30 June 2006

I wish I were a star blogger like Andy Murray

Am I down-hearted? Am I dispirited? Just because young Murray gets 2,690+ comments on his blog (here)? OK, it's slightly more than I usually get (well, a lot more, to be honest) but he's a tennis player...

And, anyway, he doesn't have much to say about Scottish politics.

They are on holiday again!

The Scottish Parliament will next meet on Wednesday 6 September.

Aw, c'mon! Don't be like that. They really have been working hard. They deserve some time off. Even 9 weeks for the summer.

Deeper and deeper

Is Mr McConnell an electoral asset for Labour? Or is he an electoral liability? The Scotsman reports:
"FEWER than one in three Scots think Jack McConnell is doing a good job, according to a poll published last night.
The research, by STV, found that only 31 per cent think the First Minister is performing well, 25 per cent said they thought he was doing a bad job, 24 per cent said he was doing neither a good nor a bad job, while 20 per cent did not know."

More of this sort of thing and the murmurs will start. Can Labour afford to go into next year's elections with Mr McConnell at the helm? Could we have a quick coup?

Flirting with danger?

Did the First Minister really mean to go down this road? The Scotsman reports:
"Speaking on STV's Politics Now programme last night, Mr McConnell said: "The biggest problem with independence is the journey there.
"I think it's a debatable issue about the condition of an independent Scotland because it would depend on the kind of government that voters elected."
... But pressed again on whether he thought Scotland could survive as an independent country, he replied: "That would depend on the government that was elected by the people. It would depend on the policies they follow.
"The issue is not what government would there be in an independent Scotland - the issue is the move towards independence and whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing and common sense would tell anybody, not politics but common sense, that an international company that was thinking about investing in Scotland in a period when independence was being considered by the government of Scotland, that international company would hesitate."

Is it really the case that the biggest problem with independence is the journey there? Some might say that the dissolution of a 300 year old union from which - admittedly arguably - both sides have benefited enormously, that the prospect of re-inventing wheels, right left and centre, when both sides are well-served by long-standing shared arrangements, that the openness of an independent Scottish economy to the slings and arrows of increasing globalisation offer rather more worrying problems than simply getting from here to there.

And, tactically, why does the First Minister want to fight the forthcoming battle on the SNP's chosen ground? I can't see the attraction of a slogan such as 'Vote for Labour; we'd probably opt for independence if it wasn't too difficult to make it happen'. Knowledge of tactics was what Mr McConnell was supposed to be good at. Or have his World Cup footballing preferences gone to his head?

This morning, there will be certain Labour politicians tearing their hair out in frustration.

Lots and lots and lots...

Do big numbers mean anything? The Guardian reports:
"Mortgage debt in Britain has passed £1 trillion for the first time, the Bank of England revealed yesterday as it reported the strongest rise in new mortgage lending for two-and-a-half years.
The Bank said its seasonally adjusted figures showed total mortgage debt rose to £1.006 trillion last month, up £9.3bn from April. Analysts said it showed the housing market appeared to be in rude health in spite of higher unemployment and squeezed income growth."

£1 trillion is the same as £1,000 billion or £1,000,000,000,000. Meaningless, isn't it? But it amounts to about £17,000 per head of population, which seems rather more manageable in terms of servicing a mortgage. (Of course there are rather fewer households than population, and only some of them will have mortgages, which means that the average mortgage will be much higher but even so.) Furthermore, the overall value of private housing will be way in excess of £1 trillion, so perhaps the overall level of mortgage debt in Britain is not something to lose sleep over.

29 June 2006

Government accounting

The Scottish Executive's underspend is diminishing. The Scotsman reports:
"Mr McCabe told Holyrood the underspend of £235 million for 2005-6 was well below earlier figures - £281 million last year and £515 million in 2003-4. He hailed the underspend as "the best set of figures since devolution began". It represented only 0.9 per cent of the total budget.
Executive departments spent £171 million less than the budget approved for them last year, with a further £64 million underspent by arm's-length bodies such as the health boards and Scottish Water.
The enterprise and lifelong learning department's underspend of £74 million was put down to the fact that fewer student loans have been issued and also to higher than anticipated repayments of about £20 million."

However, £235 million is still a lot of money. And, if you have that amount sitting unspent in your back pocket, why make such a fuss about the Scottish Enterprise overspend of a piffling £30 to £40 million?

28 June 2006

Crime and punishment

What is the appropriate sentence for a crime? Here are three examples from the BBC website:

"A bank manager who admitted carrying out one of Scotland's biggest frauds has been jailed for 10 years.
Donald Mackenzie, 45, pleaded guilty at the High Court in Edinburgh earlier this month to embezzling £21m from The Royal Bank of Scotland.
He accessed the money through the bank's loan system by setting up false accounts in the names of fictitious customers at a branch in Edinburgh."

And here:
"A man who ran a drugs business in Glasgow worth more than £1m has been jailed for nine years.
Colin Robertson, 41, was caught in the city with enough heroin to give each of the city's 15,000 drugs addicts five fixes each.
Along with the 8kg of heroin worth £1.6m was 100,000 diazepam tablets and £2,500 in cash.
Robertson previously admitted being concerned in the supply of heroin, cannabis resin, ecstasy and diazepam."

And here:
"A hit-and-run driver who killed a student at a pelican crossing while speeding has had his jail term doubled.
Abigail Craen, 20, of Liss, Hampshire, died the day after she was run over by Jaswinder Singh, 45, in Pershore Road, Birmingham in October last year.
Singh, of Ward End, Birmingham, was jailed for 18 months after admitting dangerous driving and other offences.
But three Appeal Court judges ruled it was "unduly lenient" before increasing his jail term to three years."

Is each of these sentences appropriate? I don't know. But, to the extent that judges have discretion over sentencing, it cannot be easy to decide.

One by one, the bastions fall...

The Scottish Raj extends its hold over Britain's cultural institutions. The Guardian reports:
"Kirsty Young, the newsreader who pioneered a more informal style of presentation by perching on the edge of her desk, is to become the fourth host of Desert Island Discs in its 64-year history, the BBC announced yesterday."

There are times when one could almost feel sorry for the English.

27 June 2006

Conservatives have a clause 4 moment - no, really!

Scottish politics grows daily more bizarre. Here, for example, in The Scotsman is an instance of the Tories seeking to municipalise a function of government presently supervised by local private sector interests:
"SCOTLAND'S local economic development companies should be scrapped and "the bulk" of Scottish Enterprise's functions handed to councils, the Scottish Conservatives said yesterday.
Murdo Fraser, the party's deputy leader, said the quango should "at least for now" retain responsibility for Scottish Development International, its overseas arm, and the "co-investment fund" - which invests in new businesses.
But in a speech in Edinburgh, Mr Fraser asked whether the 12 local enterprise companies across Scotland should be abolished, leaving local authorities "to adjudicate on their own needs". He concluded: "I suspect the answer is yes."
Tory Secretary of State Ian Lang set up the local enterprise companies in 1990 in an effort to bring local private sector disciplines to bear on the previously monolithic Scottish Development Agency. Now the Tories - of all political parties - want to deprive local private sector business interests of their inflluence on local economic development and hand it over to local authorities. Even Scottish Labour did not dare suggest such a course of action. Scottish local authorities, with their long traditions of Labour domination, have not usually been regarded as business-friendly, but perhaps Mr Fraser lives in a different world from the rest of us?

RIP Bruno

I guess that he was shown the ultimate red card. Here.

It wisnae me, honest

Wishful thinking or re-writing history?

From today's Guardian (here):
"He [Mr Clarke] spoke after sending the Commons home affairs select committee a detailed defence of his handling of the foreign prisoner row. Mr Clarke insisted in a five-page letter that he had only been made aware in March 2006 of the failure to consider some foreign prisoners for deportation at the end of their sentences.
"When we were aware of this, action was then taken."

From The Guardian of 26 April (here):
How did the problem emerge?
Last October the Home Office admitted to MPs that 403 foreign nationals had been released between 2001 and 2005 without being considered for deportation. Home secretary Charles Clarke yesterday admitted that figure was wrong. He said between February 1999 and last month, there were 1,023 cases.
Was the government warned of the problem?
Yes. The Prisons Inspectorate warned as long ago as 2003 of an "institutional blind spot" on foreign nationals. It warned that 32 prisons did not know how many foreigners they held until the inspectorate informed them. It also criticised the "dilatory attitude" of the immigration service, which inspectors said were not monitoring those liable for deportation. Last July the National Audit Office also said that preparations for removing foreign criminals should begin much earlier and not left until the end of prison sentences.

