31 December 2005

They asked but I turned it down again...

So, arise Sir Tom Jones! I don't know what you did to justify a K, especially as Brucie only got a CBE. And does winning the European Cup count for nothing if the victors come from Liverpool?

The following are some of the few deserving recipients (here), even if they only got MBEs:
"Russell Square Tube station supervisor David Boyce, who ran into the tunnel to provide first aid to victims of the bombing, is made an MBE.
Paramedic William Kilminster, who helped those trapped in the tunnel between Russell Square and King's Cross, and Pc Deborah Russell-Fenwick, who helped victims of the Tavistock Place bus attack, also become MBEs.
Off-duty Tube driver John Boyle, who entered Aldgate Tube station to rescue victims, is also appointed an MBE. "

Sour grapes

The Scotsman reports on a blast from the past:
SCOTS singing legend Moira Anderson launched a scathing attack on the BBC yesterday, saying she would rather read a book than watch tonight's flagship Hogmanay show.
The White Heather Club stalwart said she was embarrassed that the programme which helped to make her a household name had become so "crass".
She said: "The BBC has become obsessed with not appearing old-fashioned, so they put on the rubbish at Hogmanay that we have now.
"But at New Year people would prefer traditional Scottish music, because Hogmanay is a traditional time of year. People would be much happier dancing to some old-fashioned Scottish music - and that goes for young and old.
"I certainly won't be watching the Hogmanay show - I'd rather read a book."

Aye weel - not everyone was totally enamoured of the shortbread and kilt kitsch that was the White Heather Club. BBC Scotland at Hogmanay was always embarrassing - why should it be different today? But bringing back Moira Anderson is not the answer.

28 December 2005

Sweet and sour?

The Independent reports:
"Bob Geldof has agreed to work with the Tories on a world poverty group being set up by David Cameron, the Conservative leader.
Mr Cameron has appointed Peter Lilley, a former Cabinet minister, to head the commission. His co-operation with Mr Geldof, who has warmly praised Tony Blair's initiatives at the G8 for Africa, will be seen as a further attempt to steer the Tories towards "caring Conservatism".
Senior Tories emphasised that Mr Geldof was acting in a non-party role. "There is no question of Sir Bob joining the Conservatives," said a Tory source. "While remaining entirely non-partisan, Bob will work with the group to bring his influence to bear in order to help us go in the direction that he and we both want."
Mr Cameron said: "This summer, millions of British people took part in the Make Poverty History campaign. A new generation of concerned citizens want prosperity for themselves and progress for the poor - whether living on the other side of the street or the other side of the world. Modern, compassionate Conservatism means responding to their demands."

Would that be the Peter Lilley who, when Social Security Secretary, said he had a "little list" of people to deal with, including unwed mothers who got pregnant to jump the housing queue (here)? Seems a strange choice to deal with poverty, even in the modern caring compassionate Conservative Party.

And why would St Bob want to become involved? I can't believe that his motivation is solely based on a desire to see his name in the media once again...

New year grills

Lucy Mangan in The Guardian goes all metaphysical for 2006:
Should I buy a George Foreman grill? This question is hedged round by a variety of others, such as: if the current model boldly advertises the incorporation of a floating hinge, does that mean there were earlier editions that had just ordinary hinges? If so, did this not mean that they were perilously close to being toasted sandwich makers? More pressingly, is the George Foreman grill not just - how can I put this? - a grill? OK, a grill that cooks both sides of a chop at once, but in health terms, which seems to be the main selling point of the "lean, mean grilling machine", exactly the same as that thing most of the western world already has in the oven? The 17-year-old sales assistants who staff most of our leading electrical goods stores are unable to furnish me with a satisfactory response and, indeed, become distressed and vexed at my constant pursuit of resolution, so I will enter 2006 still searching.

Heavy, man, heavy...

Food or sex?

From The Guardian (here):
"Home-cooked food such as shepherd's pie is what nearly half of Britons would most like to come home to, according to a poll by Homepride. Only 13% ranked a romantic night in with their partner as their first choice.
Ann Thomas, a counselling psychologist, said the survey showed people craved an antidote to the fast pace of modern life: "Cooking and then eating a warming traditional meal is a subconscious wish to reconnect with the safety of our home environment, as well as relaxing and finding sanctuary from the elements and world outside."

Or maybe people just like shepherd's pie...

26 December 2005

What? No Sidney Devine?

The Defence Secretary betrays a complete lack of musical taste. From The Times (here):
"John Reid, the Defence Secretary, turned disc jockey yesterday to send a message of thanks to the 38,000 British Armed Forces personnel serving overseas.
Mr Reid recorded an hour-long show that was broadcast on the British forces radio station BFBS. He picked five of his favourite tunes to entertain the troops...
Mr Reid’s chosen songs were: Amarillo, by Tony Christie; Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen; Wind Beneath Your Wings, by Bette Midler; Country Roads, by John Denver; and Mull of Kintyre, by Paul McCartney."

24 December 2005

Jingling all the way

Let's have some sympathy for those who have to spend Christmas Day with their idiot relatives. From The Telegraph (here):
"It has been a year of "firsts" for the Duchess of Cornwall, who has successfully navigated her way through her first solo engagements and her first overseas tour since marrying the heir to the throne.
Now she faces another, possibly more critical, challenge; her first royal Christmas at Sandringham - with her in-laws...
Each member of the Royal Family awakes on Christmas morning to stockings at the foot of their bed, usually filled with small gifts and fruit.
Then after a full English breakfast, they attend Christmas morning service at St Mary Magdalene, the church on the estate.
All members, except the Queen and those with tiny children, walk to the church, where they are watched by crowds of well-wishers.
Back at Sandringham, they settle down to a traditional Christmas lunch at 1pm, including a turkey reared on the estate and all the trimmings, before gathering around the television set to watch the Queen's Christmas broadcast at 3pm.
In the afternoon, the Queen has been known to take her corgis for a stroll, and other members of the family work off their lunch with some gentle outdoor exercise. The evening is spent relaxing, playing games and watching television, much as in other households across the land."

22 December 2005


Congratulations to Arthur's Seat for his clerihew competition. My favourite:
First Minister Jack McConnell
Long after he's gone'll
Be chiefly remembered
For being rather bad-tempered

But check out the other entries.

