29 July 2005

Beer and pizza

The Independent reports on a major rift between Italy and Germany on a guide to good behaviour on the beach:
"The guide has been issued by the Italian Union of Bathing Establishments (SIB). It consists of a series of "suggestions" for good behaviour on beaches, some of which critics allege are targeted at northern European holiday habits.
As well as nudity and drinking, the tourists' habit of hanging clothes from seaside umbrellas is also frowned upon. Yesterday's Bild claimed that the Italian authorities "want to ruin our holidays" by banning German tourists from such practices.
A war of words erupted as the La Stampa of Turin newspaper attacked Bild for "stigmatising the Italian summer", by claiming there are so many rules banning activities on Italian beaches that "Germans are unable to enjoy themselves".
Bild claimed it was bewildering for northern visitors to Italy to be faced with bans such as playing football, eating noisily, drying swimming costumes and changing outside cabins.
The anti-beer drinking sentiment in the guide, La Stampa observed, "is a heresy for Germans, not unlike outlawing pizza in Italy"."

Hmm. No mention of towels on deckchairs.

28 July 2005

Telling the truth

The Spectator sums up some problems from last weekend:
"Much less understandable was the flagrantly mendacious briefing about the shooting of Mr Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician. The streets of London are still dotted with out-of-date hoardings announcing that a bomber was shot on the Tube, when he was of course nothing of the kind. For 24 hours after they shot an innocent man seven times in the head, the ‘security services’ continued to tell journalists that he was ‘directly linked’ to anti-terror operations. Why? Why not just tell us the truth, that they weren’t sure what they had done, or whom they had shot? Why not just keep silent until all the facts could be established? The Prime Minister has excused the officers’ actions by asking us to imagine the difficulties in making a ‘split-second’ decision. But the police did not have a split second to deal with Mr Menezes; they had followed him for two miles. Why, if they suspected he was a suicide bomber, did they allow him to board a bus to get to Stockwell station? Why did they not block the entrance to the station instead of allowing him to vault the ticket barrier and reach a train? But that was not the end to the government’s willingness to dissimulate. On Monday the BBC reported — apparently quoting ‘security sources’ — that Mr Menezes had been an illegal immigrant. Even if this claim had not turned out to be wrong, it would be quite obnoxious for this to be presented as a kind of excuse for the shooting. We do not have the death penalty in Britain even for murder, let alone for allegedly overstaying a student visa."

And the further problem is what do we believe when the Metropolitan Commissioner or the Prime Minister next gives us assurances.

27 July 2005

Government - a growth industry

The Scotsman reports Tory criticisms of the size of the Executive:

"According to official figures, obtained by the Tories in parliamentary answers, the number of Executive staff increased from 3,336 in 1999 to 4,410 this year, while the number of media staff grew from 30 in 1997 to 91 in 2004. The answers from ministers also showed that the salaries, National Insurance and pension costs for special advisers - political appointments who are temporary civil servants - increased from £398,062 during 1999-2000 to £704,790 in 2004-5.
Ted Brocklebank, a Tory MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, said: "These figures reveal the stark truth about government in Scotland. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. No wonder our economy lags behind the rest of the UK when government itself is the biggest business of them all."
Last night, the Executive said the growth in the number of civil servants reflected the increased workload brought about by devolution. A spokesman said: "In the first parliamentary session, between 1999 and 2003, parliament dealt with 50 Executive bills, by comparison to the four or five bills a year that would have been dealt with at Westminster."

Far be it for me to defend the Executive but, as it is manifestly incapable of doing so with any effectiveness, let us look at why the Executive has grown. It is not just the increase in the number of bills being processed. These other issues may also have contributed:

1. There are now 19 Ministers (excluding law officers) compared with 5 or 6 in the old Scottish Office. Each of these Ministers needs a private office and they undertake engagements for which they have to be briefed by Executive civil servants. Furthermore, unlike the good old Scottish Office when Ministers were in London most of the week, the Scottish Executive Ministers are in Scotland nearly all the time.

2. The Scottish Parliament has increased the Executive's workload. Instead of a 50 minute question time to the Secretary of State once every four weeks, there is at least 90 minutes of oral questions every week. Written questions have also increased massively since the days of Westminster. And there are new demands imposed by Scottish Parliamentary Committees - at Westminster there was only the Scottish Select Committee which carried out about one enquiry per year. All of these require civil service preparation - Ministers do not (or should not) answer questions off the cuff.

3. The Scottish Executive budget has also increased massively: from less than £20 Billion in 1999-2000 to more than £26 billion in 2006-07. If you have more money to spend, you need more civil servants to plan, manage and account for it.

4. The Scottish Executive has taken on additional commitments, eg with regard to immigration (via the fresh talent initiative), to external relations (Malawi and so on) and to rail transport. It can be argued that the Executive should not have taken on these extra burdens but if Ministers decide to do so then it has to be accepted that more civil servants will be required to fulfil them.

