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It was another busy week across Scotland with the release of the Lockerbie bomber, independence and Rupert Murdoch dominating the agenda.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill came under further pressure as the Herald carried material claiming that he had urged the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, to drop his appeal as a way of helping his compassionate release from prison.
Serialising Megrahi’s biography, the Herald quoted him as saying in the book:
“On 10 August (2009), MacAskill and his senior civil servants met a delegation of Libyan officials, including minister [Abdel Ati] Al-Obeidi. By this time I was desperate.
“After the meeting the Libyan delegation came to the prison to visit me. Obeidi said that, towards the end of the meeting, MacAskill had asked to speak to him in private. Once the others had withdrawn, MacAskill told him it would be easier for him to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal.
“He [MacAskill] said he was not demanding that I do so, but the message seemed to me to be clear. I was legally entitled to continue the appeal, but I could not risk doing so. It meant abandoning my quest for justice.”
Addressing MSPs, MacAskill gave his absolute “assurance and word” that no such pressure had been applied.
The referendum on independence meanwhile continued to rumble on, with a number of significant developments, including:
• A cross party group of pro-union politicians united in calling for “devo-plus” to be an option when Scotland decides its future.
• New polling pointed to 26 per cent of English residents favouring the ending of the union.
• Scottish business leaders called for an early referendum to end the uncertainty being created as the new Sun on Sunday claimed that Alex Salmond was planning the vote to take place on Saturday October 18th 2014.
• The Scotsman revealed that the pro-union parties were finally considering how to campaign jointly to fight independence as academics argued voters could be “annoyed” into supporting independence if Westminster imposed an early referendum against the will of the Scottish government.
Having seemingly leaked the date of a referendum to the Sun on Sunday meanwhile, Alex Salmond’s meeting with Rupert Murdoch once again ignited concern about the first minister’s links with the media tycoon.
“The idea that this will pay huge dividends for the SNP is misleading.”
As the Scottish Labour Party meanwhile prepared to gather this weekend for their annual conference in Dundee, it was a time for frank discussion about the party’s position. Laying the ground ahead of the gathering, David Torrence declared in a piece for Holyrood magazine:
“Scottish politics can be cruel. By rights, the party that kept the devolution flame burning during the dark days of Tory rule and delivered it on returning to government in 1997 ought to be reaping the electoral benefits. Instead, the Scottish Labour Party is apparently unelectable, unpopular and demoralized. In short, it wasn’t supposed to work out like this.
“To an extent, Labour in Scotland is in - ironically - a similar frame of mind as the UK Conservatives were after 1997. Shocked by being out of office for the first time in decades, the Tories failed to take stock and complacently assumed they would be back in government as soon as the British people came to their senses.
“Another defeat in 2001 didn’t seem to alter that mindset; only a hat trick of rejection in 2005 forced the natural party of government to come to its senses.
“Similarly, Scottish Labour’s reaction to its narrow defeat at the 2007 Holyrood election was indignant disbelief. Imperfect leader followed imperfect leader, while internal party reform and policy renewal was ducked and delayed.
“A second, much heavier, defeat last year appears to have kicked some life into a once energetic party, but it remains in the middle phase of its recovery. Local government elections this May are unlikely to offer any respite. “
Previewing his speech on Friday meanwhile, the Herald picked up on shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander’s warning the party needed to change, quoting him as arguing:
“We need to change and change radically - not to disavow our deepest beliefs, but to become a better expression of them. We need to change how we tell our story, who tells that story, and what that story tells the public about the Scotland we believe in, and its place in Britain and beyond.
“We need to change how we identify and select our candidates, how we organise and fund our campaigns, and how we develop and communicate our policies.”
Finally, both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg delivered speeches to their Scottish parties today.
Clegg used his to highlight the achievements of the Liberal Democrats north of the border:
“We are coming out of a crisis, an economic heart attack, and there is no magic wand that will make everything better overnight. But as we build a new economy from the rubble of the old, Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government are giving you real, practical help in tough times.
“That’s why we have cut your taxes, even as we’ve had to take difficult decisions to raise money elsewhere.
