31 October 2005


The latest travails of Mr Blunkett are discussed on the BBC website:
"Tony Blair has asked the Cabinet Secretary to see if David Blunkett's holding of shares in a DNA testing firm has breached the ministerial code. The prime minister's spokesman said Gus O'Donnell had been asked to rule after complaints from the Conservatives.
Mr Blunkett has accepted he should have consulted an advisory committee when he took a DNA Bioscience directorship.
The work and pensions secretary, said to have Mr Blair's "full support", has put the shares in a family trust. "

A number of commentators have suggested that Mr Blunkett should now sell the shares. They seem to have missed the point that, when an MP becomes a Minister, he is supposed to put his shareholdings into what is known as a "blind trust" (sorry, but that is what it is known as). The point about such a trust is that the Minister has no input to investment decisions in relation to that trust, including decisions to buy or sell shares. Accordingly, if Mr Blunkett has behaved correctly in relation to establishing the trust, he would not be able to sell the shares concerned. Which would leave him in the position of having a conflict of interest between his Ministerial duties and his potential enrichment as a shareholder of DNA Bioscience; furthermore, if he is unable to sell the shares, that conflict of interest could only be resolved by him ceasing to be a Minister.


Mr Blunkett has now asked his sons to authorise the trustees to dispose of the shares in question. Apparently the shares were never owned by Mr Blunkett but were registered in the ownership of Mr Blunkett's sons. This seems to me to drive a coach and horses through the rules which require Ministers on assuming office to divest control of any shares they happen to own. If a potential Minister can buy shares for his family which then retains power of buying and selling them, what's the point of blind trusts?

29 October 2005

Bleaker House

The Times reports on Bleak House:
"AN UNNECESSARY clerk, a misnamed lawyer and a dwarf called Harriet are at the centre of a row between Dickens enthusiasts and the BBC’s dramatisation of Bleak House.
Andrew Davies, the Bafta award-winning screenwriter, has angered lovers of the novel and bemused Dickens’s descendants by introducing new characters and dispensing with the author’s comedic moments.
Cedric Dickens, the author’s great-grandson, said that he was relaxed about adaptations but did question the creation of Clam, a clerk to the main character of Mr Tulkinghorn. Tulkinghorn was originally written as a lawyer who preferred memorising his clients’ details to keeping records. "

It is decades since I read the book, so I don't mind them messing up the plot. It is the over-acting I can't be bothered with, particularly (but not exclusively) from Ms Collins and Ms Tarbuck.

Affairs of the ego

The Times is less than charitable on the subject of the Trump-McConnell meeting (here):
"What this latest trip did emphasise, however, is that the First Minister must beware of letting his desire to acquire photographs for his mantelpiece get the better of him. His visit to Trump Towers in New York where he met Donald Trump — “half man, half brand” as one observer memorably put it — became the abiding image of Mr McConnell’s trip and succeeded only in deflecting attention from the real meat: the First Minister’s attempts to win investment for and interest in the old country from the Scottish diaspora in North America.
When Mr Trump trumpeted his wish to “maybe do something in Scotland sometime”, it wasn’t a pinch of salt you needed it was the whole salt mine. He might have said the same, with the name of the country changed, if he been meeting the President of Upper Volta or the Prime Minister of Rockall. They at least, we hope, would not have looked as grateful for small recognition as Mr McConnell succeeded in doing.
And the over-the-top Mr Trump compounded the cliché-ridden summit with the Scottish apprentice by going on interminably about his “Scotch mother”. Mr McConnell, meanwhile, didn’t get a word in and could only look on, perhaps secretly hoping that Mr Trump might soon shut up and he could get the hell out of there. That meeting was about Trump, not about Scotland and no amount of spin about winning influence and exposing Scotland to an American television audience alters that.
One MSP allegedly did an internet search to find how the Trump/McConnell meeting had been reported in America and came up with absolute zero coverage. One can only hope that the First Minister on the flight back home was busy drafting a memo to his advisers to avoid such excruciating photo-calls in future. "

This is a bit harsh. Perhaps the meeting seemed like a good idea when the trip was being arranged. Perhaps the First Minister was flattered by the Trump celebrity status. OK, so it did not turn out too well. But I don't recall any criticisms in advance from the media.

28 October 2005

Puffing away

Ann Treneman in The Times reveals the mess that the Westminster Government has got into over the smoking ban. Secretary of State Hewitt was before the Health Committee:
"It was like seatbelts in cars: would she really advocate giving fewer seatbelts to cars for poor people? Ms Hewitt paused. “I have some sympathy with your viewpoint.”
It was as close as we will ever get to a cry of anguish from the Health Secretary. If only she could be injected with truth serum (surely not out of the question in Britain today?) then the woman would be shouting in her native Australian drawl: “Strewth! Don’t blame me. It’s that bully John Reid. Tessa and I wanted a total ban but the boys couldn’t give a XXXX!”
Mike Penning is a new Tory who looks unhealthily rotund, which is a bit of a tradition on this committee. He demanded: “Were you rolled over? If you wanted this ban, why haven’t you got it?” Ms Hewitt paused. Was that steam (or smoke) coming out of her ears?
Yesterday, Ms Hewitt revealed that crisps were not food but has yet to proclaim on Bombay mix. I could not help but note that she was accompanied yesterday by Sir Nigel Crisp. He is head of the NHS but, more pertinent to this, as a Crisp he will be allowed in smoking pubs. But what if he was named Nut? Or Panini? The world has become a very murky place."

