31 October 2006

Hallowe'en costume

This is causing a fuss in some quarters:
"Iran's former president, Mohammed Khatami, arrives in Scotland today for a visit opposed by Iranian émigré groups and a group of MPs who charge that thousands of students were imprisoned during his rule...
Mr Khatami is the highest ranking Iranian official to visit the UK since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and will be awarded an honorary doctorate by St Andrews University this evening."

I can see both sides of the argument. Mr Khatami may have been a baddie in the past, so send him away. Alternatively, we are going to have to talk to these guys sometime.

But my main problem is that I find it hard to take the concept of honorary doctorates seriously. All that dressing up in fancy robes and hoods, and you can't even call yourself doctor...

Tiptoeing around the issue

Well, it may be a brave new green morning, but Ministers seem terribly unwilling to clarify what they want to do. For example, consider this example in The Guardian of Mr Miliband carefully circumlocuting what they might - eventually - get round to doing.
David Miliband does not appear discouraged. He has been environment secretary for only six months, but he has already achieved the prominence in the debate on climate change you might expect of someone frequently mentioned as a future Labour leader. He bobs in his chair and summarises the hopeful aspects of the current situation, characteristically, in numbered points: "One: climate change is a reality, not a debate now. Two: there is an international process addressing it. Three: green growth is not just a twinkle in the eye of business. And four: the Tories have moved out of the Stone Age." He pauses. "Well, some Tories."
He acknowledges the difficulty, however, of turning a consensus into an acceptable policy. "Climate change is the biggest political challenge, full stop. It is about fundamental change in the way people live and work. An environmental contract between governments and citizens in the 21st century like the social contract between governments and citizens in the 20th." What sort of Britain does he envisage if carbon emissions are drastically cut? "If you are optimistic, we're going to have a higher quality of life. Buildings with natural light are more pleasant. Local, seasonal food is tastier. Smog-free cities are better than smoggy ones. I don't think we have to turn the clock back to 1900."
I ask about carbon rationing. His smile fades for a moment. "I think ration has such a 1940s connotation. I'm not sure it works." The smile returns: "Shared is a better word than rationed. I'm quite excited about personal allowances. Carbon credit cards. I think it's a powerful idea."

If saving the planet is going to work, it is going to have to hurt. And if Ministers can't face up to the fact, then what chance for the rest of us?

By contrast, George Monbiot has a clear agenda here. You may disagree with him; you may think that some of his ideas are potty; but at least he's not pfaffing around like Miliband.

And what did the stock market make of it all? Not much, seems to be the answer here:
Carbon trading, after all, is a market-friendly mechanism only in a limited sense. It relies on governments making emissions targets so tough that the worst polluters are either priced out of business or squeezed to the sidelines.
But, no, there was barely a squeak of protest about the prospect of greater government intervention. The best explanation may be that investors are making a simple calculation that governments lack the will to deliver medicine that will truly change the way we live.
That may be a cold response, but it is not illogical. Brown has not increased rates of fuel duties since protesters took to the roads in 2000. Aviation fuel remains untaxed. The supposedly tough action against 4x4s in the last budget turned out to be a road tax of a mere £210, a sum that would not deter most owners.
Maybe things will be different after Stern but the City will believe it when it sees it. What it can see under its nose is a government that still talks about the virtues of globalisation, free trade and choice for consumers.

Maybe the Government has a cunning plan hidden up its sleeve. But don't count on it...

30 October 2006

Get your chequebook out

If you do a lot of driving, or if you have a big car, or if you take a lot of flights, be afraid. The BBC shows that all the major political parties are about to set the taxman on you:
"Environment Secretary David Miliband has confirmed the government is holding discussions on tackling climate change using green taxes.
He refused to confirm details, shown in a leaked letter, which may include "pay as you drive" tax, cheap-flight tax and levies on energy-wasting appliances.
He told Sky News that "the longer we wait, the more costly it will be".
Meanwhile Conservative leader David Cameron has told the BBC he would be prepared to tax air travel.
Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, said "hard choices" had to be made to combat climate change."

The world is changing. Soon it will be no more morally acceptable to drive a chelsea tractor than to be a burglar.

Posh'n'Becks and the rhubarb tarts

It was a nice thought. Nevertheless, Mr Strachan dismisses the idea of Mr Beckham appearing at Parkhead. The Scotsman reports him saying:
"I can just see David, Victoria, Lesley and myself at Tunnock's cafe in Uddingston together. The rhubarb tarts are great there, but I don't know if it's enough to tempt them."

Have a little faith, Gordon!

28 October 2006

Weekend poem No 8

About these poems. I don't offer literary criticism - I post what I think is interesting. Nor do I provide background - if you are interested, you can google it. And if you don't like it, don't read it.

This week, a poem by an Irishman about a Scotsman.
The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna

Charles Wolfe

NOT a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lanthorn dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed
And smooth'd down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,
And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that 's gone,
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him—
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.

27 October 2006

You might think that there were more important things to worry about...

When life becomes dull, when you wonder where the next laugh is going to come from, when skies are grey with tears, you can always rely on the Edinburgh city fathers to raise a smile. Because if you didn't smile you'd weep. The Evening News reports:
COUNCILLORS are to spend £100,000 on new desks and chairs for the City Chambers.
The Labour administration voted through plans to spend the cash on new furniture for the main debating chamber.
But the Tories, Lib Dems and SNP wanted to spend even more money on repairing historic desks and chairs built especially for the council in 1904, which have largely been in storage for around six years...
Around 60 chairs will be purchased and upholstered in leather to match the debating chamber's carpet, while the desks will have a leather inset with the crest of the City of Edinburgh Council.
The chairs will cost £37,000, or £500 each, and the desks £63,000, around £1000 each, with a total cost of £100,000.

It's nice to see that traditions are being maintained.

Ugandan affairs

It cannot be coincidence. Are these stories related?

Here in The Scotsman:
CONDOM sales and bookings at several of South Korea's pay-by-the-hour "love motels" surged in the aftermath of North Korea's nuclear test earlier this month, according to statistics released yesterday.

and here in The Guardian:
With the world teetering on the brink of a nuclear showdown with North Korea, there is a widespread belief that the situation calls for a delicate, diplomatic touch. There was therefore a raised eyebrow or two at Westminster yesterday when it emerged that the government had sent John Prescott, the gaffe-prone deputy prime minister, to marshal the international response to the impending crisis.
The Tories' defence spokesman, Liam Fox, described the decision as a joke. "At a time of international tension the last person to send on behalf of the UK government is the man with two diplomatic left feet and the same grasp of English as the North Koreans," he said. His concerns were echoed by other MPs.
A spokesman for the deputy prime minister's office defended Mr Prescott, whose arrival in Seoul coincided with official confirmation that North Korea did conduct its first nuclear test on October 9. "He is visiting the Far East on behalf of the prime minister to take forward the UK's relationship with these countries and hold discussions on a range of shared issues, including environmental concerns," the spokesman said.

Is there a link? I think we should be told.

