30 September 2006


One of the few newspaper articles I look forward to every week is Ben Goldacre on bad science in The Guardian. This week, he has a pop at Dr Gillian McKeith:
"If people want theatrically abusive nutritional advice from someone with qualifications such as a PhD from a non-accredited correspondence course college in the US (which sells its own range of alternative health products online) then that's fine by me, and she's absolutely entitled to call herself doctor, even if she does apparently have some slightly odd ideas about science.
They include, to take the briefest example, nutritional energy and photosynthesis, explaining in her 1.5m copies (gosh) bestselling books that chlorophyll is "high in oxygen"; eating it will oxygenate your blood (not without a searchlight up your bum to drive the photosynthesis of oxygen, I would suggest); and that "each sprouting seed is packed with the nutritional energy needed to create a full grown healthy plant" (I have an apple seed in my left hand and an apple tree in my right, for comparison, as I try to work out what she means)...
But stranger than the attraction to her patients is the attraction for us. We choose, in droves, to watch her bully very fat people on television. People racked with low self-esteem, and guilt, are abused, and told they will die young because of their own actions, then they cry, and we watch it, as entertainment, satisfied it's their own fault. Fatties."

It's a strange world, and television makes it stranger.


The Executive is trying to get 'with it'. The punters are not. The BBC reports:
"Attempts by ministers to tap into the online generation with downloads to mp3 players have been criticised by an MSP.
Figures obtained by the Scottish Conservatives showed eight people downloaded a podcast of a recent sports summit at Stirling University...
The figures also showed 16 downloads for a recent schools junk food event and 32 for the Athletes Commission for the 2014 Commonwealth Games."

I want to know what kind of sad people would download a podcast from the Scottish Executive.

But there is more:
"The first audio podcast of First Minister's Questions was made available on 7 September and the second on 14 September.
Over these eight days, there were 580 downloads."

Now, I am prepared to admit to being a political junkie. But even I would not go so far as to download FMQs. Even on telly, I can usually only watch the first 5 minutes.

But then I don't have an iPod...

29 September 2006

The rise and rise of the Lanarkshire Enforcer

Iain Macwhirter is bestowing his bounteous blessings on The Guardian CiF website (here):
"John Reid must not become leader of the Labour party. This pugnacious product of the Lanarkshire Labour badlands is temperamentally unsuited to the role of prime minister. He is an aggressive and unstable character who thrives on confrontation and conspiracy. The thought of John Reid with his finger on the nuclear button is frankly terrifying.
This is the politician who thought it was appropriate to spend three days in a luxury hotel with Radovan Karadzic. He famously punched a House of Commons attendant in 1991 during his years as a violent alcoholic. But giving up the bottle didn't tame his temper. He nearly came to blows with the late Donald Dewar - no pugilist he - over the so-called "lobbygate affair" in 1999. The next first minister, Henry McLeish, described Reid as a "patronising bastard".
Reid's son Kevin, who working for the firm Beattie Media, had been secretly taped boasting of his access to ministers. Kevin Reid's subsequent employment as a parliamentary researcher led to the astonishing confrontation between the then Northern Ireland secretary and the parliamentary standards commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin.
She accused John Reid of intimidating witnesses and attempting to undermine her inquiries. She even had tape recordings of Reid browbeating the former general secretary of the Scottish Labour party, Alex Rowley over his evidence.
Ms Filkin - who subsequently resigned - said "the conduct of Dr Reid caused serious and increasing concern" and it has continued to do so. He has been in eight ministerial posts in his post-alcoholic career, each more disastrous than the last."

Don't sit on the fence, Iain.

Scottish political blogging

The estimable Dr Vee is prepared to take on the thankless task of resurrecting a round up:
"At times the Scottish blogosphere feels incredibly sparse. It’s not too difficult, with a bit of effort, to find Scots blogging about politics. And when you do, how often is it about Scottish politics? And when you do find them, there is little doubt that the Scottish political blogosphere isn’t quite as vibrant as the Westminster-orientated scene.
And where on earth are the representatives of the country’s second-largest political party, the SNP? Just about the only decent SNP blogger I can think of is Stuart Dickson, who was responsible for the excellent Independence blog, which sadly hasn’t been updated for a year. Indeed, the Scottish political blogosphere is almost as notable for the great bloggers who have fallen by the wayside.
Remember Lost in Westminster? Lost is the word.
Maybe I’m just missing all the great blogging going on out there. That’s part of the reason why I want to start this roundup. I want to discover new blogs and hopefully get a bit more of a community going, with more discussion between bloggers of all hues — particularly with the Scottish Parliament elections gearing up in the coming months."

If I may add to the lists of the fallen (or perhaps falling), I regret the disappearance of The Hack, while the recent silence of Bondbloke (and indeed BondWoman) adds to the gloom.

Anyway, we are assured that the round-up will appear here on Sunday coming.

Pigeon pies again

It is not just the Scottish Parliament that is having problems with pigeons (here). The Guardian reports:
"As the recipient of the biggest electoral mandate of any politician in the country, the mayor of London was never supposed to have his authority undermined by a flock of pigeons. But six years after declaring war on the birds he branded "rats with wings" the mayor is facing fresh scrutiny over the cost and tactics of his campaign to clear them from their famous haunts around Trafalgar Square.
The focus is on Mr Livingstone but more specifically on his hired muscle - a pair of Harris hawks who alternately hover above the square, exuding menace and bad intent. New figures released to London's Liberal Democrats reveal that the mayor's mercenary hawks have killed 121 pigeons since 2003, far exceeding their remit which is merely to scare pigeons away.
There is also the question of whether the campaign has been cost efficient. The controversial action, opposed by animal rights activists from around the world, has seen the number of pigeons congregating in and around Trafalgar Square reduced to 1,000 diehards. Many hail the square as much improved, but the Lib Dems are aggrieved that so far the operation has cost Londoners £226,000. They say that since the hawks were deployed 2,500 pigeons have disappeared in one way or another, bringing the average removal cost to more than £90 a bird."

£90 a bird is peanuts; the Scottish Parliament pays £250 a bird to give them a nice home in the country.

More of the same

To describe it as a secret dossier makes it sound interesting, even glamorous. In reality, it's just another avoidable mess. The Scotsman reports:
"JACK McConnell last night dismissed as "trivia" demands that he publish a secret report on the Executive's budget before the next election.
The First Minister claimed the report, which civil servants have admitted could provoke a public backlash, would only be made available after the Holyrood poll.
Mr McConnell's refusal to sanction releasing the report, which ministers had previously promised to publish this year, came after he faced sustained pressure from the opposition at Holyrood. "

The report will no doubt be leaked within the next week or two and we can expect to find out that the Executive has been spending money in all sorts of ways which don't match their stated priorities. But I rather liked the following in The Herald:
"A source in the executive later said that the report being kept confidential was standard and should have been expected, and Mr McCabe had been unwise to promise an early publication."

So there - it wasn't the First Minister's fault. Though dumping on your finance minister (who knows where the bodies are buried) is not a tactic to be recommended, especially when Mr McCabe would not have promised early publication without prior clearance with Mr McConnell.

28 September 2006

Pedantry again

Here is the opening sentence of an article by a Ms Melanie Reid of The Herald:
"Us members of the public, being both the paymasters and the consumers of the NHS, are entitled to be exasperated."
Us yins, readers of The Herald, are also entitled to be exasperated, particularly at the failure of Herald contributors to write decent English.

They used to make pigeon pies...

Look, it's only £250. There's no point in getting upset. The Scotsman reports:
"Officials at Holyrood confirmed that staff are monitoring one feral pigeon which is nesting above the public entrance at Holyrood and the authorities have drawn up contingency plans to remove the bird, by road, to a wildlife rescue park near Ayr, rather than chase it away.
Experts from Ecolab, the company brought in by the parliamentary authorities to deal with the pigeon problem, believe the bird should be allowed to stay where it is - for the moment.
But if they see any evidence that it is getting distressed, or in danger, then the contractors will be brought in and the emergency pigeon-removal plan will be put into operation.
A spokesman for the parliament confirmed that a close vigil was being mounted on this one particular squab (baby pigeon) with staff keeping a keen look-out for others.
He said: "The preferred option is to leave the chick where it is until it flies the nest. However if it did need removed, the trust in Beith is the most suitable centre.
"The initial cost of removing a chick is around £250. This would include removing the bird and the nest, cleaning the area and transporting the bird to Ayr."

