31 December 2009

So farewell Gum-gum

John Gummer is to stand down at the next election. Regardless of his (relatively - at least for a Tory) virtuous life in recent years, he will only ever be remembered as the agriculture minister who - at the height of the BSE scare - sought to feed his four-year-old daughter a hamburger.

Unfair? Probably, but that's the way of the world.

30 December 2009

Sleeping on the job?

Strange. Mr President condemns his own government. The FT reports:
Barack Obama said on Tuesday that “human and systemic failures” were to blame for allowing a would-be terrorist on to a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day, placing the responsibility for the security blunders at the foot of the US government.
Delivering a hastily arranged statement at a marine base in Hawaii, where he is on holiday, the US president said that the mistakes were “unacceptable” and ordered preliminary investigation results to be delivered to him on Thursday.

Does Mr Obama not realise who is in charge? He has now been the boss for a year and, if the US security systems are not up to scratch, who is ultimately responsible?

It is never attractive for a politician to blame his officials. Perhaps fewer holidays on Hawaii and more time at his desk might help.

29 December 2009

Quote of the day

From The Times (here):
There are now 65 generals in the Army, with 43 major-generals, 17 lieutenant-generals and five four-star generals. In addition there are 190 brigadiers, a one-star rank; 20 more than in 1997. The figures were rovided in a written answer in the House of Commons.
...
There are more than 30 admirals in post in the Navy: two four-star admirals, six vice-admirals and 25 rear-admirals.
In the RAF there are 36 top brass: three air chief marshals, nine air marshals and 24 air vice-marshals.

Too many chiefs for the numbers of Indians.

Tory-bashing?

Is it OK for a non-elected official, however important he may be, to challenge the position taken up by a legitimate political party?

Even if you consider that the Conservative Party is - in this case - barking up the wrong tree, as well as behaving in a disgracefully opportunistic manner, and even if you agree with the sentiments expressed by Mr Starmer, there is something not right about his outburst. Who elected him to take up a position on a matter of political controversy? And, the next time a non-elected official sticks his oar in, it may not be in pursuance of right-on, liberal-thinking policies.

So perhaps, like a good cobbler, Mr Starmer should stick to his last and leave the politics to those elected for that purpose.

26 December 2009

The triumph of hope over experience

The Scottish Tories' seasonal celebrations have been a trifle overdone. How else to explain this report in The Times:
Tories believe that the party will reap the benefit of a late “Cameron bounce” north of the Border in the last few days of the coming general election campaign.
Party strategists have pinned their hopes on undecided voters opting to go Conservative because they believe that David Cameron is heading for Downing Street.

Perhaps Santa made them a promise, or maybe it was the Christmas fairy. Either way, they're a couple of kilted sausages short of a Christmas dinner.

23 December 2009

Recommended

Remember The Shawshank Redemption? The scene where the cons are watching a movie? Well, the movie concerned, Gilda, is on BBC2 (unfortunately at 2.10 am) on Christmas morning.

It stars the great Rita Hayworth, the sexiest woman ever to adorn the silver screen. (It was her poster that Tim Robbins first put up in his cell to conceal his rock excavations.)

Worth a look, if you're up and about at that time of the morning.

Moats and beams

The Herald sees fit to criticise local authorities for their spelling mistakes, while parading this at the top of their news section:
Two woman killed in Christmas coach crash
Published on 23 Dec 2009

Two woman have died and 47 other people were injured after a coach overturned on an icy road in Cornwall.

22 December 2009

Fantasy economics

Nobody loves them but they are simply unaware. The Scotsman reports:
In a letter responding to the Liberal Democrats in Scotland Mervyn King says if [an independent] Scotland kept the pound, the bank's monetary policy committee may set rates with no input from north of the order. The Liberal Democrats initiated the correspondence.
Like, at present, the Bank's MPC gives two hoots about any developments whatsoever outside London.

Life's too short

Four and a half hours of televised political debate during prime time, plus whatever is arranged for Scotland as an afterthought. How many will watch beyond the first five minutes?

Not me for one. I may be a political junkie but I'm not entirely lost to the human race. I'll catch up with the summaries the next morning, although I will try to avoid the endless analysis about the colour of their ties and the rest of their body language.

20 December 2009

Call my bluff

Would you like to move your work and family to Spain? The Independent reports:
Goldman Sachs has threatened the UK Treasury with plans to move up to 20 per cent of its London-based staff to Spain in a standoff over tax and
bonuses.
I'm far from sure that 20% of the staff would be prepared to go. Spain does indeed sound nice for a holiday (and each year I spend three or four months there) but think of the disruption to family life - the children's schooling, the friends and relatives, the cultural life, the need to find property to live in and to dispose of existing housing. And the clincher - relatively few Spaniards speak English.

So maybe the Treasury should call Golden Sacks' bluff.

17 December 2009

Quote of the day

Fast Eddie Miliband (here):
"Things are getting held up by procedural wrangling," said Miliband. "People can kill this agreement with process arguments. It will be tragedy if we cannot reach an agreement on substance, but it will be a farce if we cannot agree on process."

It's not looking good. Any agreement they reach seems unlikely to be strong emough to reverse global warming. Prepare to fry.

Disappointing

So Flyglobespan, which was my regular carrier on my flights to Spain, has gone into administration. It is tough on those on a pre-Christmas holiday to the Med who are now stranded.

I always thought Flyglobespan as well-run. The flights were usually on time, they were reasonably priced and the planes were invariably full.

I suppose that some other carrier will now fill the gap; alternatively, I may have to fly from Glasgow or Newcastle

15 December 2009

Your fashion editor opines


So Signor Berlusconi doesn't wear a vest. The more fool he. Didn't his mother tell him to wrap up warmly?

They may not be very fashionable. But wearing a vest never did any harm to Bruce Willis ...

14 December 2009

Always look on the bright side

I wonder who this happy soul is?

Well it's certainly not Santa.

Fluffy gets the bullet

Internecine strife among the Scottish Tories. The Times reports:
David McLetchie, the former Scots Tory leader, is to head the party’s general election campaign in Scotland in a move that will be seen as sidelining David Mundell, the Shadow Scottish Secretary and the only Conservative MP north of the Border.
The decision to overlook Mr Mundell as general-election co-ordinator will also fuel speculation that he is unlikely to become Secretary of State for Scotland if David Cameron becomes Prime Minister next year.

Poor old Fluffy. Admittedly, he's not very bright but he's a Tory MP. What do you expect - brilliant intuition?

11 December 2009

Can they not pay for their own calls?

I suppose that we'll never know. Some might argue that we should not be entitled to know. But that can be discounted as we taxpayers paid for the call. The Times reports:
Details of private phone calls from Gordon Brown’s Scottish home, including a call of 2 hours 42 minutes call to a mystery address in Canterbury, were made public yesterday.
The time, length and geographical destination of 21 calls were disclosed when the BT bills submitted as part of his expense claims were published by the House of Commons. The numbers were blacked out.

Who was he phoning in Canterbury? And what did it have to do with his parliamentary duties? He has a fixed telephone link from his constituency home to 10 Downing Street so it is unlikely to have been on government business. Or could it - just possibly - have been Mrs Brown?

10 December 2009

Too clever for his own good

What a sneaky trick. The Independent reports:
The cigarette and booze industries have been hit by a "hidden" excise charge this year, after the Government failed to cut the duty to make up for higher VAT.
There were no changes to alcohol and tobacco duty rates in yesterday's pre-Budget report, after they had been increased a year ago to offset the temporary reduction in VAT. Industry expects predict that the impact of VAT going back up to 17.5 per cent on 1 January and no respite in the burden on excise duties would add up to 18p on a packet of cigarettes and at least 6p on a pint of beer.

See that Darling fellow - he's just like the rest of the politicians.

09 December 2009

Quote of the day

Benedict Brogan of the Daily Telegraph (here):
Even before we’ve trawled through the small print on pensions and tax changes, the pre-Budget report has lived up to the billing. Scorched earth, poison pill, you can choose your metaphor but the key point is that this was a political statement designed to protect Labour’s sectional interests, boost its core vote and stuff the Tories at every turn.

Oh good!
The measures likewise: for example, a whacking great increase in the value of the state pension (2.5pc when inflation is negative?!), ditto other benefits, represents a gratuitous increase in the cost of entitlements, in the knowledge that the Conservatives need to review them downwards. Reckless, unaffordable, yet how can the Tories reasonably be expected to reverse that one?