27 October 2005


Rather astutely, Helen Rumbelow in The Times has spotted a victory for Cameron (here):
"David Cameron has won. I do not mean the Conservative leadership contest, but a strange little ritual that politicians play about this time every year (although it gets earlier and earlier). On Tuesday afternoon he appeared in the House of Commons debate on education wearing a Remembrance Day poppy in his lapel.
Nothing extraordinary about that, you might think, except that he was the only one on the Tory front bench to do so. In fact, it appeared he was the only politician in the whole chamber to wear the poppy. I make no judgment on this — Remembrance Day was two and a half weeks off at the time, but the ridiculous spectacle is to follow. Watch as Cameron’s rival, David Davis, rushes to pin his on so as not to seem the less respectful, and then their Labour opponents, and within days few politicians will dare be seen without one. All in a good cause, but it seems a shame that this personal gesture has been overcome by the demands of political PR."

Politicians will end up wearing poppies in September. Something similar has happened at Tesco which has been displaying its Christmas stock since early October.

26 October 2005

"Archie McPherson on a bad day"

The Herald is appropriately disparaging of Mr Trump (here):

"The other thing Mr Trump is famous for, besides appearing to own half of Manhattan, is that hairdo. He may be worth a reported £3bn, but up top he's Archie McPherson on a bad day. His epic comb-over seems to have been pulled out of his left ear. From the side, the bouffant seems to hover half an inch from his skull. You start to suspect that Donald Trump The Fragrance might smell rather like nylon and wood glue. Barrelling along in The Donald's wake is a film crew from The Apprentice, filming Jack's meeting for next spring's series, but he looks too dazzled by the hair to notice. Grabbing Jack by the arm, The Donald then launches into fluent Trump, the only language he knows and understands.
"You thought my mother was Scottish. She was born in Stornoway in the Hebrides. That's serious Scotch. That's not playing games. She was a great Scotch person. I've been looking to do something in Europe and I'm looking to Scotland as one of the places because of my mother. I'm greatly honoured that he's here to get business. I have great respect for that." ...
By this point it is clear Jack has given up all earthly hope of getting a word in edgeways...
After his shrimp, steak, and having to sign an "image" release waiver for his appearance on The Apprentice, Mr McConnell emerged blinking back into the real world. He repeated the agreed line that The Donald was looking at options in Scotland, but wouldn't say what exactly and added the caveat that "lots of things can happen in business". He also said The Donald had been extended an
official invitation next year to Scotland, or possibly Scotchland. You have been warned."

I would have thought that, after his experiences with the President of Malawi, the First Minister would have learned not to invite foreign dignitaries to Scotchland...

Postscript: My American readers may wish to note that Archie McPherson is a distinguished (OK - well known) if rather excitable Scottish football commentator, famous for his lustrous ginger hair (and lurid sports jackets).

25 October 2005

Unlucky Jack

I've been scouring the New York media to find a mention of the current visit of the First Minister, but alas - not a dicky bird. Today, we are told, the great man is to meet Donald Trump, so perhaps the reflected glory will bring the New York Times to its senses. In the meantime, the New York Daily News reports on Trumpy's latest earnings:
"NEW YORK (AP) -- At $25,000 per minute, advice from Donald Trump doesn't come cheap.
That didn't stop thousands of fans from flocking to a Sunday lecture by the real estate mogul, who received $1.5 million for the hour-long speech.
The star of "The Apprentice" urged listeners to be aggressive and remain suspicious of advisers.
"When somebody challenges you, fight back," Trump said, according to published reports. "Be brutal, be tough, Just go get them."
Aspiring dealmakers should work with others while maintaining a competitive edge, he told the crowd at the Learning Annex event, which cost between $100 and $500 per ticket.
"Get the best people and don't trust them," he said. "Work with them, but they have to have respect for you."

I'm not sure that this is a suitable message for Mr McConnell to bring back to Holyrood. Being brutal, being tough and just going to get them may not sit well with the Scottish Cabinet. But "don't trust them" will not be a problem - I doubt if the First Minister trusts his cabinet further than he can throw them. But it's still not worth $1.5 million...