Some might think it admirable that officials care about the distress that might be experienced by a baby pigeon and I can only applaud the committee clerks, the catering staff and the security men who can't sleep at night worrying about the dangers which might threaten our young chum. Furthermore, they will mount a vigil. And, even if it costs £250, is it not better for the endangered pigeon to be transported to a new and no doubt more fulfilling life at a wildlife centre? Even in Ayrshire (where they know all about wild life)? Of course, some MSPs will cavil in a petty-minded way about such an expense but surely we have a collective responsibility to care for our fellow creatures, even pigeons (aka flying rats).

And, anyway, it is not the officials who will pay out of their own pocket. No, no - this will be financed at public expense, so who cares about the cost?

27 September 2006

A tough life

I hope that they don't expect any sympathy. The Evening News reports:
"MSPs face having to give up a week's holiday next year because there is too much business to get through in parliament before the elections.
Margaret Curran, the Minister for Parliamentary Business, and her counterparts in the other parties have warned their colleagues the normal February half-term recess is likely to be cancelled because of the heavy workload.
And MSPs may also have to sit later into the evening to get through the legislation.
The problem is there are more Bills - both from the Executive and from individual MSPs - than the business managers think can be crammed into the time available. And any legislation not completed by March 31, when parliament stops for the elections, will be lost."

Perhaps, if they sat for more than one and a half days a week, they might get more done?

Why I long for a Khrushchev

It would be wrong to describe the court of King Tony as a cult of personality. That phrase should be restricted to the reign of Uncle Joe Stalin who committed many more serious sins and caused far more deaths than the Prime Minister.

But the upper reaches of the Blair regime do nevertheless exhibit some of the characteristics of a cult of personality: the ruler's detachment from reality, his insistence that his every decision was right even when it has proved demonstrably wrong, his assumption that he and only he can save the country - even the world - from disaster, his limpet-like obsession with clinging to office, his constant concern to manipulate the media, his confusion of anniversaries with achievements, his adulation by his courtiers, the elevation of his family to a life of unwarranted privilege, his ruthless elimination of rivals for power and his lack of concern for the proprieties (as the rules of course do not apply to him). And the media - the Nicks, the Andrews and the Pollies - play along, hailing his speeches, glorifying his rather transparent rhetorical tricks, constantly focussing on court gossip (who's up, who's down) while ignoring the hard political choices facing the country (or re-interpreting them as court intrigue).

But some day, the Party Congress of 25 February 1956 will be repeated and Blairism will be denounced for its hollow sham and for the damage it has done to the party and the country.

26 September 2006

Here we go, here we go, here we go

It is indeed rather embarrassing. The Herald looks forward to tonight's television coverage of the footie:
UEFA Champions League Live ITV1, 7.30pm

Live coverage from Parkhead as Celtic face the pride of Denmark, FC Copenhagen. Hosted by Jim "Adverse Glasgow Synonym" White, with Andy "Winker" Walker and Gerry "Unacceptable Face of Scottish Soccer" McNee, plus a rare big-time outing for Archie "Whooph!" Macpherson.

I don't know which is worse: numbingly inarticulate ex-footballers unable to get or keep a job in football management or soi-disant sports journalists whose idea of commentary consists of little more than naming the players on the ball and shouting when they near goal. Bring back Arthur Montford!

25 September 2006

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...

I don't know about the mellow fruitfulness but we've certainly got the mists. The swifts have departed and with them goes something of the summer. The leaves are still green but it won't be long before they begin to turn.

Edinburgh at the end of September. The students have returned, bringing a bohemian element back to the streets. The nights are drawing in, casting a gloom by 6 o'clock in the evening.

The greyness is alleviated by the car headlights shining cheerfully through the mirk. But the pavements are damp and the slates on the roof glimmer in what light remains in the sky. People scurry home; this is not a night to linger on the streets. It's not really cold, not yet, but the wind carries an intimation of winter.

This is reality. Summer always seems to be an illusion: those balmy evenings (both of them) are not Edinburgh; wearing shorts is not natural in this city. Today, in Morningside and Stockbridge, in Liberton and Trinity, we are looking out the woolly jumpers and skirts, and checking the central heating. The heavy overcoats can wait another month. But winter is on its way.

And so summer passes and we move on. Not a matter of regret - in Edinburgh, we enjoy the good weather when it appears, but the presbyterian mindset is comfortable with adversity. It is somehow fitting that the old stones of the city centre are battered by the wind and the rain. And we can look forward to the bright, sharp, sunlit, frosty mornings...

Truly, we are a grey people.

Obviously a lady

Does anyone have a bad word to say about her? Even The Telegraph celebrates Mrs Brown:
"When in London, Mrs Brown concentrates on charity work. She is patron of Women's Aid, the domestic violence charity, with Richard Curtis, Fiona Bruce, Will Young and Nick Hornby, and held a party for them at No 11. She also helps with Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres.
Jim O'Neill, the chief economist at Goldman Sachs, who set up Shine, a charity to give disadvantaged children a better education, says: "She is an amazing patron. When she gave her first speech she was shaking beforehand but she was great, very down-to-earth. She is so conscientious she has read more about the subject than me."
She is happy to talk to Tories. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, says, "I introduced myself to Sarah and John when she was pushing his pram around Westminster and she couldn't have been nicer." She has also become a mother figure to the Labour Party. When Robin Cook had his heart attack, it was Mrs Brown who went to comfort Gaynor Cook.
Mr Blunkett came to rely on her while he was fighting for access to see his son, William. "Gordon is incredibly lucky," he says. "She is a huge strength and guide, she provides real stability in this hectic and chaotic environment. She can seem quite cold until you get to know her, but she has been amazingly kind to me."

I suspect that we will hear a lot more about this admirable lady over the next few years.

24 September 2006

Weekend poem No 3

This poem of second world war vintage is not particularly subtle but it is nevertheless forceful. Think rifles and military training.

'Naming of Parts' by Henry Reed:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning
We shall have what to do after firing. But today
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easily
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards
For today we have naming of parts.

Move along! Nothing to see here...

Is it only five months? The screaming headlines, the Home Secretary who was forced to resign, the promises to sort it out. The Telegraph records how quickly we (or rather they) forget:
"The hunt for more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who were freed without being considered for deportation has been quietly wound down, even though hundreds are still on the run.
The team of 60 police and probation and immigration officers who were spearheading the hunt have been disbanded. Officers have returned to normal duties and the police station they were using has been vacated.
At the last count, more than 400 of the prisoners had not been traced. They included 74 violent and sexual offenders, seven of them guilty of murder, manslaughter, rape or sexual offences against children.
The Home Office conceded yesterday that the manhunt was no longer a "priority", despite so many offenders remaining at large.
John Reid, soon after his appointment as Home Secretary, said he would "move heaven and earth" to find the prisoners, and critics yesterday accused the Government of reneging on that pledge."

The special team was probably delivering diminishing returns, but even so... And so another scandal quietly fades away.

Making policy on the hoof

How can you tell when a Minister is flying a kite in order to attract favourable headlines, rather than putting forward a serious proposition?

1. When the announcement suddenly appears in a Sunday newspaper, rather than being formally announced to Parliament; and

2. when there has been no prior effort to consult interested parties (local authorities, trades unions, employers' organisations, etc); and

3. when there are no costs for the proposition, when there is no serious analysis of what the proposition is likely to achieve and when there is no timetable for implementation; and

4. when an election is looming.

I leave you to judge the status of the following story in Scotland on Sunday:
"TENS of thousands of Scottish pupils will be removed from traditional academic classes to learn trades under a controversial plan to be unveiled by Jack McConnell today.
The First Minister wants pupils aged 14 and over who are failing academically to attend 'Skills Academies', where they will be taught how to become plumbers, electricians, joiners and other skilled workers.
As many as a 100 such academies are to be created, based either at further education colleges or on school premises...
McConnell, in an astonishingly blunt outburst, declared there was no point in such youngsters sitting through French lessons when they can't speak English properly.
But the plans were met with immediate hostility by education union leaders last night, one of whom described the idea as tantamount to a return to selection and the principles of the 11-plus...
His plan will be put in the Labour manifesto for next year's Holyrood elections, along with the First Minister's recent pledge to ensure all pupils undergo literacy and numeracy tests before leaving school.
However, McConnell could not give details of the likely cost of the scheme. "

23 September 2006

The royal egg

It can be difficult to cook a boiled egg so that the consistency of the yolk is just right. So many factors come into play: the size of the egg, the freshness of the egg, the time elapsed since the egg was taken out of the fridge and the fact that the egg goes on cooking even after it has been lifted out of the boiling water. So I can well understand the system adopted by Prince Charles' household, as revealed by The Guardian:
"According to Jeremy Paxman, the TV presenter and author, the prince is particularly fond of a boiled egg after a day's hunting. "Because his staff were never quite sure whether the egg would be precisely to the satisfactory hardness, a series of eggs was cooked, and laid out in an ascending row of numbers. If the prince felt that number five was too runny, he could knock the top off number six or seven."
No, I don't myself use such a system. But I'm not a prince of the realm, am I?

