30 November 2005

Power and energy

Iain MacWhirter in The Herald wonders about the Prime Minister's new-found passion for nuclear energy:
"The problems with nuclear waste management are as great today as ever. Indeed, the more you look at the arguments for building a new generation of nuclear power stations, the more improbable it seems that any of them will ever be built. One of the most persuasive is that we have already 11 nuclear plants, nestling in their own contaminated hot-spots, which will be radioactive for aeons anyway. So, why not just replace these and maintain the nuclear status quo? It's becoming increasingly clear that even this argument is fatally flawed.
As the environment editor of the Sunday Herald, Rob Edwards, revealed at the weekend, a report commissioned by the nuclear waste executive, Nirex, has warned that we may not be able to store nuclear waste, or build new power stations, on their existing sites. The reason: global warming. One of the most predictable consequences of climate change is the melting of the polar ice-caps and the consequent raising of sea levels. It's already happening. Our existing nuclear stations were mostly built near the sea, at places like Torness, or Hunterston.
This means they stand to be inundated in the not too distant future. Needless to say, when a nuclear power station is submerged by sea-water, the contamination is literally unfathomable. It would make Chernobyl look like a central heating problem. No-one knows when, exactly, the seas might rise and engulf these plants – but we know it is going to happen. Yet the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management is expected to recommend soon the long-term storage of future nuclear waste at the existing Sellafield site in Cumbria. It would be criminally irresponsible to locate a waste repository or build new reactors on sites that are so manifestly unsafe. We simply cannot inflict this risk on humanity simply to prolong our current energy-profligate lifestyle for a few more years. We can no longer plead ignorance about global warming. This means looking for new sites inland. There hasn't been a planning inquiry into a new nuclear station since Sizewell B in the 1980s. That took nearly five years. Imagine what it would be like trying to site 10 new Sizewells today near centres of population? It just isn't going to happen."

Even if planning permission was given (or more likely by-passed), the demonstrators would have a field-day during construction and they would probably attract the sympathy of significant parts of the population. But if there are to be no new nuclear facilities, what do we replace them with? It seems doubtful if renewables can fill the gap.

Meanwhile, our esteemed First Minister dodges the issue (here at First Minister's Questions last week):
"We will argue for a balanced energy policy and state clearly our position that we will not support further development of nuclear power stations while waste management issues remain unresolved."

which is a cop-out, if ever there was one.

Scare stories

Is this kind of reporting in The Herald credible:
"The scale of Scotland's obesity crisis was exposed yesterday as an official health poll revealed two-thirds of men and nearly 60% of women are overweight or obese. In eight years, the proportion of women with a weight problem has grown from below 50% to 59.7%. A nutrition expert described the results as "frightening".

Two-thirds of men are overweight? Look around - is this confirmed by your own eyes? One day, we may have a real problem and, because all the health professionals and nutrition experts have been crying wolf so long, no-one will listen.

Even the Health Minister is in denial. This is from the same Herald article:
"The survey suggested Scotland is failing to meet the dietary targets set a decade ago for the end of 2005. The number of people eating five fruit and vegetables a day is still hovering around one in five, the same level reported by a Food Standards Agency survey in 2001. Andy Kerr, health minister, said there were positive signals. "We are now beginning to see signs that we are starting to shed the sick man of Europe tag. Fewer Scots are dying prematurely from the big three killers of cancer, heart disease and stroke."

Despite being overweight, binge-drinking and not eating enough fruit and veg?

28 November 2005

Surfing at Dunbar

Dunbar is a quiet wee tourist village/dormitory town on the Scottish east coast. According to The Independent, they held a surfing competition yesterday. The air temperature was 2 degrees celsius. The winner of the competition said:
"We have some of the best surfing beaches in Europe, if not the world. We were getting rides of up to 15 seconds on the waves as they came in over the reef at the entrance to the bay ... 100-metre rides at times. We have really good waves here, it's just that not too many people are aware of it yet. The only difference between here and Hawaii is it is not quite so warm and there aren't any semi-naked girls lying on the beaches."

Aye, right...

Pensions and other boring stuff

Unlike many financial journalists, Stephen King (no, not that one) in The Independent is able to offer a reasonably lucid explanation of the current spat between the Chancellor and Lord Turner:
"In the UK's case, we've come to depend on a three-tier system: a basic, pay-as-you-go, system which guarantees a minimum amount of income to prevent the old and infirm from starving or freezing to death: a funded system in either the private or public sector which is invested in assets designed to provide a decent return when people eventually retire, and a voluntary "top-up" funded system for those that feel that the likely income from the first two tiers just isn't up to scratch.
The spat between the Chancellor and Adair Turner really focuses on the first of these tiers. Turner wants to make sure that everyone has access to a "pay-as-you-go" system, indexed according to wage growth. The Chancellor prefers a means-tested system which is indexed according to inflation.
There are two key differences between these approaches. First, a system indexed according to wage growth is more expensive than one linked to inflation - one of the reasons that Margaret Thatcher severed the link to earnings in the early-1980s. A system linked to wage growth effectively means that pensioners will share in an economy's ongoing productivity gains. To reduce the cost of this policy, Lord Turner is suggesting that the retirement age should gradually rise, in line with likely advances in life expectancy.
Second, a means-tested system suffers from moral hazard problems: if you know that you will be bailed out in old age whether or not you've saved in earlier years, then you might as well carry on spending. Under a means-tested system, you know that future taxpayers will be forced to bail you out for your earlier spending indiscretions."

As Mr King admits, this is a relative sideshow compared with the deeper questions offered to society by an aging population. From a selfish point of view, however, it may be worth pointing out that, even if the current single person's old age pension of about £70 per week were doubled to £150, it is still not going to provide anyone with a comfortable living. Which we means that we have to rely on the other two "tiers", not a particularly comfortable prospect unless you are lucky enough to be provided with a pension linked to final salary.

27 November 2005

Woolly-minded liberal thinking

Iain MacWhirter in The Sunday Herald tries to convey a more balanced picture of the asylum row (here) and incidentally reports:
"The MP for Drumchapel, John Robertson, said that he not only supported the dawn raid on his constituents, he also said on the BBC’s Politics Scotland show that “handcuffs are there to protect the children”.

I heard him say this on the programme but couldn't believe my ears - which is why I waited until now before posting. I suppose I could conceive of circumstances in which it might be acceptable to handcuff children, but I am far from sure that the fact that a family is about to be deported is justification in itself. But to suggest that handcuffs are there "to protect the children" is surely going too far.

26 November 2005

Pensions row

The Independent reports:

"Gordon Brown has demanded an inquiry into the leaking of his letter to Lord Turner's Pensions Commission as the row with Tony Blair over the direction of pensions reform deepened.
Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, immediately launched an investigation yesterday and began interviewing the small circle of officials in Downing Street and the Treasury who had seen the Chancellor's letter.
Mr Brown was furious over the leak, which led to the Chancellor being accused by Blairites of attempting to block the review before it reports next week. Clearly suspecting that his letter had been leaked by Downing Street, Mr Brown demanded that the Treasury Permanent Secretary, Nicholas McPherson, take action. Mr McPherson called in the Cabinet Secretary.
A Brown ally said: "Gordon was clear he wanted the correct procedures taken because he was being accused by opposition MPs and others with being responsible for the leak. He was clear no one in the Treasury was responsible."
It would be hugely embarrassing for No 10 if they were found to be responsible. Mr Blair's spokesman said: "I can categorically deny as far as my knowledge goes ... that we were responsible for the leak."

Remarkable: a No 10 denial which is neither categorical nor convincing...

25 November 2005

To hell on a handcart (part 29)

This exchange occurred in the House of Commons yesterday, during questions following the statement by the Leader of the House (here):
"Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a short debate on the beers offered for sale in Strangers Bar? Will he lend his authority as Leader of the House to my concerns about the replacement of Youngs ordinary bitter—one of the most famous cask-conditioned ales in this country, which has been on sale in Strangers for more than 10 years and is brewed in Britain's oldest brewery, based in my constituency—with San Miguel, a lager from the Philippines, which is not only greatly inferior but far more alcoholic? In the name of good taste and parliamentary sobriety, will he help us to get Youngs back?
Mr. Hoon: I never cease to be amazed by the range of my responsibilities. I am delighted to discover that I might have responsibility for that matter. I am sure that it will be investigated now that my hon. Friend has raised it so eloquently."

