Saturday, 27 October 2012

Pants on fire?

Here is Paragraph 2.35 of the Scottish Ministerial Code

2.35 The fact that legal advice has or has not been given to the Scottish Government by the Law Officers and the content of any legal advice given by them or anyone else must not be revealed outwith the Scottish Government without the Law Officers' prior consent. The only exception to this rule is that it is acknowledged publicly that the Law Officers have advised on the legislative competence of Government Bills introduced in the Parliament (see paragraph 3.4 below). Views given by the Law Officers in their Ministerial capacity are not subject to this restriction.

Let me deconstruct this.

There are two propositions in the first sentence here: 

1. "The fact that legal advice has or has not been the Law Officers ...must not be revealed...without the Law Officers consent"

2. "The.... content of any legal advice given by the Law Officers or anybody else [my emphasis] must not be revealed....without the Law Officers consent"

And having undertaken that deconstruction let me draw the obvious conclusion.

The revelation that legal advice has been given "by anybody else" does not require the consent of the Law Officers. Only the content of that advice. 

And that is, on any view, deliberately the way the code reads for otherwise the first sentence would be the, much simpler, 

"The fact that legal advice has or has not been given to the Scottish Government by the Law Officers or anybody else shall not be revealed without the consent of the Law Officers."

And that is contrary to the repeated assertion of the First Minister, most recently on Scotland Tonight last week, when he said: 

[Note, this was a baleful interview where the interviewer spoke more than the interviewee and completely failed to focus his questions but, if you won't take my word for the fact that the legal advice being asked about was any legal advice you can wade through the whole thing here here.] 

"That's quite clear in the Ministerial Code. It's both the fact of whether it exists, and the content. I would need to clear it with the Lord Advocate if I wanted to say that I had not sought legal advice."

No he wouldn't.

Now, if Bernard Ponsonby had been prepped to reply to that assertion with the response "No you wouldn't", then I suspect the last few days of Scottish politics would look very different. Indeed, I go so far as to say that Alex Salmond might not now be First Minister.

At this point however I need to engage in a minor history lesson.

Pre-devolution, the positions of Lord Advocate and Solicitor General were political appointments. Despite the fact that they were head(s) of the prosecution service, they were chosen on the basis of  Party loyalty. That was because they were required to occupy two roles, not only as “Chief Prosecutor(s)” but also as principal legal advisers to the Government itself. That was fine in 99.99% of prosecutions but it begged the question of what might happen in the remaining 0.01% of cases in which the Government of the day might have a view on whether the matter might, or might not, be convenient to be brought to Court

That there was a danger in that dual role was recognised after 1999. Although Labour’s first post-devolution Law Officers were Andrew Hardie and Colin Boyd, and then Colin and Neil Davidson, all very able lawyers but also all staunch Labour Men, when, in 2001 Neil stood down Jack started the process of depoliticising the positions. He did so by appointing Eilish Angiolini, an apolitical career prosecutor, indeed, then, a mere solicitor, rather than advocate, to the position of Solicitor General. (Why the "Solicitor General" was not, previously, actually, a solicitor is a topic for a completely different blog!)

And in 2006, when Colin Boyd stood down, Eilish was appointed Lord Advocate. What was interesting however was that the Labour administration did not completely de-politicise the Law Officers at that time for we brought in as Solicitor General John Beckett, again a very able lawyer but crucially also a Labour Party member.

I will return to that point.

For when the SNP first took office in 2007 they decided to complete the process of depoliticisation. Obviously John Beckett had to go but, rather than making an alternative political appointment (and there were many able Nationalist lawyers qualified) the SNP not only retained the services of Eilish but appointed as her deputy Frank Mulholland, also previously a career prosecutor.

Now in terms of the prosecution of crime in Scotland, these were developments that I entirely welcomed. For far too long prosecution of serious crime had been in the hands of gifted (sometimes not even that) amateurs appointed either for reasons of pure political patronage or as a "necessary" career obligation if your true objective was to be able to add the letters "QC" to your long term intention of practising in lucrative planning or commercial work. Professionalisation at the top led inevitably to professionalisation all the way down the process and, as a citizen with an interest in seeing bad guys get the jail, this can only be a good thing.

