Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bagpipes, Shortbread and a 60th Anniversary

I was in Huntly today to help celebrate the 60th anniversary of the town's Pipe Band. Fingers were crossed and uncrossed throughout the journey, since the weather looked decidedly indifferent as we headed across country. Luckily though, a few light showers apart, the weather held.

Quite apart from the obvious discomfort it would have brought, heavy rain would have meant the pipers having to cover up with their waterproof capes, which would have denied us the spectacle of seeing each of the bands in their full number 1 kits. With some nine other bands present to help the host band celebrate their anniversary, there was colour to be seen aplenty to help lift the gloom of the skies above.

Huntly Pipe Band plays a big role in the life of the town and throughout the North East. There's rarely a major community event in Huntly where they can't be heard. At Halloween, they march down from the castle into the town square wearing masks - I don't know if it does anything to help frighten the ghouls away, but it's worth seeing anyway! And in one of those nice little twists of fate, it's arguable that one of the town's major businesses, the shortbread manufacturer Dean's of Huntly, owes its very existence to the band and its perennial need to fundraise.

It's a great story. Back in 1975, Helen Dean, wife of the then Pipe Major Bill Dean, was noted locally for her baking. To help raise funds for the band, she decided to start making batches of her own recipe shortbread. Soft textured, unlike so many of the mass produced shortbreads of the time, her recipe proved so popular that she decided to go into business and established her own bakery.

The reputation of Dean's shortbread grew quickly, to the extent that the company, now run by the couple's son (also Bill), had to move in the early 1990's to larger premises on the outskirts of the town. Recently, they branched out further by opening a visitors centre and cafe/bistro at the factory. If you ever find yourself heading along the A96, it's well worth stopping off for a coffee and look round.

Anyway, I snapped off a couple of videos of today's events on my phone. The first is of the bands arriving at the town's Market Muir:

The second is of the massed bands marching, immediately after they had been addressed by First Minister and local MSP Alex Salmond.

It's a great regret of mine that I haven't yet learned to play the pipes. I can play the chanter without difficulty (doubtless a legacy of learning the recorder at school), so maybe one of these days I'll get someone to show me how to combine it with everything else that's supposed to go along!

Often, if you sit out on the Terrace of the House of Commons in the evening, you can hear a piper playing somewhere along the river. I never found out while I was down there who it was or where they were playing, which is a shame, because it seemed the most incongruous thing to be hearing slap-bang in the middle of London.

It was like a little bit of home sometimes as conversations stopped while people strained their ears along the river to listen. Today, it was great to be amongst the crowds and able to see the real thing up close and on such a scale. Congratulations to everyone involved in Huntly Pipe Band, and here's to your next 60 years.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Hearty Welcome... the surfer with the AOL ISP who arrived here on 25 August via Yahoo by using the search term 'insufferable Scots'. I hope you found everything that you were looking for :-)


Cruel. Funny, but cruel :-)

Hoy-st By Their Own Petard

Well, well, well. See that fuss about Chris Hoy apparently describing a Scottish Olympic Team as 'ridiculous'? It seems I was right to point out that he'd said no such thing. In today's Daily Record, which as we all know is a fine newspaper which always prints the truth, Hoy is quoted thusly:

TRIPLE gold medal hero Chris Hoy last night said he'd be proud to be part of a Scottish Olympic team.

The Edinburgh cyclist rubbished reports that he thought the idea was "ridiculous". Speaking exclusively to the Record, he told of his pride in his home country.

And he said he believes Scotland could form a world-class team - with the right investment in sports.

Chris was given a hero's welcome when he landed back in Britain on Monday after winning three golds in Beijing.

But the 32-year-old said: "I feel a bit upset that I have been quoted as saying the idea of a Scottish Olympic team is ridiculous.

"If and when a Scottish team was put together, I would be delighted to represent Scotland in the Olympic Games.

Hoy then goes on to opine that presently, the infrastructure and facillities for that to happen simply aren't in place. Fair points all - and you'll find little disagreement from me on that score. However, I can't help but feel that its still a far cry from the constructs which the Hootsmon and, dare I say it, a few others, have sought to put on his views.

In the end, we come back to the fact that most athletes probably are more concerned with their sport than politics; that they are in the main proud to compete for whoever; and that what people see as the merits or otherwise of a Scottish Olympic team vis-a-vis 'Team GB' is largely a matter of conjecture and personal preference.

