Saturday, December 27, 2008
I guess he's got sloppy without any competition, or maybe that 'Spitting Image' video below was a wee bit close to the bone for him. Either way, in time-honoured fashion, to get something done properly I had to do it myself. And so it was that I could be seen emerging from one of Princes Street's myriad consumer electronics emporia late this afternoon as the proud owner of a dinky little Samsung netbook.
First of all, let me blow a resounding raspberry at PC World, who are still selling this particular model at the same price in their sale as they were before, despite most retailers having cut almost £20 off the price overnight. These computers can also be obtained free if you take out a 3G mobile broadband contract at the same time. A fantastic deal for someone, which left me cursing the fact that I already have such a long-term contract in place. See being an early adopter? Harumph....
There's actually not a lot that's wrong with my old IBM laptop. I've had it for about 3 and a half years now and it's still going pretty well. Unlike flashier contemporaries, it never claimed to 'do' multimedia (it's a laptop, for crying out loud – your 'multimedia experience' is going to be through a set of headphones on a train). Instead, it came built like a tank and eschewed all but the most essential features, which is probably why IBM and now Lenovo laptops remain so popular with corporate IT departments worldwide.
Kitted out in angular, Kevlar-like black plastic in a design which never changes from year to year, they just seem to say, in the most understated way possible, that serious people doing serious work don't mess about. Now, I've got a spreadsheet to update - what was it that you were trying to get your flabby and tarnished lump of overpriced, gaudilly-coloured plastic to do again?
Anyway, thanks to the costs of replacing a dud battery holding less than 10 minutes charge (nearly £100 by the looks of things), the IBM laptop has been relegated to home duties only, where it will stay plugged into a big monitor, a full sized keyboard and, of course, the mains electricity supply. Instead, that £100 has been put towards the new netbook, which at just over 1kg and with a screen size of 10”, is a considerably smaller beast, even though it is every bit as powerful.
What tipped the balance for me was the growing realisation that despite being a portable computer, the IBM wasn't, well, very portable. Combined with the bag and the power supply, it was adding about 5kg to my luggage every time I went somewhere (that was enough for Easyjet to sting me for £25 in excess baggage once!). Humphing it around airports and railway stations when combined with a case on wheels took some doing. My mobile phone can deal with most things valiantly, but sometimes, it's a computer you need and nothing else will do. In the end, the idea of having something smaller and lighter for those occasions when I was out on the road began to take on an obvious appeal.
So, I've now got a remarkably well-spec'ed little machine, with enough USB ports to keep me going, a network port (a seriously underrated feature), a surprisingly good keyboard, a lightweight power-pack (v. important), no annoying sticky-out bits when you want to use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and best of all, a battery which lasts for about 6 hours on a full charge.
There's no fancy speakers or DVD drive to weigh it down (when did you last use yours, anyway?), and while the screen is much smaller than what I'm used to, it's perfectly adequate for everything I'm likely to ever want to do on it. I've also managed to avoid the deadweight that is Microsoft Vista, getting one which runs the perfectly adequate (for a laptop) XP. Thanks to the wealth of free software there is out there, like Firefox and the superb OpenOffice suite, there isn't another piece of expensive Microsoft software on it. Cha-ching!
After all, what is it that most of us want a laptop for? If it's to download movies or do some serious filesharing (legally, of course), then you'd be better off with something else entirely. If it's to pose at your local Starbucks, then you've probably already bought a Mac or a Sony Vaio. If, on the other hand, you're like me and only want to surf the web, check your emails and do some simple word processing or number-crunching when you're out and about, then you can jettison most of the features. Just give me a good battery, a fast processor, a decent keyboard, ease of connection to the outside world and I'll be perfectly happy with that.
It's amazing what can be achieved when manufacturers stop trying to get laptops to be desktops, and just concentrate on the basic functionality which people need when they're on the move. My traveling, like my bank account, just got a little bit lighter.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Saturday, December 20, 2008
December 19, 2008
While you celebrate the season, if you find you've had too much to drink, the Chandler Law Group is once again helping to ensure people make it home safely.
Starting Friday, they'll be offering a safe ride home to anyone in Charlottesville.
All you have to do is call Yellow Cab at 424-295-4131 for a free ride home within a ten-mile radius of Charlottesville.
The Safe Ride Home program runs until New Years Day.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
From the BBC:
An estimated 95,000 people have been overpaid a total of £126m over 30 years as a result of errors in public sector pensions, the Cabinet Office has said.
Retired civil servants, health service workers, teachers, judicial workers and armed services personnel were given too much money.The government said the money need not be repaid, as this would not be cost-effective, but many face pension cuts.
It's worth pointing out that as things stand, the UK Government is planning to adjust pensions to remove the effect of these overpayments from future calculations - something which could see peoples' pensions reduced and monies clawed back. In contrast, the Scottish Government is guaranteeing not to reduce anyone's pension which has been overpayed in this instance, and will instead apply future increases correctly to existing payments.
Unfortunately, the UK Government has responsibility for the pension schemes for teachers and those in the NHS, so many will find their payments reduced alongside those in the armed forces and civil service. However, those in the Scottish local government, fire and police service schemes will be able to keep these small historic overpayments.
As someone who used to ply his trade in the pensions industry, I have to say that in my opinion, the approach of the Scottish Government is the only fair one here. In contrast, the approach of the Labour Government in Westminster is both miserly and crass. Proposing to cut back veterans pensions at Christmas time? Good grief...
Frankly, as long as people's expectations were reasonable at the time and if the error is as long-standing as this one seems to be, it'd be better just to write it off. Especially given 1) the small amount of money involved (we're talking about the future indexed effects arising from a £124m overpayment made over a 30 year period - i.e. chickenfeed) and 2) Westminster fiascos like this one here.
Nonetheless, I daresay it still won't stop the inevitable incoherent ululations of distress about the supposed unfairness of Scotland doing its own thing here where it is able to do so. Who'll be the first rabid anti-SNPer to go off on one about this, do we think?
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Sometimes, those Parliamentary sketches just write themselves!
UPDATE: Via Guido, here's someone else's grab of events from YouTube:
UPDATE 2: An interview with the German Finance Minister, Peer Steinbrück, in Newsweek. Explosive stuff...
