31 December 2007

New Year Messages

Official government New Year messages are a waste of space and time. Nobody reads them (except anoraks like me).

But if politicians are determined to persist with them, then I have to say that the First Minister's effort this year is one of the more polished examples of the genre. Commendably brief, optimistically up-beat, with a hint of self-deprecation, even humour, it was obviously not written by a civil servant. Mr Salmond can be extremely effective when he eschews his trade-mark bombast. So well done to him.

By contrast, the Prime Minister's effort is woeful. By attempting to cover the entire range of government policies, it is excessively long and clunky. It reads as if each government department has been invited to contribute a paragraph. It is defensive, impersonal, pessimistic and, above all, boring.

It is also in parts politically clueless. Consider this extract:
And in 2008, with firm conviction and resolve, we will make the case for the United Kingdom - standing up for the cause of the Union and against secession, showing people in all parts of the country that for so many of the challenges our country faces - from climate change to terrorism - there are no Wales-only, Scotland-only or England-only solutions.

As far as I am aware, nobody - least of all the SNP - has ever suggested that climate change or terrorism could be addressed by a Scotland-only solution. So what is Mr Brown's point? That UK-only solutions will work in these areas while Scotland-only solutions will not? It hardly seems credible. This is the kind of boilerplate Labour HQ thinking that caused Labour to lose the election last May. Mr Brown seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He really needs to get up to speed and fast.

Finally, while on the subject of messages, I wish all three of my readers a Happy New Year and a prosperous 2008.

29 December 2007

Gretna hits the big time

I know, I know - the Spanish football league is one of the best in Europe. In Barcelona and Real Madrid, it possesses two of the most glamorous and successful European clubs; while Sevilla, Valencia and Atletico Madrid have more than respectable records at European level. So why would one of the major Spanish terrestrial TV channels choose to undertake the live broadcast on a Saturday afternoon of a match from Scotland (la Liga Escocesa)?

Nevertheless, it is a fact that this afternoon TVE2 is showing the Celtic-Gretna match to the entire Spanish nation. Surreal.

Out of a sense of duty (and misplaced patriotism), I will therefore be forced to relinquish the sun-lounger in the gardens and come indoors to watch the Gretna galacticos strut their stuff. We all have to make sacrifices.

28 December 2007

You don't see that every day

It would probably be inappropriate to say how splendid it is to see some footballer in England charged with affray. Not just common assault, nor a boring breach of the peace, but good, old-fashioned affray. This source defines it as follows:
AFFRAY in law, the fighting of two or more persons in a public place to the terror (a l'effroi) of the lieges. The offence is a misdemeanour at English common law, punishable by fine and imprisonment. A fight in private is an assault and battery, not an affray. As those engaged in an affray render themselves also liable to prosecution for Assault, Unlawful Assembly (see ASSEMBLY, UNLAWFUL), or Riot, it is for one of these offences that they are usually charged. Any private person may, and constables and justices must, interfere to put a stop to an affray.
You must not upset the lieges, you know, especially at 5.30 in the morning outside a McDonald's in Liverpool.

27 December 2007

Two wheels bad

Maybe he errs towards the bloodthirsty, but it is eminently understandable all the same. Parris on cyclists (here):
A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists. It’s not just the Lycra, though Heaven knows this atrocity alone should be a capital offence; nor the helmets, though these ludicrous items of headgear are designed to protect the only part of a cyclist that is not usefully employed; nor the self-righteousness, though a small band of sports cyclists on winter’s morning emits more of that than a cathedral at evensong; nor even the brutish disregard for all other road users, though the lynching of a cyclist by a mob of mothers with pushchairs would be a joy to witness.

I do not as a rule indulge in shouting but here is my New Year message for cyclists: STOP CYCLING ON THE PAVEMENTS!

26 December 2007

It makes you wonder ...

There are times when I despair of the British people. The BBC reports:

The BBC scored a festive ratings success with nine of the 10 most watched TV programmes on Christmas Day, according to overnight viewing figures. The second half of an EastEnders double bill was top show - with a peak of 13.9m viewers watching as Stacey and Max's former affair was discovered.
Dr Who was second on 13.8m, while the return of To The Manor Born got 10.1m. Coronation Street was ITV1's sole Top 10 entry, with a peak of 9.6m, as it went up against Strictly Come Dancing.

23 December 2007

Churlish

I do not approve of royalty as an institution.

But is worth needlessly insulting an 81- year-old woman in order to attract a few more viewers to your television programme or to sell a few more copies of your book?

21 December 2007

Coincidence?

How surprising - even fortuitous. The BBC reports:
Fulham have sacked manager Lawrie Sanchez with immediate effect.
...
The 48-year-old's departure comes just a day after former Fulham midfielder John Collins's sudden resignation as Hibernian manager.

Isn't serendipity amazing?

The cosmopolitan residents of Earlston

The BBC reports:
A street in the Scottish Borders is to be renamed - after residents complained about its Italian name.
The cul-de-sac in Earlston was called Cappella Maggiore after a request by the community council to honour the town they twinned with in 2004.
However, residents moving into the new homes - which cost between £160,000 and £240,000 - have complained that it sounds "ridiculous".
Scottish Borders Council has agreed to rename the street Station Brae.
Ah, Station Brae. How imaginative, how romantic, how mellifluous. Or maybe not.

20 December 2007

Milking the reindeer

If you missed it last night, you can watch Heston doing his thing here, at least for the next six days, at least if you are located in the UK. The guy is daft as a brush - who else would use a cement mixer to prepare the feed for the goose he is going to feed his guests at Chrissy? But he has an enthusiasm for what he is doing which is infectious; and he is not afraid to make himself look ridiculous. The programme is not exactly fabulous but it is good solid entertaining television, of the kind that is seen increasingly infrequently on telly these days.

Iraq - getting better?

I never thought that the Surge would work. But Simon Tisdall in The Guardian, a journalist not given to accepting US propaganda at face value, reports:
... current figures, spurious or not, are finally favouring Washington and its Iraqi clients. Since the US military surge began, civilian deaths have fallen by roughly two-thirds across Iraq. The latest Pentagon assessment recorded 600 killings in November, compared with more than 2,500 in January. At least 3,600 members of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia were killed or captured in the same period.
A key factor is said to be the so-called Sunni Awakening. The Pentagon says the decline in sectarian conflict has been matched by the recruitment of 69,000 mostly Sunni volunteers hostile to foreign jihadis and determined to reclaim their communities.
The ceasefire by the Iranian-backed, Shia Arab Mahdi army, wisely adopted as the surge troops advanced, has helped cut the killing, too.
Economic indicators also colour Washington's rosy picture. The Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, says Iraq's Saddam-era debt has been significantly reduced and the economy is growing by 5-6% annually, buoyed by oil receipts. In this developing US narrative, the thousands of returning exiles, and Iraq's improved relations with its
neighbours, tell their own story.

If this proves to be true, it would be an occasion when I would be pleased to have got it wrong.

19 December 2007

Northern Crock

According to the BBC (here), the government/Bank of England commitment to Northern Rock amounts to £57 billion. Sounds a lot, doesn't it? It is a lot. But when sums get that big, they are beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. I could tell you that £57 billion would buy every man, woman and child in the UK an HD flat screen telly, or that £57 billion would buy 19 road bridges across the Forth (with associated road links and at 2016 prices) or that £57 billion would buy 11 new trident submarines (without missiles), but it would not really make the amount any more meaningful. So just accept that it is an awful lot of money.

How did the Treasury and the Bank of England get into this mess? Well, you begin by seeking to stave off a run on the bank, leading to a guarantee to retail depositors of their savings - because otherwise the entire banking system might be in danger. But it doesn't end there; as nobody will lend to Northern Rock and as its business model depends upon continued lending, the Bank of England has to step in and make more funds available. And then still hoping that a white knight will come along and take it over, the Government has to extend its guarantees to cover commercial lenders, which it did yesterday.

Where will it end? The Government appears to be hoping that inter-bank lending (now virtually suspended in the light of the Credit Crunch) will settle down and that the system will return to the status quo ante, so that Northern Rock can return to its usual practices, repay its Bank of England loans and continue on its merry way. But what if the Northern Rock business model is irredeemably broken? At what point do the authorities say enough is enough and no more Bank of England loans or guarantees -even if that forces them to write off the loans and guarantees offered up until now? Or do they just keep pouring loans and guarantees into the black hole, running ever-greater risks in so doing?

It will end in tears.

17 December 2007

It's no' fair

According to the BBC (here), the Trump boys are feeling sensitive:
The Trump Organisation said: "The Trump Organisation is dismayed at the political attacks.
"These attacks are more than misguided, they are malicious, inaccurate and potentially destructive and they threaten to once again endanger a £1bn project which has the overwhelming backing of the north east of Scotland.
"The politician responsible should cease and desist before real and permanent damage is done."