Couch potatoes

How gratifying to learn from The Guardian that the Head of Security for the House of Commons has sufficient time to worry about what MPs get up to on their sofas:
"They are the prime minister's preferred place for doing business and, according to a recent memoir, the ideal spot for Labour party members to rub more than shoulders on election night. But a suggestion that the sofas of power facilitate passion not policymaking has led to moves to ban them from the Commons.
A confidential memo from Peter Grant Peterkin, the serjeant at arms, to the public administration committee recommends that sofas in MPs' offices be "gradually withdrawn" because they "sit people too closely together".
Tony Blair has become notorious for his "sofa government", often bypassing cabinet debate with informal meetings in his Downing Street den. And fornication on a sofa between two Labour party members on election night was exposed by former spin doctor Lance Price.
But the traditional head of security in the Commons has strong views on the appropriate furnishings for MPs' informal meetings. Sofas are "not a space-efficient piece of furniture", according to the memo, and are "costly to clean or recover if stained". Worse, the sofa "when occupied to its design capacity, sits people too closely together for them to feel comfortable".
The memo, composed after officials complained that MPs were spending too much in their offices, recommends two armchairs and a coffee table as a "flexible and cost effective" alternative."

You won't find nonsense like this at Holyrood. As far as I have been able to discover, MSPs do not have sofas in their rooms (but what they get up to in their "pods" is nobody's business).

23 October 2005

Shooting the messenger?

Politics can be a nasty business, as this report from The Sunday Times illustrates:
"LABOUR MSPs have warned that they will vote to ditch Kathleen Marshall, the children’s commissioner, after she criticised the Scottish executive over the deportation of a family of failed asylum seekers, writes Marc Horne...
McConnell has since demanded a new Home Office “protocol” to make the removal of failed asylum seekers less traumatic.
The first minister is said to be angry at Marshall’s intervention in an issue over which Holyrood has no control. Backbenchers have also expressed frustration that she has criticised the executive over this issue while failing to support it on measures such as education and antisocial behaviour.
Her reappointment will be decided by the parliament’s cross-party corporate body and Labour MSPs have threatened to withhold support. “She’s getting a nice salary and a nice position yet she thinks it’s her job to take the executive to task over things that are not its responsibility,” said a source close to McConnell. "

Some of us think, however, that Ms Marshall was entirely justified in seeking to highlight this issue. And it is a bit late for Scottish Ministers to claim that this is not a matter for which they have any responsibility, given the earlier pontifications of Messrs McConnell and Chisholm.

22 October 2005

Malawi again again

The Times reports the latest wee stushie:
"HE is the first African leader to be facing impeachment in his own country over allegations of corruption. His people are facing famine after successive crop failure.
Now Bingu wa Mutharika, the President of Malawi, is the focus of a growing political row in Scotland after Jack McConnell, the First Minister, refused to withdraw an invitation to him to come to Edinburgh to attend a conference next month aimed at supporting the development of democracy in the African state.
The bitterness between Mr McConnell and his opponents over the issue escalated last night when the First Minister described his critics’ attacks as “the worst, possibly the most dangerous, political stunt since the creation of the Scottish Parliament”. He accused his opponents of “playing politics with the lives of people in Malawi”.
Scottish Nationalists hit back, saying that by “wining and dining” the Malawian leader, Mr McConnell was prepared to ignore the wishes of millions of ordinary Africans who were fighting
political corruption in the continent. "

The difficulties here were entirely predictable (indeed I predicted them in this blog in June - here). They may be attributed to the fact that neither Scottish Ministers nor their officials are sufficiently well-versed in the traps and pitfalls associated with international relations. They have neither the training nor the experience. They are innocents abroad - and, whatever criticisms one might level at the Foreign Office, I rather doubt that they would have got into the same mess.

21 October 2005

It's not only the pigeons, it's also the seagulls

I apologise if readers think that I too am becoming obsessed with the subject of pigeons but I cannot resist this Evening News report about how the potential depredations of seagulls may prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs:
"Parliament officials refused to publish the report, by the Pigeon Control Advisory Service (PiCAS UK), despite a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The entire contents of the report were blacked out when a copy was handed to the Evening News, on the grounds its publication could "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs".
But the Evening News can reveal that the report contains nothing more shocking than an analysis of the bird problem at Holyrood and a series of recommendations, most of which the parliament has rejected.
In the report, the experts warned that the parliament building provided ideal nesting places for both pigeons and gulls.
They noted there was growing concern about seagulls in Edinburgh. And they warned: "Gulls could potentially pose a bigger problem than pigeons at the Scottish Parliament site."
But they added: "Fortunately the main problems associated with gulls, namely noise and aggressive behaviour when protecting their young, are generally limited to the breeding season between March and June."

What a load of guano!

