30 June 2007

In praise of Maria

Ms Sharapova is a basher. She cannot see a tennis ball without wanting to knock it into next week. She occasionally does the subtle stuff but you can tell that her heart is only in it when she's knocking spots off the ball.

I admit that I can only watch her with the sound turned off. All this grunting is, eh, disturbing.

But at least she desists from the loathsome practice of her male counterparts of carrying a towel about with her during games. Nor does she indulge in the curious business when serving of demanding three balls, only to discard one.

So, go on, gie it laldie, Maria!

Postscript: OK, I suppose that she is quite attractive ...

Bucket and spade time

The Holyrood Parliament is now in recess until Wednesday 5 September.

Whaddya mean, you thought they had lots to be getting on with? They have been extremely busy since the elections seven weeks ago. Now they are entitled to a wee break of nine weeks - isn't everyone?

This Britain

Is it irony? Or bathos? Just to note the contrasting behaviour of two sets of public servants, in yesterday's bombs crisis.

First, the good. The Independent reports:
Scotland Yard said that if the car parked outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub in Haymarket, where 800 people were partying, had exploded it would have caused carnage. The bomb - made with propane gas bottles used in patio heaters, 60 litres of petrol and large quantities of nails - was spotted shortly after 1am by an ambulance crew attending an unconnected incident. It was defused by a police explosives expert who disconnected the mobile phone trigger.

Well done to the ambulance crew who spotted something and alerted the police who in turn got an explosives expert on the scene double quick and defused the bomb at considerable risk to himself. Splendid action by all concerned.

Second, the not quite so good:
Police confirmed last night that the second car, a blue Mercedes 280, also contained a large amount of petrol and nails. Mr Clarke said it had been issued with a parking ticket on Cockspur Street at 2.30am on Friday, near the Thai Square nightclub. It was towed to the compound on Park Lane an hour later.

So, over an hour after the first incident, and despite the fact that the whole of London's West End would have been flooded with police, someone (presumably a policeman) calmly gave an illegally parked car a parking ticket at 2.30 in the morning. At 3.30 someone else calmly hooked up this unexploded bomb to the back of a lorry and towed it to Park Lane, not bothering to consider whether it might be suspicious and never once connecting it with the fact that two or three streets away a bomb had actually been discovered. 'More than my job's worth, mate', the unknown driver might have said.

29 June 2007

Maybe things are getting better ...

Much as one may regret the circumstances, it is nevertheless pleasant not to be obliged to consider Dr Reid, the former Home Secretary, putting on his serious face, dominating the airwaves and attempting to put the fear of death into the population.

Round pegs and square holes

I have to say that I'm not really that impressed with the Prime Minister's list of outside appointments, as listed here.

Sir Alan West, ex-admiral and chief of defence intelligence, becomes security minister at the Home Office. I suppose that Defence Intelligence did such a good job in Iraq that he can easily turn his hand to dealing with the problems of disaffected young Muslims in Birmingham and Bradford. Meanwhile, the ex-police commissioner, Lord Stevens - who might be expected to know something about domestic terrorism - becomes the PM's adviser on international security issues. Perhaps his somewhat unsuccessful investigation of football bungs has given him a depth of knowledge of international security issues of which I am unaware.

Then Professor Sir Ara Darzi KBE, a distinguished surgeon, becomes a parly charlie at the Department of Health. Junior health ministers are not required to have brains or medical abilities - they are there to do what they are told and take the parliamentary flak. Sir Ara would be more likely to serve the public good by continuing to do what he is obviously extremely well qualified to do, rather than being the Department of Health's dogsbody in the Lords.

And I know that Ms Shriti Vadera is one of Mr Brown's favourites and that she distinguished herself in the battles over the privatisation of the London Underground, but is a sophisticated investment banker the kind of person you want to be junior minister to wee Duggie at International Development, again landed with the departmental dogsbody work in the Lords?

I have no objections in principle to employing outsiders in government but you have to make sure that their expertise is going to be used properly.

An intemperate adviser

RoadrunnerReturns puts the boot into Professor Midsummer (probably deservedly).

How times change

The BBC website is reporting that Mr Brown's big tent may extend as far as sheltering CBI bigwigs:
CBI chief Sir Digby Jones has been drafted in as trade promotion minister. He is to be given a peerage and will take the Labour whip in the House of Lords, voting with the party's peers.
But his office stressed he will not be joining the Labour Party.

Some of us are able to remember when Labour Governments were more inclined to provide jobs for trades union heid-yins. For example, Frank Cousins ended up as the Minister for Technology in the first Wilson government. It was the Tories who favoured business nabobs, from John Davies in the Heath government to Lord Young who famously brought Mrs Thatcher solutions rather than problems. But none of them, either from business or from the trades unions, was ever a great success.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat history's mistakes. None of our present politicians seems to have any sense of history.

Leading with his chin

Not for the first time, the ex-First Minister sticks his neck out, only for the present First Minister to deploy a rather effective chopper. From FMQs yesterday (here):
Jack McConnell: ...
However, he [Mr Swinney] then left the chamber and told the waiting media that the Edinburgh airport rail link project was "dead"—that it had "had it". He increasingly sounded like John Cleese in a "Monty Python" sketch. Will the First Minister tell him that if he continues to mislead Parliament in such a way, his credibility will cease to be? It will expire. It will be no more. It will pass on, and John Swinney will be an ex-minister. Was John Swinney's statement to the Parliament true, or was his statement to the media true?

The First Minister: There is only one dead parrot in this chamber.

Mr McConnell needs a new script-writer.