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
DEVOLUTION FINDINGS 'MAY BE TOO RESTRICTIVE'
03 Dec 2008 - 13:37
By Katrine Bussey, Deputy Political Editor, Press Association Scotland
A think-tank warned today that the final conclusions of a high-profile body set up to examine devolution "may be too restrictive".
The Calman Commission, which was tasked with looking at all aspects of constitutional reform short of independence, published its first report yesterday.
But today a university-based think-tank raised concerns about the commission's eventual findings.
Members of the Constitution Unit, an independent research centre based at University College London, argued that because the Calman Commission incorporated a wide range of views, it may end up only reaching conclusions on those issues where there was a consensus.
It said as a result of that there was a danger that the commission's work "may lead to lowest common denominator solutions".
And the unit warned: "Such solutions are unlikely to provide a compelling way forward for devolution in Scotland, or across the UK."
Because the SNP are not involved in the Calman Commission, the unit said yesterday's report "only represents half the debate".
And it added that the commission and the Scottish Government's National Conversation "needed to engage with each other to ensure that issues of great importance of Scotland and the UK as a whole are debated in a more comprehensive way".
The unit claimed the Calman Commission was "only looking at part of the picture from a unionist point of view".
It stated the composition of the commission was "entirely Scottish" and said it had "looked at devolution chiefly from the position of Scottish-UK relations, with some attention paid to English concerns".
And as a result the unit said Calman was "not a thorough consideration of the implications for England of devolution to Scotland, or questions relating to Wales, or of broader issues for the UK as a whole".
In its report yesterday the Calman Commission ruled out full financial autonomy for Scotland.
But it identified broadcasting, energy policy, animal health, firearms and misuse of drugs among a range of areas which could see further powers given to Holyrood, in an interim report out today.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
The Herald blogs have been one of the brighter points of that particular title's online presence, while Brian Taylor's writings are, without exception, a delight to read. For that reason, The Steamie has a fair bit to live up to in terms of meeting the standards set by others. Having stuck with the Scotsman through thick and thin (v-e-r-y thin indeed when Brillopad was at the helm), I wish it well.
Monday, December 01, 2008
Nonsense, both. However, my eye is drawn to the section of last week's pre budget report (page 27, table 2.3 as it happens). Here, you can learn that projected UK government borrowing will peak at over 8% of GDP in 2009/10. And there's every prospect it could be higher than that.
Normally, to get these kinds of figures, you have to treat an independent Scotland as being saddled to UK spending commitments and leave out the oil. These UK figures, remember, include 100% of North Sea revenues. Leave them out, as is traditionally the case when calculating the supposed Scottish 'borrowing requirement' so beloved of unionist barrack-room economists, and there isn't a single year from 2003 onwards where the UK would have operated within the 3% deficit limit (see right hand column - positive numbers indicate a deficit).
Of course, allowances can always be made and I've no doubt that just as an independent Scotland would find a path smoothed for her in terms of EU membership, so too would the UK in terms of Eurozone membership. However, as the pound slides towards parity with the Euro, and even with 'the people who matter' apparently in support, the possibility still has to be acknowledged that the UK might not be allowed to join the Euro even if it wanted to.
Fun and games. Anyway, to end on a positive note, with all this government debt, it might be time to buy shares in companies which make scientific calculators. My bog-standard desk one has already run out of zeros trying to keep track.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Friday, November 21, 2008
I’m getting ready to head off to
Of course, the idea that you’re going to be living a permanently cosmopolitan and vibrant lifestyle in London soon runs into exactly the same constraints as it would anywhere else. The whirlwind impression of the place you would get from a weekend city-break packed with museums, Ferris wheels, musicals and nightclubs, must be set aside the need to manage your finances, do your shopping, clean the house and endure the drudge of the daily commute. Just like Edinburghers tend not to visit the Castle, Londoners aren’t living it up every night in the
So, life in
Frankly, any faux sophisticate who wants to criticise Reporting Scotland for being parochial should be made to watch a week of the
One of the rationales given by BBC Scotland Controller Ken McQuarrie for sidelining a ‘’Scottish 6’ was that the BBC was going to pursue more local news in
A worthy enough idea in itself, but hardly an answer to the shortcomings of the overall news coverage offered to Scottish viewers. After all, it’s not as if anyone sits at home saying ‘You know, all this duplication of Scottish stories and coverage about the English education minister getting slow hand clapped by the NUT is fine, but what would really make news relevant to me is being able to get vox pops from the folk in my local shopping centre’.
So, it was with great interest that I stumbled over this item, which seems to sound the death-knell for micro-local (if I can call it that) news coverage from the BBC. While the state of most local ITV newsrooms might be deplorable, I’m not convinced it’s the job of an already far superior BBC to further undermine their business model.
Of course, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, in calling for a digital Scottish channel, has in many ways moved this whole debate on. There’s a strong argument that a distinct, Scottish-based public service broadcaster could provide at least some incentive for the best artistic talent to spend more time pursuing their craft in
I’ve been quite impressed with BBC Alba since it began, despite not having a word of the language myself. Of course, some folks will never be able to get past the fact that it’s in a ‘foreign’ language, and will bump their gums about their hard earned tax dollars being squandered on such a frivolity. However, my tax dollars are spent on aspects of BBC output which have zero interest for me – Radio 1, for instance. Eastenders. Formula 1 racing. But I’m still glad these things are there for others.
Clearly, given current viewing figures, BBC Alba’s content has an appeal which transcends the language barrier. If that’s what can be done on what is, let’s face it, a shoestring budget, then an English language Scottish channel could be just the thing to dip in and dip out of.
