Bugger’n Borgen


This is like one of those murder mystery programmes from Denmark in which you’re not sure what the crime is or if there’s a body but something sinister is going on because it looks dodgy…and strangely dark.

Wings spotted the odd goings-on on BBC news on the day of the Calton Hill rally. See it here… http://wingsoverscotland.com/identity-parade/.

What happened? I don’t know is the honest answer but I’ve a fair idea.

Ironically, this appears to be an attempt at political balance. That is, because there is widespread coverage of the pro-independence rally, the BBC decided they needed to hear from the Unionists as well. The trouble is that the Unionists weren’t actually doing anything newsworthy on the day so they pretended to be canvassing in order to be seen by the cameras. That in turn sets up the interview with Sheila Gilmore.

Now it’s normal procedure for a film crew to set up some kind of action to illustrate a story. It happens on virtually every bit of footage you see. Professor John Curtice is filmed walking at Pacific Quay studiously avoiding looking at the camera lens. He goes out of shot and the next moment you see him full frame telling us how the Yes vote will sweep to victory. (I think that’s what he usually says). Even the editing shots from the back of the reporter – so you can’t see his mouth moving as it’s out of synch – and in which you see the face of the interviewee, are set up. They are filmed after the interview as there is only one camera. It’s not just in news, either. Remember David Attenborough’s documentary on baby polar bears – filmed in a studio but not revealed at the time. Or Michael Palin flying over the Himalayas looking out the plane window and the next shot we see are the peaks below. Only when he flew the cloud obscured them so the shots were filmed on a different flight and dropped in later. This is all part of the gentle deception of television without which it simply doesn’t work.

However…the problem with this report is that it clearly implies something in the script that isn’t actually happening before our eyes. It suggests that we are seeing the public being canvassed by Better Together except that those individuals aren’t the public. They aren’t civilians. They are soldiers. If they are there by arrangement with Better Together – and if they aren’t, I’m a banana – then they are players in a political story posing as something they technically are not. They should not be presented by the broadcaster as being something they are not. That is misleading, if the BBC knows the truth.

I don’t think any BBC executive watching that would think for one moment that the scene in which the leaflets are handed out is anything other than staged. Where did the stooges suddenly emerge from – a Better Together Transit parked round the corner? They walk like performers with the same gait and exactly the same line of approach, seemingly shepherded by the partially-glimpsed figure on the right.

It is excruciatingly hammy and, frankly, professionally cack-handed.

If the camera had for example stayed on the other side of the road and watched the canvassers chatting or just circulating among themselves even if no member of the public appeared, that is fine. The script can say there were canvassing or trying to. To stage the event with partisan actors is verboten.

So what do we deduce from our thriller? First, that the BBC was making a monumental effort to be even-handed. Yet there is absolutely no need to balance what is a genuine news story – the independence rally – with opposing comment in the same item or even on the same day. Balance in news is something that occurs over time. The important part is that is logged carefully and the BBC never loses sight of how many appearances or how many minutes each side has had. That’s why Paul Sinclair – and other party types  – call the BBC to remind them of their responsibilities (apply the pressure). There is a strong case for arguing that No should have been left out altogether since this was already a short report and given the scale of the Calton Hill event and the lack of other news, viewers could have expected a fuller report of the rally. To add in as much time to a total non-event without public involvement in an empty street was a disservice to viewers. Yet this report was compiled by an experienced journalist who, if I recall, also worked for the World Service. It suggests to me a lack of direction and coherent leadership in the news department which I’ve highlighted before. Reporters need to know exactly what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of balance. There is no sign this is happening.

It also explains why Blair Macdougall turned up in the middle of the SNP conference which I think is unprecedented. Conferences are political rallies in which the politcos are allowed to indulge themselves. You don’t balance a party conference because you can’t balance a party conference. You look idiotic which is what happened in Perth.

Secondly, this is not political pro-Union bias. It is management incompetence. It is a dysfunctional BBC getting mixed up and making the wrong calls. How can that be when they have layers of executives whose job is to get it right? They are not anti-independence bigots. They’re just not good at their jobs.

And remember, bias comes in different ways. For instance, if there is a Union rally, do you expect them to get away with ranting about separation without a counter balance? Many of you would probably object to the No people going unanswered but if the pro Independence case had been allowed to proceed without Better Together, that’s what should have happened.

Here’s another thought. If it’s true this report was pulled and taken down from the iplayer, isn’t that a sign that the BBC did eventually make the right call? There can be little shame in recognising an error and acting promptly. Time and again, I’m afraid, BBC Scotland puts its foot in it by getting it wrong and creates the impression of being biased. When enough of these cases accumulate, the truth is that, even when it’s not biased, it is no longer believed. The trust is eroded. That is what is happening before our eyes.

And only now is the BBC Trust asking for views on impartiality and balance to be implemented on the last couple of months before the referendum! Too late…many, many months too late.

(I’ll post my response to the Trust consultation on this site. You should all respond to it.)

Dear Derek

I’ve just had a reply from Johann…


Thanks for responding so quickly. Your paper reveals what I suspected – that you really aren’t very well informed at all and have no idea either what the Labour Party is for or how it operates. Very disappointing. On which point, could you stop referring to Paul as Baldy? It’s cheap and insulting and his appearance has nothing to do with the debate. Name-calling demeans us all.  (J. You referred to AS as Wee Eck at FMQs in April last year – Paul).

Paul is merely too tall for his hair. Just because you’ve got plenty is no reason to attack him.

On my strategy, is it not clear by now that my strategy is not to have one? The whole trick of opposition is to have nothing that can be criticised and not to give away ideas that can be turned against you. See what happened when I said Something for Nothing?  (FFS J. You didn’t say it, remember!)

It came back to bite me. The same with devolving income tax when the London lot rebelled. I’ve learned my lesson. Paul was right. Do nothing. Say nothing. Propose nothing. The three objectives of my leadership are: Attack. Attack. Attack. And when necessary, Deny. The important part is that we are preaching to the Daily Record readers who don’t follow Gerry Hassan because they can’t understand what he’s on about. (Neither does Paul Martin – P)

These folk understand a message if you keep it simple and hammer it home hard enough. Don’t talk to me about nuance or perspective. It doesn’t matter that Tony Blair is godfather to Murdoch’s child or that Labour ennobled Goodwin. The trick is to fabricate a big enough myth – that Salmond is in hock to both – put your fingers in your ears and just keep on hammering away. It’s worked in the past and so long as there is somebody out there with a brain like wee Douglas who sounds intelligent on Sky News then that represents our intellectual edge. Personally I can’t stand the bugger – thinks he’s better than the rest of us.

You don’t seem to understand that politics is for the professionals. Your analysis focuses on people. Well of course it does. But remember people are merely the means to an end. And that end is keeping Labour in power. That’s why I did the anti-feminist thing and attacked Nicola for earning over £100,000 and being married to a guy also earning £100,000. Because that’s what me and Archie are supposed to be on! We are the professionals.