I do admire the "cease and desist"; tautology can be fun.

Don't you feel sorry for the little Trump organisation, being attacked by such a dangerous ogre as Nicol Stephen?

After all, Alan Cochrane of The Telegraph thinks that Mr Stephen "has emerged ... as easily the most effective opposition leader at Holyrood". (You may think that Mr Cochrane has fallen off his trolley.)

But perhaps we should all calm down a bit.

Quote of the day

Charlie Brooker in The Guardian (here):
"Speaking of embarrassments, the Spice Girls have managed to imbue their long-awaited comeback with all the glamour and class of a hurried crap in a service station toilet by whoring themselves out to Tesco. The first instalment, in which the Girl Power quartet try to hide from each other while shopping for presents, represents a important landmark for the performing arts: Posh Spice becomes the first human being in history to be out-acted by a shopping trolley."

15 December 2007

What happens next?

I suspect that the following memos (found in a photocopier in Victoria Quay) may be fakes:

MEMO FROM GEORGE SORIAL TO DONALD TRUMP

Hey boss, these Scotch guys are really into process. We were all prepared to deal with dune stabilisation, protection of sites of special scientific interest, architectural quality and so on. But all they wanna talk about is who said what to whom and when. Our meetings with the Scotch gov'mint have caused what is known locally as a great stooshie.

Salmond and his team have been as helpful as possible in the circumstances. But they have had to concede that it will no longer be possible for the development in Aberdeen county to be given immediate planning approval. Any such decision would be immediately reversed by something called the Session Court. This has been confirmed by our own Scottish lawyers. Accordingly, the only way forward is a lengthy public local inquiry. I am advised that this would take three months to set up, nine months to conduct and a further six months to come to a recommendation. At best, therefore, we cannot expect a decision (and we could not start work on the project) until mid-2009.

I guess this means curtains on the project. Who wants to sit around for that length of time?

Boss, can I come back to NY now?


MEMO FROM TRUMP TO SORIAL

George - you're fired.

14 December 2007

Twa dugs (plus friends)

Look, it's just embarrassing. President Bush is bad enough but why Tony Blair has to appear is beyond me.

Well, if you must, you must, I suppose. You can watch the video here.

Let them eat cake - or maybe a biscuit

Who said the EU was a remote bureaucratic organisation? At least, the high and mighty European Court of Justice deals with the important things in life. The Guardian reports:

Confusion over the chocolate-covered teacake - a dome of marshmallow on a biscuit swathed in milk chocolate - could cost the British government £3.5m after an EU court adviser said the retailer Marks & Spencer should get a refund of the tax it paid during the decades that tax authorities insisted they were biscuits.
The European court of justice's advocate general said in an opinion - which is not binding on the court but is often followed in final rulings - that a company had the right to a full refund of any sales tax wrongly charged.

Quote of the day

From Gordon Brown (here):
"Where there is a toleration of second best, my motto will be: fail no more, second best no more, tolerating failure no more."

Obviously a fan of the Proclaimers.

13 December 2007

More Trumpery

Some fairly explosive stuff from the BBC:
In a statement, the [Aberdeenshire] council's chief executive Alan Campbell said he had conducted two phone calls with the [Scottish Executive] chief planner on the afternoon of 4 December.
"The first call was about the procedure which Aberdeenshire Council were likely to adopt at their special meeting. It was in that context that the chief executive was informed by the chief planner that members of the Trump organisation were in the chief planner's room.
"The chief executive asked that they leave the room. The discussion then took place."

How can the Executive be seen to maintain its impartiality in respect of the planning application when at such a crucial juncture the chief planner entertains the Trump organisation in his room? Taken with the First Minister's meeting the previous day with the Trump representatives, I would have thought that the Executive's position must be wide open to judicial review. And the RSPB is astute enough and has sufficiently deep pockets to pursue the matter.

The mystery is how such astute operators as Mr Salmond and Mr Mackinnon (the chief planner) have allowed themselves to be entangled in this mess.

Picture time


Any idea why the BBC website should choose this picture to accompany an article on a possible reprieve for Sportsscotland? No? Nor have I.

12 December 2007

How many golf courses does Scotland need?

It seems to be a 'given' that Mr Trump's proposed development in Aberdeenshire will deliver economic benefits for Scotland as a whole, particularly in terms of golf tourism. Me, I'm not so sure, at least on the extent of those benefits.

The crucial issue is not whether the Donald will deliver a flock of American golfers to Aberdeenshire, but how many extra golfers would be coming to Scotland. There is no significant economic benefit at the Scotland level if we are merely diverting golfers to Aberdeenshire who would otherwise have gone to St Andrews, or Carnoustie, or Troon, or Royal Dornoch. Of course, Aberdeenshire would benefit - but this would be offset by disbenefits elsewhere in Scotland. And why should we encourage US-owned golf courses in Scotland to the detriment of our domestic golfing entrepreneurs? It all depends on whether you think there is a pool of American golfers who would not be interested in playing Muirfield or Turnberry but who would leap at the chance to swing a club in Aberdeenshire. I doubt it.

But, hey, I always thought that a round of golf spoiled a nice walk.

How not to do it

Pathetic, really. The Independent reports:
Gordon Brown will travel to Lisbon tomorrow to sign the new European Union treaty but will miss the official signing ceremony.
... Mr Brown will be the only one of the 27 EU leaders not to be at the official ceremony at the historic Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. He will sign the treaty later.
His planned absence from Lisbon raised eyebrows in other EU capitals and at his own Foreign Office, provoking fears that it would be seen as anti-European. But aides insist that he always wanted to fulfil both engagements and had now found a way to do so.

Neither one thing nor the other. Discourteous to his Portugese hosts. What hope of future co-operation from his counterparts in Europe? The Prime Minister is being stupid.

11 December 2007

Rambling on

The Guardian is suitably impressed with Led Zep's reunion concert:
Tonight, however, after a tentative, feedback-scarred opener of Good Times Bad Times, it's difficult to believe this is a band who have barely played together for the best part of three decades. They sound awesomely tight.
The riff that powers In My Time Of Dying is authentically churning and queasy, Ramble On sounds not like a song that's been brought out of mothballs for a benefit concert but wrigglingly, obscenely alive; Trampled Underfoot's conjunction of jittering funk and squealing, metallic guitar seems more bizarre and beguiling than ever.

I don't know. What does it mean when Jimmy Page looks, em, distinguished? Perhaps old rockers should just fade away ...

Cashing in your chips

Look, there's no need to laugh. Just because The Herald reports:
A major conference on global production will form part of Scotland's contribution to the UN Year of the Potato in 2008.
Every vegetable needs its place in the limelight (sunlight?). Besides, the conference might be more interesting than you anticipate:
Among the speakers will be Dr Pamela Anderson ...
I can't wait.

10 December 2007

A cri de coeur

Hey, it's no fun. Being deprived of the internet, that is. Forced to frequent the dingy surroundings of the Spanish internet cafe, to put up with the (loud) conversations of the three Turkish gentlemen sharing the computer at the adjacent station, to tolerate the puerile musical choices of the cafe manager; it is no place - I assure you - to compose my elegant (well more or less) contributions to this blog, Nor will I dwell on the lengthy conversations with Telefonica, which in the absence of a functioning telephone line had to be conducted from the nearest public telephone booth. Ok, so they offer an English language service but to me computerese is as incomprehensible in English as it is in Spanish. I suppose it's partly my fault for my aversion to the mobile telephone - Mr Ludd, thou should'st be living at this hour.

But there are advantages. You discover old friends, like Radio 4: the beautiful diction of the newsreaders, the civilised urbanity and understanding of (most of) the foreign correspondents, the variegated delights of Pick of the Week. And music - re-discovering the Indigo Girls, Counting Crows, Thin Lizzy.

You get a chance to think. For example, is this blogging business not a rather silly thing for a 58-year-old expat to be doing? I mean, who cares? Am I simply casting bread on the waters for it to be consumed by the ducks? But I will no doubt be back at it tomorrow morning.

Finally, a thought on the new technology. For what is supposed to be a wireless connection to the internet, my living room is surprisingly littered with wires. I suppose that I shouldn't complain - after all (and that's been quite a lot in recent weeks) it does - touch wood - actually seem to work.

21 November 2007

Darling´s database disaster

The person I feel sorry for is poor little Joe Bloggs, the junior official in HMRC who originally despatched the computer disks to the National Audit Office.

We can assume that he would have been in the finance section of the department, as the function of dealing with the NAO is jealously guarded by finance sections throughout the government; administrative branches are not permitted to send off material to NAO without finance section approval. Mr Bloggs would normally have dealt with maintaining the databases and spreadsheets supporting the financial processes of estimating, monitoring and accounting for child benefit expenditure. His limited exposure to the people end of the business would have meant that his awareness of the procedures for dealing with personal data might not have been all that it should be - indeed chances are that he has only been with the department for about six months and has yet to attend all the required training courses.