20 October 2005

Scottish Parliament's pigeon obsession

Once again, the Scottish parliamentary authorities make idiots of themselves - as reported in The Edinburgh Evening News:
IT'S the kind of information black-out normally associated with Cold War spying sagas and other threats to the safety of the nation.
Page after page of official documents scored through with the censor's heavy black marker pen, with nothing - or next to nothing - deemed fit for the public eye. Such tough action has been demanded by Scottish Parliament bosses to protect sensitive material surrounding a pressing matter facing Holyrood - the problem of pigeons plaguing the new parliament building.
The birds have been causing a nuisance at the £431 million award-winning building since before it opened last year, with pigeon muck and feathers getting through vents into MSPs' offices. But a request under the Freedom of Information Act for documents showing how the parliament had addressed the issue produced 376 pages - most of them blacked out.
And today politicians demanded to know why the apparently innocuous matter of pigeons and their droppings should be surrounded by such secrecy.
The Evening News lodged the request on July 25 and it took the parliament two and a half months to produce the information.
But 149 of the pages are completely blacked out and a further 102 are blacked out except for
the heading or sign-off of the document.
There are also many other deletions. And many of the pages which were not blacked out consisted simply of e-mails trying to arrange for meetings or the delivery of reports."

How long did some well paid official sit with a magic marker, deleting material whose disclosure would have been of absolutely no consequence? It is bad enough that the subject of errant pigeons has produced 376 pages (have parliamentary officials nothing better to do?), but what happened to the transparent, accessible parliament we were promised?

Factual inaccuracies

I wanted to highlight (for posterity) this extract from Ann Treneman's sketch in The Times:
"This year Railtrack shareholders took the Government to court and, although they lost the case, the judge said Mr Byers talked “little above gibberish”. Of course, for Mr Byers, that could almost be construed as a compliment.
It is a law in Byers World that one bad thing deserves another. It came out at the trial that he had given inaccurate testimony to the Transport Select Committee. He came to the Commons earlier this week to explain and also, perhaps, to dazzle us with gibberish.
In case you think I lie, here are his words: “I did not lie to the select committee. I did not deliberately mislead the select committee, but that due to an inadvertent error I gave factually inaccurate evidence to the select committee. I deeply regret that this has happened.”
I cannot be the only one who found this very liberating indeed. Children across the land will be thanking Mr Byers for this is a major improvement on crossing your fingers and hoping no one shouts “fibber-wibber” at you.
Sadly it all comes a bit late for George Washington and his cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” little Georgie said. If only he had known, he could have added: “But I’m sure that a factual inaccuracy would be in order!”

Politicians: so much aspiration, so little to admire...

Exegesis of that speech

Timothy Garton Ash of The Guardian analyses the Cameron oratory:
"Take that inspiring Conservative party conference speech with which David Cameron launched himself like a rocket from Cape Canaveral. I've spent a fair bit of time over the past few years reading Blair speeches. They have an unmistakeable look on the page:
Very short sentences.
Large gaps between each line.
I care passionately about this. We must do that.
Self-deprecating joke. Guy-on-the-street anecdote.
List of past failures. Visions of future success! Sentences without verbs.
Now I download Cameron's conference speech from his zippy website and, yes, it's a Blair. It has exactly the same look on the page, the same syntax of exhortation. Cameron speaks like a thoroughly modern private school headmaster, giving the boys a pep talk. Like Blair, he's not afraid of the word "I", nor of going over the top in missionary mode: "I love my country. I love our character. I love our people, our history, our role in the world." He, too, can make the higher nonsense sound like sense: "The Conservative party is the only party that wants everybody to be somebody, a doer not a done-for." Hang on, so who exactly do Labour and the Lib Dems want to be a nobody? Never mind, it makes the audience feel good, a purpose he frankly confesses two sentences later: "I want people to feel good about being a Conservative again."
Then there's the characteristic Blair shock-list of statistics: "When one fifth of children leave primary school unable to write properly. When 1 million schoolchildren play truant each year." And so on. The verb-to-sentence ratio is slightly higher than in early Blair, but here again are the verbless wonders. "To give choice to parents. Freedom to schools." This follows a passage about raising standards of literacy. (New Tories, new grammar: "No, Belinda, a sentence does not need to have a subject, a verb and an object. A sentence needs a subject, an object and a spin.") And his heart bleeds on his sleeve for Darfur and sub-Saharan Africa. At the end comes the rebranding: Modern Compassionate Conservatism, all with initial capitals. Or MCC for short."

I don't think that I can tolerate another ten years of linguistic abuse. And where is the substance? But can anything stop the rise and rise of Mr Cameron?

18 October 2005

Money for nothing?

The Herald has a strange story to come out of Parkhead:
"GORDON Strachan last night strenuously denied that Martin O'Neill's on-going employment at Celtic in a £500,000-per-year consultancy role was interfering with his management of the team. On the day he announced a three-and-a-half-year contract for Artur Boruc, the Polish goalkeeper, to thwart strong interest from Arsenal, the Celtic manager played down the significance of O'Neill's advisory position five months after his resignation as manager for family reasons. Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, avoided yesterday's press conference and the inevitable questions about O'Neill. In his absence, Strachan took the opportunity to proclaim his independence and reiterate the unswerving support of his board."

How does the Celtic board of directors justify to its shareholders the payment of £500,000 per year to an ex-employee to act as a consultant, when that consultant has no apparent input to the business? I appreciate that football clubs do not always act in line with normal commercial practice but this seems a trifle bizarre.