26 June 2006

Game theory and the art of the penalty

Slate Magazine explains why English penalty-takers should stop thinking with their feet:
"Game theory, applied to the problem of penalties, says that if the striker and the keeper are behaving optimally, neither will have a predictable strategy. The striker might favor his stronger side, of course, but that does not mean that there will be a pattern to the bias. The striker might shoot to the right two times out of three, but we cannot then conclude that it will have to be to the left next time.
Game theory also says that each choice of shot should be equally likely to succeed, weighing up the advantage of shooting to the stronger side against the disadvantage of being too predictable. If shots to the right score three-quarters of the time and shots to the left score half the time, you should be shooting to the right more often. But as you do, the goalkeeper will respond: Shots to the right will become less successful and those to the left more successful. It might sound strange that at this point any choice will do, but it is analogous to saying that if you are at the summit of the mountain, no direction is up.
Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, an economist at Brown University, found that individual strikers and keepers were, in fact, master strategists. Out of 42 top players whom Palacios-Huerta studied, only three departed from game theory's recommendations—in retrospect, they succeeded more often on one side than the other and would have been better altering the balance between their strategies. Professionals such as the French superstar Zinédine Zidane and Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon are apparently superb economists: Their strategies are absolutely unpredictable, and, as the theory demands, they are equally successful no matter what they do, indicating that they have found the perfect balance among the different options. These geniuses do not just think with their feet."
Unfortunately, the English problem is not so much a question of decision-making about left or right, more a propensity to balloon the ball over the bar. This is not a strategy likely to succeed.

Cassandra calling

The Guardian editorial salutes Catalonia and Spain:
"From Pyrenees mountain heights to the streets of Barcelona and the shores of the Costa Brava, Catalonia is asserting itself with confidence, both politically and culturally. Ten days ago its people voted overwhelmingly for a new charter of autonomy, which will see their powers of self-government bolstered. Then, last week, its parliament moved to ban bullfighting, a cruel practice that has long fallen out of favour with most Catalans. But the repercussions of legislating against the blood sport are wider than animal welfare: they involve disowning a national symbol of Spain and refreshing the distinctiveness of the Catalan identity, which has roots going back to the Middle Ages.
The robustness of Catalan consciousness should be saluted. Only three decades have passed since Franco's regime, which not only denied the region a say in its own affairs, but punished people for speaking its language. For a time, the native tongue suffered, but today it is understood by almost all residents, and it is younger people who most often write it. It is to the credit of the Madrid government that it has the maturity to champion regional - diversity and autonomy; it is to the credit of Catalans that they embrace it in such numbers, dismissing the rejectionist pleas of both the old right and extreme separatists."

But in the same newspaper a former editor, Peter Preston, takes a more jaundiced view of Scotland and the UK:
"Ask yourself a simple question. Why, suddenly, did McConnell decide to back Trinidad and Tobago for the World Cup? Why, thereafter, did dozens of Scots stage tiny pro-Trinidad demos for English TV cameras, with a few vicious beatings thrown in? Because McConnell can't leave that space clear for Salmond.
So it is, inexorably, time for change - but to what? The Liberals are too regional and too mired in the status quo. The Cameron highlanders have barely marched from Notting Hill to Watford Gap yet. Thus the Nats have it. They are the only change available - set, on current form, to be the biggest single party and rule in Holyrood. They'll probably make an instant push for separation via referendum, because that's holy scripture. They'll probably call a vote against continuing union - and probably lose it. But nothing will happen quickly. There must, inevitably, be an appalling din while they toil through these motions.
Meanwhile, watch London's own parallel war dance unfolding: the goodbye Tony, hello Gordon tango. At much the same moment that Scotland is being asked to leave the UK by a Scottish political party just elected to dominance by Scots, a gruff son of the manse will be walking through No 10's door, inheritor of a disunited kingdom. Here's the fear, here the loathing."

"Appalling din" is probably right. And the cheerleaders of The Telegraph and The Daily Mail will be in the vanguard banging the drum, contributing sound and fury but little enlightenment. For it will be England that decides whether to cut its northern neighbour adrift, either deliberately or negligently.

25 June 2006

Raves from the political grave

Like vampires, some politicians need a stake through the heart before they shut up.

Thus Henry McLeish in Scotland on Sunday feels obliged to contribute his banal tuppence-worth:
"If you love football, we need not support teams on the basis of who they are playing against. We can all support Brazil, who play magical and entertaining football.
Let us get back to that pure game and remember that England qualified; we did not. We are struggling to recover parity with soccer "giants" such as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Costa Rica and Iran."

While Lord Forsyth, Metal Mickey of yore, prefers The Telegraph for his bons mots (which, as ever, kind of miss the point - which is not geographical location):
"Some people say English votes for English laws would leave Scottish MPs with little to do in Parliament. Well here's a thought. The Chamber of the Scottish Parliament sits on average for one and a half days a week. Commons business is now largely timetabled. So why not get Scottish MPs to sit in the Scottish Parliament on, say, Mondays and Tuesdays and attend Westminster on the remaining days of the week? And while the Scots are away, English business can be discussed by English MPs.
It would mean that we kept the Scottish Parliament but could dispense with its 129 members and all their hangers-on. It would tackle over-government, restore a proper role to MPs in Scotland, and ensure a better deal for the taxpayer."

It is bad enough that our current politicians constantly seek attention, but spare us from the re-treads.

24 June 2006

Viva Mexico!

So farewell, Ricardo la Volpe. Nice name by the way.

You were the Mexican coach, although they said you were once an Argentinian goalkeeper.

During Mexico's first match, you had a fag in the dug-out. FIFA put a stop to that.

You wore execrable ties. Tonight, you combined a jacket and tie with an old pair of jeans. Still, it was better than the Argentinian coach's blue suit and oxblood shoes.

I'm not sure that I would like to meet you in a dark alley in Mexico City or Buenos Aires.

But you produced a football team that gave us some excitement. And for that, ta much.

Vaya con Dios, Senor la Volpe.

Sleepwalking towards independence

The Green Ribbon lists the signposts luring the English towards independence:
24 June
Scots 'should lose extra billions from Treasury' Telegraph
Pork Barrel Labour Telegraph
My scheme gives Scots too much cash aid, says peer Daily Mail
Cut Scottish spending by billions - Barnett Scotsman
23 June
The Scottish question might leave Cameron's Tories struggling for an answer Financial Times
"Devolution would boost Northern Ireland Economy": DUP UTV
Questioning the Scottish Question Slugger O'Toole
Interviews: Caroline Spelman ConservativeHome
22 June
Home Truths Guardian/Comment is Free
Constitution has to change, say voters Scotsman
It's a question of cash rather than West Lothian Edinburgh Evening News
English Affairs Eursoc
Mike - “Should I risk £10,000 of my pension cash on Gordon?” Politicalbetting.com
21 June
Why Britain should pay homage to Catalonia Guardian
The West Lothian answer Guardian/Comment is Free
Tories Seek curbs on Scottish MPs Telegraph
How to defuse the Scottish question Telegraph
Brown under threat from the English lion Daily Mail
YouGov poll reveals 'English' voting demand Press Association/24Dash.com
Brown Ally: West Lothian Question needs answer The Scotsman
The West Lothian solution? The Scotsman
‘Sleepwalking’ claim over report on the West Lothian question The Herald
Hostility towards Scots is a dangerous game The Herald
England has got no use for us any more Edinburgh Evening News
New Poll Shows UK Failing to Deliver for England SNP

These are only the most recent entries.

23 June 2006

Living with The Bomb

There are times when one could almost feel sorry for Mr McConnell. The Chancellor has rather dropped him in it. Ian Bell in The Herald reprises yesterday's First Minister's Questions:
"The First Minister looked as uncomfortable as he has looked in many a month. He had been reduced, after all, to the worst vice of the newspaper leader writer: on the one hand – he actually said this – and on the other hand. He wanted to denounce Brown and the political cost of buying Downing Street. That wasn't affordable, not with Scottish elections looming, so Jack was forced to
swallow his principles.
Not a pretty sight. It must have been galling, equally, to have been forced to grant the nationalists another airing of the "London Labour versus Scottish Labour" ditty. But when a politician cannot afford to say what he truly believes, the game is over before it begins.
Was he for or against – I paraphrase – the imposition on Scotland of a fantastically expensive weapons system over which Scotland's parliament would have not a shred of control? Not saying. Was he for or against nuclear weapons? Yesterday, the First Minister didn't say lots.
Jack could only "agree absolutely" that people should have "an opinion". He could not risk an opinion of his own. He was naked in the debating chamber while attempting to straddle a fence. Did I mention that he looked uncomfortable?"

And it's only going to get worse...

