Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The GERS (Again)

Another SI column, this time on the subject of the GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenues in Scotland) Report. I have a general rule of thumb that just about anything you read in the papers or hear from a unionist political party on this subject is likely to be both highly partisan and incorrect, and it's a rule which has seldom failed me yet. For more on what others have said about the exercise, I refer you to a post on the old blog over here. Meantime, here's an attempt to bring a fresh angle to one of the most boring aspects of the constitutional debate...
The recent publication of the Government Expenditure and Revenues in Scotland (GERS) figures has seen a great rejoicing amongst some of the more excitable of our unionist chums. The reason? The fall in oil and gas revenues which has contributed to Scotland having a larger ‘deficit’ than the rest of the UK in the last financial year has, we are told, ‘demolished’ the economic case for independence. 
‘Aye right’, you might well say. Nevertheless, we are invited to believe by our betters who understand such things that this provides conclusive proof that the Scots dodged a bullet in September 2014. Further, we are asked to believe that the GERS analysis carried out by impartial Scottish Government civil servants demonstrates the deception perpetrated upon Scots by an independence White Paper which was also written by, er, impartial Scottish Government civil servants. 
It’s a charge intended to strike at the very hearts of both the SNP and the case for independence. Superficially, there is a point in there - the White Paper did overestimate future oil prices. However, so too did every other forecast for the period produced by the UK Government. Still, foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of tiny minds and all that, it’s the SNP which is - predictably - being singled out for censure.

All this took me back about ten years to when I was a Parliamentary Researcher and going through GERS with a microscope was part of my brief. While some things have changed, for all the altered methodology GERS still suffers from the same fatal flaws it did back then. All it does is give us a static and fairly blurry snapshot of a particular moment in time, which tells us nothing at all about independence, or of the dynamic impact on the economy which the act of becoming independent and having a full range of policy levers at our disposal could go on to have.

The lack of specifically Scottish figures for the document’s authors to draw upon is a serious problem. Because of the way the figures are collected, most have to be ‘guesstimates’ from UK-wide datasets. Some of those guesstimates will, by their nature, be better founded than others.

Take VAT, for example. Scotland’s share of VAT paid by businesses and the housing sector is allocated in line with the size of our economy and share of public spending. But when it comes to household VAT, we have to rely on data from the ‘Living Costs and Food Survey’ carried out by the Office for National Statistics.

This survey trawls around 12,000 addresses across the UK to ask the adults and the children of the household to keep diaries of what they spend their money (or pocket money) on. The survey does what it does and no doubt does it as well as it needs to, but it was never intended to assist with the allocation of nearly £11bn for the purposes of trying to settle a constitutional argument. 
There are also problems in allocating public spending, particularly over ‘unidentifiable’ expenditure. It’s not called that because it is genuinely unidentifiable, but rather because it is spending - such as on defence - which is deemed to be for the benefit of the UK as a whole rather than a specific location, even if most of it is spent disproportionately in London and the South of England. 
The deficit figure for Scotland is often wrongly assumed to be the amount of money being transferred from taxpayers in the UK to pay for public services in Scotland. The fact is that the rest of the UK is also spending more than it creates in tax revenues, making any ‘subsidy’ of this kind completely impossible anyway. However, the main reason any comparison with independence is bunk is because it makes the assumption that we would want any independent government to spend exactly the same amount of monies in exactly the same way as the UK government does currently on our behalf. 
Having currently reserved departmental responsibilities moving to Scotland would result in an economic boost at effectively no cost, since we’d get the benefit of the jobs we’re already paying for being relocated to Scotland. However, there’s also a number of UK spending lines which we’d almost certainly not wish to maintain, either freeing that money up for investment elsewhere or to reduce the level of borrowing we’d be undertaking ourselves as an independent country. 
In her Spring Conference speech, Nicola Sturgeon announced a summer campaign to persuade more of our fellow Scots of the benefits of independence - a move which brought the assembled delegates to their feet. However, of even greater significance was her indication that we need to be taking a good, hard look at the way we choose to present some of those arguments.