Darling is a clever lad - he'll go far.

08 December 2009

They think we're idiots, you know

After five paragraphs of fluff, The Times finally gets to the newsbite:
The Tories are now on 38 per cent, down one point since early November, while Labour is up one point at 30 per cent. This is the first single-digit lead found by Populus this year.
...
The Liberal Democrats have continued to improve their position this month, up two points at 20 per cent, with other parties two points down at 12 per cent.

38% to 30% is not enough to guarantee an overall majority. Expect much more media speculation on a hung parliament. Yawn ...

Pseuds' corner

From The Guardian (here):
The precedents of Bohemian Rhapsody are as much in the 19th-century classical traditions of rhapsodic, quasi-improvisational reveries – like, say, the piano works of Schumann or Chopin or the tone-poems of Strauss of Liszt – as they are in prog-rock or the contemporary pop of 1975. That's because the song manages a sleight of musical hand that only a handful of real master- musicians have managed: the illusion that its huge variety of styles – from intro, to ballad, to operatic excess, to hard-rock, to reflective coda - are unified into a single statement, a drama that somehow makes sense. It's a classic example of the unity in diversity that high-minded musical commentators have heard in the symphonies of Beethoven or the operas of Mozart. And that's exactly what the piece is: a miniature operatic-rhapsodic-symphonic-tone-poem.

The antidote:


07 December 2009

It's all very difficult

Sounds easy, doesn't it? In order to save public expenditure, sack a few (or rather more than a few) civil servants and move the rest out of London.

Well, surprising as it may seem, civil servants are also people with certain rights. So when it comes to making them redundant, they are entitled to a pay-off, based on the length of their service. Alternatively, the more elderly may choose to retire, in which case HMG has to cough up a lump sum and a pension.

And, even if you move civil servants out of London, they are entitled to take their London weighting (in terms of additional salary) with them, at least for a year or two or three. Furthermore, renting office accommodation on the scale undertaken by the civil service is not like renting an individual flat; the terms of the lease will invariably preclude you from giving one month's notice before gadding off and you may be committed to the property for years.

So sacking or moving civil servants may well bring about public expenditure savings, but these may not be realised very quickly. In the meantime, treat the alleged savings quoted by Ministers with a pinch of salt.

Quote of the day

The Prime Minister writing in The Guardian (here):
... we need to create wealth and quality of life, not by putting carbon into the atmosphere but by taking it out. We need to build, in short, a low carbon economy. And not just at home: our aim must be to do this in every major economy of the world.
This will involve change: a shift from the energy dictatorship of oil and traditional fossil fuels to the efficiency, self-reliance and security of low carbon energy systems, which will be the engine of growth and job creation over the coming decade.

Is this the same Prime Minister whose government authorised the third Heathrow runway and the development of the coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth and who as Chancellor scrapped the fuel price escalator?

Still, better a sinner who repents than one who persists in his waywardness.

04 December 2009

The Addison of the Scotland Office

As today's subject is the alleged functional illteracy of a fifth of our compatriots, you may care to cast an eye over this slightly inelegant contiribution to the political debate.

It is not for me to imply that the Rt Hon Jim Murphy, Secretary of State for Scotland, is less than wholly literate, although he might make closer acquaintance with the use and abuse of the apostrophe. But, as his blog is part of the Scotland Office website, is there no-one in that august institution who might edit out the more obvious infelicities before each post is published? It is not as though they have lots of other things to do.

03 December 2009

Headline of the day

From The Independent (here):
RBS board may quit if £1.5bn bonus plan is vetoed

Well, Alistair? Are you a man or a mouse? This is your chance to demonstrate that the government will not always lie down and beg in front of the bankers. OK, the RBS board might resign but I doubt it. And even if they did, it's not as though they could not be replaced.

In any case, we taxpayers are about to own 84% of RBS. Might as well go the whole hog and natinalise the whole shebang.

02 December 2009

The beginning of the end

So the First Minister sacrificed Ms Hyslop when the opposition parties threatened to gang up behind a no-confidence motion. The bold Mr Salmond had - much earier - let it be known that the success of such a motion against one of his cabinet secretaries would lead to the resignation of the entire government, a ploy which discouraged the opposition parties from pressing their arguments.

But pusillanimous no longer - this time the opposition forced the First Minister to blink.

So what happens the next time the opposition has a beef with one of the cabinet secretaries? Say with Mr Swinney over the budget? The First Minister cannot keep on downgrading his cabinet secretaries. But can he risk a successful no-confidence motion?

Political life gets more interesting ...

The audacity of hope

I suppose that it might be alright. The Afghan army might double in size and vastly reduce its desertion rate while being trained to take over the role of the NATO forces; to do it in 18 months seems on the optimistic side but you never know. The Taliban of the less fundamentalist variety might be peeled away from their more committed brethren, even though they now know that the NATO forces will be leaving soon. And President Karzai's government might turn over a new leaf by ridding itself of currupt warlords and drug kingpins.

I wouldn't bet on it though ...

01 December 2009

Transparency, integrity, trust

You couldn't make it up. The Guardian reports:
Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate for Richmond, and one of David Cameron's closest advisers on the environment, insisted yesterday he would not be corrupted by power, and said politics had to enter a new era of transparency and integrity to regain trust, including on green taxes.

That would be the Zac Goldsmith who, we recently discovered, is a "non-dom" for tax purposes

30 November 2009

Bread and circuses

I do so very much hope that later today somebody will explain how a four option referendum will work.

Does the option that attracts the most votes win? Even though it may be less than 40% of those voting?

Or do we voters have to indicate a numerical preference for each option, with the votes cast for the least attractive options re-allocated to the more popular?

It all seems vaguely unsatisfactory ...

29 November 2009

The price of fame

If I had a nice house in Florida, an attractive trophy wife and a Cadillac sports utility vehicle, I doubt if anyone (with the possible exception of the police) would care if I took the car out at 2.30 am one morning and hit a fire hydrant then a tree.

But I'm no Tiger. So no-one would think to ask me where I thought I was going at that time in the morning, why I was driving so slowly that the airbags did not inflate and whether, in rescuing me by destroying one of the car windows with a golf club, my imaginary good lady used an iron or a driver.

24 November 2009

Carving up the jobs

More Brussels manoeuvring. The Times reports:
British diplomats are fighting a rearguard action to prevent France from taking the key financial job in Brussels after Baroness Ashton of Upholland’s appointment as foreign affairs chief.
With Paris and Berlin setting their sights on controlling the EU’s economic agenda, a former French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, is being tipped to take the plum commission portfolio overseeing the internal market and financial services.
Germany is seeking the industry or energy jobs in the European Commission line-up due to be announced this month, while also preparing its national bank chairman to take over at the European Central Bank.

It should not be too difficult to obstruct the French. The one thing guaranteed to upset the smaller Member States is the idea that France and Germany should dictate who gets what. In any case, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands are due some compensation for being passed over in the appointment of the president. But it remains to be seen if the FCO have the nous to take advantage.

23 November 2009

A little historical context

There is a generation of the vaguely left-leaning (and not so vaguely left-leaning) who retain a residual distrust of successive US administrations. In my case, this stemmed from US intervention in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s, an intervention maintained long after the demonstration of its utter uselessness. It is one of the reasons why, rightly or wrongly, we leap to analogies with South East Asia when seeking to understand what is going on today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The scale of US imperialist ambitions became further apparent in the 1980s (and subsequently) in Central America. The pernicious use of the Monroe Doctrine was said to justify US meddling in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Grenada. Meanwhile, the US has kept Cuba in a state of penury for decades.

I know, I know. Bad things happened during the Cold War, and the USSR's alleged involvement in events provided some form of justification for American actions. Nevertheless, to my paranoid mind, there are signs of a pattern here.

