31 March 2006

Re-inventing wheels

The Herald reports on the travails of the Executive's new personnel computer system:
"The multi-million pound flagship IT project on which ministers are relying for their public sector efficiency drive is in crisis and could be scrapped, The Herald has learned. The programme to computerise personnel services across all Scottish Executive civil service departments prompted concern among MSPs on the Holyrood finance committee last year when it was costed at £7m. Now, with costs continuing to rise and doubts over whether the whole "e-HR Transformation Project" is now deliverable, an internal investigation has been launched in private, headed by a senior civil servant from the Crown Office. The crisis is an embarrassment for Tom McCabe, minister for finance and public service reform, who, like his predecessor, Andy Kerr, vowed Scotland would more than match Whitehall efficiency savings under the Gershon review. After merging 26 computer systems into one, the new e-HR set-up was meant to allow senior civil servants to see at a glance what staff were available and with which skills in order to deploy them into new policy areas...Now, it is understood the cost is already above £8m, the figure it was meant to contribute to efficiency savings. It also joins a list of government IT projects across the UK that have run into problems or failed to make predicted savings."

A personnel system? Why on earth did the Executive need to develop its own personnel computer system? Every sizeable organisation in the world has a personnel computer system but none of them was good enough for the Executive. Every computer software house in the world will sell you an already-developed personnel system but no, the Executive had to develop its own.

30 March 2006

More political games

The BBC website has announced:
"Scottish Enterprise has been told it must not abolish its network of 12 local enterprise companies (Lecs) as part of the organisation's shake-up.
In a statement to parliament the enterprise minister said he supported restructuring plans but wanted to ensure local decision-making remained.
The jobs agency, which is in financial difficulty, had intended to replace the network with local advisory boards.
Unions have warned that the restructure could lead to up to 100 job cuts.
Enterprise Minister Nicol Stephen also confirmed the agency would use money from next year's budget to plug a £30m deficit."
As it happens, Holyrood Chronicles has received a leaked document of what purports to be the transcript of a meeting between the Chairman and Chief Executive of Scottish Enterprise which took place last October:

Chairman: Thanks for coming, Jack. I'm a bit worried about the expenditure forecasts for the current year. It seems that, if we keep spending as planned, we might exceed our budget for the current year.
Chief Executive: Not a chance John - it's all under control. But we've got to make the Scottish Executive think that not only will we bust our budget for 2005-06, but we will also over-commit for 2006-07.
Chairman: But Jack and Nicol will be very upset?
Chief Executive: Of course they will. But unless we play this game, we will be stuck with the budget which the Executive has allocated to us for next year - and that won't allow us to do the things that we need to do. So, in terms of the expenditure papers for next month's board, we have to show an over-commitment for both the current year and for the next.
Chairman: But the Executive sees our board papers as soon as we do. They'll insist that we make cuts.
Chief Executive: Look, our board papers go to the Department. You know that Executive officials don't understand spreadsheets. By the time they work out what's happening and then inform Ministers, it will be the New Year. And, then, Ministers will agonise for at least two months before they decide to do something. I reckon that it will be March next year before they come back to us demanding cuts. And, by then, it will be too late...
Chairman: But they might still insist that we make cuts for next year?
Chief Executive: Indeed. But then we pull the usual trick. I know we've done it before but they always fall for it. We simply threaten to cut the bits of our expenditure programme that Ministers and their backbenchers like, such as the business gateway.
Chairman: Jack and Nicol are not stupid - they'll know what we're up to.
Chief Executive: Of course they will. But they also know that every other quango is doing the same thing. And, anyway, they will end the financial year with a massive underspend of £400 to £500 million, like every year in recent times. So it's no real skin off their noses...
Chairman: But what about our plan to shift our focus to the metropolitan areas?
Chief Executive: Well the extra cash for next year will allow us to throw a bone or two to the rural areas, which will keep the LibDems happy. But because the Executive is in thrall to the both the LibDem and Labour backbenches, chances are that we may have to retain the LEC network. But underneath the formal structure, we can progress our ideas for a greater focus on developing the cities. And we know that Jack McConnell really doesn't care either way...
I rather doubt if this is an accurate transcription...

Great chocolate, shame about the country

The following story in The Independent is only partly correct. It is indeed true that Belgian chocolate is among the best in the world:
"Some time ago, a uniformed US Air Force officer from Nato headquarters arrived at Passion Chocolat, a tiny chocolatier in a suburban Brussels street, and threw staff into a panic by asking for 40 boxes of chocolate.
Their efforts to accommodate him were rewarded a few weeks later with a thank-you note - from the White House.
The popularity of Passion Chocolat is just one example of how Belgian chocolate is taking the world by storm. Set up in her own home by a widow with four children, the shop has become such a symbol of success that the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, took its chocolates on a trade mission to the US."
The idea that Belgian staff went into panic because they might not be able to satisfy a customer is patently false. Belgian shop assistants do not do panic, least of all because of customers and certainly not because of non-Belgian customers. If they have not got enough chocolate, they will simply say so, usually in the most off-hand manner. They don't care if you want to buy 40 (or 400) boxes of chocolate. Whereas UK supermarkets will open up checkouts if there are more than three people queueing, Belgian supermarkets are the only ones in the world which will close down checkouts if there is insufficient queueing.

Btw, of all Belgian choccies, I recommend Leonidas.

Update: I totally exempt from the above criticism the delightful ladies in the wonderful bakers at the top of the Rue de Tongres in Brussels.

High finance (or maybe low finance)

I know, I know, the economists tell us that it is OK to sell off British companies and that foreign bids for the likes of BOC, BAA and P&O will not necessarily damage our economy. But I still get a bit worried when I read stuff like this in The Independent:
"The banking sector seems destined to become the latest target for foreign predators seeking British prey. Even Royal Bank of Scotland, valued at a mountainous £58.5bn, doesn't seem too big a beast to hunt, such is the fevered state of imagination among traders in attempting to spot the next big one.
Possible? Well maybe, though perhaps only Citigroup would be both big and unencumbered enough in terms of its overlapping interests to mount such a monster bid. None the less, it shouldn't altogether be discounted. UK plc appears to be up for sale and, in these markets, no one's too large to remain immune, even such a stalwart of the British banking system as RBS.
Rather more credible, however, are the smaller fry, and particularly the mortgage bank Alliance & Leicester, which has been on the radar screen for bids for as long as anyone can remember. As our story on page 58 reports, A&L has already had one approach, pitched at a putative £13 a share, from Crédit Agricole of France. If this were to break cover, Banco Santander wouldn't be long in following suit. They might even bid jointly."

And my worries are far from assuaged when I read stuff like this in The Guardian:
"Finally, there is the matter of whether the liberal approach actually works. It definitely works for the movers and shakers of the financial sector, though it is harder to find evidence of benefits to the economy as a whole. Take the question of research and development, a subject close to Gordon Brown's heart. One of the arguments against foreign takeovers in the 1980s was that they would turn Britain into a screwdriver economy, with R&D taking place back at company HQ in Detroit or Osaka. The government's latest data seems to bear out these fears. More than 50% of the UK's R&D is accounted for by just two sectors - pharmaceuticals and aerospace - and they just happen to be the two in which the government retains some control through the NHS and the Ministry of Defence. In other sectors, Britain is nowhere.
Work by Karel Williams and his colleagues at Manchester University has shown that big mergers and takeovers have had no impact on company performance. Over the past 25 years sales and profits of FTSE 100 companies have risen by about 3% a year - broadly in line with the growth rate of the economy - but salaries in the boardroom have gone up by 25% a year. Where share prices have gone up, it is not usually the result of a new broom sweeping clean but more often of lower interest rates and irrational exuberance...
Modern Britain is a Shangri-la for speculators in which firms are there to be bundled up and bought and sold. Keynes warned us many years ago: "Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise ... But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a byproduct of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done."
So how well is the job being done? Here's a test. Which country out of Germany, France and the UK has seen manufacturing output stagnate since 1997 and is now running a trade deficit of 6% of GDP? Clue: it's not Germany. Or France."

I appreciate that the UK may nevertheless - at least for now - be doing better than France or Germany in terms of economic growth and of employment. But should we be concerned about the overall picture?

Now there's a surprise...

The Herald reports that the Scottish Executive - predictably - is allowing itself to be screwed once again:
"Ministers are poised to bail out Scottish Enterprise, the jobs quango, but will attach stringent conditions to the cash. Nicol Stephen, the Liberal Democrat enterprise minister, will today make a statement to parliament about the agency. By approving funding for too many projects, the agency went £30m over budget in 2005-06 and is set to overspend by £40m in the coming financial year. The crisis forced it to cut money for a large number of projects, alarming MSPs about possible job losses in their constituencies. Mr Stephen is expected to signal that the Scottish Executive is willing to give the agency more money to help it cope with its budget crisis."
So much for all the tough talking (see here) of only yesterday. What happened to the 'pretty bloody firm hand on the tiller'?

Allowing themselves to be so easily outmanoeuvred in this way is sheer incompetence on the part of Ministers. And it doesn't say much for their officials.