Even then, I know it's the silly season, but I'm still surprised at the fuss all this has caused. I'd have thought that for anyone of at least meagre to moderate awareness, an SNP preference for a Scottish Olympic team would be about as surprising a revelation as that of the likely incidence of ursine defecation within forested areas. While these have been pretty lean times politically for unionists, what I wasn't expecting was the way that people would so shamelessly try to equate sporting success with the vitality of the status quo.

I mean, isn't wrapping yourself in a flag supposed to be the preserve of narrow and parochial Scot Nats like me, rather than of stout-hearted Britons who as we all know, are not in the least bit nationalistic, this being an infantile disease which afflicts only those unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere? People like me just can't help ourselves apparently, and our polite cough about how it might be nice to have a Scottish team was thus elevated to the crime of having taken a piddle in the great national British punch-bowl.

To be honest, I find the double standards all quite amusing, as indeed I do the indecent haste with which some people have used it to vent bile about the SNP. However, before anyone thinks of jumping in with the ritualised 'your lot started it' cobblers, perhaps I could recommend a perusal of the following from Robbie Dinwoodie's blog:

Two minor points about the attacks on the SNP for supposedly spoiling the party – last week, after Chris Hoy's third gold, the Scottish Government initially offered simple congratulations, with no talk of a separate Olympics team until his senior advisor was pressed on the subject by the Daily Telegraph. Similarly, at the weekend, communities and sports minister Stewart Maxwell was speaking to the BBC about housing and was then asked about Olympic Team Scotland.

Well, there you have it. Now, can we move next business, please?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Congratulations to Tavish Scott - newly elected leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

One thing that does catch my eye, though, is that while he secured the position with a stonking 59% of the votes cast, this equates to a rather less than stonking 1,450 votes in total. Which, with a 61% turnout, by my reckoning puts the Scottish Lib Dem membership at (1,450/0.59/0.61) = 4029.

Back in the 2005 leadership election, Nicol Stephen triumphed with 2,108 votes, ahead of Mike Rumbles, who trailed on 642. Given it was a 65% turnout, the membership then would have been 4,231, or 202 members higher than today.

Back then, the Lib Dems were in government too, and Mr Stephen immediately took on the mantle of Deputy First Minister. A Lib Dem leadership election was therefore a matter of great national significance. Today, Mr Scott has simply been elevated to position of parliamentary leader of the fourth party in Scotland.

Progress, anybody?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hoy, Wait a Minute...

Belated congratulations to Chris Hoy, the Scottish/British/equallyscottishandbritish (delete according to personal preference so as to avoid offence) triple-gold medal winning Olympic hero.

It's a tenuous claim to fame, but I know his girlfriend. And her big sister. We used to play together in the Lothian Schools Strathspey and Reel Society. Much as I enjoyed cycling as a teenager, I have no hesitation in admitting I was considerably better at music than sport.

Mr Hoy, or Sir Chris as he may become shortly, should probably get used to people claiming to know him or generally wanting to get a piece of the action. All of a sudden, he's marketable. Want to sell bikes? Get Chris' agent on the phone. Energy drink? He's your man. Life assurance and pensions? Well, you can never start too early. Want to consolidate all your debts into one single easy monthly payment? Err, maybe he'll get back to you.

He's also got a bit of political marketability now. If he wants to campaign to keep the velodrome in Edinburgh open, then as far as I'm concerned, good luck to him. We're about to get a world-class one in Glasgow for the Commonwealth games, but his moral clout on this issue will never be stronger than it is now. He's quite right to make hay on this while the sun shines. Whether he's successful or not, I hope he encourages more than a few to take up cycling, whether as hobby or competitive sport.

By any measure, 'Team GB' has had a successful games to date. The haul of medals and incidences of pristine Union Flags being raised seems to have moistened more than a few eyes. However, have the games really shown, as the Torygraph's Iain Martin claimed today, 'fellow Britons proving what we can achieve when our national shoulder is put to the wheel'?