Now, it appears to be starting again. The Independent reported yesterday:
The United States is massively building up its potential for nuclear and non-nuclear strikes in Latin America and the Caribbean by acquiring unprecedented freedom of action in seven new military, naval and air bases in Colombia.
...
The new US push is part of an effort to counter the loss of influence it has suffered recently at the hands of a new generation of Latin American leaders no longer willing to accept Washington's political and economic tutelage. President Rafael Correa, for instance, has refused to prolong the US armed presence in Ecuador, and US forces have to quit their base at the port of Manta by the end of next month.
So Washington turned to Colombia, which has not gone down well in the region. The country has received military aid worth $4.6bn (£2.8bn) from the US since 2000, despite its poor human rights record.
Colombian forces regularly kill the country's indigenous people and other civilians, and last year raided the territory of its southern neighbour, Ecuador, causing at least 17 deaths.
...
Indications of US willingness to envisage the stationing of nuclear weapons in Colombia are seen as an additional threat to the spirit of nuclear disarmament. After the establishment of the Tlatelolco Treaty in 1967, four more nuclear-weapon-free zones were set up in Africa, the South Pacific, South-east Asia and Central Asia. Between them, the five treaties cover nearly two-thirds of the countries of the world and almost all the southern hemisphere.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world's leading think-tank about disarmament issues, has now expressed its worries about the US-Colombian arrangements. With or
without nuclear weapons, the bilateral agreement on the seven Colombian bases, signed on 30 October in Bogota, risks a costly new arms race in a region. SIPRI, which is funded by the Swedish government, said it was concerned about rising arms expenditure in Latin America draining resources from social programmes that the poor of the region need.
Much of the new US strategy was clearly set out in May in an enthusiastic US Air Force (USAF) proposal for its military construction programme for the fiscal year 2010. One Colombian air base, Palanquero, was, the proposal said, unique "in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from... anti-US governments".
The proposal sets out a scheme to develop Palanquero which, the USAF says, offers an opportunity for conducting "full-spectrum operations throughout South America.... It also supports mobility missions by providing access to the entire continent, except the Cape Horn region, if fuel is available, and over half the continent if un-refuelled". ("Full-spectrum operations" is the Pentagon's jargon for its long-established goal of securing crushing military superiority with atomic and conventional weapons across the globe and in space.)

Nuclear weapons in South America? What for?

Worrying.

Chilcot

Obsessives everywhere will wish to note that the Chilcot Inquiry begins this week. You may find the timetable for the first week here.

Apparently, the proceedings will be streamed live on the website, with archived sessions as well as transcripts also available.

21 November 2009

Housekeeping reminder

This blog is not a comments free-for-all. Where I consider a comment to be gratuitously offensive, it will be deleted. No appeals. If you don't like it, tough.

More showbiz

More than two years after the BBC dropped her – sparking accusations of ageism – veteran newsreader Moira Stuart is being lined up for a return to the airwaves on Chris Evans's BBC Radio 2 breakfast show. (here)

Good - but it would have been better to bring back Fran Godfrey, the sexiest voice on radio.


What is the point of ...

... the Royal Variety Performance? This year, the show stars Lady Gaga, Bette Midler, Michael Buble, Miley Cyrus, Whoopi Goldberg, Dance Troupe and Diversity; it will be hosted by Peter Kay.

Is it fair or reasonable to expect an old lady (Brenda is now in her eighties) to sit through two hours of this desperate assemblage of wannabees and has-beens? Surely this royal function should be passed on to her descendants. I am younger (slightly) than the Prince of Wales and I wouldn't thank you for a ticket to the event. And what's the point of grandsons if they won't fulfil the occasional engagement on your behalf?

Who is Lady Gaga anyway?

20 November 2009

Music of the week

As it's Friday afternoon, and I'm feeling nostalgic, let's go back in time. Sandy Denny and Fairport sing Dylan; 40 years old and still one of the best tracks ever:

The pronunciation problem

Last night, the BBC World Service was sticking with Van Rompoy (to rhyme with toy), whereas this morning BBC2 favoured Van Rompow (to rhyme with cow).

I rather think I would be inclined to Van Rompwee but it's awfully difficult to tell with Flemish names.

What do you mean, does it matter?

19 November 2009

Defend our square sausage!

Here is the latest episode in the international battle to maintain the purity and quality of one of our more esoteric food products. I bow to no-one in my admiration for the gourmet attractions of the Lorne sausage, although I confess to a preference for the more humdrum round sliced sausage. And if the Scottish Government in all its majesty sees fit to issue a series of press releases on the matter, well it keeps the boys and girls in what used to be known as the agriculture department in a job.

Nevertheless I do occasionally wonder exactly from whom we are protecting our sausage. As far as I am aware, there are no Bavarian or Andalucian butchers trying to pass off some of their inferior local products as Lorne sausage. Furthermore, even if we won the longed-for Protected Geographical Indication, I rather doubt that this would deliver thriving export markets in Paris or Milan.

But I look forward to a time 20 years hence when people will ask me what the SNP administration of 2007 to 2011 actually achieved. Ah well, I will answer, they saved the Lorne sausage ...

Van Rompuy-Pompuy still the favourite, ...

... not that it means very much at this stage.

As a committed europhile and as someone who, when working in the EU, did his fair share of eating and drinking for the greater European glory, even I would find the EU Council's idea of democracy - ie the leaders have a nice meal behind closed doors in order to select il presidente - laughable, were it not so utterly disgraceful.

Makes me proud to be a blogger


This heart-warming story reveals that there are stll gentlemen in this world:
When Belle de Jour, the famous call girl turned blogger and publishing sensation outed herself as a Bristol-based research scientist last weekend, one man was less surprised than the rest of us.
In an intriguing twist to a story which has already had more than its fair share of them, it emerged today that a British blogger solved the hotly debated mystery of Belle's identity soon after Dr Brooke Magnanti began writing her diary of an escort in 2003 – then resolved to help keep her secret.

Well done Darren!

18 November 2009

Gutter politics


All very well to produce a Queen's Speech of 13 measures, few of which can be expected to pass into law in the limited parliamentary time available before the general election. But would it be excessively cynical to suggest that, even in the unlikely event of Labour being returned to government, few of these measures would be resurrected? Instead, the public spending crisis will simply overwhelm care for the elderly, new moves on equality and so on.

Which makes the process simply another election gimmick.

14 November 2009

Messing about with boats

What would Lord Nelson have thought? The Royal Navy blots its copybook once again. The Guardian reports:
The crew of a Royal Navy vessel watched a British couple being kidnapped by Somali pirates, but were ordered not to open fire in case they endangered the couple's lives, it emerged last night.
...
A spokesman said: "Significant efforts were made by Royal Navy vessels and international maritime forces to locate the Lynn Rival. Everything possible was done without further endangering the lives of Paul and Rachel Chandler."

Which might have been a little more convincing if the Navy had not conspired to cover up the truth at the time:
An official account of the kidnap released last month said only that a Royal Navy vessel found the empty yacht, without disclosing that its crew saw the action unfolding. The full picture emerged when an anonymous crew member leaked the details to the press.

So the Navy watches a kidnap without doing anything and then fails to tell the whole truth. Heads will roll? I doubt it.

12 November 2009

Keeping everyone in suspense

I appreciate that it's a difficult decision but endless discussion will not make it any easier. The Independent reports:

Mr Brown told MPs yesterday that he expected an announcement from President Barack Obama in the next few days about the number of extra US troops being deployed to Afghanistan. But his forecast was played down by a White House spokesman, who said the decision on the the request for 40,000 more troops from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, was still "weeks and not days" away.
Mr Obama yesterday met members of his war council to discuss the forward strategy in Afghanistan, the eighth such session with the national security team in recent weeks.

Unless he wants to be identified as a dithering procrastinator, now is surely the time to do the business or get off the pot.

It's all pants really

And you thought we were in the midst of a recession. The Guardian reports:
...a new survey from Debenhams ... claims (though not always convincingly) to shed some light on men's underwear-buying habits. While the average 23-year-old allegedly buys up to 31 pairs a year "of all styles, tightness and colours", and even 40-year-olds manage a dozen pairs in as many months, once you reach 44 (I'm 46) Debenhams reckons you give up the habit for life. Not because by then you have bought 284 pairs (based on the survey's figures) and never need to fork out for Y-fronts or tangas ever again, but because a woman is doing it for you.

Wow, 31 pairs a year! Who has the drawer space?*


* No pun intended

06 November 2009

They prefer doom and gloom

Is it my imagination or do I detect a note of disappointment on the part of the press with regard to the suspension of the Royal Mail strikes? Here is The Guardian for example:
The postal workers union has called off a third round of strikes due to start tomorrow after reaching an "interim" peace deal with Royal Mail management.
Leaders of the Communication Workers Union agreed unanimously to postpone further action until the new year at least while talks take place, overseen by the arbitration service Acas and the Trades Union Congress.
The Christmas post is now secure, much to the relief of Royal Mail, which doubled annual profits to £321m last year but has been haemorrhaging customers.

