Sunday 13 September 2015

Darker Together

Today's Sunday Herald carries a series of interviews around the first anniversary of the referendum.
This is a longer, darker version of my interview with LibDem leader Willie Rennie.
I like it when politicians are honest for a change, and Rennie was brutally honest in his recollections of the Better Together campaign. It also shows the extraordinary emotional rollercoaster experienced by people in both sides in that period.

Tom Gordon

LISTENING to Willie Rennie recall the Better Together campaign is like eavesdropping on a therapy session as he wrestles with a half-buried trauma. The misery simply pours out of him. The No side was “shambolic in its development”, groans the Scottish LibDem leader, its output “dark”, its operations “secretive”, people’s confidence was “crushed” by a lack of information.

Yes, they won in the end, but how they won “didn’t make us feel very good about it”.
And as for the aftermath, David Cameron was “despicable,” he spits. “He did more damage in the general election campaign to the Union than the SNP had done for years.”

So not a barrel of laughs, then. Indeed, while the Yes side now boasts thousands of upbeat losers, Rennie seems the embodiment of that other Scottish tribe, the joyless Unionist victor.
Perhaps he should have anticipated a rough ride when Better Together’s launch went awry.
Although he grinned dutifully for the cameras that day, Rennie reveals he couldn’t properly focus because the late Charles Kennedy had failed to show up.
“We suspect it was another one of his episodes. That’s what my mind was flooded with.”

After that, it was mostly downhill all the way for the Labour-Libdem-Tory alliance.
Because the only thing the parties shared was a dislike of independence, the campaign became overwhelmingly negative by default, Rennie explains.
“It was a clash of three different political parties. We all had very different visions for the union, so inevitably the common element was what we were against, which was independence. So to get a consensus, you were focusing on the negative. You couldn’t do a positive vision.”
Rennie: "I was in a very dark place."

Then there were the bad habits of those at the top of the organisation and the Labour party.
“Labour had a dark campaigning style. It was very secretive. Everything would be last minute. You would never be told much about what was going on until it happened. We all suffered. The Tories and ourselves suffered more, but some in Labour were out the loop as well.”

You mean an inner circle did everything? “Yes. It was Blair [McDougall, campaign director] and Rob [Shorthouse, communications director]. People like that were making decisions and had this addiction to secrecy that meant we found it difficult to get answers. It was a fear of the other side finding out what we were planning.

“Because the bulk of people swinging towards independence were in the Labour camp, we knew the campaign had to be Labour-facing. What we didn’t expect was that secret element. It was quite shambolic in its development. Internal comms was poor. You just weren’t told about plans. Things were kept back. The board were frustrated at times as well.”

The Tories were also trouble, Rennie says, and in the early days had to be talked out of trying to dictate the referendum process from Westminster, instead of devolving control to Holyrood. “We had to try and control the Conservatives as much as we could. They had a very gung-ho approach to things, very aggressive, very direct. We in government had to pull them back quite a bit and say, ‘Look, just take it easy.’ Mike Moore [former Scottish Secretary] was a master.”

What about George Osborne coming to Edinburgh and saying Thou shalt not have the pound? “His style of delivery, yes, that was poor,” he says. Putting up George Galloway to defend the union in a debate for schoolchildren at Glasgow’s Hydro was another tin-eared error, he adds. I don’t think he really connected with that many people. He was just a monster maverick. You want to give people confidence about the United Kingdom, you don’t want mavericks.”

The “top-down, politically led” nature of Better Together meant it missed a huge opportunity to foster a community-led campaign of the kind Yes Scotland encouraged, says Rennie.
“We were talking a different language. We were making a case - they had a cause. That changed the whole nature of it. And when they [Yes] started occupying the squares and towns and it had that East European feel, it made us gulp. You could feel it moving.”

His lowest ebb came on September 7, when a Sunday Times YouGov poll put Yes side ahead for the first time, on 51 per cent - a month earlier No had been 22 points in front.
Rennie, Tory leader Ruth Davidson and Labour’s Johann Lamont had a conference call that afternoon. The two women were relatively optimistic, but Rennie saw disaster at hand.

“Ruth was very firm. She said we’ll win 55-45 and she was right. But I don’t think it was 55-45 at that stage. I was in a very dark place. My feeling was that things had moved away from us, and we’d been behind for not just one poll, but for 10 days.

