30 January 2008

A certain irony?

I'm sure - at least I think I'm sure - that they know what they are doing. It's just that last night:
The leaders of Europe's biggest economies have called on financial institutions to improve transparency in all their activities.
UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown met his French, German and Italian counterparts at Downing Street to discuss the recent global market turmoil.

Transparency - that's just the ticket.

But then this morning:

Chancellor Alistair Darling is to give new powers to the Bank of England to mount secret rescue operations for banks requiring emergency funds.
The plan will be unveiled today as part of sweeping regulatory reforms designed to prevent a repeat of the Northern Rock debacle, the BBC has learned.

I understand of course - secrecy is what's needed.

Nothing like a bit of transparent secrecy ...

29 January 2008

Paragons of virtue

Doncha feel sorry for the poor man? Persecuted for some administrative shortcomings and misjudgements? The BBC reports:
Derek Conway, who is facing another investigation into his expenses, is being targeted by a "witch-hunt", a fellow Conservative MP claims.
Mr Conway, who has been reprimanded for overpaying his younger son from parliamentary money, could face more scrutiny over his elder son.

Of course, if I -as a mere mortal - misused public funds in such a manner, I might be happy to get off with a rap over the knuckles, repaying a small proportion of the funds allegedly misused and being given a ten day holiday. (Fat chance, you may say.) But you cannot expect MPs, even serial offenders, to be subject to the same penalties as the rest of us. For they are all honourable men.

How dreams turn sour

All those years ago, in the early 1970s, when Gordon and I were students at the University of Edinburgh and when Gordon was a bit of a socialist revolutionary, I'll bet that neither of us thought that it would ever come to this: that he would be openly offering aid and succour to someone who is nothing less and nothing more than a military dictator.

"For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?"

28 January 2008

Masters of the universe

Last word (well maybe) on le rogue trader, from Charlie Brooker in The Guardian (here):
If it's hard to imagine what £3.7bn looks like, it's even harder to picture an absence of £3.7bn. Presumably it resembles a dark, swirling vortex, like a portal to another dimension in a supernatural thriller. All the money got sucked into it, and emerged ... um ... where? Where's it gone? Is it lodged away somewhere to the side of the stock market, slightly to the left of the screen, where computers can't get to it?

Do the merchant bankers, the futures traders, the private equity specialists, the fund managers, the whole damn crew of over-paid pillocks swanning around the city, know what they are doing? Or are they just blundering around in a fog, like the rest of us?

25 January 2008

Depressing news of the day

According to The Guardian (here):
"If you're a normal weight and eat one chocolate biscuit more than your energy needs every day, then in 10 years' time you will be obese."

24 January 2008

Scottish Labour - a tactical vacuum

So the SNP secured parliamentary approval - at least in its initial stages - for its budget, with the active support of the Tories (and the blessed Margo) and the benign neutrality of the Greens. But how do we rate the Labour Party's contribution so far to the budgetary process?

Were any of Labour's proposed amendments to the budget accepted? No.

Did Labour nevertheless secure any concessions fom the Government? No.

Did Labour manage to peel the Tories away from supporting the Government? No.

Did Labour even make a serious attempt to peel the Tories away from supporting the Government? Not as far as anyone could see.

Did Labour engage constructively with the Greens and the Independent in the budgetary process? No.

In general, did Labour exhibit the kind of flexibility and respect for the proposals of other parties needed in a situation where they would be dependent upon the votes of others? You must be joking.

Scottish Labour - pure dead inept.

23 January 2008

It's not like muesli, is it?

Now I enjoy a fry-up as much as the next man but this Scottish Government press release claims that it is nutritious:
A healthy, nutritious Scottish breakfast gets the day off to a great start as well as boosting the economy and helping the environment, Environment Minister Mike Russell said today.
Breakfasting with Donald Biggar, Chairman of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), to mark Farmhouse Breakfast Week, Mr Russell said:
"It's a well-worn maxim but it really is true: breakfast is the most important meal of the day."
Mr Russell and Mr Biggar tucked into a plate of sausage, bacon, egg and tomatoes/mushrooms on wholegrain bread, all produced in Scotland and sourced from Scottish food companies.

And, judging from the photograph, there's some black pudding in there, as well as (oh dear!) baked beans. Mr Russell may be in trouble with the health police ...

22 January 2008

Good for Mrs B

The Times reports:

On a trip to China and India with Gordon Brown, she waited until the final day to step out in an elegant outfit commissioned for the occasion from a British-Indian designer. She wore a kurta, a traditional long Indian tunic, with an embroidered design in pastel green and white, with pale green pyjama trousers and a light purple pashmina thrown over one shoulder...
Mrs Brown, usually a byword for the type of smart but understated wardrobe favoured by Middle England women of her background, drew approving glances from her Indian hosts as she accompanied her husband to the presidential palace in Delhi for a formal welcoming reception, and afterwards to lay a wreath at a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.