Not exactly welcoming, is it?

05 November 2009

Open letter

Dear Monsieur Lellouche

It may surprise you to know that many of us Brits, perhaps most of us, know very well that the Tories' stance on Europe is pathetic, that they are doing untold damage to Britain's reputation in the EU and that the decision of their MEPs to abandon their natural allies and throw in their lot with assorted East European nasties will seriously reduce their influence in the European Parliament.

We also know that Cameron's pledge for referendums on future treaties is unlikely to be realised in the foreseeable future (unless he really wants to deprive Iceland and Croatia of the opportunity for EU membership). As for his fantasy of re-patriating the social chapter, even if the other Member States were to agree (which seems improbable), the prospect of working longer hours with fewer holidays is unlikely to appeal to the average British worker.

But M Lellouche, we rather dislike the idea of French politicians telling us so. Cameron may be an idiot but he's our idiot. You have enough idiots of your own without pointing the finger at ours. So, as our American cousins say, butt out!

Be assured of my distinguished sentiments.

Dave

03 November 2009

It wiznae my fault, honest ...

Lord Martin (the former Commons Speaker) is obviously unfamiliar with the concept that the boss is responsible for the failures of his underlings. The BBC reports:
Lord Martin told the committee on policing and Parliament he had been "let down" by Serjeant at Arms Jill Pay who failed to require a warrant for the search.
But he said when he asked her to explain her conduct, her boss Malcolm Jack, the Commons Clerk and chief executive, had stepped in and suggested she had been influenced by the police.

Equally unattractive is his propensity to spread blame among his subordinates. As for defending those officials who worked for him, forget it.

Motto - the buck doesn't stop anywhere near my desk.

02 November 2009

Quote of the day

Simon Tisdall in The Guardian (here):
In Afghanistan's disreputable 2009 presidential election, everyone's a loser. Hamid Karzai's "victory", achieved by fraud and now by default, has left him a tarnished, diminished figure. The US administration that orchestrated the whole process still lacks the credible partner in Kabul it says is essential for success.
The UN's reputation for probity lies critically wounded in the gutter, a victim of inaction and bitter infighting among officials. Nato's mission looks even more rudderless and ill-defined than before. The cause of the Afghan people, bemused and terrorised by turns, is no further forward and may in truth have been set back.

A right snafu. Where to go from here? Who knows? Obviously not the Americans, nor the UN, nor NATO ...

01 November 2009

Does Labour dare?

The point about this new poll, showing Labour in the lead over the SNP in the battle for Holyrood, is that Labour need no longer fear the sudden onset of a Holyrood election. It should not be difficult to bring down a minority government, especially as the Tories, LibDems and Greens all seem to be doing reasonably well.

And the SNP will need to be even more careful with the budget (and with the referendum bill); parliamentary defeats will provide an excuse for the other parties to bring about a general election.

Interesting times ahead!

30 October 2009

Resurrection

If all this comes about as planned (which is a fairly big if), then my reading of what is proposed could be seen as the resurrection of the Scottish Trustee Savings Bank, taken over by Lloyds in the 1990s. All those who fought so bitterly to maintain the independence of the Scottish TSB in the 1970s and the 1990s must smile at the twists of financial fate.

Of course, it would not have the community ethos of the old TSB, still less its devotion to the interests of depositors. But older citizens who remember the TSB fondly might still be persuaded to switch allegiance from the cold-hearted, bonus-grabbing, big five commercial banks. Much would depend upon the new owner.

This pre-supposes of course that Richard Branson is kept well out of the picture.

28 October 2009

A Spanish Don writes ...

One of the pleasures of living in Spain is that the old world courtesies continue to persist.

Yesterday morning I received a letter addressed to Don David Xxxxx. I have to admit that it was only an electricity bill. I have no doubt that the electricity company is just as rapacious as Scottish Power but how nice to be ripped off with a modicum of style and politesse.

Anyhow, enough of this hedonistic, lotus-eating existence. Tomorrow it's back to the snell feel of the Edinburgh winter. (About damn time, I hear you say,)

27 October 2009

Thinking the unthinkable


I'm not unsympathetic; I could probably live with eating less meat. But going totally veggie is a step too far. The Times reports:
People will need to consider turning vegetarian if the world is to conquer climate change, according to a leading authority on global warming.
In an interview with The Times, Lord Stern of Brentford said: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”
Direct emissions of methane from cows and pigs is a significant source of greenhouse gases. Methane is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas.
The new puritans always push their case a little too far. If the message was eat less meat we would nod our heads in sympathy. But never again to savour the delights of a bacon sandwich, or of sausages and mash, or of roast chicken and the trimmings, would lead to a world that was grey and unappetising, a world as much devoid of joy as of pies.

26 October 2009

God save us from central bankers and economists

Remember quantitative easing? The Independent gives the game away:
Quantitative easing is very imprecise. Knowing whether or not it is proving successful is tricky: its effectiveness depends on faith as much as pure economic reason. Earlier in the year, for example, it was widely thought that QE's success would be reflected in faster money supply growth. Yet there has been little evidence of any acceleration. If it is working, another explanation has to be found.
For me, there are three possibilities. First, QE works merely by boosting people's expectations. Given that interest rates are more or less at zero, it is important for the Bank to demonstrate that all is not lost on the monetary front: QE seems to fit the bill even if no one understands how it works (central bankers, like God, work in mysterious ways). Its introduction may have helped to lift asset prices, consistent with a new wave of economic optimism.

So we - or rather the Bank of England - are spending billions of pounds on a policy but we and they cannot tell if it is working or how it is supposed to work. Not very comforting ...

23 October 2009

Missing a trick?

Remember this story from a couple of days ago? This is the BBC's version:
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has published budget proposals for the devolution [to Northern Ireland] of policing and justice.
...
He said he had written to the party leaders outlining the budget, believed to be in the region of £800m-1bn. Mr Brown said he had made arrangements for the cost of dealing with security emergencies in Northern Ireland to be met from Treasury reserves.
There had been concerns at Stormont that future security problems could have swallowed up devolved budgets for services such as education, housing and health.

I rather expected the Scottish press and/or the SNP to jump on this story but no bites so far. Why does it matter to Scotland? The answer is because it drives a coach and horses through the Barnett Formula arrangements. Under the present arrangements, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are supposed to be content with their allocated share of public spending under that formula; there is some minor scope for fiddling about at the margins, but essentially no additional sums will be made available (even for new Forth Bridges).

But now, at a stroke, along comes Big Gordon to say that an extra £8oo million plus is to be made available, presumably on top of Northern Ireland's share allocated through Barnett.

Will Scotland and Wales have their shares boosted to match? (Fat chance.) But the next time the Chancellor of the Exchequer rules out any increase in Scotland's funding, the episode constitutes a convenient precedent for the SNP to quote.

22 October 2009

What would Lord Reith have said?

Why do I have the impression that the BBC is enjoying (even revelling in) the controversy it has generated over the Question Time programme tonight? All those hours of newstime devoted to analysing itself, all those interviews with BBC bigwigs and, of course, the prospect of higher than ever ratings for the programme itself.

On the substantive question of whether the BNP should be given airtime on Question Time, I cannot decide one way or another. On the one hand, I favour freedom of speech (provided of course that Mr Griffin keeps himself firmly within the legal requirements to do with hate speech and so on); and perhaps his exposure might acquaint the viewers with the reality of the BNP's policies. On the other hand, there is a strong case to be made for ostracising such a loathsome bunch as the BNP and as far as possible denying them the opportunity to preach their evil doctrines.

But I do wish that the BBC would not take such delight in being yet again the centre of attention.

21 October 2009

A silver (well grey-flecked) surfer writes ...

It was Margaret Thatcher who was alleged to have said:
A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.

I qualify for my bus-pass today but I don't feel a failure.

20 October 2009

All talk and no action

For how many months have the Government been telling us that they mean to do something about bankers' bonuses? And what, exactly, have they done? Well zip actually - nothing at all.

And today The Times reports:
The Government has backed away in the face of speculation that it will impose a windfall tax on banks to punish them for paying excessive bonuses.

They're all mouth and no trousers.

