30 May 2006

"Fit for purpose"

Ever since Dr Reid used the phrase (here), everyone seems to have got the wrong end of the stick. The whole point about being "fit for purpose" is that you do the absolute minimum necessary to achieve the objective. No Rolls-Royce to go down to the shops. No gold-plating. You do just enough to get by - because in that way you minimise the costs and free up resources to target more important tasks.

I was never convinced that the phrase could usefully be applied to government business, even although the management consultants of the 1990s were extremely fond of the phrase. When I was a public servant, I believed that I should seek to do as well as I could whatever job I was tasked with. For me, it was never enough just to do it adequately.

But I suppose that all this is irrelevant to the current travails of the Home Office. Adequacy seems way beyond their capabilities. But an arguably useful management concept seems to have become lost along the way.

More sad than bad

I always thought that they meant well and that, however misguided, they were seeking to improve matters for those at the bottom of the pile. But The Herald is tracking their descent into madness:
"The Scottish Socialist Party was in open feud last night as Alan McCombes, its official who was released from prison last night, and leader Colin Fox launched angry attacks on Tommy Sheridan. The former leader was was accused of "regurgitating poison" by Mr McCombes. Their comments came after the Glasgow MSP criticised colleagues in an open letter, claiming "an unsavoury cabal" in the party's leadership had spent the past 18 months blackening his name through what he described as "vile lies". He directed his ire at three female SSP MSPs, Carolyn Leckie, Rosie Kane and Frances Curran, one of whom had accused him of "woman trafficking". Other party colleagues said he "regularly used prostitutes", frequented lap-dancing clubs and was involved in "drug-dealing", Mr Sheridan claimed.
Mr McCombes emerged from prison last night bitter with Mr Sheridan, the former friend with whom he co-founded the Scottish Socialists in 1998. He admitted the party was now "in crisis" and said Mr Sheridan needed to act more like an adult than a headstrong child."

It is a matter for regret that you need deep pockets to take on the News of the World. Unfortunately, neither Mr Sheridan nor the SSP has such deep pockets. Bankruptcy looms for both.

What's in a name?

Never mind about natural disasters or politics. The Guardian has more important things to worry about:
"When I read that Angelina and Brad have named their kid Shiloh Nouvel, my first thought was about the second name: shouldn't that be Nouvelle? My second thought was, then again, what do I know? The internet being a place where one's every idle fancy is somewhere the subject of a bad-tempered debate, it wasn't long before I found a forum thread entitled "Shiloh Nouvel: faute
d'orthographe?" One poster contends that nouvel should only be used before masculine nouns beginning with a vowel, which sort of rings a bell. "Shouldn't it be Shiloh Nouvelle, since she is a little girl?" they ask. I may not know much French, but I know it's never as bloody simple as that.
The real question is whether Shiloh is a masculine or feminine noun, and to know that, we must first know which Shiloh the child is called after. There is the Hebrew word, which means either "the peaceful one" or "the Messiah". Then there's the American civil war battle, named after the church in Tennessee around which Union troops made their fatefully under-fortified encampment. Battle and church are both feminine in French, but I'm not sure that matters. It is possible that Pitt and Jolie have, according to a system fashionable in celebrity circles, named the baby after the location of its conception, but this is not immediately enlightening: there are better than 50 Shilohs in the US (including six in Texas alone), none of which, to my knowledge, has presented itself to the Académie Française for gender assignment. There is also a movie called Shiloh about a cute runaway dog - male, I think, but I don't know the sex of the dog that played him."

I don't know why celebrities have to give their offspring stupid names - what would have been so wrong with Emma or Jane?

27 May 2006

Teddy on holiday

OK, I promise that it's the last post on our friend, the Italian football-supporting bear. Giles Coren in The Times has managed to get hold of the postcard he (the bear) sent home:
Dear All,
Weather lovely here in Germany, everything else utter crap. Next time I say something like, “I fancy going on a walking holiday in Germany”, will somebody please talk some sense into me? And it’s not just fat-arsed Helmuts in stupid hiking boots with their trousers tucked into their socks that have got me riled up either.
I’m not saying it’s all bad: the food is lovely, against all expectations. Not a sausage or pickled cabbage in sight. I disembowelled ten sheep the other night and ate just the hearts and livers — lovely. And no complaints about the German totty either, if you go for that “big and hairy” thing. Which, of course, I very much do.
But then this morning I’m sitting in a chicken coop having a spot of breakfast when a bullet whistles past my ear, and I look out and there’s some Fritz pointing a rifle at me. It was like something out of Colditz.
Turns out this Bavarian minister has issued a shoot-to-kill proclamation on me. How’s that for welcoming? And with the World Cup only a week away. Talk to me about metatarsals. You want to try running hard for the full 90 minutes when you’ve had to chew off your front leg to escape from a steel trap...
Wish you were here, etc.

I think it must be a forgery - why would the bear write in English?

26 May 2006


Talleyrand, the great French diplomat before, during and after Napoleonic times, was a devious sod. So much so that, when he died, Metternich - the Austrian Chancellor and an equally devious sod - is alleged to have asked what Talleyrand meant by that.
I hesitate to mention Jack McConnell in the same breath as either Talleyrand or Metternich but, when the First Minister says he will not support England in the World Cup, I am tempted to wonder what he meant by saying so. Was he just having a poke at Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, both of whom have already exhibited their pro-English allegiance? Or was he attempting to steal the nationalists' clothes in a foretaste of his tactics in next year's general election? It would be disingenuous to believe that he was simply telling the truth.
Would it be too cynical to suspect that, if he thought it would be to his advantage, the First Minister would cheerfully admit to supporting England - whatever position he takes in private?

Booze-ups and breweries

It's no fun being a senior civil servant in the Scottish Executive; it's even less fun being a junior civil servant in that august institution. The Scotsman reports:
"SCOTLAND'S leading civil servants have been savaged by their staff for bad financial management, a lack of leadership and the poor running of the country's government, The Scotsman has learned.
The results of a confidential employee survey, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, represent a damning critique of the performance of Scotland's senior government officials.
The survey shows that:
• only 27 per cent of civil servants feel the Scottish Executive makes good use of money;
• only 52 per cent of civil servants in Scotland believe that any checks are made before money is spent;
• only 28 per cent feel there is a culture of sound financial management.
The survey reveals for the first time what the 7,000 staff who work for the Executive and its agencies in Scotland actually feel about the way the government is run. "

It is not surprising that the Scottish Executive staff are less than gruntled. I understand that their pay packets have yet to be boosted by the pay rise they should have received last August.

25 May 2006

Ursine wanderlust

Earlier this week, I wondered (here) why an Austrian bear had turned up in Germany, given that Austria had failed to qualify for the world cup finals. The Times has the answer:
"The odyssey began three weeks ago when the young male left the Italian Alps near Trentino, where bears were reintroduced from neighbouring Slovenia ten years ago. The 100kg (220lb) animal covered up to 25km (16 miles) a day after crossing into Austria, looped back towards Switzerland and then set north for Germany, where it arrived in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area last weekend."

Problem solved - it was an Italian bear! Italy has definitely qualified for the world cup finals.

Postscript: Please note the absence of any reference to Ibrox in either this or the earlier post.

Wet towel round the head situation

I know that international economics is not a subject of enduring fascination but events in Euroland are becoming interesting, especially for the many brits who have property interests abroad. Hamish McRae in The Independent has a (mostly) comprehensible review of the situation, concluding that:
"The fundamental point is that Europe is going to have some combination of higher interest rates and a strong exchange rate and some bits of the Continent will cope better than others. A couple of years ago I think most of us would have worried about the ability of Germany to cope with these pressures. Now we need to worry about Italy and Spain.
If this is right, an important change will start to take place in Europe. Germany will stop being pitied and start to regain its economic power. Spain, by contrast, will cease to be the fastest-growing large Continental economy and will start to lose confidence in the European project. Italy will become even more concerned about the costs of membership of the eurozone than it is at the moment.
None of this will lead to a rupture just yet. The fact that the eurozone's largest economy is doing rather better is tremendously welcome. But if you want trouble, Italy and Spain are the ones to watch."

