30 April 2008

Good news and bad news

Interesting poll in The Telegraph (here):
A poll conducted for The Daily Telegraph by YouGov – the most in-depth analysis yet of attitudes to constitutional change – shows that only 19 per cent of Scots would support independence in a three-option referendum. Nearly three quarters backed keeping a devolved Parliament, either with its present powers or with more responsibilities.
In another blow for Mr Salmond as he marks his first year of power, the poll shows that more Scots blame the First Minister than Westminster for the rows that have broken out between the two since last May.
But the SNP's support in a snap Holyrood and general election has soared over the past year, albeit by nowhere near the amount required to meet Mr Salmond's target of taking 20 Westminster seats.

Not much to make Ms Alexander happy:
In another fillip for Mr Salmond, 43 per cent of voters said he made the best First Minister, compared to only 11 per cent for Miss Alexander, his supposed main rival for the post.
Only 21 per cent of voters thought she is doing a good job, compared to a massive 60 per cent who do not.
Almost twice as many, 41 per cent, said Annabel Goldie was doing well as Scottish Tory leader, with Nicol Stephen winning 27 per cent support for his performance as Scottish Lib Dem leader.

How soon before Ms Alexander's jacket hangs on a shoogly peg?

What the polls do not ask, however, is how we would feel if the Tory Toff became Prime Minister.

29 April 2008

The Scot who became an American

Worth a look - Craig Ferguson at the White House correspondents' dinner: here, here and here.

Questions, questions

I see that the membership of the Calman Commission has been announced. (NB the passive voice.) It seems to be a suitably representative selection of the great and the good, if a trifle heavy on the number of Lords. More arguably, it seems a bit light on technical expertise in the form of retired civil servants or academic constitutional experts.

On seeing the list, my first reaction was to wonder who would actually be doing the work. Official committees and commissions do not actually write reports themselves, you know. The great and the good are busy people. Commissions such as that of Calman require a secretariat to write papers for them, to arrange their on-site visits, to pay their expenses. But none of the press reports I have seen mentions a secretary.

Which led me to contemplate from whence such a secretariat would come. Clearly, it would be most inappropriate for it to be provided by the Scottish Executive, which currently owes its political loyalties to SNP Ministers. The Scotland Office might be an option, but there is nothing on its website to indicate that it proposes to take an active role. Similarly with the Scottish Parliament, even although the Commission has been established following a resolution of the Parliament. And we know that the membership has presumably been determined by trilateral negotiation among the unionist parties. But who actually made the appointments? It's all a bit of a mystery.

Then there is the absence of a website. Maybe the Commission is just a little slow in getting itself organised, but the establishment of a website must surely be one of the first tasks of any newly appointed body. And the location of the website would have given us a clue as to who was in charge.

Perhaps there are straightforward answers to these questions and I am making mountains out of molehills. Can anyone out there steer me towards some answers?

McEwans is the best buy, the best buy in beer?

So farewell S & N, as another Scottish-headquartered company falls to the ravening foreign hordes.

Over the years, you may have produced some ropey old beers - Tartan Special, anyone? But at least you produced them from a Scottish base. And, in your old age, you had the sense to associate yourself with the Caledonian Brewery, makers of the admirable Deuchars and Caley 80/-.

Now you have been taken over by the European owners of the lager that reaches the parts that other beers don't reach and of probably the worst lager in the world. Ignominious.

I suppose that it could have been worse - you might have fallen to the Americans.

25 April 2008

Quote of the day

Linda Fabiani MSP, Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture (here):
"I remember going to school in a transparent vest."

Don't go there - don't even think about it.

24 April 2008

Quote of the day

Mr Swinney, Minister for Finance and all sorts of other things (here):
"What we are confident about is that we have taken preparations to make sure that there are ample supplies of petrol and diesel available well into the month of May and that's obviously predicated on consumer purchasing patterns remaining as we would normally expect them to be."

I tell you: we're all doomed.

Running out

Once upon a time, many many moons ago, there was a sugar shortage. And, for years thereafter, I always made sure that I had an extra bag or two hidden at the back of the cupboard. (I still do, as it happens.)