National humiliation

Oh dear. The Guardian reports:
Germany's state-owned railway company is to take over responsibility for running the British royal train under a £280m deal announced yesterday.
Deutsche Bahn has bought English Welsh and Scottish Railway - EWS - which as well as providing 70% of Britain's freight trains also provides the locomotives, drivers and train crew for the Queen and other royals.
The purpose-built carriages, which are owned by Network Rail and painted a distinctive maroon [obviously a Jambo, then], include a Queen's saloon with bedroom, bathroom and sitting room and a separate coach for the Duke of Edinburgh, which has similar facilities with the addition of a kitchen.

Fill in your own joke here (towels on deckchairs, sauerkraut and bratwurst, trains running on time, that sort of thing).

On the other hand, again according to The Guardian, Her Maj only uses it eleven times a year:
Royal train used for 11 official journeys, at a cost of £700,000. These included a £19,271 trip for Queen and duke to Brighton.

That's a lot to spend on a trip to Brighton.

28 June 2007

English Regional Ministers?

No, nor do I know what they will do.


The poor reporters on BBC News 24 are dashing about, desperately seeking to glean the latest titbits on the cabinet re-shuffle.

Scottish interest will presumably focus on the new Chancellor Darling, on Wee Duggie's promotion to Secretary of State for Aid n'Trade and on Dessie's retention of the MoD. The latest I have heard is that Mr Browne will combine Defence with being S of S for Scotland. But we'll see.

Update: The full list of cabinet appointments is now here.

Dire prophecies

For the most part, the London commentariat has welcomed the coronation of King Gordon - or at least they have suspended judgement pro tem. But going against the grain is Mary Ann Sieghart of The Times whose reading of the runes is filled with foreboding:
I don’t think the Brown halo will last for long. He may look amiable enough now, but I suspect that, as soon as events turn against him, he will start shouting at his colleagues again, withholding information from them and retreating into his bunker with the few people whom he trusts.
Brown hates criticism and is likely to lose his rag at Prime Minister’s Questions. His reluctance to take decisions will be the despair of his officials. His colleagues will stop telling him home truths when they see how badly he reacts. As a result, he will quickly become out of touch.
This is the opportunity that the Tories will be able to exploit. Brown won’t be stupid enough to give them openings on policy. But – like anyone else – he cannot easily change his personality. If we elect a Conservative government next time round, it will be because we are fed up with Brown the man, not the Labour Party he leads.

I would not be surprised.

27 June 2007

Trams and trains again

So the shiny new steam engine finally hit the buffers. The BBC website reports:
The Scottish government has backed down over its opposition to Edinburgh's trams project after suffering its first Holyrood defeat.
The SNP administration will now allow the £600m project to go ahead, provided it sticks to budget.
Finance Secretary John Swinney agreed to bow to the will of parliament.
He also promised to come back to parliament in the autumn with an amended scheme to build a rail link to Edinburgh Airport.

Well, it's not going to improve the Executive's overall financial situation ...

Where is all the money coming from?

Another day, another spending commitment. Well, two or three spending commitments, actually. The Herald reports:
Plans to increase the number of developing countries which benefit from Scottish aid were unveiled yesterday by the executive.
Linda Fabiani, the Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, also confirmed that the executive wanted to double the amount of money its spends on international aid from £4.5m to £9m.

Peanuts really but this is more substantial:
Ministers signed off an agreed position on a new Forth road bridge which will go before parliament today.

While this could be really budget-busting:
The cost of free personal care for Scotland's elderly people has risen by 60% since it was introduced, bringing a renewed warning yesterday that it risks running out of control.
As the numbers who benefit from the scheme passed the 50,000 mark, newly published figures show that the cost rose from £149m to £237m between 2002-03 and 2005-06.

Even before the May election, there were hints coming out of St Andrew's House that all was not well with the Executive's future finances. Let us hope that Mr Swinney has it all under control.

Chucking good money after bad

Here is the motion on trams and EARL, behind which Labour, Tories and LibDems hope to unite in order to defeat the government:
S3M-243.1 Ms Wendy Alexander: Transport—As an amendment to motion (S3M-243) in the name of John Swinney, leave out from "endorses" to end and insert "notes that the Edinburgh Trams project and EARL were approved by the Parliament after detailed scrutiny; further notes the report of the Auditor General for Scotland on these projects and, in light thereof, (a) calls on the Scottish Government to proceed with the Edinburgh Trams project within the budget limit set by the previous administration, noting that it is the responsibility of Transport Initiatives Edinburgh and the City of Edinburgh Council to meet the balance of the funding costs and (b) further calls on the Scottish Government to continue to progress the EARL project by resolving the governance issues identified by the Auditor General before any binding financial commitment is made and to report back to the Parliament in September on the outcome of its discussions with the relevant parties."

None of this strikes me as a ringing endorsement of either project. Arguably, it simply means pouring more money into both schemes until it becomes even more apparent that neither project can be delivered without much more financial pain. And, if you believe yesterday's Evening News (here) about the £10 million black hole, the Edinburgh Council is in no financial position to meet any extra costs.

Bye bye Tony

The gossip has it that, on appointment as Middle East envoy for the Quartet, Mr Blair will stand down as an MP.

It is one of those quaint anachronisms of the House of Commons, however, that MPs are not actually permitted to resign. Mr Blair will therefore have to apply for one of two paid offices of the crown, which would disqualify him from membership of the Commons. In Mr Blair's case, he will need to become the crown steward of the Manor of Northstead. He does not actually get paid any money but it enables him to be excused boots in the Commons.

The other office (they take it in turns) is the steward and bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds.

