Thursday, January 29, 2009

Where's Iain?

Where's Iain Gray? Isn't he supposed to be on Question Time just now??!

UPDATE: Indeed he was. From the Google cache:

Here it is...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Big Hello

to the recent flurry of surfers from Iceland. You'll no doubt be delighted to know that this is a place where you will not be considered terrorists...

The Budget

Hmmm… so 64-64 it was, and on a vote of the Presiding officer, the budget bill falls.

There’s still time to get a bill through in time for the next financial year, but no-one should be in any doubt that it’ll be tight. Additionally, let no-one be in any doubt that if a budget isn’t passed in time, the resulting £1.8bn squeeze on budgets will be pinned squarely on Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens. No council tax freeze, no more help for small businesses, fewer affordable homes, fewer police on the beat, a public sector pay freeze, no budget increases, no additional capital spending brought forward… I don't fancy being the politician who has to explain that.

You have to wonder why, if so much ground had been given on apprenticeships, hospital infections and town centre improvements, that Labour adopted such a dog in the manger attitude to the whole thing. Are they still so stung from the complete Horlicks they made of last year’s budget that they felt compelled to strike a tough pose this year? And the Lib Dems big huff continues, coming forward with a demand for a tax cut without offering the slightest hint where the axe should fall, with, as David Maddox pointing out over at the Steamie, Mike Rumbles selected as a negotiator only because he does theatrical, dudgeon-fuelled exits so much better than Jeremy Purvis.

Labour and the Lib Dems attitude may be disappointing, but no-one can say it's not in keeping with their post 2007 posture. However, it’s the Greens that really puzzle me. If £33m was their price, why did it take until half way through the debate for this to be made apparent? And why, when that was offered, did they still vote against what they had said they would favour? No doubt all will become clear over the next few hours as the ritual circus of self-justification begins.

I heard once about a bit of grafitto in the toilets at ACAS, which carried the sage advice that ‘everything except death is negotiable’. To that, tonight we can add ‘and Green Party irrationality’. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nailing Some Lies

Another week, and another torrent of bilge about the ‘Soviet’ economy. Only this time, it’s not Scotland that’s getting it in the neck, but Wales, Northern Ireland and most of England. (Actually Scotland got her treatment a couple of weeks back in a feature penned by Jason Allardyce, also for the Sunday Times).

All the usual nonsense is there about identifiable spending per head and spending as a share of GDP, which I’ve rebutted to death previously - oil and gas revenues are missed out for Scotland; beneficiaries of non-identified spending are ignored; there’s no attempt to quantify the costs of delivering public services between areas; no effort is made to calculate the balance between revenue and expenditure; there's no explanation of the different levels of spending between English regions; and there’s no acknowledgment of UK borrowing. So, after you've obtained some distorted figures, you claim that your international borrowing is actually subsidy from the South of England to everywhere else. Brilliant, eh? :-)

I have my doubts about the provenance of the figures. Does anyone seriously believe that public spending is over 70% of GDP in Wales this year for instance? That it’s over 77% in Northern Ireland? Or that it’s going from 55% in Scotland now to 67% by 2012/13, despite the proposed cuts to the Scottish block? Of course not. Basically, it’s an Evening Standard leader writer’s fantasy - everywhere outside London and the South East is a basket case, and the country’s going to hell in a handcart.

Believe it or not, CEBR, the ‘economic consultancy’ behind this report, actually does work for some government departments. They also have a little bit of previous on this sort of thing, making the same elementary errors in the same reports every year. This always gives rise to the same screaming headlines about ‘crowding out’ - the rarely-observed phenomenon whereby public sector spending is alleged to stifle private sector economic activity.

It's much more complex than that, of course. However, there seems to me to be one small but symbolic way in which government could cut back its spending on wasteful, useless things which add no value to anything. I’ll give you a clue - it involves not giving government money to 'economists' who seem more interested in political rabble rousing than in learning to distinguish apex from fundament.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Iceland Helps Keep UK Pensioners Warm

Incredible, but true. From the National Pensioners Convention website:

Icelanders offer help to UK's fuel poor pensioners -

Icelandic Wool to England Project

A container filled with jumpers, socks and blankets - destined for Britain's fuel poor pensioners - will arrive at Grimsby on 26 January, following an appeal from listeners to a popular morning radio programme in Iceland, called Bitid.