I admit being in Unite is uncomfortable but I think by keeping my head down when the Falkirk story broke I avoided being smeared – again thanks to Paul. Anyway, I’m only in Unite so that they pay money to help my campaigning. They’ll put up the cash for the latest food bank in my constituency under the banner: Unite for a Better Britain.

The truth is that I had to go into an alliance with the other parties because a) I’m really comfortable with them in a way I never will be with the Nats, mostly because they don’t threaten me and my position and b) I really don’t have the drive and adroitness to come up with plans of my own and follow them through. If they wanted that, the members and the unions would have installed a candidate genuinely interested in devolution and the constitution. I’m not. Never have been.

Of course I’m in favour of devolution. Now. That’s because it was set up as a Labour-dominated jobs scheme which does me nicely now that there’s fewer councillors’ jobs worth having. But nobody who knows me would ever say I was anything other than a typical British politician from Scotland who sees separation as an infantile obsession of history junkies.

So you can stick to your quasi intellectual sub-Iain Macwhirter scribblings that the other BBC media luvvies all enjoy. I ignore all that equality and fairness drivel…taking our place in the world and caring about the Havenots. The Havenots I care about are the ones who vote Labour – or used to. That’ll do me. As for nuclear weapons…my A**e!   (No, J. that’s your name for me, remember.?! P)

Good luck with your childrens’ stories…


Dear Johann,

Some happy news at last! I’ve been asked by Johann Lamont to produce a paper on where she’s going wrong. There’s no money in it – she’s says she believes in something for nothing. So let me share with you what I’ve said.

Hi Johann,

Thanks for agreeing that I could send this to you directly so it isn’t censored by Paul, your balding Alastair Campbell wannabe. Let me start with Grangemouth which I know has caused you much distress.

I do think the key element here is not to be posted missing. Every time something happens in Scotland you need visibility. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you are cast in an unflattering light by comparison with the Great Satan. The truth is that in opposition you simply can’t match him because you have no actual powers. But you do have powers of presence. The Scots need to equate you with the events in their life and if you turn up when there’s trouble, even if Satan is grandstanding, the media will be obliged to ask your opinion. So long as you say something sensible, it will be on Rep Scot. He will hate that.

So when the Unite nonsense began in Falkirk you were wrong to take Baldy’s advice and stay out of it. We both know the truth – that you have no powers in the CLP nor in Unite but the trick is to pretend to the Scots that you do. So, when there’s vote-fixing and vote-buying, before HQ in London steps in – as they must – you negotiate a 24 hour delay in which you turn up in Falkirk, meet constituency reps and union officials, then issue a statement condemning the lot as not good enough for the people of Falkirk and – looking grimly at the camera – you demand the national executive acts immediately. So long as Miliband shuts up and gives a nod of acknowledgement in your direction, you’re home and dry. You’ve set the tone. Taken command. Ordered action. Looked tough. Some in the know will laugh, of course but the vast majority who couldn’t care less about infantile internal politics will see you doing something. Disappearing, as you did, is the worst possible move. If Baldy – or should we now call him The Arse? – tells you that was Gordon’s strategy, ask yourself what happened to Gordon. He is running behind Ramsay McDonald as Britain’s most reviled PM.

So sometime in the last two weeks you had a card to play and missed your cue. You should have called Satan. Personally. Asked for a private meeting. Tell him you don’t want publicity but as there is a matter of national economic importance at hand, you have an insight into the union side of the dispute. The continuation of the plant and the retention of the jobs is your primary concern. Ask if he wants you to broker a meeting with the union. He doesn’t need you for that. But that again isn’t the point. He would eat out of your hand and genuinely appreciate your altruism. Tell him, nothwithstanding the by election, you stand ready to help. And when the plant is saved, guess what? The truth leaks out…Johann put country before party – in a by election – she was brave and unselfish. She showed her real side as a politician and demonstrated that unique gift the public long for…burying differences when its needed and working for the common good. She played her part in saving Grangemouth. So what she’s a member of Unite? It didn’t matter when it came to her country’s hour of need. Cue Hallelujah Choruses, church bells and a deluge of Brownie points. That woman has a heart. And she has guts. Pretty simple, really.

You need to stop demonising opponents and their belief. I mean, if nationalism is a virus, most Scots voting have got it bad. Why insult them? For an easy cheer at conference among the converted you alienate a lot of voters many of whom look to you as an alternative. Think local. Would you say to a woman on the doorstep: “I see you’ve got the virus. Poor soul. You’re beyond redemption. I’ll put a cross on your door and Paul will come round with the wagon to collect the bodies later.”

All it does is reveal what most people would call your loathing for the other side and as they don’t share your feeling, they see you as irrational and hateful. That’s very unattractive. You can get away with expressing something approaching hatred for Tories although that too has to be specific to be effective. They are a small group with little support and their government really is politically loathsome. The policies should induce real anger in a left wing politician but of course you are caught there, aren’t you, since they are now your allies in fighting Satan? Now that’s what I call a dilemma. It’s why I suggested in June 2011 that you immediately strike out alone without the Tories by cornering the Devo Max ground and insisting to Salmond that it be  the second referendum question. It would win hands down and you would be the sole victor…not the Tories, not the Lib Dems and you would be the Joan of Arc who beat Salmond. Too late now.

And it is too late to re-write history. The inexplicable idea of denial of Something for Nothing is inviting ridicule. Just fire the one who put it in the speech. If you can’t trust your own instinct, you sure can’t trust the insensitive nerd who conjured that up. Show your vulnerable side by confessing it was an error. You were only trying to point out how difficult it is to keep paying for universal benefits when you got your words mixed up. A bit. Say sorry. Say also that the people who know you understand what you mean and while you’re at it, sack Midwinter. End the commission. There are no votes in taking from people when they have less. It’s the very time they look to the state for guidance and security. Turbo charge the Devo Max commission to design a new settlement for Scotland for the day the referendum delivers a No. That will be popular. Unless of course the truth is, as some of those who know you well think, that there are to be no more powers for Holyrood. If that’s true, I suggest you stick to Position One. Stay silent. Stay out of sight. Arrange to be seen with Gordon on the beach at North Queensferry, looking out to sea wondering where it all went wrong.


(Any ideas for Johann before I send this?)

Oh God…never again…

I haven’t been up to blogging this weekend. I was out at the rugby for dinner and drinks on Friday night. Then it was a birthday bash on Saturday and I got home at 5am…I’ve been taking it slowly and was so wasted on the sofa, I actually watched the Sunday Politics without switching off through boredom which is my usual routine.


So what did I learn about Grangemouth? Well I think we can truthfully say that BBC Scotland covered the issues, as you would expect. Whether it did so in the depth and quality we expect is a more open question.