Really, Iain? Even in individual sports? And what of the contention that Alex Salmond will somehow have to take account of the London Olympics in 2012 as he plans an independence referendum? Does that mean all journalists exposing the shortcomings in 2012 financial management will now be denounced as traitors and fifth columnists? And what to make of the claim from the normally sensible government minster Tom Harris that "The fact that his bike was actually manufactured in Derby is a fine illustration of the benefits that can accrue to both nations through the Union"? Laugh? I almost had a Ken Bates moment :-)

Sorry to be a party pooper, but Usain Bolt wouldn't have run any faster if Jamaica was a state of the USA, any more than Michael Phelps would have swum less well had he been from downtown Ochos Rios. It's individual dedication and the support on offer which makes a champion. And, when it comes to team efforts, there's nothing to suggest that bigger always means better. Really, when it comes to succeeding at the Olympics, your passport is only of relevance in getting through customs. Everything else is about preparation, your physical state and above all, your mental state.

So, good for Chris Hoy. In fact, good for all the gold winners, wherever they come from. And, believe it or not, good for team GB. And if some want to claim that using a lot of energy to go round in circles repeatedly is somehow symbolic of progress for those who support the union, then as far as I'm concerned, they're more than welcome to the analogy :-)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Kerr In The Community

From the Daily Record:

LABOUR must tackle the SNP head on or "whimper out of existence," MSP Andy Kerr warned yesterday.

He said: "Labour people who are in hand-to-hand combat with the SNP want to see me as leader of the party.

"This is a battle to the death with the SNP. That's how I see it and many party members see it."

It's nice to see that Mr Kerr is mantaining a sense of perspective and balance in his party's hour of need...

Monday, August 18, 2008

An Outbreak of Common Sense?

From The Scotsman:

"IAIN Gray, the frontrunner in the Scottish Labour leadership race, raised the prospect of a groundbreaking pact with the Conservatives yesterday as a way of taking on the Nationalists in the Scottish Parliament."

His justification? Simply, that the Labour Party should be prepared to undertake that kind of cross-party approach if it was to use the parliament of minorities to its advantage.

How very pragmatic of him. Sensible too - after all, since each party is in a minority, the only way to ever win votes in Parliament is to build alliances on an issue by issue basis. For that reason, I can only assume that it was a completely different Iain Gray who stood up in Parliament last February to deride Conservative support for the SNP budget as "a tartan Tory tango".

Still, there's more rejoicing in heaven etc etc. On the bright side, perhaps we've now heard the last of Labour's dead-from-the-neck-up rhetoric about the SNP somehow being in an unholy alliance with the Conservatives. After all, having so publicly outed himself as a raving consensualist, Mr Gray will look mighty foolish if he resorts to that sort of silly jibe in future...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Populism and Smugness

Oh dear. One Labour MP accuses a party leader of 'smugness'. Another Labour MP accuses a party leader of 'frantic populism'. Just another series of skirmishes in Scottish Labour's daily attempted media assault on the SNP? Surprisingly, this time, no it's not.

Proving that you instantly in some Labour minds become 'smug' if you look like you're about to beat them, Mr Eric Joyce has weighed into David Cameron. His crime? Letting it be known that the Conservative party is starting to prepare for the prospect of Government at Westminster.

Looking at recent UK-wide polls (Scotland being a different story entirely), it doesn't seem an unlikely prospect. However, Labour is the natural party of government, runs the thinking, and anyone who may be about to usurp that position is 'smug', 'presumptious', 'arrogant', or perhaps even all three if the press officer on duty is particularly articulate.

Turning now to frantic populism - is this another initiative of the Scottish Government falling victim to attack from a Labour Party too timid and guileless to do likewise in office? Again, no. This time, it's Nick Raynsford, a former housing minister, who in a clear-sighted article for the New Statesman, has turned his fire on Gordon Brown, and urged his government to recognise that "there is no single 'Get out of Jail' card" for their current difficulties.

Referring to policies floated over the past week in an attempt to regain the political initiative, such as a suspension of stamp duty (how to kill housing market activity in one fell swoop) and a £150 payment for families to help with fuel costs, Mr Raynsford said: "'When you are in a hole, stop digging'."

He goes on: "So what types of digging needs to stop? First is the frantic search for some magic populist policy solution. There is no single 'Get out of Jail' card, and it is foolish to believe that such simplistic solutions will do the trick. Indeed some are counter productive, inviting the public's contempt by implying a desperation to "buy" support by ditching unpopular taxes or offering dubious incentives."

"Just as dubious is the siren call for more initiatives. One of the greatest mistakes in government is to confuse activity with outcomes. Just because ministers feel busy devising 101 new ways of tackling a problem does not guarantee the problem gets solved. Instead the public grow cynical as government rhetoric becomes increasingly divorced from reality, while practitioners grow exasperated to implement yet another initiative, often before the previous one has even been evaluated."

