Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

Urgh. It's Christmas morning and I feel like crap - streaming nose, streaming eyes, the shivers and what feels like a kazoo band playing in my chest ever time I cough. If I suggested at any point last week that Jack McConnell might have been 'at it' by phoning in sick before last week's Trident debate, then I repent entirely!

I suspect last week was the final straw. Out on Tuesday night; 2 receptions - BBC and SNP - on Wednesday night, followed by a late dinner and more beers; the SNP researchers night out on Thursday, with me doing my best Frank Sinatra impression and a 5am finish; and on Friday, an all-day session with my old pals from Scottish Widows, which a protesting body forced me to bail out of around 8pm. I guess I just can't hack it any more...

At least being stuffed full of paracetamol makes it easy for me to be the driver this year. I'll head over to my parent's house in a bit, then we'll meet up with the rest of the family at my cousin Hazel's house. It's perfect for everybody because Hazel 1) has a big house with a big kitchen and 2) with the help of partner Eric and sister Lesley, manages to cook the sort of extravagant, beautiful food that always makes the day really special.

In the eyes of my little cousin Lorimer, I've always in the past had the special role on Christmas Day of being his Lego builder-in-chief. However, he's getting older now, so sadly, this might be the last year that he gets something which he needs the help of his big cousin to build! I'll just need to find more creative ways to avoid the annual horror that is the family game of Pictionary.

It's always men vs. women, and with a father who was an engineer and and an uncle who was a signwriter, you'd think we might actually be quite good. Alas, the perfectionist in both always comes to the fore, as does my Dad's infuriating habit of staring at you as if you're an idiot, just because you can't work out what his painstakingly composed drawing is supposed to be!

Anyway, I'm off now until the 8th, and the chance to do nothing is extremely welcome. I've got a pile of books, which I may or may not get through, but the highlight after today is going to be New Year, where myself and a few friends have booked a log cabin up near Torridon.

It should be idyllic, but rather worryingly, we've just found out that there's no mains electricity and that running the generator for more than 70 hours in a week is Verboten. I guess that means hillwalks during the day, and wind-up radios and candles at night. Just so long as the heating isn't electric too...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Give the man a peerage

I caught the tail-end of what sounded like a very bad-tempered debate on Trident in the Scottish Parliament this morning. However, amidst the general hooting, hollering and tyre-swinging in evidence on the Labour benches, one contributor shone out like a beacon. Step forward John Home-Robertson, backbench nark extrordinaire and soon to be ex-MSP for East Lothian.

Choosing to ignore completely the subject at hand, Home-Robertson decided instead to embark on a treatise on an SNP defence policy existing nowhere except his own imagination. The worrying thing was that on the fleeting occasions when he did manage to look up from his notes, he looked like he genuinely believed the rubbish he was spouting.

An independent Scotland would have to introduce conscription, we were told, to overcome the unemployment that independence would bring. There would be no shiny new Eurofighters for the Scottish air force, which would presumably be left flying Sopwith Camels. And the Labour government had been making great progress, oh yes, when it came to multilateral nuclear disarmament. Just so long as you pretend that India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran don't exist, you understand.

Such a parliamentary talent should be preserved in perpetuity for the nation, immune to the slings and arrows of public opinion. The man surely deserves a peerage for years of tireless service to partisan party hackery and the advancement of nonsense arguments. Lord Home-Robertson of Balderdash has a certain ring to it, don't you think?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Forewarned is Forearmed...

Ho-hum. Tomorrow (Monday) will see the discharge of the latest fusillade designed to convince us all that the Scots are too wee, too poor and too stupid to be Independent. Yes folks, its time for the Government Expenditure and Revenues in Scotland (GERS) report once more.

There's a number of problems with this report, not least to do with the fact it's always out of date by the time it is published (this one will be for 2004/05). However, the biggest problem is its tendency to both exaggerate spending and underestimate revenues raised in Scotland.

Nowhere is this more blatant than over North Sea oil and gas. Even though 95% of these revenues would accrue to Scotland, GERS leaves them out entirely. In calculating a Scottish budget 'deficit' (the figure we are invited to believe is the amount of subsidy coming north), it also overlooks the fact that the UK as a whole is running an even larger (and real) deficit. This alone would render impossible any kind of domestic UK subsidy to Scotland.

One of the other arguments heard most often from unionists is that since Scotland gets more in 'identifiable' spending than the UK average of £7,000 per. head, we are therefore being subsidised by English taxpayers. This is twaddle, so please bear with me while I explain why:

1. The figure has nothing to do with whether Scotland is 'subsidised' or not, since it only deals with spending levels, not the amount of tax revenues raised in Scotland to cover it.

2. It excludes £74bn of 'unidentified' expenditure, most of which actually gets spent in London and the South East rather than Scotland.

3. The differences in English regional identifiable spending per. head are actually pretty big as well:

NORTHERN IRELAND - £9,084.
SCOTLAND - £8,265.
LONDON - £8,037.
WALES - £7,666.
North East - £7,689.
North West - £7,368.
Yorks & Humber - £6,829.
East Midlands - £6,248.
West Midlands - £6,676.
Eastern - £5,864.
South East - £5,959.
South West - £6,634.

With 1/12 of the UK population spread over 1/3 of the landmass, it should not come as a surprise that Scottish ‘identifiable’ spending is above the UK average. However, since London gets £1,000 more per. head than the UK average and the East Midlands £750 less, does this mean that the East Midlands is subsidising London?