22 September 2006

Ming the not quite merciless

It's a shame. He seems a decent enough bloke. He has all the virtues (and unfortunately the charisma) of a traditional Scottish solicitor (even if he was a QC). Ann Treneman in The Times (here):
"When he eventually got on stage, he immediately raised both arms up in the air and turned to the right and to the left. It was quite mechanical and a puppeteer may have been involved.
The arms were far apart and every once in a while he gave them a little shake, as if they had fruit on them that needed to fall.
This may be Ming’s new signature pose and it is nothing if not distinctive. Indeed, it is usually only seen in deodorant adverts and pilates classes.
There is every chance he found it at his over-60s keep fit class. The Lib Dems adored it, for it proved that Ming had the underarms for power...
Towards the end, when he stepped away from the lectern, he did a series of blocky hand-gestures to indicate that the puppeteeer was back in charge.
Sure enough, the moment he finished, the arms shot up. They stayed up for most of the five-minute standing ovation.
It was a triumph, of arm muscles if nothing else, and I predict a contract with a major deodorant brand soon."

It can't be easy to appear natural but Sir Menzies makes it look exceedingly difficult.

The awful burden of decision-making

Yesterday in parliament (from here):

Nicola Sturgeon: On Monday this week, the Deputy First Minister said categorically:
"we do not need new nuclear power stations in Scotland."
Does the First Minister agree?

The First Minister: First, and as I have said before, we will not agree to or even consider any new nuclear power stations in Scotland until the issue of nuclear waste is properly resolved. That is a very important issue indeed. Secondly, there are currently no applications for new nuclear power stations in Scotland, so the question does not arise.
I suspect that we have the capacity in Scotland to meet our energy needs through a massive increase in the use of renewable sources. I was delighted in the summer when the United Kingdom energy review agreed that as a priority, not only for Scotland but for the whole of the UK, and agreed to support us in that endeavour. At the same time, and as I have said in the chamber before, given the importance of energy supply for domestic households and businesses in Scotland, it would be silly of us at this stage to rule out any option forever.

Any morning in the McConnell kitchen:

Bridget: Do you want cornflakes or weetabix for breakfast?
Jack: I've told you time and again that I will make that decision when the time is right.
Bridget: Tea or coffee?
Jack: I have yet to see the latest scientific analysis of the relative health benefits of these comparable beverages.
Bridget: But you must eat something...
Jack: Maybe I will or maybe I won't. I will consider all the options in due course in the light of the choices made by comparable politicians both in Scotland and in the UK.
Bridget: But Jack...
Jack: Why are you pressing me on this matter? It would be silly of us to rule out any options at this stage.
Bridget: It's only cornflakes or weetabix.
Jack: I have the capacity to eat either cornflakes or weetabix. Whether cornflakes prove necessary remains to be seen. It makes no sense to rush into these decisions.
Bridget: You can't go to parliament on an empty stomach.
Jack: I will get something to eat on the way. Perhaps a bacon roll or a black pudding roll. I'll get my driver to decide...

21 September 2006

Return of the grievous angel

Warning! The undead are clanking their chains. Crazy man Michael is patrolling the battlements and may be about to throw a dirty great spanner into Mr Cameron's hitherto peaceable existence.

The Spectator reports:
"It was fun for David Cameron while it lasted but the Conservative party’s uneasy moratorium on talking about tax cuts is about to come to an abrupt end. The Tory Tax Reform Commission, launched by his predecessor Michael Howard, will shortly deliver its findings — and the prospect is causing panic in the party’s Victoria Street headquarters.
Far from being the modest simplification of the tax code that the Cameroons had hoped for, I have learnt from senior sources that the current draft report includes a blueprint worth up to £19.5 billion a year in net tax cuts to be implemented over the course of a first Tory term, as well as a number of additional uncosted tax reductions. I can also reveal that shadow chancellor George Osborne is fighting a rearguard action to convince the Commission’s excellent chairman, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, to dilute his plans; while not binding on Cameron, they will be taken seriously by the media and opposition."

If that is the Lord Forsyth which Scotland learned to know and love (sort of) in the late 1980s and early 1990s (which it certainly is), then I don't fancy the chances of Mr George (Gideon) Osborne. Lord Forsyth will eat him for breakfast. And while Mr Cameron may not be bound to accept Lord Forsyth's recommendations, they will be taken seriously - not only by the media and opposition but also by the Tory Party.

Always nice to see a blast from the past zooming up the hit parade...

How low can they go?

I appreciate that the Labour Party is desperately short of money but this is surely a step too far. The Independent reports:
"Rupert Murdoch's Sky News has secured a deal with Labour to advertise on the neck-straps of security passes worn by delegates and visitors at next week's party conference in Manchester. "

What would Keir Hardie have thought? Does the Labour Party have no shame?

So farewell smarties...

Is it just me or does the pace of economic and cultural change quicken? As one grows older, the familiar icons of one's personal infrastructure increasingly vanish into the recesses of the collective boxroom storing the victims of technological innovation. The Guardian reports:
"Nestlé, the world's largest food and drink company, yesterday announced the loss of 645 jobs at the famous Rowntree chocolate factory in York as it brought to an end 70 years of producing Smarties in the UK...
Smarties, which have been made at the factory in York since 1937, will now be produced in a Nestlé factory in Hamburg. The company is also shifting to Spain the production of the chocolates Dairy Box, and moving the Black Magic line to the Czech Republic."

Hamburg smarties will not taste the same.

(I have to admit, however, that I have avoided smarties since they replaced the familiar tubes with those peculiar hexagonal structures.)

20 September 2006

The secret lives of judges

It's better than you think. The Times reports:
"A BRAZILIAN cleaner who became involved in a love triangle with two judges blackmailed one of them after stealing home videos of him having sex with two women, a jury heard yesterday.
She also tried to extort thousands of pounds from the other judge, a woman, by threatening to tell Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, that she had worked at her home illegally for nearly five years, it was claimed.
David Markham, for the prosecution, told the Old Bailey that the 37-year-old defendant had threatened to expose the complex private lives of the judges, who had once lived together as lovers. She tried to get £20,000 from the female judge and a rent-free home from the male judge after having a sexual relationship with him, it was claimed."

Who was it said that Judge John Deed was not realistic?

How not to be a minister

It's basically a question of simple competence. As a minister, you may think that you have a bright idea, but it is foolish to announce its implementation before you and your officials have checked it out. But that seems to be precisely what Mr McConnell has done. The Scotsman reports:
"THE Scottish Executive did not seek advice from the European Commission, the Inland Revenue or its own lawyers before unveiling a move to boost research and development by granting small firms business rates relief, the finance minister admitted yesterday.
Tom McCabe made the confession as he confirmed that the scheme - announced last year by Jack McConnell, the First Minister, in an effort to trump a Liberal Democrat promise to further cut business rates - was being dropped.
The First Minister inserted the research and development (R&D) idea into a speech setting out last year's legislative programme after Nicol Stephen, the deputy first minister, pledged to go further than the Executive's agreed position of bringing business rates in Scotland into line with England.
However, the Executive conceded publicly for the first time yesterday that the plan - which would have cost £7 million this year and £15 million in 2007-8 - might contravene European Union rules which outlaw unfair state aid to companies."
I suppose it's understandable. Picture the scenario: the First Minister and his special advisers sitting around in Bute House, desperate to come up with something to trump Mr Stephen's promise of further cuts in business rates. They settle on the R&D proposal but don't have time to clear it with the department before the First Minister's big speech on the legislative programme. Result: red faces all round. And deservedly so.

19 September 2006

Told you so!

The Guardian reports that the Ministry of Defence is surprised:
"The defence secretary, Des Browne, today admitted that Britain and its Nato allies underestimated the strength of the Taliban and the violent resistance faced by western forces in Afghanistan.
He insisted he was not making a speech full of admissions of mistakes and that it was expected that the Taliban would fight hard but he added: "We do have to accept that it's been even harder than we expected."
His speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London comes amid a wave of violence in Afghanistan and concern over the scale and nature of the mission, which Mr Browne insisted today was for a "noble cause". Nineteen British soldiers have been killed in southern Afghanistan this month and a total of 40 have died there since November 2001.
Yesterday there was further bloodshed with three separate suicide attacks that killed 19 people. "The Taliban's tenacity in the face of massive losses has been a surprise, absorbing more of our effort than we predicted it would and consequently slowing progress on reconstruction," he said."

