Sunday, 3 November 2013

And then there were two..

There are more changes at Yes Scotland.
The so-called "Top Team" of five directors announced barely a year ago has lost another member.
All three of the five exits have been female, leaving just the lads behind.
Here's a longer version of the story in today's Sunday Herald.

Paul Hutcheon and Tom Gordon
THE defeated SNP candidate at the Dunfermline by-election is not returning to her powerful post at the Yes Scotland campaign group, it can be revealed.

Shirley-Anne Somerville, who was Director of Communities at Yes, is instead taking up a new job with the SNP.

Her departure has fuelled concerns in the Yes movement about the lack of females in key positions at the organisation.

As Communities chief, Somerville had the vital brief of establishing a network of pro-independence activists and ambassadors across the country.
She was believed to have built a solid base and was respected by the different elements of the independence coalition.
However, after wife-beating MSP Bill Walker resigned his Dunfermline seat, Somerville eyed Holyrood and was selected as the Nationalist candidate.
She had previously been a Lothians MSP, but lost her seat after the 2011 Holyrood election.
During the by-election, she said she was on a “leave of absence at the moment from Yes”.
However, she is not coming back.
During the snap poll, Yes brought in new faces to the Communities team, including “programmes specialist” Caroline Key, SNP staffer Lorraine Reid and businesswoman Sarah-Jane Walls.
Working alongside deputy communities director Stan Blackley and SNP European election candidate Toni Giugliano, the new appointments created a “flatter” management structure.
One insider said the Communities division had “changed”, adding that the Director’s post no longer existed.
Top Team no more: Caldwell, Somerville and Stuart have all left since March
Somerville’s departure appears to confirm the view inside Yes that too many directors’ posts were created in the early days of the campaign group.
Four directors and one deputy director were announced in September last year.
Yes Scotland billed them as its "Top Team"
However it is understood a later review concluded the organisation was top-heavy with directors and recommended reform.
Concerns are now being expressed about the number of senior female departures from Yes.
Of the five directors unveiled at the beginning of Yes, three were women.
Communications chief Susan Stewart, former operations director Jacqueline Caldwell and Somerville have now all gone.
Key was a part-time consultant for Yes before being moved to Communities, while Walls was already an advisory board member for the group.
One source said the departures did not bode well for Yes trying to bridge the gender gap in support for independence, with polls showing more men than women backing separation.
Before becoming an MSP, Somerville held posts at the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Royal College of Nursing.
She has also been a public affairs consultant and campaign strategist for the SNP.
An SNP spokesperson said: “Shirley-Anne previously held a senior role at SNP headquarters and will return there shortly, working for a Yes vote.”
Blair Jenkins, the chief executive of Yes, said: “We are very grateful to Shirley-Anne for driving the creation and development of our communities campaign. We wish her every success in her new role campaigning for a Yes vote.”
A source at Better Together, which campaigns for Scotland to remain part of the UK, said: “The SNP campaign are constantly telling us about this army of grassroots activists they are building. It must be hard to build an army when the generals keep resigning.”

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Euro File

Tom Gordon
SCOTLAND’S newest MSP was once a passionate advocate of the UK abandoning the pound in favour of the euro, it has emerged. 

Cara Hilton, who will be sworn in as the Labour MSP for Dunfermline at Holyrood today, called for the country to join the EU single currency in a previous career as a union official.

Unless it joined the euro, the UK risked losing jobs and investment, she claimed.

Unemployment across the Eurozone currently averages 12%, and in Spain and Greece is 25%.
Labour frequently uses the SNP’s previous support of the euro to attack the Nationalists in the independence referendum.
Hilton’s outspoken remarks may make such criticism from Labour less likely in future.
Hilton, 38, who was elected in the Dunfermline byelection last week with a majority of 2873, backed the euro while working for the shop workers’ union Usdaw.
Writing under her maiden name Cara Peattie in 2002, the year the euro first entered circulation, she wrote: “Locked out of the euro and isolated from our closest trading partners, Britain risks lost jobs, higher prices, less trade and less investment.
“We cannot risk this investment for the sake of economic nationalism. 
“Only as part of the euro can we revitalise our desperate public services.”
Johann Lamont, Hilton, Ed Balls, Cathy Jamieson
James Reekie, the Conservative candidate in Dunfermline, said: “We know that the SNP has always been pro Euro membership, now it seems the Labour candidate was just as enthusiastic.” Distancing herself from her previous stand, Ms Hilton said that, like others in 2002, she had seen the euro “as a way of bringing long-term stability to Britain’s economy”.
But she added: “However, it has become clear that monetary union without close political and fiscal union leads to an inherently unstable and volatile economic system.
“That’s why I recognise that such a monetary union is inadequate, yet the troubled euro structure is what the SNP wishes to replicate here if they win the referendum.
“I know it doesn’t work and lessons need to be learned. Unfortunately, the SNP don’t seem to have that same level of understanding.”
Support for the euro was once an SNP staple.
In November 1999, while leader of the SNP opposition at Holyrood, Alex Salmond said the pound was “a millstone round Scotland’s neck” and “an example of why Scotland needs [EU] membership status so that it can take a decision on entry into the single currency.”
The SNP now advocate a currency union with sterling in the event of independence.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

On the Road Again

The Bus Party, one of the cultural highlights of the devolution referendum, is reforming for 2014.
Here's a longer version of the news story in today's Sunday Herald.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

IT was a road trip like no other.