So came the fateful day when his boss told him to send a copy of the entire database to the NAO - and by close of play that afternoon please. Mr B did what he had always done when NAO wanted financial projections or draft accounts; he downloaded the material onto disks, dumped them in a padded envelope, addressed it and threw it in the out tray. Of course he should have known that, unlike his usual material, the child benefits database incorporated personal data which demanded greater security. But, well, he had neither the time nor the inclination to think about it.

Ironically, the NAO did not actually need the entire database - who has time to look through millions of records? All they needed was a sample (a very small sample). Typically of NAO, they would not trust the HMRC to select that sample; they had to do it themselves. They could have sent a couple of auditors up from London to Tyne and Wear to carry out this task. But that´s a tedious (and expensive) journey. Far easier to tell HMRC to send them the whole lot by post.

Meanwhile, as half a million civil servants mutter under their breath "There but for the grace of God ...", poor Joe Bloggs has been incarcerated in the dungeons under the Treasury where he will shortly suffer ritual hanging drawing and quartering. He will be forever known as the man who lost the personal records of half the nation´s population.

Shit happens. It shouldn´t but it does.

20 November 2007

The youth of today

Refreshing to see that Prince William is prepared to discard stuffy tradition by wearing a checked shirt to his grandparents´diamond wedding celebrations (see here). Wouldn´t have been done a few years ago, of course, and I don´t know what the Duke thought about it.

Only the most curmudgeonly of republicans would insist on wondering what is the point of a royal family which casts aside conservative social values. It´s only a checked shirt after all.

13 November 2007

Quote of the day

The beleaguered Mr MacAskill (here):
"You don't collect police officers like toy soldiers, you don't have a bragging contest about the precise number you have if they are located behind desks or doing needless jobs."

Er, unless of course you happen to be writing an election manifesto ...

12 November 2007

Gaeth a wyrd swa hio scel

On Beowulf.

Oh dear, look at this:
Director Robert Zemeckis not only deploys 21st century movie technology at its finest to turn the heroic poem into a vibrant, nerve-tingling piece of pop culture...

It gets worse:
The gruesome violence and male and female near nudity -- about as bold as a PG-13 rating will allow -- mixed together with ribald humor make "Beowulf" a waggish bit of postmodern fun.

'A waggish bit of postmodern fun'? One of the greatest works of English literature?

09 November 2007

Councils in clover

Question: How do you persuade local authorities not to put up council tax?

Answer: It's easy - you stuff their pockets with gold.

But increasing the local authority share of the Scottish public expenditure cake from 33% to nearly 37% carries a cost, the details of which we will no doubt learn when Mr Swinney makes his budget statement next Wednesday. For that £400 million will make a big hole in the available resources. You can see why there are fears for the extension of the M74.

08 November 2007

The economics of defence

The BBC reports:
Britain's Armed Forces are over-stretched and under-funded, a group of former senior military leaders and politicians has warned.
They have formed the UK National Defence Association, led by three ex-chiefs of the defence staff.
UKNDA president Winston Churchill said the amount the UK spends on defence "just doesn't add up" and should be about 3% of gross domestic product. The defence budget has been set at £34bn for next year - about 2% of GDP.

Perhaps if the Ministry of Defence did not spend £ billions on trident submarines or dirty great aircraft carriers they might have sufficient resources to equip the troops properly. Then there are all these generals and admirals - are they all necessary?

07 November 2007

Money makes the world go around

This may be welcome news for those jetting off to do their Christmas shopping in New York. The Guardian reports:
The pound climbed about $2.10 for the first time since 1981 this morning, boosted by speculation that China was preparing to shift its foreign reserves out of dollars.
By 9.30am, one pound was worth $2.1027. The dollar, which has been weakening for several weeks, also hit a new all-time low against the euro of $1.4703.

All very good but, if the international currency system is headed for the rocks, should someone not be panicking? No sign of it on the stock exchanges, where apart from the banks (who have their own little - or perhaps not so little - problems) everything is apparently rosy.

I wish I thought that the financial geniuses in charge of our economies knew what they were doing. Increasingly, I suspect that they are as clueless as the rest of us.

06 November 2007

I've been away ...

Apologies for the unintended absence. Blame it on a computer breakdown. I'm now re-equipped and expect to be back as usual tomorrow.

29 October 2007

Cordon bleu cookery

As a special treat, here is Maw Broon's recipe for stovies. Not sure about the neep, but if it turns you on, hey - go with the flow.

Ignore the silly wee lassie - apparently a nutritionist - on the BBC (here) who wants to commit sacrilege by substituting olive oil (would you believe it?) for the beef dripping.

Watching too much telly?

Me, I mean.

Anyway, thanks to The Independent (here), I now know that it is Simone White who sings that wonderful 'beep, beep, beep' accompaniment to the Audi ad.

Next stop, Amazon.

Sometimes life is just so complicated ...

Sir Malky's answer to the West Lothian Question? Just set up an English Grand Committee, composed of all MPs sitting for English constituencies, which will determine English laws on the basis of English votes. Somehow I doubt if it's that simple.

First, House of Commons Committees do not usually make final decisions. Essentially, they make recommendations, which require to be confirmed by the House of Commons as a whole. This is the case with standing committees which consider the detail of proposed legislation (hence the report stage of bills where the Commons has to consider any amendments proposed by the standing committee). It is also the case with committees established to consider subordinate legislation, where once again the Commons as a whole has the opportunity to endorse or otherwise the Committee's proposals. Even the good old Scottish Grand Committee, now more or less in abeyance, had to have its conclusions (when it ever reached them) endorsed by the Commons as a whole. Is Sir Malky proposing something different with regard to his new English Grand Committee? If not, what is the point? But if he is proposing that an English Grand Committee should be empowered to over-ride the wishes of the Commons as a whole, he may find that he has bitten off a little more than he can chew.

Second, legislation (whether for England or for the UK as a whole) is not determined solely by the Commons sitting in plenary session. Yes, the overall principle of a bill is decided at second reading by the Commons as a whole and it is presumably this consideration which Sir M wants to see handed over to an English Grand Committee (at least for English bills). But what about the so-called line by line consideration of a bill which is at present conducted by a standing committee of 15 to 30 MPs? The membership of such standing committees carefully reflects the make-up of the Commons as a whole, so that the UK Government has a built-in majority. Is Sir M proposing to change this principle? Once again, this would be a much more radical reform than hinted at so far. And there would be precedents - what about bills that only affect London? Should they be considered only by London MPs? And it is possible to envisage bills which affect only Scotland, eg on electoral reform - would the Tories be happy for a committee composed solely of Scottish MPs (of which the Tories have only one) to determine the matter?

(Incidentally, it is worth noting that, at present, English bills would usually be considered by committees made up of English MPs, even if Labour has a majority. Scottish MPs have no great interest in purely English bills and are only drafted onto such committees in cases of emergency.)

Once a bill has been considered by committee, it is referred back to the Commons as a whole for its report stage - that is the report back to the Commons on the outcome of the committee's considerations. Does Sir M propose that the report stage should be referred back to the English Grand Committee? And would this require a further report stage when the bill is sent back to the Commons?

Perhaps Sir M has answers to these questions (but don't hold your breath). But I doubt if the establishment of an English Grand Committee only able to consider the second reading of English bills without addressing the subsequent stages of legislation would satisfy the English radicals. On the other hand, to go any further would raise some profound questions about how the Commons operates. I have not seen the paper which Sir M sent to Ken Clarke's review group and which has not been published. Let us hope that someone in the Tory party has the sense to think it through.

27 October 2007

Tail wagging the dog?

I appreciate that Mr Salmond's Westminster constituency is located in a fishing area. Nevertheless, is the fishing industry in Scotland as a whole so important that it should determine the Scottish Government's overall attitude to the EU? The Herald reports:
The conference also committed itself yesterday to a call for a referendum on European reform in the wake of the latest treaty deal struck by Gordon Brown. Aides later made clear that the SNP stance would now be hostile, given the loss of fishing as a red line issue.
The motion stated: "Conference deplores that, despite the concerns of the Scottish fishing communities and the Scottish Government, the UK Government has refused to seek changes to the treaty text in relation to the competence over fisheries."
If Westminster faces any vote on the issue of allowing a referendum then SNP MPs will be committed to backing the principle of a referendum, but it was being stressed last night that without a change of policy on the fishing question the stance would be to oppose the new EU treaty.

In 2006, the Scottish fishing industry generated catches to the value of only £370 million and provided employment for 5,205 people (or 0.2% of the Scottish labour force); figures sourced from here. That such an economically insignificant industry should be permitted to determine national policy on the EU suggests that the SNP is either being altruistically faithful to its constituency roots or that it is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

25 October 2007

"Somebody said they saw me, swinging the world by the tail ..."