Nuclear fission

...or why the First Minister can't make up his mind. Mr McConnell is increasingly mocked over the nuclear question. Does he or does he not support new nuclear power stations? Can't say, won't say.

The Herald reports:
Strange days, and about to become stranger. Was that Annabel Goldie we heard saying "Take me, I'm yours!" (or similar) to Jack McConnell? Was that Nicola Sturgeon insisting Scotland's radioactive legacy is not to be bought and sold for English gold (or equivalent)?
And was that Jack once again promoting the best wee nuclear waste dumper in the world? "Stand up for Scotland," he seemed to cry, "and seize the chance to send our rubbish to England!"
Some might say it's what we've been doing for centuries, but such was the tenor of yesterday's debate. The election campaign is being billed as a contest between the Union Divvy, that unbeatable cashback scheme, and the Independence Bonus Ball, that unrepeatable offer. It is odder by far.
Things are happening at the white-hot core of Scottish politics. I wouldn't call it meltdown, but temperatures are rising and reactions have become unpredictable. The safest thing might be to bury the lot under concrete, but Enrique Miralles already tried that.
One constant remains: Jack still won't say if he favours new nuclear power stations.

The problem is that if the First Minister comes out as pro-nuclear he risks offending many potential Labour voters, not to mention his coalition partners the LibDems. If he comes out as anti-nuclear, he risks having his position reversed by the union battalions in the Labour Party as well as being over-ridden by Westminster where Messrs Darling and Blair are less than respectful of the anti-nuclear lobby. So, instead of taking a clear position one way or the other, poor Mr McConnell has to lurk in the closet of indecision.

Unfortunately, it is now getting to the stage where failure to decide is attracting almost as much opprobrium and derision as either of the other options. It would be stretching the matter to suggest that I feel some sympathy for the First Minister in his quandary. You can see how he was forced into the closet, but how is he going to get himself out?

Has Jack been conned?

Where was the Home Secretary then? We didn't get the organ-grinder. Instead, the First Minister negotiated a deal with the monkey. It may look good at first sight, but has anything changed other than the re-location to Scotland of some officials from the Immigration and Nationality Department? The Scotsman reports:
THE number of dawn raids on asylum seekers in Scotland is to be reduced, the government said yesterday as it announced the creation of two specialist immigration teams.
The forced removal of asylum seekers and their children has led to outcry in Scotland. Now, following meetings with the First Minister, Jack McConnell, the immigration minister, Liam Byrne, said new powers would be handed to Scotland.
Two teams based in Glasgow will process applications north of the Border for the first time and ensure every family has a lead official to see the case through from beginning to end. More than 3,000 people in Scotland are facing deportation.
Mr Byrne said the new squads would ensure a decision is reached within six months on each case. It is hoped a closer relationship with immigration officials will mean more asylum seekers are persuaded to leave the country voluntarily, reducing the need for dawn raids.
However, Mr Byrne insisted Britain would not become a "soft touch" for asylum seekers and dawn raids would still be necessary as a "last resort".
What, for example, has happened to the proposed protocol whereby a "lead professional" from a health, social work or education background would oversee each case? Not mentioned yesterday, so it has presumably been dropped.

As far as I can see, the Home Office has not made any significant changes to either its policy or its practice. Arguably, it has resiled from previous pledges to co-operate with Scottish authorities. So expect the dawn raids to continue.

25 October 2006

A touch of class

Bondwoman sums it up - in her own inimitable style.

The boys and girls done good

Is it not gratifying to know that the Scottish Executive is so well-served by its middle ranking and junior staff? The latest FOI bulletin (here) reveals that the performance of 99.6% of them was graded as either 'effective' or 'exceptional'.

Of course, you might consider that a performance appraisal system that assesses more than 99 out of 100 of its employees as performing effectively (or better) is a bitter joke. But I could not possibly comment...

Boots on the ground

The New York Times explains some of the difficulties with the Iraqi army:
"A quarter or so of a typical Iraqi unit is on leave at any one time. Since Iraq lacks an effective banking system for paying its troops, soldiers are generally given a week’s leave each month to bring their pay home.
Desertions and absenteeism are another concern. According to the August Pentagon report, 15 percent of new recruits drop out during initial training. Beyond that, deployment to combat zones, the report adds, sometimes results in additional “absentee spikes of 5 to 8 percent.”
As a result, the actual number of Iraqi boots on the ground on a given day is routinely less than the official number. In areas where the risks and hardship are particularly great, the shortfall is sometimes significant. In fiercely contested Anbar Province in western Iraq, the day-to-day strength of the Seventh Iraqi Army Division in August was only about 35 percent of the soldiers on its rolls, while the day-to-day strength of the First Division was 50 percent of its authorized strength.
Another complication is that the even-numbered divisions in the 10-division army have largely been recruited locally and thus generally reflect the ethnic makeup of the regions where they are based. So, much of the Iraqi Army consists of soldiers who are reluctant to serve outside the areas in which they reside. Several battalions have gone AWOL rather then deploy to Baghdad, an American military officer said."
Not exactly encouraging...

Jack's Big Idea

A policy of 'no change' was never likely to set the heather on fire. Nevertheless, the First Minister did his best to convert a negative into a positive. Will it be good enough? The Scotsman reports:
"Rather than saying Scots couldn't afford to be independent, or that Scots are incapable of going it alone, as some will argue, my argument is more positive," Mr McConnell said. "The ground on which I stand, the ground on which I'm confident most Scots will join me, is quite different. I believe there is a prize to partnership and collaboration. By the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we do on our own. That is true for individuals, but it is just as true for nations. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have access to the 'Union dividend' by virtue of being part of a strong UK."

So just what is this 'prize to partnership and collaboration', this 'union dividend'? We are allowed to participate in adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan? We get to host trident submarines? We have to tolerate immigration policies designed to placate The Daily Mail? We benefit from interest rate decisions geared to the economy of south-east England?

It's not really going to play, is it?

24 October 2006

Staying the course?

I did once study semantics but The Washington Post verges on surrealism:
"President Bush and his aides are annoyed that people keep misinterpreting his Iraq policy as "stay the course." A complete distortion, they say. "That is not a stay-the-course policy," White House press secretary Tony Snow declared yesterday.
Where would anyone have gotten that idea? Well, maybe from Bush.
"We will stay the course. We will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed," he said in Salt Lake City in August.
"We will win in Iraq so long as we stay the course," he said in Milwaukee in July.
"I saw people wondering whether the United States would have the nerve to stay the course and help them succeed," he said after returning from Baghdad in June.
But the White House is cutting and running from "stay the course." A phrase meant to connote steely resolve instead has become a symbol for being out of touch and rigid in the face of a war that seems to grow worse by the week, Republican strategists say.
Democrats have now turned "stay the course" into an attack line in campaign commercials, and the Bush team is busy explaining that "stay the course" does not actually mean stay the course."

Eh, of course. Confused? You will be...

Fiscal autonomy

The economists are getting excited about fiscal autonomy for Scotland. Sad, I know, but that's economists for you. The Herald has two articles today on the matter, both of which report (here and here) that the economists disagree. Sad, I know, but that's The Herald for you.

