Edinburgh tram extension is no Brexit insurance policy – John McLellan

Edinburgh has entered into an open-ended spending commitment over tram extension (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
Edinburgh has entered into an open-ended spending commitment over tram extension (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
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Some Edinburgh councillors appear to think three miles of tram tracks will be some kind of insurance policy against the vagaries of international relations, writes John McLellan.

The ongoing Brexit debacle infects everything, even popping up in Thursday’s debate at Edinburgh Council prior to the foregone conclusion of approving the tram line completion to Newhaven; something about the service being essential to “future-proofing” the city against the economic disaster which will surely befall the city.

It would be a fool who would predict that all the issues about Britain’s relationship with Europe will be resolved by Spring 2023, the latest date for the introduction of the new service, but even for supporters of the £207m project it is surely fanciful to claim that three miles of track is somehow an insurance policy against the worst vagaries of international relations.

But we are, as they say, where we are. Brexit is in the hands of 650 people in Westminster, each seemingly with their own agenda which the Government has been powerless to control, but 36 people in the City Chambers have decided the tram completion should go ahead no matter what it costs or how long it takes.

READ MORE: Edinburgh trams: Councillors approve controversial £207m tram extension

Much was made on Thursday about how robust and reliable the new contracts will be, using standard industry approaches which will avoid the disputes which caused so much difficulty last time around. That is true, but clarity of agreement and the avoidance of dispute is not a guarantee that costs will not rise once the unknowns become known as Leith’s mediaeval streets and Georgian harbour are excavated.

This will not matter because when the work starts on Leith Walk again a second halt is inconceivable even if major problems arise, as they inevitably will. Nothing from the city administration’s arguments on Thursday suggested that cost was in any way a consideration which could override the wider goals it has set itself and the contractors know this. It is the council’s equivalent of removing ‘no deal’ from any future negotiations about cost over-runs.

And as the council enters into an open-ended spending commitment, another hoped-for source of income is disappearing over the horizon. Speaking at the Scottish Tourism Alliance conference, Culture and Tourism Secretary Fiona Hyslop described the sector as “fragile”, citing Brexit uncertainty and making it clear the Scottish Government will take its time to consult on the tourism tax that Edinburgh hopes to introduce.

READ MORE: Edinburgh tram extension: arguments for and against

“The requirement to consider legislation means that there will be no tourism tax levied in 2019 or indeed 2020 season, as consultation, legislation and indeed implementation if any council wants to introduce a tax, will take some time,” she said.

It might not be much of a punt, but I’ll put my money on Brexit happening long before the Newhaven tram or the tourist tax.

Who knew what about sex abuse?

As a cub reporter on the now defunct Chester Observer, I spoke to the late MP Sir Peter Morrison a couple of times, always on the phone and usually when he was in the back of an official car somewhere in Westminster. The calls always finished off with a cheery “We must meet up when I’m back in Chester”, which in the office was greeted with a nudge-nudge because rumours about his sexual preferences were widespread.

The paper folded in 1989, three years after I left, but this week it has resurfaced in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse with a new allegation that reporters on the paper and the other two serving the city covered up allegations of child sex abuse against him, particularly an incident involving a 15-year-old boy in the toilets of Crewe Station sometime in the late 80s.

As with so many historic abuse allegations, getting to the truth about the actions of people who are dead is not easy, and similarly allegations that journalists colluded in a cover-up will be equally hard to establish because again so many of them, on the Observer at least, are also dead.

Former MP Christine Russell, who was one of my best contacts, told the inquiry that “every reporter on the local press knew of these allegations” and I don’t doubt that is true. The inquiry has heard about the close relationship between the Observer and the local Conservative Party but the chief reporter’s closest relationship was with the Liberals. She passed away some years ago but her best contact, Lib Dem peer Andrew Stunnell who fought two general elections against Morrison, might be able to shed light on what she had heard.

Hearing and proving are two different things

Not that the Lib Dems need to get embroiled in any more allegations of sex abuse cover-ups, but the suspension of Lord Steel from the party over claims he was involved in burying accusations abuse against Sir Cyril Smith is a sad but inevitable consequence of the need not just for thorough investigation, but of the need to demonstrate that no matter how long ago these incidents may have occurred the organisations themselves have changed.

The unacceptable way allegations against Smith, Morrison and, of course, Jimmy Savile were handled by the authorities were very much signs of their times. But, then as now, for journalists it’s all very well hearing about something, but having enough proof to withstand a defamation action is another thing entirely.

Calling ****s over Scotland names

The Nationalist “Wings over Scotland” blogger Stuart Campbell is currently suing former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale for defamation and is seeking £25,000 damages because she used her Daily Record column to describe a message he posted on social media about Scotland Secretary David Mundell and his son Oliver as “homophobic”.

Mr Campbell is known for his strident social media posts about Unionists and Unionism during the Yes campaign which, according to its digital chief Stewart Kirkpatrick, were unhelpful.

Mr Kirkpatrick, the former editor of Scotsman.com, said: “Are we talking about the Wings over Scotland who is the data-driven journalist, who gets to the annoying nugget and writes a piece around it and can’t be argued with? Or is it the guy who refers to Tory politicians as troughing scum and goes on expletive-littered rants on Twitter? This guy was very helpful, this guy really wasn’t.”

In response, Mr Campbell said: “All we did was occasionally call each other some names on Twitter. The idea that Scottish people are shocked by a few swear-words is laughable.”