What kind of tasteless philistines are running the House of Commons nowadays? To replace Youngs with San Miguel is disgusting.

24 November 2005

Asylum seekers

In the light of the recent brou-haha over the treatment of failed asylum seekers, I have been asked to explain why opinion in Scotland seems relatively favourable with regard to immigration, at least by comparison with the position south of the border.
This is not easy, especially as it involves giving credit to the Scottish Executive and, particularly, to Jack McConnell for what I would regard as an enlightened outlook on the matter. But let us begin with Duncan MacNiven, the Registrar-General for Scotland, a nice enough guy (although not very good at sums). Duncan has been pontificating on a regular basis to the effect that Scotland's population is in serious decline - although when we actually dip below 5 million is a matter for constant revision. In the light of the more disastrous prognostications, the First Minister brought forward an initiative to encourage non-UK students to remain in Scotland after graduation. Rather to everyone's surprise, the Scottish media and, indeed, the Scottish political establishment thought that this was a good idea and there was no serious opposition. (The initiative is probably doomed, as the UK immigration policy is entirely happy to accept foreign students prepared to pay for their higher education but would prefer to see them depart after graduation.)
Into this situation was thrown the Vucaj family, a family of asylum seekers from Kosova who had been deposited in Glasgow some four years ago. The family settled in satisfactorily and the kids went to the local school where, naturally enough, they acquired a Scottish accent and Scottish chums. Earlier this year, their asylum application was turned down and the Immigration Service, in its apparently usual fashion, turned up at 5am one morning to take them away. Breaking down the door, 12 officials dressed in armoured uniforms handcuffed the parents and whisked off the children in their pyjamas to whereever the Immigration Service takes failed asylum seekers. The family was subsequently deported back to Kosova.
Their removal and especially the manner of the removal caused outrage to Scottish opinion - which means the tabloids got upset. But largely because the schoolchums of the Vucaj kids mounted a protest which attracted the attention of politicians of all parties. The matter was raised in the Scottish Parliament and everyone agreed that the "dawn raids" policy of the Home Office/Immigration Service was unacceptable. Although policy on immigration and asylum seekers is a reserved matter for the Westminster Parliament, Mr McConnell agreed to pursue the matter with the Home Office. It is his apparent failure to make any progress which is causing the current row.
But it remains encouraging that significant proportions of Scotland's population are prepared to welcome immigrants. One can feel proud of the schoolkids who protested the removal of their chums. And one can applaud the relatively enlightened attitude of politicians in the Scottish Parliament. If there is a disappointing aspect to the matter, it concerns the Scottish MPs at Westminster most of whom have kept their heads firmly under the parapet. And the First Minister might have put a bit more pressure on the Home Office, although it is probable that he was always flogging a dead horse.

Deeper and deeper

You couldn't make it up! The Times reports:
"JACK McCONNELL’s vulnerability on the question of the forced removal of failed asylum-seekers in Scotland was again laid bare last night after it emerged that he had not raised the issue of so-called “dawn raids” with the Home Office.
The revelation contributed to a widespread feeling at Holyrood that the First Minister’s claim that he was on the way to winning a special deal for Scotland covering deportation was without foundation.
Nationalist, Green and Conservative MSPs joined forces yesterday to demand an explanation from Mr McConnell over the disclosure from Home Office officials on Monday that any changes to the way forced removals are handled will be UK-wide and will not be tailored for Scotland. The
controversy intensified after the First Minister’s spokesman agreed that he had not raised the dawn raids issue with the Home Office, even though these are the nub of MSP complaints about how the deportation system operates.
The critics of the removal system say that dawn raids, during which the homes of failed asylum-seeking families are visited early in the morning prior to removals, must stop.
Mr McConnell, in previous pronouncements, left the clear impression in the minds of the Scottish public, MSPs and the media that he was the driving force behind changes to the removal system that would apply primarily in Scotland."


Contrasting stories in The Herald (here):
"Chris Ballance, the Green MSP, had asked Strathclyde Police to investigate whether "rendition" flights landing at Prestwick and Glasgow were illegal. But a letter from Ian Learmonth, the force's assistant chief constable, said police could investigate only where there was evidence of a criminal act in Scotland. He added: "There must be more than mere speculation. If you have additional material which you could make available, I confirm the matter could be looked at afresh." Mr Ballance said this amounted to "the police asking a politician to do the police's job". According to records obtained by The Herald from the US Federal Aviation Administration, Prestwick and Glasgow top the rendition pit-stop league table north of the border with 75 and 74 visits respectively since 2001, followed by 14 for Edinburgh, six for RAF Leuchars, five for
Inverness and two for Wick."

and in The Independent (here):
"An investigation into claims that the CIA held al-Qa'ida suspects in secret prisons in Europe has been stepped up, with 45 countries being sent a formal demand to provide information.
Austria's air force is investigating reports that a US transport plane containing suspected terrorist captives passed through the neutral country's air space in 2003. And Denmark is to ask US authorities for details about claims that detainees were flown across its territory. Two eastern European countries are said to be involved, and the UK presidency of the EU is sending a letter to the US seeking more information.
Terry Davis, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, set a 21 February deadline for his 45 member nations to answer questions on overflights, landings and possible secret detention centres.
Dick Marty, a Swiss MP, said he was investigating the flight plans of 31 aircraft that landed in Europe in recent years, but he believes the suspected detention centres are likely to be small, and have probably been closed. He appealed to the UN, Nato, the EU and Eurocontrol, which coordinates European air traffic navigation, for help."

Mr Marty can appeal to the UN, NATO and the EU, but he better not approach Strathclyde's finest.

I suspect that we are about to hear a lot more on this matter.

Flu jabs

The Independent reports something of a row south of the border:
"A furious Tony Blair was forced on the defensive over the flu vaccination crisis amid continuing anger over the Department of Health's handling of the affair.
Mr Blair distanced himself from the insistence by the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, that doctors were responsible for ordering the vaccine.
He declined to blame doctors for over-prescribing winter flu jabs as he faced repeated claims that the Government was guilty of "inefficiency and incompetence" for allowing vaccine supplies to dry up.
Ms Hewitt sparked irritation from GPs on Tuesday when she blamed doctors for failing to give priority to people who were at most risk of catching flu - mainly the over-65s.
The Health Secretary apologised yesterday to patients who were unable to get their injections, but she said that she hoped all people at risk would get a vaccination before the end of the winter."

A fat lot of good it will do to be given a flu jab at the end of the winter. Meanwhile, all is sweetness and light in the Scottish Parliament, according to The Scotsman (here):
"HOLYROOD managers were condemned as "daft" and "insensitive" last night after it emerged that MSPs had been offered flu jabs while there is a shortage of the vaccine for Scotland's sick and elderly.
Despite the shortfall, 28 MSPs took up the parliament's offer of a flu jab this year - about 20 per cent of the total.
They were joined by 119 members of staff at the parliament out of a total parliamentary population of about 1,200.
Some pensioners have been told to wait for their flu jabs because of the unexpectedly high demand for the vaccination among other, less vulnerable, sections of the population."

Sniffle, sniffle...