A turkey is not just for Christmas


Smoke gets in your eyes

Sinister or what? The Scotsman reports on the latest moves by the health fascists:
Key quote "Does your organisation know which of the homes visited by its staff are occupied by smokers? If not, it would be advisable to develop such a list. Once the situation relating to individual properties is ascertained, steps can be taken to reduce the exposure the staff might face" - Executive published guidelines on the ban on smoking in public places

Story in full THE public are to be told not to smoke in their own homes as part of plans to protect public sector workers from the effect of passive smoking.
The move is the latest part of the Scottish Executive's ban on smoking in public places, which will come into force on 26 March next year.
Ministers have told councils, health boards and social work departments that they should compile a "smokers' map" of Scotland, focusing on those who regularly receive visits from officials and carers. This would identify individual households where a smoker is resident.
The smokers would then be sent letters asking them not to smoke for one hour before a council worker or health worker called round. Public bodies have also been advised to use the smokers' map to ensure that any workers who suffer from breathing problems are kept away from the homes of smokers.

Intriguingly, the Scottish Executive press release (here) includes a quotation from ASH. Unusual that the Executive would wish to be so closely associated with a controversial lobby group. In the interests of balance, should FOREST not also have been invited to set out its views? Or is the Executive only interested in pushing one side of the story? If the Executive is in bed with ASH, can it be trusted to take a dispassionate and unbiased view of the matter?

What a surprise!

The Herald reports that Scottish Executive Ministers have owned up:
"Ministers at Holyrood finally admitted last night that the Scottish Executive's much-vaunted efficiency drive was nowhere near as tough as its equivalent south of the border. Tom McCabe, finance minister, told MSPs some key savings targets set in Scotland were less than half as taxing as those laid down for Whitehall departments. The admission, which came as Holyrood debated next year's budget, shattered previous executive boasts that they would exceed Whitehall in its efficiency drive, which is supposed to plough £1.2bn from back office work across the public sector into services, including nursing and teaching, by 2008.
The debate also saw Des McNulty, Labour convener of Holyrood's finance committee, attack the executive's "bean counters". He said there was a growing army of bureaucrats, and singled out the "burgeoning office of the permanent secretary", the head of the civil service in Scotland.
Opposition parties said the executive's efficiency drive had been exposed as empty political posturing. In September last year, Mr McConnell said he would "go further" than the English review on government efficiency savings written by Sir Peter Gershon, an aim echoed by Mr McCabe."

The efficiency savings hoo-ha represents something of a pattern: bold and ambitious announcement, subsequent failure to deliver, pretence that everything is on track, then eventually ignominious climbdown. And no-one will be held accountable. The Executive - Ministers and senior civil servants - must do better.

We will return to the matter of the burgeoning office of the Permanent Secretary on a future occasion. But anyone who wants to see an illustration of its expansion need only consult here (although - with typical efficiency - the site does not appear to have been updated since March 2005).


The Guardian sets out the arithmetic underlying the European budget deal:
"Blair made two key concessions at the weekend, which adds to the UK's likely net payments from 2007 to 2013. The first was to increase the overall size of the EU budget, in order to spend more on help for the accession countries in eastern Europe. This raised the European budget from 1.03% of GDP to 1.045, a tiny change that will have cost the UK something much less than £1bn cumulatively over seven years.
The second concession was to cancel about £7bn of Thatcher's rebate, again over seven years. Here are the numbers: Once the overall budget had been set at 1.045% of GDP, the total British contribution would have amounted to about £72bn cumulatively from 2007 to 13, if the British rebate had never been invented. With that rebate remaining in full force, the UK contribution would have been only £34bn. And now, with Blair's concession, the net cost to Britain will be £41bn.
The prime minister's decision to concede about one-fifth of the Thatcher rebate will increase the average annual bill for the UK from 0.39% of our GDP, which is what it would have been with the Thatcher rebate, to 0.47% of GDP under the deal made last weekend. Even for some of our xenophobic friends in the British press, that difference of 0.08% of GDP must seem like slim pickings."

Put like this, perhaps Mr Blair's performance at the Brussels summit was not as bad as has been painted by most of the media.

More on that Christmas card

Marina Hyde in The Guardian deconstructs the Wenger-Mourinho spat:
"Contemplating Mourinho and Wenger, it is hard not to be reminded of Metternich and Talleyrand, the masterly 19th-century Austrian and French diplomats whose rivalry and gamesmanship was so intense that, upon hearing Talleyrand had died, Metternich replied: "Yes. But what did he mean by it?" Even had Mourinho's card contained nothing more than the words "Happy Christmas, Best Wishes Jose Mourinho", it is perfectly possible to imagine Wenger poring dementedly over it and screaming: "Yes. BUT WHAT DOES HE MEAN BY IT??"
It seems odd that whenever people suggest a three-week break in the Premiership over Christmas, they always do so thinking of the players. That both the Arsenal and Chelsea managers could use some sort of holiday seems clear. But somehow the former's paranoia makes him the more obvious candidate for spending his in one of those Swiss places that are euphemistically known as rest facilities. As each new detail emerges of how Mourinho's antics affect him, Wenger's behaviour increasingly resembles that of Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies. His developing a nervous tic now seems inevitable.
One can quite understand how much Mourinho's schtick would send him off the dial...
All of which has made the card itself - a child's drawing, since reproduced in several newspapers - seem an unlikely object of menace, like one of those nursery rhymes recited in horror movies. The more you look at this cheery little snowman in his Chelsea strip, apparently drawn by a nine-year-old, the more it takes on the character of a Trojan horse, delivered to Highbury with the express purpose of sending Wenger round the twist.
Indeed, the longer one considers it, the more uncertain reality seems. Perhaps it was not drawn by a nine-year-old at all. Perhaps it was simply designed to look like it was drawn by one, when in fact it is the handiwork of a manipulative rogue psychologist and teems with destructive subliminal messages. And yet, that way madness lies. With this business, the one thing we can detect with absolute, cast-iron certainty is a hint of the under-10s."

I suppose peace and goodwill are out of the question?

20 December 2005

What is Frau Merkel up to?

