Friday, September 28, 2007

The Stocks Were Sold, The Press Was Squared...

Pizza ordered, wine poured, bag packed, speech written, last minute invite to go clubbing accepted (perhaps unwisely) - only problem now is making sure I still catch my train north tomorrow morning, which is stage one in my journey to get to a location, which must remain undisclosed, in plenty of time for Sunday afternoon. Don't miss the next exciting episode of 'Richard tries to get selected as an SNP candidate'... :-)

You Scotland - RIP?

An article due to appear in the Scots Independent:

A couple of weeks ago, a video appeared on YouTube featuring Tommy Sheppard, former Labour apparatchik and owner of 'The Stand' comedy clubs. The film was a request for feedback from the founding fathers of a website called '', asking whether or not they should continue with their venture.

That their video has at the time of writing had only 257 hits and attracted precisely zero viewer comments, is probably all the feedback they need. For that reason, given the underwhelming response, for the rest of this column to make sense, I should probably give an explanation of what YouScotland was supposed to be all about.

YouScotland was to be a grassroots political movement, brought together by the website. Welcoming us to our 'own liberation', the founding statement laid claim to an incredible number of intellectual conceits. Evoking Owen's New Lanark in its desire to be a movement in the 'co-operative tradition', it was about 'taking power for ourselves, and reclaiming the Home Rule agenda from a Scottish establishment that has so patently failed'.

By so doing, it could facilitate a 'second enlightenment', not through the discovery of an individual genius like a Hume or a Hutcheson, but through the 'genius of the joined-up minds of the five million people who live here'. This debate would take place online, with the resultant representing the views of the people, which 'they', whoever 'they' might be, would then have to take heed of.

The aforementioned Sheppard, together with ex-STV producer Alan Smart, were two of the faces behind it. Both are highly successful individuals, who have made a huge contribution to Scotland's political and cultural life. However, to me, the whole venture came across as carrying much of the fraudulent rhetoric of the 'anti-politician politician'. Fundamentally, despite the name-checks and nods to new technologies, there was a misunderstanding at the core of the project as to the nature of the emerging web 2.0 and those using it to make themselves heard.

At the heart of the founding statement, there was a dumbed-down 'buzzword bingo' list of aims and objectives, where more debate, democracy and education were deemed good things, and bureaucracy, injustice, war and prejudice were all bad things. The subtext seemed to be 'you decide, but only within the parameters we've already set'. No amount of hijacking the language of a decentralised grass roots movement could disguise the prescriptive nature of the project.

It reeked of collectivism, which was perhaps unsurprising given the Scottish Labour Action pedigree of those behind it – whom some of my thirty-something generation might see as being indistinguishable from the failed home rule establishment which YouScotland so excoriated. With its top down approach, bombastic founding statement and 'steering committee', it's tempting to conclude that the concept was itself almost as 1980's as the political histories of those behind it.

Anyone taking the time to read the statement was also subjected to a whole load of 'prolier than thou' nonsense about workers' wages and cutting MSP salaries and expenses. But those 'expenses' are what pay for the MSP offices and staff that allow those people, who unlike Smart and Sheppard, lack internet connections or pals in the establishment, to get access to decision makers. Rather than seeking enlightenment, it was redolent of a saloon-bar populism – a manifesto for pub loudmouths everywhere, who's monologues would never coincide long enough for them to ever realise that they were in disagreement.

Maybe this is how they felt they needed to pitch themselves to get attention. However, it never seemed to engage, failing conspicuously to link to other sources, whether in opposition or agreement. In the end, it tried to do lots of things and did none of them very well, while others did the job better, without panhandling for donations.

Should we mourn YouScotland's demise? In my view, no. Should the founders be unhappy? Again, in my view, no. They wanted political change and got it. They also gave us some of the best moments of the campaign, with their 'Labour Pie' and 'Best Wee Numpty in The World' virals. They wanted a decentralised movement for change, which came together for May's elections. And in the aftermath, the National Conversation on Scotland's future is now underway, which again is decentralised and enjoys good participation rates.

