30 June 2008

Jamie Murray - gentleman?

Jamie Murray writes in The Guardian about strategy in mixed doubles:
That's really important in mixed doubles because it's part of the guy's job to target the girl, hit the ball hard to her side of the court and try to frighten her a bit. The idea is to stop the woman going for her shots because, if you can take her out of the game, then the court suddenly becomes a lot bigger.

I suppose that winning is everything, even in mixed doubles ...

A reminder

Now that there is to be an election (or even just a coronation) for the Labour leadership at Holyrood, and as the heat of battle apparently makes it easy to forget, I suggest that it would be really helpful if all the candidates were to obey the rules (all the rules) about donations to their campaigns. No contributions from foreign residents; and I would suggest over-compliance on the declarations - declare everything to everyone as soon as possible!

Quote of the day

The view from the London commentariat, in this case Bruce Anderson in The Independent (here):
"Most Holyrood Labour ministers were surly, glottal-stopped, class-hating mediocrities."

which probably says more about Mr Anderson than about Holyrood labour ministers.

28 June 2008

Quote of the day

From Wendy:
"It is clear that vexatious complaints will continue to dominate the headlines as long as I remain Labour's Scottish Parliamentary Leader. I cannot ask Labour supporters in Scotland for further forbearance."

And so it ends: not with a roar, nor with a determination to rage against the dieing of the light. If her statement is perhaps shaded with a modicum of self-pity, who would blame her? She has made mistakes, sure, but she has paid for them dearly.

The modern day saint

Hugo Rifkind in The Times has obviously failed to grasp that it is not acceptable to mock the great man. Here is the opening to his version of Mr Mandela's diary:
For 27 years I was prisoner 46664 of the apartheid regime in South Africa. For 18 of these years I lived in a small cell in Robben Island. My nights were spent sweating against rough woollen sheets. My days were spent working in the lime quarry. I received one letter every six months. This was a hard time. And yet, there was an upside. For I had no telephone. Bono never called.

Read the rest. If it were not funny, it would be sad.

Hallelujah indeed

Simon Schama in The Guardian analyses Leonard Cohen as a lyricist. Not sure it works - sometimes you just have to take the old maestro as you find him.

27 June 2008

The Scottish navy


In the 1970s, I had the doubtful pleasure of spending several days on a fisheries protection vessel, including a passage through the Pentland Firth when I was sick as a dog. I see that the Scottish Executive's latest fisheries protection vessel, Hirta, has been commissioned. Press release here.

Good that a long-established tradition in the fisheries protection of naming vessels after Scottish islands (Jura, Westra, Switha, Sulisker) has been maintained. Hirta is part of the St Kilda group.

It is decades since I had any involvement with fish protection and I have been unable to track down the alternative boat-naming traditon that led to Freya, Minna and Norna. I know that the last two featured in Sir Walter Scott's The Pirate. But there is also a link to Scandinavian mythology.

Perhaps someone out there knows the answer?

Sad that the new vessel was built in Poland.

26 June 2008

FMQs

Nice to see Ms Jamieson back in the front line, Ms Alexander having lost her voice. At least, the admirable Cathy knows how to avoid the second person in asking her questions, a skill that Wendy has consistently failed to master. And Cathy didn't do so badly, either. Mr Salmond treated her respectfully, even although he utterly failed to answer her questions.

Still, I suppose Ms Alexander has other things to worry about.

25 June 2008

The gravy train continues ...

It's not that hard to understand, is it? But MPs do not seem to have got the message. The Guardian reports:
An expenses overhaul aimed at restoring public confidence recommended that MPs be banned from claiming for furniture, televisions and other household items on the co-called John Lewis list. Claims for new kitchens, bathrooms and other renovations would also be banned.
But a report from the House of Commons members estimates committee (MEC) suggests that MPs should be allowed to claim up to £19,600 a year for the cost of living away from home. This tax-free allowance would cover items such as rent, mortgage interest payments, hotel bills and running costs such as utility bills, council tax and repairs. Receipts would be needed for all claims "however small" from 2009-10.
It would replace the existing system where MPs can claim a second homes allowance of up to £23,000 a year, with receipts needed for claims over £25.
In addition, MPs would be able to claim a flat-rate of £30 a day without receipts, up to a maximum of £4,200 a year, for food, taxis and incidental expenses.

So the existing allowance of up to £23,000 will be replaced by a cost of living allowance of up to £19,600 plus a subsistence allowance of up to £4,200, which totals up to £23,800. And this is supposed to restore public confidence?

