mis-selling scandal comparable to sub-prime lending.

Of course it is difficult for this government to adjust to the new economic reality. The economy has turned from nice to nasty in record time - too fast for the political cycle to catch up. But it cannot afford to be in denial. The trouble is that Gordon Brown still believes he is a master of the universe. During the boom years, he was celebrated as the greatest chancellor in over a century; a miracle worker who could defy shocks like the dotcom crash and deliver year on year growth indefinitely. In reality, he was - like the banks - riding an irresponsible and unsustainable housing and credit bubble. Tax cuts to the rich disguised how real peoples’ incomes had stagnated.

New Labour revealed itself as the bankers’ new best friend. Brown gave them “light touch” regulation, which basically meant turning London into a global Liechtenstein. Property prices entered the stratosphere, fuelled by bonuses paid to City workers - ably assisted by Cherie Blair and other Labour plutocrats who saw personal enrichment as the new socialism. Brown’s single defining act was to “liberate” the Bank of England, making it immune from political guidance or interference on interest rates. It was the definitive gesture of “hands off” - Labour laissez faire.

So, Gordon probably thought that his banking friends owed him a few favours. That if things got difficult they would stand by him, not let a liquidity shortage lead to a mortgage famine; keep the economy going by keeping interest rates low and passing any reductions on to home-buyers How wrong he was. Bankers are unsentimental creatures who don’t do favours and care little about the welfare of politicians. Four weeks ago Brown gave them £50bn of our money on the understanding that this would free up lending and bring down mortgage rates. Instead, they put them up.

Last week, Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England shot a bolt through the prime minister’s heart by delivering the grimmest assessment of Britain’s economic prospects since the ERM debacle sixteen years ago. He suggested that interest rates would not be cut until 2010, that a housing correction was underway and should not be interfered with, and that the British economy was probably going into recession - or as he put it “the odd quarter or two of negative growth” which just happens to be the definition of recession.

This bald assessment of the state of the national economy shocked Number Ten and the entire Labour party. It was the economic defeatism that hurt most. Most Labour MPs assumed that a deal had been struck during the boom years that, if house prices fell, the bank would cut interest rates and all would be well. Not any more.
There is now complete confusion in government. They just don't know what to do next.

This has been a hard lesson. The banks are in flight from risk, willing to take any handouts from government, on the strict understanding that it won’t make a blind bit of difference. They are acting to save themselves from the consequences of their own folly, leaving the government to flounder like overextended home-owners. But there are no two year fixes available to keep this government from repossession.

It could soon be black bin bag time in Number Ten. But I suspect Gordon, like his predcessor, is already considering a lucrative sinecure in one of the big banks that will cushion the blow of his political retirementr.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Labour calls for a referendum on independence.

There are times when political events read like a modern history exam question: Discuss the circumstances that led to the rise of Scottish independence, with particular reference to the SNP’s narrow victory in the 2007 election; the collapse of Gordon Brown’s authority after the aborted UK general election; and the collapse of Wendy Alexander’s call for a referendum on independence. The failed Wendyrendum is clearly a defining moment in Labour’s disintegration in Scotland.

By proposing a referendum, and then being forced by Gordon Brown to retract it, Wendy Alexander handed the SNP a double bonus. The idea of a referendum has been legitimised, and Labour in Scotland’s subservience to its London masters has been confirmed. Talk about an own goal - this like holding a penalty shoot out in your own box.

Most people in Scotland will now think a referendum is inevitable if even Labour is talking about it. And by trying to defy Gordon Brown’s authority, and then being firmly put in her place, Wendy Alexander has offered herself as a living metaphor of Scotland’s place in the Union. Some wits have even suggested that Wendy Alexander is a closet nationalist who has been working for the independence cause all along. Alex Salmond couldn't possibly have expected better of his opposition leader if he had appointed her himself. Of course, she isn’t an SNP mole; but in one sense Wendy - who is a small ‘n’ nationalist like Donald Dewar - may have unconsciously been following the logic of Scottish independence.

Labour’s situation is dire in Scotland, and something drastic had to be done. Perhaps not this drastic, but certainly things couldn’t just continue as before, with Alex Salmond being allowed to make the political weather in Scotland and making independence respectable. Labour had to strike out on its own, become more assertively Scottish, more autonomous, more detached from London.

This was clearly what she was trying to do in standing up to Brown, and it is actually not so different to what the Welsh Labour leader, Rhodri Morgan, has been doing in Wales. In Cardiff, Labour has actually entered a coalition with the nationalist Plaid Cymru, Wendy could reasonably argue that if Morgan can get into bed with the nationalists, why shouldn’t she call a vote on independence which Labour would almost certainly win?