I was sceptical about a Scottish Channel when the Commission first produced its report, since maybe unusually for a supporter of independence, I was quite happy for the BBC to continue as was, but with a fairer distribution of resources and a Scottish ‘6’. Nonetheless, a new channel would give us the option of doing so much more than simply giving a better integrated roundup of world events as they relate to
I can hear the squeals of anguish already. However, thanks to the wonders of digital TV, it’s possible for me to watch the BBC News for Oxfordshire or the Channel Islands if I so desire, just as it’s possible for me to skip Newsnight Scotland and carry on watching the Brit version post-11pm (as I sometimes do). If there were a ‘Scottish 6’ on BBC Scotland, you could still, if delicate sensibilities were offended, watch the UK-wide version. No-one need ever know your sordid little secret :-)
However, this is a matter on which most unionist minds in
Still, with this report from the BBC Trust, yet another of the arguments mustered previously against a Scottish-produced evening bulletin has fallen. If it’s not going to happen on BBC 1, let’s see what a new Scottish channel, with all the other attendant benefits for cultural life, is able to do instead.
With 9% of licence fees coming from
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Sorry about the infrequent posts of late. Don't worry – I haven't caught the travel, quitting or simply taking a breather bugs like many other Scottish blogistas. I've actually been trying to get back to normal after several lost weekends in Glenrothes, restoring in the process a modicum of domestic order (Saturday long-lies, how I've missed you). That, and dipping into the recent submission of HM Government to the Calman Commission.
Calman was a response to the Scottish Government's 'National Conversation'. Initiated by Wendy Alexander, it represented a shift away from the 'no change' position on the constitution under which flag Labour sailed to defeat at the last election.
Regular readers are probably already aware of my scepticism towards Calman, and more casual surfers would probably be able to work it out in short order. Essentially, the Commission was based on the same ploy as the Constitutional Convention - exclude the SNP from the outset, and thereby some of the minds which have thought most deeply about how Scotland could be governed differently. Draw together a group of the politically reliable great and good, whom after weighty deliberation will come down for a suitably safe and minimalist solution, which will then be portrayed as a sensible consensus position with which only the fringes could possibly take issue.
Calman, which claims to be 'evidence based', will listen to any opinion unless it supports independence. However, constitutional arguments are based on principle foremost. Even if all the evidence gathered pointed to independence as the constitutional settlement superior to all others, they would in principal hold key powers back, because its participants have been chosen on the basis of being ideologically thirled to unionism come what may. In that respect, it's a contrasting approach to the Conversation in that subject to a referendum, the Conversation at least held out the possibility of navigating towards a settlement which fell short of Independence.
Surprise surprise, the HM Government submission states its belief that 'devolution within the Union is working well for Scotland'. Further, it believes that 'the Union benefits all parts of the United Kingdom'. We also 'benefit from a strong economy and share critical common interests, in respect of national integrity and security, in facing global challenges which are played out on an international stage'. Furthermore, with our 'strong set of shared values', we 'share in a British identity, represented by a common culture and institutions, which further serves to unite people across our historic nations'.
Stirring stuff. I'm not going to criticise these sentiments here in any way because for many, they will indeed be held deeply. It's hardly a surprise to find that the Labour Party in government continues to support the fundamental principals behind the Scotland Act which was amongst its first pieces of legislation in office. However, what I will criticise is the way in which what purports to be an impartial submission from government has been allowed to become an outlet for Labour Party point scoring.
Essentially, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, with the current settlement, if not quite perfect and holy in all ways, then pretty damn close. While there might be a prima facie case to consider, at the margins, some further executive devolution in the interests of sound government and administration, the case for re-opening the Scotland Act is as yet unproven. Although the time may be right to consider the successes of devolution to date, the climate for change is not opportune. There are a number of difficulties which must be overcome. Frankly, given the extensive nature of the powers already devolved, it is hard to see which further powers, if any, it would be desirable to transfer.
Sorry, I was paraphrasing there while half-watching an episode of 'Yes Minister' on DVD, but you get the drift. All this would be fine in itself – after all, as a nationalist, It'd be ludicrously easy to present my case for Independence against a backdrop of no change, rather than against a moveable feast of further devolution which would be trimmed in accordance to how big an electoral threat the SNP happened to be at the time. No, it's the political posturing which has been allowed to creep into a government document in which gets me.
What on earth has the future of council tax benefit following the introduction of a local income tax got to do with the possible reconfiguring of the constitutional settlement? Why are planning laws clearly devolved to Scotland being cited in connection with nuclear power? Is it because they might be used? Why is the Treasury talking of 'assigned revenues' – which would remove the stability of Barnett without replacing it with the benefits of fiscal powers – unless to hint that further change would be used to put Scotland at a disadvantage? And so on and so forth.
As you'd expect from Whitehall, it's a polished and unified presentation. Allied to the natural reluctance of the lesser spotted Permanent Secretary to lose any influence over his Bailiwick, I suspect the dead-hand of Scotland Office special advisers and their Scottish counterparts elsewhere in Whitehall, ensuring that the views of Gordon Brown prevail, not just on matters constitutional, but also to make further political points on issues largely unrelated.
I can certainly appreciate the artistry involved, if not the politics or the principle. Nevertheless, the interesting bit for me is how all this will play back amongst the devol-unionists in Scotland, whom you can split broadly into two categories – the tacticians, who only want to do what is absolutely necessary to blunt the SNP challenge, and the genuine devolvers, who think that granting further powers is the right thing to do irrespective as to how well the SNP performs.
Unloved in Downing Street from the outset, following Ms Alexander's fall from grace the Commission has lacked a patron. However, even if the Commission surprises us all and comes up with a substantial package of fiscal and political powers to transfer, the signs for success, if you define proposals turned into actions as success, seem limited.
Westminster is where the legislation has to take place. Clearly, there is scant appetite in government and amongst Labour MPs for further significant devolution. Also clear is the lack of influence which anyone in the Labour parliamentary group at Holyrood has over their Westminster counterparts. As such, what leverage will there be amongst participants to actually implement the proposals of the Commission if they turn out to go much beyond what this document seems prepared to concede?
If you only want to dish the nats, then that's something you can live with so long as they cease to be a political threat. However, it's unlikely to please Calman supporters whose leverage, on their own, is negligible. The greatest influence they have, if only they could realise it, comes from the prospects of further electoral success for the folks they were so determined to again exclude from the outset.
People have long known that you need to vote SNP to get independence, but what a bounteous electoral reward awaits if the penny drops that the route to a stronger parliament within a reformed union also lies with a strengthened SNP. It doesn't suit the occasionally tribal nature of Scottish politics to recognise, but there's much more common ground out there than many are prepared to admit. The next Westminster election could be about to get very interesting indeed...
