30 November 2006

Look what they've done to my song, ma

The CIF site at The Guardian is a peculiar beast. It attracts some good writers and some weird commenters. But, over the last two days, there has been a surge of interest in Scottish independence. It began yesterday with this article from Simon Jenkins which re-hashes the standard line of "If the Scots want to secede, let them". But it has attracted more than 200 comments. This was followed by a more perceptive (in some ways) article by John Lloyd advocating the maintenance of the union. Although only published this afternoon, this is also attracting a host of comments.

I begin to fear that the genie is out of the bottle. Scottish independence has become a matter of interest to the English. I cannot foresee the consequences but I doubt that they will be beneficial...

Skating on thin ice

As part of the celebrations for St Andrew's day,
Finance Minister Tom McCabe will launch Scotland's first Ceilidh-on-ice in Glasgow's George Square.

(source here).

I am reliably advised that this does not mean that Mr McCabe will be getting his skates on, which is something of a disappointment. The prospect of the Uriah Heep of the Scottish Executive doing an eightsome reel on ice is tantalising, to say the least...


Here is an admirable survey of the Scottish political scene by Mr Eugenides. Well written, too. Just shows what he can do when he forsakes the swearing.

29 November 2006

Ultimate responsibility

The BBC reports:
The royal editor of the News of the World has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to intercept voicemail messages.
Clive Goodman, 48, from London, was arrested after claims by the Prince of Wales's household of security breaches...
News of the World editor Andy Coulson, said he apologised "unreservedly" on behalf of the newspaper to Prince William and Prince Harry, Paddy Harverson, Helen Asprey and Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton "for the distress caused by this invasion into their privacy".
In a statement, he said: "As the editor of the newspaper, I take ultimate responsibility for the conduct of my reporters.
"Clive Goodman's actions were entirely wrong and I have put in place measures to ensure that they will not be repeated by any member of my staff."

So what, exactly, does taking 'ultimate responsibility' mean? A member of his staff has pleaded guilty to committing a crime. Is Mr Coulson inviting prosecution as an accessory? Presumably not. Will he then resign for being ultimately responsible for this disgraceful conduct by a member of his staff? Again, presumably not. It seems to mean nothing more than issuing apologies and ensuring (maybe) that it will not happen again. This is a curious definition of 'ultimate responsibility'. But, then, we are talking about the editor of The News of the World.

Goats are so last year

Look, I know that it's hard to keep up with the ever-changing environmental priorities but NHS Highland need to do better. The BBC reports:
Health staff are being asked to donate money to buy goats for Third World communities instead of exchanging Christmas cards.
Pupils from Raigmore Primary School in Inverness helped to launch the NHS Highland initiative which is aimed at supporting the Oxfam Unwrapped scheme.
The charity project suggests people give gift aid, including funding for goats, instead of Christmas presents.

At the risk of disappointing the no doubt well-meaning health staff, I have to point them in the direction of The Independent (here):
The reality is that animal gift schemes are, in the words of the conservation charity World Land Trust (WLT), "environmentally unsound and economically disastrous". In a statement last week, WLT declared: "Now that the grave consequences of introducing large numbers of goats and other domestic animals into fragile, arid environments is well documented, WLT considers it grossly irresponsible ... to continue with the schemes ... as a means of raising quick money for charities over the Christmas season".
It is incontestable that desertification and further human impoverishment will follow the introduction of goats into already degraded areas.

See Christmas presents...

28 November 2006

TV highlights

I see that this evening BBC 1 (Scotland) is showing the highlights (sic) of round 2 of an international bowls tournament being held in Perth. It is scheduled to be shown from 11.55pm to 1.20am tomorrow morning. If you don't believe me, check here.

Oh wow, a whole 85 minutes of bowls, in the middle of the night. How exciting!

Apart from the spouses and partners of the participants, do you suppose that anyone will be watching?

The panic of the panjandrums

Now we know why Labour's high heidyins mounted their collective assault upon the SNP over the weekend. The Herald reveals:
The Scottish National Party holds an eight-point lead over Labour in a poll commissioned by Labour itself, the biggest gap registered by recent surveys. It suggests that, if the findings are translated into results at the ballot box next May, the Nationalists would win nine seats more than Labour, and be in the driving seat to form a new coalition administration.
The private poll, carried out by independent research company Populus, found Labour lagging eight points adrift of the SNP on both the constituency and the regional votes. One analysis of those figures suggests Labour would lose 14 of the 50 seats it holds, while the SNP would gain as many as 18 seats, on top of the 27 it won in 2003.

But the kind of attacks pursued by Brown, Alexander and Reid at the Oban Conference really won't do Labour any good. The Scottish electorate will not buy being lectured by Westminster politicians about the faults of Mr Salmond; they are more than capable of making up their own minds. And it was noticeable that Mr McConnell took a rather less belligerent stand. Ruth Wishart, also in The Herald, has some excellent advice for the First Minister:
I once had a notice on my office door which I commend to Mr McConnell. It read: "If things don't improve, I'm going to have to ask you to stop helping me."

The net closes in

Should the Prime Minister be getting a lawyer? The Times speculates on his options but can't resist this delicious scenario:
When “Yates of the Yard” fixes the date for the fateful encounter, will there be a dawn raid? If so, perhaps a TV crew or two may be across the street, to provide live coverage, in the style of Kevin Maxwell’s infamous arrest in 1992. As the officers knock on the black door, an upstairs window opens, Cherie’s head appears and shouts at them to piss off or she’ll call the police.
If like Lord Levy before him, Mr Blair is arrested then the Met Police policy is to demand the detainee’s DNA, fingerprints and a mug shot. Just imagine the price a tabloid newspaper will pay for such a photograph . . .

That it should have come to this.

27 November 2006

Hubris and nemesis

Maybe he needs the money? Or the publicity? The Scotsman reports:
TOMMY Sheridan could star in the next series of Celebrity Big Brother.
The Solidarity leader is said to have held talks with Channel 4 to appear in the next series of the show, which starts in January, for a fee of £30,000.

This way lies the road to self-destruction...

Some narrow-minded provincialism on my part

Scotland, a land of which the London commentariat knows little and usually cares less. But it does not prevent them from occasionally pontificating. Yesterday's Telegraph poll has stimulated Peter Preston of The Guardian and Bruce Anderson of The Independent to opine on Scottish separatism.

Neither of these distinguished columnists has anything particularly interesting to say. This is because their view of Scotland is refracted through the prism of Westminster. They do not follow Scottish domestic politics; they are not familiar with Scottish domestic politicians. Which is why you will search in vain through their writings for a mention of McConnell, Sturgeon, Stephen or Goldie. It is the implications for Brown or Cameron with which they are concerned.