Of course it doesn't, and for exactly the same reason that the figures tell us nothing at all about Scotland. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Here, in quotes, is what some prominent Scots have had to say about GERS since Ian Lang brought it into existence during his unlamented Viceroyship:

GERS – In Quotes:

‘I am disappointed that both you and the Chancellor have reservations about publishing the booklet I have had prepared and printed setting out the details of the government’s expenditure and revenue in Scotland. I judge that it is just what is needed at present in our campaign to maintain the initiative and undermine the other parties. This initiative could score against all of them'. Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Lang, in a letter to the Prime Minister dated March 3, 1992.

‘Caution should be applied in the interpretation of the fiscal deficit. This is the difference between two large numbers, both of which are estimates and subject to large margins of error’. Dr John Rigg, Scottish Office Senior Economist, Autumn 1996.

‘The SNP claims the Scottish Office figures are distorted. The party has a point.’ The Economist, 26th October 1996.

‘Nationalists have a point when they allege the whole GERS exercise was designed to engender fear’. Alf Young, The Herald, 21/1/03.

‘Nationalist or Unionist, whether you trust GERS or not analysis to date reveals a budgetary balance that is not wildly out of line with contemporary experience in other economies in Europe’. Alf Young, The Herald, 21/1/03.

‘It tells us nothing, I would argue about the situation under independence’. Dr Andrew Goudie, Chief Economist, Scottish Executive, The Times, 21/1/03.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

You wait ages for a post...

...then 3 come along at once. Check out this news report on Labour's plans to replace Trident:

'Watch as Labour First Minister runs down a corridor to hide from journalists wanting to ask why he supports spending billions on nuclear weapons of mass destruction.'

The best bit comes around 1'30" into the clip, as a press officer tries to prevent the TV crew from filming the FM as he disappears away down the corridor. Somehow, I'm not convinced this is the sort of statesman-like image he would want to project to the world...

Nantucket Sleighride

A shrewd, perceptive and wise article on the BBC website today from Brian Walden. Well worth reading.

Organised Behaviour?

I've been a bit lax over the last week or so when it's come to updating my blog. It's not as if nothing's been happening worth commenting on - it's just I've been a bit preoccupied with studying for the latest instalment of my MBA - the Organisational Behaviour exam.

I should have sat it back in winter 2003 when I first started the course. But despite going to all the lectures, the exam clashed with a Caribbean cruise I was booked to do on P&O with Alan & Jan Roy (it was a dirty job, etc). Then what with job changes and some accompanying financial woes, the whole project kind of went on the back burner for a while, until I could get things sorted out.

Anyway, the deed is done, and there's nothing left to do except wait for the results, enjoy the festive season, and of course await the voluminous text for the Accounting unit which is bound to come my way early in the new year. Doubtless that will herald another few weeks of chasing the cat off my knee and trying to convince myself that the pub will still be there after the exam has finished!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

London Calling

One time Revolutionary Communist NUS apparatchik turned New Labour luvvie, David Aaronovitch, has an amusingly bile-filled article in today's Times. I really can't be bothered to take his argument to bits (too easy), so here instead is an article I did for last month's Scots Independent newspaper, which kind of preempts his clumsy intervention into the debate.


'Over the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying the BBC series on Suez. I’m not usually a fan of docu-drama, but this has been superb, bringing home how General Nasser brought the post-imperial delusions of the British ruling classes back down to earth with an almighty crash.

'In the SNP, we tackle daily many of the delusions that live on when making the Independence case. ‘Scotland’s voice would be puny’, it is said. ‘Being British is the only way to retain influence in the world’. At this we can laugh, setting recent abject failures in British diplomacy and the brittle posturing of Tony Blair against the positive roles played by much smaller European states.

'Something I find much harder to thole, though, is the faux-sophisticate sneering of the London-based left when it comes to the SNP. Perhaps this is because otherwise, we might have a fair amount in common with them when it comes to policy. However, I disdain utterly their self-proclaimed monopoly of concern when it comes to internationalism, social justice and the vitality of our civic society.

'Their dislike of the Conservatives just about allowed them to stomach devolution. A historic wrong was being righted, they told themselves around Hampstead dinner tables. Anyway, surely it will bring us closer together and what with Europe becoming more powerful and everything… sorry, I’m being terribly rude here. Shall I open another bottle of Chianti?

'And that was about as much thought as most ever gave it. However, with the unpopularity of Scottish Labour and the apparent momentum behind Independence, Hampstead has awoken. It seems discombobulated, neither understanding nor liking what it sees in the SNP. Perceiving a threat, instead of engaging with the debate it reaches for the comfortable and familiar anti-nationalist clich├ęs so beloved by the 57 varieties of Brit left.

'Thus, we are now being treated to a series of articles telling us how Scottish nationalism is backward looking and exclusive, unlike the ‘given’ opposites of Britishness. Being British lets us share a greater destiny, we are told, instead of being isolated little Scotlanders, festering in the petty resentments of narrow nationalism.

'As a credo, it’s marked by fuddled thinking, rampant double standards and fraudulent assertions of conceptual superiority. It’s amazing how cosmopolitan citizens of the world, who would no more consider themselves isolated from Paris than from Pinner, can still somehow see Scottish Independence as isolation. ‘Britishness good, Scottish nationalism bad’ bleat the sheep, in an attempt to drown out any dissenting voices.

'Hugh MacDiarmid referred to the contradictory aspects of our character as the 'Caledonian Antisyzygy’. Perhaps its time to consider the Metro-Left Antisyzygy: the home of diversity which sees cultural difference as a threat. The force for good which undermines international law. The upholder of non-proliferation shaping to replace Trident. The guarantor of economic prosperity headed for a £700bn national debt by 2010.