23 November 2005

Police mystery

The BBC reports the latest developments:
"The identities of two prime suspects in the shooting of Pc Sharon Beshenivsky have been circulated to police forces nationwide, the BBC has learned.
Detectives confirmed they were now actively seeking three men after significant developments in the case.
Pc Beshenivsky was shot dead and her colleague, Pc Teresa Milburn, injured during a robbery at a travel agents.
Police also issued details of a silver Toyota hire car thought to be have been used in Friday's robbery in Bradford.
Five Somalian men, and a woman, were arrested in London over the weekend and brought to police stations in West Yorkshire but have all now been released. "

There has been surprisingly little comment on the release of those previously arrested. It was only Monday that these were conducted to Bradford with some pomp and circumstance, as admirably recorded by Bystander:
"But did you see the TV news footage of those suspects being taken up the M1? Something like a dozen vehicles, including many armed officers, proceeding at a stately speed up the motorway, with junctions closed as they passed, and other vehicles being kept away. At the scene of the murder, armed officers stood about in their baseball caps, looking at the cameras that were looking at them.
What exactly were the police so worried about? This wasn’t Al-Quaeda or the IRA, was it? The police are looking for a bunch of small-time losers, albeit armed ones, who tried to knock over a travel agency in a run-down part of a run-down town, not a paramilitary group. Was it really so necessary to deploy scores of officers (who could presumably be more use elsewhere) on escort duty, or on standing around in the cold cradling a Heckler and Koch automatic carbine? Did anyone seriously fear an attempt to release the suspects, or to burst into the crime scene and mess up the evidence?I suspect that every time a middle-ranking officer sees this kind of grandstanding he becomes determined that when it’s his turn to be in charge, he too will throw everything he has at the problem for the benefit of the cameras. Where is the managerial assessment of the problem, and the proportionate use of resources?"

All this fuss, and two days later the suspects are released? What is going on?

Socks 2

Michael Gove in The Times patronises the peasants on their choice of hosiery:
"Sir Christopher’s real mistake was in the hosiery department. John Prescott’s revelation that Our Man in Washington was known throughout his time in the States as “the red-socked fop” exposed the real frailty in judgment. Just as every man over the age of 35 needs to know how to deal with aural hair growth, so no man over the age of 25 should attempt individuality with his socks.
Brightly coloured or, even worse, patterned, socks worn with business suits are a catastrophic faux pas, up there with novelty ties bearing the image of cartoon characters, bow-ties of any colour other than black, worn with anything other than a dinner jacket, braces of more than one colour, cufflinks with any writing on them other than your initials, and baseball caps worn for any purpose other than playing the game or logging in the Canadian Rockies.
The decision to go for red is meant to show an air of devil-may-care individuality and loveableness. But I fear it’s the sartorial equivalent of hanging a “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!” poster above your desk. It is, in the profoundest sense of the word, a deeply Brentian act."

Who cares what some hoity-toity Tory MP thinks about socks? Wear whatever seems comfortable. A good socialist will never sneer at wearing red. And, as for novelty ties, bring a little colour into your life!


Michael Gove in The Times dispenses useful sartorial advice:
"Sir Christopher’s real mistake was in the hosiery department. John Prescott’s revelation that Our Man in Washington was known throughout his time in the States as “the red-socked fop” exposed the real frailty in judgment. Just as every man over the age of 35 needs to know how to deal with aural hair growth, so no man over the age of 25 should attempt individuality with his socks.
Brightly coloured or, even worse, patterned, socks worn with business suits are a catastrophic faux pas, up there with novelty ties bearing the image of cartoon characters, bow-ties of any colour other than black, worn with anything other than a dinner jacket, braces of more than one colour, cufflinks with any writing on them other than your initials, and baseball caps worn for any purpose other than playing the game or logging in the Canadian Rockies.
The decision to go for red is meant to show an air of devil-may-care individuality and loveableness. But I fear it’s the sartorial equivalent of hanging a “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!” poster above your desk. It is, in the profoundest sense of the word, a deeply Brentian act."
For the record, socks should be black or navy blue. Unless you are wearing a brown suit - but if you are you shouldn't be...

Executive keeps on digging

Following last night's row about asylum seekers, the Executive is seeking to blame Home Office officials. Thus here in The Herald :
"The officials said educational or medical criteria for children would be taken into consideration, but pointed out this was already happening across the UK and was not a concession to the Scottish Executive. A source close to Mr McConnell later said: "This was a cack-handed briefing by a couple of Home Office officials."

And here in The Scotsman:
"The First Minister's advisers insisted last night that ministers had reached an agreement in principle with UK ministers to change the way asylum seekers are treated, following the Mr McConnell's intervention, and Home Office civil servants were to blame for yesterday's confusion because they did not know what was going on."
Let us see for how long such a line of briefing remains sustainable. (It is seldom a good idea to attack those who can pull the rug from under your feet.)

Would anyone seriously believe that senior Home Office officials, briefing the press in advance of a visit to Scotland by their Minister, do not know what is going on?

22 November 2005

"There's a guy works down the chip-shop swears he's Elvis.."

The BBC reports that the Home Office has ruled out any special arrangements for dealing with failed asylum seekers, thus putting paid to the First Minister's hopes of a "protocol":
"The UK Government has dismissed the first minister's call for Scotland to be given special treatment on the issue of the removal of asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Tony McNulty said no concessions could be made for Scotland, despite the Scottish Executive's unease at the system. Jack McConnell had hoped that the executive would be consulted before failed asylum
seekers were removed.
Mr McNulty will be in Scotland on Thursday to meet Scottish Executive officials and organisations involved with asylum seekers. Ahead of his visit, it has emerged that he will tell Mr McConnell there can be no special arrangements with the executive on the issue of dawn raids.
BBC Scotland home affairs correspondent Reevel Alderson said educational or medical criteria would be taken into consideration but he pointed out that that was already happening across the UK and was not a concession to the executive. "

As recently as last Thursday (17 November), Mr McConnell told the Parliament:
"Discussions continue with the Home Office on the agreement that we seek to reach with it... We are determined that cases that concern young children involve the education and social services that, in this country, have a responsibility for those youngsters. That is the agreement that we are seeking to reach with the Home Office. When we have made detailed progress on that, we will, of course, report to Parliament."

"There needs to be an agreement with the Home Office. However, it would be far better for us to have the right agreement than to have an agreement that is reached in haste. That is why we will ensure that the discussions progress towards the right conclusion. I will not set some arbitrary date, as that might mean that the agreement could be inadequate. I want to ensure that the agreement is properly completed, and that is the point at which we will report to Parliament."

It is now clear that there will be no agreement with the Home Office. So why did the First Minister think that there would be? I find it difficult to believe that the Home Office misled the Executive. Perhaps, the First Minister thought that he could bounce the Home Office into it - in which case, he has been proved mistaken. Or perhaps political pressure forced him to clutch at a mythical straw. In any event, I bet he wishes that he had stuck to the line of stating that this was a reserved matter and taking whatever flak came down as a result. The position is now much worse: not only has he - at least arguably - misled the Parliament, he has revealed himself as totally unable to influence his Westminster colleagues. The issue is unlikely to go away in a hurry.

Smokers lead such interesting lives...

There can be advantages in nipping out to have a fag. From the Guardian:
"Brummies mingled with Westminster and City folk at the recent 50th birthday bash of CBI boss and Birmingham boy Digby Jones. The mixed crowd led to all manner of interesting exchanges, such as when one woman slipped outside the Blenheim Palace venue for a fag and met another smoker: "My name's Alison, what's yours?" "Eddie." "Pleased to meet you Eddie," said the Birmingham housewife. "What do you do?" "I used to run the Bank of England," said former governor Sir Eddie George."

But there can also be disadvantages:
"A French woman who is terrified of flying admitted in a Brisbane court yesterday that, while drunk, she tried to open an aircraft door mid-flight to smoke a cigarette.Sadrine Sellies, 34, was placed on a good behaviour bond after pleading guilty to endangering the safety of an aircraft. Sellies was on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Brisbane on Saturday with her husband, the court heard. She was arrested and charged on arrival at Brisbane airport. Defence lawyer Helen Shilton told the court Sellies had taken sleeping tablets with alcohol before takeoff and had no memory of the incident."

