FISTICUFFS in the Palace of Westminster are not new, but they are a less than satisfactory way of resolving political arguments.
Traditionally, the distance between the two front benches in the chamber of the House of Commons is two sword lengths, in order to dissuade honourable members from resorting to duels as a method of debate.
Whatever happened in the misnamed Strangers Bar on Wednesday night is for the courts and the Westminster authorities to determine in due course. Speaker, John Bercow, has issued a statement saying he takes the matter “very seriously”. So does the Labour Party, which has suspended Eric Joyce, the MP for Falkirk, after he was arrested following the fracas.
Mr Joyce, 51, deserves to remain innocent until proven otherwise. A former soldier, he has had a chequered career since entering the Commons at a by-election in 2000. He speaks his mind, has proven an able parliamentary aide and junior minister, and was prepared to resign over Iraq. On the other hand, he had to relinquish his post as shadow minister for Northern Ireland after he was arrested for failing to provide a breath test, and he has been criticised for coming top of the MPs’ expenses list on several occasions. His career may indicate someone less than relaxed with the clubable nature of the House of Commons.
Whatever the eventual outcome for Mr Joyce, this latest affair is an unwelcome diversion for Labour – nationally and in Scotland – and party managers will hope it blows over. Since the start of the year Ed Miliband has performed with more confidence, outflanking the Coalition Government on bankers’ bonuses and the proposed NHS reforms in England. Labour has caught up with the Tories in the polls and may even have a slight lead. Labour cannot afford any own goals with barely two months till the local elections and the London mayoral contest.
This counts double in Scotland, where the SNP still appears hegemonic. A by-election in Scotland – even in a relatively safe seat such as Falkirk – could pose big risks for Labour. The recent civil war inside Glasgow Labour suggests the party in Scotland is still in the process of modernisation and Johann Lamont remains untested as leader. Labour will reply that it is more than confident of taking on and beating the SNP, with new leaders both in London and Edinburgh. Indeed, a solid by-election victory might be seen as starting to turn the Nationalist tide, much as Donald Dewar did when he won the Garscadden by-election in 1978. But 2012 is not 1978. The Nationalists dominate Holyrood and have learned a thing or two about campaigning over the past 34 years. Labour might be better to take on the SNP at a time and place of its own choosing, rather than as the result of an accident. However, as Harold Macmillan pointed out long ago, politics is by nature a series of unforeseen events. Time will tell if Wednesday’s Commons row takes on a greater significance.
Oil fund proposal needs more detail
HISTORY does repeat itself. Suddenly the independence debate has shifted on to the subject of North Sea oil, exactly as it did in the 1970s. Last week, the First Minister announced that an SNP government in an independent Scotland would divert £1 billion a year from oil revenues, to create eventually a £30bn sovereign wealth fund on the Norwegian model.
This would convert a wasting asset into permanent “savings” that could help fund future public spending or pensions, as happens in Norway. This proposal has been criticised – notably by John McLaren of the Centre for Public Policy in the Regions – on the grounds that the annual budget deficit in an independent Scotland would be too great to allow any oil revenues to be set aside safely. Unless, that is, the SNP contemplated significant cuts in expenditure. Others reply that an oil fund could be created from foreign currency earnings derived from oil sales without reducing domestic spending. There is a sound principle to investing oil revenues in such a fund. But the practicality of the concept rests on assessing short-term budget demands and the sustainability of oil revenues over a period. Here there is great uncertainty.
Which is why we should pay attention to a proposal by Professor Alex Kemp, Scotland’s most respected academic on the subject of North Sea oil, for the First Minister to publish more details on the mechanics of such an oil fund and how he intends to finance it. Indeed, there is a strong case for such an analysis being carried out independently by a Scottish equivalent of the Office of Budget Office for Budget Responsibility. Over to the First Minister.
Finding uses for tram cars with nowhere to go
NOT only does Edinburgh Council find itself with no functioning tramline, despite nearly half a billion pounds of public expenditure and a forest of reports, it now has ten actual trams surplus to requirements because of the decision to end the line at St Andrew Square instead of Newhaven. But the councillors who brought you a non-existent tram service are not short on imagination.
They have been thinking up uses for the spare trams including … er, a night-time freight service. Surely the city that created the Edinburgh Festival can do better than that? They could be used as “drunk tanks” or mobile prisons. They would be popular as a mobile night club or hen party carrier. The council could press them, into use as late night corporate entertainment suites. What about a Fringe venue to perform A Street Car Named Desire? (though quite how Blanche would get to Elysian Field Avenue now the line has been axed is a problem). We are sure Ricky Demarco, that great arts impresario, would be only too happy to lend a hand. But in the end, would it not be better to put the trams on display in every district of Edinburgh, as modern art – they cost enough. Future meetings of the council could take place in them – with standing room only for those councillors yet to learn how to spend public money wisely.