Category Archives: Blairgowrie Advertiser

Shuffle the Deck

You always know what’s going on when groups of MPs are huddled together in excited groups and the mobile phones are gripped even more intently than usual. Yes, it’s reshuffle day and expectant would-be Ministers are waiting excitedly for that call from Number 10. With one call, the fortunes of the politically ambitious can be either be made or thwarted and it’s an experience that is unlikely to trouble this Honourable Member.

Last week saw reshuffles take place in both Westminster and Holyrood, with very different and distinct messages coming from the respective Governments.

At Westminster, the coalition tensions are now almost at boiling point, with Liberals determined to have their agenda pushed more robustly in Government; whilst Conservative MPs become even more irritated with their Liberal partners. What eventually happened was that the Liberal numbers were increased around Whitehall, whilst there was a lurch to the right to satisfy the Conservative backbench.

In Scotland, a reshuffle was also undertaken following the decision by former Perth and Kinross Council leader and all round political good guy, Bruce Crawford, to stand down after years of service. The First Minister used this opportunity to bolster his ministerial team by putting an almost exclusive focus on economic growth. With the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, securing a brief on infrastructure we now have the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and Finance Secretary, John Swinney, with responsibility to ensure economic growth and to work to mitigate against the worst excesses of Westminster austerity policies.

Nicola Sturgeon also combines her role with ensuring that the Scotland’s constitutional issues are addressed. This, of course, makes perfect sense as they are intrinsically linked and are almost entirely inter-dependent on each other. I think that the Scottish people recognise that the Scottish Government can do so much with the economic powers that we have. We can ensure that Scotland is better protected and we can invest where we can. But it’s like playing a game of golf with just a few clubs at your disposal. What Scotland needs are the big drivers, and that means securing the full range of economic powers that would come with independence. Having the constitution linked with the economy, the Scottish Government are then in a better position to demonstrate just how that interconnection works.

So there we are, a tale of two reshuffles- one based on political expedience and one based on Scotland’s priorities.

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This article first appeared in the Blairgowrie Advertiser on Thursday 13th September 2012

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Ye See Yon Birky Ca’d a Lord

It may not be the issue that is most exercising the good people of Perthshire, but Lords Reform is the issue that has dominated the agenda in the House of Commons. Last Tuesday, it even led to the biggest rebellion we have seen since the coalition came to power. Forget double dip recession, rising unemployment, or even the conniving banks, it was the men and women in ermine that we spent the best part of two days debating.

Now, the House of Lords is a uniquely anachronistic institution. It is a blight on our democracy and is stuffed full of political placemen, cronies, donors and almost incredibly Church of England bishops! Somehow this assortment of patronage and privilege has a say on how this country is governed, and it is a democratic disgrace. There are now also almost 800 of these people costing the country millions and millions of pounds in the process. They call themselves Lords and the reek of privilege is something that should appall everyone in this country.

And, of course this should be addressed, and you would think that any democratic person would sign up to that mission- but not a bit of it. This is the House of Commons after all. The UK parties all agreed to address Lords reform in their manifestos and Nick Clegg indeed presented his proposal to the House last Tuesday.

Although Clegg’s proposals were pretty half baked (15 year terms for senators, and the retention of 20% of places for cronies), it was at least progress. But you should have heard the shrieks of protest from Tories rallying to the defence of their friends in ermine. This democracy would undermine our democracy was about the most ludicrous of claims. It would be a challenge to the House of Commons, as if the Commons doesn’t need a bit of a challenge. All of these modest proposals proved too much for 81 of these Tories and they rebelled in full conscience that they were doing the right thing.

Now, hopefully Scotland will be well shot of London Government and this won’t be our concern, but our proposal is just to get rid of the whole shooting match. The UK Parliament can get by perfectly well with one chamber and there are enough MPs to do the work. In Scotland we have demonstrated that with our beefed up committee system, scrutiny can be performed.

The House of Lords is just about everything that is bad about London rule and thank goodness we have a way out.

Blairgowrie Advertiser – 21st June 2012

The debate about Scottish independence took a rather bizarre turn last week when Labour leader, Ed Miliband, tried to suggest what my identity would be after independence.  This is when Ed Miliband revealed that the referendum for independence would be a choice between Scottishness and Britishness.

Not only is this ridiculous, it is geographically impossible.  That is, unless Ed Miliband intends to take his party’s obsession with “separation” to a new level by building a channel across the border after independence.

I am British because I live in the northern part of the island of Great or Greater Britain. I am British in the same way that someone from Stockholm is Scandinavian and in the same way that Ed Miliband is also British because he lives in the southern part of this island.  It’s basic geography and it is astounding he is unaware of that.  He also has absolutely no right to tell me what I can call myself after independence, when I will, of course, still be both Scottish and British.

To be charitable, what Ed, in his confusion, was perhaps trying to suggest, is that I would no longer be “culturally” British because I would be changing my nationality from UK to Scottish.  After independence, we will continue with a social union with England and we will also celebrate all the amazing achievements and relationships we have shared.

This is a basic failure to understand what independence is striving to achieve. What independence will mean is that Scotland will leave the UK state with the return of currently reserved powers to the Scottish Parliament.  The referendum on independence will be – or at least ought to be – about where power should reside.  It has absolutely nothing to do with Britishness or Britain, just as the UK state also has nothing to do with Britishness.

Ed Miliband, like so many other unionists, is becoming increasingly obsessed with identity, flags and nationality, and in being so, is seeking to deny us our geography and our shared culture and heritage. What we will do is to continue to invest in our cultural ties with the rest of the United Kingdom and we will build on our social union in a spirit of co-operation, equality and self respect.