Hi there pop-pickers! I appreciate that you may not regard The Telegraph as the epitome of cool, but you may want to get over to their website where they are offering a free download of a track ('Killing the Blues') from the latest collaboration between the great Alison Krauss and the legendary Robert Plant. (Yeah, I too thought he was dead but obviously not.)

Good stuff.

Rock on! (I always wanted to say that.)

Sticks and stones

See, it's not just me. Everyone calls him 'Wee Dougie'. Here in The Guardian and here in The Times.

It's a shame, really. Well OK, maybe not.

More football

Yes, I know it's tedious for those of you who do not follow the game but this is important. Furthermore, it seems to have been missed by both The Herald and The Scotsman. The Independent reports:
Uefa, European football's governing body, confirmed to The Independent last night that the seedings for the 2010 World Cup qualifying – for which the draw takes place on 25 November – will be dependent solely on the next Fifa rankings, which appear on 23 November.
As things stand, England are the ninth-best nation in Europe: Argentina and Brazil are the only non-European nations in Fifa's top 11. As such, England would be among the nine top seeds for the 2010 draw, and guaranteed not to meet giants such as Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
Scotland, as things stand, will be in the second pot of seeds, which would be a huge improvement in itself on their seeding for Euro 2008 qualifying, when they they were fourth seeds and hence ended up in the toughest section alongside Italy, France and Ukraine.
Yet the potentially killer blow for England – and utopia for Scotland – could arrive if England do badly in their two games between now and the next rankings while Scotland do well. England face a friendly with Austria then a Euro 2008 qualifier with Croatia while Scotland play Italy.
Scotland could leapfrog England to 11th place in Fifa's rankings – and hence earn top-seed status for 2010 qualifying – while England could fall to second-seed status.

Quite a thought!

24 October 2007

Germs are everywhere

This is not helpful:
A TV ad for Dettol has been banned for making the misleading claim that a chopping board contains 50 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.
...
Reckitt Benckiser also pointed out that the study, and additional evidence, had been presented to the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre, which had approved the claim after it was checked with an independent expert. The ASA noted, however, that the study was carried out on only five households in Hertfordshire and that those households all included a child under three years old.

What I want to know is whether households in Hertfordshire have extremely clean toilet seats or extremely dirty chopping boards.

Quote of the day

From the House of Commons Hansard, Alistair Carmichael MP on the botched elections:
"The role of the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), requires close examination. Essentially, the Secretary of State has come to the House today to say that a wee boy done it and ran away, which really is not good enough."

And, thus, with a single bound (or perhaps a sneaky sidestep), wee Dougie was scot-free. Now he plays with the big boys of international development, telling other nations how to organise democracies.

23 October 2007

Dancing in the passerelle

Ann Treneman on the Prime Minister's Europe statement yesterday:
Plus he has secured opt-ins and, when there aren’t opt-ins, he has managed to get some opt-outs. He is proud to call this the Hokey-Cokey Treaty for, as Mr Brown sang: “I put the opt-in in, I put the opt-out out, In, out, in, out, Shake it all about. I did the hokey-cokey and I turned it around That’s what it’s all about!” OK, so those weren’t his exact words but they were pretty close. I think Mr Brown might be a secret dancer, you know. As he told us about the hokey-cokey, his feet were shuffling away, treading over his papers that had escaped from his trembling hands. Nor did his argument stop there. In addition to footnotes and protocols and the hokey-cokey, Mr Brown says the nontreaty has a passerelle. This, too, sounded like a dance or, possibly, a poncey sort of casserole. But, apparently, it’s a viaduct in Luxembourg as well as being something that allows Britain to move from unanimity to QMV (qualified majority voting) without a change to the treaty.

Don't you feel better now?

Things can only get better?

It is a fact seldom mentioned that the Salmond administration could be turfed out of office tomorrow (or, to be more accurate, as soon as parliament resumes). The mechanics of the procedure would not be difficult. All it would require is a vote of no confidence on the part of parliament (in accordance with section 45(2) of the Scotland Act 1998). If he lost such a vote, Mr Salmond would have to - would be required by law to - resign as First Minister.

So what's stopping them? Why do Ms Alexander, Mr Stephen and Ms Goldie, leaders of the unionist parties with a collective unionist majority, tolerate this bumptious nationalist upstart who is playing fast and loose with constitutional conventions, who has his grubby hands on our nation's budget, who is actively seeking to destroy our nation's defensive capabilities and whose avowed intention is to reduce this country to the status of Lithuania or Slovenia? It lies within their power to put this rash usurper to the sword; so why not get on and do it?

To some extent, the answer lies in the consequences of any such action. To avoid an election (of which more in a minute), the three unionist parties would need to agree to the nomination of one of their leaders as a new First Minister. For reasons of parliamentary arithmetic, two parties would not be enough to secure the nomination; at the very least, it would in addition require one of the parties to abstain in the parliamentary vote. Not impossible, I would have thought - particularly if the new administration were prepared to operate on a care and maintenance basis, putting aside any controversial legislation. OK, it would not be ideal but unionists must ask themselves: would it be any worse than allowing Mr Salmond and his gang to run the country? For the sake of the greater unionist good, should not the three parties sink their differences and reach an accommodation?

Of course, the three parties could have sorted this out immediately following the May election. But, as you will remember, the Tories had pre-announced their intention to abjure formal pacts and the LibDems were doing their Greta Garbo impression ("I vant to be alone"); the Labour party was in shock and in no fit state to decide anything. But life moves on (possibly) and perhaps it is now time to re-visit the matter.

For obvious reasons, the less attractive option (from the unionist point of view) at present would be an election. But, following a vote of no confidence, and failing an agreement to nominate a new First Minister (or, alternatively, if parliament so resolved), there would have to be an election. The opinion polls offer little comfort to the unionist parties about their prospects at such an election if it took place in the near future. Nevertheless, sooner or later, the bloom will fade from the SNP and entropy will kick in. Ministers will make mistakes (as all ministers do); the electorate will realise that they are not actually capable of achieving very much, given the parliamentary arithmetic; the financial squeeze will be revealed as much worse than previously thought; and the council tax demands will start thudding through the letter box. Who knows, the Labour party may even begin to get its act together. The point is that Mr Salmond is living on borrowed time; once his opinion poll ratings start to slip, the days of his administration are numbered. Unlike Gordon Brown at Westminster, Mr Salmond has no majority to back him up when times get hard.

Meanwhile, the next time a unionist politician complains about the SNP administration, ask her why she doesn't do something about it.

22 October 2007

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist ..."

I have to say that this is utterly disgraceful (even if it was the previous administration). Wasting £2,262 on pouring the demon drink down the throats of the reptiles is nothing but profligacy. And a fat lot of good it did them.

Now, if they had invited the odd blogger, ...

Foreign affairs

Interestingly, and as far as I can determine, none of the serious London newspapers has picked up the story of the First Minister's latest bold and daring intervention in foreign affairs whereby he has written to all 189 signatories (apart from the UK) to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, outlining his government's stance on nuclear weapons. Perhaps they don't take it seriously, or perhaps they just don't care.

The Times seems more concerned that Mr Salmond might decide to hold his own referendum on the EU Treaty/Constitution; you may consider that the First Minister has more than enough on his referendum plate for the moment, especially as Prime Minister Brown might respond by saying 'So what?' But The Times goes its own weary way (or perhaps that of Mr Murdoch) on these matters. Meanwhile, for no apparent reason, The Telegraph re-hashes the rather tired story of how English taxpayers will have to pay for the abolition of Scottish prescription charges. They do seem to be struggling to arouse anti-Scots feeling south of the border.

More oddly, the First Minister's foray into the icy waters of nuclear non-proliferation is utterly ignored by the Scottish Government's own website. I would have thought that such an initiative would have justified a press release but, as the story emerged over the weekend, maybe the boys and girls of the Executive's press office are simply not up to speed with the 24/7 demands of the modern news agenda. Perhaps there will be more to come in the light of today's anti-trident 'summit'.

21 October 2007

Last word on the rugby world cup

The Sunday Times (here):
"The grumpy old yeomen of England had ground their way into the stadium with a dogged, curmudgeonly display of bulldog fighting spirit that should make every Briton’s chest a little bit more puffed out this morning. And we mean every Briton."
Not me, chum. Some of us value skill, talent, artistry and grace on the rugby field. See Argentina in Friday night's match.

Back to the future or forward to the past?

I suppose that we should be encouraged by the fact that the SNP administration is at least doing some thinking about housing policy (according to The Sunday Herald here). There has not been a lot of such thinking in the past 27 years - at least not by those in power. And certainly the iconic Right to Buy has remained more or less sacrosanct during that period. If the SNP is really going to address the issue, then more power to its elbow.

But it is not going to be easy. If, as suggested by The Herald, it is only newly-built social housing which is to be exempt from RTB, then it is going to be a long time before the new policy has an impact in practice. And why exempt new-build, while retaining RTB for refurbished housing?

