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Tuesday 10 December

The world is a poorer place…

For the second week running all other news bows before a major story – this time world-wide. In line with all other countries and heads of state, the First Minister wrote to President Zuma, In Scotland we are proud that Nelson Mandela had a longstanding commitment to and friendship with our country. Those links with Scotland were underlined by his being granted the Freedom of the City of Glasgow in 1981 when he was still imprisoned - the first city in the world to do so. The world is a poorer place for his passing, and our thoughts are with Mr Mandela’s family and the people of South Africa at this time”. 

In Friday’s Scotsman, Martyn McLaughlin traced the links between Mandela and Scotland – how his appearance at the rally in George Square in October 1993 epitomised the powerful bond forged between Scotland and the anti-apartheid movement over more than three decades and thousands of miles.”

At greater length, in a very rewarding article, the Sunday Herald’s Foreign Editor David Pratt traced the history of the anti-apartheid movement in Scotland from the 1960s and the key players involved, one of whom believes that Glasgow has the Commonwealth Games as a reward by African countries for its part.

The Telegraph’s obituary of Mandela was masterly, as was the assessment of his achievements by the paper’s foreign correspondent David Blair.  In the Times, Matthew Parris (£) wondered if South Africa can sustain Mandela’s legacy of tolerance and forgiveness now he has gone.

Elsewhere, nil nisi bono went by the board, and not everyone is enchanted by the BBC’s coverage of Mandela’s death. Dominic Lawson in yesterday’s Daily Mail took Today’s Evan Davis to task for suggesting he be “ranked alongside Jesus Christ in the pantheon of virtue”. Mandela’s greatness in not in doubt, says Lawson, but political history tells us never to confuse the public with the private man – he was warm to strangers, not always so with his family. True of most consummate politicians, say Lawson- “Yet we should not expect anything more from great men and women. The effort and energy involved in the political struggle at the highest level is almost beyond words to describe. It does require absolute dedication, a willingness to sacrifice the things which normal people would say are what makes life worth living”.
Saturday’s Telegraph, South African journalist Rian Malan looked at some of the myths that have arisen – the truth about Mandela has been obscured by decades of myth-mongering, most of it penned by white liberals intent on portraying him as a benign black moderate, leading an army of hymn-singing Martin Luther King types towards the promised land. This Mandela certainly existed, but there were several other Mandelas, some entirely secret, others misunderstood. As we lower the great man into his grave, let’s pause to consider him in his totality.”  A must read for the full picture… 

Move over Darling…

On Wednesday the Financial Times broke the story that  Tory MPs are getting a tad worried about Alistair Darling’s performance as head of Better Together – One ‘very senior Tory minister’ is quoted as saying “The man has never run a campaign … he is comatose most of the time.” According to the FT, “one Downing Street source described Mr Darling as a “dreary figurehead” for such an important campaign… a Tory whispering campaign against Mr Darling has been growing in recent weeks. While party insiders accept that the head of the unionist campaign has to be a Labour politician, some Conservatives have been arguing the Labour heavyweight is treating Alex Salmond too gently”.

In Thursday’s Scotsman George Kerevan  asked “How serious is the bid to dump Darling? Since the story broke on Wednesday in the Financial Times, Downing Street has been sending out frantic messages that it backs Darling. On the other hand, a pro-Union newspaper quotes an anonymous Cabinet minister as saying the No campaign “could be in real danger” and suggesting Gordon Brown takes over”.

But why should there be any concern when the No camp is clearly ahead in the polls? Well, says Kerevan, if you look more closely, the polls show the No vote is actually diminishing.  And while would-be voters are merely shifting into the Don’t Know column pro tem, there is the fear (or hope, depending on your view) that they will eventually move right across into Yes.  “The problem with a negative campaign”, Kerevan continues, “is that it offers no incentives for the Don’t Knows to back the Union. Instead, it abandons the political initiative to Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign to paint a bright picture of what life could be like in an independent Scotland”

David Torrance in yesterday’s Herald tends to agree that Darling is lack-lustre.  But ‘comatose’ he says, is ‘a bit wide of the mark’. Darling has been extremely busy – recent reports revealed that he’d made £170,000 from speaking engagements in the past year. The No campaign, in short, implies Torrance, lacks a positive vision for a future Scotland.

Interestingly in one Lords debate, Lord Cormack likened Alex Salmond to "a sort of Tartan Boris", and it's not a bad comparison. The Mayor of London, like the First Minister, is comfortable setting out his vision of a more autonomous capital within the UK, something he'll flesh out in a "State of the Union" lecture this evening at the LSE. Indeed, his liberal Tory vision of London - capitalist but fair - isn't a million miles from the SNP's view of an independent Scotland.Lord Cormack likened Alex Salmond to "a sort of Tartan Boris", and it's not a bad comparison. The Mayor of London, like the First Minister, is comfortable setting out his vision of a more autonomous capital within the UK, something he'll flesh out in a "State of the Union" lecture this evening at the LSE. Indeed, his liberal Tory vision of London - capitalist but fair - isn't a million miles from the SNP's view of an independent Scotland.Lord Cormack likened Alex Salmond to "a sort of Tartan Boris", and it's not a bad comparison”, says Torrance. “The Mayor of London, like the First Minister, is comfortable setting out his vision of a more autonomous capital within the UK…indeed, his liberal Tory vision of London - capitalist but fair - isn't a million miles from the SNP's view of an independent Scotland”. 

Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph sprang to Mr Darling’s defence with alacrity. “What planet are these Tories living on? One of his greatest strengths is that his low-key and determined approach to his task, in stark contrast to the more excitable approach of Scotland’s First Minister, is paying off handsomely”. Looking for a motive for Tory frustration, Cochrane concludes that it may be that their enthusiasm for helping the unionist cause is being reined in by Darling as being too negative. 

