28 February 2006


It is sad - but probably inevitable - that none of the four companies selected to tender for Edinburgh's trams is British. From The Evening News (here):
"German-based businesses Bombardier and Siemens will battle it out against French engineering giant Alstom [sic] and the less-well-known Spanish company CAF.

Watch the birdie

Mr Seat has a nice one (here).

Biggles is back!

The Scotsman reports:
"BILL Walker, the 77-year-old former Tory MP, was last night elected as deputy chairman of the Scottish Conservatives - beating Jackson Carlaw, the incumbent, by just eight votes.
Mr Walker, as well known for his robust right-wing views as he was for wearing the kilt in the Commons as an MP, secured 2,518 votes to Mr Carlaw's 2,510.
Last night a spokesman for the Tory party refused to comment on the signal Mr Walker's election would send out for the party, which is now led in the UK by David Cameron, 39, who will speak to the Scottish conference in Perth later this week."

When he was an MP, Mr Walker was not quite renowned for his sophisticated and intelligent approach to political debate. And he was not at all put out when both Mr Lang and Mr Forsyth failed to appoint him as one of the Scottish Office ministers, despite the desperate shortage of Scottish Tory MPs to fill the posts.

Given their utter lack of shared interests, I am sure that he and Mr Cameron will get on like a house on fire.

Just some flannel...

The Guardian news blog has the stunning news:
"He's not officially returned from paternity leave but David Cameron has already entered dangerous political terrain. Just when he thought he'd started to win over some environmentalists Mr Cameron today revealed he - shock, horror! - uses disposable nappies and not environmentally friendly ones."

Oh well, that's him consigned to the outer darkness...

27 February 2006

They really don't get it

The BBC website seeks to explain the Jowell affair (here):

"The Conservatives have asked the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell to examine whether Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has breached ministers' code of conduct. What is it all about?
How did this start?
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell's husband David Mills is a corporate lawyer who is being investigated by Italian prosecutors over claims he was given £350,000 in return for helpful testimony in a corruption probe into Italian premier and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi in 1997. British police raided Mr Mills' office and the home he shares with Ms Jowell on 10 February on the request of Italian prosecutors. The prosecutors have now passed their information on to a judge in Italy who is considering whether there is any case to answer. Mr Mills denies absolutely doing anything wrong and denies that the money came from anyone connected with Mr Berlusconi, but that it came from another client.
Why has Ms Jowell been drawn into the controversy?
The Sunday Times alleges it has identified a link between a loan secured on a house the couple jointly own and the money the Italian prosecutors allege was a bribe. Ms Jowell and her husband jointly signed the mortgage loan application form which raised £400,000. It was reportedly paid off only weeks later - although Ms Jowell has categorically denied it was paid off with money from Mr Berlusconi."

In one sense, it does not matter if Ms Jowell has or has not broken the rules. Labour voters are not daft. Ms Jowell has a number of strikes against her. She and her husband are comfortable taking out a mortgage of £400,000 (a sum way beyond the reach of most of us) and paying it back within weeks (strike 1). She is married to an international corporate lawyer (strike 2) who is allegedly mainly engaged in establishing vehicles for tax avoidance (strike 3), and is associated with Mr Berlusconi (strike 4). This is not the sort of behaviour expected of labour cabinet ministers. The metropolitan elite may dismiss this as unfair; they can put it down to envy or ignorance of the realities of the charmed life led by our leaders. But, even if she survives the next few days, Ms Jowell's career is destined to fade away.

Give the man a break...

The Independent dwells - rather too attentively - on President Bush's accident at Gleneagles (here):
"The police report describes him as a "falling object" who lost control of his bicycle after trying to pedal and wave at the same time...
The police report, obtained by Scotland on Sunday, gives a blow by blow account of the lead-up to the accident. It reads: "[The unit] was requested to cover the road junction on the Auchterarder to Braco Road as the President of the USA, George Bush, was cycling through.
"At about 1800 hours the President approached the junction at speed on the bicycle. The road was damp at the time. As the President passed the junction at speed he raised his left arm from the handlebars to wave to the police officers present while shouting 'thanks, you guys, for coming'.
"As he did this he lost control of the cycle, falling to the ground, causing both himself and his bicycle to strike [the officer] on the lower legs. [The officer] fell to the ground, striking his head."
The report goes on to divulge how the President skidded five metres along the road, after knocking down the constable, who was off duty for 14 weeks after the accident."

Worth bearing in mind that the man's in his 50s. It's not the falling off his bike that's the problem; it's his decision to get on it in the first place.

26 February 2006

The philosophy of the Broons

Tom Morton in The Sunday Times quotes his wife on an essential truth (here):
“There is” she said sagely, “both a Daphne and a Maggie in all women. We want to be Maggies, but secretly we know we’re Daphnes.” Jings, I said, thon’s braw thinkin’, wummin!
It may be true but a word of advice - don't ever suggest that your paramour leans towards the Daphne.

Down and dirty

It is always irritating when journalists hint at something but avoid telling the full story. Alan Cochrane, on commenting on the McKie affair, in Scotland on Sunday is the guilty party here:
"However, far from public gaze, another scenario is being played out. More than a few Labour MSPs are putting it around that the real reason everyone in the Executive is so adamantly opposed to an inquiry of any kind, is that such an investigation would focus not on Colin Boyd's decisions but on Ms Jamieson's.
In particular, this outrageous whispering campaign suggests any such detailed investigation might raise questions about Ms McKie, and also suggests she might have had her reasons for settling the case.
All of which, so this conspiracy theory goes, would raise serious questions about Ms Jamieson's decision to sign that whopping great cheque of taxpayers' money."

This is unfair to his readers and also to Ms Jamieson.

24 February 2006

Passing clouds...

The Scotsman website has this story:
"SCOTTISH Parliament bosses were today accused of hypocrisy after they created a special smoking zone for MSPs and staff.
Part of the courtyard of historic Queensberry House, which is used as an entrance for visiting dignitaries, has been set aside as a "designated smoking area" complete with bins for cigarette ends.
The move comes less than six weeks after the cross-party Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body trumpeted its decision not to go ahead with a smoking shelter in the same location.
At the time, parliament sources claimed the shelter had been ruled out not only on price grounds - it could have cost as much as £40,000 - but also as a matter of principle.
But today one MSP said the only difference between a shelter and a smoking zone was an expensive roof. "
What can one say? There are perfectly sensible reasons for providing the inmates with a place to smoke, thus avoiding upsetting the neighbours. But the parliamentary authorities want it both ways - they want to be seen to take the high moral ground, then they dig a hole and jump in.

Dae sumthin!

A rather confusing report from the BBC website:
"The government has awarded two companies multi-million pound contracts to produce a vaccine against the deadly strain of bird flu for humans.
The contracts for 3.5m doses of the vaccine against H5N1, worth £33m, have been given to pharmaceutical firms Chiron and Baxter.
The vaccine will be given to key groups such as health workers in the event of a pandemic...
H5N1 has so far affected 170 people in south east Asia and Turkey, killing 90."
OK, H5N1 has been around in Asia for some five years and has affected 170 people. So why is our Government buying 3.5 million doses of vaccine? (It is abundantly clear from the report that the purpose is not to vaccinate chickens.) But you will only get H5N1 if (as a Minister put it last week) you are "intimate" with chickens.

"Ms Winterton admitted the vaccine might not be effective if the pandemic strain of flu was significantly different to the H5N1 strain being seen now.
Ms Winterton, who is attending a meeting of EU health ministers in Vienna, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It is certainly true that if the H5N1 virus developed into a virus that could be passed between humans, you couldn't be absolutely clear that an H5N1 vaccine would be appropriate.
"If a human pandemic does develop, we would have to look at that point at the virus and then develop a vaccine from that."
She added: "There is no guarantee that a vaccine would be appropriate in those circumstances."
So, a human pandemic will not arise unless the flu strain mutates, in which case the 3.5 million doses of H5N1 vaccine will be useless.