“Thanks to Liberal Democrats, by raising the point at which you start paying income tax, we put £200 a year back in your pockets last year and another £130 from next month. And we want to go further and faster, lifting millions of the poorest workers out of tax altogether by raising to £10,000 the amount you can earn tax-free, putting £60 a month back in your pockets.
“Already we have lifted 72,000 Scottish workers out of paying tax altogether and two million Scottish workers have received a tax cut. Liberal Democrat tax cuts for the many - not the few.”
While Miliband launched an attack on the SNP on fairness, saying:
“Last time I was in Scotland, a few weeks ago, I went to the Co-op distribution plant in Newhouse. One of the employees there told me that he had always told his children that if they worked hard in school they would get a good job. But now that they’re out of school and there are so few jobs, he honestly doesn’t know what to tell them.
“And with 13,000 young people out of work for more than six months, how many parents around this country must feel the same way.
“It is the price of Tory economic failure. It is the price of an approach to the deficit that goes too far and too fast. But it is also the price of an SNP government which blame everyone else while leaving even more Scots out of work.
“Alex Salmond came to England to brag about how he would turn Scotland into a progressive beacon. There’s just one problem. He forgot about what he had done in Scotland. When George Osborne handed him the plans to make cuts to capital spending of 11%, he didn’t just make those cuts.
“He almost doubled them. Thousands of jobs building roads, bridges, and infrastructure ripped out of the economy, not just by the Tories, but by the SNP. He forgot about the people of Scotland when he cut the budget of colleges by a fifth, harming the training chances for young people.”
Whilst a new poll by ICM for BBC Wales to coincide with St David’s Day pointed to just seven per cent of people in Wales supporting independence, there was a note of caution to the pro-union parties not to be lulled into a false sense of security.
Addressing the findings and what they meant, an editorial in the Guardian this week concluded:
Do not take Wales for granted.
That is the very clear message coming from the St David’s Day opinion poll conducted for BBC Wales by ICM this week. At first glance, David Cameron may nevertheless be tempted to dismiss the new poll.
Only seven per cent of the Welsh voters surveyed by ICM say they want Wales to be an independent country – though admittedly the figure rises to 12 per cent if Scotland were to vote for separation in 2014. Either way, these are not figures to send a chill through London politicians’ hearts.
It would be a mistake, though, to assume that the persistent recent failure of Plaid Cymru to match the surge of support for the Scottish National party means that Welsh national feeling is a phenomenon of little political account.
The BBC/ICM poll figures which should concentrate minds are those which concern the Welsh assembly’s powers. Only one in three Welsh voters (32 per cent) agree with the status quo in which the assembly has no tax-varying powers at all. The other two-thirds are split between wanting the assembly to have power over some taxes (36 per cent) and all taxes (28 per cent).
Either of these changes would represent a major change in the political geometry of the UK.
The old assumption that Wales would always back away from radical change in its relationship with London is in steady and fascinating decline.
Independence may not be on the agenda, but further Welsh self-government certainly is. The nation which voted by a ratio of 4:1 against devolution in 1979, then in favour of devolution by a whisker in 1997, last year voted by nearly 2:1 for devolved legislative powers and is now, according to the new poll, in favour of some form of taxation powers by a similar margin.
This is a large shift of sentiment with big political implications.
Devolution in Wales has not thrown up the kind of full-frontal challenge to the United Kingdom that has been generated in Scotland. But the movements of opinion in Wales pose unavoidable questions about political relationships nevertheless, even if Scotland votes to stay in the union.
The UK government has established a commission on Welsh fiscal devolution which has now been given a significant push by the new poll.
There is talk of devolving policing to Wales (it has happened in Scotland and Northern Ireland), and Wales’s first minister Carwyn Jones favours some sort of distinctive Welsh legal system. Mr Jones spoke yesterday of the future prospect of a looser UK with multiple centres of accountability.
All these ideas push in the same direction towards the need to address Welsh feeling afresh and towards a more imaginative approach to the possibilities, not least for England, of a more federal UK. Generations have been brought up to think of “England & Wales” as one. But those days are ebbing away. Today there is England. And there is Wales.