But, politically, I thought it was a mistake, or at least a mistake in the way it was done.

All Government's need, in confidence, partisan legal advice. If anything that is even more so for a government operating within defined statutory powers and even more so still for a government engaged in the process of attempting fundamental constitutional reform within the continuum of the rule of law. 

But there is a dichotomy between having access to that advice and at the same time having a completely independent system of prosecution provided by the same individuals.

Now this dichotomy is not entirely of the current Scottish Government's making. It is, to some extent, built into s.48 of the Scotland Act 1998 which enshrines the position of Lord Advocate and Solicitor General by name as positions which (by implication at least) must be filled by any Scottish Government, and reiterates the position of Lord Advocate as independent head of the prosecution service. (s. 287 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act is worth a look at insofar as it relates to the position of Solicitor General as "Deputy Lord Advocate".)

Anyway, the outcome of this process was that the positions of Lord Advocate and Solicitor General came to be in the hands of apolitical career prosecutors (for the sake of completeness now Frank as Lord Advocate and Lesley Thomson as Solicitor General) and that has proved and will prove to be a major problem for the Government.

Enough history, back to argument.

In modern times, practice of the law requires a degree of specialisation. My own wee firm is described as a general practice but that does not mean we would turn our hand to anything and everything or indeed to anything approaching anything and everything. Despite being a Legal Aid practice we don’t, for example, do immigration work of any sort because we simply have no knowledge of the law in that area. Sometimes we’d refer it; other times simply turn it away.

And the more you climb the legal tree the more even so specialisation is the name of the game. In the big firms, there are entire teams of lawyers who do nothing except, for example, in one department, employment law or, in another, commercial leasing. And they would be no more able to move between departments than they would be capable of moving to Cumbernauld and obtaining a non-molestation interdict.

Now in that spirit of specialisation, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, with one or two minor exceptions, do nothing but prosecute crime and investigate sudden deaths. And Frank and Lesley, as career prosecutors, have worked all their lives in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. If you wanted an opinion on transferred intent in assault or the distinction between embezzlement and theft by appropriation then they would have that at their, very expert, fingertips. But if you wanted an opinion on the rights of potential successor states to membership of the European Union? You might as well ask me.

So if, ex hypothesi, as the post 2007 Scottish Government you had wanted an opinion on the rights of an independent Scotland to succeed to membership of the European Union, you would have had two options.

You could go to the Scottish Government Legal Directorate or you could seek outside opinion either directly or, more likely, through the auspices of that Directorate.

Now my gut reaction is that this is a matter on which you would go “out”. That’s no disrespect to the Directorate. Its head, Murray Sinclair, is also somebody with whom I’ve brushed along in my own past activities at the Law Society and he is a lawyer of the very first rank. His deputy in charge of Constitutional matters, Alison Coull, has a stellar reputation within the Profession.

But it would just be in keeping with normal practice to seek absolutely single minded counsel on a matter of this importance. External Counsel. If I was sticking a pin in a legal map, in the solicitor’s branch to somebody like Michael Dean at MMS or Jim McLean at Burness; within the Faculty of Advocates to Brian Napier or Ian Forrester but, actually, if I could really aim my pin I’d go for Aidan O’Neill. Not because I have any idea of where he stands on the Union but because, within the profession, he is recognised as the foremost of experts in this area. It won’t be the him however, since we already have his view and, despite it being posted on the YES Scotland website by some numpty who didn’t understand it, it is really not what the Nationalists want to hear.

Now, let’s consider when that external advice would have been sought. It would surely have been before Tuesday last? After all, the SNP have been in power since 2007 and in overall majority Government for the last eighteen months. Throughout that whole period their position has been that an Independent Scotland would proceed seamlessly into EU Membership. Is it really credible that throughout that whole period nobody thought, even once, that it might be worth running that proposition past a lawyer?