Are Ministers panicking? Or do they just want to be seen to be doing something, however pointless?

Money laundering - wrong soap powder?

The Times reports on the arrests in the case of the Tonbridge heist:
"The woman was arrested as she tried to open a building society account with bundles of used notes wrapped with tape marked Tonbridge.
It is understood that the woman walked into the Portman Building Society in Bromley, Kent, and said that she wanted to make a large deposit. Staff, noticing that the £6,000 was bound with tape marked Tonbridge, kept her talking while they phoned the police."
Not exactly evidence of a criminal mastermind at work, is it?

23 February 2006

Making your mind up

The Herald is waiting for a Scottish Executive decision on the relocation of SportsScotland (here):
"On that day [July 2004], Andy Kerr, then finance minister, said a decision had been deferred "by a month". Thirteen months later, The Herald asked Jack McConnell when the decision would be made. He said: "Soon." Within a month, we queried? "Very soon," he responded, implying it would be earlier than that, but that it would be the decision of Patricia Ferguson, sports minister. This week we asked again. "Very shortly" said an executive spokesman."

Is the Executive indecisive? Maybe. I'm not really sure.

22 February 2006

Hypocrisy or what?

It is difficult to justify the booze ban for ordinary punters at Murrayfield, while those benefiting from corporate hospitality are scooping it up. The Evening News reports:
"SCOTLAND'S sports minister came under fire today for snubbing calls to explain the controversial booze ban at Murrayfield - despite enjoying hospitality there herself.
Patricia Ferguson has ducked out of a meeting with senior councillors to discuss why fans are unable to buy a drink at major international matches in Edinburgh, despite being in a position to give her first-hand impressions of the ban on alcohol at international fixtures.
As Minister for Sport, Ms Ferguson has taken in Scotland matches at Murrayfield on five occasions, and on at least one of these enjoyed the event from the comfort of corporate hospitality, where guests are allowed to drink alcohol before and after games."

Sadly typical of Scottish Ministers to avoid the firing line, especially when they have to defend their own decisions. So much for accountability...

Sauce for the goose?

Finance Minister Mr Tom McCabe raises an interesting point about the accountability of senior public officials in The Herald (here):
"Mr McCabe said he felt the delays and cost overruns had been down to chief executives and others failing to give councillors strong advice, ducking tough decisions and allowing drift to set in. In evidence to Holyrood's finance committee, he refused to bail councils out, and said it would be instructive to know the advice chief executives had been giving their councillors on the issue. "Were they discussing the fact that there was a growing problem that would have to be resolved, or were they just looking the other way? I don't know," he said. "If the chief executive of a council is being paid more than £100,000, or if a director of human resources is being paid in excess of £100,000, then there has to be some accountability for the advice that they offer. "We need to legislate to find ways of improving the professional accountability of people who work in local government."

I can think of some other public officials earning more than £100,000 who advise politicians, mostly in the Executive itself. Should they not also be more accountable? Of course, that would mean greater transparency on the advice provided and the action taken by Ministers. In other words, we would see how quickly (or not) Ministers react to advice and how sensible their responses are. But if that is unthinkable for Ministers, why should it be any less so for Council leaders?

Perhaps Mr McCabe should think more carefully before opening up this pandora's box?

Prince Charles and the green ink

Much guff in the media today about HRH's little problem as a serial botherer of politicians. The Guardian reports:
"Prince Charles regards himself as a "dissident working against the prevailing political consensus", who scatters furious letters to ministers on contentious issues and denounces elected leaders of other countries, it was revealed yesterday.
The views and practices of the heir to the throne were detailed in a remarkable witness statement by his former deputy private secretary and spin doctor, Mark Bolland, who claimed the prince routinely meddled in political issues and wrote sometimes in extreme terms to ministers, MPs and others in positions of political power and influence."

Prince Charles should take up blogging. This would allow him to vent his spleen more safely and nobody would feel obliged to read (or - worse - reply to) his eccentric opinions.

Incidentally, Mr Bolland was in the papers last week for a different reason. The Independent recorded:
"The other day an announcement appeared on the court and social page of The Daily Telegraph that warmed the cockles of my heart. A civil partnership was announced between Mr Guy Black and Mr Mark Bolland, which had been registered at Islington Town Hall on Saturday 11 February. Mr Murdoch MacLennan and Ms Rebekah Wade were witnesses. No further details were offered, and it may be that down in deepest Gloucestershire the eye of the Telegraph reader flickered over what may have seemed a rather innocuous item.
Not to me. The following day I scoured the newspapers. Here, after all, was a union of two media titans attended by a couple of media gods. Mr Black, a former chief executive of the Press Complaints Commission and until recently Michael Howard's spin doctor, is now director of corporate affairs at the Telegraph Group. His partner Mr Bolland was once Prince Charles's media guru, and rebranded Camilla Parker Bowles, as she then was. Mr MacLennan will be familiar to readers of this column as the chief executive of the Telegraph Group. Though little known on the national stage, because like Achilles she lurks in her tent, Ms Wade is, of course, editor of the mighty Sun."

Perhaps HRH should have avoided getting involved with media types such as Mr Bolland in the first place?

Feathered friends

Lucy Mangan in The Guardian puts bird flu into context (here):
"In the face of bird flu, for example, I am sanguine. As luck would have it, a concatenation of circumstances too complex to list here but which include not being born into an Indonesian shanty town, failing my poultry farming exams and not possessing a scintilla of a sexual interest in wild ducks, chickens or swans (still less in rolling around in their excretory offerings), I find I am already doing all that is in my power to avoid contracting this disease.
On the other hand, the threat of bird flu may not be the greatest test of someone's composure. As a global scare story it has certain weaknesses. One is the fact that the phrase "bird flu" conjures up inescapable visions of mallards sucking down Lemsip and pigeons cradling the telephone in one weak wing and croaking, "No, I'm sorry, I can't come in and crap on any windscreens today - I think I'm coming down with something." And Tamiflu just sounds like the latest must-have toy from Japan rather than the last line of defence against infection.
Another is that the whole situation is too reminiscent of those medieval pig trials where hysterical proto-juries found the animals guilty of sedition and sorcery and had them executed (as opposed to Man in the Tabloid Office With Eight Double-Page Spreads Begging to Be Filled With Modern Pestilence Stories) for any man in the street to take it seriously. ...
So just sit back and enjoy the story. There's bugger all you can do about how it's going to end."

Easy for her to say. But she is not a hypochondriac poultry farmer...

21 February 2006

Another fine mess

The Independent makes a half-hearted attempt to explain the circumstances of Ms Tessa Jowell's husband:
"The controversy surrounding Tessa Jowell's husband deepened yesterday after three prominent Italian businessmen denied his claims that they were the source of an alleged $600,000 (£346,000) bribe.
David Mills, a leading tax lawyer and the husband of the Culture Secretary, is accused by the Italian authorities of receiving money from the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, in exchange for giving false evidence on his behalf in two corruption trials during the 1990s.
But he denies the charges, claiming that he has been guilty only of acting like a "complete idiot".
Mr Mills was forced on to the defensive on Sunday after the publication of a leaked letter to his accountant apparently confirming he had received $600,000 as a long-term loan or gift from the "B organisation", in return for providing favourable evidence for the Italian premier.
But he alleged the money received in 1999 through an offshore fund, Struie, based in the British Virgin Islands, had in fact come from an Italian client, the shipbuilder Diego Attanasio. The letter was merely a hypothetical scenario to get tax advice, he said.
But it has emerged that Mr Attanasio told Italian prosecutors he was in prison on bribery and corruption charges at the time the money was paid to Mr Mills."