17 October 2005

Cows and sheep

The Guardian reminds us that, despite all the years of promised reform, the common agricultural policy remains something of a gravy train:
"The story of Europe's pampered cows is a familiar one but always worth retelling. Each head of cattle in Europe gets a subsidy from the taxpayer worth $2.20 a day at a time when half the world's population - 3 billion people in all - scrapes by on an income of less that that. Rightly, the comparison has been a cause of outrage, and is one of the reasons why the European Union has been under pressure in the current round of global trade talks to make deep inroads into its absurd protectionist regime for agriculture.
Well, here's the stop press: the cows have had a pay rise. Calculations by Oxfam's Duncan Green for 2003 show that the average cow in the Dordogne or Lower Saxony can expect to have $2.62 a day lavished on it. The latest figures for 2003 show that the number of cows is down by 2 million but the total support for producers is up by $1bn to almost $19bn (£10.7bn)."

while The Scotman highlights the fact that some sheep farmers seem to be doing well enough:
"A SCOTTISH lamb has fetched £62,000 at a market sale, making it the most expensive sheep sold in Britain this year - yet the new owners insist they have not been fleeced.
The Blackface ram, McTavish, was bought for double the expected price at an auction in Lanark by a consortium of three breeders.
The record price comes four years after the industry appeared to lie in ruins, when thousands of sheep were burned in heaps during the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis."

So farmers won't need to sell the second Mercedes this month...

16 October 2005


The press really have it in for Mr McLetchie. The Sunday Herald (here) stoops about as low as you can go:

"SCOTTISH Conservatives leader David McLetchie was under increased pressure last night after it appeared that he claimed expenses for regular taxi trips for Conservative Party business.
The trips included journeys to an upmarket residential area in Edinburgh. The Sunday Herald can reveal the street is home to Tory activist Lady Sian Biddulph, who said that McLetchie visited her flat on “party” business, where he used to drop off papers.
The journeys to Ravelston Terrace, some of which were made after 8pm, were billed to the public
and were part of the Pentlands MSP’s £11,500 taxi bill."

And Scotland on Sunday (here) is equally willing to step into the gutter:
"It has emerged that the Scottish Tory leader took several taxis, at taxpayers' expense, to a street in Edinburgh where it is thought he may have visited the home of a female party worker - and that he claimed mileage to drive to Perth on the eve of a party conference.
McLetchie, currently holidaying in New Zealand, was plunged into a political crisis last week after it emerged he had used parliamentary expenses to pay for another trip to a party conference
in Bournemouth.
He paid the sum back - but the affair now threatens to overwhelm the Tory leader in much the same way as a similar row over expenses sank former First Minister Henry McLeish.
Now further information has come to light about his claims this weekend, showing that:
• McLetchie claimed for taxis to an Edinburgh street which is home to Lady Sian Biddulph, who worked as a secretary for the Conservatives.
• He also charged the taxpayer mileage for a trip to Perth on the eve of a Conservative conference held four years ago. "


Much fuss in today's papers about bird flu. For example The Observer (here):
"Last week the threat felt ever more real in Britain when it emerged that avian flu had moved out of South East Asia and infected 2,000 birds in Turkey. Yesterday it was announced by the Veterinary Laboratory Agency in Weybridge that the lethal strain - H5N1 - had marched across Europe's border, killing birds in Romania.
Is it time to panic? Is bird flu's transference to humans inevitable? Will hundreds of thousands die in Britain? Will millions die around the world? How is the government dealing with it? Is there a cure? What should we be doing now? ...
On Thursday, Donaldson [Chief Medical Officer] will present an updated version of the British emergency contingency plan that estimates that a flu pandemic would infect one in four of the population, killing 53,000 people in Britain and millions worldwide. The plans have been made around the 'most likely scenario', according to Donaldson, but officials at the Civil Contingency
Secretariat of the cabinet have warned that, at worst, deaths could rise much higher - up to 700,000."

It is perhaps worth putting this into perspective. The UK has a population of about 55 million; assuming an average lifespan of 75, one might expect more than 700,000 to die each year. Inevitably, those dying in any year will tend to be the old, the infirm and the weak, precisely those who might be most expected to succumb to bird flu. This is not to deny that bird flu may bring about additional deaths but - if the figures quoted above are reliable - let us not pretend that the world is about to come to an end or that our way of life will need to change radically. If this is complacency, then put it down to the previous forecast pandemics - SARS, CJE, etc - that never really justified the lurid prophecies from the media.

