31 August 2006

Nostalgia's not what it used to be...

So farewell Airfix.

The fighter planes were the easiest - the Spitfire, the Hurricane, the ME-109. The Mosquito was slightly more difficult; the Lancaster was a nightmare. And the ships were a bit fiddly - the Graf Spee, the Bismarck. Then there was the silly wee tubes of glue, which if you squeezed them too hard burst at the wrong end.

But it was part of every male childhood in the 1950s. Like everyone else, I put the hours in. Hey, it was fun. And, for that, much thanks.

Notes from the bunker

This blog has come into possession of what purports to be an extract from the diary of a Scottish Executive special adviser:

31 August 2006

Well, as you can imagine, all hell broke loose yesterday when the FM got back to the office after his business breakfast with the Chamber of Commerce. Douglas asked the FM who had briefed him to say that the dispersal of public sector jobs away from Edinburgh would be good for Edinburgh's economy. The FM said that he had intended it as 'a sort of joke'; he didn't expect the press to pick it up. Douglas pointed out that the story was emblazoned on newsagents' billboards all over the city, that the private office had been fielding calls from furious Labour MSPs, that Councillor Aitken had already issued a refutation of the FM's remarks and that the party HQ was in something of a lather (to put it mildly). The FM went into a mood (an increasing tendency these days) and allegedly muttered that it would blow over soon enough. Apparently, it is 'the battle of ideas' that matters. When asked, I told Douglas that I didn't know what he meant, either.

We junior special advisers reckon that the FM is losing the plot. He won't listen to anyone outside the charmed circle. Even cabinet meetings have become a formality - if there is no immediate agreement on an issue, the responsible minister is invited to submit a memo (which then sits on the FM's desk for months). He won't speak to anyone in Westminster (and no-one in Westminster will speak to him).

He has always been a bit flakey; remember that bloody pin-striped kilt (or the golf club dinner)? But the gaffes seem to have been coming thick and fast lately, from the World Cup to that business about the only problem with independence being how to get there. And now this latest mess. And each time, the FM draws further into his shell and away from the world. It's as if we can just ignore next May's elections. He refuses to attack the SNP or the LibDems; even the Tories are allowed to self-destruct quietly, without any help from Labour. He says that, as the father of the Best Small Nation in the World, he is above that sort of thing.

Meanwhile Long Tom and Margaret Who Must Be Obeyed are plotting insurrection with Scary Lesley from party HQ. The whisper is that they have the blessing of the Big Yin from the Treasury. We understand that they were originally content to bide their time until after next May. But the electoral damage is now likely to be so severe that there is talk of of an early confidence vote to be followed by a speedy special party conference.

Things can only get worse!

Some confusion here

They don't seem to have sub-editors any more. The Evening News reports:
"Minister for wind power

ENTERPRISE Minister Nicol Stephen has given his backing to wind power off Scotland's shores following a visit to a site in Peniche, Portugal.
City-based Ocean Power Delivery organised the trip to its Pelamis wave energy project."

The clue lies in the third last word. There is a difference between wind power and wave energy. The Executive press release is here.

Compare and contrast...

Here are the opening sentences of three articles on the same subject by different newspapers.

First, The Guardian (here):
"Johnston Press ... painted a bleak outlook for advertising revenue yesterday as it reported a 2.9% fall in profits. Pre-tax profits for the half-year to June 30 dipped to £79.8m from £82.2m a year ago. Like-for-like advertising revenues fell 8.8%. Its chief executive, Tim Bowdler, said the second half had started as the first half had finished, with "no discernable improvement in advertising revenues".
The Herald (here):
"Johnston Press ... yesterday said it was experiencing the worst slump in newspaper advertising revenues in 15 years as it reported a near-3% fall in first-half profit. The group reported an 8.8% fall in like-for-like advertising revenues, and warned it did not anticipate an early recovery. The company's pre-tax profits for the first six months came in at £79.8m, down from £82.2m for the same period last year."

and The Scotsman (here):
"JOHNSTON Press saw a 5 per cent rise in its share price yesterday after revealing a robust performance on profit margins, and an 18 per cent rise in revenues to £312.2 million."
No prizes for guessing which newspaper is owned by Johnston Press.

30 August 2006

Foot in mouth syndrome spreads...

I think that the First Minister might regret saying this. The Evening News reports:
"JACK McCONNELL today claimed moving thousands of public sector jobs out of Edinburgh was good for the city.
The First Minister said the policy of relocating civil service and quango posts away from the Capital was "pro-Edinburgh" because it gave more opportunity for the private sector to grow."

And I suppose that those areas to which the jobs are dispersed are being deprived of the opportunity to grow the private sector. That will be why council leaders in Glasgow, Inverness, Dundee and elsewhere are queueing up to condemn the policy of re-locating public sector jobs to their areas.

Something of a gift to opposition parties in the Edinburgh area?


Bandwagons are for jumping on. The Herald reports:
"Cleaning failures at one of Scotland's newest hospitals were yesterday blamed on the private firm managing the building...
Nigel Griffiths, Labour MP for Edinburgh South, said he would be calling a public meeting during the next month to investigate the problem.He said he would ask staff organisations such as the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, as well as patient representatives and the hospital administrators, to give evidence."

Remind me, please. Is this Nigel Griffiths not a member of the Westminster government?

Indeed, he is Deputy Leader of the Commons, no 2 to Jack Straw.

And what responsibility does he have for health matters?

Absolutely none. He would not be able to raise the issue in the House of Commons, as health in Scotland is entirely a matter for Holyrood.

And is not Mr Griffiths one of Mr Gordon Brown's henchmen?

Of long standing. And as an ally of the Chancellor, one assumes that he is a supporter of the concept of public-private partnerships (formerly the private finance initiative) which is arguably responsible for ensuring that new hospitals are run by private firms, which may (or may not) be a contributory cause of the failure to clean them properly.

29 August 2006

How black can be white

Is it myopia or a congenital inability to face reality? The Secretary of State for Defence is an optimist, according to The Independent (here):
"The British Defence Secretary, Des Browne, echoed such sentiments during a visit to Iraq yesterday to meet key Iraqi politicians including the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
"I recognise there are continuing challenges and I've seen some violence over this weekend which suggests there's much more work to be done," Mr Browne told a joint news conference with the Iraqi Defence Minister, Abdul Qader Jassim. "But as Prime Minister Maliki said in an interview this weekend, things are improving and the challenge is to maintain that improvement."

Things are improving? Really? From the same article:
"At least 100 people were killed across Iraq yesterday in a day of intense gun battles and suicide bombings, contradicting US military claims that the security situation in the war-torn nation was improving.
A total of 34 bodies, including seven civilians and 25 Iraqi government soldiers, were brought into the central hospital in the town of Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, after fighting between government forces and gunmen of the Mehdi Army, a Shia militia loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Fifty militiamen were also killed in the gunfight, according to the Iraqi defence ministry.
In a separate development, a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into the Interior Ministry in Baghdad during the midmorning rush hour, killing 16 people, including 13 policemen, and wounding up to 62.
On Sunday, a further 60 people were killed in attacks across the country from Kirkuk in the Kurdish-held north to Basra in the south."

It is just as well things are not getting worse.

How not to win seats and influence people

I am not accustomed to feeling sorry for Tories. But Annabel Goldie has a hard row to hoe. I could understand it if one day soon she said "stuff this for a game of soldiers" and simply walked away. The Scotsman reports her latest travails:
"THE internal backlash against the Scottish Conservative leadership and the party's MSPs gathered pace yesterday when a party grandee and former deputy chairman added her voice to the calls for change.
Mars Goodman, who was twice elected unopposed as deputy chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party, spoke out in support of the activists who have started moves to deselect the current MSPs and replace them with a new, more dynamic and enthusiastic group.
Mrs Goodman described the way the party was being run at the moment as "sheer lunacy" and said that as a result there were many good candidates who were not being given a chance to become MSPs.
She was responding to revelations in The Scotsman yesterday that senior activists in Mid Scotland and Fife have started moves which could lead to the deselection of current MSPs."

Just goes to show that not only the SSP has a deathwish.

The plot thickens

At last, some journalists are beginning to think through the implications of the SNP advance towards next May's elections. Ian Bell offers an interesting hypothesis in The Herald:
"Hard choices face the Nationalists. Polling evidence, even suspect polling evidence, points to success next May. The singular fact of Scottish political life, meanwhile, is that the LibDems are prepared to cut a deal with just about anyone, saying one thing at Westminster and another at Holyrood. But does the SNP really want to risk a forfeit by betting a historic electoral victory against a very risky referendum? It is hard to see how Salmond - or Sturgeon, for that matter - could now relinquish the pledge. Should the Nationalists attempt even to postpone a vote on independence there would be ridicule, and worse. Yet if on day 100 of an SNP administration we find ourselves deciding the fate of the UK, the British state will use every means to influence the choice.
I doubt sincerely that Salmond, or his party, or the Scottish public have thought it through. This is not Quebec. Apathetic opinion in Scotland will not stand for a vote ceaselessly repeated, generation after generation. The SNP, in other words, will have one shot at convincing us. If it fails..., there will be no good reason for a Nationalist party even to exist. Ironically enough, that will suit some within Salmond's party. It will not impress many of the rest of us, however. Independent or not? There is no room for intellectually-respectable obfuscation, even in a globalised world. Still, you glean the distinct impression that the SNP might yet regret even asking the question."