The next shortage - after the current shortage of petrol - will be rice. The Independent reports:
Major American food stores have begun rationing sales of rice to prevent stockpiling by customers who are worried by the soaring price of staple foods.
The global price of rice has risen 68 per cent since the start of 2008 and, in some American shops, has recently doubled.
There was little evidence of panic-buying by individuals but restaurants and small shopkeepers were stacking up on supplies in case costs rose further.
In response to what it called "recent supply and demand trends", Wal-Mart's cash-and-carry division Sam's Club is limiting customers to four 9kg bags each to prevent a run on stock.
How long before the UK goes rice-crazy? As always, the advice from the authorities will be "Don't panic!" See today's Scotsman:
The AA, Britain's largest motoring organisation, said motorists should not panic. Paul Watters, the AA's head of public affairs, said: "I don't suppose this news has come as a massive surprise as it has been quite a public airing of the issues and the positions of both sides were quite strong in terms of taking a hard line. There still is no reason for people to panic. We have to put our trust in the petroleum industry to keep Scotland's pumps filled."

IMHO, panicking is the most rational thing to do in these circumstances. Of course the authorities would prefer us to carry on as normal but if that means running out of petrol or rice when we need it ...

But it is all comfortably reminiscent of the good old days.

21 April 2008

Pricking the house price bubble

I'm a simple soul really. I get easily confused. The Times sets out the latest cunning plan by the Bank of England:
The Bank of England (BoE) launched an unprecedented £50 billion scheme today to bail out Britain’s ailing banking system and help to ease the tightening mortgage market.
The BoE confirmed this morning that it would allow lenders to swap assets for government-backed bonds in an attempt to restore confidence and ease the effects of the credit crunch.
Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, is set provide further information to MPs at 3.30pm.
The BoE will allow banks to swap UK and European mortgage-backed assets in exchange for "safer" government bonds, which banks can then use to raise money.
It is hoped that the rate that banks charge each other will fall, and, as a consequence, homeowners and first-time buyers can secure better and cheaper mortgage deals.

So the plan will have been successful if the mortgage position is freed up and house prices resume their dizzy spiral upwards to the stars. That may benefit the banks and building societies in the short-term, as well as existing home-owners; but I find it hard to see why the taxpayer - through the Bank of England - should wish to engineer a return to an unstable and unsustainable status quo ante. House prices cannot simply go on rising forever - can they?

It will end in tears.

20 April 2008

Gift idea


Just what you've always wanted - a Conservative Party baseball cap. For just £3.99 from here, you too can give yourself all the street cred of a middle-aged Scottish Tory.


I try to keep up, but ...

I admit it - I didn't know about the 2005 change in ownership of what used to be the BP Grangemouth oil refinery. In fact, until yesterday, I had never heard of Ineos.

How come such a strategic asset as the Grangemouth refinery ends up in the hands of a privately-owned company based in Hampshire? And how did a company set up ten years ago grow to become the third biggest chemicals company in the world with a turnover of $45 billion?

Well, given this morning's news, we may expect to find out a lot more about Ineos over the next few weeks.

19 April 2008

Don't hold your breath

Nice to see council housing given the attention it deserves. The BBC reports:
Scots local authorities will be given a £25m package to build new council houses over the next three years.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made the announcement as she addressed the SNP spring conference.
...
She told a packed conference hall in Edinburgh that the Scottish Government's goal to build 35,000 new houses every year by 2015 would need "all hands on deck" to be met.

But when it comes to building houses, £25 million over three years does not go very far. I would estimate that it might deliver some 250 to 300 houses (averaging less than 10 per local authority) - well short of the goal of 35,000 every year.

18 April 2008

Quote of the day

I don't know about you, but I find it rather demeaning for a British Prime Minister to deploy such gushing terms (here):
Mr. Brown opened up with praise for his host: “The world owes President George Bush a huge debt of gratitude for leading the world in our determination to root out terrorism.”

Do we really owe Mr President a huge debt of gratitude? Does Mr Brown truly believe what he has said? Is it worse to be fawningly cynical or hopelessly naive?

16 April 2008

For once, some real news

I am reliably advised that Ms Kate Moss was in the Bow Bar in Victoria Street yesterday.

I have rebuked my informant - there is no point in telling me the day after. And so, another prospective romance has to be written off.

My guilty secret - one of them, anyway

I have a confession to make. I am an aficionado of certain programmes on Radio 2. Even worse, I particularly enjoy Wogan and Sarah Kennedy, deeply unfashionable though they may be. (Ken Bruce is tolerable.) Perhaps it is because they play the music of my era; perhaps it is because they do not take themselves too seriously; perhaps it is because we are all growing old together.

