31 March 2007

30 March 2007

Talk is cheap

Someone in the Executive is having a laugh. Obviously, there is a competition going on to see who can cram a press release with an excessive number of management clichés. Normal people do not speak this way:
Mr McCabe said:
"The dialogue process confirmed there is a genuine appetite for reform of public services. It revealed widespread support for the Executive's principles of reform, especially our focus on service users. There is consensus that the status quo is not an option and we have to keep pace with a changing world and rising expectations.
"After we published our Transforming Public Services discussion paper last year, we embarked on a genuine bottom-up dialogue with the people who design, deliver and use public services. It was one of the most extensive consultations we have undertaken as we asked everyone with a stake in public services how we can deliver them more efficiently and effectively.
"This document summarises the views expressed in that process and underlines many excellent examples of reform activity already underway across Scotland.
"There is a consensus developing around the challenges we face and what should underpin our reform. Strong leadership will be needed to take any changes forward. I hope this report will provide the basis for considering the best way forward to ensure the delivery of world-class customer-focused public services in Scotland."
Does it mean anything? Search me - my degree was in English.

Another day, another opinion poll...

For the third day in succession, an opinion poll predicts disaster (perhaps even 'calamity') for Scottish Labour. This time, it's The Telegraph with the bad news:
The poll suggests the SNP would gain 46 seats in the 129-seat Parliament - an increase of 19 - while Labour would dip below the 40 mark, gaining just 39. The Liberal Democrats and Tories would be 18 each, the Greens five and independents three.

Alan Cochrane of The Telegraph, not naturally in sympathy with Labour, offers Mr McConnell what would appear to be dubious advice:
Yesterday, Jack McConnell delivered up what his critics say is his somewhat poisoned mantra - namely that if you vote SNP you get independence. Full stop. Or rather semi colon, because he goes on to claim that if you get independence you also get higher taxes.
Mr McConnell is getting a bit of a bashing for this line but the fact is that he's right. The second bit about taxes may be a bit problematical but to keep hammering on that the SNP's main objective is to smash the United Kingdom must be the way to go. Of course it's negative and of course it's desperate but it is also true.

In other words, keep on bashing your head against the brick wall. It may not have done any good up to now, but just keep on.

On the other hand, I was rather depressed by The Scotsman's somewhat poignant description of the launch of the Labour campaign:
Mr McConnell chose to forego a glitzy campaign launch, instead taking to the road with his "education express" battle bus and heading to Loanhead in Midlothian, to the muddy building site that will soon be the joint school campus of Loanhead and St Margaret's Primary School.
In a stark contrast to the SNP's packed news conference, Mr McConnell and Rhona Brankin, the deputy communities minister, stood in white hard hats on a building site with only one reporter and a handful of photographers present.

Out-thought and out-manoeuvred once again. Labour really must sharpen up their act.

29 March 2007

Re-arranging the deckchairs

The Home Office re-organisation? The creation of a Ministry of Justice? I am reminded of the 200BC saying of Petronius Arbiter (which I use to keep pinned up on my office noticeboard):

"We trained hard, but it seemed that everytime we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization."

Roulette and craps

I never really understood why New Labour wanted to flood the country with casinos. But Ms Jowell would not appear to have covered herself in glory. The Times reports:
I found myself watching Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Gambling. As ever, when facing serious opposition, she relied on impeccable logic. It had been recommended that the supercasino be in Manchester and not Blackpool and so in Manchester it must be. The reason for this was because it had been recommended. Eyes glazed. Tessa was ridiculously tetchy. She spoke endlessly about how supercasinos will save deprived areas and poor people. This is her new mission in life: cure poverty with gambling. How does that work? Only the croupier knows, I guess.

I doubt if the demise of the supercasino and its smaller brothers will be much lamented (except possibly in Blackpool and Stranraer). Nor will the inevitable (and imminent) demise of Ms Jowell as a member of the cabinet.

28 March 2007

They'll be dancing in the streets of Vaduz tonight

Well, it's not often (actually almost never) that Liechtenstein wins a competitive football match.

Tough on Latvia (but then that young lady from Riga should never have gone near that tiger).

Fancy a bet?

Here are the revised odds (as per political betting) for First Minister following the publication of The Times poll.
Alex Salmond SNP 2/5

Jack McConnell Labour 11/10

Nicol Stephens [sic] Liberal [sic] 25/1

Annabel Goldie Conservitive [sic] 33/1

Robin Green [sic] Green Party 66/1

Colin Fox Socialist Party 100/1

Tommy Sheridan Solidarity 100/1

27 March 2007

The perils of Pauline

I would not normally draw attention to the failings of another blogger but who could resist this outstanding example of bathos.

PS Never mind the idiosyncratic punctuation; this is an MSP who cannot spell the name of the Deputy First Minister.

Update - spelling now sorted!

Blogroll

I've updated the blogroll. (Why did no-one say it wasn't working properly?)

New additions include:
Shuggy (who should have been added before now); and

SNP Tactical Voting, Davie from North Leith and Tartan Hero (which does not mean that I have come over all nationalist but they all have interesting things to say - at least sometimes).

I have also restored Bondwoman in the hope that it will encourage her recent return.

Perhaps one day I will manage to get the thing in alphabetical order...

It's just not fair...

You really can't blame Mr McConnell. It was just bad timing. Unlucky really.

It all got overtaken by the news from Northern Ireland. As a result, neither the telly nor the broadsheets gave the No 10 deal the prominence it deserved; nor did the No 10 website. It was left to the faithful Daily Record to report:
McConnell and the PM teamed up to stress the benefits Labour can deliver with the party in power in Westminster and Holyrood.
They promised fresh action on skills, jobs, health, crime and cutting red tape in a document on "building Scotland not breaking up Britain".

Instead, the abiding memory of the First Minister's trip to London will be supplied by this report in The Herald:
Patricia Hewitt, Health Secretary, appeared not to know who Scotland's First Minister was yesterday, marring a Labour event intended to show how Westminster and Holyrood were working together.
On STV, she extolled the virtues of the smoking ban in Scotland but came unstuck when she repeatedly referred to the First Minister as "Jack McDonald".
See what I mean? Some days, you just can't win...


Update: Courtesy of TartanHero, you can watch Patsy here.

26 March 2007

Who's trying hardest?

For those who take an arithmetically selective approach to political campaigning (or for those who equate activity with quality), it is worth noting that the SNP managed to put out 5 press releases over the weekend. The LibDems managed three (although none of them emanated from an MSP).

Apparently, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party works during weekends.

Shorts

Wot, no pigeons or seagulls?

...

Don't expect this saga to end today. (It's a bit like Liz Hurley's wedding - it just goes on and on...)

...

This guy is a stirrer.

...

Do you fancy an isotope-enhanced steak? Nope, didn't think so.

