Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Public Service Announcement

I interrupt this interruption in blogging to bring you a public service announcement. This is for the benefit of the Scottish Labour Party, as they seek some publicity over this slow, festive news period.

Right, here goes. See when the government decides not to ring-fence local council budgets for specific purposes? It doesn't mean there's less money available, or that people care less about the issue concerned. It just means councils now have the freedom to spend the money as they wish subject to some outcome agreements reminding them of their obligations, and to be held accountable for that by the voters at election time. Got that?

No? Ok, then - while the councils might spend more, less or the same as before, the point is they can now decide for themselves what to spend and on what, according to the needs of those they represent. It's exactly the same as telling people it would be good for them to spend more of their income on fruit and veg, but without feeling the need to ring-fence their money to make sure that they do, then making them buy more sprouts and spinach when what they really want is more oranges and carrots, or even the odd bar of chocolate. Treating people like adults rather than children, in other words.

That is all. I just hope I haven't given them any ideas with the bit about the ring-fencing of people's own income.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Homeward Bound

The Christmas rush to get out of London is in full swing, not helped by a number of flights out of Gatwick being cancelled last night due to the fog.

I'd taken care of my plans last week by booking a train ticket, or so I thought. After getting zero joy from the self-serve ticket machine at King's Cross, I was then informed by a harassed, if civil, member of National Express staff that there was no reservation for me. He could sell me a ticket for travel today for the same price which would let me travel on any train, but there'd be no seat.

So it was that I found myself packed in with twenty-seven others (I counted) in the space between carriages B & C of the 15:00 to Glasgow Central. It did calm down after York, but even so, it's not going to rank as one of the more pleasant journeys I've ever made. Still, only half an hour to go now.

Honourable mentions? An apology to the Geordie guy squeezed in next to me who lost some of his beer when I lost my balance at one point after Doncaster. To everyone who had to stand upright like that for over two hours for never once complaining and for staying good-humoured throughout. Also, to National Express, for letting those of us in 2nd class use wi-fi for free (GNER used to charge a tenner).

However, a special shout out must go to the lady at King's Cross, who thought that the way to get those already unable to move within the carriage to grant her an instant and unhindered path to her seat, was to complain loudly that people without reservations shouldn't be on the train in the first place. If they haven't already secured her services, I fear that the worlds of diplomacy and motivational speaking may not be mourning their loss, somehow.

Anyway, that's the holidays started for me, so blogging may be intermittent over the next couple of weeks. In common with Brian Taylor, for those who can, a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. For those who can't for whatever reason, my sympathies.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Happy Christmas"

In the end, it was clinical and decisive show of attacking power, which saw the challenger sent home with their tail between their legs and left the home fans cheering for more.

I refer, of course, to Aberdeen's 4-0 victory over FC Copenhagen, which sees them in the latter stages of a European competition for the first time in over 20 years.

A "Happy Christmas" to one and all, then!

UPDATE: Highlights of the game are now available here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Letter to the Press and Journal

The Editor
Press and Journal
Lang Stracht
Aberdeen AB15 6DF

17 December 2007


I am astounded at the idiocy being shown by Scottish Lib Dem Leader, Nicol Stephen MSP, over the proposed Trump development.

This is a project which enjoys overwhelming public support, and which has the potential to bring much good to the North East. It is a project on which Nicol Stephen himself has said he would like to see progress. Why, then, apart from as a desperate bid to seem relevant and score cheap points off the SNP government, is he now calling for an enquiry which would delay the project planning process, perhaps fatally?

It’s been clear since May that senior Lib Dem noses in Edinburgh have been put out of joint following their return to the backbenches. However, with his silly anti-SNP posturing, Stephen is playing fast and loose with the future prosperity of the North East. Lib Dem voters must be wondering just how their party has managed to fall so far from grace and relevance in such a short space of time.

Stephen accused First Minister Alex Salmond of acting with ‘cleverness’ at Holyrood last week. On recent evidence, that’s not a tag voters will be attaching to the Scottish Lib Dem leader any time soon.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Thomson
SNP Westminster Candidate
Gordon Parliamentary Constituency

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

Surely Not?

Alastair Darling was asked twice today to confirm to the House of Commons exactly how the password protecting the data on the missing HMRC disks was sent between HMRC and the NAO. Twice, he refused to do so.