19 October 2009

Quote of the day

Gordon Brown (here):
The UK faces a "catastrophe" of floods, droughts and killer heatwaves if world leaders fail to agree a deal on climate change, the prime minister has warned.
Gordon Brown said negotiators had 50 days to save the world from global warming and break the "impasse".
He told the Major Economies Forum in London, which brings together 17 of the world's biggest greenhouse gas-emitting countries, there was "no plan B".
This from a man who cannot decide upon his favourite biscuit.

I tell you, we're all doomed.

14 October 2009

Flogging a dead horse

Down through the ages, from Caesar in Gaul to Westmoreland in Vietnam, it has been the cry of every struggling general: "give me more troops and I'll finish the job". Sometimes it works; mostly it doesn't.

Now Mr Brown has agreed - conditiomally - to send 500 more troops to Afghanistan. Does he really think that 500 extra troops (or 5000 come to that) will make a difference? President Obama is considering a request for 40,000 extra troops (and Brown will look a right eejit if Obama decides against). Would that make a difference? I doubt it. Afghanistan is just not that kind of place. You can make a punitive raid. You can bomb the living daylights out of this or that township. But no-one can build an Afghan nation in the image of a Western democracy. I doubt if we could even maintain a pro-Western dictatorship for any length of time. The less said about President Karzai and his corrupt chums the better.

And Mr Brown's justification? To "protect the streets of Britain". Oh please. Terrorism in the UK, where it does not stem from indigenous sources, is linked to Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Those conditions. Suppose that the extra troops could not be adequately equipped or that the rest of NATO chooses not to participate (neither of which would come as a surprise). What happens then? Do we just stick with the existing number of troops, even though today's announcement implies that it is not enough? It's a mess.

Oh, and incidentally, reading out the names of dead soldiers in the House of Commons does not earn the Prime Minister any brownie points in my book.

British justice

All very well, but someone should be asking a different question. The Guardian reports:
The law firm at the centre of the an unprecedented attempt by a British oil trading firm to prevent the Guardian reporting parliamentary proceedings is to be reported to the Law Society, it emerged today.
But what about the court that granted the injunction? What was the judge (or judges) thinking of?

Quote of the day

Nick Robinson (here):

Unemployment is rising slower than many economists and, indeed, the government feared.
Oh dear, don't they teach them how to write grmmatical English any more?

13 October 2009

Petty corruption?

I see that five out of the seven SNP Westminster MPs are deemed to have over-claimed on their expenses. It is only because we have become inured to the whole expenses scandal that this is not regarded as extraordinary.

Furthermore, I have no reason to suppose that SNP MPs are any more venal than their Labour and Conservative colleagues. So perhaps the saloon bar bores were somewhere near the truth when they said that MPs were all "at it".

12 October 2009

A jury of her peers

The Guardian reports:
In a report, the Commons standards and privileges committee said Smith had been in breach of the rules between 2004 and 2009 because she claimed that a house in London that she shared with her sister was her main home. This meant that she could use the parliamentary second home allowance to fund costs associated with her family home in her Redditch constituency.

Ok, so how much of her allowances does she have to repay? Well, nothing really. Well, nothing at all actually.

So much for the Commons standards and privileges committee ...

10 October 2009

A literary update

I fear that one of my holiday tasks may prove to be beyond me. I have been struggling through the Booker prize-winner, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. (Available from Amazon at £8.54.) It is interesting and well-written. But it is dispiriting when you get to page 200 and then realise that there are still 450 pages to go. (A wimp writes: it is also a heavy book - my fingers and hands get tired holding it up to read.) So back on the shelf until another time.

On the other hand, I recommend George Pelecanos' The Way Home (£9.09) and Richard Price's Lush Life (£4.79). And yes I know that these two were on President Obama's summer reading list, but I'm not proud - I'll take recommendations from anywhere.

On the DVD front, I regret to say that Tutti Frutti (£15.98) has been disappointing. Emma Thompson is wonderful of course but what seemed so fresh in the 1970s has a rather contrived appearance today. Shame really.

I have yet to begin Generation Kill (£17.97), the series from the authors of The Wire.

(And you thought my reading material was restricted to The Beano and The Dandy!)

Vandals

How would you describe a child who, with maximum force, threw a stone at a bare piece of earth, with the express intention of causing as much disturbance as possible, with the alleged motive of scientific discovery?

Well, just because it's NASA chucking the stones doesn't make it any better.

09 October 2009

Obama awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Of course, some of us have never taken seriously the Nobel Peace Prize since 1973 when it was awarded to Dr Henry Kissinger.

08 October 2009

Well, I thought it was funny ...

Unkind but true - Matthew Parris (here):

Anxious on Tuesday to establish the time of George Osborne’s speech expected towards the end of the morning, I approached a senior onservative MP.
“Osborne?” I said, “About 12?”
“Goodness me, no, dear boy. He’s at least 14.”


Quote of the day

Michael Gove, shadow education secretary, here:
“What should we do with people who think that this country can become a scientific leader by asking about sausages in batter?”
I don't know. Hang 'em and flog 'em, I suppose? On the other hand, would it be ok without the batter? There are more damaging beliefs around at a Tory Conference. (I'm still recovering from the thought of Ms Goldie as a lumberjack.)

07 October 2009

Music of the week

The boss:


Fantasy politics

One of the less prominent measures proposed by Mr Osborne yesterday involved the one-third reduction over the term of the next parliament of the running costs of Whitehall and various quangos. This is said to deliver £3 billion annual savings by 2014-15.

If this means anything at all, it must involve massive job losses on the part of government departments. It is of course easy enough to order the top bureaucrats to slash their budgets (by about 8% per year cumulatively). But how can you possibly get the business done with only two-thirds of the staff? I recognise that administrative budgets will always contain a little fat but not 33% worth.

"Do less" may be part of the answer. But what to stop doing? Deregulation and devolution will only take you part of the way. And, in any case, getting from here to there will usually require more rather than fewer administrative resources.

Think of the Department of Work and Pensions. Facing a sustained increase in unemployment, a drive to reduce the number of incapacity benefit recipients and major changes in the pension age regime, is this department really in a position to reduce its admin costs by 33% over the next five years?

Or HM Revenue and Customs. What effect would a 33% cut in its administrative costs have on its revenue-raising capacity? Is this really what the Tories want?

06 October 2009

In memoriam

Nostalgia is not what it used to be. But let me indulge myself, as I am becoming broody in my old age.

When I was a lad, back in the 1950s, I was occasionally required to accompany my mother on her Saturday morning shop. Obviously, this was very much a second best alternative to the more preferable Saturday morning visit to the flicks - the New Vic where one would be entertained by Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Flash Gordon.

These shopping trips were after the demise of rationing - people forget (or never knew) that rationing survived well into the 50s. It was nevertheless before the advent of supermarkets and shopping involved a trail round various specialist shops. Thus, the Saturday morning trip to Tollcross required a visit to the butcher, the fruiterer for fruit and veg (usually Rankin's as I recall), the baker (Martin's, I think) and the dairy (Edinburgh and Dumfriesshire Dairies of course). With luck, the trip might also involve a visit to the ironmonger, a mysterious emporium smelling of paraffin and firelighters. Booze? No, booze was not acquired on a Saturday morning; that was the purpose of a more furtive visit to an off-licence at another time.

Nowadays, ironmongers, fruiterers and dairies have flitted to that place in the sky where reside the haberdashers and the milliners. Thankfully, a few specialist butchers survive but Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrison's appear to have driven out the rest.

The world may be a more convenient place - but a better one? Somehow I doubt it.

The nasty party sets its sights on women's pensions

Hey, it's no skin off my nose, as I will reach my 65th birthday well before the Tories plan to increase the pension age to 66.

I do wonder, however, about Georgie's tactics in announcing an increase in the men's pension age, while having nothing to say about that of women. Did he just forget? Or was it all too difficult? The women's pension age is at present scheduled to increase gradually from 60 to 65 between next spring and 2020. Are the Tories going to change that timetable to bring the women's pension age up to 66 within the next six years? If so, that may mean rather a lot of women failing to qualify for their state pension rather earlier than they had anticipated - that is from next year onwards.

I think women should be told what the Tories are planning.

05 October 2009

Supply and demand

It's not very encouraging, is it? All those months with a wet towel round the head and this is the best they could come up with?
The Conservatives say they would pay for their £600m plan to "get Britain working" by cutting the incapacity benefit bill.
People on employment support allowance who are deemed fit to work would be put on the jobseeker's allowance, reducing their benefits by £25 a week.
All incapacity benefit claimants would be assessed to see if they could work.