Multiplication

This is becoming silly. The Scotsman makes up new constitutional rules:
HOW many referendums might it take for the SNP to secure an independent Scotland? One in Scotland might seem the obvious answer. But a change in the British constitution would require a UK-wide referendum, too. A third may be required to ratify the negotiated settlement, which could turn out to be significantly different from popular preconception. Assuming the answer to all of these is "Yes", a further referendum may then be required on whether an independent Scotland should apply for membership of the EU, from which most legislation now emanates anyway, taking the final tally to four.

Since when did constitutional change 'require' a referendum? It may be politically convenient to have one on certain types of changes, but in no sense is it 'required'.

25 March 2007

The dog that doesn't bark

Once upon a time, a political party with an interest in gaining or retaining power would seek to manipulate the Sunday newspapers, with a view to ensuring that the story they wanted would secure prominence, thus 'setting the agenda'. The party would do this by selective briefing of particular journalists on the preceding Friday or Saturday.

That this still happens occasionally is shown by the main story in The Sunday Herald this morning, which is the result of a more or less blatant attempt by the SNP to highlight progress on the referendum question. Is this a real story? I have suggested here that it might not be. But at least the SNP is putting the effort in.

What do we get from Labour? The main political story in Scotland on Sunday is that Gordon Brown is to place himself 'at the heart of Labour's Holyrood election campaign' (while insisting - of course - that Mr McConnell remained 'the leader of the campaign'). Is this a real story? Does it mean anything? Probably not, it's just the Brown team going through the rather tired motions. But at least somebody put in some effort in getting the necessary quotations together.

Anything else on the Labour front? Well, it's risible to say the least but the Sunday Mail has this:

CRIMINALS could be ordered to do community work in telltale orange uniforms under Labour's plans for "pay-back punishments".
Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson wants to introduce community courts which would order offenders to sweep the streets or repair vandalism.
Dear, dear. Pathetic, you say? I have to admit that it's hardly agenda-setting.

But what of the esteemed First Minister? How has he set the headlines alight, a mere six weeks ahead of the election? Well, the only thing I could find was this headline in The Sunday Post:
JACK McCONNELL travels to London tomorrow to tell Tony Blair the smoking ban in Scotland is an unqualified success.
Newsworthy stuff, isn't it? Why not just give Tony a ring rather than adding to carbon emissions?

If the First Minister wants the Labour party to be re-elected, then he really has to start working harder.

Who's a fat boy then?

Me, I blame the parents. That and the television. Oh and the absence of diet Trill. The Independent reports:
Increasing numbers of budgerigars are becoming fat to the point of obesity, scientists say, because of high-energy diets, lack of exercise and their refusal to fly.
Researchers at the universities of Gröningen and Bern filmed large numbers of the caged birds and found that they were so lazy that they walked to their food rather than flying.

Hey, if you were stuck in a wee cage most of the day, you'd have trouble flying.

And, btw, have university researchers not got anything better to do?

Ah, the time-honoured practice of tweaking...

There you go. A quiet word with the civil servants, a tweaking of the referendum question and, hey presto, the difficulties just disappear. The Sunday Herald reports:
In recent talks with the SNP, civil service officials expressed concern that the wording of the referendum question might not be covered by the powers of the parliament.
The civil servants instead suggested a new version which made clear the question had to be explicit about being based on the contents of the white paper.
Salmond said he could "not comment" on discussions with the Executive, but confirmed that a "tweaked" question had been drafted.
"Any talks with the civil service are private, but the wording on the ballot will be, The Scottish parliament should negotiate a new settlement with the British government, based on the proposals set out in the white paper, so that Scotland becomes a sovereign and independent state'. The responses would be Yes I agree' or No I disagree'."
In other words, a "Yes" vote would give Holyrood the right to negotiate an independence settlement, rather than a straight endorsement of a separate state.

Can it be that simple? I rather doubt it. Let me remind you of the legal position taken earlier by the Executive (see here):
“Scottish parliament does not have the powers to pass legislation authorising expenditure on any referendum. [It] can only pass legislation in devolved areas, and since the UK constitution is a reserved area, it would be ultra vires [beyond its power] for the parliament to pass legislation to authorise a referendum on any aspect of the constitution.” The guidance adds: “Neither can Scottish ministers have any function in connection with the holding of such a referendum.”

But if Mr Salmond says that Sir John Elvidge and the Executive have changed their position, then who am I to disbelieve him?

23 March 2007

It's complicated, all this interweb stuff...

I've been updating my RSS feeds. (For those not up with the techie stuff, these tell me when a website has been updated. Thus when something new appears on a blog or a political website, I am alerted.)

OK, it's a minor issue but, of the four main Scottish political parties, only the SNP has bothered with RSS feeds. I don't claim to be more than vaguely aware of technological progress, but the absence of RSS feeds must nowadays be regarded as amateurism.



Oh yes, I do have one. Go down to the bottom of the right hand column.

Maybe it's not his fault but...

... does Tommy never get tired of living a life in the movies?

Industrial relations - how to be a dictator

It seems that the private sector is also occasionally troubled by petty-minded bureaucrats. The Times reports:
Royal Bank of Scotland has sparked a fierce row with unions by threatening 14,000 staff with disciplinary action unless they open and have their salary paid into a current account with the group.
An RBS spokeswoman refused to rule out the possibility that employees could ultimately face the sack.
The bank, home to Direct Line, Churchill and NatWest, has written to thousands of employees warning them they will be in breach of group policy unless they act.

Regardless of the merits (if such exist) of the policy, why does RBS draw attention to it? Do they want to be seen as vindictive, tyrannical, pettifogging employers? Do they not think about the damage such reports will do to their reputation? Self-defeating or what...

22 March 2007

What did we do to deserve this lot?

Something of a shouting match at First Minister's Questions today. I'll put up a link (here) when it is available (and when I have come back from watching the cricket at the pub).

It was inevitably all about local government taxation. I am sorry for those of you who find this boring because you are going to hear an awful lot about it over the next few weeks. Jack said the SNP were going to impose another poll tax on Scotland - which is rather stretching the point. Nicola asked him what his alternative policy was. Rather limply, Jack said that before the election he would announce proposals for making the council tax fairer.

I have already made clear (here) my less than complimentary opinion on the SNP proposals.

But the Labour Party is also in something of a bind. As far as we can gather, Jack's proposals are likely to follow yesterday's Lyons Report (here) by adding one or two bands to the existing council tax arrangements. But this could not be done without a property revaluation (the existing bands are based on valuations made in the early 1990s). A revaluation would horrify political parties because it would result in relatively large numbers of losers and winners (and the longer they leave it the worse it gets). Which is why in England the Lyons Report will be thrown into a cupboard and forgotten (and why it was released on budget day).

So what can our esteemed First Minister offer in the short term by way of reform of local government finance? Not a lot is likely to be the answer.