I actually started with Radio Scotland on Sunday morning when I was still hallucinating in bed after four hours sleep – and grateful for that extra hour. Headlines gave the impression – confirmed on reading the blatts for myself – that the Herald again rose to the occasion and SoS fell – again – into the trap of running the Unionist line on the front when it actually added nothing of importance to the story.

Alistair Carmichael suggesting it was the Union Wot Won It was a petty and mean Better Together tactic that should have either been relegated to an inside page or used prominently to deride him as a carpetbagger. It is a sleekit manoeuvre to claim copyright on an initiative that was jointly conducted, a classic case of stab-in-the-back. Wasn’t it good enough for Alistair that the plant was saved and the jobs rescued and let the people make their judgement of the politicians’ efforts? It rang discordant to me that he immediately turned it into a campaigning tool for his own side.

As ever, when I have such a thought, I imagine what would happen if the roles were reversed. Suppose Salmond went to the papers and bragged how this supported independence and then wrote the British side out of the story. Like you, I suspect, I can hear the howls of protest about the man you cannot trust etc.

SoS does need to take care about its cheerleading role, however inadvertent this is. It looks very often as if it has a hole on the front page awaiting a call from the Unionist Front.  Was the Herald’s more detailed and insightful material on the behind-the-scenes game not available to SoS? Or was it just that they called the right people? As it turned out, Salmond and the SNP got their more constructive and positive story out without the sour preening of the Carmichael approach. The Herald created an impression, backed up with detail, of Scottish politicians pulling every string they had including putting in place contingencies – all in the face of a party conference and a tricky by-election – meanwhile leaving Labour’s winning candidate sounding off- message and off-colour with her silly and long-prepared trope about Salmond’s obsession with the constitution. Cara Hilton’s “Use the powers you have now to make a difference, not just argue for more in the future,” would have had Malcolm Tucker eating his mobile phone. Using his powers was exactly what he was doing to save 800 jobs at the very moment she was speaking. But good luck to Cara. She can’t be any worse than her predecessor. I just hope she doesn’t disappear into the background and is never heard of again which seems to the backbencher’s fate in Holyrood.

Labour’s win at Dunfermline brings me to the Sunday Politics which I watched accompanied by a glass of Andrews Liver Salts. There was Johann in the studio looking sunny which means there must be good news because she has developed the Gordon Brown trick of becoming invisible when the barometer points to Stormy. For example where was she when the original Falkirk selection controversy broke? The answer is that we don’t know because she was invisible rather showing any sign of ownership or leadership. Could that be connected to her own membership of Unite, do you think?

She had been invited on of course to talk about Dunfermline, which is all fair and good but the overriding requirement in the newsroom is…erm…news. Therefore she was rightly asked about Grangemouth imbroglio and her own links to Unite. I think the problem here is not that the questions are somehow wrong in themselves but they need to be put in a penetrating and challenging way as if the interviewer knows what he is talking about and, however politely, is metaphorically prodding her in the chest for a clear answer.

“The union at Grangemouth lost sight of its responsibilities both to its own members and to Scotland, Ms Lamont. That’s your union. They allowed incestuous Labour politics to infect an industrial relations dispute giving an open goal to a cynical management. That’s your union. Their failure meant that the workers got a worse deal than they might have –that’s your union. Yet Labour has supported them throughout, you haven’t spoken out against them, neither has your industry spokesman Iain Gray. You’re both members of that union. What do you say to your union today?”

The follow up clearly is: “How can anybody in Scotland trust an administration run by you when you appear to put the interests of your union – one of your party’s main funders – ahead of the national interest?”

Of course Johann says she would never do such a thing. But what do her actions show? Did she offer to intervene by meeting her Unite colleagues so she is shown to be working behind the scenes? Did she contact Salmond to offer her services as an intermediary? Has she made clear to you what the relationship is between Falkirk constituency party, Unite and Ineos?  Or didn’t she in fact do the opposite by remaining a bystander in the industrial dispute and saying the party affair will all be looked at by the UK party and/or the police? Surely she needs to be challenged on what being a leader means. What has she actually done throughout the entire Grangemouth affair? Or was she doing what Cara blamed on Salmond – fixating on one issue, the by election, leaving Grangemouth to the Big Boys?

Given the mess at Grangemouth and her own poor showing, what does it tell us about BBC Scotland’s coverage that she sailed through her interview, effortlessly batting away questions until the agreed line of questioning – the by election – loomed safely into view? I’m all for polite and civil interviews but I always thought it was part of the job of journalism to put the questions the public want answers to. We know there is heartfelt relief, cold fury and disbelief about what happened at Grangemouth – and what didn’t – so it is legitimate to reflect that in a studio. Put it this way, if the plant had been lost you wouldn’t have been able to stop Johann talking about it and how it showed Salmond was obsessed with the constitution when jobs were at stake.

Maybe it was my hangover but I thought her softly softly interview contrasted poorly with the collar-grabbing interrogations earlier by Andrew Neil whose politics I despise but who’s demanding style gets the best out of interviewees and reveals so much to the viewer.

Back on the wireless Business Scotland  gave itself over to a full examination of Grangemouth and produced a much more incisive and rounded perspective under the guidance of Douglas Fraser, every nationalist’s favourite economy editor. The only area I didn’t hear is one I think is emerging strongly and that is how the public needs representation on the governing bodies of key strategic industries. It is true that infrastructure is the new pet investment for the private equity pirates so the corollary is where does that leave the taxpayer?

I was just about ready to face a late breakfast when it occurred to me that BBC Scotland could have done something a bit radical this weekend. We had just flirted with a major economic and – for the workers and their suppliers and communities – a personal tragedy and perhaps it would have been appropriate to rip up the schedules for the day. Why not a one hour special on radio covering the whole story followed by discussion with a public involvement via internet and call-in? You could set aside Ken MacDonald’s hour and Douglas Fraser’s hour and combine them – use the same presenters – and let rip with the full story. You have three or four contributors in studio, prepared packages on each aspect of the story and call-out interviews with everyone from the parties and the unions, business, oil experts and move on to asking the public their view. You take it into referendum territory too. With some advertising on telly, you could have really dominated the agenda and performed a coordinated service for the Scots. It might have won a Sony. Is that too creative for PQ these days? Is there still a Head of Radio, a Head of News? Is there an Editor of Radio News? Isn’t there a Referendum Unit? Who’s thinking in there?

Maybe I’m hallucinating on sauvignon blanc…

By the way…I read about BBC Scotland filming in Scandinavia to tell us how everything works up there so we can compare before next September. All I can say is: About time. It’s exactly what is needed. What a pity we had to wait until there are less than 12 months to go. They’ve put their best documentary filmmaker on it so it should be good…could be a game-changer.

I’m feeling much better now, thank you.


brr…brr…”Hello, BBC complaints…Can I help you?”