Read the whole thing. And don't think that the UK economy will necessarily escape the consequences.

Red in tooth and claw

How to lose customers? Or, at the very least, how to ensure that your name is mud? The Guardian has the story:
"ScottishPower warned domestic customers yesterday that they face a further round of increases in their gas and electricity bills. The company, which has 5.25 million customers, said rises were "unavoidable in the short term" because of the continuing high price of energy on the wholesale markets.
ScottishPower raised its domestic gas prices by 12% in October and 15% in March. Electricity prices rose between 5% and 8% last year and a further 8% in March.
Yesterday the company reported that its pre-tax profits for the year to end of March had risen by 47% to £675m. Its energy retail and wholesale business saw operating profits rocket by 129% to £214m."

Is this what they meant by the unacceptable face of capitalism?

24 May 2006


Something odd here. The BBC website reports:
"Eight people are being held following an anti-terrorist police operation across England to target people they suspect of plotting attacks abroad.
The raids, which began at 0300 BST and involved 500 officers, are believed to relate to activities in Iraq.
Nineteen properties were raided and 10 arrests were made, but two people were later released.
The police forces involved are Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Cleveland, Metropolitan Police and Merseyside."

None of the media seems to be asking questions, so here goes. 500 officers, all on overtime, for 10 arrests? 50 officers per arrest? Did something go wrong? How many did they hope to arrest? As it is an anti-terrorist operation, I suppose we will never have answers to these questions.

What is the world coming to? (part 34)

Things you'd rather not know. The Telegraph records:
"Gordon Brown would have preferred to be a football manager if he had not become a politician. His wife Sarah thinks George Clooney should play him in a film, while his dream woman, apart from his wife, is the Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
He gets coy when asked if he wears boxer shorts or briefs - "whatever comes to hand. But they are all M&S".
Nor will he reveal what he wears in bed - "That's between me and the bed sheets" - but says the Arctic Monkeys on his iPod "really wakes you up in the morning"."

Gordon Brown is nearly as old as me. I absolutely refuse to believe that he listens to the Arctic Monkeys (whoever they are) on his iPod in the morning (or any other time of day). And what is a man of his age doing with an iPod anyway?

And what is it with these politicians and their underpants?

A real loss

I suppose that this kind of thing is inevitable. The Independent has the story:
"When Humphrey Langridge began brewing ale 425 years ago in the Elizabethan village of Wandsworth, he chose the "pugnacity and bravery" of the ram as the symbol for his business.
But yesterday, the beer and pubs group Young & Co signalled a slightly less than pugnacious surrender to the realities of modern brewing by announcing the closure of the Ram Brewery and the oldest continuous beer-making site in Britain.
The London-based brewer, which made a profit of £13.6 million last year, said it was merging with rival Charles Wells and moving its brewing operation from south London to Bedford, with the loss of 90 jobs.
The announcement, which is the latest example of consolidation in an industry now dominated by a handful of brewing giants, was greeted with "disappointment and concern" from real ale campaigners."

You do not get it very often in Edinburgh but Young's Bitter was always a delight. I mourn its passing.


The Justice 1 Committee inquiry into the McKie case is raising some difficult issues. The Scotsman reports:
"The McKie case has led to calls for an inquiry into Scotland's fingerprint service and yesterday she gave evidence at a parliamentary inquiry into the SCRO, the first time she has spoken publicly about the case.
But rather than focusing on the future direction of the service, Ms McKie found the tables were turned on her when two MSPs - neither of whom is on the justice 1 committee - questioned her about evidence that contradicted her own account of events. Angry scenes developed when Des McNulty, the Clydebank and Milngavie MSP, asked her legal adviser, Andrew Smith, QC, about a report by an independent fingerprint expert, Peter Swann...
Mr McNulty was joined at the meeting by Ken Macintosh, the Eastwood MSP. The four SCRO officers who maintain that they correctly identified the print are constituents of the two MSPs."

Already, there seems to be a real danger that the Committee's inquiry is degenerating into a 'who was right?' battle between the McKie camp and that of the four SCRO officers, which is surely not what was originally intended. If Messrs McNulty and Macintosh were permitted to direct hostile questioning at Ms McKie yesterday (as, under the rules of parliamentary procedure, they were entitled to do), then presumably some MSP like Mr Alex Neil will be allowed to do similar when the SCRO officers give evidence. Meanwhile, the Committee convener, Ms Pauline McNeill, has to hold the coats as fairly as possible, even although her party allegiance might otherwise dispose her to favour the Executive's line (which seems confined to hoping - in vain - that the whole matter can be closed down).

The case for a proper judicial inquiry, rather than an inquiry by politicians some of whom have already nailed their colours to the mast, seems stronger by the day.

A gimmick

They didn't have these kind of things when I used to do the occasional run. The Guardian reports:
"The latest must-have product for the digital generation, courtesy of Apple and Nike, is a pair of running shoes that uses your iPod to tell you how far you have run and how many calories you have burned.
The Nike+ system, which has taken 18 months to develop, uses a tiny transmitter fitted in the trainers to send information back to the music player with every step. Runners can find out how they are doing by hitting the centre button on their iPod Nano and listening to a spoken update of their progress. Should the hi-tech pavement-pounders start to flag, they can give themselves a quick boost by calling up a pre-chosen "power song" for that all-important motivational lift.
The sensor kit will cost £25 and will be available in the UK from July 13. The first training shoe it can be fitted into, the new Air Zoom Moire, will go on sale at the same time priced at £65. Six more styles will follow."

I would suggest that all this is unnecessary. From experience and habit, most runners know how far and how fast they have gone. Fiddling with an iPod is just a distraction.

23 May 2006

One step forward, two steps back

Och and he was doing so well. After delighting his fans by displaying some musical taste (see here), the Heir to the Throne blows it once again. The BBC website has the story:
"Prince Charles has said "proven" therapies should be integrated with conventional medicine.
He told the World Health Assembly in Geneva: "The proper mix of proven complementary, traditional and modern remedies, which emphasises the active participation of the patient, can help to create a powerful healing force in the world."
He added: "Many of today's complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world. "Much of this knowledge, often based on oral traditions, is sadly being lost, yet orthodox medicine has so much to learn from it."
Ah well, back to the outer darkness.

Post-modern irony

Surprised - but nevertheless gratified - to see that the Scottish Parliament's online shop is selling The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze (here).

Have they cleared this with the First Minister?

Old habits die hard

Dr John Reid's leadership style is clearly sticks rather than carrots. But I rather doubt if this is the way to motivate the staff of the Home Office. The BBC website reports:
"Home Secretary John Reid has damned his department as "not fit for purpose" with "inadequate" leadership, management systems and processes.
He made the assessment as he was grilled by MPs about a series of recent scandals at the Home Office.
"I share with you and probably also the public the frustration at our failures," he said."
He may well be telling the truth but was it advisable or tactful to say so? He has only been in post for two weeks. Would it have been inappropriate to suggest that he was reviewing the situation in consultation with senior staff and that both he and they recognised the need for improvements? He needs the Home Office staff - he can't sack them all - but giving them the managerial equivalent of a Glasgow kiss is unlikely to help.

Update: The BBC's article has now been amended so that the first sentence reads:
"Home Secretary John Reid has damned his department's immigration system as "not fit for purpose" with "inadequate" leadership and management systems."