Two wheel superstar

The Guardian considers the biking prowess of President Bush:

"He's a pretty serious mountain biker. The bike is a carbon-fibre Trek, with Rock Shox front forks. Not totally top-end, but you get an awful lot of bike for $3,000 these days. He's wearing Sidi off-road shoes - $200 items designed for competition: light, stiff, with ski-binding-style cleats. Admittedly, the president's jacket and shorts are bulky and baggy, compared with the Chinese cyclists' more professional all-in-one Lycra suits. But, in fact, his style is mainstream for off-roaders - and, arguably, Bush wins brownie points for not wearing those wussy tights the Chinese team have on. Even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand bare-legged. The helmet is generic but late-model; the full-finger gloves are purpose-made; and the eyewear is sophisticated with lenses that enhance vision in low-light conditions. But the real give-away here is that his wristwatch is not a watch at all - it's a heartrate monitor (HRM). Now that's a real bike nut's piece of kit.
What this means is that when Bush was packing his bags to go to China, he wasn't thinking about trade or Tibet. He was thinking: Jeez, three days without a workout ... you know what, I'm going to take my bike - better take the HRM, too. Last year, a journalist from Associated Press joined the president on a lap of his Crawford ranch. Bush's heart rate, Scott Lindlaw reported, peaked at 168 beats per minute during the 18-mile loop. For a man of his age (59), that's likely to be about 95% of his maximum - which is the sort of intensity only elite athletes train at. According to AP, Bush completed the ride in an hour and 20 minutes. That's more than 13mph, which may not sound all that fast, but for an off-road cyclist, believe me, it's shifting. His resting pulse - a good rule-of-thumb indicator of fitness - is down in the 40s. On this form, Bush could not only hold his own in age-related cross-country races, he'd win some."

I just wish that he would put the same degree of effort into the day job. And is there not something slightly sad, even fetishistic, about a 59 year-old going to these lengths to remain an "athlete"?

21 November 2005

Executive advertising

The Scottish Executive freedom of information site reveals the amount spent by the Executive on advertising in newspapers. By far the biggest beneficiary is The Daily Record, which in the period from 1 August 2004 to the present received £443,182, out of a total spend of £1,751,937. By comparison, The Sun received only £78,343, The Scotsman received £50,581 and The Herald received £40,895; almost bottom of the list was The West Highland Free Press which received a paltry £174.

I have no idea why The Daily Record should bag more than 25% of the Executive's spend on advertising in newspapers. It is presumably the whole page adverts for campaigns that incur the biggest costs, but why should The Record exceed The Sun by a factor of more than 5?

Second thoughts on booze

The Herald reports:

"THE Scottish Executive is planning a U-turn on the controversial off-licence reform law by giving the green light to 24-hour off-sales in out-of-town shopping centres.The reforms were voted through by parliament during a day of high farce last week.According to sources, the executive intends to make use of a flexibility clause in the new act which would keep the newly-agreed hours – 10am to 10pm – in place for off-licences in town centres, but could liberalise hours in premises away from high streets. Labour ministers are believed willing to relax the new laws to reduce tensions within the coalition and with the licensed trade itself. Details of precisely how they would use the flexibility clause have yet to be worked out but it is thought that, at some point before the new law comes into effect in 2008-09, it would have to be approved by parliament. Liberal Democrat ministers want to go further and plan to try to overturn the restrictions in the off-sales law passed by Labour and Tory MSPs after the coalition split on the issue."

Did they not think about this last week (or during any of the last four years)? Or are we eternally condemned to suffer policy-making on the spur of the moment - subject to the latest whims of the media or whatever the Labour Executive thinks will get them a decent headline? And how can you possibly justify allowing Tesco to sell booze before 10 am out of town, while restricting sales in town centres?


The Guardian fails to demonstrate the utility of self-indulgence (or maybe it succeeds):
"Pleasure and happiness are not the same thing, but they are close relations. Indeed, if Epicurus is to be believed, "Pleasure is the beginning and the end of living happily." And John Stuart Mill believed that "Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends."
But before we raise a glass and a spliff to philosophy's endorsement of indulgence, we need to remember the sobering qualifications that come attached. First, both Aristotle and Epicurus argued that for pleasure to be good we must not be its slave. The trouble with drugs is that when we take them, we give up sovereignty over our experiences and let the chemicals rule us. You might think that is the point, but don't expect the wisdom of the ancients to back you up.
Second, philosophers such as Mill distinguish between pleasures of the mind and pleasures of the flesh. We need both, but the former are superior and a life with too many of the latter is not commensurate with human dignity. If we give in wholly to bodily pleasures, we live the lives not of humans but of feral animals (which, again, you might think is the point).
Third, there is the difference between authentic and inauthentic living. There is something to be
said for facing reality, even if that makes us less happy. Thinkers such as Sartre have argued that if the price of happiness is self-deception and delusion, it is not worth paying. But yet again, you might think the so-called great minds of history have again missed the bleeding obvious: no one ever got drunk in order to remember the pain of everyday life.
So there are reasons for not smoking dope, but they are nothing to do with it simply being pleasurable. Its main drawbacks seem to be that it shortens your life and turns you into a bore. But then so does spending all your life sitting on your arse reading philosophy."

This may not be the usual kind of post for this blog, but I attended the Sunderland-Aston Villa match on Saturday, which naturally steers one's thoughts in the direction of philosophical futility. It is all very well for old J-P Sartre to argue that self-delusion invalidates the price of happiness, but I don't suppose he was a regular at the Stadium of Light.

18 November 2005

Cheap shot (No 27)

The Herald reports:
"George Reid, the Scottish Parliament's charismatic and forward-thinking presiding officer, was last night named The Herald Diageo Scottish Politician of the Year 2005. The Ochil MSP was presented with the award at a gala ceremony in Edinburgh in front of 500 guests from the worlds of arts, politics and entertainment. The only person to win the award for a second time, Mr Reid was honoured for his drive and imagination in his unofficial role as ambassador for the new Holyrood building in its first year. He not only helped to change its image from a £431m embarrassment to one of Scotland's most popular tourist attractions, he also broadened its ambitions by establishing a festival of politics and a Futures Forum.Speaking at the ceremony in the Royal Museum, Mr Reid paid tribute to the parliament staff and praised his 128 fellow MSPs. "I assure you they are decent, hardworking men and women who put public service first in their lives."

And no-one set the curtains on fire...

Smell the coffee

Lucy Mangan in The Guardian reflects on the research findings that decaf may not be healthy:
"It does open up a world of counterintuitive possibility - a world in which saturated fat may one day be proved to sluice out instead of stop up arteries, refined sugar is revealed to be just the thing for buffing up tooth enamel and complex carbo-hydrates are instrumental in purging the body of cellulite. Or, even better, a world in which muesli causes deep vein thromboses, carrot sticks and hummus give you BSE and brown rice makes your head explode.
Perhaps if we get enough scientists to put their heads down and concentrate, the greatest triumph of all will come to pass. The headline will read: Pork Scratchings Cure Cancer - Sunflower Seeds Do Sod All."

I wish.

17 November 2005

Production values

Intrigued to see that Rome on BBC2 yesterday evening was well served by production staff. According to the opening credits, the "Consulting Producer" was Mr Michael Apted. Then there were two "Co-producers", Messrs Papazian and Hirsch, who had to share a screen credit. Two other "Co-producers", Mr Frank Yablans and Mr Todd London, each got a separate credit. We were then advised that the programme was "produced by" Mr Marco Valerio Pugini. There were also two "Co-executive Producers", Messrs Dyer and Kelley, who secured their own singular screen credits. The "Executive Producers", Messrs Macdonald and Milius had to share a credit. Finally, each with his or her own screen credit, we got a further three "Executive Producers", Mr Doelger, Ms Thomopoulos and Mr Heller.

I make this 13; is this a record? Who was the diplomat that decided who should get a single screen credit and who would have to share? Who cares? The programme is not very good...

Opening hours

How did the bill to liberalise the arrangements for the sale of alcohol end up by reducing the time periods during which alcohol may be sold by off-licences and supermarkets? You start with the principle that opening hours for both pubs and off-licences should be a matter for local licensing boards but that those boards should have more powers to resist or amend licensing applications in the light of local circumstances. This was the agreed Executive line, a line that was held until yesterday throughout the Committee stages of the bill. And this line was maintained even in yesterday's debates insofar as it was applied to pubs, which will now in theory be able to open at any time of the day or night - subject of course to the decision of the local licensing board. But certain Labour and SNP backbenchers would not recognise a principle if it sat up and bit them on the nose. And Labour Ministers, instead of sticking to the principle underlying the bill, caved in. Hence the unseemly Dutch auction over the last 48 hours to reduce the hours during which off-licences and supermarkets would be able to sell alcohol. The end result is that we will in future only be able to buy booze in supermarkets and off-licences during the hours between 10 am and 10 pm.