Le Figaro reports (here):
"à PEINE ENGRANGÉ son triomphe au sommet budgétaire des Vingt-Cinq, Angela Merkel «pousse l'Europe» à aller plus loin, si l'on en croit le Handelsblatt. Le quotidien économique se réfère à des sources au gouvernement allemand et au sein du PPE, le regroupement de partis conservateurs européens, pour expliquer que la chancelière entend appuyer sur l'accélérateur social afin de sortir l'Union européenne de l'ornière.
«Il n'y a pas encore d'idées concrètes», tempère Thomas Steg, le porte-parole de la «grande coalition». Mais il ne dément en rien qu'il y ait quelque chose dans le pipeline. Selon le Handelsblatt, Angela Merkel réfléchit aux moyens de raviver le processus de ratification de la Constitution européenne, au point mort depuis les référendums à Paris et La Haye.
Pour en rendre le texte acceptable aux opinions française et néerlandaise lors d'un vote renouvelé, elle envisagerait d'y ajouter sans le modifier un «protocole social», de nature à accentuer cet aspect de l'intégration. Les chefs d'Etat et de gouvernement souscriraient alors à une déclaration sur la «dimension sociale de l'Europe» qui, sans avoir de valeur juridique contraignante, obligerait de facto les Etats membres à davantage prendre en compte les conséquences sociales de la législation communautaire en matière de marché intérieur. Des projets d'inspiration libérale à l'instar de la directive Bolkestein sur les services trouveraient alors à Bruxelles un filtre supplémentaire à leur adoption.
L'initiative, si elle devait prendre forme, n'est pourtant pas pour demain. Thomas Steg prend ainsi soin de renvoyer à l'«accord de coalition» entre la CDU-CSU et le SPD, qui a pour objectif de donner des «impulsions» à l'UE pendant la présidence allemande, au premier semestre de 2007. D'ici là, il y aura eu les élections en France et aux Pays-Bas, de quoi repartir sur des bases nouvelles. D'autant que Tony Blair et Silvio Berlusconi risquent alors de ne plus appartenir au cénacle européen."

Essentially, she is considering some means of getting the proposed European constitution back on track, perhaps by appending to the proposed treaty a declaration on "the social dimension of Europe" which would require Member States to take greater account of the social consequences of community legislation on the internal market.

I rather doubt if Mr Blair or Mr Brown will welcome any such initiative.

Childish or what?

The Guardian reveals that football managers are not immune from behaving like big babies:
"Jose Mourinho declined to shake Arsène Wenger's hand after Chelsea's 2-0 defeat of Arsenal on Sunday because he felt affronted by the FA Cup holders' manager.
Mourinho had circulated a signed corporate Christmas card to all the Premiership managers but had written a personal message in Wenger's. In that he is said by Chelsea sources to have apologised over the pair's dispute this season, insisting he had never intended their spat to become personal.
However, one of the Arsenal backroom staff is said to have approached a Chelsea counterpart before the game to ask about the authenticity of the message, a question which dismayed Mourinho.
When Wenger walked past Mourinho without a word in front of the dugouts, the Portuguese felt it was he who had suffered a snub, prompting his post-match rebuff."

Is this the behaviour of adults?

Light in the darkness

Perhaps it is just the time of year, but amid the unremitting gloom cast by the media it becomes increasingly difficult to find the occasional shaft of light. Nevertheless a diminishing proportion of the population may be cheered up by this article in The Guardian (here):
"Dark chocolate could help smokers cut the risk of serious heart disease, a study at the University Hospital in Zurich has found.
Researchers used ultrasound scans to look at blood flow and clot-causing platelets in the arteries of 25 male smokers after they ate white and dark chocolate.
Antioxidants rose two hours after eating 40g of dark chocolate, blood flow was smoother and the build-up of platelets halved.
White chocolate made no difference, they say in the journal Heart. "Only a small treat of dark chocolate may benefit vascular health," said Roberto Corti who led the study."


19 December 2005

The Sunday Post mentality

The Herald records:
"The Western Isles is to become the only region in Britain to ban gay wedding ceremonies, it emerged yesterday. Councillors in Stornoway have expressed support for the islands' registrars who are refusing to perform civil partnership ceremonies, which can be held across Scotland from tomorrow. The local authority's stance contradicts Scottish Executive policy on the provision of ceremonies for same-sex unions, and has attracted criticism from gay rights campaigners. "

What to do about Stornoway? Some of the nicest people in the world, but also some of the most intolerant Christians around...

18 December 2005

The best small country in the world?

Maybe the fattest. From Scotland on Sunday (here):

"Last week, a new report revealed that the number of obese children in Scotland is running at double the UK average.
More than a third of 12-year-old children were classed as overweight in the 2004-05 school year, while 19.4% were obese and 11.2% were classed as severely obese.
Some 20% of those aged three-and-a-half were overweight, 8.6% were obese and 4% were severely obese.
Ministers, meanwhile, have been at the centre of controversy for failing to practise what they preach. Figures published in March showed that ministers and top civil servants made more than ten taxi or official car trips a week between the Scottish Executive headquarters at St Andrew's House and the nearby Scottish Parliament, even though the buildings are just a few minutes apart by foot.
Ministers were accused of adding to congestion in the capital and failing to live up to their healthy living message after making the short trip by car a total of 276 times in just six months. "
And, possibly, the thickest. From Scotland on Sunday (here):
Education figures published last week showed that, at the critical S2 level (of 13 to 14-year-olds), more than three in 10 pupils are failing to achieve the basic standards in reading, four in 10 are failing in maths and almost half are failing in writing. In Glasgow, nearly 60% of pupils failed the Level E assessment for writing in 2005.
And, probably, one of the most dangerous. From The Sunday Herald (here):
"Government statistics confirmed Scotland as one of the most violent countries in Western Europe. They highlighted a disturbing trend showing that the number of victims of murder and culpable homicide had soared by more than 25% in a year to 137. A knife or other sharp instrument was the most common murder weapon, accounting for 72 victims, the highest figure for a decade.
Although the number of murders represented the highest since 1995 to 1996 – the year of the Dunblane massacre, in which 16 schoolchildren and their teacher were killed – the figure has been steadily growing for years.
Through the 1970s the average number of homicides per year was 86. That figure rose to 96 per year in the 1980s and 110 through the 1990s – excluding Lockerbie and Dunblane. Since the turn of the millennium, killings in Scotland have averaged more than 111 each year."