“You could feel in every street that the people moving towards Yes. To generalise, it was educated middle-class, sensible opinion-leaders in communities…. and everybody in the street was looking to them. That worried me greatly. I was very pessimistic, very dark, and they [Davidson and Lamont] were worried about me at that stage, because I was so dark about it.”

Worried that you were cracking up? “They might have thought that,” he says wryly. “They did phone and text later in the way and say, ‘Are you ok?’ because I was so worried about it.”

He felt things turn around when big businesses such as RBS issued “very stark” warnings about the financial consequences of independence. Better Together benefited from solid logistics as well, targeting its messages at key voters. “The emotional side was poor, but the mechanical bit was there,” he says with faint praise.

Jim Murphy’s road trips also lifted Unionist morale, he says, as did the Yes camp’s mistakes.
“They certainly fell down on the currency,” he says. “The lack of economic plans was pretty firmly a mistake. People were worried on the door about currency. They also fell down on the slightly overbearing, aggressive nature of the campaign. That created an atmosphere.”

He thinks another referendum “could well happen”, but also believes people aren’t in any hurry to return to the “conflict between neighbours, friends and relatives” of last year.
“People would like to move on from that, even Yes people,” he says. “My feeling is that they [the SNP] will wait till people are begging for it” before they try another referendum.

If there is another referendum, what what you do differently? "Make sure it was led by non-political, non-partisan people. More of an inclusive arrangement. There would be a common purpose .. an organic campaign. More colourful, more joyful, more positive about the benefits of the United Kingdom.”

It wasn’t all hell on a stick. There were sides to Better Together he looks back on fondly.
He got on well with Davidson and Lamont, admired campaign chair Alistair Darling and Labour’s Douglas Alexander, and appreciated Gordon Brown’s rousing late interventions.

But he is blistering about the other big name in the Unionist corner, David Cameron.
The way the Prime Minister used the result to advance English Votes for English Laws, and then exploited English-Scottish division in the general election, was appalling, he says.

Like Brown, he thinks Cameron’s stoking of English nationalism has imperilled the Union.
“I thought Cameron was despicable. The way that, within a matter of months of having helped us save the United Kingdom, he was prepared to put his party before his country.
“From the morning after [the referendum] all the way through the general election campaign. Within minutes he was out there making the case for the Conservatives, putting the United Kingdom in jeopardy doing so.

“The Alex Salmond pickpocket [election ad] was despicable, just despicable. For somebody who calls himself first and foremost a Unionist, you don’t behave like that. I thought he did more damage in that general election campaign to the Union than the SNP had done for years before that. He’s certainly a threat [to the union]. He needs to wake up and realise that sometimes you just need to put your country first and not your party. I was furious during the campaign the way they were behaving, just furious.”

So if there was another referendum would you throw yourself into it the fray again or pass? Surprisingly perhaps, given the trail of tears he tramped in 2012-14, he’d jump at the chance. "I’d definitely do it. But we need to get better next time. More open, more trusting, more positive about the country, and present a bright vision for where we want to be. To be fair, that’s what the SNP managed to sell quite effectively. It was all hogwash. But they sold it quite well, and that’s to their credit. I just wish we could do a bit of that ourselves.”

Sunday 26 April 2015

Company Man

Tom Gordon and Paul Hutcheon

ALEX Salmond is to use a private company to receive his outside earnings from publishing, potentially cutting his tax bill.

The former First Minister is the sole shareholder in a new firm, The Chronicles of Deer, it has emerged.

The company will be the vehicle for Salmond’s flourishing career a writer, which includes newspaper columns and his best-selling referendum diary The Dream Shall Never Die.

It already holds the copyright on The Dream Shall Never Die.

The arrangement, which is not unusual for authors, could potentially reduce Salmond’s tax liabilities.

Instead of being subject to higher rate income tax of 40% or 45%, money going to a company can be subject to corporation tax at just 20%.

Money can then be withdrawn gradually as salary and dividends, reducing income tax and national insurance.

Salmond's outside earnings are expected to run into tens of thousands of pounds.

One of the two directors of Salmond's company is an accountant who specialises in “tax efficient investments”.

However, any benefits derived from using a company may be offset by operating costs, and authors are advised to take professional advice on the matter.

