UK labour militancy & public order

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Wed Nov 27 03:21:35 MST 2002


Minister in 'fascist' fire row resigns
ROBBIE DINWOODIE and DEBORAH SUMMERS
The Herald, 27 November 2002

THE fire strike claimed its first political scalp last night when Dr Richard
Simpson, Scotland's deputy justice minister, was forced to quit over claims
that he had described strikers as "fascist bastards".

Dr Simpson had emphatically denied telling a political journalist: "We must
not give in to bastards. These people aren't socialists, they're
protectionists, they're fascists, the kind of people who supported
Mussolini."

Instead, the deputy minister claimed he had used the words but that he had
simply been quoting a member of the public.

The resignation came on a day of political drama in the fire strike, as the
government raised the stakes by suggesting 10,000 jobs could be cut from the
service.

An executive spokesman repeated Dr Simpson's explanation yesterday morning,
saying the deputy minister had "at no time" spoken to the reporter and had
the full backing of Jack McConnell, the first minister.

However, after the journalist refused to withdraw his version of events, Dr
Simpson was forced to admit yesterday afternoon he "could not recall"
whether the conversation had taken place and the first minister swiftly
accepted his resignation "with deep regret".

In his resignation letter, Dr Simpson said he was going because he did not
want to add in any way to the difficulty in resolving the fire dispute.

An executive spokeswoman said the first minister had initially been told
that no conversation with a journalist containing the disputed remarks had
taken place.

"However, he (Dr Simpson) has since told the first minister he can't
recollect that conversation. This raises an element of doubt which the first
minister is not prepared to accept."

Dr Simpson will be succeeded as deputy justice minister by Hugh Henry -
described by Mr McConnell as "a very experienced politician".

Tommy Sheridan, of the Scottish Socialist party, who had been the first MSP
to call for Dr Simpson's sacking, said: "No-one who made remarks like him
should be allowed to be in office."

John Swinney, the SNP leader, said: "Until lunchtime, Jack McConnell was
willing to back a man who used deeply offensive language to describe men and
women who risk their lives every day on our behalf.

"He should have instigated an investigation into which minister made this
appalling remark. Instead, he was party to a classic Labour cover-up."

John McDonald, Fire Brigades Union executive council member, said: "His
remarks were disgraceful. It was not worthy of a government minister to
refer to firefighters in such a derogatory manner."

With teachers and local authority workers also on strike in London for
higher pay, John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, made it clear the
government would not accept inflationary pay demands without a link to
modernisation.

He told the Commons that up to 20% of the fire service was retiring early
during the next two to three years and this provided "ample opportunity" to
discuss "more efficient utilisation of labour".

-----

How dinner date sealed minister's fate
ROBBIE DINWOODIE
The Herald, 27 November 2002

WHEN Richard Simpson, the deputy justice minister and public face of the
executive's stance against the fire strike, adjusted his cummerbund for a
business dinner last week, he could have had no idea that he was sealing his
ministerial fate.

The dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Glasgow on Thursday was one of those
routine black tie functions which are staple fare in any senior politician's
civic week.

On the menu was lamb in a kidney gravy, but Dr Simpson was to be skewered by
someone who was going for the vegetarian spring rolls.

The minister bumped into a political journalist from a Sunday newspaper in
the bar after the meal.

Jason Allardyce, of Scotland on Sunday, known among his colleagues in the
political press corps to be a vegan, joked about the lateness of the hour
and the fact that Dr Simpson would be up early in the morning to run the
executive's response to the fire strike.

It was at this point that Dr Simpson's anger with the firefighters boiled up
and bubbled over.

"We must not give in to bastards," he said. "These people aren't socialists,
they're protectionists, they're fascists -- the kind of people who supported
Mussolini."

Abiding by the Sunday newspaper code that a comment made in the absence of
visible notebooks or tape-recorders should be treated as usable but
unattributable, his paper chose to bury the comments well down the story on
Sunday without Dr Simpson being named.

But by Monday, some people were beginning to jump up and down about it. The
SNP's Tricia Marwick was beginning to wax indignant, as was Tommy Sheridan
of the SSP.

It even came up in discussions between ministers, some of whom asked who on
earth had made such stupid comments.

It was at that point that Dr Simpson, the former consultant psychiatrist and
general practitioner who won the Ochil seat for Labour after a very short
time in the party, owned up. But, fatally for his ministerial career, he
insisted it was all a mistake on the part of the newspaper.

In an interview with BBC Radio Scotland, his comments, he insisted, had
related to the content of hoax and nuisance calls, remarks which he
personally deprecated.

He said: "What I was saying was that there were nuisance calls, members of
the public talking in these terms, and I was merely repeating it.

"Now, that's a matter where I probably shouldn't have repeated it, but
nevertheless I would absolutely condemn that language.

"I do not believe it. I do not believe that firefighters are fascists."

He added: "I think what's important here is that we should say to members of
the public who are phoning in on nuisance calls, who are making these
inflammatory statements, that this is not helpful in the situation.

"Equally I probably shouldn't have talked about it, but it is not a direct
quote from me, it is a quote from somebody else that was I talking about."

Asked if people would believe his explanation, he replied curtly: "Well
they'd better - it's the truth."

At an 11am briefing to journalists, the executive's official spokesman
continued to hold the line and insisted that Dr Simpson had "never spoken"
to the newspaper.

"At no time has a Scottish minister described firefighters as fascist
bastards", the spokesman insisted.

"He has the full confidence of the first minister, who believes Richard
Simpson is doing an excellent job."

However, now it was the journalists' turn to strike back. John McLellan,
Scotland on Sunday's editor, was determined to protect the reputation of his
newspaper.

His defence of his journalist's conduct was robust - and damning for Dr
Simpson.

Mr McLellan said: "I would like to make it clear that Dr Simpson did, in
fact, speak to our political editor Jason Allardyce at the Scottish Business
in the Community dinner at the Glasgow Hilton Hotel last Thursday, at which
time he made the comments as reported in our newspaper on Sunday.

"Dr Simpson did not claim to be quoting a third person and he in no way
distanced himself from the comments. Further, we have independent witnesses
to the conversation who confirm that our story was a fair and accurate
report of Dr Simpson's views.

"To infer that we have in any way fabricated this story is an unwarranted
attack on this newspaper's integrity and it is my belief that the public are
now being seriously misled by the Scottish Executive on this matter.

"Ordinarily, we would wait for our next edition to keep readers informed of
the truth, but I cannot allow Scotland on Sunday to be falsely accused for
the remainder of the week.

"I suggest that Dr Simpson reconsider his version of events at what was a
well-attended dinner."

Now it was not only Dr Simpson's reputation on the line but that of the
executive as well.

One of Jack McConnell's first acts as first minister was to scrap
spin-doctors and political appointees, replacing them with official civil
servants. If that civil servant was not telling the truth to reporters at
their regular briefings it ruined the entire system.

There was a hasty conversation between Mr McConnell and Dr Simpson by
telephone. Crucially, Dr Simpson now said he could not recollect the
conversation at the dinner.

His earlier defence was in tatters. Executive sources said Dr Simpson
offered to resign without prompting.

By 4pm, the normal journalists' briefing was put back half- an-hour as
rumours of Dr Simpson's resignation began to circulate.

Eight hours after his radio interview - and one day short of his first
anniversary in the job of deputy justice minister - a different executive
spokesman announced Dr Simpson's resignation.





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