But, you say, they claim they have not had legal advice. No, actually, they don’t.

Here is what Nicola said on Tuesday

In light of the Edinburgh agreement, by which both Governments have agreed the process for Scotland to achieve independence, I can confirm that the Government has now commissioned specific legal advice from our law officers on the position of Scotland within the European Union if independence is achieved through this process. The Scottish Government has previously cited opinions from a number of eminent legal authorities, past and present, in support of its view that an independent Scotland—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Nicola Sturgeon: —will continue in membership of the European Union but has not sought specific legal advice. However, as the Edinburgh agreement provides the exact context for the process of obtaining independence, we now have the basis on which specific legal advice can be sought. The views of those other eminent authorities will continue to be highly relevant, but the Government’s position in the independence white paper will be based on and consistent with the advice that we receive.

Given that my statement answers the ruling of the Scottish Information Commissioner on the existence of legal advice, there is now no need for the Government to pursue its appeal against that ruling in this specific case, and I have asked our lawyers to advise the court accordingly and to ask that the appeal be dismissed. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. This is an important issue, which has been raised a number of times in the chamber. Please have the courtesy to listen to the cabinet secretary.

Nicola Sturgeon: I should also make it clear that, in confirming that the Government has asked for law officers’ advice, I have sought and received the prior agreement of the Lord Advocate. This statement is therefore consistent with paragraph 2.35 of the ministerial code and the long-standing convention on which that section of the code is based, both of which will continue to be vigorously upheld by ministers. The confirmation that I have given relates to the particular circumstances of the issue and does not
set a precedent.

The two highlighted passages above are mine. Nicola has confirmed that they have no previous advice “from the law officers” but fails, in my view to confirm or deny whether they have previous advice (and here I refer back to the terms of the Ministerial Code) from “anybody else”. The second highlighted passage is ambivalent on that point. If challenged she could, I think, legitimately, say that the “advice” she refers to is advice “from the law officers”.

Now why is any of this important? Because throughout the process, well before Tuesday, Salmond maintained, falsely, that he could not disclose the existence of advice from “anybody else” without the permission of the Law Officers because of the terms of the Ministerial Code. Now why would he bother to misinterpret the code in this way? Because, of course, if he disclosed that they had sought advice from “anybody else” the focus would have turned to who that was and what had they said. And, more importantly still, as to whether his own previous public statements reflected the content of that advice.

Now, I draw four conclusions from this. The first is a purely governmental one. All of this could have been avoided if one of the Law Officers had remained a political appointment. Advice could have been sought without any need for the disclosure of either its existence or its content. Insofar as the Information Commissioner tried to rule otherwise I think the Government would have won in Court. Interestingly, even now, on the point of the existence or otherwise of advice from the law officers, I think the Government would still have won in Court, albeit only at the price of having to disclose whether they held advice from “anybody else”. The very machiavellianly minded might think indeed that was the real game in play this week.

Secondly, this is not over, for Catherine Stihler’s inquiry remains whether the government has been given any legal advice on the matter. Now that they’ve dropped their appeal, that question will have to answered fully. Be very careful how and when they try to slip this out.

Thirdly, the Lord Advocate, whether he wants to be or not, is now in an astonishingly pivotal position. I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see, over the next few weeks, the lights burning even later than usual at Chambers Street while Frank and Lesley sweat over the European Law Textbooks and Primary Materials. Rather, they themselves are likely to go out for external advice. But while having obtained that advice and transmitted it to the Government, they both remain people of the highest integrity. They would not expect their opinion to be made public, no lawyer would, but if public statements are thereafter made by others claiming to be consistent with that advice which are not, actually, consistent with that advice, then I cannot see them willing to remain in office. And if they were to go in that circumstance......? The stakes are as high as that. And, regretttably for the First Minister, since they are, by virtue of his own best intentions, truly independent, apolitical, lawyers so will be any opinion to which they, vicariously, put their name.