'Devolution, Blairism and ‘Cool Britannia’ were the last roll of the dice for Britain. But far from killing the SNP stone dead, devolution has for many made Independence easier to contemplate. Blairism, meanwhile, is now being seen for the ephemeral cult of personality it always was. And as for the latter… despite the best efforts of Blairite thinktanks, it died an agonizing and lonely death somewhere between Noel Gallagher’s champagne glass and the fatuity of the Millennium Dome.

'With his sweeping majorities, Blair had the chance to reinvent Britain by introducing a written constitution, a bill of rights, scrapping the Lords, reforming the voting system and encouraging regional government in England. Instead, he seized the levers of centralised executive power with a Gollum-esque glee. Having enjoyed almost a decade of absolute power, Labour can hardly complain in future if the Tories decide to play by the same rules.

'An even vaguely competent Cameron leadership will surely see New Labour smashed on the rocks of English public contempt. Normal service will be restored, and the whine will resume once more that we need to stick together so we can return Labour to government.

'Well, I'm a democrat. If England votes Tory, as far as I'm concerned, that's who should govern England. No ifs, no buts. If the Metro-Left don't like the idea of the tyranny of the minority, they should be clamouring for PR to be introduced while they still have the chance, then buckle up tight for the kind of realignments we have already seen in Scotland.

'Approaching the 300th year of union, we find ourselves shackled to a decorative and decadent power centre increasingly irrelevant to the people it tries to govern. It is insulting to suggest that either England or Scotland needs the other as a bolt-on accessory to ensure its good conduct and high standing in the world. I’d like to think that in the SNP, our sights are set higher than that – would that these modern day Habsburgs could say the same'.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Away and Foulkes Yourselves

Well, that was the Labour conference in Oban. Anyone tuning in to hear what the party had to say about health, education, the economy – the ‘real issues’ which Labour always used to tell us were the ones which mattered – would have been sorely disappointed. Instead, rocked by a series of opinion polls which show the SNP in contention for next May and support for Independence at high levels, Labour’s leading lights treated us to a series of vitriolic set-piece attacks about borders, barriers and bogeymen everywhere.

What a contrast with the SNP conference, where there was a palpable sense of a party putting policies in place for government. Maybe that’s why the SNP had over 1,200 in the Perth Concert Hall to hear Alex Salmond set out his stall, while Labour had to bus in schoolchildren and tame trade unionists to make the 500 seat Corran Halls look full for the TV cameras.

First up was the egregious George Foulkes, who always reminds me of ‘Squealer’ from Animal Farm – the pig sent out by the other pigs to explain away why they are becoming ever more like the humans they replaced, and to question the loyalty of anyone who harbours the slightest doubts as to their good intentions. And when that order comes in, whether from Tony Blair now or Vladimir Romanov as in the past, wee George always springs fearlessly into action.

Leaping excitedly from trotter to trotter, no contention is too ludicrous, no argument is too facile for him to try and advance. However, even as his bluster reaches levels liable to endanger shipping round our coasts, I find it hard to dislike him. An object of ridicule he may be, but he’s a completely laughable and peripheral individual, worthy more of our pity than our dislike.

One person I have no such difficulty with is Douglas Alexander, a man of such ability and charm that he is still to date the only person ever to drive me into any kind of agreement with Dr David Starkey. Similarly with John Reid, a swaggering little thug who clearly has the intelligence to engage with the Independence argument, but conspicuously chooses not to do so.

In claiming that the SNP is not ‘fit for purpose’, Reid makes the spectacularly trite point that international terrorism, organised crime, mass migration and the environment do not stop at the border. Of course they don’t, but then neither do the consequences of his government’s misguided policies on these challenges. The actions of this government in Iraq have unquestionably made the world a more dangerous place. However, to use that new danger as justification to continue the union is like the defence used by the little boy on trial for the murder of his parents, when he begs the court for clemency on the grounds that he is an orphan.

But despite that strong late contender, the prize for the most nauseating piece of self-serving hypocrisy must go to Tony Blair himself. Blair flew in to Oban from Belfast, having spent the morning urging accommodation with those who had waged an armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. After basking in delegates' appreciation for only the briefest of moments and with barely a pause for breath, he then spent the rest of his speech lambasting the entirely peaceful and democratic nationalist movement in Scotland.

Does he think no-one will notice the contradiction? As a politician who has placed himself in the vanguard of the global ‘war on terror’, just what sort of message does he imagine he is sending round the world with this latest intellectual contortion? I know it’s all about securing the ‘legacy’, but does he not feel even slightly ridiculous breaking off from a group hug with Sinn Fein and the DUP to try and knife the SNP’s peaceful, inclusive and moderate ambitions?

Anyone looking to Gordon Brown for a positive endorsement of Britain would have been left waiting in vain also. Independence was a 19th century concept and interdependence was where it was at, he told us. Families would be ripped asunder and our global universities and businesses would wither on the vine without benign government from London. Globalisation would be something for an independent Scotland to fear, we were told. Something only to be embraced from behind the walls of fortress Britain.

Maintenance of power for power’s sake is the unspoken mantra. The question is, are we prepared to allow Labour to subject us to another 4 years of drift and complacency off the back of their tribal dislike of innovation, or do we give the SNP a chance and consider Independence in a mature and thoughtful manner in a democratic referendum?