It is no secret that Executive civil servants have been under increasing pressures of work in recent years. If the Tories want to complain about the growth of the Executive, then they need to be clear about what should stop being done.

26 July 2005

Speedos or shorts?

Philosophical piece from women writers in The Independent on the relative merits of different kinds of men's swimwear. The bad news:
"Men should keep a few basic grooming points in mind. First, they would be wise to remember the two words that strike fear into the heart of women everywhere: back hair. On a remote beach in Ibiza, I once saw a man who appeared to have put a gorilla suit on under his microscopic shrunken trunks. Not a good look."

Oh dear... On the other hand, the good news:

"Clearly, Mr Speedos could be a fun holiday distraction. But the chap in the floppy, flappy shorts is certainly a better long-term proposition. For while Speedos are the sartorial equivalent of Pina Colada (one will do every 10 years), bathing trunks are something you could be happy with every day, rather like a cup of Earl Grey.
And as a final word of caution to the man who thinks he looks fine in skimpies, I say (with apologies to Ogden Nash):
Sure, deck your limbs in Speedos
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance
But have you seen yourself retreating?"

25 July 2005

No easy answers

Following the Stockwell shooting, some difficult questions raised by The Guardian - here:
"Is Scotland Yard truly "the envy of the policing world in relation to counter-terrorism" (as the current Met boss told Today on the morning of 7/7)? Don't know; rather doubt it. Has MI5 improved its contacts in the Muslim world? Same answer. Is this Muslims against the rest? Count the bodies in Sharm el-Sheikh before you decide who "the rest" are. Shoot to kill in Israeli style? That doesn't seem to have stopped Hamas. Go "draconian" the Rumsfeld way? Welcome to Guantánamo Bay."

and here:
"Anti-terrorist legislation has a proven record of catching just about anyone apart from those for whom it was originally designed. We knew this way before September 11. According to Home Office statistics, 97% of those arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act - a series of draconian measures supposed to thwart the IRA - between 1974 and 1988 were released without charge. Only 1% were convicted and imprisoned.
The strike rate since the declaration of the war on terror has not been particularly impressive either. More than 700 people have been arrested under the Terrorism Act since September 11, but half have been released without charge and only 17 convicted. Only three of the convictions relate to allegations of extremism related to militant Islamic groups."

The moral must be that there are no easy answers - and beware of those who think there are.

24 July 2005

Flying a kite?

According to The Sunday Times, Scottish Labour is considering seeking extensions to the powers of Holyrood (here):
"The first minister has asked policy advisers to draw-up proposals that could see an extension of the range of issues over which the Scottish executive has control.
Any ceding of further powers to Holyrood would require the consent of the government at Westminster, and the powers for MSPs to legislate on issues such as firearms restrictions, drugs, nuclear power stations, casinos, abortion, state benefits, broadcasting, international affairs and immigration are all up for debate.
Scottish ministers could also decide on the voting system, the size of the Scottish parliament and on hiring and firing Scottish civil servants, which, at present, is still done at Whitehall."

On a number of these issues (firearms, nuclear power,casinos, broadcasting, international affairs and immigration), Scottish Executive Ministers have already sought to push out the envelope and been firmly repulsed. And, given the number of Sewel motions where Holyrood has agreed that Westminster may legislate in areas for which Holyrood is at least nominally responsible, do Labour Executive Ministers really want to extend their powers into the more difficult areas?

Expect Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster to pour scorn on the latest proposals.

"Making up is hard to do"

And it doesn't come cheap. From Scotland on Sunday (here):
"Tony Blair has spent more than £1,800 of public money on make-up and make-up artists to prepare him for media appearances in the past six years.
Figures slipped into the public domain last week reveal that, between 1999 and 2005, Downing Street paid £1,050.22 for cosmetics for the Prime Minister's media appearances.
And in the past two years, No 10 shelled out a further £791.20 on make-up artists."

Are there any comparable figures for the First Minister?

22 July 2005

Is the SNP gerontocratically challenged?

The Herald reports on the candidates for the SNP Presidency:
"At 62, Ms Ullrich is the youngest of the contenders, but yesterday she stressed her political experience as part of a pitch to party members.In an apparent reference to the heydays of Mr Wolfe, 81, and Mr Henderson, 69, being long behind them, she said: "My last role was as chief whip [until 2003]. That means that I know the pressures that exist today. Every day spent in the Union is another day of lost opportunities for my beloved Scotland." "

At the risk of sounding ageist, and bearing in mind that bloggers who live in glass houses should not call kettles black, is there no suitable candidate a little younger?