29 March 2006

Modern demographics

The Evening News reports on a welcome development:
"THE influx of Polish immigrants to the Capital has risen to more than 20,000, with specialist bars and clubs springing up to cater for the growing workforce.
Officials estimate there has been a 400 per cent rise in the number of Poles living in the city in only ten months.
The fresh arrivals are settling across Edinburgh, but the Leith area is proving the most popular location to live. Many are working in the hospitality industry in pubs, hotels and restaurants, with the construction and agriculture sectors also attracting a swathe of recruits.
The invasion has prompted the opening of the Cenzor Bar in York Place, complete with retro decor drawn from Communist-era Poland. Three Polish delis are also enjoying good business selling authentic foodstuffs, while off-licences have begun stocking more of the nation's lager."

Nice to see that the entire article contains not even a hint of criticism. And my fellow citizens seem to have absorbed the influx with no fuss whatsoever.

Holyrood in disgrace

I now have confirmation of my opinion that MSPs simply do not drink enough. Here, in the Evening News:
"THE red leather armchairs, matching sofa and new lighting were meant to attract more custom from the nation's lawmakers ready to quench their thirsts after a hard day at Holyrood.
But the £25,000 makeover of the MSPs' bar at the Scottish Parliament has been a total failure, increasing business by a paltry £1 per day.
The new furniture, which also included blinds and rugs, was intended to create more of a "gentlemen's club" atmosphere.
But the income from the bar in the five months since the refurbishment totalled £10,859 - just £169 more than for the same period the previous year.
And the figures for the adjoining MSP-only restaurant show an even worse picture - a fall in income of nearly £12,000."

Westminster would be ashamed if any of its myriad bars failed to generate income of more than £2,170 per month. Our MSPs must try harder.

Oil and water

According to The Times (here), the Demos thinktank believes that UK politicians are a bit, well, uncultured:
"Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy, a study by the think-tank Demos, calls for politicians to show their support for British culture by “publicly embracing” artistic pursuits.
It recommends that Tony Blair could start by following his opposite number in France, Dominique de Villepin, in writing and publishing poetry, and says that British politicians are shamed by their counterparts in Europe.
M Villepin has written several collections of poetry, as well as a prize-winning biography of Napoleon and essays on France with titles such as The Cry of the Gargoyle. He also collects African and Asian art.
On becoming Prime Minister, he observed that “a single verse by Rimbaud shines like a powder trail on a day’s horizon. It sets it ablaze all at once, explodes all limits, draws the eyes to other heavens.”
If M de Villepin had spent a little less time on Rimbaud, he might not be presiding over a country where 3 million took to the streets yesterday - and I don't suppose that they were celebrating poetry.

There are some things that don't mix. British politicians and culture are an obvious example. As Herman Goering is alleged to have said: "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver".

The thirst for retribution

From The Scotsman (here):
"SCOTLAND'S "smoking police" are investigating at least 28 reported breaches of the ban on lighting up in public places.
The Scottish Executive's national smoking ban compliance hotline received 87 calls up until midnight on Monday, 28 of which were to complain about alleged flouting of the new law.
While compliance appeared to be holding strong, councils continued to take a "softly-softly" approach to enforcing the ban.
No fines were issued in the first 48 hours of the ban, while only one council, Renfrewshire, has opted to issue warning letters to premises for non-compliance. "

Obviously, the media will not be happy until some poor sod gets done.

History to be repeated as farce

Bearing in mind the financial difficulties of Scottish quangos, do you think that this saga might be repeated? From The Herald (here):
"Ministers have bailed out VisitScotland after the costs of its restructuring last year leapt 48% over budget. It emerged yesterday that the cost of closing the 14 area tourist boards (ATBs) to create a unified network was £7.4m. The original target was £5m. The Scottish Executive has agreed to fill the gap, leaving the agency breaking even."

Where was the hand on the tiller?

Nautical analogies don't cut the mustard

According to The Herald, Scottish Executive "sources" are claiming that Ministers are still in control of the situation with regard to the financial difficulties of Scottish Enterprise:
"Mr Stephen is understood to have been pressured by MSPs to give an account before the two-week parliament break for Easter this Friday. In recent weeks politicians of all parties have become increasingly alarmed that SE will cut funding for small businesses and training in their constituencies.A source close to the minister denied there had been any indecision over SE: "There's a pretty bloody firm hand on the tiller and they're going to move forward and sort this out."
Just because there may be a firm hand on the tiller does not mean that the ship will avoid the rocks. But the idea that Mr Stephen (all set for his holidays - see here) will supply that "pretty bloody firm hand" is not very convincing. Whatever his other virtues, Mr Stephen simply does not do firm hands on the tiller.

Honest, it wisnae me...

Simon Jenkins in The Guardian tells it like it is (here):
"Don't give them an inch. Not one inch. They are a bunch of knaves. They have taken your power, abused it, and now they are after your money. Don't let them. I refer of course to Britain's political parties. They have been caught with their fingers in the till. They have broken the law on the sale of peerages and refuse to admit it or take the consequences. Government ministers have spent two weeks telling lies.
The Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 could not be clearer. The penalty for accepting "any gift" for even "assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a title" is two years in the slammer. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is equally clear. Any gift over £5,000 is declarable, including loans at preferential rates. In addition, any "financial connection" to a party, including a loan, must be declared by a prospective peer.
Nor is that the half of it. The response of the parties to being caught would disgrace a con man in the Old Kent Road. They have said that everyone breaks the law, so who cares? They have said that no one is discussing it in the Dog and Duck. They have said that other countries are worse. They have declared it grossly unfair to deny a peerage to a party donor since he might also be a genuine philanthropist or former flatmate of the prime minister (the Falconer defence).
Not content with this hogwash, they now claim to have a wizzo scheme for curing the problem that they say does not exist. It is for taxpayers to give them the money instead. That way they can stop (not) selling membership of the House of Lords. And if anyone is so cynical as to think they ever did, they have another wizzo scheme to stop them from (not) doing so. It is to let them control peerages in other ways, but the same."

Despite all this, does anyone seriously believe that any of the "knaves" will be prosecuted? And they wonder why the people have become cynical about politics...

28 March 2006

Flying the saltire

In The Guardian, Simon Hoggart's interest in army kilts leads him to bemoan the Scottish influence in the UK Government:
"A flip through any MPs' guide will show you how completely the Scots are taking over.
They have four cabinet members, plus the Labour party chairman. They have the leader of the Liberal Democrats, and are likely to have the premiership - when and if Tony Blair's fingers can be prised away. Scottish MPs often change English law, even though they can't vote on the self-same measures as they apply to Scotland.
It is almost impossible for any English person to become a Scottish MP (I can find only the MP for Edinburgh North, and his name is Lazarowicz), but at least 22 Scots sit for English seats. They run the place.
And make the bloody kilts in Belarus, that's what I say."
Actually there are five Scots in the cabinet (Brown, Darling, Reid, Falconer and Des Browne), not including the party chairman (McCartney) nor Douglas Alexander (who is not a member but who attends cabinet).

27 March 2006

Holyrood 2011

The Rt Hon Sir Jack McConnell MSP sat on the back benches of the Holyrood Chamber, listening idly to First Minister Andy Kerr making the usual horlicks of his answers to the questions from the bright young things of the SNP front bench. There were times, he thought, when he did not regret having been forced in 2009 to resign as a Minister, even if the press did make an awful fuss over spending a couple of weeks in that businessman's villa in Sardinia. Just because of that motorway contract. Oh well, he thought, at least he did not have to spend two days every week preparing clever answers which when on his feet he immediately forgot; and then having to bluster his way through FMQs. He even thought fondly of Nicola who had lost her seat at the 2007 elections and who was now BBC Scotland's favourite political pundit.
In any case, he was no longer in tune with the New Scottish Labour Party. Sure, he had gone along with the smoking ban in 2006 - it was, after all, smart politics. The ban was an idea whose time had come and it was easier to ride the wave rather than resist it. But, although he had never really been a smoker, he had never been fanatical about the ban.
But the latest proposals to ban Scottish pubs from serving spirits or strong beer were a step too far. Jack had always thought that there was nothing wrong with occasionally getting outside of half a bottle of Bacardi, particularly if Bridget wasn't about. But the latest intake of Labour MSPs were re-running the arguments about the health of the nation. Since the punters no longer suffered from lung cancer, cirrhosis of the liver had started climbing the death certificate charts. And, anyway, Jack's influence on the health fascists on the front bench had rather waned since that unfortunate episode when setting up the twinning arrangement with Lithuania; how was Jack supposed to know how many vodka toasts were appropriate?
The health service had yet to show any real improvement in waiting times - damn consultants again! Scottish Enterprise was contemplating yet another re-organisation. The completion date for the rail links to Edinburgh and Glasgow airports had yet again been put back. The parliamentary roof was leaking again. Nothing ever seemed to go right.
Meanwhile, as long-serving Minister for Justice, Cathy had been captured by the law and order brigade, doing whatever the civil servants and the police told her. Did Scotland really need five new privately run prisons, Jack wondered. And allowing traffic wardens and environmental wardens to impose £500 fines on people unable to produce their identity cards seemed excessive. And he was far from sure that the abolition of the Parole Board was a good idea. Jack smiled to himself - to think that Cathy used to be a socialist!
No, all in all, Jack thought that it was better to keep his head down. OK, Bridget was still unhappy about the loss of access to Bute House, although being able to call herself Lady Bridget was a small consolation. But life wasn't so bad. He and McLetchie still played golf once a month. And Annabel - such a sensible woman - was always willing to stand her round in the Parliamentary bar at lunchtime. And, at last, the media no longer seemed to care when or where he went on holiday...

