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

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.

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.

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?


... 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.


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.


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.


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.

15 September 2007

Here we go again

Does a new broom sweep clean? Or does it just re-arrange the dust? The Scotsman reports:
Jack McConnell, Ms Alexander's predecessor, was criticised during the election for failing to come up with detailed plans to reform the council tax.
Yesterday the issue was pounced on by Ms Alexander as a key to reform. A policy group will look at options, including a tax based on property valuation.
Oh wow! Haud me back! Yet another policy group on council tax reform. But what is it likely to come up with that wasn't covered in last year's report by the Burt Committee?

I suppose that it's just a method of parking the issue for 18 months. Even so, the continued absence of a policy on local government finance is not likely to make things easier for those Labour MSPs seeking to oppose the Salmond Government's plans for a local income tax.

Not so solid rock

It may well be that the company is financially solvent, as we are assured. Depositors may well be guaranteed not to lose out, at least up to a certain level of maximum savings.

But would you open a new deposit account with the Northern Rock? That being so, how long can the company keep trading?

And The Herald is not exactly reassuring in reporting this:
Northern Rock chief executive Adam Applegarth, who earned £1.35m in salary and bonuses last year, said his bank had yet to draw on the emergency cash, which he called "a backstop in case we need to use it".
Mr Applegarth said the bank's underlying businesses were solid but it was facing short-term difficulties borrowing. How short-term? "Looking forward," he said, "I can't see when the global liquidity freeze is going to end. We simply don't know."

13 September 2007

Stooping rather low

Slightly distasteful, I would have thought, to exploit an 81-year-old woman for political advantage.

Doing the sums

It is a great achievement to be sitting at the top of the table at this stage, one point ahead of Italy and two points ahead of France. But consider the remaining three matches to be played.

Scotland has the Ukraine at home, Georgia away and Italy at home. France has the Faroes away, Lithuania at home and the Ukraine away. Italy has Georgia at home, Scotland away and the Faroes at home.

It is difficult to believe that France will not secure at least six points from its three remaining fixtures, with the difficult away match at the Ukraine the only obvious significant hurdle. That would mean France ended up with 25 points, even if they lose to the Ukraine.

Similarly, Italy seems likely to defeat both Georgia and the Faroes at home, leaving Italy with 26 points plus whatever they can take from Hampden.

Accordingly, in order to qualify, Scotland will need to take at least four points from their three remaining games and perhaps more. Far from impossible, but not at all easy.

But then, who would have thought that we'd take six points off France?

12 September 2007

Admirable, but is it cricket?

The news that Hibs made a profit last year, that they have reduced their debt to negligible levels and that they have invested income from the sales of players into capital projects which will bring long term benefits to the club is, I suppose, to be welcomed.

But it is hardly in the best traditions of Scottish football. Where would we be if all Scottish football clubs were run sensibly?

11 September 2007

Smoke gets in your eyes

It must of course be a Good Thing that admissions to hospital for heart attacks have declined by 17 per cent in the year following the smoking ban.

But I remain slightly confused. I thought that the smoking ban was intended to address the prevalence of lung cancer and emphysema and other respiratory complaints. Why this focus on heart attacks? Does smoking cause heart attacks in smokers? or in non-smokers? And what has happened on the lung cancer front?

The Guardian does little to clarify the position:
Prof Gill added that the nine hospitals, in areas including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee and Lanarkshire, accounted for 63% of heart attack admissions in Scotland. The number of all heart attack admissions at these hospitals had fallen by more than 550, from 3,235 in the year to March 2006, to 2,684 in the year to March 2007. Among non-smokers, the reduction was from 1,630 to 1,306.

If you tease out these figures, you will find that the number of heart attack admissions declined by 19.9% in the case of non smokers but by only 11.0% in the case of smokers. So the improvement in the health of non-smokers has improved by considerably more than that of smokers. A reasonable argument for giving up fags, you might think, but what does it say about the smoking ban, as non-smokers are presumably the least affected by the ban? Unless you argue that the greater improvement in non-smokers' health is due to a lack of passive smoking - which seems highly improbable. Meanwhile, the health of smokers also improved (even if not as fast as that of non-smokers). That being so, if you wish to argue that the decline in heart attack admissions is a consequence of the smoking ban, then you should only count as a benefit the amount by which the improvement of the health of non-smokers exceeded that of smokers.