21 July 2005

Blair and the cleaners

Even The Telegraph criticises Blair's anti-union stance at PQs yesterday:

"Kelvin Hopkins (Lab, Luton North) had the decency to ask the Prime Minister about the "disgracefully low pay and poor conditions endured by parliamentary cleaners" and Mr Blair batted the question away in his blandest manner, saying it was "a matter for the House authorities".
When one considers the display of moral passion which the Prime Minister brings to any subject he reckons to be of political importance, one can see that he reckons the cleaners are an irrelevance. Mr Blair did not get where he is today by standing shoulder to shoulder with what is left of the working class.
But one need not be a socialist to see a rather striking discrepancy between the pay of the cleaners, who receive £5 an hour and 12 days' holiday a year (plus eight bank holidays), and the pay of MPs, who receive £59,095 a year, plus a number of valuable allowances, and are about to go on holiday until October."

The law of unintended consequences

The Herald reports on the implications for the Scottish Executive of the postponement of Gordon Brown's spending review:
"Scottish ministers had been planning for two years to hold a spending review in late 2006. The chancellor was due to issue figures next June for the annual Scottish block grant up to 2010. But that plan was derailed on Tuesday, when Mr Brown postponed the Westminster spending review until mid-2007, leaving the Scottish Executive without any figures on which to set its long-term budgets next year.The executive confirmed last night that the chancellor's decision had been unexpected.Ministers are now expected to cancel their next spending review – to have been known as SR06 – as there would be no point proceeding without knowing the size of the Scottish block grant.The change means the next executive spending review is likely to be in late 2007. SR06 was intended to cover the financial years 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10. "

This should make the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament rather interesting: they will need to be conducted in ignorance of the level of resources which will be available to the Executive from April 2008 onwards. This in turn will make it difficult for parties to make promises involving decisions on expenditure. For example, how can the Tories commit themselves to reductions in the tartan tax if they don't know what the future budget will be? But the problem is not exclusive to the Tories: all parties will have difficulties in compiling their manifestos. At the very least, promises to do anything will need to be contingent upon whether the resources will be available.

I appreciate that elections always involve an amount of uncertainty about the future availability of resources but most governments have some wiggle room to take corrective action eg by increasing taxes. The Scottish Executive, however, has little influence over future availability of resources, as this is a virtually automatic consequence of decisions made in 11 Downing Street.

Fun and games for the manifesto writers!

19 July 2005

Pigeons need a happy life

The Guardian encourages weight-watching for pigeons:

"Pigeons have been bred for endurance flying, so when food is around they'll eat a lot of it so that when they do have a long flight, they'll have fat resources to draw on," he explains. "The problem is if there's always food available and they don't have to fly great distances, they will just lay down the fat."
And, of course, the podgy pigeon has few alternative means of exercise at his disposal. It is very difficult to master an exercise bike when your legs are only about two inches long. Yet despite the health risks, the pigeon population is thriving on junk food. The Pigeon Control Advisory Service (Picas) claims there is a 10-15% increase in flocks whenever a fast-food joint opens. "Pigeons adapted to cities instead of cliff faces," says Guy Merchant, director of Picas. "And now they've adapted beautifully to this new food source."
Williams begs to differ: "They are not designed for this sort of diet, but they can still get along with it. In the same way as you might say of us humans, they can survive. But it's not going to give you, or them, a long-term, happy life".

18 July 2005

Tartan tax to return to centre stage?

The Scotsman suggests that the Tories are thinking about tax cuts:
"THE Scottish Conservatives are preparing to go into the 2007 election with a radical pledge to cut the basic rate of income tax by 3p in the pound, The Scotsman has learned.
Party researchers have been told to come up with ways of funding the income tax cut, which would then be adopted as the centrepiece of the Scottish Tory manifesto for the next Holyrood election.
The Scottish Parliament has the power to vary the basic rate of income tax by up to 3p in the pound, up or down - the so-called Tartan Tax - but it has never been used. A 3p in the pound cut would save someone on a £25,000 salary £540 a year or £45 a month.
Using the Tartan Tax at the full 3p in the pound would cost the Executive about £750 million in lost revenue. Taken together with the Tories' existing commitment to cut business rates by £140 million, it would take almost £900 million from the Scottish block grant. "

Tax cuts imply reduced public spending (at least by comparison with what would be otherwise planned). £900 million per year is a rather greater sum than could be achieved by making bureaucratic savings, espacially if Tom McCabe has already taken an axe to public administration. And while £900 million may not seem a lot in relation to the £26/27 billion that the Scottish Executive will have to play with, much of the latter is committed to health (where cuts are probably politically untouchable) and local government spending (where cuts can spill over into increases in council tax). If the Conservatives are serious about cutting income tax, they will need to be precise about the areas of expenditure to be forgone.

16 July 2005

A children's book gets a little attention

Review of some children's book by The New York Times is candidate for pseuds' corner:"
"In addition to being a bildungsroman, of course, the Harry Potter books are also detective stories, quest narratives, moral fables, boarding school tales and action-adventure thrill rides, and Ms. Rowling uses her tireless gift for invention to thread these genres together, while at the same time taking myriad references and tropes (borrowed from such disparate sources as Shakespeare, Dickens, fairy tales, Greek myths and more recent works like "Star Wars") and making them her own."
Don't you like the "bildungsroman, of course"? And if Ms Rowling insists on borrowing tropes and making them her own, she will have to answer to the Edinburgh police.