It was election time and I was given the task of producing a series of five-minute films satirising the campaign for Newsnight. They would be shown on each of four Thursday nights, that being the last transmission day of the week for the programme in Scotland.

I was to look out for funny moments in the BBC coverage and pick out events that could be over-scripted with spoof commentary and jokes, search for embarrassing outtakes and generally think up treatments to point fun at the politicians and give the weary voters a laugh at their expense.

The first in the planned series worked out quite well. I had a cheering gaggle of silver-haired OAP Nats in Portobello whom I billed as the new generation of Young Nationalists; I had Annabel Goldie and William Hague arriving by chopper to the soundtrack of M.A.S.H. (and likened Annabel to Hot Lips); and an outtake of Charles Kennedy tiptoeing through stage shrubbery depicting an apple tree as if he was afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. It was apparently a filmed rehearsal for a show in which he was taking the mickey out of himself.

This latter clip was in the BBC digital library system used by news programme-makers and although it wasn’t shot in Scotland, it had been apparently filmed that week, it was BBC copyright and was not marked with any restrictions on its use. Another producer pointed me in its direction and we agreed it could be used as I had nothing better on the Lib Dems to include in the film – which I needed to do for political balance. Over this theatrical clip my script asked the question: “Is that a cider apple tree?”

You can see the joke, such as it is, and why Charles Kennedy might be upset by it. On the other hand his resignation was at least four years previously, it had been routinely the butt of jokes and this was, after all, clearly billed as a satirical film. His clip was near the end, so anybody watching up to that point was in no doubt about the tone of the content. It was taking the piss and, I would argue, I was potentially more insulting to Annabel Goldie whom I also had portrayed with a huge Rotary Club red banner during a campaign visit. As she stood smiling, I intoned: “The People’s flat is deepest red, it’s shrouded oft our martyred dead…” etc.

The next day I came in to work and was met by a worried producer who said there had been trouble over my film and the whole series had been pulled. The Director of BBC Scotland was involved, I was told.

Both the Head of News and Current Affairs and the Editor of Newsnight had met with the Director Kenny MacQuarrie and it had been decided to bin my series in its entirety.

I was informed that Charles Kennedy had phoned in to complain about his portrayal. It appeared the Director had taken his complaint seriously.

It would be, to say the least, highly unusual for a senior BBC executive – in this case the Director – to involve himself directly in an editorial decision. Bosses like to maintain the idea of independent journalism, although the Director is technically Editor-in-Chief and, to be fair, this decision involved the man who could properly make that call, the Head of News. I was given no indication that any resistance had been offered to the idea of dropping future films. I was told that the Director was “very, very unhappy.”

Actually so was I. As a journalist there is nothing worse than the idea that some outside force has interfered with legitimate journalism and that a view which the public has a right to know is blocked because someone of influence doesn’t like it.

I was told that the Kennedy clip should not have been used without permission, although there was no restriction on its use that I was aware of.  And even if the producer of the programme of origin had been unhappy with its broadcast in Scotland, which I was told he wasn’t, the fact is that the clip was in circulation in the BBC digital library and available for anyone to use. I wondered then if the claimed doubtful provenance of the clip was being used to justify what was essentially an emotional reaction to the Kennedy phone call?

I’m sure it is one of the unpleasant aspects of the job of a BBC executive to have to defend the broadcast of material that offends those in public life with whom they come into contact. But isn’t that one of the challenges of a boss…to put the corporate interest ahead of the personal? Isn’t that why in the case of the Director, for example, he’s paid £190,000?

To me this case smacked of the corporate wobbles, of an official unease at pushing the boundaries just a little to get a laugh out of the discomfort of the political classes who lecture the rest of us. I was unconvinced by arguments about the rights to a BBC film clip. As a journalist I saw it much more likely as a failure of nerve by BBC bosses.

I’m sorry about Charles Kennedy’s drink issues – goodness knows I’ve had a pint with him myself – but is it really a no-go area because he is embarrassed by it? Isn’t this the same man who hid the truth from the public and openly lied about it for years and whose party colleagues did the same? Is it really unacceptable to make a mild jibe about it in the context of a satirical item?

In any case, even if you accept the BBC view one hundred per cent and even if, for some unknown technical reason, I had no “permission” to broadcast the clip, is it not overreaction to ban all similar items throughout the election? Surely the obvious response, if it’s true the decision was based solely on one clip, was to remind Newsnight producers – and me – to take care over the selection of material and carry on rather than denying the viewers access to good output. And remember, this was not a decision based on a formal complaint from a member of the public and adjudicated upon. It was apparently the direct result of a single phone call from an MP. And for Charles Kennedy – what a result!

Which makes you wonder why the complaint from Liam Robertson was handled so completely differently. Mr Robertson went through the official complaints procedure. He didn’t know to call personally. His case began in July 2011 when he complained about a radio presenter on Morning Briefing being allowed to appear in a television advertisement and consequently the agenda of a BBC programme was distorted. I think the way this was dealt with showed the BBC at its worst; bureaucratic, nit-picking, dissembling and seemingly working its socks off to prove the licence-fee payer was wrong.

Yet what was the judgement of the BBC Trust?

That there had been a clear breach of the Guidelines on Conflicts of Interest as the news agenda of Morning Briefing had been distorted to take account of the presenter’s appearance in a television advertisement.

That, while not false, the effect of a statement made by the BBC with regard to the intervention of a senior manager was to mislead the complainant.

That the delays experienced by the complainant at various stages of the BBC’s handling had been unacceptable.

The Committee was dismayed to note the extremely long time – since the end of July 2011 – that the complainant had been pursuing these issues. (To May 2013…that is 22 months to you and me – a somewhat longer and more tortuous path for an ordinary licence-fee payer than the Route One – all over in 24 hours – approach for Charlie Kennedy, wouldn’t you say?)

In Mr Robertson’s case the BBC breached its own rules, “misled” a member of the public and strung out the process to an unacceptable degree. I challenge anyone, including Kenny MacQuarrie, to say the combination of these two cases shows anything other than a management failing in its duty to the licence-fee payers.

As Liam Robertson said to Newsnet: “What really concerns me…is the culture of denial at BBC Scotland.  They denied everything without even doing a proper investigation, dragged out my complaint over two years and then, as the Trust concluded, they ‘misled’ me. It’s been an utter failure at every stage of the process and it makes me wonder how many other breaches are going unnoticed?”

Would You Adam ‘n Eve It?

Good news…the economy is bounding ahead and doing better even than it was before the Crash. Except only in London.

It seems that the consistent message from everywhere outside the South-east – that the country’s resources are concentrated on one privileged corner – is being proven to be 100 per cent correct.