I'll stick to traditional square sausage

From The Times (here):
"A HEALTHY form of bacon, ham and even pork scratchings could soon be available after the cloning of pigs genetically modified to produce beneficial fats.
The piglets have been enhanced with a gene from a nematode worm to give their meat up to five times the normal level of omega 3 fatty acids."

Erm, no thanks - worm genes don't really tickle my taste buds.

And anyway it was only last week that we learned that Omega 3 is not the dietary be-all and end-all (here).

Wine whine

The Independent reveals the contents of the Foreign Secretary's wine cellar:
"Following a question tabled by the Tory frontbencher Theresa Villiers, right, Straw has admitted that the Government's hospitality wine cellar, run by the Foreign Office, currently owns more than half a million pounds-worth of booze.
In response to Villiers' query on the estimated value of government alcohol stocks, the Foreign Secretary's official response reads as follows: " The cellar contains a mixture of fine and beverage wines, spirits, liqueurs and beers. The cellar contains just under 35,000 bottles. The current estimated value is approximately £640,000." Not enough to buy you a peerage, you might say, but certainly a hefty sum which the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury feels could be better spent elsewhere."

I'm not convinced. 35,000 bottles with a total value of £640K equals less than £20 a bottle. Given that we are not talking Bute House (see here) and that the FCO has to entertain seriously important people like Condi (see here), this kind of wine cellar might seem rather cheapskate, even allowing for the fact that that there might be some very good stuff among the Liebfraumilch and Lambrusco...

Show it again

Gary Imlach in The Independent has the splendid idea of TV resurrections of historic sports events (here):
"... if there's room in the ever-expanding schedules for regular reruns of Steptoe and Son, Porridge and - God help us - Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, then why not great sporting events?
OK, the endings been given away in advance, but that leaves us free to concentrate on the beauty and the brilliance, the strength and the courage. By the time he died, George Best's career had been reduced to a short, repeating loop of the same half-dozen moments. Muhammad Ali will go out in a quick-cut sequence of shuffles and rhyming boasts.
But I want to see the way great players turned whole games; the full 12-round onslaught, not the final flurry of punches and a raised arm."

We can all think of sports events we'd like to see again: the 1990 Scotland-England grand slam match, any Wimbledon final with Evonne Goolagong, the 1974 (I think) Brazil-Scotland world cup match, the Llanelli-All Blacks match in the early 1970s, Dick MacTaggart's gold medal fight, all of which are gathering dust in the BBC's vaults.

I just do not want to see the 1966 World Cup final again.

26 March 2006

Junket Jack?

Scotland on Sunday complains about the First Minister's wanderlust:
"HELLO? The lights are on at the Scottish Executive, but is anyone at home? The globe-trotting proclivities of Jack McConnell, Scotland's nomadic First Minister, have increasingly drawn criticism from his political opponents. Next week his absence in the United States will be complemented by his Lib Dem deputy, Nicol Stephen, who is going abroad on a family holiday.
So, who will be in charge? Will there be a dangerous power vacuum, or will we find we are better governed with both men out of the country? We should not indulge in knee-jerk, Calvinist denunciation of all McConnell's overseas travel. A stay-at-home First Minister would miss opportunities for promoting Scotland.
But Jack seems to lack a sense of moderation. The Queen went to Australia to attend the Commonwealth Games for three days; the First Minister stayed far longer, and then stopped off for a Nixon moment in China at the end of his nine-day sojourn."

This is grossly unfair. If Mr McConnell hadn't gone to Melbourne, then the Scottish team would never have won all those medals.

25 March 2006

Paranoia strikes deep

The Independent reports:
"When you've held uninterrupted power for almost half a century, a dash of paranoia and self-indulgence is inevitable. Which is why, presumably, Fidel Castro has his underwear burnt after use, and sends aides across the Atlantic to spend a small fortune on Spanish cured ham.
Such are the latest details on the world's longest surviving head of state and government, as provided by one of his former personal assistants, Delphin Fernandez. The picture that emerges is of a man obsessed with his health, his security and with personal details of foreign businessmen planning to invest in Cuba."

Doesn't everyone burn their underpants after use?

Papering over the cracks

Is there still a common market? The Independent reports on the outcome of the latest Brussels summit:
"European leaders have backed plans to forge a common energy policy but failed to quell fears that the EU's single market could fall victim to a new wave of protectionism.
A summit in Brussels ended without direct confrontation over claims that France and Spain are preventing firms from other EU countries from entering their energy markets. It also failed to back the creation of a pan-European energy regulator, promising only better co-ordination of existing national regulation.
Yesterday's declaration is designed as a first step towards protecting the EU's citizens from future crises by pooling resources and using EU negotiating muscle on world energy markets. The leaders promised to fulfil their pledge to liberalise the EU energy sector by 2007, and the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, argued: "We are on the right track in Europe. There is no time to lose."

Promises, promises. Protectionism rears its ugly head, while the free traders fiddle. This is a serious defeat for the UK, even as Mr Blair declares it a victory. And, unless the Council is very careful, the EU could unravel.

The last day

In the pub. The usual lunchtime clientele. Half a dozen men are standing at the bar drinking pints, watching the Liverpool-Everton match on the telly, with Big Davie behind the bar offering a sardonic commentary on the football. Two or three older men, sitting with their nips and half pints, are studying the racing form in the Record and of course puffing away on their roll-ups. Davie keeps a stock of blank betting slips in a glass on a shelf behind the bar and, from time to time, someone will slip next door to the bookies to put a line on. Taking advantage of a lull in business, Jeannie the barmaid is having a quiet fag at the end of the bar.
The room is not particularly smoky, although at least three-quarters of the customers have lit up. There is a ventilation system but it is not turned on. As one would expect in central Edinburgh, the customers are of mixed backgrounds: workies, locals, a couple of students and the occasional bourgeois footie fan. As the Hearts are away to Falkirk today, the usual group of Tynecastle attendees have not turned up for their pre-match pints. People are not particularly well-dressed, apart from Big Davie in his perennial white shirt and tie.
This is not a wonderful pub. It is a decent bar which keeps decent beer and sells it at a reasonable price. The conversation is not sparkling: Jimmy swears too much and Bert can be dreadfully boring on the subject of the construction business. But it's the best place to go for a drink in comfortable surroundings with no hassle.
The chat at the bar is desultory. Davie is having his leg pulled about the no smoking signs that have suddenly appeared but which are not yet being obeyed. There is no scope in this pub for an external shelter or awning. The view about the ban is regretful rather than bitter; no-one in this pub would break the law. Some will simply stop going to the pub; others - depending on the weather - will step outside into the street for their nicotine.
But the atmosphere - both literally and metaphorically - will have changed. Business in the pub will suffer. Jeannie may have to be laid off. Did it have to come to this? Those people advocating the ban never drink here, so why destroy the modest pleasures of those who do?

24 March 2006

Putting on a brave face

The Executive has issued a press release on the Audit Scotland review of housing stock transfers (here):
"Audit Scotland's report into council housing transfers was published today, focusing on those which have taken place since 1998 including Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway and Borders.
Communities Minister Malcolm Chisholm said:
"This has been a resounding success story for Scotland. As the report makes abundantly clear, tenants are benefiting from higher investment, stable rents, more control and better services."

The key messages of the report (see here) tell a slightly different story:
"13. For the transfers completed before 2004, the Executive's guidance did not provide a good route map.
14. The Scottish Executive and Communities Scotland had a lot of experience of the earlier Scottish Homes transfer programme but council transfers were more complex. The workload proved to be greater than forecast and the first transfers took an average of three-and-a-half years to complete. There were limited incentives to contain the £59 million transaction costs.
15. There were no pilot projects to help the planning and implementation of the first council housing transfers, which included Glasgow with the biggest challenges and therefore a policy priority. The Executive felt that an approach involving pilot projects would have taken years longer and would not be defensible given the requirement for investment to tackle the urgent problems of social housing in Glasgow.
16. Improvements to the process mean that current transfers are expected to complete in just over two years and better financial controls with a clear gateway process are now in place.
17. The Executive did not control the total costs of the major Glasgow transfer using clearly defined gateways with financial limits. At certain key stages of this transfer in 2002 and 2003, it was necessary for the Executive to agree significant financial changes, including £409 million grant to support the business plan of the GHA in its first ten years."

A resounding success story? Perhaps that's why only three councils have completed the process. And why the GHA's plans for community ownership seem to be running into trouble. Never mind, Mr Malcolm 'Pangloss' Chisholm can surely fix it.

Is it me?

Rather depressing that Scottish politicians seem obsessed with trivia (here):
"JACK McConnell yesterday called for a debate on Scotland's national anthem, suggesting that a new song might have to be written because none of the current ones was good enough.
The First Minister said his personal favourite Scottish tune was Highland Cathedral, but he did not believe it was right as a national anthem.
He said Flower of Scotland worked well at Murrayfield but would not be as good for individual medal ceremonies, while the reverse was true for Scotland the Brave."