Perhaps this is understandable; after all, they are writing for London newspapers. But if we are to maintain a united kingdom, it would be helpful if they would - just once in a while - raise their eyes from the metropolitan gutter.

26 November 2006

Snapshots from the future

Mr McConnell's increasingly desperate attempts to form a minority Holyrood administration finally hit the buffers yesterday when the parliament rejected his candidacy for First Minister by 75 votes to 51. The SNP, LibDems and Greens outvoted Labour and the Tories. Mr McConnell is expected to announce his resignation as Scottish labour leader later today. Iain Gray, who has the backing of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is the favourite to replace Mr McConnell as labour leader in Scotland. The way is now clear for an SNP-Libdem administration to be formed.

Earlier this year, the Scottish parliamentary authorities ruled that First Minister Salmond's bill for an independence referendum was ultra vires, a decision which has now been upheld by the Court of Session. Accordingly, the SNP-controlled Executive yesterday announced that it would ask the Westminster parliament to bring forward such a bill. Despite the increasing support in Scotland for such a referendum, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is bitterly opposed to independence and is expected to rule out any such bill before the next general election, taking the country into uncharted constitutional waters.

Labour's decision to deny the Scots a referendum on independence is expected to cost Gordon Brown dearly in tomorrow's UK general election, with Labour expected to lose up to 30 seats in Scotland alone. The polls suggest that the best Labour can hope for is a hung parliament; the Conservatives seem certain to be the largest party. The likely presence of 40 newly-elected SNP MPs will keep up the pressure for independence. David Cameron has already announced his willingness to do a deal on the matter.

Now that Scotland has voted in favour of independence, First Minister Salmond and Prime Minister Cameron are expected to get down to negotiations on the mechanics of separation. Mr Cameron welcomed Mr Salmond's recognition that independence could not happen overnight. The present constitutional arrangements are likely to carry on for at least three years, while the separate administrations discuss the partition of government assets in Scotland which were previously the property of the United Kingdom. A referendum on the adoption of the euro would not be held until after the next Scottish general election. On foreign affairs, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to represent the Scottish administration abroad for the foreseeable future. On defence, the Trident submarines will next year be moved to Devonport. It is understood that the Scottish administration is content for the Ministry of Defence to continue in control of the military, provided suitable financial arrangements can be worked out.

Scottish Social Security Minister, Kenny MacAskill MSP, admitted yesterday that the Scottish administration had seriously under-estimated the scale and complexity of the work required to introduce a separate social security system. It was now proposed to defer the suggested improvements to the system and to import the present UK system unchanged. Any further changes would have to wait until things had settled down.

The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that the dissolution of the United Kingdom would result in the creation of two new entities and that the government of England, Wales and Northern Ireland was not therefore entitled to inherit the membership previously held by the United Kingdom. The European Commission announced its intention to open negotiations with both parts of the former United Kingdom with a view to early entry into the European Union. It is believed that the United Nations is likely to take a similar view, so that permanent membership of the Security Council and the right of veto will be lost.

25 November 2006

Weekend poem No 11

This week, a minor suburban classic:

'A Subaltern's Love Song'

John Betjeman

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament - you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father's euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o'clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light's in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing's the light on your hair.

By roads "not adopted", by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

24 November 2006

Liveblogging - well, shortly after blogging

I have been watching the PM's speech to the Oban Labour Party Conference. Here are some initial impressions.

As ever, you have to say that Mr Blair is a class act. He manages to combine the personal touch with a sweeping policy vision, an ability that few politicians possess. The BBC preceded his speech with excerpts from this morning's speeches by Bristo Muldoon and Tom McCabe (the Laurel and Hardie of Scottish Labour, but without the jokes) which only served to emphasise the quality of Tony Blair. (Although I did think that Stephen Purcell, the Glasgow labour leader, was quite impressive.)

The PM managed to get away from the politics of fear, which has previously dominated Labour's reaction to the SNP. He sought to emphasise the opportunities of the union, with the prospect of Scotland becoming more prosperous within the UK, highlighting the benefits of partnership. The SNP was dismissed as pursuing the politics of grievance - it's all England's fault, etc, as well as advocating 19th century nationalist policies for a 21st century nation.

The PM was also remarkably complimentary about Jack McConnell - he is straight, he sorts out his own problems, he has made Scotland better, you can't ask more from a leader, etc. (Needless to say, the First Minister loved it; he was like a cat that had swallowed a bucketful of cream.)

Nevertheless, Blair does rather resemble a Chinese banquet: it tastes good while you are eating it, but by the next day you wonder where the substance was. We'll see what tomorrow's papers say...

Foodies rejoice

I am ashamed to say that I have never visited it, but maybe tomorrow. But congratulations are definitely in order. The Guardian reports:
It boasts hot porridge doused in whisky, fresh ostrich meat, organic beers and hunks of wild boar, and it nestles under the battlements of one of the country's most imposing castles. Welcome to the farmers' market in Edinburgh, officially crowned as the best in Britain.
The city best known to shoppers worldwide for its garish tartan gift shops on the Royal Mile and Jenners, perhaps the country's most genteel department store, has seen off competition from five towns including Tavistock, Chepstow and Huntingdon. Its 65 regular stallholders drive beer down from the Black Isle near Inverness, ship fresh langoustine, crab and mussels from the island of Arran and boar raised on smallholdings and hill farms across the country.
The winter weather in Edinburgh, which stallholders admit can be miserable, has produced one of the market's most popular, even notorious, institutions: the Stoats' "porridge bar". It serves that famous staple of the Scottish diet with traditional salt, or a good belt of body-warming whisky and seasonal raspberries and cream. Ostrich, farmed in Lanarkshire, is about as exotic as it gets, said Caroline Hamilton, a lamb and beef stallholder at the market, whose stall was voted the market's best in 2004. "You don't come here to buy olives and red peppers. You don't get them,
because we don't grow them in Scotland."
Visited by between 6,000 and 10,000 shoppers each Saturday, the market has evolved since it first opened as a small monthly event in 2000 into a showcase for Scottish agriculture.

I understand that it's in Castle Terrace, from about 10 am.

News values

Like most newspapers, you might think that 160 deaths in Baghdad, plus the 257 injured, constituted a suitable story - at least for an inside page, if not the front page.

Not so The Herald , which ignores it completely. It is more concerned with a survey of the stress levels of Scottish secondary school teachers.

Ban the bomb - naw, let's have a debate

What is the First Minister's position on the renewal of the UK's nuclear deterrent?

What he said:
"If the Prime Minister's Cabinet has agreed this morning—as I believe it intends to—to launch its debate throughout the United Kingdom on the future of the Trident missile system, I welcome that debate. A debate should take place. It is essential to have a debate and to discuss all the options that should be available. As I have said before in the chamber, it would be wrong at the start of that debate to rule out absolutely a replacement for Britain's nuclear deterrent, given the international circumstances in which we operate. However, people who believe that we may need to renew the deterrent should also have an open mind at the start of the debate about the possibilities that could be on offer. A debate should be welcomed."