12 October 2005

Pots and kettles

Iain MacWhirter in The Herald claims that the malaise of poor economic growth in Scotland is not primarily the fault of our predominant public sector:

"Scotland's growth problem is inextricably linked to its shrinking population. For decades, centuries even, we have been exporting skilled and educated workers and entrepreneurs who find that the best opportunities lie in England or abroad. If you stay in Scotland, after a point, you find there's just nowhere to go. The magnetic attraction of the metropolis is the greatest inhibitor of Scottish enterprise. If anything is "crowding out business" it is London. If Scotland is to start growing again, it must somehow level this billiard table by creating a climate in which capital and skills remain here instead of migrating south. This can only mean a structure of fiscal incentives which will keep Scottish businesses in Scotland, encourage new ones to form and attract established businesses from abroad.Only then will the state diminish in relative size. The amazing thing is that just about everyone agrees with this analysis – even the Scottish Tories, who are now taking fiscal autonomy seriously. The only people who don't are the CBI. I agree that ideally the public sector should occupy a smaller proportion of the Scottish economy. But just whingeing about the state is a red herring. We don't live in Soviet Russia. We are a capitalist economy. It's just that in Scotland we are left with some pretty useless capitalists."

Some elements of truth here. But it is a bit simplistic to blame our troubles on the proposition that all the good capitalists have gone to London. One might say the same about politicians or even journalists...

10 October 2005

More dodgy economics commentaries

Yesterday, Scotland on Sunday made something of a song and dance about the preponderance of the public sector in Scotland's economy:
"THE astonishing extent to which state spending is propping up Scotland's economy is laid bare in new figures which suggest the ballooning public sector is strangling wealth creation. "
[Not too sure how state spending can be simultaneously propping up the economy and strangling wealth creation, but let that one stick to the wall.]
"The findings show that in some areas, three-quarters of the local economy is made up solely of the billions of pounds pumped in by the government. Such is the size of the public sector in these areas, business chiefs and economists fear it is swallowing up private enterprise, hoovering up talented workers and making it nearly impossible for companies to prosper.
The findings shed fresh light on Scotland's chronic dependency culture - in which the economy is becoming increasingly reliant upon state handouts to provide wages for the ever rising army of public sector workers.
It also provides a further explanation for why the country's growth remains at a laggardly 2% - compared with the UK's 2.7%. "

But today, The Herald appears to attribute the strength of recent private sector growth to the size of that public sector (here):
"Scotland was the second-top economic performer out of 12 areas of the UK in September, according to a key survey published today. Its consistently good showing over the third quarter was reflected in the fact that it is also second over the three months to September. Over both one and three months, it is behind only Wales...
Andrew McLaughlin, chief economist at Royal Bank of Scotland, believed this ... was consistent with growth around the longer-term trend rate for the Scottish economy of between 1.8% and 2%. He said: "The UK data that we have seen over the past couple of weeks, it looks as if we may be passing through the trough of the business cycle at a UK level. The Scottish PMI numbers suggest
Scotland is continuing to perform a little better than that. It is continuing to grow around its trend rate."Citing one possible reason for Scotland's relatively good performance, McLaughlin added: "I think, when you pass through the trough of the business cycle, having a relatively bigger public (sector) share of output is a support to business services in Scotland."

What is a simple blogger to make of this? Blowed if I know...

09 October 2005


OK, so once again we have failed to qualify for the finals of the World Cup. Disappointing, but at least we avoid the build-up of hope and expectation as the finals approach, to be shattered by actual participation (and a gubbing from some country we have never heard of).

But who should the tartan army support next summer? England are obviously not going to win any favours from north of the border and our experience with Norway in the qualifying group has perhaps soured relations in that direction.

But what about Togo, who have definitely qualified? The hawks, as they are known, come from a small country in West Africa, with about the same size population as Scotland. And they have a nice yellow strip. So we might see the pubs in Scotland next summer dominated by fans in yellow shouting "C'mon the hawks!"

(It would be utterly cynical to suggest that Togo has about as much chance of winning as Scotland might have had.)

08 October 2005

Water of life

A heart-warming story in The Washington Post, which restores one's faith in the youth of America:
"In a midnight stakeout, government agents seized a Howard County teenager and the illicit moonshine distillery he allegedly built from a bucket, a trash can and some copper pipe in the woods near his home.
The boy, arrested early Tuesday at the Rocky Gorge Reservoir in the Fulton area, told investigators he'd learned the essentials of bootlegging in high-school science class and on the Internet. Agents withheld his identity because he is a minor. They would not give his age.
"It's amazing what you can learn on the Internet," said Kevin P. Kane, spokesman for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose agency regulates the production of spirits.
It was the first illicit distillery seized in Maryland since 2000, something of a curiosity for the agents involved. Moonshining is a misdemeanor offense in Maryland, potentially punishable with a $10,000 fine and five years in prison."

Maryland obviously has rather more informative high school science classes than those promoted by the Scottish Executive Education Department. Furthermore, it is nice to see ancient traditions being maintained.