Was this outcome the subject of consultation with the licenced and/or retail trade? No - off-licences will now need to postpone opening in the morning until 10 am, while supermarkets will need to cordon off their booze departments until that time.

Was this outcome the subject of consultation with local authorities? No - but the powers of local licensing boards to adjust opening times to suit local circumstances are now heavily circumscribed.

Was this a rational considered choice by Parliament? No, it was a hastily cobbled-together fix. Given the confusion of yesterday's debate, it is not even clear that MSPs knew what they were voting for.

Altogether a poor show. Here is part of the Minister's speech on the relevant group of amendments:
"Mr McCabe:
Bristow Muldoon's amendments 12A, 17A, 24A, 64, 66 and 67 will introduce a new package in relation to licence applications for off-sales. They will, in effect, prevent boards from granting premises licences that would allow off-sales between 10 pm and 3 am. Boards will also be required to take into account the effect that the off-sales hours that are proposed in the application might have on antisocial behaviour. Frank McAveety's amendment 64A would amend the proposals by further restricting off-sales hours by preventing off-sales premises from opening between 10 pm and 10 am.
Bruce Crawford's amendment 63 seeks to amend section 60A of the bill, which was inserted at stage 2 and reintroduces statutorily permitted opening hours for off-sales of 8 am until 11 pm. The amendment would require off-sales to close at 10 pm. Andrew Arbuckle seeks to rely on the provisions of the bill as it was introduced...
Members have a number of options; for example, they could disagree to all the amendments and leave the bill as it stands, including Bruce Crawford's amendments that were passed at stage 2. As I said, statutorily permitted opening hours between 8 am and 11 pm for off-sales would therefore be reintroduced.
Alternatively, members could choose Bristow Muldoon's proposal, which would require off-sales to close between 10 pm and 3 am. They could support what he has proposed with the additional safeguard that Frank McAveety has proposed, which would require closure between 10 pm and 10 am. That would be a move from the current position and would surprise the licensed trade. However, I hope that the trade would understand the concerns that members have expressed about the difficulties that communities face as a result of the behaviour that is exhibited when people consume excess alcohol.
I want to make it absolutely clear that if members wish to introduce closure from 10 pm to 10 am—which Frank McAveety has proposed—they must vote for Bristow Muldoon's amendment 64 and for Frank McAveety's amendment 64A. As I said, Andrew Arbuckle has also lodged an amendment, which relies on the existing provisions of the bill to provide the protections that we seek."

16 November 2005

Grace and favour

Grace and favour indeed. The Independent reveals that Mr Blunkett remains a rewarded crony of the Prime Minister:
"A fortnight ago it seemed that nothing would ever be the same again for David Blunkett when the storm over his business interests forced him to walk out of the Cabinet for the second time in a year. Gone was the power he had wielded as a senior minister. At a stroke his salary tumbled from the £130,347 commanded by a cabinet member to the £59,095 paid to the backbench MP for Sheffield Brightside.
But there is one consolation for him as he surveys the wreckage of his political career.
Thanks to the Prime Minister, he will be allowed to stay on in the luxurious grace-and-favour Belgravia home that he has occupied for the past four years.
The house, valued at up to £3m, is in a prime London location close to Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace and within walking distance of exclusive bars and restaurants. Similar properties cost up to £7,000 a month to rent.
Mr Blunkett was allowed to hold on to the property last year after resigning as Home Secretary over the "nannygate" furore, with Downing Street citing security reasons for the decision.
Tony Blair has taken the same view following Mr Blunkett's downfall as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions."

While Mr Blunkett was clearly unaware of hubris, he seems equally impervious to embarrassment and shame.

3am boozing

The Herald reports something of a shambles:

"Ministerial plans to liberalise the licensing laws in Scotland were in disarray last night after back-bench Labour MSPs mutinied over a proposal to let off-sales open up at 3am.In a day of intense and bewildering horse-trading at Holyrood, Labour said it was standing by the idea, then changed its mind, before finally seeming to change it back again. The muddle delighted some of its Liberal Democrat coalition partners, who said the row had been self-inflicted.Labour's problems began last week after Bristow Muldoon, the party's MSP for Livingston, tabled an amendment to the Licensing (Scotland) Bill, which completes its third and final parliamentary stage today. If passed, the effect would be to allow off-sales licences between 3am and 10pm, instead of between 8am to 11pm which was specified in the bill following an earlier SNP amendment. Although the proposal had the backing of the Scottish Executive, it angered many Labour MSPs worried about antisocial behaviour, especially in inner-city areas. After the issue was aired at the Holyrood Labour group meeting yesterday, Mr Muldoon told reporters that a refinement would be proposed by another MSP, so that off-sales could not open before 6am. However, the compromise lasted barely half an hour, before it became clear there would no refinement after all. It is understood that ministers have decided to stick with 3am to 10pm opening in a move intended to placate Labour MSPs with city seats."

Why on earth would an off-licence wish to open at 3am? Who would want to buy booze at that hour, other than those emerging from clubs (who have probably already had enough)? And why should the Scottish Parliament - and specifically the Labour Group - be going out of its way to facilitate boozing at 3am? Mysteries, mysteries, mysteries...

Mrs DD becomes a star

The Guardian reports the remarks of Mrs Doreen Davis on her husband:
"He will go for days without calling her, and when he is at home, at weekends, he spends all his time at one end of the house either on the phone or watching "a film with a lot of shooting in it", while she gets on with the ironing at the other end.
It is undeniably endearing to listen to a politician's wife say something other than, "Well, of course I'm standing by him" or, "Lonely? Me? Why no, I'm far too involved having a fantastic time dealing with the problems of our wonderful constituents."
Instead, Doreen tells the Daily Mail that David now sometimes sleeps in the spare room. "Life becomes a bit separate because you get used to doing your own thing. There was passion in our marriage to start with, but I suppose some of that goes after 32 years." She does admit that "he likes to have a cuddle - particularly now that he's away so much". All of which is very refreshing after Cherie Blair insisting she and Tony are at it five times a night.
Does Doreen get depressed? She says she throws the odd "wobbly", but mainly because "the hormones are wrong" (she has a degree in molecular biology, so I suppose she knows exactly which hormones those would be).
Doreen clearly lives the life of a practically abandoned wife, dumped in the country with an empty nest, while her husband gets on with the proper "man's business" of politics (something she's never been that interested in).
"He can be quite selfish and inconsiderate sometimes," says Doreen."
How unusual: someone not afraid to tell the truth and a politician's wife who seems, well, normal. While David Davis may not be the most considerate husband, he gets full marks for having married an honest sensible woman.

15 November 2005

The curse of e-mails

The Times wonders at the number of e-mails:
"First my attention was caught by an article about the Gillette takeover. A US Government official had demanded access to all of Gillette’s corporate e-mails for the period in question. But he had been rebuffed by a judge, simply because his demand was ludicrous. Gillette’s staff, it seems, churn out no fewer than 14 million e-mails a month. Yes, 14 million. Assume that each takes just 25 seconds to write and five seconds to read and delete. My maths may not be as sharp as Gillette’s finest blades, but I reckon that still amounts to 1.4 million employee-hours a year.
Yet no sooner had I cranked my jaw back to its usual anchorage, an inch below my upper dentures, than I came across a yet-more-startling statistic. Tesco is now sending 20 million e-mails to its customers each month, making Gillette’s execs look like slouches in their bestowal of cyberspatial salutations. And then, because all bizarre things come in threes, my eye alighted on the e-mail statistic to cap them all. Bill Gates now receives so many e-mails — four million a day — that he employs a whole secretariat to fillet his in-box. (Connoisseurs of irony will be delighted to know that 95 per cent of its contents are spam-mail.)
Compared with that, the rest of humanity may seem to have escaped lightly. OK, we generate 50 billion e-mails a day. Yet that works out at only eight for every man, woman and child on the planet. "

"only eight" per head per day? Seems a lot to me...