The august office of the steward of Northstead is currently held by Peter Mandelson. (Not a lot of people know that.)

More here.

Update: Apparently, Mr Blair has become the steward and bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds rather than the Manor of Northstead.

24 June 2007

Most unlikely quote of the day

A sentence I never thought I'd see. From Iain Macwhirter in The Sunday Herald (here):
"The SNP's parliament minister, the unflamboyant Bruce Crawford, is turning out to be as skilled an operator as any chief whip in Westminster."

Good for Bruce!

23 June 2007

Hail to the new chief?

The new EU constitution - oh sorry, I mean the amending treaty. There has been surprisingly little comment about the abolition of the rotating European Council presidency and its replacement by a full-time president whose period in office will stretch to 30 months. So future Councils will no longer be presided over by the likes of Frau Merkel, at least when the amended treaty is duly ratified by the Member States. Given that this process is likely to take a year or two, there is probably no rush to appoint this new (semi-) permanent president.

Candidates for the post? Tony Blair, of course, though I cannot see Mr Brown looking upon such a proposition with any degree of sympathy. Jacques Chirac? Mr Sarkozy ditto. Oh well, what about that sensitive flower, Silvio Berlusconi - you must be joking! My bet would be on former Spanish premier, Mr Aznar. But a lot of water is likely to flow under the bridge before any appointment is agreed.

Rather missing the point ...

... but it's a nice story. The Independent reports:
The UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, turned up on the first day of the summit with an inflatable bulldozer. He was almost arrested. The police pointed out that he failed to obtain a permit from the Brussels town hall to enter the free expression zone. Mr Farage said: "What kind of free expression is it if you can't use it? I was simply trying to get the message across that we are being bulldozed into a federal Europe and we want it to stop." It's been a bad summit for Mr Farage. He was also thrown out of a Downing Street press briefing on the grounds he is not a journalist.
Ukip bought its inflatable bulldozer in Latvia. Why Latvia? "Because Latvia is known as the best place in Europe for inflatable bulldozers," a UKIP spokesman said.
There you are then. The EU single market is a triumph, whatever Ukip may say. What has Europe ever given us, they ask incessantly? One answer (among many): "Cheap Latvian inflatable bulldozers".

I must remember that.

22 June 2007

Having your cake and eating it

Is Scottish Labour a serious political party? The Evening News reports:
LOTHIANS Labour MSP George Foulkes has quit Holyrood's "dullest" committee - so he can spend time at the House of Lords.
The former Hearts chairman has persuaded party managers to let him quit the Scottish Parliament's subordinate legislation committee - even though he was only voted on to it last week...
A parliament source said Mr Foulkes just failed to turn up to the first meeting of the committee. And since Dunfermline East MSP Helen Eadie had already resigned, telling party managers she believed her experience could be better used elsewhere, Labour was left with just one MSP present.

To think that Labour was once renowned for party discipline.

21 June 2007

What's in a title?

This morning, I had occasion to mention the Auditor General, a man (for he is a he) with a splendidly Cromwellian title, even if that title is more likely to be derived from modern European practice than from the 17th century. I suppose that, in more recent times, he would have been known as the Chief Auditor.

It is a little reported fact that all of the senior civil servants in the Scottish Executive have - since the recent election - assumed new job titles. They are now known as Directors or Directors-General (apart from the boss, Sir John, who remains Permanent Secretary or, more formally, Permanent Under-Secretary of State and occasionally referred to (rather inelegantly) as USofS).

In the good old days, there was a strict hierarchy of titles. Beneath the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Office were the Deputy Secretaries, each of which headed up a department (such as the Scottish Education Department or the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland). Beneath them were a number of Under Secretaries who in turn had responsibility for a group of divisions; each division was headed up by an Assistant Secretary. (This is a slight over-simplification but let us not complicate matters unnecessarily.) This system was well understood by insiders and everyone knew where they stood in the pecking order. There were of course 'Yes Minister' jokes and misunderstandings, usually to do with the lack of typing skills of these senior officials.

Over the past ten or so years, changes in the grading structure of senior civil servants led to these job titles falling into desuetude. It became more customary to refer to heads of department, heads of group and heads of division, arguably a victory of function over grade.

But, since the election on 3 May, all this has now changed. Heads of department have now become Directors General, while the rest have become directors. As far as I can understand, this is supposed to reflect the theory (whose principal proponent is the Permanent Secretary) that directors will now work directly (what else?) to Ministers, freeing up Directors General to concentrate on 'cross-cutting issues'. At least this dispels one mystery - which was that nobody ever really understood how heads of department filled their time. But directors (heads of division) invariably worked directly to Ministers, even under the old regime. I put the change down to fashion, myself - that and the allegation that the uppermost levels of the Scottish civil service are reputed to have fallen deeply in love with their new SNP masters.

Accordingly, the departments, some of them going back more than a century, have been written out of history. If you look at the Executive website, you will be hard put to find any reference to those organisations which until 3 May were known by such titles as the Scottish Development Department or the Scottish Health Department. The Executive consists merely of a host of directorates, even although these are grouped together in such a way to resemble the components of the old departments. But, officially, departments have been expunged. Few blog readers may care about this desecration, but some of us will mourn the departure of old and familiar bodies. In any event, the old organigram has been deleted and replaced by this description of the Executive's senior management structure. Nice photos, guys!

Trains and trams

After yesterday's report by the Auditor General (report and press release here), the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link is presumably dead in the water, in that SNP, Tories and Greens will vote against it.

The tram line is more difficult to predict, in that only the SNP are opposed. Brian Taylor suggests that the SNP Executive might be prepared to let it go ahead, if only in the spirit of wider parliamentary harmony. He may well be right.