Friday, November 07, 2008
First of all, a very sleepy ‘congratulations’ to Scotland's newest MP, Lindsay Roy. With Labour having made great play throughout the campaign of Mr Roy not being a professional politician, the electorate delivered a cruel snub to Gordon Brown, deciding that it was time for a novice after all. I suspect that eventually, however, Mr Brown will perhaps find a way to overcome his grief and dejection...
There’s no getting away from it, this was a very good result for Labour. Even allowing for their deliberate spinning of expectations over the past few weeks, this was a win on a scale of which few of their number would have dared to contemplate.
I genuinely thought that the SNP was on course to win the seat, albeit not by much. After all, overturning a 10,500+ majority was always going to be a big ask. For that reason, I was wary of expectations running ahead of reality. After all, Fife is a very different kettle of fish to somewhere like Glasgow East.
For one thing, this time Labour took the precaution of selecting a candidate beforehand. Also, unlike in Glasgow, we weren’t dealing with a community which had a palpable set of grievances against Labour. Gordon Brown has had a much better press recently, and with a new leader at the helm in Holyrood, Wendy Alexander and her immediate memory no longer looms as a standing rebuke to humility and competence.
The by-election came about in tragic circumstances, rather than as a result of a sudden resignation under a cloud of murky financial dealings. Labour roots were also strong in parts of the constituency in ways that they simply weren’t in Glasgow East. As such, the conditions weren’t ripe for a big shift in allegiance as they were in Glasgow.
The SNP already represents tracts of the Glenrothes seat at Holyrood. Despite this, the swing to the SNP, at 5%, was relatively modest, despite the fact that the party’s vote went up by 13% to cut Labour’s majority in half. Given the differential turnout in parts of the seat, with areas where the SNP was expected to do well polling strongly while traditional areas of Labour strength stayed at around 40%, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that some complex factors were at work.
Of course, the temptation will be to say that Labour made a better job of getting out it’s vote than did the SNP. I have to say, I doubt it. The identified SNP support turned out and was motivated. On the eve of poll, I saw 2 Labour parliamentarians knocking on the doors of houses which already had Labour posters in the window, which hardly seemed the best use of their time. While I bet Labour had a general idea where their support might come from, I’m sceptical as to the extent they knew which individuals could be relied upon to turn out for them.
Did they manage to ‘re-activate’ dormant support? It’s possible, but a clue might be found in the squeeze which there was on the Lib Dem and Conservative vote, with both parties losing their deposits. I found very few people identifying themselves as Tories or Lib Dems, or for that matter people saying that they were switching from those parties to the SNP, at any point in the campaign. Could it be that some Lib Dem and Tory voters simply decided that on this occasion, they’d vote tactically and back Labour rather than an SNP which might have been doing just a little too well of late for their liking?
It’s been remarked upon already that Labour’s campaigning throughout was remorselessly negative. However, we knew it was happening, and the fact is, we should have been able to deal with it. Yes, we fought a positive campaign, highlighting the many good things which the SNP government has done for Fife, but it wasn’t enough.
When you look at it, you have to wonder how Labour managed to get any traction whatsoever over the issue of care charges. According to Audit Scotland, Labour’s stewardship of Fife Council had left finances in a ‘precarious’ situation. The previous administration had dodged the issue; the charges brought in by the new administration remain lower than those levied by many other Labour councils, and fewer people now pay than ever did before.
Nonetheless, they hammered it relentlessly and it took its toll. Incumbency is new territory for the SNP, and it’s clear that we haven’t quite yet got our heads round the idea of how to deal with being the front-runners. Better to have this exposed in a by-election now than in a wider contest later, but I can’t help but feel we need to develop a harder edge when it comes to dealing with these sorts of mendacious attack.
Lindsay Roy, by common consent, was a fairly poor performer in the hustings and the media. He failed to master his brief, even on care charges, and at one stage even blurted out on TV that he didn’t know what the Post Office Card Account was. However, that didn’t seem to matter to the voters, possibly because his local reputation preceded him. While I didn’t encounter him at all on the stump, he wouldn’t be the first candidate to have a completely different persona in the flesh to that which they enjoy on TV.
A widespread perception of being a decent guy, if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing attached to you, clearly counts for a lot more than a few woeful appearances on TV seen only by the already committed. It’s a timely lesson, perhaps, that the first rule of political punditry is never to assume that your perceptions will be the same as those of the electorate at large.
Anyway, there’ll be plenty time to reflect on what went well and what could have been done better in the days ahead. I have to say, I don’t buy the idea of Gordon Brown as saviour of the financial universe. While present turmoils may have driven some voters into the unfamiliar arms of Labour, his Norwegian-style (that’s 1990’s Norwegian style, before anyone kicks off again) taking of equity stakes in the banking system may not win him many bouquets in the long term.
Cutbacks, lay-offs, repossessions and increased charges, previously the responsibility of anonymous ‘fat cats’, will now be the responsibility of the Chancellor. In addition, I really can’t see how Brown, even with his dedicated band of cheerleaders, can seriously get away with the idea that everything which went well over the past decade was down to him and that everything which has gone wrong subsequently was down to regulatory failure in the US.
There’s a trail of debt and dodgy decisions leading back to Brown’s door, and I suspect that there’ll be a day of political reckoning for him yet to come. My own view of him is that he’s a bit like the fire-raiser who expects credit for dialling 999, after he’s already torched your house. While people aren’t making that judgement quite yet, it doesn’t mean that they won’t do so in future.
So, plenty to think about over the weekend. I’ve written before about how things might start to unravel for the SNP, and having read that piece again this morning, I think much of it remains apt. The SNP Government still remains popular, but there’s also a hard core of people out there who are not now nor will ever be reconciled to the idea of the SNP in office.
If you’re in a minority, just occasionally, the majority of others, united or otherwise, will be able to combine in such a way as to stop you in your tracks. Yesterday, I suspect if they didn’t already vote Labour, some of that hard core held their nose to do so. That section, who could probably still find fault in the SNP even if we suggested taking plenty of exercise and eating 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, aligned to those with traditional Labour loyalties and the more workaday concerns of floating voters which we were not successful in countering, were probably what kept corks in SNP champagne bottles last night.