I know, I know. Governments have spent years and years trying to reduce the number of incapacity benefit recipients, but perhaps the Tories have a magic formula. But, even if they were successful in that task, where are all these jobs that await those readied for the labour market?

04 October 2009

Been here before, haven't we?

So the SNP is threatening legal action over the absence of an invitation to the televised debates. Next, there will be a row about the locations and the timing, to be followed by rows about the mediators/questionmasters and about the order of play. Until eventually, the whole idea is abandoned - which is probably what Mr Brown wanted in the first place but was unwilling to say so.

30 September 2009

All to play for?

Despite yesterday's speech by the PM (workhouses for teenage mums? more Asbos? WTF planet is he on?), if I were David Cameron, I'd be slightly worried.

1. The latest polls put the Tories in the high 30s rather than the comfortable 40s. They need the latter in order to be assured of an overall majority.

2. If Ireland votes yes on Friday (which seems increasingly likely), Lisbon ratification could be wrapped up by the end of October. Then where will the Tories go with their promise 'not to let matters rest'? And can they take their party with them?

3. Wee Georgie-Porgie is not really cutting the mustard when it comes to the economics thingy. On every economics issue, the wallpaper king seems to put the Tories on the wrong side (and the City is whispering about his lack of interest in his brief).

4. There remains a whiff of something unsavoury with regard to the Tories, from duck houses and moats to their links with lobbyists and their continuing dalliance with rich businessmen. A couple of scandals and who knows?

5. Lord Mandelson may be reduced to doing pantomime turns at party conferences, but he's no mug and not to be under-estimated. If the Tories have weaknesses, Lord Peter will have found them.

Or maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part ...

Quote of the day

If you have not already done so, it is time to throw out those old Andy Williams records. The Guardian reports:
"Don't like him at all," says Williams, gravely of his bete noir, Obama. "I think he wants to create a socialist country. The people he associates with are very left wing … one is registered as a communist. Obama is following Marxist theory. He's taken over the banks and the car industry. He wants the country to fail."

What is it with these Americans?

25 September 2009

For rugby fans only

At 7 pm thia evening, BBC2 Wales is broadcasting live the match between Glasgow and the Ospreys. If you can't access BBC2 Wales, you might try the BBC news website, sports section, by clicking on the relevant icon on the right-hand side.

And, no, I don't know why BBC2 Scotland thinks that Landward and Scotland On Film are more important.

Easy said ,,,

Here is an extract from Mr Russell's paper on broadcasting:
4.9. The future of the BBC and the licence fee revenue raised within Scotland would be a major consideration in the move to an independent Scotland. It is envisaged that the existing assets, staff and expertise of BBC Scotland would be used as the basis of a Scottish national broadcaster, along with an appropriate share of the BBC's other assets, including its commercial activities.

That "appropriate share of the BBC's other assets"? How exactly does the BBC (or whoever is tasked with the job) go about the assessment of the Scottish share of the World Service, the Lonely Planet guides, all the property owned by the BBC overseas, not to mention the various ongoing broadcasting contracts, eg with the football authorities? Easy enough to say that Scotland should inherit 7.5% of these assets (in line with the proportion paid by Scottish licence payers) but I suspect that many of these assets have never been valued. And do we want our share of the assets (in some kind of joint ownership arrangement perhaps) or should we take the money and run?

Similar considerations arise in relation to the Ministry of Defence (all those boats, aeroplanes and military bases), the Foreign Office (all those embassies), the British Council, the British Empire (Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Gibraltar, etc - the Brits can probably keep the Falklands and Ascension Island) and numerous other smaller institutions.

Would it be unreasonable to ask that, before the introduction of the referendum bill, the SNP indicate how they intend to approach such matters? I am not demanding that they reveal their opening negotiating position; but it would be nice to be reassured that they have at least thought about the issue.

24 September 2009

Deflation

No, don't be silly. We're not talking about deflation as in balloons (or at least not entirely).

In my Spanish pueblo, the price of beer has tumbled. Whereas previously one had to search out a bar prepared to dip below the standard price of two euros for a pint of lager, the price of of 1.50, 1,40 is now commonplace. This may be due to competition (although the circumstances have not really changed) or, more likely, the dearth of tourists due to the collapse of the pound.

One of my many locals is selling San Miguel for one euro per pint. (It has the added bonus that one can watch the workmen digging up the road outside - there is nothinng more satisfying, if disgustingly complacent, than sitting in the shade, nursing a punt of the amber liquid, watching the guys slogging away in the hot sun.)

"Progressive austerity"?

Look, don't try to analyse it; you'll just go round in circles. It doesn't mean anything; it's not supposed to mean anything. It's a sound-bite.

Oh the humiliation ...

It is all that anyone will remember about his latest visit to the US. The Guardian reports:
Gordon Brown lurched from being hailed as a global statesman to intense embarrassment tonight, after it emerged US President had turned down no fewer than five requests from Downing Street to hold a bilateral meeting at the United Nations in New York or at the G20 summit starting in Pittsburgh today.
Well what did he expect after the Libyan fiasco? And, despite the No 10 denials, and unlike his counterparts from China, Russia and Japan, Mr Brown never did get his facetime with Mr President.

22 September 2009

For once, Vince blots his copybook

I do so hope that Scottish Labour are learning from that nice Mr Cable's travails over his mansion tax. I appreciate that whatever system of local government finance Labour come up with will be different from that proposed by the LibDems.

The point is, however, that you need to have thought it through. If it is to be based on property capital values, you need to be able to discuss the valuation process and, most importantly, the revaluation process (bearing in mind that the present council tax system is based on 1993 values). And you need to be able to say what you will do about the property-rich, cash-poor old widow who would otherwise suffer severely. And, if you have a rebate system, how you will finance it.

But we can trust Mr Gray and Mr Kerr to have done their homework. Don't you think?

20 September 2009

It's the mad, staring eyes - again


If you were a teacher (in England) or a parent, would you feel confident about this man being in charge of schools?
Education spending could be cut by £2bn by axing thousands of senior staff and restraining pay, the schools secretary for England has indicated.
Ed Balls, the first minister to suggest possible cost-cutting moves, told the Sunday Times one option was to merge comprehensives to form "federations".
It's enough (well almost) to make you think fondly of our own dear Ms Hyslop.

16 September 2009

Just a thought

I suppose we should be grateful that hard-working families appear to br losing their prominence - we lazy singletons can breathe a sigh of relief. But there is a new danger:
The prime minister told the TUC conference in Liverpool the government would "cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets" but he would not support cuts in "vital frontline services on which people depend".

Source - here

What about the vital backroom services? Somebody has to recruit and pay the frontline guys, as well as providing them with accommodation, computer and accounting support. We need a new campaign, SOB - Save our Bureaucrats. I fear, however, that it unlikely to catch on.

05 September 2009

Quote of the day

Matthew Parris (here) on Afghanistan:
Long military campaigns are rarely won or lost on a decisive pitched battle, even if that’s the way history’s camp-fire storytellers like to cast the tale. The fortunes of war rarely turn on events or moments that can be tagged neatly to a place and date. More often, doubt, anxiety and a calculation of loss build gradually in the back of a nation’s mind, until finally a newsworthy reverse trips a switch, the despair is projected to the front, somebody whispers “let’s get out of here”, and soon everyone is edging for the door, claiming it’s what they thought all along — which it sort of was.
The whispers have begun. Slowly but surely, tentatively at first, with many fits and starts, in flurries of denial, and protesting that all’s well and nothing has changed, we are on our way out of Afghanistan. If a dying Labour Government doesn’t begin edging towards the door, the next Conservative one will. Whatever they say.

And, in the meantime, how many more British soldiers must die to cover the politicians' backs?

03 September 2009

Dib, dib, dib, dob

So bye bye Scout post. No more Christmas card deliveries. I never got myself organised in sufficient time to take advantage but many of Edinburgh's citizens did, to the extent that 400,000 cards were delivered annually.

Shame really. It was one of the more pleasant traditions of the season.

Compare and contrast ...

