31 December 2006

The white heather club with decollete

Scotland on Sunday is obsessed by Jackie:
Why do we cringe when Stewart Maxwell, the Scottish National Party's culture spokesman, demands, as he did the other day, that BBC Scotland's Hogmanay Live show is broadcast to the rest of the world as proof of its status as a "huge cultural asset"?
Why, indeed, are we remembering Jackie Bird's gaping dress and Aly Bain's lemon smile and the year the storms threatened to blow Edinburgh Castle clean off the rock and, before that, all the horrific heedrum-hodrum Hogmanay heucheramas "starring" Andy Stewart and Sydney Devine and Calum Kennedy serenading the sheep and, look out, it's the bloody Alexander Brothers, both of them?
Why? Because we're Scottish, of course.

I don't remember any gaping dress. And at the risk of dwelling upon unnecessary physicalities, is there anything there which might cause gaping?

I remember Ms Bird trying to sing a song, which was embarrassing for all concerned.

30 December 2006

Weekend poem No 16

Metaphysics this week.

The grave's a fine and private place
But none I think do there embrace

Great poem - not sure about the sentiment.

To his Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Oh dear...

As everyone else has decided to burden you with his or her predictions for 2007, I thought I might add my tuppenceworth. I have limited my prognostications to Scottish politics.

1. The outcome of the parliamentary elections in May will be as follows (current numbers of seats in brackets):

Labour 46 (50)
SNP 34 (26, including Presiding Officer)
LibDem 21 (17)
Greens 12 (7)
Conservatives 11 (17)
SSP/Solidarity 1 (6)
Others 4 (6)

2. As leader of the largest party, McConnell opens negotiations with the LibDems with a view to forming a coalition administration. After three weeks of prolonged bargaining, interspersed with internal party consultations, the proposed deal founders on the LibDem refusal to accept nuclear power stations or weapons and on Labour's refusal to accept a local income tax. The Daily Record reports that Stephen has been in constant secret contact with Salmond during the negotiations.

3. Salmond now opens negotiations with the LibDems and the Greens. These are successfully concluded three weeks later, when Salmond agrees to postpone any referendum on independence until 2010; he justifies this concession on the basis that his pre-election pledge of an immediate referendum would only have applied if the SNP had secured the largest number of seats. The centrepiece of the new coalition is a proposal for a local income tax. Parliament assembles to vote on the arrangements, but to no-one's surprise the new coalition fails to secure a majority when four SNP MSPs from the party's fundamentalist wing abstain and three LibDems vote against (allegedly because of having been leant on by Ming Campbell who has been horrified by this dalliance with the nationalists, which is not going to do any good for his Westminster prospects).

4. As it is now July, the Parliament goes into recess for two months. (Nothing is allowed to disrupt the MSPs' family friendly holidays.) The Executive is in effect being run by civil servants on a care and maintenance basis. Westminster, Whitehall and England look on, appalled. When it is revealed that the McConnells' summer holidays were spent at Lulu's villa in Torremolinos (The Daily Record went bananas), the Labour Party (encouraged, it is believed, by Prime Minister Brown) organises a leadership contest which, after a special party conference in September, is won by Iain Gray MSP (who has taken over John Home Robertson's seat). McConnell accepts defeat gracefully but regrets that he will no longer be the best small First Minister in the world.

5. In October, Gray succeeds in convincing the Tories, most of the LibDems and the Greens not to oppose a minority Labour administration which will treat each policy issue on its merits and it is duly approved by the Parliament. The legislative programme is anodyne in the extreme. Salmond resigns his Holyrood seat and his leadership of the SNP to return to Westminster. The Scottish political scene returns to its usual torpor. But nobody expects the Gray administration to survive for long. But attention has turned to the forthcoming UK election expected in spring 2008...

Joined up government

Extract from the First Minister's New Year message:
"There are still important changes we need to see through. We will improve the nutritional standards of the food in our schools."

Slightly unfortunate that on the previous day the First Minister's expert group came up with this (from the BBC):
Fish and chips, more salt, and some crisp products could be permitted on the school menu, under proposals put before the Scottish Parliament.
An expert group, set up by the Scottish Executive, said there should be a "more pragmatic" approach to nutrition to entice pupils back to school meals.

Homage to Catalonia

Matthew Parris of The Times is a writer that I greatly admire, but today he has decided to dip his toe into Scottish politics. He prescribes a new attitude (to describe it as a policy would be stretching matters) for the Tories towards... well, you tell me:
But rather than bewail its aggression or pick at its obvious inconsistencies, we Conservatives should consider the possibility that separatist politics in Scotland appeals to something real and deep in the electorate: a need that cannot be answered by scorn, or wished away.
If we sense this, we must ask ourselves a second question: can Conservatives, consistently with our own principles, try to answer this need in a way that reconciles it with our own hopes for Britain? I think the answer to both questions is “yes”. A Conservative vision of the Union could be of a deep and permanent alliance of equal nations within a common economy, each with the dignity of self-government, each raising taxes for what they did alone, and sharing taxes for what they did together. The disparities in population between England and Scotland will be fatal to this structure only if we want them to be. Other federations and unions take such problems in their stride.
Disparities in wealth will only prove a stumbling block it we want the Scots to stumble; there is otherwise no reason why the richer parts of the Union should not voluntarily help the poorer parts, as they always have, as makes sense in any common market.

Well OK, Mr P, but don't just blather on; tell us what you want the Tories to do precisely. Ms Goldie and her chums have accepted the fact of devolution; even Mr Cameron (after some initial swithering about the West Lothian Question) seems to have set his face against the more radical forms of English nationalism. Mr P, you now appear to be advocating fiscal autonomy, supplemented by English subsidies to maintain the financial status quo in terms of relative shares. Is this the case? Have you thought it through? After all, if the transfers of resources from the UK Exchequer are to continue, then what is the point?

And what is this talk of doing things together? Are you really suggesting that the Scottish Executive/Parliament (representing one of the 'equal nations') should have a role in determining a joint foreign or defence policy? And how would that work when a Scottish government wanted to scrap nuclear weapons?

Perhaps the lesson from Catalonia is that centre right parties in a devolutionary context are doomed to a minimalist existence? In which case, it really doesn't matter what either Mr Cameron or Ms Goldie does. But it does not really help when London/Catalonian journalists pontificate vaguely.

29 December 2006

And she said it with a straight face...

Integrity and probity are not words that immediately spring to mind when thinking about the present government. But The Guardian reports:

Hazel Blears, the Labour party chairwoman, appealed to the media to stop prying. "I'm not privy to his private arrangements for his holiday. We are talking about big issues around pensions, energy, NHS, education - and yet right across the media it's tittle-tattle about where he's gone for his holidays," she told BBC Radio 4.
"All members of the government are always conscious of the need to have integrity, public probity: all those issues are important. For people to be crawling over the details of the prime minister's Christmas and New Year break, I just think is entirely wrong. You've had the reassurance from Downing Street that he is meeting the cost of his holiday, as he has done for previous holidays."

[my highlighting]

Given the events of the past year associated with Blair, Prescott, Jowell and so on, I can only admire the lady's chutzpah.

27 December 2006

In praise of ... the BBC

for contracting to re-play Bob Dylan's themed radio shows. You can still hear them here.

How often can you cry 'Wolf'

Well, nothing happened. And I suppose that we should just be jolly grateful. Here was what The Guardian reported on 11 December:
An attempted terrorist attack in Britain in the run-up to Christmas is "highly likely", the home secretary, John Reid, warned yesterday.
"The threat in this country is very high indeed. It is at the second highest level and people now know that publicly, because we publish it on the web. And that means that it is highly likely that there'll be a terrorist attempt," Mr Reid told GMTV's Sunday programme.
"We know that the number of conspiracies of a major type are in the tens - 30 or round about that," he said, although he did not give the details of any plots.

And we'll all believe him the next time he issues such dire warnings?

The spongers

Could he not, just once, pay for his holidays? The BBC reports:
A British Airways plane carrying 343 passengers and crew including Tony Blair and his family has overrun the main runway at Miami Airport.
No-one on board the Boeing 747-400 plane was injured after the incident...
Evan Benn, a reporter for the Miami Herald newspaper, told BBC News Mr Blair was holidaying in Florida.
"The prime minister and his family are staying with Robin Gibb, the former Bee Gees star, who has a $10m [£5.1m] house here in Miami Beach," he said.
Downing Street confirmed Mr Blair was on his winter holidays but said it never comments on specific arrangements.