(By the way, would some civil servant take Mr McConnell aside and explain to him the difference between 'less' and 'fewer'? It would be so much nicer if the First Minister appeared to have had some education. Oh, and tell him to stop shouting when he runs out of proper answers.)

21 March 2007

The budget

What do I think? Well, it could have been worse.

I don't pay income tax (as I do not earn sufficient income) but the cut to 20% will no doubt be welcomed by the wage slaves - though I suspect that the abolition of the 10% rate will claw back most of the benefits. The two point cut in corporation tax has rather dished the tories but again it will be clawed back by other changes eg in allowances. I can live with an extra penny on beer (although I am inclined to wonder why the Chancellor bothers) and the whisky duty remains unchanged. 11 pence on the fags is a bit of a shocker. I don't have a car so he can increase petrol and car duty as much as he likes - and for the sake of general greenery he should probably have been a bit more punitive. (I mean, who cares about the feelings of Chelsea tractor owners?)

The increased spending on education and health (if it is real, which is a big if) should have consequentials for the Executive's budget, enabling it to go on throwing its money around like a drunken sailor.

More interestingly, the Chancellor seems to have effectively destroyed the emerging tory tax policy. If I were young Gideon Osborne, I would be wondering where I went from here. Married couples' allowances, flying taxes, corporation tax cuts - they have all been shot down or adopted. Not for the first time, I rather think Big Gordon has been under-estimated.

The Conrad and Barbara show

In The Telegraph today, Boris Johnson is on splendid form:
What a circus. What a show. What a wonderful way to cheer a bleak March morning. The English spring seems to have had a crisis of confidence and relapsed into winter. The English cricket team is collapsing - and yet all the way from Chicago there wafts a story to warm the cockles of the heart, a magnificent fable of pride and retribution, and we are indebted to one extraordinary couple for providing it.
I know I shouldn't be rooting for Conrad Black, and I want you to know that I in no way condone his alleged crimes. In so far as he is guilty of rampantly raiding the corporate cookie jar, he must pay his debt to society. If it is true that he snuck down in the middle of the night and ate - in financial terms - the entire chocolate cake that had been set aside for the school picnic, then obviously that was very wrong; and if Jeff Randall was right in his analysis the other day in these pages, then the matter is plainly extremely serious...

Well worth reading the whole thing.

Boris is wasted as a politician.

20 March 2007

Not great but not bad

Scotland 34 for nil off 10 overs.

Here.


Update:

Look, let's just forget I mentioned it.

Well, what would you call it?

Well, well! Ms Boyack has come out against the replacement of trident. The Evening News reports:
EDINBURGH Central Labour MSP Sarah Boyack has spoken out against replacing Trident.
She told a hustings meeting organised by Edinburgh University Students Association that she opposed the renewal of Britain's nuclear deterrent.

Surprising therefore that she voted in favour of renewal in December when it was debated in the Scottish Parliament (see here).

It is with a certain amount of irony that I note that Mr Chisholm lost his job on that occasion by voting against renewal, a loss which ultimately led to Ms Boyack's re-instatement as an Executive minister.

Quote of the day

Lord Turnbull:
"You cannot help admire the sheer Stalinist ruthlessness of it all."

I met that Lord Turnbull once, when he was Cabinet Secretary. Can't say I was enormously impressed. Weedy-looking sort of bloke. Of course he wasn't a lord then.

Anyway, if a Chancellor of the Exchequer can't show a bit of Stalinist ruthlessness from time to time, then what's the point?

Hibs 5 Kilmarnock 1

I don't like to keep banging on about it, but Scottish Executive ministers cannot hope to win the election when the First Minister's official spokesperson is allowed to say things like this:
Asked if he would pass the Herald's commiserations to Ms Jamieson regarding the CIS Cup result the FMOS said he would let the Justice Communications Team know. Asked if any Cabinet ministers are Hibs supporters the FMOS concluded the briefing saying that he did not think so.

Damn disgrace!

The stuff of nightmares

I readily admit that I don't like the little bastards to start with. That eery whine which wakes you up and you know that you've been bitten.

But the idea of red-eyed genetically engineered monsters outbreeding normal nasty mosquitos gives me the willies, even if they don't carry malaria.

Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?

Is Jack being suckered? (again)

The First Minister is lured into fighting on the SNP's ground. The Scotsman reports:
JACK McConnell's right hand was balled into a fist like a boxer's. His left hand was on a colleague's shoulder.
"Game on," he said quietly, a smile on his face for the first time in weeks.
The First Minister had just finished a press conference attacking the SNP's plans for its first 100 days in office.
Mr McConnell had refused a prepared speech, so pumped up was he by what he regarded as the first major blunder of the campaign by Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, that he wanted to speak his mind, without notes.
"We are angry," he declared, five times.

It's all very well being angry. But, for the sake of the Labour Party, try being angry about the SNP dictating the agenda and the battleground. Salmond is winning every round and has yet to put a foot wrong. He trails his coat at the weekend and the First Minister pounces on it.

19 March 2007

Listen, willya!

Well, I think it's inspired.

Could they not spread them out a bit more?

Is it my imagination or does sport seem to have occupied excessive amounts of terrestrial television time in recent weeks? On Saturday, I became square-eyed after watching three rugby matches in succession, to the extent that on Sunday I was barely able to summon up sufficient interest in the Hibees' glorious victory over Kilmarnock in what used to be known as the league cup final. Throw in a couple of Match of the Days plus a bit of cricket highlights and it was all overwhelmingly over the top.

Meanwhile tonight we have the doubtful pleasures of Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea to sit through.

It's a hard life for a sports fan...

Spinning a line

There was a time when budget plans were kept strictly secret until budget day. No longer, obviously. The Guardian reports that the Chancellor:
... is expected to increase road tax on the worst polluting vehicles while reducing excise duties for owners of more fuel-efficient cars. Taxes on so-called "gas guzzlers" bought new since April are expected to double to about £400 over the next two years, while most cars owners will face inflation-linked increases. The lowest emission cars will continue to be free of excise duties.
A similar story appears in The Independent (here) and The Times (here).

It rather detracts from the surprise element of the budget. And it is so obviously co-ordinated leaking for effect.

Appealing to the North Korean tendency?

I appreciate that the SNP may be seeking to maximise its strengths but I would suggest that this is not necessarily a good idea. The Herald reports:
His speech was the main point of a weekend that made Alex Salmond the main focus of the SNP campaign. Having identified Jack McConnell as a Labour weak spot, and Alex Salmond as a key strength, the SNP will put their leader at the top of every ballot paper in Scotland.
"Alex Salmond for First Minister" will be the first thing you read when you vote, followed by the letters SNP and its symbol. That will be for the regional vote, while the constituency option follows, to the right of the single sheet.

You can take the cult of personality too far, you know.

18 March 2007

Iron Broon?