Sounds pretty sensible to me. But then, so did Tom McCabe's recent take on the current travails of Scottish Labour, which saw him dismissed by a backbench Glasgow Labour MP as being 'out of the loop' for his troubles. For others, Labour's Scottish troubles are the fault of PR in local government, which saw many of their minority FPTP citadels toppled. For Brian Wilson, it's all the fault of devolution itself. The party collectively flails and thrashes in all directions. The public like less and less what they see and Labour's electoral fortunes decline accordingly, in England as well as Scotland.

Harold Wilson was fond of comparing the Labour Party to a stagecoach - when it was rattling along at speed, people were either too exhillarated or too queasy to worry about the direction. It was only when the coach stopped and the passengers got off that there were squabbles over where to go next.

Personally, I'm fond of pointing out that a fish always rots from the head down. A party which became solely about the pursuit, retention and exercising of power, once denied that power, will no longer have a purpose. Sure, the payroll can keep things ticking over in the absence of broader support, but once the councillor allowances start to disappear, when the MSP numbers become diminished, when the patronage can no longer be sloshed around as once it was, when the membership and activist commitment begins to dry up, when those at or near the top start bickering, it becomes a vicious and self-reinforcing cycle of decline.

Could we be witnessing here with these misplaced scripted jibes and internecine squabbles the puffs of acrid smoke which herald the long-term disintigration of the Labour Party? Or is the smoke the first signs of the bushfire which will, in time, allow vibrant new growth to appear through the scorched earth? Either way, the stench of defeat and purposelessness eminating from Labour on both sides of the border is becoming overwhelming.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Turra Show

Pics from Sunday and Monday at the Turrff show:

L-R: Banff & Buchan Candidate Eilidh Whiteford, Stewart Stevenson MSP & Richard Thomson

And a special mention to Kate and Shona, for whom I sadly lack pictures, but who as well as having the foresight to wear wellies, were also kind enough to get me a burger and a can of Irn Bru :-)

S&I Elsewhere - The Banks That Like To Say 'No'

Matters credit-crunch related have been covered elsewhere in the Scottish blogosphere in recent weeks, notably by Bill Cameron. However, in a bid to maintain frequency during a relatively fallow blogging month [Blame the by-election/moving house/ a crawling GPRS internet web connection - but broadband should be on it's way in a week's time - hooray!] here's my column from this month's Scots Independent.

The credit crunch. It almost sounds like a new kind of chocolate biscuit, albeit one which threatens not to leave such a nice taste behind.

We know the story. Banks in America lent too enthusiastically in a market of cheap credit to 'sub-prime' mortgage customers, who had stretched themselves to their financial limits. As the cost of living rose, people found themselves unable to repay their debts on the terms agreed. Falling house prices then left the assets worth less than the loans they were supposed to guarantee.

And then the fun really began. Financial institutions which had bought packages of consolidated mortgage debt started to panic, since in light of the defaults and property market falls, they could no longer say with certainty what these investments were worth. Banks became reluctant to lend to one another, inter-bank lending rates soared above official central bank interest rates and in short order, there was a 'liquidity' crisis which threatened to bring the banking system grinding to a halt, like an engine without oil.

But why should the inability of homeowners in the US to repay their mortgages be pushing up our cost of living here? Simply, it's because our economies are now so open and interlinked. The whole basis of our economic system is confidence – we don't insist that every pound in circulation is backed by an asset of similar value, because we have confidence in the money we carry around with us. And like the banks with other banks, when our creditors lose confidence that their loans will be repaid, they become reluctant to lend and the cost of borrowing begins to rise.

I've been feeling the effects of this myself in recent weeks as I've sought to buy a house in the constituency I hope to represent following the next election. Getting a mortgage was far harder than it was last time I bought a flat, and the providers are now hiking up interest rates, padding their 'arrangement fees' and reducing the maximum loan-to-value they are prepared to offer. Bad enough for a second time buyer like me with a modest amount of capital, but disastrous for first-time buyers already struggling to scrape together sufficient deposits.

Some 42,000 home loans were approved in May, a 28% fall compared with the previous month and 64% down on a year before. The Bank of England has also reported that the number of new mortgages approved for house purchases had fallen to its lowest level since figures began in 1993. The number of mortgages available on the market has also plummeted, from over 11,000 different types a year ago to fewer than 4,000 today. As indicators go, they make for pretty grim reading.