And finally, what will that opinion be? Well that I can say. It will be that there is no certainty of anything. I say that not because it’s my opinion but because it is the opinion of much more eminent experts than me. Not only of Aidan O'Neill, helpfully still being quoted on the YES Scotland website but also of the independent experts asked to provide their opinion by the House of Commons (linked to by O'Neill) and last but by no mean least of Professor Neil Walker of Edinburgh University, no Unionist stooge he, as recently as today.

As with so much else, not so much the possibility of an Independent Scotland remaining in the EU as the precise terms on which that membership would be offered involves, at best, an informed prediction or, at worst, a leap of faith. Just like continued membership, on a non-nuclear basis, of NATO or indeed the continued employment of the Bank of England as a lender of last resort.

I have no idea why Salmond allowed a different impression to be created except that again I do. For who, other than a true believer would ever vote to take a leap in the dark?

Ages back, I blogged that I had never seen any poll with support for Independence as low as 20%. Now, however, I wouldn't rule it out.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Perth observed from Kilsyth

You’ll be expecting this to be about the SNP Conference and in the end I've decided to live up to that expectation.

The reason for my hesitation is (on this occasion) no personal animus towards the SNP but rather a wider view that the importance of Party Conferences can be over-rated. They are of course hugely enjoyable events for their participants, as I have already written myself,  but the general public regard them with a mixture of indifference and bemusement equating to their view of Star Trek Conventions. And unless something truly memorable happens, such as Kinnock denouncing the Militant in 1985 or Cameron bursting on to the Tory and then national stage in 2005 then they are forgotten almost as soon as they are over. I'm already struggling to remember much of what happened at our own Manchester Conference two weeks ago and I am hardly an average observer when it comes to these matters.

So, asked honestly what happened in Perth my answer is “not much”. The SNP didn't win the Referendum but they didn't make closing the gap in the polls any more difficult than it already is.

As a seasoned conference goer, I really enjoyed the NATO debate. Although I didn’t have a dog in the fight, had I been there, I would have been tempted to toss a coin for “sides” and then get up and make a barnstorming speech myself. But the 95% of the population who had no idea where the SNP stood on NATO before Friday still have no idea today. And few of the other 5% will be other than of already fixed conviction on the national question.

It was great entertainment for those of already interested in the minutiae of Scottish Politics but for everybody else it ranked alongside discovery of lost footage of “The Wrath of Khan”.

But, this being my blog you’ll be expecting a bit of revanchist unionist diatribe. So here it is.

I simply do not understand the strategy of Yes Scotland. From this distance, one thing is clear in relation to the October 2014 UK political situation with regard to the May 2015 UK Election. Either there will be no economic recovery, and thus Labour will remain well ahead in the polls, or (most improbably in my opinion) there will have been an economic recovery in which case the current Coalition government won’t be nearly so unpopular as it currently is. Even in Scotland. A strategy based therefore on voting for Independence to eject the (unpopular) Tories from Office presumes that, remaining unpopular, they are nonetheless somehow going to be re-elected. That is a logical fallacy.

Secondly, the bizarre promise of both tax cuts and better public services based on this 9.3/9.6 statistic simply lacks all credibility. It makes Independence look like a leap of faith rather than a seriously thought through economic proposition. It might gain support from the SSP (the tax cuts bit aside) but they’re voting for you anyway. I suspect, on the other hand that if you allow the campaign to develop in this way not only will you lose the Referendum, you will lose a good deal of your current Poujadist support in what are, truly, the Tory heartlands. For all the empty name calling of Johann since her “something for nothing” speech, support for Labour has increased and the Tories are now ahead of you in Westminster voting intention. A slightly smaller deficit is still a deficit that needs addressed and even potential Yes voters know that.