Being a non-economist, as well as a simple soul, I take the view that fiscal autonomy is not something to worry about, as it will never happen unless Scotland becomes independent. Essentially, fiscal autonomy involves giving the Scottish Executive via the Scottish Parliament control over some or all of the taxes raised in Scotland as well as the abandonment of some or all of the current arrangements whereby all Scottish taxes go to London which then gives us our share of the UK taxes (arguably plus a bit) in the form of a block grant to the Scottish Executive. Purists claim that this would be a Good Thing, as (1) the Executive would need to be rather more disciplined about its spending as it would get the blame if taxes had to rise, and (2) the Executive would be able to tailor fiscal policies to Scottish needs by adjusting tax rates here and there, thus increasing its influence on economic growth.

First point. (Big Gordon widnae like it.) There is no way that the UK Treasury - under Gordon Brown or any other Chancellor - will ever - as a matter of basic principle - allow the Scottish Executive to mess about with the rates of income tax (despite the tartan tax arrangements incorporated in the current devolution settlement), corporation tax or VAT. Such a move would amount to a fundamental attack on the economic unity of the UK. It will not happen. Full stop. End of story.

Second point. (Winners and losers.) It is extremely difficult to calculate how much Scotland pays in taxes. The implementation of fiscal autonomy would not necessarily mean that Scotland was better off. Economists have argued for years over whether Scotland contributes more to the exchequer than it gets out. Without 'Scotland's oil', we would probably lose out; even with 'Scotland's oil', much would depend upon the oil price. At best, there would be a considerable element of uncertainty (and continuing uncertainty) compared with the relative stability of the current arrangements.

Third point. (Where do you go for your messages?) There is no separate Scottish economy: many people in Scotland work for companies headquartered in England and many people in England (not quite so many but enough) work for companies headquartered in Scotland; English-based companies trade freely in Scotland and vice versa. It would get awfully messy to apply separate income tax or corporation tax rates north and south of the border. And any economic effect would most likely be extremely marginal, unless the tax system got even messier.

Two caveats:

(a) If and when Scotland becomes independent, all these matters will have to be addressed. It won't be easy to sort out and it is one of the reasons why independence cannot be declared overnight. I wish I thought that the wonks in the SNP back rooms were actually thinking about these things but I rather doubt it...

(b) None of the above excludes the possibility of introducing greater fiscal freedoms/responsibilities for the Executive, for example by adding a tourist tax to increase their resources or by allowing them to assume control over stamp duty on houses. But any such changes would be marginal compared to reliance on the block grant and would certainly not amount to fiscal autonomy.


(i) Leave the economists to argue about fiscal autonomy.
(ii) Ask any politician promising greater fiscal autonomy precisely what he or she means.
(iii) Keep your fingers crossed.

23 October 2006

The Holyrood Travel Agency

OK, so Curran has been to New Zealand and McConnell to California. Who is missing out? Of course, it has to be the LibDems. Better send that nice Mr Stephen to China. And Captain Mainwaring gets the consolation prize of a trip to Paris.

And, sure enough, so it turns out, here and here.

21 October 2006

Weekend poem No 7

A shakespearian sonnet this week. Lyrical - yes. Technically excellent, within the demanding requirements of the sonnet form. But ultimately one of the most deeply cynical poems ever written.
Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Chickens coming home to roost

Newspaper columnists seldom seem to take much pleasure from their work. But you can sense that Matthew Parris really enjoyed writing this article in The Times:
"HARK — CAN YOU hear it? Borne on the wind, can you hear the sounds of construction — of hammers hammering and woodsaws sawing? And do you detect a note of panic? I do. The good ship Neocon is going down. She has struck the Iraqi rocks, the engine room is awash, and on the deck in anxious pursuit of something to float them away is a curious assembly.
Her Majesty’s Brigade of Neocon Columnists and Leader Writers mingles with much of the elite of British politics. The new Labour Cabinet and its courtiers and most of the Opposition’s front bench rub shoulders with Fleet Street’s finest. Is that David Aaronovitch I see, hammer in hand? Jack Straw is handing him the nails. There’s Michael Gove scribbling notes while Danny Finkelstein rips a blank sheet from a discarded do-it-yourself regime change manual, and ponders a hastily sketched design. Willie Shawcross has the saw and Tim Hames and Margaret Beckett are ripping planks from the deck. Gordon Brown skulks behind the mast as those unlikely bedfellows, Matthew d’Ancona, of The Spectator, and Johann Hari, of The Independent, assemble what timber they can find.
They are building a lifeboat for their reputations."

Read the whole thing. This is Mr Parris putting the boot in (fiercely) to the armchair warriors. And, boy, do they deserve it.

The quagmire continues...

The Delusions

(from PMQs this week)

The Prime Minister: It is our policy to withdraw progressively from Iraq as the Iraqi forces are capable of taking on the security task. That is why it is important, when we are able to hand over to them, that we do so; otherwise we are a provocation rather than a help to them. That is why, earlier this year, we ceded control of al-Muthanna province, as there are now 5,000 Iraqi forces there doing that job. We are just withdrawing, or the Italians are, almost 3,000 forces from Dhi Qar province, where the Iraqis again will come in and do the job...
I hope that I have just explained very clearly what our strategy is. It is to withdraw progressively as the Iraqi forces build up their capability. For example, in the south of Iraq for the first time, there are 10,000 Iraqi troops who are trained to the fullest extent. They are very capable, and are doing an excellent job under the command of the Iraqi Army.

The Reality

(from today's Independent)
"The militia headed by the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr yesterday took over the southern Iraqi city of Amarah, recently vacated by British forces, after a day of heavy fighting which left dozens killed, almost 100 injured and widespread damage to buildings.
In what is being seen as a symbolic flexing of muscle, heavily armed Mahdi Army fighters in black uniforms stormed and took over the three main police stations and flattened them with explosives.
British troops were put on standby to move back into Amarah last night as Mr Sadr's militia battles the rival Shia Badr Brigade for the control of the south and its lucrative oil fields.
Amid conflicting reports about who exactly was controlling the capital of Maysan province two companies of the Iraqi army with British "advisers" were despatched from Basra. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nour al-Maliki, sent a high-powered delegation from Baghdad to seek talks with Mr Sadr's representatives."

20 October 2006


Nice to see that The Times respects some traditions:
Rangers finally get that first win in Italy
By a Correspondent in Leghorn
Livorno 2 Rangers 3

Curious that, while describing the town as Leghorn, the football team is Livorno. What about FC Turin or AC Milano? Or Bayern Munich (Bavarian Munchen?) Sporting Lisboa? Rapide Wien?

There's a PhD here for someone...

19 October 2006


Well, maybe it's true. But it's also convenient. The BBC reports:
"Al-Qaeda has become more organised and sophisticated and has made Britain its top target, counter-terrorism officials have told the BBC.
Security sources say the situation has never been so grim, said BBC home affairs correspondent Margaret Gilmore.
They believe the network is now operating a cell structure in the UK - like the IRA did - and sees the 7 July bomb attacks "as just the beginning".