Less money…

Meanwhile, Westminster’s All-Party Parliamentary Taxation Group, chaired by Tory MP Iain Liddell-Grainger – and Anglo-Scot, as Magnus Gardham in Saturday’s Herald reminded us, has come up with Achieving Autonomy -a report that should gladden SNP hearts.  In effect, what it proposes if Scotland votes to stay in the UK is scrapping the Barnett formula and re-distributing funds according to each country’s differing needs. For Scotland that could mean a cut of £4billion. Gardham says the SNP have gone on the attack using this figure, but to be fair, it is only an estimate used by the head of the Holtham Commission into Welsh tax-raising powers. Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael says this government will not scrap the existing structure, but, says Gardham, the No camp is silent on the issue. It is, he says, “worth flagging up a couple of other conclusions from the all-party group report. If there is a narrow defeat for independence, it says, Scotland would still be on the road to a much looser "devo max" relationship with the rest of the UK. If Yes wins big, we will have our own currency sooner rather than later”.

Dearer food…

Shadow Secretary Margaret Curran grabbed at yesterday’s reports by the Herald and the BBC that supermarket bosses’ claim food may become more expensive in an independent Scotland with both hands. If regulation and distribution costs change, the chief executive of Morrisons asked, why Welsh and English consumers should subsidise the extra cost involved. Yesterday’s Financial Times also ran the story – and it isn’t just Morrisons, it’s Asda, Tesco and Sainsburys as well - “We would treat it as an international market and act accordingly by putting up our prices,” said a top executive at one of the Big Four. “The costs of distribution are much higher in Scotland but at the moment that gets absorbed by the UK business.”  

"The message from supermarket bosses is clear”, says Ms Curran, “the cost of doing the weekly shop in Scotland is cheaper as part of the UK and would be more expensive with independence."

But all heart…

Over in the Observer, former LibDem Cabinet minister, millionaire property developer, eco-warrior and ex-con  Chris Huhne – an unlikely source of support for independence - advises Better Together that they need to appeal to emotion and identity or lose the referendum. All the evidence about Scotland's sense of identity suggests that the rest of the UK could be in for a shock, whatever the polls now say. My guess is the result will be close. The unionists may look as if they are winning comfortably until the last few weeks, and then the heart will take over… most Scots identify first and foremost with Scotland. The proportion describing themselves as mostly British has fallen to fewer than one in 10. As in Quebec in 1995, feelings will shift votes”.  

The concept of the United Kingdom, he says, is but 300 years old – “a blink in human history… if the unionists cannot articulate a new sense of British values and purpose, with which all the people of these islands can identify, the Scots may well vote for their auld country back again. It may be small. But it will be Scottish, and probably rather civilised and successful”. 

Passing the constituency parcel…

So, Karen Whitefield it is. The poisoned chalice that is Falkirk was in the former MSP’s hands when the music stopped. With a real break from tradition, as the Daily Mail pointed out gleefully yesterday, we have another female union representative, only this time it’s Usdaw, not Unite. To be fair, as Andrew Sparrow in yesterday’s Guardian pointed out, Ms Whitefield is the most experienced of the three candidates on the all-woman shortlist, even though, as political editor Robbie Dinwoodie maintained in the Herald, she didn’t exactly set the heather on fire.  Eric Joyce has a majority of almost 8,000, and even though Labour’s standing in Falkirk must be near rock bottom, it’s unlikely the seat will fall to anyone else in 2016. 

As any fule kno…

Last week the OECD’s PISA results – the worldwide academic standards of 15 yr-old pupils - showed the UK as a whole floundering. Much was made on the BBC in particular of poor achievement, but as Andrew Denholm in the Herald pointed out, Scotland is assessed separately, and did rather better than the UK average in Maths and Reading, although not so well in science. Labour’s education spokeswoman, Kezia Dugdale, cautioned against comparing ourselves with England, instead benchmarking against our international competitors. 

The EIS says close scrutiny shows PISA is flawed, and columnist Ian Bell in Wednesday’s Herald echoed this view. But those who favour privatisation and two-tier education in the wake of the results should look again at Finland, says Bell, where schools compete on equal terms with the Asian hothouses, and whose pupils consistently appear near or at the top of the tables.

Their high grades, he maintains, “have been achieved by a publicly-funded comprehensive system that doesn't bother with school uniforms, selection, tracking or streaming. In higher education…Finnish schools are local, whenever possible, and granted a great deal of autonomy. They are blessed with teachers whose training, status and pay are beyond the imaginations of the average British politician. To teach in Finland you must survive tough competition and possess a master's degree. Your reward is a wage well above the OECD average and a great deal of public respect. There is no shortage of applicants for teaching jobs. Demand outstrips supply… Finland does not bother with the pretence that "reform" is a substitute for public spending on education; nor does it believe selection for the few is of any great use to the country as a whole. The results speak for themselves”. 

And finally

Things you thought you’d never see…

Something momentous happened in a dreich Edinburgh in the early hours of Thursday morning.  A £776million tram trundled along Princes Street for the first time since November 1956. It started at Haymarket at 11.00pm and got to York Place at 4.00am; admittedly a test run - but let’s hope it can go a little faster in May when it carries passengers. In case you can’t quite credit it, the Scotsman has a photograph 


It’s that time of year again. Scot-Buzz goes on, but Honey has to pluck the turkey and decorate the cat in time for Santa, so no buzzing round the media for a while … A very Happy Christmas and New Year – “God bless us, every one!”  See you in 2014.