15 July 2005

Technical note

Near the top of the right hand column, you will find links to a couple of blogs which may be of some interest. Scottish blogs is a directory of, well, Scottish blogs. Scottish political blogs review is a valiant attempt to reflect (impose?) some structure on Scottish political blogs. The bloggers concerned are engaged in a little noticed task but they deserve the thanks of Scottish bloggers everywhere. Well done to them both!

Golf - spoiling a nice walk

The Scottish Executive press office is getting carried away in this press release:
"Thousands of golf spectators flocking to St Andrews for the 2005 Open Championship are being encouraged to take their eyes off the ball to enjoy the important wildlife found living on the world famous Old Course. Deputy Minister for the Environment and Rural Development Rhona Brankin is in the Fife town to mark the publication by The R&A of an Environmental and Management Guide which is being handed out to visitors. The Scottish Executive helped fund the publication which highlights the important wildlife and habitats found on and around the greens."

Important wildlife habitats "on the greens"? which can be enjoyed by the crowds? The occasional worm perhaps? Or maybe the birdies and eagles?

Tears at bedtime

Draconian punishment for the Holyrood four, as reported by The Herald:
"FOUR MSPs barred from Holyrood after disrupting first minister's questions began a court challenge against the ban yesterday.The Scottish Socialist Party has instructed two QCs to launch a Court of Session judicial review of the process by which they were disciplined.They claim it went against natural justice and have won backing from an international campaign of other left-wing parliamentarians.The legal moves began on the same day Paul Grice, the parliament's chief executive, revealed the extensive nature of the ban they would suffer throughout September.It means not only will the MSPs receive no salary for a month, they will also be barred from Holyrood and will have no access to parliamentary services, including the e-mail system. Those sending them e-mails will be informed their messages will be deleted.The sanctions followed a protest in the parliament chamber on the last day before the summer recess."

Holyrood Chronicles will watch the court action with interest. While there is certainly a case for punishing these errant MSPs, it remains something of a mystery as to why the Parliamentary authorities are taking such a tough line. Is there any need for the action proposed on e-mails? What will it achieve, apart from making martyrs of the SSP?

Full details of the sanctions are given in this Scottish Parliament press release. Intriguingly, as is made clear here, the earlier stop on MSPs' allowances has been modified to the extent that their staff will continue to be paid during September:
"On Thursday 30 June, the Scottish Parliament unanimously endorsed a recommendation and report by the Standards and Public Appointments Committee to apply sanctions in response to that day’s conduct of four Members of the Scottish Socialist Party in the Holyrood Chamber.
The report recommended that for the month of September 2005 Colin Fox, Frances Curran, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie should:
• be excluded from all proceedings of the Parliament • have their right of access to the parliamentary complex withdrawn• have their right of access to parliamentary facilities and services withdrawn• have their salaries and allowances withdrawn.
The MSPs concerned have today been informed of the package of measures which will give practical effect to the Parliament’s decision, in order to enable them to make appropriate preparations ahead of September’s exclusion.
Today’s measures will ensure that, unless otherwise directed by the MSPs concerned, salaries of MSP staff, other standing orders (direct debits) and regular payments will continue to be paid."

While the decision to restore staff salaries seems eminently sensible, who made it? The earlier decision was made by Parliament as a whole on the recommendation of the Standards Committee. Who decided to modify the proposals, given that Parliament has been in recess for the past two weeks? Or do the Parliamentary authorities just make it up as they go along?

Seeing double

From The Guardian (here):
"It could end arguments over which channel to watch on television: next month Sharp, the consumer electronics company, will launch a liquid-crystal display that shows two different images to people watching from the left and the right.
While one person browses the web, using the monitor as a PC screen, another can watch television. The monitor can also show two television programmes simultaneously.
Mikio Katayama, head of Sharp's LCD business, said yes terday: "Take a typical [Japanese] family, in which the mother likes watching drama and the father likes baseball. Now they can watch them together on the same screen."
The display, which is expected to cost twice as much as an ordinary LCD television, will go on sale worldwide, and the technology will be sold for other firms to use, Sharp said."

Am I missing something here? If a twin screen tv costs twice as much as an ordinary tv, why not simply buy two ordinary tvs?