... two stories in today's Scotsman:

First:
DIAGEO appeared to be in line for a major injection of public funds last night after John Swinney revealed the closure of its Johnnie Walker bottling plant in Kilmarnock would cost the local economy £15.5 million each year. [here]

Second:
THE attempts by Scottish rugby to make Murrayfield Stadium "sweat" in the past year have resulted in a boost to the country's economy of nearly £130 million.
Edinburgh alone benefited to the tune of £72.9 million, according to figures published yesterday and welcomed by Jim Mather, the Scottish Government's minister for enterprise, energy and tourism. [here]

Now let us not jump to any conclusions but if economic contribution is a justification for public subsidy ...

01 September 2009

A little too much openness?

There are no doubt bloggers who will comment substantively on the various papers released by Whitehall and St Andrew's House on the Al-Megrahi affair. I have a minor procedural point.

I was disappointed, even dismayed, to see that the papers released by the Scottish administration included advice from officials to the Minister (here for example). I had understood that the policy was not to disclose such advice, on the grounds that disclosure might prejudice the future preparation of advice that was frank, honest, impartial and comprehensive. Civil servants preparing submissions to Ministers should not be obliged to consider the implications of having the detail of their advice exposed in the yellow press at some date in the future. And having decided to release the advice on this occasion, how will Ministers resist similar demands in the future? A bit worrying. Is Sir John Elvidge content with this development?

(This has nothing to do with the fact that I prepared and put up a number of Ministerial submissions in the 1990s that I would hate to see made public property in the here and now.)

26 August 2009

Don't hold your breath

How many times over the past 20 years have you heard of proposals for a high-speed rail line between London and Scotland? And how many times did such proposals make any serious progress towards implementation?

The latest version is costed at £34 billion. Given that we are entering an era of severe restraint of public spending, we may as well face the fact. It is not going to happen.

With apologies to the trainspotters out there ...

Bloody typical

It's the same the whole world over
It's the poor what gets the blame
It's the rich what gets the pleasure
Ain't it all a bloody shame.

The Scotsman reports:
THE Royal Bank of Scotland was accused of "adding insult to injury" yesterday after it cut the pensions of 60,000 staff, despite having agreed to a £342,500-a-year package for its former chief executive, Sir Fred Goodwin.

22 August 2009

Wheels within wheels, deals within deals

Never believe it until it has been officially denied. And the alleged deal between London and Tripoli has now been officially denied, at least by London. (It's a different story in Tripoli.) There is no apparent shortage of trade benefits.


But what about the deal between London and Edinburgh? How did the UK Government persuade the Scottish Government to permit the release of the dying prisoner? Sure, it got the Scottish legal establishment out of a hole, so the SNP administration would have been inclined to play along. On the other hand, there was an excellent chance of seriously embarrassing London. Furthermore, the SNP would certainly have needed a serious incentive to expose itself to criticism from the US of A.


So, if I may extend this conspiracist fantasy a little further, what made Mr Salmond decide to line up with the undoubted (if seldom expressed) wishes of Mr Brown's government that a line should be drawn - once and for all - under the Lockerbie atrocity?

Will we ever find out?

19 August 2009

Deal or no deal?

Why would a long-term prisoner abandon an appeal? It is possible, of course, that the appeal has been dropped in the simple hope that the authorities will look kindly on a request to be repatriated - but that would involve a substantial investment in the benificence of those authorities. It seems far more likely that a high-powered legal team would seek certain assurances of repatriation, even a guarantee, particularly if they knew that certain parties might be seriously embarrassed if the appeal were to run full course, while other parties are desperate to drill for oil in the Gulf of Sidra. Such a guarantee could not of course be made public - one has to observe certain legal proprieties after all. But a deal could be made and who would offer a quid without a quo?

In this context, the remarks of the prisoner's legal team are particularly interesting:
Appeal judges in Edinburgh were told yesterday that the 57-year-old was convinced that abandoning his long-running appeal against his conviction would "assist in the early determination" of the application to be sent back to Libya.
Maggie Scott QC, the head of Megrahi's legal team, increased suspicion of an unofficial deal by saying her client, who is now very weak, in severe pain and distressed, believed he would get home quickly only if he gave up the appeal.
She hinted that Megrahi believed that keeping the appeal "alive" meant the Scottish government would either block or delay his applications for compassionate release, including a separate prisoner transfer bid to be sent home to continue his sentence in a Libyan jail.
"His absolute priority in the little time he has left is to spend it with his family in his homeland," she told the court. "It's the appellant's belief that instructions to abandon his appeal will assist in the early determination of these applications."

Source: The Guardian (here)

18 August 2009

Time for the clothes pegs

Is this what our troops are fighting for?
Eight months ago, it looked as though the controversial era of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbek warlord, had come to a brutal end. After allegedly beating up a political rival, he disappeared into exile in Turkey. Yet with only three days until Afghanistan’s presidential election, General Dostum, 55, has staged a dramatic return to his homeland as part of a deal to help President Karzai to victory. (here)

Mr Karzai, the West’s indecisive placeman in Afghanistan, eager to please everyone, has quietly signed an amended version of what has become known as the “marital rape law”, to retain popularity with clerics and his male followers. While the clause insisting that a man has the right to sex with his wife a certain number of times a week may have been removed, the Shia Personal Status Law, described as “abhorrent” in its original form by President Obama, remains abhorrent. It allows a man to deny his wife food if she denies him conjugal sex, grants guardianship of children to fathers and
grandfathers, lets rapists pay to avoid being prosecuted, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. (here)
An investigation by the BBC has found evidence of fraud and corruption in Afghanistan's presidential election. Thousands of voting cards have been offered for sale and thousands of dollars offered in bribes to buy votes. The findings come as campaigning closes ahead of Thursday's election in which incumbent President Hamid Karzai faces more than 30 challengers. (here)

TALEBAN commanders have been bribed with cash from the international community to hold off violent attacks in the run up to Thursday's Afghan elections, The Scotsman has learned. (here)

16 August 2009

Tennis

Murray beats del Potro in final, 6-7, 7-6, 6--1. 2 hours 44 minutes worth. Tough going for Murray but finally delivers the goods.

15 August 2009

Tennis

Murray takes down Tsonga, 6-4, 7-6, despite not playing terribly well. Murray now World No 2, having overtaken Nadal in the rankings.

Feeding the inner blogger

Where, according to The Guardian, to eat cheaply and well in Edinburgh.

No, I'd never heard of most of these places, either, but that doesn't mean very much.

Kenny writes ...

Look, it wasn't supposed to be like this. I'm just an ordinary bloke; I don't claim to be an international statesman. Fat Eck insisted I take the justice post because I was one of the few to have a law degree (not that I was ever going to be the Perry Mason of the Scottish Bar).

Now I've got Mrs Clinton phoning me up (bit of a shock to the system that) and the London papers are writing profiles of me (why do they always have to mention the Wembley business?).

And the thing is, I'm damned if I let him go and damned if I don't. On the one side, there are Hillary and the yanks wanting the guy to be locked up and the key thrown away; on the other are the Scottish legal establishment, Jack Straw and various un-named spooks and squirrels who just want a line drawn under the entire case.

It's no fun, believe me. I'm only here for the occasional Burns supper in Canada, not this kind of international rammy. I can deal with the kiddies in the Scottish Parliament but I never expected to have to take on the big boys.

11 August 2009

Junk economics

It's a bit of a puzzle. I have no wish to rain on the SCDEA's parade but is its splendid record last year entirely due to its own efforts? The Scotsman reports:
A RECORD amount of class-A drugs like heroin and cocaine were seized by the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) last year – the largest amount since the organisation was formed.
The agency's eighth annual report revealed that nearly two tonnes of illegal drugs were recovered, more than half of which fell into the class-A category.The class-A drugs had a street value of £43.5 million. The SCDEA said the action stopped a minimum of two million street deals.
What we don't know is the extent to which there were more drugs available to be recovered. Obviously, if the importation of drugs is growing, then - other things remaining equal - one might expect more to be recovered. But, for obvious reasons, we do not have statistics on the amounts imported (or produced locally). One possible measure of marlet penetration might be price but again for obvious reasons we do not have reliable stats on the street price of cocaine or heroin. So it remains something of a mystery.

But nevertheless a qualified well done to the boys and girls of the SCDEA.

10 August 2009

Quote of the day

Sir John Scarlett (here):
The head of MI6 has told the BBC there is no torture and "no complicity in torture" by the British secret service.
Sir John Scarlett said his officers were committed to human rights and liberal democracy, but also had to protect the UK against terrorism.