That's an interestingly novel part of our constitution. We are no longer allowed to know when or where the Prime Minister goes on holiday.

Burning up the planet

It's been no great secret over the past year or two, but The Independent has finally caught up with this:
A top adviser to Tony Blair on sustainable development and the environment has been accused of undermining government policy on curbing aviation pollution after it was revealed that he makes a 500-mile round trip by jet from Birmingham to Edinburgh each week.
Richard Wakeford, a senior civil servant in charge of the Scottish Executive's environment department, commutes to work in Edinburgh every week from his home in Gloucestershire producing an estimated 90kg of carbon dioxide.
Over the four years of his contract, Mr Wakeford is likely to travel as many as 94,000 air miles getting to work, accounting for approximately 17 tons of carbon dioxide. The figures do not include his weekly 100-mile round trip to Birmingham airport from his home outside Cheltenham, or the 20-mile round trip between Edinburgh airport and the headquarters of the Scottish Executive.
He refused to move to Scotland when he became department head nearly two years ago for "family reasons".
Mr Wakeford was chief executive of the Countryside Agency and a member of the Sustainable Development Commission which advised the Prime Minister on action to reduce CO2 emissions, including calling for more radical measures to curb airport development.

One wonders why he was thought appropriate for the job in the first place. And never mind the tons (or tonnes) of carbon. How does Mr Wakeford manage to fulfil his duties on a three and a half day week? He is seldom in the office before Monday afternoon and rarely on a Friday.

Wishful thinking?

I suppose that stranger things have happened, but I just can't see the Tories participating in a coalition with the SNP and the Greens. Nevertheless, this guy in The Herald does:
Far better, then, that Goldie should bite the bullet and join a rainbow coalition with the Nats and Greens. This would provide the Scottish Tories with a meaningful role. Not only would they be in power, but they would be the guardians of the Union, threatening to bring down the coalition if any attempt were made at wrecking Scotland's traditional partnership within the UK. Of course, the Tories would have to agree to the referendum on independence, but they would do so on the condition that they would use their ministerial positions and influence to campaign for a No vote. Also, they would insist such a referendum could only be con-sultative. There could never be a Referendum Bill, as constitutional affairs are reserved. Indeed, even the funding of a consultative referendum could be challenged in the courts.

Guardians of the union by agreeing to a (challengeable, consultative) referendum? It doesn't seem plausible. And what about other Tory policies? Pro-nuclear, more prisons, more PFI? Not really appealing to the SNP or the Greens, are they?

Never mind, I am sure that we will read much dafter notions before May.

24 December 2006

Move along now

No need for you to read this. It's for my records (and vanity).

Update: And again, for similar reasons.

23 December 2006

Weekend poem No 15

A poem, a brief one, by Wendy Cope.


At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,
The cold winter air makes our hands and face tingle
And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle
And the whole business is unbearably dreadful if you're single.

The Beatles

This takes me back a good few years.

You know what you can do with your goose fat...

The newspapers are full of advice about Christmas cooking. Janice Turner in The Times puts the boot into the ever so slightly portly Nigella:
How are you cooking your turkey on Monday? Surely you won’t simply shove it in the oven with a knob of butter? Has Nigella taught you nothing?
This week the nation goggled and gagged while the domestic goddess shoved a large bird in a bucket of salty water then added star anise, berries, maple syrup, parsley, an orange . . .
This is no longer cooking: it is shtick, Nigella as a parody of herself, fleshy and lubricious, tempting us into 3,000-calorie repasts, because they haven’t hurt her, saying hang the washing up (and sod the planet) with her chuckaway roasting tins.
My esteemed colleague Robert Crampton once wrote that the world can be divided into Cavaliers and Roundheads. And Nigella is the chef of the Cavaliers — louche, lazy and approximate. I’m missing the culinary Oliver Cromwell, the exacting mistress of the kitchen: this Christmas I’m going back to Delia.

Me, I'm going to my sister's. And when it comes to cooking, she is at least the equal to either Nigella (silly name!) or Delia.

The planet strikes back!

The Guardian pushes the joke a little too far, of course. If the passengers shivering in the tents at Heathrow could get their hands on the writer, he might be smiling on the other side of his face:
Freezing fog: what's not to like? I like to think I'm a caring kind of guy, even where arrogant sociopaths who pollute the skies are concerned, but - respect to all you air passengers huddled in your blankets out there - don't you think this might be the planet trying to tell you something?
And if, like me, you're lucky enough to be snug as a bug in a well-insulated home, doesn't this have to be one of the best environmental stories of the year? Don't you love Nature herself finally taking over, to ground the planes that helped make this the hottest year in history, forcing everyone on to trains and coaches instead? Sorry, but ever since this fog thing started, I haven't been able to wipe the smile off my face.

But one cannot deny a certain schadenfreude in those of us who are not expecting to grace the European ski slopes over the festive season. And our (slightly) guilty pleasure would have been enhanced by the fact that Heathrow (that modern temple to greenhouse gases) seems to have borne the brunt of the disruption, were it not for the fact that it had knock-on effects everywhere else.

22 December 2006

London - a faraway place of which we know little

Why am I not surprised that Malcolm Chisholm's resignation does not merit even a mention in any of The Guardian, The Independent, The Times or The Telegraph?

21 December 2006

Reference Guide

For surfers everywhere. The Guardian has updated its guide to the 100 most useful websites here.

20 December 2006

The slough of despond

It is almost impossible to keep track of the mendacity of this government. Here are but a few examples:

From Martin Bell in Cif (here):
The Prime Minister said "There isn't a change of policy. Don't be under any doubt at all. British troops will remain until the job is done." This was simply untrue. Plans are being made to withdraw from the three main bases in Basra and from the logistics base at Shaibah, parts of which are already being dismantled.
Three of the battlegroups leaving in the spring will not be replaced. The remainder will be concentrated round Basra Air Station and will be drawn down as quickly as possible. By early summer, under almost any conceivable circumstances, the British will have handed over such control as they have to the Iraqis. Then it will be time to declare victory - or at least avoid defeat - and leave the field. The conditions for "success" are being redefined, and will certainly be much less than we went to war for.

From Jackie Ashley, also in Cif (here):
Using increasingly apocalyptic language, Blair talks of a "monumental struggle going on worldwide between those who believe in democracy and modernisation and the forces of reaction and extremism". For Mr Tony, speaking in Dubai yesterday, it is simply a matter of us and them: "Us is all those who believe in tolerance, respect for others and liberty. We must mobilise our alliance of moderation in this region and outside it to defeat the extremists."
How conveniently clear. How black and white. What an easy contrast. Yet this is the same Mr Tony who only a month ago was urging a dialogue with Syria and Iran upon an unwilling George Bush. This is the same Mr Tony who earlier this week insisted that solving the Israel-Palestine issue was the only way to defeat extremism.

From Mr Eugenides, in a splendid diatribe (here):
We are enraged because there’s not a soul, even in the Labour Party, who wouldn’t admit, privately, that John Prescott is sitting twiddling his thumbs – or diddling his typist – at taxpayers’ expense; and there’s not an employer in the land, private or public, who would react to allegations of misuse of government funds and property – and serial sexual harassment – by taking the papers out of his intray but leaving him with his salary, pension, perks, and office intact. And yet, such is the contempt with which we are treated, that this is exactly what has happened. Such is the volume and frequency of these stories now, such is the weight of evidence of the corruption and sleaze that has taken root, that we are reduced to shaking our heads mournfully, or snorting in derision, depending on our point of view and blood pressure on the day.

And finally from Adam Boulton of SkyNews (here) in a story that would be funny if it were not so dispiriting:
It was reported this morning that Mustaf Jamma, a key suspect in the killing of PC Sharon Beshenivsky, may have fled the country (using another passport) whilst wearing an Islamic veil. The suggestion was that checks on departure were not as stringent as one would hope.
So my first phone call was to West Yorkshire Police (PC Beshenivsky's constabulary). They refused to speculate on how Jamma may have left the country... on the record at least. The newspapers this morning cited "police sources".
Next, the Home Office; immigration controls come within John Reid's remit:
"Nothing to do with us", they said. "Embarkation controls haven't been in place since the late nineties. This is an airport security issue. Speak to BAA" [the company which controls Britain's airports].
...So next I make contact with a very harassed-sounding press officer at the BAA. He isn't very happy with the Home Office - to put it mildly:
"This isn't anything to do with us. It is the responsibility of airlines to check the identity of passengers travelling on their aircraft. This happens at two separate stages: at check-in and at the departure gate".
Back in the warm, it seems the Home Office have revised their position:
"It's a myth that there are no embarkation controls. Checks are carried out on an intelligence-led basis. In November alone there were 745 immigration offenders detected leaving Heathrow."