The personality of the Chancellor is always grist to the mill of the political commentators. Here are two utterly contrasting accounts of what appears to be the same event.

First, Matthew Parris here in yesterday's Times:
I heard last week from a most unpolitical friend who, for £75, had agreed to take part in a forum organised jointly by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society, to examine and discuss the problems of single mothers.
On arriving the young mothers were told they were to have a special guest. It turned out to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
My friend, who had not been unsympathetic to Mr Brown, had until then only seen him on TV. She said he was a dreadful disappointment. In fact she was shocked by how bad he was. A forced smile, a prescripted announcement, for which this visit and these women were really just the media frame, and an apparent inability (or disinclination) to listen to or engage with what any of them were saying, answer their questions or show openness to their ideas and testimony left her feeling cheated and angry.

Second, Gaby Hinsliff here in The Observer:
There was little left of the complimentary chocolates but a few scrunched-up sweet papers by the time Gordon Brown arrived. So much, joked the Chancellor ruefully to a ripple of laughter, for government efforts on healthy eating.
And with the ice broken, he was off: chatting away about disciplining kids, pre-watershed sex on TV, and whether teachers should be paid more if they stay at one school for long enough to give pupils continuity.
At each of the eight tables packed with parents at the private seminar on families he attended last month in London, the conversation flowed easily. Summing up at the end, the famously defensive Chancellor even admitted he might have to reconsider issues such as whether grandparents should be paid by the state for looking after their own grandchildren. He finished with a grinning testimony to the 'incredible' joys of parenthood.

Which represents the real Chancellor? Your guess is as good as mine...

16 March 2007

Vegetables

No, I don't know what it's all about either but The Guardian has reported it:
Chelsea have banned celery from Stamford Bridge and ordered fans to stop throwing it during matches after the Football Association launched an investigation into instances of salad tossing at their recent matches.
Two referees have now mentioned celery being thrown onto the pitch during their official reports of Chelsea matches, while Arsenal's players complained of being pelted with the vegetable when they tried to take corners during the first half of the Carling Cup final.

What's he up here for, anyway?

It's not polite. Sir George is a respected businessman entitled to his views. I may think that Sir George is wrong but that does not allow me to resort to abuse. (I only do that with politicians.) The BBC reports:
Prime Minister Tony Blair has dismissed a top businessman's support for the Scottish National Party as "self-indulgent and absurd".
Sir George Mathewson, former Royal Bank of Scotland chairman, announced his support in a letter to The Scotsman.
He backed SNP leader Alex Salmond for first minister and argued that the SNP and independence could liberate Scotland from a "dependency culture".

Furthermore, the Prime Minister is in no position to call anyone else 'self-indulgent'.

15 March 2007

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Trivial nonsense.

Me? No, I don't have enough hair to worry about it.

Polyphenols are not us

Is this the way towards better health? The Independent reports:
If you think a glass of breakfast orange juice is the best way to start the day, think again. Grape juice could be more beneficial.
Scientists have carried out the first scientific analysis of fruit juices to measure their antioxidant activity - the anti-ageing compounds that protect against heart disease and other chronic conditions.
Top of the league is purple grape juice followed by apple juice and cranberry juice, according to the study by researchers at the University of Glasgow. Orange juice, the most popular fruit juice, comes way down the league. It contains fewer polyphenols than the other juices tested, which are strong antioxidants.

But then, the let-down:
The research was funded by the National Grape Co-operative, a consortium of farmers in the US owned by Welch's, makers of Concord purple grape juice.

So it's back to coffee and a cigarette for breakfast.

No way to run a railway

If I were a railways commuter in the south-east of England (which thank the Lord I'm not sir), I doubt if I would be impressed with wee Dougie's announcement. The Guardian reports:
Rail passengers face annual inflation-busting fare rises into the next decade after the government announced a £1bn investment in carriages to ease overcrowding. A passenger watchdog said yesterday it expected season ticket prices to rise by at least 1% above inflation for the foreseeable future to fund the expansion of the overloaded rail network.
Douglas Alexander, the transport secretary, said the government would buy 1,000 extra train carriages between 2009 and 2014 to ease sardine-like conditions on the worst affected routes.

Oh great, continued overcrowding for at least two years and possibly seven years.

I'm not even going to begin to discuss why the government has to buy the carriages in the first place...

14 March 2007

Pauline McNeill, MSP and blogger (well maybe)

Hi Pauline! I guess this blogging business is not as easy as it looks. Your blog sits there, unattended. Shame, cos it's a really nice-looking blog. Not bog-standard Blogger like this one.

But there have been no posts since 5 March. It's now 14 March. If you don't post, blogs die.

I know that I submitted comments on your 5 March post. I suggested that your criticism of health boards about hospital car parking was unjustified and that you would have been better to address the Executive's insistence on PFI for health investment. You chose not to publish those comments. Fair enough - it's your blog. If you choose not to publish adverse comments, then that's up to you. Kinda defeats the point, though.

But don't let that stop you blogging. Go to it, girl!

It's not very convincing, to say the least

This morning the BBC reported that the SNP's local income tax proposals would involve a standard across-the-board charge of 3p in the pound with no local variation. I thought that the BBC must have got it wrong: nobody could be that stupid. So I decided to withhold comment.

But it has now appeared on the SNP website (here):
The SNP will abolish the unfair Council Tax and replace it with a local income tax system based on the ability to pay. The local tax will be set at a rate of 3p on income excluding savings income.
Thus, at a stroke, the SNP would abolish the ability of local authorities to determine their income. Admittedly, council tax income represents a relatively small proportion of the total income of local authorities but it is important at the margin. Because if local authorities have no control over their income (as the SNP now propose), they have no control over the level of services provided in their area - everything is determined centrally. Thus local authorities become spending agencies on behalf of central government.

I could go further. If local authority income is determined centrally (as the SNP now propose), why bother with a local income tax? If local resources are both determined centrally and handed down by central government, why bother going through the hassle of determining the amounts payable by individuals in local authority areas, only to equalise the disparities through what used to be known as rate support grant? In simple terms, why give Edinburgh less in grant than Borders because the former gets more per head in local income tax, when it all comes from the same source? Just determine local authority needs on an objective basis and give them the money.

Some other points to note, courtesy of an illiterate Frequently Asked Questions (here):
Individuals will pay local income tax through HM Revenues and Customs and this will be distributed to local authorities.
No sign that the SNP has actually spoken to HMRC about how easy it would be to determine the amounts of local income tax payable to individual local authorities. Nor is there any answer to the question of whether it is the address of the employer or the employee which matters.
Owners of second homes would pay their fair share. They would pay an equivalent amount in business rates.
So, on top of the 3% of their income, second home owners would pay business rates on their second home. And how would that be assessed, exactly?