16 December 2005

"Once upon a time there was a tavern..."

Most improbable quotation of the day:
"As a socialist all my life, I believe that people should have more control over their own affairs. I also believe that a fundamental principle of our socialism is that people should have that democratic control over their own lives and the places in which they live."

From Jack McConnell at yesterday's FMQs (here).

Every picture tells a story


15 December 2005

Could happy days be here again?

Fascinating anecdote in Tina Brown's article in The Spectator, concerning the auction of Hillary Clinton's memoirs at the end of the Clinton presidency:
"Hillary looked exhausted, as anyone might at the fag end of a hellish eight years of unrelenting pressure, including a punishing, if triumphant, run for the US Senate. Under heavy professional make-up her eyelids literally drooped with fatigue. The small attentive smile she always wears on the job was strained. Like many global superstars, she has a larger head than you expect, and it tends to nod slowly (and endorsingly, one thinks) as she listens. Her least beguiling quality is a flat, strong, Midwestern voice, and she immediately started pitching the book to us without any of the bonding and interpersonal foreplay you would have got with Bill. ‘I am the only one to have inhabited my own life,’ she said ‘and I am the only one to tell this story.’ The elephant in the room, of course, was how much she would inhabit the bit of her life about Monica Lewinsky, which was what publishers were lining up to write cheques for.
But there was something about the implacable self-belief in Hillary’s stare that made it very hard
to bring up Monica. Eventually we did. Sort of. ‘It will be there — the Monica section,’ the First Lady said levelly. The unspoken words in the long pause that followed were, ‘I will give you as much as I have to give you on that fat cow to collect eight million bucks.’ Hillary is nothing if not disciplined."

The bulk of the article sets out the way in which Senator Clinton has taken up centrist positions in anticipation of a run for the presidency. But it offers no real clues on the important question of whether Hillary's conversion to the centre is for real. Or is it just a smokescreen? And does it matter if we were to have another President Clinton?

"They don't know about us"

The Evening News reports:
A SCULPTURE is to be created outside the city council's new headquarters by the company behind major artworks along the M8 and inside the Scottish Parliament.
A shortlist of artists to design the £100,000 sculpture is about to be drawn up by Art in Partnership, the firm responsible for the controversial giant horn next to the M8 and the Temple at Tyre sculpture Leith Docks.
The public art commissioning agency has now been put in charge of selecting an artist to reflect the city's vision of "Edinburgh - Inspiring Capital".
Artists from all over the world are expected to compete to design the landmark structure in front of the £50 million East Market Street headquarters.

Oh dear - will the city fathers never learn? This is Edinburgh. We don't do culture, especially when the cost falls on the council taxpayer. And to make matters worse:
City culture leader Councillor Ricky Henderson today said he hoped the judging panel would come up with a "thought-provoking and off-beat" design.

No, no and thrice no. It will end in tears...

G8 benefits

It's really not fair. As economic consultants, you push the data as far as you can - even going so far as to count gross income as a net benefit, while suggesting that police overtime paid to English police counts wholly as a net economic benefit to Scotland. And you tot up all of the foreign press references as if they had to be paid for as advertising space. And, eventually, you come up with the right answers for your client, the Scottish Executive, even if it has only earned you a measly £60 grand.

And are the yellow press happy? Instead of praising your imaginative innovative approach to economic analysis, The Herald reports:

"Figures claiming Scotland made a profit from hosting the G8 summit were arrived at by taking every news item on the conference and attributing to this the cost of buying that amount of advertising, civil servants conceded yesterday. The claims, that the long-term figure for free advertising could reach more than £600m, have been derided by the business community. Graham Birse, deputy chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said: "If we were
buying £600m of worldwide publicity for Scotland, I hardly think we'd use it to show pictures of rioters trashing Princes Street Gardens. At the end of the day, Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, delivered magnificently for the G8, and we can be proud of that. But to suggest we have made some fantastic financial gain beggars belief." Tom McCabe, the finance minister, welcomed the report by consultants SQW, claiming the £60m cost to the Scottish Executive for the lion's share of hosting the event was offset by almost £65m going into the economy around that time. SQW also claimed the immediate publicity in July was worth £66m in free advertising, and could reach more than £600m."

while The Scotsman was even more scathing:

"SCOTTISH ministers were accused last night of "shoddy accounting" over a report which concluded that Scotland would make millions of pounds in profit from staging this summer's G8 summit.
The report, funded by the Scottish Executive, claimed the money generated through G8-related spending outweighed the cost to Scottish taxpayers of staging the event by nearly £5 million - a figure angrily dismissed by business leaders.
A second claim - that global coverage of the summit at Gleneagles in July was worth more than £600 million in advertising - was also attacked by marketing experts, who said the figure was "highly questionable".

14 December 2005

Why telling porkies is not advisable

The Guardian reports:
"The home secretary today defended the government's decision not to hold a full public inquiry into the July 7 bombings.
Charles Clarke spoke as some of the victims of the bombings, Muslim leaders and Conservatives criticised the decision, which was confirmed by the Home Office last night.
Instead of an independent judicial inquiry, a senior civil servant will compile a "narrative" on the attacks in London using evidence compiled by the police and two House of Commons select committees.
The narrative may also, in an unprecedented move, make public some of the secret intelligence about the four bombers, who killed themselves and 52 people."

So there will be a narrative. But, after the dodgy dossiers on Iraq, who will believe it? The Government's credibility is shot. Even if they want to tell the truth (which is a big assumption), no-one will trust a word.