12 November 2005

Lord of the rings

Entertaining conceit reported in The Independent:
"In the Tory version of Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings, revealed to the New Statesman by a Cameron supporter, David Cameron is, naturally, cast as the hobbit Frodo, whose mission is to overthrow Sauron, ruler of Mordor, aka Gordon Brown.
Frodo is sent on his quest by the wizard Gandalf, a role given to the former shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin. Mr Letwin, like Mr Cameron, is an Old Etonian, but at 49 is 10 years older. He played a decisive role in persuading Mr Cameron to enter the leadership contest.
Frodo leaves the Shire with three hobbits. Two of them, Merry and Pippin, are happy-go-lucky, naive where evil forces are at work, but prove to be brave and loyal. Their roles go to Mr Cameron's campaign manager George Osborne, and the former Times journalist Michael Gove. The role of the bumbling but shrewd and loyal Samwise is given to Boris Johnson.
Another character who dominates the saga is Gollum, originally a hobbit but driven insane by his long, unfulfilled yearning to possess the ring of power - assigned to David Davis."

Malcolm Rifkind as Legolas? No, I don't think so. I like the idea of Gordon Brown as Sauron, but I suppose that would cast the backbench Labour MPs as orcs.

11 November 2005

The definition of success

The New York Times does not actually state that Secretary of State Rice is living in a fantasy land but it does come close (here):
"MOSUL, Iraq,
Friday, Nov. 11 - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise stop on Friday in this violent, Sunni-dominated city in northern Iraq , declaring that it had recently become a success story for the strategy of using Iraqi forces to quell the insurgency.
On her way to Mosul, a detour in her trip to the Middle East, Ms. Rice said she wanted to show that the American approach of "clear, hold and build" was working despite criticism at home that the Bush administration lacked a plan for success in Iraq and for the eventual withdrawal of American forces.
"We are working to better unify our political and military activities in the field," Ms. Rice said, citing the creation of three "provincial reconstruction teams," one in Mosul and two in other northern cities, Kirkuk and Hilla. In general, she said, the American objective was to "redefine the mission" toward more cooperation between military forces and the effort to rebuild the area."

So all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds: Mosul is a "success story". The article goes on:
"But the visit also reflected the delicate situation in Mosul as Ms. Rice - making her second trip to Iraq as secretary of state and her first trip to a Sunni-dominated area outside Baghdad - flew from Bahrain directly to a heavily fortified military base north of the Tigris River, surrounding an old palace of Saddam Hussein's on the city's northern outskirts. The area is now known as Camp Courage.
A month ago, four State Department security officers were killed in Mosul by a roadside bomb, and the city, Iraq's third largest, was not deemed safe enough for her to visit."

Some success story: the city is not safe enough for Dr Rice to visit. Instead, she goes to a fortified army base. If this is success, how do we define failure?

Council tax increases

Here is a classic case of the Scottish Executive putting itself under pressure, as reported in The Scotsman:
"Jack McConnell reiterated his message yesterday that there was "no need" for local authorities to raise council taxes above 2.5 per cent. But the councils immediately hit back, warning that the Executive had not given them enough money to fund frontline services.
Senior local government sources admitted that many councils would simply not be able to keep to Mr McConnell's inflation limit and would impose council tax rises well in excess of 2.5 per
cent next year.
"Councils do not believe it is possible to keep to this limit given the money that is being offered from the Executive," a senior council insider said.
Initial forecasts for council tax have already predicted an average rise of 4.6 per cent with some bills going up by as much as 7 per cent.
Ministers had hoped that the councils would scale down these estimates after negotiations with the Executive, but this has not happened and the local authorities are still preparing to go ahead with the inflation-busting rises...
During First Minister's questions yesterday, Mr McConnell made it clear that councils would have to take responsibility for any inflation-busting tax rises, and would not be supported by the Executive if they did so. Answering a question from the Scottish Socialists' Colin Fox, Mr McConnell said: "The reality is that, given the funding settlement agreed for local authorities next year, there is no need - unless local authorities decide to increase their expenditure - for local authorities to be increasing council tax by more than 2.5 per cent next year. That is a consistent position in my view backed by the facts and figures."

As the scare stories about big increases in council tax for next year continue, and as local authorities impose mounting pressure on MSPs, the Executive will inevitably climb down and produce some extra cash to moderate those increases. They will of course deny it, up until the moment when it happens. You read it first here.

Binge drinking in Sweden

According to The Guardian, European drinking habits are not always civilised; these creatures do not appear to be content with the occasional glass of wine (here):
"A drunken party of elks surrounded an old people's home in Sweden and had to be driven away by armed police, Sweden's media reported yesterday.
The elks attacked the home in the town of Östra Göinge, near Malmö, after devouring large numbers of fermented apples, the paper Dagens Nyheter said. Police with dogs had failed to scare them off, and the animals only ran away after hunters with guns arrived on the scene.
"It's not unusual for elks to get drunk," forester Fredrik Jönsson told the newspaper. "They don't recognise the difference between fermented and not fermented and stuff themselves down to the last apple." Mr Jönsson did not know how many apples the elks had eaten."

We get the occasional drunken animal in Scotland...

The Grim Reaper

The Office for National Statistics sets out male life expectancy rates for local authority areas:

Lowest life expectancy 2002-2004
Rank order/Local Authority/Years

432 Glasgow City 69.3
431 Inverclyde 70.3
430 West Dunbartonshire 70.7
429 Renfrewshire 71.8
428 Comhairle Eilean Siar 72.2
427 Manchester 72.3
426 North Lanarkshire 72.4
425 Dundee City 72.5
424 Blackpool 72.8
423 Liverpool 73.2

Some useful argumentation here for higher public spending in Scotland than elsewhere; or, alternatively, a comment on the appalling Scottish lifestyle.

10 November 2005

Sex objects

The Independent reports on Mr Davis' troubles with the monstrous regiment:
"When David Davis paraded two young women wearing tight T-shirts bearing his slogan "it's DD for me" at the Tory party conference, not everyone was impressed by his modern brand of Conservatism.
So when Mr Davis faced the twin challenge yesterday of a slot on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and a speech to the Conservative Women's Organisation most assumed he'd be on his best behaviour.
But, far from impressing the women of the Tory party, Mr Davis, who appeared at both events with his rival David Cameron, merely compounded his image problem.
Asked by the Woman's Hour presenter Martha Kearney if they preferred blondes or brunettes, Mr Cameron tactfully refused to comment. Mr Davis however rushed in with "blondes" - a doubly unwise comment given that his wife, Doreen, has red hair.
Next, the pair were asked for their choice of underwear. Mr Cameron responded with boxer shorts, Mr Davis with briefs. For many women, enough said."

I'm not at all sure that Mr Davis gets it. Does nobody brief (sorry!) him in advance?


The Herald can't make up its mind about the new Hearts' coach. On the one hand, Graham Speirs is sympathetic:
"I hope I'm not the only one who is uneasy about the growing witchhunt over Graham Rix's arrival at Hearts. Talk about unstinting castigation before the guy has even had a chance? The hysteria around Rix over the past 48 hours has been absurd. I was going to say I have been amazed – though I shouldn't have been – at the Scottish football community's ability to be so judgemental and Pharisaic.
You'd think Rix was a paedophile from the way he has been treated. Let's get this straight. What Rix did in the under-age sex case in 1999 was wrong. He committed his crime and he paid for it. Indeed, not only did Rix pay for his offence in the penal sense, but his name became forever tarred, as we have already witnessed over these past two days. As usual, no-one is interested in the finer details of Rix's crime. In actual fact, that case in 1999 was a complex one, with the 15-year-old girl in question, who was already in a relationship with Rix, coming as perilously close as you can get to being a consenting adult.
Nonetheless, Rix's behaviour was to be deplored. I still maintain, though, that the new Hearts coach deserves sympathy. He is neither a paedophile nor a pervert, yet the lynch-mobs are already marching on various phone-ins and websites."