Why so shy? Surely it wasn't just written on a post-it note and shoved into the envelope along with the discs. Was it?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Trumped Up

A rich investor; an upscale development; the chance to immerse oneself in bureacratic procedure; the opportunity to snipe at people simply trying to do their best... Frankly, I'm hard pushed to think of a mix which could more effectively bring out the parochial, petty minded and vindictive worst in some Scots politicians. And the proposed Trump development at Menie really does seem to have it all.

Journalist Kenny Farquarson hit the nail on the head in last week's Scotland on Sunday, when he pointed out that if Trump were a Swedish tycoon famed for his Renaissance art collection, it wouldn't have caused half this much fuss. However, what's starting to bother me is the way that those who claim to support the project are now trying to turn this into an issue with which to try to smear the government.

Some facts. Local opinion is strongly in favour; the Formartine area committee of Aberdeenshire Council was in favour, as indeed is the full council. However, due to the decision of its planning committee, Aberdeenshire Council found itself prevented by standing orders from resurrecting the application. As such, you would think there might be widespread support amongst those claiming to be in favour of the project, for the government decision to 'call in' the application.

I've seen at first hand the way that Alex Salmond has prefaced his comments on the development, with a statement that as First Minister, he is debarred from making any public statement which could be construed as being either in favour or against the development. As the local MSP, though, he is bound to meet with interested parties both for and against the development. A difficult tightrope to walk, but one which he has managed to negotiate with absolute probity.

However, that hasn't stopped the suggestion. 'A government car was used to transport the First Minister to meet Trump representatives!' - yes, but this is within the rules. 'A government adviser was present at the meeting!'- er, no, it was his constituency office manager. 'John Swinney went to a function at a Trump resort, just before he called the appplication in!' - yes, he attended a GlobalScot function to promote Scottish/US business links, at which no members of the Trump organisation were present.

When the smoke clears, though, all we seem to be left with is the cheap innuendo of nonentities like Richard Baker MSP. On Scotland at Ten last night, after claiming that questions remained unanswered in this affair, he was then singluarly unable under challenge from Alex Neil MSP to say what those unanswered questions might be, or even what rules he believed may have been broken. Good to see that Baker's lost none of the political skills he picked up in his time as President of NUS Scotland. However, I can't let this pass without reference to Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen, and his slur yesterday on the Scottish Government's Chief Planner.

Stephen chose to suggest in Parliament yesterday that there was some impropriety in the fact that the planner had met with representatives of the Trump organisation to explain how matters might develop in the event that the decision was called in, and in the fact that they were present during the early stages of a phone call between the Chief Planner and the Chief Exec of Aberdeenshire Council. The Chief Planner has no right of reply to such allegations, so the prompt confirmation from Aberdeenshire Council that the Trump representatives had been asked to leave the room before any substantive discussion took place will have come as a welcome relief I am sure.

You'd think that someone like Nicol Stephen, who's faced his own difficulties with the ministerial code over previous planning issues and who has himself faced accusations of personal financial impropriety in the very recent past, might be a bit more careful before throwing the mud around. Well, apparently not. Were people really suggesting only a year ago that Stephen was a suitable candidate to be First Minister? Good grief...

Anyway, I hope common sense eventually prevails in this frenzy, and that everyone claming to have the best interests at heart of the North East, whether they care for Alex Salmond and the SNP or not, allows the planning procedure to run its course without further distraction. Frankly, this nonsense is doing nothing to improve our image around the world as a place where you can come and and get sound and sober decisions taken promptly by politicians and officials.

Press and Journal Editorial - 14 December

Aberdeen Evening Express Editorial:


'First Minister Alex Salmond is spot on in his assessment of yesterday's sleaze row as a descent into gutter politics. 'It is tiresome that Nicol Stephen is hijacking attempts to get the Trump bid back on course to score cheap political points. 'As a North-east MSP we expect him to represent the interests of his constituents, not sling mud at the expense of efforts to rescue the Menie proposals. 'Mr Stephen is hardly the one to indulge in such heckling. People in the North-east still haven't forgiven the way he presided over the bypass farce. 'Mistakes have been made, but work is now going on at the highest levels to ensure the Trump proposal is feasible. We expect our MSPs to support that'.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

From The Lobby...


She [the Downing Street Spokeswoman] was asked when the Prime Minister would arrive in Lisbon tomorrow - the day of the signing of the EU Treaty. (The Prime Minister will arrive too late for the signing ceremony but will sign the Treaty. He is appearing before the Liaison select committee).