We’ll all have our own thoughts on what changes we might like to see in that respect, but it seems likely that a number of changes will be needed in the way we present the economic case. There’s a real sterility in trying to argue that we’d be better or worse off independent on the basis of playing one big number of uncertain magnitude off against another, which is all GERS achieves. Wouldn’t it be much better if next time round, rather than talking about the relative deficit or surplus for the year just passed, we were talking instead about the dynamic case for full fiscal powers and how we could use them to improve Scotland’s future growth path?

Saturday, 5 March 2016

It’s déjà vu all over again

So, we now have a date of June 23 for the EU referendum date, little over a month after the Holyrood elections on 5 May. It’s a racing cert that the debate about ‘who governs’ in Scotland is now set to be almost completely overshadowed by the debate raging in England about ‘where governs’.

Like most voters in Scotland, I start from the position of supporting EU membership, which for years has been the largely uncontested position in polite company. It’s a vote I don’t see the point in having and a debate I’d rather not waste any time engaging in although put like that, I realise that I sound uncomfortably like a certain type of ‘No’ voter that I’ve been quite happy to poke sticks at in the past.

Already, some of the parallels with our own Independence referendum are striking. Hailing his ‘deal’, the Prime Minister has warned that leaving the EU would be a "leap in the dark", and that "Britain will be safer, stronger and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union.” Close your eyes and you could be listening to the fearmongering nonsense-merchants of ‘Better Together’ all over again.

There will be a temptation on the part of some ‘inners’ to try and re-run more of the ‘No’ campaign from the Scottish Independence referendum by racking up the fear, the uncertainty and the doubt. We all know the script - play up the ‘risk’ of travel restrictions, higher prices, greater unemployment, corporate flight, lack of access to markets for our exporters, having to pay for medical care when on holiday… It will be crude, certainly, but will it be effective? Being realistic, against a ferocious and partisan tabloid and online presence clamouring for an out vote, it might be the only way to neutralise the tide of scare stories coming in the other direction.

In UK terms, I expect a dirty and dishonest campaign from both sides which has little at all to do with the nature of Cameron’s ‘deal’. In addition to all the aforementioned scare stories, along with a punch-up about whether bureaucrats in Brussels have their fingers in your wallet to put money in or to take it out, it seems set to be accompanied by some unpleasant dogwhistles about immigration. Bluntly, if we want any kind of higher minded debate, we’re going to have to try to make it for ourselves.

The Scottish political classes have long congratulated themselves on being more ‘pro-European’ than their English counterparts. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, although Scots certainly don’t see the EU as the existential threat which many on both the left and right of English politics seem to. For that reason, we need to set the terms for a Scottish debate on the fundamentals of why we should want to be in the EU, whatever the rest of the UK decides in June.

As a starting point, if there’s a case to be made for the EU, then it has to be about more than 'trade and co-operation' - there has to be something in there for hearts and minds as well. And thinking longer-term, mightn’t there be an opportunity - in Scotland at least - both to undercut the more outrageous fears and smears around ‘change’ more generally which we ourselves have been on the receiving end of during the Indyref debate, as well as to highlight how countries with much less ‘clout’ than the UK seem to make the EU work effectively for them?

Here’s a controversial suggestion - let’s concede from the outset that the ‘outers’ have a legitimate worldview. Of course it would be perfectly possible for the UK, or Scotland for that matter, to make its way in the world outwith the EU without detriment to living standards. We could, as we once did and as Norway and Switzerland still do, maintain a trade relationship with the rest of European Economic Area through EFTA, while negotiating on matters of mutual interest through a range of bilateral and multilateral agreements as appropriate. It’s a perfectly reasonable position - we just don’t happen to share it.

Instead, let’s make a pitch for those hearts and minds. Why, exactly, does the idea of ‘Europe’ still matter, and why does it need to be represented politically in the way that it is, warts and all? If it represents the best way of maximising sovereignty for smaller states and preserving material and environmental living standards in an era of globalised economics, and of preserving a strong European cultural influence on world affairs, then let’s say so unapologetically. More to the point, let’s do so in a way which allows our European neighbours to understand that the gruesome triumvirate of Boris, IDS and Farage certainly don’t speak for us.

