Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Good News Travels Fast

Rather irritatingly, Tory über-blogger Ian Dale, has scooped us all with details of a sensational poll in tomorrow’s Scotsman (even more so since he appears to be on a jolly to Washington DC right now!). In figures unprecedented this close to an election, it would seem that the SNP has a 5-point lead over Labour for Holyrood in the constituency vote and a 4-point lead in the regional ballot.

It looks like the wheels are coming off the Labour campaign, since this poll won’t take account of Health Minister Andy Kerr announcing a probe in to the alleged manipulation of NHS waiting lists. Neither will it have been able to digest the astonishing news that senior Labour aide, Stephen Lawther, had quit his post following clashes with colleagues over tactics and presentation. And with Jack McConnell providing such visible leadership

The polls have been remarkably consistent of late, agreeing that the SNP is ahead, even if there’s some debate about the magnitude. And unless far more complex moves are afoot, this apparent swing to the SNP looks like having one of two possible explanations. Neither, it has to be said, looks particularly good for Labour.

The first explanation is that traditional independence-supporting Labour voters might be starting to come over to the SNP, thus threatening to tip the balance in many marginal central-belt seats. Alternatively and perhaps more worryingly for Labour, if these voters are staying loyal, perhaps it is floating voters who don’t necessarily want independence, that are now looking for an SNP government.

Neither group looks like particularly fertile ground for Labour’s current nat-bashing strategy, described by one party stalwart at the weekend as being ‘The worst campaign I have been involved in for over 20 years”. While I’d never underestimate the power of the Labour establishment in Scotland to pull out the stops for the party, even that might not be enough to save them this time.

The SNP deserves a chance to show what it can do in office. I hope these figures can be taken as a sign that it might be about to happen.

Another Competition

After yesterday's unplanned excitement, it looks like things might be getting underway. My car should be collected tomorrow morning by the garage, and a courtesy car delivered around the same time. Fingers crossed, then.

I've spent a lot of time on the phone this morning, being entertained, if that's the word, by the music they play when you're on hold. And while I was waiting I thought, why not have another competition, this time to find the least appropriate piece of music to play while someone's on hold to their car insurance company?

I can't promise a prize this time, since this could see me a few hundred quid out of pocket for a week or two. However, I will start things rolling with some suggestions of my own. There's 'Crash! Boom! Bang!' by Roxette; 'Hazard' by Richard Marx; and 'Into the Valley' by, ahem, The Skids.

I'm sure there's loads more, and of a higher quality than I've managed. Anyway, the comments section quivers with anticipation...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Call Centre Limbo Beckons...

I had an accident in the car on the way home from Dundee tonight. Nothing serious, no-one injured, but the poor girl in the other car was pretty shaken up by it.

It happened in Perth, on the north side of the river, just before you turn over the bridge to head south. Basically, I was coming up the inside of a queue of traffic, when someone turning right into a side entrance pulled right across in front of me. There was no time to stop and so I went straight into the side of her car at 90 degrees.

Luckily, there were witnesses and since she pulled in front of me without a clear view of what was coming, the insurance claim should be cut and dried. I was going fairly slowly, so no airbags were harmed, although since the crumple zone did its job so efficiently, it did mean that the car limped home looking more like an accordion than anything else.

Anyway, on getting home tonight, I dug out my policy and phoned to set the claim in motion. However, the phone number put me through to a different part of the insurance company, who then transferred me to customer services. They then gave me another number which, you've guessed it, put me straight back through to the first number.

Not really what I wanted to hear, as I'm sure you can imagine. And since they shut in 15 minutes, it hardly seems worth trying to fight through the system tonight. Why do I get the feeling that the rest of the week is just going to end up as one big massive hassle? >:-/

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lazy Sunday - Part I

Some interesting stuff in this morning's Sundays. The Sunday Herald splashes with news that one of Jack McConnell's key election strategists has quit, supposedly after having clashed with senior Labour colleagues over tactics and presentation. Now, regular readers will know that I don't like to intrude into private grief (much), but surely eyebrows will be raised at the quote from the 'senior Labour insider' that “This is the worst campaign I have been involved in for over 20 years”.

Regardless as to whether it's the conflict story which is true or the official line that 'family reasons' are behind his departure, there's one thing of which we can be completely sure: no-one in their right mind would be happy about having such a senior aide quit just a matter of weeks before an election. And just how hacked off would you have to be in your job to walk out and leave your chosen party in the lurch like that?