However, she came up against the brick wall of her own lack of constitutional authority. Wendy Alexander is only the leader of the Labour group of MSPs in Holyrood, she is not the leader of the party in Scotland, Gordon Brown is. Consequently, she was always liable to be over-ruled by him after he came under pressure from Westminster MPs. Brown couldn’t just say it was “a matter for the Scottish leader to decide” because it isn’t - he is her boss and collectively responsible for her actions.

But to return to our original exam question: has independence really been brought any closer as a result of the chaos of the last ten days? Or are we simply back to the status quo ante, with no majority in the Scottish parliament for the SNP’s referendum bill? Labour has now resiled on its commitment to “support any referendum on independence” as the chairman of the Holyrood Labour Group, Duncan McNeil, put it last week. We are now told that the Wendyrendum was just a bluff, a tease, and that Labour always intended to vote against the SNP’s bill for a referendum in 2010. The other parties won’t change their minds, which means that the numbers still don’t stack up for Alex Salmond.

Well, numerically that may be the case, but politically I think the climate has changed. It is the decomposition of Scotland’s traditional party of choice, Labour, that is what we have to watch. The way things are going, the SNP may be about to welcome some new recruits. After all, what is there to stay for? Labour is a laughing stock in Holyrood, Gordon Brown is discredited and on his way out, the Tories are on their way in in Westminster. The only party, north or south, which appears to be interested in promoting recognisably Labour policies on health, council housing, education, Trident etc, is the Scottish National Party.

Many Labour party people in Scotland feel a sense of bewildered betrayal at Gordon Brown following the 10p tax debacle. Far from making a decisive break with Blairism, he seems tobe drifting even further to the right, taking his policy agenda direct from Daily Mail editorials. Building a social democratic Scottish National Party, may now be the best, perhaps the only way of ensuring that the soul of the old Scottish Labour Party lives on.

What Alex Salmond needs to do now to hasten Labour’s disintegration is to show that he is sincere in seeking a social democratic Scotland, and that he is no longer a separatist. The SNP have shown that they can implement Labour policies; now they have to show that independence does not mean cutting Scotland off from the world. Salmond realises this, of course, which is why he has been so keen to emphasise his willingness to co-operated with London on common issues, like terrorism, foot and mouth, the environment, the Grangemouth dispute, joint ministerial committees.

Salmond intends to further domesticate the idea of independence by emphasising the enduring “social union” with England, through common institutions like the Monarchy, the NHS, even the armed forces. (At the Edinburgh military Tattoo, Salmond took the salute from the Queen’s regiments and led the crowd in singing “God Save the Queen”). The SNP is in the process of redefining independence as a new kind of union - a coming together of the various nations that make up the British Isles, including possibly the Republic of Ireland.

If the SNP can demonstrate that independence is not some leap in the dark, but a natural progression from Holyrood, and that Scotland will still share a common destiny with the other nations of the UK, then he will have gone a long way to counter the charge of separatism.

Following Wendy’s double u-turn, the Alex Salmond probably will not be able to get a referendum in 2010. But he has probably already won the 2011 Holyrood election given Labour’s disarray. By then the process of ‘normalising’ independence might be well advanced. The Calman Commission will have proposed greater powers for Holyrood which will further legitimise the idea of extending devolution. And with a Tory government in Westminster possibly curbing the voting rights of Scottish MPs, the scene may be set for a replay of the 1997 devolution referendum some time after 2012. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Friday, May 09, 2008

How the BBC fails Scotland - and its own staff

It’s the little things about BBC Scotland that tell you all you need to know. The way that Jeremy Paxman repeatedly crashes the junction between the UK Newsnight and its Scottish ‘opt out’ forcing Newsnight Scotland to stagger uncertainly onto the air as if it didn’t know what time it was. Hitting junctions is largely what presenters are paid for, and the fact that no one tells Paxo to fulfil his job description shows just how little clout Scotland has in our “One BBC”

There is a particular quality to BBC Scotland output which says: “second rate”. It has a lot to do with subliminal factors like the lighting of BBC Scotland programmes which is often flat and harsh. It gives the output that distinctive ‘regional’ feel, which is helped by the inattention to basic production values. Last time I went to do an interview on BBC Holyrood Live - a programme I used to present - I discovered that they had sacked their make up lady.

That may not seem all that important - why flatter the vanity of politicians and hacks anyway? But an hour long studio-based television programme without any make up is not television - it is something else, something that BBC Scotland has made its own: Jockvision - the benchmark of broadcast mediocrity. At the very least it betrays an astonishing lack of concern about how BBC Scotland programmes look.