Why are 'security sources' talking to the BBC? Why not just get on with their job? Three reasons come to mind:
1. it provides the government with a justification for a further assault on civil liberties (and a bill is already lined up for the next parliamentary session);
2. it will enable the security services to say 'we told you so' if another terrorist outrage occurs (and to claim the credit if it doesn't); and
3. it strengthens the case for pouring more resources into the security services, which is always in the forefront of the bureaucratic mindset.

But, perhaps, I am being unduly cynical...

An ethical foreign policy?

How to become the pariahs of the modern world. The Guardian reports:
'Britain has joined the US, China and Russia to block a proposed ban on cluster bombs in the wake of extensive use of the weapons during the war in Lebanon.
A group of countries, led by Sweden, is urging a worldwide ban on cluster bombs at arms talks in Geneva. Each bomb contains hundreds of small "bomblets", many of which fail to explode until picked up by inquisitive children or stepped on by civilians...
The Foreign Office confirmed that the UK is opposing the diplomatic push led by Sweden in Geneva to change the ... conventional weapons treaty.
It said: "The UK believes existing humanitarian law is sufficient for the conduct of military operations, including the use of cluster munitions, and no treaty is required. The UK remains committed to improving the reliability of all munitions with the aim of achieving lower failure rates and leaving few unexploded ordnance in order to minimise the humanitarian risk." It said this had been longstanding British policy.'
Have they no shame?

18 October 2006

A fashion mystery?

The LA Times has a review of LA Fashion Week. Unfortunately, no mention of Jack McConnell, Scotland or Dressed to Kilt. Here is the intro to the article:
"SILICONE-ENHANCED models on the runway, drag queens and C-grade celebrities in the front row, stylists sporting handgun-shaped belt buckles, sticky tequila nights and days of empty seats … it must be Los Angeles Fashion Week again. But as crass as the off-the-runway scene can be, on the runway the word was romance, a through line that continued from the collections in New York, Milan and Paris. Color palettes were softer and designers emphasized airy volumes. And in this capital of denim, it is dresses, not jeans, that are emerging as the must-have item for spring.
Although L.A. may not be the place to look to for design inspiration, the runways here do offer a dose of reality after four weeks of out-of-reach luxury, showcasing more of the clothes that will actually end up on the racks — the $200 dresses, the $150 bikinis — instead of just in glossy magazine pages. The styling is more interesting too, with designers taking their cues from the street and the beach. So instead of $2,000 "it" bags designed with a luxury firm's bottom line in mind, you will see the return of the fanny pack!"

No, I don't know what a 'fanny pack' is. Maybe the Californian equivalent of a sporran?

Do you suppose our First Minister was actually there, amid the "drag queens and the C-grade celebs in the front row"?

17 October 2006

Lacking discipline

Do these guys know what they are doing? The Independent reports:
"Ministers were accused of playing into the hands of the far right and of Islamic extremists as a Labour backlash grew against the Government's continuing focus on Muslim issues.
Senior MPs and peers signalled their alarm at the furore triggered 10 days ago by Jack Straw's call for women to reconsider wearing face veils. They said the Muslim community felt under siege following a succession of recent headlines generated by the Government.
Mr Straw's comments were followed by another minister calling for the dismissal of a teacher who refused to take off her veil and an attack by Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities, on moderate Muslims who "sit on the sidelines" in the fight against terrorism.
It has also emerged that the Department for Education wanted lecturers to monitor "Asian-looking" and Muslim students suspected of involvement in terrorism. Several ministers believe the recent controversies show the Government is in tune with widespread concerns in the country. ...
Downing Street and Ms Kelly rejected claims that the Government was "demonising" Muslims with the move to monitor students. She struck a conciliatory note after meeting police chiefs and local council leaders in London. She said many groups understood the need for a fresh approach to face up to" the extremist threat.
Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, also entered the debate. She said: "Women who are heavily veiled, whose identity is obscured to the world apart from their husband, cannot take their full place in society."

Do the government have a plan? Is there a policy objective here? Where are ministers going with these arguments? What do they want to happen? Or do ministers just open their mouths and let their bellies rumble? It seems to me that they are wandering about in a fog of their own making.

I suppose that some leadership is out of the question?

Having confidence in the rationality of our leaders

That's more like it. None of this namby-pamby 'be nice to prisoners' nonsense. The Independent records how we once had a real tough guy at the Home Office:
"David Blunkett told the prison service to call in the Army and "machine-gun" inmates during the 2002 Lincoln Prison riots, the former director general of the service has claimed.
Martin Narey said the former Home Secretary was "hysterical" when he telephoned him on the evening of the riot, and told him to order staff back into the prison.
Mr Narey, who is now Chief Executive of Barnado's, wrote in The Times: "He shrieked that he didn't care about lives, told me to call in the Army and 'machine-gun' the prisoners and - still shrieking - again ordered me to take the prison back immediately. I refused."

OK, Mr Blunkett may have become a little over-excited but I rather doubt that he fell prey to hysteria. I mean, no-one could possibly describe Mr Blunkett as psychologically flawed, could they?

I confess that I have not been following the publication of Mr Blunkett's diaries, believing that they were probably just a disgracefully self-serving account of how he was always right and all his colleagues were idiots. But clearly I must revise my opinion.

One thing I don't understand: why is Mr Blunkett a member of the Labour Party?

16 October 2006

Only an excuse?

I know that the First Minister was once a teacher. But he was not and is not an educationalist. Accordingly, the justification for his trip seems dubious. The BBC records:
High-achieving schools in America are to be toured by the first minister and chief inspector of schools to see if any lessons can be learned in Scotland...
In the past, the first minister has visited a number of US schools in areas with high crime rates and social problems, which were using creative methods to address challenges.
However, this week he will tour schools at the top end of the spectrum in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC to see whether any practices could help improve Scotland's schools.
Mr McConnell, who will be accompanied by Graham Donaldson of HMIE, said Scotland already had one of the best education systems in the world.
However, he added: "I want to focus on high achieving schools that are stretching the brightest pupils in areas such as maths and science.
"I want to see if they are doing something that we can learn from."

It is sensible that he is accompanied by the chief inspector of schools but what will the First Minister actually contribute? Would he recognise the fact that an American school was doing something that we could learn from? And do you improve educational standards by making high-profile visits, rather than by studying educational methodology as recorded and tested by peer review in academic journals?

15 October 2006

California, here he comes!

LA fashion week? Where else would you find our First Minister? The Observer reports:

"Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell will tomorrow launch his version of the 'American dream' in an attempt to lure students, tourists and entrepreneurs from the US to Scotland.
At the start of a week-long visit to the States, McConnell said it was essential to improve Scotland's links with the world's dominant economies. The move follows the announcement, earlier this year, of its plan to improve co-operation and trade with China.
McConnell, who will be at tomorrow's launch of LA fashion week, said seven key targets had been outlined for enhancing relations across the Atlantic."
Now, here is a little quiz, just for fun. Answer honestly. You are:

1. Delighted that the First Minister is devoting part of his autumn holiday to improving relations with our transatlantic cousins and convinced that his wee trip will bring about tangible benefits for Scotland's economy;


2. Appalled at the thought of the First Minister getting anywhere near a US fashion event, and desperately hoping that he has not put a kilt in his luggage;


3. Deeply embarrassed at the thought of Mr McConnell sucking up to The Governator and no doubt inviting him to visit a Scottish golf course;


4. Wondering how this wee trip will play at next May's elections, bearing in mind the SNP's relatively successful conference last week and the endorsement of independence by the Catholic Church as revealed in today's Scotland on Sunday, as well as the assessment in The Observer that 'Scottish Labour seems dead from the neck up'.