Quote of the day

William Hague (always good for a laugh) on Gordon Brown's contemplation of the prospect of Tony Blair as the new European President:
"We can all picture the scene at a European Council sometime next year. Picture the face of our poor Prime Minister as the name “Blair” is nominated by one President and Prime Minister after another: the look of utter gloom on his face at the nauseating, glutinous praise oozing from every Head of Government, the rapid revelation of a majority view, agreed behind closed doors when he, as usual, was excluded. Never would he more regret no longer being in possession of a veto: the famous dropped jaw almost hitting the table, as he realises there is no option but to join in. And then the awful moment when the motorcade of the President of Europe sweeps into Downing street. The gritted teeth and bitten nails: the Prime Minister emerges from his door with a smile of intolerable anguish; the choking sensation as the words, “Mr President”, are forced from his mouth. And then, once in the Cabinet room, the melodrama of, “When will you hand over to me?” all over again.

Source: House of Commons Official Report, 21 January, col 1262

20 January 2008

The man in the shadows

Sometimes a news story makes you think. This story in The Herald about the MacTerminator is a good example, not because of what was said in a six-year-old e-mail but for what it reveals about the shadowy life of a special adviser, rising and falling with the fortunes of his political masters.

Here is a man who was the head of strategy and special adviser to Henry McLeish when the latter was First Minister in 2001. Prior to that period, he had been a special adviser to Harriet Harman in the Department of Social Security. After Mr McLeish's downfall, he finds himself in 2002 working as a consultant on a short-term assignment for the Scottish Arts Council.

I have yet to establish what he was up to in 2003 and 2004, but in 2005 he hits the political jackpot and becomes Tony Blair's Director of Political Operations, where in due course he gets mixed up in the cash for honours affair, before being despatched north of the border to assist Labour with last May's general election. And now, once again, he pops up as special adviser to Des Browne at the Ministry of Defence (and/or the Scotland Office?).

What an extraordinary career. I wonder if he has kept a diary?


The sultry lady in this advert is Ms Carla Bruni, the latest squeeze of French president, M Nicolas Sarkozy.

18 January 2008

It's only words

For anoraks only.

If you care to click on this link, and then on First Minister's Questions (the frst item on the list of items), you can view yesterday's FMQs in all its tawdry glory. If you do so, you will see that Ms Alexander has yet to come to grips with the parliamentary convention that when, referring to other members in the chamber, you do so in the third person. In other words, if you are Ms Alexander, you address your remarks to the Presiding Officer and refer to the First Minister as the First Minister or 'he', rather than 'you'. Although Ms Alexander starts off correctly, there are at least five occasions during FMQs when she slips into addressing the First Minister directly (twice in her first supplementary, twice in her second supplementary and once in her fourth supplementary). One would have thought that, by this time, she would have learned to get the matter right but that is not my main point.

If you click on this link, you can read the official (written) report of the session. Intriguingly, all of Ms Alexander's slips and errors have been corrected, so that the text now reads as if her questioning was properly addressed in its entirety. So the official report, the official record of what was said in parliament, is not always wholly accurate.

Does it matter? Probably not. Nobody minds the correction of the odd linguistic mistake, provided it does not alter the meaning of what was said. But whoever is transcribing the official record needs to be careful ...

Quote of the day

Nicol Stephen at FMQs (Official Report, col 5194):
"Who does the First Minister think the people of Scotland trust more on sport: Dougie Donnelly or Stewart Maxwell?"

Whereupon, with one voice, the great Scottish public responded "Stewart who?", followed by "And who is this Nicol guy anyway?"

On the other hand, we should remember that Mr Donnelly is not actually a sportsman of any note. He has never thrilled the terraces as he jinked his way down the by-line; his struggle to lower his golf handicap has been a private matter rather than subject to comment in the public prints; and when he visits Hampden, Wimbledon or Aintree he is not entitled to use the tradesman's entrance. No, Mr Donnelly is a commentator, an ancient mariner doomed to roam the tv schedules, importuning casual channel-surfers to tune in to the bowls at East Kilbride (or to visit a certain central Scotland furniture store). Nevertheless, despite a somewhat dated taste in sweaters and some continued speculation about the colour of his hair, Mr Donnelly has the invaluable ability to state the bleeding obvious in a manner which is not excessively irritating. Just why this qualifies him to chair a public sector company concerned with supporting Scotland's elite athletes remains a minor mystery - but then life is so often like that.

