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'.


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.


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.