The Herald also points out:
The green paper idea won't affect existing tenants, or those who are moving due to their home being demolished or refurbished ...
If it is only new tenants who will lose the RTB, then the impact will be even more attenuated, particularly, as new council housing tended in the past to be allocated to long-standing tenants moving up, rather than to those on the waiting lists. It would also mean the development of two categories of tenants, those with an RTB ticket and those without. On the other hand, depriving tenants of a right they have held since the 1980s is bound to be controversial.

But, however difficult, it seems right that the issue should be addressed. Compare and contrast the latest gimmick being adopted by the Tories south of the border.

20 October 2007

Pandering to the euroloonies

Why does Gordon Brown say these things? The Independent reports:
Gordon Brown has claimed the European Union would rule out further integration for 10 years after EU leaders approved a new treaty.
At the close of his first European summit as Prime Minister, Mr Brown said the Government would veto any further changes to the EU's internal workings until after 2017.

So, if Turkey joined the EU (which, as far as I am aware, remains UK policy), he would veto the necessary changes to the Treaties, for example in relation to the number of MEPs the country should have and or to its weighted votes for qualified majority voting purposes (which would affect every Member State)? The same would apply if Ukraine joined or if Belgium or the UK split up.

To offer another example, suppose the European Parliament decided to end its ludicrous practice of commuting between Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, thus saving millions of euros every year, is Gordon Brown really going to veto such a change?

The Prime Minister should have learned by now that there is nothing he can do or say to appease the ravening anti-European hordes.

18 October 2007

Quiz

Which of the following statements is likely to be true:
1. "The cheque is in the post."

2. "Of course I'll still love you in the morning."

3. "I'm a management consultant - I'm here to help you."

4. "The final business case for Edinburgh's proposed tram system predicts the project will come in significantly under budget. It calculates the route through the city from Newhaven to Edinburgh Airport will cost just under £500m - £45m less than the funding already allocated."

No prizes.

Auntie's on her uppers?

The BBC is - apparently - a bit short of the readies. So drastic action is proposed:
The BBC Trust yesterday unanimously approved plans to cut thousands of jobs, sell off its west London headquarters and reduce the number of programmes it makes by a tenth.
The radical overhaul immediately sparked a furious backlash from staff likely to strike within weeks, with feelings running particularly high in the news and factual divisions where job losses will run into four figures.
Chairman Sir Michael Lyons said he was satisfied the package put forward by the director general, Mark Thompson, during a four-hour meeting would "safeguard the core values of the BBC at a time of radical change in technology, markets and audience expectations".

But, if the BBC is indeed strapped for cash, it is perhaps surprising that earlier this month it blew £100 million on acquiring 75% of the Lonely Planet publisher of travel guides (see here). Furthermore, the same BBC Trust that approved yesterday's proposals also specifically approved the Lonely Planet acquisition. No doubt it is all part of the process of safeguarding the BBC's core values ...

17 October 2007

It's not my fault - it's my biology, you see

The Guardian on the Foresight Report on Obesity (here):
The central message of the Foresight report, put together by a team headed by Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, was that there was no simple answer to the problem. The nation had "sleepwalked" into it because our hunter-gatherer biology was out of step with the technological convenience age; we were programmed to eat as if we did not know where the next meal was coming from. "If we just behave normally we will become obese," Sir David said.
It is neither entirely the fault of the individual nor of society, Foresight says. There is no magic bullet solution, and no wonder diet drug will do the trick.

Not sure that I understand. Perhaps if we ate less and exercised more? A bit less understanding and a bit more blame? It seemed to work for cigarettes ...

"I'm Henery the Eighth I am"

No, I don't know why they called it 'The Tudors', as it only covers the period of the younger Henry VIII.

Anyway, the star of the show is a fancy rowing boat that tootles up and down the Thames. The boat shows rather more acting flair than the human participants, which is presumably why the producers insisted that each episode features at least one scene on the boat. Other acting credits go to a splendidly medieval horse-drawn carriage and a real tennis court (presumably that of Hampton Court Palace). There is also a rationed amount of rather perfunctory bonking in each episode. Not much plot or character development but why quibble about the details when you can admire the costumes?

I do not expect next week's Fanny Hill to be any better.

15 October 2007

Quote of the day

Somewhat inelegant but clearly from the heart. Here is Alex McLeish quoted in The Herald:
"The goals we scored on Saturday were beautiful to watch but I couldn't care if we get one off someone's arse on Wednesday. I have never been involved in anything as tough as this in my puff."

14 October 2007

Has Darling made a Balls of it?

He was supposed to be boringly competent, a safe pair of hands. But has Mr Cool lost the place? The Observer (here) and The Independent (here) appear to think so.

Did he really mean to encourage the buyers of second houses through his reform of capital gains tax, while imposing an additional tax burden on the creation of small businesses? And why is he helping the rich (those inheriting more than £300,000), while doing virtually nothing for children in poverty? What did he think he was doing?

It is always possible (probable?) that he was doing what he was told - in which case he is a cipher rather than a plonker. But, either way, is this the man we want in charge of the nation's finances?

12 October 2007

For Emmylou fans

Just a reminder that BBC4 is devoting much of this evening to the goddess, the nonpareil, the wonderful Emmylou Harris.

So BBC4 may just occasionally be useful after all.

Btw, I quite like Ms Harris; I would even go so far as to classify myself as a fan. You'd never have guessed, would you?

What has Whitehall ever done for us?

Handbags at dawn. The Scotsman highlights the continuing spat between St Andrew's House and Whitehall:
As a direct result of the row, The Scotsman has discovered senior Labour politicians have taken the extraordinary step of warning all Whitehall departments not to share any information with the Scottish Government which could be used by the SNP for political purposes.
At a stroke, the carefully constructed edifice linking the governments in Scotland and Westminster for the past eight years has come crashing down, and the tremors will be felt right across Scottish life.

I'm not wholly convinced. Does The Scotsman really think that London shared politically sensitive material with Edinburgh, except when it was forced to? Is a declared enmity significantly worse than the benign neglect or consummate indifference which has characterised Whitehall's attitude to Scottish issues since well before devolution? To put it another way, when has Whitehall ever done us any favours, other than those which conveniently suited its own purposes?

11 October 2007

But where's the moral compass?

Things you never thought you'd know. Pandora in The Independent reports:
Gordon Brown has not had much of a spring in his step for the past 10 days, but it is not for want of trying.
I hear that the Prime Minister recently splashed out almost £300 on a bulk order of socks: the thick, ribbed, long, comfy type, to cushion your soles from days spent standing up.
Last month he bought 20 pairs of "Navy Sea Island" cotton tootsy warmers, at £14 a set, from the outfitters Charles Tyrwhitt. All in his preferred jet black.
Rather than visit its Jermyn Street store or send a minion, Gordon shopped online and got the consignment delivered to his Scottish home in Kirkcaldy, Fife. He has done so every six months or so for the past two years, because he "loses his socks very quickly", apparently.

A touch extravagant? Perhaps, even careless?

Furthermore, while we are letting it all hang out, what about First Minister Salmond's sock habits? I'm betting that he's an M&S man, but we deserve to have it confirmed.

Pseuds' Corner

Darryl Broadfoot (sic) in The Herald (here):
"Gordon Smith was naked but for an Elbert Hubbard aphorism as he made the quantum leap from media pundit to media target as chief executive of the Scottish Football Association."

Hey, Darryl! Wake up and smell the coffee. You're supposed to be writing about Scottish football.

10 October 2007

The fairest bloggers of them all

I really don't approve of this post - blogging is not a competitive sport, but let's go for it.

Tartan Hero recently published a list of the foremost Scottish political bloggers. As far as I can determine, his league table was not based on objective criteria (but it was none the worse for that). I have been musing on how to introduce an element of rationality into the assessment.

The most obvious criterion is website traffic. But different bloggers use different site counters which are not always comparable and, anyway, the data are not universally available. Furthermore, the availability of blog feeds means that it is not always necessary to access a blogsite to read the posts. For example, I religiously read every post that Doctor Vee puts up (except of course the boring stuff about motor racing), but I seldom actually access his website. The same applies to the blogsites of Mr Eugenides and Clairwil (and indeed that of Tartan Hero, as well as many others). Obsessives may wish to note that Doctor Vee recently posted [Sorry - unable to trace the post] about the issue of whether bloggers should make available the whole or part of their posts to blogfeeds - this is interesting but not strictly relevant to today's issue.

I use Bloglines as my feed; there are other feeds which I have no doubt are equally effective. One of the features of Bloglines is that - for each blog - it records the number of individuals who have subscribed to receive notification of posts on that blog. Accordingly, the number of subscriptions for a blog provides a (proxy) measurement of the popularity of that blog - at least among the cognoscenti who subscribe to feeds.