Professor Neil MacCormick once described political sovereignty as being like virginity - you can give it away without someone else getting it, and that given away in the right circumstances it’s a cause for celebration and joy. That’s a sentiment which we should be doing our utmost to get across in amidst the soulless pseudo-beancounting which will almost certainly be a hallmark of both the official in and out campaigns.

At its heart, this debate is going to be about identity and outlook - if we end up reducing this to the cost of a basket of shopping or how much it’s going to cost to use your mobile phone next time you holiday in Spain, we’ll already have lost the argument. Worse than that, we’ll also - and deservedly - have lost the respect of our neighbours.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

After the earthquakes, now for the aftershocks

Long-term footsoldiers in the SNP have learned not to worry too much about the received political wisdom of the day. Personalities, policies, pitfalls and pratfalls all come and go, as do newspaper headlines and columns. What really matters for the SNP is Independence and how we are positioned to progress towards it - not whatever the ephemera of the day, week or month happens to be.

That’s a healthy state to be in. In party political terms, voter allegiances take a long time to build up. They also take a long time to wear down, although when they do, the effects as seen at elections can be sudden and brutal as Labour and the Lib Dems found in 2011 and 2015, or slow and gradual yet no less decisive, as the Scottish Tories found in the post-war era.

The anguish – and I don't use the word lightly – which some Scots feel about the present dominant position of the SNP, really is something to behold. Tempting as it is to mock how Labour, Tory and Lib Dem alike used to pour scorn on the SNP in years past, it's surely better to reflect on how hard won that public trust has been; and how far we still need to go if we're to be more than merely Scotland's latest 'natural' party of government for the next few decades.

Scottish Labour’s fall from grace is as well documented as it was long overdue. However, with the next Holyrood elections now fewer than 100 days away, the opinion polls are beginning to look interesting - not for what they suggest about the likely SNP result, but for the emerging battle for second place.

That Labour is no longer Scotland's leading party has been a bitter pill for many of the party's adherents to swallow, so the idea that they might be about to be overtaken by the Tories is almost unthinkable. However, with Labour support languishing in the low twenties for several months now, just how unthinkable is it that this could be the outcome in May? For Scotland's blethering classes bored with a narrative of SNP success after 8 years, it’s a story which has just about everything.

Firstly, it feeds right into the general idea of Labour uselessness right now at Holyrood, but particularly at Westminster. Secondly, there's the fact that our talking heads really quite like Ruth Davidson and seem inclined to give her a more than fair crack of the whip. Thirdly, and finally for now, given Labour’s alleged softening of its stance on Independence in a bid to win back former support, it pleases many unionist ‘ultras’ to blow some air into the argument that there needs to be a coalescing of an anti-Independence vote in order to stop the SNP ever getting the chance to hold another referendum, on any timescale.

The existence of that Ruth Davidson fan club amongst Scotland’s journalists is tough if you are Kezia Dugdale, already struggling to rebuild a shattered party. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that Ms Davidson looks and sounds far more like someone you’d see in the supermarket queue than most Scottish Tory parliamentarians. You don’t have to like her public persona to recognise that she’s sparky, has an instinct for the low verbal blow and most importantly of all, unlike Ms Dugdale, is improving in her parliamentary performances.

It must be particularly galling for Ms Dugdale, having seen her party gutted by its collaboration with the Tories during the referendum, to now find the Tories making an overt pitch to the rump of her party which remains, on the grounds that they can no longer trust her to oppose Independence with sufficient vigour.

Although the gap between the parties is closing, that has more to do with Labour support sliding than with any significant or sustained rise in Tory voting intentions. Nevertheless, there’s a definite cachet which comes from being Scotland’s second party, not least in terms of how it helps gather the tactical votes opposed to leading party. With much of Labour’s working class support having switched to the SNP, making a direct pitch to the white collar middle class unionists who still vote Labour in large numbers is probably as good a way as any for the Tories to try and bridge the remaining gap.