17 January 2008

All very confusing

There is something strange going on. Consider this piece in The Times by Anatole Kaletsky, a commentator who is not usually seen as a Trotskyite attack dog:

If banks are to continue receiving implicit government guarantees then regulatory steps will have to be taken to ensure that these guarantees are reflected in their financial management, remuneration policies and risk controls. How exactly this can be done is a complex subject which economists, financiers and politicians will need to debate and to which different countries will probably find different answers.
But something clearly must be done to ensure that banks, their employees and their shareholders pay an adequate price for the implicit insurance they enjoy from governments and taxpayers - whether those governments are in America and Europe or in Asia and the Middle East. In the case of Britain, ensuring that the shareholders of Northern Rock lose every penny of their investment would be a good place to start.

[My emphasis]

What is a decent socialist supposed to do when the capitalist hyenas start tearing lumps out of their own kind?

16 January 2008

Taking the long view

I sometimes think that our Scottish politicians live in a vacuum. So few of them seem to have any sense of what happened before their arrival on the political scene. Take, for instance, this latest row about specific grants to local authorities, the current (and apparently recurrent) obsession of Ms Alexander. Does she understand what she is advocating? On the other hand, did Mr Swinney appreciate what he was offering COSLA in return for their compliance over council tax rises?

It has long been the case that the more enlightened Ministers and civil servants in the Executive (and in the Scottish Office before them) have sought to minimise the extent of spedific grants to local authorities. There are sound reasons of principle amd practice for this. In particular, there is no point in having elected local authorities if all the spending decisions are to be made centrally. The centre has more than enough to do without intervening in decisions which - on the grounds of the famous subsidiarity - are better made locally. Furthermore, if resources for local purposes are to be allocated centrally through specific grants, it becomes incumbent on the centre to ensure that these resources are used for the purposes intended and that they deliver what they are intended to deliver; which leads of course to the panoply of monitoring, targeting and evaluating. (This is why the elimination of specific grants frequently forms part of the periodic efficiency initiatives that occasionally convulse the centre.) No, much better to allow local authorities to decide their own spending priorities and let them get on with it.

On the other hand, Ministers like to be seen to be doing things. And if a problem arises about the absence of homeless or educational or social provision for a particularly needy (and deserving) poulation group, it is difficult for Ministers to take the line of 'Nothing to do with us, mate - this is a matter for the local authority'. As these kind of problems arise frequently and as there are whole industries devoted to bringing them to the attention of the public, so Ministers are under more or less constant pressure to establish specific grants which have the effect of requiring local authorities to address the problems.

This means that the centre remains in a constant state of tension, with some parts of the Executive seeking to intervene and other parts (sometimes even the same parts) seeking to resist intervention. This tension manifests itself in a reform process which, as this year, sweeps away a host of specific grants in an effort to restore, as far as possible, the apparent purity of local government's ability to determine its own spending priorities. This 'wiping of the slate' is then followed over the next few years by the gradual restoration of specific grants as Ministers give in to demands for intervention. It all becomes excessive of course and in due time another reform process again sweeps away many of the specific grants. Thus does the cycle repeat itself. (None of which prevents politicians from hailing each stage in the cycle as entirely unprecedented.)

It is also worth noting that there is little ideological content here. Notwithstanding Ms Alexander's protestations about Labour's commitment to the most vulnerable groups, all the political parties pay at least lip-service to local authority independence from the centre and all of them have their own favoured priorities for specific grants. The cycle continues, therefore, regardless of who is in power. And all politicians at the centre know in their heart of hearts that it would be totally impractical to give in to every demand for central intervention. Some of the more grown-up politicians actually understand what is going on.

In these circumstances, I hear you ask - why is Ms Alexander abandoning the voice of reason and lining up with the heidbangers? That is a question only she can answer, but I fear that it is an error of strategic proportions.

13 January 2008

Dodgy donations

It was like Linus and his comfort blanket. Interviewed by Jon Sopel on the BBC's Politics Show this lunchtime, Wendy Alexander invoked her mantra three times:

"I'm confident that I will be exonerated of any wrongdoing."

Was it my imagination, or did she become more flushed with every repetition?

Her mea non culpa may of course be true in a strictly legal sense. But "wrongdoing" covers a broader category of sins. And the bottom line is that she accepted an illegal donation.

She can - and probably will - call on the "Ah didnae ken" defence. She didn't fully understand the rules; or her campaign team didn't tell her what was going on. But try that out when you are next stopped by the police: "I'm sorry, officer, I didn't realise that this was an area with a 30 mph limit." And if she is not responsible for the conduct of her campaign, then who is? And, please, let us not pretend that all this is a technicality.