I have therefore compiled the following league table of Scottish political bloggers based on this measurement. I should stress, first of all, that this is only based on Bloglines data - but I have no reason to suppose that other feeds would offer a wildly different result. Nor does it mean that a blog with a large number of subscriptions is necessarily better than any other blog with fewer subscriptions. And blogs which appeal to the wider public not au fait with blog feeds are obviously disadvantaged by this method.

Nevertheless, for what it is worth, here goes:

Blog Subscriptions

1. Mr Eugenides 45
1. Shuggy's Blog 45
3. Blether with Brian 32
4. A Big Stick and a Small Carrot 29
5. Doctor Vee 27
6. Freedom and Whisky 24
7. Rolled-up Trousers 20
8. Tartan Hero 13
9. Clairwil 12
9. Holyrood Chronicles 12
11. Edinburgh Sucks 11
12. J Arthur MacNumpty 10
13. A Place to Stand 9
13. Scottish Futures 9
15. Scottish Roundup 8
16. 1820 7
17. North to Leith 6
17. SNP Tactical Voting 6
19. BellgroveBelle 5
19. Havering On 5
19. Reactionary Snob 5
19. TerryWatch 5


A plea - don't take it too seriously. This list is only marginally less arbitrary than than that of TH. And there are no doubt technical reasons why it is not wholly valid.

What do you expect? He's from Dundee.

Do you think Brian understands what he's talking about? Here he is:
Has the Barnett formula been applied strictly? Yes, to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Is that a good thing? It used to be when Barnett felt generous. The formula’s been tightened over the years. Now tends to squeeze, esp in NI.

Was the formula fiddled? No

What’s this about the new baseline? The Treasury decided to recalibrate certain existing budgets for England, principally the NHS: essentially, assuming they’d got less this year than the actual out-turn figure.

Why did they do that? Version One, it was a standard statistical exercise. Version Two, it made the percentage increase for health look bigger.

Why does that affect Scotland? Barnett. Scotland experiences changes consequential upon all comparable English departments, eg health.

Or is he desperately scrabbling for some kind of gloss to put on the arguments? Or maybe just blethering? Never mind - better minds than his and mine will fail to interpret the delphic intricacies. But, remember, when in doubt, blame Barnett ...

Predictable

To summarise the debates about the Scottish outcome of the comprehensive spending review:
It's bigger than it's ever been before.

It's still not enough.

and:
You've fiddled the figures.

No we haven't.

Need to know more? Thought not.

08 October 2007

Ageist sods

As of next year, English senior citizens will have increased rights to free bus travel. (Not quite as beneficial as those of their Scottish equivalents, but still ...) Anyway, is anyone at The Times celebrating? Not a chance. It's a picture of unremitting gloom: the buses will be overcrowded; the bus companies will lose revenue; the local authorities will need to increase subsidies. Miserable bastards. Wait till they're over 60.

And, no. I've still got two years to wait before I qualify.

The semantics of authenticity

How language deteriorates. The Guardian reports:
Now the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is undertaking another tricky mission: creating a chain of affordable but excellent high street restaurants across Britain.
The first branch of "Jamie's Italian" is due to open in Bath in the spring. Others are planned for Cambridge and Brighton and within a few years, Oliver is intending to open up to 40 "neighbourhood" restaurants serving "authentic" Italian food.
...
Oliver's mentor, Gennaro Contaldo, the executive chef and co-owner of Passione in Charlotte Street, London, has been helping with the menu and the staff training. "So it'll all be completely authentic, rustic Italian," added Oliver.

Does Mr Oliver understand the meaning of authentic? What could possibly be authentically Italian (or authentically rustic) about a chain of cheap restaurants with a standard menu located on the British high street? The restaurants may be good value; they may adapt Italian cooking practices; they may even offer a splendid imitation of the trattoria tradition. But they will never be authentically Italian.

06 October 2007

Home truths

Marina Hyde in The Guardian (here):
There is a fact about politics that is luminously obvious to everyone who does not inhabit "the Westminster village". And that is that only weirdos go into it. (Naturally, I speak as a journalist - and yes, you should see our lot.)
Whether it was always like this is debatable. There is a school of thought that suggests that those who entered British politics in the two-and-a-half decades after the second world war were different, having been forged in the fire of that collective national horror, and moved to shun the professions they might otherwise have adopted out of a noble yearning to change things. In recent years, we've been rather light on collective national horrors. Even the second series of Celebrity Love Island failed to galvanise a new generation of idealists in quite the same manner.
These days, almost without exception, people who launch themselves into political life are those whom we might delicately describe as having something "not quite right about them", and come election time, we are required to decide which of them we wish to go home with at the end of the night. It's quite a privilege.
Yesterday Mark Lawson referred on these pages to the "beer test", the theory that election results can be fairly accurately predicted by asking voters: "Who would you rather have a pint with?" In your average Joe's mind, that inquiry would need to be prefaced by the words "if there was a gun to your head ...". Were the government to announce a policy of randomly stationing politicians at the bars of local pubs, it would most likely have a dramatic effect on our drinking epidemic.

Not sure the same applies to Holyrood. For example, Mr Salmond and Ms Goldie seem more or less paid-up human beings, although I have my doubts about Ms Alexander and Mr Stephen.

But I urge you - at all costs - to avoid political bloggers. To a man (and a woman), they are obsessive nerds and weirdos ...

05 October 2007

Too exciting or too lucrative?

Why would you abandon an audience of millions for an audience of five people and a dog? The BBC reports:
BBC newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky is leaving the corporation to join commercial broadcaster Five.
She will join the channel in the New Year and replaces Kirsty Young, who left Five News in the summer.
"After five incredibly rewarding years at the BBC, I found the chance to work with the team at Five too exciting to pass up," Kaplinsky said.

Nothing to do with the money, then? The Guardian says it's between £400,000 and £500,000 per year.

04 October 2007

When the boot's on the other foot ...

The accusation of hypocrisy over the funding of Ms Alexander's parliamentary office as leader of the opposition may be a little unfair. It is to nobody's benefit if the opposition is insufficiently resourced to carry out the task of holding the Scottish Executive to account. And the fact that the allowance appears to amount to little more than £22,000 is prima facie evidence supporting Ms Alexander's case.

On the other hand, if at any time over the eight years up to May 2007 the then SNP opposition had had the temerity to raise the issue, the reaction of Scottish Labour would have been swift and brutal. Now that the tables are turned, Ms Alexander cannot expect sympathy and understanding from her political opponents.

Scottish Labour has made its political bed - now it will have to lie in it, at least for a while. Tough, I know, but life's like that.

(In any case, I thought that the review of parliamentary allowances was intended to cut out alleged abuses rather than to provide MSPs with greater access to the public purse.)

03 October 2007

Dream on!

A case of wishful thinking reported in The Evening News:
SCOTTISH Tory leader Annabel Goldie today hailed David Cameron as the man to revive the party in Scotland as he pledged to sweep away Gordon Brown's "cynical old politics".
...
Mrs [sic] Goldie said she fully supported Mr Cameron.
She said: "I think David is an inspiring leader. I believe he's the right man for the country and the Scottish party.
"I think he can revive the Tories across the UK and in Scotland. I think we will make gains at the next UK General Election.
"I think David Cameron has shown this week that he is an inspiring leader for the Tories."

Loyalty is an admirable quality (although it is seldom found in the Tory Party), but it should not be confused with living in a fantasy world.

Do the police engage in embroidery?

Take this guy for instance, as described in The Scotsman:
TO PASSERS-BY, it was an ordinary shopfront in an unremarkable part of Glasgow. Aside from a lucrative niche turning out menus for Asian takeaways, Print Link did little to draw attention to itself.
But now the premises have emerged as the base of one of the most sophisticated counterfeiting operations ever seen in Britain, producing fake banknotes that were found across the country. The operation was so big that the High Court heard the forgers had the ability to destabilise the British economy as part of a network linked with criminals across the UK.
The operation was described by police as "big as it comes". They said the expertise exhibited was "very sophisticated".
...
Yesterday, the gang's mastermind - a man who police said was one of only two capable of executing such a plot - was jailed for more than six years. Ironically, Thomas "Hologram Tam" McAnea - who began his career printing menus and tickets - and his cohorts were in part caught because of their reputations as brilliant forgers.

If Hologram Tam was indeed a criminal mastermind, why was he working in Maryhill, churning out menus for Asian takeaways, rather than pursuing his chosen career in London or Frankfurt or New York? And how did the criminal mastermind get himself caught at least twice before by the Scottish police? How, having 'taken to drink', did he remain a 'brilliant forger'? And is £1.6 million in notes really enough to destabilise the British economy?

Allez les bleus!

Those of the bluenose persuasion may derive some satisfaction from this extract from Le Monde:
Incapables de répondre aux défis tactique et physique des Rangers, sans imagination et en deçà techniquement, les Lyonnais ressemblaient au fantome de l'équipe collective et virtuose des dernières saisons. Au contraire, les hommes de Walter Smith pouvaient se féliciter de leur prestation : trois occasions pour trois buts, une défense de fer et une victoire presque facile à Gerland.

