Thursday, 29 January 2009

Ending the budget chaos

What would it take for the Scottish Lib Dems to back the new budget that the Gnats will be putting before the Scottish Parliament, following the rejection of the original yesterday?

Caron has already given one answer and that's certainly something worthy of consideration. But I would like to throw something else into the discussion, which I think would be equally beneficial.

It looks like we're not going to get the 2p income tax cut we proposed, but that doesn't mean we should abandon all ideas of doing something to help the economy. Looking at our manifesto from the 2007 elections, I see lots of good ideas in there which would help Scottish businesses through these difficult times.

For instance, we proposed doubling the support available to small businesses and setting up a fund to help small community retailers. Progress towards that would certainly be an option to win Lib Dem support. Combine that with a return to 2007 levels of funding for Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise and I suspect the Gnats might well be close to a deal.

There are other options as well: progress on our long-term target to treble research and development or the WiFi Towns and Cities Fund mentioned in the manifesto would certainly be possibilities. And ending the proposed cuts to bus and train transport in Scotland, which I highlighted in a previous post, should certainly be on the table.

But all this requires the Gnats to stop their posturing and arrogance and really make an effort to reach consensus on a budget which does something for the Scottish economy. The budget they proposed was so inadequate to the task that rejecting it was the best choice for Scotland. Perhaps now they will be ready to recognise their minority status in the Scottish Parliament and work with others on a budget that meets Scotland's needs.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Gnats' arrogance is to blame for budget chaos

There's only one group of people to blame for the Scottish Parliament's rejection of the budget: the Gnat government themselves.

Alex Salmond and co refused even to discuss the principle of putting more money back into people's pockets to help address the current economic crisis, as suggested by the Scottish Lib Dems. They refused to accept the Greens' suggestion of £100 million more for home insulation. And they refused to accept the Labour demand for more money for training and apprenticeships. Had they accepted any of those ideas, they could have got their budget through.

The Tories, as usual, allowed themselves to be bought off cheaply once again, showing yet again that they're not to be trusted in standing up against the arrogance and posturing of the SNP.

Salmond seems to have forgotten that when you run a minority aqdministration, it's incumbent on you to try and build consensus to get your budget and your legislation through. He's failed to do that.

He's responded to the defeat of the budget by saying that the SNP was putting itself on an election footing, the political equivalent of taking your ball home. What he seems to have forgotten is that whether there's a new election is not entirely his decision - it depends on what the other parties do as well.

I would suggest that the opposition parties ought to take their opposition to the budget to its logical conclusion and table a motion of no confidence in the Gnat administration. Even the Scottish Tories might baulk at supporting the Gnats in a confidence vote, meaning that the Scottish Government would fall. If no alternative government can then be formed, obviously an election would take place, but there's no necessity for one if a new government can take office.

And although Salmond seems to be relishing the possibility of an election, he would do well to bear in mind that the Gnats now have a record to defend. In the Highlands, for instance, the Gnats campaigned before the 2007 election in favour of a new bypass for Inverness. But now the Gnat MSPs will have to explain to the electorate just why such a bypass appears nowhere in their own government's transport plan. It's that record of broken promises and posturing which the Gnats will have to defend.

I expect it won't quite come to that and the Gnats will find just enough to buy off at least the abstention of the Greens when they put the budget through again. But they could have saved everyone a lot of trouble had they been a bit less arrogant in advance of the budget vote.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Now there's no doubt

Following the foul-up at the inauguration, Barack Obama has now taken the oath again. Now there's absolutely no doubt that he is legally the President of the United States of America.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The New Ten Commandments and the Carnival of Liberty

Just been to Eden Court Theatre in Inverness to see The New Ten Commandments.

If you've never heard of this film before, it's got a slightly misleading title, as it would have been more accurate to call it 10 Short Films About Freedom. Inspired by the 60th anniversary of the passing of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, 10 Scottish film-makers have produced segments focusing on particular rights guaranteed by the Declaration.

The film, and the brief discussion hosted by Amnesty International afterwards, made a few things abundantly clear. Firstly, each one of us depends on the rights contained within the Universal Declaration in ways we very often fail to realise. Human rights and liberty are not some arty-farty job creation scheme for overpaid lawyers; they are the vital lifeblood of our everyday lives.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the responsibility for defending those rights rests with each and every one of us. What was striking about the film was that people very often fail to realise how human rights affect them - until they have an asylum-seeking neighbour removed by the authorities in a dawn raid or have a daughter who takes a flight which comes to an abrupt end over Lockerbie, or have a brother jailed just for looking at extremist Islamic sites on the internet. All of these people suddenly realised that fighting for freedom is something they have to do themselves, not rely on others to do for them.