Probably safe for work, I think

You know that deli mayo ad that homophobic complaints have caused Heinz to pull because it features a homosexual kiss? Well, here is a better one:


Cr*p

Who says Americans don't do irony? The New York Times reports:
SAN FRANCISCO — Reagan has his highways. Lincoln has his memorial. Washington has the capital (and a state, too). But President Bush may soon be the sole president to have a memorial named after him that you can contribute to from the bathroom.
From the Department of Damned-With-Faint-Praise, a group going by the regal-sounding name of the Presidential Memorial Commission of San Francisco is planning to ask voters here to change the name of a prize-winning water treatment plant on the shoreline to the George W. Bush Sewage Plant.

Somehow, rather appropriate.

Enter your own off-colour joke below.

Quote of the day

Marina Hyde on Wimbledon (here in The Guardian):
... the championships are attended by people who regard house prices as acceptable - if not sparkling - dinner party conversation, and whose worldview tends toward the sheltered. If Tim Henman was the boy they'd like their daughter to bring home, Andy Murray is kind of how they imagine crack addicts to be.

Really?

24 June 2008

The wicked witch

Here.

It's the fashion

Well, yes, I have been known to wear one. And, yes, I was the subject of a certain amount of mockery. The Times reports:
Federer did indeed step out in a cardigan yesterday and even though the day was — remarkably, perhaps uniquely for a first day of Wimbledon — coming up to the boil, he kept it on for at least half the warm-up. Is that cool, or not?
It looked a very nice cardy, if you happen to be a cardy sort of man, a cardy you could easily stroll to the fridge in, relax in front of the television in; even, God help you, play a round of golf in. Federer pushed the sleeves back to the elbows for the dashing, “just about to do the washing-up” look.
And now for the amazing bit. He took it off without undoing the buttons. Imagine that. He pulled it over his head as if it were a pullover. Dreadful thought — perhaps the buttons don’t undo.

In fashion, what goes around comes around. So there.

21 June 2008

£50 a month to give up the fags?

No, not really interested in that either. Though why its advocates think that it represents value for money escapes me. The tax I pay on fags more than covers any additional health costs. Besides, if I were to live an extra ten years, the public purse would have to bear the extra cost of my pension, my bus-pass, my winter fuel allowance, etc. And, while I might avoid lung cancer, I would no doubt find some other disease to die of, one which was equally injurious to the pocket of my local health board.

My public duty is to keep on puffing, ensuring my early death. You'll miss me when I'm gone.

GERS

What? No, I'm not really interested. The GERS conclusions depend upon the difference between two very large estimates (income and expenditure) which, as any statistician will tell you, is always a bit iffy. And then there are the (always heroic) assumptions which underlie the calculations.

To take a simple example on the income side of the equation. Scotland has two of the largest banks in Europe (although they are not now as big as they were last year). Each pays vast quantities of tax to the UK exchequer. It would be 'unfair' to attribute all that tax as exchequer income from Scotland, as a much greater proportion of bank profits is earned in England. (Leave aside the profits earned abroad.) So how does the GERS exercise allocate that Exchequer income from banks' tax between Scotland and England? There are no absolute means of producing a correct answer - even the banks themselves do not know how much of their profits are earned in different parts of the UK. So GERS has to make assumptions. Are they reasonable assumptions? Probably. But alternative - and equally reasonable - assumptions could come up with an entirely different answer, which in turn might affect the overall outcome.

So, is GERS worthless? Certainly not. But let us not pretend that it is anything more than a rough corrective to long-held political prejudices.

20 June 2008

Just a thought

I see that the FBI is taking action. The Independent reports:
Two former Bear Stearns hedge fund managers took the first "perp walk" of the credit crisis, as the FBI paraded them in front of the world's media to face charges of misleading investors and insider dealing.
Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin were marched yesterday from the FBI's New York headquarters to appear before a judge in Brooklyn.
And prosecutors promised that these are just the most high profile arrests in their ongoing investigation of wrong-doing following the collapse of the mortgage markets. More than 400 people, mainly local brokers accused of foisting unsuitable mortgages on unsophisticated borrowers, have now been indicted, including 60 people on Wednesday alone.

Good for the FBI. I wonder why the financial wideboys in the UK never seem to be pursued by the authorities?

FMQs ...