I continue to think that it is too easy to dismiss the legal obstacles in the way of the Scottish Parliament setting up an independence referendum, for the reasons given here.

And even if the SNP became the largest party in the Parliament (which would require it to make even more gains than presently anticipated - the SNP has 26 seats at present compared with 50 for Labour), there is no guarantee that they would necessarily attract the support of the LibDems or the Greens against the counter-offers that would come from Labour.

On the (debatable) assumption that the SNP and Labour each collects between 35 and 40 seats, with the LibDems on the 20 to 25 mark, my own prediction would be for a period of stasis after next May, with multi-lateral negotiations failing to produce a stable coalition able to rely on majority support in the Parliament, leading eventually to a weak minority administration, thus putting the government of Scotland on a care and maintenance basis. Not an enticing prospect...

28 August 2006

Back to the future?

One of the problems with our current crop of Scottish politicians is that they have no sense of history, even recent history. The Herald reports:

"THE Labour Party plans to split Scotland's main development agency into two, creating a new quango aimed at achieving full employment.The new agency is to cover careers guidance, skills and training, splitting that from the main part of Scottish Enterprise, that would then focus on promoting business start-ups and business growth.The idea will be a key part of Labour's manifesto and election campaign, following a rift between the coalition parties about what to do with Careers Scotland and its 1100 staff, after it was decided by cabinet that it should part company with Scottish Enterprise.

Labour ministers have disagreed with Nicol Stephen, the LibDem leader and Enterprise Minister, over how the split should be handled, resulting in the current non-committal executive consultation on Careers Scotland's future."

Thus, the training functions handed to Scottish Enterprise in 1990 when it evolved from the Scottish Development Agency would be taken away. Back to square one.

But note, this is not simply a matter of re-arranging the deckchairs. Nor is the apparent indecision about Careers Scotland's future adequate justification for the change - that would really be the tail wagging the dog.

The real question is whether it makes sense to separate responsibility for skills and training from other aspects of support for economic development. Nobody thought so in 1990. Do you suppose that Labour and LibDems are thinking about that principle? Or are they just manoeuvring pointlessly around the failed bonfire of the quangoes?

This is wearying...

I suppose that it was inevitable. Following on from Mel Smith, we have another smoking 'scandal' (here in The Guardian):
"Keith Richards is used to an occasional run-in with the police, most notably drug charges during the 60s and 70s, but his law-breaking days appeared to be behind him. But the legendary rock band's guitarist is now being investigated by Glasgow city council after it received reports that he had broken Scotland's smoking ban.
Council officials confirmed yesterday they are to launch an inquiry to whether the Stones' axeman lit up on stage at Glasgow's Hampden Park last Friday night when the band played there in their Bigger Bang European tour."

Cue outraged critics of political correctness, scandalised health fascists and thunderstruck libertarians. All so predictable. And a story that will be repeated ad nauseam until the equivalent English smoking ban is in place.

26 August 2006

Oh dear...

Nobody comes out of this story very well. Incredibly, the BBC website has it as its lead story:
"The Catholic Church has criticised Scottish prosecutors for cautioning the Celtic goalkeeper for crossing himself during a match against Rangers.
Artur Boruc was cautioned for a breach of the peace over the incident at an Old Firm match at Ibrox in February.
The Catholic Church called it "worrying and alarming" - especially as the sign of the cross was globally accepted as a "gesture of religious reverence".
The Crown Office said the gesture was provocative and caused crowd trouble.
It said the procurator fiscal had issued the caution as an alternative to prosecution.
The Crown Office said Boruc's behaviour had taken place before a crowd in the charged atmosphere of a match between Celtic and rivals Rangers.
As such it constituted a breach of the peace."

Perhaps Mr Boruc might have thought a little more carefully before winding up the Rangers fans. Perhaps the Rangers fans might have been a little less willing to be wound up. Perhaps the police might have been a little more sensible by having a quiet word, rather than reporting the matter to the Procurator Fiscal. Perhaps the PF might have sought to avoid elevating an essentially trivial matter into criminal proceedings. Perhaps the Catholic Church might have sought to avoid stirring a matter which has little to do with religion. And perhaps the BBC might have exercised more editorial sense in giving this story a prominence which it does not deserve.


"Neither Celtic Football Club or Rangers have commented on the cautioning."


Mr Eugenides has a fuller account of what happened. The comments on his post are significant for what they reveal about the attitudes of some in Scotland. I have already deleted one comment on my own post; this blog is not an excuse for anti-Polish or anti-Catholic remarks. Anything which I consider to be abusive will be excised. If you don't like it, tough.

25 August 2006

There's only one Jan etc

Celtic's latest signing is a striker with the name of Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. The Guardian explains the unusual name:
According to our research, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink was thus named because, way back in the 17th century, two farming families in the Enschede area of Holland intermarried. Both the Vennegoor and Hesselink names carried equal social weight, and so - rather than choose between them - they chose to use both.
'Of' in Dutch actually translates to 'or', which would mean that a strict translation of his name would read Jan Vennegoor or Hesselink."

None of which explains how they will fit the name on to the back of his jersey.

24 August 2006


So farewell Pluto.

You may not have been as big as the other (real) planets. OK, your orbit wandered occasionally (even inside that of Neptune). And you were ever so far away.

But it won't be the same without you.

Brave New World - maybe?

It is now a couple of days since I had a go at Labour's plans for next May's election (here) and it is time I turned my attention to the SNP.

The central plank of the SNP's manifesto will be (or at least so one assumes) independence. The eloquent Mr Salmond said so here:
"I believe an SNP victory next year will provide a double boost for our nation.
"First it will remove the dead hand of Labour rule in one of their traditional heartlands and mark the beginning of the end of the Blair era in Britain.
"But most importantly for Scotland it will mean the election of a real Scottish government. A government determined to put Scotland's interests first and return Scotland to her rightful place among the other nations of the world.
"Success will lead to a referendum in the first four years of an SNP government, giving Scots the opportunity to choose equality and prosperity through independence."

Well, there you go - simple, isn't it? The SNP and its allies (if any) win a majority in the Scottish Parliament and will then hold a referendum. Well, it's not quite that simple. As is pointed out here, the Scottish Parliament is not entitled to arrange for a referendum on independence. The break-up of the United Kingdom is - appropriately enough in my view - a matter for the United Kingdom as a whole; and it would be for the UK parliament to consider legislation authorising a referendum. So the loquacious Mr Salmond cannot actually promise a referendum within four years; that would primarily depend upon Mr Blair, Mr Brown or Mr Cameron. Of course, if the SNP were to command a majority in the Scottish Parliament which was in favour of a referendum on independence, it might well be the prudent course for a Westminster administration to accede to their demands (particularly as it is far from clear that the majority of the Scottish population would actually vote for independence), but it is somewhat remote from being a foregone conclusion (even if there are straws in the wind suggesting that certain parties in England might not be averse to cutting the ties that might otherwise bind). But it would be more honest if the SNP admitted that an SNP victory would be a prelude to lengthy and complicated negotiations with whoever was in power at Westminster before any referendum took place.

So what else is on offer? Well, here is Ms Sturgeon's goodie bag:
"To provide dignity and security for pensioners, we favour a Citizen's Pension, non-means tested and linked to earnings. The Scottish Parliament, regrettably, does not yet have the power to make that change.
"It does, however, have the power to tackle the crippling impact of the council tax and it will be an early priority of an SNP government to do just that...
"That is why the SNP will abolish the council tax and replace it with a local income tax based on the ability to pay.
"This will directly benefit the vast majority of pensioners in Scotland.
"Under the SNP proposals the 538,000 pensioners who pay no income tax will have the council tax abolished and will pay no local income tax either. There will be no ifs or buts, no means tests – half a million pensioners will simply have nothing to pay.
"Indeed, with a local income tax the vast majority – at least 90% - of pensioners in Scotland will pay either nothing or less than they do now."

Leaving aside the internal inconsistencies here (no means test, no ifs or buts, but up to ten per cent of pensioners might pay more than they do now), let us focus on this "early priority" of the SNP. The switch from council tax to local income tax would be complicated and would require a major piece of legislation. Unless an SNP administration were prepared to set up an income tax gathering organisation (which might be extremely expensive), I assume that they would ask the Inland Revenue to collect the local income tax and distribute it to the local authorities. The Inland Revenue would of course charge for this, as it would be complex to administer - it is implicit in a local income tax that different local authorities might charge different tax rates, so that the Revenue might have to ask employers to make different levels of deductions from the salaries of local taxpayers in Edinburgh compared to those in Fife.