This doesn’t happen by accident, and it isn’t the fault of the people making the programmes, many of whom are dedicated beyond reason. It is a structural issue; to do with BBC’s budgeting and editorial policy. It is all about Scotland’s place in the corporation and keeping it there. BBC Scotland is made to look regional - it doesn’t happen by accident. I presented BBC Scotland political programmes for many years, and share the blame for their mediocrity. But when you know what goes on in there, you realise how the system works. The programmes were deliberately made to a lower standard than their London “network” equivalents.

Scottish viewers loathe what they see on the screen because it makes them feel bad, because it tells them that they are provincial. There’s metropolitan orthodoxy that “provincial” Scots just lack the talent. This is said quite openly by media folk like Michael Grade of ITV who told a conference last year that the reason there weren’t more programmes made in Scotland was because Scotland just couldn’t make them of sufficient quality. But there is nothing the gene pool that makes Scots bad at TV - most of the media in London is run by Scots. The real question is why Scots broadcasters are there and not here.

In the 1990s, I used to present Westminster Live, which was a low-budget vehicle vehicle for the televising of parliament, but low budget has a totally different meaning in London. In 1999, I came to Holyrood to present the equivalent programmes from the Scottish parliament. The staffing was less than half that of th Westminster equivalent, there was no dedicated graphics and it was broadcast from a radio studio. Well, I was told, Scotland has a tenth of the population so we get a tenth of the programme budgets. This was of course absurd, and I said so. Why should programmes from the Scottish parliament be made to an inferior standard to comparable programmes from Westminster? The answer to that was: “Well, nobody’s watching and the bosses don’t care so why should we”.

This air of cynical resignation is prevalent throughout BBC Scotland, and it is getting worse. The state of morale in the organisation is lower than any time I can remember. Anyone who can is getting out. Radio Scotland is becoming so dumbed down it is losing the capacity for speech. BBC Scotland has retreated in fear from the new constitutional agenda, and the questions posed by a nationalist government. It has retreated into a cultural laager.

The only thing that BBC Scotland seems interested in is the promotion of gaelic language through the launch of the first gaelic television channel next year. This is admirable, but no substitute for proper English language broadcasting. It always puzzled me that the only programme with a budget to do extensive filing abroad was the gaelic language programme Eorpa. I once offered to have my programmes dubbed in gaelic as a way of getting BBC Scotland executives to watch them, but the idea was never taken up.

BBC Scotland has been a running sore in Scottish society for as long as I can remember. But at last there is changed political environment since the Scottish elections last May. A bomb has been placed under the shiny bottoms and cultural cliques at Pacific Quay. The Scottish Broadcasting Commission under the former BBC head of news and current affairs, Blair Jenkins, has finally given Scots an opportunity to say what they really think about their television, and to focus their thoughts about what a national broadcasting service should do. On Tuesday evening the Sunday Herald is sponsoring an event at with the Scottish Broadcasting Commission at St Andrews in the Square “Democracy and Broadcasting: Is Scotland Being Served” to explore exactly what BBC Scotland should be responding to cultural and constitutional change.

In the six months or so since it was set up the Scottish Broadcasting Commission has already delivered important changes. After revealing how the BBC had failed to honour its responsibility to commission network programmes from Scotland, the Direct General himself, Mark Thompson, came north to promise a tripling of network commissions. This £40 million will help to revive the moribund broadcasting sector in Scotland.

But it’s not just a question of getting a better Scottish share of the network budget. It is about how Scotland is revealed to itself on its own media. The cultural importance of broadcasting is immense - it is how a nation talks to itself. And we really cannot go on contributing so much money in our license fees for such a poor representation of our national life.
For the absurdity of having the supposedly “national” news bulletins and current affairs programmes like Newsnight dominated by stories about English education, English health, English local government, about hospital trusts, grammar schools, London transport. The BBC has completely failed to come to terms with devolution, failed to register in its running orders the new constitutional priorities. Scotland’s subordinate status is embedded in the very architecture of the programmes. The fifteen minute opt out from Newnight is a constant source of irritation.

BBC Scotland suffers from a toxic combination of inadequate funding, poor morale and a failure of leadership. It is , I am afraid, a function of the increasing “localisation” of non-metropolitan broadcasting. At a time when the commercial stations are retreating from public service broadcasting altogether, the BBC is more important than ever. The principle of “One BBC” is supposed to unite the people of the UK in one common television family, but everything the BBC does confirms the suspicion that Scotland is the poor relation. It’s time for BBC Scotland to grow up.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Summer of Discontent - Is it back to the 70s?