Despite Salmond starting his newspaper columns in February and his book coming out in March, the firm has yet to receive any money, raising questions at Holyrood about whether Salmond has arranged his affairs to avoid publicity before the general election.

Sources close to Salmond, who is standing in Gordon on May 7, deny this.

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “Why is Alex Salmond being so coy? 

"Surely it would be best to simply declare what he has earned from his book sales and newspaper columns now? What has he got to hide?”

Salmond, who is also MSP for Aberdeenshire East, declared the new arrangement in his Scottish Parliament register of interests earlier this month - it was published on Friday.

It states: “From 2 March 2015 I have owned an ordinary shareholding worth £1 in Chronicles of Deer, a company for publishing books and writings.

“This constitutes 100% of the issued share capital. 

"As at the end of financial year 2014/15 (6 April 2015) no monies have been paid into the Chronicles of Deer company account from any source and it has a zero balance.”

The Chronicles of Deer was incorporated as a private unlimited company on February 13.

Its directors are solicitor Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and accountant John Cairns.

Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP’s candidate in Ochil & South Perthshire, is Salmond’s lawyer, while Cairns is Salmond’s accountant.

Salmond thanks them both in the acknowledgements of The Dream Shall Never Die.

Because the new company is unlimited rather than limited - meaning Salmond has unlimited liability for any debts - it is not required to file annual accounts at Companies House.

However Salmond has told the parliament he will voluntarily update his register of interests to declare all income as it arrives.

Cairns is a partner at chartered accountants French Duncan.

According to his profile on the firm’s website, he specialises in "advising owner-managed businesses and their owners on a wide range of tax matters, including: acquisitions and sales; reorganisations; share valuations; succession planning; shares schemes; tax efficient investments and inheritance tax planning".

The name of the company is a play on The Book of Deer, the first book to use both Scots and Irish Gaelic, which was produced in the tenth century by the monks of Deer Abbey near Salmond’s home in the Aberdeenshire village of Strichen.

Salmond’s spokesman said: “Mr Salmond has updated his entry in the register of interests according to the rules. The entry notes that as at the end of the financial year 2014/15, the company account had a zero balance with no moneys received, either from book sales or journalism.

“It is common practice, indeed the norm, for writers to establish companies to separate earnings from journalism and books from other income and the fact that the company is unlimited merely reflects that it carries no risk of default and that Mr Salmond as the 100% shareholder is willing to meet all company obligations in all circumstances.

“Clearly given Mr Salmond’s willingness, in the interests of transparency, to declare all company earnings within the relevant timescale, this goes far beyond the declarations that would be made in company accounts the following year making the claim of lack of disclosure simply absurd, indeed it is the complete reverse of the truth.”

The spokesman also pointed out that Salmond had made a large number of charitable donations from other income, including giving his First Minister’s monthly pension of £2598 to the Mary Salmond Trust for community and youth causes in the North East of Scotland, dividing a £12,500 speaking fee from Bank of America between four Scottish charities, and distributing  £39,750 raised from the auction of First Ministerial gifts.

It is understood The Chronicles of Deer may also make charitable donations.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Healthy Choices

LANARKSHIRE has long been a byword for political backscratching, from Monklands to property deals, virtually all of it involving the Labour Party.
But today the boot is on the other foot, with Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil, the SNP MSP for Airdrie & Shotts, caught up in a cronyism row.
Last autumn, while serving as health secretary, he appointed the secretary of his local SNP branch to a £12,000 NHS post instead of a veteran social work professional.
Neil staunchly defends Phil Campbell as simply the best person for the job.
However voters might perceive it as all rather cosy.

Neil also seems to have left himself vulnerable to a complaint under the Scottish Ministerial Code. Section 5.9 of the Code says ministers "must" consult the First Minister before making "any appointment which is likely to have political significance".
Neil knew from the outset that there would be a political row about Campbell's appointment.
"Obviously, before I had decided to appoint him, I knew that the Labour party would try to cause a stink about it," he said yesterday.
Yet Neil didn't consult the First Minister (then Alex Salmond), as the Code commands.

Here's a longer version of the story in today's Sunday Herald.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

ALEX NEIL is embroiled in a cronyism row after promoting an official from his local party to a £12,000-a-year post on an NHS board instead of a senior health professional.