13 July 2005

Licence to kill

Apocryphal conversation between Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, and press secretary, Joe Haines, as reported in The Guardian:

" Finally, Joe forced the point. Asking, with that somewhat cruel incisiveness for which he is well known, "Do you want to know if we should get Idi Amin bumped off?"
Wilson shied like a Church of England vicar asked if he believed in heaven. "Well, he's . . . that is, he's . . . the truth is Joe, our agents report he's been eating people. It's got to stop. So, what are we going to do?" Haines answered, "I'm usually against capital punishment but he's killing about 7,000 people a week. In this case I'm for it."
"I'll call the Foreign Office," said Wilson.
A senior mandarin was summoned. After the problem was explained, the Foreign Office chap acted with stunned disbelief. Drawing himself up, he thundered, "Sir, we are the Foreign Office. We do not have people murdered!"
There was a longish pause and someone said, "What about the MoD?"
With an upper lip stiffened by Whitehall protocol, the man acknowledged that putting people to death did have a sort of distant connection with the MoD's business of the day. "The problem is, prime minister," he said, "we just don't have the sort of chaps trained to carry out the kind of work you have in mind."
"But, you've got the entire army," protested Wilson.
"Yes," he agreed. "And if you wanted to invade Uganda with an army, or even a brigade, that would be fine - provided the chiefs of staff are in accord, of course. We just don't have a chap who can pop over there and get the job done like they do in the cinema."
"What about MI5?"
"Frightfully sorry, sir. They deal with internal threats and security."
"Actually, sir, no one does that sort of thing. At least not at a high level. We all have a bit of an understanding that we don't go around knocking off each other's heads of state."
"Are you saying the secret agents of all countries have given up on assassination?"
"Well, yes, since that chap stabbed the fellow with the poisoned umbrella tip."
"Are you serious?" "Certainly. Look at the Americans. When they wanted Castro removed they had to ask the Mafia to do it for them. And that didn't work. All that happened was everyone ended up laughing at them. We wouldn't want that."
Wilson gave up, and Amin lived on. "

An ethical foreign policy?

From The Guardian (here) about today's foreign visitor:
"The visitor is President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, who will claim that his pacification plan for Colombia deserves further support from the British taxpayer and, as his supporters argued at a London conference in June, that the British investor should pitch in to a country that appealingly combines the smack of firm government with a sound commitment to free markets.
Uribe's visit offers the unusual spectacle of a British red carpet being rolled out for a man who, as mayor of Medellin, the drug barons' "sanctuary", allegedly accepted funds from the notorious trafficker Pablo Escobar. Uribe's father, Alberto, was wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges when he was killed in 1983.
Coincidentally, no doubt, Uribe's presidential campaign manager, Pedro Moreno Villa, was named by US customs as the biggest importer of potassium permanganate, a chemical used in cocaine production, between 1994 and 1998, though he insisted it was for innocent purposes; at that time Uribe was governor of Antioquia department, of which Medellin is the capital, and Moreno was his chief of staff. It was there that Uribe also devised his policy of encouraging the armed rightwing terror groups that he now seeks to legitimise.
President Uribe calls his plan Justice and Peace, a fine piece of newspeak which the Colombian Congress approved in June; under it he offers amnesty and cash rewards to rightwing paramilitary fighters, many of whom are guilty of human rights abuses and cocaine trafficking."

Why is our government welcoming and supporting this man?

09 July 2005

Scotland's Candide

What planet is he living on? From The Scotsman (here):
"Mr McConnell remained resolutely upbeat, claiming that the long term benefits were huge and that Scotland could now count itself in the "premier division" of countries for major international events.
The First Minister said: "It has probably been the first time in recent decades that an international summit of this kind has been attacked by anarchists and violent protesters without one single casualty having to stay overnight in hospital." And he added: "This summit has contributed to making poverty history. It will change the shape of the world."

Where is there a Voltaire when you need one?

Bread and circuses

Larry Elliott in The Guardian gets it about right - probably - on the G8 Africa outcome:
"Seismic shift or sell-out? A moment of history or yet more G8 hot air? After six months of cajoling, nagging and haggling, the Gleneagles summit finally came up with its blueprint for Africa.
Predictably, the prime minister hailed it as "real and achievable progress". Equally predictably, many of the campaign groups said it was not the giant leap that had been promised, but rather more of a faltering first step.
The nature of the agreement meant it was possible to argue that the glass was both half empty and half full. The G8 endorsed the debt forgiveness package signed by finance ministers last month; as a result, it will help a fair proportion of poor countries, but not all of them.
Rich countries also said they would provide more financial help to poor countries, increasing their development assistance by $48bn (£28bn). Forget the big number, said the development charities, and look at the small print. The $48bn won't happen until 2010 and it's needed now. What's more, most of it was in the pipeline anyway; in terms of new money, the G8 has ponied up perhaps an extra $20bn. "
The big failure was on trade, with no real progress at all. Will the G8 outcome make poverty history? No, but maybe it was never on the cards.
The official communique is here.