The value of publicity

See, it worked! The Times reports:
Good news for Lembit Öpik MP. The Cheeky Girls are to be allowed to stay in Britain after convincing the Home Office that they are not low-skilled workers.
The Liberal Democrat stunned colleagues by replacing Sian Lloyd, his weather girl fiancée with Gabriela Irimia, 24, of the Romanian group. The girls’ 2002 hit The Cheeky Song was voted worst pop record ever. The duo were denied leave to remain in Britain in August.

Of course, as Romanians, the girls would be entitled to reside in Britain from 1 January but they might not have secured a work permit. If one can describe what they do as work. But the Home Office considers them to be highly skilled. A small price to pay for dating Mr Opik.

19 December 2006

On the subject of holes and digging...

It's turning into what my old faither would describe as a dog's breakfast. The BBC reports:
The government has abandoned plans for a giant new computer system to run the national identity cards scheme.
Instead of a single multi-billion pound system, information will be held on three existing, separate databases.
Biometric information will be stored, initially, on systems currently used for asylum seekers, while biographical information will be stored on the DWP's system.
Other information, on the issue and use of ID cards, will be stored on the existing Identity and Passport Service computer system.

It was daft enough to think that the government could be trusted to develop and maintain a single giant system. But to think that the id cards system can be spread over three separate databases is utterly ludicrous. Dr Reid has lost it.

The hound from Hull

Slideshow here.

18 December 2006

Wishful thinking?

The Scotsman seems very sure of itself. It reports:
THE Scottish Executive's decision to push ahead with a new Forth crossing was welcomed by business leaders last night.
The apparent U-turn followed a massive campaign by The Scotsman and the business community demanding a new crossing. But as the Executive last night insisted the decision had been based on new evidence supporting the case for a new crossing, business leaders questioned what was known now that was not evident in previous reports.
The Executive announced late on Friday night that Jack McConnell, the First Minister, and his senior ministers had been persuaded of the need for the project after receiving "emerging findings" from work by Transport Scotland.

Strange. Nothing on the Executive's website. Nothing in Saturday's Scotsman. Is it making things up or simply deluded?

After all, what politician would announce an important political decision late on a Friday night? But who knows...

Don't turn the other cheek

I suppose that this is what happens when an MP with a lust for publicity meets a fading D-list celebrity. The Guardian reports:
Yesterday the Liberal Democrats cemented their reputation as a party struggling to be taken seriously after Lembit Opik announced that he had split with his television weather forecaster fiancee and was dating one half of the kitsch pop duo the Cheeky Girls.
Mr Opik, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on Northern Ireland and Wales, said his six-year relationship with Sian Lloyd had come to a an end and he was now courting the Romanian singer Gabriela Irimia, whose ditty The Cheeky Song (Touch my Bum) has been voted the worst record of all time.

Lembit Opik, the LibDems' answer to Britney Spears.

Touch my bum and I'll smack you in the mouth...

The long dark tea-time of the soul

Can you be plunged into darkness at a quarter to three in the afternoon? Rather self-referentially, the BBC reports:
Much of BBC Scotland's headquarters in Glasgow was plunged into darkness on Sunday following a power cut.
Areas affected by loss of electricity, for three and a half hours, included the newsroom and some of the main studios, leaving them out of action.
Sports staff shared their computers with TV, radio and news website staff while producers worked via torchlight from the Queen Margaret Drive newsroom.
A Scottish Power spokesman said the cause was likely to be a faulty cable.
The power went off at about 1445 GMT, coming back on at about 1815 GMT.

The sad thing is that nobody noticed and fewer cared.

17 December 2006

Political standards

No-one seems terribly surprised or upset that two stories in The Independent on Sunday accuse the Prime Minister of telling lies. First, the cash for peerages scandal:
Millionaire Labour Party donors have contradicted Tony Blair's evidence to the police in the cash-for-honours affair - saying that they were nominated for their public service to the nation, and not for services to Labour, as claimed by the Prime Minister.
Secret No 10 papers, copies of which have been seen by The Independent on Sunday, back up their claims, putting fresh pressure on Mr Blair over the cash-for-honours affair.

Secondly, the SFO inuiry:
Tony Blair personally took charge of efforts to pressure the Attorney General to drop the probe. He ordered supportive assessments from the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. These were then presented to the head of the SFO and formed part of Lord Goldsmith's "public interest" justification for calling off the probe.
The Prime Minister's determination to stop the SFO investigation has left the detectives working on the case furious.

There was a time when such accusations would be headline news. But standards have now fallen so far that today's response is little more than "whatever". The allegations are ignored but not denied.

16 December 2006

Weekend poem No 14

Kipling this week:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat -- jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
Bloomin' idol made o'mud --
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd --
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,
She'd git 'er little banjo an' she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!"
With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin' my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.
Elephints a-pilin' teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that's all shove be'ind me -- long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no 'busses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."
No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an' grubby 'and --
Law! wot do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be --
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

15 December 2006


Mr McConnell is well able to hold in his mind two contradictory ideas and to believe them both. Here is an extract from yesterday's FMQs:
The First Minister: It is entirely proper to take the right and balanced view of the issue. The work that was put into the Burt commission's report needs to be read, analysed and considered seriously by ministers. I am sure that, as a result, it will form part of the debate at next year's Scottish elections.
I believe that the commission's principal conclusion would be unacceptable to Scotland. I said so on the day of publication and I say so again today. That does not mean, however, that the considerable analysis and consideration that the commission put into its work on local government finance should be either dismissed out of hand or accepted without proper consideration. We will do that in proper time.

So there you go. Don't dismiss out of hand or accept without proper consideration. Except when it comes to the principal conclusion where it is entirely appropriate to dismiss it out of hand, even before the report has been published.


I hate Christmas!

There you go!

H/t to... well, she knows who she is.

Whiter than white? Purer than pure?

So bribery is OK then? The law of the land should not be applied if it is inconvenient? The Independent thinks so:
It is also a victory for common sense. The Saudi royal family had become so offended by the SFO probe into allegations that BAE Systems had liberally distributed bribes, prostitutes and fast cars to win the Al Yamamah defence contract that they were in all seriousness threatening to break off diplomatic ties. Nevermind the parallel threat to around 100,000 aerospace jobs if the Saudis had cancelled the promised Eurofighter Typhoon contract and gone for the inferior French option instead.
The SFO was proceeding under a bribery law put in place as late as 2002, which a lily-livered Government was bulldozed by liberal opinion into implementing for the purpose of preventing this kind of thing happening again. Yet the allegations go back to long before the law came into force, when the commissions and favours alleged were very much a part of the price that had to be paid to win arms contracts in that part of the world.
Nor is it even as if there was a victim. The Saudis were being bribed with their own money. What's more, it would have taken years for the SFO to extract the necessary evidence from the secrecy of the Swiss banking system. In the meantime, untold damage would have been done to diplomatic relations, as well as Britain's commercial interests. The SFO's decision to proceed with an investigation displayed a quite breathtaking naivity. Wiser counsel has finally prevailed.

This is no 'victory' of any kind. The Government said that it was security and diplomatic considerations that led them to suspend the SFO inquiry, thus at least maintaining a (very thin) veneer over the legal niceties. But this is surely a shaming day for the rule of law and the separation of powers in the UK.

14 December 2006


Who would have thought that so many people would be prepared to put time and effort into what - according to some - is little more than vanity publishing? The BBC reports:
The blogging phenomenon is set to peak in 2007, according to technology predictions by analysts Gartner.
The analysts said that during the middle of next year the number of blogs will level out at about 100 million.
The firm has said that 200 million people have already stopped writing their blogs...
Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer said the reason for the levelling off in blogging was due to the fact that most people who would ever start a web blog had already done so.
He said those who loved blogging were committed to keeping it up, while others had become bored and moved on.
"A lot of people have been in and out of this thing," Mr Plummer said.
"Everyone thinks they have something to say, until they're put on stage and asked to say it."
Last month blog tracking firm Technorati reported that 100,000 new blogs were being created every day, and 1.3 million blog posts were written.
Technorati is tracking more than 57 million blogs, of which it believes around 55% are "active" and updated at least every three months.
I don't think that I have previously been part of a "phenomenon".