Mr Blunkett's big adventure

The Independent neatly summarises the latest escapade of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions:
"It's difficult to know what caused more claret-spitting last week: the revelation that David Blunkett has copped off with yet another stunner several years his junior, or the shock discovery that their intimate candlelit liaisons took place in - of all places! - Annabel's nightclub.
For a Labour minister, the Mayfair boite makes an absurdly incongruous pick-up joint. It is posh London's premiere watering hole, a home from home for fun-loving aristocrats, Eurotrash and minor royals. Yet there it was, in this blue-blooded melting-pot, that the working-class boy from Sheffield met a comely estate agent called Sally Anderson.
The couple's unlikely romance fizzled and crackled over a string of dinner dates in the famous Berkeley Square basement. They shared bottles of fine wine at its decadently upholstered dining tables, and - if one tabloid is to be believed - discussed marriage and children over coffee and petits fours.
Then, last week, the whole pack of cards came tumbling down in a shower of lurid headlines and chequebook interviews. Anderson, whose relationship with Blunkett was leaked to the press by a jilted former boyfriend, picked up the phone to Max Clifford, and details of their putative relationship were plastered across the front pages."

Allowing that labour ministers should not make a habit of frequenting Annabel's, Mr Blunkett may not have actually done anything illegal or immoral. But the ensuing ridicule makes it hard to see how he can remain a member of the cabinet.

"That's no way to say goodbye"

The Guardian reports on the troubles of Leonard Cohen, troubadour of gas oven rock, whose mournful ditties could be heard in the flats and bedsits of every 1970s student:
"He has been called the "poet laureate of pessimism". His songs, delivered in a slow, haunting monotone, tell of death, betrayal and depression. Now, earthly matters have caught up with Leonard Cohen: his manager, he alleges, has spent all his money.
A lawsuit filed by the 71-year-old singer and poet in a Los Angeles court describes a tangled web of deceit, allegation and legal chicanery. Cohen claims Kelley Lynch, his manager for 16 years, stole more than $5m (£2.8m) from a fund set up for his retirement. There is only $150,000 left
in the fund and Cohen has mortgaged his house to pay his legal costs and is selling his assets. He cannot touch the money in the fund because of the legal dispute.
"I was devastated," Cohen told the Canadian magazine Macleans. "You know, God gave me a strong inner core, so I wasn't shattered. But I was deeply concerned."
The theft allegedly started when Cohen, a Zen Buddhist, was on a five-year retreat in southern California. "Through greed, self-dealing, concealment, knowing misrepresentation and reckless disregard for professional fiduciary duties," Cohen's suit states, his manager and his financial advisers failed to inform him of the state of his finances. Lynch, a Tibetan Buddhist and
one-time lover of Cohen's, denies the allegations."

Rather uncharacteristically, the great man is looking on the bright side:
"The lawsuits and the absence of funds have prompted Cohen to start working again. He plans to tour for the first time in 12 years, he has a new book of poetry due next year, he hopes to record an album this autumn, and a new album recorded with his wife is due for release. While admitting that the financial loss could "put a dent in your mood", Cohen says he is happy again. "This has
propelled us into incessant work," he told Macleans. "

Taxi for McLetchie!

The press release from the (Orwellian-sounding) Information Commissioner reveals the real scandal over Mr McLetchie's taxis at public expense:
"The Scottish Information Commissioner today (Friday 7 October) announced his decision that the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) should release further details of the travel expense claims made by David McLetchie MSP, the leader of the Scottish Conservative MSPs. The decision was issued following an appeal by Paul Hutcheon of the Sunday Herald newspaper, which queried the SPCB’s decision to withhold details of the destination of Mr McLetchie’s taxi journeys.
Mr Hutcheon requested details of Mr McLetchie’s annual travel expense claims from May 1999 to March 2004. While the SPCB provided him with copies of the claims, it withheld certain information, including Mr McLetchie’s taxi destinations. In doing so, the SPCB argued that the release of this information could compromise Mr McLetchie’s safety and security. Mr Hutcheon appealed the decision to withhold these destination details.
Following detailed consideration of the disputed information, the Commissioner was not satisfied that releasing the destinations of taxi journeys undertaken by Mr McLetchie would endanger the MSP. While Mr McLetchie’s safety could potentially be endangered if the release of the information would allow third parties to predict his movements, the Commissioner’s investigating staff painstakingly extracted the information from almost 800 taxi journeys and found that there was no pattern evident from the expense claims which would allow such predictions. The Commissioner also noted that much of the information was now out of date. Furthermore the SPCB had not indicated any specific reasons as to why Mr McLetchie may be at risk. "

Why were the parliamentary authorities so keen to withhold the details of Mr McLetchie's taxi destinations? The security argument did not hold water, as the Commissioner has pointed out. I can't believe that it was an attempt to protect Mr McLetchie (or am I being naive?). Maybe it is just an ingrained pavlovian response on the part of civil servants to deny access to information...