Would there be 'footage' of the Prime Minister signing the Treaty, she was asked. She replied, " I would be very surprised if there is no photographic evidence, "

What time would the Prime Minister arrive for the summit, she was asked. " He will arrive for part of the lunch. We will update people tomorrow," she said.

Did we know what was for 'pudding', she was asked.
" Humble pie, " said a correspondent. The Downing Street spokeswoman did not reply.

(From Gallery news)

Monday, December 10, 2007

In Brussels

I've been in Brussels for the past few days, for a bit of Xmas shopping and to visit SNP colleagues at the European Parliament. Given that Belgium has, as of today, been run by a caretaker government for precisely six months, I must report that it seems to be coping remarkably well. The shops are busy, the Grand Place is packed with tourists, the restaurants are full - and all this at the beginning of a week when the European Parliament is about to up sticks to Strasbourg.

The only hint you might get that something might be up is the (modest) number of Belgian flags hanging from windows in the capital. This is primarily a demonstration from the Francophone administrative elite - and not really a gesture to be found repeated in the Flemish speaking areas outside of Brussels.

I've spent most of the last couple of days in the company of Lachie Muir - a friend since we were in the SNP Students together in the mid-nineties. Lachie's been working in Brussels for variously the SNP and the European Free Alliance, for nigh-on six years now, and a shrewder observer of the Scottish and European political scenes you would struggle to find. His take on it all is that we're unlikely to see Belgium dissolve into its constituent parts any time soon, but that the problems of how to deal with Brussels notwithstanding, it is still happening slowly.

What does a state coming apart feel like? I have to confess, I'm not all that sure. Disagreements between the central and devolved governments are par for the course around the world, as are disagreements over policy and resources - what matters more is how they are dealt with. There'd also likely be, or have been, some major change in the circumstances which gave rise to the existence of the state. There would be low grade bickering over politics and proxy matters like sport, which would occasionally bubble over to take on a significance which they scarcely deserve. I suspect you'd also start to see a greater assertion of the sub-state identity, counterbalanced with demonstrations of support for the status quo.

Belgium ticks most of these boxes, as indeed increasingly does the UK. In fact, today saw the Daily Telegraph carry a lengthy interview with Conservative leader David Cameron, to mark the launch of its campaign to 'Call Yourself British'. Very sensibly, he points out to the Telegraph's largely English readership that the union provides Scotland with no financial pot of gold, and urges caution amongst those south of the border who would rail against perceived Scottish advantages. However, he shied away from any concrete proposal to resolve the West Lothian Question, and when asked to set out what the Union meant to him, chose not to look forward, but instead fell back on the imagery of WWII.

Rather insultingly, the Telegraph editorial disparages English nationalism. Yet its definition of Britishness was also backward looking and full of bombast. In a sign that it just didn't get it at all, it hinted that what had put the Union under threat was the temerity of the Scots in opting for self-government, our support for whoever was playing England in sport (not guilty-never have been), and in our 'apparently favourable' financial treatment.

According to the paper, us Brits possess a shared temper and outlook, which 'many across the world find admirable, even enviable'. And our Britishness is rooted also in 'our shared institutions and values - the sovereignty of Parliament (what happened to sovereignty of the people?), the primacy of the law and the independence of the judiciary (as opposed to all those lawless foreign Johnnies you find over the Channel, I suppose), the proud traditions of our regiments (even those recently disbanded, you presume), and the freedom and vigour of our media (ha!).

In fairness, I think I'd find difficulty in coming up with a list of things which made someone distinctively Scottish. However, even John Major would have struggled to express it in a more spirit crushing and hackneyed way than the Telegraph has managed. Fundamentally, I'm attracted by the civic notion that anyone can be Scottish no matter where they come from, providing that they want to be. I'm uncomfortable instinctively with the notion that to be Scottish or English is to be in an ethnic state of mind, and that we can only be inclusive toward others when we see ourselves as British.

That to me seems to be holding out a second-class identity to those who choose to make their lives here - that an immigrant who comes to London from overseas can become British, but can never be English. Englishness is there, it is latent, it is tangible. If Britishness is on the way out the door, it strikes me that the process is not going to be reversed by trying to suppress people's sense of Englishness.

