Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Taxi for Alexander?

Anent this bizarre Sunday Herald article penned by Douglas Alexander - can anyone tell me what a 'pity party' is supposed to be? And more to the point, if wee Dougie turned up, would that make it a 'petit merde' party?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Two of the Good Guys

Instead of having a moan, just for a change I thought I'd post up two stories which have really cheered me up no end today.

The first concerns Reading and former Hibs player Ulises de la Cruz, who it emerges has been sending part of his wages back home each month to Equador. Amongst other things, his money has helped to bring clean running water and a community centre to his remote village, as well as providing books for the local school.

Second is the return to the (very) small screen of Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, after his horrific 300mph crash in a jet-car last September. We all know the story, but to have come through an experience like that and be back at work with no apparent ill effects, takes a level of guts, grit and determination which, frankly, leaves me in awe of the man.

As far as I'm concerned, they count as two of the good guys. Long may their respective lums reek.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

And The Winner Is...

Time to announce the winner of the 'Song for Jack' contest. No gold envelopes, drumrolls, 'live' satellite link-ups, fake blubbing or tedious thank-you speeches, just the news that the prize goes to Mr Eugenides for his suggestion of Blur's 'Charmless Man'.

While I'm not convinced that Mr McConnell would know his 'claret from his beaujolais', a personal encounter I had with the wee man a while ago suggested strongly to me that he would quite like to have a touch of the Ronnie Krays about him. So on no more scientific basis than the fact it made me laugh and some of the lyrics hit a nerve, that's where the bottle of Mo√ęt is heading.

So congrats to Mr E, commiserations to everyone else, and a special mention for 'anonymous' - it's difficult to give someone a prize if they don't tell you who they are! Cue a Spartacus type scene where umpteen bloggers raise their hands to go 'I'm Anonymous!'. 'No, I'm Anonymous!'...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Best of Both Worlds?

Labour's campaign spokespeople are fond of claiming that devolution gives Scotland 'the best of both worlds'. By that, they mean it gives Scots a say in our own 'domestic' affairs, while retaining influence in the UK and being able to use the muscle of a big country to secure benefits in Europe.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? But what about this much-trumpeted influence? Let's consider two very recent stories which might help evaluate this claim, the first of which begins with the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights into Scots law.

The UK's prohibition of prison inmates from voting in elections was declared unlawful in a 2005 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The Westminster government vowed to change electoral law to take account of the ruling. And that, you would be entitled to expect, should have been that.

Alas, despite the existence of a government 'action plan', it seems that the timetable was allowed to slip. The effect of this is that the required changes to electoral law will not now be made in time for the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May.

According to Lord Abernethy, sitting with Lords Nimmo Smith and Emslie, "...the action plan makes no mention of the Scottish parliamentary election in May 2007. We cannot refrain from commenting that it is unfortunate that the urgency of the situation was apparently only appreciated so late in the day". So where, while all this was going on, was our strong voice at Westminster?

The Scottish Executive said nowt. The Department of Constitutional Affairs, the Westminster department in charge of electoral law, as might be expected, overlooked the Scottish dimension entirely. But even the Scotland Office, with a Secretary of State sitting in the Cabinet and now part of the DCA, said nothing either. Result? No Scottish influence in Whitehall at all, and the unsavoury prospect of either no election in May, or whopping big payouts from you and I to every convict unable to cast their vote.

Ah, but we're stronger in the world as part of the UK, bleat the unionists. Really? Then how to explain the leaked report from Michael Aron, Head of the Scottish Executive office in Brussels, which sets out how Whitehall civil servants keep their Executive couterparts "out of the loop"? And worse, how to explain the way that Scottish ministers are left out of EU council meetings, being left to sit instead in another room where they can listen, but not take part, in the horsetrading between member states?

So, there you have it - our political 'union dividend' is as much of a sham as its financial equivalent. I'm fed-up being a second class Brit. Wouldn't it be far better to be a first class Scot instead?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Song for Jack

I woke up this morning to the dulcet tones of Jack McConnell being interviewed on Radio Scotland's 'Janice Forsyth' show. However, about an hour or so on, about the only thing I can remember from the interview was his choice of music - 'Silver Machine' by Hawkwind, 'Somewhere Only We Know' by Keane, and 'Midnight Train To Georgia' by Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Fair play to him - his list looks genuine and unspun, even if it wouldn't exactly get my pulse racing. At least he didn't try to get down with the kids by revealing an unlikely admiration for, let's think now, the Arctic Monkeys.