So, it's not the department itself, it's the department's immigration "system" that is not fit for purpose. An interesting downgrading of what was previously a rather all-encompassing criticism.

Conservatives - still lost in stereotypes

How to offend two lots of people at the same time. The Telegraph records the thoughts of the Tory Party Chairman:
"In an interview for Tory Radio, Mr Maude - fast becoming a hate figure for some traditional members - came out fighting. He admitted there was bound to be "a certain amount of resistance and reaction" to the A-list. But he hit out at "ridiculous caricatures" now being put around about the priority list.
"A lot of it is just fantasy country - the idea that what we're actually trying to do is insert mincing metrosexuals into gritty northern marginal seats is complete rubbish," said the MP for Horsham."

So everything north of Watford is "gritty", while the south is full of "mincing metrosexuals"?

Always looking on the bright side

What was the point of Mr Blair's trip to Iraq yesterday? Did he achieve anything? The Independent sets out some of the hard truths:
"Mr Blair said "we have a government of national unity that crosses all boundaries". Unfortunately that is exactly what we do not have. The five months it has taken to form a government since the election for the Iraqi parliament on 15 December shows the depth of existing divisions. This government has a Minister of Tourism but, as yet, no Minister of the Interior or Defence, the two
crucial jobs in a country torn apart by war.
In the two parliamentary elections and a referendum on the constitution in 2005, Iraqis voted along strictly sectarian or ethnic lines. The Shia and Sunni religious parties and the Kurdish coalition triumphed; secular and nationalist candidates performed dismally. The new constitution shifting power to Kurdish and Shia super-regions with control over new oil discoveries means that, in future, Iraq will be largely a geographical expression.
So divided is the new government that each ministry becomes the fief of the party that holds it. The ministries are, in practice, patronage machines employing only party loyalists. They are milked for money, jobs and contracts. Ministers cannot be dismissed for incompetence or corruption, however gross, because it would lead to the deal between the parties and communities unravelling. (The government has become a sort of bureaucratic feudalism with each ministry presided over by an independent chieftain.)

None of which takes us any further as to the best way forward. But some honesty on the part of the prime Minister would not go amiss.

Don't mention the war

The Guardian diary records its Correction of the Week:
"Early days yet, of course, but it looks like our Local Newsmedia Correction of the Week Award may be going to BBC Radio Scotland, which to everyone's relief explained that the wartime bomb found in Liverpool harbour was "dropped by the Luftwaffe and not, as our earlier reports said, Lufthansa". Just as well, what with the World Cup coming up and all."

I blame the World Cup

Football supporters are making their way to Germany from all over the globe. Here is an example:
"Wild brown bears were once commonplace in the forests and mountains of Bavaria. But yesterday Germany was fascinated by the news that one had been spotted in the country for the first time since 1835. It had wandered across the Bavarian Alps from Austria.
The euphoria was short-lived, however; Bavaria's environment minister said hunters were free to shoot it. Werner Schnappauf described the bear as "out of control", and said: "We can't take the risk that it harms humans."
Conservation experts have been carefully tracking the bear's progress after the discovery of seven sheep carcasses near the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It was last spotted destroying a beehive just over a mile from the border."

I wasn't even aware that Austria had qualified for the finals.

22 May 2006

Pull the other one...

I suppose that the Chancellor thinks that he has to say these things in order to boost his claims to the top job. The Herald reports:
"GORDON Brown last night defended his decision to back England in this year's World Cup, insisting two-thirds of Scots would be doing likewise.
Friends of the chancellor rebuffed suggestions that the move was a publicity stunt. They were speaking after Mr Brown told a Sunday newspaper that he would "of course" be supporting England to win the World Cup. "Two-thirds of all Scots want England to win, and I'm certainly one of them," Mr Brown said. "I'll be there in person to support them for the final group game against Sweden in Cologne."

But whatever Mr Brown really thinks, the idea that two-thirds of Scots want England to win is just not credible.

21 May 2006

Party time

If you had the chance to go, I bet you wouldn't say no. The Independent is unduly critical of Dave:
"Mr Cameron, 39, educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford, will make the unprecedented foray into the world of showbusiness and bling at the party at "Beckingham Palace", the £8m Hertfordshire pile which is home to the England skipper and his former Spice Girl wife.
Like the other leaders of the mainstream political parties, Mr Cameron had not been invited to the exclusive event, which will be filmed for television and will feature a meal by Gordon Ramsay, entertainment by Robbie Williams and an auction including a £1m diamond necklace conducted by comic Graham Norton.
Mr Cameron last week found a way to attend after Rebekah Wade, editor of the Labour-supporting Sun newspaper, invited the Tory leader as her guest. He and his wife Samantha will sit with Ms Wade and her husband, the EastEnders actor Ross Kemp.
But it will also give Mr Cameron a chance to hobnob with 350 other guests, including the England squad and pop stars such as Cheryl Tweedy and Ozzy Osbourne, in a shameless attempt to absorb some celebrity cool."

Posh'n'Becks are alright but, given recent past history (see here), I am not sure that Ms Wade and Mr Kemp are the kind of people with whom Dave should associate himself.

No need to scrimp and save?

The Sunday Herald on the marriage break-up (here):
"SIR Paul McCartney has more money than he could ever need, and then some. On top of that he has more money than I could ever need, more than you could need, and more than your family, your friends and all your relations, going flat out and spending as though tomorrow had been abolished, could possibly need. The Chambers dictionary defines “a lot” as “a great deal, large amount”. McCartney’s loose change is a lot."
Aye, but who gets which LPs?

The master of gas oven rock

It is perhaps the most unexpected revelation of the year. The Observer uses it as an excuse to profile the great man (here):
"The revelation that Leonard Cohen can number Prince Charles among his fervent fans, as the prince reveals in a TV interview involving himself, his two sons and presenters Ant and Dec, comes as a surprise. Charles's musical interests have previously oscillated between the Three Degrees, with whom he danced on stage as a bachelor, and Gustav Holst, whose 'Jupiter' he chose for his first wedding. Altogether different is the image of our future king nodding along to 'Ain't no Cure for Love' or trudging after Diana's cortege with 'Hey, That's no Way to Say Goodbye' running through his head.
Yet here's Charles on screen recommending Cohen to his sons as 'wonderful... I mean the orchestration is fantastic and the words, the lyrics and everything. He's a remarkable man and he has this incredibly laid-back, gravelly voice. It's terrific stuff'."
So, at a stroke, Prince Charles has risen in the estimation of all those 50 somethings (like me) whose life in the early 1970s was lived to the miserabilist soundtracks of Laughing Len. Maybe Charles will be quite a good king after all.

20 May 2006

The other little red book

To get details of the Little Red Book on New Labour sleaze, click here. If you prefer to buy it in a shop, I am told that it is available - or will be shortly - in Waterstone's, at a price of £7.99.

And yes, I have made a contribution or two to the book, although I have no financial interest in it.

19 May 2006


The Herald reports that the First Minister is unhappy with the notorious Economist article:

"The article brought an unusually strong counter-attack from the first minister's spokesman, who said: "This is little more than the rambling thoughts of someone on a day trip from London. It would be hard to disagree more with the so-called special report. It is poorly researched, badly written and just plain wrong."I would really expect the Economist to be more rigorous than simply to recycle negative press cuttings."
The offending article is here. The bit which will have aroused the First Minister's ire is as follows:

"The present incumbent is Jack McConnell, the only one of the three [First Ministers] not to have served at Westminster. A product of local government—which, especially in the west, is richly peopled in many minds with “numpties”, ie, bone-headed placemen—he has conspicuously chosen not to give ministerial jobs to several capable colleagues."
But The Economist does not actually call Mr McConnell a numpty, even if it implies that he surrounds himself with them. This is probably going a bit far, even if the Scottish cabinet has not exactly distinguished itself in terms of its wit, enlightenment and intellectual horsepower.