But, even if the tram project surmounts this immediate hurdle and is allowed to proceed, what long-term future can it have when the organisation (the Executive) providing the bulk of the project funding is known to have serious doubts about its value for money? There is a multitude of ways to kill a project - or simply to let it die ...

20 June 2007

Can you blame him (or her)?

This blog has received a copy of the following letter, apparently sent to the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. The name of the signatory has been redacted - for obvious reasons.

Dear Presiding Officer

Thank you for your letter of 21 June inviting me to be an independent member of the panel to be established to review parliamentary allowances. I regret that I must decline.

I note that I would have been expected to devote my time to this exercise without payment. I appreciate the hint in your letter that I might be appropriately rewarded in some future honours round but, frankly, an OBE would be of little consolation for leaving myself open to abuse from all quarters when the panel's report was eventually published.

It is my understanding that the people of Scotland have learned through bitter experience of the last eight years that too many of our MSPs are in it for what they can get out of it. This may be a false perception on their part but it is what they believe. Furthermore, their belief will have been strengthened by the obvious reluctance of the parliamentary authorities to do anything about the issue of the Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance, despite it having been raised to prominence more than a year ago. The current proposal to refer the matter to a panel for a further nine months' consideration, to be followed by - no doubt - lengthy consideration by the parliament itself, is unlikely to re-assure them.

I also have to ask if it is not the case that the establishment of the panel, allied to the fact that it would not report until next March, would mean that the new generation of MSPs will be able to buy property in Edinburgh under the existing rules. The panel would therefore be under pressure not to disadvantage those MSPs by changing the rules when the latter have committed themselves to buying property at the Parliament's expense during the interim. In these circumstances, it seems inevitable that the panel would be constrained to accept that any new rules would only apply from some point in 2008 and that MSPs who are already receiving the Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance should continue to benefit from it in the foreseeable future.

It might have been different if you were proposing an entirely independent panel. But I note that you intend to have Mr Tom McCabe as the SPCB's 'minder' on the panel. Again, if I may be frank, I have no wish to receive a visit from the Lanarkshire 'mafia', just because of an unguarded remark on my part during the panel's deliberations.

But the bottom line is that there are no possible recommendations which the panel could make which would not be excoriated, either by the media or by the MSPs. The whole exercise therefore becomes impossible. That the present system of allowances is excessively generous seems incontrovertible, but the parliament obviously has to do something to allow MSPs from far out of town to live in Edinburgh for part of the week. To be honest, I would rather work on the implementation of local income tax.

In conclusion, thanks but no thanks.

Yours sincerely

------- ----------

Thomas the Tank Engine and the perils of off-shoring

The New York Times has a parable for today:
There’s another Thomas story, called “Cranky Bugs,” that comes to mind here. In it, a big crane named Cranky is mean to Thomas and his friend Percy, another little train car on the Island of Sodor. Eventually, though, Thomas and Percy manage to knock over Cranky. After that, he stops being such a bully — because, as the story concludes, “he knows they may bite back.”

Playing it long

When in doubt, set up a committee. Which is what the SPCB has done in relation to the long-running sore of the parliamentary allowances payable to MSPs. But the committee (or panel) is not expected to report until March 2008. Here is the Parliament's press release.

Given the widespread disgust (is that too strong?) over the Edinburgh accommodation allowance and the criticisms of MSPs 'working the system', would it be unreasonable to suggest that the parliamentary authorities pull their fingers out, with a view to sorting out this particular problem as an immediate priority? They should not need 9 months to realise that the present arrangements are indefensible.

And I know that the arrangements at Westminster are even less defensible - but that is no excuse for permitting on-going drift at Holyrood.

Happiness is egg-shaped

Oh dear. The Guardian reports:
It was one of the iconic advertising slogans of its era, but modern consumers will not be urged to "go to work on an egg" after an advertising watchdog ruled that the ads do not encourage healthy eating.
The British Egg Information Service (BEIS) had planned to re-broadcast the famous series of television advertisements, which feature Tony Hancock extolling the virtues of an egg-centred breakfast, to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the campaign.
But the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), which vets television advertisements before they are screened, said the campaign breached current Ofcom rules on promoting a varied diet.

Yet, last night, I saw TV ads for MacDonalds' new Mexican range of refried whatever and KFC's buckets of battered bits of dead birds, not to mention various sugar-coated cereals of dubious nutritional value. What is wrong with this country?

You can see the eggs ads here.

A footnote in history

"I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel.
You were talking so brave and so sweet
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street."

And now the Chelsea Hotel is to be managed by the boutique boys.

Nothing is sacred.

Quote of the day

From The Guardian (here):
"Air force pilots are urged to bomb sensitively."

Sigh ...

Good writing

This blog does not usually concern itself with the Middle East, but I can wholeheartedly recommend Jonathan Freedland's analysis of the Palestinian situation in The Guardian today.

He sets up his straw man:

On the West Bank shall arise Fatahland, soon to be showered with cash from the very western tap that stayed shut as long as Hamas were in the picture. President Mahmoud Abbas will not only receive money but multiple goodwill gestures from Israel: an easing of roadblocks, cooperation on security, a glimpse of the "political horizon", meaning the prospect of negotiations aimed at an eventual Palestinian state. If things go well, a high-ranking Israeli government official told me yesterday, Israel could once again return chunks of West Bank territory to Palestinian control, as it did during the Oslo process.