13 December 2005

Straws in the wind

The Prime Minister seems to be running out of steam,

here in The Guardian:
"Tony Blair's drive to tackle antisocial behaviour is faltering, with plans for a "Respect" bill having to be shelved because of the lack of consensus across Whitehall over what it should contain.
The prime minister promised the Labour party conference this autumn that plans "for a radical extension of summary powers for the police and local authorities to tackle the wrongdoers" would be published by the end of the year.
But during a visit yesterday to Harlow, Essex, one of 60 antisocial behaviour trailblazer zones, Mr Blair confirmed that his Respect bill had been downgraded to a Home Office action plan to be published in the new year. "

and here, also in The Guardian:
"Two former Labour education secretaries, David Blunkett and Estelle Morris, are poised to put themselves in the frontline of opposition to Tony Blair's blueprint for "independent state" secondary schools, which threatens to split the party.
Lady Morris used an interview by the Guardian yesterday to flag up her opposition, warning that last month's education white paper is "at best a distraction, at worst a change of direction".

and here in The Telegraph:
"Ministers are to scale back plans for reform of the welfare system, including extra means-testing of people on long-term sickness benefit, because Tony Blair no longer has enough support among Labour MPs to force them through Parliament.
Despite his promise in September of "radical" reform to incapacity benefit, which 2.7 million people claim at an annual cost of £12 billion, Government sources say the changes will have to be limited and less controversial.
"To open up another front now would be mad," one said last night. Mr Blair was already at war with his party over education and health reforms and could not afford to risk further confrontation."

Not looking terribly good on the legacy front...

Tony's crony

What does the unelected Lord Falconer know about democracy or free speech? Not a lot, it would appear. The BBC reports:
"Lord Falconer says it is "ridiculously overdone" to claim free speech is being undermined after the arrest of a woman for listing the UK's Iraq war dead.
Maya Evans, 25, recited the 97 names by the Cenotaph memorial to Britain's war dead in Whitehall, near Downing Street.
She was found guilty of breaking a new law stopping unauthorised protests within half a mile of Parliament.
The lord chancellor said the law was a "sensible" precaution to stop disorder rather than an attack on free speech.
Ms Evans, a vegan cook from Hastings, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £100 costs after being found guilty of breaching the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act

So this law is a sensible precaution to stop disorder? In what way was Ms Evans threatening disorder?

Obviously, Lord Falconer has no shame.

Parliamentary allowances

If you really want to know how much your MSP has claimed in allowances, you can find out here. Go to page 17 and click on the relevant MSP.

If there is a scandal, it is the travel rates (here):
Motor Mileage 49.3p per mile
Motor Cycle 24p per mile
Pedal Cycle 20p per mile

It would be nitpicking to suggest that these seem absurdly generous. But, then, why not pick nits?

Linguistic incidents

Why are the sketch writers always so nasty about Mr Prescott? Here is Ms Treneman in The Times on yesterday's statement on the Buncefield fire:
"Mr Prescott tried to take it slowly and there were very few linguistic incidents.
The plume was not toxic, he said, adding that it was made up of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocardigans. Surely this is an improvement on hydrocarbons. It makes them seem a lot friendlier. The world cannot help but be a nicer place with hydrocardigans in it.
There was another molecular incident involving Sarah Teather, the extremely short and rather intense Liberal Democrat. The problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they cannot stop themselves letting us how much they know. So, obviously, Ms Teather could not just ask about the plume. Oh no. Instead, she wanted to know about the impact of polycystic hydroaromatic hydrocarbons. This had the Hansard reporters snorting.
As she said this I saw Mr Prescott scribble something down on his notepad and wondered what it could possibly be. For most of us, it would have been: hydroaromatic — crispy duck? Mr Prescott sidestepped it all by answering the question this way: “Chemical reaction — these are matters for Health and Safety.”

11 December 2005

Old news

The Sunday Times re-cycles the article from last Monday's Scotsman:
"A group of 16 senior Scottish civil servants are to receive public payouts of nearly £2m on top of their already comfortable pensions. Each of the 16 — members and former members of the Scottish executive’s management group — stand to get “golden goodbyes” averaging more than £100,000 when they are 60.
The windfall will boost their handsome pension entitlements and enable them to plan for the kind of cushy retirement beyond the wildest dreams of the ordinary taxpayer...
Fat-cat officials, however, can continue to cream money from the public purse.
The inequality is stark and highlights a growing gap between the lifestyles of Scotland’s political classes and the rest of the population since devolution.
Among those who will benefit from taxpayer munificence is John Elvidge, permanent secretary at the Scottish executive and Scotland’s top mandarin. He will retire with a lump sum of about £160,000, plus a pension in the region of £50,000 a year. "

I have already commented on this here and do not propose to repeat myself.

The sad thing is that there are real questions to be asked about the competence of the Scottish Executive Management Group, their background and their (lack of) experience, and their failure to interact with both the real world and the administrative world of local authorities, government agencies and the people in the Executive who do the real work. Instead, journalists go for the low-hanging fruit, even if it has already been plucked.

Sympathy for the devil

Sometimes, being a journalist can be a tough life. Here is Iain Macwhirter in The Sunday Herald:
"When Tony Blair took over, Labour already had a clear and long-established lead over the Conservatives in the opinion polls. Today Conservatives have been trailing Labour in the national polls .
Cameron will have to achieve a remarkable and unprecedented turn-around in the opinion polls if he is to stand any chance of winning the next general election. It looks an impossible mountain to climb. "

Right on cue, here comes The Observer to show that the impossible mountain has indeed been climbed:
"ICM, in the Sunday Telegraph says if an election were held tomorrow, the Conservatives would get 37 per cent, against 35 per cent for Labour. When respondents were asked how they would vote in a future Cameron-Brown contest, the gap widened to 40 per cent for the Tories, giving them a three-point lead.
A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times showed the Tories leading Labour by 37 per cent to 36 per cent - a two-point rise for the Conservatives and one-point fall for Labour in a month. Brown's approval rating - more than 40 per cent before the general election last May - is now just 4 per cent."

It's not the whole story of course - a one-off boost in the polls does not prove anything. But the above illustrates the difficulties of writing for the Sundays.

09 December 2005

Class war (or, if you like, envy and prejudice)

The Scotsman reports the latest attack on class privilege:
"BLUE blood no longer cuts any ice with one Scottish council, which has ordered the landed gentry to drag their wheelie bins to the ends of their extensive driveways if they want their rubbish collected.
Two of the best-known landowners in the Borders have expressed displeasure at the measure aimed at saving the council bin lorries 14,000 miles of travelling and £17,000 in costs.
Until recently landowners were offered the special service of having rubbish collected from outside the doors of their homes. This was seen as unfair to others who had to haul their refuse out into the street.
Under the new system rubbish will be uplifted only if left at the end of the drive, leaving many landowners to trek a couple of hundred yards just to put the bins out each week. "

The landed gentry need not expect any sympathy from me. As I reside in a tenement flat, I have to drag my rubbish down three flights of stairs and then to the nearest communal wheely bin. Why should the lairds get better service?