[Source: FMQs yesterday]

What he meant:

"Look, I can't say that I support the renewal of Trident, because that would upset too many of my backbenchers, not to mention potential labour voters next May. Nor can I say that I oppose the renewal of Trident, because Tony and Gordon would shout at me; and, as the renewal of Trident is going ahead anyway, I would look even weaker than usual as there is nothing I can do to stop it. That's why I have to spout this rubbish about welcoming a debate, even though everyone knows that Tony and Gordon have already made up their minds.

What do I really think? For so long, I've been saying what I'm supposed to say, that I can't remember what I really believe. But, honestly, I welcome a debate..."

23 November 2006

A word to the linguistically challenged football reporters

For Dougie Donnelly and his chums on tv tonight:

'Auxerre' is pronounced 'Oh-ser', not 'Awkser' or 'Ohkser'.


The BBC reports:

The European Court has ruled against making it easier for European consumers to buy cigarettes and alcohol from countries where excise duties are low.
High-duty countries like the UK had risked losing large amounts of revenue.
It means that shoppers who want to take advantage of low duty and VAT in other states will still need to go there and bring back the goods themselves.
Had the ruling gone the other way, consumers of alcohol and tobacco could have gone on an internet bargain hunt.

A conundrum

Can someone who is infallible be occasionally fallible? The Telegraph reports:
The Pope has shocked theologians and opened a chink in the theory of papal infallibility by saying that people should feel free to disagree with what he has written in his latest book, a meditation on Jesus Christ.
Entitled Jesus of Nazareth, the first book that Pope Benedict XVI has written since his election as Pope in 2003 will be published next spring.
The first part describes Jesus's life from his baptism in the river Jordan until his transfiguration, when he reveals his divinity to his disciples. Referencing hundreds of works of history, the Pope writes that he believes Christ is a "historically convincing figure".
In the foreword, he states that the book is "absolutely not" a work of Catholic doctrine, but rather the "expression of my personal research". He adds: "Consequently, everyone is free to contradict me. I only ask the readers that they read with sympathy, without which there will be no comprehension."

As a matter of faith, you may or may not agree with the proposition that the Pope is infallible. But partial or qualified infallability is an interesting, even oxymoronic, concept which I will need to ponder further.

22 November 2006

Malcolm fails again

The Executive's policies on council housing are not succeeding. The BBC reports:
Highland Council tenants have voted against transferring ownership of 14,500 homes from the local authority to a private housing association.
More than 60% of tenants voted 59.7% to 40.3% against the plans to transfer to Highland Housing Association. ...
Three "wholesale" stock transfers have already taken place across Scotland - in Glasgow, the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.
However, tenants in Renfrewshire, Stirling and Edinburgh voted against transfers.
A ballot of Inverclyde tenants will end on 30 November.
Communities Minister Malcolm Chisholm said he was "disappointed" with the result.

Being 'disappointed' is not good enough. Four out of seven ballots resulting in the rejection of proposals pushed by the Executive and the local authorities indicate that the policies are not working. Mr Chisholm should be thinking about his position.

Getting old

I was once cool. No, really. Well OK, it wasn't called cool in those days. And an encyclopaedic knowledge of early Leonard Cohen did not deliver everything that it was reputed to do. But the pink corduroy flares were surely an indication of something?

Some of you younger people may recognise the names in the following list, lifted from The Times:
The NME Cool List Top Ten:

1 Beth Ditto, The Gossip
2 Faris Rotter, The Horrors
3 Lily Allen
4 Jarvis Cocker
5 Karen O, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
6 Kieren Webster, The View
7 Kate Jackson, The Long Blondes
8 Gerard Way, My Chemical Romance
9 Thom Yorke, Radiohead
10 Lovefoxxx, CSS

At least, I recognised three of the names (four, if Kate Jackson is the same one that starred in the original version of Charlie's Angels; but it seems unlikely somehow).

It's just like signing a mortgage application form...

Would you trust this person to be in charge of a project costing billions of pounds? The Independent reports:
The budget of £2.375bn during the Olympic bid has increasingly been derided as a "fag packet" calculation and Ms Jowell was forced to concede that the current figure is more like £3.3bn.
It became clear that creative accounting by civil servants has resulted in a figure of £1bn-plus for regeneration of the Thames Gateway no longer being included in the overall Games figure - even though urban regeneration has hitherto been considered part and parcel of the Olympic project.
In front of the Select Committee of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Ms Jowell blamed rising costs on construction inflation, the doubling of steel prices and a revised figure for public transport links serving the Games site near Stratford, east London. Incredibly, the original bid figure did not include the £400m cost of hiring the international project management consortium CLM.
She admitted there were further "potential liabilities" in the cost of Olympic security, which some estimates put at £1bn; the extent of a contingency fund within the budget; and a VAT bill thought to be up to £250m not included in the original calculations.

No, neither do I.

Scottish football reporters are mathematically challenged (or just don't do their homework)

So well done Celtic FC.

Disappointing STV coverage, in that neither the commentators, Archie Macpherson and Andy Walker, nor the presenter, Jim White nor the studio guests, John Collins and Gerry McNee, realised that the victory over Man U and the Benfica-Copenhagen result meant that Celtic had qualified for the final 16.

21 November 2006


And I suppose that the occasional touch-up of the Mona Lisa would be fine? And maybe Bach could be improved by removing some of the extraneous notes? Finkelstein on the Beatles (here):
Perhaps you couldn't care less about the release of the new Beatles album "Love" but some people care a great deal. And I'm one of them.
Love is a remix, a mash-up of tracks recorded by the group...
The production of new takes on Beatles music does not remove any of the original canon from anybody's collection.
So I can't see anything wrong with it.

Silly boy.

The Indie lifts the firewall?

Intriguingly, The Independent appears to have lifted the firewall prohibiting access to most of its comment section.

But then it goes and spoils matters by including an article on Scottish politics by the normally reliable Steve Richards which among other things states:
At a more parochial level tensions are rising between Scotland's First Minister, Jack McDonnell, and the government in London. Most recently Mr McDonnell has demanded that the Scottish Parliament be given the same powers to slash levels of corporation tax that might be ceded to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Gordon Brown is resisting such a move, arguing that the demand is a gift to the SNP with its implication that Scotland should function almost as an independent economy. Mr McDonnell argues that only by making such concessions can Labour stave off the threat posed by the SNP. Nearly every move in Scotland is viewed through the possible ascendancy of the SNP.

