Thursday, February 28, 2008

"What Have We Got? Free Education!"

Apart from Independence, the main issue which drove me into the tender embrace of the SNP as a student was the party's commitment to free education.

Back in 1994, when I started out as a fresh faced undergrad at Stirling at the fag-end of John Major's government, it was almost axiomatic that the Tories were the barbarians at the gates. After all, they were planning to cut the already fairly meagre student grant by 10% each year in '95, '96 and '97. What a lot of students seemed less inclined to believe, despite the best efforts of myself and many others, was that nice cuddly Tony Blair was going to scrap the student grant entirely, bringing in tuition fees for future cohorts of students.

Throughout, the NUS, led by guys like Jim Murphy, Douglas Trainer and Richard Baker, was deeply unenthusiastic when it came to defending free education. Of course, Labour party policy at the time was to make students pay for their education, no matter what their personal financial circumstances were. Of the aforementioned titanic triumvirate, one is a Labour MP, one a Labour MSP and another became a Labour Government Special Advisor. What's that you say? Rewards for services rendered? Well, now, I really wouldn't like to speculate...

Anyway, today was the day that tuition fees, in their modern guise of the 'Graduate Endowment', were finally scrapped. I have to say, having slogged my guts out for years, making the unfashionable argument that the only barrier to higher education should be academic ability (even resigning once from the National Executive of the SNP Student wing because I felt it wasn't taking a sufficiently hard line!), it feels good to have won out in the end.

Not everyone will be happy, though. Here is a brief transcript of an interview from earlier this week on Radio Scotland between the estimable Colin Mackay and the noble Baron Lord Foulkes:

LGF : “The SNP are on a very dangerous tack at the moment. What they are doing is trying to build up a situation in Scotland where the services are manifestly better than south of the Border in a number of areas.”

CM: “Is that a bad thing?”

LGF: “No. But they are doing it deliberately...”

Oh dear :-) But meanwhile, back in the real world, hopefully never again will wannabee heroes of the revolution, or at least the disciples of university Labour clubs and the NUS, take to their high horses to denounce free education with the most damning epithet they knew - that it was somehow 'middle class'. As of today, a bit of equality has been restored to help make sure that all those who are capable of learning can do so. Maybe not quite a revival of the democratic intellect, but certainly the first days of a better nation.

Plain Stupid

I’m ashamed to say that yesterday’s rooftop protest at the House of Commons almost passed me by entirely. You see, the Houses of Parliament have their own entrance to Westminster tube station, so I walked underneath the unfolding drama oblivious to the whole thing, apart from wondering briefly why on earth half a dozen policemen were standing out in the courtyard looking heavenwards.

Ordinarily, I’d be fairly sympathetic to anyone protesting against a third Heathrow runway, though not perhaps for the same reasons. In my opinion, Heathrow is a horrible, congested, poorly laid out airport to be avoided at all costs. We should be trying to stem domestic flight by investing in high speed rail. Anything which makes Heathrow even bigger than it already is, is unlikely to be either good for passengers or good for the environment.

However, what concerns me most about the protest is the likelihood of it leading to a further tightening of security at the House of Commons. This, in my view, would be a very bad thing, even if, as seems likely, it turns out that the protestors did receive a bit of help from someone on the inside.

Of necessity, Westminster has for some years been surrounded by unsightly barriers, concrete road blocks and machine gun toting policemen. Members of the public already go through airline style security checks to get into the precincts. If you wish to view the Commons from the public gallery, you'll now find yourself glassed off from proceedings lest you be overcome with the urge to throw something.

These measures might all be necessary evils, but once inside, non-passholders enjoy relatively free access to view the buildings and to meet with their representatives. Despite the need for visible high security, the various police officers, doorkeepers, security guards and support officers still manage to police the Palace with discretion and sensitivity. In my view, this is exactly as it should be.

These incidents, while dramatic when they happen, are still pretty infrequent. Yes, protestors got onto the roof, but existing security measures were such that they couldn’t do anything more drastic than unveil a couple of banners. Frankly, there’s a world of difference between sneaking in something harmless like a cloth banner and being able to take in something more sinister, where the preponderance of security officers, sniffer dogs, metal detectors and x-ray machines would have made the likelihood of being caught in the act very high indeed.