What the web has helped create and sustain in Scotland over the past few years is an anti-elitist movement, where there's little respect for past reputations and where credibility has to be earned. In the end, faced with a clunky website, those Scots who were paying the slightest attention simply gave a collective yawn, then just got on doing it all for themselves. It may not be much of a comfort right now, but perhaps most of YouScotland's work was already underway before the site even launched.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Defending Free Speech - Update

'Bloggerheads' is back. Click on the link to keep tabs...

That Gordon Brown Speech In Full...


"I believe in Britain. I believe in a Britain of British people. British people, who are proud to be British, and who are proud to live beside other Britons, in this Great British country of ours.

"My Britain is a Britain where British people have British jobs. Where they live in British homes. And where these British people have British children, whom they bring up to be British, and to feel a shared responsibility for their fellow Britons.

"When I was young, I remember sitting on my British backside on the pews of a British church, listening to the British sermons about how we should be proud to be British. It gave me a sense of humility - British humility. A British humility with which I approach each and every situation, each and every British situation, that I encounter as your British Prime Minister of this Great British country of ours.

"That, fellow delegates - fellow British delegates - is my vision. My British vision, of a British people, proud to be British, and proud to live in a British Britain. A British Britain, for British people".

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Trouble At T'Mill

I posted earlier in the week about the respective performances on Thursday of Wendy Alexander and Menzies Campbell, where I was fairly kind about Wendy and pretty scathing about Campbell. For the sake of a snappy headline, though, I suggested that this might have been Campbell's last outing as Lib Dem leader, something which seems to have raised at least one set of eyebrows - in retrospect, quite rightly as well.

My reaction to Campbell's speech has been pretty much at odds with the rest of the world, which was either rabidly favourable (most Lib Dems); gave the benefit of the doubt (the MSM); or completely ignored it (everyone else) - but such is life. Of course, the Lib Dems would never be so daft as to ditch a leader when everyone suspects an election only weeks or months away. However, there is still dissent there. I still reckon that if we do have an autumn or spring election, providing either Chris Hune or Nick Clegg holds their seat and is in a position to challenge, we've almost certainly seen Campbell deliver his last conference speech as Lib Dem leader.

One thing which I didn't forsee was the hebdomas horribilus which was about to befall Wendy Alexander. In common with some others, I actually thought her delivery at FMQs was OK, even if the topic she chose and the 'facts' behind it were somewhat off-beam. I even resisted the temptation to intrude on private grief when the ludicrous George Foulkes slated her newly appointed Head of Communications, Brian Lironi, as "an idiot", and said of former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish that he was a "strange guy" who should "shut up".

But then, I really didn't need to, since there are plenty others around to do that. According to a 'senior Labour source' in today's Sunday Mirror: "Foulkes is a self-important buffoon fast becoming a liability in Scotland", who "seems to think he is licensed to shoot his mouth off at every opportunity regardless of consequences".

"He could be got rid of without a by-election and it could be portrayed as him having to go back to London because of his terror work in Lords. But the reality would be that the party wanted rid of him quick."

Now, Henry Mcleish can look after himself, but Wendy had a duty to slap Foulkes down for his attack on a party employee. She ducked that responsibility, and Lironi has apparently gone off sick. For what it's worth, I've been a party official myself, which is why I sympathise. If someone attacks you, professional etiquette demands that you maintain a diplomatic silence and rely on others to stand up for you - if that doesn't happen, then you might as well pack your bags, which according to the Sunday Herald's Paul Hutcheon and Scotland on Sunday's Eddie Barnes, he plans to do this week, after just two months in post.

But the problems don't end there. According to the same Sunday Herald piece, Labour MSPs are now complaining that she is shutting herself away with a wee clique of advisers. One Labour MSP commented: "Wendy's had a disastrous first week in charge. The party's more split than I can remember, while another weighed in with "Wendy said she'd changed. She said motherhood and marriage had made her a more sympathetic person. That's bollocks."

That sort of discontent and bile usually takes months, if not years to build up. Much was made about the inability of the left to mount a challenge to her, but in an economically, politically and socially conservative movement like the Labour Party, that really shouldn't have been a surprise. Never mind the standard posturing that emanates from the 'Campaign for Socialism' every so often - my suspicion is that these dissenting voices come from the moderate mainstream of Labour - the constituency which was supposed to be happiest with Wendy's elevation.