I have no real idea what this story is all about, but it seems a less than sensible idea for the husband of a cabinet minister to be involved. Every day, the net appears to be drawn tighter and tighter.

The fat controller strikes...

The Guardian reports that the Government has acquired - as if by statistical magic - a train set:

"The Channel tunnel rail link and the British end of Eurostar were effectively "nationalised" yesterday through a ruling by the Office of National Statistics that they are under the control of the government.
The ONS said the parent company of the two businesses, London & Continental Railways, has been reclassified as a public non-financial corporation - similar in status to Royal Mail and London Underground - because of the government's influence on its policy and purse...
The ruling means that the government ultimately owns 11 of Eurostar's 31 trains, which are part of the British arm of the cross-Channel services. Ticket office and sales staff on this side of the Channel become public-sector workers. So does LCR's chief executive, Rob Holden, who is now one of the highest-paid employees on the public payroll with a salary of £358,000 plus undisclosed bonuses."
And no, I don't know what it means, and I rather suspect that neither does The Guardian.

Update: All is explained - it was Gordon Brown's birthday yesterday.

20 February 2006

What's the world coming to (part 28)?

The following message now appears on the labels of bottles of Grouse whisky:
"Please enjoy our whisky responsibly"

Well, no Mr Grouse. Once I have bought a bottle of your product, it is mine to enjoy responsibly or irresponsibly. If you want to be health fascists, I suggest that instead of manufacturing whisky you might think about tofu or yoghurt...

19 February 2006

How blogging can lead you into temptation

The Financial Times (of yesterday - OK, I'm a day late) on bloggers (here):
"Gawker’s Washington DC outpost “Wonkette” scored a bigger coup when its editor, Ana Marie Cox, wrote about “Washingtonienne”, a 26-year-old Republican staffer pseudonymously blogging about her multiple sexual liaisons, including one with a married Bush administration official who gave her an envelope filled with cash in gratitude. Readers quickly worked out who the staffer, Jessica Cutler, was sleeping with, helped by the fact that Cutler - who has often spoken to the media of her 140-plus IQ - referred to her paramours using their real initials.
Buttoned-down Washington was horrified. Cutler was fired for misusing her office computer, but promptly got a six-figure book deal and an invitation to pose for Playboy in time for the 2004 election, which she accepted. As she memorably told The Washington Post, “Everyone should have a blog. It’s the most democratic thing ever.” And, indeed, having a blog seemed to be the quickest way to fame in a country obsessed with fortune."

I would just like to assure my readers that, even though my IQ may not match that of Ms Cutler, I will turn down any request to pose for Playboy.

Unless, of course, they offer me lots of money...

Fit for purpose?

The Sunday Herald reports:
"First Minister Jack McConnell has accused council carers of “incompetence” in the case of an 11-year-old heroin user.
He said they had been guilty of a potential “lack of caring” for the girl, who was admitted to hospital after collapsing at her primary school in Glasgow last month.
It later emerged she had been smoking the drug for more than two months, buying it from a dealer outside a shopping centre in the Pollok area of the city. She was under the care of the social work and education department at Glasgow City Council at the time.
The First Minister told Holyrood magazine: “I think that different agencies have let this girl down, and let her down badly, and people should be held accountable for this, absolutely.
“ I am stunned at the level of incompetence and potential lack of caring that some of the professional adults involved have displayed.” McConnell said more children of drug addicts needed to be placed on the child protection register.
“I am determined to take a lead on this and put my neck on the line,” he said."

Do you suppose that Mr McConnell is expressing a considered view on this matter, taking into account the advice received from his officials after a review of the case files of the relevant social work and police authorities? Do you suppose that he has fully considered the implications of what he is saying, given the Executive's responsibilities for instituting any remedial action into whatever shortcomings may in due course be found to be associated with the policies in force for drugs, childcare and associated criminal procedure? Do you suppose that he has reflected long and hard on how what he is saying may impact on the morale and practice of local officials who have to deal with the immensely complex moral issues associated with cases such as the one in question?

Or do you suppose that he is looking for a quick headline portraying him as a toughie?

Fat Bob and oor Cathy

Mungo McKay in Scotland on Sunday explains one aspect of the McKie case:
"Cathy Jamieson is getting very upset about the McKie case. She's been told by Robert Gordon, her chief civil servant, that if she so much as utters a word about the case in public, he'll sit on her. Of course, Cathy is so terrified of him that she's now not saying a word on anything. "He telt me he'd come roond tae ma hoose at night. Why dae a huv tae huv such an awful boss?" she moaned."

The joke is enhanced by the fact that being sat on by the somewhat portly (to put it mildly) Mr Gordon would be a fate worse than almost anything you could think of.

18 February 2006

What's in a name?

The Guardian ponders the significance of the name of the latest Cameron offspring:
"A century ago, Arthur meant Balfour, Conan Doyle or Sullivan, all upstanding but privately-troubled people. In more recent times, the likes of Askey, Miller and Ransome apart, Arthur has meant mainly Scargill, which has been trouble of a different kind. Assuming that the Camerons have not named their latest in honour of either Rimbaud or Schopenhauer, which would be unusual in Witney or even Notting Hill, there is only one Arthur who counts - the once and future king who represents so much of the British collective unconscious. There is no more magic-laden name in these islands than Arthur - and the leader who will rise again and restore the ancient order of things to its former greatness also seems a suitable name for this latest Tory boy."

But what about Arthur Daley?

Bait and switch

Further developments in the McKie case. The BBC website reports:
"The lord advocate has defended his actions in the case of a policewoman wrongly accused of leaving a fingerprint at a murder scene.
Colin Boyd said he was right to prosecute Shirley McKie for perjury. She was acquitted in 1999.
But Mr Boyd said he was also right not to take action against experts involved in the case.
He insisted there was insufficient proof that they lied in court. "

As Ms Margo MacDonald MSP has pointed out, this leaves open the question as to why. If the decison to prosecute Ms McKie was right (even if she was subsequently acquitted), and if the decision not to prosecute the fingerprint experts was justified on grounds of insufficient proof, then why - oh why - did the Scottish Executive provide £750,000 to Ms McKie by way of compensation in an out of court settlement?

17 February 2006

Second thoughts

Chicken Yoghurt - a blog to make you think (here):

"I know this is going to sound frightfully liberal - sandal-wearing or whatever witty epithet we're using at the minute - but this kind of thing bothers me:

BBC News: 'Dog whistle' to control youths. A high-pitched "dog whistle" device is to be used by police in north Staffordshire to stop groups of nuisance youths hanging around shops.

I suppose it's cheaper than a water cannon or a barrage of rubber bullets. It's literally the 21st Century's clip round the ear - it (hopefully) won't do them any harm. Most of the news outlets are treating this as a gleefully sadistic "and finally..." story. The fact is, this is yet another of those "tough on crime" while not giving a toss about "the causes of crime". The inventor of the device was on PM on Radio 4 last night and he actually said, "...what about the human rights of the shopkeepers?" He'll go far that one, a New Labour peerage can't be far away. What about the nice children and their rights? What about the A-grade, never-said-boo-to-goose, model child sent out for a pint of milk?"

The whole thing is well worth reading.

Made from mentally stimulated girders

I suppose that we should be grateful that this is not going to be marketed as an aid to sports performance. From The Herald (here):
"The unveiling of a new product from AG Barr, the Scottish soft drinks manufacturer, is always a fanfare event – and yesterday's launch of Irn-Bru 32 high-energy drink was no exception. Billing the drink characteristically in mock-Scots lingo as "pure mental stimulation", Roger White, Barr's chief executive, said the Glasgow-based company would be spending £3m on marketing and publicity this year to take on other high-energy products, such as market leader Red Bull.
Irn-Bru 32 is the first new Irn-Bru drink from the company since it launched the diet version of the iconic soft drink 26 years ago. The energy drink will be made in AG Barr's factory in Cumbernauld, which is undergoing a £17m extension."