Next up is the Sunday Times (when are they going to put their Scottish content back on line, BTW?), which carries a story about how Rory Bremner, posing as Gordon Brown, managed to trick Margaret Beckett into making some indiscreet comments over the phone about her cabinet colleagues. The usual disclaimers apply here – shameful intrusion of privacy, sneaky and underhand blah, blah, blah – but I still found it incredibly funny in spite of that. And I have to admit, Beckett's reported response of 'Oh f***' when she found out about the con, hasn't made it any easier for me to regain my composure...

Of more significance are the lead stories on page 2, where Scottish Power, HBOS and the Edrington Group are 'understood to be furious over the [CBI] decision to challenge the SNP over its economic plans'. This refers to a series of 11 questions posed by the CBI, an early draft of which was leaked to the SNP. The SNP responded direct to each CBI council member, but in spite of that, the leadership took the decision to publish the questions anyway, before screeching that the SNP weren't answering the questions and that Alex Salmond was somehow refusing to meet with them.

Leaving aside the sheer mendacity of the CBI leadership tactics and the remarkable similarity in language between the questions and many recent Labour press releases, a better theatrical strop you couldn't have found outside the pantomime season. But will the people be much wiser as a result? I doubt it, somehow.

Thank goodness, then, for Bill Samuel, former senior corporate adviser to the Bank of Scotland and property investor, who not content with rescinding his former anti-home rule views, has made a £25,000 donation to the SNP and written a powerful article on p17 of the ST, where he sets out why he feels independence is the only way to address a falling population and low growth rate. And for good measure, he accuses Labour of having delivered “mediocre, lacklustre management”, while describing Alex Salmond as “a leader of real vision”.

SoS has got hold of a US government memo in which senior political figures spoke prior to the 1999 election of their concerns that the Scots wanted to be independent in the long-term, and that doubts amongst the Scottish voters as to Labour's good intentions meant that the SNP was well placed to do a number on the party. The language is vivid, and all the more striking when you see the people quoted. Go take a read, and compare and contrast with what they said in public at the time!

And finally, Mungo Mackay's diary entry for Friday has a familiar ring to it. Should I ask them for royalties? Or maybe even a job? :-)

Lazy Sunday - Part II

One of my favourite Sunday vices is to head down to Stockbridge, and seek out a cafe in which to spend the afternoon leafing idly through the papers. It's often hit and miss whether I can find somewhere with a seat, but it's been harder than usual today, thanks to the 'unforseen circumstances' which have kept Maison Hector closed.

It's clear that my long-held idler approach to Sunday is becoming increasingly popular in this part of town. And despite the ubiquitous Starbucks and Café Nero, it seems to me that there's plenty more room in the market for coffee and brunch-type places here.

My two favourite shops in Stockbridge when I was a kid were Duncanson's pawn shop (long since moved upmarket to Queen St), and the Stockbridge Bookshop. Sadly, the bookshop is now closed, but it does mean that some excellent window fronted premises are now for let...

Put in a decent coffee machine, some nice seats, tables at a height comfortable enough to read, eat and use a laptop at; install a wi-fi connection, find a decent patissier, learn how to do eggs benedict properly, and I can guarantee you'll be stowed out every weekend. I would if I had the spare cash, but I don't. Are there any business people out there with an urge to have their own little slice of Edinburgh café culture?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Some New Links

I've updated the links section to include some of the blogs and sites which have caught my attention recently.

First for a mention is my former SNP HQ colleague Julie Hepburn, wife of SNP Cumbernauld & Kilsyth Candidate, Jamie. I particularly enjoyed her demolition of the chancers of the SSCUP, but the most interesting thing will be to compare and contrast how the two blog about the run-in to the election and its aftermath.

Next up are Clairwil, Kevin Williamson, The Flying Rodent and Scotswahey!, while 1820 - Rise Like Lions and SNP Tactical Voting are also worth a look.

Finally, I'm adding a link to a new site called You Scotland, which bills itself as being "about the people of 21st-century Scotland taking power for ourselves, reclaiming the Home Rule agenda from a Scottish establishment that has so patently failed".