I bet he's got his fingers crossed.

Ask a silly question ...

We couch-potatoes are always getting hammered for a lack of exercise. The Guardian reports:
We can't be bothered to walk up a few flights of stairs, balk at the idea of running to catch a bus and would rather snooze than have sex with our partners, according to a report published today.
Despite a huge government push to encourage healthy living, Britons are lazier than ever, concludes the study conducted by Nuffield Health, a not for profit health organisation.
One in six people would rather watch a TV programme they didn't like than leave the sofa to change the channel if their remote control was broken. A third (36%) of the 2,000 adults surveyed for the study said they would not run to catch a bus and more than half (59%) would not walk up two flights of stairs to reach their office, choosing instead to take the lift.

Aye, well. What The Guardian omits to mention is that Nuffield Health runs a chain of 50 gyms (sorry, "fitness and well-being centres") throughout the UK. Now how likely is it that the owner of 50 gyms, operating commercially, would commission a survey which concluded that the general fitness of the population was heading in a direction which was more than adequate?

09 August 2009

The First Minister should know better

Facts: 1. There is a finite amount of groceries that the Scottish population will buy in any year. 2. This amount may vary from year to year but only marginally.

It follows that the added sales consequent upon the opening of a new shop will be largely offset by reduced sales elsewhere, and that any new jobs created in the new shop will be largely offset by job reductions elsewhere.

That being so, why do newspapers and policians leap to welcome developments in the retail sector? The Sunday Herald reports:

SAINSBURY'S IS to create 1300 new jobs in Scotland by next summer as part of a plan to expand its UK floor space by 15%.
The supermarket group, which has completed a successful four-year turnaround plan, said that most of the jobs would come through the openings of two new stores in Strathaven and Prestwick as well as a revamped store at Glasgow's Braehead.
First minister Alex Salmond welcomed the news, predicting that the new investment would provide a "significant boost to the Scottish economy".
He said: "The company's plans to increase its number of Scottish stores and to expand existing outlets will bring new jobs and investment to communities throughout the country."

04 August 2009

Heedorum, hoderum

Oh dear, the Gaelic language is in crisis - yet again. All that money on Gaelic TV and gaelic education would not appear to be having the desired effect. The Minister for the Gaelic (who knew there was such a creature) says so:
Immediate action to create a new generation of Gaelic speakers is the only way to save the language, according to Minister for Gaelic Michael Russell and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning Fiona Hyslop, speaking today during a visit to the studios of Stornoway-based Gaelic broadcaster MG Alba.

Well OK, Mikey. What you gonna do?

To address the issue, Ms Hyslop and Mr Russell announced that the Scottish Government and Bòrd na Gàidhlig will work closely over the next three months to identify the critical steps required to deliver such a challenging outcome. By the end of this year Mr Russell will publish an action plan of radical steps which will deliver an increase in Gaelic speakers and users.
Minister for Gaelic Michael Russell said:
"There is legitimate concern about the condition of Gaelic in Scotland. This Government shares that concern and is committed to tackling it head-on. But there is not the luxury of time. We must take action and we must take it now."

But there is sufficient luxury of time to prepare an action plan of radical steps. Which course of so-called action commits the Scottish Government to very little. The inhabitants of the Western Isles may have their faults but they are well enough able to distinguish between the appearance of immediate action and the reality.

Is there any indication of what these radical steps will involve? No. Is there any indication that the government is prepared to open its purse? No. Will they just go back to Edinburgh and forget about it? Probably.

01 August 2009

Quote of the day

Even Peston is prepared to put the boot in:
... if you're in a mood to fume once more at the way that individual bankers enriched themselves at taxpayers' expense, I commend to you a report published yesterday by the New York State attorney general on fat bonuses paid last year by US banks that were kept alive by public money.
The once-mighty Citigroup, for example, received hundreds of billions of dollars in investment and guarantees from American taxpayers, but still paid out $609.1m in bonuses to its top 124 bonus recipients: three individuals received bonuses of $10m or more; 13 pocketed bonuses of $8m or more; 44 individuals trousered bonuses of $5m or more.
Merrill Lynch, which was rescued by Bank of America and generated losses last year of $27.6bn, paid its top four bonus recipients in 2008 a combined $121m and the next four received $62m. The top 149 bonus recipients at Merrill received a combined $858m.
This spectacle of bankers' snouts in the trough feasting thanks to the emergency succour provided by taxpayers was also to be seen at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan.
And all the while a painful global recession - partly caused by bankers' excess - was depriving less fortunate citizens of their livelihoods.
We don't have an equivalent report into the bonuses paid last year by British banks.

Angry, nearest lamp-post, rope ...

29 July 2009

For rugby fans only

I confess to some mild irritation that the 2015 Rugby World Cup to be set in England will to some extent be played on football pitches, including Old Trafford, The Emirates, Anfield and St James. My objection lies not in the direction of the old antagonism between rugger and soccer but is grounded on the size of football pitches.

The maximum length of an IRB-approved international rugby ground is 100 metres from goal-line to goal-line plus 2 x 22 metres for the in-goal areas, a total of 144 metres. Very few rugby grounds are actually this big but Murrayfield, Twickenham, Lansdowne Road and the Millenium Stadium are not far away.

By contrast, here are the lengths of the afore-mentioned football pitches:
Old Trafford 106m
The Emirates 104m
Anfield 101m
St James 101m

Given that the minimum size of an in-goal area is 10 metres, and the 22 metres between goal line and 22 metre line is sacrosanct, the size of the playing surface between 22 metre lines has to be reduced in the above cases to between 42 and 37 metres, compared with the 56 metres expected at an international rugby ground.

Thus the rugby play becomes cramped and the aesthetics of the game are diminished. That this should happen in the showcase of international rugby seems disappointing.

28 July 2009

Whatever happened to y-fronts?

Are you (like me) sagging a bit? Need something of an uplift? Not quite cutting it when it comes to the hind-quarters?

If you're rich and stupid, you might be interested in this:
The department store, Selfridges, is set to launch on the high street Britain's first range of 'control pants' for men.
The collection, by Equmen, promises to deliver a pert posterior and do for men's bums what brands such as Spanx have done for female thighs.
The range of 'power pants' comprises briefs, at £35, and leg-hugging trunks (colloquially referred to as 'meggings' - the macho form of leggings), £37, which feature Equmen's revolutionary 'Helix-Mapping compression technology', to improve lightweight posture and provide support 'down under', in addition to lifting and smoothing "in all the right places", to quote the press release.

Me, I'll stick to my standard boxers. And if my posterior is not pert enough, then too bad. Sorry, girls.

The fog of war

So operation Panther's Claw, or at least phase 1, is over. How do we, sitting at home, evaluate this? One would have to be desperately thrawn not to welcome the first two parts of the Prime Minister's statement (quoted here):
"What we have actually done is make land secure for about 100,000 people," the Prime Minister claimed. "What we've done is push back the Taliban – and what we've done also is to start to break that chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain."
although the hyperbole of the third part rather weakens the overall effect.

But I have yet to see printed anywhere a clear statement of the objectives and timing of the operation against which to measure what has been achieved. Sure, there is lots of vague stuff about clearing the Taliban from an area of the province (said to be the size of the Isle of Wight) with a view to preserving it for the elections. But which townships or strongpoints were to be cleared, by when and in what order? The Times has a nice graphic but it mainly illustrates what we don't know.

Then there is the question of troop numbers. We are told that 3000 British forces were involved. But what of the Taliban? According to The Guardian (here):
There had been up to 500 Taliban fighters in the area at the start of Panther's Claw.
Is this accurate?

And what about casualties? We have been told of the deaths of 10 (or perhaps 11) British soldiers, but nothing of the wounded (although I think I heard the figure of 50 mentioned on the BBC World Service last night). And, apparently, we don't count Taliban casualties.

The only other question I have is to wonder how this operation related to the parallel operation further south in Helmand by the US marines. Since Panther's Claw began, we have heard virtually nothing of what the Americans are up to.

Finally, I should record that I have nothing but admiration for the British troops, taking on a tough enemy in terrible conditions, no doubt with commendable skill and bravery. And perhaps for obvious reasons we should not expect to be kept fully informed about progress. But it is worth bearing in mind that truth and frankness are among the first casualties in the fog of war.