14 October 2006

Weekend poem No 6

For a change, a relatively modern poem. Philip Larkin is the poet. While everyone knows the first line or two, they may be less familiar with the rest. Not a happy poem.
This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

13 October 2006

Clichés are the best thing since sliced bread

The BBC website has had advance sight of Mr Salmond's big speech:
"We are six months away from a date with destiny and we have a great task in hand," Mr Salmond will tell the Perth gathering on Friday.
The politician will say that no-one in this world owes Scotland a living.
He believes the country must have a competitive edge so that it can reap its own harvest and ring its own tills.
"In our Scotland, everyone will get a square deal, a fair shout, and an equal chance," he will say.
"Certainly we will use markets to give Scotland a competitive advantage - but we are the masters of markets and not their servants."
Oviously the product of a cliché generator. Mr Salmond should be able to do better than this kind of vacuous nonsense.


I can't resist posting this.

See soldiers...

There are many who have welcomed the dose of realism about Iraq offered by General Sir Richard Dannatt. But are they equally happy with the tone of his supplementary remarks? The Independent reports:
Sir Richard also lamented the disappearance from British society of what he called the "broader Judaic-Christian tradition" which underpins the Army.
He said: "When I see the Islamist threat in this country I hope it doesn't make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind. I think it is up to society to realise that is the situation we are in.
"We can't wish the Islamist challenge to our society away and I believe that the Army, both in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably wherever we go next, is fighting the foreign dimension of the challenge to our accepted way of life. We need to face up to the Islamist threat, to those who act in the name of Islam and, in a perverted way, try to impose Islam by force on societies that do not wish it.
"It is said that we live in a post-Christian society. I think that is a great shame. The broader Judaic-Christian tradition has underpinned British society. It underpins the British Army."

Who elected this guy to pontificate about the ethos underpinning British society? Particularly, if by so doing, he loses the trust of the government. How can the Minister of Defence be expected to work with a chief of staff who is prepared to offer his political philosophy to The Daily Mail, of all papers?

12 October 2006

Cameron's 'internet thingy'

According to The Spectator, Tamzin has been on WebCameron duties this week:
"Did my first shoot today — ‘Dave makes granola-based breakfast while discussing health policy.’ Things got tricky when the false wall the builders put up down the middle of the kitchen to make it look pokier started flapping around like an old Crossroads set. Looked like we might have to abandon filming until I came up with a fab idea which everyone agreed would totally dumb things down. Unfortunately we had to scrap the first take, because a certain small person kept shouting out, ‘Daddy, why are we having breakfast in the laundry room?’
Tonight we all gathered around the cheap Formica table (took us ages to find one of these!) for a lasagne supper, and v jolly discussion about how we are not going to play politics with the NHS. All filmed for webcam and available to download right now!"

Fantasies, fantasies...

Hallelujah! We're all saved. Iain Macwhirter has discovered the answer to the West Lothian Question. He writes at The Guardian CIF:
"Now, the last thing David Cameron wants is to become prime minister at the cost of destroying he United Kingdom. The only way to resolve this is for Scottish Tories to become a political force again in Scotland. If they returned a similar number of MPs to Labour, the problem resolves itself.
Right now they have only one Scottish MP. Time is running out. Cameron must win Scotland or lose Britain."
So, all the Tories have to do is win enough Scottish seats at Westminster. Erm, I suppose that it is conceivable (if unlikely) that the Tories might win an extra three or four Scottish seats at the next Westminster elections (although it would be a big ask). But getting anywhere near parity with Labour is out of the question. (So what is Mr Macwhirter blethering about?)

But hope springs eternal... The Evening News reports a cunning new plan:

"CONSERVATIVE leader David Cameron is set to create a "Minister for Edinburgh" as part of his drive to win back Westminster seats in the Capital.
The Tory leader will be in the city on Monday when he will unveil Shadow Leader of the Lords, Tom Strathclyde, in the new role. It is part of a plan to appoint a senior Shadow Cabinet figure for each major city in Britain. Former Scottish Office minister Lord Strathclyde, who was born in Glasgow, will be tasked with visiting the Capital regularly and developing a relationship with local politicians at all levels, as well as business, religious and other community leaders."

Oh yeah, appointing a rather portly Glaswegian Tory hereditary peer to develop a relationship with the Edinburgh City fathers is really going to make a difference. Will anyone in Edinburgh be prepared to speak to him? Which Baldrick in the Cameron entourage thought this one up?

Betting on a sure thing

Political Betting explains how it is - just occasionally - possible to beat the bookies:
"With a little bit of practice you get good at spotting value and it turns out to be a lot more common than you might think. A month or so ago a regular PBer, Jan from Norway, pointed out these odds available on Tony Blair’s resignation date:
2006 4-1 (20%) Ladbrokes
2007 2-5 (71.4%) William Hill
2008 20-1 (4.8%) Paddy Power
In fact you could probably have eliminated 2008 with negligible risk but even without doing so, the prices add up to only 96.2%, shy of the bookmaker’s break-even point by 3.8%. OK, the effect is created by combining three different bookies. Individually they would not have been betting below 100%, or ‘overbroke’, as it is known. But from the punter’s point of view it matters not a jot. If you placed your bets pro-rata to the odds on offer, you had to win."

You don't believe it? Then look at this extract from the comments:
£74 at 2-5 for 2007 returns £103.60
£21 at 4-1 for 2006 returns £105
£5 at 20-1 for 2008 returns £105

Guaranteed profit £3.60. You must bet at least the percentage (71%, 20%, 4.8%) to make sure you return your £100.

Warning - situations where the odds add up to less than 100% are less likely to occur on the horses.

11 October 2006

Tunnel under the runway

Are we biting off more than we can chew? The Herald offers an informative analysis of the financial and technical difficulties associated with the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link. I only have space to post the intro to the article:
"SOME are already calling it Scotland's big dig. Early next year, if everything goes according to plan, a team of tunnellers will start boring into the soft but bouldery ground under Edinburgh Airport. Their challenge – the biggest civil engineers in Scotland have faced in decades – is to carve out a railway deep under several key roads, two rivers and one of Britain's busiest and most important runways.
Their aim is to create a whole new rail interchange for Scotland – a central hub for the entire network on the main Edinburgh to Glasgow line – and a new station that will link the capital's airport to 62 stations across the country, cementing its future as the nation's international gateway.
The whole job, grandly titled the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (Earl), will cost Scotland's taxpayers more than any other infrastructure project proposed since devolution. More, indeed, than the Parliament itself. The company promoting the project, a City of Edinburgh Council spin-off called Tie, has "robustly assessed" the cost at £609.9m. The Scottish Executive puts the figure somewhere between £550m and £650m. Independent experts are more sceptical..."

but those interested should read the whole thing. If BAA and Network Rail are less than wholly convinced by the proposed solutions to the problems - as suggested in the article - then a white elephant may be hovering inelegantly nearby. Nor is the newly established Transport Scotland agency sticking its head above the parapet. The whole project appears to be driven by Edinburgh Council and its agency TIE, neither of which has distinguished itself in promoting previous transport initiatives.