However, I can't help but feel that the BBC missed a trick here. If they'd let their listeners choose a song for the First Minister, just think - we might have had 'Part of the Union' by The Strawbs, 'Hit the Road Jack' by Ray Charles, or even 'Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye' by Gracie Fields.

Anyway, the comments section is open for your suggestions. A bottle of champagne awaits the best one, although I reserve the right to just drink it myself anyway! Over to you...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Good News for Scottish Tories!

Never mind the obscure Tory candidate calling for a change of leader before the election - the number of Conservative parliamentarians in Scotland has nearly doubled overnight!

What a shame those numbers will half again when Cameron's Shadow Cabinet end their Scottish day-trip to head back south...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Progress!

The Scottish Executive has admitted that there are significant difficulties with their GERS report on revenue flows to and from Scotland, not least the small matter of this half-billion pound error in the Treasury calculations they use to compile Scottish spending figures.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Raindrops on roses

There’s a rather worrying story over on Nick Robinson’s blog. It seems that as part of the bid to make the Conservative Party appear nice, cuddly and ‘in touch’ with the voters, some of David Cameron’s policy wonks are considering how market forces might be used to tackle ‘social bads’.

Enthused by how carbon emissions trading is being advanced as a panacea to global warming, the party’s ‘Social Responsibility Summit’ has apparently come up with a similar wheeze. This time, it’s to ‘enable’ a trading scheme for companies which make alcoholic drinks or fatty foods and so restrict our consumption of said goods.

According to Dave, “It's still at quite a conceptual stage, but clearly emissions trading is working very well at putting a price on carbon, and reducing carbon emissions. So, the argument goes, well why not try and do this with some of the social bads as well as the environmental bads?" We are also invited to contrast this ‘market-oriented’ approach with Gordon Brown’s addiction to ‘state-control’.

I thought New Labour had taught us all there was to know about how to remove personal liberties in the name of freedom. However, it seems that here, in all its foulness, is the equivalent Tory verbal trick. Cameron might be all ‘raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’ at the moment, but the desire to meddle in people’s lives seems to be as alive and well in the Tories as it is in New Labour.

I’m never entirely happy with the tendency in politics to try and legislate or ban things whenever a social problem rears its head, and that applies to my own party as well. However, trying to restrict the types of food which intelligent grown adults choose to feed themselves is an intrusion too far in my book.

Give us the facts about a healthy lifestyle by all means. But Dave, once we’ve made up our minds for ourselves, regardless of whether or not you approve, please just go away and leave us alone.

If only he'd studied history

Here's a splendid, if slightly depressing article by Edward Pearce on 'Comment is Free'. Well worth a couple of minutes out of the day.

French Leave

Listening to 'Good Morning Scotland' as I headed onto the Forth Bridge this morning, I had cause to crack up into my take-out coffee. I concede that's not an unusual occurrence when Douglas Alexander, or as FM Jack McConnell is alleged to refer to him, 'Le petit merde', is being interviewed. This time, though, it happened a good 20 minutes after his interview had finished.

What caused these splutterings of incredulity and nearly led to another dry cleaning bill for my suit? Well, as usual, wee Dougie had been banging on about 'the modern case for union' and how independence supposedly runs against the spirit of the age. This time, though, he went so far as to say that the multi-national UK served as an example for the rest of the world to follow, or somesuch other hubristic claptrap.

Total nonsense, of course, as the shortage of countries queing up to form similar unions with their neighbours shows. But then came the bombshell that nearly led to me losing my coffee, in the form of a trailer item for a new series of 'Document' on BBC Radio 4.

It seems that documents from the National Archives show that back in 1956 on a visit to London, the then French Prime Minister Guy Mollet raised with the Prime Minister of the day, Anthony Eden, the possibility of a political union between the United Kingdom and France. If approved, this would have led to common citizenship, and Queen Elizabeth becoming the nominal Head of State in France.

The idea, naturally, was dismissed out of hand in London, and France went on to become a founder member of the much looser union arrangement of the EEC. However, the thought occurs that if wee Dougie means what he says about the British union serving as an example to others, he should maybe tug on Gordon Brown's sleeve and try to get him to dust down Monsieur Mollet's proposals for union with France. After all, as Brown and Alexander never tire of saying, 'stronger together, weaker apart'...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

We still love you

Any budding entrepreneurs out there fancy running up some t-shirts in time for the next Scotland game?