Sounds promising, although it doesn't seem to be much more than a glorified debating forum at the moment. But am I alone in thinking that the idea there's somehow a mass 'collective will' out there, ignored by politicians, but which can be brought to bear by a website, is really keech of the highest order? It all sounds too much like the fraudulant rhetoric of the 'independent' or the 'anti-politician politician' for my liking. 'Vote for me and I'll consult and then do whatever you want'. Aye, right.

Maybe this is how it needs to pitch itself to get attention from Scotland's web community. However, if it manages to get people thinking about their collective democratic responsibilities as well as getting folk to yell about the hot button issues of the day, those behind You Scotland will deserve the thanks of us all. I wish it well.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Question Time - Have You Seen This Man?

Question Time was enjoyable last night if you are a Nat. Poor George Foulkes was awful, making a fool of himself at one point by accusing the SNP of 'xenophobia' ( S&I passim), just seconds before he slated Alex Salmond for being 'London based'. Oops...

Nicol Stephen started promisingly enough, but he never seems to know when to shut up. In the end, vile self took over to turn in a waffly and forgettable performance. Annabel Goldie started quietly but came into it later, scoring points off of George Foulkes over crime (but did she really mean to say that Independence was 'not a priority'? - wow). Meanwhile, Alex Salmond was effective, winning the audience over early on and, maybe surprisingly in view of the red rag tendencies of wee George, kept the interruptions to a minimum.

But the star for me was Hardeep Singh Kohli. Not for him the usual celeb panellist cop out of regurgitating for each answer some variation on the theme of 'why can't we all be nice to eachother and have the politicians work together?'. He managed to be truculent, impassioned, thoughtful, honest, respectful and funny, often at times in the same sentance. He even got away with responding to the Edinburgh congestion charge debate by declaring 'I'm from Glasgow - I don't care', and lived to tell the tale! A fine performance - well done, sir.

And nice to see someone in the audience point out that McConnell had once more bailed out of a debate with Alex Salmond, leaving an unelected peer in his place. Wee George was left to splutter away about planted questions... rule number one, George - even if it is a planted question, you still answer it gracefully, even if you don't particularly see why on earth you should!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Jack Posted Missing. Again.

Question Time comes tonight from Edinburgh. All the main Scottish party leaders will be there, with the exception of First Minister Jack McConnell. Instead, Labour has decided to send along no-hope list candidate and serial bluster-merchant Lord George Foulkes.

Notoriously, Have I Got News for You, on being stood up once by Roy Hattersley, replaced him on the panel with a tub of lard. Maybe the Question Time team should have considered, oh, hang on a minute…

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reid All About It

It's been announced today that the cost of the Scottish Parliament building has been finalised at £414m - £16m down on the most recent estimate of £430m. It might not be much, and it's still a far cry from the ridiculous £40m we were promised at first by Donald Dewar. Nonetheless, it's a piece of good news from a project which had threatened to become a millstone round the neck of self-government.

In many ways, the Holyrood project held up a mirror to Scotland, and truth be told, I'm not sure anyone liked much what was reflected back. It became a byword for waste, incompetence and mismanagement. Everything about it, from the cosy cronyism in the choice of architect and site; the indecent haste to begin Dewar's vanity project; to the inept political and administrative scrutiny of the project itself; emphasied all that was rotten about the 'old Scotland' and everything that a Scottish Parliament was supposed to change.

Let's be brutally honest - in the aftermath of the 1999 referendum, Scotland was served badly by her politicians. Too many MSPs of all parties, at key points where some sanity could have been restored to the Holyrood project, decided to press on with nary a pause for thought. The mindless happy-clappiness of 'New millennium, new Scotland, new parliament, new building' was allowed to steamroller over those who recognised a stitch-up when they saw one, and who were rightly sceptical that you could get the promised building for anything like the sums being bandied about.

This mattered. In a trice, the grass-roots home-rule project had been snatched away from those that had supported and nurtured it through its darkest days. Home rule now belonged to the new cadre of politicians rather than to the people who had marched, delivered the leaflets and turned out to vote in their droves for the new institition. It represented something of a minor betrayal of people's early hopes - whatever they had been voting for, it hadn't been for this.

And how the antis all laughed. The cretinous reportage of Martin Clarke's Daily Record and of Andrew Neil’s Scotsman may have said more about their own atavistic hostility to home rule than anything else. However, the speed at which previously strong voices for devolution turned against was surprising, even by the 'expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed' mentality of the Scots.

