Ed Jacobs rounds up the week’s news from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus the week’s local council by-election results.
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Alex Salmond today told the SNP conference independence was “the most natural thing in this world” next step, telling his party’s conference that an independent government could “deliver”, as opposed to a devolved one that could only “demand”.
Outlining what may well become one of the SNP’s referendum slogans, he roared:
“Home Rule with independence beats Tory rule from Westminster, any day.”
The three key pledges in his speech were:
1. A statutory guarantee of more than 600 hours of free nursery education for every Scottish three- and four-year-old, and for every looked after two-year-old;
2. The establishment of a £10 million fund allowing communities to bring their local sports facilities into the 21st century;
3. A £5m package ensuring a further 2,500 young people are given “the right support” to help them towards the world of work.
Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s political editor, said attack after attack on the unpopular, out-of-touch Tories, underscored Salmond’s strategy:
Triangulation is the political strategy of positioning yourself in contradistinction to two presumed alternatives, as if you were somehow above them.
If the two evils do not readily present themselves, then you invent them – or shoehorn some poor unwitting soul into adopting one or t’other role.
In Scotland, there has been for some decades a different game.
How non-Tory can you be? Seeking instant applause, a conference speaker from a rival party has only to declare that there will be “no going back” to Tory policies – or some such formulation.
Even the Scots Tories occasionally play the game, setting themselves apart from their colleagues at Westminster.
The brand, for some voters, is so seemingly toxic that one contender in the recent leadership contest suggested changing the pitch and the name.
So Alex Salmond knew exactly what he was doing when he sought to posit independence as the coherent and indeed sole alternative to continued Tory-led governance from Westminster.
Salmond will also hope to seize on the feelgood factor generated by the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, both in referendum year 2014, the BBC added.
Earlier in the week, following deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s, declaration in Glasgow that independence would be “the best way to further Scottish interests” and Alex Salmond’s announcement that the yes campaign would begin in earnest in May, the struggle faced by the SNP was laid bare.
Polling by Ipsos Mori for the Times revealed support for independence – using the Scottish government’s preferred question wording – stands at 39%, with half opposing it. The same poll found 71% of Scots support Devo-Max with a majority calling for it to be included as an option on the ballot paper.
Interestingly, whilst 55% of respondents said they couldn’t name a suitable person to lead the “No” campaign, of those who could, David Cameron came out on top (25%) followed quite a way behind by the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont (9%), and Alistair Darling (7%).
Meanwhile, responding to the consultations on a referendum issued by the Scottish and UK governments, the Electoral Commission called on Scottish ministers to road test their question with the public first to ensure it was fair.
Commenting, John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, explained:
“We have issued a single response to both the Scottish and UK government consultations because there are a number of issues where they will need to continue to work together to ensure the referendum is run in the interests of voters.
“A clear process for agreeing the question – that includes sufficient time for it to be independently tested with voters – will be particularly important.
“The people of Scotland face an historic decision and the referendum must take place in a way that is transparent, open to scrutiny, gives voters confidence and delivers a result accepted by all. We have made a number of recommendations about how both governments’ proposals may be strengthened to achieve this.
“We will continue to provide advice and scrutiny to both governments as they take this work forward.”
In Westminster, Parliament’s joint committee on the national security strategy outlined its concerns at the lack of any thought given by the National Security Council (NSC) to the impact an independent Scotland could have.
The committee’s report this week concluded:
One of the surprising facts which emerged from our inquiry was that, even by February 2012, the NSC had given no consideration to the potential impact for UK security of Scottish independence.
Sir Peter Ricketts told us that the NSC had not considered the issue and that “I have no current intention [to advise the NSC] to do so”. Oliver Letwin told us that the future of Scotland was for the people of Scotland to decide and that “we have not come across any practical difficulties arising at the moment and we do not anticipate at the moment any arising”.