A brave announcement

Did Alex Salmond mean to say it? It did not appear in his pre-written press release here. Indeed, I still can't find any mention of it on the SNP website, which is surprising for what would be a central pledge in the forthcoming election campaign. Maybe Mr Salmond got flustered by the questioner. In any event, The Herald has it in black and white here:
Alex Salmond yesterday gave an unequivocal promise not to raise taxes if he becomes First Minister in an independent Scotland...
Mr Salmond at first said he had "no plans for the SNP to raise taxation in any shape or form". But when pressed that this was not the same as ruling it out all together, he declared: "I'm ruling out tax rises in an independent Scotland. They are not necessary because we are running an absolute budget surplus..."

Awfully categorical. Who knows what the circumstances will be if and when Scotland becomes independent? He should have stuck to the 'no plans' line.

13 December 2006

Not taking stock

Ah, the report of the Taking Stock Review is finally published. The report is written in management-speak and therefore requires some translation.

The remit of the review was to assess "the Scottish Executive against its aspiration to be a fully integrated government; the effectiveness of the corporate centre; and the leadership capability of the Heads of Departments and Group Heads". Put briefly, are the donkeys of the Excutive's senior management up to the job?

Allowing for the verbiage, the guts of the report are to be found in Chapter 5:

- Staff and stakeholders feel that the senior leadership team lacks passion, pace and drive and do not perceive them as the powerful and unified driving force that they aspire to be. Many of the senior leaders do not believe they are a united driving force either. Those missing qualities may undermine the capability of the senior leadership to drive a reform agenda and position the Executive to face the challenges posed by the Comprehensive Spending Review and by responding to the priorities of the next administration.
- Many staff feel Management Group members aren't sufficiently visible and don't manage to inspire the levels of trust and respect to which they aspire. The Management Group needs to build on recent initiatives to increase visibility, and to inspire and motivate staff.
- It is difficult to know when the members of Management Group are acting as departmental heads or corporate leaders.
- The members of the Management Group are not always clear on their mode of operation in meetings and this can lead to non-supportive behaviour, such as a lack of understanding of each other's priorities.
- The senior leadership team does not always effectively communicate to staff its decisions and the rationale behind them.
- The senior leadership does not scrutinise and challenge one another sufficiently, particularly in relation to identifying priorities, resource allocation and monitoring performance to ensure maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
- The evaluation of the corporate culture change programme, Changing to Deliver, raised a number of leadership issues that have yet to be addressed. It found that strong leadership would reduce inconsistencies in embracing change and that leaders needed to increase their effectiveness in communicating corporate initiatives to staff.

You may think that this means that the senior officials in the Executive are a bunch of plonkers. You might think that the Executive's Management Group should be ashamed of themselves. That's because you don't understand the mindset of the senior civil servant. That mindset has enabled Sir John Elvidge, Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Executive to write the following to the poor bloody infantry in the Executive trenches:

"The review team have generally confirmed the views my Management Group colleagues and I had developed about what is strong and effective about the Executive and how we keep making progress...
The review team recognised we are building on many strengths and achievements. They identified you - the people who work in the Executive - as our number one asset. They said staff have "a powerful commitment to provide highly effective public services to the people of Scotland". I agree completely - I know first-hand they are right about that.
I also know that, when they acknowledge the many successes you have achieved working with Ministers for the good of the people of Scotland, there is hard evidence to back that up.
They were rightly impressed how we have grown from being one department within the UK Government pre-devolution to being a government.
They fully recognise we have made substantial progress with the Changing to Deliver programme, particularly on the way we work with others and on our focus on delivery."

Sir John has been in charge of the Executive for more than three years. In denial all that time? Looks like it...

Good telly

I am not a great fan of modern television but there remain some programmes worth watching. Last night on BBC2, for example, Heston Blumenthal was discussing his lunatic method of cooking chicken. I ask you, who is going to blanch the chicken twice before cooking it for four and a half hours at 60 degrees celsius? But interesting nonetheless.

The previous evening saw the last in the series of the Monarchy Programme on C4. David Starkey can be a bit pompous at times but he does manage to capture the sweep of history, especially for ignoramuses like me. (Though how he managed to cover George III and Napoleon without mentioning Pitt the Younger escapes me.)

And Saturday last saw the end of the wonderful series on music by Howard Goodall. Much of it was totally incomprehensible. But it was still terrific television.

So, to all those who say that televison today is rubbish I beg to disagree.

12 December 2006

Social policy made simple

Really helpfully (for once), The Guardian summarises the report by Iain Duncan Smith (here) on poverty and all that:
Hello, I'm the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP. Thank you to lots and lots of people for helping with this report, and to David Cameron for asking me to do it. Now, here's a picture of me playing pool with some youths.
You know, this country's social security bill has gone up a lot since the 1990s, and no one has the gumption to deal with it. I reckon that if people got on better with their relatives they'd help each other out for free, and save the rest of us a lot of money, but it's like no one cares any more.
It's the children from broken homes I worry about most. Not that I'm saying there's anything wrong with being a single mother. All right, I am. But I'm not saying it's their fault. Single mothers have a really hard time, actually, and we Tories don't hate them any more.
Anyway, that Tony Blair, he's useless. He used to be all, "Ooh, I really care about the causes of crime," and now he's like, "Whatever, let's just lock them up so people will vote for us." But things like unemployment, family breakdown, drugs and booze, doing badly at school, and getting into lots of debt are actually really important reasons that people end up poor and turn into criminals. And another thing: this Labour government has been rubbish at reducing inequality, which is a problem too, particularly when you look at our figures instead of theirs. This country's going to hell in a handcart, basically, which is why there are all these murders on the news, and it's all because of those chaotic families who smoke crack and don't get married. I know, why don't we get charities to sort it out? Cut their red tape, I say, although our actual policy recommendations won't be published until next July.

I still don't understand it but maybe that's just me...

Do the sums add up?

Yesterday's GERS report on public expenditure and income in Scotland would seem to add some fairly heavy weight to the unionist cause. The Scotsman reports:
So where does the truth lie? Like much else in the debate over independence, it is hard to be definitive.
A nation within a larger state, itself within the European Union, has never before broken away to become a separate country. There are no precedents, and few hard facts.
However, there is at least a base from which to work, in the form of the Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland report (GERS), published by the Executive yesterday.
Although the Scottish National Party challenge the assumptions in GERS, most economists and experts on spending accept that it at least provides a basis on which to work.
GERS says that Scotland spends £11 billion more than is brought in by taxes levied north of the Border. Expenditure reduces to £6 billion if all of the tax revenue from oil and gas is assigned to Scotland.

I rather doubt if it is enough for the SNP to rubbish the document by producing higher income figures. They need to show why their income figures are higher and to justify their claims. This kind of argument will simply not do the trick:
The SNP said the report was being used by Labour to "engender fear" over its economic plans for independence. The party produced its own balance sheet for Scotland, "Scotland in Surplus - Past, Present and Future", which claims that for this financial year Scotland is running a surplus of £0.6 billion in absolute terms. The differences between the two figures is largely due to the Nationalists' assuming that a higher proportion of income tax, corporation tax and VAT were raised in Scotland.
Stuart Hosie, the SNP's treasury spokesman, said: "Labour cannot have it both ways. Either their figures are correct, which would mean that after almost ten years of economic mismanagement of Scotland by London Labour, we are in a poor economic position in comparison to all our successful neighbours.
"Or, these statistics are misleading and inaccurate and this is nothing more than an attempt to engender fear in the SNP and our positive arguments for fresh thinking to boost Scotland's economy."
He added: "Our analysis demonstrates that today Scotland has a surplus relative to the UK of £2.8 billion."

But perhaps it is unfair to draw firm conclusions before we have all had time to analyse the GERS report. But this would seem to be a setback for the SNP.

11 December 2006

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear

This is indescribable.