Otherwise, The Economist article seems reasonably balanced. Perhaps the First Minister feels a bit sensitive?

18 May 2006

Good government?

Why will it take over three years to construct a building to house sportscotland in Glasgow? The Executive press release does not tell us (here):
Scottish Ministers have concluded following an option appraisal that sportscotland's headquarters should relocate to the east end of Glasgow.
The national sports agency will be sited within the new National Indoor Sports Arena which is being built as part of the Executive's National and Regional Sports Facilities Strategy.
The move will affect 133 staff and will take place as soon as the building is ready with the arena scheduled for completion by Autumn 2009.
Sports Minister Patricia Ferguson said:
"I am convinced that relocating sportscotland to Glasgow is the right move for our national sports agency.
[What she means is - I have finally persuaded Jack to make a decision despite the opposition of the LibDems.]
"I also understand the concerns of sportscotland staff who face the upheaval of relocating to Glasgow, but I believe it presents an exciting opportunity that will allow sportscotland to develop and influence the future of sport in Scotland.
[Most of the sportscotland staff won't move to Glasgow but stuff them.]
"It is good news for the east end of Glasgow - an area with pressing social and economic needs. It is important that our national sports agency plays a central role in preparations for the London Olympics in 2012 and helps Glasgow secure the 2014 Commonwealth Games."
[The prospective move and the loss of staff will cause chaos in the admin of sportscotland, so don't expect any real contribution to either the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games.]

Footie again

I heard this last night and couldn't believe my ears. The Guardian newsblog reports:
"The sight is in end," ITV's expert summariser and Guardian chalkboarder David Pleat said last night to an audience of millions as Arsenal appeared to be hanging on to an improbable 10-man victory in last night's Champions League Final.
We all knew what he meant, but he had Colemanballsed way too soon. Just seconds later up popped Samuel Eto'o for a 76th minute equaliser to dash such wishful thinking. The curse of the commentator had struck, and it was the other end that were sighting victory. Five minutes later Barcelona secured it with a goal from substitute Juliano Belletti.

Could ITV not have done better than Mr Pleat, a summariser who consistently mangles foreign names, who regularly misses cues from his commentator and who has the knack of telling us what we can perfectly well see for ourselves? This was perhaps the match with the highest profile of the season and ITV gives us an inadequate summariser and a commentator obsessed with useless statistics (who cares if player X has never scored a goal in a European competition?) And, during the world cup, do we have to tolerate those inarticulate cheeky chappies, Ally McCoist and his less well-known colleague, dressed in matching pinstripe suits and making idiots of themselves at half-time? Are there no footballers capable of a little insight and blessed with an ability to string a few words together prepared to serve on television programmes? (And, to be fair to ITV, the BBC has yet to find any, with the possible exception of Ruud Gullitt.) If not, then get some football journalists, even if they are - sui generis - chronically deficient in the mathematical talent of working out the points required to emerge from the group stages. At least some of them can speak.

Rant over.


Deborah Orr in The Independent has an opinion about Big Brother:
"Big Brother is, as its critics attest, exploitative, vacuous, crude, cruel and voracious. It is a nasty, petty, psychological circus that in its popularity exposes the nation as a bunch of superannuated schoolchildren, still childishly fascinated by the sight of an emerging pecking order, and still keen to witness a playground free-for-all in which the contestants are naked and exposed - generally, alas, without even a sharp wit to defend themselves. It enrolls the desperate, the deluded and the downright disordered, into a physical and mental wet t-shirt contest, and makes of its audience a leering, sneering bunch of pitiless, shameless, voyeurs."

Don't sit on the fence, girl...

News from the bunker

California today; Aberdeenshire tomorrow. Is there no end to Mr Trump's quest for domination in world golf? The Independent reports:
"Palos Verdes is the site of the Ocean Trails Golf Course, which hit the national headlines seven years ago because a landslide knocked much of the 18th hole into the Pacific. The Donald snapped it up in 2002 and had his first run-in with the local residents when he announced that he wanted to convert it into a hotel resort area.
He then irritated them no end by changing the name to the Trump National Golf Club Los Angeles. Not only did residents object to their beautiful hilltop neighbourhood becoming a vanity project for a New York property developer, they were furious that he would dare associate them so directly with Los Angeles.
True, Palos Verdes is in Los Angeles county and is no more than a few miles from the LA city limits at any given point. But it is also a secluded peninsula on the southern tip of Santa Monica Bay, which prides itself on its idiosyncracy. The term "Los Angeles", in among the rolling hills and multi-million-dollar homes, denotes nothing but smog, dereliction and unpleasantness.
Now, though, comes the final straw. Mr Trump wants to change the name of the approach road to the golf course, currently Ocean Trails Drive, to Trump National Drive. From his point of view, it's all about brand awareness and marketing. To the denizens of Palos Verdes, it is the ultimate insufferable show of vanity, and they are refusing to stand for it."

You won't get this kind of petty localist objectionalism from our First Minister. But with a bit of luck the residents and councillors in Aberdeenshire might prove more resistant.

17 May 2006

In dreamland

The Executive has announced progress on its "efficient government" programme. The press release includes the following:
Mr McCabe said:
"These technical notes show that we are making good progress in identifying how to meet our Efficient Government targets. We have identified £1.271 billion of the £1.5 billion gains. "I am now working with my Ministerial colleagues to identify the further efficiency gains which will allow us to meet our target in full. I remain firmly committed to identifying further savings.
"All money we save through measures such as better procurement, streamlined processes and better use of resources will be invested in improving service delivery. The Efficient Government initiative is a key part of our drive to ensure we invest taxpayers' money as wisely as possible - and these figures show good progress in identifying how best to do that."

I confess that achieving or realising efficiency gains would give me rather more comfort than simply "identifying" them.

But, in an effort to clarify the position, I made the mistake of looking at the technical notes (here). This deathless prose leapt out:

"An 'efficiency improvement' is any activity which improves the ratio of outputs to resource inputs. Such improvements may therefore arise in two ways:

i by producing the same outputs with fewer inputs. For the purposes of the Efficient Government Plan these are termed cash releasing savings,

ii by producing more or better outputs for the same inputs. For the purposes of the Efficient Government Plan these are termed time releasing savings.

1.7 For the saving to be included in the Efficient Government Plan it must be recurrent. The distinction between cash and time is proving less helpful as we go on. Now that we have identified £900 million, we propose to place less emphasis on the distinction in future."

After throwing up, I concluded that I could read no further. But I am sure that tomorrow's press will explain it all (or perhaps not).

Raising the bar

An awful lot of people are going to be disappointed if, in due course, this police investigation does not deliver. The Guardian reports:
"Scotland Yard is stepping up the scope and depth of its investigation into the "loans for peerages" scandal after seizing a paper trail of more than 1,000 documents, files and emails from Whitehall departments and agencies.
The Commons public administration committee yesterday agreed to halt its own investigation into the affair until July after police told MPs that they could prejudice a criminal investigation.
Tony Wright, the Labour chairman, told journalists yesterday: "These are big, important, public issues, but I want to be responsible and above all I don't want it to be said at any point that we compromised police action."

It's all very well taking your time and being thorough, but the police are raising expectations with every day that passes. What happens when they make their report to the Crown Prosecution Service and the latter decides not to take action?