In the final days before the 1997 devolution referendum, a constantly changing mix of artists, writers, poets and musicians shared a mini-bus on a 750-mile dash round Scotland to get the nation’s democratic juices flowing with ideas, song and grown-up conversation free from politicians.

Driving through the night between stops in schools, community centres and churches, the fluid line-up called themselves the Bus Party.
Their aim was simple: to ask people what kind of country they wanted, and to urge them to reflect on that when they cast their vote.

Its members included author William McIlvanney, journalist Neal Ascherson, poet Douglas Dunn, and the small pipes virtuouso Fin Moore, who provided the soundtrack as their 15-seater rattled through the September countryside.

In the middle of it: Ascherson, Storrar and McIlvanney
Now, with another referendum in view, the Bus Party is getting back on the road again.

Ascherson, part of the hardcore half-dozen who were there from start to finish in 1997, has agreed to take part, and Church of Scotland minister Will Storrar will again be organiser.

McIlvanney is helping launch the revival alongside Ascherson at the Wigtown Book Festival later this month, although a bad back will prevent him boarding the bus this time round.

He said: “I think it’s a very good thing to do, especially since one of the things that haunts me about the whole process at the moment is the number of unanswered questions surrounding it.

“I don’t know that Will or Neal have the answers to those, but maybe debating them with people can at least clarify to them how they feel.

“Folk say it’s an emotional vote, but the emotion’s the horse and the brain’s the jockey, and I think the jockey’s a wee bit confused at the moment.”

In a departure from 1997, the Bus Party of 2014 will include feature two trips, not one.

A week-long spring warm-up will see the Bus Party travel from Wick to Wigtown, with a second leg replicating the 1997 route - Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and the Borders - scheduled for the final 100-hours before the independence ballot on September 18.

To head off jokes about being the Bus Pass Party, the old guard will also be joined by members of the Young Scotland Programme run by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland.

Storrar explained: “There’s a small core that will go all the way, five or six of us including the driver and me, and then on every leg of the journey several people get on for a day and night or two, and several people get off.

“It’s a wonderful repertory company of talent, of people who speak for themselves, but are deeply concerend to listen to their fellow Scots at this time.

“It’s a celebration of Scotland at this moment in history as well as a conversation about the kind of country we want to live in.

“It’s the haill clanjamfrie, as MacDiarmid would have said.”

The end of the road: Calton Hill
The original idea for the Bus Party was Ascherson’s, who was inspired by the memory of a similar event in Germany in the 1960s led by the German novelist Gunter Grass.

“When we did this the last time it was quite touching,” he said.

“People were astonished and then rather delighted to be asked what they thought, because politicans just come at election times and tell us what to do and what to think.

“The main thing is to give people a sense of courage really – that this is their choice and not just some political ramp.

“And also of course in this particular case, to say that the Yes option is not just about the SNP. You can say, vigorously, No to Alex Salmond, and yet vote Yes and it’s very important to realise that.”

Instead of more “grey debate” over baffling details, he said the Bus Party wanted to draw out the big issue of the referendum, asking people what kind of country they wanted.

“The Bus Party will be trying to say this is about something bigger. Nothing is certain about what happens after independence.

“Is it a gamble? Yes, to some extent, it is a gamble on a scale on which the choice for a Scottish Parliament was not.

“I always quote the Poles when they tried to get their independence back. They always said, Poland Yes, but what sort of Poland? I think that’s the question.

“Yes to the general idea of Scotland, but we must get to a point where we can make the choice about what sort of Scotland we really want.

“And it looks as if that choice can only be made in independence, because the other options are not there.” 

But he admits that, for the moment, the omens are not good for a Yes vote.

“The last time round we felt that public opinion really was with us, that people’s minds were made up to vote for the devolution proposals.

“This time it’s more complicated, partly because the proposal is huger even than the Scottish Parliament, and the grounds for doubt and hesitation are often much more respectable and honourable than perhaps they were in 1997.

“The tide of public option is extremely sluggish, but moving very very slowly. The Yes is rising. Maybe it won’t rise enough.”
Joyce McMillan and Billy Kay join the map readers

Storrar, who is now Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, said the Bus Party was his contribution as a “disapora Scot” to the referendum, and although like many Bus Partygoers he personally wanted a Yes, all those willing to “think aloud” were welcome.

“Our question in the referendum is what kind of Scotland, Yes or No, do you want to live in?

“We’re looking for writers, poets, singers, artists, commentators who will be reflective on that theme in their art, or in their thinking.

“The people on the bus – and I say this as a Church of Scotland minister – are not going to preach. It’s not a partisan Bus Party.

“It’s to foster the conversation. We will have people on both sides.”

Lots of people, but no politicians, he adds.

“They’re welcome in the audience, to take part like everyone else and be treated like a fellow citizen, but they won’t be on the bus.”