But there’s no point crying over spilt milk. This final cost reduction is a minor triumph for Presiding Officer George Reid. When he became Presiding Officer, he set the parliament a target of 'moving in, and moving on'. Given the thankless task of trying to land what had become a jumbo-jet already in freefall, he took the controls and managed to bring things back under as much of a semblance of control as it was possible to achieve by that stage.

As someone who had grappled with Ethiopian warlords during the 1984 famine in his time with the Red Cross, dealing with the notoriously litigious construction industry and the more unreconstructed elements of the Scottish press would have been a bit of light relief in comparison. Heads were banged together, and even hardened construction veterans cried foul as timetables were cut and their acute awareness of costs was finally reciprocated by the client.

Well, we moved in a long time ago, and I think that even if we haven't entirely forgotten, we've at least managed to move on. As a Holyrood sceptic from the outset, I have to say that it is growing on me, even if the working space and some of the IT facilities leave much to be desired. And even at £414m, it still came in at a lower cost than the Millenium Dome, or the new Wembley Stadium.

Maybe it did the Scots no harm to realise that with the wrong people in charge, we were every bit as capable of governing ourselves badly as was Westminster. But there is another, less well-known aspect to this story.

Perhaps predictably, back in 1999 the devol-unionist establishment wanted David Steel as the parliament’s first Presiding Officer. What is less well known is that it took a personal intervention from Donald Dewar before Labour backbenchers would even back Reid as a Deputy Presiding Officer, such was their desire to vote with the Lib Dems and the Tories so that the hated nats could somehow be dished.

For me, Dewar's fair-mindedness aside, that little vignette sums up all that is worst about the petty tribalism in Scottish civic society. For make no mistake, Reid is someone who could have done so much more for his country, but too often was held back for being honest enough to wear his support for independence on his sleeve.

From the outset, Holyrood needed a Presiding Officer of Reid’s calibre, who could be both a silky diplomat in public and a hard-nosed little bastard in private. Eventually, we got him, and Scotland owes him a debt of gratitude for restoring some sanity to Holyrood, and for allowing us to start talking about the political issues which should have been detaining our MSPs from the outset.

In having to resign his party membership to take up the post, I’m pleased to say that the SNP’s loss was Holyrood's, and Scotland’s, eventual gain. For that reason, no matter who governs Scotland post-May, I hope a suitable future role can be found for him. It would be criminal if someone with his experience, international contacts and record of service couldn’t continue to serve Scotland in some capacity.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mission Impossible

It seemed like Mission Impossible, but I think I may have found a blogger who's views on the SNP make those of Cllr. Terry Kelly look nuanced and insightful. Take a bow, then, Lib Dem blogger James Graham, for your attempted defence of Jamie Stone's ridiculous 'xenophobe' comments.

Quoth the bold Graham:

"The bottom line is, nationalism is an extremely ugly thing, whether it is Cornish Nationalists “confiscating” English Heritage signs or Scottish Nationalists chucking faeces through English people’s letterboxes. Alex Salmond may like to pretend that nationalism has an “acceptable” face, but it’s fundamental features are a belief that your ‘people’ are both superior to another group and permanent victims at the same time".

I should warn you that it deteriorates considerably from here, with circular arguments and sweeping generalisations that seeking independence = nationalism = xenophobia = anti-Englishness. And the 'when did you stop beating your wife' approach to my growing incredulity towards the end of our exchange, as well as the advice to politicians to never apologise, has to be seen to be believed.

The silence from other Lib Dem bloggers suggests that anyone taking an interest has probably decided that discretion is the better part of valour. This tallies with George Lyon MSP on Newsnight Scotland last night, who while not apologising, at least had the decency to distance himself clearly from Stone on the issue. Anyway, strap yourself in, point your browser here, and admire the cynicism and simplicity, if not the quality, of this man's thought.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Nicol Stephen - the Arsene Wenger of Scottish Politics?

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen makes much of his party's 'positive' approach to politics, and of how the Lib Dems eschew the name calling and dirty tricks of all the other nasty parties. Now, anyone who's ever had any kind of involvement in politics, be they Labour, Tory or SNP, knows perfectly well that this claim is a load of pious, hypocritical nonsense. However, his party is cynical enough to play on the fact that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. And up until now, it has tended to work fairly well for them.

