Apparently, the Liberal Democrats are still here. Holding their annual conference in Glasgow, this will be their 4th? 5th? day of deliberations. What on earth have they found to talk about? How have they managed to find enough delegates to keep it all going? As images taken on Saturday showed, Women for Independence managed to muster far more women for its event in Perth on Saturday than found their way into the Lib Dem conference hall.
Nick Clegg has already spoken, but he is speaking again. Oh goody. This time, he’s talking about mental health provision in the health service, which is a fitting topic worthy of a wider airing. But as it’s not relevant to a UK wide audience and pertinent only to English voters, you wonder why he couldn’t find a headline subject for his big conference set-piece that mattered to us all.
Perhaps they’ve given up on trying to win Scottish seats at next year’s UK election? Or maybe they think they are in the bag and holding on to their largely marginal bolt-holes down south has to be the focus. Whatever, they’re proving their obsolescence in Scottish politics all by themselves.
Elsewhere, in the Scottish arena, the day is dominated by Scottish Labour’s call for the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill to go. The party claims that he has presided over a series of crises in Scottish policing, the latest resulting in a climb down over the routine arming of police on our streets. The Scottish Government responds with a well thought out cry of rubbish, pointing to MacAskill’s wider track record: crime rates at a 20 year low and record numbers of police employed. Am I the only one to suspect they doth protest just a little too vociferously for the Justice Secretary’s comfort?
The Lib Dems and Tories look set to support Labour’s motion and depending on what the Greens and Independent (formerly SNP) MSPs do with their votes, this could be a tight one. I’m not sure the left-leaning John Wilson, human rights-focused Jean Urquhart and former Secretary General of the Police Federation, John Finnie can be relied upon to vote for the Justice Secretary but I’m not sure they’ll want to hand the scalp of a Scottish Government minister to the opposition either.
Elsewhere, the franchise for the East coast rail line appears to have been awarded to – shock, horror – foreigners. This has prompted Laboury types to call for re-nationalisation of the railways or at least, such contracts going to Scottish companies. This is political chancery at its worst (or best, depending on your viewpoint) given that the ability to do either is somewhat constrained by the constitutional set-up which does not give us powers to fix things like this. A settlement which Labour was campaigning to keep, only a few short weeks ago. Natch.
Practically, it will make little difference to the staff in the short term, whose jobs will all transfer to the new franchise holder but that means little in the long term for conditions of employment. We can expect the RMT to be busy. Personally, if we cannae have some sort of public ownership of our railway provision (and I’m not sure the old large state model is appropriate in the 21st Century but there are other, not-for-profit alternatives available) then maybe an injection of European efficiency could be a good thing. I’ve been on Dutch trains: they’re a darn sight better than ours.
Tomorrow, we get the draft Scottish budget – the first to incorporate some of the new powers wished upon us by Unionists through the Calman Commission. What difference will landfill tax make to our public purse? I doubt it will do much to plug the gap created by the several billion being taken out of the block grant by UK austerity measures. What will be interesting when the cuts that are a-coming, arrive is where the finger of blame will be pointed, not by the politicians, but by the voting public.
There’s a definite sense of being back to the business of politics as usual. The round of party conferences, high winds, heavy rain and flooding, and the low-hanging, harvest moon dominating the sky all signal the arrival of autumn. Yet, there’s an undercurrent too of something not ever being quite the same again.
The enthusiasm of Yes supporting folk for politics and in particular, politicking in the community shows no sign of abating; there’s an intriguing deputy leadership debate unfolding in the SNP; each day that passes, the Unionists’ vow seems to offer less of the wow folk were looking for. The high and the low politics is definitely where all the interesting people are to be found. The jam in the middle that is spread by Holyrood seems rather thin and unappetising for the moment.
Yet, here too, there are hints of change to come. Nicola Sturgeon will be setting out her stall as First Minister either before or just after the festive break. Johann Lamont’s backroom team is getting a shake-up with a change of personnel but every time she protests she’s going nowhere suggests even she is beginning not to believe she has staying power. Ruth Davidson will bask in the glow of approval from Mr and Mrs Cameron a while longer but that won’t necessarily win her party more votes in Scotland next year.
Underneath it all remain big, thorny political issues. The STV Appeal this week will see a renewed focus on child poverty – expect the politicians to have plenty to add. Maybe they could all just read this report, out today, about what consigning 1 in 4 of our children to poverty actually means to their life chances. Maybe, we could have a debate on this in Parliament? Maybe, we could have debates too in every council chamber? And maybe, we could have politicians uniting to find the solutions, to apply their collective will to put resources in – real resources – to addressing the causes and symptoms of lack and blight in children’s lives. Or agree to devolve the powers to Scotland that give us a real chance – a fighting chance – of doing different from Westminster, for all our children’s sakes. A girl can dream. Still.
Aye, we live in interesting political times. Tumultuous even. It’s just a shame that one of Scotland’s finest political journalists, Angus MacLeod, is no longer here, with his quizzically owl-ish stare, to help prise them apart, to find the story beneath, to document what was really going on, to unspin the narrative, to apply his trademark wry analysis and humour to it all. A big shame indeed.