Words don't come easy

The Guardian has metamorphosed into a textbook on linguistics. Here is advice on speaking Brummie:
"1. What precisely does the Birmingham accent sound like? According to Harry Enfield, who is supposed to be a comedian, it often consists of putting the letter "O" front of the letter "I" and replacing each "U" with a "W", with hilarious consequences. For example: "Oi am considerably richer than yow." Very amusing Harry. Ha, ha, hah. But in fact Enfield is so wide of the mark it isn't even funny. See point 2 for an explanation.
2. So what is Brummie, then, if you're so clever? Good question. It is not an accent, nor a dialect, nor even a kind of vernacular. It is more of a syllable. Let's see if you can say it. Repeat after me: "Ar". No, that's not quite right. Try again, and this time try to sound more adenoidally depressed: "Ar." Better. You see "Ar" means everything in the second city: "Yes", "No", "Goodbye", "The antidisestablishment movement surely prefigures the looming schism in the Anglican church." It's like "Bof!" in French - you can use it everywhere and in any situation and everybody will think you're fluent. Nobody says anything else. Trust me.
3. Actually, that's not quite true. Brummies also say: "Tara-a-bit" which means "Au revoir, moite" - or "Au revoir, mate," as you non-Brummies would say."

The Guardian does not explain why anyone should care.

In addition, here is a disquisition on the most frequently used nouns:
"The time has come to examine the nouns that the average person uses most in a day, a year, or even perhaps a whole life. The Oxford University Press furnished a list yesterday which showed that "time" is the commonest, "person" comes second, with "year" in third place and "day" in fifth, well ahead of "life", which comes ninth. Day is pushed out of fourth place by "way"; but "way" is a bit of a cheat, since the Oxford experts say it has 18 separate meanings...
Yesterday's list of nouns has a tang about it of "how we live now". "Man", as the Oxford team notes, comes seventh, "child" 12th and "woman" only 14th. "Work" is 16th, but "rest" and "play" don't make the top 20 - a reminder, perhaps, that "time" is what most people complain they are always short of. "War" is 49th; "peace" doesn't make the top 100. Among body parts, "part" is 11th, "hand" (10th) beats "eye" (13th), and both leave "heart" trailing. The OUP's project manager, Angus Stevenson, thinks words score well if they occur, as "time" does, in familiar phrases: perhaps "case" (18th) and "point" (19th) are cases in point."

It seems odd (or perhaps not) that nouns of temporality ('time', 'year', 'day', perhaps even 'life') should come out so highly. What does this say about the human condition?

22 June 2006

"There ain't no cure for love"

The New York Times has a rather adulatory review of the new documentary Leonard Cohen movie - but, hey, I'm comfortable with that:
"When Leonard Cohen speaks, the elevated cadences of language are strewn with poetic images so precisely articulated in a rumbling bass-baritone voice that they all but erase the distinction between his song lyrics and personal conversation.
Each word is carefully chosen and pronounced with oratorical flourish. Even when his sepulchral drone isn't bending itself around a melody, its sound is musical. Here is one sample of his conversational style, from Lian Lunson's wonderful documentary portrait, "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man." Reflecting on the inspiration for his song "The Traitor," he muses that it is about "failing or betraying some mission you were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it and then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it but to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself."
If a strain of gallows humor didn't underlie many of Mr. Cohen's pronouncements, such observations might sound insufferably pretentious. But he continually undercuts his own solemnity. Here he is on his own mystique as a silver-tongued Casanova: "My reputation as a ladies' man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000 nights I spent alone."

I know the feeling...

The price of fame

Industrial injuries can be serious and painful. Normally I can sympathise but not on this occasion. The Evening News reports:
"NOEL EDMONDS is suffering from repetitive strain injury from having to keep picking up the phone on his TV game show Deal or No Deal.
The 57-year-old presenter was diagnosed with the unusual occupational injury after he complained of agonising pain in his right elbow...
It was picking up the phone to answer the Banker's calls that apparently caused Edmonds' injury. He said: "The phone is pretty heavy and I have to pick it up a dozen times a show. We shoot three shows a day and it got so painful that I could hardly pick the bleeding thing up."
Imagine having to pick up a heavy (?) phone a dozen times. Doesn't your heart bleed for the poor wee soul?

A billet doux-aigre for Gordon

An open letter to the Chancellor:

Dear Gordon

I always thought that you were one of the good guys. OK, you were a politician and therefore had to make accommodations - but essentially you were on the side of the angels.

I could tolerate the fact that you played footsie with the Private Finance Initiative. You know as well as I do that it was a rip-off of the taxpayer; but it kept the investments in schools and hospitals off the public sector borrowing requirement. And if that meant that you could plough resources into social programmes like Surestart, then so be it.

I could forgive the balls-up with the tax credits, even though it happened twice. It was a good idea in principle. The scheme probably fell over in its adminstration. Hell, everyone knows that the Inland Revenue couldn't run the proverbial booze-up in a brewery.

Although you said it, I never believed that you would support England in the World Cup, nor that you listened to the Arctic Monkeys on your iPod. These are things that politicians have to say, even if it makes them look stupid.

But, Gordon, a replacement for Trident? I accept that I am an ageing hippy who believes that nuclear weapons are evil. Even then, I could have understood if you wanted to buy some nuclear warheads to stick on cruise missiles - I would not have approved but I could have understood. But, no, you want those dirty great submarines with multiple warheads that creep around the oceans like leprous leviathans of the deep. For what? Against whom are you aiming those multiply-warheaded missiles? It's not even as if they are properly independent - you can only use them if the Americans agree.

Do you remember when we were at the University of Edinburgh? Days of aspiration and idealism - we wanted to make a better world. I admired you from afar. You should have been the greatest Labour Prime Minister of all time. But you have let us down, shamefully and irrevocably. And for that, you do not deserve to be forgiven.

Yours fraternally


The McKie affair continued

The Scotsman reports:
"Yesterday, in the most damning report into the scandal yet, a forensics expert employed by the Executive to look into the case said it was negligence that led to the misidentification of the fingerprint.
John MacLeod went on to say the case should never have come to court.
The report was commissioned by the Executive to look into whether professional negligence led to the misidentification of the print after Ms McKie took the SCRO to court. However, it was not until 20 months later that ministers decided to settle by compensating Ms McKie with £750,000."

To rehash last night's Newsnicht, in these circumstances, how could the First Minister claim that "an honest mistake" had been made?

Perhaps more pertinently, can anyone say how this affair can be drawn to a close? Or will it just limp on, accusation followed by counter-accusation, revelation followed by inquiry followed by revelation, until all of the participants die of old age?

Will we ever live it down?

Look, there are some things we'd rather not remember. Nicky Campbell in The Guardian picks at the scab (here):
"Never let it be said that the Germans do not have a sense of humour. Whenever anyone asks if I am English and I say "Nein, ich bin Scottish", without fail they then say "Bertie Vogts" and start laughing. I join in, but one problem - I don't think they're laughing with me."

21 June 2006

Barnett revisited

Here is my contribution to an ongoing debate at Iain Dales Diary (here) about Alice Thomson's article in today's Telegraph:
"I grow increasingly tired of explaining this - but here goes for one more time.

The Barnett formula is a mechanism for reducing the relative advantage enjoyed by Scotland in terms of comparable public spending with England. A similar arrangement applies in relation to Wales and Northern Ireland. The formula operates by allocating to Scotland a proportion of comparable public spending increases on comparable English programmes, that proportion being set at a level which is below Scotland's share in population terms. Accordingly, over time, the Barnett formula will reduce the gap between comparable spending per head in Scotland and

Now it is entirely possible to argue that the Barnett formula is not working quickly enough, in which case it may need to be amended. But simply abandoning the Barnett formula will not achieve anything in itself.Those who argue for a more radical solution to the problem of greater comparable spending in Scotland need to address the much more difficult issue of comparable spending needs. For example, is it equitable to base comparable spending on a simple per head calculation? Scotland is a less heavily populated country than England, so for example it 'needs' to spend more on roads and transport per head to deliver comparable outcomes in terms of public service. Similarly, for historical reasons, Scotland is generally recognised to have more severe health problems than south of the border, thus leading to a need for greater health spending per head. In these circumstances how do we devise a system which is fair to both countries? It is far from easy. In the 1970s, when the Barnett formula was first introduced, they ducked the issue and settled for the formula, which would gradually move the system in what was perceived to be the right direction.

I don't have the answers to the West Lothian Question (or the English question as some of us know it) but I don't think scrapping the Barnett formula is going to help."

Both barrels

Two pieces of bad news for the Chancellor. The Scotsman reports here:
"GOVERNMENT borrowing hit a new record last month, with the Public Sector Net Cash Requirement climbing to £7.4 billion. This is £2bn higher than the figure for May a year ago and £2.5bn higher than forecast in the market.
And Public Sector Net Borrowing (PSNB), which includes capital investment, hit a massive £10.4bn, another record high and some £600m higher than a year ago."

and here:
"A MEMBER of the record- breaking band the Arctic Monkeys who missed a recent international tour due to "fatigue" has now left the band for good, it emerged yesterday.
Bass player Andy Nicholson did not join the Sheffield-based four-piece on their North American tour, sparking speculation about his future.
A statement posted on the band's website has confirmed that his absence is permanent."

Will Mr Brown continue to listen to them on his iPod in the morning (see here)?