“Here we go, here we go, here we go!”. It’s back to the Seventies, with key energy workers on strike, a Labour government collapsing, an oil price crisis, growing inflation and a banking crisis. For the miners in the 70s, read oil workers at Grangemouth, who have a stranglehold on the nation’s power supplies.

For Yom Kippur read the Iraq war, which has also led to a quadrupling of oil prices. We even have a re-run of the secondary banking crisis that hit the City of London in the 1970s and helped lead the Tory PM Edward Heath to condemn the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. And of course we have a fag-end Labour goverment collapsing under a Prime Minister who cancels elections.

History doesn’t repeat itself, of course; it only rhymes. There are many differences in the industrial climate today which make a “Summer of Discontent” on the scale of the 1979 “Winter of Discontent” most unlikely. Nearly thirty years of Thatcherite policies, pursued as enthusiastically by New Labour as by the Conservatives, for a start. Only about half as many workers are in trades unions now as in the 70s. Britain’s tradition of industrial militancy has been destroyed by New Labour’s flexible market policies and by mass immigration, which has eroded the bargaining power of British workers.

Nevertheless, I think we could witnessing a turning point in public attitudes to industrial relations. It would be wrong for politicians to underestimate the determination of what we now call middle class people to defend their living standards. The employees at Grangemouth have been right royally ridiculed in soaraway tabloids for having gold-plated pensions and earnings in excess of £30,000 a year. Actually, after inflation, that’s not much more than the miners were earning in their heyday. But the media has attacked them as greedy and irresponsible. “Why should they have decent pensions when the rest of us don’t” - is the line in most red-top editorials.

Speaking as one of those who has been ripped off by private pensions myself for over twenty years I can’t help looking a little enviously at people with final salary schemes. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to leap into bed with reclusive billionaire, Jim Ratcliffe of INEOS, a private equity capitalist whose business model is to buy companies, load them with debt and then raid their pension funds. He has been dubbed “Dr No” for his refusal to negotiate with his employees. This is a very different kettle of capitalism from BP, with its corporate responsibility budgets and its agonising over the environment.

What tends to happen in times of economic turmoil - when capital seeks to secure profit and employees to save their salaries - is that groups of key workers assume a leadership role, like the miners in the 70s, and fight key battles which the others follow. There are always two sides to a dispute, but I suspect a lot of ordinary employees across the country would be happy to see a group of workers succeed for once in defending pension rights, if only because it might their employers think twice about raiding theirs.

Now, the Grangemouth workers are not , of course, the miners, who fielded huge battallions of militant workers on the industrial confrontations. Remember the Saltley Coke depot; the flying pickets; the battle of Orgreave. You won’t find Grangemouth men fighting police on horseback. Nevertheless, there may be lessons learned here about how these conflicts are going to be conducted in future, as the economy sinks into recession. The first is that in a highly integrated economy like ours, small groups of workers can have disproportionate clout.

It has come as a rude shock to the government to discover, not only that the country can be plunged into a fuel crisis within days, but also that North Sea Oil production can be shut down in short order. In the Seventies, thousands of miners and car workers could down tools for months without anyone really noticing. A complex economy like ours creates choke points which can hand bargaining power to groups of workers which Red Robbo could only have dreamed of.

Will they use this powers responsibly? Well, that remains to be seen. We live in a very different moral climate to that of the 1970s, when groups of workers saw themselves as leaders of an entire industrial class. The eternal conflict of capital and labour continues of course, but the waters they fight in are very much more muddy. I doubt if the Grangemouth workers see themselves as agents of social reform and champions of the dispossessed in the way the miners did in the 70s.

To an extent we are all thatcherites now. In the 70s most workers lived in council houses; now most of
them have mortgages and many will have been keeping theri living standards raised through equity withdrawal. Now that this has evaporated, they are discovering that their earnings are not as high as they thought. They can also see that their pensions are going to be hit hard in future as inflation increases following cuts in interest rates.

Grangemouth is a highly sophisticated, post-modern dispute, which is not about pay as such, but about deferred reward - a middle class concept. Industrial workers like miners didn’t fight over pensions because many knew they would not live long enough to collect them. If pensions are the new battleground of industrial struggle, the conflcit is going to be fought with very different tools - accountancy and actuarial tables rather than wage bargaining.

My own view is that we are going to see very much more of this kind of dispute in future. Workers in IT, media, financial services, energy, pharmaceuticals who probably don’t even think of themselves as workers are finding their living standards squeezed by inflation, mortgage rate, energy costs and petrol. Moreover, they are increasingly facing anonymous and intransigent bosses, many of whom don’t actually live here.