Real spam

So, I am not alone. The Independent reports:
"Britain's emerging reputation as a nation of fine-food lovers will take a knock today with the revelation that something far more mundane than the latest balsamic vinegar is vying for space on our shelves.
Our love of the baked bean and other canned delicacies such as Spam has never been stronger, according to a new report.
The findings show that the value of baked beans market hit almost £300m last year, a 13 per cent rise on 2001. Since the truce in the baked bean price war of the mid-1990s, which saw the cost of a can fall to as low as 4p, the baked beans market has taken off.
Research by Mintel, the consumer trends analysts, predicts that a rekindled appetite for baked beans will push the value of the market up to £360m over the next five years. The report adds that our fondness for tinned produce is not just limited to baked beans.
Spam, corned beef, PEK (chopped pork) and canned pasta are all also enjoying a resurgence in popularity, which runs contrary to the image of aspiring home chefs elbowing each other out of the way to get the best bargain at the farmers' market. Sales of all canned meals and meats are tipped to reach £660m this year, up 10 per cent since 2001, Mintel said."

Spam still comes in those rectangular cans, but now with a ring-pull top. Which is fine, but it is still difficult to get the spam out of the can. I usually have to use a tin-opener to open the bottom side of the can and then push it through. One would have thought that, by now, there would be an easier way...

News values

Monday's written answers on the Parliamentary website (here) reveal that in the financial year 2005-06 the Executive spent £1,961,586 on newspaper advertising. Of this sum, The Record managed to secure £906,551 whereas The Sun (with a broadly equivalent circulation) earned a relatively paltry £40,051.

The Herald quotes an Executive spokesman's rationale for this disparity (here):
An executive spokesman said: "The largest proportion of the spend in the Daily Record was on weekly double-page public information campaigns on issues like organ donation, anti-racism, and bullying."

It was therefore nothing to do with The Record's traditional support for Labour or with The Sun's on-off dalliance with the SNP.

Convincing? No, not really.

16 May 2006

The Committee that got it seriously wrong

Remember the report by the Enterprise and Culture Committee which suggested an annual shortfall of £8.5 billion in Scottish capital investment? More details here.

The Executive has now published its response. Here is an extract:
"The Committee's estimate that £8.5 billion in extra annual investment is required is derived from its assertion that "Scotland invests less than 10% of its GDP" and that "high-growth economies, on the other hand, invest between 18 and 20% of GDP each year". By estimating Scottish output at £85 billion per year the Committee calculated that a doubling of investment from ten to twenty per cent of GDP would require around £8.5 billion a year in extra investment. This calculation is flawed.
In fact, the latest data (for 2000) show that investment in Scotland was £13.6 billion or 20.3% of GDP. This was marginally higher than the comparable figure for the UK of 19.1% of GDP. Wider international comparisons are complicated by the use of a slightly different measure of GDP by the OECD, but in the same year the US invested 19.9% of its GDP, Germany 21.5% and France 19.5%. Our rough estimates suggest that on a comparable measure of GDP the Scottish figure would be around 18.1%. These figures clearly contrast with the dismal - and inaccurate - picture painted by the Committee's report."


Intrusion into private grief

Here is what the blogger ConservativeHome has managed to glean of the so-called A-list of Tory candidates for the next general election.

I don't see any Scottish names on the list. But maybe the Tories plan to parachute English candidates into Scottish seats (which is not likely to be a successful ploy); or maybe they have written Scotland off altogether. What is Ms Goldie doing about it? Anything?

15 May 2006

On being a second class citizen

Predictably, the media have used the BBC poll results on the acceptability of a Scottish MP becoming prime minister to focus on Gordon Brown's chances. The BBC website said:
"A majority of English voters think Scottish MPs should be barred from becoming the UK's prime minister, according to a BBC survey.
ICM research spoke to 1,000 people for the poll for the BBC's Politics Show.
They were asked whether it was right for a Scottish MP to be prime minister now Scotland has its own parliament.
While 45% of those questioned across the UK thought it was okay to have a Scottish PM, 52% were opposed. That figure rose to 55% in England alone."

The response of The Herald is here and that of The Scotsman is here. Like these media, Alex Salmond's comments - somewhat surprisingly - also seem to miss the point:
"Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond said the findings were "bad news" for Labour.
"It means the current prime minister is deeply unpopular in Scotland while the future prime minister is unacceptable in England," he said.
"It shows Gordon Brown's new-found Britishness cuts no ice north or south of the border."

There are wider issues here, and they seem to me to offer the SNP a wider opportunity than petty point-scoring over the Blair succession. If the English and the English MPs believe that it is not right for a Scottish MP to become PM, then the implication is that we would have two classes of MPs: those that are allowed to become PM and those that are not. And that means that Scottish voters would also be second class. The MPs that we vote in to the Commons could never become PM. But Scotland must nevertheless play its full part in implementing the decisions presided over by that English PM, such as sending troops to Iraq or Afghanistan or paying income tax at a rate decided by a government presided over by an English PM. This is a gift to those who argue for Scottish nationalism.

That is not to say that the present system is wholly in balance. I can see no reason or justification for a Scottish MP to be the English minister for health (as John Reid was) or English minister for transport (as Douglas Alexander is). But removing one anomaly by introducing an even greater anomaly is no solution.

14 May 2006

Has he gone cuckoo?

Does the First Minister actually understand the proprieties of his position? Scotland on Sunday has unearthed more evidence that Mr McConnell has been playing footsie with Mr Trump in breach of the ministerial code:
"Last month, Scotland on Sunday revealed concerns that McConnell had breached the ministerial code of conduct in his dealings with Trump.
McConnell dismissed the story as "ridiculous". "If anybody thinks that I would be daft enough to discuss the details of a planning application with an international investor in advance of its consideration by the appropriate authorities, they are living in cloud-cuckoo land," he said.
But the documents revealed here today prove that McConnell did meet Trump to discuss the details of his plans for the golf course. He was, according to SDI's American chief, "committed to the partnership that will deliver this project".
Trump, meanwhile, could be reassured that such a link would give him "a direct line into the government".
Back in October, the trip to Trump Towers must have seemed to be a great piece of public relations. Now, however, McConnell faces the prospect of a full investigation, while the future of a multi-million pound development hangs in the balance."

But, as the newspaper reveals, the investigation will be carried out by the First Minister's private office. So don't hold your breath for further startling revelations.

Potential objectors to the golf course development will nevertheless feel encouraged. Having been sensitised to the downside, the planning authorities will need to be scrupulous in their subsequent approach. And the First Minister may have to withdraw himself from any consideration of the planning issues. Nor is the prospect of judicial review out of the question.

13 May 2006

The wackos are in charge

More research from the department of the bleeding obvious. The Scotsman reports:
"Now, researchers writing in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease have concluded that half the presidents in US history suffered from mental illness.
Three professors of psychiatry at the prestigious Duke University in North Carolina analysed presidential biographies and other historical records before concluding that 18 of the 37 presidents who served between 1776 and 1974 suffered from psychiatric disorders.
Of those 18, at least ten suffered psychiatric problems while in office which, more often than not, may have affected their performance in the job."

Look at our own leaders. Would anyone seriously argue that Mr Blair (or Mr Brown) was psychologically normal? Or Mrs Thatcher? The ego required to get to the top suggests an obvious imbalance. Little surprise, therefore, that such people tread a fine line next to losing it completely.

12 May 2006

Jumping to conclusions

A bit cavalier, perhaps? Not thought through, even? Perhaps - almost - a knee-jerk reaction? The Guardian reports:
"David Cameron has said the Conservatives would "scrap, reform or replace" the Human Rights Act unless the government can reach a memorandum of understanding to enable foreign criminals to be deported to their countries of origin.
Responding to Wednesday's high court ruling that the nine Afghans who claimed asylum after hijacking a plane had the right to remain in Britain, the Tory leader told today's Sun that it was wrong to allow "the human rights of dangerous criminals to fly in the face of common sense".
"Being able to balance the danger they pose to the UK if they stay, with the danger to them if they are returned to their country of origin, is no longer possible."
He said the government's interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights and its passage into UK law as the Human Rights Act had compounded the problem."