Which leads us on to the next problem: some of those taxpayers in Fife actually work in Edinburgh. Accordingly, the Revenue would need to ask an employer to make varying levels of deductions, according to the location of the residential address of their employees. It's a lot more complicated than the present system and it is going to cost a lot more to administer.

I do not propose to discuss the interaction of the benefits system with a local income tax system but, believe me, it is far from straightforward. And all of this before we even begin to consider the position of pensioners.

None of this is rocket science - the problems with local income tax were identified in the 1970s green paper on local government finance. Local income tax is far from impossible, but there would require to be lengthy discussions and consultations before any legislation could even be drafted, far less implemented. Perhaps the SNP have sorted all this out and know precisely what they are going to do. Unless they have done so, it is misleading to claim that pensioners can look forward to an "early" release from the burdens of council tax.

So where are the SNP in relation to next May's election? My suspicion is that they are not at all prepared if they win. It is not just that they are opportunists; worse, they do not seem to do their homework. Maybe I'm wrong and there are policy wonks beavering away behind the scenes, but it seems unlikely...

Integration, cohesion, diversity, multi-culturalism and all that, but not beyond Berwick

Does Ruth Kelly's new commission on integration and cohesion have any remit outside England? Her speech of announcement (here) is full of references to Britain, Britons and British, but the press release (here) carefully avoids any specific reference to Britain.

The facts that the commission is to report to Ms Kelly and not jointly to the communities ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (as well) and that none of the members of the commission is based outside England suggest that this is a purely English exercise. Which is probably just as well, as the problems in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales may be rather different. But, in the unlikely event of any useful recommendations emerging from the commission, these could no doubt be implemented beyond the English borders.

But it does leave one wondering at the value of a commission for integration and cohesion which is restricted to England. Not exactly inclusive, is it?

A tactical error?

You have to be sure of your ground if you are going to take on the anti-smoking lobby. But little deters the Scottish Licensed Trade Association. The Herald reports:
"SCOTLAND'S pubs could lose more than £150m this year because of the smoking ban, licensed trade representatives said yesterday. However, the trade was told that there will be no turning back regarding the ban. The £150m figure is the estimated annual cash impact of an 11% drop in drink sales, according to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, which represents around a third of pubs. Food sales in licensed premises have also dropped, by 3%."

These figures are undermined by the following in the same newspaper:
"About 20% (365) of the SLTA's 1700 members took part in the survey, which was carried out in July, three months into the smoking ban."

So the survey covered one-third of 20% of Scottish pubs, or 365 out of the total of about 5,000, with no indication that the respondents were a representative sample. This means that some pretty heroic assumptions must have been made in grossing up losses to the figure of £150m. And it is far from difficult to find some big city centre pubs where trade is holding up. The SLTA might have done better to concentrate on the impact on particular kinds of rural or suburban pubs, rather than seeking to paint a picture at national level.

23 August 2006

EU expansion

Most surprisingly, The Telegraph seems unworried about the imminent influx of Romanians and Bulgarians (here):
"Bowing to tabloid headlines about Britain being swamped by immigrants, the Government has also started dropping stern hints about limiting workers from Romania and Bulgaria. Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister, declared yesterday: "There are any number of restrictions, controls and management tools that we can put on."
Stirring stuff, minister, but - like it or not - it is also cobblers. Within the first two years after Romanian and Bulgarian accession, the United Kingdom would be able to oblige citizens from those states to obtain work permits before they can work legally in a full-time job. And that, more or less, is it. If EU citizens are self-employed, or students, or claim on entry to be tourists, their access to Britain cannot be restricted at all.
Whitehall officials say stoutly that they have the power to impose limits on Romanian and Bulgarian "access to the UK labour market". But what does that actually mean? It basically means the Government could create some new offences, specially to cover Romanians and Bulgarians: working without a work permit, or employing someone from those two nations without a permit.
Given that we cannot close our borders, and average household incomes in Romania and Bulgaria are a tenth of those in Britain, it is not hard to guess one major outcome of creating such new offences: thousands will come anyway, but this time as criminals.
As a convinced free-marketeer, I must admit to moral qualms about welcoming people to live in my country, then turning them into criminals, just because they want to work for a living.
But if moral arguments do not work, try self-interest. Expanding Britain's black economy is not a good idea. It would be bad for the health of society. It would reduce tax revenues, and hurt British workers, too. As long as east Europeans are working legally, their broad pay and conditions can only fall so far. Once people are on the black, employers can treat them as near-slaves, putting far more pressure on legal workers."

According to The Guardian, however, the German government is made of sterner stuff (here):
"Germany is threatening to derail the planned entry of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU on January 1, forcing its postponement for a year as fears grow over Europe's capacity to absorb new members.
Yesterday Horst Köhler, the German president, urged the two countries to overcome clear deficits in their judicial systems and in the fight against corruption ahead of a final "monitoring" report by the European commission next month on their progress towards meeting the political criteria for entry.
Germany, along with Belgium, Denmark, France and Ireland, has so far failed to ratify the accession treaty for Bulgaria and Romania and Mr Köhler indicated it would wait until after the commission report on September 26 to start the parliamentary process. Ratification is due by December 31 at the latest."

Keyboards and stuff

IS CAPS LOCK NECESSARY? Probably not, says The Independent (here).

What does he mean?

Ministers occasionally come out with utterances which are gnomic at best. The Herald has this:
"Health Minister Andy Kerr yesterday broke his silence to defend the closure of an accident and emergency department near his constituency...
He said: "I am firmly of the view it is in the best interests of patients." Mr Kerr claimed his reaction would have been the same if Hairmyres had been selected as a lower level emergency hospital.
He said: "The beauty in my view of all of this is we appoint health boards. They do all of that work and it is their job to recommend. The prospect of going to bed at night thinking 'that was a good political decision', knowing patients are going to die in five years' time, is something I do not do."

I think we know what he is trying to say, but disentangling that final sentence is impossible. Is Mr Kerr implying that health board members and officials go to bed thinking about the death of patients in five years' time? Surely not. But then again...

22 August 2006


The Register explains how it might have been done:
"Once the plane is over the ocean, very discreetly bring all of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several trips to avoid drawing attention. Once your kit is in place, put a beaker containing the peroxide/acetone mixture into the ice water bath (Champagne bucket), and start adding the [sulphuric] acid, drop by drop, while stirring constantly. Watch the reaction temperature carefully. The mixture will heat, and if it gets too hot, you'll end up with a weak explosive. In fact, if it gets really hot, you'll get a premature explosion possibly sufficient to kill you, but probably no one else.
After a few hours - assuming, by some miracle, that the fumes haven't overcome you or alerted passengers or the flight crew to your activities - you'll have a quantity of TATP with which to carry out your mission. Now all you need to do is dry it for an hour or two.
The genius of this scheme is that TATP is relatively easy to detonate. But you must make enough of it to crash the plane, and you must make it with care to assure potency. One needs quality stuff to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale," as Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson put it. While it's true that a slapdash concoction will explode, it's unlikely to do more than blow out a few windows. At best, an infidel or two might be killed by the blast, and one or two others by flying debris as the cabin suddenly depressurizes, but that's about all you're likely to manage under the most favorable conditions possible."

This is the kind of despicable rubbish that American bloggers promulgate, even although they cite academic authorities to support their contentions. I am absolutely sure that Scotland Yard knows what it is doing. Maybe. One hopes...

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick!

Yesterday's Scotsman had an interesting (insofar as these issues can be regarded as interesting) article about Scottish Labour's strategy for next May's elections. The newspaper reported the dismissal of allegations that Mr McConnell was set to play a 'small nationalist' card; it stated:
"A Labour spokesman said: "Jack McConnell's record as First Minister speaks for itself. The Scottish economy is growing, we are investing in our schools and hospitals, and we have taken the tough action necessary to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour in our communities.
"The First Minister has led from the front on banning smoking in enclosed public spaces and tackling sectarianism. We approach the elections next year with a proud record of achievement, a strong First Minister and a clear vision for the future of Scotland."
A spokesman for Mr McConnell also rejected reports that Lesley Quinn, Labour's senior official in Scotland, had warned him he could not "out Nat the Nats", that he feared that Ms Deacon would speak out against him, and that he wanted to win more powers from Westminster. All three claims were "not true", the spokesman said.
He added that Labour's campaign would be based on the benefits of "stability and prosperity" delivered through working in partnership with the UK government."

Not really inspiring, is it?

Is the Scottish economy stable? Or is it drifting, without a guiding hand on the rudder? Economic growth is broadly in line with the long-term trend and employment is at record levels, even if unemployment seems to drifting upwards. But there is little real sign that the Executive is actually making an impact, despite the priority it claims to give to the subject. Or is it unfair to criticise the Executive, given that the Chancellor has much more influence on the UK and, by implication, the Scottish economy than Mr McConnell and his cohorts? And, certainly no-one believes that the First Minister has any influence over Gordon Brown.

On health, waiting times are said to be down; although there may be some doubt as to whether the population believes the story. Furthermore, yesterday's row about Monklands A & E will once again put closures in the front of the public mind.

Are our schools significantly better? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? Teachers are paid a lot more but are they delivering the goods?