The case that won't go away

The McKie case stubbornly refuses to disappear from the headlines. The Herald reports:
"Pressure grew last night for a public inquiry into the case of the former detective wrongly accused of perjury in the now infamous fingerprint case. Strathclyde Joint Police Board agreed to petition the Scottish Executive for a full review of the circumstances which led to its £750,000 payment to Shirley McKie ahead of court proceedings. The board's call was echoed by Alex Salmond, SNP party leader, who told a public meeting: "Demands for a public inquiry are now irresistible."

The need for a public inquiry has now been backed by Ms McKie and her supporters, by the Fingerprint Office and its supporters, by the chair of one of the parliamentary justice committees and by the SNP as well as by the Strathclyde Joint Police Board. Mr McConnell's assertion that everyone involved accepts that it was an "honest mistake" seems less and less convincing. And, on Newsnicht Scotland yesterday evening, Ms Anne Mackenzie noted (rather maliciously I thought) that Ms Jamieson, the justice minister, had maintained her trappist silence by refusing - for the seventh successive occasion - to come onto the programme to discuss the matter.

Not for the first time, Ministers must be wondering how they got into this mess.

The man in black

This blog does not usually dip its toes into the world of male fashion but The Guardian has some useful advice:
"I don't own a black shirt and I doubt I ever shall. The reasons being that, first off, wearing a black shirt makes you look like Johnny Cash. Actually, it's worse than that: it makes you look like you want to look like Johnny Cash. That's OK for a karaoke night, but in all other situations the likelihood is that you'll just seem like a ridiculous clone.
Another problem is that a black shirt, worn with a black jacket and trousers, offers no respite or contrast. Its very uniformity suggests a conviction - religious or rebellious - that few of us can back up. But the real drawback is this: dandruff.
Don't walk that line."

Now, if I'd only known this 30 years ago...

There'll be tears before bedtime...

The Guardian seems to think that Labour is worried about the forthcoming local elections (here):
"Such is the concern that the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, is fronting the London campaign and cabinet office minister Jim Murphy is leading the backroom campaign."
Wot, no Alexander, no Miliband? And Messrs Prescott and Brown keeping well out of the picture? Ms Jowell and Mr Murphy are more like the B team. Why would you put Jim Murphy, a Scottish MP with no direct experience of English local government elections in charge of the backroom campaign? This suggests that Labour has written off the English local elections...

Mr Hague and chums go to Washington

It's all a bit embarrassing really. You hope for a chat with the president but end up with 45 minutes of facetime with Karl Rove. Admittedly the latter is sometimes known as the President's Brain but it's not quite the same thing as meeting the man at the top. The Guardian has the story:
"The three Tories walked in and out of the White House complex through a grey edifice known as the Eisenhower executive office building - essentially the tradesman's entrance. Their moment of triumph was marked on the pavement outside where two British reporters and a photographer were waiting in the sunshine.
A prominent member of the White House press corps had walked by a few minutes earlier, asked what was going on, and shrugged. The Tories had picked the wrong day he said. The Washington press was still absorbed by the weekend hunting accident in Texas in which a Republican lawyer was wounded by the vice-president, Dick Cheney - now referred to as "The Shooter" in White House briefings on the incident.
Not having shot anyone, the Conservative delegation may have had trouble catching the public eye, but that was beside the point, they insisted. Mr Rove, who has a famous nose for political futures, had greeted them warmly and brainstormed for nearly 15 minutes beyond their allotted half hour."
Remember, even Henry McLeish got to speak to the president face to face. I rather doubt if Mr Cameron will be visiting the US in the near future.

16 February 2006

Cars and football

The BBC website reports:
"A teenage car thief has had his sentence delayed to allow him to watch Rangers play in Europe.
Alexander McLeod, 17, from the Drumoyne area of Glasgow, admitted taking a car and driving without a licence. Sentence was initially deferred until 8 March.
But his lawyer returned to Glasgow Sheriff Court after McLeod's mother informed him that her son was due to be in Spain after watching Rangers.
The case was adjourned until after he returns from the Villarreal match.
Sheriff John Newall agreed after McLeod's lawyer said his client had already booked up for what could be the Ibrox club's last "competitive" game for some time. "

Is it not nice of the Sheriff Court Service to adjust its schedules to accommodate the convenience of a young car thief? Our caring court service is prepared to change its arrangements to allow the offender to attend a football match.

I must be getting old and cranky...

At arms' length

The BBC website reports on the 7:84 theatre company:
"A highly political theatre company that fears its funding could be under threat has received the support of more than 20 MSPs.
They have signed two separate motions lodged at Holyrood calling for the Scottish Arts Council to give 7:84 the resources it needs to carry on.
The company, founded more than 30 years ago on socialist principles, faces closure if its subsidy is withdrawn.
Many MSPs condemned the arts council's attitude to 7:84's performances."

These are no doubt the same MSPs who would complain bitterly if the Scottish Executive told the Scottish Arts Council which arts companies should be subsidised and which should not...

Suffering the slings and arrows

Nicky Campbell in The Guardian thinks the Tynecastle saga of recent times is like a Shakespearian tragedy (here):
"So extraordinary have been the twists of the tale, so dramatic the conflicts and so picaresque the dramatis personae that it transcends the parochial confines of the SPL and belongs on the main stage at Stratford-upon-Avon. Here is the reduced Shakespeare: power-hungry mystery man from far-off land inherits crumbling little kingdom and seduces all and sundry with the promise of glories beyond their wildest dreams.
He then callously discards one faithful lieutenant after another. One, the Falstaffian Foulkes, does see the writing on the wall and resigns his chairmanship but the true nature and terrifying scale of the ruler's monomania is, by then, unstoppable.
The final act has yet to be played out but we are on the edge of our seats. Like the Bard's best there are two enduring mysteries. Vladimir Romanov's motivation is as unfathomable as Hamlet's and the extent and shape of his finances are murkier than the mists of Elsinore.
What we do know is that he is laughing all the way to the bank - his own bank in Lithuania, which is where he has transferred the club's mighty debt and where it is now accruing interest. Never a lender or borrower be? Try being both. The Scottish Football Association has grave concerns. One insider told me "he is cute as hell all right".

But at least a Shakespearian tragedy has a denouement. The Hearts' tale of sound and fury will run and run.

15 February 2006

They know how to look after themselves (part 17)

From The Scotsman news website (here):
"SIX MSPs are set to go on a £2500 trip to Iceland - via the United States. The cross-party group are due to spend three days in Iceland on their way home from Tartan Week in America in April. They are expected to discuss renewable energy, tourism and fishing.
Parliament officials said it had been the practice in previous years to combine the Tartan Week trip to the US with a visit to another country - but in the past, that has meant crossing the border into Canada. This time, the MSPs, led by presiding officer George Reid, will fly to Iceland for a three-day stopover with an unspecified programme."

This fondness for junkets is reminiscent of certain West of Scotland councils. Do they have no shame? On second thoughts, obviously not.

We're all doomed...