I don't know why anyone should be surprised. What has happened was entirely predictable. Indeed, I said so here in January:
"I have enormous sympathy for the British forces who are being asked to undertake a mission in which, successively, forces from the USSR and the USA failed. Indeed, it could be argued that the British Army itself failed in earlier centuries to bring peace and nation-building to Afghanistan.
If more than 100,000 troops from the coalition of the willing cannot pacify Iraq, what hope do the considerably fewer numbers of NATO and US troops have in Afghanistan?
And to those who ask - what is the alternative? - I have no answers. It would be nice to think that the current proposals would lead to a competent Afghan national army, as well as the elimination of the warlords, of the Taliban and of the narcotics industry, but it's not going to happen."

High jinks down under!

New Zealand always seemed to me a fairly dull place, perhaps a bit like Linlithgow in the 1950s. Sure, they have great rugby players and beautiful scenery (neither of which you could attribute to Linlithgow), but nevertheless it was not the place to go for excitement.

But its politics seems to have become more interesting by the day. The Independent reports:
"For seven years, he has been the man married to the woman who runs New Zealand, an unassuming figure at Helen Clark's side as she claimed a succession of election victories.
Now Peter Davis has been thrust into the spotlight that he shuns, with the quietly spoken sociology professor at the centre of a political sleaze scandal engulfing both main parties.
Ms Clark was forced to take the extraordinary step last weekend of denying that her husband was gay, after photographs were published of Mr Davis being embraced and kissed by one of the couple's oldest friends, Ian Scott, an Auckland MP who is openly homosexual.
The Prime Minister said the clinch was entirely innocent - Dr Scott, who was "reasonably boisterous and drunk" at the time, was one of hundreds of supporters who attended her post-election party at Labour Party headquarters last year."

If this was not enough, read on:
"She made plain who she believed was behind the smear campaign: the opposition National Party, and its leader, Don Brash, who is fighting for his own political life amid allegations of an extramarital affair.
While Mr Davis is the last person that New Zealanders would expect to see caught up in a gay sex storm, Mr Brash is an equally unlikely lothario. The 65-year-old was governor of the country's Reserve Bank before entering politics in 2002, and - despite revealing that he was a conscientious objector in his youth and demonstrated against visits by the South African rugby team - he has struggled to convince voters that he has much charisma.
That all changed last week after Mr Brash was challenged by one of his own MPs in relation to rumours circulating about an affair with a wealthy Auckland businesswoman, Diane Foreman. The National leader refused to confirm or deny it. But after the discussion was leaked to a newspaper, he took two days' leave, saying that he hoped to sort out "difficulties" in his marriage."

Then, rather disappointingly reverting to type, we learn of this unedifying detail:
"Mr Brash ... used to boast that he washed his own laundry in his hotel room basin during taxpayer-funded overseas trips on Reserve Bank duties.."

Still there is some good material here for a proper scandal. How unlike the prosaic lives of our own Scottish politicians...

Developing a taste for the headlines?

Is the Scottish Commissioner for Children becoming something of a loose cannon? The Scotsman reports:
"SINGLE parents should be paid to stay at home and look after their children rather than be forced back to work, Scotland's children's tsar said yesterday, as she highlighted the "damaging effect" government policies were having on childhoods...
Mrs Marshall told The Scotsman last night: "While people talk about the material advantage that children have these days, there is a very serious question to be addressed about how much we are squeezing out of their lives in terms of real, valuable contact with adults. The time parents have to spend with their children is becoming ever smaller because of work.
"And as for single mothers of young children, there should be the option of being supported at home by the state if need be, rather than them going back to work. All these things need to be factored into the equation by the Scottish Executive when they are drawing up policy."

The proposition that single mothers should be paid by the state rather than going back to work is an interesting idea. But why is Mrs Marshall floating it in The Scotsman? As children's commissioner, she has direct access to the Executive and to Parliament. Has she raised it with them and, if so, what was the outcome?

And would this new subvention to single mothers only be available to those who were previously in work? What about unemployed single women who become mothers? Or, indeed, single fathers? How would it fit with existing maternity benefits paid by employers or the wider benefits system financed by the state? How long would the subvention be payable - until the child goes to nursery or school or for longer?

If Mrs Marshall has thought the matter through, then let us hear it properly. It is surely not for the children's commissioner to seek to influence policy by a casual remark to a newspaper.

Bridge of Sighs

What was the point in calling it the Clyde Arc? The Herald reports:

"The £20m four-lane bridge is Glasgow's first new city-centre river crossing for more than 30 years. It crosses the river at a diagonal, linking Finnieston and the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre to the Pacific Quay media quarter on the south bank of the Clyde.

The 140m span has been designed to cope with a future light transport system such as a tram."

It will be forever known as the Squinty Bridge.

18 September 2006

Seaside frolics

So here we are again, at party conference season. I have no objection to members of a political party getting together once a year to discuss politics, to have a drink or two and generally to misbehave themselves.

But why do the media feel obliged to inflict it upon the rest of us? Just about every news programme on the box this evening will be presented from Brighton, as if anything at the LibDem Party Conference actually mattered. But, no, as the BBC, ITV, etc have spent vast sums of money sending teams to cover the conference, we will get chapter and verse of what happens, whether we like it or not. But does the coverage justify the cost? Or is it the other way about - as they have spent so much in enabling their reporters, cameramen and all the other hangers-on to swan about Brighton, the BBC and its counterparts feel obliged to devote hours of television and radio to the event. It is almost worth watching to see them scraping the barrel for a morsel of news.

Tomorrow's newspapers will be full of useless detail about who said what to whom, conference diaries, political sketches and think-pieces about the future significance of the LibDems. The Labour and Conservative Parties will avoid taking any political initiatives which might queer the LibDems' moment in the spotlight, on the understanding that the favour will be returned over the next two weeks. (No point anyway, as all the media players are in Brighton.)

Thus normal political life effectively grinds to a halt for three weeks.


For various reasons, I have had to renew the blog template, which is why some of the bits and bobs over on the right-hand side have disappeared. Some will be renewed, some will not. The blogroll (of links to other blogs) will re-appear once I have checked out which are still active.

Fish oils

Omega-3 and all that. The Scotsman appears to be promoting the idea here:
"FISH oils are hailed as a super supplement - we are told they will help keep us bright and alert at work, faster at Sudoku and healthy of heart at the gym. Hundreds of studies have also shown their importance in developing children's brain health, particularly their effectiveness in helping to combat attention deficit disorder and other behavioural problems.
Supplements can be the most effective way of ensuring you are getting the levels of omega-3 and 6 you need, but with shop shelves now overflowing with omega options, which supplements should we choose?
The best supplements are those which have high levels of EPA, which is one of the two kinds of omega-3, and the type that the body is most able to use efficiently and effectively. It has been proven to help children with attention deficit disorder. The other, DHA, is also essential for brain development, as is GLA which is an omega-6 found in evening primrose oil and starflower oil."

This is from someone who describes herself as a nutritionist.

The Guardian has a rather different story of the evidential trials:
"Of the five published papers, not one is a trial involving "normal" mainstream children. Three were positive to a greater or lesser extent; two were negative. In 2001, Voigt et al did a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial with omega-3 fish oil in 63 children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): they found no significant differences in objective or subjective ADHD measures between the fish oil and placebo group. In 2002, Richardson et al did a trial on 41 children with learning difficulties, and found improvements in three out of the 14 things measured (ADHD score, inattention and psychosomatic symptoms). In 2003, Stevens et al did a pilot study on 50 children with inattention, hyperactivity, and other disruptive behaviours (a third dropped out) and found improvements for two out of 16 things measured (parent-rated conduct problems and teacher-rated attention symptoms).
We're nearly there. This is important. Hirayama et al had a trial with 40 subjects with ADHD, and, not only was there no improvement for the fish oil group, the placebo group showed a significant improvement in visual short term memory and continuous performance. And lastly Richardson et al, looking at 117 subjects with developmental coordination disorder, found no significant differences but improvements in reading and spelling. This last one, incidentally, was the "Oxford-Durham" trial, performed by a proper Oxford academic, published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with these farcical, unpublished "trials" being touted by Equazen and Durham county council."