In any case, are not heart attacks a consequence of living and social conditions over a much longer period than simply a year?

Presumption of guilt

Here is the headline on the lead story in The Scotsman:
Thirty years ago he murdered two innocent young women. Yesterday he escaped justice

This assertion of guilt is of course precisely what the prosecution failed to prove. Now it is possible, perhaps even probable, that the suspect was indeed guilty. But a court has declared that there is no case to answer. Nevertheless, The Scotsman knows better and therefore feels free to contradict the court's judgement.

10 September 2007


Now, how do you suppose that Gordon Brown can reserve jobs for British workers? After all, he says he can. The BBC reports:
Gordon Brown is to set out measures aimed at achieving the dream of "a British job for every British worker".
The prime minister will unveil proposals to create 500,000 new jobs for British workers during his first speech to the TUC as premier.

The straight answer is that he can't. Discrimination against other EU nationals in the job market is illegal. Does Mr Brown know this? Of course he does. So why give an impression to the contrary?

09 September 2007

No half measures here

I rather admired this quotation attributed by Scotland on Sunday to Wendy Alexander:
"They are running into hot water. This was the week that their pledges started to unravel. Another piece of election spin has been exposed."

After all, if you are going to mix your metaphors, you might as well go all the way - even if you are an INSEAD graduate.

08 September 2007

Scrumming down

Somehow, I feel that The Guardian is not taking the Rugby World Cup sufficiently seriously, here:
Shirts used to be jerseys. Then they promised to keep you hot or cool, or efficiently dispel your sweat. Now IonX, developed over three years by New Zealand-based kitmaker Canterbury, claims to deliver "ionic" energy to the body through a negatively charged electromagnetic field.
Eh? You may think it's easy to sell shirts to large men suggestible enough to bury their heads in each others' thighs for 80 minutes, but the manufacturers claim to have created a fabric coated in a liquid wash that when placed against the skin creates a negative charge of ions.

And here:
The survey group - divided equally between men and women - overwhelmingly expects to watch, and enjoy, some of the tournament. Sex is much involved, with just over half the women respondents (52%) saying they will tune in solely to catch a glimpse of Johnny Wilkinson.
Confusion about rugby terminology may also help in this respect, with 10% of the survey thinking that a hooker - the central member of the scrum front row - is a woman who sleeps with rugby players.
The largely matey nature of the physical violence in the sport also appeals; half the respondents thought the term "blood bin" was slang for the whole pitch and 22% guessed it was the place where players met for a post-match drink.

06 September 2007

Nowt to do wiv me, guv

It would be presumptuous of me to think that the Presiding Officer actually reads this blog but, following my minor rant earlier this year, it is pleasing to report that a crackdown on informality is under way. The Evening News reports:
MSPs have been ordered to stop calling each other by their first names during debates in the Scottish Parliament.
Presiding officer Alex Fergusson said in future, MSPs should use members' full names so people watching from the public gallery or on television would know who they were talking about.
He said: "It is not our intention to impose undue formality in the chamber, but it is our opinion members should address each other in the third person and by full names instead of first names only."

Too right.

Politicians and promises

Remember all those promises about how Scotland would benefit from the London Olympics? Like this one from Patricia Ferguson, the then sports minister, in January 2005 (here):
"In terms of the tourism industry in Scotland, a successful bid would provide a fantastic opportunity to attract more visitors to our country, and give a heightened profile to our unique scenery, modern, vibrant cities and unrivalled historic buildings and monuments."

Or this one from Nicol Stephen in May 2006 (here):
"The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games present enormous opportunities for Scotland. Our young athletes are already in preparation and our businesses should be following their lead. The economic potential is huge: billions of pounds will be spent and we want Scottish companies to get involved."