Ah whatsisname, that Mr McDonnell, or perhaps Mr Macdonnell... It's enough to make you think about voting SNP.

Does it matter?

Well, I suppose it must. But what are we to make of it? The Independent reports:
The London Stock Exchange prepared itself yesterday for another takeover battle after strongly rejecting its fifth bid in less than two years.
LSE's chief executive, Clara Furse, said the £2.7bn "final" offer from America's Nasdaq, worth £2.9bn when the exchange's debt is taken into account, "fails to recognise the outstanding growth record and prospects of our group on a standalone basis, let alone the exchange's unique global position". She also flatly refused the Nasdaq's offer of talks.

Does it matter that the Yanks are seeking to take over Europe's stock exchanges, while at the same time the City banks (mainly US-owned) are seeking to break away?
Nasdaq acted after the sharp fall in the LSE's share price caused by the announcement of the launch of a major competitor by seven of the City's biggest investment banks last week. "Project Turquoise" aims to create a pan-European share trading platform that will sharply cut the price of trading in the Continent's biggest stocks, potentially eating into the LSE's business.
Both Nasdaq and the LSE also face a serious competitive challenge from the merger of the New York Stock Exchange with Paris-based Euronext.

Ken Livingstone obviously thinks so:
The exchange's rejection of the offer was backed by London mayor Ken Livingstone, who called it "anti-competitive" and "against the interests of London".
He added: "London's financial and business services have boomed over the last decade not only because they have been able to escape excessively rigid regulatory control, such as the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act, but because they have positively invested in innovatory products, for example the huge success of AIM."

Is the mayor simply playing the protectionist card? And does it matter when the big city players are already US-owned and intending to go their own way anyway? Is more regulatory control necessarily a bad thing? Think not only about Enron, but also about Farepak...

Big issues, but you will struggle to read anything about them outside the financial pages. And what does Mr Balls, Minister for the City, think? He may deign to tell us in due course, probably after any decisions have been made. Maybe someone will raise the issue in Parliament?

20 November 2006

Promises, promises...

Adam Boulton of Sky News is in Afghanistan with the Prime Minister (here):
...by the Prime Minister's own admission, the reality on the ground is "difficult". So far in the South, Britain's DFID (Department for International Development) has only spent £2m of its £50 million 3-year budget because most aid agencies (including DFID's own staff) cannot operate in the field because of the dangers. Yet it is vital that the Afghan people should see some benefits coming from the occupation. Senior British Military sources estimate that only about 3% of the population are Taleban, with perhaps another 7% sympathetic; against them are ranged 20% out and out enemies; that leaves about 70% of the population "up for grabs". If NATO and the Kharzai Govt can't deliver peace and prosperity, many of the undecided may opt for the rougher stability under Taliban rule.
There are also problems with NATO's military operations. Many of the nations contributing troops, including Germany, ban them from taking part in conflict. That places an ever tougher burden on fighting nations such as Britain, the USA and Canada. There have also been demands for more troops and more and better equipment, which have gone largely unheeded. NATO leaders are to attend a summit in Riga, Latvia later this month, where its hoped, without much expectation, that some of these difficulties can be ironed out.

Compare and contrast Mr Blair's rather more optimistic pronouncements as reported by the BBC:
Tony Blair says British troops will stay in Afghanistan until their job is done and has praised its president for the "remarkable progress" made there.
He told reporters he believed Afghan people deserved to live in a democratic country without oppression.
"I want to recommit ourselves to say that we will be with you in this endeavour," the UK prime minister said, after talks with the Afghan president.
Earlier he had visited British troops in the south of the country.
Addressing President Hamid Karzai in a joint press conference in the capital Kabul, Mr Blair said: "The progress that Afghanistan has made under your leadership over these past few years has indeed been remarkable."
There had been economic growth over several years and a lot of reconstruction and development was under way, he said.
He said the UK would help the country to meet challenges of security, reconstruction and development.

All very well for Mr Blair to play the statesman by issuing assurances - he is not going to have to deliver...

19 November 2006

Charlie's dram

HRH is engaging ever more deeply in trade. The Sunday Times reports:
Move over Johnnie Walker, stand aside Jack Daniel’s — here comes Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor. The Prince of Wales is to launch his own brand of whisky.
Called Barrogill — the original name of the prince’s Castle of Mey [sic] holiday retreat — it will be stocked in off licences in the new year.
Charles, known to enjoy a drop of Old Pulteney single malt, picked the blend from four samples at a tasting in Clarence House. Every £20 bottle sold will raise £1 for a charity that helps the struggling economy of the Highlands.
But it’s doubtful whether Buckingham Palace will be stocking up. Courtiers say the Queen views her son’s growing commercial activity with horror. In her view, they say, the role of monarchy is to provide a head of state, not operate as a high-class charity shop.

Och, as long as the man is doing something useful. And if it upsets Health Minister Andy Kerr, so much the better...

What's the world coming to (part umpteen)?

I blame Dave Cameron. Nowadays, politicians have to be in touch with their touchy-feely side. Even our First Minister has gone all introspective. Scotland on Sunday reports him saying:
"There have been times when I have thought, is what I am doing what I believe in? What am I achieving? Is it worth it given the amount of pressure that's on the family and the ways things have had to change? There have certainly been moments over the last five years when I have thought like that."

If Mr McConnell does not know if what he is doing is what he believes in and if he does not know what he is achieving, then what does he expect the rest of us to think? At least you knew where you were with the old dour McConnell, deliberately and obtusely misundertanding criticism, ruthlessly eliminating rivals and playing to whichever gallery was nearest at hand.

What next? The Tories welcoming gay adoption? Oh dear, see here in The Sunday Herald:
THE leader of the Scottish Tories has won praise from the gay community after backing adoption rights for same-sex couples. Annabel Goldie said it was “ludicrous” to suggest that gay men and lesbians could not provide a loving home for young people.

See modern politicians - they just have no respect for tradition...

Scraping the bottom of the barrel

The Sunday Herald is making a bit of a meal of the MSPs' Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance:
THE deputy first minister is facing serious questions over a £9000-a-year allowance he receives from the taxpayer to meet interest payments on a £190,000 house he owns with his wife.
Holyrood rules state that MSPs cannot claim the controversial Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance (EAA) unless theirs is the only name on the mortgage for the property in question.
Nicol Stephen, who is also leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has been claiming interest payments for a house he bought in Edinburgh in February 2002.
Both Stephen and his wife are named as debtors in the standard security agreed with mortgage providers. That means if the mortgage is not paid, both are legally responsible.
Yet the Holyrood Allowances Office says it has another document – which it has refused to identify – which lists Stephen as the only name on the loan. There is no clear legal ruling on which document constitutes the mortgage.