However disappointed we might be, this one needs to be taken on the chin. I don’t like talking of honeymoons in politics, but it’s clear that the charmed existence which the SNP has enjoyed since 2007 is probably at an end. If that means an end to the hyperbolic trumpeting of every minor bump in the road as some kind of setback for the SNP, then that in itself is probably a good thing.
Monday, November 03, 2008
Anyway, I had another early start on Sunday to head back north. The drive up the A9 was wonderful, and I only wish I'd stopped to get some pics of the autumnal trees and the snow-capped mountains. It'll probably only last another week or so before it takes on a more wintry look, so if you have the opportunity to take a look, do so.
I got to Huntly just after lunch to catch the tail end of the town's 'Hairst' festival. I had a blast there last year, ending the evening by dancing a 'Strip the Willow' in the square. This time, I went up to the Nordic Ski Centre, and had a shot at hurtling down the dry ski-slope in an inflatable:
All good, clean fun, and just a little bit different from the usual duties of a candidate!
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Just about every family will have been touched by cancer at some time, and mine is no exception. While the NHS does what it can, the support of the voluntary sector can be invaluable in helping not just the patient, but everyone else in the immediate family who is affected also, even if only to let you realise that you're not fighting it alone. The illness is often accompanied by job, money or family worries, and simply being able to offer counselling, support, a short break or accommodation to allow a friend or relative to accompany a patient while they are in Aberdeen for treatment, can boost morale at a time when feelings are often at their lowest ebb.
Even in these more difficult times, the auction on its own managed to raise well over £30,000. And in addition to the official entertainment, one hotel guest managed to drop in to offer a few words of support of his own:
All told, a great night in aid of a great cause.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Hello there. Before I start, I should make clear that this message isn't aimed at all unionists - far from it. I've been told before that I'm quite well-balanced (for a Nat, apparently), so in that spirit, it's time to repay a compliment which managed to be both back-handed and tongue in cheek at the same time. So with that said, level-headed, fair minded supporters of the UK, please exempt yourselves from what is to follow.
Now. I know that since I’m an SNP supporter, in the eyes of some very voluble commentators and commenters, everything I’m about to say will already be completely wrong before I’ve even said it. Don't worry - I'm used to it. I'm used to the silly jibes that everything I do as a supporter of independence is about fermenting ‘grudge and grievance’, propagating ‘myths’, or whatever the insult of the week happens to be. Unquestionably, what I’m about to say will also be ‘typical’ of some vice you imagine is held universally by those of my political persuasion. However, please, hang in there. It’ll do you good, I promise.
It’s no secret that for reasons best known to yourselves, some of you guys really dislike the SNP. I also know that some of you, in your desperation to try and do down the SNP and the cause of independence, will leap on any passing bandwagon, no matter how rickety or unsafe it may seem to those of us with cooler heads, be we pro-independence or pro-union.
In that spirit, I can understand how exciting it must have been to see yesterday’s Daily Mail, with its screaming front page headline about how Alex Salmond had been ‘slapped down’ by the Norwegian Foreign Minister. ‘Sent homewards to think again’… ‘whaur’s your arc of prosperity noo’… that sort of thing. ‘Bigger is better, so just shut up about how brilliant you think things are elsewhere’. All great knock-about stuff.
I hope I’m not being unduly critical. After all, if a Minister of the Crown like Jim Murphy can stand up in Parliament to accuse Norway and Ireland of being insolvent, then there’s little hope that the febrile, uni-loony attack dogs of cyberspace might adopt a more reasoned and intelligent stance. Frankly, therefore, my expectations were already exceptionally low in this regard.
However, a word from the wise. Before rushing to publish, it might have been advisable to read the comments made by the Norwegian Minister concerned, and to establish whether his words could lend support to the slant being placed on them by the politically interested. I’m sure that for the smarter folk amongst you to have done so, would have led to the realisation that the Daily Mail was indulging in a little bit of stirring.
That’s why the following letter below is now on its way to the Daily Mail, courtesy of the Norwegian Ambassador, which I hope they’ll have the decency to publish in full:
The article "Salmond Slapped down by Norway Minister" in the Daily Mail on 29 October contained several incorrect and misleading statements attributed to Norway's Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre.
Firstly, there is no "growing anger in Norway" over comparisons made between Scotland and Norway during the debate in the United Kingdom against the backdrop of the current global financial crisis.
Secondly, no accusations have been made by Mr Støre against Mr Salmond, as alleged in the article. In the interview, the Foreign Minister merely pointed out factual similarities and differences between the challenges presently faced by Scotland and Norway. Inferring from this that Mr Støre is of the view that Mr Salmond has in any way lied or mislead the public, is simply incorrect.
In short, the Norwegian Foreign Minister did not intend to criticise either side in this debate, which is a domestic political discussion. What he strongly emphasised in the interview with the Daily Mail and which, sadly, was simply omitted from the article, was his sincere appreciation of the warm ongoing relationship between Scotland and Norway.
Ambassador of Norway
Oh dear. Egg on face time for a few people, I fear. Is it time to speak of a unionist yolk which can be thrown off? ;-)
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
She's an intelligent women who used to run her own PR company, for goodness' sakes. And how insulting, both to her and to voters, to assume that the partner of the man who leads the party of which the man seeking votes belongs to, knocking on precisely 3 doors for the edification of the media present, will make the slightest difference to the eventual outcome.
Mind you, meeting a handful of tame supporters in Cardenden was like going into the lion's den in comparison to Mr Sarah Macauley's foray into the fray. Sitting down in a cafe, talking to 'real people' (actually more party members), Mr Macauley showed every sign of still being afraid of his own political shadow.
The press, seeking to whip up a bit of interest, ridiculed the stage-managed visit of his wife, but somehow managed to suspend credulity for the Prime Minister as he trotted out his stock soundbites to a specially selected audience. But it would appear that this public appearance was not what all that it seemed.