08 July 2005

A London bus

James Meek in The Guardian reflects on yesterday's tragedy:
"In retrospect, a London bus was an obvious target, a symbol of the city and, coincidentally or otherwise, of 2012 - the No 30 goes to the heart of London from Hackney Wick, part of the future Olympics site. Terrorists have put bombs on buses in Israel and Moscow.
Yet deep down, I suppose, I never really believed a bus would be a target either honourable enough, or justifiable enough for a terrorist. It is still a poor person's means of transport. Looking at the pictures of that ripped apart vehicle I know the cold, cheap feel of those nasty orange poles for hanging on to, and the abrasive feel of the fabric of those nasty blue seats, and think of all the faces of tired hard-working people and student tourists and truanting teenagers looking down from the windows into the prosperous world of Bloomsbury, and just hoping to get on with something good.
London buses, particularly the buses between Hackney and the centre, are also filled with immigrants, and it is very possible that if a bomb exploded in any one of them, it would kill and maim at least one person from every continent and of every major faith. On any busy Hackney bus you'll hear a dozen different languages besides English: Albanian, Turkish, Polish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, French or Yoruba. "

Not easy

From the Prime Minister's statement of yesterday (here):
"When they try to intimidate us, we will not be intimidated. When they seek to change our country or our way of life by these methods, we will not be changed. When they try to divide our people or weaken our resolve, we will not be divided and our resolve will hold firm. We will show, by our spirit and dignity, and by our quiet but true strength that there is in the British people, that our values will long outlast theirs. The purpose of terrorism is just that, it is to terrorise people, and we will not be terrorised."
The problem that some of us have with this kind of statement is that our country, our way of life, our values have already - at least arguably - been compromised by our Government's response to terrorism. The treatment of detainees in Belmarsh, the shortcutting of judicial procedures in our courts, the proposed law on religious hatred, the proposed introduction of ID cards - do these reflect British values or the British way of life?

07 July 2005

Olympian pessimism

Alice Miles in The Times is not entirely happy with the prospect of the Olympics coming to London:
"It’ll be a story of rows and over-runs; of money and mayhem; of a government with an inflexible deadline, limitless funds and the reputation of the country on the line being held hostage by a construction industry notorious for delays and inefficiency. This is the story of a city which has just pulled the plug on a £1 billion new hospital after eight years of planning because it was too complicated and now has to build, in seven years, an entire micro city with an 80,000-seat stadium, four other arenas, aquatics and hockey centres, a velodrome, a village sleeping 17,320 people, and new and upgraded trains and lines to get everybody there. (A 140mph “Olympic javelin” shuttle will move 25,000 spectators an hour from St Pancras in Central London to the Olympic Park? How? Where is it?) You will not be able to move for cranes and dust and thundering lorries. And God help anyone needing a builder or an electrician in South East England in the next seven years. I wonder how many large construction projects in the pipeline will bite the dust because of this. "

And don't think Scotland will escape! Given the shortage of rail engineering capacity in the UK and the priority which will naturally be given to London, don't expect to see rail developments in Scotland (such as the city centre to airport links) delivered on time.

Small faux pas as First Minister puts best foot forward

Scottish Executive press release:
"First Minister Jack McConnell today welcomed G8 leaders as they arrived in Scotland for the beginning of the 2005 summit.
One of the first to arrive was Jose Manuel Barosso, President of the European Commission.
The leaders flew into Prestwick airport in Ayrshire, each greeted by their national anthem played by the Lowland band of the Scottish regiments, before Mr McConnell guided them to meet saltire-waving children from local primarcy (sic) schools at Nether Robertland, Gargieston, and Troon.
The leaders then travelled north by helicopter to Gleneagles where Mr McConnell will join them for the Queen's official dinner tonight.
At Prestwick, Mr McConnell said: "Today marks the start of G8 Scotland - perhaps the most important, certainly the most high profile summit of the G8 leaders for decades.
"Two hundred years ago Scottish thinkers, philosophers, economists and writers changed the world for the 19th and 20th century. Now, there is a chance that the most momentous decisions which will shape the 21st century will be taken on Scottish soil.''
"Over the next three days we hope much progress is made on climate change and on making poverty history in Africa. And when they leave on Friday, they will leave with a lasting
impression of the best small country in the world.'' "

First rule of diplomacy - spell the man's name properly. It's Barroso.

Biker falls off

The Guardian reports a minor contretemps for Mr President:
"It seems the American president had decided to celebrate his 59th birthday with a two-wheeled spin around the grounds of the luxury Gleneagles hotel when a light drizzle - and a minor disaster - struck.
A White House spokesman said Mr Bush had been pedalling along for about an hour at what he termed a "pretty good speed" when he hit the officer, who was on foot. Scott McClellan said the president had scraped his hands and arms that were bandaged by Dr Richard Tubb, the president's doctor.
"He was wearing a helmet," said Mr McClellan. "The accident occurred on asphalt. His scrapes were mild to moderate."
"The president was mostly concerned at the officer's condition and spent time talking to him and asked his physician to monitor him in hospital," Mr McClellan said.
Mr Bush's mountain bike was damaged, forcing him to return to the hotel in a van."