They might not like the Tories, but if they are seen as the best way to stick it to the SNP, then that might be enough for some. There’s large parts of Scotland - east, west, north, south, urban and rural, which used to return Tory MPs but turned Labour in the 80’s and 90’s, where you could see a move back in the opposite direction.

Even so, it’s a ploy which even if successful, still wouldn’t leave the Tories on a much higher share of the vote than the nadir of their 1997 Westminster wipeout. And once so ensconced, having marked themselves once again as the ‘no change’ party on the constitution, where is the room to further expand their support?

If you’re a Scottish Tory used to getting hammered at election after election, you might just be happy seizing a chance to overhaul Labour and to worry about the finer details afterwards. Nevertheless, there’s a nice irony in the supposedly constitutionally-obsessed SNP managing to reach out beyond its natural base by talking about policies, while Scotland’s two largest opposition parties argue over which of them can be the most unionist.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Taking 'No' For An Answer...

February's SI column. Just why do some erstwhile 'No' campaigners find it so hard to take 'No' for an answer?
Ever since last September, it's become increasingly clear that there is a small but significant body of voters that simply hasn't been able to accept the referendum result and 'move on'. Stuck in the past, wedded to a romantic ideal, blind to any semblance of reality, they remain frozen in time at 18 September 2014, frothing and fulminating against anyone who had the audacity to vote differently to them on that day. 
You can see them on Twitter, on the letters pages of our newspapers and writing on their blogs to audiences of probably as many as a few tens. Regularly berating others for their lack of political resolve, deficiencies of patriotism and their failure to see the true nature of their opponent, it seems that no-one is safe from their ire – not even their fellow 'No' voters.

‘But.. we won!’ is the plaintive cry. And it’s true enough, at least measured by votes in ballot boxes. The mistake was to assume that a ‘No’ vote meant a return to politics as usual and that with the scales having fallen from their eyes, that Scottish voters would forget all this self-government malarkey and return to the standard model of 3 party British politics.

It’s easy to understand why some would wish to cling to the referendum result, as it represents about the sole tangible political ‘win’ since 2007 against an otherwise dominant SNP. Nevertheless, crossing their fingers and hoping that Scots would return to the fold seems to have been Scottish Labour’s only post-indyref strategy. ‘If only we could persuade everyone to dislike the SNP as much as we do’, the thinking goes, ‘then we’ll be back in power before you can say Bute House.’ 
During the referendum, ‘Yessers’ enjoyed debating what they wanted Scotland to become, while the ‘No’ campaign never seemed to capture at any point a sense of optimism either about the present or the future. The whole debate, which most ‘No’ sympathisers had never wanted to begin with, forced many to think about things they didn’t want to think about. While for some it was an enriching and affirming experience, for others it was nothing short of an existential challenge - one to be resisted at all costs and shut out in the hope that it would all just go away. 
A solidifying of a hard-core unionist vote, where even some prominent Labour activists now urge a vote for the Tories in certain seats to try and keep the SNP out so that an extra Tory MP can - er - help put Labour back in government, suggests that there is a couple of trends at play here. The 'No' parties' 'No' voters are mostly staying put or switching between them, while 'Yes' voters who previously voted SNP are sticking with the SNP. The interesting bit is that while large numbers of 'Yes' voters who previously backed 'No' parties have moved to the SNP, the very considerable tranche of SNP 'No' voters are remaining loyal. 
Perhaps one reason why this might be is that up until quite late in the day, there seemed to be a complete failure on the part of unionist politicians to acknowledge publicly that support for independence wasn’t just confined to the SNP. In contrast, the SNP had long understood that many Labour supporters backed independence, just as many SNP voters were themselves uncertain about independence. 
Armed with that intelligence, the official Yes campaign adopted a far more conciliatory line towards ‘No’ voters than was shown to ‘Yes’ voters by Better Together*, who were all about their pride, their patriotism, and a misplaced sense of conceptual superiority allied to bristling indignation that we were even discussing the matter at all. While you can see how this might rally hard core Lib/Lab/Con ‘No’ voters, you can also see how it might also have alienated the significant numbers of their supporters who went 'rogue' on Independence.