The five man Holyrood Committee considering the draft legislation for EARL has already expressed reservations with two of the five refusing to support it. But should not Tavish Scott (who?), our transport minister, be addressing the issues raised in the article? The Executive is going to have to cough up the cash, after all. But Ministers seem content to let the draft bill meander on its way through the parliamentary processes.

10 October 2006

Calvinistic predestination lives on?

How to identify the five year old kids who are potential criminals? The Herald reports:

"All five-year-olds should be screened for early signs of offending behaviour to prevent youngsters later becoming criminals under plans put forward by a Scottish Executive-backed expert group. Under the proposals, pre-school services and nursery schools will assess five-year-olds to identify troubled or troublesome families and signs of substance misuse and violence in the home. The aim is to identify vulnerable children early, offer improved support to the family and hopefully turn young people away from crime...
Cathy Jamieson, the Justice Minister, yesterday welcomed the Youth Justice Improvement Group (YJIG) report and launched a blueprint to overhaul services on the back of its recommendations. Her response includes a call to: "Identify children at risk of future or further offending or other poor outcomes and take action early to improve their situation."

I am sure that the YJIG means well. But I remain uncomfortable about the proposals. Are the people working in nurseries and pre-school services equipped with the training and ability to screen kids in the manner proposed? And, if they are not to carry out the task, who is? How do you avoid stigmatising those kids who 'fail' the screening? And are the social services resourced to provide the additional support promised? Is there any evidence that this approach will work? Are there no plans for pilot trials of the scheme? Or are we just rushing ahead regardless?

And the proposals have a hint of unjustified determinism. Is it really true that you can identify the bad apples at the age of five?

09 October 2006

Getting carried away

Is history about to repeat itself? The SSP thinks it might, according to The Herald (here):
"The Scottish Socialists are to review their party structure in the wake of the turmoil caused by Tommy Sheridan's court case. At the close of their weekend conference in Glasgow, SSP members voted to set up a commission to study how the party carries out its business. The move came after warnings that a "cult of personality" might again beguile the party."

Colin Fox, Carolyn Leckie, Rosie Kane. Cult of personality? Er, no, don't think so...

08 October 2006

The Krankies of Scottish politics

Even in his most serious plays, Shakespeare used to insert a scene or two to relieve the dramatic tension. In Macbeth, it was the gravedigger. In the drama of the Scottish political scene, the Tories now provide the comic relief. The Sunday Times reports:
"SENIOR Scottish Tories are plotting to oust Annabel Goldie, their leader, for failing to revitalise her beleaguered party. While the Tories in England have enjoyed a resurgence under the leadership of David Cameron, Goldie, who succeeded David McLetchie last year, is facing mounting criticism from within as her party continues to trail heavily in the polls...
Murdo Fraser, the deputy leader, is seen as her most obvious successor. However, party sources say other potential candidates include Jackson Carlaw, a car dealer standing next year for the West of Scotland region. “The party needs somebody like Carlaw, who has the business background and life experience to make a good leader. Annabel Goldie should be a Girl Guide commissioner,” said one senior Tory."

You've got to laugh: Mr Carlaw, a car dealer, never elected to anything, as the saviour of the Tories? Mr Fraser, right wing ideologue, appealing to the Scottish electorate? You can only feel sorry for Ms Goldie (and for the record I'm sure that she would make an excellent Girl Guide Commissioner).

Limbo in limbo

Do journalists not read the papers? Tom Shields in The Sunday Herald gets it wrong:
"Limbo has been put out of its uncertain state. The Vatican has closed it down. Limbo, for those of you who did not learn by rote the catechism of the Catholic church, was a temporary place where the souls of unbaptised babies went when they died. They could not go straight to heaven because they had original sin but they did not deserve hell. Pope Benedict XVI ... was never a big fan of
the concept and has abolished limbo."

As yesterday's Scotsman pointed out:
"THE Pope has been advised by his own theologians to scrap the centuries old belief "in limbo", the resting place for souls of children who have not been baptised.
The recommendation came yesterday from the 30-strong International Theological Commission which had been meeting at the Vatican all week as part of the investigation...
It had been thought that Pope Benedict XVI himself would announce the decision to scrap the concept, but instead it will remain in place until studies have been formally completed."

So the 'uncertain state' remains.

Weekend poem No 5

This week a Victorian poem about an Elizabethan event. Does it involve excessive glorification of military death? Probably. Is the poem stuffed with literary merit? Probably not. But it would be a shame if it were to be forgotten.
'The Revenge : A Ballad of the Fleet'
Alfred Lord Tennyson

At Flores in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville lay,
And a pinnace, like a fluttered bird, came flying from far away:
"Spanish ships of war at sea! we have sighted fifty-three!"
Then sware Lord Thomas Howard: "'Fore God I am no coward;
But I cannot meet them here, for my ships are out of gear,
And the half my men are sick. I must fly, but follow quick.
We are six ships of the line; can we fight with fifty-three?"

Then spake Sir Richard Grenville: "I know you are no coward;
You fly them for a moment to fight with them again.
But I've ninety men and more that are lying sick ashore.
I should count myself the coward if I left them, my Lord Howard,
To these Inquisition dogs and the devildoms of Spain.

"So Lord Howard passed away with five ships of war that day,
Till he melted like a cloud in the silent summer heaven;
But Sir Richard bore in hand all his sick men from the land
Very carefully and slow,
Men of Bideford in Devon,
And we laid them on the ballast down below;
For we brought them all aboard,
And they blest him in their pain, that they were not left to Spain,
To the thumbscrew and the stake, for the glory of the Lord.

Full text here.

07 October 2006

It's a hard life being a minister

Look, not every ministerial trip overseas is an excuse for first class travel, wining and dining and all that. Why should this trip, as discussed in The Evening News, be dismissed as just a jolly?
"PARLIAMENT minister Margaret Curran will visit New Zealand next week to strengthen Scottish links Down Under.
The seven-day trip starts in Wellington, where she will meet senior politicians and officials and watch parliament in action.
Then Ms Curran will move on to Edinburgh's twin city of Dunedin, where she hopes to build on existing links.
She will finish up in Auckland, where her engagements include meetings with business leaders. Ms Curran is taking advantage of the Scottish Parliament's October recess to boost Scotland's relations with a country where in the mid 19th century Scots made up as much as a quarter of the population."

And, given that Parliament is again on holiday for the next two weeks, ministers have got to fill in their time somehow.