05 October 2005

The dog with no mouth

The New York Times' film reviewer falls in love with Gromit (here):
"I hope you will forgive me for saying so - and I hope the filmmakers will forgive me, too - but "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" has forced me to ponder the deepest mysteries of cinema. Why, for instance, do certain faces haunt and move us as they do?
I am thinking of Gromit, the mute and loyal animated dog whose selflessness and intelligence can be counted on, when things get really crazy, to save the day. Gromit has no mouth, and yet his face is one of the most expressive ever committed to the screen. In particular, his brow - a protuberance overhanging his spherical, googly eyes - is an almost unmatched register of emotion. Resignation, worry, tenderness and disgust all come alive in that plasticine nub...
We all had a marvelous time. Perhaps it was the giant furry were-rabbit, or maybe the twinkle of romance between Wallace and Totty, or even the uplifting and nutritious pro-vegetable message... All of that and more, I'm sure. But for me, most of all, it was Gromit's forehead, which gave me renewed appreciation for the magic of movies. If only I had a dog like that."

I would not have thought that a quintessentially English film like W&G would travel, but the US seems to like it, even if some of the social comedy appears to pass them by. Unfortunately, to please American sensibilities, Wallace's marrow has been transmuted (at least in the US version) to a melon. (No, I don't know why.)

Enough is enough

The Herald reports a rather silly suggestion:
"A LEADING Tory reformer has called for the Scottish Parliament to have an elected upper house, with an attack on the quality of MSPs' scrutiny of legislation. Brian Monteith's criticism carries extra weight because he is convener of Holyrood's audit committee, parliament's most significant internal watchdog. He said yesterday that MSP committees do not spend long enough scrutinising, and that Scottish Executive members are too often required to vote with ministers' requirements."

Can he be serious? Is one bunch of Scottish politicians (with their expensive accommodation and their expensive expense claims) not enough? Does Mr Monteith really believe that the country would put up with an elected second chamber?

Life imitating fiction

There used to be a rather good BBC television series called New Tricks, starring Amanda Redman, James Bolam, Alun Armstrong and Dennis Waterman, involving a group of detectives assigned to the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad (UCOS). These detectives looked into old unsolved murder cases. Now, according to the BBC news website (here), it seems Strathclyde Police will do much the same thing:
"A team has been set up by Strathclyde Police to investigate about 35 murder mysteries.
The Unresolved Case Unit has been tasked with re-examining crimes such as the notorious Bible John killings of three women in Glasgow in the 1960s.
Detectives hope new technology and scientific progress can now help to track down the murderers. "

03 October 2005

Culinary matters

The Evening News reports the following:
"A HIBS fan who threw a steak pie on to the pitch during yesterday's match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle has been charged with breach of the peace.
The 17-year-old was arrested after throwing the pie at the players 15 minutes into yesterday's game. "

But was this a reflection on the pie or the football?

The magic of the movies

The Guardian has a report on research from the department of the bleedin' obvious:
"A team of doctors will today accuse Hollywood of irresponsibility over its portrayal of sex and drugs after a review of some of the biggest blockbusters from the last 20 years showed that only one movie made reference to a condom.
None of the top 200 films promoted safe sex, and nobody ended up with an unwanted pregnancy or any infection. The doctors, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, say filmmakers should reflect the real consequences of unsafe sex and illicit drug use in their work.
"The movie industry influences the perception of billions of people around the world," said Hasantha Gunasekera from the school of public health at Sydney University. "With globalisation and the growth of home-based media technologies, movies are more accessible to a wider audience and there is convincing evidence that the entertainment media influences behaviour."
Dr Gunasekera and his two co-authors, Simon Chapman and Sharon Campbell, studied the top 200 movies of all time, as listed on the Internet Movie Database in March 2004. The researchers
excluded any movie filmed before 1983, the pre-HIV era.
They also excluded animated features, those not about humans and any films rated acceptable for children. That left 87 films, in which there were 53 episodes of sex. Only once in those sex scenes did a condom feature, and that was a reference to birth control, they say. In 98% of sexual episodes, which could have resulted in pregnancy, no form of birth control was used or suggested.
There were no suggestions of any untoward consequences of unprotected sex, such as unwanted
pregnancies, HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. The doctors also looked at drug, alcohol and tobacco use in the films."

Hey guys - guess what? It's the movies - they are not supposed to be real life. Other aspects of human behaviour you will rarely see on celluloid:
  • most bathroom activities;
  • putting on and taking off make-up, shaving and other personal grooming activities (which does not prevent film stars from looking as if they had just stepped out of a beauty salon, even if they have just woken up);
  • hoovering, dusting, emptying the washing machine/dishwasher and washing the windows; and
  • wearing seatbelts, buying petrol, locking car doors

01 October 2005

Slipping standards

There are at least two things not right about this report in The Scotsman:
A MOTORIST came under fire from a hail of bullets as he drove along one of Scotland's busiest motorways. The 47-year-old was targeted by a gunman in another car on the M8 near Glasgow's Charing Cross just after 11pm on Thursday.
Between three and four shots were fired at his silver Mitsubishi 4X4 from a silver Ford Focus, which manoeuvred through fast-moving traffic as the gunman attempted to hit the driver.

First, "three or four shots" does not constitute "a hail of bullets".

Second, a Ford Focus? What kind of gangster drives a Ford Focus?