And here:
"Nicola wasn't having that. Putting on a burst of speed down the straight, she decided that congratulating people who might actually care wasn't enough. She was going to congratulate the English, too, even if they had won some medals that were probably ours by ancient right. Then she tried to elbow Jack out of his lane.
Wouldn't it be a "fantastic, once in a lifetime opportunity" to have a Scottish team carrying the Saltire at the London Olympics?"

Political hairwatching

Hadley Freeman in The Guardian writes entertainingly about the hair-dos of New Labour women:

"As the fascination with the rate at which Tony Blair's once youthfully auburn locks have morphed to a beleaguered grey proves, much can be discerned about a government from the state of its hair. But the fuss over Blair's disinterest in the Just for Men section of his local Boots is a distraction from a more intriguing tonsorial matter: the New Labour woman's haircut. Cropped, shapeless as a deflated balloon and topped with willy-nilly tufty bits - like a monk's pudding-bowl style, it immediately identifies her profession and, with its uniformity, gives the group as a whole an oddly cult-like appearance. Tessa Jowell, Ruth Kelly, Hilary Armstrong, Margaret Hodge and Patricia Hewitt all model it, if not marvellously, then certainly thoroughly.
This is not another mere sneer at the appearance of women in the public eye. Well, OK then, yes it is. In these politically spun, image-obsessed days, a politician's physical appearance is very telling about a party. The NLD [New Labour Do] is a neat indication of how New Labour's similarities to the Tories of old do not stop at their partiality to secret loans behind the bike sheds. True, it is a move on from the old Tory Helmet Hair, memorably modelled by Margaret Thatcher and, proving that Thatcher's ghost will never slip away, still seen on older female members of the Conservative party, such as Theresa May. Yet the NLD is still an unflattering uniform, and therein, political hairwatchers, lies the probable point."
Now, if you think that I would dare to comment on the hair-dos of certain female Scottish Labour politicians, you are very much mistaken.

22 March 2006

The Lithuanian revolution marches on

Dear, dear, dear. The BBC website reports:
"Hearts have sacked their head coach Graham Rix, the club has confirmed.
Coach Valdas Ivanauskas has been appointed as his interim replacement, with John McGlynn assisting him.
Rix only took the position in November, following the sacking of the previous head coach, George Burley, after only a few months in the job.
"We have been disappointed with the team's performance. Results were not what they should have been," chairman Roman Romanov told the Hearts website."
Director of football Jim Duffy has also been relieved of his duties, having been appointed to the role just a month ago."

It is worth remembering that Hearts are comfortably second in the Premier League and are the favourite of the four semi-finalists to win the Cup. This is probably their best season for donkeys' years.

Getting it right (for a change)

The First Minister may not have been in China for very long but his trip seems to have been particularly well-organised. See here:
"First Minister Jack McConnell today said the experience and quality of Scotland's financial services industry provided fantastic opportunities for joint work in China as he opened Heng An Standard Life's new branch in Beijing."

and here:
"The first golf packages to Scotland for Chinese players were launched today in Beijing.
First Minister Jack McConnell joined VisitScotland to unveil details now that restrictions on Chinese tourists travelling to the UK have been removed.
New figures show that Chinese tourism could be worth around £70 million to Scotland over the next four years."

and here:
"The Chinese Government has approved the creation of a Confucius Institute in Scotland following talks in Beijing between the First Minister Jack McConnell and the Chinese Education Minister Professor Zhou Ji.
The Scottish Confucius Institute, to be located at Edinburgh University, will be part of a worldwide network promoting Chinese language and culture and strengthening understanding between individuals, businesses and communities in China and Scotland."

This does not happen without a lot of hard work - so credit, I assume, to Scottish Trade International. And, even better, Mr McConnell managed to avoid any embarrassing moments.

Mine is bigger than yours

The Scotsman reports:
"THE owners of the trouble-hit Glasgow Science Tower have admitted that they have no idea when it will reopen.
The £10 million malfunctioning tourist attraction closed six months ago after being plagued by a string of problems, which on one occasion saw ten people rescued from its lift by firemen.
The 416ft tower is Scotland's tallest free-standing structure and the only tourist attraction in the world that can rotate 360 degrees. However, since opening in summer 2001, it has been bedevilled by mechanical failures, meaning it has not been open for longer than six months at a time."

A symbol of the phallic obsession and the ultimate impotence of the late unlamented Glasgow Development Agency.

It's a guddle rather than a muddle or a fiddle...

Scottish Enterprise gets deeper into the mire. The Herald reports:
"The agency, which is given around £500m a year in public money to help grow the economy and foster overseas trade, continues to struggle with its budget. After overshooting its limit by £30m this year, it is believed to have committed itself to spending almost £40m beyond its means in 2006-07. It is trying to balance its books by scrapping and delaying funding for projects.
Problems with the quango are to be discussed by the Scottish cabinet today, amid clear signs that ministers and MSPs are increasingly irate at how SE is being run. One senior source said last night: "If this was a local authority, there would be heads on a spike." Nicol Stephen, the LibDem enterprise minister, met Jack Perry, Scottish Enterprise's £200,000-a-year chief executive, last week and discussed finances and the restructuring...
A source close to Mr Stephen said there was a pressing need for the agency to steady its budget: "The minister has said, 'Get a move on. It's a guddle. Sort it out.' "

Scottish Enterprise has made a mess of managing its budget. How long will it take to address what seem to be serious structural management problems? Meanwhile and predictably, its re-organisation in the direction of so-called metropolitan regions seems to be running into the sand.

Ipod no-no

Lucy Mangan in The Guardian seems less than enamoured by modern symbols of cool (here):
"Yes, it is clever that something so small can carry so many tunes. But - and here's the thing - they can all do it. After you have seen one, I find, the innovatory aspect is fully grasped and it is time to move on. Please remember, what you have actually done is buy a jumped-up Walkman. Not an immutable aura of cool, not an unassailable reputation as a champion surfer of the bleeding edge of technology, not a life, not even a lifestyle. You have bought a pretty box that plays music. Add a plastic ballerina and some earrings from Claire's Accessories and nothing separates you from a 11- year-old girl in a stuffy bedroom in Woking waiting for her spots to fade and the fun to begin. Nothing at all.
Also, I prefer my exploitation by modern western capitalism to be hedged round with at least the simulacra of decorum, the courteous pretence of being engaged in a delicate and entrancing gavotte between genuine desire and beautiful fulfilment. As I understand it, the iPod nano is named after the three nanoseconds it takes to break and the four more it takes for Apple to bring out a replacement model. I don't know if there is a song, Crapping On the Consumer from a Very Great Height, by the Corporate Behemoths, but if so, I suggest you download it immediately and press play."

In the circumstances, I guess that I might put off buying an Ipod for a year or two...

Economics and the inflationary impact of slippers

Alexander Chancellor in The Guardian expresses doubts about the decision of the Office of National Statistics to drop slippers:
"It's a pity that just at the moment when I am finally ready to wear slippers - I am 66 years old - the government should have pronounced them passé. We learned yesterday that the Office of National Statistics has dropped slippers from its "basket" of 650 consumer items that it uses to measure inflation. The reason seems to be that hardly anyone buys them any more.
Actually, I'm surprised that slippers were ever on the list. During my lifetime slippers have never been fashionable. They have always been associated with complacent husbands, subservient wives, and even more subservient dogs. They have been seen as the antithesis of glamour, charm, or anything else along those lines.
Maybe the Office of National Statistics has the best of intentions and thinks it is in tune with the times by dropping slippers from its basket. But it will almost certainly have turned out to have made a mistake. For slippers cannot be so easily wished away."

Have people really stopped buying slippers? The last time I was in Marks and Spencer's, there was a wide range of slippers on sale. But if the beautiful people have stopped buying slippers, then what do they wear on their feet when they are at home? As I seldom visit the homes of the beautiful people, I fear that this will remain one of life's little mysteries...

19 March 2006

Shock! Horror! Well, maybe not...

The Sunday Times makes a story out of nothing:
"MINISTERS responsible for introducing Scotland’s smoking ban have been accused of hypocrisy after it emerged they are paying into a pension firm that has £126m invested in the world’s biggest cigarette company.
Jack McConnell, the first minister, and Andy Kerr, the health minister, can expect a lucrative payout from investment firm Baillie Gifford, which owns 3m shares in US-based Altria, makers of Marlboro cigarettes.
The value of Altria shares has risen by 230% in the past five years. Parliament officials believe the £10m pension fund the firm runs for all Scottish ministers and MSPs is directly invested in tobacco firms."

1. Ministers and MSPs are contributors to a pension fund.
2. The fund is managed by Bailie Gifford, one of Scotland's most respected investment managers.
3. Bailie Gifford invests in a range of assets, including shares in a company which manufactures fags.

Do Ministers have any direct influence over the investments made on behalf of their pension fund? No. Is there a story here? No. Is there hypocrisy here? Aye, but it has nothing to do with Ministers.

Rugby arithmetic

The Independent makes a wee mistake:
"Second is nowhere, so what does that make third place? England's descent from the glory of their World Cup victory just 28 months ago accelerated at Twickenham yesterday as they succumbed 28-24 to Ireland to finish third in the Six Nations. "

Actually, England is in fourth place: the table is here.