So what is the unionist response to the burgeoning success and growing incomes of one section of British society? It’s tricky because at the same time, Scotland is the only other area of the UK showing relative growth and it’s run by the dreaded SNP. Only this week Danny Alexander was telling the Commons that Scotland’s success was down to our membership of the UK, so it can’t be the policies of John Swinney that take the credit, can it? How is it then that unionist economic strategy works so impressively in nationalist-minded Scotland if it fails so obviously in every other region of Britain? Alistair Carmichael says he wants the British government to stop talking macro economics in the referendum and get to down to family budget level so presumably he’ll have a ready answer. Just don’t expect it any time soon.

My guess is that it’s all that subsidy money that bypasses the English counties and shores up Scotland’s feather-bedded public sector. Or words to that effect.

More likely Scotland’s relative improvement is a delicate thing carefully carved out from the advantages of having a regional government with localised powers, including a development agency with an international remit, and real say over spending and strategic planning, exactly the kind of thing impoverished English regions have been demanding. We also benefit from having the political will to secure business development resulting from a government desperate to prove itself and not dependant on a London-centric diktat. In fact, we have the opposite, a government openly at odds with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Put another way, it is vesting political power in an economic region and letting leaders on the ground get on with the job that produces results. Subsidiarity. Devolution and, heaven help us, Independence. That and having a relatively healthy helping of taxpayers money.

London is a success story by any measure and good luck to them. It shows what can be done when the collective will is there, the conditions are right for business, including infrastructure, and the workforce is available.

The first of those, the collective will, is partly the result of virtually every organ of state power being located in the same place. It is a magnet for activity – diplomatic, economic and cultural and creates the critical mass in which business can be sustained. Consider too how the Government went to war with Europe over bankers bonuses to protect the so-called wealth-creators…hideous as that was after the way the bankers helped crash the economy, it showed how big business can harness real political power to its cause.

As for infrastructure, can there be a better-equipped city? Transport alone is a huge part of London’s success, overcrowded as it is. It has Heathrow, Gatwick and an airport in the city itself (not deemed enough, of course), the world’s most comprehensive underground and now Crossrail costing half the entire Scottish government annual budget.  Still, don’t London’s top earners deserve all this subsidy (along with London weighting of salaries) as they enjoy the biggest growth in incomes and are now more prosperous since the Crash?

That’s certainly the view of many, that the rest of us should be grateful because without London the country really would be finished. It doesn’t seem to occur to the gilded elite that if we invested our resources differently everyone could benefit from improved growth. I thought that was what Cameron tried to tell us when he got elected – that the country was imbalanced and everybody should suffer the cuts and we were, I think the phrase was, All In It Together.

Like his green agenda, binned in favour obscene subsidies for nuclear, and his respect agenda for Scotland, emptied in favour of ducking out of debating with his opponent, so the rebalancing of Britain is now jettisoned in favour of boasting that the professional classes of the British capital are piling up the cash again. (One result is the clear warning that London house prices are heading for a market boom – again).

Ironically, this probably does play to a unionist agenda in that it confirms their dependence theory. It shows that London is the font of all benefit and everyone else can grub around for crumbs and of course it’s too risky to take a different approach like not feeding the London Beast. That would entail standing up for Scotland and insisting their country should get its fair share, so that we don’t have nearly 30,000 using food banks, £1500 annual energy bills, and no economic gain from the high speed railway to which we will contribute billions.

In their British hero worship do unionists every wonder why Britain has so little of the cohesion that binds together a successful country? Do they approve of state-sponsored free schools with unqualified teachers, the marketization of postal services, the institutional abuse in some hospitals and care homes and now the nauseating campaign to resurrect the reputation of a man who DID swear at the police – not because it is a matter of human rights but because he is one of the same gilded London elite? The Andrew Mitchell affair has turned from a silly vindictive campaign by police against an arrogant politician into a grovelling collective Establishment apology to one of their own. Chief Constables lined up to humiliate themselves in cross-examination? I don’t remember that happening when police were found to be spying on the Stephen Lawrence family. Did we get the heads of the intelligence service into public show trials when Britain paid off – rather let into the courts – detainees we had helped to torture? Just as Britain has one economic rule for London and the South-east, so it has a different code for its London elite. Maybe the Anglo Scots are right…if you can’t beat em…join em.

It’s increasingly clear that, not only will Britain not change anytime soon, but it is going backwards into a Tory retro world of middle class protection and debasement of the poor. For the undecided, at least there is the certainty of knowing what Union means and what, by casting a No vote, they will be endorsing. As Alastair Darling says: It’s not an election, it’s for ever.

Disgruntled of Glasgow

Why am I doing this? What is the motivation for going back over events at the BBC when it is no longer part of my daily life? The BBC’s own answer is that I am a disgruntled ex-employee whose opinions can be discounted as bitter and vengeful. That is how all former staff who become critics are regarded and dismissed. It is a simple, all-embracing answer to everything that is said that managers don’t like and means they can avoid introspection and doubt.

Well I am certainly resentful about the way the BBC is run and how some decisions impacted on myself. But I like to think the reason for sharing that more widely is my belief that the licence-fee payers have a right to hear what staff think, not just what managers say they think. My approach is governed not by a hierarchical management structure to which I only ever offered perfunctory allegiance but by a broadcaster’s obligation to the public. This, after all, is public service broadcasting. It is made for the public by a publicly accountable organisation using public money.

Why then does it place on staff a contractual obligation not to speak out about its internal affairs? This policy is being revisited as more claims of bullying have emerged but I think this needs to go further to allow all staff access to a complaints blog on the BBC website in which they can air their views on any aspect of BBC business. The only area I would protect would be commercial and personal contract details.

Virtually any statement by a staff member, and certainly articles, columns or letters to the press, can be construed as being against the interests of the BBC. That is clearly ridiculous and, I argue, counter-productive. Did it do the BBC any harm when journalists spoke up about the reports on Jimmy Savile being dropped? This case provides an interesting insight as of course it did do the corporate BBC harm, but it did the public a service and boosted the reputation of the journalists. And in there can be seen the real reason why I think the BBC perseveres with an out-dated rule of omerta on staff. It keeps a lid on discontent and saves managers from public scrutiny. When a former senior staff member wrote to the Scotsman to criticise some aspect the BBC of which he had inside knowledge, an existing news department executive actually asked out loud: “Isn’t that covered by the Official Secrets Act!”

It is in this climate of infallibility that mistakes are made, compounded and repeated. All managements are self-protecting entities, carefully massaging here, neatly sidestepping there and where is the real oversight on the public’s behalf? In the hands of the BBC Trust, of course…an organisation which, even when it finds against the BBC as it regularly does, has no sanction. Who’s afraid of a regime with no penalty to impose?

I argue that the distrust felt by many of the public would be assuaged by hearing directly from staff the difficulties and conflicts that arise in an important public organisation. The first position of every management when trouble arises is denial. They say: There is no problem. That changes to: There is only a small problem. Then: We can deal with it…nothing to worry about. That quickly changes to: Oh shit…Who can we blame!