Meanwhile, the SNP has struck a note in tune with what voters want to hear in the post-indyref environment. The party has been positive, conciliatory and consensual, yet firm in demanding that pre-referendum promises are upheld and wherever possible, built upon. In reacting to its rapid growth in both members and Westminster support, the party has also so far positioned itself astutely to capitalise on any hung parliament situation. 
And that’s what seems to be annoying some of our unionist friends the most. Just a matter of months after being reassured that Scotland was an integral part of the UK, we now find that it would be a constitutional outrage if Scottish votes were to influence the choice of the next UK government through electing enough SNP MPs to hold the balance of power. It almost seems cruel to remind Westminster’s Tories how they relied on the support of Ulster Unionists to keep John Major’s government afloat towards the end of the 1992-97 parliament.

Pathologising your opponents as some of Scotland’s unionists have done with the SNP is seldom a healthy or productive pursuit, so here’s some helpful pointers which I offer freely. The referendum is over, the SNP is here to stay, independence remains a legitimate and popular goal, and the SNP’s representatives still have a worthwhile and legitimate role to play in Westminster for so long as we remain in the union. The sooner the unionist parties confront those (for them) inconvenient truths, the better for everyone.

* Yes, I know - blah blah cybernats etc. I'm talking here about the official campaigns, not the seemingly endless idiocy and discourtesy displayed by cyberScotnats and their equally vociferous cyberBritnat counterparts.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Deal Or No Deal?

My 'Scots Independent' column for January...

It took me until the end of Tony Blair’s first term as Prime Minister to realise this, but Labour really has only 2 core messages it uses at a UK General Election. Never mind any high-minded social democratic impulses about fairness, equality or improvement - in opposition the message is to say 'vote Labour and get the Tories out', while in Government it becomes 'vote Labour and keep the Tories out'. 
Subtle or sophisticated it ain't. Nevertheless, when taken up with gusto by the Daily Record and played alongside the usual Yookay meeja obsession about who'll be occupying 10 Downing Street, it's always had the desired effect, at least in Scotland. For a combination of reasons, however, that might just be about to change.

We've seen Labour appear to defy electoral gravity for so long in Scotland that it's hard to believe that anything might dislodge them from their perch in many Westminster constituencies. Yet equally, we've all seen the post-indyref rise of SNP voting intentions for Westminster at the expense of Labour and importantly, seen the polls stay there long enough to get the feeling that something big could be happening this time round.

For all the wild talk of how many seats the SNP could potentially win, the idea has now got ‘out there’ that the SNP could be about to replace Labour as the dominant Scottish party at Westminster, possibly even holding the balance of power. Crucially, the voters - at least Scottish voters anyway - seem quite comfortable with the idea. 
A new politics of engaged disillusionment is clashing head on with politics as ‘business as usual’ on both sides of the border. Leaving the national question aside, much of it has to do with the way that Labour and the Tories continue to pursue the sort of Midland and South-East swing voters who have always won elections for them in the past. It’s a strategy which relies on your 'core' vote staying loyal because its got no-one else worth voting for.

Except this is now shaping up nicely as the election where these voters actually do go somewhere else. Right now, Labour and the Tories are mired in the low to mid thirties of the UK opinion polls while UKIP and the Greens are capturing the disillusioned in sufficient numbers to outpoll the Lib Dems. Factor in the rise of the SNP and you have a perfect storm, where no-one gets a majority and all sorts of deals become possible, subject to the numbers on the floor of the house.