Much of the British economy - from airports to shipping lines, from gas pipelines to banks - has been sold to foreign companies, or to hedge funds and private equity capitalists like Jim Ratcliffe. This changes the character of workplace disputes. The old game of the 1970s, of big unions facing big corporations with the government trying to hold the ring has gone. Notice how both the Scottish and UK governments have stepped aside from Grangemouth.

In some ways we are seeing a return to capitalism of old, to owners who don’t pretend to be part of civil society. The world has changed and the industrial dynamics of this latest economic crisis will be different. But don’t expect that working people won’t fight just because they don’t hold factory gate meetings anymore.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Nepotism -keep it in the family. MPs hiring their relations

There was widespread shock and outrage in Westminster last week at reports that some Members of Parliament are employing people who are not family members. Instead of hiring wives, children and girlfriends as researchers and secretaries, these rogue MPs have been advertising posts in the press and inviting qualified people to apply for them.

The so-called “skilled workers” are then selected on merit after job interviews and are paid public money to do important political work in parliament, like researching legislation and answering letters from constituents. The move breaks centuries of tradition in which MPs pay large sums of tax-payer’s money to members of their own families who do virtually no work at all.

“It’s a diabolical liberty”, said one MP who did not want to be named. “We’ve always paid our relatives to work for us because we can keep an eye on them and it means we can double up on their salaries. If MPs start hiring ordinary members of the public, they might actually start getting the right people for the job. Then where would we be?”

The Speaker of the Commons, Michael Martin, has ordered a full scale inquiry into the “jobs-for-skills” scandal. “We can’t allow members to act in such an irresponsible manner” said a source close to the Speaker’s office. “Hiring people with good qualifications will only bring parliament further into disrepute and cause embarrassment to MPs by revealing how incompetent they are.”

Under the codes of secrecy that operate in the House of Commons, MPs do not have to publish their expenses or details of whom they employ in their offices. However, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith says she employs her husband as her parliamentary assistant on £30,000, as does the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, and MPs like Peter Hain and Sir Stuart Bell.

The Tory MP Derek Conway paid his sons Freddie and Henry more than £80,000 over three years to work as parliamentary researchers while they were both full time students. Colourful Henry described himself as “blond, bouncy and one for the boys”. It is argued that parliament would become a much duller place if these jobs were given to boring responsible people who did in depth parliamentary research instead of spending their time organising parties with titles like “F*uck of, I’m Rich”.

But government sources last night poured cold water on the jobs-for-skills scandal. Said one: “It’s not the government’s job to tell MPs whom to employ. Asking Members of Parliament to give jobs to people who could actually do them would be contrary to natural justice. It would discriminate against public school hooray Henries who can’t do anything else. Moreover, professional staff would turn MPs into a damn nuisance. Nepotism has always been the British way - we like to keep it in the family”.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Burma - and where is Gordon Brown?

In his recent book, “Courage: Eight Portraits” Gordon Brown praised the Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi as a fearless prisoner of conscience battling a state with one of the worst human rights records in the world.. So, where is Gordon Brown now that Burma has been devastated, and the generals discredited, by Cyclone Nargis? Courage seems suddenly to be in short supply in Number Ten.

Apart from a token denunciation of the junta’s “unacceptable” behaviour, Brown has largely absented himself form the worst natural disaster since the Asian Tsunami. Yet we all remember how Gordon Brown leapt onto the international stage after the Boxing Day inundation in 2004. Then, he commanded the international stage; challenged the conscience of the developed world; campaigned, not just for emergency relief, but for the elimination of the debts of the poor countries.

We could do with a bit of that spirit now. Brown may not be able to force the generals to step aside and allow the aid agencies to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, but he could at least do something. Why has it been left to the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to call for emergency food drops? Shouldn’t Brown be holding talks with the chiefs of staff to see if Britain could help out? No one is talking about invading Burma, but Britain is one of the few countries which could organise airborne relief with naval back-up.

In terms of crude politics, is astonishing that Brown has not sought to minimise his domestic difficulties by reminding us of his great anti-poverty initiatives of 2005, especially since the doubling of world food prices has undone much of what was achieved by the G8 Gleneagles Summit which he inspired. Perhaps he doesn’t want to remind us. Back then Brown was one of the most influential political figures in the world - almost as influential as Bono or Saint Bob! As one of the most successful chancellors in modern history, Brown’s command of economics was considered to be unmatched and leaders of the industrial nations hung on his every word. It all seems a very long time ago.