In Gaza, meanwhile, would fester the new land of Hamastan, an Islamist-ruled hellhole shunned by the rest of the world, starved of all but the most emergency humanitarian aid. Where Fatahland would feel the warmth of the west's open arms and deep pockets, Hamastan would know only its cold shoulder. Pretty soon Palestinians would draw the obvious conclusion. As that Israeli government insider puts it, "They'll understand that moderate policies bring home the bacon, while the other road brings only pain."

and then thoroughly demolishes it. Read the whole thing.

Hey, I can be fashionably gnomic too ...

Seeking to pluck the low-hanging fruit is not necessarily a bad idea. It fosters the illusion of activity and it ticks a small box on the list of government achievements.

But, if as a government, you set yourself ambitious strategic objectives, then the people may expect to see rather more substantial progress towards their fulfilment. And frittering away ministerial effort on establishing and monitoring minor advances towards your goals may end in tears by bedtime.

19 June 2007

Quote of the day

Tommy Sheridan, after failing to win a charity boxing match, from The Independent (here):
"He hit me with about 50 or 60 lucky punches. He's twice my size."

Polysyllabic words are always better

Apparently, the Executive has a climate change minister. He'll have to do better than this vapid nonsense from yesterday's press release:
Mr Stevenson said:
"Our approach to climate change is long term and strategic. The commitments we make now in terms of reductions in emissions will see many sessions of parliament and many administrations before 2050. For that reason it is vital we ensure a broadly based consensus which transposes geography, politics and the whole of society. The decisions we take now must be deliverable for future generations."

Nice to see that the Executive is not proposing to adopt a short-term and tactical approach to climate change. And I for one am glad that that they intend to ensure a broadly based consensus - a narrowly based consensus would never do. Although I am far from sure why they want that consensus to transpose things - perhaps they mean 'encompass'? But, as long as their decisions are deliverable for future generations, why cavil?

Manufacturing a backlash

Cause for alarm? Mr Cochrane in The Telegraph appears to think so:
A weekend in England is all it takes; all it takes to confirm that "they" are not going to put up with "it" forever. "They" are the English and "it" is devolution.
Now, you may think you've heard this before; after all, people like me have been hunting for the English backlash ever since the Scottish Parliament opened for business.
And, frankly, it has been a long time coming. But coming it most definitely is. I was talking to a senior MSP yesterday and his assessment was an accurate one. "They (the English) seem to have gotten really annoyed about this student fees business."

But we may nevertheless relax. Mr Cochrane's article is little more than a puff for a radio programme which he is fronting. It would not have been much of a programme if there had been no backlash, would it?

Pay attention at the back

I await with no little anticipation the outcome of this week's EU Summit. Nevertheless, it is with deep regret that I note the absence of any valid explanation in the yellow press of Poland's announced position on EU Council voting procedures. As the cognoscenti will be aware, our Polish chums advocate the introduction of a vote weighting procedure based on the square root of the population of the relevant Member State (although I gather that territorial area comes into it as well).

The best explanation I have been able to find is in this - rather abstruse - website:
Where, you may ask, does the square root come from? The answer requires a bit of maths. Consider a randomly selected yes-no issue and suppose that member nations decide their stance on this issue by a referendum; define PN as the probability that a typical citizen’s vote is critical in the referendum outcome. Then the member states vote in the Council; define Pms as the probability that the member state is critical in the Council vote. A citizen’s probability of being critical is thus PN times Pms and our fairness metric requires this to be equal for all member states.
Pms has nothing to do with the number of voters (proxied by population), but PN falls at the square root of population. This sounds peculiar since most numerate people would think the probability of being critical in a national election decreases in a straight-line relationship with population. But this misses a subtlety. Two things change with the voter headcount. The probability of a typical voter being critical to a particular winning coalition decreases linearly with the headcount, but the number of distinct winning coalitions rises with the number of voters. The probability of being critical falls at a less than linearly pace. The mathematics of combinatorics gives us an exact formula assuming a voter’s stance is randomly determined on a randomly selected issue. Taking M as the minimum number of votes in a winning coalition and n as the number of voters, one can use the binomial distribrition to work out the answer. The precise, the formula is complex , but it can be well approximated as the square root of 2/np, where n is the number of voters (this is Stirling’s formula). Hence the square root.

Yes, while I take the point, this really leaves me no wiser. I suppose that Mr Blair understands it? But I demand to know what the Scottish Executive's Europe Minister, Ms Linda Fabiani MSP, thinks about this.

18 June 2007

Spherical segmental technology?

I can remember when a Mystère was a jet fighter. Nowadays? The Guardian reports:
According to the makers of Le Mystère's new No 9 range, the fashion for "fake look" implants has given rise to breasts that are too round, too high and too pneumatic for conventional bras. "The trend has been to use higher-profile breast implants with a narrower base and more projection, which means that traditional bras tend not to fit properly," explains Dr David Brothers, the Atlanta-based plastic surgeon behind the range. "Even normal straps and material aren't ideal."
The No 9 bras respond with a "mathematically defined and designed cup", using something called "spherical segmental technology". All this engineering comes at a price: Harrods are stocking the range, which starts at £60.

14 June 2007

The good old days

Apocryphal perhaps. But a tale worth retelling, as it concerns one of football's immortals, the late Joe Baker of Hibs, Torino and England. Nicky Campbell in The Guardian recounts:
Baker told the story brilliantly in a Radio Scotland documentary made not long before he died, speaking, of course, in his broad West of Scotland accent.
"At Heathrow I jumped in a taxi and this cockney driver says 'Where are you going' so I told him the Hendon Hotel. The driver said 'That's where the England team stay' and I said 'Aye, I'm playing for them Wednesday night'. And the driver never said another thing for the next quarter of an hour." After the long silence, Baker noticed a police car roaring up behind them, and the next thing he knew the taxi had pulled over and two cops "with braided hats" came up to the window. The driver had been on his radio and called the police. He'd assumed he had a dangerous lunatic in the back of his cab.
"So you are playing for England, are you?" said one of the coppers sarcastically.
Baker recalled: "I said 'Aye' and he didnae understand me. So I said 'Yes' instead. Luckily Desmond Hackett had written in the Daily Express that day 'Why bring a Scotsman to play for England?' and I had the paper. I said 'Look, that's me' and the policeman turned to his mate and said 'God, Fred. Are we that bad?'"