Talk is cheap

The Labour party in Scotland is suddenly enamoured of minority administrations. The Scotsman reports:
LABOUR leaders have turned on their coalition partners for the first time in the run-up to next year's Holyrood polls to try to seize back the initiative after what has been a damaging period for Scotland's biggest party.
Senior Labour figures briefed against the Liberal Democrats in Sunday newspapers, claiming that Jack McConnell, the First Minister, might go it alone after the May elections.
Party insiders rubbished the performance of the Lib Dems and said Labour could rule as a minority government, relying on deals on individual issues, rather than a formal coalition.

I don't think that it would be quite as easy as suggested. In order to have first crack at forming a minority administration, Labour would need to have secured more seats than any other party; although this might be regarded as probable, it is far from guaranteed. Then comes the difficult bit: securing sufficient support from other parties to secure the nomination of First Minister and then to retain it. If the SNP and Libdems outnumber Labour (which seems highly likely) and if the Greens take their opposition to nuclear to its logical conclusion, then Labour would have to rely on the Tories. A lot would depend upon the actual seat numbers, but it all seems a bit iffy to me...

09 December 2006

Great school, shame about the politician

I would never wish to criticise the pupils of my alma mater, but it's not very Christmassy, is it?

Weekend poem No 13

The weeks go by so quickly. Another poet laureate this week.

John Masefield

QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

08 December 2006


How did Celtic get on in Copenhagen?

Celtic supporter: I am disappointed by the pace of success. (We got stuffed.)

How is England doing in the Ashes series?

England supporter: I am disappointed by the pace of success. (We are getting stuffed.)

Press reporter: How are we doing in Iraq?

President Bush: "I am disappointed by the pace of success." ("I believe we'll prevail. Not only do I know how important it is to prevail, I believe we will prevail."}

Vilnius on Forth

As readers of this blog will be aware, I have in the past welcomed the influx of East Europeans to Scotland. But this (from The Evening News) seems a tad excessive:
AN astonishing 30 Lithuanians are due to arrive in Edinburgh next month for a mass trial period with Hearts.
And the Evening News can also reveal that Vladimir Romanov will edge nearer to his "dream" of 11 maroon-clad Lithuanians tomorrow with Hearts planning to name five players from the Baltic nation in their starting line-up for the first time ever.
As the influence from eastern Europe increases at Tynecastle, head coach Valdas Ivanauskas is preparing to name Nerijus Barasa, Edgaras Jankauskas, Saulius Mikoliunas, Andrius Velicka and Marius Zaliukas in the team to face Motherwell tomorrow.

No scepticism here

Problem sorted. Just like that. Everything in the garden is lovely. The Evening News states:
THE Capital's trams vision today took a huge step forward as its backers unveiled a business plan which showed the scheme was viable and would deliver hundreds of millions of pounds worth of benefits.
The business plan revealed there is enough money in place to build the main Leith to Edinburgh Airport line, and there may be enough left over to complete a spur route to the Granton Waterfront development.

Well, it's a business plan, see. It has lots of numbers, so it must be right. And just because it has been prepared by transport consultants and paid for by the tram promoters does not mean that they would have made ambitious assumptions, does it?

The naked truth

Is it OK to wear a hat on a nudist beach? I stress that this is a matter of principle rather than of practical application, as Portobello beach does not have a nudist section. But still. The Times reports:
Europe's second-highest ranking commissioner was fighting to save his political career last night over pictures showing him naked on a beach with his chief of staff.
Günther Verheugen, who is married, is shown — wearing only a baseball cap — with his newly promoted aide, Petra Erler, on a nudist beach in Lithuania.
José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, rushed to the aid of his German Vice-President yesterday, saying that he expected “people’s private spheres” to be respected.

Oh well done, José Manuel. "Private spheres". Very witty, but I don't think now is the time for jokes...

Wreck-the-hoose juice

I had assumed that Buckfast was a peculiarly Scottish vice. Not so, apparently. The Independent reports:
The Irish News in Belfast recently encapsulated the charge against the beverage: "It features in displays of roaring and shouting, projectile peeing and vomiting, street brawling, general vandalism and ugly midnight scenes in accident and emergency departments." Now there are calls in the city of Galway for added taxes on Buckfast. According to Michael Crowe, a councillor: "It causes social problems with the 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old drinker. It's drunk in parks and on beaches - it's almost driving them wild."

Is there some scope here for inter-government co-operation? Andy Kerr and Cathy Jamieson, take note. And it would give the British-Irish Council something to do.

07 December 2006

Does Elvis approve?

The most popular man in Edinburgh? Probably not. Nevertheless, he still plans to develop his business. The Evening News reports:
HEARTS owner Vladimir Romanov has confirmed plans to open a branch of his Lithuanian bank in Edinburgh city centre.
The controversial tycoon is understood to have earmarked a site in Castle Street for a Ukio Bankas outlet.
It is thought the bank will start off by offering personal banking services such as loans, current accounts, and mortgages, while also trying to break into Edinburgh's lucrative business banking market.

I rather doubt that Hearts fans (or anybody else) will be queueing at his door...

Iraq - no way out?

The Iraq Study group report has not been greeted by the US press with overwhelming approval. Here is The Washington Post on the political strategy proposed:
U.S. diplomats have been urging Iraq's government to engage in a process of national reconciliation aimed at giving Sunnis a greater role, but the Shiite-led administration has been largely unwilling to do so. It is unclear whether increased pressure, as called for by the group led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton, will result in Shiite leaders moving forward with a new power-sharing agreement.
The mistrust and divisions within the weak unity government are so deep that it is not certain whether the study group's recommendations -- such as using outside powers to exert diplomatic pressure and building a well-trained Iraqi army -- can be effective, or might instead deepen the political and sectarian rifts.

The Hew York Times is equally doubtful about the military strategy proposed:
In essence, the study group is projecting that a rapid infusion of American military trainers will so improve the Iraqi security forces that virtually all of the American combat brigades may be withdrawn by the early part of 2008.
“By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq,” the study group says. Jack Keane, the retired Army chief of staff who served on the group’s panel of military advisers, described that goal as entirely impractical. “Based on where we are now we can’t get there,” General Keane said in an interview, adding that the report’s conclusions say more about “the absence of political will in Washington than the harsh realities in Iraq.”
The experience of American commanders shows the difficulties in rapidly handing over security responsibilities to Iraq. In June, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, developed a plan that called for gradually drawing down the number of American brigade combat teams by December 2007, to just 5 or 6 from the 14 combat brigades that were deployed at the time. In keeping with this approach, American troops in Baghdad began to cut back on their patrols in the capital, calculating that Iraqi security forces would pick up the slack.
But no sooner did General Casey present his plan in Washington than it had to be deferred. With sectarian violence soaring in Baghdad, the United States reinforced its troops there. More American soldiers are now involved in security operations in Baghdad than Iraqi troops.

So where do we go from here? If the coalition troops are withdrawn, civil war seems inevitable, with the probability of interventions from Iran and Saudi to support their co-religionists. If the coalition troops remain, we have the prospect of continued insurgency (and continued coalition casualties) without restoring stable government, with civil war merely deferred. A quagmire, sure enough.


He's absolutely right of course. The BBC reports:
General Sir Mike Jackson, the former head of the Army, has criticised the way in which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) runs the armed forces.
Speaking at the annual Dimbleby Lecture, he said soldiers' wages were "hardly impressive" and "some accommodation" was "frankly shaming".
But the MoD said it was always working to improve conditions for its forces.
Conservative defence spokesman Dr Liam Fox said Sir Mike's comments were damning for the government.
Sir Mike retired as the head of the Army in August. He told the BBC he had not spoken out while in his post but now he was "a civilian".
He said: "It's not a question of whether I say things or not, it's a question of whether you say things publicly or not".

But why did he not do anything about it while he was in post? Perhaps he tried and failed, defeated by those evil civilians that run the MoD. If that were so, and if he felt strongly enough, he could have gone public. Of course, he might have lost his post and his knighthood and been forced to retire early. But, as he did not, we have to assume that he was content to be a part of the MoD which he now criticises. It's tough, we know, but you don't get to be a general without making tough decisions. And as for his commitment to improving the conditions of service for soldiers, well...