When he was chancellor, Brown bestrode the world, but now as prime minister, he can barely bestride the gutter outside Number Ten. Brown has been forced into a desperate u-turn on the ten pence tax band, and has been defied by his own protégé, Wendy Alexander, over a referendum on independence. Ten days ago, he suffered his party’s worst local election results since 1968, as Labour plunged to third place behind the Liberal Democrats in the English local elections. Losing London to Boris Johnson has handed the Tories their first electoral victory since 1992. On Friday, Brown suffered Labour’s worst opinion poll rating since records began as YouGov put Labour at 23% - 26 points behind the Conservatives on 49%.

We are watching one of the most astonishing reversals of fortune in modern political history. It's hardly original to say it has the quality of a Shakespearean tragedy, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic. For those of us who have watched Brown over the last thirty years, it almost seems as if he has become a different person. Where is the politician of courage and ambition who tried to make poverty history? Three years ago, Brown didn’t need to prattle about his”moral compass” . He didn’t dither and prevaricate.

You couldn’t have imagined the old Gordon getting into this muddle over the ten p tax band, or shamelessly appeasing the wealthy over tax reliefs. Dancing shamelessly to the Daily Mail agenda over refuse collection, youth crime and cannabis reform. I’m almost tempted to believe some of those stories circulating Westminster about Brown having had some kind of breakdown caused by the strain of public exposure. His wife Sarah told a woman’s magazine recently that he is working 20 hour days.

Perhaps he is spending too many of those hours with the merchant bankers and PR people who run his private office. But Gordon Brown must know surely that he is a champion of the dispossessed or he is nothing. That is what people expected of him when he took over from Tony Blair; that was always his personal mission statement. Brown may not have been elected by vote, but when he became leader last summer he had a moral mandate to change direction.

Britain wanted out of Iraq; wanted an end to the sleaze and scandal of Blair’s cash-for-honours, wanted the extravagant bonus culture of the City of London to be challenged; and wanted a degree of fairness restored to society, especially in areas like housing. What the country didn’t want was Blair minus the charisma. The British voters may not be socialists, but they have gut revulsion to extreme disparities of wealth. They don’t like seeing their own children mired in debt before they are thirty and trying to raise a family in a two bedroom flat

After a decade of largely stagnant earnings, and with the mortgage famine and now food price inflation, there is real anxiety stalking the suburbs. Witness all those features in the press about ‘making do and mending’ as middle classes start to feel the pinch. The credit crisis has turned us all into neo-marxists, resentful at the way the financiers of the City enriched themselves by playing roulette on the derivatives market and are now demanding public money to pay their losses. Can there have been any time in the last thirty years when more people have felt that the rich have lost their moral bearings? You have to go back to the Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, talking about the “unacceptable face of capitalism” back in 1972, during the last great banking and debt crisis.

The great mystery is why Gordon Brown has failed to respond to this new moral climate. It is right up his street. Why hasn’t he been taking the super rich to task over their lack of social responsibility, and demanding a new political settlement between capital and the people? Instead of handing billions to the banks, he should surely have focussed discontent at the way they have cynically created a debt society and plundered our pensions in the process.

The financial crisis is a global one. Brown could have used his international profile to lead a global response, seeking international regulation of finance and controls on speculation in essential commodities like food. The alternative is a breakdown of international free trade. He could have used the Burmese cyclone to remind people, as he did once before, that we are all one planet, are interdependent, and that we must work together or end up returning to the days of autarky, competitive devaluation, depression and war. That’s what one of his heroes would have done. Unfortunately, it seems there are no more heroes any more, at least not in Number Ten.

Salmond's first year in power. A blinder.

On the afternoon of May 4th. 2007, when Alex Salmond arrived in triumph at Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House by helicopter, he didn’t actually know that he had won the Holyrood election even as he declared victory. Most of his team didn’t either because some constituencies had yet to declare. It was an exercise in sheer political chutzpah, a gamble that paid off. A year on, Salmond is still collecting his winnings

Even when the final result was declared at 5.40pm and the SNP emerged as the largest party, with 47 seats to Labour’s 46, Salmond still hadn’t really ‘won’ the election. There was no guarantee that the SNP leader would be elected First Minister by the 129 MSPs in new Scottish parliament. Indeed, we now know from the memoirs of the Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, and other sources, that Gordon Brown was convinced that Labour had won a great moral victory and that a new Liberal-Labour coalition was the logical and necessary result of the split election result. They even tried to persuade a sceptical Jack McConnell to dig in.

Yet from the moment Salmond set foot on Holyrood turf, everyone could see that this was his moment. Through the fuzzy logic of the election result, and after the most chaotic ballot in British history, in which 145,000 Scots were effectively disenfranchised, only one thing stood out with any clarity: Salmond’s sheer determination to govern. He seized control of the Scottish state, brushing aside Labour and the shell-shocked Liberal Democrats, coopting the minor parties and even winning back the heart, or at any rate the head, of the Independent MP Margo MacDonald - the former SNP icon who’d left the party because she couldn’t stand Alex Salmond’s overbearing manner. Now her solitary vote could wipe out Salmond’s majority over Labour.