So it is, therefore, that during the later parts of the day when I wish to listen to music on the radio, I will deploy the admirable Listen Again feature of the Radio 2 website to hear the Wogan and Kennedy programmes I missed earlier in the morning. For I cannot bear to put up with the execrable Jeremy Vine and his fondness for trawling the tabloid depths of phone-in radio; while Steve Wright would make anyone want to barf.

It was therefore with sorrow that I read of the latest travails of Ms Kennedy, a sorrow compounded by her absence from this morning's airwaves. We dawn patrollers know that Sarah occasionally loses the place or talks over the music - just as Terry is prone to crashing the pips (and he is not as witty as he thinks). SO BLOODY WHAT, BBC? Whose BBC is it anyway?

15 April 2008

Bringing light into the statistical darkness

Back in the dim and distant past when I learned to do arithmetic at one of the more august Edinburgh educational establishments, an average was known as something that a hen laid eggs on. Mr Swinney obviously kept his nose closer to the grindstone. The Scotsman reports:
JOHN Swinney, the finance secretary, hit back yesterday at opposition claims that average couples would be hundreds of pounds a year worse off under his local income tax plans.
The Tories claimed at the weekend that a household with two people working full-time and earning the average wage – giving them a joint income of £53,290 – would be £289 a year worse off under the local income tax than they were under the council tax.But Mr Swinney said the Tories were wrong to use the mean (average) figure for income and should have used the median (middle) figures, because this was more accurate.

Oh yes - the mean and the median. How many of us remember the difference? Or ever knew it in the first place? And, in this instance, which is the correct one to use? Does anyone care?

13 April 2008

Making you think

The price of a cup of tea. The BBC's From Our Own Correspondent sums it up:
As I sat in the coffee shop in the airport fiddling with my bill, I reflected on the extraordinary state of affairs in Zimbabwe.
I had just bought two cups of tea and two glasses of water and, reaching into my bag, I took out a massive wad of Zimbabwean dollars.
New and crispy Z$10m notes. Clean and sleek.
Then I looked at the bill. The charge was Z$204m. That would make a serious dent in my brick of notes.
The Zimbabwean dollar is one of the most worthless currencies in the world so any notions of being a millionaire, or even a billionaire, lasted all of a few seconds.

12 April 2008

The Emperor's clothes

Could Matthew Parris be correct?
... for all I care, Mr Brown can be a bean-counting, flak-ducking, procrastinating, tunnel-visioned, trainspotting monster. These are human qualities. I like human qualities. It's vacuums I despise. What is unforgivable is the empty space in Mr Brown's head where an idea ought to be. One big idea, one bold, brave, all-consuming purpose, one gripping sense of political direction, would outweigh all the carping criticisms we may have of Brown the man.
But where there should be thought, there is only calculation.

10 April 2008

From bad to worse

So the Treasury thinks that the Scottish Government's proposals for a "local" income tax amount to a "national" income tax and are therefore a reserved matter under the Scotland Act. Well, they may have a point. On the other hand, and not unsurprisingly, SNP Ministers beg to differ - and they may also have a point.

But don't look to the Scotland Act for clarification. All the Act does in this area is to set out (in Part II of Schedule 5) the following reserved (to the UK Government) matter:
A1. Fiscal, economic and monetary policy

Fiscal, economic and monetary policy, including the issue and circulation of money, taxes and excise duties, government borrowing and lending, control over United Kingdom public expenditure, the exchange rate and the Bank of England.

and the following exception to that provision:
Local taxes to fund local authority expenditure (for example, council tax and non-domestic rates).

None of which is enormously helpful. There is no further definition of local taxes. Accordingly, the only way to settle the matter would be through the courts.

Ultimately, it's just another problem with local income tax to add to the rest: the obvious unwillingness of HMRC to collect it, the council tax benefit black hole, the costs to employers in having to deduct it from payrolls, the unfairness of excluding unearned income from tax assessment, the financial burden to be added to families with more than one earner. It becomes increasingly difficult to see how local income tax as envisaged by the SNP can be implemented. I presume that at some stage Mr Swinney and Mr Salmond will wish to walk away from their proposals (or at least to kick them into the longer grass), preferably while blaming the UK Government. It won't be that easy, however, if the source of all or most of the troubles proves to be inadequate preparation on the part of the Scottish administration.

09 April 2008

Funny money

The IMF is a miserabilist organisation. Always has been (remember the 1976 crisis); always will be.