I know which I believe. But, more to the point, should The Scotsman's nutritionist not have included some form of 'health warning' about the efficacy of the pills they are so shamelessly willing to tout? Should a nutritionist not point out that the scientific case remains at least disputed?

Charles the Impaler

The Scotsman thinks that we're gullible. This is preposterous:
The Prince of Wales is set to become a landowner in Romania's Transylvania. He is looking to buy a property to promote sustainable tourism in the region, a Clarence House spokesman confirmed.
If His Royal Highness wishes to promote sustainable tourism, there are plenty of places to do it in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. There is only one reason to focus on Transylvania and we all know what that is.

17 September 2006

Blogging goes mainstream?

Iain Dale's latest pamphlet on the art of blogging can be found here in pdf format.

For those who care about such things, Holyrood Chronicles can be found at No 53 on the non-aligned list. I don't know whether to be outraged or delighted.

16 September 2006

Weekend poem No 2

Some T S Eliot this week. Now I know that Mr Eliot is sometimes regarded as difficult, probably because of The Wasteland; but I've never found him particularly inaccessible. (Though he did tend to measure out his life in coffee spoons.)

In any event, this is fairly jolly:
Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw -
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air -
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!

Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake...

Full text here.

Postscript: This has nothing whatsoever to do with Gordon Brown.

No sailor man

I always knew that eating spinach was doubtful. The New York Times reports:
"SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif., Sept. 15 — As the number of cases of a virulent strain of E. coli linked to fresh prepackaged spinach grew to at least 94 in 20 states on Friday, federal health authorities identified an organic produce company here in California as a possible source of some of the tainted spinach...
The company, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, announced a voluntary nationwide recall of its Earthbound brands of prepackaged spinach and salad mixes as well as prepackaged spinach it processes for numerous other companies, including Dole. Prepackaged spinach has been processed, washed and sanitized and placed in airtight bags or plastic trays."


Doctor Vee makes me feel old:
"What on earth was going on there? Maybe this is what all teenagers do these days, and I’m so out of touch now that I don’t realise it. I’ll never be down with the kids again. I’m so old but I’m only 20! What will it be like when I’m really, really ancient like 35?"

Wait till you're 56, chum!

Yes but what's your point?

A curious speech by Davie Cameron. Apologetic, patronising, sympathetic? Flies in, drops some platitudes, flies out? The Scotsman reports:
"A series of blunders were committed in the 1980s and 90s, of which the imposition of the poll tax was the most egregious," he said. "The decision to treat Scotland as a laboratory for experimentation in new methods of local-government finance was clumsy and unjust."
Nice to hear but there is no need to dwell upon it. Apologise and move on? (And what will Michael Forsyth think?)
"Speaking in Glasgow, he also made clear yesterday he will reject the calls of some English Tories for the party to adopt an anti-Scottish position at the next general election. While Mr Cameron said he stood by his plan to ban Scots MPs from voting on English legislation, he defended the Barnett Formula that sets Scotland's public spending."
There is only one Scottish Tory MP, the anonymous Mr Whatshisname from wherever, so banning Scottish MPs from voting on English legislation can only benefit the Tories. But Mr Cameron makes no attempt to address or even recognise the complications which may arise from this course of action.
"Why is it that Scottish sportsmen and women who win are habitually claimed by English media commentators as 'British' only to be promptly redesignated as 'Scottish' the moment they lose?"
Playing to the gallery? Or is that a chip on my shoulder?
"Mr Cameron's speech marks the end of a prolonged debate in the party's London leadership about Scotland. With the Scottish Tories at barely 12 per cent in the polls, Mr Cameron has now decided that the party north of the Border must adopt his modernising agenda, which has seen the UK party overtake Labour in national opinion polls."
So the London leadership has decided the agenda to be adopted by the Scottish Tories? Not really in tune with devolution, is it? What happened to Scotland being allowed to go its own way? And are Ms Goldie and her acolytes, not all of whom are known for their commitment to the touchy-feely spirit of the age, happy with this development?

So where do the Scottish Tories go from here? Oblivion may be the most probable answer.

15 September 2006

Jumping in with both feet

Here is an extract from yesterdays First Minister's Questions (here):

Maureen Macmillan (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): Is the First Minister aware of an information note from the European Commission that has been received by some people in the Highlands and Islands? The note asserts that the Commission auditors propose a financial clawback of about £20 million from the 1994 to 1999 European regional development fund because of what they consider to be management weaknesses and ineligible expenditure. Will the First Minister assure me that he will contest the proposals at the highest level in Europe so that we are not faced with picking up the tab for something that pre-dates this Parliament?

The First Minister: I have seen the correspondence from Mr Meadows; I received it last night. I make it clear to the Parliament that we contest the findings of the audit report on the 1994 to 1999 European programme in the Highlands. The investment in structural projects in the Highlands, then and now, has underpinned the growth of the economy and the strength of the Highland communities that we see today.
We see no justification for the conclusion that Scotland should be fined today for actions that the auditors claim took place in the 1990s; our devolved Government needs money to invest in schools and hospitals, in tackling crime and in growing our economy. We will contest the European Commission's finding. We will ask for the United Kingdom Government's support in doing so, and we will do so vigorously, starting next Thursday, when the commissioner visits the Parliament and I meet her in my office.

Now, as the First Minister should know very well, you may contest the proposals of the European Commission to recover Structural Funds payments on various grounds. You can argue about whether certain expenditures are eligible or not, you can argue that the auditors have not fully understood the circumstances, you can argue that the Commission's guidance was misleading, you can even argue that the Commission was complicit in the decision to allocate funds to a particular project. But you will get absolutely nowhere arguing that the Commission should not recover funds because it was a long time ago.

And, although we do not yet know whether it is the case, does Mr McConnell really want to argue that someone who has received a grant and misused it should not be asked to return it?

The sensible response would have been for the First Minister to state that he would carefully examine the communication from the Commission in consultation with the agencies involved, adding if necessary that he would as far as possible seek to minimise the impact of any possible recovery on the economy of the Highlands and Islands.

14 September 2006

Necessary fibs

Look, sometimes a politician needs to tell porkies. Because that's the way it is. It just is.

The BBC reports:
"In an interview being broadcast on Sky News Lunchtime Live, Mr Brown was asked if Mr Blair was his friend.
The chancellor replied: "Yes, and he will always be my friend. And you build friendships, but friendships have ups and downs as well."
He added: "Tony Blair has been a wonderful leader for the Labour Party and I think over the 23 years I have known Tony, this has been one of the strongest political relationships in history.
"I think Tony Blair has led the country with a tremendous amount of ability, skill, acumen and sensitivity to what the British people want to see done."

Now once you've finished vomiting, I suggest that you grow up, get real and move on.

13 September 2006

The power of the teachers' unions

Black is white, don't you know? The Executive has put out a press release (here), straight out of Orwell:
"The new Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act, passed in May 2006, is now in force, aiming to give parents a stronger voice and get more parents more involved in their child's education and school life.
The Act makes it a priority for education authorities and schools to support parents by giving them information on how to help their child's learning at home and provide them with opportunities to contribute to the life of the school."

What the press release omits to say is that the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act aims to increase "parental involvement" by means of abolishing School Boards on which parents had a built-in majority. And you wonder why I am cynical...

Good news and bad news?

Well I'm not going to decide which is which.

But a Scottish Executive press release tells its own story:
"In quarter 2 (Q2) 2006, there were 585,600 people employed in the public sector and 1,873,400 people employed in the private sector in Scotland...
Public sector employment has increased by 58,300 (11.0 per cent) since Q2 1999...

In Q2 2006 there were 15,600 permanent staff employed by the Scottish Executive and its associated agencies. This is an increase of 14.1 per cent since Q2 1999..."

But for Mr McCabe, the esteemed Finance Minister, there is cause for rejoicing. No self-doubt, no wondering if he is doing the Right Thing. No quibbles about service delivery or failure to meet targets. The best small country in the world is getting world-class public services. Here are Mr McCabe's thoughts on the matter:
"Increased investment in frontline staff is helping deliver the world-class public services the people of Scotland expect, a Minister said today.
Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform Tom McCabe was speaking after the publication of the latest Scottish public sector employment statistics...
Mr McCabe said:
"The people of Scotland expect and deserve world-class public services. And they also expect those public services to be as efficient and effective as possible, consuming no more precious resources or employing no more staff than necessary.
"We share that expectation. That is why we are driving up efficiency and effectiveness across the whole public sector."

Perhaps one of his officials might take Mr McCabe aside and explain to him the meaning of 'hubris'.

