Lessons from Scotland for David Norris

Not for the first time, David Norris’ campaign for the Presidency of Ireland is having to pull itself out of the fire – only this time he has to do it with a half-empty office. Though his campaign managed to substantially claw-back ground over the summer the events of this weekend have left David Norris’ candidacy in tatters.

After it emerged that in 1997 Norris used his position as one of Trinity College’s members of Seanad Éireann to write a character reference for a former lover who was facing sentence in Israel for the rape of a 15-year-old, the Senator finds himself without a director of communications, a director of elections, a youth organiser, a social media manager, and many others. My own experience of elections puts the end of the Norris campaign down to two factors: firstly, Senator Norris’ political judgement; and secondly, the difficulties faced by Independent candidates and representatives more generally.

From a political perspective the first makes for better headlines but is, arguably, easier to overcome. During my time at the Scottish Parliament the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was hauled before the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament to explain her decision to write a character reference for a constituent, on trial for benefit fraud, about whose character she had failed to make even the most basic inquiries (unluckily for Ms. Sturgeon he, in fact, had a previous conviction for benefit fraud). These incidents highlight the follies of legislators interfering with the judicial process.

As was rightly pointed out during the Sturgeon debacle it is not entirely uncommon for elected members to write character references for constituents who are facing sentence. However those who are going to do so should be wary of two potential traps:

  1. That you are absolutely certain of the good character to which you are attesting;
  2. That in writing such a letter you are free from potential accusations of nepotism or favouritism, and that such a letter is one which you would write for any constituent in the same situation.

Nicola Sturgeon fell foul of the former of these two traps; David Norris has fallen foul of the latter.

However more generally David Norris’ campaign has always been far more susceptible to falling into such obvious political traps because of the difficulties faced by independent candidates recruiting the very-best in political staff. Representatives from the political parties can usually draw from a very large, very broad pool of talent who’ve been wedded to your cause for years. I used to see the piles of CVs MSPs would have to sift-through when recruiting a Parliamentary aide. Often candidates with years of political knowledge and experience wouldn’t even make the long-list. Conversely, a dear friend of mine from one of the smaller parties regularly speaks of how difficult it is to recruit staff with experience of ‘the political machine’.

If small parties and independents want to recruit staffers with any campaign experience then that often means experience of single-issue campaigns, causes or charities, the private sector, or student politics. While all of these bring unique and valuable experience (and often larger parties would do well to remember that) it doesn’t quite compare to the experience that can be gained through the mainstream of the political parties.

And do not underestimate the importance of political staff. Despite being on a fraction of the salary of their political masters they’re often far more attuned to the political ether. Many have more experience in politics than their employers. Your staff can keep you focussed on your political goals; and rein you in when you’re getting carried-away. They’ll help you spot potential traps ahead, and anticipate the questions you never thought might be asked. These skills can only be acquired through having been weather-beaten by the party political machine. This is the real difficulty faced by independent candidates.

Local Government in Scotland: Initial thoughts on the case for reform

I’ve recently undertaken some research into the structure of Scottish Local Government. This research should, in the fullness of time, culminate in a paper in which I will make the case for reorganising Scotland’s Local Authorities however as I know readers of this blog will be squirming in anticipation of such a paper I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on these matters as I conduct my research.

The present structure of Scotland’s Councils was introduced by the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. 29 Unitary Authorities replaced nine Regional and 49 District Councils on the mainland – the three Unitary Island Authorities remained largely unchanged. The provision of Police and Fire & Rescue services was handed over to Joint Boards based roughly along the old Regional boundaries, and authority over Trunk Roads was passed upwards to the Scottish Office (and now the Scottish Executive).

These authorities range in size and population. Clackmannanshire’s population is less than 10% that of Glasgow City’s: 50,540 to 588,470. While Highland Council covers an area of 25,659km2 Dundee City covers a mere 60km2. While some authority boundaries (such as Fife) pay considerable regard to historic county boundaries others (such as East Dunbartonshire) do not.

Given that the existing local government structure in Scotland was introduced in the dying days of a Conservative Government, and opposed by the majority of Scottish MPs, Councillors and voters – why hasn’t anyone tried to reform it

After all, it’s not like reform of public services and local government haven’t been on the agenda at all. The Liberal Democrats demanded and won Single Transferrable Vote for Council elections as the price of a second coalition with Labour. The Scottish Government have piloted direct-elections to Health Boards. All three major parties in Holyrood support the merging of Scotland’s police into a single force. Meanwhile neighbouring Councils are moving towards sharing service provision as a means of generating efficiencies.  It seems incredible that despite these reforms the question of the structural reform of local government hasn’t been asked.

I intend, therefore, for my research into local government to extend beyond simply councils. I intend to consider Policing and Fire & Rescue Services, which were once provided by local authorities, as well as Health Boards, Local Enterprise Companies, Transport Partnerships, and Valuation Boards all of who play key roles in the government of and provision of public services to Scotland yet are subject to fairly light democratic oversight.

Reform will not come easily though.  With the prevailing political wind in local government moving in the same direction as Holyrood the SNP, who once might have been tempted to consider reform aren’t now going to dismantle a system of local government that has seen them emerge as the largest party for the first time in history and still looking to make huge gains. Meanwhile Councillors aren’t in any great hurry to run transport, police, or fire and rescue services as part of their elected council role when they can top-up their salaries with appointments to outside boards.

While it is my intention to demonstrate that reform is necessary, it is not my intention to demonstrate how these reforms might be achieved. I’ll leave that to the politicians…


Hullo and welcome to my new blog. I’m sure most readers will remember me from my brief and spectacularly unsuccessful spell as a Parliamentary Candidate. However I’ve since left the political sphere behind in favour of the wonderful world of academia.

I’m just starting my PhD in the Faculty of Law at Trinity College, University of Dublin. The interim title of my thesis is “What are the inadequacies of Articles 5, 7 & 12 of the OECD Model Convention with Respect to Taxes on Income and Capital in an e-Commerce enabled world?” – I may have to find something snappier.

During the course of my study I hope to analyze our system of global taxation and what we broadly want it to achieve. I will then consider three key elements of international taxation: the taxation of business profits; the taxation of royalties; and the principle of ‘permanent establishment’. I hope to consider the concepts of constitutional and fiscal sovereignty and how they apply to the internet, how to equitably tax business profits and royalties derived from intellectual property with no fixed location, and how to use the global economic system in order to bring about reforms.

I hope to use this blog for three purposes:

  • to share my research into the fields of Taxation, Trade and Constitutional Law;
  • to allow me to condense my thoughts on individual aspects of a broader study;
  • to generate feedback and discussion.

This isn’t a partisan blog in any way. I’m still a socialist, and a member of the Labour Party, but I’m no longer a political animal. As for the Twitter thing I regret that deeply. I’m very sorry for any offence I caused to anyone, and I’m very sorry to all of the people whom I let down. I’m hoping to put that life behind me and move on – and this blog is part of that – so don’t expect me to as *ahem* forthright with my views as I once was.