How unfortunate, then, that following what was by all accounts a well-received speech by Stephen to his party's conference in Aviemore, Lib Dem MSP Jamie Stone decided to prove the adage that it's better to stay quiet and be thought a fool than it is to open your mouth and remove all doubt. For in commenting on his leader's speech, in trying to take a pop at the SNP, he elected to scrape the bottom of the barrel by calling the party 'xenophbic'.

Accusing the SNP of xenophobia, or anti-Englishness, is usually the last refuge of a thick unionist who is losing the argument. However, the tendency to cock a snook or blame every misfortune on our English neighbours has a long and undistinguished history amongst all our politicians. Ian Lang, for instance, once ranted about the 'bloody English' when the government of which he was a member handed the refit work for Trident submarines to Devonport instead of Rosyth. And who could forget the outcry caused by Jack McConnell's ill-judged 'anyone but England' stance at last year's World Cup?

For the 'nice' party, we need only go back to 2002 when Ross Finnie, at a CBI function, was overheard referring to then Director General Digby Jones as an 'English Prat'. It wasn't big and it wasn't clever, but a fulsome and immediate apology from Mr Finnie was enough to save his career. That, along with the fact that he is generally well-liked helped him enormously, with even opponents realising that while his chosen adjective was as offensive as the outburst was out of character, it was difficult to fault the accuracy of his choice of noun.

Perhaps predictably, the SNP has cut up rough. But they are absolutely right to do so. This sort of language only cheapens debate and as Alex Salmond rightly points out, how can he be expected to sit round a cabinet table with someone who considers both him and the party he leads to be xenophobic?

Now, Jamie Stone is an obscure irritant, and in many ways a complete distraction from the fuss he has caused. He is regarded widely in Holyrood as a buffoon, being better known for his myriad references in debate to the family cheese factory than for any conspicuous political ability. While today's pitiful explanation of his comments falls well short of the apology required, it's probably only to be expected. What matters more is the deafening silence from his leader, Nicol Stephen.

This is a real test of leadership for Stephen. If he wants to show the statesman-like qualities that might get people to stop laughing when his cheerleaders talk him up as a future FM, he needs to distance both himself and his party from Stone's remarks and do so quickly. Then he needs to get Stone to apologise unreservedly for a set of remarks which were grubby, puerile, imbecilic and plain wrong.

So far, it doesn't look good. The Arsene Wenger defence of 'I cannot comment because I did not see the incident', barely cuts it in a Premiership post-match interview - using the same tactic here is a spineless cop-out from someone aspiring to political leadership of their nation. The longer he stays silent, the more it will look like he condones Stone's intemperate idiocy.

Scottish voters are entitled to know before they cast their votes whether Stephen shares his colleague's view of the SNP. It's not overstating the case to say that how Stephen handles this over the next few days could determine whether his party remains in office post-May. As things stand, if the SNP emerge as the lead party after the elections, the temptation to try and find a means of keeping the Lib Dems out of government might prove overwhelming.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Lib Dems Show Their True Colours

Best comment on Menzies Campbell's soporific address this afternoon to the Lib Dem conference comes from Douglas Fraser of The Herald:

'It wasn't so much a standing ovation as delegates getting up to stretch their legs'.


Spot the Difference...

3 October 2006: 'We reject the bitter battles and name calling of the other major parties. While the other parties fight each other, we will fight for Scotland' - Nicol Stephen MSP

16 Februay 2007: 'The Liberal Democrats will mount an attack on their Holyrood election rivals as the party's Scottish conference gets under way' - BBC News

Pot, kettle, black, anyone?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

AYE! fower

Sit back, relax and enjoy - saves me typing it out!

Politics Endures a Bleak Midwinter

There's been yet another kerfuffle over the past week regarding the economics of independence. This time, The Scotsman dragged out Professor Arthur Midwinter, an academic with well-known unionist sympathies, to accuse the SNP of fiddling the numbers on Scotland's fiscal position.

However, in a rare outbreak of fair-mindedness, the SNP got a right of reply in Monday's paper, the content of which seems to have got right up Arthur Midwinter's nose. Good - he's been quick enough in the past to dish out political barbs disguised as objective analysis, so to see his petulant reaction to having had shoddy assertions dismantled so comprehensively, was very satisfying indeed.

