Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Building work continues

Tom Gordon

PLANS to revive the Scottish Tories with new elected organisers have fallen flat, with half the positions being filled without a contest, it has emerged.
The introduction of elected organisers was a key recommendation of the 2010 review of the party by the Tory peer Lord Sanderson of Bowden.
He identified “significant weaknesses” in the party’s governance and decision-making, and a lack of clarity and accountability at the top.
As well as backing a new election system for the party leader, Sanderson also recommended there should be an elected conference convener - the party’s most senior voluntary party worker in Scotland - and three elected regional conveners.
However two of the four posts, including the key role of conference convener, have been filled in recent days without a contest because only one person applied for the job.
Ruth Davidson with Pat McPhee, right
The conference convener, who was supposed to have been elected last weekend, was by default Pat McPhee, the Provost of North Ayrshire.
McPhee was Ruth Davidson’s election agent in the party’s leadership contest last year.
McPhee’s unopposed elevation is awkward for the party hierarchy, who had clearly been expecting a vote to demonstrate the party’s renewed vigour.
In his message to delegates in the conference programme, Scotland Office minister David Mundell even wrote: “Here in Troon, we will elect the Conference Convener who will complete the make-up of the New Management Board.”
Carolyn Riddell-Carre, the regional convener for the East of Scotland, was also elected unopposed.
A Borders councillor, Mrs Riddell-Carre is known for her uncompromising religious views, including likening MSP Margo MacDonald’s bill for legalising assisted suicide to Nazi-era eugenics.
“This is the thin end of a very nasty, some would say Nazi, wedge and, in this case, assisted suicide is a deceitful name for a killer’s bill,” she said in 2009. “We cannot go down the path of killing people in a Christian country.”
The two other regional convener posts attracted only five applicants between them, with Richard Wilkinson winning a two-man race to secure the post in the West of Scotland, and Stewart Whyte, another Davidson supporter, beating two others for the role of North of Scotland convener.
The four conveners will now sit alongside Davidson on the Scottish Tories’ manangement board, which is responsible for all the party’s business.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

No place for an independent mind in the Scottish Tories?

There's yet more trouble for Ruth Davidson today, as one of the Scottish Tories' stalwarts attacks the party for refusing to countenance independence and silencing debate on the issue.
Here's a long version of the story about Peter de Vink in today's Sunday Herald, plus a copy of an article he's written for the paper.


Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

A VETERAN Tory fundraiser has denounced his party as "complete plonkers" for being so hostile to independence, after he was dropped as a council candidate for not backing the Union.

Financier Peter de Vink, a stalwart of the Scottish Conservatives since the mid-1970s, had been selected to stand in Midlothian, but was "dismissed” after supporting an independent Scotland.

Peter de Vink: Tories have heads in the sand
Writing in today’s Sunday Herald online, Mr de Vink says “Draconian measures” were taken to silence him and “stamp out internal debate”.
In digs at leader Ruth Davidson, who said the current Scotland Bill should be a “line in the sand” for devolution, Mr de Vink says the Tories are repeating the errors of the 1980s and 1990s, when they opposed a Scottish Parliament.
“I fear we are once again harking back to the old days where we draw a line in the sand on Scotland’s constitutional journey,” he writes.
“The negative arguments of the current leadership will cause more Scots to support independence rather than vote against it, while leaving the party condemned to the pages of history.”
He told the Sunday Herald the Tories had to be more realistic about the prospect of independence, and think what to do in the event of a Yes vote, not shut down debate.
"Here's the party that stands for independence of views, freedom of speech, freedom of action, and yet we are so intolerant when it comes to this. They look complete plonkers. They look so inept. Ruth Davidson, she is so out of her depth it's just a laugh."
Mr de Vink, 71, tried to make his points in a debate on the Union at the Tory conference yesterday, but was not called to speak.
He said it was "ludicrous" the debate only heard from speakers in favour of the Union.
After being blocked as a Tory candidate earlier this month, he is now standing as an Independent in the Midlothian East Ward in May instead.
Managing director of Edinburgh Financial & General Holdings, Mr de Vink said he had raised “huge sums” for the Tories down the years, but now "hated to think" how much.
In 1988, he was a founder member of the Tory party’s Scottish Business Group alongside former coal board chairman Sir Alan MacGregor and the merchant banker Sir Angus Grossart.
Earlier this month he hosted a lunch for Alex Salmond at Edinburgh’s New Club, partly to confront the First Minister with his critics, after which “very senior” Tories made it plain he could no longer be a candidate.
"In the invitation to the lunch I said I had come to the conclusion that independence was actually a very attractive option for Scotland.
"Some people sent that to their friends in the higher ranks of the Tory party and they accused me of running with the hare and chasing with the hounds. I said, 'Bollocks, this is a local election,
nothing to do with independence', but they said No. So I became a victim of the cabal."
He went on: “They said I have to be a unionist to be a Conservative, which I think is barking mad.
“The Tory party is painting itself in again by absolutely dismissing independence just as they dismissed devolution
“Look at what a pathetic party it has become, with one member of parliament at Westminster. I call that pathetic... always hankering back to the past. Why not look to the future?"
He said the main attraction of independence was financial.
“Scotland can stand on its own feet and can earn what it spends and spend what it earns and it stops being a subsidy junky thanks to [the] Barnett [formula].
“I think if we became independent we could start thinking out of the box.”
He said a flat tax (one tax rate regardless of income) could be introduced by a right-of-centre party.
“What I’m tryin to say its that it’s better to prepare for reality.
“I am almost convinced beyond reasonable doubt that we will have independence and when it comes then we are going to have missed the boat. That’s my message."
An SNP spokesman said: "The Tory-led anti-independence campaign is lurching from one disaster to another - this serious split in what remains of the Tories' ranks is a direct result of their negative approach to the constitutional debate and to Scotland's future."
A Scottish Conservative party spokesman said: "Peter de Vink's views are not representative's of the party's view of Scotland's place within the United Kingdom.
"The Scotland Bill represents the biggest transfer of fiscal powers in 300 years and how they should be used is clear - to cut the tax burden faced by individuals and businesses.
"We need to settle the question of separation and ensure the Scottish Conservatives continue to play their full part – as we always have done – in making devolution work for the people of Scotland.
"Scotland is wealthier, fairer and safer for being part of the United Kingdom and the Scottish Conservatives will remain a Unionist party."