As I said, I've been wrong a couple of times this week. However, if I'm right and these dissatisfied voices are those in the mainstream who lacked the courage to mount a challenge when they had the chance, wouldn't that represent the most most dangerous political cocktail of the lot?

Friday, September 21, 2007

“Bring Back The Special One”

No, not a eulogy for Jose Mourinho – more a contemplation on how silent our football grounds would be if those multi-purpose tunes which lend themselves so well to terracing improvisation - ‘Cwm Rhondda’, 'Knees Up Mother Brown', ‘La Donna è Mobile’ and ‘Guantanamera’ - had never been written.

Would it really be the case that 'you're not singing any more'? Admittedly, that might be no loss if, when it comes to singing, 'you're not very good', but then, you wouldn't be able to exhort anyone to 'bring back my stereo' either. On the plus side, with Guantanamera out of the way, no-one would any longer be questioning the preferences of Aberdeen supporters like myself...

Defending Free Speech

This is outrageous. Two bloggers, Tim Ireland and Craig Murray, our former man in Uzbekistan, have had their sites pulled by their webhost. Their 'crime'? Penning unfavourable articles concerning Uzbek oligarch and major Arsenal FC shareholder, Alisher Usmanov, to which he, via his lawyers, has taken exception.

It's not just Ireland and Murray who have fallen victim to Mr Usmanov's legal sabre-rattling. Both Bob Piper and Boris Johnson have had the warty hands of m'learned friends clapped over their mouths too - not for commenting on Mr Usmanov, but simply because they share the same webhost which has been taken down!

Why should we care? Well, as Iain Dale says, if it's happened to them, it could happen to anyone. This censorship is absolutely deplorable, and while I won't bore you with my tuppence-worth on Usmanov, I do invite you to read the thoughts of the excellent Mr Eugenides and those to whom he has linked, who collectively have said everything that I could possibly want to say on this matter for the moment.

Free speech is precious. Too precious to be muffled by the chequebooks of the wealthy, whenever the little people like us say something they don't like.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A First, And Perhaps A Last Outing As Leader

Some thoughts on Wendy Alexander's first appearance at FMQ's:

Not a bad performance, even though it was somewhat scripted and she was clearly a little nervous. Concentrating on abstruse points of detail is fine in small doses, but in devoting all her questions to the government central heating programme, she needed to explain why it was so wrong for the new government to be trying to 'improve' the scheme.

That she failed to do, and while her final 'zinger' about spending money on rebranding the Executive as a Government(£100k) and the funds for a broadcasting commission (£500k) was passable, it was still a bit of a damp squib. Contrary to expectations, the First Minister was restrained throughout. It looks like if there's going to be sharp exchanges, they're going to be initiated by Wendy. Alex can do emollience when it's called for - the question is, can Wendy?

Some thoughts on Menzies Campbell's speech to the Lib Dems:

This is dreadful. Utterly unconvincing, he resorted to shaking at one point to try and convey passion. Every joke greeted with nervous laughter, the silky advocate reduced to cringeworthy rhetoric about fighting - it's excruciating to watch.

"I want to be a voice for the disposessed, the marginalised, those whose voices aren't heard". You're addressing them, Menzies, you're addressing them. And the classic: "It doesn't have to be like this". Indeed not - but isn't that what your detractors have been saying for months?

Oh, he's finished. I only noticed because Andrew Neil took the microphone. Piss-poor perorations R us, anyone?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

There's Nothing Like Being Organised...

Another day, another change in plan. The selection meeting for the next seat I'm in for has been postponed for a week, which means that I'm reverting to plan 'A' and am now on the train back to London using the ticket I'd bought earlier. It means returning again next week, of course, but frankly, the thought of living out of a suitcase as a 'guest' in Edinburgh for another week and a half when there's work to be done elsewhere didn't really appeal.