Finally, there is simply the question of tone. I didn't think much of Salmond's speech but it shared a common thread with others, even that of Nicola, who remains (Question Time aside) your most persuasive advocate. It simply isn’t good enough to claim that having chosen “voluntarily” to ask a question, it would then be disastrous for the wrong answer to be given. It's like the man who puts a pistol to his own head and then observes it would be very messy if he pulled the trigger. It prompts the response: “Well, who’s fault is that?” Further devolution isn't currently off the agenda but even I accept that it will be in the event of a decisive “No” vote. But, I repeat, “Who’s fault is that?” Having protested that this referendum is exactly what you always wanted it lacks credibility (again) to try and moan that you've been painted into a corner.

I have thought carefully about the word to choose to describe the current SNP rhetoric and it is “stridency”. The danger for you is that it slips over into the word I have currently rejected; “Desperation”.

So that’s all. And I’ve finished in time for Downton Abbey. A programme who’s first series, let us not forget, was not shown by STV because it was all about English Lord Snootys and thus, it was assumed, not likely to be of interest to us here in Scotland.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Why I got it wrong

Alright, it does appear now more likely than not that there will be a referendum.

I am finally forced to make that concession by a single sentence in the Memorandum of Understanding signed today. It's in paragraph 4

"The date of the poll will be for the Scottish Parliament to determine and will be set out in the Referendum Bill to be introduced by the Scottish Government." [my empasis].

Now that is very significant for it means that if the Bill becomes an Act, as it surely will, then there can be no turning back. Having been instructed to proceed by an Act of the Scottish Parliament, Returning Officers will be obliged to proceed and no second thoughts expressed by the (mere) Government of Scotland would allow or permit them to ignore what the Parliament of Scotland had resolved upon. Of course, the Parliament could always pass another Act to cancel the event but that would surely be more politically suicidal than then proceeding even in the face of certain defeat.

Now, as you'll know, I predicted this wouldn't happen and in consequence will shortly be obliged to dispatch  an ex gratia bottle of Dalwhinnie to Roseanna Cunningham, who remained a consistent true believer. At least, if she can resist opening it for two years, she'll have something then  in which to drown her sorrows.

But, beyond that, I am obviously obliged to consider why I'm eating humble pie rather than enjoying a lost malt.

And there are two reasons. Firstly, that, as my own Party has done before to its cost, I underestimated David Cameron. For he realised that the only possible response to Salmond's stated desire, and undoubted electoral mandate, for an Independence Referendum was to reply "Bring it on". If only Gordon Brown had been as decisive in 2007 then Wendy Alexander would probably today be First Minister of Scotland. Then again, decisiveness was never Gordon's strong point.

But Cameron also realised that he was up against an opponent who wanted anything but his stated preference and his genius was therefore to give that opponent everything he publicly said he wanted. The date, the single question, even votes for 16 year olds (despite the best efforts of both sides to work out how). The only thing Cameron was determined upon was that there would definitely be a vote. Even the number of questions was secondary to that, although a useful achievement to knock off on the way. And despite his best efforts, faced with such an apparent willingness to "help", in the end even Eck couldn't come up with a convincing reason to put it off. And thus the key things in the Agreement are the sunset clause and the single sentence I quote above, which I'm certain doesn't appear on the initiative of the Scottish Government.

But I also overestimated another politician, Alex Salmond. He gave us a doing, in a sort of Manchester United against St Mirren reserves sense in May 2011. And electorally successful leaders usually have an iron grip on their Party. But the SNP have always been a rebellious lot and the one thing that united them is a desire for Independence, even while disagreeing about why or even what it might mean. Now, I don't doubt that Eck also believes in Independence but he's perhaps a bit more realistic about whether it can be realised in 2014. Support for political parties goes up and down but opinion polling, even in the abstract, shows consistent two to one opposition to the idea of Independence, even before the economic truth (as I would have it) or the fear factor (as he would concede) starts to have its effect.

I suspect that he wouldn't privately hugely disagree that, if we voted next month, the Yes vote would be about 28%. And that's an awful lot of ground to make up in (even) two years. And he sees the inevitable schism in the Nationalist movement that would follow a failure to make up that ground.

