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27 November 2002

“Scotland’s Parliament: Triumph and Disaster” by Brian Taylor of the BBC - A Review

There is an end of term feeling about in the Scottish Parliament. And Brian Taylor, Scotland’s doyen of television political analysts, has sought to write a report card.

But I find myself asking where one can feel the Parliament’s pulse. Is it in the Chamber, in the canteen, the black & white corridor, with the Executive at Victoria Quay or in Deacon Brodie’s?

For despite the number of journalists who swim symbiotically in our political sea with MSPs, I suspect that much of the truth remains hidden, even from Brian.

Is the relationship between politicians and journalists is based on trust and understanding? Journalists failing to understand politicians, and politicians distrusting journalists. Or is it the other way around? Is Brian the exception?

With public view of Parliament and politicians more influenced by what they read and hear through the lens of a journalist than by actual contact with day to day politics, the likes of Brian must be listened to with care.

So it is disappointing that he does not seem to have travelled far below the surface in his analysis. Of those seeking the levers of power yes, but the Parliament no.

In his book he brings new insights into the thinking of the players in government. And those who would replace them from both Executive and Opposition benches.

But as to Parliament, and how it might differ from what went before, Brian writes more as one who observes from the surface rather than as a Jacques Cousteau with an acqualung and swimming deep in the salty seas of the Mound.

And what would he have seen and who would he have met if he had actually dived in?

At the National Library of Scotland there are attracted a substantially larger group of MSPs than the usual evening event. Even the First Minister was seen relaxed and tie-less after what had been a very difficult day. The majority of them paid for the privilege albeit that they were offered a discount.

For this as the launch of his book. For the Edinburgh University Press, the first welcome clink of a cash register as eager members bought the book so they could turn instantly to the index to find their entry.

If that was their sole motivation for buying, many would be disappointed. A bare majority, sixty five from 129, bear mention and many only by association with the parliamentary equivalent of the ‘rich & famous’.

Because this is a history the new Scottish government more than of the Parliament. More a history of ‘Kings and noblemen’ than a social history in the mould of T.C. Smout et al.

But absence from the index should not deter ‘omitted members’. I speak as one who like the other 63 or so has apparently made no impact. And I thought that my establishing a committee of ladies to campaign with me for Peterhead Prison and overturning a key Executive policy in the process would earn me my place in the sun.

Perhaps Brian has not forgiven me for inviting Alex Salmond to join my campaigners in Aberdeen when they handed in their petition. But at least my ensuring one of the ‘noblemen’ of Scottish politics played an active part in the campaign earned it a short mention in the book.

Taking the book on its merits uncovers a few new stories and confirms Brian Taylor’s position as the Scottish media’s ‘man inside’. Time and again he seems to get under the skin of senior Scottish politicians and shows us how they think.

His collaboration with Alex Salmond, yes him again, in writing up a disgraceful attempted smeer campaign during the 1999 election shows some of the dilemmas faced by people in public life. His description of the McLeish troubles shows an empathy with those who hold public office.

But his lens always seems to focus on government rather than parliament. His excursion into considering committee activity makes this point.

John McAllion gets a well-deserved pat on the back for his stewardship of the Public Petitions Committee. But of its success in providing a door through which civic and individual Scotland can engage with Parliament little is written. We read of a serial and ‘vexacious’ petitioner but nothing of contributions made to policy changes through petition.

The game is finally given away in ‘The Uncivil Service?’ chapter. Four pages, 1% of the book, present a distinctly cool response to the Committee system. And the analysis doesn’t suggest that the author has wasted much time sitting on the press benches listening to its work.

No mention of the forensic analysis by Justice One Committee of the Prison Service’s Estates Review. It set a standard to which others, in the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, should aspire. And on a controversial subject, delivered unanimity across the political divide by listening to the evidence.

In ‘A Question of Money’, Brian is more comfortable and better informed. Indeed there will be few better analyses of the different and evolving views of parties in our parliament. He provides a benchmark against which the evolution of this debate can be measured.