I have to admit, that thought came as a bit of a jolt to someone who considers himself to be an unreconstructed Edinburgher. London doesn't feel like home yet, and if I'm being honest it probably never really will. That said, while staying with my folks' and at friends' houses is all well and good, if you're like me, you still need to get back to somewhere that's 'yours' eventually. It's not so much that you no longer belong, but the feeling of being itinerant in a place where only a short while before you'd been fixed, is a strange one.

All this introspection is fine, but I'm going to try and balance it now with some blatant self-promotion. Iain Dale is in the process of publishing the GUIDE TO POLITICAL BLOGGING 2007, and as a trailer, is announcing various lists of what he and others consider to be the top blogs in their respective categories. In so doing, your gast will no doubt be flabbered to learn that the efforts of yours truly have made it to spot number 5 in the list of the top 20 Scottish Blogs.

All right, there wasn't a popular vote or anything, and the fact that they were chosen by Grant Thoms (who modestly left his own efforts out) means that they should more accurately be termed the 'Top 20 Scottish Blogs which didn't fall into any other category and aren't written by Grant Thoms'. Still, it appeals to my rampant sense of egomania in spite of that, and thanks go to Grant for inclusion. Just so long as he doesn't expect me to return the favour by attending any fringe meetings in Aviemore about windmills ;-)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"And Tonight, Matthew, I'm Going To Be Badly Overdrawn Boy"

In Edinburgh this week as the hunt for a seat continues, which means that my train ticket to travel back south on Wednesday is now surplus to requirements. I estimate that with cancelled flights and unused train tickets etc, I've spent the best part of £500 this month on journeys which I haven't been able to take.

Then there's the postage for writing to SNP members, the phone calls, the hotel rooms and the travelling I have actually undertaken. Oh, and I've also got a big upcoming repair to pay for on my flat in Portobello, and the car needs its first service. My credit card bills are going to be horrific this month - not so much a credit crunch as a payment crunch for me when the bills come in.

Anyway, I've got a meeting tonight with some SNP folk in Edinburgh, then having spent last night on a friend's couch, it'll be back to my folks' place for a couple of nights. It was always my intention to be a Westminster candidate for the SNP this time round, but with the accelerated selection process now underway, it's beginning to look as if my move to London has been very badly timed indeed - I think I've spent more time out in Edinburgh these last 3 months than I did when I lived here!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Quelle frappe! Quelle frappe!

Faddy's goal... with French commentary :-)

Link seems to be dead... try this:

Allez les Blancs!

Jeez - how did this happen?!

European Championship Qualifying : Group B Table
12 September 2007 22:19

7Faroe Islands9009329-260

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lobby Dossing

Sounds like today's lobby briefing was a bit livelier than normal...

The spokesman was asked about Chancellor Alistair Darling's report to the Cabinet. He said the Chancellor made the point that the underlying strength of the UK economy - the policies put in place in 1997, low unemployment, low inflation - meant that the UK could weather international crises.

He was asked if there had been any discussion of the EU Amending Treaty.

He replied, " No."

He was asked if reports were correct that Mr Darling had moved his cat into Downing Street. (There has not been a cat in Downing Street since Mr Blair had Humphrey the Cat removed to a retirement home shortly after moving into Downing Street in 1997).

The spokesman confirmed that the Darlings' black and white cat was living in their Downing Street flat.

What was the cat's name, he was asked. The spokesman replied, " Sybil - as in Basil. I have not seen it myself. "

Would Sybil have 'the run of Downing Street', he was asked.

"I don't have a cat myself but I understand it is difficult to confine a cat," he replied.

Does the Prime Minister have a problem with a cat in Downing Street, he was asked. "No, " he replied.

Did Mrs Brown have a problem, he was asked. " No, " he replied.

Did the Browns know Sybil. The spokesman replied that he thought they had met Sybil while visiting the Darlings in their home in Scotland.

Would he arrange a photo-call with Sybil, he was asked. The spokesman replied. " I am sure the cat will appear at some time."

" At last," said a Lobby correspondent, " a real story."