I fear that Scottish football is increasingly gaining a measure of respect in Europe. Although hubris has yet to make an appearance, can nemesis be far behind?

So farewell Christian Salvesen ...

... Once, when you had your headquarters in Leith, you were the biggest whaling company in the world.

Nowadays you focus on transport and logistics. Not quite as romantic, is it?

You are to be taken over by the improbably named Norbert Dentressangle. And thus another piece of Scotland's industrial history slips quietly away.

01 October 2007

Crisp politics

How disappointing. I used to enjoy kettle chips. But The Guardian reports:
A British private equity company has called in one of the leading US union-busters to stop workers at one of the country's best-known upmarket crisp producers, Kettle Chips, joining a trade union.
The California-based Burke Group has been engaged by Lion Capital, owners of Kettle Foods, to dissuade the 340 workers at their Norwich factory from joining Unite, the country's largest union.
Workers are balloting today on whether to join. Some 40% of the workers are migrants from eastern Europe.

Oh well, back to Golden Wonder ...

30 September 2007

It may not be very practical but does it make you think?

I have noted that some MSPs are over-weight; indeed, some might be described as obese. (No names, no packdrill, but they know who they are.) Given this threat to the health of our parliamentary representatives, I would like to propose that - on days when parliament is sitting - all of our MSPs should be locked into parliament over lunchtime so that they are forced to eat healthily in the canteen. No more sneaking out to pubs for pies.

This is after all what the Health Minister, Ms Robison, wants to do to our children. Scotland on Sunday has the story. If we can imprison our children over lunchtime, why not our MSPs?

Oh, and the parliamentary canteen should serve chips only once a week.

28 September 2007

Quote of the day

From The Herald (here):
Labour's justice spokeswoman, Pauline McNeill, has complained the lack of staff means she has to write all her own speeches.

Doesn't your heart just bleed for the poor woman?

27 September 2007

A sign of the times

Perhaps it is no surprise to the rest of you. Private sector bigwigs, as a matter of course, live in expensive properties. But this story indicates that even minor public sector chiefs can afford to live in millionaires' row. And nobody thinks to comment?

I suppose that I'm out of touch ...

26 September 2007

A fairy tale or an over-simplified history?

Once upon a time (well in the mid-1970s, actually) there was an economic development agency whose remit covered most of Scotland. It did the kind of things that economic development agencies did in those days: it developed land and built advance factories; it encouraged industrial investment; and it helped to promote new and existing businesses. The agency was based in Glasgow (Bothwell Street, actually), though it did have branch offices elsewhere. As far as could be determined, it seemed to be making a useful contribution to Scottish economic development, but nobody was terribly sure; in the big important cases, other organisations were involved and, anyway, it was difficult in those days to disentangle the impact of the agency's activities from what would probably have happened anyway. Nevertheless, the job creation figures always looked pretty good. Furthermore it was not enormously expensive and, occasionally, Ministers were able to perform industrial openings and take credit for the agency's efforts. (Industrial closures, on the other hand, were invariably down to macro-economic factors and were never anyone's fault.)

But fashions change, and by 1990, there were complaints that the agency was too centralised and top-down in its approach. So Ministers agreed to proposals from certain big businessmen that the agency should have a devolved structure whereby its functions and services should be delivered by independent local bodies which would be controlled by local businessmen. At the same time, as the separate bodies delivering industrial training in Scotland had degenerated into something of an administrative guddle, it was agreed that the agency should also take on the training function. Now you might think that these changes were more apparent than real, as the so-called independent local bodies invariably appointed former officials of the previous agency to be their chief executives, while the purse strings continued to be held (tightly) in Bothwell Street, the continued headquarters of the new agency. Furthermore, the training function was never properly integrated with the agency's other functions and in effect continued to be run as a separate operation. Nevertheless, the job creation figures continued to look pretty good, even though the vast bureaucratic efforts of Bothwell Street in seeking to monitor what the devolved organisation was achieving failed to come up with any definitive conclusions. And there were still the occasional industrial openings for Ministers to boast about, while the notion of Silicon Glen blossomed and then faded. Of course, the increased range of the agency's functions and the larger budget meant that the high heid-yins had to pay themselves rather more than previously.

As is the way of these things, another 15 years passed, leading to further demands for change. The latest proposals, announced today, involve detaching the training function from the agency and the establishment of fewer and bigger independent local bodies (although there is some doubt about the extent to which the previous myth of independence will be maintained). Will these further changes make the agency better? And, if they were to do so, how would we know?

I'm losing the will to live ...

Gordon once claimed to be a socialist ...

I wish I could say that Mr Brown and Mr Cameron were likely to be equally embarrassed by this report in The Times:
Lord Tebbit declared that Mr Cameron was regarded as out of touch by ordinary people and that it was only natural that Mr Brown should make himself the “heir to Thatcher”.
Many people believed that the Conservative leader and his colleagues did not know how the other half lived, Lord Tebbit said.
...
He drew a wounding comparison between Mr Brown, on whom he lavished praise, and Mr Cameron, whom he criticised for his lack of experience and his stand on grammar schools. “I think we lack somebody of the standing of Margaret,” he said when asked to name the Conservatives’ biggest asset.
But I fear that Mr Brown is unembarrassable, even at the shameful prospect of being praised by Lord Tebbit.

25 September 2007

A rose by any other name might stink

I don't know why they are calling it a council tax rebate. As far as I can see, it has very little to do with council tax. The local authorities (who set and collect council tax) are not involved and nothing changes from their point of view. It bears no relation to the actual council tax paid by individual soldiers which, again, will not change. It would seem to be nothing more than a fairly derisory (6%) increase of £140 on the operational allowance. The Guardian reports:
Members of the armed forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan will each be given a £140 council tax rebate, the defence secretary, Des Browne, announced today.
The tax-free sum will be payable to all troops on a six-month tour of duty who pay council tax for a property in the UK.
...
The rebate will be added to the tax-free operational allowance paid to servicemen and women at the end of an operational tour in Afghanistan or Iraq. That allowance is currently worth £2,320 over a six-month tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

If I were a soldier, I would not be tempted to regard it as a big deal. (And the operational allowance for the armed forces is absolute peanuts compared to the foreign service allowances paid to FCO staff posted overseas.)

Best of the sketchwriters

Hoggart:
The first thing we noticed was Gordon's new hair, now in a magnificent, Melvyn Bragg-style, wind-tunnel tested quiff. This is prime ministerial hair - tough, sturdy, British hair, hair as heavily armoured as his official car.

Treneman:
He told us all about his family, the wonderful and wise Browns. They are like the Waltons, though more wholesome. I’m not sure the Waltons knew as many Bible verses as the Browns. They trade parables and talents over breakfast. Plus, the Browns all have moral compasses. Gordon was showing his off again yesterday. “This is who I am,” he boomed, dial spinning like mad.

Carr:
He's going to be constantly fighting for hard-working people who play by the rules and who understand the obligations we all have. But what about those of us who want to sit by the river, watching the colours in the stream and minding our own business?

Gimson:

... the vital thing, as the Prime Minister pointed out, is to defend our British way of life.
The British way of life used to include a place for the bumbler, the idler and the joker and used to value freedom and spontaneity over state control and regimentation.
We are told that people in the olden days used sometimes to laugh at authority and liked to sit down for a cup of tea and a chat, and even thought it a good idea, at the end of the day, to relax with a pint of beer and a cigarette.
But that almost unimaginably barbaric era is over ...

24 September 2007

Not exactly a new Cicero

You can read Ms Alexander's (fairly brief) cri de coeur on the Scottish Labour Party website here.

It will be slated in the press tomorrow. As for me, I was mildly disappointed. But then, I've always had an aversion to verbless sentences.

(Andy Kerr, your time is about to come, maybe?)

"I used to be indecisive but now I'm not so sure"

The political hacks in hothouse Bournemouth are getting themselves worked up into something of a paddy about the possibility of a UK general election. Here, for example is Ben Brogan of The Daily Mail posting very early this morning:
Are we being played? This is the question that has preoccupied most of us here in the Bournemouth press centre today and continues to eat away at us in the bars tonight. I've recorded today some of the bizarre ebb and flow of this election story. Brown Central has chosen, quit deliberately, not to to calm the frenzy. Mr Brown - or those acting for him - wants us to record that the likelihood of an election is increasing. His letter to the NEC was even presented to us as a "draft manifesto".

The danger is that, by allowing the speculation to continue unchecked, the Prime Minister may actually be cutting off his options. Day by day, it will be become more and more difficult to rule out an election without him being accused of seeking to flee from the verdict of the people.

Who's been eating my porridge?