On the other hand, Joan McAlpine takes a rather more censorious position:

"Graham Rix says the full story of his crime has yet to be told. Only he knows the truth, he told the press this week. So, by implication, we should not judge him too harshly over the behaviour which sent him to jail for unlawful sex with an underage girl. We surely must question the extend of his penitence. A generation of porn-reared males may rally to him. They may assume he was seduced by some teenage temptress, a fantasy Lolita they dream may one day cross their own path. As one fan said on a Hearts chat room yesterday: "Who among us has never looked lustfully at a 15-year-old girl?" But Rix did not just look. His position, age and experience gave him a responsibility to exercise self-control, something he failed to do. There is a case for nderstanding when an 18-year-old boy or even a man in his early twenties finds himself in a relationship with a younger girl and one thing leads to another. Similarly, we all might feel a modicum of sympathy for a chap who is duped by a sophisticated young lady who pretends to be older than her years. None of this applies in Rix's case. Here we had a 41-year-old man abusing a child 26 years younger than himself. We should remember that, as well as unlawful sex, he was convicted of a separate offence of indecently assaulting the same girl. This suggests he forced her to do something against her will."

09 November 2005

Oh dear, oh dear

The Herald reports Sir Christopher Meyer's comments on, of all people, Scotland's former First Minister:
"Henry McLeish, his amiably uncharismatic successor, was struck nearly dumb with shock when, to his astonishment (and mine, to be frank), a chance remark I had made to the White House led to an invitation to meet President Bush."As poor Henry twitched and stuttered in the Oval Office, George Bush, accompanied by the then national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, genially recounted his time in Scotland as a boy," writes Sir Christopher.But he recalls that even this simple hospitality based on shared Scottish connections had explosive consequences at Westminster.He says: "After McLeish's coup, the sound of spitting from envious Westminster politicians became audible. "It caused me all kinds of problems."There are few things harder to handle than a minister who expects access way above his or her grade."One threw a tantrum and cancelled her visit, because her demands for access could not be met."

Now who do you suppose could be this tantrum-throwing Minister? Scottish, female, Cabinet rank...perhaps now in Australia?

07 November 2005

Goody-bag time

Today sees the resumption of the Highlands and Islands Convention. As usual on these occasions, the First Minister arrives bearing gifts, as the Executive's press release points out:
"A funding package of around £6 million had been agreed to create a new regional air hub in Oban and new licensed airfields on the islands of Coll and Colonsay.
First Minister Jack McConnell, at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands at Inverary today, said creating the new island airfields will mean islanders and tourists have an alternative to the existing ferry service - opening up the area to increased business and tourism.
The new air service will integrate with the existing scheduled air services between Tiree/Glasgow and allow the Argyll Island air network to link with the pan-Highland and national services.
The First Minister said: "Since the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board 40 years ago, this part of Scotland has been transformed. The economy is strong, tourism is booming and people are being attracted to live and to work here.
"Where once people were leaving their communities in search of jobs, they are now staying and helping their area to thrive.
"These new airports will make sure that this Highland Renaissance can continue. They will open up some of the most spectacular scenery in the world to more tourists. They will make sure that businesses can remain connected. And they will make sure that more and more people choose to make the Highlands and Islands their home. This is an exciting project that will bring benefits to all of Scotland."

The cost of £6.2 million will benefit the inhabitants of Coll and Colonsay. Coll has a population of 150, while Colonsay numbers about 100. The average cost of the airfield infrastructure (and this is the capital cost - there will be additional operating costs falling on the public purse) therefore amounts to about £25,000 per inhabitant. Does this make economic sense?

Ah, but what about the tourism potential? Well unfortunately, Coll does not even have a hotel, only some self-catering accommodation. Colonsay has a six bedroom hotel (as well as more self catering accommodation), but I rather doubt that this has the capacity to make a significant impact in terms of tourist numbers.

But never mind - who cares about economics when the Highlands and Islands Convention comes to town?

06 November 2005

From bad to worse

Congratulations to the Sunday Times, which appears to have unearthed one of the the most important facts about the Monteith imbroglio. It appears that, despite being thrown out of the Conservative Party, he can remain an MSP until the next general election.
"But even if Monteith, one of the Tories’ sharpest thinkers, is thrown out of the party for committing to e-mail what his colleagues said to journalists, nothing can be done to eject him from the parliament. He will keep his seat and continue to receive his £51,708-a-year salary until the next Holyrood elections in 2007.
As a “list” MSP Monteith was not directly elected by anybody, but was returned to Holyrood under the proportional representation voting system. He took his seat because a sufficient number of Scots in the Mid-Scotland and Fife region cast their second vote for the Tories.
Though he owes his seat to the party, the rules state that he cannot be removed before the next election now that he is outwith its parliamentary group. This bizarre state of affairs has prompted calls from senior politicians for a change in the list system."

Worth noting that neither Scotland on Sunday nor the Sunday Herald had done sufficient homework to point out this fact.

This of course assumes that the Sunday Times has got its facts straight (don't put a bet on it), but at least it has the courage of its convictions.


From The Independent (here):
"Somewhere in the world, deep beneath the waves, a British nuclear submarine is on patrol. There is always one moving silently through the depths, ready to fire. If the command comes today, a hatch will open and a Trident ballistic missile will be propelled upwards, through the waves and into the sky. Covering thousands of kilometres at great speed, it will read the stars to find a position from which each of its four warheads can fall independently to their targets.
The warheads will explode without warning among men, women and children, each one with a power five times greater than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Hundreds of thousands of people will die immediately. The environmental devastation will be vast. Many more deaths will follow as a result, in the target nation and across the world. Meanwhile the submarine will continue its underwater patrol, the crew barely able to imagine the mayhem unleashed above the surface as fallout spreads and retaliation is ordered.
But surely nobody would ever risk such an apocalypse, would they? Britain has the Trident system - 200 nuclear warheads carried in four submarines - so that anyone who threatens this country knows they will suffer greatly in return. Trident is a deterrent. That is the theory, anyway: a theory forged in the days when two superpowers stood nose to nose, East versus West. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction was, literally, MAD.
But the world has changed. The Soviet empire was crumbling even as Trident was being planned. So who are those missiles aimed at now? Is their doomsday force any protection from the rogue states and terrorists that threaten us? Is it worth spending the estimated £25bn it will cost to replace Trident before the end of its working life in 2024?"

The answers to those last three questions:
  • who knows (France would be my guess);
  • none at all; and
  • emphatically not.

05 November 2005

Corporate feet of clay

From The Independent (here):
"The two founders of Google, whose corporate slogan is "do no evil", have made the ultimate acquisition for chief executives. They have bought a corporate jet - but it is a bit bigger than most.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both 32, splashed some of the $22bn (£11bn) fortune they made by creating the world's largest internet search engine on a Boeing 767 airliner.
The ostentatious purchase appears to be a departure for the two Stanford University computer science graduates who have mainly shunned the trappings of wealth common among American chief executives.
The muti-billionaires both drive environmentally friendly Toyota Prius cars and, when asked on the television programme 60 Minutes after Google's flotation last summer, Mr Brin said he had spent some of his financial windfall on a T-shirt.
The plane, which cost up to $15m, carried 180 passengers in its days as a transatlantic carrier, but is being refitted according to the men's specifications.
They want two "state rooms", with adjoining lavatories and a shower. There will also be a large sitting and dining area and, at the back, up to 16 first-class seats for guests or employees. A request for onboard internet access has also been made."

Sell your shares! The next thing will be a fancy corporate HQ. As soon as the bosses become more interested in management accoutrements, performance is bound to nosedive.

Tory meltdown (or at least crumbling a little at the edges)

The Scotsman reports on a minor Tory scandal:
"BRIAN Monteith resigned last night from the Conservative group at Holyrood, pre-empting his certain expulsion by party chiefs after he admitted secretly plotting a campaign to remove David McLetchie from the Tory leadership. Mr Monteith quit after learning that details of emails he had sent to Iain Martin, the editor of Scotland on Sunday, in which he referred to Mr McLetchie as "the Letch" and suggested that they campaign for his removal, were about to be published. "

This is the same Mr Monteith who featured in yesterday's Evening News:
"In a newspaper column yesterday, Mr Monteith said Mr McLetchie was guilty of complacency, but not greed, over the taxi affair, adding: "Tories owe David McLetchie a debt of gratitude for halting their inexorable decline, turning the party around and making progress on the way to recovery."

Apart from the hypocrisy, the surprising aspect of the affair is that Mr Monteith trusted journalists with e-mails displaying his disloyalty. A subtle effective plotter? Or a little lacking in the Guy Fawkes department?