(Courtesy of Gallery News)

Friday, September 07, 2007

No Time To Buy A New Atlas

Both David Farrer and Davie Hutchison have blogged recently on Belgian politics. I have to admit that I've not really been paying too much attention to what's been happening across the North Sea recently, but this somewhat facetious but none the less precient leader in this week's Economist has helped snap things into sharp relief for me:

A RECENT glance at the Low Countries revealed that, nearly three months after its latest general election, Belgium was still without a new government. It may have acquired one by now. But, if so, will anyone notice? And, if not, will anyone mind? Even the Belgians appear indifferent. And what they think of the government they may well think of the country. If Belgium did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it?

Such questions could be asked of many countries. Belgium's problem, if such it is, is that they are being asked by the inhabitants themselves. True, in opinion polls most Belgians say they want to keep the show on the road. But when they vote, as they did on June 10th, they do so along linguistic lines, the French-speaking Walloons in the south for French-speaking parties, the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north for Dutch-speaking parties. The two groups do not get on—hence the inability to form a government. They lead parallel lives, largely in ignorance of each other. They do, however, think they know themselves: when a French-language television programme was interrupted last December with a spoof news flash announcing that the Flemish parliament had declared independence, the king had fled and Belgium had dissolved, it was widely believed.

No wonder. The prime minister designate thinks Belgians have nothing in common except “the king, the football team, some beers”, and he describes their country as an “accident of history”. In truth, it isn't. When it was created in 1831, it served more than one purpose. It relieved its people of various discriminatory practices imposed on them by their Dutch rulers. And it suited Britain and France to have a new, neutral state rather than a source of instability that might, so soon after the Napoleonic wars, set off more turbulence in Europe.

The upshot was neither an unmitigated success nor an unmitigated failure. Belgium industrialised fast; grabbed a large part of Africa and ruled it particularly rapaciously; was itself invaded and occupied by Germany, not once but twice; and then cleverly secured the headquarters of what is now the European Union. Along the way it produced Magritte, Simenon, Tintin, the saxophone and a lot of chocolate. Also frites. No doubt more good things can come out of the swathe of territory once occupied by a tribe known to the Romans as the Belgae. For that, though, they do not need Belgium: they can emerge just as readily from two or three new mini-states, or perhaps from an enlarged France and Netherlands.

Brussels can devote itself to becoming the bureaucratic capital of Europe. It no longer enjoys the heady atmosphere of liberty that swirled outside its opera house in 1830, intoxicating the demonstrators whose protests set the Belgians on the road to independence. The air today is more fetid. With freedom now taken for granted, the old animosities are ill suppressed. Rancour is ever-present and the country has become a freak of nature, a state in which power is so devolved that government is an abhorred vacuum. In short, Belgium has served its purpose. A praline divorce is in order.

Belgians need not feel too sad. Countries come and go. And perhaps a way can be found to keep the king, if he is still wanted. Since he has never had a country—he has always just been king of the Belgians—he will not miss Belgium. Maybe he can rule a new-old country called Gaul. But king of the Gauloises doesn't sound quite right, does it?

So, to recap: If [it] did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it... The upshot was neither an unmitigated success nor an unmitigated failure... It has served its purpose... Countries come and go...

Indeed they do. Sound like anywhere a wee bit closer to home?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Well Oiled

I've been rattling around the North East for the last few days, attending SNP meetings in pursuit of a constituency to fight. With the deadline for selecting candidates now less than a fortnight away, it's left SNP members with much less time than they could otherwise have expected to make their choice. With that in mind, I've taken the risk of putting myself about so that people can see what, for good or ill, they might be getting if they vote for me :-)

So far, the itinerary has seen me in Banff, Portsoy and at a BBQ south of Fraserburgh, not far from where my grandparents have their farm. Today, since I had some time on my hands, I made a visit to Bruce Miller in Aberdeen. If you're into books, CDs, DVDs, great big TVs, drinking coffee and ogling musical instruments (guilty on all counts, m'lud), this must be the about the closest thing in the world to music/gadget heaven.

I'm pretty lucky to be in a hotel tonight, since just about everywhere is booked up for the Offshore Europe event in Aberdeen. It hit the headlines today with Scotland Office Minister of State, David Cairns, launching a pre-emptive strike on the SNP's plans to open up discussions on the transfer of North Sea Oil to the jurisdiction of the Scottish Parliament.

