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EDITIONS
 Monday, 30 December, 2002, 14:13 GMT
Politics in review: October to December
Graphic

A bookmaker would have given astronomical odds on the prospect of a Canadian province being dragged into the battle ground of Scottish politics in 2002.

But that is exactly what happened at the beginning of October when comments from the first minister irked officials from Quebec.

The dispute began after Jack McConnell said the province was an example of how constitutional uncertainty through the pursuit of independence could damage an economy.

His comments at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool prompted a letter from the London-based agent general of the Quebecois - the ruling party in the province - dismissing the claims and seeking a meeting with Mr McConnell.

Scots Tory leader David McLetchie said he would be willing to work with Labour if it meant the improvement of public services

The first minister and his closest party allies played down the incident but enough damage was done for opposition parties to claim that he had blundered badly.

One sign of an olive branch came days later in the unlikely form of the Scottish Conservatives.

While preparing for the UK party's annual conference Scots leader David McLetchie said he would be willing to work with Labour if it meant the improvement of public services.

He rejected claims that the Tories would seek a coalition after the Holyrood elections in May 2003 but told BBC Scotland that any demise of the Liberal Democrats could give the Tories a chance to effect change.

There was no change however in the ongoing saga of the new Scottish Parliament building.

By 8 October the director of the Holyrood project, Sarah Davidson, told MSPs that the showpiece building may not be finished on time due to the installation of bomb-proofing.

Cathy Jamieson
Cathy Jamieson: Education debate
The work, which MSPs were told was necessary to guard against terrorist attacks, was also blamed for the cost of the project breaking through the 300m barrier.

One day later, Education Minister Cathy Jamieson finally announced the result of her much publicised "great education debate" in Scotland.

She said the public consultation had produced overwhelming support for the comprehensive system.

The SNP used the results to highlight the need for smaller class sizes while the Tories pointed out that this was somewhat at odds with the direction being taken by the Prime Minister in England and Wales.

This and many other political stories slipped from the headlines quickly during October as a raft of allegations surfaced about the accounts of the first minister's constituency Labour Party in Motherwell and Wishaw.

Suspicions were originally raised about an 11,000 "black hole" in the accounts of the local party when a member who acted as auditor expressed concerns about the standard of book-keeping.

Days after the story broke Mr McConnell welcomed the party's inquiry, no doubt conscious that it was important to appear open and accountable

Labour was quick to emphasise that neither Mr McConnell, MSP for the area, nor Frank Roy, its MP, were signatories to the accounts or involved.

The party also launched a full investigation and promised to involve the police if any evidence of misappropriation was discovered.

What unfolded in the weeks ahead bore a slight resemblance to the "Officegate" affair which undid the then first minister Henry McLeish.

The similarity stemmed from the way in which new allegations began to surface, forcing Mr McConnell to take ever more vigorous defensive action.

But that was the only similarity. In all other respects, no public money was involved, the amounts being quoted were very small compared with Mr McLeish's "muddle" and crucially, Mr McConnell did not stand still while controversy engulfed him.

Days after the story broke he welcomed the party's inquiry, no doubt conscious that it was important to appear open and accountable.

McConnell office
Local difficulty for Jack McConnell
But by 11 October the first minister was pushed on to the back foot again when The Sun newspaper said that he was asked to explain why his constituency party's development fund was used to meet hotel bills.

Mr McConnell denied accusations that he misled parliament over the accounts controversy and said he contacted Labour officials three months ago to register his concerns.

But opposition parties would not let go of newspaper reports which alleged that the first minister was questioned by Labour seven months ago.

Three days later Mr McConnell came out fighting again and accused his political rivals and others of trying to "smear him without foundation".

The claim was made in letters exchanged between Mr McConnell and the party's general secretary Lesley Quinn.

They were published in an attempt to draw a line under the affair but opposition parties and newspapers refused to accept the explanation.

By 15 October there was more embarrassment for the first minister when it emerged that his local party had broken the law by failing to declare union donations.

John Swinney
John Swinney called for an inquiry
Mr McConnell described the revelation as "shocking" and said he "will always put the law before the Labour Party".

The SNP claimed the first minister's reputation was "in tatters" and party leader John Swinney urged the Electoral Commission to investigate all donations made to the Motherwell and Wishaw Labour party.

By 18 October events were deepening. The Scottish Labour Party told BBC Scotland that it had begun an investigation into all of its constituency parties after it emerged that a second constituency party failed to fully declare cash it received from trade unions.

Two days later the number of local Labour parties alleged to have broken rules governing political donations had risen to five.

By 21 October independent auditors were assisting Labour officials in the scrutiny of the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency accounts in a bid to calm the furore.

The issue rumbled on for several weeks until some good news emerged for Mr McConnell that an official party probe concluded that he and local MP Frank Roy did nothing wrong.

It was short-lived however. On 21 November the first minister was accused of obstructing inquiries into his local party's accounts.