... or how to avoid answering questions. Ian Bell in The Herald - rather neatly, IMHO - sums up yesterday's interchange between Ms Alexander and Mr Salmond:
Is means-testing to be applied to the central heating scheme? Answer: installations have been taking place in record numbers.
Are restrictions to be applied to the availability of free bus travel? Answer: the eligibility criteria will not change.
Would 400,000 pensioners be liable to local income tax? Answer: a "majority" of pensioners - says another handy poll - support a local tax.

In fairness, I should point out that Mr McConnell (remember him?) used to do much the same thing, although perhaps a little less blatantly.

17 June 2008

The demon drink

I should probably get myself worked up about the Scottish Government's latest proposals but I suppose that we shall have to accept them, if only for the sake of the greater good.

It does seem sad, however, that perfectly responsible 18 to 20 year-olds will be denied the delights of getting a carry-out to take home to watch the football on the telly. And what will happen to student parties? And the notion that, somehow, 18 to 20 year-olds will drink responsibly in pubs but cannot be trusted to buy alcohol in an off-licence seems daft.

Meanwhile, government will extend its grubby and interfering fingers into commerce by setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol (which, by the way, may be open to challenge under competition law) and by requiring supermarkets to establish separate alcohol tills (presumably on the basis that customers can be shamed into forgoing the purchase of the odd bottle of wine with their usual groceries).

It all smacks of Sunday Post authoritarianism - and we all know that Scotland will never be free until the last minister of the kirk is strangled with the last Sunday Post.

16 June 2008

Music of the week

The incomparable Grace at Woodstock:




Needless to say, this blog does not condone drug-taking ... unless it produces music like this.

Maybe they just like line-dancing?

The old municipal traditions are being maintained. The Evening News reveals that the age of junkets has not yet disappeared:
A COUNCIL meeting in West Lothian is to be postponed because too many members will be away on an official visit to Texas.
The full council was due to meet on September 16, but since that date was drawn up plans have been put in place for several elected members and council officials to visit Grapevine, Texas, as part of a recently established twinning agreement.

For the record, West Lothian Council has 32 councillors whose political make up is 14 Labour, 13 Scottish National Party, one Conservative, one Independent and three Action to Save St John's Hospital.

14 June 2008

The bizarre world of football

I regret to say that I am failing to keep up. The Independent reports:
Luiz Felipe Scolari wants to make Deco, the Portuguese international, his first signing at Chelsea. Talks have taken place with agent, Jorge Mendes, who represents both manager and player. The Barcelona midfielder will cost £10m. The 30-year-old has other options, not least Internazionale, who are now coached by another of Mendes's clients, Jose Mourinho, but he is understood to favour a move to the Premier League.

Who is this guy Mendes? And does he not have some serious conflicts of interest?

Flogging a dead horse

They're in denial - or maybe they simply don't know what else to say. The Independent reports:
The European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, called on the Irish government to suggest possible "solutions" at an EU summit in Brussels next week. He said: "I believe the treaty is alive. Eighteen member states have already approved the treaty and the European Commission believes that the remaining ratifications should continue."
...
A group of countries, led by France, which assumes the EU presidency next month, is expected to try to minimise the importance of the Irish "no" vote. If other countries ratify the treaty, they argue privately, Ireland will be obliged to have a second vote.
Pissing against the wind. But not everyone:
However, another senior European commissioner, speaking off the record, said: "There will be no repeat vote in Ireland. That means the treaty is dead. It's part of a general disenchantment with the EU. We would have had similar results if there had been referendums in other European Union states."

13 June 2008

The Lisbon Treaty is dead - probably

We are still awaiting formal confirmation but the Irish appear to have said no. On the basis that the treaty depends upon ratification by all the Member States, this would appear to deliver a death-blow to the constitutional changes which it proposes. So no reduction in the number of Commissioners, no beefed-up foreign affairs representative, no semi-permanent president of the Council and no extension of qualified majority voting.

In theory, the EU Council could offer some treaty concessions to the Irish which might conceivably persuade them to hold another referendum - after all, it worked last time. But it would be an awfully long shot. And any substantive change to the proposed treaty might require a re-ratification process throughout the EU. But, unless there are substantive changes, the Irish are just as likely to vote no once again.

So what happens now? Well, the EU will no doubt continue to function on the basis of the Nice Treaty, as it has done - not unsatisfactorily - for the past few years. It would be far from ideal: Lisbon would have introduced some welcome constitutional changes. But it would not be the end of the world.

Meanwhile, constitutional change would be kicked into the long grass. I doubt if there is any appetite for continued constitutional debate, and some minor changes could be made on an ad hoc basis without the need for a new treaty.