By opting for Independence, maybe we can find better ways of representing the things that do genuinely unite people on these islands. I’ll bet that in the battle of values we are being promised, the dignity of self-government and nation-building offered by the SNP will prove a damn site more enduring than the self-interest and infinite self-absorbsion offered by Labour's 'Scotia Nostra'.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Dave Cameron's 'Outer Tosser'

Oh dear... I know that unsecured personal debt is a ticking timebomb for the whole economy, but is this really the way to try and get people to face up to the problem?

Still, who am I to complain if the Tories want to call Scotland a region and insist that their potential voters are tossers? :-)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Olympic sized overspends - coming to a tax bill near you

I don't normally bother to read The Observer. The Guardian I can usually tolerate (the outstandingly dreadful Polly Toynbee excepted), but the insufferable, hand-wringing, self-satisfied London-centric view of the world held by its Sunday stablemate, can almost always be relied upon to spoil what's left of my weekend.

That said, yesterday's feature on the train wreck that threatens to become of the London Olympics, was worth the cover price alone. Marking a change in tone from their previous sycophantic coverage of the bid, it exposed what many critics of the games have been saying all along: namely, the benefits will be confined in their entirety to London; the 'maximum' £2.4bn price tag had all the integrity of a Labour party fundraiser; and that Lottery Funds will likely end up being plundered to try and plug the gap.

In addition to the howler of forgetting to include VAT in the projected costs, the estimated cost of buying and decontaminating land has tripled from £478m to £1.44bn. The cost of building 40,000 new homes has also risen from £0.5bn to around £1.5bn - another tripling of the original estimate.

£1bn was set aside originally for this 'regeneration', which included that £478m for buying and decontaminating the land. This would in turn have left a balance of £522m for those 40,000 houses to be built, equating to a construction cost of just £12,500 each. Now, I'm no surveyer and I'm certainly no builder, but even I know that you can't build a house for £12,500.

Therefore, even if the £478m purchase & decontamination costs were solid, it should have been blindingly obvious that there wasn't going to be enough left over for the housebuilding to follow. With the overall £1bn figure for regeneration being so obviously wrong, shouldn't it have encouraged someone somewhere to probe a little harder into the quality of the other forecasts?

Brian Coleman, Chair of the London Assembly, now estimates that the cost of the project could rise as high as £10bn and beyond. However, while some of these cost rises can be put down to straightforward sleight-of-hand and others to simple incompetence, one further figure deserves our attention. Namely, the security budget, which has increased from £190m to £850m following, we are told, the 7/7 attacks on the London Underground.

Now I'm sorry, but they can't be allowed to get away with this. The Atlanta bombing in 1996 showed that there were those prepared to target the Olympic games. And in the aftermath of 9/11, the government did not miss an opportunity to remind us how British cities were also under threat from terrorist attack. All 7/7 did was confirm that thesis, so why the sudden need to increase this element of the budget by a factor of 4.5?

Were those costing the bid unaware of the security threat, did they simply underestimate it, or is there perhaps another explanation? Surely no-one would be brazen enough to exploit public fears over terrorism to pad the security element of the costs, just so the other cost increases look a bit more reasonable, would they?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Scottish Politician of the Year - Update

Well, the votes are in... many congratulations to all of the winners:

Best Scot at Westminster - Angus MacNeil MP (SNP)

Donald Dewar Debater of the Year - Tavish Scott MSP (Lib Dem)

The Committee Award - Justice 1 Committee

Free Spirit of the Year Award - Karen Gillon MSP (Labour)

The Johnnie Walker Award for Progress - The Green Group

Public Campaign/Campaigner of the Year - Sakchai Makao Campaign

Scottish Politician of the Year - Andy Kerr MSP (Labour)

Special congratulations are due to Angus MacNeil, who earlier in the day was announced as the winner of the Spectator magazine's Inquisitor Of The Year award for his initiation of the inquiry into cash-for-peerages. As he himself asks, after receiving such a great political honour: who does he have to pay?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A vicious rumour...

It's the Scottish Politican of the Year Awards tonight. However, with Mike Watson now safely ensconsed in the House of Lords, I'm told that there's no truth in the rumour that all leave for the Lothian & Borders Fire Brigade has been cancelled for this evening.

The ceremony is back at Prestonfield House tonight, after spending a year at the Royal Museum in Chambers Street. That one year's no claims discount has obviously made all the difference to the insurance premiums for the organisers.

If there was any justice in the world, Nicola Sturgeon would win the top award for the way that she manages to skin, gut and fillet Jack McConnell on a weekly basis. However, with months to go until an election, and Angus MacNeil surely a shoo-in for 'Best Scot at Westminster' for his work in exposing 'Cash for Honours', will the judges have the courage to give both these awards to nationalists?

Time will tell. Here's a full list of the nominations:

Best Scot at Westminster
Angus MacNeil MP (SNP)
John Reid MP (Labour)
Mohammad Sarwar MP (Labour)

Donald Dewar Debater of the Year
Patrick Harvie MSP (Green)
Alex Neil MSP (SNP)
Tavish Scott MSP (Lib Dem)

The Committee Award
Environment Committee
Finance Committee
Justice 1 Committee

Free Spirit of the Year Award
Fergus Ewing MSP (SNP)
Karen Gillon MSP (Labour)
Tommy Sheridan MSP (Solidarity)

The Johnnie Walker Award for Progress
The Green Group
Dennis Canavan MSP (IND)
Stewart Maxwell MSP

Public Campaign/Campaigner of the Year
Shetlands Sakchai Makao Campaign
Families Against Corporate Killers
Clydeside Action on Asbestos/Clydebank Asbestos Group

Scottish Politician of the Year
Ross Finnie MSP (Lib Dem)
Andy Kerr MSP (Labour)
Nicola Sturgeon MSP (SNP)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The bin doth runneth over

In to Holyrood today and find, somewhat unusually, that I'm first into the office. The in tray is spilling over with the morning's mail, so I decide to deal with it before it gets any bigger.

