Brian Monteith: I’m hung up on Alex’s odd call

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The close and secretive relationship that Alex Salmond enjoys with Rupert Murdoch continues to dog the First Minister – and it is going to hang around like a bad smell for quite a time yet.

When asked questions about hacking by News International of his own phone, or more generally of others in Scotland, the First Minister has retreated behind a barricade erected in, of all places, London.

We now know that the investigation into phone hacking by Strathclyde Police believes that various politicians have had their voicemail messages listened to as a journalistic ploy to find out private communications and that the former First Minister, Jack McConnell, and Alex Salmond’s parliamentary aide, Joan McAlpine MSP, are believed to have been victims.

When asked if he had suffered the same indignity and breach of privacy the First Minister would not say – but instead announced he would give an answer when he is called before the Leveson inquiry, in London, later in June. For such an effusive politician such taciturnity only serves to fuel suspicions that the First Minister has something to hide or does not wish to embarrass Rupert Murdoch.

When asked if Scotland should have its own parliamentary inquiry into the phone-hacking affair the First Minister would not agree – citing the need for the Strathclyde Police investigation to be conducted alone without being encumbered by what a parliament might do. “You’ll have had your tea” might as well of been his response.

The First Minister’s defence is disingenuous to say the least for in London there is not just one inquiry but three, and all have had a role to play.

The Metropolitan Police investigation is into criminal behaviour while the Leveson inquiry is into press standards – but it should be remembered that both only came about because of the House of Commons culture committee’s inquiry began to extract conflicting evidence from News International testimonies and records.

For a politician who argues so strongly for the sovereignty of the Scottish Parliament to suggest we are not in need of such scrutiny and should leave it to London looks decidedly odd.

Why ensure the issue will last until at least June? We will have to wait and see, but at the very least the perception that Alex Salmond and the SNP are no different from other politicians or other parties – always looking to their own interests rather than those they say they defend – can only gain ground.

Making it count

Yesterday the local elections were held across Scotland and they were long overdue. The recent practice of holding these ballots at the same time as the elections for Holyrood has only ensured that the voters have thought more about national issues than what matters locally – not least because it has been so difficult to hear what the local issues were as the big guns took up most of the airtime or column inches.

The benefit of a higher turnout was thus neutralised and, coupled with so many different voting systems being used on the same day, voter confusion was there to be seen through the greater number of spoilt papers.

While national sympathies will always play a part, Edinburgh (or Glasgow for that matter) will only get the city council it deserves and it is vital that the performance of the local politicians is rewarded or punished depending on what peoples’ priorities are. A low turnout was expected but this should not deflect those who believe in local democracy in continuing to argue for council elections being held in a different year from the parliamentary process.

The real reason that people turn out to vote is when they conclude that their vote matters AND that it can make a difference to their lives.

With single transferable vote, imperfect though the system is, an elector’s vote carries more weight because it can be transferred to another candidate if their first choice is eliminated. This means that there are fewer marginal seats (or areas) and that more voters should feel their vote counts.

This will not be enough to make voters feel they can have an impact on what matters to them – to achieve this we also need to change the way local councils are financed so that they raise far more, preferably the majority, of what they spend.

Once the electorate see the true cost of local government rather than the centrally subsidised cost (and now the centrally frozen cost) there will be greater incentive for electors to go to the polling station and make a choice.

The poll tax was undoubtedly unpopular in Scotland, not least because many people who had never paid for the local services they received had to make a contribution for the first time in their lives (a minimum of 20 percent of the flat tax rate). Aware of the cost (and keen to bring it down) the turnout in many areas increased.

Rebalancing national and local taxes so that the former are reduced and the latter increased would give our councils greater importance and bring the voters back out to have their say.