Magnus Linklater writes in The Times about Gordon Brown:
"The truth is that he has never been at home with the so-called “Lanarkshire Labour” establishment and is regarded by it with deep suspicion. Unlike John Smith, who represented the Lanarkshire constituency of Monklands and could call on all the old council and party connections he needed, Mr Brown is an East Coaster, who cut his teeth on student politics at Edinburgh, where he was a firebrand rather than a party loyalist, an intellectual, not a hack. His tenure as student-rector of the university — a role in which I currently take the closest interest — was characterised by running battles with the academic hierarchy, and open warfare with its Vice-Chancellor. None of this would have recommended him in the eyes of a party machine that regarded organisation and discipline as the highest virtues.
When, therefore, it came to the leadership contest in 1994, Scottish MPs expressed their doubts about him, and Jack McConnell, now First Minister in Scotland, but then general secretary of the party, campaigned for Mr Blair — an act of betrayal that Mr Brown has never properly forgiven.
As Chancellor, he has done little, in Labour eyes, to bridge that gap. In Dunfermline, which is his political backyard, the number of Labour MPs who came to his aid during the by-election was remarkably small and in the aftermath of defeat there have been bitter recriminations from the Brown camp. He in turn has been accused by members of the Scottish party of overstepping the mark and attempting to impose policy over matters that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. "

All of this is true enough but it says more about the West of Scotland labour mafia than about Gordon Brown. The Lanarkshire power base of the Labour Party colluded in (if not actively promoted) the destruction of McLeish, another East coast politician. It has never been comfortable with intellectuals (or even people with a modicum of sense), so Wendy Alexander was sidelined. Donald Dewar was tolerated but sniped at from behind his back. But now the party in Scotland is dominated by the less than towering figures of McConnell, Jamieson, Kerr, McCabe and Curran, whose only interest lies in maintaining their access to Ministerial limos. Has any of these five ever had an original thought? Was any of them seen in Dunfermline recently? Only McConnell who went for a walk in the park rather than share a press conference with the Chancellor. I say this with a heavy heart but the Labour Party in Scotland now stands for mediocrity.

14 February 2006

Guns don't shoot people; vice-presidents do

Atrios explains it all (here):
"Things I've Learned Recently

Every conservative on the internet is an avid hunter and they've all been shot multiple times.
Shotguns aren't really guns, just toys.
You can't really hurt people with them, only animals.
It's standard hunter etiquette to yell and scream at your fellow hunters as they're stalking their prey.
The most dangerous place to be is behind the people with the guns.
And Dick Cheney was not drunk, so stop saying that."

Another cheap shot

The Parliament is on holiday this week. (Yes, again) Their full leave entitlement is set out on the website (here):
All dates inclusive:
24 December 2005 - 8 January 2006
11 - 19 February 2006
1 - 17 April 2006
1 July - 3 September 2006
7 – 22 October 2006
23 December 2006 – 7 January 2007

According to my sums, this amounts to 16 weeks for the calendar year 2006. But the poor dears work terribly hard, even when they are not in their Parliamentary offices. So let us have no muttering about the workshy.

Don't play with guns!

It's not the fact that Vice-President Cheney shot a fellow hunter. No, the fun lies in all the bizarre little details. The Times reports some of it:
"A spokesman for the Texas Rangers said: “The Secret Service are handling everything. When I call up and ask for information, people get weird with me.”

The Texas Rangers? They still exist?

"The White House press corps were turning their fire on Scott McClellan, the President’s spokesman. They were incredulous that the media had not been told sooner. He was accused of “totally ducking and weaving”, and “being a jerk”.
Mr McClellan, who is usually treated with more respect, pleaded with reporters not to yell at him, and implored them to “calm down”.

How unlike the UK reptiles and the press spokesman at No 10.

"According to her eye-witness account, Mr Cheney and Pam Willeford, the US Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, were approached from behind by Mr Whittington just as the Vice-President was turning to shoot. “Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good,” she said."

The US Ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein? How did she get involved?

"Mr Bush knows Mr Whittington from his days as Texas Governor. In 1999 he put him in charge of a commission regulating funerals. Eliza May, who had headed the commission, was then suing the state, saying she had been dismissed because she investigated a funeral-home chain owned by a friend of Mr Bush."

A commission regulating funerals? And what happened to the charmingly-named Eliza May?
"White House sources yesterday were unaware of any evidence that Mr Cheney may have consumed alcohol before the accident on Saturday. Mary Matalin, one of his advisers, said: “He was not careless or incautious. He didn’t do anything he wasn’t supposed to do.”

Like, you mean he was supposed to shoot one of his hunting buddies?


The Scotsman reports:
"ONE of the world's biggest and richest banks, which made a UK record profit of £10 billion last year, has been given £1 million in taxpayers' money to help it create jobs in Scotland, it emerged yesterday.
The Executive announced it was giving regional selective assistance (RSA) to HSBC to help it create 257 new fund management jobs in Edinburgh. That equates to nearly £4,000 a job. The award of such a large amount in government grants to a company with a net income of £28 billion - greater than the entire Scottish budget - sparked fierce criticism from opposition politicians.
Alex Neil, for the SNP, questioned the wisdom of giving that amount of money to a company that may well have brought the jobs to Scotland anyway.
And Colin Fox, the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, said Scots would find it incomprehensible" that so much taxpayers' money was being given to such a big, wealthy business. "

The jobs are to be located in Edinburgh Park and will be concerned with fund administration (rather than direct asset management). Leaving aside the legitimate question of whether HSBC would have set up in Edinburgh regardless of grant, my concern would be to wonder exactly what the Executive's grant will achieve. After all, Edinburgh and its hinterland already enjoy full employment (or as near as possible); and fund administration is a highly technical business, already well represented in Edinburgh. It seems inevitable, therefore, that the 257 jobs will mainly be filled by recruits switching from already existing jobs, making recruitment more difficult for all the companies involved in the business. It seems unlikely that there will be much if any actual job creation. In these circumstances, does the grant amount to more than a recruitment subsidy for HSBC, at the expense of other companies involved in the same business?

Only in The Guardian...

Guess which newspaper chose St Valentine's Day to consider the ethics of buying cut flowers?
"The true extent of the trade's environmental impact was only recently recognised officially. Figures released by Defra last November following parliamentary questions from Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson Norman Baker showed that almost 17,000 tonnes of flowers - worth £46.1m - were imported more than 4,000 miles from Kenya in 2004. Roses accounted for almost 5,000 tonnes of the imports. Overall, this signified a 83% increase in air-freighted flowers from Kenya in just four years. Baker has since calculated that this trade from Kenya leads to 33,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year - meaning that the transit of each flower creates far more than its own weight in CO2 pollution.
As long as labelling laws fail to insist that the country of origin be listed on flowers (don't be calmed by the sight of "Holland" as this may only indicate the location of the wholesaler), the only truly sustainable alternative is to show your affection to loved ones in other, more imaginative ways, or to carefully source seasonal, preferably organic, flowers grown in the UK, particularly bulb flowers. Of all the popular cut flowers, only daffodils are still celebrated for their seasonality and home-grown status, but other seasonal, domestic flowers include freesia, iris, roses, narcissi, tulips, delphiniums, solidaster, and chrysanthemums. Better still, buy a potted plant.

Not quite the same thing, however...

12 February 2006

The knives are out

Scotland on Sunday reports on the recriminations within the Labour Party over the by-election:
"Observers noted that on Friday morning, Jack McConnell declared the defeat had posed many questions for the "Fife Labour Party" to sort out.
"That was short-hand for Gordon Brown," said one Brownie. Allies of McConnell's were blunter - Labour had lost because of Brown's blunderbuss approach. The Chancellor's declaration that the £4 toll on the Forth Road Bridge was "dead in the water" and that a new bridge would be built both led to confusion, after McConnell insisted that neither decision had yet been made.
While McConnell's allies insisted that they were disappointed with the result, it was impossible not to detect a tone of quiet satisfaction too. "He tried to get his tanks on to Jack McConnell's lawn but the voters have taken away the gearbox and he has got stuck in reverse," said one of the First Minister's inner-circle deploying a rather tortuous metaphor.
The recriminations were reciprocated - in spades. For Brown's supporters, it was McConnell who had caused the damage, by not backing up the Chancellor. Brown had cleared his statements with the First Minister, they claim, only for McConnell to then disavow them the moment they were made public. Not only that, but McConnell stands accused of putting his precious coalition with the Liberals before the bare-knuckle war of by-election politics.
One Brownite declared: "There is a strong feeling among people in the campaign that Jack totally f***ed up the campaign. He stopped us being as aggressive as we would have liked to have been. He didn't want us to do anything that was devolved nor damage the coalition."