But even he couldn't work miracles. We were all much entertained when he was booed at the Ryder Cup but, let's be honest, large numbers of well to do golfers, able to travel the Atlantic to support a multi-national European team were never likely to be a natural constituency for the First Minister. Unfortunately for him, the SNP Conference this week was equally unlikely to be receptive to the message that their life-long project had had to be postponed for technical reasons, never mind that it had negligible chance of success.

So when Cameron announced last Wednesday that Salmond would be signing up today he was making an offer which couldn't be refused. As I belatedly realised myself. And as, after a half hearted attempt on the day to insist "nothing was finalised", so did Eck.

And we've all got what we want, more or less. Or at least that's what we're saying publicly. It's certainly what I've wanted since 2007.

Bring it on.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

What's going on?

As regular readers will know it has been a recurring theme here that the First Minister (not, for the avoidance of any doubt, the whole of the SNP) is reluctant to hold an Independence Referendum.

The SNP Manifesto made no mention of the timing of the vote and it was the unilateral decision of the FM, four days before polling to decide that it would only be in the second half of the Parliament.

Even then, having won an outright majority matters hardly proceeded apace. Despite there having been the previous "National Conversation" from 2007 to 2011, and, on any view, a clear electoral mandate in May 2011, various puppet figures were encouraged by the First Minister's own staff to suggest there might be more than one question, even in the knowledge this considerably muddied the legal and political water. Eventually a consultation was launched on this very topic, which had formed no part of any Party's election manifesto in 2011, and all further developments put on hold until this had reported;  initially, we were promised, by the end of the Summer and then, for no reason ever given, by the end of October.

In passing, courtesy of a leak to the Sun, we were informed that the referendum itself would  not take place just in the second half of the current Parliament but in fact in the final third.

Meanwhile, the UK Government had "helpfully" offered to clear up any legal ambiguity by passing express authority to the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum by means of a s.30 order but there was hardly a stampede from the Nationalists to nail down the detail and from January to September "negotiations" proceeded at a pretty desultory pace. This despite the fact that the Scottish Government had conceded expressly in their own consultation paper that they needed the s.30 to ask their own preferred question and that legislation in early 2013, as they had promised, meant the terms of the s.30, which then required the approval of both Parliaments and, formally, the Privy Council needed to be agreed by the end of October.

Then suddenly it was all have meant to have changed. On 5th September, Salmond reshuffled his Government and in the process passed responsibilty for the s.30 negotiations from the low profile Bruce Crawford to the much more prominent figure of his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon. This was accompanied by a reshuffle among the SNP's back room troops and a briefing, within days, from both Holyrood and Westminster sources that there had been a step change in the tone and pace of the talks.

Even I began to think that the Nats had decided to go for it, or at least postpone the postponement.

And then, in the week commencing 1st October, the press were briefed that the deal was more or less done and that all that was being discussed was minor detail and the specifics of the "ceremony" by which the deal would be announced.

Now, throughout this there was an important event in the Calendar: the SNP Conference from 18th to 21st October. Surely that would be the place for Eck to go in acclamation to officially confirm the date (which has never been done) and to bask in the adulation of his faithful.

My own view was that the Tories would be mad to give him that opportunity. He'd dragged out the deal and the price he should be made to pay was that it wasn't formally sealed until later in October.

I was therefore initially bemused when David Mundell decided on Tuesday past to announce on behalf of the UK Government that the deal would be signed, this coming Monday, the 15th, in Edinburgh. What were they playing at!

Within 24 hours however things became much clearer. For Alex Salmond himself decided to announce that there was no deal, even in the face of David Cameron repeating Mundell's prediction in his speech to the Tory Conference yesterday.

And then I thought back to where the First Minister had been when  "his" side had briefed "done deal" the week before. And actually we all knew that for we'd seen him being booed. He'd been out of the Country, quite legitimately, receiving his silver putter as the next host of the Ryder Cup.