Or this one from Jack McConnell in January 2004 (here):
"The staging of the modern Games in London would give an enormous boost to sport in all parts of the UK. It would excite and inspire people of all ages and sporting abilities. The tourism sector in particular would benefit from an event which would give heightened profile to the UK as a whole."

Well you can now forget them again. Today's Scotsman reveals:
SCOTLAND will not reap any significant tourism benefit from the 2012 Olympic Games unless governments and tourism agencies intervene to encourage visitors to look beyond London, a report warned yesterday.
The games could bring a £3 billion boost to the UK tourist industry, according to a review of data from previous Olympic host cities including Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004).
But the overwhelming majority of the benefits are likely to be confined to London.

Oh, and those contracts which Scottish firms might have secured?

... last week it was confirmed that no Scottish companies had been shortlisted for contracts to help build the £2 billion athletes' village.

05 September 2007

Must be getting old

No, I've never heard of the Klaxons either ...

The demon drink

Arguably, there are occasions when it is necessary, perhaps even laudable, for a Minister to be seen to be doing something, whether or not that something leads to a desirable outcome. I fear that Mr MacAskill's proposed crackdown on supermarkets and shops selling booze may not be one such occasion.

Mr MacA states (in his press release):
"From young people rampaging the streets shouting abuse at passers by to people dying in our hospitals of alcoholic liver disease - alcohol misuse has a lot to answer for. The facts are stark - over 60 per cent of prisoners admit they were drunk when they offended, and six people die every day from alcohol related illness."

I do not dissent from this analysis. But is there any evidence that the "young people rampaging the streets" (btw when did 'to rampage' become a transitive verb?) got liquored up from booze acquired in shops or supermarkets? Those in Lothian Road of a Saturday night seem more likely to have consumed their alcohol in pubs and clubs. But, if there is any evidence that shops and supermarkets are to blame, it has yet to be produced. The same lack of evidence applies to offenders - admitting drunkenness is not the same as admitting having acquired the necessary alcohol in shops and supermarkets. And cirrhosis of the liver requires a long-term commitment to the consumption of alcohol, rather than the opportunity purchase of three cans of lager for the price of two.

But look more closely at the press release. What is Mr MacA actually proposing? As far as I can see, there are three propositions on offer:
1. "Any promotion that provides alcohol free or at a reduced price on the purchase of one or more of the product or another product will be outlawed."

2. "... mandatory conditions will require shops to have separate alcohol display areas."

3. "The Scottish Government is also looking at the practices of deep-discounting. The Cabinet Secretary has asked for legal advice on how this practice can be ended as part of our wider alcohol strategy."

With regard to the first of these, what is to prevent Tesco's or Sainsbury's simply reducing the price of the individual item, so that instead of three cans of lager for £1.50 with the individual price at 75 pence, the individual unit price would be set at 50 pence. This might of course have the overall effect of increasing the sales of lager, but Mr MacA seems to have no plans to deal with the question.

As for separate display areas, my experience of supermarkets is that most of them already have separate aisles where alcohol is displayed (if only to cope with the ludicrous ban on Sunday morning alcohol sales). I suspect what he means is that they will be required to have separate tills, which would be unworkable in most corner shops (which only have one till anyway), irrelevant for off-licences (where sales of non-booze are negligible) and a damn nuisance in supermarkets where the Saturday morning shopping would be needlessly prolonged by having to queue twice.

I don't really know what "deep-discounting" is but the fact that Mr MacA is having to seek legal advice to end it suggests that ending this practice may be far from straightforward.