But ultimately for me, the unanswered questions frustrate. Does the existence of coalition government shift power away from the executive towards the Parliament? Or does the structure and practices achieve that? Or have we replicated the ‘absolute’ power which resides in government at Westminster?

In the end, MSPs who put down their money for this book, and who queued up to have Brian Taylor sign their copy, will not find their trust in his writing, in his ability to tell a story, misplaced. And it is written in a way accessible to sell in a market place beyond the incestuous bounds of the Mound.

Whether readers will feel that the story is about Scotland’s Parliament rather than Scotland’s government is more open to question.

20 November 2002

Fishing

I sense a macho confrontation coming on fish with some European officials.

After being taken into the Common Fisheries Policy by Tory PM Ted Heath in 1973 and having had many of our fishing rights traded away in the early 90s by John Major, there is common agreement that the CFP has failed. It has failed to protect fish stocks and it has failed communities, like ours, which depend on fish.

So it is with a bitter sense of disappointment that we see a continuing focus on closing our fishing and no sign at all – yet - that officials are prepared to tackle the scandal of industrial fishing.

Our fishermen deliver a healthy food and they support important onshore industries around Scotland’s coasts. The industrial fisheries – mainly Danish – use nets that have a fine mesh that prevents the escape of even the smallest fish. And all to provide pig food and fertiliser.

All of which makes the broadening of the campaign for our fishing communities to cover the whole of Scotland so important. Because it is an industry not well understood by people outside fishing dependent areas.

A debate that engages people in central-belt Scotland is a debate that will go places. And a planned lobby of Parliament by the campaign led by some of our fiesty Fraserburgh ladies will certainly drive the point home.

My party has welcomed the small moves towards returning control of fishing grounds to coastal communities. About time – but too little and probably too late.

But fishing can be higher up the agenda – in some countries.

I had a private meeting with the Norwegian Fisheries Minister, Svein Ludvigsen, when he visited the Scottish Parliament for the 50th meeting of the Nordic Council.

This alliance of five northern European nations is an important forum for coordinating policy on matters of common interest. Like fishing.

And I was interested to hear of the Norwegian Government’s response to a cod crisis in 1989. Not because it tells us what we should do. But because it tells us the priority we must give to fishing communities.

When the Norwegians had to close their cod fishery that meant potential ruin for small towns and villages along Norway’s coast.

Their government decided that it was vital that fishermen and factories should be ready when the fishery reopened. So they made £200 million available to communities hit by the closure. That from a country much smaller than Scotland.

And it worked. The Norwegians still have a white fish fleet and thriving coastal communities.

They also recognise that a ‘right sized’ fleet is the key to long term sustainability and keep tight control on who fishes in their waters.

I was pleased that our own fisheries minister also met Mr Ludvigsen. But I want to hear that he is leaving his desk more often and not just relying on people visiting Scotland. We can only win through alliances of interest.

And the Nordic nations see the future of fishing – and its importance – much as we do. Might we see an invitation for Scotland to join the Nordic Council soon?

Unity of purpose across politicians of all parties in Scotland is important but it can only be sustained if our ministers are out there working for our industry – and are seen to be doing so.

Norway: Lessons for us? Lessons for our government? Certainly!

SlowBand

I have written on broadband communications technology before. This week the Scottish Executive have proudly announced that they have gone out to tender for connections to public facilities in Highlands and the Borders.

This was announced this week. It seems astonishing that it was on 26th September last year – 14 months ago – that the Liberal-Labour government minister informed me of their intention to do nothing until their pilots were complete.

If it takes 14 months merely to issue an invitation to tender how can we have any realistic prospect of getting the technology into use with people any time before it is obsolete.

Losing One’s Memory

In Parliament members, press and staff live in such close and continuous contact that it is difficult to conceal individual idiocyncracies.

For example I can tell you that one government minister was seen recently undertaking an unusual strategy to warm a part of his anatomy after spending some hours in a drafty, cold committee room.

And there is opposition member who has their assistant print out all their emails, then they dictate answers into a tape recorder which their assistant types up and sends.