But to revert to the "wrongdoing", consider these two actions by Ms Alexander:

1. she authorised - or at least allowed - a certain MSP to solicit donations on her behalf, an MSP who was either ignorant of the rules or who chose to ignore them; and

2. she put no backstop (or at least no effective backstop) in place to check that all donations were above board, a somewhat elementary precaution (one would have thought) given the prevailing circumstances.

Neither of these is in itself a crime. But nor are they examples of best practice. Do they amount to wrongdoing?

Let us see what the Electoral Commission will say later this week.

Quote of the day

Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times (here):
"Blair has always been to money what Nicolas Sarkozy is to sex."

11 January 2008

English football has more money than sense

You can see why they call it a merrygoround. The Guardian reports:
Allardyce departed with compensation reported to be worth £6m and has already been linked with the vacant Republic of Ireland manager's job. He was in magnanimous mood yesterday, reflecting: "There's no point being bitter and twisted about it because it will only affect you, not the people you have left behind."

Yeah, £6 million in compensation can ease a lot of pain.

The perma-tanned one

Would you trust this man to be in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions? The Guardian reports:
Peter Hain, the work and pensions secretary, admitted in an interview with the Guardian yesterday that he had solicited most of the 17 donations totalling £103,155 which his deputy leadership campaign had failed to register with the Electoral Commission. He said he knew about the controversial donations, but not the precise point at which they came in.
He added that no one in his campaign team was able to explain why they had not been declared before.
He was speaking to the Guardian after providing the Electoral Commission with a new list of his donations. The extra donations mean he spent £185,000 on his campaign, and not the £82,000 he had declared previously.
He issued an apology to his party and to the prime minister, but rejected the view he should resign from the government, saying he had made a mistake "inadvertently and not wilfully".

Oh well, as it was inadvertent, that's all right then.

Incidentally, how does one go about making a wilful mistake? If it is wilful, can it be a mistake?

10 January 2008

None so blind ...

Iain Macwhirter, writing in The Guardian, lays it on a bit thickly:
In another significant development in 2007, the Conservative leader David Cameron endorsed the plan for an English grand committee in Westminster, composed of English MPs. The idea is that this body would handle England-only bills under the rubric "English votes for English laws". But it would rapidly evolve into a de facto English parliament. If such a body is set up - perhaps after a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats, who also support an English Parliament - federalism is inevitable. There is unstoppable momentum now behind the disaggregation of the UK, and time is running out for the political establishment in Westminster to respond. This country is changing - and, it has to be said, largely for the better, as the old centralised apparatus disintegrates before regional democracy. Now that the unionist parties in Scotland have all but given up, the UK faces a choice: adopt some form of federal solution, or prepare for political disintegration, on the lines of Czechoslovakia's "velvet divorce" in 1993. It is as serious as that. While Brown launches fatuous "Britishness" campaigns, the very fabric of the country he claims to love is being torn up and stitched anew.

"Unstoppable momentum"? Unionist parties in Scotland "have all but given up"? Federalism or bust? Well, maybe, maybe not. Perhaps Mr Macwhirter's desire to send shockwaves through Westminster has led him to over-egg the pudding. After all, the SNP remains a minority party at Holyrood; it may have its hands on the levers of power but these are not always connected to the engine.

08 January 2008

Thoughts for today

1. Not all Tory politicians are complete plonkers.

As long as Michael Gove can write this in The Times:
In his Books section column before Christmas, David Baddiel asked who settles down at the end of Christmas Day to relax with a new biography of John Stuart Mill. Mind you, that was before the TV schedules were public.
Well I am that sad, sad man who did round off his Christmas with a life of the Victorian sage. I haven’t got much beyond the bit where the 13-year-old JSM takes a “complete course in political economy”. But at least, as wallows in the past go, it has more suspense and laughs than To The Manor Born.
he can still be regarded as a human being.

2. Don't get carried away with Barack Obama.

Unlike the vast majority of the political commentariat, David Aaronovitch in The Times remains sceptical. No need to repeat the inconsistencies here but his article is well worth reading. The worry is that the problems with Obama will not be exposed until he has seen off Hillary and it is too late to prevent the Republicans sweeping into office again. If I were a betting man, I would take a punt on Bloomberg coming up the middle as an independent.