With a tip of the hat to Jess the Dog, here are some pics showing just how close our sub-Prime Minister really got to the fray:
OK. Glenrothes is a new town. He was still in a bustling precinct somewhere, right?
Hmm, it's kind of hard to tell from above. Can we maybe take a closer look at this from ground level?
Oh dear. It's this sort of routine, low-grade misrepresentation that sickens me of the Prime Minister and his party. Frankly, if he told me the sky was blue, I'd still need to look up to check it out for myself.
Monday, October 27, 2008
If there was an orthodoxy on which you could count in Scotland last century, it was that public support for the union, implicit or explicit, could be taken almost as read. After the war, you knew exactly what it was you stood for – God, King and Empire. Britannia ruled the waves – and Britons never, never, never would be slaves.
Despite economic decline and the need for reconstruction, the British were still a force to be reckoned with. We had the A-bomb and a seat at the top table of the new UN Security Council. Although the USA might have been the emerging power as the sun set on the empire, they still, as younger siblings sometimes do, needed our wise guidance and experience to keep them right.
Despite the need for reconstruction at home and US loans to stave off national bankruptcy, Britain was still great. As the Iberian peninsula endured the yoke of fascism and an iron curtain came down to separate Western Europe from the new Soviet satellites in the east, Britain could stand aloof and proud. Throw in a chance to pity the poverty of the Irish, and you could have a vaguely plausible, if smug and misguided view of the world and your place in it.
It's easy to understand the optimism ushered in by the 'new Elizabethan age’. It saw the end of rationing, great technological progress and huge advances in social provision. Following the success of central planning during wartime, big government was better government, and the man in Whitehall always knew best. Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ may have been blowing, but for many, we had indeed never had it so good.
The loss of corporate control as headquarters moved south may have been a cause of regret, but never managed to fire Scots into a pro-independence state of mind. Perhaps that was due to the lack of progress which the SNP had made in terms of securing a place in the mainstream for its central goal. However, with the soft left in the ascendant, institutions such as the National Coal Board, British Rail, British Leyland, BP, even the National Health Service, could all be pointed to as examples of the import of British policy to our sense of wellbeing and identity.
But that was then. With the ending of 'consensus' politics in the 1970's and the privatisations of the 80's, the British state dimension to Scotland's political economy declined in importance. If Britain's place in the world had seemed secure before, with the benefits of standing together economically, socially and militarily seeming axiomatic to most, then how would it fare if those circumstances were to change?
Given the recent rise of the SNP and consequent support for independence, the answer, it would seem, is not very well. As the case for small independent states pooling sovereignty in a confederal Europe gained ground in Scotland, so too did the more general notion of self government amongst unionists.
For some, it was as a means of halting the gradual SNP advance. For others, it was about stopping the writ of an unpopular Conservative government at the border. What can't be denied is that through devolution itself and the election of an SNP government, a direction of travel towards greater autonomy has been well established over the past decade.
So, if the SNP narrative of Scotland in the world is clear, what then are the unifying ideas, the big imperative behind unionism today? With the role of the central state diminished and shorn of a meaningful international role or a plausible external threat, does anyone know what Britain is for any longer?
Many advocates for continued union struggle for an answer to this, preferring to cast their arguments in terms of past history or the supposed weaknesses which would befall a Scottish state. Vague and uncertain concepts such as 'economies of scale'; being 'greater than the sum of our parts'; or trite slogans about being stronger together are advanced, with seldom anything concrete offered to back up why this may be the case.
For some, their preference for existing structures is largely a default – an attitude developed through osmosis. Even if the matter has been considered to any great degree, it's rare to find much in the way of hostility to the idea of Holyrood assuming greater powers or Scotland becoming independent. In contrast, the political leaders of unionism in Scotland all too often seem better at disparaging the case of their opponents than in articulating a convincing set of arguments of their own.
Even with the recent world financial turmoil, where contentions about the benefits of scale become easier to advance (even if no more accurate), certain political leaders have found themselves unable to resist having a dig at other small countries, most of whom are doing considerably better than the UK. Which is, in part why I found David Cameron's recent assertion that an independent Scotland was perfectly possible to be so interesting.
I've argued for a long time that unionists of all stripes should have no difficulty in ditching the scaremongering to be able to say without equivocation that 'we accept that Scotland makes many great contributions to the UK, and here's why she should continue to do so'. If nothing else, enlightened self-interest ought to suggest that were Scotland to become independent in the near future and they wished to play a significant political role thereafter, the electorate would be unlikely to grant this quickly to those who had been so vehement in their reluctance to assume new responsibilities.
Cameron, of course, is not about to become a supporter of independence and will, I suspect, be a formidable opponent for the SNP if he becomes Prime Minister. However, the change to a more emollient tone and a new found respect for Scotland in Westminster could well start to alter some of the political topography we have become used to fighting around.
The most significant point from this is that if such an approach were maintained, it would remove some of the intellectual barriers which people have to direct engagement in the independence debate. Unionists have nothing to fear from a more mature and honest approach to the constitutional debate in Scotland. And if we're confident in the SNP about the essential logic of our arguments, then neither have we.
Monday, October 20, 2008
If last year was a case of pinching yourself that May's election of an SNP government had actually happened, this year was more of a 'down to business' conference. The feelgood factor still abounds, and none moreso than for those delegates who took in the speeches of the ministerial team.
Of course, the dark clouds of the financial crisis loomed overhead. If some commentators and politicians of other persuasions seemed almost gleeful in their recent dismissals of independence, they were swatted aside by Alex Salmond's Sunday afternoon demolition of Gordon Brown's partisanship and the toxic economic legacy he will leave.
My duties this year were light, except to chair what was possibly the busiest fringe event of the conference - a London Branch organised debate on the economics of independence, with John Swinney and Stewart Hosie as the speakers. Almost 300 delegates, and not a few journalists too, packed in to hear then put questions to the two speakers. The claustrophobic conditions and rising room temperatures proved too much for one delegate, who temporarily passed out. Luckily, he made a swift recovery, and was able to get to his feet soon after.
I can't complain too much about the resulting press coverage either. If the worst you have to deal with is Magnus Linklater being his habitual sniffy and disdainful self about the SNP, then it's usually a sign of our vitality and health - a bit like a cold wet nose on a labrador.