06 October 2006

But will it eat whiskas?

This blog is usually an animal-free zone but sometimes I make an exception. Cat-lovers everywhere will want to know of this startling development, reported in The New York Times:
"A small California biotech company says it is ready to deliver the Holy Grail of the $35 billion pet industry: a hypoallergenic cat.
At the start of next year, the first kittens — which the company calls “lifestyle pets” — will go home to eager owners who have been carefully screened and have been on a waiting list for more than two years.
Since it announced the project in October 2004, the company, Allerca, of San Diego, says it has received inquiries from people in 85 countries seeking to buy a cat bred so that its glands do not produce the protein responsible for most human cat allergies.
Cats ordered now will take 12 to 15 months for delivery in the United States, 15 to 18 months in Europe. Cost: $4,000. And owners must pass Allerca’s finicky screening tests.
Prospective buyers are interviewed for motivation and warmth, approved as if they were adopting a child. Will they punish if kitty has an accident on the floor or scratches the furniture? Their families and their homes — from carpets to curtains — must also be evaluated for allergies and allergens.
“You’re not just buying a cat; it’s a medical device that replaces shots and pills,” said Megan Young, chief executive of Allerca. “At the same time, this is a living animal, so the well-being of our product comes before our customers. This is not some high-priced handbag that you put back on the shelf if it doesn’t match.”
My advice? 1. Don't expect affection from a medical device. 2. Buy a dog (or, alternatively, stick to high-priced handbags).

Does the Scottish Executive listen?

I reported last January that the Scottish Executive was denying its officials the ability to access blogs from its internal office system. That remains the case today.

Since January, however, blogs have increasingly become part of mainstream political dialogue. The recent party conferences included bloggers - to a greater or lesser extent - in their communications strategies: the BBC reported:
"The three main parties are falling over themselves to woo this new breed of political blogger, offering computer facilities, background briefings and even access to big name politicians.
For Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats it is not just about appearing to be on top of the latest media trend - or showing how open to debate and criticism they are.
It is about getting a toe-hold in a medium which has been growing in influence at Westminster.
Far better, the thinking goes, to have a sympathetic blogger telling the world what you are up to than an off-message maverick internet voice, or a journalist writing for a newspaper which might have its own agenda."

The leader of Her Majesty's Opposition even has his own blog (here), and at least one of the UK cabinet ministers also dabbles (here).

In the circumstances, I wonder why the Executive is so terrified of allowing its officials to access blogs.

And, while we are on the subject of technology, I have noted that the Executive has embraced podcasts, even although virtually nobody listens to them (see here). But podcasts are a top-down communications medium. Is it not time that the Executive offered a little more interactivity? Or are they only interested in preaching to the peasants and not in listening to them?

The sad thing is that nobody in the Executive will read this post - for the reason stated in the first paragraph above. Well, hell mend them...

Getting down and dirty

Intelligence. Sophistication. Eloquence. Sportsmanship. If these qualities were ever associated with Alan Hansen, then I suspect he's now blown it. The Guardian reports:
Hansen said: "All right, the French will be terribly hard opposition and a lot of their players play in the Premiership, some are brilliant but they can be beaten. Scotland have to play a typical Scottish style. Get into them quick and don't let them settle and if they do that, we have a chance. Henry is a fantastic player and one of the best in the world. But if you can get in about him quick and get after him, then I have seen that sometimes he hasn't been so good."
When pressed on exactly how the Scottish defence should deal with the prolific striker, Hansen replied: "Give him a whack early on. Legitimately, of course. That will help. If you are away from home, under pressure and you get a kick, then it might put you back; get your foot in. Scotland can't give him time and space to play, because he will crucify you if you do that."

'Give him a whack'? I'd rather see the Scotland team lose 6-0...

Legal eagles

Lawyers, whether solicitors or advocates, tend to become specialists quite early in their careers, in criminal law or in property transactions or in a host of other particular areas of expertise. Which is why I don't set much store by this type of grumpy whinging in The Scotsman (here):
"Tory leader Annabel Goldie said her party's support for Ms Angiolini's nomination was "heavily qualified". She said: "The job of Lord Advocate is essentially that of chief legal adviser to the Scottish Executive. "The question is being asked: does Ms Angiolini possess the breadth of legal experience to provide that advice?"
And Ms Goldie said there had to be "real concerns" about the chief legal adviser to the Executive also being chief prosecutor for Scotland...
Ms Goldie's concerns were echoed by former judge Lord McCluskey, who questioned whether Ms Angiolini, who was the first non-advocate to become Solicitor-General in 2001, had the right background to lead the prosecution service.
He said: "Traditionally the Lord Advocate has always come from the Bar. I'm not arguing the Bar has exclusive rights but it does possess a culture of independence. I think there is a weakness in appointing someone who does not have that background."

Would they make similar criticisms if Ms Angiolini were (a) a man and (b) from the 'right' social background? For what it's worth, my view is that her vast experience from inside the bureacracy of the Crown Office must make her one of the most well-suited lawyers ever to become Lord Advocate. It is difficult for an outsider to comment on her personal abilities but she has to be a better bet than some of her predecessors.

04 October 2006

All the President's Men

So Bob Woodward has written another book. The Guardian even has an editorial:
"Compared with most young journalists, Bob Woodward made quite a start. Two years after stumbling into the trade he began uncovering a scoop that would bring down a US president and see himself played by Robert Redford in a Hollywood blockbuster...
Now, impressively, he has exploited his insider status with State of Denial, a book which has Republicans up in arms with its exposés of a dysfunctional administration's desperate efforts to cover up unfolding disaster in Iraq. After decades close to power, Woodward is showing he has not forgotten the duties of journalism."

All very well, but as you can see from the photograph here, Mr Woodward looks nothing like Robert Redford. How can we be expected to take him seriously?

Daft as a brush

Does Boris want to be the centre of attention? I really don't see any future for him as a party spokesman. The Guardian summarises yesterday's infelicities:

· Attacked Jamie Oliver's school meals campaign after David Cameron had praised it
· Attacked new child safety regulations for cars
· Offended Scots, saying Gordon Brown may not be accepted as prime minister
· Implied that localism could lead to sharia law in certain areas

Not exactly on-message. There is an element of common sense in each of his points, but as usual it is pushed to the logical extremes. And he does so love to be the centre of attention.

Any doubts about his love of publicity can be dispelled by watching this video. (He could not have slipped out of the back door?)

Conspiracy theories

So the spooks are involved. The Scotsman reports:
However, Mr Sheridan did not stop at the Murdoch press, but cited "sinister forces" at work. "I would not be surprised if the state is involved," he said.
"The state has a fine history of trying to destabilise and undermine socialist movements or trade union struggles. When the history of this whole episode is written about, I think you'll find that MI5 was involved."