In his previous cabinet role as Health Secretary, Neil appointed railway manager Phil Campbell as vice-chair of NHS Lanarkshire instead of respected social work expert Dr Avril Osborne.

Campbell, a full-time First Group worker, is secretary of the SNP in Neil’s Airdrie & Shotts seat.

Dr Osborne, the loser in the two-horse race, is a former inspector of social work at the Scottish Office with 40 years experience in her field and a Masters degree in management.

After the Orkney child abuse scandal in the early 1990s, when officials wrongly removed children from their families, she was sent in to fix the department as its new director.

One of the biggest issues currently facing Lanarkshire and other NHS boards is the integration of health and social work services.
Alex Neil

Neil, now Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, personally made the decision to appoint Campbell over Osborne last November.

Labour said the appointment “stinks of cronyism”.

Neil first appointed Campbell, 40, to the board of NHS Lanarkshire in May 2013, on a four-year term paying £8008 a year for a commitment of eight hours a week.

After the previous vice chair stood down last summer, board chair Neena Mahal asked its non-executive members to apply for the position, and it came down to a straight fight between Campbell and Osborne.

At the end of October, Mahal put the pair forward to Neil for a decision, saying both were “strong nominees” but had “different skillsets and expertise”.

Mahal said that since 70-year-old Osborne joined the board in March 2014, she had made “a significant leadership contribution” and “quickly gained credibility and respect as a valued member of the Board... [and] is committed to an ethos of quality and improvement”.
Dr Avril Osborne

While Campbell brought “a fresh perspective from the corporate sector”, had demonstrated “a robust and rigorous approach to governance”, and “gained credibility as a Board member who endeavours to be fully involved... in spite of being in full-time employment”.

Mahal said she would welcome a chance to discuss both nominations with Neil “to determine the most suitable person”, however four days later Neil chose Campbell without further ado.

The promotion gave Campbell a £4004-a-year pay bump for four extra hours work per week. 

Section 5.9 of the Scottish Ministerial Code says ministers "must" consult the First Minister about “any appointment which is likely to have political significance”, but Neil did not do so, despite anticipating a row with Labour.

A fortnight after the decision, Neil was moved out the health brief in a reshuffle and is now the Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners' Rights. 

Pamela Nash, Labour MP for Airdrie and Shotts, said: “Alex Neil picked a man who knocked doors and delivered leaflets for him, rather than a woman with senior management experience in social work.

From NHS Lanarkshire Annual Accounts 2013-14
“At a time when our NHS is under huge strain this stinks of cronyism and jobs for the boys.

“NHS Lanarkshire is facing huge challenges because the SNP Government aren’t giving our NHS the support it needs.

“People will find it very hard to believe that an SNP official was the best man to stand up for the NHS in Lanarkshire.”

Neil vigorously defended the appointment, saying Campbell was simply the best person for the job and it would have been wrong to reject him in case his SNP ties led to controversy.

He told the Sunday Herald: “The reason I picked Phil Campbell, number one, he was the most experienced member of the NHS Lanarkshire board.

“Obviously, before I had decided to appoint him, I knew that the Labour party would try to cause a stink about it.
Neil's PS tells health officials he has appointed Campbell

“It’s a bit of a cheek from Pamela Nash and the Labour Party to accuse anyone else of cronyism  when Lanarkshire Labour and the Mafia that runs it have lived off cronyism for 50 years.

“This was not cronyism, this was me picking the person who was the best person for the job and who had been nominated by the chair of the board.

“I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable about that whatsoever, and he is a first class vice chair in NHS Lanarkshire, and he got it on merit, almost despite the fact he was politically active, because I knew it would be controversial because the Labour Party would kick up a stink.”

Neil said of Campbell: “He’s a very senior guy in the railway industry and it’s another reason why I picked him, because of his experience in business.

“I think we need, in terms of improving procedures and processes in the Health Service, we need outside business expertise and Phil can provide that as well.

“So he ticked every box that was conceivable in terms of competence and capability.

“I adhered entirely to the code of practice in all of these things.

Scottish Ministerial Code
“Labour’s looking for a scandal where there isn’t one.

“What Pamela Nash knows about the health service you could write on the back of a postage stamp.”

Campbell did not respond to email requests for comment.

NHS Lanarkshire said: “We are delighted with the appointment of Phil Campbell to the role of vice-chair and with the skill and expertise he brings to the Board.”