On transport, nothing seems to have happened. Sure, the Transport Agency is in the process of being set up; and the M74 extension is under way (despite the planning report to the contrary) or about to get under way; but, like the proposals for the Forth Bridge, nothing has actually been delivered. Meanwhile, efforts to deal with traffic congestion seem to have taken a step back (which is not directly attributable to the Executive which kept its collective head well below the parapet).

Crime and anti-social behaviour are something of a disaster. It sometimes seems as if a stream of reports appear, indicating the lack of progress against the war on neds. Furthermore, Scotland's drugs problem seems to be getting worse.

It is perhaps significant that the one touted success is the smoking ban. There have been other successes: some tentative moves to deal with sectarianism (OK not far enough nor fast enough but more than any other party would have done); and, perhaps the most significant of all in the long term, the reform of the local government voting system which may just once and for all bring about the end of the Labour rotten boroughs system in much of Central Scotland. But none of these apparent successes is likely to appeal to the Labour heartland.

Accordingly, if Mr McConnell is proposing to run on the basis of his record in office, he better start thinking about how to polish up his trophies. What is surprising is that nothing appears to be happening - no-one in party circles is even talking about the manifesto, still less canvassing ideas for inclusion. There is no sign of a campaign organisation. Even such issues as who will be on the party lists seem to be on the backburner. All very strange...

In case anyone thinks that I have it in for Labour in particular, I will be preparing parallel posts on the other parties over the next few days.

Who's up, who's down?

Politicalbetting.com analyses the latest Guardian ICM poll (in a rather more authoritative manner than The Guardian itself):
"The headline figures with changes on last month are CON 40% (+1): LAB 31% (-4): LDEM 22% (+5). So the main driver of the change has been a big switch from Labour to the Lib Dems with the Tory share advancing one point. But that small increase takes Cameron’s party above the 40% mark for the first time in an ICM poll since 1992.
The new leader’s relationship with parts of his party is such that you almost think that the people who will be most upset by today’s numbers will be the hard-liners who daily vent their anger at ConservativeHome.
For David Cameron this survey, from the pollster which has traditionally shown lower Tory numbers, will provide reinforcement as he seeks to answer the growing band of critics of his change programme. They might not like the direction that Cameron is taking them but they cannot argue with the numbers.
Labour’s 31% share is, according to the paper, at a 19 year low and could not have come at a worse time for Tony Blair as he plans his return from his Caribbean holiday. Of all the monthly polls ICM is probably the one taken the most seriously and these figures will provide more ammunition for those who want a change at Number 10 now.
For Ming Campbell the poll movement to the Lib Dems will reinforce his position ahead of next month’s party conference. There’s little doubt that the Lebanon war has played a big part in shaping opinion and the Lib Dem leader’s surefootedness on this and other foreign policy issues is holding him in good stead."

Dr John Reid's domination of the headlines seems to have had little reward in the public estimation. So perhaps the people are less gullible than the commentariat thinks.

It is incidentally a matter of regret that specifically Scottish opinion polls are so infrequent.

The war on lipstick and gel-filled bras

This is becoming more than slightly ridiculous. The Telegraph reports:
"Britain's main airport operator yesterday banned all cosmetics from passengers' hand luggage unless the items were bought at shops in the departure lounge.
Under the new restrictions, imposed by BAA, travellers are forbidden to take talcum powder, lipstick, eyeliner and mascara through security control.
These items had been exempted from the ban, while other cosmetics such as lip gloss had been banned from the start of the terrorist alert. The move was designed to end confusion, said a spokesman for BAA which owns Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports.
Transatlantic passengers found their position unchanged with all cosmetics and liquids banned from the flight cabin, even if they were bought at duty free shops before boarding.
It emerged last night that the BAA directive was its interpretation of the instructions issued last week by the Department for Transport.
Some airports were taking a different line. Cardiff, for example, allowed passengers to take talcum powder, lipstick and eyeliner through security as long as they were X-rayed before being allowed into the departure lounge.
Birmingham airport's website said it was still allowing passengers to take lipstick on board. However, it explicitly banned gel-filled bras."

I confess that I am not entirely sure what a gel-filled bra is, but the ban would seem rather discriminatory in relation to those women who wear such a garment.

However, it is delightful that the BAA announcement 'was designed to end confusion'.

Lanarkshire profonde

In deepest darkest Lanarkshire, a bitter battle is being waged by three luminaries of the Labour movement. The Herald reports:
"A POLITICAL backlash erupted last night after ministers axed a hospital accident and emergency unit serving one of Scotland's poorest communities. Labour politicians led the attack against the decision to reduce emergency care at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie to a minor injuries service...
John Reid, Home Secretary and MP for Airdrie and Shotts, was among the first to condemn Mr Macdonald's announcement. He said: "It is extremely disappointing that Lewis Macdonald has failed to see sense and overturn the flawed decision of NHS Lanarkshire to close the Monklands Hospital accident and emergency department. "NHS Lanarkshire conspicuously failed to take into account issues of social and health inequality in making their original decision. By endorsing that decision Lewis MacDonald has not only ignored these important factors but also the opinions of almost 50,000 people in North Lanarkshire, who signed a petition in support of Monklands A&E."

Even allowing for his constituency interest, the decision by a leading Westminster politician to attack a party colleague at Holyrood in such terms reveals the strength of feeling. The Herald also reveals the quandary of Mr Macdonald:
"However the debate in Lanarkshire, which is also home to the Wishaw constituency of First Minister Jack McConnell, has been particularly tense. One political spokesman told The Herald that there was no way a junior health minister was going to overturn NHS Lanarkshire's decision if it meant that he would have to tell Mr Kerr or Mr McConnell he wanted to close a hospital service in their constituency. He said: "It has been a stitch-up from start to finish."

By such considerations of the public good do our enlightened leaders decide what is best for you and me. The issue will remain a running sore for Labour up to and beyond next May's elections.

21 August 2006

All right for some

The well paid life of a football pundit. The Independent comments upon Alan Hansen's remuneration by The Telegraph:
"The football pundit's cheery appearance in the BBC commentary box may owe something to the magnificent pay deal he enjoys. For a column a week, this is reported by colleagues to be not unadjacent to £110,000 a year. In return for this fee, Hansen spends a few minutes dictating his thoughts down the telephone to a hapless writer at the paper's Canary Wharf office. Given that the Telegraph last year made dozens of journalists redundant as part of "cost-cutting", you've got to wonder."
£2,000 a week for a ghost-written column! And, additionally, one assumes that Mr Hansen is generously rewarded by the BBC for his bons mots anent the beautiful game. I can remember when he played for Partick Thistle...

20 August 2006

Shock! Horror!

Do bears do their business in the woods? Scotland on Sunday thinks so:
"JACK McConnell is set to be ousted as First Minister if Labour loses seats at next year's Holyrood elections, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Senior party sources warn there is serious doubt about McConnell's future as leader, amid growing concern that Labour will be hammered at the polls next May.
One well-placed insider said that even if Labour remained the biggest party, a small drop in support would be likely to trigger an immediate MSPs' vote of no confidence in McConnell.
And some of the First Minister's allies now admit that even should he survive the coming election, he will be gone "within a couple of years".

It would not really be a big surprise: political party loses election, party leader gets sacked. When was it ever different?

Pots and kettles

Now it's the FBI's fault. The Obsserver reports:
"Anti-terror police in Britain have made an angry request to their US counterparts asking them to stop leaking details of this month's suspected bomb plot over fears that it could jeopardise the chances of a successful prosecution and hamper the gathering of evidence.
The British security services, MI5 and MI6, are understood to be dismayed that a number of sensitive details surrounding the alleged plot - including an FBI estimate that as many as 50 people were involved - were leaked to the media.
FBI sources confirmed to The Observer that the bureau had been ordered to stop briefing at the request of the British authorities. 'The shutters have come down,' a bureau source said. 'We have been told not to discuss the case any more.'"

Never mind the constant drip of UK police 'sources' - from the suitcase in the woods to yesterday's martyrdom videos (here).

18 August 2006

Creating an impression

Is Dr John Reid pandering to The Daily Mail? Alf Young in The Herald provides some useful statistical analysis:

"His own government, through the department for work and pensions, produces regularly updated statistics on the number of national insurance numbers allocated to overseas nationals entering the UK. The latest series was published only last month. It does show that something approaching 700,000 migrant workers (662,400 to be precise) were allocated NI numbers in 2005/06.

But they came from all over the world. Only 270,000 of them were from the eight EU accession countries, including 171,000 from Poland. Over the past four years, despite the Mail's fallacious claim, the number of workers from eastern Europe allocated NI numbers comes to 412,000. And according to recent research commissioned by the Home Office itself, many employers in low-skilled sectors such as agriculture, hotels and catering and parts of business services believe their businesses "would suffer or could not survive without migrant labour". Many of the jobs simply don't attract home-grown takers.