Meanwhile, back at the Westminster ranch, there seems little point in continuing to process the bill ratifying Lisbon, even if it has just about completed parliamentary procedure. It really doesn't matter whether the UK ratifies the treaty - the Irish no has scuppered it. For the same reason, there is no point in continuing to argue for a UK referendum on Lisbon.

It is on days like this that I wish I were back in Brussels - Friday afternoon, Rudi would have produced a couple of bottles of wine, Gabrielle would have bought a gateau and some pastries, and my unit would have shot the breeze on what all this really meant. Those were indeed the days ...

12 June 2008

A noble endeavour?

No, I don't know what Mr Davis thinks he is up to.

But the LibDems have announced that they do not propose to oppose him. Labour has little hope in the constituency and might well take the same line.

In which case, Mr Davis may look slightly foolish.

A pyrrhic victory

To save you looking it up, here is the Wikipedia reference:
A Pyrrhic victory (IPA: /ˈpɪrɪk/) is a victory with devastating cost to the victor. The phrase is an allusion to King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War.

Is it worth having a victory that relies on the support of the progressive forces of Anne Widdecombe, the nine MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party and UKIP's Bob Spink?

09 June 2008

Here we go again

Ah yes, the English Question. The Telegraph reports:
Scottish MPs would be banned from voting on new laws for England under Conservative plans to rebalance the British constitution.
(Well not quite, actually - see below.)
The Daily Telegraph understands that David Cameron is preparing to throw his weight behind a plan to give English interests more explicit recognition at Westminster.
The Tories will next month publish the report of a review led by Ken Clarke, the former Chancellor, which has drawn up new proposals in the wake of the creation of the Scottish Parliament.
Mr Clarke:
... is said to have advised allowing all MPs to vote on English legislation at the initial second reading stage of parliamentary scrutiny. But only English MPs would get to vote during the detailed committee stage of the legislative process, where real changes can be effected.
At the third and final reading, all MPs could once again vote, but a new parliamentary undertaking would prevent any party using Scottish votes to block amendments made by English MPs.
Well so what, I hear you say. Scottish MPs are not usually appointed to the committees looking at English bills (although in the good old days English MPs sometimes had to be dragooned onto committees looking at Scottish bills in order to ensure that the membership adequately represented the party distribution in the Commons as a whole). And, anyway, this arrangement is only likely to be adopted if the Tories gain power - in which case the scope for using Scottish votes to block amendments at report stage would be severely limited.

I don't suppose that this will prevent Labour and SNP from seeking to argue that Scots MPs are being discriminated against and that they will become second class Members (or at least that they will become more second class than they are at present).

In practice, the proposals seem fairly innocuous, but perhaps I'm missing something ...

07 June 2008

Sometimes I think I'm becoming a dirty old man ...

I am not an aficionado of ladies' tennis but I watched the final at Roland Garros this afternoon.

How pleasant to watch a tennis match without (i) any grunting, (ii) any nonsense with towels, and (iii) this awful business whereby three balls are inspected before each serve before one is discarded.

But they do hit the ball awfully hard. And, at the risk of being thought sexist, I admit that Ms Ivanovic is fairly pleasant on the eye.

Who won? Ivanovic - who terrorised the Safina second serve.

Nostalgie de la boue

I see that the Tories are in trouble again over sleaze. I did admire this quote from Mr Osborne (cited in The Telegraph):
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne today found himself having to defend Mrs Spelman during a trip to Washington.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Caroline Spelman is someone of enormous integrity and honesty, so I think her statement speaks for itself and her character speaks for itself.

Such enormous integrity and honesty that she thought it was OK to pay her nanny from her parliamentary allowances.

06 June 2008

Brussels will not be happy

It may make a right mess of the European project; it may drive the European Commission to despair; it may seriously upset the bigwigs of the European Council; it may even be nullified by forcing the Irish to repeat the process until they come up with the right answer. While I am generally in favour of the Treaty of Lisbon, I cannot help feeling a warm glow of satisfaction at this report in The Times:
The Republic of Ireland is set to reject the Lisbon Treaty, destroying ambitions to salvage a draft European constitution.
Rejection by only one of the European Union’s 27 member states would mean that the treaty — ratified by five parliaments so far — would fall.
Ireland has been the only country to put the treaty to a referendum. According to an opinion poll published today in The Irish Times, 35 per cent of people surveyed intend to vote “No” in next Thursday’s ballot, more than double the 17 per cent figure in the newspaper’s last survey three weeks ago. Support for the treaty has fallen from 35 per cent to 30 per cent, with 28 per cent undecided and 7 per cent intending to abstain.