And finally, there is this curious addition to the very first quotation set out above:
The local tax will be set at a rate of 3p on income excluding savings income.
Strange that the SNP should want unearned income excluded from local income tax. Does Mr Salmon or Ms Sturgeon have lots of shares hidden away? Why should a retired millionaire living off his bank interest be excused local income tax? And, anyway, as HMRC calculates income tax liabilities on the basis of total income, would it even be possible?

As a member of the electorate, I think that I deserve a better plan for local government finance than this back of a fag packet rubbish.

13 March 2007

Why does the Executive hate children?

I know, it's supposed to be healthy for them. But if the Executive's newly published recommendations for primary schoolkids' lunches are followed, then the kiddoes have my sympathy. Here, for example, is what Wednesday's child is expected to have for lunch:
Wednesday
Granary bread sandwich filled with chopped chicken mixed with plain low fat yogurt, and crunchy lettuce.
One carrot cut into sticks
200ml carton or glass of semi skimmed milk
One peach or seasonal fruit
One oatcake lightly spread with reduced fat polyunsaturated spread

One oatcake lightly spread with polyunsaturates! And this is meant to be appetising?

Asking for trouble

In the short term, this may offer some political advantage - or at least the First Minister may think so. The BBC reports:
First Minister Jack McConnell has pledged that Scottish nurses will receive their full 2.5% increase from April this year.
That means they will be paid more than nurses elsewhere in the UK.
The move was announced on Tuesday and is at odds with Chancellor Gordon Brown's plans for a phased pay rise for nurses south of the border.

Big Gordon will not be pleased (to put it mildly). Nor will Labour MPs south of the border. At some stage, perhaps sooner than he thinks, Mr McConnell may need a favour from these guys...

Humanity and other species

Somehow, I expected something rather more scientific. The BBC reports:
The first trapping and culling of grey squirrels to take place in Aberdeen has got under way.
...
The cull is taking place in the city's Hazelhead woods where an experienced gamekeeper hopes to trap dozens of greys over the next few weeks.
The council said the animals would then be dispatched humanely with a quick blow to the head.

We live in a world of marvellous technology and we claim to be a civilised species. But getting rid of squirrels involves bashing them on the head.

What do we want? Re-organisation - now?

Maybe it's because they've never been in government but the SNP seem to think that their plans to re-structure the Executive will matter to the electorate.

OK, so the size of the cabinet would be reduced to the First Minister and five cabinet secretaries. But so what? It would cost a bit less, which might be a Good Thing. On the other hand, certain parties will be less than content that issues such as enterprise, housing and local government, transport, arts, culture and sport no longer have a dedicated voice in cabinet. But what matters is the quality of decision-making: there is nothing in the proposals to indicate that an SNP cabinet and its allies will do any better than the current mob.

Furthermore, what is the point of this?
"We will reduce the number of Scottish Executive Departments by one third from nine to six, through a series of simplifications, amalgamations and transfers of responsibilities."

Big deal! But, if nobody is going to stop doing anything, you are merely re-arranging the deckchairs. You don't make any staff resource savings, apart from at the very top (and, even then, civil servants have ways of protecting their positions). The only real outcome is that everybody needs to get new business cards.

It is of course necessary for an aspiring government to prepare for office. But there are more important issues to worry about than the shape of the administration, especially when at this stage the SNP can have no real idea of the demands of ministerial office.

If Mr Salmond thinks that messing about with government structure is going to set the electoral heather on fire, he is mistaken.

Signs of spring

The Times states the bleeding obvious:
Cuckoo
Cuculus canorus
Sound: “Coo-cooo”
...
Chiffchaff
Phylloscopus collybita
Sound: “chiff chaff”

12 March 2007

Memo to the SNP

Look guys, stop messing about. Either you'll have a referendum within four years or you won't. It's time to make your mind up. You can't have it both ways. The Scotsman reports:
PRESSURE was growing on the SNP last night to "come clean" on whether the party is willing to shelve a referendum on independence in return for getting into government.
John Swinney, the party's former leader, yesterday would not confirm that the SNP's current policy of a referendum in the first four years is "non-negotiable", and Mr Salmond was "unavailable" to comment.
Mr Swinney's failure to take a clear position on the matter came after Sir Tom Farmer, who recently gave £100,000 to the party, told a Sunday newspaper that if Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP, wins power in May he will delay the commitment to independence for at least four years in order to prove what they can do in government first.
However, hours after Mr Swinney avoided the question, panicked press officers made the official line clear.
"It is a non-negotiable policy commitment to be delivered in the four-year term," said a spokesman.

You have had plenty time to think about it. Can we now have some clarity on your position?

11 March 2007

What is the world coming to (part 27)?

Yet another milestone in the upward path to middle class respectability. Qwghlm ( no, I don't know either) tells it like it is:
But most importantly, there are no babies recorded with the name Senga. Senga is “Agnes” backward, and according to various urban legends I heard during my time in Edinburgh, was the name given to several babies borne by women whose grandmothers were called Agnes, with the reversal given to make it more hip ‘n modern. Certain class assumptions about the mothers’ demographics mean the word is now a synonym for “ned” or “chav”. But the total absence of Sengas from the 2006 register perhaps suggests it’s a myth. Unless you know different.

It's a disgrace, that's what it is. What happened to tradition?

[Credit to the round-up which drew my attention to this.]

The times they are a-changing...

Scottish Labour was rocked the other day when the following was revealed (from the BBC website):
Is Bob Dylan a modern day prophet? Many of his fans think so, but the Pope certainly does not.
It has emerged that Pope Benedict tried to stop the rock star playing for his predecessor John Paul the Second because he was afraid the musician's beliefs were at odds with the Catholic Church.

In view of the Catholic Church's extensive influence over Labour voters in the West of Scotland, concern was immediately expressed that Jack McConnell's known admiration for the aging folk-rocker would lead the Labour faithful to desert the polling booths. Punters in Coatbridge were reported to be queueing up to dispose of the 'Blonde on Blonde' LP. A spokesman for the Labour Party said that the outcome of the May elections was now probably blowing in the wind.

On the other hand, this report (also on the BBC) was not expected to have any discernible effect:
One of Scotland's most senior Catholics has declared he will not vote Labour in May's Holyrood elections.
The Bishop of Motherwell, Joseph Devine, said he now feels many Labour policies, such as civil partnerships, fly in the face of Christian tradition.
He said his congregation's traditional allegiance to Labour had been tested to breaking point.

Memo to the Scottish Rugby Union

Look, guys, if you must persist with painting commercial logos on the Murrayfield pitch, either:
a. do it a lot earlier before the match; or
b. use quicker-drying paint.

That way, we might avoid the sight of players wearing colourful paint streaks, as happened yesterday.

PS And this is not the first time - sort it!

10 March 2007

Dave's diary

To Perth for the Scottish party conference.