3. The banks are out to screw their customers.

Maybe they always were ... but their rapacity seems to be increasing. The Indie reports:
Some of Britain's biggest banks have unscrupulously exploited last month's base rate cut by failing to pass on the benefits to mortgage holders, yet at the same time imposing even bigger cuts on interest accruing to savings accounts.
The double whammy means banks are squeezing their customers tighter than ever this winter, as they fight to protect their dwindling profits from the credit crunch and potential legal action over bank charges.
New figures from the financial advisers Chase de Vere reveal that 18 banks and building societies – including high street names such as Alliance & Leicester, Halifax, Lloyds TSB and NatWest – have within the past month cut the rate on one or more of their savings accounts by more than December's 0.25 per cent cut in the Bank of England base rate. Over the same period, 14 lenders also failed to reduce their standard variable mortgage rates by the full 0.25 per cent, according to comparison service Moneyfacts, including Egg and, once again, Alliance & Leicester.
Meanwhile, banks have been busy raising their charges and fees, as they desperately try to recoup the income they are losing as a result of the credit crunch. Most of the big banks have restructured their overdraft charges in the past few months, introducing an ever-more complex web of fees designed to catch out consumers.
Worth noting that HBOS (via Halifax) and RBS (via NatWest), Scotland's biggest banks, are involved.

On the subject of dinosaurs ...

I see that Councillor Terry Kelly has hit the mainstream media. The Herald reports:
Wendy Alexander's election agent, Paisley councillor Terry Kelly, was under fire yesterday following an exchange on his website in which he dubbed women "thick".
Councillor Kelly maintains his own personal website which included a recent exchange with a female visitor who asked: "Why are no women allowed to comment here? You've mentioned one being banned, you've called a black woman a liar for talking about racism but then no others have been allowed to comment. Councillor, are you a sexist?"
Councillor Kelly responded: "You have just perfectly demonstrated why, it's because they are thick."
The fact that Councillor Kelly has been Ms Alexander's election agent has prompted criticism from opponents.

Councillor Kelly has long been infamous throughout the Scottish blogosphere. Because of its excesses, I refuse to link to his blog but those who wish to wallow in the mire will have no difficulty in finding it via Google.

If Ms Alexander had any sense, she would long ago have severed any remaining links with Councillor Kelly.

07 January 2008

Still on holiday?

It's not outright opposition, but nor is it even grudging acceptance. And it's not as if they haven't had months to think about it. The Herald reports on Labour's apparent inability to make its mind up:
Rival parties are preparing to leave Labour isolated at Holyrood this week as MSPs debate the Gould report on last May's election fiasco.
The fact that the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Greens all support the key recommendation - that Holyrood should take responsibility for running elections north of the border from Westminster - will make for a difficult return to action for Wendy Alexander as she awaits her fate in the Electoral Commission inquiry into donations.
Shadow secretary for public services Andy Kerr stressed: "We are happy to consider all of the recommendations made by Mr Gould but we should allow the parliament and its committees to examine the matter fully and make subsequent recommendations. Indeed, the local government committee is taking evidence and will report soon.
"Mr Gould identified that some of the problems arose by having the STV (single transferable vote) local government elections on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections. Scottish Labour believes that one of the solutions is to ensure that council elections are on a different cycle but we will consider the consultation undertaken by the Scotland Office carefully."

Does Labour have no views of its own? Do they really want to defend a position where Westminster is responsible for the administration of Scottish elections? And where is Wendy?

Instead, Scottish Labour continues to give the impression that the strings are being pulled from London. They are letting their supporters down.

03 January 2008

They're at it again

Early January is sufficiently depressing in itself. I can do without being harangued by Scottish Ministers about my so-called lifestyle:
Getting a 'new you' in the new year can be as easy as a walk in the park, Ministers said today.
With many people wanting to get back into shape following the Christmas and New Year period, Scots are being advised that they didn't need to think drastic diets or pricey gyms were the only answer.
Minister for Public Health Shona Robison said:
"Many of us will have been relaxing over the festive season and perhaps eating and drinking more than we would normally.
"The start of a new year is a good opportunity to take a look at your diet and exercise routine, because small changes can have a big impact on your health.
"The Scottish Government is making tackling obesity, particularly among children, a top priority, but we can't achieve this alone - everyone has a part to play.
"If everyone makes one small resolution to improve their lifestyle, we will all be able to enjoy a happier, healthier 2008."

I don't want a new me, ta very much. The old one fits satisfactorily. And if I fail to see how looking at my 'diet and exercise routine' would have any impact on tackling obesity, least of all among children. So you know what you can do with your 'one small resolution'.

02 January 2008

When will it stop?

Source: BBC (here)
The graph above shows the pound sterling sinking like a stone against the euro. Good for those who export from the UK, but expect to pay more for your imported Merc and for your holidays in Spain, Italy, Greece and now Cyprus.
I suppose that somebody in the UK Treasury is monitoring this, aren't they?