While the UK coalition government opposes Scottish independence, it is a fact that the Scottish National Party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament while promising a referendum on independence by 2015. Scottish independence could have a range of impacts from potential disputes over the response to security threats and the division of resources, to questions about basing of forces and the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
The fact that the potential impact of Scottish independence was not brought to the NSC’s attention strengthens our concern that the horizon-scanning carried out on the NSC’s behalf is inadequate and that the NSC’s oversight of security issues is not sufficiently broad and strategic.
And following their meeting last week, Alex Salmond’s ties to Rupert Murdoch came under fresh scrutiny.
On Sunday, Andrew Neil, following an interview with the first minister, tweeted:
“Clear to me that during Salmond-Murdoch summit, Rupe indicated if corporation tax 10per cent in indie Scotland, he could move BSkyB north.
“Speaking to Salmond after cameras stopped, got impression his NBF, Rupert Murdoch, dangled moving BSkyB to Edinburgh post-independence.”
The development unsurprisingly reared its head at First Minister’s Questions with Johann Lamont declaring:
“Scotland has been bought and sold for Murdoch gold.”
Whilst Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, accused Salmond of a “grubby deal”.
Independent Unionist MLA David McNarry declared the Ulster Unionists were “in crisis” following the shock news that the party’s leader, Tom Elliott, would be stepping down at the party’s AGM in at the end of the month.
Outlining the reason for his decision, Elliott explained:
“I am aware that some people have not given me a fair opportunity at developing and progressing many initiatives. Some of this obstruction and hostility began immediately following my election as leader and has been relentless since then. However I accept that is part and parcel of politics.”
In his analysis, BBC Northern Ireland’s political editor, Mark Devenport, observed:
Mr Elliott might not have been charismatic, but his supporters hoped he would steady the ship. Instead he slipped on a number of banana skins, most of his own making.
His pledge not to attend gay pride parades or Gaelic football matches pushed liberal unionists like former Irish rugby international Trevor Ringland out of the party.
A conference speech in which the new leader proclaimed he was “no dinosaur” only emphasised his difficulties in adapting to changing realities.
An angry scene at an election count, at which Mr Elliott branded flag-waving Sinn Fein supporters as “scum2, came over badly on live TV.
The Ulster Unionist leader won some support for defying Orange Order rules to attend the Catholic funeral of a young police officer murdered by republican dissidents.
In person he came across as a courteous soft-spoken countryman, but his charm did not transmit well over the airwaves.
Beyond personality, however, is the problem of how to deal with the ever more dominant DUP. Mr Elliott authorised secret talks with his party’s rivals, but then fell out with his colleague David McNarry, claiming Mr McNarry had revealed too much of the negotiations to the newspapers. This row seems to have brought matters to a head.
Behind it lies the wider question of whether the Ulster Unionists should continue to share a place in government with the DUP, or whether their best strategy for survival is to put some clear orange water between themselves and the DUP by going into opposition.
The development came as a new survey by Queens University, Belfast, found those questioned felt the UUP held the least influence over and in the Stormont Executive.
There were concerns, meanwhile, over “chaos” in Northern Ireland’s Accident and Emergency Units, the Belfast Telegraph reporting on Thursday:
The health service is facing a fresh crisis with the stark warning that some of Northern Ireland’s busiest A&Es are reaching breaking point.
The situation has become so bad that a leading nursing union has held formal talks with bosses at the Belfast and Northern Health & Social Care Trusts amid claims that patient safety is being put at risk.
Last night health minister Edwin Poots apologised as A&Es at the Royal Victoria, Ulster and Antrim Area hospitals struggle to cope with the additional demand on services following the closure of the casualty unit at Belfast City Hospital.
At the weekend an 86-year-old woman spent 34 hours on a trolley in the Royal Victoria A&E after suffering a suspected stroke – and patients treated there yesterday described the unit as “chaotic”.