He hopes that, despite the referendum becoming increasingly acrimonious, the Bus Party can be a mobile oasis of civilised conversation.

“Some people might think things are too divided to have a kind of civil conversation that wouldn’t be hijacked by politicians or campaigns, but we think, Yes or No, it’s still very important for us to take this opportunity.

 “Scotland has an amazing opportunity. We have now a  year in a non-violent context to talk about the kind of country we want to be. I think it’s an extraordinary, rare opportunity in history to do that.

"We want to involve everyone in a civic cultural conversation on the kind of Scotland we want to live in - that is the most fundamental question for people voting No or Yes."

 As to the other crunch question for the Bus Party - transport - he's open to offers.

"Someone very kindly leant us a bus in 1997. The Bus Party runs on goodwill and pro bono contributions. If someone wants to lend us a roadworthy insured bus we'd be delighted."


The Bus Party relaunch is at the Wigtown Book Festival on Saturday 28 September at 3pm.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

This is Planet Airth

After going rather quiet following recent publicity, Labour for Independence is back with us.
This time the controversy surrounds its leader and a private meeting of SNP councillors.
With no other party political groups taking part in the event, LFI's proximity to the SNP is again under the spotlight.

Tom Gordon

THE Labour for Independence group, which is accused of being an SNP front, is facing new criticism after its leader addressed a closed meeting of SNP councillors.

Allan Grogan spoke for around an hour at the annual conference of the Association of Nationalist Councillors at Airth Castle, near Stirling, on Sunday.

As Labour for Independence (LFI) does not admit SNP members, and claims not to be SNP backed, unionist parties queried Grogan’s action.

LFI, which is cited by the SNP and Yes Scotland as evidence of Labour division over the referendum, was set up a year ago, ostensibly by disaffected past and present Labour party members.
It was recently accused of being an SNP proxy, after pictures emerged of SNP councillors in Midlothian holding an LFI banner, and an SNP councillor from East Lothian was snapped manning an LFI street stall.

One of the Midlothian councillors, Owen Thompson (pictured left above), was an organiser of Sunday's event.
Grogan, a part-time wrestler nicknamed The Natural, subsequently admitted that only 40% of the group’s 80 or so members had ever been in the Labour party, and the rest were unaligned.
Yes Scotland, the SNP-dominated campaign for independence, also confirmed it paidthe £245 cost of hiring a venue for the first LFI conference last year.

The pro-Union Better Together campaign said Grogan’s turn before SNP councillors would fuel suspicions that LFI was little more than an SNP-inspired charade.
A spokesman said: “The Nationalists continue to treat the people of Scotland like idiots, trying to convince us that the Labour for Indy group is a legitimate organisation.
“It is not.  It is a Yes Scotland-funded SNP front.
“It is little wonder that people aren’t buying what Alex Salmond's independence campaign is selling.”

The Association of Nationalist Councillors is one of a handful of “affiliated organisations” within the SNP, and all SNP councillors are automatically members.
Sunday’s meeting was also addressed by Natalie McGarry of the Women for Independence group, and by Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland.

An LFI spokesman said Grogan had attended with others to work "across traditional political boundaries" for the good of the people
"Allan told the audience an independent Scottish government needs an effective opposition, and in 2016 he was confident the SNP will provide that to a real Scottish Labour government."

An SNP spokesman said: “LFI were one of a number of pro-independence groups  addressing the SNP Councillors’ Conference this weekend, discussing how all those in favour of a Yes vote can work together to achieve this next year.
 “This is obviously not unique to the Yes campaign – Alistair Darling did of course address the Tory Conference last year.”

Grogan did not respond to calls or email.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Yes Scotland No Show

More curious goings on at Yes Scotland HQ, I hear.
After moaning about being denied entry to two LibDem conferences in a row, Yes Scotland have turned their backs on the LibDem UK conference in Glasgow next month, despite an offer to attend.
Could it be their previous anger was less than genuine?
Or perhaps it was the prospect of giving succour to the enemy in the form of a whopping great cheque?
Not that Yes Scotland is skint, of course, oh dear me no. They always deny that.
Anyway, here's the tale:

Tom Gordon

YES Scotland has declined an offer to attend the UK Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, despite complaining about its exclusion on previous occasions.

The cross-party movement for independence was offered exhibition space at next month’s event, prices for which start at £3700 plus VAT, but chose not to apply, the LibDems revealed.

The decision not to attend is at odds with previous complaints from Yes Scotland about being shut out of Scottish LibDem gatherings.