In this study, employers praised migrant workers for their motivation, reliability, flexibility and work ethic. And in the Home Office's own accession monitoring report, which tracks all those registering under the UK's worker registration scheme, most workers from eastern Europe are described as "young and single". Eighty two per cent are aged between 18 and 34. Ninety five percent have no dependants living with them. They produced only 1700 applications for income related benefits, child benefit, tax credits and housing support in the year to June 2005. And only 50 of those were allowed to proceed to further consideration.

So where are these hordes of greedy migrants from eastern Europe, stealing British jobs and putting unsupportable stresses on our public services? For all economic migrants coming to the UK, the proportion on out-of-work benefits has fallen from 11% in 2000/01 to just 3% in 2004/05. Home Office ministers should start reading their own research evidence.

Remember this the next time you read about how the hordes of East European immigrants are swamping Britain's public services.

If you go down to the woods today...

The Guardian reports:
"Anti-terror police investigating the alleged plot to blow up passenger planes have discovered a suitcase containing bomb components, it was reported last night.
According to the BBC, the find was made by officers searching King's Wood in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. A police source told the BBC that the suitcase contained "everything you would need to make an improvised device".
Scotland Yard would not confirm or deny the reports last night, or even disclose whether a suitcase had been found."

I suppose that it's not outwith the bounds of possibility but, if I were a putative terrorist with a load of chemicals and/or detonators to hide, I rather doubt if I would stick them in a suitcase and dump it in a nearby wood. I mean, it's not really secure, is it? Kids or people walking dogs might come across it. Or it might get damp in the rain. If you can't (or don't want to) hide it in your attic or basement, than a quiet lock-up would be a better bet.

Then there's that ubiquitous police source, who invariably has something to reveal that will bolster the justifcation of the authorities in having taken action. Would that be the same 'source' that indicated that Mr de Menezes was wearing a bulky jacket, was running and jumped the barriers at Stockwell tube station?

Incidentally, also in The Guardian (here), Craig Murray reminds us that not all detainees turn out to be guilty:
"More than 1,000 British Muslims have been arrested under anti-terrorist legislation, but only 12% have been charged. That is harassment on an appalling scale. Of those charged, 80% were acquitted. Most of the few convictions - just over 2% of arrests - are nothing to do with terrorism, but some minor offence the police happened upon while trawling through the lives they have

17 August 2006

"When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver"

Here is a Scottish Executive press release:
"A new Scots language book for children will encourage a new generation to take pride in their heritage, Culture Minister Patricia Ferguson said today as Katie's Moose - a colourful board book of rhyme, illustrations and Scots words - was launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival...
Ms Ferguson said:
"Encouraging children to read and to embrace the Scots language will help fire imaginations and enable young people to be confident and creative.
"Katie's Moose will do much to introduce young children to the Scots language in an enjoyable and educational way.
"Itchy Coo's unique approach perfectly compliments the Executive's commitment to celebrate Scottish identity, and promote diversity in our culture."

It is rather sad that, in the context of an announcement about language, the Culture Minister reveals herself to be ignorant of the difference between 'compliment' and 'complement'.

George the Outsider

And why wouldn't the US President have refined literary tastes? The Guardian has the story:
"Every summer, George W Bush's holiday reading is announced. This year Bush mockers have been given pause. The president has apparently just finished Albert Camus' famous tale of alienation, L'Etranger. (In translation, c'est vrai.) Not quite what we might have expected...
There seems a high voltage in the president's choice of a novel whose white protagonist murders an Arab. But Bush's reading of The Outsider was apparently notable for the intellectual debate it sparked with his aides. "He found it an interesting book and a quick read," said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of
Without going too deep into it, "existentialist" is probably not the right word. "Absurdist" seems closer to the mark. The universe is shown to be utterly indifferent, human institutions are founded on deception and hypocrisy and the nearest thing to a moral purpose the individual can find is mere truthfulness about this bleak state of affairs. It is not quite the American Way...
All this is disturbing proof that George W is not the weird being that we had all liked to suppose. A few months ago, Camus' novel came top in a poll conducted for G2 among male Guardian-reading types, who were asked what book had most influenced them. The Outsider beat off JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five to claim the distinction of the book most likely to have changed their lives. Oh dear. Perhaps, chaps, George is one of us."

Aye, well, maybe. Albert Camus is not my idea of holiday reading. But a craving for intellectual respectability on the part of the White House is not to be sniffed at.


More unlikely literary explorations in The Herald (here):

"I must say the widespread notion that footballers are thick and illiterate - largely put about by blokes like me - really has taken a hit in the past week with the revelation that the Rangers defender Julien Rodriguez spent his summer reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I couldn't believe it when informed that the apparently cultured and bookish Rodriguez had ploughed his way through Tolstoy's 900-page classic. This is the first time in history that the Russian writer, whom I'm pleased to report fathered 13 children, has had an impact on Scottish football. What with Paul Le Guen holding an economics degree, and Rodriguez seeming to be a student of the epic 19th-century Russian novel, things might be becoming slightly highbrow in the Rangers dressing room these days. The next thing you know, Barry Ferguson, unhealthily influenced by this new rush of existentialism inside Ibrox, will be quoting Jean Paul Sartre to us at press conferences."

16 August 2006

Not just terrorists?

I don't think that this is how it was supposed to be, at least not from the point of view of the US and Israel. The New York Times reports:
"While the Israelis began their withdrawal, hundreds of Hezbollah members spread over dozens of villages across southern Lebanon began cleaning, organizing and surveying damage. Men on bulldozers were busy cutting lanes through giant piles of rubble. Roads blocked with the remnants of buildings are now, just a day after a cease-fire began, fully passable.
In Sreifa, a Hezbollah official said the group would offer an initial $10,000 to residents to help pay for the year of rent, to buy new furniture and to help feed families.
In Taibe, a town of fighting so heavy that large chunks were missing from walls and buildings where they had been sprayed with bullets, the Audi family stood with two Hezbollah volunteers, looking woefully at their windowless, bullet- and shrapnel-torn house.
In Bint Jbail, Hezbollah ambulances — large, new cars with flashing lights on the top — ferried bodies of fighters to graves out of mountains of rubble.
Hezbollah’s reputation as an efficient grass-roots social service network — as opposed to the Lebanese government, regarded by many here as sleek men in suits doing well — was in evidence everywhere. Young men with walkie-talkies and clipboards were in the battered Shiite neighborhoods on the southern edge of Bint Jbail, taking notes on the extent of the damage.
“Hezbollah’s strength,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University here, who has written extensively about the organization, in large part derives from “the gross vacuum left by the state.”
Hezbollah was not, she said, a state within a state, but rather “a state within a nonstate, actually.”

And this is from the NYT, not a newspaper known for its sympathies towards the Arab cause.

If only people would just stay where they are...

How long before there is an irretrievable breakdown in transport? The Herald reports:
"SCOTLAND has one car for every two residents, according to statistics released yesterday which showed almost every aspect of travel is growing, some of it dramatically. Increased prosperity has been cited for the transport boom.
The car continues to be king – for the first time, last year saw the vehicles registered on Scotland's roads topping 2.5 million."
But where are all these cars to go?
"The evidence is clearer from the numbers crossing the Forth Bridge. With congestion now severe almost daily during peak times, it seems drivers have been put off joining the queue, so vehicle crossings have increased only slowly over the past decade, and barely at all in the past four years."
In other words, the bridge is full up. And the motorways are also choc a bloc (here):
"COMMUTERS on one of the main motorway routes in Scotland face major disruption with vital maintenance works beginning soon.The £2.5m eight-week scheme to replace both carriageways of the M80 between the M876 and the overbridge at Denny begins on August 25. The section of motorway links Glasgow and the west of Scotland with Stirling and the north, carrying around 17,000 vehicles daily."
Nor is air travel any better (here):
"British Airways announced it was cancelling 46 of its flights out of UK airports today – five more than yesterday – and said it was still trying to reunite 5000 pieces of luggage with their owners. A further 5000 bags remain missing. A large proportion are from Scotland, and two lorryloads of baggage were on their way to Glasgow yesterday to be sorted and sent on to passengers. The airline, which will axe three long-haul and 32 short-haul flights from Heathrow, and 11 domestic flights from Gatwick Airport, said BAA's advice about yesterday's arrangements had come too late to prevent it having to cancel 41 flights at Heathrow."
End result: misery. I don't know what we do about this but the current transport position is surely unsustainable.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Transport is worried about lobsters (here):
"WHEN Douglas Alexander lifted his lobster pots off the Ross of Mull near Fionnphort last Wednesday morning, little did he think he would be back in Whitehall only five hours later embroiled in one of the biggest security threats ever faced in the UK. Rather, he was wondering what he had to do to catch a lobster, instead of the solitary crab that was the only result of his labours."

Newspaper hype

Here is a rather desperate attempt by The Herald to jazz up a story:
"It is as distinctive for the birds as it is for humans: proof that an avian species has its own Scottish accent has been used to settle a long-running ornithological dispute. Controversy has raged over the past quarter of a century since the Scottish crossbill was identified as a separate species, endemic to the UK, and different from the common crossbill."