And that brings me to the Carnival of Liberty. This is a fantastic idea from James Graham. Basically, to coincide with the Convention on Modern Liberty, the idea is to get as many people as possible talking about what liberty means to them and the action we can all take to protect it. To that end, James suggests tagging five people and getting them to blog on the subject.

The five I nominate to make their contribution to the Carnival are:
Iain Rubie Dale.
Willie Rennie MP.
Bill Cameron.
Sara Bedford.
Ed Fordham.

But more important than all this is actually to take some action to uphold human rights, both in this country and across the world. You (yes, you) can do that by joining or donating to a group such as Amnesty, Liberty, Human Rights Watch or NO2ID. Or by organising an event to coincide with the Convention. Or by showing your support for Universal Declaration. Or by writing to the papers or by organising a petition or by... well, you get the picture.

If freedom's important to you, then do something about it.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Is Obama legally the US President?

On a similar theme to the last posting, it could be argued that Barack Obama has not yet become the President.

The form of words in the presidential oath of office is specified in the Constitution, but Chief Justice Roberts made a mistake in his recitation of it - switching the word 'faithfully' to after 'the office of President of the United States'.

After a hesitation, Obama repeated this incorrect version. As he has not therefore taken the oath of office as specified in the Constitution, is he legally the US President?

Who succeeded George W Bush as US President?

That may seem an odd question to ask given that many of us have just watched Barack Obama being sworn into office as the 44th President of the USA.

However, the 20th amendment to the US constitution specifically says that the term of office of a President ends at noon on January 20.

Obama didn't actually take the oath of office until 12.03.

I would therefore contend that the person who succeeded George W Bush as President was in fact Acting President Joe Biden - for a whole three minutes!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Eight years of Bush in eight minutes

Keith Olbermann gives his summary of the Bush years:

Friday, 16 January 2009

Bush's farewell speech

The battles waged by our troops are part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different systems. Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience, and marks unbelievers for murder.

And the other is Al-Qaeda.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

And nothing but the truth?

Today's call by Holyrood Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson for the Standards and Privileges Committee to investigate the truthfulness of ministerial replies to the Scottish Parliament is welcome in one sense.

It does, as Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott said, put the Gnat government on notice that it can't expect to get away with being cavalier in its statements to parliament, which it often has been over the past 18 months.

But don't expect anything much to come from any inquiry. Ultimately, it's down to MSPs themselves to ensure that statements given to Parliament are accurate, and to hold people to account if they are not.

Fergusson is correct that it is not a matter for him to rule on whether an answer is accurate or not - he doesn't have the knowledge of every aspect of government policy and business to decide whether a minister is telling porkies or being economical with the truth. No Presiding Officer can be expected to act as the referee on everything ministers say.

MSPs as a whole have to stand up for themselves and do exactly what Tavish did with the Scottish Interfaith Council, which is to examine what a minister has said and expose any contradiction with the facts. That's what accountability is all about.

Keeping the local in local government

The Herald today launched a debate about whether there should be a local government shake-up in Scotland, suggesting that the number of local authorities could be cut from 32 to 10.

There is some merit to what they say. There's no particular reason why Scotland should have 32 local authorities and the way the boundaries are drawn around some of Scotland's cities (especially Glasgow) doesn't seem to have a great deal of logic behind it.

But there are reasons to be sceptical about whether creating just 10 super-authorities is the right approach. For a start, the idea that this is the optimum number of local authorities doesn't seem to be based on any particular evidence. If larger bodies are inherently more efficient, then why bother having local government at all? Why not just have a single director of education sitting in Edinburgh, or a single Scotland-wide waste collection contract?

Of course, this argument could be applied even further: let's just run everything from London or Brussels. And it simply isn't the case that larger organisations are inherently more efficient than smaller ones; they offer far more scope for bureaucratic nonsense, while smaller ones are often more flexible and responsive.

And that's highlighted by some of the examples The Herald focuses on. People in Clackmannanshire, for instance, seem to appreciate the services they get from their local council and the way they can get things done quickly and easily. And East Dunbartonshire is described as one of Scotland's smallest and most successful authorities.

Another problem is that this is a bizarre time to introduce such a debate. With the economy in recession and councils facing a severe financial squeeze, is it really the time for local government to go through a costly reorganisation? That's especially the case when, as Richard Kerley notes, the projected savings from previous local government shake-ups have often been overstated or even illusory.

But the biggest difficulty with The Herald's proposals is that by reducing the number of local authorities to just 10, you're inevitably taking government further away from people and reducing the opportunities for people to get involved. If local government is to have any meaning, then it has to involve people having the ability to shape what happens in their patch. Having 10 super-authorities will make that far more difficult.