The Jack and Annabel show

In his parliamentary sketch in The Times, even Magnus Linklater rises to the occasion:
"Ms Goldie now went for the clinch. She said that she detected “a certain ambivalence” in Mr McConnell’s response and, rising dangerously from the sofa, she launched herself towards him. “It takes two for Punch and Judy to tango,” she announced thrillingly, if somewhat obscurely. “Here I am with arms outstretched.” As the First Minister, his face a mask of horror, retreated into his seat, she delivered what is almost certainly the most resistible offer he has had all day. Instead of dallying with the “duplicitous whimsy” of his Lib Dem colleagues, she told him, he should accept the warm embrace of the Scottish Tories. United by the common agreement that all was not well, and the stirring principle that something radical had to be done, they could set out along the aisle of political union to forge a better world (that last bit is made up, but it was the kind of thing she was driving at).
At this point Mr McConnell had a strong sense of deja-vu and realised he had a late-night bus to catch. The vision she held out, he said, was of David Cameron reaching out to Tony Blair to clasp him to his bosom. She nodded — that was just what she had in mind. “I’m not going to respond here and now,” he said thickly. Did that leave the door open a chink? We all wondered. But it was what he said next that left Ms Goldie dabbing her eyes and gazing mistily into the distance. “I am prepared to listen to her questions,” he told her, “if she is prepared to change the questions and listen to the answers.” Whatever is a girl to think? We must wait for the next tantalising episode of the Jack and Annabel show to find out."

Romance and the First Minister, and it's not even Valentine's day!

Rocket Man

The Independent is deeply worried about the social consequences of civil partnerships:
Sir Elton John's marriage later this month raises an important matter of protocol: how should we address his future spouse, David Furnish?
As commentators in The Spectator and elsewhere have noted, a knight of the realm's other half is usually given the title "Lady." This, they say, means Furnish ... could become "David, Lady John," or "Lady David John."
Meanwhile, Debrett's, an authority on such matters, has suggested that "Laddy" might make for a suitable modern alternative.
Mr Furnish may or may not be happy to plump for one of these options, but we are at present unable to find out.
The couple's spokesman describes their future official titles as "a private matter" and, when pressed, says enquiries of this nature are "incredibly homophobic".

As a humble peasant, I have nothing to offer on this controversy, although I have to note that it is a while since Sir Elton made a decent record.

The wee bit hill and glen

The Independent, rather surprisingly, seems much more sympathetic to the SNP than one might expect. It tells the story of the McCrone report of 1974 which, if made public, might possibly have led to Scottish independence. Not exactly new news, of course, but worth recording:
"An independent Scotland's budget surpluses as a result of the oil boom, wrote Professor McCrone, would be so large as to be "embarrassing".
Scotland's currency "would become the hardest in Europe, with the exception perhaps of the Norwegian Kronor." From being poorer than their southern neighbours, Scots would quite possibly become richer. Scotland would be in a position to lend heavily to England and "this situation could last for a very long time into the future."
In short, the oil would put the British boot, after centuries of resentment, firmly on the foot standing north of the border.
Within days of its receipt at Westminster in 1974, Professor McCrone's document was judged as incendiary and classified as secret. It would be sat upon for the next thirty years.
The mandarins demanded that Professor McCrone's 19-page analysis be given "only a most restricted circulation in the Scottish Office because of the extreme sensitivity of the subject." The subject was sensitive alright.
This is a story of Whitehall betrayal that will satisfy the pre-conceptions of the most extreme Scottish anglophobe."

Ah well. One more betrayal by London to add to the list. But interesting that a London newspaper should acknowledge the fact. And there is not a lot that we can do about it now. Anyway, who wants to be rich when we can be happy moaning about the perfidy of our southern neighbours?

Swings and roundabouts

The Herald reports on Mr Cameron's shadow cabinet re-shuffle:
"Mr Cameron promised to use his victory to transform the way the party looks and sounds. Yet, the majority of faces around the table were there under Mr Howard. However, new ones include David Mundell, the only Scottish Tory MP, who becomes shadow Scottish secretary. The member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is another MP who has been in the Commons only since May."

I suppose that this means that Ms Eleanor Laing MP, the previous shadow Scottish secretary, has been sacked. But as no-one appeared to know that she was the shadow Scottish secretary, it is hardly surprising.

Update: The Times says that Ms Laing has been named as Shadow Minister for Women and Equality.

07 December 2005

Jingle bells

The Washington Post records the travails of President Bush over his choice of Christmas card:
"What's missing from the White House Christmas card? Christmas.
This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy "holiday season."
Many people are thrilled to get a White House Christmas card, no matter what the greeting inside. But some conservative Christians are reacting as if Bush stuck coal in their stockings.
"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
The cover art is also secular, if not humanist: It shows the presidential pets -- two dogs and a cat -- frolicking on a snowy White House lawn.
"Certainly President and Mrs. Bush, because of their faith, celebrate Christmas," said Susan Whitson, Laura Bush's press secretary. "Their cards in recent years have included best wishes for a holiday season, rather than Christmas wishes, because they are sent to people of all faiths."

Wow - 1.4 million cards; I feel sorry for whoever has to lick the stamps.