Oh wow! A bird with a Scottish accent? Unfortunately, the rest of the story is less exciting:
"Scotland's conifer woods are home to the common crossbill which has a small bill best suited to extracting seeds from spruce cones; the parrot crossbill with a large bill suited to extracting seeds from pine cones; and the Scottish crossbill, with a medium bill size enabling it to extract seeds from several different conifers. All three are similar in size and plumage and DNA tests have shown the birds to be genetically similar, casting doubt on the Scottish crossbill's status as a distinct species. RSPB experts say the most important evidence has come from a long-term field study which focused on discovering if the birds mate with those with a similar bill size and call, and whether young Scottish crossbills inherited their bill sizes from their parents.
Results showed that, of 46 pairs of different types of crossbills caught, almost all matched closely for bill size and calls. The fact that young crossbills had bill sizes similar to their parents showed they inherited their bill sizes, and supported the Scottish species status."

So the Scottish crossbill has a different call. Nothing to do with Scottish accents. Something of a disappointment.

Central control

Whatever happened to the democratic responsibilities of local authorities? The Herald reports:
"Councils are spending cash that was meant to fund new teachers in Scottish schools on retirement deals for staff, it was claimed yesterday, sparking a war of words between ministers and local authorities. A source close to the Scottish Executive said some councils had spent their share of an £18m package for new teachers, which was announced in December, to finance other priorities...
An executive spokeswoman said: "We have made it clear to councils that we expect funds allocated to provide extra teachers to do just that. "Mr Peacock has written to directors of education and finance in connection with the recent announcement and also provided each local authority with targets for the number of teachers they need to have in post in 2007."

So there you have it: as clear a statement as you could wish for that the Executive considers local education authorities to be delivery agents who should do exactly what they are told, no more and no less. Never mind all those elected councillors; Mr Peacock will determine how many teachers a local authority will employ.

Do you suppose that this system will bring about better education for our children? Or that it will encourage healthy local government?

14 August 2006

As you were...

Well, that's a relief. The BBC reports:
"The terror threat to the UK has been downgraded from critical to severe. Home Secretary John Reid said the change was made because an attack was "highly likely" but not "imminent".
The change in the threat level means the ban on taking hand luggage on to flights from the UK has been lifted, although some restrictions remain.
Meanwhile, a British Airways flight from Heathrow to New York has been turned back because a mobile phone - banned at the time - was on board.
The change in the terror threat level was made by the Joint Terrorism and Analysis Centre based on latest intelligence."

Even though it is hard to see what aspects of the "terror threat" could have changed between Saturday morning and yesterday evening to justify the downgrading of the threat level, we must believe that the change was made for security reasons. It would be excessively cynical to suppose that the downgrading had been driven by the obvious failure of Heathrow to cope with the ban on hand luggage, would it not?

Just because The Guardian reports:
"Last night John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, was meeting with John Reid, the home secretary, and Douglas Alexander, the transport secretary, to try and resolve the chaos still at some British airports following the increased security measures. Mr Prescott made private visits to Stansted and Humberside airports yesterday to talk to the public and staff about security
measures. "

this should not be taken to mean that the security threat level is driven by considerations of airport chaos, should it?

Because if that were the case, one might start to question what had driven the threat up to the critical level in the first place...

13 August 2006

Power crazy

The Independent reports:
"Britain's seemingly insatiable appetite for the latest plasma screen televisions could be posing a serious threat to the planet, a technology expert has warned.
If just half of British homes were to buy one of the flat-screen sets, two more nuclear power stations would be needed to meet the extra energy demand - with all the environmental problems that would bring.
The new sets use up to four times as much electricity as the old-style cathode-ray tube TVs, which is where the problem lies. Even so, the sets sold fast during this summer's football World Cup, with one reportedly being sold every 15 seconds."

How long before some politician demands that the owners of plasma screens should pay a higher TV licence fee?

At last...

Even Iain Macwhirter 'doesn't get it'. The Sunday Herald opines:

"Britain has been dragged into the frontline of an unnecessary conflict by leaders who seem unable or unwilling to understand the magnitude of their failure. The invasion and occupation of a Muslim nation, under the bogus pretext of removing weapons of mass destruction, was seen by many in the Muslim world as a war crime. The chaos in Iraq and the daily death toll testify to the folly of the policy, as does the continuing threat from terrorist bombing in the West, which the invasion of Iraq was supposed to eradicate. And still, in their uncritical support of Israel, Tony Blair and George W Bush are alienating the entire Muslim world from Birmingham to Baghdad.

We are led by fools, global agents provocateurs who exploited our fears of terrorism to justify a show of force in the Middle East that has only demonstrated their weakness. Who pretend they are Churchills and Roosevelts defending Western civilisation, but who have, by their own stupidity and ignorance of history, undermined the very foundation of that civilisation by flouting international law and the human rights conventions established by the victors of the second world war. Who lecture the world on liberty and freedom while dismantling civil liberties at home.

And now, after the abortive bottle bombs, comes another raft of security measures
from a hard-man Home Secretary, John Reid, who is clearly revelling in this “super-critical” terror alert. A Spinal Tap statesman turning his level up to 11, who says “traditional concepts of individual rights and freedom are outmoded in the face of the 21st-century terror threat”, insulting the memory of the millions who died in the 20th century to defend those rights and freedoms.

Oh yes, Mr Reid, we get it, all right. Your “war” is possibly the greatest policy disaster ever perpetrated by democratically elected leaders. And it was lost even before it began."

Great stuff; and it is worth reading the whole article. If even the relatively mild-mannered (if occasionally cynical) Mr Macwhirter is prepared to issue denunciations in such uncompromising terms, then perhaps the government are in more trouble than they think.

Artificial arguments

Well, what did they expect? The Scottish Parliament is not all powerful. The Sunday Herald discovers what has never been hidden:
"HOLYROOD would not have the power to organise a referendum on independence in the event of an SNP victory next year, according to official Scottish Executive guidance.
A poll on creating a separate Scottish state could only be arranged by MPs because the constitution is reserved to Westminster.
Now the Executive’s own advice states MSPs cannot offer Scots a vote on whether to remain part of Britain. A paper on independence states: “Scottish parliament does not have the powers to pass legislation authorising expenditure on any referendum. [It] can only pass legislation in devolved areas, and since the UK constitution is a reserved area, it would be ultra vires [beyond its power] for the parliament to pass legislation to authorise a referendum on any aspect of the constitution.” The guidance adds: “Neither can Scottish ministers have any function in connection with the holding of such a referendum.”
If, by some remote chance (but growing less remote by the day), the SNP and other parties favouring independence commanded a majority in the Scottish Parliament, it would be a foolish Westminster administration indeed which resisted calls for it to organise a referendum. (Think only of the subsequent electoral consequences if Westminster were to deny the expressed will of the Scottish people in voting for independence.)

Yes, it would get very messy; and the negotiations between Westminster and Holyrood would no doubt be tortuous. But that's politics...

12 August 2006

Unanswerable Questions (No 4)

Why do people respond to Scottish Television's nightly invitation to telephone in the answer to a stupid question, at a cost of at least £1 per telephone call or text, in the hope of winning £1,000? Do these people have no understanding of odds? Do they not realise that it is just another scam to make money for the television companies?

They'd be better off doing the pools.

Unanswerable Questions (No 3)

When I buy eggs in the supermarket, they are not kept in the fridge. Why, therefore, does it say on the packaging that I should keep them in the fridge?

11 August 2006

Still taking them on trust

There is still an awful lot we do not know about yesterday's events. The Washington Post points to some of the lacunae:
"British officials suspect that as many as 50 participants and accomplices were involved, U.S. law enforcement officials said. Internet searches made by the suspects suggested they had considered targeting as many as 10 flights, investigators said, although there was no evidence that those arrested had bought tickets or made reservations...
British Home Secretary John Reid said that "the police are confident that the main players have been accounted for" and are in custody. But U.S. and European authorities said the widespread ban on carrying liquids onto flights was imposed because investigators were worried more conspirators could be at large.
British police conducted numerous searches and raids Wednesday and Thursday as they detained at least 24 people in three cities. British officials would not say if they were able to recover any physical evidence or bomb-making materials. Neither would they describe what kind of liquid explosives the suspects were allegedly planning to use."

The emphasis is mine. We wait to see if, in due course, any evidence emerges.

Cutting off your nose to spite your face

The SSP sinks further into the mire. The Herald reports:
"On Thursday, The Herald revealed that Mr Sheridan's opponents intend to block his return to Holyrood as an SSP MSP by denying him the necessary top spot on the party's regional list in Glasgow.The city's largest branch, Kelvin, also passed a motion of no confidence in him as an SSP MSP.
Last night it emerged that the Tay Coast branch had passed a motion declaring the SSP "unfit for the purpose for which it was founded", and described Mr Sheridan's behaviour as "enough to damn him in the eyes of any decent person".
Alan McCombes, SSP policy coordinator, said a state of "total war" now existed between Mr Sheridan and the party's executive committee."We are not going to be intimidated by thuggish insults or rants on the TV. We are not going to be silenced either. We are going to win this," he said."