There's a fair amount of important stuff, like constituent letters, ministerial correspondence and invitations to briefings, all of which is dealt with ASAP. However, by far the greater part seems to be PR puff for various organisations, some (but by no means all) in receipt of public money, trying to convince you what a fantastic job they are doing, and no doubt why they should be allowed to continue doing it.

Since no-one has the time to read through the avalanche of brochures, most go straight in the bin. It all represents the most grotesque waste of money and paper. While it's great for the burgeoning glossy brochure industry and waste management companies, I can't help but feel that actually trying to speak to people in person would be a more effective way of getting a point across, instead of sacrificing acre upon acre of forest and increasing incidences of lumbago amongst postal staff.

That said, the odd gem does come through. 'The Parliamentarian - Journal of the Parliaments of the Commonwealth', arrived, along with a list of contacts for the various legislatures within the Commonwealth Parliamentary Agency. For Holyrood, George Reid is described as the 'Presiding Officer' and Jack McConnell as 'First Minister'. Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, luxuriates in the title of 'Leader of the party not represented in the Scottish Executive with the greatest number of Members in the Parliament'.

It hardly trips off the tongue, does it? I bet the Master of Ceremonies for Commonwealth dinners lives in fear of the day she turns up and etiquette demands that she be introduced as such...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Just a bit of fun...



SNP


90%

Lib Dems


75%

Greens


65%

SSP


55%

UKIP


20%

Tories


15%

Labour


10%

Which political party in Scotland should you vote for?
created with QuizFarm.com



I suppose it's validation of a sort, but where on earth did that 75% Lib Dem come from? I didn't think I sat on the fence all that often!

Try it yourself at http://quizfarm.com/test.php?q_id=263114 . Let me know on the comments section how you score.

US Elections Latest

http://www.theonion.com/content/node/54918

Class!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Gordon Brown - the enemy of free speech?

Some interesting stuff in the papers this morning. allmediascotland has an opinion piece from former political editor of The Herald, Murray Ritchie, on the current state of the Scottish press. In a wide-ranging sweep of the current travails of the market, Ritchie retells the story of how Gordon Brown and his representatives on earth withheld advertising revenue from the Herald in 1999, for their temerity in trying to be even handed when covering Labour and the SNP.

But that's all in the past, isn't it? Well, it seems that these gangsterish habits die hard. Scotland on Sunday carries a piece on how Cardinal Keith O'Brien has provoked Brown's wrath for his comment last month that, if it was the wish of the people, he would be "happy" to see Scotland become independent. According to 'Labour sources', the talks were designed to 'pressurise' the Cardinal over his comments on independence. "There was a question of whether he [O'Brien] had really thought it through," the insider said. The suggestion that the talks were 'more offensive than charm' also appears...

It's desperate stuff from desperate people, who are finding that there's nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Meanwhile, over at the Sunday Times, Ben Thomson from Noble Group, rubbishes the idea that either greater fiscal powers or Independence would not be good for Scotland. Oh dear. Can he expect to find a horse's head in his bed now as well?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Scotsman poll puts unionists in a flap



Yesterday's Scotsman poll showing 51% support for Independence and the SNP ahead of Labour for next May's election, seems to have really put the cat amongst the Holyrood pigeons.

The Labour response, delivered by David Cairns MP in today's paper, is right up there with the (probably) apocryphal Pravda headline of 'Good news, Comrades! The bread ration has been reduced again!'. For rather than admitting that the poll demonstrates some progress for the SNP and Independence, Cairns invites us to believe that gap between those supporting Independence and those voting SNP means that the party is 'unattractive' to voters.

As Sir Humphrey would have said, as explanations go, that one's a consignment of geriatric shoe-makers - a load of old cobblers.

Whatever people's views of the SNP might be, Scotland is a multi-party democracy where Independence has considerable cross-party support, even amongst those parties which are officially opposed to the policy. For that reason, Labour might be better to reflect on why, if Independence is such a rotten idea, do 45% of their own voters say that they would like it to happen?

We're going to have all sorts of promises of constitutional beads and knives from the unionist parties in the run-up to next May's election to try and shore up their support. A wee change here, a little tweak there, commissions, conventions - anything to give the impression that Scottish concerns are being taken seriously, without actually having to do too much about them.

All of which goes to show that a referendum, where people are freed from party political loyalties, is the best way to decide Scotland's future. However, if recent Scottish political history tells us anything, it should be that a strong SNP presence is the only language which Westminster understands. In the 'noughties', just as in the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, if Scotland is to make progress, it will only happen off the back of SNP successes.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Iraq Vote

The government won narrowly this evening's vote in the Commons over whether an inquiry should be held into the conduct of the war in Iraq.

The motion, put forward by the SNP and Plaid Cymru, won the support of the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and a significant number of Labour backbenchers, demonstrating amply the cross party concern which the issue causes. However, with enough Labour MPs choosing to abstain, it wasn't quite enough to bring Blair to account on this occasion.