Getting above themselves

I suppose that it's a sign of the times. PC George Dixon would have been appalled. The BBC reports:
"Reckless drivers who use legal loopholes to avoid conviction are being targeted in a new police initiative.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is training police and CPS lawyers to make stronger cases.
Police are frustrated that lawyers well versed in motoring laws are using small print to win acquittals for those charged with reckless or drink-driving. Acpo is also introducing a team made up of a lawyer and a former police officer to help prosecute speed camera cases.
The association hopes motorists will avoid contesting their speeding charge because if they lose, their costs will include up to £4,000 for the cost of the team.
And police say they will be keeping a close eye on drivers who they think have been wrongly acquitted of crimes."

Note that last sentence: the police will decide who has been wrongly acquitted. An interesting new legal concept.

ACPO seems to be bereft of any idea of legal process. Or of common sense.

So what are they complaining about?

Some things matter more than others. And this is important. But I would suggest that The Scotsman is displaying a basic lack of numeracy here:
"ALMOST half of all drinks served in Scottish pubs are short measures, according to an investigation by trading standards officials.
Only one in ten tipples sold during the survey was accurate. It also found that 43 per cent of drinks were over-poured, prompting concern among alcohol campaigners...
Officials visited 193 pubs across Scotland, buying 343 drinks between 31 July and 18 August. Only 39 were sold correctly, with 155 - or 48 per cent - found to be short and 148 too large."
If I buy a fifth of a gill of whisky in a pub, and if the amount of liquid in the glass is measured accurately to - say - a level of three decimal points of a gill, it is overwhelmingly inevitable that the measure will either be over or under a fifth of a gill. If the barman is honest, one would expect the probability of an over-measurement to be roughly the same as that of an under-measurement. This is precisely what the above survey shows: 43% to 48%.

Accordingly, on the basis of this survey, to declare emphatically that almost half the drinks sold are short measures is ludicrous. And then to complain that most of the other half are over-measures is equally daft. Unless The Scotsman tells us the degree of accuracy used to measure the drinks in the survey and the extent of the variance, the article tells us very little.

Contempt of court?

There are times when the political ironies so accumulate that one can only admire the chutzpah. The Guardian reports:
"The lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, is expected to accuse the US government today of a "shocking affront" to the principles of democracy in deliberately seeking to put terrorist suspects beyond the reach of the law in Guantánamo Bay.
His comment, which comes in the text of a speech on Magna Carta to be delivered in Sydney, is the most outspoken attack yet on US policy over Guantánamo Bay by a senior member of the government. Lord Falconer will argue that acceptance of the rule of law means that the courts must be able to exercise jurisdiction over the executive. Otherwise the conduct of the executive is not defined and restrained by law. "It is because of that principle that the USA deliberately seeking to put the detainees beyond the reach of the law in Guantánamo Bay is so shocking an affront to the principles of democracy," he is expected to say."

Lord Falconer has never been elected to anything but owes his position as Lord Chancellor to his status as Mr Blair's former flatmate - yet he is prepared to lecture the US government on the principles of democracy? And as Lord Chancellor, he combines a role in leading the British judicial system with a prominent political position in the cabinet - yet he argues that the courts must exercise jurisdiction over the executive? And was the British proposal for imprisoning terrorist suspects for up to 80 days before court intervention took place, a proposal with which Lord Falconer was presumably content, so far removed from the principle of putting detainees beyond the reach of the law?

Motes and beams, I think...

12 September 2006

The sympathetic fallacy

They could have called it George or Graham but no. The Washington Post records:
"Tropical Storm Gordon formed Monday in the open Atlantic and was expected to head in the general direction of Bermuda, where Hurricane Florence had already brought strong winds and high waves, forecasters said.
At 5 p.m. EDT, Gordon had top sustained winds near 45 mph, above the 39 mph needed to be a named storm.
The seventh named storm of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season was centered about 425 miles northeast of the Leeward Islands and moving northwest near 9 mph, forecasters said."
I suppose that we must be grateful that Gordon has not become a hurricane - yet.

Are you dancing?

The manoeuvring continues. The Scotsman reports:
"LABOUR is considering forming a three-party "rainbow coalition" at Holyrood, bringing the Greens into the Executive along with the Liberal Democrats. Senior Labour sources have revealed that they would not rule out sharing power with two parties if May's election makes the Greens coalition "king-makers".

There's one wee problem, well a big problem actually: nuclear power.

Health matters

Food, the next frontier. What should we Scots do about our appalling diet? The press today reveals that the Scottish Diet Action Plan has failed, with only one of its nine targets on course to be achieved. Meanwhile, the Executive publishes a bill to ban junk food from schools. Ian Bell in The Herald tries to work up some enthusiasm for radical action (here):
"Our Scottish Executive says that several items deemed foodstuffs should no longer be fed to the children in our schools. No-one disputes this seriously. But if that version of nutrition is deemed horribly dangerous to children, why not reverse the argument? Why feed, or allow to be fed, such garbage to adults, for whom the word "consumer" begins to acquire a certain porcine, Animal Farm echo?
Is junk food dangerous, or is it not? If healthy, why isolate kids? If likely to kill people prematurely – like booze, or fags, or heroin – why allow adults to set appalling examples to those smaller humans? Since when did human liberty involve the right of stockholders to profit from the deliberate slaughter of gluttons?
Ban a few disgusting things. At least we might be around for long enough afterwards to dispute the decision."
I have some sympathy with the argument. And I have no doubt that some of those in the Executive Health Department would like to take it further. But there is nothing morally or even nutritionally wrong with the occasional poke of chips, or a slice of pizza, or a mince pie, or a burger or even - once in a while - a fizzy drink. The problem arises when these items take an undue prominence in someone's diet. Can you ban chips? Is it just or fair to close down chippies all over the country because some people abuse them? And where does personal responsibility enter the equation? No, I would suggest that the Executive's current policy of encouragement, education and culture change - at least for adults - may be boring and not particularly successful but is probably about right. Not all issues can be resolved by politicians.

11 September 2006

Who wants a holiday at the end of November?

Here we go! Gesture politics at its worst. Having opposed it last year, the First Minister has become a true believer. The BBC reports:
"Scotland's first minister has backed calls for St Andrew's Day to be declared a holiday.
Jack McConnell said he was prepared to lend Scottish Executive support to a new law which would allow banks to close on 30 November.
He wants to encourage businesses to give staff the day off - in exchange for an existing public holiday."

I suppose it will be like this until after next May.


It is too easy to forget the domestic disruption caused by political turmoil. The Times reports:
"TONY BLAIR may be forced to rent or borrow a house when he leaves Downing Street as his London home is leased to a film director until 2008.
The £3.65 million Georgian townhouse in Connaught Square is being leased by the Blairs to Michael Caton-Jones at the reputed rate of £2,000 a week. The mortgage repayments are £14,000 a month.
The uncertainty over the family’s living arrangements is one of the many reasons that Cherie Blair was among the loudest voices in the Prime Minister’s inner circle opposed to an early departure.
Mrs Blair, a leading advocate of ABG — anyone but Gordon — is worried about the upheaval of the move for their son Leo, 6, although their older children, Euan, Nicky and Katherine, are all at university. Mrs Blair’s mother, Gale, also regularly stays at Downing Street to look after Leo."

Poor Mr Blair has not been very lucky in his property transactions. But I imagine that the lecture circuit will see him all right in the long run.

A land without honour?

This is utterly disgraceful. The Independent reports:
"The average salary of a newly qualified soldier is £14,300 before tax - compared with about £20,000 for a police officer. In a combat zone, being on duty for a minimum of 16 hours gives the troops an hourly rate of £2.45. There is also a longer service separation allowance of about £6 a day, but this only applies to those who have served at least 12 months away from home.
This is well below the current national minimum wage of £ 5.05 an hour, which is due to rise to £5.35 next month. In reality the figures for soldiers' earnings are even worse. In Helmand, where British forces are involved in some of the heaviest fighting in the Army's recent history, there is little respite from incessant attacks and they are, in effect, on duty all the time...
The soldiers get free accommodation and food while based in combat positions such as Helmand. But they still pay council tax on their barracks rooms in Britain, and, back home, they also pay for food and board...
Anthony Bradshaw, who saw combat as a private in the Pioneer Regiment during the Iraq conflict in 2003, said: "Our take-home pay during training was £650 a month after the deductions. When we were in Iraq it rose to £800 a month. No one can say that the pay of a private soldier is good. It certainly does not lend itself to any luxuries." Pte Bradshaw, 22, was injured in Iraq and now receives a war pension and income support. "This does not add up to much either. Being a current or ex-soldier hardly makes you rich," he said...
The armed forces were to be brought into the minimum wage structure by the incoming Labour Government in 1997. But the idea was dropped after pressure from the then Defence Secretary, George Robertson, who claimed it would put the military into a financial and legal straitjacket."