"The interests of both Scotland and the UK are best served through continued economic union and the benefits which accompany a UK-wide approach", says Cairns.
"Our thinking on this issue is therefore unequivocal - introducing needless uncertainty into an £11bn industry which supports half a million jobs is not an option for the UK Government."

That's us telt, then. Well, except it's not. Stability seems to be at a premium in an industry which seems to have a new minister appointed every year, and which is the first to be raided for supplementary taxes every time Gordon Brown's forecasts are out. And as a spokesperson for the First Minister put it in today's Press and Journal, he's "not going to be put off by the knee-jerk negativity of the junior minister from the Scotland Office" with "nothing new" to say about Government policy for which he has no responsibility.

8... 9... 10... ding ding! In fairness to David Cairns, though, putting up a former priest against a former oil economist on the subject of, er, oil economics, was always going to make for a mismatched contest. But with his maladroit intervention, Cairns has perhaps unwittingly blown the gaff on at least one aspect of Wendy Alexander's mission to 'reconnect' with voters.

As part of her bid to dispel Labour's image of rampant negativity, Ms Alexander has said she wants to "strengthen the financial accountability" of politicians, indicating in the process that she supports the transfer of new financial powers to the Scottish Parliament. So far, so good. But given the large role played by North Sea Revenues in Scotland's economy (£11bn this year alone), how exactly can you have any kind of meaningful fiscal autonomy, unless you also repatriate the revenues and relevant tax powers to Edinburgh?

So, who's got the upper hand in Labour on this one? Wendy, or Westminster? Or is it all just a big scam by Wendy, who after an appropriate period of time will announce that after some suitably weighty consideration, fiscal autonomy is just a distraction from the 'real issues' that those much fabled 'people on the doorstep' will have been telling her all about?

Maybe I've got it all wrong, and she is genuine about this. Somehow I doubt it, but if so, perhaps she just needs to stand, not so much on a doorstep as on a few well connected feet, if she's to stand a chance of getting her Westminster colleagues to pay attention.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Pour Encourager les Autres

Wendy Alexander is interviewed in the Times today, where she takes to task those south of the border who complain about the Scots for our cheek in having a parliament of our own. (Incidentally, the first two readers' comments at the end of the article really do seem to come from the shallow end of the gene pool). Sadly, in discussing matters financial, she does nothing to dispel the 'subsidy' argument, relying instead on the falsehood that London alone bails out the rest of the UK.

Actually, Wendy, that's not true, and I suspect that the South East and East of England might have something to say about that as well as the Scots. But then, I suppose its too much to expect you to make the case that 'Scotland more than pays her way in the union, and here's why she should continue to do so'. After all, that would mean making a positive argument for the union. It would also mean dumping the Holy Trinity of Labour's dependency culture that we're all too wee, too poor and too stupid. Nah, it would never catch on...

Anyway, what caught really my eye was this, new-ish argument against independence, when she declares that:

“The bigger issue is what signal it would send to the rest of the world if we [the English and the Scots] said we could not live together.”

Let's leave aside the outdated rhetoric about 'not being able to live together' (eh?) and consider what is probably the nub of her point: that Scotland and England should remain bolted to eachother to set an example to the rest of the world. Never mind whether the political structures work; never mind whether the resulting state is effective; never mind if it distorts and skews the resulting power in favour of a narrow and unrepresentative elite; we've got to stick together so that the rest of the world doesn't get nasty ideas about changing the way it is governed.

It really is difficult to know where to start taking apart such a complacent, irrelevant, vapid and historically ignorant statement. I'm tempted to say that the UK sticking together hasn't been a notable restraining factor in any global trouble spots recently, and that an amicable parting of the ways might actually serve as a far more positive example as to how the future should be embraced. However, since time's short, I'll simply pose two questions:

1. Why should shared values and common histories, in as much as they exist, necessitate common statehood?

2. Shouldn't states be ordered for the convenience of the governed, rather than for the convenience of the political elites which they spawn over time?

I had hoped that Wendy Alexander as Labour Leader might elevate the level of debate from her party. So far, it just sounds like the same old mixture of fears, smears and guilt, garnished with some bigger words. Plus ça change...