Joe Baker, great man, great footballer.

13 June 2007

Will it keep the students happy?

But, in the grown-up world, it's no big deal. According to the Executive press release, income of some £15 million per year will be lost. Absolute peanuts in terms of the Executive's budget (of about £30 billion), although it may not seem that way to a student.

So why the hoopla? Did this justify a ministerial statement to parliament? Why did the SNP government make this their first major educational announcement? Could it be that everything else in the educational world is just too difficult?

He's just not chippy enough?

The Daily Mash (what would you expect?) considers the Labour succession:
A 5lb bag of potatoes has emerged as the early favourite to be the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party, as speculation mounts that Jack McConnell may stand down within weeks.
Andy Kerr, the former health minister and previous favourite for the post, may now step back from launching his own challenge to give the potatoes a free run. However, it is believed he would stand for the deputy leadership alongside the potatoes in what Labour insiders are already calling a "dream ticket". One said: "Andy has taken soundings and there are doubts that he's got what it takes to beat a 5lb bag of potatoes."

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I tend to favour the hungry caterpillar tendency. But, hey, whatever way the boiled potato crumbles ...

Is it me?

I must be losing the place here. The Prime Minister of the UK regards The Independent as the leading feral beast in the forest (here)? The Daily Mail and The Sun must be sick as dogs.

Meanwhile the President of the United States steals his own watch?

12 June 2007

Wendy's pal - was it Tinkerbelle or Captain Hook?

May I direct your attention to a most interesting post by one of the Bondbloke people on the resurrection of Professor 'Red' Midsummer who has risen from his grave to clank his chains:
Red has now proposed (Scotsman, 12 June) that the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament should be changed to enable "...committees to be allowed to make amendments [to the budget] rather than make [non-binding] recommendations". This would, of course, rob the governing party of the right to set Scottish spending priorities to the extent that these did not chime with the majority on any specific committee. But wait - has Red considered the melee that will ensue should his latest attempt to undermine Scottish democracy be accepted? There are to be 15 Committees in the new Parliament, which gives scope for 15 non-coordinated proposals. To say that financial chaos would ensue is to put it mildly.

I agree. Sensible financial administration would be become impossible. Furthermore, such a system would be become entrenched, in that any subsequent attempt to restore the previous system would be opposed on the grounds that it was an anti-democratic transfer of responsibility from parliamentary committees to the Executive. For MSPs to vote away their powers to meddle would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. Does Prof Midsummer really want to impose such a daft arrangement on future administrations, even if those administrations might be of a more acceptable political flavour to his (admittedly atrophied) tastebuds?

Maybe, after all, we're not such a bad wee country?

David Aaronovitch in The Times comments on the studies of children's development:
Children from Bangladeshi families were a year behind white children in tests measuring “school readiness”; West Indian and African children were six times more likely than whites to be behind. But Scottish children were two months ahead of the UK average in “school readiness”.

... crudely, the message of these studies is that we should now pay the Scots to bring up our children, but let the Indians feed them.

It's worth reading the whole article.

Picture this!

May I invite you to study the picture used on the BBC Scotland website to illustrate this story about nurses' pay? To put it bluntly, the picture is of a nurse's breasts - admittedly fully clothed breasts but breasts nonetheless. Is there any reason for this? Does it add anything to the story?

The evil weed

Quote of the day from Hockney in The Independent (here):
"I might point out Turner smoked," he declared, adding it was a fairly common habit among great artists. "Monet smoked, and he died at 86. Picasso and Matisse smoked, and lived to a ripe old age. They didn't have dreary people telling them what to do."

Aye, they get you down, those dreary people ...

Sleepy hollow

This morning The Herald reports that our next Prime Minister is considering the restoration of the Secretary of State for Scotland as a full time job.

Has Mr Brown forgotten that the last full time Secretary of State for Scotland, Helen Liddell (aka Stalin's Granny), had so little to do that she was accused of taking French lessons in office hours? That was of course before she was banished to Canberra (where her linguistic abilities were of doubtful utility).

As for the Scotland Office in more recent times, it was only last December that The Scotsman reported:
THE role of the Scotland Office has been brought into question by new figures which show how little work is apparently being done by its staff.
The 22 staff who work in the lavish surroundings of Dover House in London send out less than one letter per working day and the premises' luxury rooms were used for just 37 days this year for hosting functions for visiting Scottish ministers and dignitaries.
There is no need for postbag either, with the office receiving fewer than seven letters a day.
And for a government often accused of putting spin before substance, the press officer seems surprisingly unbusy, with just 47 press releases in one year ...

And, of course, when a crisis arose, when the Scottish Secretary of State actually had to do something, such as when the UK Government was considering a deal with Libya impacting on the Executive's powers with regard to justice, where was wee Duggie, the current part-time incumbent? A good question, but answer came there none.

11 June 2007

Fighting for Scotland in the EU Council Chamber

I hope that he remembered the important thing - to leave enough time to load up with cheap booze at Luxembourg airport on the way home.