This culture of internal secrecy extended to obliging staff leaving with redundancy deals after a dispute to sign a condition that they wouldn’t speak out about their experience after they’d left. In my view this is a breach of civil rights of the individual. And of course, it also throws a blanket over the responsibility of the BBC itself.

Internal troublemakers do cause problems but in my experience nearly everybody in the BBC has its best interests at heart. Staff  have no inclination to be vexatious and can offer insights into the day-to-day work of programme-making that no manager can match. Why should any executive feel threatened by having their staff use a forum to give their views freely to the people who pay for the service? How many mistakes in programme changes, scheduling or use of technology could be avoided by publicising the ideas and insights of the staff who make it all work?

The reason they feel threatened I think is lack of confidence. Only people unsure of themselves and unable to deal constructively with criticism shy away from scrutiny and debate. This lack of confidence has been revealed to me on occasions when I inadvertently said “the wrong thing” about the BBC on air. The reaction of two different Heads of News was rapid and robust. Once, when we were wrestling with new technology during a live programme, there were so many screw-ups I decided it was a courtesy to the listeners to explain the truth – that we were fighting the computers which had just been installed to replace paper copy. The then Head of News took me aside and explained that no matter what was happening on air, I was never to imply criticism of BBC management to the listeners. The reputation of management was to be kept sacrosanct while the reputation of broadcasters stumbling on air didn’t matter, and as for the listening public…

I stopped blogging for the BBC when the Head of Radio objected to a post I wrote about the new Saturday Good Morning Scotland. I  wrote that all new programmes make some grandiose claim to fame but we wouldn’t do that. We would, I said, simply do our best with the resources we had and the listener would get our best efforts. It didn’t exactly ring with optimism, I’ll grant you, but to the executives it had the smack of someone disagreeing with management decisions to get rid of the previous programme Newsweek over which there was widespread complaint. I refused to be censored by a manager and declined to re-write my blog. I opted to quit blogging altogether rather than be prevented from expressing my – largely uncontroversial – view by a management afraid of even mild criticism.

The truth is that the BBC talks about transparency and accountability and no doubt as individuals they agree with both. But often the reality simply doesn’t match up. Statements made to staff during the recent round job cuts were not just ill-informed, they were mendacious and designed to mislead. They were the kind of propaganda used in the private sector by managements with no wider public responsibility nor history of respect. The woman who issued them, Lucy Adams, was later accused by MPs of lying when they investigated BBC executives being overpaid in redundancy deals.

How transparent was the pension slush fund operate by and for the BBC executive board? While they cut pensions for 19,000 staff, the senior managers kept an undisclosed pot for themselves and doled themselves top-ups to their already mountainous pensions.

Sometime ago…I don’t know exactly when…something changed in the BBC. It lost the capricious, carefree, mildly incompetent air and the sense that nothing was impossible because we had the will and the skill to make it happen. It became instead centralised, overbearing, intolerant and dictatorial to staff. It stopped trusting its own people and mid-level executives with indeterminate roles found one by bossing programme-makers. Budgets, not content, became king. People were always the most important aspect of the corporation but that gave way to process so that how something was done became more important that what was done. Many of us lost at least some of our pride and it’s astonishing how quickly the oxygen that breathes life into a community of people can be cut off. The latest BBC Scotland staff survey reveals the awful truth.

I don’t buy the critique that the BBC is finished or that the licence fee should be stopped. But I think the existing monolithic structure is finished and the management must be stopped – stopped from treating it like a private company in which they hold all the power like company directors while the staff are discounted. The staff are the lifeblood of the BBC and need to be brought back to the centre of decision-making, not patronised by made-up consultation exercises and chased out the door to make cuts that could have been managed with intelligence rather than brute force. The first step should be to free staff to speak openly about their experience and begin the business of turning around the ethos of the BBC and bring it back into alignment with the society it serves. That is my motivation.

Making it up? Me?

I was just listening to the six o clock news and was gasping in amazement at the brass neck of our betters in Westminster…two news items whose hypocrisy quotient was hitting 100.

First we were told that Brussels believes Britain’s case for mounting a campaign against economic immigrants was in breach of EU rules because no evidence had been produced to justify treating them differently from UK citizens…they don’t come here to take advantage of lax benefits rules and they contribute more in tax than they claim in benefit. The EU has been asking for three years to see evidence of the UK Government’s concern. None is forthcoming. That’s because there is none. Their campaign is race-based and plays to the bigots in the London media and the UKIP gang. But what I loved was the “Who Me?” reaction of the government. “Are you accusing us of making it up,” they asked. Good heavens, no, old boy. Certainly nobody in Scotland could think you ever made it up. Although a Mr Moore, a chartered accountant in the Borders, did say he wondered if it might be possible. You don’t think any member of the UK government has made up stories about Scotland, do you?

They were caught bang to rights lying – yes, lying – in order to treat foreigners as spongers. What a despicable racist crew they are.  And how ironic that the same people bombarding the Scottish Government with demands for answers, are revealed to have none themselves when asked by the EU…


Then we heard how mighty Britain’s stance against free borders in the Schengen Agreement was being compromised because…because free-spending Chinese tourists want in and have money to burn. So the great principle of standing up to those nasty European foreigners who want  free borders – and of course preventing free movement for the Scots who will find England erecting a border after independence – simply evaporates as soon as someone points out there’s some dosh in it.

 Brave Dave does it again…chickens out when the going gets tough or when someone flashes the cash. Principles are clearly for suckers. The message of course is that after a Yes vote the same weakness will be exposed and the brave talk of no defence contracts, no sterling, no friends and no support will collapse at the first wave of a Saltire in his face.

We now know what he learned at Eton…stand up and stand proud – until somebody says Boo then get down on one knee, tug the forelock and put out the begging bowl. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Irish – with their free travel zone in the UK – China – with their American Express card tourists – or the Scots with their independence. Brave Dave may be the Prime Minister of the diminishing UK but his real job is the Master of Bluster

Business as Usual?

The easy option for critics is, by definition, to criticise. Pointing out where it all goes wrong is the privilege of the observer. Actually solving the problem is the preserve of the decision-maker and that is much the harder part of the deal.

So having criticised the BBC for its failings, what would I have done about the referendum if I’d had executive power?

First of all, I would have started by facing up to the reality of Scotland’s position instead of blindly telling myself that nothing important was happening.

Since the SNP won their majority in 2011, the official position of BBC Scotland executives has been that the referendum is just another dot on the map – a key date for sure, like the Commonwealth Games – but nothing requiring special measures. When challenged the management has repeatedly stated the same mantra: It’s business as usual.

Take a moment and think about what that implies. This referendum is the biggest single political event in centuries. It could end the British state. It could lead Scotland to ruin or to prosperity. None of us will ever cast a more important vote for as long as we live. Beyond our shores, there is global interest.