Yes, the Allowance is excessively generous, and the system should be changed. But a £190,000 house in Edinburgh is hardly a palace. And does it really matter whether or not Mrs Nicol's name is on the mortgage?

Weekend poem No 10

Is this bad poetry? Maybe. I'm not sure. See what you think.
An Autumn Reverie

William Topaz McGonagall

Alas! Beautiful Summer now hath fled,
And the face of Nature doth seem dead,
And the leaves are withered, and falling off the trees,
By the nipping and chilling autumnal breeze.

The pleasures of the little birds are all fled,
And with the cold many of them will be found dead,
Because the leaves of the trees are scattered in the blast,
And makes the feathered creatures feel downcast.

Because there are no leaves on the trees to shield them from the storm
On a windy, and rainy, cloudy morn;
Which makes their little hearts throb with pain,
By the chilling blast and the pitiless rain.

But still they are more contented than the children of God,
As long as they can pick up a worm from the sod,
Or anything they can get to eat,
Just, for instance, a stale crust of bread or a grain of wheat...

Full text here

17 November 2006

The dance continues...

Last week and earlier this week, the No 10 spin machine launched an attack on the police enquiry into the cash for peerages affair. As The Times today puts it:
On Monday The Times reported that No 10 had made an informal complaint about Scotland Yard’s handling of the investigation. The office of Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, received the complaint last week, according to Westminster sources.
Reports at the weekend suggested that No 10 was furious over leaks about the investigation. Downing Street sources are reportedly suggesting that they believe any trial would not now be fair.

Perhaps the No 10 spinners are losing their touch. Or perhaps they are too used to dealing with the Tory party or with recalcitrant backbenchers. In any event, the police are made of sterner stuff and Yates of the Yard refused to be intimidated. Hence yesterday's publication of the now famous letter (here in The Guardian); among other things, this states:
"Before I go into any detail, I thought it appropriate to comment on some of the publicity surrounding this investigation in recent days.
Speculation about the outcome and progress of this inquiry is not something we welcome. It would seem perverse to suggest (as some commentators have) that it is the police inquiry team who are responsible for placing matters in the public domain.
I say this in view of the very significant time invested by us in persuading you and your committee to do precisely the opposite, firmly believing, as we do, that this may undermine the investigation.
I have, however, conducted a further review of our own operational security. I am confident that this remains very tight. This is endorsed by the fact that the major developments in this inquiry are not in the public domain."

I find it distasteful and depressing that the parties to this continuing minuet should feel obliged to conduct their dispute through the media. But I have to admit that it makes for enthralling watching.

16 November 2006

What's the point?

The BBC reports:
A pensioner has been jailed for a year after he was caught growing a crop of cannabis potentially worth £50,000.
Derek Wormald, 70, of Easterton Farm Cottage, Glenluce, admitted producing the drug at his home between September last year and February this year.
The High Court in Edinburgh heard the judge had considered an alternative sentence to avoid imprisonment.
However, Lord Wheatley decided that because of the serious nature of the offence he had to give a jail term...
The cannabis was growing in three rooms, with 15 plants near maturity in one, a second batch of 12 plants were in another and 75 very small plants were in a "nursery room".

Wow, a real Mr Big on the drugs scene! Glenluce, the pot capital of Dumfries and Galloway!

I appreciate that the judge operates under sentencing guidelines; and I am not familiar with all the case details. But 15 cannabis plants? I find it difficult to see any benefit to the public in incarcerating this individual (who incidentally has no criminal record). Would community service not have fulfilled the requirements of justice, while imposing less of a cost on the public purse?

And they wonder why the prisons are full...

Eggs day

Eggs are all over the news. The Times reports:
SALMONELLA is present in one in every thirty boxes of imported eggs on sale in England, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates. The figure rises to about one in eight boxes among eggs brought in from Spain, the agency said.

I blame the Spanish chickens, but who knows which came first?

Also in The Times (here):
CUSTOMERS across Britain have been sold millions of eggs passed off as free-range when they were produced in factory farms on the Continent, The Times has learnt.
A criminal inquiry is under way into how one firm alone might have been selling millions of eggs a year to High Street retailers who had no idea that they were part of a sophisticated scam.
Shoppers are believed to have been duped into paying double the price for free-range to avoid eggs from birds housed in battery cages.

Excuse me but, if you persist in buying factory-farmed eggs in the mistaken belief that they are free range, then what is the point? I bow to no-one in my concern that hens should have a happy and fulfilling life, but if you can't tell the difference between free range and factory farmed unless it is written on the eggbox, then why buy the more expensive ones?


Just occasionally, the answer to a parliamentary question reveals something interesting. Here, for example:
Christine Grahame (South of Scotland) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it will list those journalists who receive copies of answers to parliamentary questions directly from the Scottish Executive’s Media and Communications Press Office at the same time that MSPs are notified of the answer, giving the news organisation which they represent and the dates when they were added to this distribution list.

Mr Tom McCabe: By longstanding arrangement the Scottish Executive issues batches of parliamentary answers to journalists once the answers have been sent to the MSPs who lodged the questions. It is open to all journalists covering parliamentary business to request this service. We do not hold records of when individual journalists asked to be included. Those currently receiving copies of answers are as follows...

So, the dead tree journalists are issued by the Executive with copies of the answers as soon as the answers are sent to the MSPs. The rest of us have to wait a day or two until they are published on the Parliament's website.

15 November 2006

Just a thought

Why is the Home Secretary, Dr John Reid, playing at centre-forward for England against the Netherlands this evening? He is allegedly Scottish and therefore ineligible...

Ruritanian revels

I watched the Queen's Speech on the box this morning. Nick Robinson of the BBC sums up the content here:
The plotline dreamt up by the the Downing Street spindoctors is "security in a changing world" - not just security from bad people whether noisy neighbours or troublesome terrorists but from climate change and pensioner poverty too. It's a neat enough formulation but like all Queen's Speeches I suspect it won't last terribly long. You see the wordsmiths at Number Ten don't
actually control what goes into the Queen's Speech. The content, as always, actually stems from a curious mix of:
• Mere chance - "Department A has finally got its plans ready for a new bill"
• Buggins turn - "We turned down Minister B last year and we can't do it again"
• Inter-departmental rivalry - "No-one will take us seriously if we don't have something in the Queen's Speech"
• Party Politics - "Let's make Cameron and Campbell look soft by by forcing another vote on ID cards"
Oh yes, and then there's what the Cabinet decides is in the country's interests.

For me, the whole thing seemed an exercise in flummery - Gold Sticks in waiting, Black Rods, Queen's Bargemasters, shiny soldiers, carriage and horses, peers in fancy robes - and totally out of sync with a speech which lasted little more than 8 minutes. Meanwhile, her maj looked a little frail, what with having to wear a heavy crown (and her with a bad back too).