Anyway, next year is the Year of Homecoming and to help mark it, singer Sandi Thom will be recording a version of Dougie MacLean's 'Caledonia'. Here's a sneak preview which I took on my phone.
And no, it wasn't shot during an earthquake - I just had to use the zoom to get up close.
Doubtless the list reflects the tastes of the 30-40 somethings who will have mostly been the ones taking part. Nonetheless, I thought it might be fun to compile a list of five of my favoured tracks, which have at least some connection to Scotland:
Whole Lotta Rosie - AC/DC
Aussies might complain, but since the Young brothers were born in Glasgow, and original singer Bon Scott was born in Kirriemuir, I think we can still lay claim. Possibly the most rumbustious track in their back catalogue – get those air guitars at the ready :-)
Maggie May – Rod Stewart
For any child of the 80's who remembers the spandex and the endless greatest hits albums, it's easy to overlook just how good Rod Stewart's material was. I've been known to murder this at karaoke, but at least I'm not as bad as Richard the cat sitter...
Auf Achse – Franz Ferdinand
Maybe not one of their bigger crowd pleasers. Tales of unrequited love are the staple of music, but there's something I love about the way this one builds, particularly the way the drums and bass can go from their methodic pulse into building a sense of agitation at key points. You've also got to love the Kiss tribute in the guitar solo in this live version.
Sunshine on Leith – The Proclaimers
For years, I'd never had any particularly strong feelings about this song. However, a half-time at Easter Road, with 15,000 Hibbies in full cry and scarves aloft, changed all that. It brought a lump to the throat of even a hardened Aberdeen supporter like me. Just magnificent – I wish we had a song like that.
[Apologies to any Kilmarnock fans, who may find some of the following scenes disturbing!]
Vienna – Ultravox
Atmospheric electro-pop, but so, so much more. The soaring vocals and percussive piano put a shiver sown my spine every time.
No tags for this one, but feel free to take part in any way you see fit. Performers, songwriting credits, whatever you like - no connection can be too tenuous :-)
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Ross Lydall: New boy has taken his seat – now for the hard bit
George Kerevan: Small countries looking best placed for recovery
Marc Coleman: Ireland is still a success story – and Scotland could be, too
Monday, October 13, 2008
Lesley Riddoch: Mock Nordics if you like, but they are survivors
The Scotsman - Published Date: 13 October 2008
LITTLE countries have come under suspicion since Iceland's banks went belly-up. Geir Haarde, the prime minister, enraged Britain by suggesting foreign investments would not be protected. And though the war of words has abated with Haarde's assurance that "we will honour our obligations", the damage to Iceland's reputation has been done.
No-one came to bail out the Icelanders – quite the opposite. Clearly no-one in Britain ever believed that a country of 316,000 souls could possibly produce firms like Baugur whose rampant expansion bought over half the British high street. At least not without paying a terrible price. Iceland will pay for it.
But is Iceland also being made to pay for its inclusion in Alex Salmond's arc of prosperity – the ring of small, northern seafaring states whose prosperity, according to the First Minister, arises directly from their independent status?
Opposition politicians and commentators have used the economic woes of Reykjavik to fire a salvo across SNP bows – whaur's your arc of prosperity noo?
Without Big Brother Britain to bail out Scottish banks, they argue, an independent Scotland would now be in economic meltdown just like lonely, little Iceland.
Indeed, British shoppers are boycotting Iceland grocery stores in protest at the threatened loss of charity, council and individual savings – in a sad echo of the confused attack on a paediatrician's office during an anti-paedophile campaign.
Ironically, Icelanders would be unlikely to make such mistakes. Blessed with the highest rates of literacy in the world, and the freedom to opt for plain Icelandic rather than archaic Latin in their public world, this part of the so-called arc of prosperity has not only enjoyed financial success. In May of this year the Economist Intelligence Unit named Iceland the world's most peaceful place based on the absence of an army and the lowest ratio of citizens in jail. The UN Human Development Index, makes Iceland the world's most developed country (male life expectancy at 81 is the highest in the world) and one of the most egalitarian (they read more books per capita).
Iceland's long been described as the "bumble-bee" economy – no-one knows how it flies – and yet its population is young and rising.
So Iceland is a success story on many levels – not just the financial one over which so many crocodile tears are currently being shed.
And anyway, one country's failed banking system doth not a failed arc make. How have the other small countries in the arc of prosperity been doing? Actually, not too bad.
In fact, the British government appears to have used the Nordic bank nationalisations of the 1990s as a model for its own present banking bail-out. The Nordic crisis, in the early Nineties, was sparked by a property boom, deregulation of financial services and the economic crisis in neighbouring Russia. Norway took full control of two of the country's top four banks – wiping out shareholders, and purging senior management. In Sweden, the government also took control of failed banks and created a "bad bank" for toxic assets.
Nordic banks have since been nursed back to health and assets sold when valuations improved. According to Steinar Juel, chief economist at Nordea, Scandinavia's biggest bank: "It was very, very painful, (but] taxpayers, in general, did well. All the money governments spent, they got back again."
How are the countries at the heart of the arc of prosperity faring today?
Compared to the arc of materialism, they are facing no major banking crisis. Meanwhile, in the world's others envious arcs, scapegoating, denial and displacement
So should the financial problems of Iceland change public perceptions of independence?
Quick thinking and opportunism are part of the Icelandic psyche. That's why they took advantage of Danish occupation by the Nazis in 1944 to declare independence.
That outlook has upsides and downsides. But does anyone think the Icelanders this week wish they had not parted company with Denmark? Do their current woes make them wish there was a large wing they could crawl under and quit the dodgy business of self determination? Iceland may have made some colossal mistakes – but I'm sure the decision to stop living in the distant shadow of Denmark is not considered one of them.
Iceland's people have long experience of adjusting to bad news. Seismologists expect a vent or chasm to open up near the massive glaciers of east Iceland anytime with viscous lava creating a cloud of dust that could reflect sunlight and cause darkness and crop failure across northern Europe. Some experts speculate the last such eruption in the 1780s caused such widespread hunger and unrest that the French revolution was the result.