Guerilla tactics, through necessity, might be the usual forte of the nationalist parliamentary groups at Westminster and no doubt govern to a large extent how they are perceived in England. Tuesday's Guardian expressed very well the reasons why the motion was unlikely to succeed. Nonetheless, for all Labour's often tribal dislike of the SNP, the debate showed that when the will exists, even a few good people acting justly can help hold even the most powerful and seemingly untouchable to account.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru deserve credit for giving over one of their few setpiece occasions so this matter could be debated properly by the house. While it speaks volumes for the vacillations of the other party leaderships that this hasn't happened before now the question still remains - why was it left once more to the nationalist parties to bring this matter up for the parliamentary scrutiny it clearly has long deserved?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Friday, October 27, 2006

In the Pink


The Dundee office 'Wears it Pink' in aid of breast cancer charities.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Queensberry Rules

Seems there's no refuge from telemarketers, even in the Scottish Parliament. Took a call this afternoon from a representative of a well-known kitchen telesales firm, demanding to know if I was the property owner (!)

Not sure about the heating bills in winter, but see once George Reid has finished his stint as Presiding Officer, I'll be having the decorators straight round to Queensberry House to get my living quarters fixed up...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Keep Scotland Tidy...

Had a wedding gig on Saturday with the Canongate Cadjers. Alex, generous as ever, drove us out there and was happy to answer questions about his latest toy, a satnav system for the van.

I wondered aloud at one point if I typed in the destination as 'arse with both hands', whether the satnav would be able to find it. But a more fundamental problem arose once we got out of Edinburgh.

We were due to play at the 'Houston House Hotel' in Uphall, but Alex had only got as far as punching in Houston, whereupon the satnav directed us to the Houston industrial estate in Livingston. Luckily, they're only a few miles apart, but while that might be close enough if you're a nuclear warhead, it's not much cop otherwise. I guess it just goes to show that technology can only ever be as good as the person working it!

On the subject of nuclear issues and finding your arse with both hands, the best wee First Minister of the best wee country in the world gave a lecture last night in Haddington. The lecture, in honour of the much respected Labour devolutionist, Professor John P MacIntosh,who sadly died in 1978 before he had a chance to see a Scottish Parliament open its doors, basically marked out Labour as the only party not prepared to consider further powers for Holyrood.

So far, so dreary. But in the Q&A session afterwards, McConnell made the astonishing assertion that part of the 'union dividend' enjoyed by Scotland was that it let us dump the waste from our nuclear power stations in Cumbria instead of having to deal with it in Scotland.

I've been a keen McConnell watcher ever since I crossed swords with him in 1996 when I was a student at Stirling University and he tried to bully me over the choice of chair for a debate I was organising between himself and Nicola Sturgeon (he failed by the way, and Nicola went on to wipe the floor with him). But frankly, it's still hard to think of any statement he has made which better sums up his parochial, unintelligent and small-minded attitude to politics.

I used to think that the bumper stickers saying 'Keep Scotland tidy - throw all your rubbish in England' were just a bad joke. How revealing that it could yet be recycled as Labour's campaign slogan for next May.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Festivities Hampered

I took a call at work on Monday this week about the collapse of a company called 'Farepak', which helped people to save throughout the year for Christmas hampers and vouchers. The administrators called in to try and salvage what they can from the company are warning customers that they will not get their orders, and that they might have to wait for months to see if they get any money back at all.

It's a catastrophe for thousands of families, some of whom will now face having to explain what no parent should ever have to explain to a child - that Christmas won't be coming this year. What makes my blood absolutely boil, though, is the information I found while having a trawl online to find out more about those behind Farepak.

It seems that the parent company, European Home Retail, had been up the creek for months. They suspended trade in their shares in August and as recently as 6 October, sold off a few of their remaining businesses (Kitbag, I Want One Of Those.com, 40% of Home Farm Hampers, and Kleeneze UK) for £34m. In spite of this, they carried on collecting money from Farepak customers, for hampers which they almost certainly knew they had no chance of being able to supply.

Whenever a company goes into administration, there is a strict pecking order if it needs to be wound up. First to get paid are the administrators themselves, followed by secured creditors, preferential creditors like the Inland Revenue, followed by the employees then everyone else ranked equally. Sadly, that probably means that some of the poorest families stand to get virtually nothing back in time for Christmas.

I've heard that the amount involved in Scotland alone comes to almost £8 million. However, even getting back a small proportion of that could make the difference this year for a lot of families. It's maybe asking too much for any wealthy individuals to come to the rescue here. Nevertheless, assuming that enough can be recovered, wouldn't it be good if the government could agree to use its entitlement to help compensate those who have lost out most?

If you've been affected by the Farepak collapse, this website gives some useful tips on how you can try to make the best of the situation.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Live Now, Pay Later

Back to work this week and since Holyrood is in recess and Stewart is down at Westminster, today's been spent working at home. Made my first visit to the gym in about a month at lunchtime and while it felt OK at the time, I'm suffering a bit now. My own fault for being a lazy swine, I suppose.

On the way back, I noticed that someone has grafittid over the whitewashed wall down at the amusement park with 'Wall. Huh! What is it good for?'. It would be amusing, but since that was exactly what had been there for at least a couple of years before the wall was repainted, I'm afraid it's 0/10 for originality from the Portobello judge this time.

Which leads quite nicely on to the subject of 'the youth of today' who most unusually, are not being demonised en masse in today's papers. Instead, there's a great deal of symapthetic coverage for the plight of 'Thatcher's Children', highlighted in a report by the Policy Exchange thinktank.

The report highlights that the advantages of cheap housing, secure pensions and rising living standards enjoyed by their parents are not reaching the coming generation. Instead, many are finding it difficult to find well paid jobs, pay off student debt, start families, build up capital and begin saving for their own retirement.