The Executive press release indicates a cabinet secretary quite pleased with himself:
Speaking in Luxembourg after attending his first European Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting, Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, said:
"It was a privilege to be the first Cabinet Secretary in the new Scottish Government to attend an EU council.
"It was very valuable to experience at first hand the process which determines the future of Scotland's fishing communities and to receive a warm welcome from Commissioner Borg and other fisheries ministers ...
"While this was a relatively low key Council meeting, I ensured that key Scottish concerns were reflected in the UK position.
"Watching 27 countries, some landlocked, debating fishing policy underlined the importance of giving the historic fishing nation of Scotland a much greater say on the future of our fishing communities."

Mr Lochhead will have realised how utterly tedious these meetings, especially the 'low key' ones, are. After the Presidency has welcomed everyone (taking at least 5 minutes), the Commission will present its proposal (10 minutes) and then there will be a tour de table where each Member State has in turn 5 minutes to state its view of the proposal (135 minutes); the Presidency will then sum up the discussion (10 minutes). Then it's time for lunch. The whole process will be repeated in the afternoon.

My only surprise is that Mr Lochhead is not staying for the Agriculture Council tomorrow. Then he could have experienced the tedium all over again.

Playing it straight

Iain Macwhirter in The Herald catalogues the duplicity of the UK Government over the Libyan memorandum of understanding and concludes:
What infuriates me most about this whole affair is the implication that anyone who questions the Downing Street account is a Nationalist sympathiser. Well, I belong to no party, but I can tell this this much: if they want to hand the political initiative to the SNP, they are going exactly the right way about it. And I say this to UK government sources: in future, don't ring me unless you are prepared to tell it straight. You might find I am not at home.

Some of us might wonder if UK Government sources are capable of telling it straight even if they wanted to. Remember Iraq? the BAE/Saudi affair? Even last week's G8 Summit?

08 June 2007

Throwing some red meat to the backbench jackals

Alan Cochrane in The Telegraph has become over-excited about the allegedly iniquitous Libya deal:
All of the political to-ing and fro-ing notwithstanding, the clincher for this observer and for many others that this is a serious constitutional, as well as legal, dispute was the fact that Elish Angiolini, the Lord Advocate, was fully in support of the First Minister's statement. Both she and he could be seen in deep conversation in the few minutes before Mr Salmond got to his feet.
Further, she was in complete agreement with the letter of protest sent from Bute House to Downing Street last night.
Her political independence has never been in doubt - indeed she is the first Lord Advocate in living memory not to be sacked by an incoming government - and I don't think for a minute that she'd get involved in a political stunt.

Let us bear in mind that the Libya agreement is a memorandum of understanding. It is not a formal treaty. No Libyan prisoners have yet been identified for extradition and, indeed, even if in due course they are so identified, the process will remain open to legal challenge.

Of course the Prime Minister should have consulted beforehand, but it would not be the first time that he'd neglected the proprieties. The First Minister saw an open goal and duly blootered the ball into the back of the net. But a serious constitutional dispute? Doubtful ...

Out, in, out, in?

I'm fed up reading about it. The Telegraph reports:
Paris Hilton will return to court today to see if she will be ordered back to jail after serving only three days of her 45-day term.
But the judge who jailed her for violating her probation on an earlier drink driving charge said he was unhappy with the decision and ordered the socialite back to court.
He issued an order to test whether the sheriff who released Hilton may have been in contempt of court for doing so.

I don't care either way but make up your mind and give the rest of us some peace.

07 June 2007

It's only been three years...

I see that Lord Laidlaw is still in trouble with the Lords Appointments Commission. According to the BBC (here):
"During spring 2004, the commission vetted a list of party-political nominees," the commission's report, published on Thursday, said.
"One of the individuals on the list, Irvine Laidlaw (now Lord Laidlaw), was not resident in the UK for tax purposes. Following an exchange of correspondence and a face-to-face meeting, the commission accepted an assurance from Lord Laidlaw that he would become resident in the UK for tax purposes from April 2004.
"On the basis of this assurance the commission found no objection to his appointment. The commission would have taken a different view on Lord Laidlaw's nomination if it had known that he would not be resident in the UK for tax purposes from April 2004," the report said.
"In June 2004 he was appointed to the House of Lords. Lord Laidlaw has not become resident in the UK for tax purposes."

Among other roles, Lord Laidlaw is the effective employer of Lady Elvidge, the good lady of Sir John, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Executive, as may be seen at this website. It is fervently to be hoped that Lord Laidlaw's troubles do not cause Lady Elvidge to consider her position.

06 June 2007

Jobs for the boys

This is an interesting idea but it is far from clear how it can be delivered. The Independent reports:
Gordon Brown yesterday promised his union backers for the leadership of the Labour Party that as Prime Minister he will ensure British people get first refusal on jobs in Britain...
In a further reassurance to the unions, he said he wanted to ensure that 200,000 jobs in construction, the hospitality industry and the financial services for the London Olympics also went to British workers. It follows growing concern that many of the jobs on the 2012 Olympics would go to lower paid migrant workers from Poland and other new entrants to the European Union from the former Warsaw Pact countries.
"We are about to sign agreements for the Olympics and the construction trade so that the jobs in London go to people who are trained up here in Britain to get the jobs that are available," he said.
"I want to extend it too to the hospitality trade, to construction and to the financial services. I want... these jobs to go to British workers with skills that are given by us to enable them to get the jobs that are available," he said.

The rules of the EU do not allow governments (or private sector employers) to discriminate in favour of domestic labour to the detriment of workers from other parts of the EU. Now you may think that this situation is crazy or unfair, but it is a fact. Either Mr Brown is ignorant of one of the most basic tenets of EU law or he is deliberately misleading his trades union audience.