But this week it is a senior member of the press core who is in the frame. They made a mess of changing the batteries in their electronic organiser and lost all their contact names and addresses. So that’s no more midnight calls from one national paper. Hurray!

6 November 2002

For Cod’s Sake

A tiny bit of sense seems to be surfacing in the EU. Franz Fischler is the Fisheries Commisioner and is the man who has swung this way and that on whether the North Sea will be closed to all catching of white fish.

And yet it seems that the Danes and Norwegians, the latter outside the EU but party to the Common Fisheries Policy, were going to be allowed to continue their industrial fisheries.

That sees them catch up to a million tons of sandeels and pout each year. And what do cod, haddocks and so on eat? Sandeels and pout!

But more critically, it simply isn’t possible to catch sandeels and pout without also catching white fish. Some estimates put the ‘by-catch’ of white fish as being greater than our industry’s permitted total catch of cod and haddocks. Some ‘by-catch’!

The influence of the Danes in particular - like Scotland, a nation of some five million people – over European fishing policy has been considerable. Their civil servants, government ministers and industry have worked closely together to progress national aims on fishing. And that has always meant leading the debate, not just trying persuade minds after the terms of discussions have been set by others.

The Scottish White Fish Producers are holding meetings in Fraserburgh and Peterhead this week to brief a very wide range of people in our community on the crisis. A very welcome move.

In Parliament, SNP Shadow Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead and I have written to the Commissioner asking for an urgent meeting.

The fishing industry are regular visitors to Brussels. So we hope to have the opportunity to add our weight to their arguments.

Is it not ironic that the European Fisheries Commissioner is from Austria, a country with no coastline and no fishing industry.

Would things be as bad if we were EU members in our own right and could appoint our own Commissioner? Perhaps even the Fisheries Commissioner?

It is inconceivable that they would be worse – for sure.

Community Campaigning Wins Again

The very welcome news that there will be a substantial new investment in the Chalmers Hospital in Banff did not happen by accident.

It was just after my election in June 2001 that I was first approached on the subject. The suggestion was made that I lead a campaign to ‘Save Chalmers’.

I took another tack and suggested that community leadership which I would facilititate, advise and work with would work better. And I was delighted to attend and support many meetings and events organised by the campaign that was formed.

The Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee played its role and provided a platform for bringing our concerns to a wider audience.

The advantages of a campaign not aligned to any particular political party are obvious. It enables people of all views, and of none, to feel able to participate without ‘signing up’ to support a particular politician’s politics. And it taps into a new source of energy and imagination to fight the campaign.

After all when you represent the very many interests of some 80,000 people it is difficult to lead all the campaigns yourself.

But I think the biggest long term pay-off with the ‘Chalmers Hospital Campaign’, just as with the ‘Peterhead Prison Campaign’ which arose in the same way, is a demonstration that politics is relevent to people generally and that participation pays dividends.

Well done the ‘Chalmers Hospital’ campaigners!

Taxing Times

It seemed a welcome relief for businesses when Labour Finance Minister Andy Kerr promised in September that he intended to freeze business rates at the current levels. That suggested a saving, against inflation, of some £35 million in real terms.

So it was a very unwelcome surprise to my colleague, Shadow Finance Minister Alastair Morgan, when he read the detail in the Liberal-Labour Executive’s budget and saw a very different story.

It appears that Ministers expect the ‘take’ to rise from £1,570 million this year to £1,909 million in 2005-06. That is a very substantial rise of some 22%.

So unless the Executive knows something about growth in our economy that no professional economist has spotted, businesses will once again be picking up the tab for this government’s failures.

Fuming in Parliament

A well hidden Tory campaign, well at least a Tory leader McLetchie campaign, is for a smoking room in the new Parliament building. Apparently just like the fictional lawyer ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, this Tory likes a ‘small cigar’ and the new building has no provision for smoking inside.

As a non-smoker, in ‘remission’ for 30 years that is, I welcome the absence of such a room. And the costs associated with one.

Is McLetchie’s campaign a sign that he wants to spend more on the Parliament building? We should be told!

Stewart Stevenson
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