'SCOTLAND - WE STILL LOVE YOU... EVEN IF WALT DISNEY'

I'll get my coat...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lib Dums (Part MCXVIII)

I simply had to laugh at the antics today in Holyrood of everyone’s favourite opposition/government (delete according to circumstances) party, the Liberal Democrats. For quite simply, in today's debate on government spending, they proved for all time the wisdom in the old adage that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Deciding on this occasion that they were government rather than opposition, they decided to accuse the SNP of having uncosted spending commitments. This they did in the time-honoured fashion of saying that ‘if you’re going to spend this amount on doing that, where’s the money to do it going to come from?’.

Tee-hee-hee - how clever. Sadly for the Lib Dem speakers, though, the SNP’s Alex Neil was on the case, and managed to intervene to ask what spending the Lib Dems planned to cut in order to fund their proposed cuts in income tax. Three times Alex intervened on three different speakers, and each time answer came there none. The sound of rapidly escaping air was deafening…

Jeremy Purvis also took to his feet, and used his time to claim that SNP figures in a document called ‘Scotland in Surplus’, were wrong because they didn’t take into account the party’s proposed cut in corporation tax. Sadly for Jeremy, the SNP figures to which he refers represent an analysis of the revenues and expenditure which take place in Scotland in the current year, and not a dynamic budget showing what the SNP would do in government.

This is something the document explains very clearly – that lack of attention to detail won’t do your ministerial chances any good, Jeremy!

However, to spare Mr. Purvis’ blushes, the ‘chump of the day' title must be split between Argyll MSP George Lyon and his equally irascible colleague for North East Fife, Iain Smith, both of whom claimed that the SNP had hacked out £750m of defence spending between the party’s July ‘Scotland in Surplus’ paper and its December update.

Whoops-a-daisy! That correction for the government’s overestimated defence spending in Scotland was in the July document as well. For future reference, boys, it’s in the bit about ‘Expenditure’ under the heading ‘Defence’. There’s also a dirty big Appendix on page 12, ‘Appendix 1’ as it happens, which explains the figure more fully.

Still, it’s not my fault if you can’t be bothered to do your homework properly. Now, if only I could find some way to get the theme tune for ‘The Muppets’ out of my head…

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Protesting too much?

Well, well, well. If today's 'Sunday Herald' is to be believed, it seems like one of Labour's Scottish MPs is in talks with the SNP about crossing the floor.

The MP, whom it is claimed has had several discussions with SNP bigwigs about joining the party, is said to be unhappy with the decision to renew Trident, as well as with the current situation in Iraq. If it does come to pass before next May, it will represent a body-blow to Labour's chances of re-election in the Scottish Parliamentary elections.

I'll say here and now that I'm too far down the SNP food chain to know whether this is true or not. For that reason, I would have been inclined to file it under the category of 'I'll believe it when I see it'. However, that was before I read Labour's denial on the BBC News website.

Describing the story as "Fundamentally untrue", a Labour spokesman said: "These talks are so secret that no Labour MP has been involved in them". He then went on to bluster about imaginary black holes, before making a silly remark that perhaps "Alex Salmond is so keen to speak to Labour MPs because Labour is the party with ideas for Scotland's future that will unlock the potential of every Scot, and SNP MPs are fighting like ferrets in a sack."

Does anyone else think this denial might be just a little too spirited, a touch too vehement? It would have been enough to dismiss the story as untrue, but to describe it as 'fundamentally untrue' before launching into an unusually vigorous version of his party's standard ad hominem anti-SNP diatribe, suggests that a nerve might have been touched.

No smoke without fire? Who can tell. One thing's for certain, though. With discontent over Blair reaching a crescendo and Labour about to lose a large chunk of their local government base thanks to PR, their internal cohesion is likely to be tested over the next few months as never before.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Computer says no. Cough.

OK - I'm going to do something now which I vowed never to do on this blog - complain about my bank (Lloyds TSB) and its inept, incompetent and spectacularly unhelpful overseas call centre.

I'm not proud of myself. I know that after house prices this is probably the most hackneyed subject on earth. However, after my experiences over the last hour, I really need to share my anger. Specifically, my anger at the complete disconnect which there is between the actions of people who think they are doing a good job and the service which they end up providing.

I might be a misanthropic git at times, but having worked in call centres myself before reaching the dizzy heights of 'Assistant Customer Relations Manager' at Scottish Widows, it genuinely takes a lot to turn me into a complainer. Having dealt with more than my fair share of minging, whining, bad-tempered customers down the years, I'm now probably the most patient person in the world when it comes to dealing with underpaid and under empowered customer service staff.