05 June 2007

The rise and rise of the New Puritans

There you go. Not content with banning smoking in pubs, nor with denying expectant mothers an occasional glass of the old vino, nor with forcing supermarkets to forbid money-saving offers to their customers on booze, the Executive will today announce its latest wheeze (no pun intended), whereby young smokers will have to be 18 before they buy a packet of fags.

It is of course health reasons that are quoted in evidence, although the BBC rather gives the game away with this:
The executive statistics indicated that 4% of 13-year-olds and 15% of 15-year-olds were regular smokers.
However, smoking by 13-year-olds had declined since 1998 from 9% to 3% among boys, and from 11% to 5% among girls. Among 15-year-olds, smoking had declined from a peak in 1996, from both 30% for boys and girls to 12% for boys and 18% among girls.

If the existing policy is working so well that it has reduced 15 year-old smokers from 30% to 15% within ten years, then why mess about with it?

And there is more bad news south of the border. The Times reports:
Middle-class wine drinkers will be the focus of government plans to make drunkenness as socially unacceptable as smoking, The Times has learnt.
Under the plans published today, a fresh audit is to be conducted by the Government into the overall costs of alcohol abuse to society and the National Health Service. “We want to target older drinkers, those that are maybe drinking one or two bottles of wine at home each evening,” a Whitehall source said.

OK, it may not apply to Scotland for now but can our new nationalist masters see a bandwagon without wanting to jump on it?

It would not be so bad if they really believed in the health arguments. Little old wine drinker me suspects they just hate to see people enjoying themselves. I fear that emigration may be the only answer.

04 June 2007

Will we be 'swamped'?

I have spent most of the day worrying about this story in The Scotsman:
HUMAN traffickers have opened up a new people-smuggling route into Scotland, with migrants entering the country illegally from the Faroe Islands.
Immigration officers have launched an operation to uncover the extent of the problem after the discovery in recent weeks of a number of illegal workers living in the North-east who had exploited common travel areas between Denmark, the Faroes and Shetland to reach the UK.
The Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) believes this could be the tip of the iceberg and is concerned gangmasters may be arranging for large numbers of migrants to travel from the Continent to Scotland via the Faroes, evading border checks and heavy immigration staff presence at busier ports.
I foresaw the Glasgow sky darkening with jumbo jets from Vagar Airport full of illegal immigrants. Lerwick Harbour would be crowded with vast continental ferries plying their trade from Torshavn.

But, as anyone who has ever been to the Faroes will tell you, it's not what you would describe as probable. And then I was reassured by the thought that it was just the usual nonsense from The Scotsman.

Not sure I can be bothered any more...

I mean, we can't even run to a decent scandal. All we can come up with is this kind of minor pathetic nest-feathering. And the culprit is so ethically challenged that he can say this kind of thing:
Last night Mr Stevenson - who swapped the three-storey family home in Linlithgow which he and his wife bought in 1974 for the more modest £170,000 house in the same town - said he had done nothing wrong.

Oh dear, Mr Stevenson. In the long dark tea-time of your soul, when you wake up sweating in the middle of the night, do you really believe that what you have done is morally right?

Quote of the day

On reaching no 26 in the UK top 40 with the Zimmers' version of 'Talking about my Generation' (here):
Mr Carretta, lead singer of the band, said: "It's just brought me back to life. I was 90 and stuck in a rut. And now I feel that I have come alive again."

Check out the video at YouTube here. If I were a bit younger, I might describe it as cool.

02 June 2007


Oh yes, the Labour Party Deputy Leadership. If there is a point to this argument, it escapes me. The Independent reports:
An instant handbag debate was ignited. Under questioning, Ms Harman said she had never spent more than £50 on a handbag. Ms Blears happily confessed to a black leather Orla Kiely, which had cost "around" £250. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, has been photographed carrying a £750 Chloe bag.

Seems a bit exclusive. What does Peter Hain carry?

Taking care of our data

It's just that you would expect the Bank of Scotland to have a more technologically advanced system. The Herald reports:
Financial details of thousands of bank customers have been lost in the post.
Bank of Scotland yesterday apologised to 62,000 customers after it confirmed that their mortgage details have been reported missing. A computer disc containing details of the mortgage accounts failed to reach the main credit reference agencies for a routine monthly update.
The bank said the disc, which was sent in the normal post with Royal Mail, has been reported as a lost item but claimed it was "almost impossible" that any financial fraud could be committed with the limited information held on the disc.
It contains the names, addresses, dates of birth and mortgage account numbers of each customer, but does not include bank account details, PINs, passwords or bank transaction information.
The bank said there was no suggestion that the disc had been stolen and that it appears to have been lost in the post.
To do a monthly download on to a disc and then to send it through the mail, via 'normal post', seems extraordinarily old-fashioned, not to say careless. Maybe they are not as clever as they think they are.

01 June 2007

Trams and trains

I'm really not that fussed. Do we need both a rail connection and a tram connection to the airport? Probably not. Are the schemes proposed not awfully expensive? Probably. Are the expenses out of control? Well, the cost of the tram system seems to have grown like Topsy. Do we need a fancy rail tunnel under the airport runway? Probably not. Are there cheaper options? Probably.

Is there scope for some sort of compromise? Seems fairly obvious to me, but what do I know?

Posh Lady

I rather doubt if anyone cares but it would be helpful if The Scotsman did its homework.
It's believed Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, wants Beckham to be knighted - which would make his wife Lady Victoria.

No, it would not. She would be Lady Beckham.