Shameful. We can't even pay soldiers the minimum wage.

10 September 2006

Weekend poem

Fed up with stories about Brown and Blair? Well, here's a poem for you, by J Milton Hayes:
"THERE'S a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town;
There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

He was known as "Mad Carew" by the subs at Khatmandu,
He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell;
But for all his foolish pranks, he was worshipped in the ranks,
And the Colonel's daughter smiled on him as well.

He had loved her all along, with a passion of the strong,
The fact that she loved him was plain to all.
She was nearly twenty-one and arrangements had begun
To celebrate her birthday with a ball..."

Full text here.

Absolutely no political significance whatsoever.

Darkening skies

It's not been a good week for Labour. The Sunday Times compounds the problems:
"The poll of 1,200 Scots voters, conducted at the height of Blair’s difficulties midweek, showed the SNP on 29% for the first-past- the-post vote and the same for the second, proportional representation vote. Labour support was 30% and 27% respectively.
On this showing, the Nationalists would win 38 of Holyrood’s 129 seats, enough to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Labour’s governing partners, and the Greens. Labour would remain the biggest party with 42 seats, down from its current 50.
The Lib Dems have said they are open to negotiation on an independence referendum.
There is no sign of a David Cameron bounce for the Scottish Tories, languishing at 14% on both votes, while Tommy Sheridan, the former Scottish Socialist party leader, saw his new party, Solidarity, registering 1% and 2% respectively."
But I can only laugh at the following statement:
"The poll also reveals Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, has a higher personal rating than Jack McConnell, the first minister. Voters believe Salmond is more trustworthy, honest, competent and likeable and less conceited than the Labour leader."
Less conceited? Mr Salmond has a number of strengths, but I rather doubt that even the SNP would agree that a lack of conceit is one of them.

The milk round

I rather doubt if it would be quite as easy as implied by this article in The Sunday Herald:
"Thirty-five years after Margaret Thatcher inflicted her cruellest cut, the Scottish Executive has revealed plans to restore free milk in schools.
The former prime minister’s decision, made while she was education secretary in 1971, to abolish universal free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to 11 earned her a place in history books as “Thatcher, Thatcher Milk Snatcher”.
According to nutritionists, the decision could have led to a generation lacking enough calcium, necessary for strong bones and teeth. In girls, it can help prevent osteoporosis in later life.
But legislation published by the Scottish Executive tomorrow paves the way for every school in Scotland to once more provide free milk."

When I was a lad, the free milk amounting to one-third of a pint in a glass bottle was delivered to the school in crates first thing every morning. It was drunk mid-morning, meaning that in winter it had frequently frozen and in summer it had gone off. This would probably be unacceptable today but do schools have additional refrigeration facilities to hold a carton of milk for every child for a few hours?

09 September 2006

Unanswerable Questions (No 5)

Yesterday evening, I managed to see part of the rugby match between the Edinburgh Gunners and Leinster. But why was it that the Irish team displayed the sponsorship of the Bank of Scotland on their jerseys while the chests of the Edinburgh team declared their allegiance to Magners Irish cider?

08 September 2006

Education, education, education

I guess she needs every penny. The BBC reports:
"Cherie Booth QC was paid £3,000 of taxpayers' money to present a TV series about teaching children about "rights and responsibilities".
The prime minister's wife stressed the importance of teaching citizenship in a three-part series to be broadcast on the government funded Teachers' TV.
Downing Street and Teachers' TV said it was the standard fee for presenters."

Do qualifications matter? Or could any QC have done it? And how was she chosen?

The warring continues

In view of this, I guess Charles Clarke doesn't want a job in Gordon Brown's cabinet.

A duck out of water

Poor old Magnus Linklater gets out of his office to report Gordon Brown's day at a Glasgow sports stadium and rather messes it up. From The Times (here):
"There are two reasons for being on the outside lane, as any seasoned athlete knows. The first is because someone else is blocking your way, and you can’t move into the inside lane, which is where you want to be. The second is because it is the best place from which to launch the final sprint. You bide your time, you wait for an opening, and then you strike."
Sorry, old son, but the only time you run in the outside lane in an athletics stadium is when you have been allocated that lane to run in.
"By opting for Scotstoun Leisure Centre in Glasgow as the venue for his eagerly awaited statement, Mr Brown was not only surrounding himself with symbols of competition and achievement, he was drowning us in metaphors."
No, he wasn't. Magnus, you're the only one drowning in metaphors and you're doing it to yourself.

"He talked to fencers, who lunge at their opponents, ping-pong players, who send small projectiles back and forwards at each other, and he conversed deeply with Sir Steve Redgrave, who trained for years before he became an Olympic champion – five times over. He stood in front of, but modestly did not mount, the victory rostrum, and he walked across the exact spot where the baton is passed, and sometimes dropped, in the 400m relay."
Do you mean the finishing line, Magnus? For that is where the 400m relay baton is passed. If so, why not say that? Or would that destroy a rather clumsy metaphor?

Stick to opera, Magnus. There you're on safer ground...

07 September 2006

Stable and orderly transition?

The Prime Minister's statement rather leaves us on the hook. It's all very well for Mr Blair to say that he will resign at some point over the next 12 months, but it will not quell the speculation about precisely when. In effect, we are no further forward. All of the feeding frenzy over the last 48 hours has achieved precisely nothing. We seem to be doomed to repeat the recent nonsense ad nauseam. It is neither stable nor orderly.

If we get that far without more revolts, the party conference will provide the next focus for a row. Meanwhile, the government is paralysed by ministers jockeying for position and the opinion poll results will sink towards the floor.

Roll on Songs of Praise and Blue Peter.


Iain Dale puts it rather better than I have:

That Blair Statement in Full

Furrow brow.
Best interests.
No date.
Take onion out of pocket.
On and on and on.
F**** you Gordon.
Determined look.
The Labour Party can go **** itself.


The Scotsman goes literary on the sports pages. I make it four references in three sentences (here):
"Where art thou Romanov? He's here, he's there, he's everywhere to personally welcome Tartan Army to town


LITHUANIA is where the fictional psychopath Hannibal Lecter was born, but the surprising absence of a grisly ending last night gave Scotland cheer in what previously has been considered a heart of darkness."

Shakespeare, Dickens, Harris, Conrad. Altogether excessive. A fan with a typewriter and a literary ambition. Does he think the Tartan Army cares?

O ye of little faith...

It can't be that bad, surely? Ian Bell in The Herald is less than impressed with the resumption of hostilities at Holyrood (here):
"If we grant that McConnell, Sturgeon, Goldie and the rest were making a serious attempt to exercise their prophetic powers – rather than indulge in mere electioneering – this was a grim affair. Recycling has increased from five to 23%, Jack boasted during a list of his achievements. Most of that could be attributed to his speech.
Election campaigns, said Jack, form "the most creative time in democratic politics". Nobody laughed. This is, he said, "an exciting time to be a member of Scotland's parliament". Miraculously, no sharp objects were hurled.
The First Minister went back to the future to talk about the past. At least in the movies, Michael J Fox had use of a cool hoverboard. Jack was wafted onwards by hot air alone. The economy, education, health, crime, poverty: all was for the best in the best wee colony in the world.
Jack has discovered education and globalisation simultaneously, and not a moment too soon. Apparently – and why did no-one think of this before? – "the task for Scotland's parliament and government is to equip Scots with the skills that are globally useful". Surviving parliamentary debates with your consciousness intact is a talent worth acquiring."

I accept that the debate was less than inspirational (I turned off the telly after five minutes of the First Minister's speech), but you can't really expect oratory from this lot of politicians.

And it's nice for Mr McConnell to have discovered globalisation.

Stating the obvious

Come, come now; this would never do. The Herald reports:
"The head of Scotland's Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency has called for Scotland's eight police forces to be merged into one national police service.The controversial move is likely to anger the majority of the country's chief constables who have stated publicly forces should not be amalgamated. Earlier this year Tom McCabe, the Finance Minister, questioned whether Scotland is best served by eight forces as part of the ongoing Scottish Executive review of public services.
Tom Buchan, former president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, called for a move to three or four police forces rather than the current eight in May.
Speaking for the first time about the issue Graeme Pearson, director of the SCDEA, said he believes one force, headed by a single commissioner or chief constable, would provide an improved service to the public."