At present, Englishness is being ceded by default to a ragbag on the political right. It needs to be reclaimed, and to become synonymous with some of the virtues being claimed currently for Britishness. I'm happy getting on with building a new and more confident Scotland, but a more reflective Englishness, shorn of the baggage of Britain, would have an invigorating part to play in helping people on both sides of the border decide both who they are and what they want to become.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Turn On, Tune In

Now this does sound interesting. Tune in to BBC Radio 4 tonight at 8.30pm GMT to hear how Scotland and rUK might go their different ways, in 'A Beginner's Guide to Separation'.

I don't care much for the title (separation from what other than governance from Westminster, for goodness' sake?). Nonetheless, if this BBC 'Magazine' article preview is anything to go by, the actual content promises to be as neutral as it gets.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"If You Want Blood, You've Got It"

I gave blood this morning for the first time in about 3 years. However, I'm sorry to report to all those Mail and Telegraph readers out there, that the experience of giving blood in Scotland is far, far more agreeable than it is in England.

How so, when the staff are every bit as professional, the procedures are identical and the facilities exactly the same? Well, the difference is in the quality of the refreshments afterwards. There's nothing wrong with orange juice and chocolate bourbons, but where's the Tunnocks teacakes and caramel logs that you get back home?

Very disappointing... I feel like someone's run off with my last wine gum... ;-)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

"The Roof, The Roof, The Roof Is On Fire..."

So. Wendy Alexander's Labour leadership campaign team accepted an illegal payment from property developer Paul Green, one of several donations which came in suspiciously below the £1,000 threshold at which the identity of a donor would have to be revealed by law. Initially, Wendy claimed not to have known about this until 1pm on Thursday last week. Once the details were revealed, the man who had solicited the donation, Charlie Gordon MSP, did the decent thing and took a tumble for his troubles.

And that was supposed to be that. However, the donation was illegal because it had come in the form of a personal cheque from Mr Green, who was not actually eligible to vote in the UK. Nonetheless, Wendy was in the clear, we were told, because she had been informed (incorrectly) that the donation had come via a UK based company, which would have made the donation legitimate had this been the case.

It then emerged on Friday that she had written a 'thank you' note to Mr Green back in October. Given that she wrote to him personally rather than via the company he was said to be donating "under the auspices" of, and that she did so to an address outside the UK, this gave us the first hint that we perhaps weren't being told the whole truth by Team Wendy.

Today, it emerged that her letter to Mr Green notwithstanding, she may have known at least three weeks ago that the donation was illegal. As a regulated donee, she bears ultimate responsibility for the donations she has received. As such, she has broken the law, and is now looking down the barrel of a criminal investigation, a prison sentence and potentially, an unlimited fine. Regardless as to the outcome of any deliberations by the Electoral Commission, her credibility is shot through entirely. Press statements might not be delivered under oath, but if she thinks the Scottish press pack has been merciless, just wait until Strathclyde CID come knocking on her door.

Yet in spite of this tissue of lies and deceit, Wendy is going to stay on as Leader of the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament, because there was no "intentional wrongdoing" and she is "confident" of being exonerated. In fact, you get the feeling that she feels a duty - an obligation even - to stay on. In her own words:

"I offered myself to lead Labour in the Scottish Parliament in the autumn because I believed and continue to believe I have a contribution to make to improve the lives of my fellow Scots".

Now, I don't want to kick someone when they're down, but this really is complete and utter humbug. The pressure to stay has nothing to do with her much-vaunted sense of mission, and everything to do with her loyalty to Gordon Brown. Consider - Wendy's timbers are now well alight, but if she falls, she'll take Harriet Harman crashing down with her (who knowingly accepted an illegal donation 5 times larger than the one causing Wendy so much difficulty just now). If that happens, the part of the barn currently sheltering Gordon Brown will quickly catch light also. And if that comes to pass, the government will be consumed in an inferno so intense that Labour will be able to salvage nothing - nothing - from the remains.

Tough choice - resign and bring your political mentor down with you, or hang on in post to try and protect him, and destroy your party's credibility in the eyes of Scottish voters? Like I said, I don't want to kick someone when they're down, but I do find it hard to feel much sympathy for her. The rules on political donations brought in by Labour are simple to follow, and were, in the main, designed with no higher principle in mind other than to stuff their political opponents. 'To be hoist by one's own petard', is, I believe, le mot juste.

TIMELINE: Courtesy of BBC News Online