I can't think why this episode should give rise to a certain amount of hilarity. Perhaps it is that, while other world leaders are studying their briefing papers for one of the most important meetings of the year, while protestors are storming the security fence at Gleneagles and riot police in Chinook helicopters are being airlifted to repel them, the president of the US spends an hour riding his bike in the rain. Or perhaps it is the idea of the president returning to the hotel in a van. Did Mrs Bush give him a row when he got back to the hotel room? And did he bring the bike with him from the US or did he borrow one from the hotel? I think we should be told...

Quote or misquote of the day

Sharleen Spiteri at yesterday evening's live8 concert at Murrayfield:
"Better to say you've tried and failed than you didnae bother."

06 July 2005

G8 stooshie

From the Guardian newsblog, one of the more sensible (and more informative) reports about what is happening in Auchterarder:
"Most of the protesters are from the anti-globalisation or anti-capitalist movements, but the locals, who stand outside their front doors and watch and sometimes wave to the incomers, are more firmly behind the Make Poverty History campaign.
A Global Village Cafe in the grounds of Auchterarder parish church was opened yesterday by a Tanzanian bishop. In keeping with the African theme of the summit, it is home to chickens, a water pump and a goat in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of one of the continent's villages. The cafe sells bottles of half a litre of local water ("local water from local people" reads the label). Every penny of the 99p it costs goes towards buying water pumps for three Ethiopian villages.
Ian Gourlay, one of a group of eight townspeople organising the cafe, which is like a village fete at which the only coffee on offer is free trade, said the Auchterarder residents were apprehensive about the arrival of the G8 leaders and demonstrators, but less fearful than some were claiming.
"The vast majority are philosophical about it. Most people feel it is an opportunity for this town - the opportunity of demonstrating as a local community that we care about just trade, about the eradication of debt and the doubling of aid. We've been inundated by local people saying that. There is concern, but there is also balance.
"This is not a town that is shutting up shop. We'll be pleased when it is over but it is also fun. You've no idea what it's like having an archbishop open your cafe when you are a small parish church. We feel communities around the world should do more than say politicians should sort it out, but if the G8 don't do it they will have wasted the best opportunity they ever had."
Auchterarder is filling up now. Some of the shops are boarded up, but the ones that are have "welcome" plastered to wood in some of the languages the visitors might speak: bienvenue, bienvenido, wilkommen and fáilte. The next few days will decide whether it was the boards or the greetings that were the most fitting."

05 July 2005

Burying bad news?

Here is a written answer slipped out on Friday 1 July, the last day of the parliamentary session before the summer holidays:

Ms Sandra White (Glasgow) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive what its estimated total running cost is for the current financial year and in each of the next three financial years, broken down by department.
Holding answer issued: 20 June 2005

Mr Tom McCabe: The operating budget for the current financial year is £233 million, from which the departmental allocations set out in the following table are made. The remaining running costs relate to capital charges and other costs which are monitored centrally.
The spending plans for the administration budget for 2006-07 and 2007-08 are set out in the Scottish Executive’s Draft Budget 2005-06 and departmental allocations will be considered in light of commitments and priorities in those years.
The administration budget for 2008-09 and 2009-10 will be considered following the outcome of the 2006 Spending Review exercise.

Department 2005-06(£000)

Development 12,957
Education 12,372
Enterprise and Lifelong Learning 21,042
Environment and Rural Affairs 37,551
Finance and Central Services 19,766
Health 15,652
Justice 10,985
Corporate Services (including OPS and LPS)1 79,479

Note: 1. OPS is the Office of the Permanent Secretary; LPS is Legal and Parliamentary Services.

Interesting that so much operational effort (over 47%) should be spent on support services (Finance, Central and Corporate Services) compared with frontline departments; and that growing the Scottish economy, the Executive's first priority, should receive so little, particularly by comparison with environment and rural affairs.

Stoneless avocados

From a report in The Guardian:
"What will the conquistadors do now? In the good old days, Cortez and co would nip down to the supermarket, buy an avocado, gorge themselves on the soft flesh and then extract from the stone a liquid that could be used for ink for official pens.
Now the new world's imperialists will have to reach for their Biros and pencils: Sainsbury's is about to introduce the stoneless avocado....
"It's a eureka moment in the world of avocados," said a fruit buyer, Clancy McMahon. "The stone usually takes up around a quarter of the fruit and is always difficult to remove. This way you get more avocado for your money."
The new fruit is smaller than the stoned variety, but is said to have the same nutritional composition.
"So soft is the fruit that with the top sliced off it can be eaten with a spoon, just like a boiled egg," rhapsodised Ms McMahon."

I feel sorry for the scientists concerned: "What did you do in the war against global hunger, daddy?" "I invented the stoneless avocado, son. Now stop talking, eat your breakfast and dip your soldiers into your avocado."