Dabbling with greenery

I suppose we should be pleased. But might one suggest that what is proposed represents a fairly modest adaptation to one's lifestyle? The Guardian reports:
Prince Charles yesterday pledged to reduce the royal impact on the environment through sweeping changes to his personal lifestyle and official schedule.
The prince will replace carbon-heavy private jets and helicopters with scheduled flights and train services.
Next week, he will take delivery of Jaguar cars adapted to run on biodiesel fuel, while royal residences such as Highgrove in Gloucestershire will switch to green electricity...
The changes to the prince's travel arrangements announced yesterday are part of a wider review of the carbon footprint associated with activities at all three of his residences: Clarence House in London, Highgrove and Birkhall on the Balmoral estate, as well as the activities of his 21 personal and 105 full-time staff.
After all, how many Jaguars does one need? Perhaps one could also save energy on all the boiled eggs? See here.

06 December 2006

Ducking the challenges

Saying one thing and doing the opposite - is that not hypocritical? Here is what transport minister Tavish Scott had to say in his press release about the national transport strategy:
"Scotland's transport system faces strong challenges in the future.
Congestion on our roads is increasing, people are buying more cars, and emissions are on the increase.
The challenges we face are significant, but not impossible. To duck them is not an option. We need to make choices, and we need to make choices now for Scotland's future."

So what challenges has he not ducked? The Scotsman seems lost in a welter of modal verbs and conditional clauses (my emphases):
PRIORITY lanes for buses, lorries and cars carrying passengers could be introduced to speed up journeys and cut delays. Measures to cut congestion at bottlenecks on main routes could nclude lights to restrict traffic joining from slip roads. Vehicles could also be directed to use motorway hard shoulders...
MORE buses may be laid on to take late-night revellers home from town and city centres while funding for bus improvements will be increased, according to the Executive's new bus strategy.
There will be a review of bus stop information, while demand-responsive transport, such as "ring and ride" buses, will be expanded.
ELECTRIFICATION of the Edinburgh-Glasgow route is recommended by an accompanying rail strategy. This could be extended from the two cities to Dunblane - and even as far as Aberdeen and Inverness. High-speed Edinburgh-Glasgow and Scotland-London links could be pursued after 2014 if studies show a strong case.

And nothing on a new Forth crossing. What about all those choices that need to be made now? For Scotland's future?

05 December 2006

Tales of a tablet addict

I blame my mother. When I was a wee laddie, she used to make the tooth-rotting stuff. Anyway, two weeks ago, I was trotting round Tesco on the usual weekly shop, when a bar of tablet jumped off the shelf and into my trolley.

For those not wholly familiar with tablet, I should explain that it a particularly vile Scottish confection, made up of condensed milk (don't ask!), butter and sugar. To say that it is sweet is to understate matters.

It is now being manufactured by Lees - yeah, I know, more if you please - a Scottish company hitherto famous for macaroon bars (again don't ask).

If our esteemed health minister, Andy Kerr, wanted to do something useful (for a change), he would ban it and save the teeth of countless Scottish children.

This week, it was a triple pack of the damn stuff that found its way into the trolley. So if I expire shortly, you will understand that it will have been death by sugar poisoning.

Tomorrow: why irn bru has natural health-giving properties...

Spanish practices

So everything's all right then? Well, not quite. Here is an extract from the Executive's press release:
First Minister Jack McConnell and Deputy First Minister Nicol Stephen today met with the management of Iberdrola, the Spanish company bidding to buy ScottishPower, at government offices in Glasgow.
Afterwards Mr McConnell said:
"It's important first of all to say that any bid had to be accepted by the shareholders of Scottish Power, and it had to follow the due process of competition policy and law both in the UK and across Europe.
"Following constructive discussion this morning, it's clear that should the bid be successful the management of Iberdrola are not only committed to the existing conditions for service of employees in Scotland, but crucially, the existing Scottish identity of ScottishPower and the corporate headquarters here in Glasgow - that is important for Scotland.
"They are committed to the existing investment programme of ScottishPower at Longannet and in renewables, and most importantly for the longer term they have opened up the opportunity for us in Scotland to bid for and to secure further investment in Scotland in the energy industry.

You would not really expect the First Minister to say that the meeting had been anything other than constructive, would you? But, crucially, the Iberdrola commitment is to the existing conditions of service of Scottish Power employees - this is rather different from assurances that jobs will not be lost. If Mr McConnell had received any assurances that jobs will not be lost, he would have said so. Instead we get the weasel words about conditions of service.

Bacon and sausages for tea

RIP Max. The Washington Post reports:
George Clooney's beloved potbelly pig Max has died, Clooney's publicist said. He was 19.
Max, who lived at Clooney's Hollywood Hills home, died "peacefully" of natural causes on Friday, Clooney's publicist, Stan Rosenfield, said by phone Monday.
"Max, like any pet, became a member of the family," Rosenfield said. "He was a big pig, as pigs go. I can't tell you how much he weighed."
The Oscar-winning actor, 45, who owned the hog for 18 years and reportedly once said the porker was his longest relationship, told USA Today, "I was really surprised, because he's been a big part of my life."

So the man had a pig (a big pig) as a pet - what's strange about that?

04 December 2006

Boys and their toys

So there you go. We are going to build a new generation of three or four dirty great nuclear submarines which will creep around the oceans in case North Korea or Iran (or some other unidentified power) ever threatens us, in which case we would be able to obliterate them with the multiply targetted warheads of trident missiles.

Of course, you might think that our major problem these days is terrorism, and that a nuclear deterrent is of little use in that respect. You might also think that it is silly to spend a vast sum of money on the rather remote contingency that some rogue state might seriously threaten us. You might think that a nuclear deterrent is unlikely to deter a rogue state bent on mischief. You might even think that Germany, Spain and Canada have managed to survive for 50 years without relying on a nuclear deterrent and have no plans to seek one.

But, in the Prime Minister's judgement, all this is vitally necessary. And we should all have faith in the Prime Minister's judgement.

Mr Blair's statement is here.

03 December 2006

There's a surprise

Oh really? Who would have thought it? The BBC reports:
Edinburgh is the most expensive place in Scotland for first-time home buyers, according to new research.
And there was I, thinking that Coatbridge or Forfar or maybe Girvan would be top of the list.

Leave me alone

This blog seeks to avoid swearing but I am sorely tempted in this instance. The Independent reports:
Dance classes are to be provided by the National Health Service in a drive to tackle plummeting fitness levels and a national obesity crisis.
In a campaign to be launched by ministers this week, GPs will hand out questionnaires to determine how much daily exercise their patients take. People who reveal a sedentary lifestyle could be prescribed a range of activities funded by NHS trusts, including street-dancing, tango classes and trampolining.
The move follows a number of pilot schemes across the country which have succeeded in getting people off the couch and motivating them to take more exercise. They have achieved success across the generations, from obese children to underactive pensioners. Now Caroline Flint, the Public Health minister, is to roll out the scheme across England and Wales.

Look, you're just giving ideas to our hyperactive health minister, Andy 'I run the occasional 10K' Kerr. If I want to live a sedentary lifestyle, then on my head be it. And it won't cost the health service as much as would be caused by the twisted ankles and heart attacks attributable to tango dancing in the streets...

Give it a rest, please

It won't wash, frankly. He's flogging a dead horse. The Lanarkshire Rambo, the ex-communist with the PhD in West African slavery, the serial appeaser of the tabloids, he's lost it. The Sunday Herald reports:
Asked whether independence would increase the likelihood of a terror attack in Scotland, he said: "Independence will damage the network of security services that operate against terrorists. And in terms of resources to apply to counter-terrorism, in all of those areas you would be weaker."
Reid said separation would hamper Scotland's ability to contribute to anti-terrorism efforts.
"Are they going to have border guards at the Tweed to stop the terrorists? Or, are you just assuming the terrorists will say yes, we've been massacring children as well as adults, we've murdered people who are Christians and Muslims, yes we've slaughtered people from every background and every nationality but we won't touch the Scots?'. This is fairytale politics," he said.
He also claimed the SNP's opposition to the Iraq war would not save Scotland from making it onto al-qaeda's list of targets: "The naivety of those who believe that, somehow, if you run away from the terrorist that the terrorist won't come after you, is illustrated throughout history. The last big arrests on terrorism were in Canada, but Canada not only wasn't in Iraq, Canada opposed the intervention in Iraq."

Oh aye. Does anyone seriously believe that the police authorities in an independent Scotland would be any less co-operative with international anti-terrorist agencies than they are at present? Or that al-Qaida will immediately think to target Scotland because it becomes independent? There are lots of arguments against Scottish independence, but this is garbage.