Our homes have been the way we have funded much of our recent consumption. Rising house prices made us all feel prosperous, even if that profit was only a paper one until such time as you either traded down or got off the property ladder altogether. It stands to reason, if not logic, that a period of falling prices will make us feel more gloomy.

Almost certainly, personal credit has been too free and easy over the past decade or so. For a while, it seemed like anyone could get a credit card with a debt limit representing a significant fraction of their income. With banks falling over themselves to offer 0% deals, juggling card debt between one introductory offer and another seemed to become something of a national sport. After all, we worked hard, and what the hell if income didn't match expenditure? That better paid job was only a couple of years away, so what did it matter if we borrowed to get the holiday, the suit, the car or the mobile phone straight away?

That said, debt, quite rightly, is no longer something to be ashamed of. If you go to university these days, it's practically state-sanctioned and compulsory. I certainly don't want to return to a situation where you are made to feel that the building society is doing you a favour if it deigns to lend you the money to buy a house, or release home equity to start a business. However, it's another matter when our levels of unsecured debt, from personal loans or credit cards, becomes almost a rueful badge of pride.

But then, we've had a lousy example of financial management over the past decade from the man who only last year moved from number 11 to number 10. Gordon Brown has racked up £40bn of government debt this year, with the UK fast approaching a cumulative debt of £650bn. He's also about to break his self-imposed 'golden rule' of only borrowing to invest over the economic cycle.

That rule, alongside his professed desire to keep debt below 40% of GDP, is certainly of greater symbolic than economic importance. Why does it matter, then? Well, Brown has been like the schoolboy who sets his own exam questions before marking his own papers. He's basked in his own self-proclaimed brilliance for a decade, on a boom fueled by consumer debt, and shifted the goalposts when it suited. Having set the terms by which he wanted to be judged, he can hardly complain if he is now found wanting when judged in precisely that manner.

The biggest surprise of the credit crunch is that anyone is surprised it came at all. Our debt-fueled splurge of the past decade was always going to have to be paid for at some point and after all, in any market economy, there are always periods of expansion, followed by periods of contraction or slower growth. But then, surely none of us were daft enough to swallow Brown's claims to have ended boom and bust in the first place?

Friday, August 01, 2008

We'd have gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for his pesky Lordship...

I am roused from the box-strewn midden I am proud to call my new living room and my dial-up internet purgatory, by this piece of idiocy:

SNP 'brainwashes' Scotland by painting trains in blue and white Saltire livery

"The Scottish National Party was accused of attempting to "brainwash people into independence" after it emerged that Scotland's trains are to be re-branded in a blue and white Saltire livery.

"Labour said the move was a "huge waste of money" and accused the Scottish Executive of adopting the design for nationalistic reasons.

"Stations will also be repainted in a dark blue colour scheme similar to that already used at Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley.

"Lord Foulkes, the Labour MSP, said it was "independence by creep" and followed on from the SNP re-branding of the Scottish Executive as the Scottish Government".

Drat, rumbled again! All those hours spent plotting away in secret at Nat Towers on McDonald Road, agonising over our strategy on how to get the last few percentage points we need to win an independence referendum. Eventually, we alighted on a scheme whereby die-hard unionists getting on a train at Glasgow Queen Street at 7.45am on a Monday would become Nationalists through colour-scheme osmosis by the time they'd stepped off at Haymarket 50 minutes later. It was as villainous and cunning as it was masterful. And it's all been ruined! We'd have gotten away with it as well, if it hadn't been for his pesky Lordship...

Mind you, it still doesn't explain how I managed to spend my childhood hopping on and off Edinburgh's maroon and white buses without ever being converted from an Aberdeen supporter into a Hearts supporter. But then, perhaps I can thank the Tories for their bus deregulation, which meant that the effects of this sinister Jambo/LRT subterfuge were neutralised any time I stepped on a green and white citysprinter.

Now I think about it, maybe my nationalism was affected by travelling on all those Citylink coaches as a student, with their sinister and insidious use of the prefix 'Scottish' and their stylised saltire logos? Maybe all those British Airways flights I've taken to and from London over the past year have turned me a little Unionist? And what about the effect of all those orange-liveried Easyjets? Goodness, where will it all end? With me taking walking holidays in Belfast in July?

Alternatively, and much more likely, his Lordship could just be talking nonsense and be in need of a lie down. Perhaps some kind soul could offer him a soothing expenses claim form to help cool his fevered brow?