30 October 2009


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!)


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.