Too much information

Tom Gordon

IT’S a common complaint of modern life, but rarely does someone in such an exalted position admit to being a sufferer.

However Scotland’s most senior civil servant has become the latest self-confessed victim of information overload, admitting he can’t “keep up at all” with the work of the SNP government.

Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden said it was “completely random” what he read, that he failed to read some things at all, and that he had stacks of unwatched work-related DVDs.
There were also “masses of very important websites” he’d never managed to browse.
Sir Peter, who is on a £180,000 salary as Alex Salmond’s top mandarin, laughed as he disclosed the problem in a Q&A session with NHS managers in November, a video of which is now online.
The Sunday Herald revealed last month that Sir Peter had criticised the UK Coalition’s health reforms as part of the same event, claiming Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley “could not persuade anyone” about the “enormously risky” premise of the reforms: having GPs commission patient care.
Housden: "It's completely random"
After Sir Peter’s talk, he invited questions from the managers, one of whom asked how staff could share information on best practice in order to improve how government works.

Sir Peter replied: “There is that sort of massive profusion of stuff, and I don’t manage to keep up at all.
It’s hopeless, isn’t it?
“It’s completely random what I get interested in and read and know about.
“There are masses and masses of very important websites that I’ve never been anywhere near, and nor am I likely to.
“People send me things, and I send them things. I read some of them and I don’t read others.
"I’ve got more DVDs that I haven’t watched than I know what to do with, you know.
“Shocking - the permanent secretary doesn’t know.”
Labour last night branded Sir Peter “a buffoon”.
A spokesman said: “These are very peculiar comments. If the permanent secretary admits he doesn’t know how to communicate government policy, that is deeply concerning. He should spend less time worrying about his DVD collection and more about the 400 women a day losing their jobs.”
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser added: “Ten out of ten to the Permanent Secretary for honesty. However we do rely on the head of the civil service in Scotland to have a reasonable understanding of the work of government.”

Housden, 61, has suffered a string of gaffes since taking up his current post in June 2010.
He was widely lampooned last year when his cheesy newsletters to staff were released under Freedom of Information, revealing a love of shopping, pop music, theatre and housekeeping.
“We had to pay £28 for a snow shovel,” he moaned to workers on a two-year pay freeze.
His love of management-speak also featured in the NHS seminar, when he talked about civil servants working in “the improvement space”.

Gregory's Girl: as good as it got?
He also revealed he had asked the commentator and political guru Gerry Hassan to discuss “the political space” with him over coffee.
He said Hassan told him post-war optimism in Scotland had “reached its peak, the brave new world, with the film of Gregory’s Girl”.

In another odd moment, Housden, who likes to see front line staff at work, recalled going out with a solo ambulance driver to a flat where a woman had “dislocated her hip in a horrible way”.
Praising the driver as a “really empowered person” who coped with noise and stress “in real time”, Sir Peter revealed he had been dragged into the case when the woman’s father fainted.
“So I had to sort of tend to him, while this bloke was doing the other,” he said, to more laughter. All of this was just brilliantly done.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Permanent Secretary was making an important point about information overload, an issue that is common in many walks of life. He was urging delegates to concentrate on what matters”

Friday, 23 March 2012

Sand castles in the air

Tom Gordon

DAVID Cameron delivered a staunch defence of the Scotland Bill in his speech to the Scottish Conservative conference in Troon this morning.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, famously described that same bill as a "line in the sand" for devolution.