Well done to the Irish.

05 June 2008

Spot the difference

Hair today:



Very public schoolboy.

As it used to be:

Most peculiar. Why do grown men change their hairstyles, especially for the worse? Answer (from a sad voice of experience) - Because they're going bald.

03 June 2008

If ...

Worth a look:

Quote of the day


This blog likes to consider the important political questions of the era. The Guardian speculates about the Foreign Secretary's hair:
Extraordinary, isn't it? Immobile, fixed, solid - it is, as my English teacher would put it, an immutable constant, an unchanging point around which the impressionable wax and wane.
OK, that may be a more apt description of Iago than the foreign secretary's hair, but the central tenet remains: David's hair is, if you look at it carefully, ... a truly astonishing work of physics. In its unmoving tidiness and solidity it is like a plastic black cap, of the sort placed on an Action Man's head. Truly, I have stood behind this man in a rainy Welsh field (in a non-stalking way, honest) and even then, when one's own blow dry was shot to hell and back, Miliband's hair remained as unyielding as a stubborn PM maintaining a tenuous grip on the No 10 doorframe. Even his brother Ed's hair has looked a little ruffled in its time, so clearly this is not a genetic trait, but a unique gift.

Doing sums

If it is worse now than it was then, then it must be appalling. The Guardian reports:
Maths exam standards have declined significantly over the past 50 years, with generations of teenagers facing undemanding questions that do not test their independent reasoning abilities, a report said yesterday.
Maths also suffers from an image problem, with pupils avoiding it because it is considered "geeky", according to the report published by the centre-right thinktank Reform.
Elizabeth Truss, deputy director of Reform and one of the authors, said: "In today's Britain it is acceptable to say that you can't do maths, whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn't read.
"We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic."

Good luck with the cultural revolution - you'll need it.

Somewhat miraculously, I managed to secure a maths higher in the 1960s. In all the years since, a little algebra and the rudiments of geometry have occasionally come in useful. But trigonometry? Quadratic equations? Calculus?

(What was calculus all about, anyway?)

The squalid world of professional management

Ungrateful wretches - the media have shown little interest in the Scottish Government's fabby new wheeze. As the press release puts it:
A new website that will enable the people of Scotland to see - at-a-glance - how Scotland is performing was launched today.
The Scotland Performs website will allow people to find out whether the Scottish nation is becoming wealthier, safer, healthier, greener and smarter.
Visitors to the Scotland Performs website will be presented with highly visual and easy to understand pages. They will have quick access to information about the quality of life in Scotland, and where thing are getting better and where things are getting worse.

Admittedly, Scotland Performs fails to mention local income tax, the Scottish Futures Trust, police numbers and class sizes in schools - those things which we understood to be the Government's flagships (if it is possible to sail with four flagships). But, hey, you can't have everything.

And - perhaps - the Scotland Performs approach is a little old-fashioned. After all, performance indicators are so 1990s.

See here for a more generalised attack on the culture of targets and performance indicators.

02 June 2008

Stirring it

Be careful what you ask for. The Scotsman reports:
ALEX Salmond has taken the first formal move to try to wrest control of at least some of the UK's oil revenues from the UK Treasury.
The First Minister has written to Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, asking for a share of the estimated £4 billion to £5 billion in extra income which the UK government is due to make in tax from the rapidly escalating price of oil.
Mr Salmond has also called for the creation of a Scottish oil fund, putting money aside for the time when the oil runs out.
But Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, made it clear yesterday he has no intention of dividing the extra oil tax revenue from the rest of government income, stating that some tax increases were going up while others were going down and the whole lot had to be seen as one package.

If I were a Labour (or a Tory) PM, I might have been tempted to suggest that the allocation of a proportion of oil taxation was worth considering. Of course, if the Scottish Government were to be given such a prize, there would have to be compensating savings in terms of the block grant provided by Treasury. The UK Government is not so well off economically or politically that it could afford to send additional resources north of the border.

It seems to me that the ensuing row would inevitably result in a full-scale review of the relative funding of the constituent parts of the UK. Is this what the First Minister wants? Even although Scotland comes out relatively well from the current arrangements? Or does Mr Salmond just want a row?

Incidentally, if this is an official approach from the First Minister, why is there no mention of it on the Scottish Government website?