There are plenty of people who would like to use incidents like this as an excuse to curb legitimate protests and further restrict public access to Westminster. They must be rubbing their hands with glee right now. While the protesters have got some publicity for their cause that they would never have managed otherwise, the question is, at what cost to others who might want to make their voices heard in the future?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mine M√ľnchner Doppelganger(s)

I arrived at London City Airport at early o'clock last Wednesday morning, with the aim of catching the first flight of the day to Munich. My mission? To take in the city, and enjoy the 2nd leg of the Bayern Munich – Aberdeen UEFA Cup tie the following evening. Let the tale begin...

Due to fog, my flight is canceled. So, after ringing through to the Lufthansa call centre, I manage to get booked on a flight for later that evening. These things happen, and since London City's not too far from where I stay when I'm in London, 'keine problem', as they say in Germany. So, it's back on the DLR to Deptford Bridge and from there, by bendy bus towards the sunlit uplands of New Cross.

Fast forward 9 hours. I arrive once more at the airport and despite the chaos still being played out by the fog from earlier in the day, my rearranged flight leaves more or less on time. I arrive in Munich and about an hour later, I meet up in the Hauptbahnhof with my friends Ewan and Corrie. Since it's nearly midnight by this time we skip the pub to go back to the hotel, which is where the fun really begins.

Despite E&C having informed the receptionist well in advance of my late arrival, by the time I get there the night porter is denying all knowledge of my booking. My print out with 'reservation' on it from my online booking is waved away haughtily as being “just a piece of paper”. After what sounded like some choice words from Corrie (she's fluent in German, I'm not), some sleep-deprived glowering from me and a blast in Fifer from Ewan, a room miraculously becomes available, but only for one night. We withdraw having won a partial victory, enjoy a can of beer upstairs and curse the malevolent little troll downstairs masquerading as mine host for his obnoxious, misanthropic, downright unhelpful attitude towards us.

In the morning, we find a different receptionist who sympathises with us having to deal with the 'chaotic' porter, but who tells us that a 'Richard Thomson' has already checked in. Sure enough, someone's signed my name on my reservation, but it ain't me and ain't my signature. No matter – the room I slept in is free for this evening also, so again, keine problem. And off we go to explore the city, with maybe just a sneaking regard for the cheeky sod who managed to blag my room last night, or more likely, bung the thoroughly repellent night porter a few Euros for his trouble.

Evening comes, and we're off to the Allianz Arena. It's a great stadium, and sitting amongst the 61,000 Bayern fans, we get to see the 5,000 Aberdeen fans in full cry, and from the noise, you'd never guess which set of fans were being outnumbered 12 to 1. The 5-1 scoreline is a little harsh, even if the defeat is no great surprise. Anyway, off we head on the U-bahn after the game since as 'fans' of Bayern, the police don't make us wait behind. As we approach the city centre, though, the train in front breaks down. Eventually, we make it to our chosen brauhaus, and get some much needed food and beers in to warm us all up.

Next morning, we grab a quick breakfast at the station, and since E&C have a flight before mine, I explore the city on my own for a few hours after we say our goodbyes. Eventually, it's time for me to head to the airport also. When I get there, there's no joy from the self-service check-in computer, which is always an ominous sign. I therefore join the queue to get checked in the old-fashioned way, and then, we uncover the problem - much the same as the original story with the hotel room, I appear not to have a flight reservation despite the existence of my e-ticket.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, I am accused by a member of Lufthansa staff of having made a duplicate booking which they have had to cancel, and of having flown from Edinburgh to Munich via London on the 20th without telling them (wrong on both counts). Craning round to see their screen, I then see that the email address for this Richard Thomson is not mine and the penny drops – there are 2 Richard Thomsons leaving Munich for London that day and Lufthansa have taken it upon themselves to cancel my flight, since clearly, there can only be one Richard Thomson and he must have booked one of the flights in error! (Could they not have called, or checked the credit card numbers first?)

So, what can be done? Well, the remaining 3 Lufthansa flights to London from Munich are now fully booked, but I can be given a 'high priority' passenger status to take the place of any 'no-shows'. Nein danke – selective deafness seems to kick in when I mention the words 'British Airways direct', so I ask instead about the prospect of getting to the Lufthansa hub in Frankfurt and then onto London that way? After a bit more playing around, it turns out that this is possible. Sighs of relief all round, interrupted only by my picking up a compensation claim form on the way to the security check.

So, to recap - my first flight is canceled due to bad weather. My hotel room is given away to someone else who may or may not be called Richard Thomson. My team get gubbed 5-1 and then, my flight home is canceled due to the Teutonic over-efficiency of Lufthansa's booking system. I'm typing this as we descend into Heathrow, desperately hoping that nothing else can go wrong. Bizarrely, though, I've just been told by the steward and the girl traveling next to me that what little German I have is spoken with what sounds like a Dutch accent – work that one out if you can!