Meanwhile back at Pacific Quay, it is just another mark on the yearly planner graph, a version of the predictable election circus and the next day it will all go back to normal. Business as usual.

I believe that this catastrophic misjudgement has coloured everything that has happened since and has short-changed the Scots who have every right to think that the national broadcaster which takes their money and plays on its central role in public life would ensure that they received the best service possible at a moment of national significance.

I think it also reveals the inner mind of those same executives whose job – and duty – is to represent Scotland and reflect Scotland to the Scots. When major events occur, the big players emerge. Or they’re supposed to. If ever there was a moment for the men and women who are custodians of the BBC to seize the moment this is it.

Planning should have begun as soon as the SNP victory was confirmed. That result should have galvanised the whole of Pacific Quay, not just managers and journalists but all programme-makers from Documentaries to Comedy.

I would have established an all-department group with people throughout BBC Scotland and ask them to discuss with their staff how they wished to approach the issue and how they could input. BBC Scotland is alive with creative talent which mostly operates in silos because that’s how management think. One thing you learn quickly is how much overlap there is between people and programme strands. Just because you work in Childrens doesn’t mean you don’t think about politics.

The second thing would have been my advisory board – a mostly external group whose role would be to monitor BBC output, to propose areas for research and programme-making and look specifically at the referendum issue in terms of fairness and balance. We need to dispose immediately with the idea that the BBC Trust performs effectively a supervisory role. The Trust is a timid and toothless creature usually in awe of the BBC’s respected reputation.

The referendum is a task for a learned group with insight into politics and public life with a firm grasp of what informing and enlightening the public means. I would have them meet every month to review referendum output, suggest areas to be covered, judge the tone and style of output and bring expert scrutiny to the detail of claim and counter claim. I would publish the minutes of their meetings and put online a monthly interview with the chair. There are many potential candidates for inclusion on my board and they could have their own known political views but would undertake to park them in the wider public interest. I have no doubt there would be a queue of those willing to serve in Scotland’s interest. (Tom Devine? Bill Howat?) I also see a role here for international representation and for the public. My board would not have any direct powers over journalists. All the editorial control would remain with BBC News but disagreements and criticisms would be published for all to see.

The other advantage is that it provides a firewall between the programme-makers and the public. It makes it easier to trust what the public are being told and harder for them criticise unfairly, adding to BBC trust.

Third, the BBC should have recalibrated its criteria for balance. Instead of pretending that this wasn’t a “live” issue until the weeks preceding the vote when there is a legal requirement for balance – and simply doing a general rule-of-thumb balance in the years before that – there should have been an immediate decision that all programmes with more than a marginal referendum content would be strictly balanced between Yes and No.  This is tough for the BBC because it makes current affairs shows configure panels for independence when they are discussing a range of other topics. The only way round this is to keep the referendum off the agenda or to allow it to come up in perhaps a single question in a debate programme. Otherwise, all journalistic output should be Yes-No balanced. Remember we all also consume BBC programming from London which makes little if any real attempt at balance, or, from what I see, any real attempt at understanding. In that way we are already subject to a distorted view of independence and union before BBC Scotland even starts to balance output. Just think of Question Time opting for Nigel Farage and George Galloway on a platform with Angus Robertson, the treatment of Nicola Sturgeon on a previous programme and the quasi-racist tirade by panellists on Any Questions. Tightening up Scotland’s editorial balance process would help counteract the anti-Scottish bias in network programming.

Next I would have a detailed and on-going briefing for all journalists but available to all staff. This would give a précis of the issues as they evolve and pinpoint areas of disagreement, showing where each side – and main players therein – are exposed in their thinking. The big questions would be highlighted to keep them before the minds of the newsroom staff with the data pertaining to them alongside. That ensures there is a concentrated focus on the main issues and nobody has an excuse for not being up to date. Journalists cover all sorts of stories and they are not all expert on constitutional detail so this would provide the background and focus they need when working on referendum stories. This process would be uncomfortable for both Yes and No sides as both interviewers and audience become better informed.

I would have immediately established a Referendum Unit to be the cutting edge of BBC coverage. This requires resourcing – now available – and is one reason, along with institutional stasis – that the management refused to start one. I first proposed this soon after the SNP victory and the National Union of Journalists also had it as official policy. It means that in the newsroom there is a hub disseminating and filtering all referendum material, making it the fulcrum of the coverage. The journalists build up an in-depth knowledge that is a resource for all. And I mean all.

How many silly gaffes and lack of understanding by network staff in London could be avoided if their reports and scripts were monitored by a unit with expertise in all referendum coverage? That would be a service for all the BBC and brings with it the prestige of Scotland providing a centre of excellence on the constitutional issue. Its staff would appear across all BBC programming, bringing kudos to BBC Scotland.

I have put this personally to Kenny MacQuarrie and had no positive response. Yet when the new Director General decided there should be a unit and made funds available, MacQuarrie and the BBC hailed it as the right thing. That was shameless and transparent. The unit was thrust upon them by a Director General who took the trouble to meet and talk with a wide range of Scots about their concerns and reached the same conclusion as BBC journalists – that a referendum unit was required. He did BBC Scotland’s job for them.

I have high hopes for the unit now being assembled. I hear good things of the man in charge who seems to have the respect of London bosses and there are already hints he may be put into a higher position after the referendum. If the BBC gets into gear quickly enough, this unit could be a game-changer – for the BBC if not for independence.

Next on my list is perhaps the most obvious all, certainly the most public-facing. It is new programmes. Where are they? Where is the replacement for Newsnight, currently dying on its feet; where the weekly replacement of the phone-in with a referendum programme; where the monthly television documentary slot dealing with all aspects from the referendum process to the experience in other countries; where the on-air satire? The possibilities are mind-blowing to bring intelligent, focussed, polished programming and build up Scotland’s reputation as a current affairs broadcaster. Why didn’t the BBC hire Iain McWhirter instead of Scottish? Why don’t they commission a couple of programmes from Lesley Riddoch, surely the most thoughtful and radically-minded voice on how the debate is a society issue not just an economic and political one? Why didn’t the BBC issue an invitation to the Prime Minister to debate with the First Minister to force the issue and serve the voters of Scotland? Why is it usually the newspapers who get the stories first ? Why isn’t the entire agenda being set by the BBC who could have taken ownership of it and burnished its reputation. Where is the leadership the country deserves?