For once, I rather think that the Scottish Parliament is more dignified about it, without all these hangers-on who so obviously love the whole business of dressing up.

14 November 2006

The mafia takes greater control

The changes in the Scottish Cabinet, following the departure of Mr Peacock (Highlands and Islands), rather reinforce the dependence of the First Minister on his West of Scotland labour colleagues. The BBC reports:
Hugh Henry is to succeed Peter Peacock as education minister, the Scottish Executive has confirmed.
Mr Peacock, 54, resigned on health grounds after receiving medical advice for a condition akin to a mild stroke. He remains a Highlands and Islands MSP.
Mr Henry, who has been deputy justice minister for the past four years, is replaced by Johann Lamont.
Labour MSP Des McNulty gets her job as deputy communities minister, a post he was sacked from three years ago.
Mr McConnell (Motherwell and Wishaw) will now add Mr Henry (Paisley South) to his reliable cabinet allies, Messrs Kerr (East Kilbride), Jamieson (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley), McCabe (Hamilton South), Curran (West of Scotland list) and Ferguson (Glasgow Maryhill). I really don't know how Mr Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) has survived so long.

The new addition to the Ministerial roster, albeit at sub-cabinet level, Mr McNulty, is of course MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie.

Has the First Minister missed an opportunity to elevate a new fresh face to cabinet? Someone with the imagination to break out of the comfort zone? Looking at the ranks of junior labour ministers, I rather doubt it: Mr McConnell long ago cleared out of the Executive anyone capable of independent thought.

13 November 2006

Drinkers and smokers unite to praise the EU?

I cheerfully admit to welcoming the possibility of cheaper fags and booze, to be brought about by the European Court of Justice. The Guardian reports:
UK shoppers may soon be able to order duty-free alcohol and cigarettes on the internet. The European court of justice will decide this month whether goods from EU countries can be delivered to British homes free of UK duty.
An adviser to the court has backed the change, which could mean a big drop in tax income for the Treasury, which wants the court to reject the advice. The Treasury argues that the way it interprets duty laws is correct.
Francis Jacob, the court's advocate general, gave his suggestions to the court last December and the court will give its verdict on November 23.
If the change goes ahead, shoppers will be able to order alcohol and cigarettes from countries in mainland Europe, where there are often lower alcohol and tobacco duty rates.

Similar stories appear in The Scotsman (here) and The Times (here) - although it is worth noting that the latter believes it will be 1 December before the Court pronounces. But none of the newspapers really explores the implications. What follows assumes that the Court decision is as predicted, a not excessively heroic assumption, but an assumption nonetheless.

The first thought is that this will make a big hole in the Chancellor's income projections. Duty on fags and booze amounts to £15 billion per year. How would Gordon make up a shortfall, even if it were only, say, £4 or £5 billion? Increases in income tax rates? Or VAT? There is a certain irony to the prospect of the clean-living taxpayer being forced to pay extra so that the lotus eaters can indulge themselves smoking and drinking rather more cheaply than heretofore.

Secondly, the retailers - the supermarkets and off-licences - are not going to be particularly happy. They don't care about the level of duty. But they will care if people stop buying fags at £50 per carton from them because they can order them over the internet from Latvia at £10 a carton. The same applies to booze. From their point of view, the obvious answer is to harmonise duty levels throughout the EU, so that there is no advantage to be gained by buying from abroad. But why would Portugal, Greece and Estonia agree to significant increases on duty levels to the disadvantage of their citizens? Is downwards harmonisation acceptable to the UK Government?

Third, we are likely to see the bizarre scenario of whisky being manufactured in Scotland, put into bond, shipped to Portugal or Greece, then sent back to individual customers (like me) at a lower price than I can buy it in my local Tesco supermarket.

Maybe it will never happen, if the Court jumps the wrong way. But if the Court confirms the opinion of the Advocate-General, we can expect some fun and games.

The errant apostrophe

The Herald sees fit to include an article deploring the misuse of the apostrophe and advocating dire punishment for those who offend in this fashion. Unfortunately, the same newspaper on a different page offers the following headline:

"Three entrepreneur's tipped for the top"

12 November 2006

When you're in a hole, stop digging

The Sunday Times has handed Mr John Home Robertson MSP a shovel. Given his unusual (if entirely legal) arrangements for financing his accommodation in Edinburgh by renting a flat from his son (see here), you might have thought that he would be keeping his head down for a while. Not a bit of it:
Home Robertson, 58 next month, is the most experienced politician on Labour’s Scottish benches. It seemed that he was about to walk away from a career spanning nearly 30 years. Except it transpires that he is not walking away at all. Rumours that he is destined for a seat in the House of Lords appear to be true.
“I had every chance of being re-elected to the Scottish parliament in May and I fully intended to do that,” he says.
“But when somebody approaches you, and I have to be careful here . . . I’m not supposed to say where I’m going. But let’s just say press reports are not a million miles adrift."
The reports say he will be offered a peerage. “I met Tony Blair just over a month ago and I was aware there had been discussions. When, at this stage in your career, you get an offer like that, you take it seriously.”
He is aware that it is not yet a fait accompli. “This could go wrong. I may find myself looking for other employment come April. Also, bear in mind that the Metropolitan Police are making enquiries in this area, but I think they’ll be safe enough with me,” he says, joking about the cash-for-honours scandal.
...He admits, however, to being surprised when the call about the Lords came through. “Frankly, people of my age from the Scottish parliament who have not held senior political office — it is a bit unusual. It’s usually people who are older and have been cabinet ministers. I have an inkling it might be something to do with recognition that this building is a bit of a triumph.”
He is referring to the Scottish parliament. Home Robertson chaired the Holyrood Progress Group that oversaw its construction.

(Oh that triumph...)

Perhaps Mr Home Robertson might defer counting his chickens until his eggs have hatched.

11 November 2006

Weekend poem No 9

A tale of doomed love is always welcome, although I have always thought that this poem was slightly sadistic. But Rachel seems to like it.

The Highwayman

Alfred Noyes


THE wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.


He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.


Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shuters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.


And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord's daughter,
The landlord's red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

The full text can be read here.

10 November 2006

A problem addressed

There is at least one idea in the Burt report worth considering further. This is the idea that the asset-rich/ income-poor should be able to defer their local tax payment on a system not dissimilar to the more familiar equity release arrangements, so that their accumulated local tax liability would only be discharged when their assets were sold, albeit to the detriment of their estate. It is described more fully in chapter 16 of the report (here).

The proposal is not without its problems, notably the fact that many old folk may be reluctant to dilute the equity holding in their houses, even if it would relieve them of the more immediate financial issue of meeting their local tax liability. Nor does it do anything to help those without ownership of any significant assets. But there would be a number of advantages, including the fact that it is not particularly complex in administrative terms. It is certainly worth thinking about.