Nor is this bit of nonsense (here) likely to endear the Chancellor to his native land:
"GORDON Brown yesterday got his hands on a piece of football memorabilia many Scots hold responsible for four decades of English crowing: the ball used in the 1966 World Cup final.
The Chancellor has made no secret of his support for England ahead of their World Cup campaign in Germany. And yesterday he made another play to England supporters when he held the historic ball during a visit to Cologne to watch the team's final group game against Sweden, which ended in a 2-2 draw."

20 June 2006


The Telegraph gets carried away (here):
"Growing anger in England over the power that Scottish MPs wield at Westminster could destroy the 1998 devolution settlement, a powerful Commons committee said yesterday.
The report by the Labour-dominated Scottish affairs committee makes grim reading for Gordon Brown by highlighting how a majority of people in the United Kingdom now oppose a Scot becoming prime minister."

The SAC is a powerful Commons committee? Since when? For those who can be bothered, its membership is set out here - not exactly a bunch of MPs distinguished by achievement.

Further info on the SAC report here.

A message from the scrapheap

Lesley Riddoch in The Herald has discovered that some of us 50-somethings are not making much of an economic contribution (here):
"So 61-year-old entrepreneur Robert Smith is to tackle the scourge of Neets kids - Not in Education, Employment or Training. Good luck to him. But I'm wondering when someone will appoint a 17-year-old to tackle the even bigger problem of Fots: Fifty-year-olds On The Scrapheap. I'm not suggesting the plight of disengaged teenagers is unimportant. Simply overshadowed numerically by the massive disengagement developing at the other end of the labour market.
Unemployed fiftysomethings don't stand around on street corners, or mess openly with booze or illicit drugs, so the vast army of depressed and disillusioned Neet Fots is almost invisible."
Hey, we're not all depressed and disillusioned. And not messing openly with booze or drugs is more a question of a lack of opportunity than of inclination. But there's more:
"Fiftysomethings are seen as slow, bitter, reluctant to adapt to modern technology and expensive. Some of that may be true."
A trifle dismissive, don't you think? OK, so I'm not as quick off the mark as I used to be and I have difficulty with modern technology (what is this thing called texting?). But I'm not (excessively) bitter. And, rather than being known as expensive, I have been accused of being cheap (I know, it's hard to believe...).

But even if young Ms Riddoch's vapourings are completely true, it is unkind of her to say so. Not least because when I last met her in 1998 she bummed one of my fags.

19 June 2006

"For everything I learn, there are two I don't understand"

Are Scottish MPs at Westminster part of the solution or part of the problem? I refer of course to "the English Question". The BBC website reports:
"Devolution may be causing an English backlash, according to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.
The MPs said a recent poll for the BBC suggested there was increasing concern about whether Scottish MPs should vote on issues that affect England only.
They warned that the debate, known as the "West Lothian question", could undermine the devolution settlement.
More than half those surveyed in the poll said a Scottish MP should not become prime minister."
In fact, the Scottish Affairs Committee report was about Sewel motions (keep up at the back). The full report (which - to be honest - is not very full) is here. For reasons that only they will know, they considered it appropriate to tack on the following, somewhat gratuitous, paragraphs about the English Question:
"49. It is a matter of concern to us that there are signs that English discontent with the current situation is becoming apparent. According to a report in The Scotsman, a recent poll, conducted by ICM for the BBC, indicated that 52 per cent of people in the UK believed it wrong that a Scottish MP should become Prime Minister, given that Scotland has its own Parliament. That figure rises to 55 per cent of people in England and 59 per cent of people in the South East of England, whereas only 20 per cent of people in Scotland thought it wrong.[50]
50. In order to address the West Lothian Question, there are usually four solutions proffered: the dissolution of the United Kingdom; English devolution; fewer Scottish MPs; or English votes on English laws. Although we make no recommendations on how to resolve this question, we considered it worth noting our concerns, with the hope that the matter will be comprehensively debated, and resolved, before the situation is reached whereby it could actually undermine the whole devolution settlement."
Yes, that's all: a reference to a dubious BBC poll, a brief outline of some possible solutions and a refusal to come to a conclusion. Why did they bother? (Ed: to attract some media interest, silly!)

But what did they have to say about the Sewel motions? Nothing very interesting...

A good cause

This blog does not usually promote charities but this seems a worthwhile operation. The Evening News reports:

"BIG-HEARTED Hibs fans are to "adopt" another Ukrainian orphanage as the money continues to flood in ten months after Tony Mowbray's side faced Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the UEFA Cup.
What had been intended as a one-off donation to help stricken kids at the Predniprovsk Tuberculosis Children's Centre has mushroomed, leading to the Dnipro Appeal being registered as a charity in Scotland.
Already £14,000 has been raised, astounding organiser Stevie Carr who is now set to make a third visit to Ukraine to assess the needs of the orphanage, which accommodates around 50 children aged between six and 16, to which the Easter Road fans are now turning their attention... Advised by American aid worker Mike Pratt who is based in Ukraine's second biggest city, winter shoes and clothing along with televisions, medical and other equipment was bought locally while the kids in the centre were showered with toys and, of course, dozens of Hibs strips.
And early this year Carr returned along with another organiser Colin Dudgeon to deliver further aid as Hibs fans continued to raise money for the children. He said: "We spend our money in Ukraine because it goes so much further than it does here while, obviously, you are limited as to how much you can take on a plane.
"Small things we take for granted mean so much to the children, the smiles and laughter you see from them receiving the littlest gift brings a tear to your eye such as the table tennis table we bought them.
"When we first went there, the kids were running about the playground in worn-out slippers, but on our second visit we could see each of them had new shoes or trainers, that was a big difference."
The charity's website (here) explains how to donate.

We can almost feel proud

I have criticised the Justice Minister in the past. But on this occasion she seems to be on the side - if not of the angels - at least of common sense. The Herald reports:
"Parents who fear there may be child sex offenders in their neighbourhoods are to be kept in the dark about them, the Scottish Justice Minister has decided. Cathy Jamieson has backed expert advice that disclosure is "almost invariably undesirable", drives the problem underground and risks giving a false sense of security. "The risks posed by sex offenders are serious, but they must not be allowed to create a climate of fear," she said."

Ms Jamieson deserves even more credit for her stand, as it takes place when Dr Reid is lurching (like some Frankenstein monster) down the populist route, according to The Guardian (here):
"Mr Reid's promise to consider a British-version of the controversial American Megan's law, under which local parents are given full details of child sex offenders released into their neighbourhood, follows a six-year News of the World campaign to name and shame paedophiles and publish the addresses of all 101 probation hostels that house offenders. The campaign raised fears of vigilante attacks and warnings that paedophiles were going underground."

Good to see that, for once, the Scottish administration is taking a more enlightened attitude than Westminster.

Blue skies thinking

The Scotsman has apparently got hold of the SNP's 'masterplan' for the Scottish civil service (here):
"THE Scottish Nationalists are considering a radical overhaul of the civil service, which they claim would enable the party to run an independent Scotland without increasing the overall number of bureaucrats, The Scotsman can reveal.
Hundreds of junior staff could be laid off to make way for more senior posts in what the party termed a "repositioning and rebalancing exercise".
Just 50,000 civil servants would be needed to administer a fully autonomous Scotland, the party will say in a strategy document to be unveiled in the next week."

It is perhaps unfair to judge without seeing the actual document, not least because The Scotsman may have cherry-picked the 'sexy' bits for its article (in addition to the paper simply getting it wrong), but it does not sound much like a masterplan. For example:
"Stewart Hosie, the SNP's Treasury spokesman, confirmed it would be a "repositioning and rebalancing exercise" as the party aspires to be taken more seriously on economic affairs.
"If we have to lose a few lower-level clerks to get some senior finance experts, that's what we will have to do," Mr Hosie said."

What happens to the work that those lower-level clerks were doing? And from where do we get these senior finance experts, with policy experience in such areas as income tax, national insurance and corporate taxation (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether we would have a separate currency, with a consequent need for a central bank and our own interest rates)?
"A nationalist leadership would, it is claimed, keep the same civil service head-count, but "shake up" the composition of the jobs from lower, clerical roles to more highly skilled economists and diplomats as Scotland took control over Treasury matters and foreign affairs."

This seems to be the Tommy Cooper school of public administration. "Just like that", we will replace the clerks with highly skilled economists and diplomats. The rising stars of the Foreign Office will no doubt be straining at the leash to abandon the FCO Rolls-Royce for the Hillman Imp of the Scottish diplomatic service, with its prestigious embassies all over the world (where exactly?).

This is not to deride the effort on the part of the SNP. If independence is looming more closely on the horizon, it needs to start thinking about these matters in a sensible gradualist way. But the idea that sacking a few clerks will resolve matters is ludicrous. I look forward to the actual SNP document. Let us hope that it is the result of rather more thought than suggested by The Scotsman.