Yes, it was a political coup - a revolutionary moment even. But Alex Salmond didn’t need any guns or dodgy ballot papers to get his hands on the levers of power, just the strength of his own conviction. It was essentially the failure of the the Liberal Democrats and Labour, their demoralisation and lack of political vision, which allowed Salmond to claim the prize. To declare his party first among equals in a parliament of minorities. The Scottish Tories wisely realised that the Scottish voters had voted for change, and refused to join any “pan-unionist” attempt to block Salmond from being elected First Minister.

The speeches made by Salmond in those early days in May, the most eloquent I have ever heard in the Holyrood debating chamber,confirmed that the SNP leader was the only politician in Holyrood with the confidence and the imagination to lead Scotland, even as he said that he would be led by the will of parliament. Salmond promised a new kind of politics, in which cooperation and consensus would replace executive bullying. It was to be a “more reflective model of government” which would “rely on the strength of argument in parliament, not the argument of parliamentary strength”. Even some on the SNP benches had to pinch themselves to hear Alex Salmond talk so fondly of yielding power.

But what the new First Minister had realised was that he didn’t actually need votes in parliament to govern Scotland. He could to a great deal through executive action alone, by the power of his own pen, by the rights conferred upon him by the Scotland Act. The great irony of this first ever nationalist administration is that nearly everything it has achieved has been within the existing constitutional settlement. It took a nationalist government to discover the power of devolution.

After he was elected as First Minister, Salmond gathered his team together and told them bluntly to prepare for personal sacrifice. He was going to work 24/7 in Scotland’s cause, not sparing himself, and he expected everyone to do the same - or to step aside. They have set a blistering if sometimes chaotic pace. I recall arriving at Bute House for a meeting with the First Minister around this time and finding him in the state room surrounded by young aides, piles of paper and empty coffee cups. Civil servants scurried in and out as if they were living in the early days of a better country. It was never like this under the previous management.

These rookie ministers may have been making it up as they go along, but they managed to look as if they know what they’re doing. Officials I have spoken to over the past year all tell the same story: that they were impressed not only by the energy and sense of purpose of the new administration, but also by its apparent professionalism. Nicola Sturgeon seized the hydra-headed health department by the scruff of the neck and delivered a cut in prescription charges, and saved Monklands Accident and Emergency, despite a ferociously tight budget. The finance minister, John Swinney, froze council tax, negotiated a politically valuable concordat with Scottish local authorities, and delivered his budget on time against the parliamentary odds. One unlikely hero emerged in the shape of Bruce Crawford, as Parliament Minister,who managed to deliver parliamentary votes on local income tax, Trident and higher education even when the parliamentary numbers were against him.

Where had this expertise come from? None of the politicians in the Salmond cabinet had any ministerial experience, they have no wise party graybeards to counsel them, no collective memory of being in office. Unlike under Labour, there were no minders sent up from London to guide and advise - mind you, perhaps that was one of their strengths. One of the minority government’s other strengths lay in its not being part of a coalition, which has made decision-making much easier. The LibDems unexpectedly refused even to discuss terms for a partnership coalition, perhaps believing that the SNP would be unable to survive long as a minority government. If so , they were seriously mistaken.

One year on, and the Salmondistas are still in power, their popularity rising by the day. If there were an election tomorrow, they would probably be returned by a landslide, which is one important reason why this minority government is still in office. The bigger parties could easily have brought Salmond’s government down by mobilising the anti-nationalist vote in the Scottish parliament. But they knew that if they forced a confidence vote, it would probably precipitate an early election - and to Salmond returning with more power to his elbow. After the budget vote in November, Labour was left having to vote against its own motion to ensure that it didn’t bring down Salmond’s government by accident.

Of course, it hasn’t all been plane sailing. It is fashionable in Holyrood watering holes to declare that the beginning of the end of Salmond’s great adventure may already be in sight. Problems over replacing the Private Finance Initiative with an ill-thought-out Scottish Futures Trust, combined with widespread criticism of the SNP’s plans for a local income tax, have - it is said - knocked the gloss of this upstart administration Salmond has peaked; from here on it is all glum faces and lost illusions.