Now it estimates that the worldwide losses of the financial institutions as a result of the credit crunch will amount to nearly $1 trillion. That is $1,000,000,000,000. If it makes it any easier to comprehend, convert it to sterling: £500,000,000,000.

That's a lot of money, by the way.

Past praying for

Little wonder that we have Chinese paramilitaries manhandling protestors on the streets of London. What would Baron de Coubertin have made of the following report in The Times?
Great Britain team members are facing a tough choice in the build-up to this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. Should they wear the Speedo LZR Racer and risk losing valuable contracts with other suit-makers, or wear the brands that they are financially tied to and lose a 2 per cent advantage on the clock that could mean the difference between winning medals and not reaching finals?

A tough choice indeed. But whatever happened to the Olympian spirit?

08 April 2008

Snafu

It's not getting any better. An editorial in The New York Times portrays the American authorities at something of a loose end:
Americans this week get another chance to take stock of President Bush’s war-without-end in Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander in Baghdad, has already signaled his bottom line: there should be a pause in the withdrawal of American troops.
We’re not sure which specific argument the general will make: there is too much progress for American troops to leave now — or not enough. Either way, it is clear that neither he nor Mr. Bush have a strategy for ending America’s disastrous involvement in Iraq.

Meanwhile The (London) Times concludes that none of the Presidential candidates has such a strategy:
The next US president will inherit 140,000 troops in Iraq and no clear plan of what to do with them. That is the bottom line of the report that General David Petraeus is likely to present to Congress today.
He is expected to recommend a drawdown of about 20,000 troops to the level before the “surge”, and then a pause. But then what? He and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will have the same tale to tell: a year of some military success, undermined by paralysis in the Iraqi Government, which has brought Iraq no closer to a political settlement. None of the factors that has calmed the violence, such as the support of Sunni tribes or the “ceasefire” of Shia militias, can be assumed to be permanent.
And none of the “battleplans” of the three candidates gets to grips with this portrait ...

But surely Gordon and Des, the trusty men in charge of the strategy for the 4,000 British troops sitting in their airbase near Basra, know what they are doing (or what they are planning to do)? OK, they haven't yet told us, but they are not simply waiting for the Americans to make up their mind for them, are they?

What a mess.

05 April 2008

Did Alex forget his long spoon?

Is this really the kind of support the SNP is looking for? The Scotsman reports:
THE veteran American politician who helped to dream up Tartan Week has backed Alex Salmond's calls for a referendum on independence.
Former Mississippi senator Trent Lott has said the people of Scotland should be given the chance to decide their own future ...
A source close to the First Minister said the SNP was delighted to receive Mr Lott's backing.

After all, it does not take much googling to find the cloven hoof.

04 April 2008

A wee lull

One of my anonymous interlocutors (see comment on previous post) has suggested that in recent days I have been drifting off-message. I have to confess that there are times when Scottish politics appears less than scintillating.

Alf Young noted in this morning's Herald that the First Minister's visit to the USA had gone unnoticed by the American media - to which one can only respond: 'twas ever thus. If it was not for the fact that the politicians get a trip to the Big Apple at public expense, I doubt if they'd bother.

Meanwhile, in London, we have Boris and his coke, Ken and his children and John Prescott with his £80 per week grocery bill. It's trivial stuff, I know, but marginally more interesting than Mr Swinney on Aberdeen Council's financial travails. (Bon Accord baths have had to close.)

What was it Scarlett said about tomorrow?

Period blues

OK, I admit it - I use it occasionally. But, for goodness' sake, there's no need to get over-excited. It doesn't make me a bad person; at least, I don't think so.

As you might expect, The Guardian wants to make a big deal out of it. Does anyone care? I think not.

Would it matter if it were banned? Would it cause riots in the streets? And the frogs want to save it? What for?

No, let me continue to deploy my solitary vice; it is after all only a punctuation mark.

02 April 2008

More money than sense

What exactly was the point of the BBC sending George Alagiah (and no doubt a cameraman and a producer) to southern Africa to present the 6 o'clock news? As they keep telling us, the BBC has been banned from Zimbabwe and, as a result, George did what he does from a spot on the South Africa/Zimbabwe border. If this was supposed to add drama to the news, it failed.

This profligacy comes less than a week after we learned that the BBC team to be sent to Beijing for the Olympics will amount to a mere 437 people, rather more than the number of British competitors.

I like and admire the BBC as an institution but it becomes increasing difficult to defend its carefree ways with the licence fee income.