International diplomacy

From Liberation, the source of all this stuff in today's British press about what Chirac said to Putin and Schroder:
Le quoi Poutine, Schröder et Chirac peuvent-ils bien plaisanter lorsqu'ils se retrouvent pour un sommet à trois sur une terrasse ensoleillée de la région de Kaliningrad, à l'occasion des 750 ans de la ville ? Des Britanniques, bien sûr. Jouant les boute-en-train, sans se douter que quelques journalistes les écoutaient, Chirac s'est lancé hier dans une série de blagues sur le dos des Anglais, faisant bien rire Poutine et Schröder. «La seule chose qu'ils ont faite pour l'agriculture européenne, c'est la vache folle», a ainsi balancé Chirac, prévenant ses deux compères que, de toute façon, «on ne peut pas faire confiance à des gens qui ont une cuisine aussi mauvaise» : «Après la Finlande, c'est le pays où on mange le plus mal.» «Et les hamburgers ?», a tenté Poutine, qui cultive un reste de rivalité avec les Etats-Unis. «Non, non, les hamburgers, ce n'est rien encore», a répondu Chirac. Et le président français de raconter encore comment l'Ecossais lord Robertson, ancien secrétaire général de l'Otan, lui avait fait goûter une spécialité peu ragoûtante de son pays : «De là, nos difficultés avec l'Otan...»

Ho, ho, ho! What subtlety, what rapier-like wit, what a plonker!

02 July 2005

Expensive choo-choos

Zoe Williams poses an unanswerable question for the Royal Family:
"I find it very hard to get exercised about the cost of this family to the nation. I don't care whether it's 61p off each of us a week, a month or a year; I don't care what the chinless younglings count as an official engagement; I couldn't give a stuff whether Charles combines the furtherance of British business interests with a holiday somewhere really posh. Just don't care. Don't care if they install gold taps in all their bits of marble stuff.
What I really want to know is, how do you spend 33 grand on a train journey? Let's imagine that a first-class ticket to the farthest place in the country, with the nicest complementary coffee and also tea, might cost 500 smackers. Then throw in as many bacon sandwiches as a person, even one with a divine right, could possibly manage, and then turn that bacon into foie gras. Then get them all absolutely lashed to the gills on a luxury alcoholic beverage. I still cannot force this up to more than a grand a person, and I thought the entourage was only five. It's not even as though that figure accounts for the cost of the train. It's just the journey - £33,000, on one journey. What else do they get for that? Dancing train horses? "

It's only make believe

Simon Hoggart in The Guardian has the knack of converting a mild altercation between Minister and medic into a policy statement on New Labour (here):

"Dr Jennie Blackwell, speaking at the British Medical Association's conference this week, told the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, that the government's obsession with targets was making hospitals look like war zones, "with patients strewn all over the place".
This, she implied, was the result of patient care taking second place to the need to get the right numbers in the right boxes.
Ms Hewitt replied that she would not "resile" from targets, adding that "they are helping to achieve much needed improvements in services".
It was a very New Labour moment, one in which reality assaults intention, when the policy wonks and the think-tanks crash up against what is actually happening.
I was reminded of the no doubt apocryphal Treasury mandarin complaining: "It's all very well saying that it works in practice. But does it work in theory?"
Or, as I increasingly think when I see the government lamely defending yet another ambitious but failed scheme - the lifetime learning account, the CSA, the family tax credit shambles, Asbos, and, soon to come, ID cards - we ought to hear again from Groucho Marx: "Who are you going to believe? Me, or the evidence of your own eyes?" "

01 July 2005

Storm in a teacup?

From a parliamentary press release:

The Scottish Parliament tonight endorsed a report by the Standards and Public Appointments Committee to apply sanctions in response to the conduct of four members of the Scottish Socialist Party and their protest in the Holyrood chamber today.
Following the Presiding Officer’s request this afternoon for the Committee to consider his complaint, the Committee’s members recommended to Parliament that all rights and privileges of the four SSP MSPs should be withdrawn.
The report which was endorsed by the Parliament this evening has recommended that Colin Fox, Frances Curran, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie should have:
• No access to the parliamentary campus or the proceedings of Parliament for the month of September.
• No salary for the same period.
• No allowances for the same period.

This seems a bit harsh. OK, the demo was rather childish (or at least more reminiscent of student politics than a grown up parliament) but only 5 minutes of parliamentary time was lost. Does this justify depriving the constituents of these MSPs of their services for a month? Or depriving their staff of a month's salary?

Did, as a matter of natural justice, the Standards and Public Appointments Committee offer the MSPs concerned the opportunity to put their point of view before being sanctioned?

And some of the condemnatory comments attributed to MSPs of other parties seem to convey a certain amount of vindictiveness.

We're all doomed...

Forget about G8 protestors - the really serious invasion is reported by The Herald:
"THE increasingly warm, wet weather is causing the Highland midge to spread south to the gardens of the Central Belt. Entomologists have reported that suitable breeding conditions have encouraged this particularly vicious species of the insect to branch out of its traditional terrain.As a result, an industry in midge eradication is booming. Thousands of gas-powered midge traps, priced from £400 to £1400, are being bought by householders and businesses to retaliate against the pest."