Tuesday, November 28, 2006

London Calling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Away and Foulkes Yourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 24, 2006

Dave Cameron's 'Outer Tosser'

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2006

Olympic sized overspends - coming to a tax bill near you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2006

Scottish Politician of the Year - Update

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

Best Scot at Westminster - Angus MacNeil MP (SNP)

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

The Committee Award - Justice 1 Committee

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

The Johnnie Walker Award for Progress - The Green Group

Public Campaign/Campaigner of the Year - Sakchai Makao Campaign

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A vicious rumour...

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Committee Award
Environment Committee
Finance Committee
Justice 1 Committee

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The bin doth runneth over

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Just a bit of fun...



Lib Dems












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

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

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

US Elections Latest



Sunday, November 05, 2006

Gordon Brown - the enemy of free speech?

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

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

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

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Scotsman poll puts unionists in a flap

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Iraq Vote

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

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

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

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