The charitable appeal - called 'Icelandic Wool to England' (Islensk Ull til Englands) - started after the programme's hosts, Heimir Karlsson and Kolbrun Bjornsdottir, covered a story featuring Britain's National Pensioners Convention (NPC), and their warning that up to 1 in 12 pensioners may die this winter due to the drop in temperature.

Mr Karlsson interviewed an Icelander, Njall Hardarson, now living in Manchester, who explained the problems faced by many older people in Britain. The response from listeners prompted the idea of collecting garments made from unique Icelandic wool and shipping them to pensioners who are struggling to pay their fuel bills and keep warm in the current cold spell. A large freight company, Samskip, offered to ship the garments over and other businesses offered bags and boxes for packing.

The Icelandic organisers hope to formally hand over the garments at the end of next week to a charity of welfare organisation in the city of Hull (twinned with Reykjavik) to distribute to local pensioners.

NPC spokesperson, Neil Duncan-Jordan said: "This is a fantastic and generous act of compassion from the people of Iceland, particularly at a time when their own economic situation is extremely difficult. But it is also a shocking indictment of the UK government's complete inability to properly tackle the problem of winter deaths amongst older people.”

“In the last decade we have lost 260,000 pensioners during the winter months and the response from Whitehall has been a deafening silence. We hope this act of kindness will shame the government into raising the state pension and the winter fuel allowance so that pensioners have the confidence to turn on the heating when they need it without the fear of what it might cost."

Icelandic broadcaster, Heimir Karlsson, who helped organise the appeal said: "When we broadcast the story that UK pensioners were dying from the cold, our listeners could not believe their own ears. We decided to give the Icelandic nation four days to fill a 20ft container of pure Icelandic wool for the pensioners in Britain. Families, some from far away, came one after another with garments to fill the container. Some of the sweaters were brand new. One 9 year old girl gathered 37 beautiful sweaters and delivered it to us at the radio station."

"I am sure I speak on behalf of every living soul in Iceland when I say that we looked at it with an utter dismay and total disbelief, how badly the government of the United Kingdom treats its old people. The elderly deserve to live their last years enjoying the best of care. They deserve to live in warm housing, free from worries over cold and rising gas bills. The Icelandic people heard about how terribly the UK government treats the pensioners, and could not just do nothing about it!"


  • The Icelandic radio station which broadcasts the Bitid programme is called Bylgjan
  • The container will arrive on 26 January at the port at Immingham, Grimsby, Lincs


  • 25,300 older people in England and Wales died of cold related illnesses between December 2007 and March 2008. This represents a seven per cent increase on last year’s figure of 23,740.
  • Nearly 90 per cent of all excess winter deaths are of people over the age of 65.
  • Almost one in three older people live in homes with inadequate heating or insulation making their homes more difficult to heat and/or keep warm.
  • One in three pensioner households are classed as living in fuel poverty.
  • Average annual energy bills now exceed £1,000. This will absorb 16 per cent of the income of a single pensioner dependent on the pension credit minimum guarantee and the current £250 Winter Fuel Payment.
  • When the winter fuel allowance was first introduced, it covered about a third of the average energy bill. Now it covers less than a fifth.

See also here and here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


In the 1950’s, the wags at The Economist parodied the socio-economic consensus epitomised by the policies of Hugh Gaitskill and Rab Butler as ‘Butskellism’.

With the return of Ken Clarke to front bench duties for the Tories, does that mean that together with Gordon Brown, we once more have ‘Clown’?

(With apologies to Dr I G C Hutchison, who enlivened one of my 9am History lectures about 14 years ago with that gag – Clarke was then Chancellor with Brown his Shadow).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Point Of Order...

At FMQs today, Ian Grey made reference to the 7.5m apprenticeships which apparently exist south of the border.

In fact, there’s to be 250,000 apprentices in England – some 30 times fewer than those claimed by Mr Grey. Additionally, figures published by the UK Government in December 2008 show that the number of those over the age of 16 and in training schemes south of the border comes to fewer than 5 million.

Oh dear. It seems to me that this is a clear-cut case of Parliament being misled. Maybe someone should tell the Presiding Officer... Jackie? Rhona? Tavish?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Got My Mojo Shirking

I can't quite put my finger on any particular reason why, but I've been finding it difficult to motivate myself to blog much of late. Obviously, there's been the holidays and after a year best described as frenetic, the prospect of having a few days over Christmas and New Year having as much as possible to do with family and friends and as little to do with politics as possible, was a very welcome one indeed.