Is it not odd that the Labour Party (and the Labour Party in Scotland particularly), despite having brought devolution into being, seems to have the most difficulty in coming to terms with its practical implications? As evidence of this, ask yourself: how many Westminster Labour MPs are likely to campaign wholeheartedly in the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year? It seems much more likely that many of them would prefer the McConnell administration to be given a bloody nose. Certainly, the failure of Messrs Brown, Darling and McConnell to sit down together and sort out their lines in this byelection must have been a major contributory factor in the defeat. By contrast, the LibDems and the Conservatives seem much more comfortable with the distinction between Holyrood and Westminster.

10 February 2006

What is the world coming to (part 37)

Deeply dispiriting. The Independent reports:
"The new, faster-paced lifestyle of the Irish has led Guinness to experiment with a new reduced-strength pint of its famous stout.
The company promises that the new tipple, called Guinness Mid-Strength, is identical in every way to traditional Guinness, except that its alcohol content is significantly lower - 2.8 per cent rather than the regular 4.2 per cent.
The brewery says it is a new Guinness for a new age in which Irish men want to drink but also want to keep their wits about them for more hectic and exacting lifestyles."

This is as bad as diet irn-bru.

If you think you're hard enough...

The Guardian's city diary mocks the Chancellor's aversion to overcoats (here):
"Have you noticed that Gordon Brown never seems to wear a coat? Some Number 11 watchers insist this is a legacy of the chancellor's former spin doctor, Charlie Whelan, who believed that a striding, besuited figure provides watching cameras with the most appropriate image for an iron chancellor. In fact, so ludicrous does Mr Brown now regard coat-wearing, that at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Swiss mountain resort Davos last month he mercilessly mocked coated folk, insisting they were "soft". Today, however, Mr Brown heads for a G8 meeting of finance ministers in Moscow, possibly the ultimate test of his anti-coat policy. The temperature is forecast to be -17 degrees and City Diary agents - suitably wrapped up - will be watching the chancellor's wardrobe choices closely."

I would have thought that - on this morning especially - Mr Brown had rather more serious matters to worry about, being one of the big losers in yesterday's by-election. Joining him in misery will be Ms Stihler, the unsuccssful labour candidate who had to give up being an MEP in order to stand in the by-election and who now is neither MEP nor MP. An expensive loss for both.


Apparently, I have got it wrong. Ms Stihler remains an MEP and will be able to resume her career in the fleshpots of Brussels and Strasbourg. The Labour Party rules about having to resign a seat in order to contest another in a different parliament were "relaxed" on this occasion. See here.

09 February 2006

Catching the Westminster disease

Is there any real point to this exercise? From a Scottish Parliament press release:
"Governance and institutional management will be the focus of a ten day visit to Malawi by a cross party delegation of MSPs, organised by the Scotland Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). The programme of more than 50 engagements builds on the successful visit last year and hopes to establish the foundations for a fruitful and practical relationship with the National Assembly of Malawi.
MSPs Dr Sylvia Jackson (delegation leader), Murdo Fraser, K aren Gillon, Alex Neil, Mike Pringle, Mark Ruskell and Dr Jean Turner depart this afternoon for Malawi. During their visit, they will also look at issues regarding health, education, sustainability and enterprise."

"The delegation departs on Thursday 9 February, arriving back in Scotland on Tuesday 21 February. The total cost of the trip is expected to be in the region of £20,000 and will be met by the Scotland Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The delegation is booked to travel in economy class."

But even so, could they not find something more productive to spend their time on?

The Shirley McKie case

The basic facts of this case are set out in this Scotsman article:
"Specialists in the Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO) wrongly said that a print in the home of a murdered woman came from Ms McKie, who was part of the police inquiry team.
Mr McKie said the mistake was responsible "for sending my daughter to hell and back".
Meanwhile, Alex Neil, a Scottish National Party MSP, said that Cathy Jamieson, the justice minister, should "resign in disgrace" or be sacked over the incident.
On Tuesday, Ms McKie, a former Strathclyde Police detective, received a £750,000 out-of-court settlement in a damages action against the Scottish Executive, on behalf of the fingerprint bureau in the SCRO.
At Ms McKie's trial for perjury , doubt was cast on the evidence of the SCRO officers and the jury unanimously found her not guilty."

But basic facts are all we get from the article, notwithstanding the fact that one might expect The Scotsman to raise the roof about an Executive-funded settlement of £750,000.

The Herald does rather better, by including an op-ed piece on yesterday's outcome to the case:

"Two warring parties. Emotions running high. The reputation of the Scottish criminal justice system in the balance. Experts watching around the world. Time for an outbreak of Socratic wisdom from the Scottish Executive. Having chosen to take the case this far, it had, one presumed, all the answers to hand. But answers came there none. In a clear case of throw the money and run, the executive sent in its lawyer to magisterially dismiss the case as "an honest
mistake made in good faith" by the SCRO, and hand over £750,000 to Ms McKie. No admission of liability, just goodbye from me and goodnight from the Scottish Executive. It was a shabby end to a disturbing case. "

But, presumably for legal reasons, nowhere in the media is there any kind of detailed analysis of the implications of the case.

I readily confess that I don't know what is going on here. But Alex Neil is from the more sensible fringe of the SNP - for him to demand Ms Jamieson's resignation suggests that there is more to this than is obviously apparent. And, as a natural conspiracy theorist, I am always ready to believe the worst. But one thing seems to be reasonably clear - the Scottish media know more than they are saying.

Mr Floppy?

The Times is in no doubt about who won yesterday's bout of (metaphorical) fisticuffs at Prime Minister's Questions (here):

Mr Floppy gets it in neck for a flip remark

JUST one word. That’s all it took. David Cameron must be kicking himself, for yesterday he made his first big mistake at PMQs. He used the word “flip-flopping”.
It may not sound much but its utterance had an incendiary effect on the chamber. Labour MPs pounced on it like a howling pack of coyotes. Then Tony Blair did something to Mr Cameron that he has not managed to do before: he savaged him.
It was like watching the scene in a David Attenborough programme when the lion, which has been lolling in the grass for ages, finally gets off his haunches, runs like the wind, flies through the air and fastens his jaws into the flank of the wildebeest.
“Now we see the true nature of the Prime Minister,” David Attenborough would be whispering from behind some grassy hummock, “for there is ever only one true king of the jungle.”

In my opinion, the outcome was not quite so clear cut. But, as Mr Cameron has hitherto been given the benefit of any doubt in these jousts, perhaps the pendulum is over-compensating. In any event, what is the point of New Labour buttering up Murdoch if there is not some kind of reward at the end of the day?

08 February 2006

The need to be seen to be doing something

The Scottish Executive has announced (here):
"National knife amnesty
A national knife amnesty is to be held across the country in the spring, as part of on-going efforts to tackle knife crime and violence in Scotland.
The amnesty will begin on May 24 and will run for one month. It will also kick-start a 12 month Safer Scotland Anti-Violence Campaign by the Executive, Violence Reduction Unit and Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland to tackle the culture of violence in Scotland.
The amnesty has been sanctioned by the Lord Advocate - head of Scotland's prosecution system - who today also confirmed that the Crown Office and Prosecution Service is reviewing prosecution policy on knife crime to ensure the criminal justice system treats this problem with the seriousness it deserves."