Last October, Yes Scotland publicised the way its application to run a stall at the LibDem event in Dunfermline was declined.
We did make an application for space at the LibDem conference in Dunfermline but were turned down,” said a spokesman at the time.
And in March this year, after being excluded from the LibDem conference in Dundee, Yes Scotland set up a special “virtual information stall” on its website for LibDem supporters.
Shame: Yes Scotland's reaction in March
Yes Scotland organiser Peter Dempsie wrote at the time: “Unfortunately the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t allow Yes Scotland to attend their Scottish Conference... That’s a shame as we would have welcomed the opportunity to answer any questions their members may have had.”
However, despite thousands of LibDem activists attending the SECC for four days in September for the Scottish and UK LibDem conferences, Yes Scotland will not be there to meet them.
The organisation said it had decided against taking a stall, a move which would have gathered it publicity, but cost thousands of pounds at a time it is closely
watching its expenditure.
Pricey: What a stand at the LibDems costs this year

A LibDem spokesman said: “After all the wailing and gnashing of teeth when we were not able to accommodate Yes Scotland at our Scottish Conference it’s more than a little surprising that they haven’t applied to attend at our UK Conference in Glasgow. 
“They were informed that an application would be considered but no application has been forthcoming.
“Perhaps Yes Scotland has realised, at last, that there are perhaps no more than a handful of Liberal Democrats members who are convinced about the merits of independence.”

A Yes Scotland spokesman said: “Since we were excluded from last year’s Scottish Liberal Democrat conference, we saw little point in applying for space at this year’s national conference. However, we are as keen to engage with Liberal Democrats as we are with anyone else and indeed our chief executive Blair Jenkins spoke recently at the Social Liberal Forum in Glasgow.”

Monday, 6 May 2013

Charities good, Better Together bad

The row over Better Together's £500k donation from Vitol president Ian Taylor refuses to die.
Today, an SNP-commissioned YouGov poll reports most Scots who have a view on the subject want the No campaign to hand the money back because of Vitol deals in shady places.

However the SNP takes a rather different view of Ian Taylor's charitable giving.
Indeed, three SNP ministers have very publicly supported one project that got £50k from Taylor.

So if it's too "dirty" for Better Together, why is Taylor's cash clean enough for charities backed by the SNP?
Pure hypocrisy from Angus Robertson et al, say Better Together. 
Here's the full version of the story from today's Herald.

Tom Gordon
THE SNP has been accused of hypocrisy for demanding the pro-union Better Together campaign should return £500,000 from a controversial donor, after it emerged SNP ministers are backing groups getting money from the same source.   

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop and former minister Bruce Crawford are among 20 SNP MSPs who backed a Scots charity which took money from Ian Taylor, president of oil trader Vitol.

First Minister Alex Salmond also has ties to a Scottish project part-funded by Taylor.

The SNP has called for a month for Better Together to return Mr Taylor’s money on ethical grounds, because of Vitol’s dealings with Serbia, Libya, Iran and Iraq.

The SNP has repeatedly cited Labour MP John Mann’s description of Mr Taylor’s separate donations to the Tories as “dirty money”.
A protest is planned by pro-independence campaigners outside Better Together’s Glasgow headquarters today [Monday, May 6] over the donation.
However Mr Taylor’s giving is not limited to Better Together or the Conservatives.
In recent years, the London-based charity he founded with his wife Tina, the Taylor Family Foundation, has given millions to good causes across the UK, including several in Scotland.
In 2009 and 2010 the Taylor Family Trust gave a total of £50,000 to Sistema Scotland, the Stirling charity which teaches music to children in disadvantaged areas.
The money helped run its "Big Noise" orchestra in Raploch.
In September 2010, Stirling MSP Bruce Crawford, then SNP minister for parliamentary business, hosted a reception for Sistema Scotland at the Scottish Parliament.
Bruce Crawford hosted Sistema gig
Last November, the Scottish Government also gave Sistema Scotland £1.3m to set up a second Big Noise orchestra in Govanhill, which is in Ms Sturgeon’s Glasgow Southside constituency.
Ms Sturgeon and Ms Hyslop took part in a photo opportunity to publicise the grant.
Ms Hyslop said the charity was “a fantastic example of how cultural activity can deliver real benefits to individuals, communities and wider society”, while Ms Sturgeon said it was “transforming lives through music”.” 
More than 20 SNP MSPs have also signed Holyrood motions supporting Sistema and its work. 

The SNP last night refused to explain why it was wrong for Better Together to take Mr Taylor’s money but fine for a charity, saying merely there was a “world of difference” between the two.

Besides Sistema Scotland, Ian Taylor’s Family Foundation has helped Dumfries House, a stately home restoration backed by Prince Charles and First Minister Alex Salmond. 
Through Historic Scotland, the SNP Government contributed £5m in 2007 to a rescue fund for the 18th century Ayrshire mansion, helping to save it for the nation.
Mr Taylor’s charity gave £100,000 in 2012. 
In September 2012, Alex Salmond welcomed Prince Charles to a fundraiser for Dumfries House at Ayr races. 
The Taylor Family Foundation also gave £25,000 to Stirling University recently to support talented student tennis players; £5000 to Islay & Jura Community Enterprises, which runs Bowmore swimming pool; and £5000 to the Mairi Semple Fund cancer charity in Argyll.
At a UK level, Ian Taylor’s Foundation has given Unicef £666,000, Save the Children £140,000, Great Ormond Street Hospital £105,000, and the NSPCC more than £70,000. 
Sturgeon and Hyslop backing Sistema in Glasgow
Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “This is plain and simple hypocrisy. 
“The Nationalists’ failure to demand the return of Ian Taylor’s contribution to the wide range of charities in Scotland through his Taylor Family Foundation is telling. 
“It shows that their attempts to discredit Ian Taylor and his personal donation are nothing more than a shallow politically motivated manoeuvre. I trust the nationalists will now cease their unpleasant vendetta.”
A Better Together spokesman said: “We have been saying for weeks that Ian Taylor has made a significant contribution to Scotland but SNP ministers continue to smear him to try to stop others coming forward to support us. It’s hypocritical and the worst kind of politics.”
Asked if charities benefiting from Mr Taylor’s Foundation should hand the money back, an SNP spokesman said: “There is a world of difference between a music charity, and a political campaigning organisation. 
“It was Labour MP and Treasury Select Committee member John Mann who described Mr Taylor’s donations to the Tories as ‘dirty money’. The longer this issue runs, the more public opinion will put pressure on Alistair Darling and the No campaign to hand back this political donation back - and no amount of diversionary tactics will change that.”