By now, if they’d grasped the opportunity, BBC Scotland could and should be savouring its greatest hour, proving its worth to all Scots and to their masters in London. Instead it is the subject of relentless complaint – from both sides – while the Scots are left moaning that they are unenlightened and uninformed. The coverage is piecemeal with little sense of planning or continuity so that Glenn Campbell goes to Canada and Raymond Buchanan goes to Copenhagen and the head of news issues a note to staff boasting about the countries covered. That is box-ticking. Why not issue a list of places to go to and people to talk to and give the reasons why so the coverage is coherent and the staff all understand. I don’t know anyone in the newsroom who was even aware that Glenn had gone to Canada which tells you that a small group make decisions when there is a reservoir of talent sitting only feet away – a newsroom full of journalists. In my case, I was sent to make documentaries about the Quebec referendum in the nineties, have written about it – for Edinburgh University – and appeared on television to talk about it. I have direct personal knowledge that could have been tapped but wasn’t.

There is a sense of duty fulfilled about small audience shows with a predictable political panel set, not in a full-scale BBC studio – usually unavailable for Scottish productions as they’re in use for London output – but filmed “on the street” as they call the internal PQ space. There are already tours of Scotland planned by theatrical companies and I hear of one by writer Neal Ascherson but where is the full-time BBC Scotland touring television debate forum travelling the length and breadth of the country bringing us the views of all Scots, no matter how remote, on the future of our country. Is Brian’s Big Debate all there is?

I expect things to pick up during this year and for a sharper more comprehensive coverage to emerge. I think BBC Scotland will rise to the challenge. But there is a lot of recovery needed,  caused not by journalists but by managers fixated on budgets and caught in the headlights as the country changed in front of their eyes. The one thing we can say for certain is: This not Business as Usual.


I worked with the evil Tories

Not long after the referendum was called it struck me that simply resisting the independence project and insisting on a straight Yes or No was a less than intelligent response from Conservatives who were, about the same time, pondering their own raison d’etre following Murdo Fraser’s new party plea.

I wondered if this really was the best they could do, offering a flat No when we knew then – and know now – that the biggest single group of voters favoured enhanced powers in line with the concept of Devo Max.

Here was my thought process. If you are unpopular – a fair assessment of Tory fortunes, I think – and if there is a popular idea to which no one else (as in political party) has laid claim – Devo Max – and if adopting it would secure your main objective – saving the Union – is it not counter-intuitive not to seize it?

In addition, Scotland was/is a problem the Tories are tired of and would like to go away. So what if you offered Salmond and his Nats pretty much what they wanted in return for dropping the referendum?

Consider: No long campaign, no acrimony, little or no objection from England, the funding issue more or less resolved, the end of the West Lothian Question as there would be little need for more than token Scottish representation in the Commons, Tory chances of governing Britain enhanced, Scottish Tories actually doing something popular and getting the reward, the SNP deliver for Scotland with the best deal on powers ever and – God Save the Queen – the Union is saved and Dave’s a hero.

So convinced was I of the compelling logic of my idea – it doesn’t take me long to think I’m right – that I wrote it down in detail and called it grandly, Ahead of the Curve. In my capacity as a private citizen I contacted a leading Tory of my acquaintance and asked him to read it. He in turn showed it to another key figure of the Right and they promptly rejected it as unworkable. But I think they lacked the imagination to see the possibilities, as did Cameron himself when he became Prime Minister. Politicians think in silos and hardly ever break out into the world of rationality even when there are prizes to be won.

I thought Cameron should have seized his moment as soon as Salmond won his majority and instead of shirking back from a world, which to him is alien, should have suggested that two newly-minted leaders should meet. Privately. On their own. After all, it’s what world leaders do. We now know that the fall of Soviet Russia was helped immeasurably by Gorbachev forming personal relationships with Reagan and Thatcher, or, indeed, the case for illegal war was confirmed man to man between Blair and Bush.  In such an environment they can look into the eyes of the other and see what might be.

Supposing, I suggested, that Cameron starts with the idea of independence and works back. He could decide where to draw his red lines – perhaps on defence or personal taxation – and get Salmond’s response. Even within a red line area there could be concessions…for example on defence. Scotland’s forces could remain under British command unless there was to be a foreign incursion with which the Scots disagreed. The Scottish Parliament could be asked to rubber stamp their involvement, giving the approval of the Scots…or not, if illegal, as in Iraq. And that might have helped change London’s mind too.

The options are infinitely variable but the effect would be to give Salmond such a wide-ranging package of powers that Scots could not say No. It could be time-limited so that after 10 years if the experiment didn’t work, there could be a re-integration and if it did work, the Scots could consider their future based on a decade of running their own affairs, from raising their own revenue to social security.

I am told that George Osborne said, when asked what to do about SNP demands: “Give them what they want.” He didn’t really care either way.

For both the Tories and SNP there would be the added bonus of outflanking Labour who would lose their block of MPs at Westminster. The liaison between Edinburgh and London could be done through a revamped Scottish Grand Committee with MSPs from each party working between the two capitals and making sure there was Scottish representation when issues not devolved – probably monetary policy or most foreign affairs – needed Scottish approval. It’s hardly beyond the wit of Britain’s elite to work out a system agreeable to all, is it?

You would then have effective independence – we could even stop flying the Union flag – while the Unionists get to keep their prize of the Union itself and Britain’s global reputation is not only maintained but enhanced as a place where real democratic arrangements apply. And we would avoid years of a campaign with the acrimony that entails.

What’s not to like?

The English zealots can no longer cry Subsidy and Scots get to make virtually all their decisions themselves…real hard political power. And it would be in the interests of both Salmond and Cameron to make it work as they would have joint ownership, reducing the chances of rhetorical hostilities and wilful disruption.

Ah, you say, but Salmond would never do the deal. His party wouldn’t let him. This is the chance of a lifetime, or several and could not be thrown away.

Well, I don’t agree. What most people forget about Alex Salmond is his most enduring quality, and it’s not cockiness or love of a gamble…it’s pragmatism. Almost alone among his generation of Nationalists, his vision has been tempered not by emotion but by a logic that says Never get too far ahead of the people. He reads them better than any other politician and it helps explain his enduring success. It isn’t caution as such, but rather it’s a gift from the gods in the world of politics.

He would simply have told the party that this time of austerity is not the right moment for a referendum and since he had secured virtually everything short of independence, it was right to settle and focus on improving life for the Scots. To the doubters he would simply have pointed at the opinion polls and told them he was serving the majority. It is his duty to serve all Scots after all.

Only this week I had what amounted to gilt-edged confirmation that Salmond would have talked the talk on such a deal from someone who really does know.

Alex Salmond does want Scotland to be independent but his way has always been to climb one grip, one foothold at a time and more than anything he wants what is best for the Scots, even if that does fall short of the ultimate aim.

Now I want independence and believe in it deeply but the bedrock of my politics is that I am a democrat. I actually don’t want independence if the majority don’t agree because it is such a big project that we will need every Scot behind it with no room for spectators. I think there is a real possibility that there will be a Yes vote built not on true belief in independence but swelled by those who only want more powers, denied them by a rigged one-question referendum.

And just imagine if that happens, what a fool Cameron will look when all the time the gift of success and retention of the Union lay in his grasp.