Here we go, here we go, here we go

So Mr Cameron has finally won. He appears to be a pleasant fellow. But that hardly excuses the gadarene rush of the media to fall at his feet and declare him to be the best thing since sliced bread. Thankfully, Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian retains sufficient sanity to point to the cloven hooves beneath Mr Cameron's cycle anorak:
"In four years in the Commons he has voted against every extra investment in schools, hospitals and the police. He voted against the increase in national insurance that went on the NHS. He wants to abolish the New Deal and undo Britain's adherence to the European social chapter, the document that ensures a variety of rights and protections for British workers.
Again and again, Cameron may talk left, but he remains a man of the right. The work-life balance is a favoured theme, constantly advertising his own hands-on involvement in family duties, yet in 2002 he voted against a battery of measures that would have extended maternity leave to 26 weeks, raised maternity pay and introduced two weeks' paid leave for fathers as well as leave for adoptive parents. Most striking, given his own circumstances, he voted against giving parents of young or disabled children the right to request flexible working.
On schools, he has advocated a voucher system that would send resources to private schools at the expense of state comprehensives. On health, he has argued for a "patients' passport", which would enable individuals to jump the NHS queue, partly using public money to go private.
It is on the economy, though, that the gloss should wear off fastest. Cameron talks of "sharing" the fruits of growth between investment and tax cuts. Sounds reasonable, everyone likes sharing. Trouble is, that diversion of funds to tax cuts would bite deep into planned spending: losing £12bn this year and £17bn next, according to Gordon Brown. That will allow the chancellor to use the same tactic against Cameron that destroyed each of his predecessors. Which services will be cut? Which school playground won't be renovated, which hospital ward will be shut?"

My bet would also be on Mr Brown. He has been a professional politician for years, even decades. He'll take Mr Cameron apart.

Nor do the Tories have the collective discipline required. The first grumbles will start tomorrow when Mr Cameron names his shadow cabinet.

All in all, I suspect that within 12 months the Tories will be looking for yet another leader.

06 December 2005

Tourism from Katowice?

Press release from the Scottish Executive:
"Route Development Fund (RDF) backing for two new air services linking Edinburgh with the Polish cities of Gdansk and Katowice was announced today.
RDF funding will allow Centralwings to provide the additional routes to Poland and expand their existing service to Warsaw.
Transport Minister Tavish Scott said:
"This is good news for Scotland. These new services will provide essential business links between Scotland, Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, attracting people from these emerging economies to come and live and work in Scotland.
"The airline's existing service to Warsaw has been a real success. These new services will give Scotland's tourist industry more opportunities to attract visitors from Eastern Europe.
"Our Route Development Fund is delivering real economic benefits for Scotland - making a real difference for business travellers and tourists by expanding our direct air services."

Let us not pretend - we are not going to be inundated by Polish tourists visiting Edinburgh. Nor will Fred Goodwin be rushing to book his flight. We are, however, going to see increasing numbers of shop assistants, carpenters and agricultural workers from Katowice and Gdansk. I regard them as a welcome contribution to our economy. And if we can persuade them to settle here and establish businesses, then so much the better. But why is the Executive so bashful about it?

And while we're on the subject of animal fats...

The Guardian seeks to put its readers off mince pies for life:
"Suet is hardened fat found in the abdomen of sheep and cattle, particularly around the loins and kidneys. It is commonly used in cooking, as a bird food and for making candles. It is a key ingredient in mincemeat, which traditionally contained real meat but now tends to be made from raisins, spices, citrus peel, sugar, grated apple, alcohol and suet. Vegetarian suet, made from palm oil and rice flour, is increasingly used and should be indicated on the label. However, labelling laws prevent the mince pie being described as "traditional" if it is used. The Jam and Similar Products Regulations 2003 suggest (it isn't law) that manufacturers make mincemeat containing no less that 2.5% suet by weight. Suet is a saturated fat, which has been linked to increased incidence of coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis (thickening/ hardening of arteries). The Food Standards Agency says that vegetarian suet is just as high in saturated fat as animal suet."

And a happy christmas to you too.

"Words don't come easy"

Marina Hyde in The Guardian bemoans the abuse of language by the US authorities:
"The current focus on the CIA policy of flying terror suspects to countries where they can be questioned outside the protection of US law reveals that the latest word to get its ass kicked is "rendition". That, and the more vogueish phrase "extraordinary rendition". Hitherto, for me at least, "rendition" conjured up images of musical actors dressed in brightly coloured clothes crying "hey, let's do a song about it!". In its qualified state, it would indicate someone garnering critical acclaim for said rendering, as in: "That really was an extraordinary rendition of Memory from Cats." Now it turns out the phrase refers to sitting on the tarmac at Glasgow Prestwick airport while your CIA interrogators stock up on fuel before exporting you to some facility that
doesn't show up on any Romanian Ordnance Survey maps. Who knew?
Certainly, the dictionary has once again been left with egg on its face. "Rendition", it states. "The act of rendering." To render is defined among other things as to present, to give what is owed, to translate into another language and to reduce by heating. Not one word about being cellophaned to a ducking stool in the former eastern bloc.
And call me a hopeless old romantic, but it's really ripped the poetic heritage out of the word. "Render unto Egypt that which you can't make stand for 16 straight hours on home soil." Hard to put a finger on it, but it definitely loses something. Admittedly, against all the odds, the CIA's verbal appropriation has softened the blow of one familiar scenario. Next time a builder of questionable scruples squints at your brickwork and assures you the only way to deal with it is rendering, you will be able to think: "Well, it could be worse."

The other meaning of rendering involved the processing of animal fats into something akin to tallow. It used to be carried on in or about slaughterhouses. This derivation of the word seems rather more appropriate for the CIA's purposes.

05 December 2005

Adverts, adverts, adverts

I have just turned on the telly to watch the Chancellor's pre-budget statement (sad, I know, but there you go). The programme on BBC2 was preceded by three adverts for BBC programmes - successively, Strictly Come Dancing, A Bach Christmas and Russian Godfathers. Do these ads achieve anything other than irritating the viewer? I know that it's the wasteland of daytime tv, but the BBC might behave more like a public service broadcaster and less like a grubby commercial operator.

And what pension does The Scotsman editor earn?

The Scotsman makes a song and dance about the pensions of senior Scottish Executive civil servants:
"AN ELITE group of senior Scottish Executive civil servants are to share a taxpayer-funded "golden goodbye" of nearly £1.8 million when they retire, The Scotsman can reveal.
On top of pensions of up to £80,000 a year, the 16 civil servants will be given lump sum payments averaging more than £100,000 when they reach the age of 60.
Last night, opposition politicians called for the Executive's pension rules to be reviewed because of the growing disparity between the highest levels of the civil service and the rest of the public and private sectors. "

The implication of the article is that somehow these civil servants are being given a special deal. In fact, it is just the longstanding standard pension arrangements for all established civil servants, whether in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK. On reaching 60, a civil servant will retire with a pension of 1/80th of his or her final salary for every year of service up to a maximum of 40 years, together with a single lump sum of 3/80ths of his or her final salary for every year of service. The Scotsman may consider this excessively generous (although it is rather less generous than the pension arrangements for MSPs or, for example, the police), but it is misleading to imply that there is some kind of special deal involved.