Ghastly weather, ghastly place, ghastly people. Mundell said they were not thinkers; he didn't tell me that they were unreconstructed thatcherite boneheads. And so old - I thought I had strayed into a meeting of the pensioners' party.

Talk about right-wing? The hall just about froze over when I mentioned civil partnerships. Though at least half of the audience were so doddery that they were already asleep.

Had to slap down some idiot in a kilt who claimed to be party vice-chairman. Everyone called him Biggles. No idea why.

Bella wanted me to stay for a cup of tea but, frankly, an hour and 20 minutes of the conference was as much as I could stand.

I have had it up to here with the jocks. They are on their own for the May elections, when they can sink or swim. (Sinking seems more probable.)

Next year, I'll send Osborne.

09 March 2007

Aging well

I suppose that I should be inspired. It's aimed at people over 50, people like me. To have a strategy for wrinklies must be a Good Thing. And they probably mean well - or at least they don't mean any harm (which is not quite the same thing).

But all I can think of is that some poor sod of a civil servant had to spend weeks and months, writing guff like this:
For this strategy we will focus mainly, though not exclusively, on the over-50 age-group; while recognising the importance of the full life course. This age is chosen not because it marks the start of "old age" or because we think all people over this age are somehow similar, but because for many it is a point at which life circumstances start to change in ways that have implications for the future. For example, many people start to change their working patterns, some leaving the labour market completely. Grown-up children may leave home, and parents have more time and possibly more money. People take on caring responsibilities perhaps for the first time, for example for elderly relatives. People also gradually become more likely to develop long term health conditions, such as diabetes and arthritis, which they may have to live with for many years.

There is loads of it here: over 3 megabytes in total (not including the press release). I imagine our civil servant coming home from work and his children asking "What did you do today, daddy?" He answers: "I finished another chapter of the sodding meisterwork 'All our Futures: Planning for a Scotland with an Ageing Population'. Now shut up and get me a stiff G&T."

Quotes of the day...

... well, yesterday actually.

First, from a well-rehearsed (but none the worse for that) Annabel Goldie on being reminded by the First Minister of the Mundell memo:
"Perhaps the difference between me and the First Minister is that the internal memos of my party do not end up in Scotland Yard."
[Source: here]


Second, from Alastair Campbell (yes, him) at the COSLA Conference:
He said SNP leader Alex Salmond put him in mind of an Australian cricketer's comment on the English batsman Geoffrey Boycott: he clearly fell in love with himself at an early age, and has been deeply faithful ever since.
[Source: here]

08 March 2007

If I were you, pal, I'd stick to making the underpants...

Calvin Klein has a new perfume to sell. The New York Times reports:
“We have envisioned this as the first fragrance for the technosexual generation,” said Mr. Murry, using a term the company made up to describe its intended audience of thumb-texting young people whose romantic lives are defined in part by the casual hookup.
Last year, the company went so far as to trademark “technosexual,” anticipating it could become a buzzword for marketing to millennials, the roughly 80 million Americans born from 1982 to 1995. A typical line from the press materials for CK in2u goes like this: “She likes how he blogs, her texts turn him on. It’s intense. For right now.”
Which may turn off its intended audience by the tens of thousands.

Aye, right. She likes how I blog. Don't think so...

David who?

Not for the first time, I feel a little sorry for the Tories. There they were, sailing along to the May election, knowing that they were down to their core vote and that they could not fall much further. Not for them the agonies of choosing which other party to support in coalition - nobody would want to partner the Tories. There is solace in being a wallflower: you don't expect anything and you can settle for emotional tranquility. Nor do you need to worry about dressing up in fancy new policies; you can stick to the tried and trusted. And if the familiar routines seem a little tired, well, it doesn't really matter. It's not as if you can actually change things.

Then that horrid rag, The Daily Record, digs up a memo from last June and this is the result:
TORY MSPs are clueless no-hopers - according to Scotland's only Conservative MP.
Shadow Scots secretary David Mundell delivered the damning verdict in a memo to leader David Cameron.
The memo - leaked to the Record - reveals Tory chiefs have completely lost confidence in their Holyrood team, including leader Annabel Goldie. Mundell's confidential briefing to Cameron emerged as the Tory leader prepared to head to Perth tomorrow for a pre-election speech to rally the party faithful.
The four-page memo claims there is a "simple lack of thinkers" among the 17 Tory MSPs and they are incapable of coming up with new policies.
Mundell, an MSP from 1999 to 2005, also tells Cameron that Goldie has been slated for "lack of activity" and MSPs have failed to embrace the party's moderate new approach, saying they "don't get it".

Mr Mundell is apparently the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. He was once an MSP and made as much impression on Holyrood as he has in his new incarnation. Interestingly, no-one at Conservative Party HQ, least of all Mr Cameron, seems to have acted upon Mr Mundell's memo. Nor is it clear that, even if they were disposed to action, anyone has a clue about what to do to rectify the situation.

07 March 2007

The ermine robes

Ah, the House of Lords. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian sums up the choices facing MPs this evening:
Tonight members of the Commons are supposedly voting on how to change this system and, among other things, remove the peerages that have proved so irresistible to men of wealth. Do not hold your breath. MPs are being asked to choose between scheme A, whereby the political establishment chooses lords as now, and scheme B, whereby the political establishment continues to choose lords by deciding who gets on the party list for "election". In a hilarious extension of this Hobson's choice, MPs are even offered a mix of A and B. As the waiter might ask, how much humbug would sir like with his humbug?

06 March 2007

Hung out to dry?

It starts to get interesting. The Times reports:
A High Court injunction preventing the BBC from running a news item about the cash-for-honours investigation was discharged today, hours after a judge refused to grant an injunction to gag a national newspaper from running a story about the inquiry.
Last night, a judge declined to prevent The Guardian from suggesting that Lord Levy, Tony Blair's personal fundraiser, may have attempted to influence the evidence of Ruth Turner, a senior Downing Street aide, in the cash-for-honours investigation.
In a statement today, Scotland Yard said:
“In view of the Guardian story it is no longer tenable or appropriate for us to seek to maintain any of the existing undertakings or injunctions against other media.”
Meanwhile, Lord Levy’s solicitor Neil O’May said in a statement:
“Lord Levy categorically denies any wrongdoing whatsoever, as he has throughout this lengthy police investigation."
Mr May said the “media-style trial” was placing “an intolerable burden” on the peer and his family.
Earlier, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said he had “absolutely no reason to believe” that No 10 was involved in the Guardian story, but stopped short of categorically denying any Downing Street involvement.

No sign - absolutely no sign - of No 10 rushing to the aid of Lord Levy.

Doing good

It would be perverse not to acknowledge that the Executive and the NHS are improving their capacity for preventive health care. This press release is an example:
Up to 150 lives could be saved each year thanks to the rollout of a national bowel cancer screening programme, it was announced today.
The move will see the introduction of a nationwide scheme targeting all men and women in Scotland aged between 50 and 74. When implementation is complete around 650,000 people will be issued with home test kits every year and individuals will be screened once every two years.