18 June 2006

Of cheese and carrots

It is always fun to deconstruct the honours list. The Telegraph has spotted an interesting little anomaly:
"On Saturday, the Queen's birthday honours list awarded an OBE to Randolph Hodgson, chairman of the Specialist Cheesemakers' Association.
For Clements Tompsett, chairman of the British Carrot Growers' Association, there was the lowlier MBE.
Why looking after the interests of the producers of Shropshire Blue and Sage Derby should count for more than championing growers of Ulysses and Bullion - carrots come in as many varieties as cheese, it seems - is hard to see."
There are of course more important peculiarities. Did Philip Green, based for tax purposes in Monaco, deserve a knighthood? And what of the Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Executive? Has he done anything singular to merit a 'K'? Or is occupying the post for three years sufficient in itself?

It is time that this nonsense was swept away.

The stars of the show

The football takes second place to the Wives And Girlfriends. The Telegraph reports:
"The WAGs boarded the coach in reverse order of importance. Melanie Slade, the 17-year-old girlfriend of the wunderkind Theo Walcott, went on first, fiddling with the rim of her baseball cap, her eyes, barely masking her terror, ringed in black mascara.
Victoria Beckham, who has been a footballer's wife for longer than anyone cares to remember, boarded last, with all the dramatic intensity of an opera singer taking a curtain call.
Sweeping across the marble floor in white micro-shorts, accompanied by three bodyguards and her two eldest sons, Brooklyn and Romeo, she pouted gloomily for photographers.
Her nanny was left with instructions to book a manicure appointment at the hotel's spa. As with the coolest girls at school, Victoria sat at the back of the bus...
With all this glitzy orchestration, it is easy to forget why they were here in the first place. Their husbands and boyfriends are playing in quite an important football tournament, apparently.
But, as anyone who has watched the WAGs in action over the past week would know, 90 minutes on the pitch pales into insignificance alongside the Olympian stamina required of a professional footballer's wife on tour."

It's a shame that the husbands and boyfriends aren't quite up to it.

16 June 2006

"Mebbes aye, mebbes naw"

The Evening News highlights the profundity, the devastating insight and the sheer intellectual horsepower of our First Minister:
"The First Minister told Parliamentary Monitor magazine: "The debate about Tony Blair's future and the succession is going to have an impact on the Scottish Parliamentary election.
"It could have a positive impact or it could have a negative impact for the Scottish Labour Party's prospects."
He added: "There have been lots of changes in public opinion over the last 12 months, and there could be a lot more over the next 12."

Expect future comments to focus on the Pope's religious persuasion or the defecation habits of bears.

Ducking the issues

What is wrong with public administration in Scotland (apart from a chronic lack of leadership on the part of Scottish Executive Ministers)? There is a simple answer - it's too complicated. There are too many local authorities and there is a mismatch in terms of geographical areas with other parts of the public sector - health authorities, local enterprise companies and police and fire authorities. Do we really need the vast numbers of councillors, chief executives, chief medical officers and chief constables that we have? Is it possible for these various authorities to work together to provide effective and efficient services?

The long-awaited discussion paper on the future of public services produced yesterday by the Scottish Executive offered the chance to address these issues. The accompanying press release is here, while the actual paper is here.

So what answers has the Executive come up with? Well, none really. You see, there are too many vested interests in maintaining the existing system and the Executive does not want to upset people who might be its supporters in advance of the elections next May. So what does the Executive do? It makes a virtue out of political cowardice by emphasising the 'bottom-up' nature of the consultation process; instead of reform, it promises to engage in dialogue; instead of transforming public services, it wants to discuss them. But, hey, it's good to talk.

Perhaps it is wrong to blame the Executive. Is it possible within our devolved system to introduce radical reform? Or are we condemned to pork barrel politics - a patently uneconomic railway here, a tender decision in favour of our chums there, an otherwise nonsensical sop to the Gaelic teuchters elsewhere? At the very least, don't expect anything sensible before May 2007 from any of the parties.

15 June 2006

That letter

In The Guardian CIF, Lord Hattersley wonders about the youth of Mr Blair:
"What will soon become "the notorious letter" which Tony Blair sent to Michael Foot in 1982 is, in fact, far more to the Prime Minister's credit than his stop-at-nothing critics will make out. In fact, in a slightly jejune way, it is a reflection of what was once called "revisionism" - impatience with the old "far right" of the Labour Party balanced by contempt for the "new left". Once upon a time, Tony Blair was a Croslandite. That will be some consolation to those of us who once supported him in the belief that he would become a Croslandite Prime Minister.
For the next week or two, the Labour Party will echo with bitter jokes about Tony Blair's ancient belief in the need for "radical socialist policies", his contempt for the United States' commitment to "economic madness". And there will be a genuine astonishment - which I share - at the claim that he "came to socialism through Marxism". But the politically important part of the letter is its uninhibited attack on pragmatism.
The Prime Minister, who is openly contemptuous of all ideology and believes only in "doing what works", wrote (as part of a paean of praise for Tony Benn) that a Labour Government would not "appeal to the better minds of the people" if it was "tainted overmuch with a pragmatic period in power". There were, he added, immense dangers in being "too closely intertwined with the establishment". The strength of the letter is that most of what it contains is true. The tragedy is that its high ideals have been abandoned. The historical question is why and how did Tony Blair's views change?"

I take a different view. The encouraging thing is that the 29-year-old Blair felt strongly enough about something (anything) to submit his views to the then party leader; does he feel strongly about anything nowadays, other than staying in power? The less encouraging aspect is that the letter was 22 pages long; what normal person writes a letter of 22 pages? I fear that, even in those days, Mr Blair was a member of the green ink brigade...

14 June 2006

Getting it wrong

Mr Cameron is making a big mistake. The Times reports:
"DAVID CAMERON has snubbed Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, by refusing to attend important talks with right-of-centre EU party leaders tomorrow.
Ten prime ministers and 15 party leaders, including Frau Merkel, the most powerful political figure in Europe, will attend the talks at the traditional eve-of-EU summit gathering at Meise Castle outside Brussels. It is being hosted by the European People’s Party, a family of right-wing national political parties that Mr Cameron has promised to leave because it is too federalist.
Among the other guests are Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister and Presidential hopeful, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Jan Peter Balkenende, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
This is the second time Mr Cameron has refused to attend the meeting since becoming leader, leading to accusations from them that he is isolationist."

Failing to attend does few favours, either to the Tories or to the UK generally. Mr Cameron would not have been expected to give any firm commitments at this meeting; nor would he have been obliged to do anything that might upset the rabid europhobes in his party. But he might have learned a lot - and might have been able to set the scene for an influential role in future. He would have been courted by his European counterparts; he could have played the role as a young, fresh, friendly, open-minded counterweight to the euro-sceptic Mr Brown. Instead, Mr Cameron has needlessly offended Frau Merkel and M Sarkozy.

What did Bruno ever do to the Finns?

The Independent reports that the saga goes on:
"Dressed in bright yellow waistcoats a team of four Finnish bear hunters and five sweating elk hounds with GPS position-finders strapped to their backs, were scouring the wooded, boulder-strewn terrain for traces of Bruno, a possibly lovesick, elusive six-foot brown bear."

It's not like in Judge John Deed

Iain Mcwhirter in The Herald takes an impeccably liberal view of Ministerial and media meddling in judicial sentencing (here):
"Now, I don't have a lot of time for judges myself – they are often out of touch, conservative and insufferably pompous. But, speaking personally, I'm not sure that I am better equipped than they are to decide on important matters of law which could affect the lives, not just of the people involved in any particular case, but the people affected by the consequences of any rush to
judgment. Like any other father, I become slightly irrational whenever paedophiles rape children and tend to think that hanging's too good for them. However, the law is the law. If politicians and journalists make it up as they go along, then we go to hell in the proverbial handcart."

Well, yes but no but maybe. I have nothing but contempt for Dr Reid's attempt to jump on a sentencing bandwagon by criticising a judicial decision when, as a senior politician, he must have been aware of the legal consequences of so doing. Such intervention is particularly reprehensible when the judge concerned was only following (as - arguably - he was required to do) guidelines fully endorsed by the Home Office. And pandering to the tabloid press in one of its periodic pits of moral hysterics is seldom a sound basis for political judgement.

But. Can we be satisfied with a system that apparently allows an offender who has committed a horrendous sexual crime to be considered for parole (or release under licence) after less than six years? There is at least a case to be made for a review of the sentencing guidelines - which would be a matter for decision primarily by politicians rather than judges.