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Charity begins at Stirling Castle

Got an idea for a new charity, but wondering about publicity and start-up costs?
Why not get the First Minister to throw in thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money and Stirling Castle for the night - 14 weeks before your charity is even registered?
Sound like a solid plan?
Funnily enough, it worked swimmingly for one senior member of the SNP.
Here's a longer version of the story in today's Herald.

Tom Gordon

ALEX Salmond is embroiled in a row after £16,000 of public support was given to a project headed by a key member of the SNP and the pro-independence campaign.

More than  £9,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent on the launch of the Scottish Asian Women’s Association (SAWA) at Stirling Castle last year, only 48 hours after it had applied to become a registered charity.

Around half the cash was spent on canapes at the event, which was hosted by the First Minister.

The SNP Government also secured the castle’s Great Hall for the night, something which would ordinarily cost almost £7000.

The founder and chair of SAWA is Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a member of the advisory board on the Yes Scotland campaign.

A former Pakistan TV actress who now practises as a solicitor in Glasgow, Ms Sheikh is also
a senior member of the SNP and is tipped to become a Nationalist MEP next year.
The FM and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh at last year's SAWA launch
She has known the First Minister since 2000, when she defected from the Conservatives.
Described by SNP collegeaues as an ambitious networker, Ms Sheikh, 42, set up SAWA with the aim of empowering and raising the profile of Scots Asian women and promoting diversity. 
Government files obtained by the Herald through Freedom of Information (FoI) show Salmond agreed in September 2011 to host the SAWA launch after a meeting with Ms Sheikh.
By January 2012, Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had agreed to attend on
April 19, and the government Events Team had secured Stirling Castle for the night.
Speaking as the official host of the launch, Salmond told the 160 guests that Ms Sheikh was an “excellent” role model.
Six weeks later she was appointed to the board of YesScotland.
One of those present described the event as a “Nat fest”, with numerous SNP supporters.
The government said its total spend was £9,260, which included almost £5400 on catering, £4500 of it for canapes; £1750 on audio-visual equipment; £1050 for pipers; £444 for flowers; £350 for a band; and £90 to print the invites. 
Historic Scotland, which runs Stirling Castle, quoted a price of £5750 plus VAT to hire the Great Hall for an evening, or £6900, making total support to the value of £16,160.
The launch took place barely 48 hours after Ms Sheikh applied to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (Oscr) for SAWA to become a recognised charity, according to files released by the regulator, also under FoI.
SAWA was not granted full charitable status until 30 July, 14 weeks after its launch.
A Labour spokesman said: “We would expect all support for charitable organisations to be based on need and for funding to be distributed openly and fairly, particularly at a time when charities all over Scotland are facing serious financial pressures.
“We support the stated aims of SAWA, but it would be unfortunate if this good work was undermined by a perception of favouritism based on political allegiances.”
Once dubbed “a political butterfly” because of her shifting allegiances, Ms Sheikh was a Labour party member in the 1990s, but stood for the Conservatives in the 1999 Holyrood election, coming third in Glasgow Govan.
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was previously a Conservative candidate
A year later she defected to the SNP, a switch Salmond hailed at the time as a coup.
She is currently SNP National Women’s Officer.
In January 2011, Education Secretary Mike Russell appointed her to a review ofteacher employment, and a year later she joined the management  board of City of Glasgow College.
In March, Salmond and Ms Sheikh’s 17-year-old daughter Elysee, who the First Minister praised at the SAWA launch, took part in a stunt at the SNP conference, where the girl was described as the SNP’s 25,000th member.
The move was interpreted as Salmond annointing Ms Sheikh in the SNP’s internal candidate rankings for next year’s European elections.
Two days later, Ms Sheikh was the only woman shortlisted for Europe by SNP activists, and is now expected to be ranked among the top three places this autumn, giving her a very good chance of becoming an MEP.
Earlier this year, Salmond last month hosted a SAWA awards ceremony attended by Labour leader Johann Lamont and LibDem leader Willie Rennie.
A Labour source said the awards were as SNP-heavy as the SAWA launch.“It was made pretty clear to any non-SNP guests they were asked along as political cover. 
The amount of saltire-waving would have made the average nationalist cringe.”
Alex Salmond and Ms Sheikh in 2000
In 2008 Salmond put his support - and more public money - behind another group headed by another friend and SNP candidate, his former aide Osama Saeed.
Saeed’s Scottish Islamic Foundation made a series of overblown promises and after spending £203,000 of taxpayers’ money the company behind it was formally dissolved in January with nothing to show for it.
Another Salmond aide, Humza Yousaf, now SNP minister for international development, was an SIF director from May 2008 to September 2009. 
Asked about the perception of cronyism, Ms Sheikh said SAWA had cross-party support.
“[It] is a charity set up to assist, in particular, Asian women in Scotland who, due to varying circumstances, feel that they are in need of support, guidance and mentoring. 
“We seek, through recognition and training, to inspire women to achieve their true potential, so that their increased representation and participation in both public and political life in Scotland can be achieved.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Any such claims [of cronyism] would be wrong and totally unfounded. The launch in April 2012... was beneficial to both Scottish Asian women and wider representatives of Scottish civic life and industry. 
"The Association now has charitable status and its most recent event was attended on a cross-party basis.”


Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Battle of Culloden

The First Minister's love of golf has generated some bad headlines recently involving the Ryder Cup.
Now there's more anger over the use of public money for a costly stay at the Scottish Open, where the FM held court with overseas investors.

Here's a guest post from @paulhutcheon of the Sunday Herald.

By Paul Hutcheon

ALEX Salmond has been criticised after the taxpayer funded a five-night stay in a luxury hotel to help him attend a golf tournament beside Inverness.

The SNP Government has confirmed putting up the First Minister at the famous Culloden House as the Scottish Open was being staged nearby.

Officials are refusing to put a figure on the accommodation costs, or say whether the First Minister’s wife also stayed in a hotel that has hosted Elton John and actor Hugh Grant.

Culloden House: Not your average B&B
It was revealed last year that the First Minister-led delegation to September’s Ryder Cup cost around £470,000, a sum described by Labour as “eye watering”.
Two months before the Ryder Cup, the public purse was also used to help Mr Salmond visit another high-profile golf event.
The 2012 Scottish Open was held at the Castle Stuart course overlooking the Moray Firth between the 12th and 15th of July.
According to the First Minister’s log of chauffeur-driven car journeys, which is available on the Government website, the SNP leader arrived at Culloden House, a twelve minute drive from the course, on July 10th.
Alex Salmond take part in the pro-am on 11 July 2012
A car took Mr Salmond from the hotel to Castle Stuart on the 11th July, where he took part in the “pro-am” event, a journey that was repeated for the next three days.
The logs also show that the First Minister was taken from the course back to Culloden House on the days between the 11th and 14th of July.
However, questions are now being asked about the appropriateness of the taxyaper funding such of lavish accommodation.
Mr Salmond’s home, in Strichen, is a two hour drive from Castle Stuart.
Culloden House was where Bonnie Prince Charlie had his lodgings before the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
In 2011, readers of Conde Naste Traveller named Culloden as their “favourite hotel” in the British Isles.
Set over 40 acres, a “superior” double room costs £320, while a suite is priced at £395 a night.
A spokesperson for the First Minister confirmed the Government paid for him to stay at Culloden House, but pointed out that Mr Salmond had carried out six ministerial engagements in the Inverness area during the period.
Three of these meetings - with Mitsubishi, Seawind and Daktari - took place at the golf club.
Asked whether the First Minister’s wife also stayed overnight at Culloden House, the spokesperson said this question would be considered under freedom of information legislation.
The Government also declined to answer questions about costs.

Salmond in the rough 11-7-12
Patricia Ferguson, Scottish Labour’s sport spokesperson, said: “At a time when families all over the country are tightening their belts because of the financial crisis, the idea that the First Minister of Scotland is charging them so he can enjoy the best part of a week at the golf is unbelievable.
“When the First Minister isn’t using his office to run a full-time referendum campaign, it would appear he is using it to fund his lavish hobby as a golf fan. What he clearly isn’t doing is the job he was elected to do, which is protect the people of Scotland from the Tory cuts.”

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “We all know the First Minister enjoys his golf, but like everyone else he should be paying for his own accommodation, particularly when there are so many demands on public resources. If he and his SNP Ministers expect public sector workers to tighten their belts, they should lead by example.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The First Minister undertook Government business at Castle Stuart and nearby, including business meetings to discuss employment and investment - and we expect a major jobs announcement soon as a result of these talks. He stayed overnight ten minutes from Castle Stuart, rather than making a four-and-half-hour round trip each day.”

Saturday, 23 March 2013

EU said, she said

There's a new development in the row that refuses to die -  the argument over the SNP government and its protean legal advice on the status of an independent Scotland in Europe.
Nicola Sturgeon was supposed to have cleared up all the confusion in October, when she told MSPs that, despite the FM appearing to suggest otherwise, there was no such advice after all.
But fear not, she had now commissioned "specific advice" from the law officers.
Except the law officers didn't get the official paperwork for another two months.
The opposition parties are now asking how Sturgeon could have commissioned "specific advice" without posing specific questions, and think an apology and correction to the Official Report may be in order.

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

Tom Gordon

ALEX Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are facing new claims they misled parliament over government legal advice on the status of an independent Scotland in Europe.