Not even a new laptop was enough to inspire the creative juices to flow. The bottom feeders of the newspaper comments sections elicited little more than a weary shake of the head, although a letter to the Scotsman did almost get me going at one point – for which take a bow Alexander Mackay of Edinburgh.

It's probably fair to describe Mr Mackay as falling into the category of being persistent rather than persuasive or pertinent in his correspondence to the press. In this particular instance, he made the wonderous argument that since the UK was in recession, the Irish economy would suffer too. As Ireland and Scotland were both small countries, independence would therefore be bad for Scotland.

I must admit, it was the first time I'd ever heard a unionist cite British weakness as an argument for continued union. However, the urge to dig out GDP figures and data on trade flows between Ireland and the UK since the 1970's to squish his argument soon passed, since it would have been a bit like dispatching a midge with a bazooka. Instead, it was filed under the category of more bother than it was worth, and I opted to reach for the Quality Street instead.

Still, the prize for idiocy over the festive period must go to Ian Davidson MP, who tried to claim that as far as most people were concerned, Titian was an Italian footballer. Typical inverted Labour snobbery that somehow, 'it's no for the likes of us'. Well, I was lucky enough at my very unpretentious state primary school to be taken on a series of trips to Edinburgh's galleries to see these paintings. The idea that these paintings should sit on the walls of a city traders country pile rather than be available for all to view hardly seems like the essence of socialism to me. Still, it sums up a certain Scottish mindset very well – keep your head down, don't admire anything or any one, never raise your sights and be grateful for what is bestowed upon you by those who know better. Scottish municipal Labourism in a nutshell.

Elsewhere, the Lib Dems continued to bemuse. In Scotland, they want a 6p cut in the basic rate of income tax (2p at Holyrood and 4p at Westminster). If such a cut would be a good thing, I don't know why they don't argue for a 3p cut in Scotland in the first instance, rebalancing matters if they were ever to get their way at Westminster. However, at the same time as calling for these cuts, they refuse to say where the axe should fall. In addition, the party in the North East keeps calling for additional public spending, again without explaining where the money is to come from.

Mike Rumbles' reported theatrical storming out of a pre-budget meeting with John Swinney really does seem to put the tin lid on things. It's pretty clear they didn't want a coalition with the SNP in May 2007, but now, it seems they don't even want to exert any influence over the budget process. Did someone mention the politics of 'grudge and grievance' there? Having hitched their wagon to Calman, it'll be fascinating to see how they cope with being shepherded into the minimalist outcomes which it seems most likely to report.

Then we have the Forth Road Bridge. It was disappointing to see the Treasury appear to rule out the prospect of allowing the Scottish Government to stage the repayments for the replacement bridge over an extended period out of capital allocations which we know will take place in future. With PPP/PFI coming on balance sheet, there is now no advantage to this method of procurement. It'll be interesting to see what stance the Treasury takes in the talks it has offered with the Scottish Government – will provision for long-term borrowing be made, will there be an element of reprofiling, albeit over a timescale shorter than that proposed by the SNP, or will the obstacles to bond issues by the Scottish Government be removed?

I can see a few potential options which might satisfy both Whitehall and St Andrews House, but time, as they say, will tell. However, it's been thoroughly depressing to hear the same old records being played about 'picking fights'. It seems that there's a preferred narrative out there but that regardless of the facts or how ridiculous the accusation is – think Lockerbie, the Glasgow Airport attacks, Council Tax benefit, gaining access to Climate Change Levy funds – some unionist commentators and politicians will do their damnedest to try and crowbar the facts to fit the charge.

Anyway, it's not all been ennui and head shaking. I've also been getting my head down to scribe a book chapter on models of civic nationalism. I'm pleased to report that the (extended) deadline was met – now it's a bit like waiting for the exam marks to be up outside the departmental office. As for this evening, I'm away to an end of festive season party at the home of my election agent. 'Bring your fiddle and a bottle', was the instruction. Given my pre-Christmas drink drive message to the good people of Gordon, I'd better add a sleeping bag to that as well!

Thursday, January 01, 2009