There is no doubt that such an affair tarnishes reputations and the real after-effects may only be felt when Scottish voters go to the polls in 2003

Voluntary auditors submitted a dossier of complaints to local party officials in Motherwell and Wishaw claiming that Mr McConnell promised receipts and explanations for expenditure - then failed to deliver.

They also said he was unwilling to divulge information and talked of "a culture of secrecy".

As expected Mr McConnell reacted furiously and said he would not be deflected from his priorities by political enemies - "internal or external".

Opposition parties screamed "whitewash" and claimed that the fist minister was the "culprit" and not the victim in the whole affair.

After the dust settled where did it leave Mr McConnell? The answer, simply put, is still in office.

Despite a furious onslaught by opponents he managed to do what his predecessor did not.

That is not to say he has escaped entirely unscathed. There is no doubt that such an affair tarnishes reputations and the real after-effects may only be felt when Scottish voters go to the polls in 2003.

Richard Simpson
Richard Simpson: Fire strike casualty
So, what else happened in the remainder of 2002? Well, plans to celebrate the Union of the Crowns in an effort to attract tourists to Scotland caused controversy.

Jack McConnell, said he wanted to mark the 400th anniversary but political opponents complained because it falls just a few weeks before the Scottish Parliament elections.

The Tories said he left it too late, while the SNP accused him of promoting a unionist agenda prior to voting.

When the firefighters dispute finally resulted in strikes most presumed that most if not all of the backbiting would be conducted at UK level.

But it was to everyone's surprise in November when a Scottish MSP became the first political casualty of the dispute.

The fuse was lit by an article in the Scotland and Sunday newspaper which alleged that a Scottish minister had used the words "fascists" and "bastards" to describe the firefighters in the context of their dispute.

With the year drawing to a close one issue on everyone's lips seemed to be sectarian hatred

Although no-one was named by the newspaper Deputy Justice Minister Dr Richard Simpson appeared to put himself in the frame during an interview on BBC Radio Scotland the following day.

When the newspaper stood by its story Dr Simpson was summoned to talks with the first minister after which it was announced that he had quit.

He subsequently admitted using the words when discussing the dispute but insisted he was only repeating what was being said by the public.

Opposition parties then demanded the head of another minister when she apparently failed to endorse the executive's line that the firefighters dispute was "unacceptable".

During two BBC interviews the Education Minister Cathy Jamieson held back from endorsing the stance, prompting allegations that she had broken ranks with her colleagues.

In the end she kept her job after Mr McConnell described the charges against her as "typical of the personality rubbish we get in Scottish politics".

Holyrood site
The Holyrood project's cost is a concern
Nevertheless, it was a timely reminder that in politics, what you don't say can sometimes be as costly as what you do.

With the year drawing to a close one issue on everyone's lips seemed to be sectarian hatred.

Scotland's Justice Minister Jim Wallace warned that tough legislation could be introduced to combat sectarianism and said the kind of trouble witnessed after the Old Firm derby would not be tolerated in a modern Scotland.

The issue snowballed and by 5 December MSPs on the cross-party working group on religious hatred were recommending a package of measures to stamp out sectarianism.

The group's proposals, which are now out for public consultation, include legislation to enable stiffer penalties for sectarian crimes and a greater compulsion on clubs to root out and take action against bigoted fans.

Collectively the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition has suffered enough mishaps in the past four years to at least expect a bloody nose at the polls

The fate of Scotland's fishermen was also very much on the agenda, with the fleet facing massive cuts in catches and the executive under pressure to agree a large aid package.

As we round off the final quarter of 2002, it would be remiss not to touch, yet again, on the trials and tribulations of the Holyrood project.

Scotland's new parliament building may yet turn out to be an architectural jewel which continues to dazzle in a future where its cost has been long forgotten.

But for the moment it remains mired in spiralling costs, missed deadlines and collective bouts of political hand wringing.

In late November, a decision to sanction a 400,000 budget for the opening ceremony 'sometime in the future' came under fire from opposition parties who viewed it as a celebration of failure.

Even the first minister peered out from behind his fingers when he labelled the project as the "single biggest disappointment in devolution" and responsible for "widespread disillusionment" across Scotland.

It was rather appropriate therefore when it was announced on Friday 13 December that the overall cost of the building had risen by another 16m.

Current estimates about the overall bill range from 325m upwards. It really is anyone's guess what the final figure will be.

What is certain is that opposition parties will try to make this one count in the 2003 elections...along with waiting lists, class sizes, fishing, transport, crime...

Collectively the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition has suffered enough mishaps in the past four years to at least expect a bloody nose at the polls.

Whether the opposition parties have the strength to connect is another issue. If they do, Jack McConnell's days in charge will be numbered.

If they don't, then John Swinney and David McLetchie may be the ones who are left with no other option but to pursue "other interests".

See also:

29 Dec 02 | Scotland
27 Dec 02 | Scotland
26 Dec 02 | Scotland
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