Anyway, Munich's a lovely place, the food and drink were great and the company even better. If you can, you should visit soon, not least because I seem to have used up for a while all the bad luck that might befall any other visitors to the city! And if by a million to one shot your name is also Richard Thomson, and you took a hotel room in Munich which you knew fine well wasn't yours before flying back to Edinburgh today with Lufthansa, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits for all eternity...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bluster Bombs

The Albanian flags were out in force in central London on Sunday evening as the city’s Kosovar community celebrated their declaration of independence. Congratulations, then, and good luck, to Europe’s newest nation state. It’s been a long, hard road for them.

Bringing a breath of stale air to the proceedings is Labour backbencher George Foulkes, who according to the Daily Record is demanding apologies from the SNP for tabling a motion congratulating Kosova and for our previous scepticism about the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. Ah, George, and there was me thinking that with the British government having recognised Kosova, the SNP falling in behind that decision might be something you would welcome.

For what it’s worth, I’ve never regarded George as particularly ‘old’ or ‘new’ Labour, but more as slavish Labour. And on no topic has he been more slavish over the past few years than on the subject of ‘screwing up’ [his words] international affairs, with his ludicrous and uncritical freelance defences of the Iraq invasion and the dodgiest of dossiers.

Many people, not just in the SNP, pointed out in 1999 that bombing Belgrade seemed an odd way of trying to protect Kosovan civilians from the armed goons of Slobodan Milosevic. We were right. We pointed out that without ground troops, civilians couldn’t be protected, and certainly not by dropping unguided 40 year old cluster bombs from 30,000 feet. We were right. And what of those of us who were rubbished for pointing out that Kosovan independence (which NATO opposed at the time), not just autonomy, would follow any military intervention as surely as night followed day? Once again, we were right.

I’d like to think that some harder heads were at work behind the scenes, but having struggled through a book written by General Wesley Clark a few years ago on his involvement in Kosova, I very much doubt that there were. However, the ‘Janet and John’ justification offered for public consumption at the time was that the Serbs would be bombed into submission; the bloodshed would stop; the Serbs and Kosovars would all live together happily ever after as part of the same state; and anyone who dared to harbour the slightest doubt was an apologist for genocide.

What price some humility then, George, from you and those like you who were more interested in falling in behind Tony Blair’s ill-conceived intervention than in exercising even a modicum of critical analysis? As a result, Blair got away with presenting his Kosovan adventure as a triumph. We were then entreated to the noxious, self-serving, retrospective self-justification that was his doctorine of ‘liberal interventionism’, which in turn helped lead us to the quagmire of Iraq.

Screwing up international affairs was it George? There's none so blind...

Northern Rock

So. We're about to Nationalise a bank. No idea how much it's going to cost, no idea how long it's for, no idea how much the assets are worth. And now, flicking through the Draft Statutory Instrument which accompanies the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill, we find that it will also be exempt from Freedom of Information legislation for the duration of its ownership by the Treasury!

One other thing. Some estimates put the liability to the taxpayer at £55bn, others closer to £100bn. Either way, once this liability appears on the books, isn't this going to blow to smithereens Gordon Brown's self-imposed rules on government debt?

Thursday, February 14, 2008


It says a lot about Aberdeen's performance tonight that they can draw 2-2 with Bayern Munich and I'm still disappointed...

At least it's alive for the return leg. But tell me, was the succumbing to consecutive 4-1 and 5-1 defeats by Dundee United and Celtic just a cunning ploy to lull Bayern into a false sense of security, or do Aberdeen only really come out to play in Europe and against Rangers?

Highlights here - at least for the time being. (Pic from website)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Fuzz Therapy

It's not been a great couple of weeks, one way and another. However, being back home this weekend, I had a chance to catch up with my cat-sitting friend and more importantly, the cat herself. Fuzz therapy... you can't beat it :-)

Fuzz Therapy II

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Wheel Is Spinning, But...

It says much about the state of Wendy Alexander's leadership of Labour in the Scottish Parliament that the best news she's had in months is that she's not going to jail. Deck the halls, hosanna in exelsis, let joy be unconfined etc ad nauseum... somehow, though, a wiping of the brow and a sigh of relief seem more appropriate than champagne in the circumstances.