One might also argue that senior civil servants are overpaid - but that is a different issue from pensions.

03 December 2005

If only...

The Telegraph seems to be living in fantasyland (here):
"It is an ugly spectacle. Over the past eight years, the Government has lifted £60 billion - equivalent to the entire GDP of the Czech Republic - out of private pension schemes. It has forced millions of retired people into the indignity of means testing. Yet, at the same time, MPs have finagled their own pension entitlements so that, after 25 years' service, they are guaranteed an annual income of £37,000.
Even Lord Turner, rarely a critic of New Labour, has been driven to protest. And who can blame him? The poor chap has been beavering away for three years to come up with a solution to our demographic crisis. His recommendations are not perfect, but they are an honest attempt to get to grips with the problem. Yet he now finds them traduced and scorned by the one set of people who have least to worry about.
Lord Turner's call for MPs to lose some of their pension privileges might have been prompted by testiness; but he is on to something. MPs can hardly ask the rest of us to tighten our belts while heaping their own plates higher. This is about more than pensions policy. The impression that MPs are exempting themselves from the rules they impose on the rest of us has prompted a contempt for politicians that is starting to translate into disdain for democracy."

MPs to reduce their pensions entitlement? Nice thought, but it will never happen.

02 December 2005

Taking a punt

I find it strange that the Blair Government - so nannying in matters of health, education, food, binge-drinking - should have presided over, and indeed encouraged, the explosion of the gambling industry. Arguably, gambling might be seen as the most rapacious form of capitalism, exploiting all social classes but most of all the workers, while ruining lives and families throughout the land. Did Chancellor Brown, son of the manse, realise what would happen when he abolished betting tax? I am not opposed in principle to gambling but it seems to me that there is already enough of it. The Independent tells all:
"Betting is likely to treble in the decade, creating a financial bonanza for bookmakers, an academic study shows. University researchers say Labour's abolition of betting tax four years ago has provided the perfect conditions for a gambling boom.
Gambling will soar from £6.9bn in 1999 to £11.8bn in 2009, says the Leisure Industries Research Centre of Sheffield Hallam University. In that time, betting on everything from horse-racing to share prices is expected to rise from £1.6bn billion to £4.3bn.
As restrictions on the number of casinos are relaxed, there will be strong rises in spending on fruit machines, poker, blackjack and roulette. The study will also raise concerns about more gambling addicts...
The researchers say gambling has been electrified by the abolition of betting tax in 2001 and the rise of internet and spread betting. Before that, gambling had declined by up to 5 per cent a year between 1999 and 2001. After the abolition of duty - in exchange for a tax on the bookmakers' profits - gambling has risen every year. Last year there was a 12 per cent spike.
The second-biggest sector of gambling, gaming machines, including fruit machines inside and outside casinos, is expected to rise by about 50 per cent in the next four years to £3.3bn. Lotteries, the third biggest sector, will nudge up to £2.5bn.
Money gambled in casinos on traditional games such as roulette or poker will increase by 25 per cent to £878m. The number of casinos in Britain has risen from 114 four years ago to 137 this year. There are applications before the Gambling Commission for 39 more casinos. Under the
new regime, the 2005 Gambling Act, ministers will approve at least one super-casino of 5,000square metres, a further eight medium-size casinos and eight smaller casinos by 2010.
Income from bingo is forecast to rise from £570m last year to £679m by 2009. The only area predicted to decline, the pools, will slump by about a quarter to £62m a year in 2009."

A case for a windfall tax?

The CSA and The Scotsman

Sloppy journalism in The Scotsman (here):
"THE CHILD Support Agency (CSA) costs 50 per cent more a year to run than it recovers from absent parents, ministers admitted yesterday. The beleaguered agency - whose fate is to be decided by the end of this year - cost taxpayers £12 million last year in operating costs, but retrieved only £8 million from parents for child maintenance.
The CSA played down the figures, saying they only accounted for money retrieved from the initial contact with the parent and did not take into account any future payments made by that person. However, the figures, revealed to Paul Goodman, the shadow work and pensions minister, in a parliamentary question, triggered calls for the CSA to be scrapped."

In fact, it is only the enforcement unit of the CSA that costs more to run than it recovers, which puts rather a different light on the matter (although this is damning enough). Secondly, while there was an earlier parliamentary question, the information was revealed in a point of order raised by Mr Goodman following a letter from the CSA to him.

The accurate picture is shown here, quoting the Parliamentary intervention:
"On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, I received a letter from Stephen Geraghty, the chief executive of the Child Support Agency. The letter responded to a written question that I tabled about the enforcement directorate. In effect, it confirms that that directorate managed to retrieve £8 million last year, but that its running costs were more than £12 million. "

So much for the standards of The Scotsman.

01 December 2005


Is this a spoof? From The Guardian (here):
"A British palaeontologist has discovered the footprints of a giant water scorpion that used to roam across Scotland around 330m years ago.
The tracks of the 1.6 metre (5ft) long creature, called Hibbertopterus, show that although it normally lived underwater, it could also crawl on to land.
Martin Whyte, from the University of Sheffield, found the scorpion tracks during geological fieldwork in central Scotland. "I came across a block of sandstone and noticed a strong central groove with three rows of crescent shaped footprints on either side," he says.
Fossil parts from scorpion like creatures have been uncovered previously in the same area and Dr Whyte immediately realised that these gigantic tracks could only belong to the biggest scorpion, known as Hibbertopterus. Until now most scientists believed that Hibbertopterus was only aquatic, but the new tracks show that it could venture on to land.
"The deep central groove was made as it dragged its tail along. If it had been underwater the tail would have been buoyed up by water," said Dr Whyte."

And no doubt the creature wore a green football jersey, lived at Easter Road and was wont to reminisce about the famous five...