But within hours of Cameron's speech, two senior Tory MSPs were washing the line away.

Asked about it in the Daily Telegraph debate on the conference fringe, former Scottish leader David McLetchie said:
"I don't think the line in the sand has to be the line that's presently drawn in the Scotland Bill...  but what I do say is there has to be a proper process and a proper case made for any further change."

Then former Presiding Office Alex Fergusson, an advocate of Devo Plus, went further.

He said: "A line in the sand, I think, is impossible to achieve for anything but the very shortest space of time.

"Devolution has always been open to evolution.

"And it is quite clear to me that the Scottish people want more say in their own affairs, and I am convinced that they will not see the very real advances that are made through the Scotland Bill, which are being enacted as we sit here, they will not see that as anything more than a temporary, stop-gap measure.

"I'm afraid, in my view, that's all it ever was going to be.

"But it does give a very powerful signal that Westminster, that this government, has got a respect agenda and will deliver on agreed measures, and that should not be taken lightly.

"But this is an ongoing evolution that we are part of."


Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Empire Strikes Back?

This sounds improbable, but the more you read into it, the more you wonder if it's do-able.
SNP anoraks tell me it was the original blueprint advanced by Sinn Fein.
This is a longer version of the story in today's Sunday Herald.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

IT sounds decidedly ancient, but even in a field of energetic newcomers such as Devo Plus and Devo Max, the latest alternative to independence should still turn heads.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the ill-fated union lurking behind World War One, could be the best template for Scotland staying within the UK, according to a constitutional thinktank. 

Canon Kenyon Wright, co-convener of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which led to Holyrood, will tomorrow urge Alex Salmond to consider a modern version of the Empire, in which two equal states work side-by-side with a shared monarch.
Dubbed “secure autonomy”, the eyebrow-raising idea is contained in a submission to the SNP Government’s consultation on the independence referendum from the Constitutional Commission, the educational charity co-founded by Wright.
Intended as an alternative to the status quo and independence, the Commission says secure autonomy should be a second option on the ballot paper.
In a letter to the First Minister, Wright says recent debate has focused on more powers going to Holyrood, when what is needed is a radical change to the democratic system of the UK, and commends the Commission’s paper on secure autonomy.
Written by research director Elliot Bulmer, the paper says most Scots appear to want an “intermediate position” but extending devolution through either Devo Plus or Devo Max would be unsustainable, as ultimate power would remain at Westminster rather than with the Scottish people.
While Edinburgh might exercise certain rights, it would not possess them, and could always be over-ruled by London.
Bulmer says the answer is “secure autonomy within a renegotiated Union”, in which Scotland would be an equal partner with the rest of the UK.
The EU is one version of such a union, in which equal states share common powers.
However Bulmer says the most instructive example for Scotland is “the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the ‘historic compromise’ of 1867”.
Austro-Hungary: The next Scotland?
A response to Hungarian demands for independence from the Austrian empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire acted as a single body in international matters such as foreign affairs and defence.
However for domestic purposes it was split into two autonomous states, Hungary and ‘Austria and the rest’, each with a parliament, constitution and full fiscal powers, which shared a monarch: the King of Hungary was also Emperor of Austria.
There was also a common currency and joint national bank, and the two states collaborated on cross-border projects such as railways.
Applying the model to Scotland, the UK would be the single body for foreign affairs and defence, but internally it would be divided into Scotland and ‘England, Wales and Northern Ireland’, each of which would be a fully autonomous state in terms of domestic law, policy and finances.
Each state would have its parliament, government, passports and constitution, but there would be a shared monarch and a common currency.
Instead of a UK parliament, UK-wide committees would scrutinize the work of a British Executive which would include Scotland’s Prime Minister.
Like Devo Max, Scotland would control all taxes and contribute to the cost of shared services, such as defence and foreign affairs.
Bulmer admitted the Austro-Hungarian Empire sounded anachronistic, but said it still provided useful parallels, as it was born out of an empire that lacked an obvious purpose, and whose positive case for existing was largely an historic legacy.
“People laugh at the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But you can make some good comparisons between it and the British state. It was a historic compromise which lasted nearly 50 years.
“It did what it said on the tin. It kept the Austro-Hungarian Empire together while allowing the two main constituent units to have almost total authonomy in all domestic affairs.
“Secure autonomy provides a different type of union which ticks 90% of the boxes of those wanting independence while providing for the military and strategic position of the UK.” 
Is that a gun in your pocket?
Alas, Austro-Hungary did not end well.
In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to its throne, was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb who wanted part of the Empire to be in a Greater Serbia.
The resulting crisis drew in Germany, Russia, France and Britain and resulted in what became World War One, and the end of the Empire.
A spokesman for Salmond said: "This is an interesting and positive contribution to the consultation from Canon Kenyon Wright - the crucial point is that the terms of the referendum, including whether a 'more powers' option is on the ballot paper, must be decided in Scotland, not dictated by Westminster."