13 June 2006

You can't win them all

The New York Times has a rather sorrowful account of the USA's cuffing by the Czech Republic:
"GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany, June 12 — Four years of planning and expectation, and two years of qualifying, unraveled disastrously in five minutes for the United States at the World Cup in a humiliating 3-0 defeat to the Czech Republic.
As soccer's global championship entered its fourth day on Monday, the reeling Americans suffered the ignominy of the tournament's most lopsided loss so far.
"It was embarrassing," said forward Landon Donovan, who, along with other American starters, was bluntly criticized by United States Manager Bruce Arena.
The United States hoped to possess an edge in speed, fitness and health. But it was the supposedly aging and hobbled Czechs who proved to be the more spry, imaginative and determined team, even with four starters over age 30."

Ach, it wasn't that humiliating - the Czechs are a class outfit. But at least the yanks don't go in for whinging. There was no bleating about the heat or the referee, unlike certain other contestants who performed less well than expected.

The Royal Mail

I'm getting old and cranky. The BBC website records:
"People living in tenements in Scotland have had major problems with the delivery of their mail, according to a report by the postal watchdog.
Postwatch Scotland said about half of all tenement homes in Edinburgh and Glasgow received the wrong mail at least once a week.
It has called for swift action from Royal Mail to tackle the situation.
Royal Mail said it had many solutions in place to ensure people living in tenements received their post.
Postwatch examined three Scottish cities, where 60% of homes were in tenements or blocks of flats. "
It's not just the misdelivery of the mail - it's the fact that the stair is littered with discarded red elastic bands. Not to mention the absence of deliveries when it is raining.

Me, I'm a Brazil nut...

The First Minister continues to take the flak for his footballing preferences. The Scotsman reports:
"JACK McConnell, the First Minister, was coming under increasing pressure last night to retract his anti-English stance on the World Cup after it emerged that a Scottish golf complex had missed out on thousands of pounds of trade as a direct result of his comments.
The Scotsman revealed yesterday that an unnamed English company had withdrawn from a conference in Scotland after managers reacted angrily to Mr McConnell's decision to support one of England's opponents, Trinidad and Tobago, in Germany...
Mr McConnell refused to accept he had offended anybody. "I don't think I have ruffled any feathers at all," he said. "This is a football tournament, not a war."

That being so, perhaps he should have kept his mouth shut?

Blogging for victory

The Guardian Diary reviews Alastair Campbell's new blog:
"It will come as no surprise to admirers of Alastair Campbell's matchless prose that by far the best bits of his captivating World Cup blog are the comments appended to it by people who are not Alastair Campbell. Sadly, however, due we imagine to some unforeseen technical hitch, not all of them seem to stay up there for very long. As a service to readers, we are pleased to reproduce below a small selection of those that disappeared - representative, we feel, of the affection and respect Mr Tony's former spokesman continues to inspire in us all: 1) "I don't mind football so much, but I feel hooligans have ruined the game. I guess I feel pretty much the same way about politics, Alastair." 2) "Alastair, if Iran find themselves behind at half-time, do you think they'll be able to launch a counterstrike within 45 minutes?" Or, of course, 3): "Oh for fuck's sake, Alastair."

Those who wish to read the old bruiser's musings can find them here - but, remember, the comments tend to disappear quite quickly.

Does morality mean anything?

I may be hopelessly anachronistic, but nobody seems to care any more about doing the right thing. The Guardian today offers three egregious examples of offences against morality by British public authorities.

"Thousands of war veterans will lose the right to claim additional money for Gulf war syndrome because the Ministry of Defence has decided to ignore a landmark decision which ordered it to recognise the condition, the Guardian has learned.
The action has provoked a row between the judiciary and the M0D with the president of the commission which made the ruling accusing the ministry of illegally "tampering" with the process to avoid recognising the syndrome."
And here:
"The SFO said it was investigating suspected corruption.
To buy the frigates, the Romania's then government headed by Adrian Nastase, which was ousted in elections in 2004, raised [finance] from the London office of Deutsche Bank, with official backing from the UK's Export Credits Guarantee Department.
The then chief executive of Britain's disposal agency, Sym Taylor, was "completely unaware" of BAe's alleged commission payments at the time, according to senior MoD sources. The MoD's arms sales department, whose current ministerial head in the Lords is Labour donor and businessman Paul Drayson, yesterday refused to comment on the claim that Romania paid too much."
And here:
"Dwain Chambers looks set to be fast-tracked back into Britain's team to run in the 100 metres at the European Cup in Malaga this month after his stunning return from a two-year doping ban, but is unlikely to be drafted into the underperforming sprint relay squad.
The 28-year-old Londoner surprised everyone, including himself, at the Norwich Union British Grand Prix in Gateshead on Sunday when he ran 10.07sec to finish third behind Asafa Powell's 9.77, a time which equalled the world record, to reclaim his place at the top of the European rankings, a position he had held for five years before the ban.
Dave Collins, the UK Athletics performance director, has practically guaranteed Chambers's spot in the individual race for the two-day event in Spain on June 28 and 29."
These are just three examples. If you asked the authorities concerned, I am sure that they would say that they were not breaking the rules. They would be offended if accused of behaving disgracefully. But they seem to have no wider concept of what is right and what is wrong.

12 June 2006

1707 re-run

Jackie Ashley in The Guardian - rather unconvincingly - seeks to emulate Canute by turning back the tide on the English Question (here):
"The Tory bluff must be called. If "English votes for English laws" has become a new constitutional principle of overriding importance, then the UK cannot last. A Tory administration overseeing English health, transport, education, social security and environmental policies would be so powerful it could not take orders on foreign affairs and taxation from a Labour Westminster government in charge of the last non-devolved issues. Imagine Cameron in charge of spending, administering across most of daily life, in dispute with a Labour Treasury. How long could that last? And who would have more authority?
You cannot dodge this by saying that England-only legislation would be starred in the Commons and voted on separately, but that government would continue as before. If the Tories had a majority for most domestic policies, they would get their manifesto through - and wherever they sat in the chamber, and whatever they called themselves, they would be the lawful government of England. The thinness of the remaining non-devolved agenda, and the weakness of some kind of federal UK government, would lead to formal talks on separation within a year.
So the first question they need to be asked is this: are you content to embark on this road? Are you so worked up about the English question that you are prepared to see Britain disappearing as a political union? Are you happy about where that leaves England's voting weight in the EU? Have you thought through the implications for a British presence on the UN security council? It should be said that since public spending is higher in Scotland, separation could mean lower English taxes and therefore many would cheer. But I have a strong suspicion that Cameron and the rest of the Tory frontbench would be horrified at all this. They must be smoked out now, before they have finally committed themselves."

But what if the Tories, through ignorance or short-sightedness, think that 'English votes for English laws' is a temporarily sustainable and politically advantageous position, regardless of the ultimate consequences? And would the large mass of English voters find the dissolution of the Union so abhorrent? Do they really care one way or the other about a union with this small country tacked on to the top of their own? It would be truly ironic if the prediction that devolution was the stepping stone to independence proved to be true, not because of the Scots but because of the English.

09 June 2006

Boldly gone

He's not going to convince me! The BBC website has the story:
"The man leading a review of Tory policy has said party members must convince voters in Labour heartlands they are not "creatures from outer space".
Oliver Letwin said there could not be any "no-go areas" if Conservatives were serious about forming a government.
The West Dorset MP claimed one of the biggest challenges would be to persuade people that their lives could be improved by voting Conservative. "
If the Tories are not from outer space, then why are they led in Scotland by such obvious aliens? Ms Goldie may appear to be human, but she's pure klingon underneath. Her deputy, that Murdo Fraser, not only speaks like a vulcan but he's got the ears to prove it. And when did Phil Gallie last inhabit planet earth?

Postscript: It would be wrong to conclude from this post that those MSPs in other political parties were necessarily more human...

What planet is he living on?

It is good to be ambitious. Unless you set yourself goals, you are unlikely to make a significant improvement. Nicol Stephen MSP is obviously one of these self-help freaks. The Scotsman reports:
"NICOL Stephen, the Liberal Democrat leader, made the ambitious prediction last night that he would become the First Minister after the next election.
Mr Stephen told STV's Politics Now programme it was "increasingly likely" that the Lib Dems would be the largest party in the Scottish Parliament next May.
He has suggested before that he wants his party to start to challenge the bigger parties in Scotland, but he has always avoided setting a timetable.
However, he has now taken the extremely risky step of setting himself the target of overtaking Labour as the biggest party in Scotland in 2007 - an achievement which would not only represent the biggest upheaval in Scottish politics but would mean an astonishing swing in his party's favour. "

At present, the LibDems have 17 seats out of the 129 seat parliament and are the fourth largest party. It would be an enormous leap to make them the largest party, particularly in the absence of any polling evidence to support it. But, if it makes you happy, Mr Stephen, dream on...