There have been exceptions. Arriving a day late at Dulles Airport after Air France had lost my baggage, a spectacularly obnoxious American Express representative caught the brunt of my ire, when she refused point blank to tell me how much luggage insurance I had with which to buy a change of clothes. 'Since the British Office is closed and I am not authorised to tell you, I can not help you, Mr Thomson'. 'Righty-ho... so here I am, stranded in Washington DC after a 10-hour transatlantic flight, already one day late, with no luggage and no change of clothes since I left Edinburgh 36 hours earlier, and it's my fault you can't help me because I was stupid enough to lose my baggage outside UK office hours? Gold Card service my arse'.

But for sheer, bone headed obduracy, today's episode takes some beating. It started with my trying to use the LTSB internet banking service to pay my friend Elaine for my share of our New Year jolly (see previous post). Not remembering off the top of my head what my banking ID number was, I lazily clicked the 'Forgotten your ID' link, expecting that it would be emailed on to me.

Fool. That was my mistake, since it gets sent out by post. A 5-minute rummage through some paperwork yielded the original letter with my ID number. However, this user ID now failed to work, which a call to a Glasgow call centre confirmed was because the 'old style' ID numbers were being purged. The only way I could pay over the money today was by phone bank, to which I would now be transferred.

One transfer later and following an overly flowery and frankly irritating 'assurance' that the call handler would be most wonderfully delighted to help me, I failed to answer correctly what my overdraft limit was. I had to guess, since I no longer get paper statements, relying instead for that information on internet banking (!). But sadly, the call handler was now most terribly sorry no longer to be able to help me.

Not wishing to call back if my access to the phone bank service had been frozen, I asked whether this was the case. 'I cannot help you Mr Thomson'. 'Yes, I know that you, personally, can't help me now, but if I call back, will I find that my access has been frozen?'. 'I can assure you your account has not been frozen, Mr Thomson'. 'That's not what I asked. If I phone back, will someone still be able to help me?'. 'Someone will be able to speak to you as I am speaking to you now, Mr Thomson'. 'That's what I'm afraid of. Is my access to phone banking frozen or can I call back and start again?'. 'I understand what you are trying to say Mr Thomson...'. 'I'm not trying to say anything - I did say. Now, please answer my question - is my access frozen or not?' SILENCE. (Me) 'Oh for heaven's sake' CLICK.

10 minutes later, and suitably fortified with a cup of coffee, I tried again. Yes, my phonebank access had been frozen and I would need to go through the process of setting up another account. I got the overdraft question right this time (hooray!) and we got to the part where I had to confirm my address.

I moved into my own place 3 years ago, but despite informing LTSB of my move and even taking out the mortgage with them, they somehow never got round to updating my details. It's never been a problem, because I just pick up their letters from my folks' house each time I'm round. However, after some supervisorial consultation, the fact I had given them an 'incorrect' address apparently meant that they could now no longer proceed with my registration.

By now losing the will to live, I told the call handler that after my desperate experiences with the bank today, I'd decided that grown up life was far too complicated and that as such, I was now going to sell my house and move back in with my parents. Since that was the address they already had on file for me, surely we could proceed with my registration on that basis?

After what sounded suspiciously like a sotto voce curse from the call handler, off she went to consult the aforementioned supervisor. After a few minutes on hold, in best Little Britain fashion, the answer came back that 'Computer (and supervisor) says no. Cough.'

To be fair, like most things, overseas call centres work fine when everything is going to plan and established procedures make sense. My gripe is that when things do go off the rails, in my experience, staff for whom English is clearly a second language often fail to grasp the nuances of what is being asked. They then get wound up, the customer in turn gets wound up, and the whole thing gets mired in an unsatisfactory stalemate, leaving an unhappy employee and an unhappy customer. Although everything I described could (and no doubt has) happened in a domestic call centre, sadly, it seems to happen to me far more often when the call centre I deal with is based overseas.

So Elaine, if you're reading this, I'm afraid it might take a few days for you to get your money. In fact, the thought occurs that since an Indian call centre doesn't like either my new address or my old address at my parents' house, in the interests of protecting my security, they might not be able to send me any mail ever again. If that's the case, there'll be no internet or phone banking for me ever again, or at least until I can speak to someone who has both common sense and the inclination to use it.

There's a Royal Bank in Portobello as well. If LTSB redeem themselves when I kick off about this on Monday, I may just resist the urge to pick up the change of account forms next time I'm passing. Frankly, in my current state of mind, they are lucky that it's a Saturday and I don't have the option of doing it today.