This time, the SNP has come up with a credible counter to the ‘keep the Tories out’ line. If you send an SNP MP to Westminster instead of a Labour MP, not only will we get more powers for Scotland, we’ll also help keep the Tories out of power. Since the Tories have no chance of winning in most of Scotland, a vote for the SNP is also a vote to keep the Tories out and to make sure Scotland gets a better deal than Labour will ever deliver alone. 
What’s really set the cat amongst the pigeons however is Nicola Sturgeon’s suggestion that the SNP would end its self-denying ordinance by voting on ‘English’ matters in the House of Commons. Predictably the Tories are apoplectic and once more muttering darkly about the West Lothian Question and a strange creature calling itself ‘English Votes for English Laws’. 
Except it’s near impossible as things stand to have any such thing as an ‘English only’ matter. The Scottish block grant is calculated as a percentage of the public spending which takes place in England. Make a decision which cuts spending in England and whether we like it or not, that cut will feed through to Scotland’s budget as well. 
Overnight, by making it clear that its MPs are prepared to vote on more than just reserved matters, the SNP has put itself into contention as a serious governing partner of whatever kind at Westminster. By doing so, it should be able - if the numbers are right - to extract some significant concessions for Scotland over the course of the next parliament.

The dilemma for Labour is obvious. However, the strategy is not without its own pitfalls from an SNP perspective either. For if a UK Government depends on SNP members for its survival, where’s the incentive to offer Scotland the sort of financial autonomy which would decouple Scottish spending from English policy decisions, if by granting those powers it removes the main incentive for the SNP having agreed to support that government in the first place? 
There’s ways around that one, but it’s going to force Labour to confront the question of how much they want to regain power at Westminster and how much autonomy they are willing to see Scotland assume. It’s possible to see the outlines of deals which might be done, but much depends on who gets to negotiate for Labour and how much authority they will have within their party to do so.

When it comes to seeing the bigger picture and finding some common ground with the SNP even when its in their interests to do so, Labour’s leaders seldom seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Some in Labour, no doubt, would under those circumstances prefer to do their ‘patriotic’ duty as they saw it and form instead a ‘National’ government along with the Conservatives. I wonder if they’ll rule that out before May?

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Richard for Aberdeen North

As some of you may know, I'm currently involved in the contest to be selected as the SNP Candidate for the Aberdeen North constituency at the upcoming Westminster Election. I'll be writing a piece in the next day or so on why I've decided to get involved, but meantime, here's a link to my selection campaign Facebook page, as well as a bit of personal background for anyone who's looking for it. Come on over and say hello!

A bit about Richard... 
Richard, 38, was elected in 2012 as one of two SNP Councillors in the four member Ellon & District ward of Aberdeenshire Council, winning a seat previously held by the Liberal Democrats and pushing Labour into fifth spot. He lives within his ward with his partner Eilidh and their two young daughters. 
A journalist and freelance writer, Richard joined the SNP in 1994 as a student and has been active in the party ever since. He began his career working in the financial sector with Scottish Widows, based in Edinburgh, before leaving in 2004 to work full time for the SNP as the party's Head of Campaigns in the lead-up to the 2005 UK General Election. 
After taking up a post as a Senior Parliamentary Researcher for Dundee East SNP parliamentarians Stewart Hosie MP and Shona Robison MSP, in 2007 he became Head of Research for the party's group of MPs, based in the House of Commons in London.
Richard returned to Scotland in 2008 to work as a Parliamentary Assistant to Alex Salmond and to contest the Gordon Constituency at the last UK General Election. Against Lib Dem veteran Malcolm Bruce, Richard cut the Lib Dem majority almost in half, taking the SNP from fourth to second place on a swing of 8%.

A professional traditional musician, Richard has toured all over the world with orchestras and bands and has played twice at 'T in the Park' as part of the well-known ceilidh band the 'Canongate Cadjers', with whom he recorded a CD last year. He is also a Past-President of the Rotary Club of Oldmeldrum and writes a regular column for the 'Scots Independent' newspaper.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Will Murphy Cure Labour's Hangover?

As far as any claims to fame I might have go I have to confess that this one is quite unusual, but here goes. Despite him being famously teetotal and our only having been together in the same room once, newly-crowned Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy is partly responsible for the worst hangover I've ever had in my life.

Let me explain. The occasion was the 1997 General Election and the location was Perth. The Conservatives had started the day defending ten seats in Scotland, while the SNP was defending the then Perth and Kinross seat which Roseanna Cunningham had taken from them in a by-election two years previously.