The plates are shifting again

This story, if true, might have implications for the Scottish elections next year. The Guardian reports:
"The Tories have taken a significant step away from their traditional support for nuclear power by rejecting key financial demands from the industry.
The party's stance could stymie government plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations, because the industry wants cross-party consensus before it undertakes a programme that could take decades to complete.
The Tories have been fast changing tack on the issue as David Cameron has embraced a green agenda, including a strong role for renewables and micro-generation. Alan Duncan, the shadow industry secretary, is conducting the party's own energy review, focusing on the future provision of electricity. He will publish his party's views soon after the government's energy review next month.
The Tories are set to oppose giving a guaranteed price on the grid for nuclear-generated electricity, or a fixed quota for this power, two of the demands most vociferously advanced by the nuclear industry. By refusing to offer any subsidy or guarantees, the Tories will leave the industry struggling to convince investors that it has secured the long term regulatory framework to make the huge necessary capital investment."

This would remove what might otherwise be a serious barrier to the Tories becoming involved in a pact (or coalition?) with LibDems, SNP or even (whisper it softly) Greens. And it would leave Labour rather isolated if, as expected, Mr McConnell is eventually pushed off his present non-committal status into line with Mr Blair. What a fluid political world we are about to live in!

08 June 2006

Dirty work at the crossroads?

See democracy? It can be a damn nuisance sometimes. The Evening News reports that the SNP is getting a little jumpy:
"MORE than 200 Scottish National Party members in the Lothians have been barred from voting in the selection of list candidates for next year's Holyrood elections by party chiefs.
SNP officials said there had been an unusually big surge in membership in the Lothians in the first three months of the year. And although no allegations of wrongdoing had been made, the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) decided all new recruits in the area should be excluded from the selection ballot. But today some of the 259 members affected said they felt their honesty was being called into question.
And insiders claimed the move was targeted at retired GP Ian McKee, the party's candidate in Edinburgh Pentlands, who is challenging sitting MSPs Kenny MacAskill and Fiona Hyslop for a top place on the Lothian list. It is understood more than 200 new members were recruited in the Pentlands constituency.
The NEC ruled that while everywhere else in Scotland members will be able to take part in the selection if they joined before March 31, in Lothian they can only vote if they signed up before December 31."

The last sentence of the above is important. How can the party apply different rules in Lothian than elsewhere? I suspect that we may hear more about this...

It's not really getting anywhere

So where does the McKie inquiry go from here? The Herald records the disagreement of the various experts:
"At the inquiry, experts from the Netherlands, the US, England and the Scottish fingerprint bureaux in Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh were adamant the print did not belong to Ms McKie.
Against them, on the side of the four officers of the SCRO's Glasgow bureau and their supporting colleagues, there was a former police officer and veteran of the Yorkshire Ripper case who had been approached as a McKie defence witness for her perjury trial but became convinced it was her print at the murder scene.
Dutch expert Arie Zeelenberg argued he had found more than 20 points of clear difference between the print and that of Ms McKie and it should have been eliminated after as few as three discrepancies.
However, Peter Swann, an independent expert since he retired from the police 19 years ago, was initially hired by McKie's defence but ended up believing it was her thumb print. He was never called before the perjury trial.
He insisted there were 32 points of similarity, four times that necessary to reach a positive conclusion."
Seems to me like a no-score draw. If you were the chair of the committee (or more realistically the clerk), how do you reach a sensible conclusion for the committee's report? I suppose that you just push on, in the probably vain hope that the remaining evidence - such as that from Minister of Justice Jamieson - will shed a little light on the way forward. But at this stage, it is hard to see how the time-consuming inquiry will take matters on from where they stood at its start.

Relishing economics

What is the value of a hamburger? Gavyn Davies of The Guardian explains the Big Mac Index:
"A Big Mac currently costs $3.10 in the US, and £1.94 in the UK. At the present $/£ exchange rate of 1.88, that implies that an American in London would think that his Big Mac over here costs rather a lot at $3.65. So he might say to himself: things are pretty expensive in the UK, compared with back home. But if the $/£ exchange rate were only 1.60, then the Big Mac in London would cost only the equivalent of $3.10, exactly the same as it costs in America. This implies that on the Big Mac standard, the "fair value" of the $/£ exchange rate is 1.60 - the rate that makes the Big Mac cost the same in the UK as in the US. At the current 1.88 exchange rate, the Big Mac in London is 18% more expensive than in the US, so sterling is 18% overvalued against the dollar."

If you can follow this, you may have a future as an economist (or as a hamburger flipper).

07 June 2006

Pandering to the lowest common denominator

Bagehot wrote about the dignified part of the British constitution. It obviously does not include No 10 (nor the leader of the Tories). The BBC website reports:
"Downing Street is to fly the England flag on match days, a spokesman said.
The announcement came as it was revealed Tony Blair has written to Sven Goran Ericson wishing the England team all the best in the World Cup.
Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "We will fly the flag on match days due to the special nature of the occasion."
Conservative leader David Cameron meanwhile arrived at the Commons on Wednesday with a St George's Cross flag fluttering from his bicycle."

Dumbing down

This is mathematically illiterate - and stupid. From The Independent (here):
"Tony Blair has given "101 per cent" backing to the police raid on a house in east London in which a man was shot."

Footballers cannot be expected to know better. The Prime Minister is supposed to be better informed.

A pedestrian's lament

I suppose that this is to be welcomed. The Independent records:
"Britain is in the grip of a cycling revolution as clogged roads, concern at global warming caused by air pollution and the quest for improved fitness persuade millions to opt for pedal power.
After a decade of stagnation in the number of bicycle journeys, new figures show there has been a dramatic leap in commuters and leisure cyclists focused on Britain's cities and the burgeoning network of cycle routes. In London, trips by bike have increased by 50 per cent in five years to 450,000 per day while figures obtained by The Independent show use of the National Cycle Network, covering 10,000 miles of urban and rural pathways, rose last year by 15 per cent to 232 million journeys."

Is it too much to ask, however, that they keep off the pavements?

Allegations of misconduct

A confused and confusing report in The Herald about the suspension of the head of the Executive's human resources division (here):

"One of Scotland's most senior civil servants has been suspended while allegations of misconduct are investigated, dealing a further blow to the Scottish Executive's much-vaunted public sector efficiency drive.

The multi-million pound e-HR Transformation Project, designed to computerise personnel services across all executive departments, was already in deep trouble – behind time, over budget, and subject to a review which could see it scrapped. Now the project manager, Susan Beevers, head of human resources, has been suspended while allegations of misconduct are investigated by another senior civil servant. Colleagues were said to be shocked to see her escorted out of Saughton House in Edinburgh last Thursday. "She was basically frogmarched out
the building and had her pass removed," said one source.

Ms Beevers, who is on a salary scale that goes up to £86,000, is close to the top of the ladder, answerable to Paul Pagliari, the director of change and corporate services, who in turn reports to John Elvidge, Scotland's top mandarin."

But the same article reports:
"A spokeswoman for the executive said yesterday: "Susan Beevers has been suspended pending an investigation into allegations of misconduct. It was all done under the normal procedure."We cannot say anything further at this stage because it is being investigated, but it is not related to the investigation into the e-HR project."

If it is not related to the e-HR project, why is The Herald giving it so much prominence?

I understand Ms Beevers has not had a traditional civil service career but is a relatively recent (within the last three years) direct recruit from outside the service.

Compare and contrast...

Nobody bats an eyelid when BAA (including three Scottish airports) is sold off to the Spanish, as reported in The Guardian:
"The nation, it has to be said, is not in mourning for BAA. It is hard to imagine the French letting Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to slip into foreign ownership, and impossible to think of JFK in New York or Los Angeles airport being out of American hands. But Heathrow and Gatwick? Nobody cares.
We're not even bothered whether the new owner is an indebted Spanish construction company, with a Canadian pension fund and the state of Singapore in tow, or a Wall Street investment bank and its friends."
But it is a different story when the French/Dutch stock exchange is bought over by New York, again reported in The Guardian:
"Jacques Chirac, the French president, threw a huge political spanner yesterday in the works of the agreed €8bn (£5.5bn) takeover of Euronext by the New York Stock Exchange by openly backing an all-European merger with Deutsche Börse instead.
The president's astonishing intervention, made at a Franco-German summit in Rheinsberg with a bemused chancellor Angela Merkel, reflects widespread concerns within France - home of the notion of economic "national champions" - about an American putsch on a key European financial market."
Don't ask me which attitude is healthier.

Update: Will Hutton has an idea or two (here):
"Ferrovial has borrowed £10 billion to make this bid, and the poor mites who are going to pay it back are you and me. The interest on the debt will be £600 million which will set against BAA's profits, thus lowering their tax contributions to the Treasury by around £250 million. That's a fair few roads, schools and hospitals that will not be built as a result. In order to find the wherewithal to repay the principal, Ferrovial will have to divert cash that would otherwise have been spent on improving our airports into debt service.
The notion that they are managerially so brilliant that they conjure up an extra £ 1 billion of free cash flow every year is for the birds. Only somebody who has run nothing - a city commentator, an investment banker, an official or a minister - could entertain the idea for a nanosecond. They will have to put up charges and lower wage rates and all the time British airports will become danker and more cesspit like than ever."