Anyway, you can probably imagine my delight to see a letter in today's paper from Professor Neil Kay, economist of this parish and briefly a tutor of mine at EBS. Prof. Kay has the rare gift of being able to take even the most complicated of subjects and cut out the crap, distill what's left down to its essence and explain the results in plain English. On this occasion, he doesn't disappoint...

'I am rather bemused by the coverage in The Scotsman and other newspapers describing Professor Arthur Midwinter as an "economist" and leading "expert", who has debunked the economic case for an independent Scotland. My understanding is that Prof Midwinter has a background in political science, indeed is a former professor of politics and a specialist in local government finance.

'It is, therefore, perhaps a step too far to saddle him with the label "economist", let alone describe him as an "expert" in the field. And, in fairness, I cannot recall him ever describing himself as an economist.

'If it is wished to have a mature debate on the economics of independence, I would sooner put weight on the opinion of Professor David Simpson, a qualified and highly experienced economist of the highest calibre, who cogently argued the economic case for independence in another newspaper this week. For what it is worth, I am pleased to second Professor Simpson's opinion that the economic arguments favour independence for Scotland.

'If we are taking a tally of professional economists' opinion, so far that makes two for and none against'.

(PROF) NEIL KAY, Department of Economics, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

Ouch... but if we're in the business of keeping score, then the numbers for independence are even better than Prof. Kay suggests. Perhaps this is something reflected by the decidedly lukewarm response given to Gordon Brown, as he attempted to drum up opposition to the SNP at a clandestine CBI meeting in Edinburgh a fortnight ago.

Anyway, it seems that on the economics of Independence, the last unionist bolt has probably been shot. Maybe that means we can replace the fatuous argument about whether Scotland could be independent, with the far more important debate about whether she should be independent. Bring it on!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Road Pricing - It's All Our Fault

On the two days a week that work takes me to Dundee, I often think that I must have one of the nicest commutes anywhere. I start by leaving my house and looking out over the Forth from Portobello Beach, before setting off through a UNESCO World Heritage Site on my way to the sweeping span of the Forth Road Bridge.

Looking right as I cross the Forth, I have the magnificent Rail Bridge and to my left, the Zeebrugge ferry. Then begins the long climb from North Queensferry, passing Loch Leven and the Lomond Hills, through Glenfarg and over Balmanno Hill, where the carse opens up below. From there, it's a fast, downhill bit of motorway across the River Earn towards Perth.

On a clear morning, the sun glints off the bare rock face of Kinnoul Hill and as you head over the Friarton Bridge, there's often just a little bit of mist hanging over the Tay hundreds of feet below. And from there, it's a 20-minute thrash along the side of the Tay and through some of the most fertile land in Europe until I reach the office, just off the Kingsway in the north of the city.

I suspect if I had to do it every day, the novelty would soon wear off. And being honest, despite the views, it is a bit of a trek, taking as long to get from my flat to the Forth Bridge as it does to get from there to Dundee. It was for that reason that a few months ago, in a fit of self-righteous middle-class greenery, I sat down and worked out how much it would cost me if I were to dump the car and take the train instead.

The results were surprising. In the course of my research, I found that the Edinburgh-Dundee route is about the only one operated by First Scotrail where you can't buy discounted tickets in advance. Since a season ticket would be no use to me, that would have meant buying a full-price ticket for each journey at nearly £20.

In fact, the only difference in cost between the two modes of travel was the annual depreciation on my car, for which I got in return the convenience of four wheels for the remainder of the week. But then came the time factor - the choice between spending 3 hours of my day in a car, or nearer 5 hours door-to-door on public transport. It was, in the end, a complete no-brainer.

Now, I don't think anyone could reasonably claim that the cost of motoring is too low. I pay £150 road tax each year, a 75% rate of tax on the fuel which goes in my tank, a tax on my compulsory insurance premium and at least one bridge toll (two if I come back by the Tay Bridge). Yet in spite of all that, the public transport option still ended up dearer. From that, the only conclusion you can draw is that the cost of public transport is simply far too high.