I rather doubt if it would be that simple. The Human Rights Act enables the enforcement of the European Convention on Human Rights; the Act could be repealed tomorrow but that would not prevent those who consider that their rights have been infringed from seeking redress in Strasbourg (as they could and did before the Act was introduced in 1998). Or is Mr Cameron suggesting that the UK should resile from the European Convention to which it signed up in 1953 and to which 44 other European states are also parties?

I am quite prepared to accept that human rights may cause problems for the anti-terrorism agenda, but could we have a little more clarity about what can or should be done?

And, needless to say, the position in Scotland is slightly different in that the European Convention is to a certain extent written in to the Scotland Act.

11 May 2006

Doing as you are told

The Labour drones - here.

A sad day

Iain Dale (here) suggests that Dover House, the London home of the Scotland Office, is to be taken over by John Prescott.
Dover House, located in Whitehall next to Horse Guards, has been the London headquarters of the Scottish Office since 1885. It was never a particularly useful building as an office, as will be testified by the Scottish bill teams who had to swelter through the London summers on the top floor or by the private office staff who spent vast amounts of time climbing up and down stairs. But it was convenient for Parliament and the rest of Whitehall and, above all, it was - and to this day remains - the base in London for the Scottish civil service. To the traditionalists in the Scottish Executive (if there are any left), its usurpation by Prescott will be deeply upsetting.

Wishful thinking

Mr Kaletsky in The Times is losing his marbles. It will never happen like this:
"But the key lesson of history for Mr Brown concerns the steps he must take to avoid the long-term fate of John Major: to do this he must immediately ditch the Blairite policies most responsible for the present Government’s demise. Mr Blair’s equivalent of poll tax may be legislation on ID cards or hospital reforms, but the policy at the heart of Mr Blair’s failure — the equivalent of the rows and misjudgments over ERM membership under Margaret Thatcher and then under John Major — is Mr Blair’s relationship with the Bush Administration and his policy on Iraq.
By pulling out of Iraq and breaking publicly with the Bush Administration (which by then will itself be in terminal decline), Mr Brown could win himself so much credit with the Labour Party and the affluent middle classes that he could do almost anything else he might choose with the health service, taxes, pensions or schools. Mr Major’s fate was sealed by the way he stuck to a policy that was doomed to failure — membership of the ERM.
If Mr Brown heeds the rhymes of history, he will ditch the foreign policy that has been responsible for Mr Blair’s demise. If he does this, he could yet turn a funeral dirge into a song of triumph."

But it says something when a senior commentator in The Times is prepared to indulge in such fantasy. But, maybe, just maybe, such a prediction might prove accurate?

Hero worship

Some guys just have it. Anne Simpson in The Herald (here) gets rather carried away by President Clinton:
"He walks into a crowded room with the easy aplomb of someone who knows that his very entrance holds people spellbound. Speaking without notes for an hour-and-a-half, an irrepressible Bill Clinton proved that even though he is no longer the most powerful man in the world, he remains one of America's most remarkable public figures, a leader who still stands dazzlingly head and shoulders above all other leaders in the world today...
Over time, of course, we have seen many Clintons: the intellectual class act running rings around his Republican foes; the foreign policy braveheart striving to facilitate peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East; the sentimentalist recalling his childhood hardship in a town called Hope; the chastened philanderer fighting against rabid moral righteousness and political hypocrisy of those who would still revive the tumbrels of McCarthyism in America. But the Clinton we saw yesterday was the eloquent sophisticate.
That beleaguered appearance which marked him during the Lewinsky interrogations has disappeared. Now in his 60th year, and fit from the major heart surgery he underwent in 2004, he is one of those men who has gained urbanity with age. There is not one feature on his face that technically might be called handsome, yet the overall impression is one of immense charm. Does he miss the White House? You bet. "I loved the job. I loved the job," he said, with an intensity that mingled gratitude with regret for something lost. Yet here he is, articulate, intelligent, and colourful, a class act."

10 May 2006

Supping with the devil

Let us hope that Senator Clinton has a long spoon. The New York Times reports:
"Strengthening a pragmatic rapprochement, Rupert Murdoch has agreed to give a fund-raiser this summer for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the latest sign of cooperation between the conservative media mogul and the Democratic lawmaker who has often been a prime target of his newspaper and television outlets.
Cooperation by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rupert Murdoch has stirred perplexity, and anger. Asked about her relationship with Mr. Murdoch, Mrs. Clinton described him as simply "my constituent," and she played down the significance of the fund-raiser. Both sides said that Mr. Murdoch and Mrs. Clinton were joining forces for the good of New York, where Mr. Murdoch's $60 billion News Corporation employs about 5,000 workers.
"I am very gratified that he thinks I am doing a good job," Mrs. Clinton said in the Capitol on Tuesday, according to a transcript made available by her office after word of the fund-raising event was first reported by The Financial Times.
Yet the developing relationship between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Murdoch — who has built an empire in part on the strength of media outlets like Fox News and The New York Post that delight in skewering the Clintons — has drawn special attention, perplexing some political analysts and infuriating some liberals already suspicious of Mrs. Clinton's centrist positioning. Although she is ostensibly raising money for her re-election to the Senate this year, she is widely considered to be laying the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2008."

Never mind, I am sure that our First Minister (as ever in pursuit of celebrity) will straighten out President Clinton over lunch today. Mr McConnell will no doubt advise the President that his wife would be better off playing footsie with Mr McConnell's close friend, Mr Trump, rather than seeking funds from the Dirty Digger.

Decisions, decisions...

I posted on this blog on 23 February (here) about the dilatory attitude of the Scottish Executive with regard to the re-location of sportscotland, a decision deferred from July 2004 but a decision which would be announced "very shortly".

The Herald reports today that we are still no further forward:
"An executive spokesman said a statement on sportscotland was due "sooner rather than later".

Is nothing sacred? (part 14)

I confess that it is many years since I consumed a tube of Smarties. But that has not diminished my shock and indignation about the followng story, which I might have missed were it not for Zoe Williams of The Guardian (here):
"Blue Smarties are to become white, as Nestlé Rowntree desists in its use of all artificial colours. I have no particular fondness for the blue ones: any idiot knows only the orange ones taste different. If I have a beef at all, it's with the change of packaging. (The tube no longer has that poppy lid with a letter on it. This means my lifelong search for a Z ends unrealised. What a sodding waste of three decades.)
But anyway, there is no natural alternative to blue food colouring, though the green ones will continue to be tinted with, I don't know, courgette? Nestlé said this change was in line with its long-term goal to "improve the nutritional qualities of its products".

White smarties are what you get if you suck coloured ones until the colour comes off. The idea that you might find white smarties in the packet ab initio, as it were, is disgusting. Nestlé Rowntree should be ashamed of themselves.

And, as a footnote, do Smarties have any nutritional qualities?

They'll be wearing kilts next...

Once upon a time, when Scotland used to qualify for the football world cup, the Scottish run-up to the tournament was invariably plagued by difficulties. The England team appear to be metamorphosing before our eyes into a Scottish version. The Guardian reports:
"England's preparations for the World Cup, already derailed by the curse of the broken metatarsal, have suffered another equally predictable setback - the unseemly nightclub brawl.
Just hours before he was selected by Sven-Goran Eriksson for the 23-man squad for next month's tournament, the Chelsea defender Wayne Bridge suffered a head injury in a disturbance outside a club in Mayfair, central London.
Police were called to the Embassy club when a fight broke out at 2am on Monday. Bridge, 25, who had been at a party with Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Fulham players celebrating the end of the Premiership season, received a cut and bruise to his face."