Sad to say, but the SSP is a one man band. Its putative luminaries - such as Mr McCombes - may wish it were otherwise, but they are whistling in the dark. Without Mr Sheridan, it will lose all its seats at next May's election.

10 August 2006

Taking them on trust

It's difficult to judge. Of course, the security authorities cannot take chances. Nor, for obvious reasons, can they tell us what they know.

But not everyone who is arrested is charged; and not everyone who is charged is prosecuted, particularly when it comes to alleged terrorist activities. Remember Forest Gate? the ricin case? De Menezes?

And senior policemen and politicians (not to mention the media) do so love a crisis: the chance to deliver portentous statements to the cameras, the opportunity to show that they matter, that what they do is important. If it causes some minor inconvenience at airports, well it just reflects the sacrifices we have to make in the Global War On Terror.

But maybe this is unfair. Maybe this case is indeed serious. Maybe, it had better be - because otherwise their credibility is becoming stretched to breaking point.

He postponed his holidays because of the crisis in Lebanon...

According to the BBC here:
"Heathrow Airport has been closed to all incoming flights that are not already in the air, following a police anti-terror operation.
British Airways said it had cancelled all short-haul UK and European inbound and outbound flights to and from Heathrow until 1500 BST."

and here:
"The Home Office confirmed there had been three meetings overnight and on Thursday morning of the Cabinet's emergency committee, Cobra, chaired by Home Secretary John Reid, to discuss the terror alert .
A spokesman for Number 10 said Tony Blair had briefed US President George Bush on the situation during the night."

Surprising, therefore, that the Prime Minister felt able to fly off to the West Indies, leaving the country leaderless in this time of crisis.

09 August 2006

"Can't you just get over it?"

I am not an avid (well not particularly avid) follower of country music but I like the Dixie Chicks. The Independent reports:
"The Dixie Chicks make clear in the signature song from their latest album that they are not "ready to make nice". And now it seems some of the disenchanted former fans of the rambunctious country trio from Texas - who famously spoke out against President George Bush on the eve of the Iraq war - are not ready to make nice either.
The Chicks have announced that they have wiped 14 cities off the schedule of their current North American tour, replaced a number of US concert dates with Canadian ones, and pushed back other concerts scheduled for this month until later in the autumn.
The reason? Slow ticket sales, especially in the country music heartland of the South and Midwest, from Kansas City and St Louis to Memphis and Houston."

Well it's the South and Midwest's loss. I bought the latest CD (an indication of my age, I am afraid) and it's good stuff. Those who wish to see the video for 'Ready to Make Nice' should click here:


"The talk of the toon are the boys in maroon and Auld Reekie supports them with pride"?

I do not believe that, in general, I am a chauvinist but this outburst from the Hearts' coach (not quite Gorgie born and bred) seems a little rich. The Scotsman reports:
"HEARTS' bid to reach the group stages of the Champions League for the first time deserves the backing of the whole of Edinburgh, according to Valdas Ivanauskas. A crowd of around 35,000 is expected for tonight's first leg of the third qualifying round tie against AEK Athens, and the coach called for the neutrals who attend to get behind the team as much as the hardcore fans will do.
"I don't doubt that every Hearts supporter will be there," Ivanauskas said before he took a squad training session at the rugby ground. "But this is probably a game for more than the Hearts supporters. It's a game for Edinburgh as a city - and for Scotland."

I happened to be in Gorgie Road at lunchtime last Sunday and saw the serried ranks of the Hearts supporters, wearing their uniform of maroon football shirt (and advertising a Lithuanian bank on their chests), blue jeans and trainers. They pay a small fortune to support their team and maintain an admirable devotion for it.

Unfortunately, that team seems to be mainly composed of East Europeans, leavened by the occasional Frenchman and African (although the Scottish goalkeeper is undoubtedly one of the stars). So much so that the match against Celtic might have been categorised as our East Europeans against their East Europeans. (Most of the premiership teams are in the same boat.)

Having said that, and even if I cannot share Mr Ivanauskas' belief that this is a game for the city as a whole, I wish the Hearts the best of luck this evening.

Collaborating with the running dogs of the capitalist media

However sympathetic to Mr Sheridan I may appear to be (and, in truth, that amounts to very little), there are certain things I would rather not read about and, particularly, that I would prefer not to see. The Scotsman reports:
"The couple's celebrity has grown since the case concluded. Yesterday Harry Benson, the celebrity photographer whose subjects have included the Beatles, arrived at the couple's Glasgow home for a photoshoot. Mr Benson, who has an exhibition in Edinburgh and is compiling a book of portraits, persuaded Mr Sheridan, who was described by his wife in court as being as hairy as a "gorilla", to pose topless."
No, no, a thousand times no. How can you be a left-wing firebrand while posing half naked for the camera?

Counsel of despair

Is it possible to avoid taking sides? Simon Jenkins in The Guardian thinks so (here):

"War begins because by definition the will to compromise has evaporated and ends when one side has had enough. To "demand" a ceasefire - usually a biased call at a particular stage in any war - may make the caller feel better, but so what? The only practical way for outsiders to stop the fighting is to starve the soldiers of weapons. This would mean Iran and Syria denying Hizbullah guns and rockets, and America denying Israel planes and bombs. Both would be admirable contributions to peace, but both are politically inconceivable.
I could analyse, champion and condemn events and players in the Middle East to my heart's content. The form in which Israel was created and has been sustained was always going to ensure half a century of bloodshed, but nothing is going to change history. I could say much the same of conflicts in Congo, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, even Ireland. The fact is that territory has long been contested and bloodily so.
If outsiders had a solution to the argument between Israel and its neighbours, it would surely have been found by now. The world's mightiest powers and the most brilliant statesmen (not to mention the rest) have devoted themselves to the case. Both sides can draw just enough moral rectitude from the past for compromise to be too much to bear. In this part of the world, immovable object contends with irresistible force and will do so for many decades to come. The only generalisation that seems to apply is that periodic outbreaks of war are followed by a relapse into exhausted peace. Outside intervention only enables the participants to avoid the burden of responsibility for upholding that peace...
Border wars can continue for decades without destabilising their regions. Even as this one engages powerful allies on both sides - from Iran to America - it need not embroil the wider world. Some conflicts are best left to their participants to resolve, however brutally. This is no abrogation of humanitarian responsibility. The Middle East has long claimed the west's charity. But the unthinkable must sometimes be thought. Somewhere on Earth there is a conflict that might resolve itself sooner if outsiders both say and do nothing about it."
Is this possible in circumstances where to call - or not to call - for an immediate ceasefire is instantly seen as identifying the caller (or non-caller) as a sympathiser of one or other of the camps? And the history of previous (and perhaps continuing) attitudes and interventions (supplying arms for example or acting as guarantor for this or that) casts a significant shadow on any assumption of neutrality. In practical terms, it is therefore impossible for some outsiders to "say and do nothing about it".

And is it just or moral to stand aside, when the killing begins? I know that we cannot intervene in all conflicts, but it is surely a counsel of despair to suggest that we abstain from seeking influence where there is a possibility of that influence leading to a beneficial outcome.

08 August 2006

Less sex = more happiness?

Is there a link between this article in The Independent:
"People living in the South-east might generally be more affluent. But they are also more stressed and miserable than people in any other parts of the UK, a survey by YouGov has found.
By contrast, those in the South-west, including Devon and Cornwall, are the happiest.
Only 28 per cent of people from the South-east, including counties such as Surrey and Kent, considered themselves "very happy" in their lives. And 22 per cent of people living in the region said they were "not very happy" in their work.
Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, suggested that life in the South-west was less materialistic than in the rest of the country. Mr Hodson, who bought a house in Cornwall 12 years ago, said: "People are inspired by the scenery, the sea and the light. The air is clean and fresh, crime levels are low and there is an easy-going tolerance to the region."

and this article on The Guardian newsblog of yesterday about the latest survey of Briton's sexual habits:
"According to the survey, more than a third of men and women have sex "rarely" or "not at all", despite nearly all believing regular sex is an essential part of a healthy relationship. The South West is the most sex starved region, with 45% having sex rarely if not at all. Perhaps all that Cornish cream is blocking vital blood supplies."

Or maybe the newspapers should stop filling their pages with stupid surveys...

No smoke without fire

I may have dismissed the whole farrago as a publicity stunt, but it seems that Edinburgh Council are made of sterner stuff. Mel Smith may yet be out of pocket. The Evening News reports:
"Now the council is to investigate the latest incident, at the Assembly Rooms on George Street yesterday, when Smith posed for photographs after the show. He could be liable for a £50 personal fixed penalty fine if he is found to have broken the rules.
A spokeswoman for Edinburgh City Council said that although his head and upper body were outside of the window, leaning out of a room where smoking is forbidden would not technically get around the ban - which prohibits smoking in enclosed public places.
She said: "It has been drawn to our attention that this incident happened yesterday and we will have to consider whether we will take any action about it. We will be looking into it."