While some of these trends were set in train by Thatcher herself, let's not forget that it was Blair and New Labour, not the Tories, who scrapped the student grant entirely. It was also Blair who ensured that the burden of public service investment skipped a generation through his unconditional embrace of PFI projects, and it was Gordon Brown who drove a stake through the heart of final salary pensions with his changes on corporation tax and accounting rules.

So what to do? One of the problems is that younger people tend not to vote, so an older generation instead gets to perpetuate its own self-interested agenda. Political parties, which have to chase the votes that are available, respond to this and eventually younger voters find themselves further alienated and marginalised from the political process.

I'd like to think my lot are different and certainly, with our plans for student debt and pensions, we have something to offer younger voters apart from the traditional atavistic abuse from an older generation about their supposed shortcomings. However, if there is such a thing as society, the above trends mean that the social contract between the generations must now be closer to breaking point than its ever been before.

Our parents look after us when we're young and we look after them when they're old. That's supposed to be the deal. But in society as a whole, policy decisions taken over the last 3 decades mean that one age group is getting to hoard the benefits of the hard work of their parents, while holding back a younger generation from playing its full part.

It's wrong, and we twenty and thirty-somethings need to get involved in the political process if we're going to change things. Even if we take only one lesson from the Thatcherite credo, it should be to recognise that if we don't stand up for ourselves, sure as hell no-one else is going to do it for us.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Uneven Stephen

Had a lie-in this morning to recover from the excesses of what seemed to be a very successful conference for the SNP. If the aim was to present the party as a government in waiting, then it looks like 'mission accomplished'. Both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon gave speeches which were well received, not just by delegates but also by some surprising quarters in the media.

A range of key policies was passed, while fundraising for the election passed the £530,000 mark (and not a single peerage sold). The positive comments on Independence which followed from both Tom Farmer and Cardinal Keith O'Brien over the weekend, mark this as one of the most successful SNP gatherings in recent memory.

There's a sense in the party at the moment that the times might just be with us. While no-one is at all complacent and we realise there's much to do between now and next May, delegates were still able to leave with a spring in their step and with an appetite for the national debate to come.

It was disappointing, therefore, to see Nicol Stephen make his strongest comments yet against an Independence referendum on this lunchtime's BBC Politics Show. I don't think anyone in the SNP expects the Lib Dems to start arguing for a referendum, or to go out campaigning for a 'yes' vote were one to transpire. However, I think people are entitled to expect that a party attaching the labels of 'Liberal' and 'Democrat' to itself should have no problem in voting for a referendum bill in Holyrood and allowing it to go ahead as part of any coalition deal, when a majority of voters say consistently that they would be happy for that to happen.

It seems, then, that the Lib Dems are placing themselves significantly out of step with the Scottish voters on this matter. The 'settled will' in Scotland appears to be that devolution remains 'unfinished business' and that while more powers for Holyrood would be welcomed, so too would the chance to hold a seperate vote on whether it should become Independent.

The Scottish Tories stand as a blackened and smouldering memorial to parties which try to defy indefinitely the national will on home rule. It would be a very foolish politician indeed who chose to ignore that recent lesson from history.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ewan, Who Else?

New Embra Cooncil leader Ewan Aitken is telling porky pies about the SNP in today's Herald, accusing us of hypocrisy over calling for the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) to be scrapped in its current form. [See http://www.theherald.co.uk/features/71948.html]

Sadly for Cllr Aitken, in the same newspaper, a Scottish Labour MP has blasted the EARL scheme as planned [http://www.theherald.co.uk/politics/71936.html]. All of which leaves the capital's leader looking extremely foolish.

The simple fact is that Edinburgh Airport could have its rail link, and the rail network could have many millions of pounds more of investment, if the EARL project were to be reconfigured. Cllr. Aitken's hysterical attempts at spinning say less about the SNP, reflecting instead the utter panic in the Edinburgh Labour Party that they are about to be heaved out of office by voters fed up with their wasteful and ineffective policies.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Online, just...

Well, I've arrived in Perth for the SNP conference. The weather is absolutely miserable, so I'm glad that I managed to get into the car park in Kinnoul St, which is fairly close to the Concert Hall.

However, there's a bigger problem than the weather for those of us trying to do some work here. The wireless networks seem unable to cope with having more than a couple of folk online at once. Feeling suitably smug, I plugged in my 3G card, only to discover that I could only pick up a sliver of a signal by hanging my laptop over the balcony on the mezzanine floor, since that is the highest point I can access with the least amount of concrete between myself and the Vodafone mast. Not ideal for me, but even less so if my computer slips and takes out any unsuspecting delegates in the queue for the coffee shop down below!

It's not too big a problem today, since most people are still getting their bearings. However, I think the novelty of working inside a virtual faraday cage will very quickly begin to wear off for the press staff and journalists alike...

Minority Fool

With the Scots Parliament now in recess, news reaches a grateful nation that Glasgow Labour MSP and Minister for Parliamentary Business, Margaret Curran, has embarked on a trip to New Zealand to find out how minority administration works for the governing party there.

The thought occurs that if she’d wanted to find out how a minority Labour administration manages parliamentary business, she could have saved a whole lot of money and carbon emissions by jumping on a train to Cardiff instead. I’m sure her Welsh Labour colleagues would have been delighted to explain how they’ve managed to run things since their coalition with the Lib Dems fell apart.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Rare Steaks and Sacred Cows

Out for dinner last night in Stirling with some old friends from university and one of our old politics lecturers. We usually get together about twice or three times a year to enjoy a steak and chew the (political) fat, but last night our numbers were enhanced by the presence of Russell, who looks after the SNP's IT needs from 3,500 miles away at his new home in Virginia.

