Stevenson’s resignation hurts Salmond more than it damages the SNP

Okay, so I lambasted Stewart Stevenson’s performance on Newsnight Scotland last Monday night, and now I’m feeling a tad guilty.  But actually, I thought he came out the next day saying all the right things and – crucially – back in touch with his brief and the situation.  If you’ll pardon the pun, I reckoned he had done more than enough to weather the storm.

So his resignation yesterday was unexpected but not inconsistent with the measure of the man.  As Will Patterson points out in his excellent blogpost, previous Labour Ministers had been guilty of much more heinous crimes and no resignations followed.  But Stewart Stevenson is an honourable man.  He sensed he had become the story, that the opposition parties would not let up, and for the good of the SNP Government and the independence cause, he had to fall on his sword.  He took responsibility for the seriousness of the situation and for that, Stewart Stevenson deserves huge plaudits.

Joan McAlpine is right to promote the opportunity for the SNP to bring a woman into the Cabinet and I’d agree that Shirley-Anne Somerville is a very likely contender. Though perhaps not for the transport brief, even though she has been its parliamentary liaison member in recent years.  To coin a phrase, this is no time for a novice and Salmond might prefer to switch Roseanna Cunningham sideways into this Ministerial portfolio and promote Ms Somerville to environment instead.  She would be a great asset to the team whichever berth she occupies.

But there is a much more interesting consequence of Stewart Stevenson’s resignation and it flows from his very personal connection to the First Minister.  Eddie Barnes touches on it in his article in today’s Scotland on Sunday and it is also evident in the tone of the First Minister’s response to Stevenson’s resignation letter. 

Stewart Stevenson is probably Alex Salmond’s closest ally and personal friend in the party.  They have been together through thick and thin for over 30 years, Salmond in the foreground, Stevenson a few steps behind, willing and able to serve in whatever capacity his friend, and his party, needed most.  This resignation – above possibly any other – hurts Salmond more than it damages the SNP.

Stevenson was always a weak link, for a number of reasons.  His closeness to Salmond and the huge personal debt owed – as the anonymous source in Eddie Barnes’ piece indicates – has oft been cited by mischief makers as the reason for his promotion, first to the seat of Banff and Buchan and then into government.  Stevenson has never been one of the party’s darlings but the doubting of the man’s talents is way off the mark.  No, he is not a natural politician but he is clever, knowledgeable, diligent and above all, loyal.   On certain parts of his brief, he has been a real success. 

But not all.  The failure of Transport Scotland on key and local infrastructure projects and issues has caused real problems for many backbench MSPs on wafer thin majorities.  Appeals to the Minister went unheeded.  People felt his hands off approach to such a key strategic body was wrong and it caused many to diss him – pretty openly – to all and sundry.  As the burd has already pointed out, it was his portfolio and the skewering of Transport Scotland by the Parliament’s Audit Committee that presented Hugh Henry with a chance to shine in the media and public eye.  Stevenson all but delivered two important political prizes into Henry’s lap.  Not good. 

What this means is that in crucial weeks like this, Stewart Stevenson had few allies in the wider parliamentary group or party to rely on.  Yet, had Weathergate happened last year, Stevenson would not have gone, no matter how loudly the opposition parties brayed.  Because he enjoyed the total support of the First Minister. 

Salmond’s grip on his party has not just been iron, it has been steely.  Such has been the extent of loyalty and trust commanded and demanded, that very few would have countenanced even idle gossip about such an option.  Yet this weekend, Salmond must have tested the temperature of his party and realised that Stevenson had to be allowed to resign. 

It hints at a chink, if no more than that, in Salmond’s hold on the imaginations and in the affections of the SNP.   Most members would realise that the loss of his transport Minister would represent a very heavy personal blow.  It would also signal the piercing of the leader’s political infallibility and impregnability.

The fact that the First Minister accepted Stewart Stevenson’s resignation suggests that the party’s relationship with its leader has shifted in recent months.  How interesting.

What Michael Moore doesn’t know

Anyone who tuned into Newsnight Scotland last night will have seen an excruciating interview with Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary of State.   Here was a UK government minister who was not on top of his brief.

Asked by Gordon Brewer how many people in Scotland would be affected by the changes to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) announced as part of the Spending Review 2010, he couldn’t answer.  He was pressed several times but could only waffle and practise the long established art of obfuscation.

Appalling.  Because the impact of this change, like so many of the welfare reform measures, could be terrible for many families and individuals.  When asked what might happen if someone was moved off ESA but was unable to find work, he couldn’t answer that either. 

Fortunately, it’s not that hard to find out. 

At least 91,000 individuals will be affected and the final tally might be much higher.  The number affected could be well over 100,000 and even as high as 200,000.  It will depend on how many shift from claimant status for incapacity benefit on to contributions based ESA and how many actual incapacity benefit recipients shift to this form of the ESA.  (What is undeniable is that everyone currently on incapacity benefit will move on to some form of ESA).  It’s worth bearing in mind that this figure refers to individuals: if you factor in families and other dependents, the impact of this change will be higher still.

So there you have it, Mr Moore.  At least 91,000, more likely in excess of 100,000.  Lifted from your own government figures.  Shame you couldn’t be bothered to find out for yourself.

(The 20 October edition of Newsnight Scotland should be available on the iplayer for anyone keen to revel in the Scottish Secretary’s discomfort).

When good news is no news

What counts as news in your nest?  It depends on your taste I suppose and what your interests are.  The burd is addicted to news and reads and watches avidly and widely to try to keep up with Scottish, UK and world affairs. 

But it was news to me that a Nobel prize winning economist supports the SNP’s long held policy of establishing an oil fund.  Much derided by others, it has always seemed a pretty common sense policy.  And one that has served Norway very well.  Interviewed on Newsnicht, Professor Joseph Stiglitz  made a powerful and easily understandable case for such a fund. 

Gordon Brewer’s question went something like this: ” There’s a footnote at the end of your book that contrasts the way North Sea oil revenues have been treated by the Norwegian and UK governments.  The Scottish Government would want to replicate Norway and create an oil fund for future generations.  You would reckon that’s basically a sound thing to do?”

And this was Professor Stiglitz’s response:

“Absolutely right.  One way of thinking about it is that oil is an asset below the ground and what you do if you take that asset below the ground and you spend it, you’re poor.  It’s like spending any other asset, you’re living off your wealth and if you live off your wealth, it’s not sustainable.  So the way you ought to think about it is as portfolio management.  You’re taking wealth below the ground and moving it as wealth above the ground because it’s a more flexible form of wealth.  This is a good time to do that, wealth from below the ground to above the ground, you get a higher return by investing it in a whole variety of areas.  So they’re absolutely right. 

“And what to me is so upsetting, so striking, even more striking and upsetting if I were a citizen of the UK, is that since you squandered all that wealth, you took all that North Sea oil and you did very well for that period because you were living off your wealth.  And you mistook the success of the Thatcher era as a success based on good economic policy, when it was really a success based on living off your wealth and leaving future generations impoverished.”

Gordon Brewer:  “So even though the oil is declining, your advice would be better late than never, do it now?”

Professor Stiglitz: “Exactly.  All the more imperative that you do it now.  Because you should now realise the mistake of the past.  You don’t have that asset and you have to make up for lost time.”

Wow.   Professor Joseph Stiglitz, the former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, winner of the John Bates Clark medal – and did I mention that he won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2001? – agrees with the SNP that an oil fund for future generations would be a very good thing.   Even now, when the oil is running out. 

Sounded like pretty good news to me.  Shame none of Scotland’s news or media outlets chose to report it.