The Electoral Commission has delivered what is probably the right outcome, but by wholly inappropriate means. Their role should have been to establish if there had been a breach of the law (the Actus Reus – which in this case was admitted freely) and from there, to arrange the forfeiture of the donation before reporting matters to the Procurator Fiscal, who could then determine if there was also the guilty mind, or Mens Rea, which together are required for a criminal offence to have taken place.

For what it's worth, I don't reckon any Fiscal in the land would have taken matters further, but that's not really the point. Instead, we now have the ridiculous sight of Wendy proclaiming self-righteously that "My honesty and integrity have been confirmed by this judgment." Er, no they haven't, Wendy. The law was broken, but the Commission didn't find “sufficient evidence” to suggest an attempt to conceal the impermissible donation. That's hardly the same thing.

The ruling offers no certification as to the soundness of her reputation, which as far as I'm concerned, is no whiter or indeed sullied than it was before. I really couldn't care less how she sees herself in this regard. Rather, it's the attitude, the hubris, the attempted blame-shifting and sheer unadulterated insouciance towards the whole thing which gets up my nose, and I suspect those of a great many others. In this case, 'sorry' really does seem to be the hardest word.

But to our tale. She got creamed again yesterday at First Minister's Questions and made a complete and utter sow's ear of her party's approach to the budget, laughably failing to vote for the motion which her party had already amended successfully. If there's only been 'not much' in the way of backstabbing, it can only be because Labour is so bereft of talent in Holyrood that there really is no-one else who could take over at the moment.

I'll go further. Bluntly, I don't think that the next Labour First Minister has even been elected yet to the Scottish Parliament. As for Wendy, she now has to get Labour acting like a sensible opposition and make a show of getting people behind her proposed reforms to the Labour Party – no mean feat given the way she's managed to alienate the party's MP's, Councilors and even the cheerleaders over at Pravda the Daily Record.

In reality, I suspect that no matter what she tries to do now, she's going to get nowhere fast because quite simply, she lacks the necessary clout and respect both within and without her party. The wheel might be spinning, but that hamster looks dead to me...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Cllr Mitchell Burnett - An Appreciation

I received some very sad news last night. After a long illness, Cllr Mitchell Burnett, a weel-kent face in Aberdeenshire and in SNP circles, passed away yesterday afternoon.

Mitchell was a distant relative of mine, but he was also a good friend to the whole family. He had the croft next to my grandparents at Tyrie, a place with a remoteness which would unnerve a lot of city dwellers used to having quick and unhindered access to what we would regard as many of life’s necessities. In fair weather but particularly in foul, where power and phone lines coming down is nothing unusual in the winter, Mitchell would always go out of his way to make sure that my grandparents were keeping well and had all they needed to stay healthy and warm.

After he became a Councillor, he came to Edinburgh frequently on SNP business, very often bringing my Grandparents with him for the day so they could see us. A master of the one-liner, his sense of humour was as dry as sticks, with often only the twinkle in the eye giving you the hint that he was pulling your leg ever so gently.

I last saw him when I was in Peterhead for a dinner to honour Alex Salmond’s 20 years as MP for Banff and Buchan. The ravages of his illness were apparent, and came as a shock. However, as auctioneer for the evening, he was in his element, with a lively put down and personal encouragement to get the wallet open for, it seemed, just about everyone there.

I went to see him the following day, by this time in his more familiar farming garb of boiler suit and boots. We had a ‘fly’, and a ‘news’ about everything from how my grandparents were keeping; his daughter Barbara Ann and her partner Andy’s exploits in the recording studio; the state of the cars outside; the excitement about the Blackhills finally getting mains water; even about Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the perils of switching between English and Doric. It was over too soon, but I’m glad I managed to see him then.

Alex Salmond visited Mitchell on Sunday night to present him with a lifetime achievement award, a fitting and timely gesture for someone who sought no recognition for his years of service to his chosen causes. The north east and the SNP have lost a good servant, and my family a stalwart friend and neighbour. We’ll miss him.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Fiscal Rectitude

So - Wendy Alexander has been reported to the Procurator Fiscal by the Scottish Parliament's Standards Commissioner, for not declaring the campaign donations she received in the Scottish Parliament's register of interests.

While there may be some confusion about the initial advice she received from the relevant Parliamentary Authorities, there's still one big question left for me this morning: Why has the Standards Commissioner been able to deal with this so quickly, while the Electoral Commission is still faffing around trying to decide what to do with her case?

The Electoral Commission really isn't doing Wendy, or the rest of us, any favours by sitting on this one. If there's something unpleasant to be done, then better it were done quickly...