Now, here's what's happened. Some, most even, within the SNP want a deal. Eck remains less sure. So while the cat was away.........And this gave Cameron, Moore and Mundell the perfect opportunity to call Eck's bluff. The talks have gone as far as they can. The practical difficulties over votes for all 16 year olds can't be overcome but Westminster has given up on its previous all or none stance on this issue. If Eck wants votes for all those aged 16 and 10 months who happen to be on the Register, good luck to him. The campaign finance limits sought by the Nationalists are not going to be conceded if we talk till Christmas 2014 so they'll just have to like it or lump it in that regard. And the date and principle of a single question are, genuinely, agreed, or at least conceded on both sides.

So. its over to Eck. Can even he risk going to Perth having walked away from the table over what the world would see as minutiae? Or will David Cameron get the signature Eck could, after the event,  claim he was always willing to subscribe?  I suspect that calculation will be leading to a lot of agonising between now and Monday but, actually, in the end I think he will sign. After all, he's still got at least another eighteen months to find a different excuse for calling it off.

I finish with two questions:

1. Whatever happened to the Consultation?

2. I trust, that if a deal is done, some journalist will have the foresight to ask if the date of the Referendum will be in the Primary Legislation introduced to the Scottish Parliament and, if not, why not?

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Politics gone mad

The United Kingdom is in a financial crisis that is leading to significant cuts in public expenditure.

And a lot of people in no way responsible for that crisis will suffer as a result of these cuts.

Except apparently in Scotland.

For, while the Left throughout the UK is protesting about the effect of these cuts, the one political Party who maintains that they still have enough money to do everything they want is the SNP. Indeed, while public services are being slashed in the rest of the UK, George Osborne, presumably out of the goodness of his heart, has, according to the SNP,  found enough money, through the block grant, for the Holyrood Administration to implement their programme in full. And indeed to freeze Council Tax in the process.

All that's required is apparently prudent budgeting and there need be no impact on the public at all.

If Osborne had any sense he'd surely be inviting John Swinney to stand beside him on the platform at the Tory Conference in Birmingham this week so that Swinney could exhort the rest of the public sector to follow his example. "We've got less money as well!" Swinney could declaim "But is anybody in Scotland suffering? Not for a moment. Indeed, through "prudent budgeting" we can not only maintain all of our frontline services but also afford lots of perks not available to you spendthrift English!"

This is the politics of the mad house.

There will be those reading this blog who will be old enough to remember when a significant faction of the SNP thought it to be an error to advocate a devolved assembly. Anything less than full independence was no better than the direct Westminster rule. Indeed that was the Party's platform, more or less, from 1979 to 1997. They feared that participation in devolution, particularly devolution with little financial autonomy, would lead ultimately to comfortable acceptance of that settlement. In that these Cassandras may or may not yet be right but even they did not anticipate a situation whereby an SNP devolved administration became an apologist for a Westminster Tory Government's public spending settlement. Yet, if we can, as the SNP themselves claim, have everything we want with the money made available by the Tories then, logically, that is what they have become.

Only we can't have everything we want but, for some bizarre reason, the Nationalists themselves won't admit that. So we get the 1000 extra Cops but only at the expense of 3000 back up staff and an overall understaffed Police Service; we have the free University tuition but only at the expense of the slashing of college expenditure and the abandonment to unemployment of the less academically able; we get unrestricted bus travel for the over sixties but only at the expense of the Glasgow Airport rail link; we get "free" personal care but only at the cost of the denial of potentially life saving drugs to the NHS; perhaps above all, we get the Council Tax freeze but only at the expense of school closures, pot-holed roads and unattended child abuse.

Fair enough if these are your priorities, as they are apparently the Nationalists' priorities. But let's not pretend any of this is "free". Or adequate. It comes at a cost, much of it paid by the very poorest and most vulnerable.

And yet when Labour suggest that this is precisely what is happening we are met by flat denials from the Nationalists and, in the mad world of Scottish politics, it is we who are accused of being apologists for the Tories.

You couldn't make this up