A rant (but I will feel better in a minute)

Dani Garavelli in Scotland on Sunday (here):
"OK, I admit it. I am unlikely ever to win an award for my contribution to the green cause. Like many mothers, I drive a fuel-guzzling people carrier along already congested back streets several times a day on school and club runs, and park outside shops I could easily walk to because I'm too lazy to carry heavy loads large distances.
I'm not the worst offender: our family only has one car, I don't double park, I don't stop on zigzags and I rarely have fewer than five passengers in my vehicle. But having tried, during last year's short-lived petrol crisis, to spend less time behind the wheel, I came to the conclusion that if God wanted me to walk all the time, he would have created a 35-hour day and given me a housekeeper.
For this - for doing the best I can to juggle the demands of modern life and three young children, do I, and others like me, deserve to be penalised by those whose motives are even more questionable than my own? Should I have to fish around for the correct combination of small change every time I want to step out of my car? Or face hefty fines and a possible ban for straying a few miles over the speed limit? Or have to pay tolls for using roads my taxes helped to build?"

Yes, yes and yes. Because you chose (and were able to choose) to have your lifestyle, your three children and your "fuel guzzling people carrier". Because your demands on society exceed the capacity of society to respond without damaging consequences to the environment. Because you can afford to meet the extra costs of those damaging consequences. But, most of all, because you are a selfish whingeing middle class journalist using your privileged access to the media to complain about your personal circumstances.

Buy a bike or a shopping trolley.

18 March 2006

Who won?

From The Times (here):
"THE Prince of Wales yesterday won a decisive victory in the High Court over a Sunday newspaper which published a private travel journal revealing his acerbic views on the Chinese Government."

From The Independent (here):
"The Prince of Wales may have to face cross-examination in court after he lost the first round in his legal battle to stop a newspaper publishing more extracts from his personal journals."

Who won? Who cares?

Follow the money?

More details dribble out about the Labour Party's borrowing. The Guardian reports:
"The depth of secrecy around Labour's pre-election loan-raising activities emerged last night when party officials confirmed that the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, had not been informed, along with the party treasurer, Jack Dromey, of the raising of nearly £14m in loans.
Mr Prescott would have been expected to have known due to his closeness to the prime minister and his membership of the party's business committee. The chancellor, Gordon Brown, was not told either, but due to his Treasury duties he has always kept himself apart from party fundraising...
It also emerged that Labour's then party general secretary, Matt Carter, and the party's fundraiser, Lord Levy, secured permission in principle from the party chairman, Ian McCartney, during the election last spring to seek commercial loans from individuals for the first time.
He agreed, but aides said he was not told the identity of the lenders, or the scale of borrowing, until recently."

What did Mr Blair think he was doing? You can't hide £14 million. Too many people have to know; the cheques have to be put into a bank account; the money will in due course appear in the accounts. The affair was bound to come out eventually. Did he think that no-one would ask about the sources of the money? Or make a connection with the peerages to come? And did he really believe that structuring the donations as "commercial" loans in order to avoid disclosure would be regarded as an honest and transparent approach?

Va-va-voom (or not)!

I suppose that it was naive of me to believe that Thierry Henri might actually drive a Renault Clio. The Guardian shatters any illusions (here):
"Yes, the urban warriors are gunning for Thierry too. In reality, he drives a Mercedes M-class, which supposedly gives out three times as many carbon dioxide fumes as a little Renault."

17 March 2006


We think we've got problems? The Independent points to France:
"Riots broke out in the centre of Paris last night as French police used teargas against students who were pelting them with stones and bottles after marches held to protest against a new job law brought more than a quarter of a million youths on to the streets nationwide.
Although the rioting cannot be compared to the scale of the events of 1968, the scenes around the Sorbonne in the Latin quarter, where the air was filled with teargas, were reminiscent of the student demonstrations almost 40 years ago...
The demonstrations have been largely peaceful so far, although police evicted about 300 students from the Sorbonne last weekend. But the next major step comes tomorrow when they will be joined by trade unions. More than one million people marched in the last such demonstration on 7 March."

At least French students believe in something and are prepared to demonstrate about it.

The Independent also comments on Germany:
"Dire warnings from demographic institutes ... this week revealed that Germany's birth rate had sunk to its lowest level since the Second World War and was now bottom of the European league table with only 8.5 births per 1,000 inhabitants in 2005. Equally alarming were the institutes' predictions that eastern regions could turn into wasteland because of an unstoppable haemorrhage of young people.
Official statistics show that since reunification in 1990, more than 1.5 million east Germans have left their homes and moved west in search of jobs. With unemployment in the region at around 20 per cent, the problem is worsening. "The negative demographic trend in Germany is accelerating and becoming even more dramatic," warned Hans Fleisch, the head of the Berlin-based Institute for Demographic Development.
"The number of people living in a particular place is not only dependent on the birth rate," said Rainer Klingholz, one of the authors of the demographic study. "The reason for the gaping emptiness in many regions is the fact that young people are emigrating en masse. Worst hit are the structurally weak areas in eastern Germany - we can expect whole towns and villages to become depopulated in the long term."

Meanwhile our commentariat (not excluding myself) is obsessed with political loans and donations, with whether or not to have identity cards and with marginal adjustments to schools policies...

Doing sums

Who would willingly be a member of the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and culture committee? Alf Young in The Herald comprehensively dismantles (here) the claim in their latest report of an annual £8.5 billion shortfall in Scottish capital investment:
"An all-party committee of MSPs has allowed itself to be captured by a rather fanciful account of Scotland's inferior investment performance, when the evidence of their own eyes, as they went about their constituency business, should have set alarm bells ringing. No-one is suggesting we should swing from unwarranted pessimism to embrace a mood Alan Greenspan famously described as irrational exuberance. But desperately we need some rational balance in this vital discourse. The Scottish economy faces many challenges. But it has great strengths, too. Despite all the shocks it has endured in the past half-century, it is no basket case, as Alex Neil and his colleagues might have discovered had they taken what witnesses were telling them with a bigger pinch of salt."
I'm not in a position to judge the matter but, if Mr Young is correct (and he seems to be backed by such heavyweight figures as Professors Ashcroft and Bell), then the Committee has dropped a very heavy brick.

16 March 2006

Some history

Kirk Elder has chosen to devote his daily blethers to the subject of Harold Wilson and his pipe. I have little to add, other than to confirm that Mr Wilson was wont to smoke cigars when out of the public eye. In the 1970s, and this is nowadays hard to believe, one was allowed to smoke in the corridors of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister's Commons office was near the corridor at the back of the Speaker's Chair and, for those of us who had to spend time there waiting for whatever Parliamentary business we were interested in, Mr Wilson could be frequently espied trailing clouds of cigar smoke as he made his way to wherever he was going.

The 30th anniversary of Mr Wilson's resignation has a particular Scottish echo, however, as it was also the occasion for Willie Ross to step down as Secretary of State for Scotland. Mr Ross had been the dominant figure in Scottish politics since at least the early 1960s and commanded considerable weight in all of the Wilson cabinets. He was at least as influential as one of his predecessors, the equally great Tom Johnston. If ever Scottish Office officials were intimidated by a politician, then it was by Willie Ross. Junior Ministers and Scottish Labour MPs were no less respectful of the former schoolteacher and soldier. Morally upright and a firm defender of the Kirk, Willie Ross would have been appalled by New Labour's approach to just about everything. It is disappointing that none of the Scottish media has bothered to remember one of the greatest of Scottish politicians.

Willie Ross was replaced in 1976 as Secretary of State by Bruce Millan, a man who had the erroneous reputation of a bloodless accountant but who was actually a pleasant and decent individual, as well as being a highly competent and effective Secretary of State. In those days, you could admire Scottish politicians.

No accounting for taste

The Shetlands joins the Balearics as a "must-visit" destination, according to The Telegraph (here):
"With 269 days of rain a year, average temperatures only a touch above freezing and force four winds even in summer, a holiday in Shetland is a long way from a traditional sun, sea and sangria break.
But Britain's most northerly archipelago is benefiting from a growing passion for colder travel destinations.
The first direct scheduled flight from London is starting this summer and the twice-weekly service is already close to selling out for its three-month trial. The service has now been extended until the end of October and Atlantic Airways is considering making it year round.
The Atlantic Airways service will take 2,000 people to the Shetland Isles in June, July and August, a 20 per cent increase on normal visitor numbers for those eight weeks.
The Shetland Isles are closer to the Arctic Circle than to London, are on the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland, and include more than 100 islands, only 15 of them inhabited."
Not altogether sure that Lerwick will qualify as the new Magaluf but there are worse places to visit.

It must be the lunar cycle...

The crackpot tendency has taken over The Times.

"IT IS Winnie the Pooh’s fault. The cult of sentimentality inspired by the bear of little brain is a threat to an important military tradition: the bearskin, as worn by the Brigade of Guards. A Labour MP, Chris Mullin, is leading a campaign to force the Guards to use artificial fabric.
He claims that the bearskin has no military value. That is nonsense."

and here:
"So if you don’t like Tesco’s food or its arrogant behaviour in the high streets, the answer is quite simple: stop shopping in Tesco stores and persuade your friends to do the same. If enough people felt the same way and were willing to pay a small extra price to preserve the diversity of their high streets by boycotting Tesco, the message would pretty soon get through."

and here:
"Mr Brandreth also lavished praise in The Spectator on Prince Edward, whom he interviewed at Buckingham Palace for the two films, which are being edited. He wrote: “On past experience, I’d written off Edward as a bit of a whingeing wimp. On this occasion, I found him wholly engaging — funny, friendly, unstuffy. Edward is said to be his parents’ favourite son. I can believe it.”