02 December 2006

Weekend poem No 12

Well too bad. I happen to like crappy Scottish romantic poems. Accept it or move on.

Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott.
O young Lochinvar is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;
And save his good broadsword he weapons had none,
He rode all unarm'd, and he rode all alone.
So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war,
There never was knight like the young Lochinvar.

He staid not for brake, and he stopp'd not for stone,
He swam the Eske river where ford there was none;
But ere he alighted at Netherby gate,
The bride had consented, the gallant came late:
For a laggard in love, and a dastard in war,
Was to wed the fair Ellen of brave Lochinvar.

So boldly he enter'd the Netherby Hall,
Among bride's-men, and kinsmen, and brothers and all:
Then spoke the bride's father, his hand on his sword,
(For the poor craven bridegroom said never a word,)
"O come ye in peace here, or come ye in war,
Or to dance at our bridal, young Lord Lochinvar?"

"I long woo'd your daughter, my suit you denied;
-- Love swells like the Solway, but ebbs like its tide --
And now I am come, with this lost love of mine,
To lead but one measure, drink one cup of wine.
There are maidens in Scotland more lovely by far,
That would gladly be bride to the young Lochinvar."

The bride kiss'd the goblet: the knight took it up,
He quaff'd off the wine, and he threw down the cup.
She look'd down to blush, and she look'd up to sigh,
With a smile on her lips and a tear in her eye.
He took her soft hand, ere her mother could bar,
-- "Now tread we a measure!" said young Lochinvar.

So stately his form, and so lovely her face,
That never a hall such a gailiard did grace;
While her mother did fret, and her father did fume
And the bridegroom stood dangling his bonnet and plume;
And the bride-maidens whisper'd, "'twere better by far
To have match'd our fair cousin with young Lochinvar."

One touch to her hand, and one word in her ear,
When they reach'd the hall-door, and the charger stood near;
So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung,
So light to the saddle before her he sprung!
"She is won! we are gone, over bank, bush, and scaur;
They'll have fleet steeds that follow," quoth young Lochinvar.

There was mounting 'mong Graemes of the Netherby clan;
Forsters, Fenwicks, and Musgraves, they rode and they ran:
There was racing and chasing on Cannobie Lee,
But the lost bride of Netherby ne'er did they see.
So daring in love, and so dauntless in war,
Have ye e'er heard of gallant like young Lochinvar?

01 December 2006

Since you mentioned polonium...

Here is a cheery note on which to end the week. The New York Times reports:
WHEN the former K.G.B. agent Alexander V. Litvinenko was found to have been poisoned by radioactive polonium 210 last week, there was one group that must have been particularly horrified: the tobacco industry. The industry has been aware at least since the 1960s that cigarettes contain significant levels of polonium. Exactly how it gets into tobacco is not entirely understood, but uranium “daughter products” naturally present in soils seem to be selectively absorbed by the tobacco plant, where they decay into radioactive polonium.
High-phosphate fertilizers may worsen the problem, since uranium tends to associate with phosphates. In 1975, Philip Morris scientists wondered whether the secret to tobacco growers’ longevity in the Caucasus might be that farmers there avoided phosphate fertilizers.
How much polonium is in tobacco? In 1968, the American Tobacco Company began a secret research effort to find out. Using precision analytic techniques, the researchers found that smokers inhale an average of about .04 picocuries of polonium 210 per cigarette. The company also found, no doubt to its dismay, that the filters being considered to help trap the isotope were not terribly effective. (Disclosure: I’ve served as a witness in litigation against the tobacco industry.)
A fraction of a trillionth of a curie (a unit of radiation named for polonium’s discoverers, Marie and Pierre Curie) may not sound like much, but remember that we’re talking about a powerful radionuclide disgorging alpha particles...

Great. So I have been ingesting radioactive polonium for the last 40 years. No wonder I have an occasional cough.


Phew! Tim Worstall has crunched the numbers and reckons that the occasional fag is still safer than living in Cornwall.

Is this guy a pillock or what?

Perhaps I'm becoming chippy in my old age, but does the following passage from an article by Philip Hensher represent a rational assessment of the difficulties of the London-based critic? Or is it a breathtaking example of patronising metropolitan smugness?
One of the curious features of arts coverage is, surely, the way that the public seems to be drawn to familiar locations and events which are universally agreed to be worth writing about. Outside quite a narrow ring of well-known theatres, sites of interest and the most famous of museums, even first-rate events have to take their chance, depending largely on the idle curiosity of commentators and visitors.
Notoriously, the problem is most acute outside London. It must be said that, in many cases, regular trips outside London would only occasionally reveal enterprises to rival the constant level of cultural riches we take for granted in the capital. There are a good number of excellent provincial theatres, of course; orchestras outside London struggle on, often very effectively; museums sometimes find it possible to put on an exhibition, and perhaps draw attention in the meantime to their own permanent collections. There is, as well, probably a much livelier popular music scene outside London which seems to wander from city to city - at the moment, the energy seems to be in Sheffield.
Arts in the provinces do, generally, get covered - there is a definite sense of duty about this among the arts commentators, and a new production of a play in a major provincial theatre, or a concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, or an exhibition at Tate Liverpool will generally get written about.

[My italics]

Note that "only occasionally" in the second paragraph, thus casually casting the vast majority of provincial cultural events beyond the pale of the "cultural riches" available within the capital. And what can one do but applaud the "sense of duty" that forces the London critics (only occasionally, mind you) to leave their London fastnesses and set petrified foot into the graceless philistine desert that is the provinces?

The Lanarkshire Rambo

Was Dr John Reid's statement in the House of Commons really necessary? Did it add anything to the sum of human knowledge? Ann Treneman in The Times reports:
John Reid, the Home Secretary, came to the Commons yesterday on yet another mission impossible. He was there to update us on the investigation into the bizarre death of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
He explained, in an impressive monotone, that this now included 24 locations, four aircraft, 221 destinations and 33,000 passengers. Then he told us, in exactly the same voice, that there was no need for alarm. It must be said that I found this to be alarming in itself...
He droned that polonium-210 in itself cannot travel very far (but still, can I note, it has managed to jet around the world). Mr Reid said that it can radiate only for a few centimetres. He said that almost any barrier, even thick paper, would stop it. “So if it’s in a glass phial, for instance, it can’t travel,” said Mr Reid. This was his first mistake, for I am sure I am not alone in finding the words “ glass phial” to be rather sinister. They conjure up mad scientists, wild hairdos and B-movies...
The information he was giving was, he noted, accurate at the time of delivery. But, then, things may have changed in the past few seconds. “By the time I leave the chamber,” he said yesterday in a surge of drama, “the numbers that I have given in my statement may have changed again!” But there is, of course, no need for alarm.

Why do I suspect that Dr Reid is loving every minute of this?

30 November 2006

Look what they've done to my song, ma

The CIF site at The Guardian is a peculiar beast. It attracts some good writers and some weird commenters. But, over the last two days, there has been a surge of interest in Scottish independence. It began yesterday with this article from Simon Jenkins which re-hashes the standard line of "If the Scots want to secede, let them". But it has attracted more than 200 comments. This was followed by a more perceptive (in some ways) article by John Lloyd advocating the maintenance of the union. Although only published this afternoon, this is also attracting a host of comments.

I begin to fear that the genie is out of the bottle. Scottish independence has become a matter of interest to the English. I cannot foresee the consequences but I doubt that they will be beneficial...

Skating on thin ice

As part of the celebrations for St Andrew's day,
Finance Minister Tom McCabe will launch Scotland's first Ceilidh-on-ice in Glasgow's George Square.

(source here).

I am reliably advised that this does not mean that Mr McCabe will be getting his skates on, which is something of a disappointment. The prospect of the Uriah Heep of the Scottish Executive doing an eightsome reel on ice is tantalising, to say the least...


Here is an admirable survey of the Scottish political scene by Mr Eugenides. Well written, too. Just shows what he can do when he forsakes the swearing.