Even more interesting, it could be introduced in association with the present council tax arrangements (in advance of any change in local government finance), thus freeing those old folk with big houses and little income from the burden of a heavy council tax payment and - somewhat magically - without disturbing local authorities' income.

I suppose that it should be no surprise that Scottish politicians have as yet failed to see any merit in the proposition.


The Washington Post has an intriguing profile of the father of Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the US House of Representatives:
When she wasn't racing to school at St. Leo's in her blue uniform or buying sweets in Mugavero's Confectionery or playing on front stoops up and down the block, Little Nancy sometimes worked the front desk at the family home at 245 Albemarle St., taking down the requests and sad stories of the folks who arrived to seek help from Big Tommy, her dad.
Or maybe she was riding around with her dad and his bullhorn, as he touted his candidacy from a convertible.
The late Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., also known as Old Tommy or Tommy the Elder, was the flamboyant and legendary machine politician, a Roosevelt Democrat, whose only daughter is the woman poised to be the speaker of the House, second in line of succession from the presidency.
She grew up stuffing envelopes for her dad. She grew up watching how the political game was played. She saw how favors were handed out, how chits were called in.

It is surprising (or maybe not) how many American politicians seem to come from politically influential familes - the Kennedy and Bush clans are only the most obvious examples.

Now, how can I get a bet on Chelsea Clinton for President in 2020?

The spooks again

I appreciate that it is difficult to take seriously a woman with the name of Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, even if she is the head of MI5. Nevertheless, The Independent reports:
There are up to 30 alleged "mass casualty" terror plots in operation in Britain, as well as hundreds of young British Muslims on a path to radicalisation, the head of MI5 has said.
In an unprecedented public announcement yesterday, the MI5 director general, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, revealed that the caseload of the Security Services had risen by 80 per cent since January, and that the counter-terrorism agency was fighting to keep the rapidly growing threat under control.
Describing the scale of the home-grown terrorist problem, she said MI5 and the police were tackling 200 groups or networks totalling more than 1,600 identified individuals in the UK who were "actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist acts".

I suppose it is pointless to suggest that, if these individuals are 'actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist acts', they should be arrested and prosecuted?

La-la land

The Guardian considers the prospects of Mr Beckham plying his trade in the USA:
The question is, if Beckham goes, would others follow? Trecker is not convinced. "Let's be honest," he says. "If the players were compensated the same as they were in Europe they would already be here. For one, our tax structure is much more favourable, and where would you rather play? Freezing your ass off in Russia or Falkirk or in the Californian sunshine?"

This must be the first time ever that the names of Beckham and Falkirk have appeared in the same paragraph. And it would be fanciful in the extreme to suppose that the financial remuneration available in Falkirk is more than enough to outweigh the advantages of both the American tax structure and the Californian sunshine. But perhaps the players of Falkirk FC will disagree. After all, they are the ones who are freezing their asses off...

09 November 2006

Knee-jerk reactions

You're an independent businessman of some standing in the community. The First Minister approaches you and asks you to undertake a substantial inquiry into a matter of political controversy. There won't be any money in it for you - you are doing it for the public good. You spend a couple of years examining the issue from all possible points of view, with the help of various members of the great and good, as well as some established experts in the field. You are about to publish your report, which has been drafted and re-drafted and which carefully sets out the arguments in favour of your recommended course of action.

Then this happens:
The long-awaited report of the independent committee set up to review local taxation in Scotland is due to be published.
Sir Peter Burt's two-year long inquiry is reported to recommend replacing council tax with an annual charge based on about 1% of a property's value...
But before the report was to be published, the recommendation was ruled out by Mr McConnell, at a regular meeting of Labour ministers.
A source close to the First Minister said:
"There is no way that Labour ministers would support a homes tax. We will need to consider the independent review in detail once published, but if this is the main proposal, it will not be given the time of day."

[Source: the BBC here]

Would you ever help the Scottish Executive again? Would you ever even speak to the First Minister? How would you advise any other independent member of the great and the good if asked to take on a similar task?

"Stuff happens"

So farewell, Rummy.

I suppose that it was a case of collateral damage, or maybe friendly fire. George W didn't waste any time in pulling the trigger, even if he did say only last week that you were doing a fantastic job.

You once said: "There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns ... things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

But I never understood what the hell you were talking about.

08 November 2006

No rush, no rush

Our parliamentary bosses do not move quickly. Despite extensive criticism of the Edinburgh Allowance Scheme (see here) - even Jack McConnell has had a go - The Scotsman reports that a rather leisurely approach is being taken to reform of the system:
"Mr Reid said: "The current system of allowances was brought in by unanimous vote of parliament in June 2001. The Corporate Body has no authority to alter that system. It can be changed only after further debate and vote of parliament.
"We acknowledge that there are issues to be addressed, but they are complex and have to be addressed in total."
And he added: "It is the SPCB's intention to have all the arguments delineated by March 2007 for determination by our successors after the elections in May."
The review of the Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance will be part of a broader investigation into the allowances system for MSPs. "

Why so slow? Why not get someone to prepare - before Christmas - proposals for reform and have them debated in January? It's not as if the issue first arose last weekend. And we all need to minimise unnecessary public expenditure.

It would be cynical to suggest that an early revision of the rules might prevent those MSPs retiring at the elections next May from selling their subsidised properties and making a tidy profit.

07 November 2006

How to steal an election

Greg Palast explains how it has been done;
"Here's how the 2006 mid-term election was stolen.
Note the past tense.
And I'm not kidding. And shoot me for saying this, but it won't be stolen by jerking with the touch-screen machines (though they'll do their nasty part). While progressives panic over the viral spread of suspect computer black boxes, the Karl Rove-bots have been tunneling into the vote vaults through entirely different means."
Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Rachel.

US elections

Something of a disgrace that, later this evening, the BBC is not featuring the US elections on either of its main channels (here and here).

I know that Incredible Animal Journeys and Keystage 3 bitesize revision must matter to somebody, but even so. And it's not as if the BBC does not have sufficient journalists over there.


Andrew Sullivan has a musical message for Bush-haters everywhere.

05 November 2006

Working the system

The Sunday Herald continues its campaign against the Parliament's Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance. After last week's revelations about John Home Robertson MSP, it is now the turn of Tavish Scott MSP (here) and Ross Finnie MSP (here) to be criticised, although neither has done anything illegal.

It is awfully easy to discredit the Accommodation Allowance but it is far from clear how it should be changed. If you accept that MSPs who live in the remoter parts of Scotland should be given financial help with their accommodation in Edinburgh for the purposes of attending parliament, how do you define a system to support reasonable costs, while preventing MSPs from making a packet out of it? The Sunday Herald offers little by way of constructive comment. But it should not be beyond the wit of even the parliamentary authorities to recoup at least the capital gains on property investment made by MSPs and their families with the support of the Allowance.