As Nick Clegg, meanwhile, used a pre-Welsh Lib Dem conference interview to admit that things would be tough for the party in May’s local elections, research by the Welsh government pointed to 6,000 more Welsh children finding themselves in poverty as a result of Westminster’s changes to the benefits and tax credits system.
Presenting the analysis to AMs, education minister, Leighton Andrews argued:
“The Welsh government is not opposed to the principle of welfare reform. We would welcome a simpler, more transparent benefit system that makes work pay; and provides genuine support to individuals to help them find and keep work.
“Enabling people to work would be of immense benefit to Wales. We accept that individuals that are able to work need to take responsibility for finding employment. But as I have previously said, the power to create jobs does not generally lie with the unemployed.”
Stephen Doughty, head of Oxfam Cymru, declared:
“Let’s not underestimate the impacts that are heading our way as a result of these changes – particularly given the very uncertain economic situation.
“Thousands of people who might be getting by right now are in fact teetering on the brink. Because of the large numbers of people that will be affected the ripple effects will mean that far more people will be affected – than just those in direct receipt of a benefit that will be changed.
“The knock on effect of a friend, relative or customer being impacted could permeate to almost every aspect of Welsh society.”
As MLAs voted to maintain the Justice Department after May, the BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor, Mark Devenport used it as an opportunity to mull over the issue of referenda on both sides of the border.
Writing on his blog he observed:
Tuesday’s Stormont session, which rubber-stamped the executive’s agreement to extend the cross community compromise over the justice department, was rather more predictable than Tuesday’s Dail sitting, when Enda Kenny confirmed that the Irish people would be given their chance to say yes or no to the European fiscal compact.
However, referenda featured within both chambers, north and south. In Stormont it was the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.
Conall McDevitt waved a copy of the agreement around, arguing that true republicans would respect the verdict of the people and not alter the form of power-sharing they approved 14 years ago.
His target was fairly obviously Sinn Fein, but whilst Martin McGuinness replied only tangentially – pointing out that all the other major parties in the Republic had welcomed the Hillsborough deal on justice – it was Peter Robinson who took the SDLP’s argument about democratic legitimacy head on.
The DUP leader argued that just because there had been a referendum 14 years ago that did not mean the system should be frozen in time. He said the people had spoken in numerous elections since then and thereby given their consent to the consequent changes to the Stormont arrangements.
Of course Mr Robinson, having been in the “No” camp in 1998, feels no need to swear fealty to the Good Friday Agreement.
Beyond this point, however, his argument with the SDLP seemed to symbolise the gulf between the Irish political system, in which referenda, sometimes on apparently technical points, are a regular feature, and the British approach in which they tend to be few and far between.
Whilst Mr McDevitt may have sought to cause Sinn Fein some embarrassment with his talk of the 1998 referendum, one imagines Gerry Adams will be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of a 2012 European referendum.
Following the publication last year of the review into the future of Northern Ireland’s health and social care system, health minister Edwin Poots MLA used an article for Left Foot Forward to outline next steps on the road to health reform, arguing:
The next steps will require leadership to be shown firstly by myself, but also by all of the elected members of the Northern Ireland assembly, and by the health and social care sector. We need to chart, using the review as the basis, a road map for sustainable, effective and efficient provision for health and social care services into the future.
I expect full unequivocal support of my proposals for reforming and modernising our health and social care system, to ensure that we get the best from the resources available to us; to ensure that services are, where possible, brought closer to the patients home, and to ensure that patients are treated in the right place, at the right time, and by the right people.
Change will need to be delivered through working together. We have had too many reviews in health and social care over recent years where little has happened. I am determined that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated and we need to move forward now if we are to have a sustainable future for our health and social care services.
I am committed to ensuring an open and transparent process during the process of change.
Also this week:
• Sign up to receive our weekly summary of the news from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, The Week Outside Westminster
• The changing face of healthcare in Northern Ireland – Edwin Poots MLA, Northern Ireland health minister
• Mandarins line up to attack health reforms – Ed Jacobs