It does not do to take the Council lightly, even if their latest pronouncement is somewhat petty.

The music of the spheres


(Via Chicken Yoghurt)


More than slightly over the top. Melanie Reid in The Herald is obviously a fan (here):

"But Gail – Gail is different. This normally misogynistic country fell for a woman who, on the face of it, did nothing more than look good and support her husband in public during a time of great adversity. Some of the extraordinary impact she made can be explained away; the rest begs a deeper explanation. Just what was it that made women everywhere admire her; and men everywhere wish they were married to her? Fundamentally, the answer lay in her remarkable demonstration of strength: the raw courage that allowed her to hold up her head and rise above the undeniable squalor of the trial.

Strength like that is inspirational. In a world grown cynical, judgmental and yet lacking in confidence, Gail's self-belief, her positivism, appeared to sweep the Court of Session off its feet. But strength like that also has historical resonance. There was something magnificently old fashioned in the values she invoked: the rectitude of standing up for your man and your family. She embodied age-old matriarchal power. She implied we should listen to a moral woman if we wanted wisdom. And yet she also came across as decidedly modern: a feisty feminist, a successful career woman and mother who made it clear she would not tolerate any man who deceived her. Her values in a marriage, as she displayed them, were generally those of most of us: trust, monogamy, equality, independence.

Perhaps the secret of her appeal is this: everyone needs a Gail Sheridan in their lives – as a mother, sister, partner or friend – but not everyone is lucky enough to have one. Everyone, subconsciously, wants to be believed in. Everyone wants a fearless gatekeeper, a tender lover and a generous friend rolled into one. Everyone craves to have on their side someone as bold, loyal, funny and sincere as Gail."

While Mrs Sheridan is admirable in many ways, do we need this hagiography? Has Ms Reid never heard of journalistic detachment?

Something, up with which we sometimes have to put

OK, fair do's, this blog has been suckered. The Herald reports:
"ACTOR Mel Smith yesterday backed down at the last minute over his plan to defy Scotland's smoking ban and light up a cigar during his stage portrayal of Winston Churchill.
Churchill may have proclaimed "no surrender" during the war years but Smith didn't adopt a similar stance at the Assembly Rooms during the opening performance of the play Allegiance."

Was it anything more than a publicity stunt? Probably not, in which case my criticisms and those of other bloggers merely added to the hoo-ha.

07 August 2006

"I'm a fading comedian, so..."

There are laws I disagree with - for example the smoking ban - but I comply with them. Not so Mel Smith. The BBC reports:
"The Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh will be shut down if actor Mel Smith flouts Scotland's smoking ban, its director has been told.
The comedian, who is playing Winston Churchill in a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, is said to be planning to smoke during a performance on Monday.
The actor recently vowed to continue to ignore the ban at the Fringe festival.
Venue director William Burdett Coutts said he was in an "extremely serious situation".
He said he has also been told he will lose his Fringe licence for good if the actor smokes during his performance."

Childish nonsense. If Mr Smith persists in his 'the rules don't apply to me' behaviour, they should throw the book at him. And, if that means the Assembly Rooms are shut down, too bad.

A straw in the wind

Is environmentalism becoming a serious political proposition? The Independent reports on putting the boot into Chelsea tractors:
"Road tax should be dramatically increased to £1,800 a year for the most polluting cars, a cross-party committee of MPs say in a report published today.
The Labour-dominated committee criticised the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for not going far enough in his last Budget, which introduced a new higher rate of £210 of vehicle excise duty (VED) for the cars with the biggest engines, such as 4x4s, which produce the mostCO2 emissions.
The MPs on the Environment Audit Committee, chaired by the MP Tim Yeo, said that the Chancellor's duty rate on "Chelsea tractors" was too low to be effective and should be replaced by big increases in tax on motorists as suggested by the Sustainable Development Commission.
Work for the committee showed that when the purchase price and the CO2 emissions were taken into account, the VED on the biggest cars was proportionately about half that paid on the smallest cars."

This would seem to me to be a no-brainer. The gas guzzlers cause pollution and they can afford to pay more; why not hammer them? We would thus combine social and environmental responsibility with the moral delight of sticking it to the bloated capitalists and their yummy-mummy wives taking the kids to school in their 4x4s.

But then, I would say that, wouldn't I - as I don't have a car...

Appeal technicalities

Will The News of the World appeal the decision in the Sheridan case? The Scotsman thinks so:
"THE next battle in the Tommy Sheridan libel saga kicked off yesterday when the News of the World printed the grounds upon which it would base its appeal against Friday's judgment.
But experts warned that the case was unlikely to come to court for at least a year and would be a tough one to prove. Any appeal is a painstakingly slow process.
The Sunday tabloid will have to enrol a motion for a new trial at the Court of Session, the formal process to lodge an appeal.
Within a month it will be expected to lodge written grounds of appeal, which will transfer the case to the Inner House of the Court of Session.
Three judges chosen from the Inner House, Scotland's eight most senior judges, will then be assigned the case and a date chosen for a hearing.
But Roddy Dunlop, an advocate at the Scottish bar specialising in defamation, said the case would take at least a year because both the court diary and the diary of Michael Jones, QC, who is likely to represent the News of the World, were so busy.
Mr Dunlop said the paper would have to prove the decision of the jury was perverse by proving their own evidence was so reliable. "The grounds of appeal they are going for is that only a perverse jury could have found in favour of Mr Sheridan: ie the verdict was contrary to the evidence."

On the other hand, a legal expert in The Herald thinks not:
"Tommy Sheridan has wiped the floor with the News of the World. Its subsequent show of bravado and talk of appeal is just the petulance of a child who has had its toy confiscated. It has no appeal – the jury's verdict based on its view of the evidence heard will stand. Let's have no more talk of further court proceedings. It's over. The Fat Lady has sung – official."

It is unclear if the expert thinks that an appeal will not succeed or that it will not take place.

06 August 2006

Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland

The Sheridan case is causing certain quarters of the press to lose their marbles. Ms Hjul in The Sunday Times for example (here):
"Because of the list system, Scotland’s version of proportional representation whereby seats can be won on second preferences with very few votes, virtually anybody can get themselves elected."

Actually, even under the list system, in order to be elected, you need to attract a certain amount of votes. Ms Hjul may wish to note that this is usually described as democracy.

"Imagine if, say, the Greens (seven at present) and two or so Independents and the pensioners’ MSP and a few other disaffected single-issue loons who may enter the parliament in May all decided to unite beneath a Sheridan banner.
It is not such an unlikely scenario. He persuaded seven jurors to believe him in the face of a large body of evidence against him. If he was able to do that he should be able to convince Holyrood’s waifs and strays, mostly politically inexperienced, that he is on their side.
If he once cajoled members of the famously fractious hard left to follow him, a handful of ambitious Greens would be child’s play. In a parliament with no overall majority and no parties inclined to form coalitions with each other, this rump could exercise a control way beyond its capabilities.
You only have to listen to the arguments of the Green MSP Patrick Harvie, who believes the Scottish parliament’s role is to bring America to its knees, to appreciate how debilitating this would be for devolution."

Contrary to Ms Hjul's opinion, this seems a wildly unlikely scenario. Why would the greens (or independents like the blessed Margo) agree to defer to Mr Sheridan? There has never been an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. If the greens have chosen up to now to pursue their own path, why would they change? Especially when more influential alliances with the SNP or the LibDems beckon.

"An anti-Bush, anti-Blair, anti-war, ban the bomb, pro-Hezbollah, pro-bicycling tendency, eager to feed the world and express its global citizenship, would be very bad news indeed for the vast majority of Scots who once believed devolution was a good idea."

And would a pro-Bush, pro-Blair, pro-war, pro-nuclear arms, pro-Israeli, pro-car, selfish, protectionist tendency be better news?

04 August 2006

A star is born

Two weeks ago, the guys that I occasionally go for a pint with on a Friday evening were discussing the Sheridan case. The unanimous view (including mine) was that Tommy was finished. There was no way back. Bankruptcy, ridicule, even perjury were on the cards. But the people have spoken; and The News of the World finds itself in the gutter where it belongs. The BBC reports:
"Tommy Sheridan has won his defamation case against the News of the World.
A jury of six men and five women took three hours to dismiss the tabloid's claims the Socialist MSP was a serial adulterer and swinger who used drugs.
Mr Sheridan, 42, who represented himself, said the victory was the equivalent of Gretna FC beating Real Madrid on penalties.
The Sunday tabloid was ordered to pay Mr Sheridan £200,000 damages. It said it planned to appeal the verdict.
Mr Sheridan won his case on a majority verdict of seven to four."
No word on costs.

But let us hail a new star in the political firmament. The only person who could have saved Mr Sheridan. The star of the trial, the new arbiter of women's fashion, the woman who stood by her man, the air hostess who has flown above the clouds. Gail for First Minister!


On the question of costs, The Scotsman offers the following:
"After the jury was dismissed this afternoon by Lord Turnbull, the presiding judge, Mr Sheridan inquired about his expenses and was told he could launch a formal motion within seven days."

which does not really take us much further.