03 November 2005

20 years later

An intriguing answer to a written parliamentary question on Tuesday of this week (here):

Bruce Crawford (Mid Scotland and Fife) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive what monitoring programmes, resulting from the Chernobyl incident, are still in operation.

Lewis Macdonald: I am advised by the Food Standards Agency that monitoring of sheep for radioactivity resulting from the Chernobyl incident in 1986 continues on 11 remaining restricted farms in Scotland. Monitoring is undertaken by the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department on behalf of the Food Standards Agency Scotland. Sheep from these farms must be monitored for radioactivity prior to being moved off farm; additionally annual surveys of whole flocks are carried out on selected farms to assess whether they are suitable for derestriction.

After 20 years, we are still monitoring the fall-out from Chernobyl.

More scones?

The Herald feels free to patronise Miss Goldie, the new leader of the Scottish Tories, in a rather sexist way:
"The longer term question is how to steer the party into the 2007 election. One big asset is her personality, being the only female leader of a major party and one with notable people skills. She is compared to Mrs Doubtfire, her humour described as "Chic Murray in a frock", while one of her supporters said yesterday: "She now has the opportunity to project her identity as David Cameron's nice auntie." One MSP was relieved to say there would be fewer meetings to attend, while it was pointed out that meetings would have more scones. "

If the Scottish media wish to be taken seriously, then they really have to move on from such unfunny stereotyping.

Hamming it up

The Guardian disabuses those of us who thought that ham was usually cut in slices from a joint:
"Most supermarket ham sold today, including premium ham, is formed or reformed ham. Formed ham is muscle meat from the leg bones. It is chopped and passed under needles which inject it with a solution of water, sugars, preservatives, flavourings and other additives, or put into a giant machine resembling a cement mixer and mixed with a similar solution. The process dissolves an amino acid called myosin so the meat becomes sticky and, when put into moulds, comes out looking like a whole piece of meat.
If the ham is to be presented as a traditional cut, a layer of fat is stuck round the edge of the mould to make it look as though it has been cut off a whole leg.
Reformed ham is made from chopped or emulsified meat which is not necessarily all muscle meat. Scraps left over from making formed ham may be used in reformed ham.
Traditional ham-making involves soaking in brine or dry-curing legs of pork by covering them with salt and saltpetre, and then hanging them for several weeks. A premium supermarket ham can be cooked in just 72 hours, using industrialised production processes. "

It may be a little while before I next have a ham sandwich...

02 November 2005

Night fever

The Independent looks back to a previous royal visit to the US:
"That previous dinner took place on November 9, 1985. It was, famously, Diana, dressed in a formal ink-blue, silk and velvet gown designed by Victor Edelstein, who captured everyone's attention when she danced with Travolta, having presumably calculated that her husband was not up to the rigours of Night Fever. It was Nancy Reagan who sidled up to Travolta and passed on a request to dance from the princess. "I felt like a frog who had been turned into a prince," Travolta later revealed. "We were alone with the world watching. She started to dance kind of strongly. So I gently pressed her hand down and put my other hand on her waist. It was to say 'let me lead because I know what I'm doing'. She got the message and we went to town."

Good news (I think)

The Independent offers some reassurance to those worried about the size of their posteriors:

Does wearing black make your bum look smaller?

Yes. The human eye can only perceive shapes if the object appears in different shades or colours. It is easier to notice wrinkles on a piece of light clothing than on a dark one. Thus in black clothing the shadows are barely discernible and the shape appears flat. The problem is that this only works when viewing directly from behind. When in profile, the backside will still reveal its true dimensions. The effect of shadows on the human face also explains why people of a darker complexion appear to age better than those with pale skin. Wrinkles are visible by the shadows they create and are therefore harder to see on dark skin.

Ho hum

So - once again - farewell Mr Blunkett. I suppose that this will mean another £18,000 compensation - see here.

Tedious, tedious, tedious...

The Herald reports on the fall-out from the McLetchie affair:
"The public will soon be able to see regular updates of every detail of Holyrood expenses published online, in an attempt to draw a line under the taxi scandal that brought down David McLetchie as the Tory leader.The Scottish Parliament's ruling body yesterday backed a move to an unprecedented level of openness about expenses, amid fears that the entire institution has been brought into disrepute by a relatively minor series of unexplained taxi journeys.
George Reid, the presiding officer, has told MSPs they have to move on from the old Westminster-based systems for freedom of information (FoI), and create rules that make politics more open than anywhere else. Mr Reid has moved swiftly in the wake of Mr McLetchie's resignation, aware that the impression of profligate expenses is rebounding on all MSPs.He also faces frustration from members, including non-Conservatives, that the parliament did not do more to protect Mr McLetchie from being singled out. While most MSPs shunned publicity on the McLetchie saga, some say the parliament should have done more to explain that most of his expense claims over the past six years were within the rules.
Mr Reid wrote to members yesterday to tell them of a new regime of openness that will see not only the totals for their expenses published online, but all supporting receipts and vouchers as well."

If readers of this blog expect me to trawl through MSPs' expense claims in the hope of finding some minor infelicity, then they would be better off reading the dead tree media.

Modal verbs

Marcel Berlins makes a good point in The Guardian:
"Blunkett claimed, at the beginning of his latest saga, that he didn't realise that as an ex-minister he had to consult an independent advisory committee before taking on outside jobs. What the official guidance says is that a former minister "should seek advice" from the committee. When I was first taught English (not my mother tongue) the word "should" was not regarded as an absolute imperative. It was a persuasive nudge to do whatever it was, but not an order. It was not until I had spent some time working in Britain that I fully appreciated the nuance of "should" which amounted to a command.
But why use an ambiguous word when there's a perfectly good word - "must" - that has no alternative meaning? Guidance that an ex-minister "must seek advice" would have put it beyond doubt.
However, I have found that English officials and employers, especially at senior levels, don't like to be seen to be giving direct orders; it is more polite to use a more subdued form of words. When first in London, I had a boss whose commands began "Perhaps you'd like to ..." The first time she said this to me, I considered her kind suggestion, and declined it. I had to be taken aside by a colleague who explained that I wasn't in fact being given a choice."

But Mr Blunkett is a native English speaker and an experienced politiician - he should have known what "should" means.

01 November 2005

How did it come to this?

How did a respected institution like Heart of Midlothian FC end up being taken over by a bunch of Lithuanians? The Herald lists the Hearts Board:

Roman Romanov, Chairman and temporary chief executive; Vladimir's only child, joined the board in February. Aged 29, studied economics at Moscow University.
Sergejus Fedotovas, Director. Also 29, he is a close associate of Vladimir Romanov.
Liutauras Varanavicius, Director. Experience of wheeling and dealing in eastern European market where players can be brought in on the cheap.
Stewart Fraser, Finance director. Part of the old regime, joining the company in 1998.
Julija Goncaruk. A Lithuanian non-executive director with responsibility for marketing. She joined the board in July.


The Guardian is in quirky mode this morning. I do not propose to dwell upon the subject of singing mice; nor could I possibly comment on the iniquity of denying Bavarian thigh-slappers adequate time to exhibit their dancing at the World Cup next year. And I can quite do without the potty obsessions of the AA with regard to monitoring their employees' toilet breaks. But the wonderful Marina Hyde is on top form as usual (here):
"It is most distressing to learn that Prince Charles is beset by gloom as he begins his eight-day tour of the US today. Much in the manner of a former boy-band star struggling to become a solo artist, Charles is upset that people do not take him seriously.
"It's very easy to dismiss anything I say," he fretted to a CBS interviewer this weekend. "It's difficult."
Mm. It's always so hard to know what to say in these situations, isn't it? Ever since Hapsburg interbreeding caused one chap's lower jaw to make make contact with his nose, "chin up" has been an outlawed expression in royal circles...
Last week, one US comedian heralded the future king's visit with the words "star of first celebrity sex tape to hit town". (I know, it's so unfair. One Tampax fantasy, and people still can't move on.) Still, Charles is reminded that even the genuinely talented are not immune to having their skills skewed. When John Gielgud passed away, the Daily Star headline read: "Butler in Arthur dies."
His Royal Highness is urged to stay strong."

Indeed. It could be worse - he might have been a Jambo.