If MI5 has its fingers in the plot, then I think that you will also find that its American cousins, the CIA, have also played their part, no doubt backed up as always by Mossad. And what good would a conspiracy be without Opus Dei, that shadowy organisation with links into the highest levels of the British Government (Ruth Kelly has a lot to answer for)? Wnat about that Midlands Industrial Council used to channel funds to the Conservative Party; they probably hate socialists as well. No, it is becoming clear that this is a worldwide conspiracy; Murdoch, Bush, Rumsfeld, Blair, Cameron, the Pope - they're all collaborating to do down our Tommy...

03 October 2006

More Sheridan

Mr Eugenides has a rather splendid video here.

Reaching out

Should politicians restrict themselves to the tried and tested forms of communication? Or should they be permitted to adopt innovative methods such as Webcameron? Marina Hyde of The Guardian thinks not:

"It is of course perfectly possible that David Cameron lives, on occasion, off camera. There may be interstices in his existence that are not regarded as thrilling fodder for the masses, or placed on websites populated by lonely teens anxious to find a clip of a donkey braying the Star-Spangled Banner, or a 15-second mobile phonecam recording from the back of a Babyshambles gig. But I cannot imagine how utterly bathetic these moments would have to be not to make the cut of what the Tory leader views as transmittable footage.
As a former, much-disliked press officer at Carlton television, perhaps it is only natural that David should have adopted that tragically defunct company's legendary production values. "Watch out BBC, ITV, Channel 4," he jokes in the first Webcameron clip. "We're the new competition. We're a bit shaky and wobbly, but this is one of the ways we want to communicate properly with people about what the Conservative party stands for . . ."

I thought that his first video (here) was very good. OK, the kids were screaming and maybe it was a little stagey. But Dave gave a passable impression of a real human being.

And, in any case, why not try something new? If he can connect with the people otherwise turned off by politicians, then good for him. If journalists don't like it, then tough.

02 October 2006

How (not) to plan for an election

Are the Scottish Tories girding their loins for the May elections? Well not quite. The Herald reports:
"In a bid to boost the party's fortunes north of the border, Annabel Goldie, the leader of the Scottish Tories, will today unveil plans to halve the council tax bills of all pensioners in Scotland.
A Tory spokesman said the £200m tax cuts would be funded by taking Scottish Water out of state control.
Speaking on the fringes of the party's annual conference in Bournemouth, Ms Goldie will say: "I think everybody understands that our senior citizens have far less flexibility and manoeuvring room when it comes to dealing with hefty financial charges. "Many of them will have very limited financial options to cope with such challenges. I think someone has to stand up for them. That is why today I am announcing a policy to provide the necessary and overdue help.
"We will introduce a 50% council tax discount for all pensioner households in Scotland. This will be funded centrally and will be additional to any discounts that the pensioner household currently gets," she will add.
The Tories are hoping to boost their MSP numbers in the Scottish Parliament from 17 to at least 23 at next year's Holyrood elections."

Let us leave aside the poverty of ambition that considers increasing the number of seats from 17 to 23 as a worthwhile target. At first sight, here is a nice clear policy, calculated to increase the party's appeal to pensioners.

First problem: not all pensioners are poor; some are well off, rather more are comfortably off. If we assume that one-third of pensioners do not need a reduction in council tax, then perhaps one-third of the cost of the reduction (£66 million) is going to be wasted. Furthermore, the poorest pensioners already benefit from council tax rebates. Accordingly, an across the board reduction will actually benefit the poorest pensioners least, as they are already paying less than others. And, because there is a range of benefits dependent upon cumulative income, it is entirely possible that some of the poorer pensioners will benefit (slightly) from a reduction in their council tax but lose that gain because the housing benefit they receive will be reduced.

Secondly, while no-one would grudge a reduction in council tax to a 'deserving' pensioner, why should pensioners be singled out for this generosity? Are there no other social categories deserving similar treatment? Those unable to work because of disability, perhaps? Single mothers bringing up children?

Thirdly, if the Executive is to meet the cost of this reduction in council tax for pensioners, it will mean an increase in the grant payable by the Executive to local authorities, thus increasing the dependence of such authorities on central funds and, inevitably, reducing their independence from central government. And while it is easy to ringfence the extra grant paid out to local authorities for this benefit to pensioners, it tends to get lost in the ups and downs of the government grant in respect of the generality of local government expenditure. I'm not suggesting that the Executive gives with one hand and takes away with the other - but COSLA might say so.

Fourthly, it is suggested that the Tories are going to pay for this by privatising Scottish Water. (Again, let us leave aside the idea that there is no point in reducing council tax if this only means that water charges increase.) But privatising Scottish water will bring a one-off capital receipt (which I suspect would anyway revert to HM Treasury). How does this help to pay for a continuing year-on-year requirement to fund the reduction in council tax for pensioners? Furthermore, the privatisation would need to be preceded by consultation and legislation, taking at least 18 months, and then by the messy business of actually selling off the industry, at least another 18 months. So, with a bit of luck, the proceeds might just become available in 2010. Do pensioners need to wait until then before receiving their council tax reduction?

Have the Conservatives considered these questions? Who knows?

Always look on the bright side of life?

Mr Cameron needs a new speechwriter. The Guardian reports:
"The rows came as Mr Cameron unusually opened the conference with a scene-setting speech urging the party to make social responsibility, as opposed to Labour's state responsibility, the binding idea of liberal Conservatism. He defined his outlook in the single word of "optimism", saying: "I am optimistic about human nature. That's why I trust the people to do the right thing. Let optimism beat pessimism. Let sunshine win the day."
The word 'vacuous' comes to mind. Morecambe and Wise meets Monty Python, but without the laughs. He will have to do better if he hopes to vanquish big Gordon.

Update: This underlines the point.

01 October 2006

Finis for Sheridan?

You may - if you wish - listen to the Sheridan tape here.

Be warned that the language is atrocious.

I rather think that this is the end of Mr Sheridan's political career.

Weekend poem No 4

I am not really sure if this qualifies as a poem. And it is in French. But I like it.

Jacques Prévert. "L'accent grave"

Le professeur
Élève Hamlet!

L'élève Hamlet (sursautant)
... Hein... Quoi... Pardon.... Qu'est-ce qui se passe... Qu'est-ce qu'il y a... Qu'est-ce que c'est?...

Le professeur (mécontent)
Vous ne pouvez pas répondre "présent" comme tout le monde? Pas possible, vous êtes encore dans les nuages.

L'élève Hamlet
Être ou ne pas être dans les nuages!

Le professeur
Suffit. Pas tant de manières. Et conjuguez-moi le verbe être, comme tout le monde, c'est tout ce que je vous demande.

L'élève Hamlet
To be...

Le professeur
En Français, s'il vous plaît, comme tout le monde.

L'élève Hamlet
Bien, monsieur. (Il conjugue:)
Je suis ou je ne suis pas
Tu es ou tu n'es pas
Il est ou il n'est pas
Nous sommes ou nous ne sommes pas...

Le professeur(excessivement mécontent)
Mais c'est vous qui n'y êtes pas, mon pauvre ami!

L'élève Hamlet
C'est exact, monsieur le professeur,
Je suis "où" je ne suis pas
Et, dans le fond, hein, à la réflexion,
Être "où" ne pas être
C'est peut-être aussi la question.