A parable for our times. Larry Elliott in The Guardian explains why fairytales do not always end happily:
It was then that the three bears arrived home. Baby bear came in the shape of rising oil and commodity prices. One thing overlooked by the friends of Goldilocks was that China was hungry for raw materials. Its factories were not energy efficient; and by gobbling up oil and metals they sent the prices up. Whereas in early 2003, it was possible to go to market and buy a barrel of crude oil for $25 a barrel by late 2007 it cost well over $80 a barrel. But when baby bear roared Goldilocks slept on.
Then mummy bear came home. She was worried about her house. What had happened, especially in the US but also in Britain, was that prices of homes rose so quickly that young bears found it more and more difficult to raise enough money for a little cottage in the woods with roses round the door.

Well worth reading the whole thing.

23 September 2007

A lesson for The Scotsman?

Peter Preston in The Observer (here):
It's been the great debate since newspaper websites began. Do you charge for your most precious content, or not? Some (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the FT) did. Others (the Guardian) kept almost all their services free and banked on page traffic to bring the ads in. And now? Debate over. The New York Times is going free. Rupert Murdoch is hinting at taking his WSJ down the same road. And the FT is looking pretty vulnerable - with 100,000 times a £98.99 subscription (or more) at risk if it drops charges as well.

The has-beens and the never-will-bes are moaning

It did not take long for the backbench numpties to start their anonymous carping. The Sunday Herald reports:
One MSP said: "Wendy's had a disastrous first week in charge. The party's more split than I can remember."
Another said: "Wendy said she'd changed. She said motherhood and marriage had made her a more sympathetic person. That's bollocks."
...
A senior party source said: "Foulkes' comments [about Brian Lironi] were disgraceful. He is one of Brian's employers and to attack him the way he did was reckless and stupid.
"But what made things worse was Wendy's failure to sort the problem out. It's typical of her thoughtlessness."
Another MSP said: "When Wendy was on tour, building support, she was interested in playing the team game. Now she's in the job, she's shut herself away with a wee clique and the rest of us are left out."

Whatever happened to Labour party discipline?

21 September 2007

Asleep in the back shop, again?

The Treasury Select Committee focuses attention on Sir John Gieve's role in the Northern Rock affair. The Guardian reports:
... the Treasury select committee was tougher on Sir John, the deputy governor responsible for financial stability and a member of the board of the Financial Services Authority, the City watchdog responsible for supervising Northern Rock. John McFall, who chairs the select committee, accused Sir John of being "asleep in the back shop while there was a mugging out front", adding that he had failed to spot the problems likely to befall Northern Rock because of the seizing-up of credit markets in early August. "Frankly, I do not think you are doing your job," Mr McFall said.

Sir John Gieve? Now where have I heard that name before? Wikipedia reminds me of an article in The Indie in April 2006:
"Sir John Gieve, deputy governor of the Bank of England, is being pressed to resign following revelations of financial mismanagement at the Home Office, where he was permanent secretary.
The top civil servant, who moved from the Home Office to the Bank in January, is already under pressure as a result of the lost prisoner scandal, where it emerged that more than 1,000 foreign nationals had been released from British prisons without being considered for deportation.
Now a National Audit Office review of the Home Office's accounts for 2004-05 has revealed errors so wild that they beggared belief."

Then there was that business with Mr Blunkett's lover's nanny:
Sir John Gieve was Home Office permanent secretary during the saga which ended with Mr Blunkett quitting.
He and other civil servants were criticised for failing to recall how the visa for Mr Blunkett's ex-lover's nanny came to be fast-tracked.

An eventful career, you might say.

Signs of sloppiness

The Scotsman publishes this story but does not appear to want to run with it:
A SECOND government minister announced last night that he would put hundreds of thousands of pounds of company shares beyond his control in the escalating row over conflicts of interest within the SNP administration.
Jim Mather, the enterprise minister, told The Scotsman he would find a way of putting his £350,000 worth of shares into a blind trust to make sure there could be no question of a conflict of interest with his ministerial role.
Yesterday, Stewart Stevenson, ... the transport and climate change minister, said he would sell £30,000 of ScottishPower shares amid suggestions of a conflict of interest with his government role.
Were Ministers, at the time of their appointment, not specifically warned of the need to avoid any appearance of a potential conflict of interest, particularly with regard to shareholdings? If not, why not? Such a warning should go with the receipt of a red box and the keys to the Ministerial booze cabinet. Were their civil servants asleep on the job?

But whether or not there was a specific warning, the requirements of the Ministerial code are - or should be - sufficiently well-known. It is really not good enough for Ministers to come along four months after their appointment and in effect to say that, now they've been found out, they will hasten to build the necessary Chinese walls between themselves and their shareholdings.

A first sign of carelessness in the SNP administration?

20 September 2007

The art of making appointments

It is not true that the First Minister, when considering the appointment of the chair of the new prisons commission, said:
"We need someone who is capable of original thought, someone who will not be intimidated by either the legal profession or the prison officers' trade union, someone who will not simply do what the civil service recommends.

But we will never find anyone like that, so we'll just have to settle for Henry McLeish. At the very least, it will wind up the Scottish Labour Party something rotten."

But the First Minister might have said something similar.

19 September 2007

Checking out the hit parade

Look, as far as I am aware, it's an entirely arbitrary list. So just because I sneaked into the lower half, probably at the expense of far more worthy candidates, doesn't mean a lot. Besides, they got the title wrong (although the link still appears to work).

And, anyway, blogging is not a competitive sport.

Diplomacy

The All Blacks are being polite:
NEW Zealand captain Richie McCaw expects his side to be given a tough test by Scotland even if their opponents put out a second-string side in Sunday's match at Murrayfield.
"I think we'll get a good workout regardless," McCaw said. "These guys are still playing for Scotland and they will all want to prove themselves to play as the tournament goes on. So I think it will be a hard game for us.
"I think the Scots are going to be a good challenge, they always are at home."

It's more than likely that they will take 60 points off us, whatever team we put out.

Stick to fisheries Joe

I wouldn't get too excited about this story in The Scotsman:
AN INDEPENDENT Scotland would be forced to apply to become a member of the European Union, a senior official said last night.
Alex Salmond has argued repeatedly that the transition from Union with England to the European Union would be "seamless", with a breakaway Scotland becoming an automatic member of the EU.
The European Commission has always refused to get involved in the debate, appreciating how sensitive the subject is in Scotland. But now, in a blow to Mr Salmond, Joe Borg, the fisheries commissioner, has broken ranks to say unequivocally that in his view, an independent Scotland would remain outside the EU until it had completed the formal application process - in the same way as Eastern European states have done in recent years.

Mr Borg is just another loose-mouthed EU Commissioner meddling in matters which are not his concern. Decisions on EU membership will be taken by the Council of Ministers representing the Member States and not by the Commission.

Incidentally, another story in the paper suggests that the UK might not be the first EU Member to break up. If that were the case - and it is a very big if - then whatever happens to Belgium in terms of EU membership would constitute a precedent that might be hard to avoid.

18 September 2007

The monstrous regiment is on the march

Surprising, really, that such a traditionalist (perhaps even stick-in-the-mud) party such as Scottish Labour should find itself with a front bench dominated by women. Here is the full list of appointments.

It is a development to be welcomed, I think. At least, I cannot think of any MSP (male or otherwise) that has been unfairly neglected.


Update:

Wittily, if somewhat scatologically, Mr Eugenides is less impressed.

17 September 2007

Quote of the day

Andreas Whittam Smith in The Independent (here):
The queues outside Northern Rock showed that in a financial crisis today the general public trusts neither the Bank of England, nor its Governor, nor the Chancellor of the Exchequer, nor the Government, nor the authorities in any shape or form.

Sensible of the general public.

Shit happens

Jackie Ashley in The Guardian sums up - more or less accurately - the present political situation, at least at UK level:
Cameron and George Osborne can hardly turn with scorn on Labour's spending, because they have promised to match it. Did we hear a cheep from either about house prices being too high, or people borrowing too much? Cameron, moreover, was inside the Treasury and the Tory policy machine when the last boom-and-bust moment happened. And he can hardly pose as a reborn fiscal conservative, a stern Thatcherite de nos jours, when he's spent so much time distancing himself from the old bat - sorry, glorious helmswoman and saviour of the nation.
... the brutal truth is that, if we are entering a time of financial instability, the likeliest political winner remains Brown. It should encourage an election this year, or in the spring. Because if your pipes are blocked, you call for the plumber - however you curse him - not the interior decorator.

Feel free to add your own metaphor about what happens when the drains are blocked.

Domestics

Just to record (for the benefit of both my readers) that I am presently blogging from the south of Spain and will continue to do so for the next month or two.

Well, yes, it's sunny. And the booze and the fags are much cheaper. And, OK, I have access to most British TV channels but I don't have to watch them. And if I go down the pub to watch the footie, then I would have to drink San Miguel rather than Deuchars.

No, I am imbibing andalucian culture.