I cannot honestly say that I look forward to the receipt of my home test kit, but it might just save my life...

Over-stating the case?

I accept that paternity leave is a Good Thing but I fear that I am becoming an old fogey. Especially when I see reports like this one in The Guardian:
Children are more likely to suffer development problems if their fathers do not take paternity leave or spend enough time with them when they are very young, according to an analysis of thousands of babies born around the turn of the millennium.
A report published today by the Equal Opportunities Commission and based on research tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 found emotional and behavioural problems were more common by the time youngsters reached the age of three if their fathers had not taken time off work when they were born, or had not used flexible working to have a more positive role in their upbringing.

When I was a child, there was no paternity leave worth speaking about. Which leads me to wonder if the children of my generation (and all those before them) suffered emotional and behavioural problems?

The EOC would probably answer yes. Me, I don't remember it that way. But then, as I said, I'm becoming an old fogey...

Patsy of the day

Following yesterday's report by the BBC on the Pannell Kerr Foster review of the administration of the Scottish Football League, the blazers come in for a good kicking in this morning's press - here and here in The Herald and here in The Scotsman.

It is easy to point the finger. The SFL is "an organisation not suited to a modern-day business environment"; the shortest-serving employee has been with the SFL for 18 years and PKF feel "the institutionalisation of the workforce may be stifling the desire for improvement"; and "it is, frankly, astonishing that a high-profile business in the digital age (as the SFL is) does not view IT or a website as a priority". Nor is the SFL 's case helped by the somewhat intemperate reaction of its chairman: "The SFL has been in existence for 116 years and has been a well-organised and orchestrated organisation. As far as I'm concerned it is the best administrative organisation in the UK and anybody in football will tell you that."

And yet...

A review of the administrative and financial structures of the SFL, an organisation which looks after the lower divisions of Scottish football, in isolation from the activities of the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Premier League, is rather a peculiar way of looking down the wrong end of the telescope. The administration of Scottish football is, on the whole, a bureaucratic nightmare. Instead of throwing sticks at the smallest and weakest of the three organisations, what is needed is a top-level review of the administrative tasks required for the industry as a whole, with the subsequent development of a modern administrative structure designed to fit those tasks.

Er, but don't hold your breath, waiting for any such outcome.

05 March 2007

Woof, woof!

According to the First Minister's Official Spokesperson (here), Mr McConnell is in for an exciting day tomorrow. Believe it or not, he is going to meet "a Western Isles police man and the cocker spaniel training to be the Western Isles' first sniffer dog".

I'm sorry, I don't know the dog's name.

Nice to see that the forthcoming election is not being allowed to disturb the First Minister's political priorities.

Update:

The dog's name is Roxy. (See here)

Goody bag time again!

The Highlands and Islands Convention meets today in Stornoway.

Remember what happened last time? I posted this towards the end of 2005:

Today sees the resumption of the Highlands and Islands Convention. As usual on these occasions, the First Minister arrives bearing gifts, as the Executive's press release points out:

"A funding package of around £6 million had been agreed to create a new regional air hub in Oban and new licensed airfields on the islands of Coll and Colonsay. First Minister Jack McConnell, at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands at Inverary today, said creating the new island airfields will mean islanders and tourists have an alternative to the existing ferry service - opening up the area to increased business and tourism."


It was unfortunate, therefore to read this in The Herald just two weeks ago:
Officially, the Argyll Air Services project has cost £6.25m in capital funding and involves upgrading and creating new hard runways and terminals at Connel and on the islands of Coll and Colonsay.
The Scottish Executive has also agreed to provide around £500,000 worth of subsidies a year to provide twice-weekly scheduled flights to Coll and Colonsay. Also planned are 40 flights a year to each of the islands to help ferry 15 children home from school in Oban for weekends during term time...
The Herald last week rang airline executives to see if they thought the scheme was viable. On condition of anonymity, they all gave the same answer: no.
Oban, more than two hours from Glasgow by car and three hours by train, is just too close to the central belt and too small to sustain regular flights, they said.
More importantly, they added, such flights would be doomed to be unreliable. Connel airfield - or Oban Airport to give it its new official name - will never be able to handle instrument landings. Pilots flying into the airfield, which has 1000ft Ben Lora at the end of its runway, will always have to see where they are going.
"Oban to Glasgow: it can't be done," a senior Scottish aviator told The Herald. "It would be a commercial no-no, an environmental no-no and a practical no-no."

So there's £6 million plus down the drain.

What horrors can we expect from the Convention this week?

Stirring the pot?

So what is he up to now? Does it amount to anything more than an attempt to deflect criticism that he is keeping his options open by refusing to relinquish his Westminster seat, which would allow him to forsake the Holyrood parliament if he fails to become First Minister? The Herald reports:
Alex Salmond is considering staying on as a Westminster MP after the next General Election if he becomes Scotland's First Minister, party sources have told The Herald.
The assumption has so far been that if the Nationalist leader were to win a seat at Holyrood on May 3 and become leader of an SNP-led Scottish Executive, then he would stand down as an MP, certainly at the next General Election, still expected to be in the spring or summer of 2009.
However, party sources have pointed out there might be "advantages" to Mr Salmond remaining in the House of Commons beyond the next General Election.
Nationalist thinking appears to be that remaining as an MP would give the party leader a unique weekly platform to raise Scottish issues and goad Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose premiership - should the SNP form an executive in Edinburgh - could be dogged by "the Scottish question". The 52-year-old 's continued questioning at Westminster set-piece events such as PMQs might not only beleaguer the Labour government but also provide a spur for the Nationalists' key argument: Scottish independence, a referendum on which is likely towards the end of the Scottish parliamentary session in 2010-11.

Not a very practical arrangement. Could a First Minister seriously contemplate being in London every Wednesday for Prime Minister's Questions? Wednesday is of course one of only two days in the week when the Holyrood Parliament is in session. If Mr Salmond remained a Westminster MP as well as an MSP, he would have two separate constituencies in the North East to look after, as well as doing what is generally recognised to be a full-time job as First Minister and keeping up with developments at Westminster. It's not impossible, but it would be difficult and exhausting.

But, as ever with Mr Salmond, maybe it's just a ploy.


Update:

According to The Evening News (here), the story is simply not true. Now I wonder what he meant by denying the story?

03 March 2007

On that injunction...

Sir Ming is an advocate which is presumably why he is free to ignore his own advice. The Scotsman reports:
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the implication of Lord Goldsmith's actions was that "he at least contemplates the possibility that a prosecution will follow".
He added: "This is all pretty sensitive territory and we have to be very careful about speculating beyond the facts that are presently available."

Speculations such as 'the possibility that a prosecution will follow'?