Remembering a story from the 1992 election about a journalist who had planned to open a bottle of champagne for each Scottish Tory losing their seat (all, sadly, remained intact), myself and my good friend Russell decided to replicate the stunt, albeit on a much tighter budget. We therefore obtained 10 bottles of cheap and nasty fizzy wine on 'sale or return' and a bottle of actual champagne, which we planned to open when Roseanna held P&K.

At the beginning of the SNP party in the function suite of the Salutation Hotel we thought we'd be opening about 5 or 6 at most. Then Jim Murphy won Eastwood for Labour and our group went through the following roller-coaster of emotions in the space of about 15 seconds: 'Great! It's a total wipe-out! Aw naw, Jim Murphy's an MP! Oh Jeez - we're going to have to drink all that bloody wine...' The rest, as they say, is history.

It's fair to say that Murphy was something of an accidental MP. However, there's no doubt that once elected, he worked the seat assiduously and in as much as any constituency can be described as secure for Labour any more, has turned it into one of their safest in the country. It's provided him with the base from which to climb the greasy pole of government in Westminster – something which he did successfully, at least until he made the mistake of backing the wrong Milliband brother.

Over that time he's cultivated a reputation as being a 'man of the people' (he likes football, apparently) and as something of a campaigning superstar. Yet whatever his other talents, this portrayal of Murphy in the Scottish press as some kind of political genius is something I’ve long puzzled over, probably because I remember him from his days as a hack in the NUS, busily selling the interests of students down the river while trying to secure that seat in parliament for himself.

Of course, you could cite the very fact he managed to get away with it as evidence of a genius of a sort. Nevertheless, given his propensity throughout his time in public life to assert ‘that which is not’ and to continually misrepresent his opponents with any number of straw man arguments, I spent a good number of years trying to work out if he was serially dishonest, or simply lacking in his ability to understand what was really going on around him.

I remember barking him into an uncharacteristic silence during a debate at Stirling University shortly after he was elected in 1997. Subjecting his audience to an extended harangue and banging on about 'priorities', he described Scotland’s universities as bastions of middle class privilege, to which access could only be widened if young people without financial means were prepared to go heavily into debt to pay their own way.

There was, we were told, no money to pay for grants in future and that the £150m which scrapping the grant had saved would be better spent elsewhere. At this point, I interjected that just a week earlier the MoD had agreed to spend £150m on upgrading Trident nuclear warheads. Just what, I wondered, did this tell us about Mr Murphy’s priorities?

With wisdom worthy of Confucius, the bold Jim pronounced that that money had already been spent so wasn’t there any more. Indeed so, I acknowledged, but didn’t this show that the money had indeed been there, could have been used to maintain the grant had his government so wished and that it was simply untrue for him to try and assert otherwise? To this, the answer came that it had already happened and that people needed to ‘move on’ – a plea we’ve heard many times since whenever his party has been caught in a lie.

In the end, I stopped puzzling over the nature of Mr Murphy’s dubious political attributes and settled instead on him possessing a feral, mendacious cunning and a neck of brass; his inexplicable rise to the patronage of a Scottish Labour Party desperately short of talent, and to the support of a Scottish press corps with a curious willing to puff him up in public to a level of credibility well beyond that which his talents could tolerably sustain by themselves.

All of which makes him an opponent, perhaps not to be feared but certainly not to be underestimated, not least because of his uncanny ability to almost always make himself appear to be the injured party. However, perhaps the most interesting thought about all of this is what his transfer back to domestic Scottish politics says about the diminished state, not just of what he envisaged for his own career, but that of Scottish Labour politicians at Westminster more generally.

Increased Labour success in England has meant that the high watermark of Scottish representation in Shadow Cabinets of the 1980s and 1990s is long gone. It's not just that Murphy himself has no future in Westminster, it's that increasingly, under devolution, there's no future for Scottish MPs there, at least not if they aspire to a serious role in government.

Murphy won't like the conclusion any more than I liked that post-97 election hangover, but if the focus of the ambitious Scots in Labour is shifting from London to Edinburgh, that in and of itself probably represents another small step along the road to independence.