Blairgowrie Advertiser – 24th May 2012

Once again, there is a fight to save the identities of Scotland’s famous fighting units. Already amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland by the last Labour Government, our famous former regiments exist as battalions protected by their name and cap badge. In amalgamating our regiments, the last Labour Government also promised what they called a “golden thread” that would ensure that the specific heritage and traditions would be preserved in the new regiment.

However, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, recently suggested that those names didn’t matter and proposed that our battalions be simply referred to by their number. With one stroke of a Whitehall pen he recommended that our famous fighting units be simply done away with and consigned to history. The Black Watch would be referred to as the Third Battalion, or the Third Scots, if you like. This produced uproar from Scotland’s veteran community and those associated with our regiments.  All sorts of campaigns were launched to have this preserved.

And there is a fantastic association in Perthshire with our local regiment, the Black Watch. Hundreds of people turned up for the homecoming parade when the Black Watch recently returned home from Afghanistan. There is a tremendous respect for the way our fighting unit performs an almost unimaginable difficult task on our behalf. It’s about the re-assurance and confidence we feel that our armed forces are the best in the world. There is also the association with our local communities.  Perthshire, Angus and Fife have always been the recruiting area for the Black Watch. Generations of young men have joined up with their comrades to serve in our local regiment.

Such was the furore following the recent announcement, that a cross party campaign was hastily put together at the House of Commons and within a few days we saw the first sign of a climb-down from Government. Philip Hammond revealed to the press that he was now minded to keep the names and we then learned that this u-turn was ordered from the Prime Minister himself. I also secured a House of Commons debate to question the defence Secretary about these plans.  At the time of writing, this debate is still to take place

What we need to hear from the Defence Secretary is that he will maintain the golden thread; that the identities of our former regiments are safe and he is ruling out any suggestion that names will be diminished. Instead of running down our former regiments, this Westminster Government should be promoting them and parading them as an example of everything that is good about the army.

Blairgowrie Advertiser – 10th May 2012

First of all, congratulations to Councillors Bob Ellis, Liz Grant and Caroline Shires, as well as Councillors Ian Miller, Alan Grant, Lewis Simpson, and Dennis Melloy. By mainly securing re-election on the first vote clearly demonstrates that the people of East Perthshire value the work they have done over the past five years and I am certain that they will work together for the best interests of everyone in the Blaire area.

Very little changed last Thursday for us in the SNP on Perth and Kinross Council. We remain the largest party with 18 councillors, three short of that elusive overall majority, having increased our share of the vote by 3% and coming very close to adding 2 seats to our tally. We won councillors in every ward in Perth and Kinross and, this week, councillors are now busy working on securing a deal that will deliver a new administration.

It was not so good for the Liberals or Conservatives. The Liberals, following the example of the Liberals nationally, lost two councillors, including their group leader. The Conservatives also lost one councillor and failed to re-take the seat where one of their number became an independent. This was a calamitous result for the Tories in what was once described as their “heartland”.

Nationally, we in the SNP had our best ever council result. We won the election, securing the most councillors and securing the largest share of the vote. We also had the most gains and have ended up with majorities in neighbouring Angus and Dundee. Where the media, as usual, concentrated on Glasgow, the SNP gained councillors in every part of Scotland. We have now won four out of the last five national elections and this sets us up perfectly for the next electoral test, the independence referendum.

Where there were concerns about the low turnout, Perth and Kinross surpassed the national average with an average turnout of 44 %. This was the first stand-alone council election since 1995 and with the lack of media coverage and debates, this was actually quite a respectable turnout.

All our new councillors now face a range of diverse challenges. Councils now have a number of new responsibilities and the decisions that are made in council chambers impact on all aspects of our community. I am looking forward to working constructively with all new and returning councillors and wish them all the best in their important task.

Blairgowrie Advertiser – 26th April 2012

Whether it was the “Granny Tax”, the “Pasty Tax” or the tax on caravans, the Westminster Government certainly went out of its way to antagonise a fair amount of the population with its budget. Last week the Finance Bill was passed and all of these unpopular measures will soon come into force.

Meanwhile, millionaires will benefit from the reduction of the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p and charities will be hit by curtailing tax relief on charitable giving.

In my 11 years in the House of Commons I don’t think I have seen a Westminster budget unravel so quickly. The Chancellor had barely sat down when major questions were being asked about the direction of travel of this budget and the impact that his measures will have on the vast majority of the population of the UK.

Already it looks like the Government are paying for this unpopular budget and are experiencing depressed opinion polling, and the crunching sound of the reverse gear being engaged is now filling the airwaves.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the reform of tax relief on charitable giving. The Government at first seemed to have decided that this tax relief is no more than a means for philanthropists to avoid paying tax. They intended to cap the amount of tax relief an individual can claim in any year to a quarter of their income or £50,000, whichever is higher. This includes tax relief on charitable donations. Currently, higher-rate taxpayers donating to a charity can reclaim more than half of the income tax they paid on the money.

Charities responded furiously to this proposal claiming the move will deter philanthropists and will cost them millions of pounds. In Scotland, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations estimated that voluntary grants and donations make up 10.7% of Scotland’s voluntary sector income, equivalent to £470m in 2010. There was even an admission by the Government that this will indeed have an impact on charities income.

In all of the furor it became clear that something had to be done. The Government now says that they will consult on the issue and there is talk of a compromise on the cap. But charities want the whole plan dropped now and insist that the indecision is already impacting on donations.

Whatever happens the Government have got themselves into a real mess and it’s sometimes best when you’re in that hole to just stop digging.