06 June 2006

First, they came for the smokers; now it's the turn of the drinkers...

When does a commendable desire to improve public health tip over into a 'we know best' authoritarianism? Ian Bell in The Herald seems to think that the Executive's expected proposals go too far (here):

"The smoking ban is simple and unambiguous. Is there a feasible equivalent for alcohol? Not if the heavily-trailed executive strategy is anything to go by. Don't feel obliged to buy a round; don't drink in front of children; do remember that livers are hard to come by: sensible advice, obviously, but hardly sensational. Banning booze logos from replica football jerseys sold to the young might, meanwhile, end a piece of hypocrisy, but it is hardly the same as a ban on alcohol sponsorship in sport. As for creating separate check-outs in supermarkets, the better to segregate drinkers, who knows? Few consumers are likely to be dissuaded, but some among us might begin to understand just how much drinking these days takes place at home, unacknowledged, beyond the gaze of researchers and politicians. That raises the fundamental question: is government entitled to intrude on the private sphere, to invade that essential privacy, even if, as some suggest, the real and growing alcohol problem lies behind closed doors? And if smoking and alcohol are dealt with, what next? Compulsory jogging? Bans on burgers?

I think not. All governments hate the idea, but sometimes being told what is good for us just isn't good for us."

Freedom and Whisky (here) foresees the end of pubs in Scotland, which is surely pushing the envelope a bit far. My own suspicion is that public health is only an excuse; what really matters to the new puritans is that people are behaving badly and must be brought to book. Scotland has long been plagued by the unfortunate habit of a substantial proportion of the population to dismiss another substantial proportion as unjustified sinners. I fear that we are being driven back to the early 20th century, when pubs were harsh and brutish places, without comfortable seating and with frosted glass in the windows so that decent passers-by could not see the deplorable practices of drinking which went on therein. The good people of the world were taught that pubs were sinful places to be avoided at all costs. Thus will the presbyterian spirit of rectitude be reborn in the unlikely vessel of Jack McConnell. And, as Ian Bell points out, where will it all end? How long before mutton pies are banned?

Postcript: A minor point for the politicians. If the Executive takes action as suggested and is supported by the Parliament, thus demonising drinkers, how long will the Parliament be able to keep its in-house bar? Or is it one rule for the parliamentarians and another for the peasants? Similarly, will the First Minister insist that it is necessary to keep more than £2000 worth of booze in Bute House (see here)? Or is it only the lower orders who should be drinking less?

05 June 2006

Half empty?

This guy assumes people are idiots. The Independent reports:
"Nick Gully, the director of addiction services at the Priory Clinic in Roehampton, where numerous celebrities have been treated, said the relaxation of licensing laws had "normalised" excess drinking and would lead to more people becoming dependent on alcohol.
"The size of measures and glasses have grown in recent years,"Mr Gully said.
"People have become used to these outsized glasses. They fill them up and believe it's OK because they are only having one glass, but that can now amount to a third of a bottle. If they have a small glass, they feel cheated.
"It's the same in pubs. Someone goes to a bar and feels cheated if they are given a small glass."

He's been dealing with too many celebrities. Real people know that a big glass is likely to hold more booze than a small glass.

The new town is not a den of iniquity, honest...

Well, did you think crime only took place in the big council estates on the edge of our cities? If so, think again. The Scotsman recycles yesterday's revelations in The Sunday Times:
"EDINBURGH'S city centre is the crime capital of Scotland, according to detailed new figures.
The area between Princes Street and the New Town tops the league table for offences committed last year. Almost 5,000 crimes were reported in the area, which includes Rose Street and George Street, two of the city's most popular nightlife locations.
Most were crimes of dishonesty, such as shoplifting. But the city centre also had the country's third-highest rates for murder and violence, plus high levels of public disorder and drug offences. Motherwell South, in Jack McConnell's constituency, recorded the country's second highest level of anti-social behaviour, behind the centre of Aberdeen. The First Minister made tackling anti-social behaviour one of the cornerstones of his administration.
However, more murders, attempted murders, serious assaults and robberies were committed in the centre of Glasgow than anywhere else. The city's Anderston North district had the highest number of sexual crimes, including indecent assault and rape."

Neither newspaper seems to know the meaning of all this. Does it say anything other than the fact that reported crimes tend to occur when more people are around?

As an inhabitant of Edinburgh's new town, I don't feel any less safe than I did on Saturday.

04 June 2006

Goldie woos McConnell?

In advance of next year's general election, the manoeuvring begins. The Sunday Herald reports:
"SCOTTISH Tories are considering an alliance with Labour after the next Holyrood election as a way of providing “principled opposition” and keeping the SNP out of power.
Annabel Goldie’s party is discussing the possibility of a “stability pact” with Labour if Jack McConnell ditches the Liberal Democrats and forms a minority administration.
The unprecedented deal could see the Conservatives voting to install McConnell as First Minister and supporting the Executive in votes of no confidence.
Co-operation would be offered in return for assurances on policy issues that unite both parties.
The idea is being floated by the Tories as they try to position themselves ahead of next year’s Holyrood poll.
Goldie has criticised the concept of coalition government and wants the parliament’s largest group, which is likely to be either Labour or the SNP, to govern Scotland without the help of another party next year."

Fair enough. But it seems doubtful that the arithmetic will hold up. Labour at present has 50 seats while the Tories have 18 out of the total of 129. If, as we keep being told, Labour's private polling indicates a loss of up to 12 seats, mainly to the SNP, then a Tory-Labour pact is unlikely to command a parliamentary majority.

Or perhaps Ms Goldie is simply seeking to embarrass Labour?

03 June 2006

Entertaining but improbable

It is not easy to be a political commentator. Every week, you must find something to write about. Every week, you must combine entertainment with political insight. Matthew Parris of The Times does it better than most. But this week he is stretched into improbability (here):
"Tracey Temple may unwittingly have thrown the points. A possible job vacancy looms which, if filled by the former postman to Dorneywood (honestly, you couldn’t make this up) could give the Labour Party that sense of an opening door which until now has been missing. Alan Johnson could be the ultimate third way.
Labour leaders are chosen by Labour MPs, the trades unions and ordinary party members. A recent ICM Guardian poll suggested, intriguingly, that Mr Brown has by no means taken his own party membership by storm. And have we any reason to believe the trade union movement will prefer Mr Brown to a former postman and former General Secretary of the Union of Communications Workers who seems able to talk like a good trade unionist without sounding like a Luddite?
I will not repeat what I wrote about Mr Johnson on this page in April. I am not a Johnson-watcher and do not know him; I just find that whenever one happens to see or listen to this man he appears well-judged, capable, moderate and likeable. He is clearly ambitious, but seems like a human being. He has a directness of speech. Plus (it would be dishonest not to include this, for it will make a difference) he is English."

First, there is no job vacancy; and neither Mr Blair nor Mr Brown has any interest in creating one - and Mr Prescott shows no sign of looking for his revolver. But, if Mr Prescott were to resign as Deputy Party Leader (and it is not in Mr Blair's gift to sack him), then it is Mr Blair's jacket on a shoogly peg. Bottom line: Mr Johnson has no chance of becoming Deputy Leader before Mr Brown assumes the throne. In effect, Mr Johnson is at present manoeuvring for the deputy slot in a Brown administration, which is why no-one is getting upset. If Mr Johnson was a threat to the Chancellor, he would be taken down in an instant, like all the others who have tried it on. Watch the way in which Dr Reid will be gradually knee-capped over the next few months.

Plus Mr Johnson is English; he's no match for Mr Brown.

Update: Here are the betting odds:
"In the Labour leadership betting Johnson has tightened to 9.5/1 on Betfair although there’s a bookmaner price of 14/1. Brown is 0.36/1."

02 June 2006

How they milk the taxpayer

I am becoming ever more cynical. I read this article on the BBC website (here) and immediately thought that this was a ploy so that the PM could charge his air fares to the public purse:
"Tony Blair has ended a six-day holiday in Italy resuming official duties by holding talks in Rome with the country's new premier Romano Prodi.
The situation in Iraq was high on the agenda with Mr Prodi having promised to withdraw Italian troops.
The UK prime minister was a key supporter of Mr Prodi's bid to become European Commission president in 1999.
But their relationship has soured over the years over the way Mr Prodi ran the commission and over the war in Iraq.
Ahead of the talks Downing Street said the pair would have wide-ranging talks over lunch in their first meeting since Mr Prodi defeated Silvio Berlusconi to become Italy's prime minister."

No real agenda for a meeting which takes place over lunch? Probably no UK officials there except the Ambassador. And, in return, Mr Blair can claim his air fares both ways. This is the same scam that he (and, to be fair, previous prime ministers) pull when they come up to the Scottish party conference and tag on a half-hour official visit, which enables them to claim travel and subsistence at Government expense.