Who knows when nature will deliver its own credit crunch? The Icelanders have been living more or less happily with its certainty for centuries.
If we valued a healthy outlook as highly as financial liquidity, we'd realise the Nordics are the only people getting it right in the developed world today. And applaud the Nobel Prize Committee who awarded this year's Peace Prize to the Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. Despite that country's recent traumatic college shootings, despite nervousness over the resurgence of the tiny nation's giant neighbour Russia, Finland is still a model of prosperity and peace.
Small Nordic countries have generally outperformed Scotland in every way. But that simply proves the Scots current preference for the Union is not the product of calculation or international comparison.
Enthusiasm for constitutional change will be home-grown or still-born. And nothing in Iceland will change that.
Friday, October 10, 2008
No change there. However, this time he's making the case for something called an 'Infrastructure Investment Board' to be set up, which would take the decisions about which major transport infrastructure projects ought to be progressed out of the clammy hands of ministers.
'Why on earth would he want to do that?', I hear you ask. Well, it seems Tavish has it in his head that the SNP is only interested in advancing major projects in constituencies which they hold, or would like to hold. This, he contends, would be a way to stop such low down skulduggery.
Golly. I wonder if he means the Edinburgh Tram Project? Oh, sorry, that one's going ahead, and the SNP was against it, wasn't it? Ah, here we go - he means improvements to the A9 between Perth and Inverness, which, he contends, the SNP only want to press on with, not because it might be a good and useful thing to do, but because it runs through Fergus Ewing's constituency.
R-i-g-h-t. Now Fergus, I concede, is indeed the SNP MSP for Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, and could, I suppose, accurately be described as someone with an interest in seeing improvements to the A9 go ahead. But remind me - which party currently represents the seats containing Caithness and Sutherland; as well as Inverness West at Holyrood? And which party is it that represents Inverness and all points north at Westminster? And which party, other than the SNP of course, is it that has repeatedly called for the A9 to be dualled between Perth and Inverness over the past 4 decades?
I'll give you a clue. Russell Johnston, a formidable advocate in his lifetime for improving the A9, used to be one of their MPs [for Inverness, as it happens].
Still nothing? Well, they provided the transport minister in the last Scottish Government, before the SNP took over in 2007.
Still nothing? Oh, OK then. That former transport minister, who singularly failed to improve the A9 during his term of office, is the one now complaining in this Scotsman article about the SNP going ahead and doing what he didn't.
It's certainly a novel tactic - trying to hold onto seats by complaining about transport improvements which you've always supported going ahead. Anyway, all answers, this time on the back of a dodgy by-election bar chart, to the usual address.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
All answers on a set of unionist blinkers please, to the usual address...
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
- In the present financial situation, the tendency to jump up and down yelling 'I told you so!', whether it relates to interest rates, borrowing, house prices, securitisation, boardroom pay, bonuses or whatever – can be overwhelming, whether indeed you did tell people so or not. The fact is, the present situation is unprecedented in any of our lifetimes. History books are likely to be as useful right now to our policy makers as a dog-eared undergraduate copy of Lipsey.
- Sadly, the Western taxpayer is going to be seen as the only solid guarantor for financial institutions. If banks require to be recapitalised by the state, we the taxpayers must get something in return in the form of an equity stake.
- Central banks should offer to further guarantee deposits and extend liquidity to the commercial banks.
- While the actions of governments may be the best hope of restoring stability in the short to medium term, we should recognise that direct government management of our financial institutions is unlikely to offer the best route to their recovery in the long term.
- Sooner or later, something is going to have to be done about the 'toxic' securitised debt on bank balance sheets. Whether its unwound in some way or ultimately taken on by the state, the extent of that debt needs to be quantified, and fast.
- It seems inevitable that interest rates will be cut quite substantially, which ordinarily would allow inflation to grow. However, we should recognise that inflation has been kept artificially low in recent years by cheap imports from Asia and migrant labour from Eastern Europe. Effectively, it's been inflation postponed.
- In any case, if the economy has grown further than its productive capacity is able to sustain, then inflation is probably the least of our worries right now. Deflation is probably the outlook for the next few years.
- Just as the banks must be able to lend once more to eachother, it's important that businesses are still able to access capital to finance themselves.
- Labour mobility is a key driver of economic growth. For that reason, it's imperative that the housing market is kept going.
- China, Russia and the oil-rich Gulf economies are the countries with the capital to invest right now, and the debt to exchange for equity. There is likely to be a substantial rebalancing of world power and influence in the next few years from the US and Europe in favour of the east, and we'd better get used to the idea.
- I enjoy a good cyber punch-up as much as anyone, but I'm inclined to ignore some of the sillier posts out there trying to criticise comparisons which have been made between Scotland and elsewhere. The fact is, no open capitalist economy has shown itself to be immune from events elsewhere. If there's any lesson to be learned, it's that size offers no protection to exposure, whether you have a economy the size of America or indeed one the size of Iceland.
- Finally, if anything, it's those who act firmly and decisively, regardless of size, who will emerge in the best shape from the present maelstrom.
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
A lot of work has gone into the garden, from securing the land as a gift from Meldrum Estates and Aberdeenshire Council, to getting the site surveyed by Meldrum resident Jim McColl of Beechgrove Garden fame, and having plans for the site drawn up. Through the clearing of the land, the planting, weeding, fundraising, securing of materials and sheer hard graft, it's a project which has brought together all sections of the community.
The name of the garden is taken from William Forsyth, who was born in the town in 1737. Forsyth was a botanist of considerable note, who worked in the Apothecaries Garden in Chelsea. He became Curator aged 34, and eventually Chief Superintendent of the royal gardens at Kensington and St James’s. He was also one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society.
The day itself was a bit breezy, but otherwise the weather held, giving us a fine clear day to appreciate what the garden has to offer. Here's some pictures which I snapped from the opening ceremony:
The ribbon being cut by Jim McColl:
The view from the garden towards Bennachie:
It's a lovely setting, and will be a tremendous asset for the town. I can't think of a better way to celebrate an organisation which puts the good of the community at the heart of all it does, and to commemorate one of Oldmeldrum's most famous sons. I'm sure it won't be my last visit to the garden.