Russell and his wife Joanna recently became parents to a beautiful baby girl, Eilidh. So while it's good to see him on one of his all too rare visits back to Scotland, it's tinged with a wee bit of sadness that he's had to leave the family behind this time. Still, the baby pics came out courtesy of his mobile phone, so at least we got to see how Eilidh has grown since April.

Dinner was as lively as ever, with most of us fairly optimistic about the week to come at the SNP Conference in Perth. Support for Independence is as high as ever, though we agreed we'd like to see the party doing better in the polls than it is currently. We also had a good laugh at the sour and bitter article which Brian Wilson wrote in Scotland on Sunday, before scratching our heads over what Professor James Mitchell had to say in the Sunday Herald.

Mitchell is one of the few commentators who doesn't carry a great deal of anti-nationalist baggage around with him, which means that when he speaks, the SNP usually listens. However, what puzzled us all was the passage in his article where he stated that:

"The real challenge for the Nationalists will be in discontinuing policies long sanctified because they are distinctly Scottish. Slaying a few sacred cows would signify a confident nationalism. In particular, the SNP needs to identify policies done better in England – not because they are English but because they are best for Scotland".

If there's such a thing as 'New SNP', then it was well represented around the table last night. I think all of us would subscribe to the view that policies should be considered on their merits, rather than on where they originate. After all, just because a policy originates in England doesn't automatically mean it is wrong for Scotland, any more than it means it will be automatically right.

It's a view shared at the top of the party, which is why the SNP has been looking at health policies like 'payment by results', as practiced in Norway. It's also goes some way towards explaining why English foundation hospitals, with their need to shed thousands of front line NHS staff to offset their multi-billion pound debts, have not been considered.

Scots policy makers have a fair bit to learn from England and vice versa. But the fact that Scotland has 1/10th of the UK population on 1/3rd of the landmass, with a sparse population outside the central belt and pockets of severe urban deprivation alongside areas of great affluence, mean that the policies which work for England won't always work for Scotland. While a lot of priorities north and south of the border might be identical, it doesn't always follow that the best means of delivering on those priorities will also be identical.

That simple statement of fact forms a key part of the case for self-government. But while it might confound and infuriate someone like Brian Wilson were the SNP to ostentatiously adopt an English health or education policy rejected by the Scottish Executive, I reckon Scottish voters would see right through Mitchell's suggested ploy and simply regard us as being a bunch of chancers.

The SNP needs to continue to build its credibility between now and May, which it can do best by working towards a manifesto which chimes with Scottish needs and aspirations. Advocating policies which stand on their own merits, regardless of where they happen to come from, seems to me to be the best way to continue that process.

Killing a 'sacred cow' for the sake of it, while superficially attractive, would mean adopting the worst excesses of Blairite spin just as the country is looking for an alternative. I hope that this week we'll see the SNP leave the spinning and posturing to Labour, and get on with putting the flesh on the bones of how we hope to make Scotland a better place in which to live.

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Man of Straw

'Question Time' was starting on BBC1 when I got back home last night. First topic up was something I'd missed earlier on, which was Jack Straw's call for Muslim women not to wear veils to his surgeries, since in his view they were a 'visible statement of separation and difference' .

My first thought was to wonder how he’d react if I had turned up wearing a kilt at his surgery as a visible statement of my separation and difference, and whether I’d have been asked to remove that to make him feel more comfortable. But instead of getting a well-deserved kicking from the panel, I was shocked to hear a pro-Straw consensus develop between 'Liberal' Democrat Shirley Williams, Private Eye Editor Ian Hislop and Labour chairman Hazel Blears.

Rather than uphold the right of women to dress however they choose, they essentially agreed that Straw was right to ask for a veil to be removed before he dealt with a constituent. Very pointedly, no-one criticised his claim that veils were a symbol of difference, or asked why this would be a problem even if they were.

We are expected to see people like Blears and Williams as tolerant social liberals. After all, they must be, because they keep telling us they are. But the strongest sentiment the utterly vacuous Blears could muster was to call for a ‘debate’ on the issue. It was instead left to the unlikely figure of Tory Oliver Letwin to describe as "dangerous" the suggestion that women should not be allowed to wear a veil even if they wanted to.

But by that time, the damage was done. Taking their cue, out sallied the hellish legion of newly liberated racists in the audience, with a new-found justification to vent their own putrid little prejudices against anyone who dares to be different:

“I’m not a racist, but…”, “The way things are going, we’re going to become a Muslim country”, “We pander too much to these people”, and my personal favourite, “It’s all political correctness gone mad”.

Great Britain - the most tolerant and inclusive country in the world? Sure, provided you're white, don't have a funny accent, keep your head down and know your place. If expressing disapproval of different cultures is what now passes for tolerance and inclusiveness in the salons of New Labour, then as Sam Goldwyn once said: 'Include me out'.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5410472.stm?ls
http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/politics.cfm?id=1477832006
http://www.theherald.co.uk/politics/71531.html

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Endowed With Cheek

I see from the Edinburgh Evening News that the Lib Dems are promising to get rid of the graduate endowment if they form a government in Holyrood after next May.

http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/politics.cfm?id=1474372006

So, seven years after they boldly told us that they'd scrapped tuition fees, now they're promising to scrap them again! Surely this is just the kind of positive thinking we need to help restore public faith in politicians...

There's a few marginal seats, particularly in Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, where the student vote could help turf out a sitting Labour or Lib Dem MSP. I really hope those MSPs, who benefitted from a free education themselves, get their comeuppance next May for pulling up that ladder behind them.