02 March 2007

Hazel, the film star

The New York Times reviews the latest road movie, 'Wild Hogs':

Four buddies, fed up with the frustration and disappointment of their lives, set out on a road trip aboard their beloved motorcycles. Doug (Tim Allen), a dentist, worries that he has become so dull and uncool that he has lost the respect of his preadolescent son. Woody (John Travolta) is a hotshot deal maker who has lost his wife and his money. Bobby (Martin Lawrence), a plumber turned writer, is hopelessly henpecked, while Dudley (William H. Macy) is a hopeless nerd. ...

The main thing about these guys — the main source of the movie’s fumbling attempts at humor — is that they’re not gay. Really. Seriously. No way. They may worry about people thinking that they’re gay, and they may do things that might make people think that they’re gay — dance, touch one another, take off their clothes, express emotion — but they’re absolutely 100 percent not gay. No no no no no no. No sir, I mean, no ma’am. That’s what makes it funny, see.


If they really wanted to introduce some comedy, they should have included a part for Mrs Pepperpot:
Hazel Blears is small, red and the party chairman, but the only really interesting thing about her is that she rides a motorcycle. There was a rumour that she would roar into the launch in her leathers.

[Source: The Times, here a day or two ago]

Arnie - onwards and upwards

Via Political Betting, here are the odds on the next US President. Despite not being a native-born American, 100/1 on the Terminator seems good value.

Death and the maiden

Quote of the day: Alan Cochrane in The Daily Telegraph (here):
The Tory leader literally slaughtered Mr McConnell over the fact that too many OAPs are paying for services that his administration had promised would be free.

Well now, did she really? Was it a bloody affair? Or does 'literally' not mean what I think it means? Or are modern commentators just bloody poor writers?

What did you expect?

Is the UK press doing its bit to cover the Scottish elections? The Guardian's website invites you to:
Click for full coverage and analysis of this year's elections to the Scottish parliament

Unfortunately, the most recent articles shown are from 18 February and those actually appeared in The Observer. The most recent Guardian articles are from 16 February. Not exactly 'full coverage and analysis', is it?

What is news?

I suppose that the Scottish broadsheet press has to report these developments but they are hardly newsworthy.

Thus The Herald has this story:

Nearly a quarter of residents in some of Scotland's most deprived communities turned to their GP with depression in a year, according to a survey.
If I lived in some of the more benighted areas of Scotland's cities, I'd be depressed. Wouldn't anybody?

Meanwhile, The Scotsman has this one:
LAST night, some of Edinburgh's top business leaders gathered at the capital's International Conference Centre for a debate which, they hoped, would reveal the real facts about the costs of independence and the Union.
Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, accepted the invitation, but Jack McConnell, the First Minister, did not.

Listen, it will be news when the First Minister agrees to a debate with Mr Salmond - yet another refusal is simply par for the course.

Most ridiculous of all, The Scotsman thinks that more digging up of Edinburgh's streets is worthy of comment:
ROADWORKS for Edinburgh's tram scheme are expected to start in a month's time, the city council said yesterday.
Work will begin in Leith, with the two-phase project continuing for more than three and a half years.
The diversion of utility pipes and cables for water, gas, electricity and telecommunications will be followed by construction of the tram lines.

They obviously have not walked (or driven) around Edinburgh's streets recently: roads are dug up and re-dug up, as if there were special awards for disrupting the traffic.

01 March 2007

The dogs that don't bark...

...or. if they bark, they do so very quietly. Scotland is fortunate (although sometimes I wonder) to host the headquarters of two of the biggest banks in the world, RBS and HBOS, who announced pre-tax profits this week of respectively £9.2 billion and £5.7 billion. There is no other company based in Scotland comes anywhere near these kind of profit figures. It is difficult to underestimate the sheer scale of these two companies compared to other Scottish companies.

Even in UK terms, RBS and HBOS qualify as behemoths. By comparison, Tesco's profits amount to little more than £2 billion. There are nevertheless some UK companies such as HSBC and BP which produce higher profits, but there is no doubt that RBS and HBOS are among the few really big league players in the UK.

So, Scotland is the home to two banking giants. But they do not seem to exert any undue influence in Scotland, good or bad. Neither of them mounts the barricades when Scottish companies are under threat from foreign competitors (eg Scottish Power and Iberdrola); neither of them seems particularly committed to stimulating economic growth in Scotland (eg by increasing the domestic business birthrate); nor do they appear to have any particular cultural or social commitment to Scotland (although I do not deny that they seem to sponsor a fair number of sports and arts events). There is of course no overt commercial reason why they should go out of their way to be altruistic.

Conversely, nor do they appear to exert (or wish to exert) any excessive influence on the Scottish Executive which is left to get on with its economic policies as best it can. They do not attract complaints from Scottish local authorities. Unlike Tesco, they are never accused of seeking to intimidate their suppliers. If last year's Farepak scandal was surprising, it is because it was so unusual. There will always be the occasional branch closure or embezzlement case, but there is surprisingly little sustained animosity (compare and contrast the utilities companies or the retail groceries sector). The worst sin that one can come up with is to suggest that they are ripping off their customers - but nobody has produced any evidence to indicate that they are worse than any other bank the world over, and arguably they are better than most.

Nor do they court publicity. There are no Bransonesque cavortings for Sir Fred Goodwin or Andy Hornby. I doubt if one in a hundred Scots knows their position and I am sure that even fewer would recognise them.

It is all very curious. Perhaps I am being naive - perhaps, beneath the surface, RBS and HBOS are pulling strings like mad to ensure their continued dominance over Scottish economic and social life. But, if the two giants are throwing their weight about, they are doing so very quietly...

Has John Reid failed?

Whitehall watchers have been observing the bitter battle over the Home Secretary's ambitions to become the Government's Intelligence Supremo. Peter Riddell of The Times reports:
He [Dr Reid] has won the battle to be the chief ministerial co-ordinator of counter-terrorism, but that does not mean that he will be Mr Intelligence. Sir Richard Mottram in the Cabinet Office will remain chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in charge of assessment as well as co-ordinator of the intelligence agencies. Moreover, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and GCHQ, the signals and code breakers, will retain their current status, reporting through the Foreign Secretary.

Although Mr Riddell does not appear to have noticed, if SIS and GCHQ are to remain outside his immediate remit, then Dr Reid's bid for supremacy has dribbled away into the sand. He can call himself 'the chief ministerial co-ordinator of counter-terrorism' if he likes, but that won't alter the facts on the ground. Even worse, the proposed transfer of prisons and the probation service away from the Home Office to a new Ministry of Justice would diminish his responsibilities, leaving him with fewer staff and a reduced budget. So Dr Reid has been comprehensively stuffed; his bid for power will leave him worse off than before.

As some of us might say, a damn good thing, too! Nothing is more terrifying than the thought of Rambo Reid as Britain's security supremo.