The paper quoted Garrett Martin, deputy director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, as warning:
“Once again we are hearing about the state of our A&E departments and the difficulties facing patients and staff in trying to cope with a high level of demand on the system.
“The RCN is seriously concerned about the impact pressures being experienced in A&E departments in Northern Ireland are having on frontline nursing staff and patients.
“Stories regarding patients waiting on trolleys and lack of dignity, coupled with staff who are at breaking point, are totally unacceptable.
“We have had formal talks with two health care trusts recently to raise our concerns and we will be approaching the trusts again to see what further measures can be put in place to ensure these problems are tackled.”
As the UK government approved plans for the closure of 36 Remploy factories across the UK, one worker affected had a damning critic of the plans.
Speaking to BBC Wales, Martyn Phillips from Rhondda Cynon Taf, a production controller at a Remploy factory in Bridgend – which is earmarked for closure – said:
“The quality of my life will now go on a downward spiral. This callous coalition government have no sense whatsoever. To put 1,700 disabled people out of work at any time is bad but to do it now when jobs are not out there is really cruel.”
First minister Carwyn Jones, meanwhile, was stateside this week banging the drum for investment in Wales.
Speaking ahead of his five-day visit, he commented:
“The US remains the world’s economic and political powerhouse and that is why I will be taking a strong message that Wales is open and ready for business. We have a great workforce and a fantastic track record of providing a welcome, supportive home to US companies.
“That’s why companies like Conduit and DRIAS Transnat chose Wales for their base into Europe.
“There are approximately 210 companies in Wales that are either US-headquartered or owned. Between them these employ in the order of 30,000 people. They cover sectors such as aerospace, with the likes of General Electric and Magellan, through to the automotive sector with Ford, and life sciences companies like Biomet and ConvaTec.
“I want to build on this success and show the US what we have to offer. My government’s aim is to attract more American investment to Wales, while at the same time supporting Welsh businesses to expand their operations in the USA.”
Finally this week, the publication of responses (pdf) to the Welsh government’s consultation on the organ donation found 52% of those surveyed support plans for a system of presumed consent or “soft opt-out” for organ donation, compared with 39% who were opposed.
Responding to the findings, health minister Lesley Griffiths said:
“I am aware the subject of organ donation is highly emotive and that many people have strong views on the issue.
“The Welsh government is committed to introducing a soft opt-out system of organ donation which, evidence suggests, could increase the number of organ donations by up to 25%.
“For people in need of a transplant, the move towards legislation is significant. While Wales has recently seen an increase in donated organs and tissues, on average one person a week in Wales dies while waiting for a transplant because a suitable donor cannot be found.”
In this new section in The Week Outside Westminster, we bring you the week’s local council by-election results.
There were three by-elections yesterday:
• Kemsley Ward, Swale District Council: Con hold.
– Con 384 (33.7%, -16.6); Lab 312 (27.3%, -0.5); UKIP 279 (24.5%, +10.5); LD 166 (14.5%, -6.6). Swing of 8.1% from Con to Lab since 2011.
• Rowley Ward, Stafford Borough Council: Lab gain from Con.
– Lab 620 (48.1%, +10.1%); Con 540 (41.9%, -1.6); Green 67 (5.2%, -5.9); UKIP 61 (4.7%, -4.7). Swing of 5.9% from Con to Lab since 2011.
• Baylis & Stoke Ward, Slough Unitary Authority: Lab hold.
– Lab 1300 (58.7%, -21.7); Ind 764 (34.5%, +34.5); UKIP 82 (3.7%, +3.7); Ind 68 (3.1%, +3.1). Swing of 28.1% from Lab to Ind since 2011.
Also this week:
• Sign up to receive our weekly summary of the news from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, The Week Outside Westminster
• Will Manchester say yes to an elected Mayor in May? – Amanda Ramsay
• What will happen to Rangers? – Stephen Henderson
• A history lesson for Cardinal Keith O’Brien – James Hallwood, The Fabian Society