Fruitbowl and newspaper

The Independent reports:
"The spectacular extension to Madrid's Reina Sofia modern art museum, hailed as a breathtaking achievement when it opened last September, had a serious design fault: the roof leaked.
Days before the new wing, designed by France's leading avant-garde architect Jean Nouvel, was inaugurated by Queen Sofia to international acclaim, drops falling from the ceiling left marks on an important painting by the Spanish master of cubism Juan Gris, Frutero y periodico (fruitbowl and newspaper).
Nouvel's tinted glass and reflective metal structure cost €92m (£63m) and took six years to build. It extends the 18th-century pile which houses works by Dali, Miró and Picasso. The Reina Sofia rivals the Prado museum as a top attraction for visitors to the Spanish capital.
"There were certain construction deficiencies in the design and building of the roof and the drainage system," the director of the museum, Ana Martinez de Aguilar, told MPs."

Just a leak? We can do better than that. We've got a roof about to collapse (here).

15 March 2006

Cruel and unusual punishment

The opening of the Commonwealth Games is on the telly at the moment. The thought occurs: is it not rather sadistic to force an elderly couple to leave their home (or homes) in the UK and force them to travel to the other side of the world in order to sit (with horror of horrors a bunch of Australians) in a sports stadium for hours on end, watching an endless parade of Commonwealth cyclists, badminton players and the like, when I am sure that they would rather be at home having breakfast out of the tupperware? Could Charlie not have relinquished his plants for once and stood in for his mum?

Oh, oh - it looks as if Phil the Greek has nodded off.

It doesn't half make you think...

The Telegraph spells out the financial indebtedness of the Blairs:
"Cherie Blair yesterday took her £150,000 lecture tour to Palm Beach, home to the greatest concentration of billionaires in the world.
The tour is a major part of the Blair campaign to pay off mortgages amounting to almost £4 million, with monthly payments of at least £16,000.
The Blairs have a £3,467,000 mortgage on their London town house and mortgages of about £472,500 on two flats in Bristol and their constituency home in County Durham.
Yesterday's talk, lasting 40 minutes with 20 minutes of questions, earned Mrs Blair £30,000 - two months' mortgage payments."

If they have total mortgages of over £3.9 million, the interest payments alone must amount to at least £234,000 per year (assuming a 6% interest rate), which comfortably exceeds Mr Blair's salary and which equates to a monthly payment of over £19,000, even before capital re-payments are taken into account. It's an awful lot of dosh. Rather them than me...

And should someone that gets into this kind of financial mess be running the country?

Unlikely statements of the week

The Guardian reports on an influx of Polish priests, giving rise to a couple of statements you never thought to see:
"Fr Swider said he was settling in well in Peterhead and Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire. "I'm prepared for the weather because in Poland it's even worse in winter time," he said. And the Scots? "They are very beautiful and gentle," he said."
He's not been in Fraserburgh for long, then...
"Many priests are learning English. Others are already flying over for the weekend on easyJet to give communion."
Easyjet always gets the blame.

Cars and stuff

I suspect that this kind of thing is nonsense, but at least it can be entertaining nonsense. The Guardian reports:
"David Cameron is seen as either a BMW 5 series sports car or a thoroughbred racehorse, while his social event of choice could be mingling at a Live 8 concert or other big stadium gig.
Regarded as a dynamic, virile figure, he would also be at home at a disco, laughing, talking and most importantly listening. His single biggest drawback - and strength - is that he is seen as too similar to Tony Blair, a leader with whom voters have lost faith, and now regard either as a defunct Rover, or minicab. Chancellor Gordon Brown is seen as a tank.
That is the view of voters, according to focus group research commissioned by the Guardian from ICM on the eve of Mr Cameron's first 100 days of leadership. The research shows that Mr Cameron reminds them of Tony Blair, but feel the prime minister has let them down, leaving them suspicious of the political classes. So the Tory leader has a conundrum - he must embrace Mr Blair and distance himself from him.
And while Mr Cameron has created a sense of expectancy, voters feel he has offered only signposts, not policies.
Other focus group work, undertaken for Labour, regards Mr Cameron as an alcopop, but voters like the things the Conservative leader likes, including his home, his choice of shoes and his clothes. As a result, they think he is like us, the voters."

Mr Brown can console himself with the thought that, in times of trouble, it would be infinitely preferable to have a tank available. And, in any case, Beamers no longer have the kind of cachet they once attracted.

Compare and contrast the 20 year old farm tractor which is John Prescott, the Ford Capri (all flash and no guts) which is Peter Mandelson and the Hillman Imp which is Jack McConnell.

Final thought: If I were Mr Cameron, I'd be worried about the alcopop...

14 March 2006

Euphemism of the week

The Guardian reports:
"AXA Investment Managers were very humble in their latest weekly comments. Referring to their assumptions of monetary policy easing, the AXA gurus said: "No matter how rigorous our analysis and guidance, reality sometimes overflows the contours that we have defined for it."

I can sympathise - I know the feeling. As I said to an ex-girlfriend, when I said that I would still love you the next morning, I'm afraid that reality overflowed the contours I defined for it...

13 March 2006

Does he also believe in the tooth fairy?

The BBC website faithfully records:
"Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has insisted that peerages are not for sale under the Labour Government.
He spoke out after Chai Patel, the head of the Priory rehab clinics, revealed he had loaned Labour £1.5m weeks before being nominated for a peerage."
And the Loch Ness monster was a passing elephant which decided to go for a swim, Sir Ian Blair records his telephone conversations because he's worried he might forget something and Tessa Jowell finds the printing on the mortgage application too small to be bothered reading it.

Love will find a way...

The Times dramatises one of the few benefits of the smoking ban:
’Scuse me, love, have you got a light?
Look I’m flattered, really I am. But I’ve got a boyfriend.
Er . . . right. But could I just borrow your lighter? I’m gasping for a fag.
Say what you really mean, for heaven’s sake. You’re actually gasping for a shag. Men are forever smirting with me outside this pub.
No offence, but what you on about?
Smirting . . . It’s what people like us do when we’re cast outside non-smoking pubs and restaurants to have a ciggie. We smoke and flirt at the same time and it makes us feel sexy rather than like stinking lepers. I think it’s rather beautiful.
Standing in the rain ankle-deep in cigarette butts, talking to people with yellow teeth and toxic breath?
No, the fact that romance will blossom despite bureaucracy and intolerance. The fact that like-minded people are thrown together in adversity and manage to triumph. '

11 March 2006


Charles Moore in The Telegraph reminds us of the place in the nobility of Mr Michael Ancram MP, former Scottish Office Minister :
"Mr Ancram is a man of many names and titles. You could, I suppose, call him Michael Kerr, since Kerr is his surname, but no one does. For many years, he was known by his courtesy title, Lord Ancram, but one day, at a big wedding where the butler was announcing the names of guests as they arrived, the young Michael murmured "Lord Ancram" in his ear and the butler, mishearing, shouted out, "MR NORMAN CRUM". Since then, Ancram has been known to his friends as Crum, and has preferred to be known to the public as Mr Ancram, which he isn't. He has been the Marquess of Lothian since 2004, but no one ever calls him that.
In addition, I see from Burke's Peerage, "Mr" Ancram is Earl of Lothian, Earl of Ancram ("(twice)", says Burke mysteriously), Viscount of Briene, Lord Jedburgh, Lord Ker of Newbattle, Lord Ker of Nisbet, Langnewton and Dolphinstoun, Lord Ker of Newbottle, Oxnam, Jedburgh, Dolphinstoun and Baron Ker of Kersheugh. He is married to the daughter of a duke. So was his brother, and two of his sisters are married to future dukes."

This is also the man who has been known to sing "The Streets of London" at Conservative Party parties.

Colour blind

The Guardian reports:
"There is no such colour as beige any more. The modern boutique stocks an Armani-toned kaleidoscope of subtly graded pale shades. Once the essence of no-nonsense workwear, these colours - if you can call them that - are now the height of luxury. Like blond hair, they are a symbol of a high-maintenance lifestyle.
The names of the new shades reflect the aspirational mood. Some are self-explanatory: oyster, ballet slipper pink, ivory. Others refer to an idealised world, so "blush" is the prettiest creamy pink, rather than an embarrassing beetroot, and "sand" is a shade of vanilla tinged with gold. Clearly, the beaches where fashion designers hang out in search of palette inspiration are not the dirty Colman's mustard colour that characterises the British seaside."

There is no beige? Has anyone told Terry Wogan?

10 March 2006

Remembrance of things past

As Guido points out (here):
"A man spends 40 years fighting poverty and for social justice in the East End of London and all the BBC has to say is he shagged a good time girl once. They would say that, wouldn't they."