OK, good idea. But this is February, not May. If I am a knife-carrying thug, what am I supposed to do between now and May? Put the knife in a drawer?

You are what you eat

More conflicting news about the impact of diet on health. The Times reports:
"A DIET high in fruit and vegetables and low in fat may be seen as the panacea for all ills, but research questions its effectiveness in tackling some of the deadliest diseases in women.
Three studies, as part of the Women’s Health Initiative study in the United States and involving 50,000 post-menopausal women, indicate that eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and low-fat foods does not reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and breast and bowel cancers. "

Whereas The Guardian states:
"Natural chemicals found in soya beans and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower boost the body's ability to repair damaged DNA and may prevent cells turning cancerous, scientists said yesterday.
Studies have suggested that eating vegetables appears to provide some protection against certain cancers, but until now the reason why has been a mystery. Researchers at Georgetown University in Washington DC believe the answer lies with two naturally occurring compounds. The first, indole-3-carbinol or I3C is abundant in vegetables including broccoli and cabbage, while the second, genistein, occurs naturally in soya beans. "

I do sometimes wish that scientists would make up their minds...

Tories jump in with both feet

The Scotsman reports the naming of the solicitor who ferried drugs into Barlinnie. What makes a young high-flying solicitor from Newton Mearns commit such an obvious crime? So far, she has kept silent about her motivation. No thoughts of discretion on the part of the Scottish Tories, however:
Margaret Mitchell MSP, the Scottish Tories' justice spokeswoman, said yesterday: "I am delighted this person has been named. What she did was huge breach of trust. She has betrayed their profession. It was right to name her."

I suspect that, when the full story comes out, Ms Mitchell may regret these remarks.

07 February 2006

Death and taxes - or maybe not taxes

This seems extraordinary to me. The Public Accounts Committee report on self assessment for income tax states:

"HM Revenue and Customs collects £16 billion a year from Income Tax Self Assessment and sends Income Tax Self Assessment forms to around 10 million taxpayers. The Department achieved its Public Service Agreement target of 90.6% of 2003–04 tax returns filed on time by the 31 January 2005 deadline.
It has a target to increase this to 93% by January 2008.
As at July 2004 some £1.1 billion of income tax was outstanding from 1.1 million overdue returns. Similarly in July 2005 around 1.1 million returns were overdue, some 240,000 taxpayers had two or more tax returns outstanding, and 10,000 had six returns outstanding."

10,000 people had six years of returns outstanding? What is HMRC doing? God knows, they have sufficient legal sanctions to enforce compliance. Why don't they chase them up? As one of the idiots who submits his annual return in good time, why do I bother?

Young women on the telly

Watching the 6pm news on BBC this evening, I was intrigued by the state of mind of Ms Natasha Kaplinski. Admittedly the news was not particularly cheerful, but did she have to be quite so torn-faced about it? Not for the first time, she seemed severely miffed about something. By contrast, her colleague - old Dermot - was his usual cheery self. If Ms Kaplinski doesn't want to read the news, perhaps she should give way to one of her colleagues who is prepared to evince a little more enthusiam.

By contrast, Gail - the Reporting Scotland weather girl - manages to convey even the most dismal weather forecast with something approaching optimism. She also successfully avoids the robotic staccato movements of her colleague, the otherwise irreproachable Heather the Weather. Young Gail manages to leave the viewer with the feeling that, even though the weather may be taking a turn for the worse, God's in his heaven and all 's right with the world.

Or maybe I'm just getting old...

Flags of convenience

The Guardian seeks to dispel the rumours about the sudden and convenient availability of Danish flags all over the Middle East (here):
"First, not all flags are equal: printing a design on to fabric is far easier, cheaper and quicker than sewing the various pieces together. "You could whizz up hundreds of printed flags in a matter of hours," says Judy Johnstone, of the UK flag manufacturer Portland. The Danish flag, an off-centred white cross on a red background, would be much quicker to improvise than, say, the flag of Montserrat, which features a woman in a long flowing green dress holding a crucifix and a harp. Additionally, judging by the photos, a number of protesters have got the flags wrong: one looked Swiss, one looked wobbly, and several (according to the flag-obsessed blog Vexillarium, at vexillarium.blogspot.com) are "technically ... flags of the French province of Savoy". Much as the demonstrations seem to have been at least partially organised, everything about these flags smacks of improvisation."

06 February 2006

Hadden and Mowbray - a class apart

What alchemy do successful coaches practise? How do they turn ordinary players into heroes? Even more mystically, how do they construct an effective team? And how do they do it with so many fewer resources than their competitors?

It's a mystery. But, however they do it, it is pleasing to record that - for this past weekend at least - we have two of them in Edinburgh.

Don't go here


05 February 2006


Scotland on Sunday is not impressed with either the First Minister's intellect:
"Our Chancellor and First Minister are not of a type. Brown surrounds himself with the best and brightest, confident he will always be the smartest person in the room; McConnell cannot take the risk, and so employs Andy Kerr. Brown likes to wrestle with theoretical abstractions, tossing them to and fro in that great brain of his; McConnell gives the impression he wrestles only with his weight. Where the Chancellor recruits Alan Greenspan as an adviser, the First Minister showboats with the ludicrous Donald Trump. Like Greenspan and Trump, the men are several degrees of seriousness apart. Add to that their intense personal dislike for one another, and you have an explosive mix."

or his strategic vision:
"...the problem is this: while McConnell is tactically astute, the winner of a thousand tiny victories, he is strategically inept. He has, time and again, proven himself unable to think beyond short-term interests to longer-term consequences. This is not unusual in politicians - in a way, Tony Blair suffers from the same problem - but the more self-aware will surround themselves with people who do the strategy for them. Blair has an army of them. In contrast, McConnell's inner circle has shrunk to such an extent that it is now widely held to include just two people - his media adviser, Douglas Campbell, and Rachel McEwan, a young special adviser who has worked for the Labour Party all her adult life. Neither is a strategist, or has the heft to stand up to the First Minister's crazier schemes. His cabinet colleagues were not consulted about his new anti-Westminster stance, and the more unionist among them are deeply unhappy about it."

This is deeply unfair. Just because Mr McConnell is not the brightest penny in the cash-box, he does not deserve to be treated this way. Think of all his achievements as First Minister...

04 February 2006

Way to go...

This story in The Times is mainly about unpaid bills allegedly owed by the songwriter Etienne Roda-Gil (of Joe le taxi fame) but what struck me was how he seems to have led a really nice life:
"The son of a schoolteacher, he moved to Montparnasse when he grew rich and became a regular customer at the brasserie, where meals cost about €36, and at the next door restaurant where they cost about €75. The lyricist would meet his friends for a double whisky on the rocks followed usually by a steak tartare or jambon iberico jabugo. He once claimed that he wrote his finest lyrics on the back of a matchbox there. But La Closerie des Lilas says that he rarely carried cash, a chequebook or credit card, and that it sent the bill to his house around the corner every few months.
When he died of a brain haemorrhage, reportedly in the arms of a woman, €30,000 was outstanding, the brasserie says. "

Could anyone ask for more?

Gie's a break!

The Independent - of all the media - chooses to give us chapter and verse on Greyfriars Bobby:
"A gardener discovered the little dog lying by the grave, and shooed him away. Bobby refused to budge. The gardener redoubled his efforts, without success. Storms, wind and hail would not shift the canine horizontale from his faithful watch over his master's remains.
Eventually, the gardener gave up his curses and imprecations, and put some sacking down beneath two tablestones beside Gray's grave. There Bobby would sleep every night, and most of every day - and there he continued to live, beside his first and only master, for 14 years, looked after and fed by kind neighbours and local children, until he died in 1872."