29 November 2006

Ultimate responsibility

The BBC reports:
The royal editor of the News of the World has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to intercept voicemail messages.
Clive Goodman, 48, from London, was arrested after claims by the Prince of Wales's household of security breaches...
News of the World editor Andy Coulson, said he apologised "unreservedly" on behalf of the newspaper to Prince William and Prince Harry, Paddy Harverson, Helen Asprey and Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton "for the distress caused by this invasion into their privacy".
In a statement, he said: "As the editor of the newspaper, I take ultimate responsibility for the conduct of my reporters.
"Clive Goodman's actions were entirely wrong and I have put in place measures to ensure that they will not be repeated by any member of my staff."

So what, exactly, does taking 'ultimate responsibility' mean? A member of his staff has pleaded guilty to committing a crime. Is Mr Coulson inviting prosecution as an accessory? Presumably not. Will he then resign for being ultimately responsible for this disgraceful conduct by a member of his staff? Again, presumably not. It seems to mean nothing more than issuing apologies and ensuring (maybe) that it will not happen again. This is a curious definition of 'ultimate responsibility'. But, then, we are talking about the editor of The News of the World.

Goats are so last year

Look, I know that it's hard to keep up with the ever-changing environmental priorities but NHS Highland need to do better. The BBC reports:
Health staff are being asked to donate money to buy goats for Third World communities instead of exchanging Christmas cards.
Pupils from Raigmore Primary School in Inverness helped to launch the NHS Highland initiative which is aimed at supporting the Oxfam Unwrapped scheme.
The charity project suggests people give gift aid, including funding for goats, instead of Christmas presents.

At the risk of disappointing the no doubt well-meaning health staff, I have to point them in the direction of The Independent (here):
The reality is that animal gift schemes are, in the words of the conservation charity World Land Trust (WLT), "environmentally unsound and economically disastrous". In a statement last week, WLT declared: "Now that the grave consequences of introducing large numbers of goats and other domestic animals into fragile, arid environments is well documented, WLT considers it grossly irresponsible ... to continue with the schemes ... as a means of raising quick money for charities over the Christmas season".
It is incontestable that desertification and further human impoverishment will follow the introduction of goats into already degraded areas.

See Christmas presents...

28 November 2006

TV highlights

I see that this evening BBC 1 (Scotland) is showing the highlights (sic) of round 2 of an international bowls tournament being held in Perth. It is scheduled to be shown from 11.55pm to 1.20am tomorrow morning. If you don't believe me, check here.

Oh wow, a whole 85 minutes of bowls, in the middle of the night. How exciting!

Apart from the spouses and partners of the participants, do you suppose that anyone will be watching?

The panic of the panjandrums

Now we know why Labour's high heidyins mounted their collective assault upon the SNP over the weekend. The Herald reveals:
The Scottish National Party holds an eight-point lead over Labour in a poll commissioned by Labour itself, the biggest gap registered by recent surveys. It suggests that, if the findings are translated into results at the ballot box next May, the Nationalists would win nine seats more than Labour, and be in the driving seat to form a new coalition administration.
The private poll, carried out by independent research company Populus, found Labour lagging eight points adrift of the SNP on both the constituency and the regional votes. One analysis of those figures suggests Labour would lose 14 of the 50 seats it holds, while the SNP would gain as many as 18 seats, on top of the 27 it won in 2003.

But the kind of attacks pursued by Brown, Alexander and Reid at the Oban Conference really won't do Labour any good. The Scottish electorate will not buy being lectured by Westminster politicians about the faults of Mr Salmond; they are more than capable of making up their own minds. And it was noticeable that Mr McConnell took a rather less belligerent stand. Ruth Wishart, also in The Herald, has some excellent advice for the First Minister:
I once had a notice on my office door which I commend to Mr McConnell. It read: "If things don't improve, I'm going to have to ask you to stop helping me."

The net closes in

Should the Prime Minister be getting a lawyer? The Times speculates on his options but can't resist this delicious scenario:
When “Yates of the Yard” fixes the date for the fateful encounter, will there be a dawn raid? If so, perhaps a TV crew or two may be across the street, to provide live coverage, in the style of Kevin Maxwell’s infamous arrest in 1992. As the officers knock on the black door, an upstairs window opens, Cherie’s head appears and shouts at them to piss off or she’ll call the police.
If like Lord Levy before him, Mr Blair is arrested then the Met Police policy is to demand the detainee’s DNA, fingerprints and a mug shot. Just imagine the price a tabloid newspaper will pay for such a photograph . . .

That it should have come to this.

27 November 2006

Hubris and nemesis

Maybe he needs the money? Or the publicity? The Scotsman reports:
TOMMY Sheridan could star in the next series of Celebrity Big Brother.
The Solidarity leader is said to have held talks with Channel 4 to appear in the next series of the show, which starts in January, for a fee of £30,000.

This way lies the road to self-destruction...

Some narrow-minded provincialism on my part

Scotland, a land of which the London commentariat knows little and usually cares less. But it does not prevent them from occasionally pontificating. Yesterday's Telegraph poll has stimulated Peter Preston of The Guardian and Bruce Anderson of The Independent to opine on Scottish separatism.

Neither of these distinguished columnists has anything particularly interesting to say. This is because their view of Scotland is refracted through the prism of Westminster. They do not follow Scottish domestic politics; they are not familiar with Scottish domestic politicians. Which is why you will search in vain through their writings for a mention of McConnell, Sturgeon, Stephen or Goldie. It is the implications for Brown or Cameron with which they are concerned.

Perhaps this is understandable; after all, they are writing for London newspapers. But if we are to maintain a united kingdom, it would be helpful if they would - just once in a while - raise their eyes from the metropolitan gutter.

26 November 2006

Snapshots from the future

Mr McConnell's increasingly desperate attempts to form a minority Holyrood administration finally hit the buffers yesterday when the parliament rejected his candidacy for First Minister by 75 votes to 51. The SNP, LibDems and Greens outvoted Labour and the Tories. Mr McConnell is expected to announce his resignation as Scottish labour leader later today. Iain Gray, who has the backing of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is the favourite to replace Mr McConnell as labour leader in Scotland. The way is now clear for an SNP-Libdem administration to be formed.

Earlier this year, the Scottish parliamentary authorities ruled that First Minister Salmond's bill for an independence referendum was ultra vires, a decision which has now been upheld by the Court of Session. Accordingly, the SNP-controlled Executive yesterday announced that it would ask the Westminster parliament to bring forward such a bill. Despite the increasing support in Scotland for such a referendum, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is bitterly opposed to independence and is expected to rule out any such bill before the next general election, taking the country into uncharted constitutional waters.

Labour's decision to deny the Scots a referendum on independence is expected to cost Gordon Brown dearly in tomorrow's UK general election, with Labour expected to lose up to 30 seats in Scotland alone. The polls suggest that the best Labour can hope for is a hung parliament; the Conservatives seem certain to be the largest party. The likely presence of 40 newly-elected SNP MPs will keep up the pressure for independence. David Cameron has already announced his willingness to do a deal on the matter.

Now that Scotland has voted in favour of independence, First Minister Salmond and Prime Minister Cameron are expected to get down to negotiations on the mechanics of separation. Mr Cameron welcomed Mr Salmond's recognition that independence could not happen overnight. The present constitutional arrangements are likely to carry on for at least three years, while the separate administrations discuss the partition of government assets in Scotland which were previously the property of the United Kingdom. A referendum on the adoption of the euro would not be held until after the next Scottish general election. On foreign affairs, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to represent the Scottish administration abroad for the foreseeable future. On defence, the Trident submarines will next year be moved to Devonport. It is understood that the Scottish administration is content for the Ministry of Defence to continue in control of the military, provided suitable financial arrangements can be worked out.

Scottish Social Security Minister, Kenny MacAskill MSP, admitted yesterday that the Scottish administration had seriously under-estimated the scale and complexity of the work required to introduce a separate social security system. It was now proposed to defer the suggested improvements to the system and to import the present UK system unchanged. Any further changes would have to wait until things had settled down.

The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that the dissolution of the United Kingdom would result in the creation of two new entities and that the government of England, Wales and Northern Ireland was not therefore entitled to inherit the membership previously held by the United Kingdom. The European Commission announced its intention to open negotiations with both parts of the former United Kingdom with a view to early entry into the European Union. It is believed that the United Nations is likely to take a similar view, so that permanent membership of the Security Council and the right of veto will be lost.

25 November 2006

Weekend poem No 11

This week, a minor suburban classic:

'A Subaltern's Love Song'

John Betjeman

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament - you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father's euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o'clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light's in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing's the light on your hair.

By roads "not adopted", by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.