Trust Labour, then, not to come up with a way to improve our railways, but instead to come forward with their own gimcrack road pricing scheme, designed to clobber commuters like me. The scheme, we are told, would involve a 'black box' being fitted to every car, which would then feed back information to the authorities on where you were, where you'd been, how long you'd been there and how fast you'd been going in between times.

Environmental and economic concerns aside, just stop for a minute and consider the enormity of what this would entail. It means that the government and their employees, whom you may or may not trust to use such information benignly, would be able to track your every move around the country, and no doubt in time would be able to send out automated speeding tickets if it looked like you'd been making better progress than you perhaps should have been.

If this went ahead, it would represent a monsterous intrusion into our daily lives, which probably goes some way towards explaining why the e-petition lodged at Downing St against road pricing now has well over 1 million signatures. But according to my favourite New Labour cyborg on Radio 4 this morning, although it's great that so many ordinary members of the public are engaging with the political process in this way, there's been so much disinformation about the government plans that those taking part don't really understand what they are voting against! And once we have been properly informed and had a balanced debate, he's confident that the government plans will enjoy widespread support!

Move over Hazel Blears and Patricia Hewitt - learn at the feet of a graduate egregia cum laude from New Labour's Ministry of Truth.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Trouble Over Bridged Waters

At the moment, I've got an ear on the debate currently taking place in the Holyrood chamber on whether to abolish tolls on the Forth and Tay Bridges. Although I missed the start, my standout moment of the last hour has been Labour MSP Scott Barrie announcing that he's resigned as a Labour whip so that he can vote for abolition.

Good for him. However, it's a bit dispiriting to hear the likes of Iain Smith and Helen Eadie slam the SNP for being dastardly enough to agree with them that tolls should go. How dare the SNP put forward yet another motion to that effect? Shame on them! It might force us to put our votes in parliament where our mouths are at election time!

The Green argument against removing tolls seems bizarre in the extreme. They cite a FETA (if you're Mark Ruskell in the chamber)/Scottish Executive (if you're Mark Ballard on GMS this morning) report, claiming that the abolition of tolls would lead to a 20% increase in congestion.

Ah, yes... I can see how that scenario plays out. All these commuters sitting on the bus and the train thinking to themselves of a morning: 'You know, this public transport lark is all very well, but if only it cost £1 less for me to drive back from Edinburgh/80p less to get back from Dundee, that's what I'd do instead'. I wonder if I asked them nicely, whether they'd be kind enough to bag some of that up for my mum's rose bushes?

Anyway, the vote looks quite tight at the moment. The suspicion is that Fife Labour MSPs had been given special dispensation to vote against the Executive motion, on the grounds that the Green MSPs would support the Executive in their place. However, Mark Ballard refused to say on GMS whether the Greens would in fact support the Executive. I'll let you know if I hear any squeals of pain coming from the Labour corridors between now and 5pm...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Champagne Supernova

I had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow blogger Mr Eugenides last night for a couple of pints. The occasion, in as much as it could be described as such, was to hand over his winnings from the 'Song for Jack' contest.

The prize, on this occasion a bottle of champagne, was one I think I'd picked up as a 'thank you' from a gig I played at a few months ago. However, I'm not really a fan of the stuff, so I was glad to be able to give it away to someone who might appreciate it more than me (Don't worry Will - I can do non-alcoholic prizes too if the occasion arises!)

I think my general aversion to champagne dates back to the night of the 1997 election. Going into that election, there were 10 Tory MPs left in Scotland, and the SNP was defending the then Perth and Kinross seat which Roseanna Cunningham had won in a by-election. Myself and my pal Russell, both of us then students at Stirling Uni, decided to get 11 bottles of the stuff on 'sale or return' from Victoria Wine in Bridge of Allan, the idea being that we'd crack a bottle open for every Tory who lost his seat, and open the last one if Roseanna held P&K.

Well, at the beginning of the SNP party in the function suite of the Salutation Hotel in Perth, we thought we'd be opening about 5 or 6 tops, hence the 'sale or return' deal. Then Jim Murphy won Eastwood for Labour and our group went through the following roller-coaster of emotions in the space of about 15 seconds: 'Great! It's a wipe-out! Aw naw, Jim Murphy's an MP! Oh Jeez - we're going to have to drink all that bloody champagne...' The rest, as they say, is history.