Both the First Minister and his deputy told MSPs in late October that ministers had commissioned “specific advice” from their law officers on the topic, ending months of speculation about whether such advice existed.

However the government has now confirmed that it was not until two months later, on December 18, that ministers actually submitted the formal request to their top legal advisers.

The two months was needed simply to draw up the questions to the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General to answer, suggesting significant gaps in ministers' knowledge on the issue.

Opposition parties are now querying how Sturgeon and Salmond could claim to have commissioned “specific advice” before any specific questions were posed, and have urged them to amend their statements in Holyrood’s official record.
Questions over the status and entry terms of an independent Scotland in the EU have bedevilled the SNP’s referendum campaign, with ministers forced into a series of retreats.
After insisting for years that entry would be “automatic” and Scotland would inherit the UK’s opt-outs on the euro and free travel, ministers now admit there would be detailed negotiations, including on the opt-outs and the UK rebate.
Many of the SNP’s problems track back to March last year, when Salmond was asked in a BBC interview if he had sought specific legal advice on EU membership from his law officers.
He said: “We have, yes, in terms of the debate.” 
But on October 23, Sturgeon told parliament that in fact no such advice had been sought.
However in light of the Edinburgh Agreement signed on October 15, in which the UK and Scottish governments agreed the referendum process, she said that situation had changed.
“I can confirm that the Scottish Government has now commissioned specific legal advice from our law officers on the position of Scotland within the European Union if independence is achieved through [the Edinburgh Agreement],” she said.
Two days later, Salmond also told MSPs: “We have sought the advice of the law officers”.
L: Nicola Sturgeon on 23-10-12, and R: Alex Salmond on 25-10-12
But after a Freedom of Information request in November to see the formal, lengthy request submitted to the law officers on such occasions, the government took four months to admit that it didn’t exist until December 18.
It was only then that junior lawyers within the government actually finalised the questions and passed them to the law officers.
Tory chief whip John Lamont MSP said: “Alex Salmond has already been caught red handed in revealing what legal advice the Scottish Government has on an independent Scotland’s position within the EU. Now, it seems his deputy has been less than straight on the same issue.
“Ms Sturgeon now has to think carefully on whether she misled Parliament, and if the official record should be changed accordingly.”

No problems here
Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson said: “Both the First Minister and his deputy clearly stated that legal advice had been commissioned and they need to urgently clarify the situation or face the accusation they misled parliament yet again.”
The Scottish Government said the Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, had consented to Sturgeon’s form of words in parliament on October 23.
A spokesman said: “The Deputy First Minister commissioned specific legal advice on 23 October, which was accepted by the Lord Advocate and he gave permission for her to advise parliament that such legal advice had been commissioned. It is part of the normal process that Scottish Government lawyers then prepare a detailed submission.”

Sunday, 20 January 2013

My Way Code

THE First Minister's use of the Ministerial Code has been much in the news since the New Year.
But overlooked - until now - has been a 630-page document dump by the Scottish Government on the topic just before Christmas.
Containing background memos on the Code's composition, it was released after a request under Freedom of Information.
Rather than subjecting the FM to rigorous examination, the material shows the Code has in fact been crafted to help him pick and choose when he is investigated - or whether he is investigated at all.
Here's the story

Tom Gordon
Paul Hutcheon

ALEX Salmond is facing demands for a judge to oversee his behaviour in office, after it emerged the Ministerial Code of Conduct had been kept deliberately vague to help the First Minister choose whether to investigate himself.

A previously secret government memo reveals that details of the investigative process, including the types of alleged misconduct to be checked, were “intentionally not included on the face of the code” to ensure the First Minister could “exercise his own judgement” in each case.

Keeping the process opaque was “also intended to limit the number of spurious complains from third parties,” according to the document.

Opposition parties said the memo exposed the code as a sham which allowed Salmond act as “judge and jury” in his own investigations.

At present, Salmond alone decides whether or not to refer himself to one or more handpicked “independent advisers” on the code if there is an allegation of misconduct against him.
He has referred himself six times since March 2009, and been cleared in every case, the most recent of which was published on January 10.
In the latest instance, Sir David Bell cleared Salmond of breaching the code after he appeared to say on TV last year that the SNP government had specific advice from its law officers on the position of an independent Scotland in the EU.
It later turned out that no such advice existed.
Salmond’s comments were “muddled and potentially confusing”, but did not amount to a breach of the Miinsterial Code, Sir David concluded.
He also recommended that the section of the code covering legal advice should be made clearer.
Now there is evidence that, rather then imposing oversight on the First Minister, the Code has in fact been tailored to help him avoid scrutiny if he chooses. 
Buried among 630 pages of background information on the code released by the Scottish Government just before Christmas is a memo to the First Minister making the point explicitly.
Marked “restricted”, it was written by Robin Benn of the Cabinet and Corporate Business Secretariat on 11 June 2011, and addressed to Salmond and his then Parliamentary Business Manager Bruce Crawford. 
At the time, the code was being updated for the start of the new parliament.
That's handy... how the Ministerial Code intentionally leaves bits out

Referring to the independent advisers, Benn wrote: “You will also recall that details of the process whereby the First Minister will refer matters to the independent advisers (and the types of issues that he may consider it appropriate to pass to them for consideration) were intentionally not included on the face of the Code itself.”
The word “not” was emphasised in bold type.
Benn went on: “We have retained this principle, which should ensure that the First Minister has the appropriate opportunity to exercise his own judgement [sic] on a case-by-case basis, and is also intended to limit the numer of suprious complaints from third parties.”