So added to the rash of injuries and the bizarre managerial decision-making, we now have the shenanigans in a night club. How Scottish can you get? All that remains to complete the metamorphosis is elimination in the first round.

09 May 2006

The game is afoot

It may get interesting soon. The poll published in today's Times (here) suggests that the Labour Party's lead at UK level is vanishing like snow off a dyke. Meanwhile, Labour in Scotland is beginning to think seriously about next year's elections for the Scottish Parliament, not helped by Mr Blair's comments yesterday on Scottish independence. Ian Bell in The Herald sets the scene:
"Even before Blair spoke, the MSPs had sensed that voters were about to scatter in all directions, with consequences they dread to contemplate. They had drawn the lesson of the Dunfermline disaster, a lesson confirmed by the Moray by-election and the English local elections. When the prime minister asserted that the usual battle with the SNP over independence is "one major, major issue that will be at the heart of the campaign" next year, every fear must have been confirmed: Blair hasn't a clue. Things are much more complicated, and much more dangerous for Labour, than that. Hence last week's leak of the results of Scottish Labour's private polls. The news, to be shared with back benchers on Wednesday, is by all accounts grim: perhaps a 5% drop in the Labour vote and anything from six to a dozen seats forfeit, depending on the effects of the list system."

It is worth reiterating the facts: Labout holds 50 seats out of the 129 seat parliament, with the LibDems adding another 17. The coalition only needs to lose three seats at the election to deprive it of a working majority. The prospect of at least another 12 months of Blair-Brown bickering is unlikely to enhance Labour's prospects in Scotland. And do Labour MSPs particularly want to remain in bed with the LibDems anyway? From now on, every item of political news will be refracted through the prism of next year's elections.

So what will the First Minister do? If and when he understands the position he is in, he will probably panic. In which case, expect blood to flow.

08 May 2006

Intimations of mortality

Fiona Millar on The Guardian's comment website (here):
"Apparently in No 10 the view is that we lost the council [Camden] because we have two disloyal Labour MPs (although interestingly they both won their seats at the last election) In one of the Sunday papers it was suggested by an unnamed "Blairite" that new Labour switchers are angry because they love Tony so much and don't want him to go. The same source today says a timetable for handing over the leadership of the Labour Party would be a disaster because those same voters would start to desert us 'in droves'.
They need to wake up and smell the Gospel Oak coffee. They already are deserting us in droves, fracturing into a patchwork of green, yellow and blue. Too many of them are disillusioned over too many issues. The transition to a new leader is only the start of the job that needs to be done."

The significance of this lies in the fact that Fiona Miller is the partner of a certain Alastair Campbell. If Campbell's partner is advocating transition to a new leader, can Blair's apocalypse be far off?

07 May 2006

Dae sumthin! (part 2)

Where's the big idea? Scotland on Sunday has decided that the First Minister is not cutting the mustard:
"After five years in office no number of slogans, foreign trips or famous friends can conceal the intellectual vacuum at the heart of project McConnell. This matters. His refusal to take hard decisions means disadvantaged children continue to have their life chances hindered by a moribund education system. His suspicion of reform ensures the health service continues to creak along, wasteful of taxpayers' cash and too often offering a second class service. Even where McConnell has done well - cutting business taxes; an innovative preventive healthcare strategy - it has proved impossible to extrapolate an overarching theme or "big idea".
It is not only the voters who are disenchanted. As we reveal today, one of McConnell's closest allies, Health Minister Andy Kerr, has warned him that he must spend more time in Scotland and less jetting abroad. Kerr is right. Scotland does not need a globetrotting salesman while there is so much to do at home. As well as schools and hospitals, we are unclear what McConnell would offer in the way of modernising our transport services if Scottish voters are forgiving enough to offer him a third term.
One of the few areas he has taken a stand on is street crime, but he increasingly looks like an ineffectual lobbyist failing to persuade local authorities to impose more ASBOs. If he is to defy our low expectations, McConnell must set out as quickly as possible a series of ambitious and specific proposals. By the time he publishes his Labour manifesto for the 2007 election, it may be too late to turn around public opinion."

This is a bit unfair. Mr McConnell never became First Minister because of his creative vision. What does SoS want the man to do? On health and education, the choice agenda favoured in England hardly seem to recommend themselves to English voters, as was revealed last Thursday. On crime and justice, the Executive appears to be doing significantly better than the Home Office (although, given the dysfunction of the latter, that is hardly a recommendation). More devolution in fiscal matters is for wonks, and taking greater responsibility for immigration would open up a new can of worms.

Arguably, it is not ambitious proposals which are needed, but rather a commitment to better administration. It may catch fewer headlines but running the show more sensibly would be preferable to introducing dramatic new departures.

06 May 2006

The girls are taking over

Ann Treneman in The Times has the last word on the reshuffle:
"Our first thoughts now should be with Condi Rice, the US Secretary of State. First she was dragged round Blackburn by Jack Straw. It is only a matter of time before she has to go caravanning with Mrs Beckett."

05 May 2006

All pals together

The BBC website announces:
"Europe Minister Douglas Alexander has been given his first cabinet post as Scottish secretary and transport secretary, replacing Alistair Darling."

Interesting. That would be the same Douglas Alexander who is brother to Wendy Alexander who almost took on Mr McConnell in seeking to become First Minister and who subsequently resigned (or perhaps was forced to resign) from the McConnell Cabinet. Not likely to be a bosom buddy of Mr McConnell then.

Never mind, Mr McConnell can look forward to increased co-operation from the new Home Secretary, John Reid. All Lanarkshire MPs and MSPs together, yes? Oh no, apparently they don't get on...

Are there any Scottish MPs that the First Minister actually gets on with? Time to start building some bridges perhaps?

It's an institution

The Herald celebrates Taggart (here):
"There's been a murder. It is a sentence to gladden the heart of a Scottish theatrical agent. The words must be spoken in deeply guttural, menacing tones, and it would take a heart of stone not to laugh.
There's been a murder. There is a myth. And that legend in its own prime-time is Taggart, a programme slagged with the ferocity of the abuse aimed at a youth with a plook on his nose at the school disco. Yet it has claims to being the most successful television drama ever.
The evidence? Taggart is the longest-running police drama on television. It started with a three-part serial, Killer, in 1983, and a new series is now being filmed. It will bring the number of episodes to 87 and the body count to more than 100."

Lots of bad acting and improbable plots, but somehow compelling. I remember the surreal experience of turning on the telly in a Prague hotel and seeing Taggart dubbed in Czech. Even the Czech speakers managed to convey a Glaswegian accent.

I've never understood why STV has failed to repeat the earlier series.

Away wi' the fairies,again

The nanny state moves on. The Herald reports on the latest attempts to bring civilisation to the Scottish peasants:
"Licensing trade leaders have raised concerns over plans to make bars promote healthy eating among their customers. Under new regulations being considered by the Scottish Executive, landlords may have to provide "sensible eating" advice to their customers in order to obtain a licence.
The requirement is contained in a discussion document setting out a series of new conditions for prospective publicans. Although fears have been raised that the move is aimed at banning meals such as pie beans and chips from being served, industry figures have said there are no plans to restrict the type of food pubs can sell."