Modern times

The newspapers just love stories like these. From The Telegraph (here):
"The crackdown on hoodie-wearing lager louts and ladettes knows no age barriers… as an 82-year-old grandmother has discovered.
When Betty Wilbraham, a retired teacher, popped into the Hereward pub in Ely, Cambs, at lunchtime for a half of Guinness and fish and chips, she did not even notice the "no hats" sign.
But when she got to the bar, she was ordered to remove her black hat with a maroon ribbon for "security reasons". Apparently, there was a risk she would not be recognised on CCTV cameras covering the trendy bar if she started any trouble."
and from The Times (here):
"A man who put two letters in a bin has been given a £50 fixed-penalty notice.
Andy Tierney, 24, was leaving his house in Hinckley, Leicestershire, when the postman gave him the letters. After opening the items of junk mail, he put them in a bin that was attached to a nearby lamppost.
Accusing him of “misuse of a public bin”, officials at Hinckley and Bosworth Council traced him from the addresses on the envelopes and issued the notice. Their letter read: “Domestic refuse from your property was dumped in a street litter-bin.”
But what do they tell us about our society, other than the fact that idiots are occasionally put in charge?


The BBC website suggests that The Times may not have the whole story:
"Steve Atkinson, the council's chief executive, said: "We've issued a notice - not that he has committed an offence but we've reason to believe that he has - and we are reviewing the evidence.
"We're talking about a large carrier bag which had other domestic rubbish in it. "If it had just been a couple of pieces of junk mail then we wouldn't do something like that - we'd be rightly criticised, but it was considerably more than that."

Brutish beast

The Independent thinks that Mr Brian Moore is an opera buff:
"In his heyday, the former England hooker Brian Moore was one of the most celebrated thugs in rugby.
Thankfully, behind those cauliflower ears lies the finely tuned brain of a culture vulture. For Moore turns out to be a dedicated opera buff.
Such is his expertise that the classical music magazine Gramophone carries a showpiece interview in next month's edition."

He must be thankful to have these hidden talents, as his skills as a rugby commentator are distinctly limited.

09 March 2006

Political skeletons

The BBC website reports:
"A formal post-mortem examination of the human remains found earlier this week in a park in Edinburgh is to be carried out on Friday.
Most of the bones have now been removed from the scene in Holyrood Park, though the area, next to Duddingston Loch, is still being searched by police.
It is now understood the bones are those of an adult. "

Now we know what happened to Mr McConnell's backbone...

Irrational exuberance

The New York Times anticipates Mr Greenspan's memoirs:
"IT was the best of times but it might also have quite possibly led to the worst of times.
One thing was for sure: it was a beautiful day. It felt like, oh, around 63 or 64 degrees Fahrenheit. I estimated, assessing the precise time of day, the mean annualized temperature, all available barometrics (which were hovering at about 30.2 and appeared to be falling), and the constantly changing, though only partial, cloud cover which seemingly would have to have been caused by prevailing winds, that it might get up to 65 degrees by midday.
But that didn't stop me from wearing an undershirt. My father had always insisted that I wear undershirts. He felt that if one were to sweat, the undershirt could absorb the perspiration efficiently, thereby prolonging the immediate look and the overall life of any dress shirt and additionally augmenting outer garments. Based on the relative lower cost of the simpler undergarments, factoring in cotton inventories and rising yields in dry-cleaning revenues, a good suit could last a hell of a lot longer if you didn't stink it up."

The Fed just won't be the same...

Aw diddums!

The Herald records something of a tactical error by Mr Osborne (Who he? Shadow Chancellor - for the moment):
"GORDON Brown has been nothing other than "unpleasant" in his dealings with George Osborne, the shadow chancellor claimed yesterday. Mr Osborne said he had enjoyed congenial relations with other members of the Labour cabinet, but found Mr Brown very difficult to deal with. "In his dealings with me, he's been nothing other than unpleasant," he said. "That's a decision for him to take, I've had very good relations with other people I've shadowed and I understand from the conversations I've had with other Labour ministers that this is not an uncommon experience (with Mr Brown)."

Since when were politicians expected to be nice to each other?

We've got in the builders in, too...

It's not just the Scottish Parliament. The Guardian reports:
The newly-opened Cardiff home of the Welsh assembly is leaking, it was reported today.
A week after the £67m building, designed by Richard Rogers, was officially opened by the Queen, its roof was reported to be letting in water.
It has been raining steadily in Cardiff since yesterday morning, and the Press Association today said there were five puddles of water inside the building.

08 March 2006

We've got the builders in...

The Evening News reveals:
"SCOTTISH Parliament bosses will have to fork out £10,000-a-day to use The Hub as a temporary meeting place until the roof problem at Holyrood is fixed.
And they will be ferried up and down the Royal Mile by shuttle bus at a cost of £1500 a week."

£10K per day will soon add up. I hope they are properly covered. But it doesn't sound like it:

"Asked if the parliament hoped to reclaim the cost of the parliament's temporary relocation from whoever was found to be at fault for the beam problem, the spokesman said: "We are not in the business of speculating. Our focus is on resolving the situation safely and ensuring that the business of parliament continues."

Modern times

According to The Guardian (here), we are spending too much time on the internet:
"We may be known as a nation of couch potatoes, but it seems that Britons are grasping the 21st century with both hands: we now spend more time watching the web than watching television, according to internet giant Google.
A survey conducted on behalf of the search engine found that the average Briton spends around 164 minutes online every day, compared with 148 minutes watching television. That is equivalent to 41 days a year spent surfing the web: more than almost any other activity apart from sleeping and working."

More importantly, if time on the tv and internet are added together, it amounts to more than 5 hours a day being wasted. Get a life, people!

07 March 2006

Oh to be a fly on the wall...

The Herald records the First Minister's intention to have a serious discussion in cabinet this week:
"A review of the use of methadone in drug rehabilitation programmes was announced by the first minister yesterday, after a child's death prompted wider questions about the heroin substitute which costs £13m a year. Jack McConnell said the ministers for health, justice, and children were being asked to report to cabinet this week on whether policies on rehabilitation were clear or consistent enough. His comments came after tests showed the death of Derek Doran, two, from Elphinstone, East Lothian, was linked to methadone which both his parents were receiving as treatment for heroin addiction."
Let us pretend that you are one of the ministers concerned, say Andy Kerr. Within the few hours remaining before Wednesday morning, you are going to have to brief yourself to answer the following questions:
  • What are the current rules for dispensing methadone? When does it have to be consumed on the pharmacist's premises? and when are patients allowed to take it away?
  • Were the rules properly observed in the current case?
  • Do we need to change the rules? If so, what procedures need to be followed to make those changes? Who do we need to consult? Are there legal issues that need to be resolved?
  • If we were to change the rules, what would be the implications for the health of the patients concerned or the social circumstances of the local area?
  • And anyway, what are the alternatives to methadone? and what are the comparative benefits and risks of these alternatives?
  • What are the financial and staffing costs of any change?
  • How do other countries deal with the problem? Do they do it better?

I am utterly confident that Mr Kerr will immediately get to the bottom of all these issues, as will his fellow ministers in the parallel policy areas for which they are responsible. But it would still be interesting to listen to the informed debate that we can expect from Mr McConnell's cabinet.

Rainbow sheep?

Hard to believe but this report in The Times seems to be true:
"TRADITIONAL nursery rhymes are being rewritten at nursery schools to avoid causing offence to children.
Instead of singing “Baa baa, black sheep” as generations of children have learnt to do, toddlers in Oxfordshire are being taught to sing “Baa baa, rainbow sheep”.
The move, which critics will seize on as an example of political correctness, was made after the nurseries decided to re-evaluate their approach to equal opportunities...
In keeping with the new approach, teachers at the nurseries have reportedly also changed the ending of Humpty Dumpty so as not to upset the children and dropped the seven dwarfs from the title of Snow White."

What will they do about Little Miss Muffet? Or Goldilocks and the Three Bears?

Self indulgence

The Scotsman reports:
"MINISTERS spent almost £500,000 promoting Scotland in the United States during last year's Tartan Week celebrations - a huge rise on the £30,000 spent in 2003.
Tom McCabe, the finance minister, said last night that £480,000 was spent on Tartan Week celebrations in the US in 2005 - 140 per cent more than the £200,000 spent in 2004 and 16 times more than the £30,000 spent in 2003.
A spokesman for the Scottish Executive defended the increase in spending by saying yesterday: "Expenditure has increased as the scale of Tartan Week and our involvement have increased - it has been getting bigger every year."

It may have been getting bigger but the search engine of the New York Times reveals that, from 1981 to now, Tartan Week is getting absolutely no coverage in the foremost newspaper in the Big Apple.

06 March 2006

It's just a matter of time...

The Independent reports:
"Tony Blair telephoned Tessa Jowell last night to promise support for his beleaguered Culture Secretary as the scandal around her husband's financial affairs continued to grow.
"Tony has been absolutely fantastic in his support," said a close friend of Ms Jowell's. "She is going to stay strong and see this through."

She will resign soon.