The full memo is available here (press the 100% icon top left). 

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “These documents prove that accountability of the First Minister within government has become a sham.
“The First Minister has been personally involved in drawing up the code by which is he is judged, and then deciding which cases he’ll refer himself to his hand picked jury. This kind of sinister scheming turns people off politics.”
First Minister: Not guilty again

Labour MSP Paul Martin said: “This makes further mockery of the Ministerial Code. Not only does the First Minister decide the judges, he also gets to decide if he gets charged and what with. It is now in everyone’s interests to overhaul this system and have it policed by an independent judge that we can all have faith in.”

A spokesman for the First Minister said: “This First Minister is the first person holding the office to establish an independent panel to investigate complaints – when Labour and LibDem members held the post they thought it was right to investigate themselves. It is absolutely right that the ministerial code should not give carte blanche to endless, spurious and politically-motivated complaints against the First Minister or any other minister.”

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Lucrative modelling contract

There's another 'SNP assertions' row brewing, this time on the big basic stuff of whether the economy would be better or not after independence.
The Scottish Government naturally say it would be better, given all those famous levers they could pull.
But economies don't go up or down at the flick of a switch.
They're way more complex than that, and so you need a pretty sophisticated computer model to see what the effect of any lever-pulling would be.
And it turns out the Scottish Government doesn't have a computer model that's up to the task, raising questions about the credibility of its forecasts.
Here's a longer version of the story in today's Herald

Tom Gordon
ALEX Salmond’s predictions of a healthy economy after independence have been called into doubt, after it emerged the SNP government lacks the software for forecasting how Scotland’s finances would behave outside the UK.

The Herald can reveal that ministers are only now purchasing a £200,000 “macroeconomic forecast model” to cover a range of scenarios after a Yes vote, including the impact of “economic shocks”.

It will analyse a complex web of interacting forces, including household income, government spending, taxes, labour markets, and north sea oil and gas production to “assist in the development of economic policy”.

The deadline for firms bidding for the job closes this week, however the model is not expected to be fully operational until 2014, the same year as the independence referendum, and after publication of the government’s white paper on independence in November.

Opposition parties last night claimed the SNP, whose central case for independence is a healthier economy, had again been making assertions without the facts to back them up.

The First Minister says an independent Scotland would have the sixth highest per capita Gross Domestic Product in the developed world.

Finance Secretary John Swinney also said recently that a 3% corporation tax cut would support 27,000 jobs, that VAT changes could help tourism, that tax credits could see “a step change” in Research & Development, while “targeted interventions” could attract international investment.

But the current Government software is simply unable to predict how such changes would ripple through the wider, or macro, economy.

The software even appears unable to model the impact of the limited changes to income tax arising from the 2012 Scotland Act.

In August, the First Minister’s Fiscal Commission Working Group, which includes Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, raised the need for a better model and better input data as part of its work on a “fiscal framework” for independence.

Three months later, ministers issued a tender notice for a new computer model to cover the “Scottish macro economy, its linkages with the rest of the UK and the rest of the world”.

Recent thinktank reports have suggested the Scottish economy could be less robust than previously thought after independence, largely due to declining income from north sea oil.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that in the medium term an independent Scotland would face a “bigger fiscal adjustment” than the rest of the UK, if oil incomes fell.

Last month, the Centre for Public Policy for Regions at Glasgow University said lower north sea revenue implied Scotland would be in a worse fiscal position than the UK from 2015 onwards.

Labour finance spokesman Ken Macintosh said: “I’m not surprised the SNP have been making sweeping generalisations about the economy based on nothing other than Alex Salmond’s convictions.

“But that’s no basis for anything, let alone a country taking a decision about independence.”

Tory finance spokesman Gavin Brown said: “Like many of the independence arguments, it seems the SNP’s predictions on the economy could unravel.

“It also appears this complex work will not be complete until after the white paper, raising questions about
what that will be based on.”

... After
A spokesman for the pro-Union Better Together campaign joked that the SNP seemed to have made its rosy economic predictions using “a ZX Spectrum gathering dust in St Andrew’s House”.

He said: “Unfortunately for the nationalists, this new, undoubtedly expensive, system will not be up and running until after the publication of the white paper, which means that everything that it says about an separate Scotland’s economy will be nothing more than wishful thinking.”
A government spokesman said: “As we move to implement the taxation responsibilities in the Scotland Act, future Scottish budgets will depend to a much greater extent on tax revenues raised in Scotland.
"This contract will support the development of the in-house analytical capacity needed to meet these new responsibilities, and fulfils regular requests from stakeholders for a formal forecasting model to provide a view on the future outlook for the Scottish economy and to better inform policy.”