Picture the scene:
Customer: "A pint of heavy, please, and a pie"
Barman: "I am obliged by the Scottish Executive regulations to warn you that the pie contains more than 400 calories or approximately one-fifth of the recommended daily calorie intake for an adult male."
Customer: "Gie's a break, pal. I'm hungry."
Barman: "Furthermore, the filling in the pie includes 20 per cent grease, 20 per cent rusk (also known as sawdust) and 40 per cent reconstituted meat of doubtful provenance but which may once have been within spitting distance of a dead sheep."
Customer: "You looking for trouble?"
Barman: "While the pie is rich in carbohydrates, it is notably deficient in vitamins and in omega 3 fatty acids and will make only a marginal contribution to a balanced diet."
Customer: "Aw, you should have said that first. Forget the pie - I'll have the tuna quiche with rocket salad."

Not very likely, is it?

03 May 2006

Not really good enough?

You can read Mr Clarke's statement here.

If you read it carefully, the following may emerge. Some 38 of the (initial) 79 most serious cases are still not yet "under control", which presumably means that they are walking the streets, with neither the Home office nor the police knowing where they are, even although it is a week since the details were passed to the police. Nor is it clear how many of the rest of the 1,023 are "under control", even although consideration of deportation may have been completed in 554 cases, with deportation action "being pursued" in 446 cases. It's not exactly an encouraging picture.

As for the proposed extension of the categories of criminals who would be automatically considered for deportation, it is not my impression that Mr Clarke intends to challenge the ECHR or any of the other arrangements whereby deportation to certain states is a virtual no-no. Nor is it clear that such an extension would add significantly to the Home Secretary's powers of deportation - see here:
"Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, argued that new legislation was unnecessary.
"It is part of the essence of immigration control that home secretaries have enjoyed the broadest of discretions to deport people who are non-conducive to the public good," she told Today."
So, is Mr Clarke just playing games?

The foundations of empire

The Times reveals the American plans for a giant embassy in Baghdad:
"Officially, the design of the compound is supposed to be a secret, but you cannot hide the giant construction cranes and the concrete contours of the 21 buildings that are taking shape. Looming over the skyline, the embassy has the distinction of being the only big US building project in Iraq that is on time and within budget.
In a week when Washington revealed a startling list of missed deadlines and overspending on building projects, Congress was told that the bill for the embassy was $592 million (£312 million).
The heavily guarded 42-hectare (104-acre) site — which will have a 15ft thick perimeter wall — has hundreds of workers swarming on scaffolding. Local residents are bitter that the Kuwaiti contractor has employed only foreign staff and is busing them in from a temporary camp nearby.
After roughing it in Saddam’s abandoned palaces, diplomats should have every comfort in their new home. There will be impressive residences for the Ambassador and his deputy, six apartments for senior officials, and two huge office blocks for 8,000 staff to work in. There will be what is rumoured to be the biggest swimming pool in Iraq, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a cinema, restaurants offering delicacies from favourite US food chains, tennis courts and a swish American Club for evening functions."

It does not sound like a temporary arrangement. More like the headquarters of a colonial governor.

Clear as mud

Ever wondered how the new voting system for Scottish local government will work? Well, don't look at the Scottish Executive website. This is from today's press release (here):

The key points of STV are:

Each council ward will now be represented by either three or four members, depending on its size.

Voters will be able to rank the candidates for election in their ward in any order they want.

They will be able to do this by putting a '1' for their favourite, a '2' for the next, and so on.

Voters can rank as many, or as few candidates as they want.

If the voter's first choice does not need their vote, either because he or she is elected without it, or because he or she has too few votes to be elected, then the vote is transferred to the voter's second choice candidate.

These transfers continue until the correct number of candidates are elected.


(I may be asking questions later.)

Not helpful

This is really rather naughty of The Guardian (here):
"The home secretary, Charles Clarke, faced fresh pressure over his handling of foreign prisoners when the police revealed the prime suspect in the killing of Bradford policewoman Sharon Beshenivsky was a Somali man who had not been deported from Britain to protect his human rights.
Mustaf Jammal is a prime suspect in the murder last November of the Bradford policewoman gunned down in a travel agent's.
Mr Clarke will make a statement today to the House of Commons on his department's tracking of 1,023 foreign criminals who were not deported after serving their sentences - the second time in eight days that he has been forced to explain the crisis to MPs.
Jammal, 25, had previously been convicted for robbery and drug offences, and had been considered for deportation last spring after being released from prison for another offence. Immigration officials looked at the case but because he was from war-torn Somalia decided no action could be taken. The government was originally under attack after it emerged the Prison Service and the immigration department had breached their own orders and allowed the release of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners without any consideration at all for deportation. Jammal was not one of the 1,023 but is one of nearly 2,000 foreign prisoners since 1999 who had been allowed to stay in the country after Home Office consideration."

As Jammal was properly considered for deportation, why does this have any bearing on the main case that Mr Clarke has to answer, that is the release of 1,023 foreign prisoners without consideration of deportation? The conflation of the different issues (eg by references to today's Ministerial statement) merely serves to muddy the waters. It is a tabloid trick intended to add to the emotional intensity of the original crisis. It neither helps those seeking to defend the Government's actions nor those seeking to have the problems resolved.

02 May 2006

Sheryl has chicks!

Never mind about Clarke, Prescott and Patsy with the snooty voice. Guardian journalists are more concerned with the fate of Russell and Sheryl Crow, nesting outside their window. The latest bulletin is reported here:
"CHICKS!!! Right here, outside the widow. No, not girls, young crows. Very young. The miracle of life has happened right here in a Farringdon plane tree, writes the Guardian's self-appointed office ornithology correspondent Sam Wollaston (who's been logging the Guardian crows' nest-building and egg-sitting antics for News blog). It's enough to make you start believing. And Sheryl brought forth her firstborn chicks, and wrapped them in fluff, and laid them in the nest; because there was no room for them in the Guardian offices ..."

It is less than encouraging, however, that there remains some concern that these are actually crows (as opposed to rooks or ravens or maybe even blackbirds). And naming the chicks Bob and Cameron is perhaps a bit presumptuous at this stage...

But you don't get exciting news like this at The Herald or The Scotsman.

01 May 2006

The Terry Wogan of the newspaper world

In an Independent article about The Spectator, Stephen Glover reveals the following:
"After all, the magazine's sister publication, the Daily Telegraph, pays Boris Johnson more than £4,000 a column."

£4,000 + per column? A useful little addition to his salary as an MP. But are his articles worth £4,000 each? The Telegraph must think so.

Not strait-laced enough

The Guardian lurches into tabloidese (here):
"The move comes after a weekend of lurid and damaging headlines on Mr Prescott's affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, dominating the Sunday newspapers. He is facing an internal Whitehall inquiry after the former Tory whip Derek Conway filed a complaint demanding an investigation into Ms Temple's use of government cars to travel to and from trysts with Mr Prescott."

Outside the pages of The Sun, The Mirror and The Daily Mail, who has trysts? The Guardian then has the cheek to blame bloggers for misuse of language (here):
"If you believe the internet is the fount of all wisdom, giving free rein to bloggers to exercise their vocal cords, think again. Ancient English cliches and expressions are being mangled by the culture of cut and paste and the spread of unchecked writing on the internet.
According to the Oxford English Corpus, a database of a billion words, dozens of traditional phrases are now more commonly misspelled than rendered correctly in written English.
"Straight-laced" is used 66% of the time even though it should be written "strait-laced", according to lexicographers working for Oxford Dictionaries, who record the way English is spoken and written by monitoring books, television, radio and newspapers and, increasingly, websites and blogs.
"Just desserts" is used 58% of the time instead of the correct spelling, "just deserts" (desert is a variation of deserve), while 59% of all written examples of the phrase in the Corpus call it a "font of knowledge or wisdom" when it should be "fount"."

Newspapers, on the other hand, hardly ever make mistakes?