Political games

The Scotsman reports the dissatisfaction of the Institute of Directors with the performance of the Scottish economy:
"JACK McConnell's flagship policy of growing the Scottish economy has failed, according to a damning verdict from one of the country's leading business experts.
David Watt, director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland, told The Scotsman that the First Minister had not delivered the growth in the economy he promised at the last election.
In a detailed series of verdicts on the Scottish Executive and the parliament, Mr Watt warned that the majority of ministers did not do anything to help develop Scotland's economy, and that few MSPs had any idea of the crippling impact the regulations they passed had on Scottish business.
"If you look at our business start-up rate and our economic performance, it doesn't seem to be improving comparatively. The performance has not been what we all hoped for, if you look at the figures." Asked whether, if there was an election today, Mr McConnell would have failed in his top priority of growing the Scottish economy, Mr Watt replied: "Yes, he would fail".

But the levers available to the Executive to influence economic growth (and issues such as business start-up rates) are limited. Marginal changes in business rates and the availability of grants towards certain forms of business investment in certain areas are unlikely to have a radical impact on the overall economic health of the country. And improvements in transport infrastructure may well have a beneficial effect but only over the longer term. Furthermore, while the size of the public sector may be less than helpful to economic growth, even a major reduction in that size would take a long time to make an economic impact. No, Scottish economic performance is in the short term dependent upon macro-economic factors outwith Executive control.

The real criticism of the McConnell regime is its arrogance in thinking that, because it announces that economic growth is its first priority, it can actually make a significant difference. If it had been honest, it would have admitted that Scottish economic performance was something that it could only influence at the margins but that even that was worthwhile doing, although tangible impacts would be hard to identify. But since when did politicians like to admit that they were of little influence?

Counting chickens

OK, if you really must, here it is. But why you want to spend your time watching chickens escapes me.

05 March 2006

The boys done good

Scotland on Sunday is not one of the most imaginative of the papers but this blow by blow view of last Sunday's rugby match is fascinating (here). This is a rather unusual analysis based on the personal reactions of the players. I would only record the contemptuous dismissal of Matt Williams' efforts to share in the credit:
"In Australia, a certain gentleman was about to go public on the debt he felt the nation owed him, a thought he expressed first in his column in Monday's Irish Times and which he re-iterated later in the week. Williams wrote: "They [Scotland] are showing signs of a team coming together into the third season of hard physical conditioning. Scoring points was never the problem, it was the defence. But two and a half years of work has brought them to required level of Test rugby."
Two and a half years?
Jason White: "He believes what he believes. Is there truth in it? I doubt it."
Nathan Hines: "It wouldn't be the first time he tried to take credit for other people's work."
Tom Smith: "I'm surprised he reared his head. Matt was the catalyst for this, but not in
the way he thinks."
Dougie Hall: "What can you say? I just rolled my eyes when I heard. Shows you what kind of man he was."
Frank Hadden: "Best to say nothing."

A dignified reply.

03 March 2006

A pedant writes again...

From The Guardian (here):
"Exam body declares war on greengrocer's apostrophe

Exams chiefs have unveiled plans to stop pupils getting good GCSE grades if they use apostrophes incorrectly or put commas in the wrong place.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority this week opened a consultation on plans for new "functional literacy" tests - sparking fresh debate over the importance of grammar, and the wisdom of waging war on the greengrocer's apostrophe...
Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, told the Times Educational Supplement that she was "very happy" with the QCA's reforms.
"Correct punctuation and spelling does have a bearing on people's success in life. So in a way it is not fair to tell pupils it is OK to make mistakes in exams."

Er, should that not be "correct punctuation and spelling do have a bearing..."?

Watching the birdies

The Times reports:
THE chances of a British person falling ill with avian flu will be as low as 1 in 100 million even if the virus infects birds in Britain, the Government’s chief scientist said yesterday.
While the spread of the H5N1 virus to Europe is a serious issue for farming and wildlife, it presents a negligible threat to human health that should not worry the public, Professor Sir David King told The Times.
Speaking after a further 11 wild birds in France were confirmed yesterday to have tested positive for H5N1, bringing the country’s total to 29, Sir David said that the experience of the disease in Asian countries suggests that individuals are about seven times more likely to win the national lottery than they are to contract bird flu.

So why has the government bought all that vaccine? Here.

A pedant writes...

The Guardian gets it wrong (here):
"The price of condoms is set to fall by 12.5% when they are reclassified as "essential" rather than "luxury" items under VAT regulations.
The chancellor, Gordon Brown, is understood to be preparing to include the measure, which will also affect other contraceptives such as the morning after pill, in his March 22 budget.
Reclassifying contraceptives from the 17.5% "luxury" rate to the 5% "essential" will cost £10m a year in VAT revenue. Campaigners have been arguing for the change to bring the price down, particularly so as to encourage teenagers to use contraception."

If the rate of VAT changes from 17.5% to 5%, then the reduction in the price of the goods is not 12.5% but 10.64%. Trivial, I know, but typical innumeracy nowadays.

02 March 2006

Tangled webs

The following is an extract from Ms Jowell's statement. The full version is here.
"On ... 20th September 2000, my husband wanted to make an investment, and took out a loan using our London home as security. I signed the relevant papers. My husband has a number of investments and I knew there would be no difficulty in repaying the loan.
I knew nothing more about the nature of the investment.
I was not aware until recently that the loan had been repaid shortly after it was taken out, so our London home was no longer needed as security.
I first became aware in August 2004 that my husband had received in September 2000 a sum of money which he thought he had reasonable grounds to believe was a gift. By the time I became aware of it, he had already agreed with the Inland Revenue that it should be classified as earnings on which tax was paid. I did not therefore consider it necessary to make any reference about any
of this to my permanent secretary.
However, I fully accept that my husband should have informed me and, if he had, I would of course have reported it to my permanent secretary."
Two points arise from this. First, this seems to me an admission that Ms Jowell was in breach of the Code. Even although she may not have been aware of it, her husband had received what he thought was a gift; this gift was not declared to her permanent secretary, although it should have been; it may not have been the direct fault of Ms Jowell but she was responsible for notifying any such gifts and she failed to do so in this case.

Secondly, what strange marriages some people have. Mr Mills receives what he thinks is a gift of £400,000 and doesn't tell his wife?

Beam me up Scottie!

Has someone put a curse on the building? The Evening News reports:
"URGENT safety checks were being carried out on the roof of the Scottish Parliament today after one of the beams in the main chamber broke free during a debate. The 12ft oak beam was left hanging in mid-air over the Tory benches after it came loose from its moorings this morning.
A debate on the water industry was suspended following the scare so that structural engineers could examine the roof. Deputy Presiding Officer Murray Tosh told MSPs to clear the chamber, adding: "We are urgently assessing the position at the moment to decide whether it is safe to proceed. We have asked the structural engineers to come as quickly as possible to assess the situation."
Meanwhile, parliamentary business is suspended.

Update: Ironically, the scheduled subject for parliamentary debate this afternoon was architecture.

"Let's get physical"

Sometimes The Guardian is just depressing (here):
"One big packet of Kettle crisps, (728 kcal per 150g)
To burn this off:
Run for 50 minutes
Walk for 2h 25m
Sit quietly for 8h 15m

KitKat (508kcal per four fingers)
Run for 37 minutes
Walk for 1h 40m
Sit quietly for 5h 45m

Sources: Calorie Counter, Collins Gem Fitnessonline.com
Times for a 10-stone person walking at 3mph or running at 7mph."
It is small consolation to know that these exercise options are alternatives rather than cumulative.

01 March 2006


Margo MacDonald in The Evening News (here):
"THERE is nothing like a dame! The refrain from South Pacific runs through Power to the People, the report of the Power Commission, paid for by the independent Joseph Rowntree Trust and chaired by Dame Helena Kennedy of The Shaws QC - just as independent."

The only trouble is that she is not a Dame. She has been Baroness (or Lady) Kennedy since 1997. Doesn't the Evening News have sub-editors any more?

Mortgages, hedge funds and the Ministerial code...

I have not hitherto been an admirer of Craig Murray's blog but this post (here) is well worth reading.

Progress with the heist

The initial approach of the police to the Tonbridge robbery appeared to be based on two rather contradictory assertions. First, that the robbery was well conceived, professionally planned and executed with "military precision"; and, second, that the robbers would nevertheless be quickly caught, not least because of the difficulties of laundering the vast sums of money. Now, more than a week after the event, the sudden absence of press statements from the boys in blue seems to suggest the possibility that, having planned the robbery so well, perhaps the robbers have also carefully planned what they would do afterwards. Meanwhile the police are engaged in what might be described as displacement activity - arresting and then releasing people, examining abandoned vehicles, appealing for help from the public - as set out for example in today's Independent (here):
"Forensic specialists were examining a white 7.5 ton Renault Midlum truck last night that was discovered in Kent. A similar lorry was filmed on surveillance cameras being driven out of the Securitas cash depot in Tonbridge, Kent, loaded with cash, on Wednesday last week.
Police hunting the six-man robbery gang were also searching a farm in Kent yesterday for traces of the stolen cash. Dozens of officers and sniffer dogs examined outbuildings, a well and fields at Elderden Farm near Maidstone...
Kent Police are hoping that examination of the lorry will yield clues to the identity of the robbers. Detectives have continued to carry out raids in Kent and yesterday arrested a woman in connection with the inquiry. Four men are being questioned, while a further seven suspects have been arrested and released on bail."

Is the investigation actually going anywhere?