And what are the parliamentary authorities doing about it? Nothing appears to be the answer, other than sitting tight and hoping that the storm will pass.

04 November 2006

Weekend poem No 8

Another sonnet, this time by Shelley. Perhaps a message for the Prime Minister?

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said--"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert....Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

What's the world coming to?

Simon Hoggard in The Guardian (here):
Stupid jokes from the internet, number 683: A frog goes into a bank and marches up to a clerk called Patricia Wagge. "My name is Kermit Jagger," he says, "and I need to borrow £25,000." Ms Wagge asks if he has any security, and he presents a one-inch high porcelain elephant. "I'll need to talk to the manager," she says, and disappears to the back.
The manager inspects the elephant, ponders for a moment, then says, "It's a knick-knack, Pattie Wagge, give the frog a loan. His old man's a Rolling Stone."

Here we are again

History is repeating itself. One of the problems associated with a system of local taxation based on property values (like the council tax) is that from time to time those property values need to be updated. The Scotsman reports:
"SCOTLAND'S most affluent households should face rises of up to £4,000 a year in their council tax bills, according to the conclusions of a powerful independent review group into local government finance.
The Scotsman has learned that an Executive-commissioned report by Sir Peter Burt, the former chief executive of the Bank of Scotland, will call for new estimates of the value of Scotland's 2.2 million homes to be carried out as the first step towards modernising council financing.
Sir Peter and his group are understood to favour a system similar to the controversial revaluation of rates which has been introduced in Northern Ireland and will see the bills for some households rise by up to £4,000 from next spring...
Sir Peter's group, set up in June 2004, is understood to have accepted that there should be a revaluation of the property values which form the basis of the council tax. The valuations being used today date from 1991 and, with rocketing house prices, bear little relation to properties' market worth."

In the 1980s, it was the prospect of a property revaluation, with all the consequent winners and losers, that led to the demise of the domestic rating system and to the introduction of the community charge, also known as the poll tax. This time around, it will be the council tax which is under pressure; and a local income tax will be hailed as the answer.

Regular readers of this blog will know my views on local income tax (see here) but there is a certain inevitability to the course of local government finance. I fear that we are doomed to see history repeating itself.

03 November 2006

It's all mince nowadays...

This caused me to smile.

They're not in it for the money of course...

The Taxpayers' Alliance has today published a list of the 171 most well-paid public sector employees in the UK (here).

As far as I can see, the only Scottish post on the list is that of Jack Perry of Scottish Enterprise at no 86. Mr Perry is said to have pocketed £193,000 in 2005-06, which is relatively modest compared to some of his confreres south of the border. He can console himself with the thought that at least he is earning more than the £186,429 which was the lot of the Prime Minister (at no 88). Neither the First Minister (from memory earning about £132,000) nor Sir John Elvidge (probably a little more) made the top 171.

A pedant writes...

It may be trivial to some, but it would be a lot more convincing if Ms Sturgeon took greater care with her drafting. I count four or five errors in this brief quote featured on the BBC website here:
"Speaking ahead of the launch, SNP Holyrood leader Nicola Sturgeon said: "Research shows that around one in four 25-40 year olds have [!] iPods, [!] the SNP is using this media [!] to specifically [!] target the key demographic groups of graduates and young professionals.
"We know that this age group are [!] the strongest supporters of independence, and so the SNP is reaching out to these voters with a pledge to lift the burden of student debt from thousands of young Scots and their families."

It's not an impressive testimonial to Scottish educational standards.

01 November 2006


What has the National Theatre of Scotland done to upset the Scottish Executive? Here is the entirety of the Executive's press release:

"The National Theatre of Scotland, launched with a budget of £7.5 million from the Executive, is exactly one year old today.
Culture Minister Patricia Ferguson said:
"What they have delivered has been amazing. It has had a significant impact and will continue to do so."
Figures from NTS show that total audience for completed production, not including the latest Mary Stuart at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, was 64,335.
Audience and participation in its education arm, NTS learn, totalled more than 30,000.
It has played in 44 locations; conventional theatres to drill halls, a tower block, a ferry and an
Pretty grudging stuff, you might think. It is surely discourteous, even churlish, not to thank the Chair and Board of the NTS for their efforts during the past year. And Vicki Featherstone, the Chief Executive and Artistic Director, certainly deserves a mention in despatches. Has the Executive nothing to say about the enormous success of Black Watch?

Shoddy treatment by the Executive of a national institution. After all, there is a form to this kind of announcement. Especially when the NTS is doing the business.

The Scotsman has a more balanced report. Even The Guardian has lavished praised here.


This has to be utterly irresponsible. The Guardian reports:
"First-time buyers desperate to get onto the property ladder are being offered loans of up to five times joint salary levels, according to a report in today's Financial Times.
Abbey, which is Britain's second-largest home loans provider, has raised the standard amount it will lend to house buyers to five times their single or joint salaries for those with an annual income of £50,000 or more...
The move by the Abbey comes amid a growing debt problem in Britain, with record numbers declaring personal insolvency, and has alarmed debt counsellors. A couple on a joint income of £50,000 who borrowed £250,000 would have to meet monthly repayments of £1,400, but that would increase if interest rates were to rise, as they are expected to in the next few months."

So, on a joint income of £50,000 per year, the couple would have to pay out at least £16,800 (and possibly more) in mortgage costs. And because of the increased availability of loans, house prices will continue to rise. And, if our couple can't manage the re-payments, the Abbey won't lose out as it will re-possess.

These days, I feel sorry for young couples.

Boiled eggs and electoral strategy

Picture the scene in the breakfast room at Bute House this morning. As the First Minister slices off the top of his boiled egg, he must be wondering about his strategy for next May's elections. Should he have committed himself so blatantly to defending the union and setting his face against further constitutional change? Because the strategy does not appear to be working. As he pours himself another cup of coffee, Mr McConnell will be contemplating the latest opinion poll in The Scotsman (here):
"ALEX Salmond received a massive pre-election boost today with a new opinion poll showing a clear majority of Scots favour independence, and illustrating a significant swing from Labour to the SNP.
The Scotsman ICM poll found 51 per cent now favoured full independence with only 39 per cent against - the biggest level of support for separatism for eight years.
The poll also forecasts major gains for the SNP at next year's Holyrood elections with the party on course to win enough seats to form Britain's first nationalist-led government."

And the big question for the First Minister is what he does next. Does he stay the course, sticking to the line agreed with Gordon Brown, hoping that the Scottish electorate will come to its senses and take a step back from the constitutional abyss? Or does he cut and run, seizing the saltire and adding a little devolutionary populism to the mix?