The reason is of course the new movie, backed up by the battalions of the tourist/heritage industry. But is this kitsch how we want Scotland to be seen abroad?
"On Tuesday, the great and good will be at Vue Edinburgh Omni Cinema for the premiere, then mill around Edinburgh Castle. Representatives of charities will press the flesh with city fathers.
And the simple story of a dog who chose to hang around a grave plot for 14 years will be given a spring clean and a new paint job for a new generation.
Why do they keep doing it? Because the story appeals to people who long to believe human beings are essentially loveable creatures deep down and that, for just once in history, there seemed to be proof that an animal shared this optimistic point of view. It's probably sentimental baloney of course. But we'll go on believing it as long as we can."

Don't it make you want to barff?

03 February 2006

What do psychologists know?

The Scotsman reports some rather improbable news for bloggers:
"Blogging is good for you

Revealing your feelings on the internet is good for you, according to psychologists.
They gave their seal of approval after nearly half of 2,000 people surveyed said they believed their blogs - or online diaries - helped them get through life, as it allowed them to relax."

Relax? Do they know nothing of the trauma when Blogger is down and you have a good post ready to go? And what about the anguish of knowing that two of your three readers are away on holiday? And the depression caused by some other blogger posting the same brilliant thought that had already occurred to you?

"Blogging is good for you"? Get real.

The Russians are coming!

Is Gazprom going to take over Centrica which owns British Gas (and Scottish Gas)? The Guardian implies that the Government might seek to block it:
Russian plans to seize control of a major part of Britain's gas supply industry hardened last night when Gazprom revealed that a bid for British Gas's parent group Centrica was "possible".
Alexander Shkuta, deputy chairman of Gazprom's export business, Gazexport, said a takeover of Centrica, which has 12 million gas customers, was being "analysed and investigated".
The statement triggered alarm in government circles, but in the City it sent shares in Centrica racing 25% at one stage before they closed 11% higher at 300p, adding nearly £1bn to its market capitalisation - it is now valued at nearly £11bn.
The Russian state-owned Gazprom has recently tarnished its image by cutting off gas supplies to the Ukraine over a pay row; it was seen by some as a move by the Kremlin to punish a former ally that had drifted towards Washington.
The Department of Trade and Industry said last night that any new ownership at Centrica would face robust scrutiny and that "security of energy supply to the UK's consumers is paramount".

On the other hand, The Independent suggests that the DTI is taking a rather different line:
"The Department of Trade and Industry and Centrica deny talks have taken place about how the Government would respond in the event that Gazprom decided to bid. The 2003 Enterprise Act allows ministers to intervene in mergers if there is an "exceptional public interest".
But a spokeswoman for the DTI said: "This would only apply if there was an issue of national security. A takeover or merger involving Centrica would be a matter for the independent competition regulators, Ofgem and the Office of Fair Trading."

I suppose that this means that DTI does not yet have a policy on what to do if Gazprom strikes. Which seems extraordinary.

02 February 2006

Some things are important...

I urge you to read all of this post, only part of which I am prepared to quote. It is here.
"The contributors and most of the commenters to this site actively defend the free speech rights of fanatics, bigots, blasphemers and pornographers. Where the shield wall falters, that is where we go to fight. I think we have the right to be proud of that.
But I wonder if even we do not still have our sacred cows - sacred cows that need to be slaughtered.
I am fully aware that the disclosure I am about to make may cause outrage even among people who think of themselves as absolutists when it comes to free speech. I must apologise in advance to Perry and the others who have extended me the hospitality of this site for what may seem to be an abuse of it. I realise that there are some people who may think that, having said in public what I am about to say, they can never associate with me again. Forgive me. I feel I have to say this."

Russell Square.

They do look after themselves...

Yesterday's written parliamentary questions included this gem (here):

Carolyn Leckie (Central Scotland) (SSP): To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body by how much it has subsidised the members’ dining room to date and what subsidy it will provide in future.
Kenny MacAskill: The members’ restaurant is available to all passholders on a Monday and Friday and is also used to host official functions and events. The bar area is accessible to all passholders.
The estimated total subsidy across all the Parliament’s catering outlets between August 2004 and December 2005 is around £650,000. It is not possible to give a precise figure for the members’ restaurant, since some costs are generic, but we estimate around £100,000. This has been calculated by apportioning to the members’ restaurant a percentage of the total cost of labour and other overheads of all catering services.
The future subsidy will be determined by usage, service level and tariff policy. Whilst usage is beyond our control, a business decision is taken by the SPCB to set the tariff, which determines the income, and service levels, which control one of the costs. Usage aside, the subsidy is driven by and controlled by that business decision. While we will keep these matters under review, we have no current plans to make major changes and subsidy is likely to continue at broadly the same level.
This raises a number of other questions:

1. Why is the catering subsidised at all? And, note, the subsidy is described as a subsidy rather than as some kind of operating loss, implying at least an element of pre-planning. And MSPs from out of town are in any case able to claim meals on their parliamentary expenses. The MSPs are on decent salaries, so why should they be fed and watered from the public trough?

2. A subsidy of £100,000 on the members' restaurant seems excessive: there are only 129 MSPs and they are only in Parliament for a maximum of three days a week, less the 16 weeks annual holiday they award themselves. By my calculations, this works out to a subsidy to the members' restaurant of nearly £1000 per working day or, assuming they all ate there, about £8 per MSP per working day (for catering!).

3. The final paragraph of the answer is just nonsense. Like any catering organisation, the service should be able to estimate their future costs and usage, and then work out a tariff to cover those costs, taking account of the proposed subsidy. OK, the final outcome may involve an unexpected profit or a loss, but unless you estimate future income and expenditure, you have no hope of managing the financial side of the operation.
And, if the SPCB sets the tariff without an estimate of usage - as implied by the answer - then they are in serious soapy bubble.

Does the SPCB know what it is doing? Silly question...

Well done to Ms Leckie for asking the question. I hope she pursues the matter.

Too sexy for the party

The Independent reports what seems to be good news for the Tories:
"He has been accused of having a "face like a pudding" and scathingly referred to as Tony Blair Lite, but David Cameron has got one up on the Prime Minister, at least in the eyes of the female electorate.
For the Tory leader appears in a list of the world's sexiest men compiled by New Woman magazine, alongside Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Jake Gyllenhaal.
The Tory leader will no doubt be pleased by the absence of Mr Blair from the 100-strong list, which contains no other politicians."


"More than 10,000 women voted for their pin-ups in the survey in March's edition of the magazine, which placed Mr Cameron in 92nd place."

Only 92nd?

01 February 2006


The Guardian reports:
"The Home Office yesterday became the first Whitehall department in living memory to present accounts to parliament that were delivered so late and so flawed that the National Audit Office is unable to tell MPs whether they are correct.
The department, which spends £13bn a year of taxpayers' money, will be hauled before parliament to explain "spectacular" errors and a failure by senior management under Sir John Gieve, the former permanent secretary and now deputy chairman of the Bank of England, to put together proper accounts. The report by Sir John Bourn, the comptroller and auditor general, reveals that two versions of the accounts from the Home Office were presented to the NAO which were so different that no single account balance was the same.
Adjustments amounting to £946m were made between the two accounts and the auditors do not know whether the second set - presented just before Christmas - are accurate.
The findings mean that auditors cannot say whether the Home Office has been defrauded although the department insisted yesterday that it believed the latest accounts were accurate.
The report says: "The accounts were riven with numerous inaccuracies." The figures were so disparate that one set says the Home Office overspent by £68m while the second set said the Treasury owed the Home Office £112m, a difference of £180m."

There was a time when a permanent secretary, through his or her role as an "accounting officer", could be held personally responsible - even liable - for the propriety of financial goings on in his or her department. Nowadays, they just seem to get promoted.