For a start, this would mean that seven chief constables lost their jobs. And more efficiencies would follow as eight sets of headquarter functions were merged into one. And just because the Met is able to exercise its functions over a population considerably in excess of that in Scotland, this should not mean that it is an example to be followed. I mean, think of the loss of local accountability whereby police are responsible to their local authority paymasters (for all sorts of things but not for operational matters). And since when was improved service to the public a criterion to be weighed in determining the shape of public sector infrastructure?

No, no, no; there is no place for such radical thinking in this best small country in the world.

06 September 2006

How to please nobody

It is obviously not 'make your mind up' time. The Herald reports:
"Scottish ministers are refusing to back Glasgow's bid to bring Britain's biggest casino to Clydeside, opting only to tell the panel that will decide on the hard-fought race that the executive will put up "no opposition". The neutral position was agreed by cabinet last month, as the best way to resolve strong differences between ministers on the issue.
It is scheduled to be announced next week by Nicol Stephen, the Enterprise Minister, risking a rift with the city leadership, and angering Glasgow MSPs. It has already increased coalition tensions, with Labour accusations that Mr Stephen's "foot-dragging" has itself hindered the bid."

And so the Executive will be criticised, both by Glasgow Council and the bid supporters and by those worried about the social impact of a dirty great casino. Even though I include myself in the latter category, there are times when making no decision is worse politics than jumping one way or the other. Support the casino or condemn it and at least some of the people will take your side; shilly-shally and nobody will.

05 September 2006

The arrests on 10 August

Remember the imminent terror attack, the airport problems, all those arrests? At earlier stages, I expressed some scepticism about the case. Andrew Sullivan has an update.

I am not quoting from it, just in case it gives rise to legal problems. But if I can read it, I don't see why you can't...

Dream on! (Notes from a different bunker)

I don't usually link to The Daily Mirror but this is cracking stuff:
"A SENSATIONAL memo leaked to the Mirror reveals how Labour experts are planning Tony Blair's exit from No10.
The retirement blueprint aims to promote the "triumph of Blairism" and allow the PM to quit on a wave of euphoria after 10 years in office.
The secret strategy - drawn up by a small group of loyalists - is well under way.
Mr Blair's "farewell tour" includes plans to appear on Blue Peter, Songs of Praise and Chris Evans' radio show."

Literally, you couldn't make it up. This is so daft it must be true.

And there is further evidence that No 10 is a reality-free zone:
And more concerned with his place in history than the success of his policies, the paper - seen by the Mirror - boasts: "His genuine legacy is not the delivery, important though that is, but the dominance of new Labour ideas...the triumph of Blairism.
"As TB enters his final phase he needs to be focusing way beyond the finishing line, not looking at it.
"He needs to go with the crowds wanting more. He should be the star who won't even play that last encore. In moving towards the end he must focus on the future."


The dope

Mr McConnell is getting lit up about pot smokers. The Herald reports:
"The First Minister said he was "very keen" that people were prosecuted. "Cannabis is illegal and nobody in Scotland should ever get the impression otherwise," he said.
His comments followed The Herald's revelation on Saturday that some police forces, in collaboration with the Crown Office, are piloting warnings for possession of cannabis worth less than £15. The arrangement has been criticised by anti-drugs campaigners, anxious that it sends out the wrong message about use of the class C drug.
Mr McConnell said he would not dictate to the police or fiscals, but wanted their actions to be "proportionate".

Being 'very keen' on prosecutions and demanding 'proportionate' action sounds to me like dictating to the police and the fiscals. (Unless, of course, the First Minister is taking a pot-shot at the Home Secretary, whose house was found to contain a small stash.) Perhaps Mr McConnell's attitude is one of the reasons for this in The Scotsman:
"MORE than one-third of lawyers believe the Scottish Executive has no respect for the independence of the legal system, according to a survey which reveals widespread disapproval of the political elite among solicitors."

Amusingly, a Scottish Executive spokeswoman does nothing to put our collective mind at ease:
"She said the Executive had worked "ceaselessly" to create a more efficient criminal justice system. "It is the duty of government to remain independent from the legal process, but also to ensure that the structures within which those processes operate are effective, fair and transparent," she said."

I am not clear how government can remain independent from the legal process, while working to create a more efficient system and ensuring that processes are effective, fair and transparent. Oh, and at the same time, being very keen on prosecuting cannabis possession. One might have thought that the First Minister had more immediate problems to confront.

Good news for Scottish Labour?

Well, at least, it will provide the First Minister with a breathing space. The Herald reports:
"Eight months from the third Holyrood election, the trend emerging from the past three months of surveying by TNS System Three is that Labour is retaining a clear lead over the SNP with the constituency vote, on which all but four Labour MSPs depend. Last month, Labour was found to be on 36% of first-vote intentions, the SNP on 28%, LibDems up three from the July poll to 17% and Tories on 12%. The SNP has nearly closed the gap on the second vote - 28% to 27% - but Labour has only had need of that in the Highlands and north-east. The poll also shows a strong second-vote showing for the LibDems on 19%, and Greens on 8%, while there is little sign of Tory progress on either count."

A rogue poll? Well, maybe: it is certainly out of line with other reports, including those of the Labour Party's own private polling. But Labour MSPs are in a mood to be thankful for small mercies.

04 September 2006

Imperial over-reach

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's " Saviour of 'is country " when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An 'Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!

The BBC reports:
"A British soldier has been killed and a further three injured in a suspected suicide bombing in Afghanistan.
Four people were also killed in the attack on a Nato convoy in Kabul.
And a day of mourning has been declared at RAF Kinloss in Moray, Scotland, following the loss of one of the base's aircraft, which crashed in Afghanistan.
The Nimrod MR2 came down on Saturday, killing 12 air personnel from 120 Squadron, a Royal Marine and a soldier, all of whom have now been named.
An inquiry is under way, with a technical fault currently being blamed.
A Downing Street spokesman said Tony Blair viewed the latest death of a soldier with "sadness".
"It underlines again our debt of gratitude to the Army," he added."

The British armed services deserve nothing but admiration. But are the forces in Afghanistan serving a valid purpose? After all, neither the Russians nor the Americans were able to suppress resistance to occupation, even with vastly greater numbers than are available to the current NATO operation. It is not as if there is any real hope of even reducing the drug trade, given record harvests this year and the absence of any alternatives to offer the growers. And the prospects of building a stable democracy or a decent civil society are non-existent, given that the Karzai government controls only Kabul, with the rest of the benighted country run by warlords or insurgents.

If NATO withdrew, would Afghanistan revert to a terrorist state? What is it now?

But the bottom line must be that British forces are being asked to stay for three years, suffering losses, when all the odds are that by 2008-09 nothing will have changed. Bring them home now.

Update: Perhaps I should have attributed the stanza quoted above. It is from a poem called 'Tommy' by Kipling; the full text is here.

02 September 2006

Cowboys and native americans

One more example of how political correctness is taking over the BBC. From the TV listings:
"Rio Conchos
Sat 2 Sep, 3:50 pm - 5:35 pm 105mins
When 2000 rifles are stolen from a US command post, Captain Haven is despatched to track them down and keep the ammunition out of the hands of a tribe of Native Americans. [Gordon Douglas, 1964] [S]"

I think they mean 'injuns'.

Celebrity shellfish

The sad story of Crusty. The Scotsman reports:
"A SCOTTISH hotel which cooked up a giant lobster has found itself in trouble - after locals claimed the crustacean was a local celebrity who should have been saved.
The lobster, caught off Lossiemouth, is thought to have been one of the biggest ever caught in the north-east of Scotland. It was 2ft long, five times the size of an average lobster and weighed 10lb. "

OK, these things happen from time to time. But:
"Last night, Mansefield Hotel boss Ross Murray defended his decision to cook the lobster. He said its shell has been preserved and would go on display. "When you buy a lobster you don't pause to ponder whether it is a celebrity or not. You just stick it in the pot," he said. "If we had known it was so well-known, we would have been open to donating it to an aquarium. Unfortunately, it is a bit too late to do anything now. The lobster tasted pretty good and the meat wasn't tough. We got about four portions from it."

How unfeeling. No regrets, no apology. Just another day in the kitchen...

01 September 2006

Casino betting

For those hoping that Glasgow will secure the super-casino licence, the odds (here) don't look good, with Glasgow well behind the Dome and Blackpool.

Some of us may emit a sigh of relief.