Indeed, I would argue there is a case for having smaller authorities rather than bigger ones. Golspie has as much right to decide how it's governed as Glasgow does. It's also a nonsense that Highland Council stretches from Durness in the north-west to Dalwhinnie in the south-east, a distance of getting on for 200 miles. Highland Council covers an area roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium.

But The Herald is to be congratulated for raising this debate, as it is important to consider the future of local government. However, the discussion should be centring more on empowering local communities by drawing down as much power from Holyrood as possible. We should also be looking at giving local authorities the right to raise finance from a defined range of taxes, rather than focusing on the sterile debate about replacing council tax with local income tax.

Local government does need to be revitalised. But creating super-authorities is not the answer. Local government must stay local.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The Labour mindset in a nutshell

Just had a quick look at the new LabourList website and I can't say I was terribly impressed with what I saw.

It's being billed as the Labour alternative to Conservative Home and Lib Dem Voice, but so far it's not a patch on either of them. Its contributors list is stuffed full of the great and the good of New Labour, so I doubt it will provide a real voice for grassroots members that both its major party rivals do.

The feeling of a top-down, Pravda-style publication is enhanced by having as its main headline at the moment: 'Responding to the Tories' poster campaign, Gordon Brown says:'. It also contains a big picture of Brown in his 'war room'.

Design-wise, LabourList also looks rather dull. OK, it is still better in that respect than the dreary Labour Home, but it could certainly do with a bit of sexing up.

But my attention was caught by this posting from Derek Draper, which I think sums up the problems with LabourList as it currently is and sums up the Labour Party mindset in a nutshell. Their response to having contradictory views on the site is to seek to close down the possibilities for criticism.

I was particularly amused by this sentence from Draper:
In order to ensure an insightful, engaging debate we will also place other comments judged to be grossly unintelligent or obtuse or trolls in our trash can.

Heavens, if they're going to stop grossly unintelligent or obtuse people from having their say, that's millions of Labour voters disenfranchised for a start.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Local government feels the Gnats' bite

Right, time to get back to blogging after two weeks away over Christmas and New Year, and then being struck down by a cold on my return (sniff, cough).

The Herald today splashed on the fact that local councils in Scotland face severe financial pressures as they prepare to set their budgets for the coming year. That shouldn't really surprise anyone, as a combination of a council tax freeze, reduced revenues as a result of the recession, the increased expenditure that recessions also bring and finally the requirement from the Gnat government for a total of £500m in 'savings' from local government all make this a very tight year for local budgets.

And let's be clear about this: the bulk of that £500m sum will be cuts in actual services. While there is always some room for cutting wasteful spending, anyone who knows anything about local government will be aware that there is not a great deal of fat to be trimmed. For local government to find the scale of the cuts demanded by the Gnats and to keep the council tax frozen, there will have to be either reductions in frontline services or significantly increased charges for services (or both).

Of course, this is nothing new for local government under the Gnats: the same thing happened last year. But what is different this year is that the Gnats aren't applying their own logic on a Scotland-wide level. Although local government is expected to make cuts of £500m - which can only be achieved through cutting services - the Gnats are refusing to contemplate any reduction in expenditure on a national level in order to fund cuts in income tax, to help people struggling during the financial crisis, as the Scottish Lib Dems have called for.

Of course, such tax cuts will require tough decisions on spending to be achieved. But it shouldn't be too difficult. Maybe the Office of the First Minister could do without the additional £13m that Salmond's proposing for it. And perhaps the Scottish Government could do without the additional £7.2m it's proposing to spend on administration. Given that the Gnats are proposing to end prison sentences of less than six months, perhaps the budget of the Scottish Prison Service might not need the additional £13.4m that is being suggested. Are tax cuts really less of a priority than an additional £3.5m in total for Forest Enterprise Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland? (All figures from the Scottish Government's draft budget).

Although all these sums soon add up, obviously decisions also need to be made about major areas of expenditure. The Gnats are proposing additional expenditure on motorways and trunk roads (while at the same time cutting spending on rail and bus transport - so much for sustainable transport!). Perhaps some of that extra £134m could go towards tax cuts instead?

But ultimately, such a commitment towards taking tough decisions on spending can't really be expected from this Gnat government. As shown by the farce over the new Forth Bridge funding proposals, the Gnats don't really do responsibility or prioritising. Anyone could have told them that in the current financial climate the Treasury weren't going to support that 'front-loading' proposal and that the Scottish Government would be told to decide what their priorities really were.

And that lack of responsibility means that local government is being forced to cut its services, while the Scottish Government refuses to do likewise.

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