To sum up, B+ for aspiration, D- for evidence-based policy-making and E for thinking it through. It's enough to drive you to ... (Stop there! - Ed)

High finance and low politics

It is not entirely clear to me why the Scottish Government should have sought control over a declining revenue stream such as that in the form of taxation from oil located in 'Scottish waters', however the latter might be defined. On the (questionable but logical) assumption that oil revenues directed towards Scotland would replace part of the block grant from the UK Government, then it would appear that the Scottish Government would face a progressively tighter financial settlement as oil revenues inevitably declined. Of course, it would be possible to build in to any new arrangements for the block grant to be increased again as oil income declined, but that kind of defeats the point - if the motor for the new arrangements is to give greater financial responsibility to the Scottish Government, then the latter can hardly expect to be bailed out when income falls to less than anticipated. Would it not have been more sensible to ask for a share of a more stable income stream, such as VAT or whisky duties?

It is equally unclear why the UK Government should have dismissed the Scottish Government's request in such a peremptory fashion. Here was an opportunity to make a substantial cut in the UK Government's subsidy commitment to Scotland, even if in the short-term it would be balanced at UK level by the loss of oil revenues. It could also have been presented as an attempt to make the Scottish Government face up to its financial responsibilities. If I were Gordon Brown, I might have been tempted to play this one long - there would obviously have needed to be extensive studies, consultations and discussions before any final decisions were taken. Besides, it might - just - have been possible to thrash out a deal where both honour and financial expectations were satisfied on both sides.

04 September 2007

Quote of the day

Boris in The Times (here) :
“You won’t catch me doing deals with left-wing dictators,” cried Boris, “which means that Venezuelan slum children are effectively subsidising Transport for London. I say that is completely Caracas!”


03 September 2007

It's not a defeat?

A victory? Hardly. An honorable draw? Stretching it. The BBC website records the view of the Prime Minister:
The withdrawal of British troops from the southern Iraqi city of Basra is not a defeat, Gordon Brown has insisted.
The 550 soldiers have handed Basra Palace over to Iraqi control and joined 5,000 troops at the UK's last base, near the airport, outside the city.
The Ministry of Defence said the handover of Basra province was now due in the autumn.
The prime minister said the withdrawal was "pre-planned and organised" and UK forces would take an "overwatch" role.

I rather think I incline to the assessment of Mr Cockburn in The Independent:
In terms of establishing an orderly government in Basra and a decent life for its people the British failure has been absolute.

Yes, I think that says it all.

Has there been a deal?

The Independent, 30 August:
For British forces in southern Iraq, the announcement by Muqtada al-Sadr of a six-month suspension in hostilities is one of the best pieces of news to emerge for a long time.
If the radical Shia cleric's Mehdi Army does indeed hold to the ceasefire, it will allow British forces to carry out the impending withdrawal from Basra with the prospect of major bloodshed much reduced.

The Independent, 3 September:
British forces have pulled out of Basra Palace, the onetime southern residence of Saddam Hussein that became the symbol of the UK's role in the US-led invasion.
The British departure from their last remaining base inside the walls of Basra City, signalled their disengagement from the conflict and has highlighted a growing and public discord between Washington and London over Iraq, with the Americans claiming the move will severely undermine security.

Or am I being unduly cynical?

It's not really an identity crisis

It will take a day or two of getting used to. I refer of course to the sparkling new website - well, it's not really new and it remains less than sparkling but it does feature in big bold letters 'The Scottish Government'.

It's all for show, really. Legally, the organisation remains the Scottish Executive, at least until Westminster gets around to amending the Scotland Act - this year, next year, sometime, never.

And, paradoxically, it betrays a hint of insecurity. After all, you won't find the No 10 website or even the Foreign Office website boasting proudly that they are the property of the UK Government.

But what must really irk the Nationalists is that they continue to be saddled with the internet and e-mail addresses of "scotland.gov.uk".

Update: BellgroveBelle takes an entirely different view of the matter.

01 September 2007

The cynicism of old soldiers

The BBC reports:
The head of the British army during the Iraq invasion has said US post-war policy was "intellectually bankrupt".
In a Daily Telegraph interview, former chief of the general staff, Gen Sir Mike Jackson, added that US strategy had been "short-sighted".

Could it be that the timing of this attack has something to do with the fact that his autobiography is about to be published, an autobiography which is - surprise, surprise - to be serialised by The Telegraph?