But I am not so sure the end is nigh for the Nats. Complex questions about the over-centralisation of local authority fund-raising under LIT, and about whether bond issues are ultra-vires under the Scotland Act, are not the kind of things that get people talking during happy hour. Off balance sheet scams like PFI/PPP are anyway emerging as costly ways of financing schools and hospitals, and are under challenge from the EU. Certainly, there have been promises broken by the SNP, over “additional” police, over abolishing all student debt, and over those £2,000 hand-outs to first time buyers. However, there is little evidence yet that the voters have noticed, or that they care about these relatively minor set backs. What the voters have noticed - this very month of April - is their council tax being frozen, prescription charges cut in half, local businessmen relieved of rates, bridge tolls abolished and at the graduate endowment scrapped.

Labour have denounced the SNP’s “populist” policies as cynical attempts to court electoral support, while privately wishing they had been able to deliver them themselves. But Wendy Alexandere has been careful not to oppose the giveaways, even as she insists that the government cannot afford them. The SNP government knew they might only have a few months to live, so they lived a lot, on the razzle-dazzle if not the never-never. No one yet knows where the money is coming from to pay for it all, especially since Westminster has handed the fledgeling administration the lowest public spending settlement since devolution - 1.8% over three years, or 1.4% if you accept the SNP argument about the lowered baseline for health spending. Four years ago, annual increases in the Scottish Executive budget were running at over 5% a year. The cash to pay for things like boosting free personal care, back-dating the NHS pay awards, and such like must be coming from somewhere, but so far no one has worked out exactly where.

The SNP has a lot of big ticket items in the pipeline too - like the border rail line, the new Forth Bridge, dualing the A9, completing the M74. It stands to reason that good times cannot last forever and that budgetary chickens must come home to roost. Higher education is one area where the financial squeeze could damage recruitment and university expansion and the school building programme could be at risk. The ending of ring-fencing in council spending has led to high profile with cuts in services to the disabled, elderly and the like which Labour are quick to blame on the government.

The former Labour health minister Andy Kerr has
labelled the SNP “heirs to Thatcherism”, for cutting social services to pay for their pro-business policies. Labour’s Scottish leader, Wendy Alexander, has accused Alex Salmond of leaving his door open to rich men like Brian Souter and Donald Trump while locking out the poor and needy. This line of attack might have carried more weight had Labour been more conspicuously socialist when they were in office. Why didn't they curb the right to buy, restart council housebuilding, oppose Trident, replace PFI as have the SNP? The charge of "Thatcherism" has a distinct air of pots and kettles at a time when the Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been caught hammering the poor by cutting the 10p tax band.

There are other areas where the SNP is caught between populism and principle. The Scottish government’s energy policy is clearly in difficulties, with the rejection of the massive Lewis wind farm bringing into question its commitement to renewable energy. Many other wind farms are in the pipeline and local opposition to them will only increase. The Pentland Firth may be the Saudi Arabia of tidal energy, but it is decades away from being developed commercially. The strike at the former BP refinery at Grangemouth looks ominous. A fuel crisis is the last thing this government needs - especially since it lacks the power to control prices or introduce rationing.

So, there could be troubles ahead. But the one thing that hasn’t caused significant trouble so far has been relations with Westminster. Yes there have been spats over al Megrahi, council tax benefit, the cost of G8 policing, but no real bust ups. Many people expected that the SNP in office would spend much more of its time picking fights with UK ministries, blaming London for Scotland’s ills and turning the Scottish Executive into a £30 billion battering ram for independence. It hasn’t happened. The SNP have not behaved like “Trot nats” indulging in gesture politics and causing pointless disruption to peoples’ lives. Alex Salmond knows that the SNP will only win the trust of the Scottish voter if it shows that it is capable of responsible and effective government. Ministers have got their head down and worked their socks off .

The ‘let’s-show-‘em’ strategy seems to have paid off. There are signs that Salmond may now be converting support for the SNP government in Holyrood into support for Scottish independence. The latest TNS/System Three opinion poll in the Sunday Herald two weeks ago suggested that a majority of Scots may now support negotiated independence for Scotland. Other polls have shown such a majority in the past, but not since the election of an SNP government. Having seen the SNP in action, there is every indication that the Scottish voters are impressed with their nationalist experiment, and that they are thinking harder about self-government than ever before.

In the past, independence was a vague and distant possibility; a world of fantasy politics. Now, with a dynamic nationalist administration in office, it is now possible to see what independence might actually look like in practice. Across Scotland surprising people, like the scottish billionaire Tom Hunter, and Stephen Purcell, the Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, are talking seriously about a referendum on independence. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s attempts to build a popular campaign for the Union seems to have run into the sand along with his leadership. A lot has changed in the last twelve months, Scotland most of all. It may be that the real battle for Britain is about to begin.