And so, dear reader, this is how about half a dozen of the Federation of Student Nationalists' finest were to be found guzzling champagne on Perth's South Inch from about 4 in the morning until the sun came up. Since we'd already had a skinfull in the hotel, it didn't take long before we were incapable of swallowing any more booze - and so started the chamapgne fights with the bottles we had left...

It was great fun, though allied to the pints of 80/- I'd been skulling earlier it left me with possibly the worst hangover I've ever had in my life, and it wasn't exactly great for the bank balance, either. But you have to do these things when you're a student. I have happy memories of behaving like an eejit that night - and just think of the money I've saved by drinking lager instead of champagne since then!

More in sorrow etc...

As that great philosopher of our times, Calvin, once said to his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, 'Every day, I'm forced to add another name to the list of people who piss me off'. With regret, I've come to the conclusion that if I kept a similar list, I'd now be about to add Observer columnist Ruaridh Nicoll to it.

I've mentioned before that The Observer 'In Scotland' is possibly my least favourite Sunday read - that oh-so-patronising 'In Scotland' bit allied to its preachy London-centric bias sees quite admirably to that. Nonetheless, on the surface of things, there's no reason why such an apparently mild-mannered guy as Nicoll should provoke such a strong reaction in me.

After all, reading his columns, Nicoll comes across as thoroughly intelligent, articulate, insightful and cultured. He might not share my politics, but then as a wee look at the links down the right-hand side of this blog show, I read and enjoy the work of quite a few people whose views seldom accord with my own. No, what gets my goat is the way Nicoll chooses to write about politics - leaving us room to imagine that he's being even handed and fair, before dropping in the odd nugget of illogical prejudice which he fails to support with any kind of preceding argument.

For reasons best known to himself, as a self-proclaimed admirer of Gordon Brown, Nicoll seems to have little difficulty in writing columns which are broadly supportive of SNP standpoints. Yet despite this, he still finds himself able to try and belittle the party with lazy 'Braveheart' clichés and sly innuendoes about Anglophobia.

Both of these charges are ludicrously easy to brush off. However, what annoys me about these jibes is that they are, or should be, the preserve of the one or two cartoon Labour councillors we all know and loathe, who lack the intelligence to do anything other than sling mud at their opponents. Nicoll is so obviously better than this, yet more often than not fails to make any kind of constructive critique of the SNP.

According to Nicoll in one piece where he ventured up to the North East of Scotland, he found an 'unsettling bleakness' in the bars, where there took place "fiercely, intimidatingly nationalist" conversations. Well, he wouldn't be the first traveller in history to long for the refinements of home, as they squint up nervously from maps still marked with 'here be dragons'. But before we let him claim the moral high ground, here's an interview he gave the Evening News a couple of weeks ago, where he says: 'Like a lot of Scots, I grew up as a nationalist supporter, shaking my fist at England.'

Now put like that, he sounds like the sort of numbskull that any self-respecting SNP-er would cross the street to avoid. But old habits seem to die hard. Like many unionists, he sees no contradiction in biting the hand he claims feeds us by cheering against England during the World Cup, on the grounds “that there's something about the English football team that winds me up”. Yet returning to the EN article, he acknowledges that there is a huge amount of anti-Scottishness in England. “We have really pissed them off”, he says. Hmm... I wonder how that could be?

But then, consistency is the hobgoblin of the tiny minds of others. Witness: "We think that by splitting away from England we will protect ourselves from such follies as Iraq in the future, which is true, but we will have no influence". And there, in one sentence, you have the classic North Brit-left apologia for the UK's post-war foreign policy – ‘it's more important to be in the right gang than it is to do the right thing’.

Maybe I'm being unfair. Perhaps some of Nicoll's best friends are nationalists. But ultimately, what annoys me most is that while he has far more in common with the SNP on most economic, social and cultural issues than with any other party, somehow it is the SNP for which he reserves his harshest and least-justified criticisms.

Whether building from within or throwing a few well-aimed rocks from without, someone of Nicoll 's talents could and should be making a better contribution to the standard of unionist debate in Scotland. Yet for all his descriptions of Scottish Labour as being moribund and dead from the neck up, why do I get the feeling that, more in sorrow than in anger of course, he will magisterially come down on the side of Labour come May, 'cause big Gordy will make it all better'?

It's always sad to see erstwhile progressives end up standing in the way of progress. I do hope that doesn't happen to Ruaridh Nicoll.