Friday, July 31, 2009

Top 10

A last-minute dash to the polling station in the Total Politics Top Ten Blogs Poll has yielded the following selection from the Ellon judge:

1. Blether With Brian

All right, he's being paid to do it, but Brian Taylor still sets the standard I'd like to achieve for myself when I decide to be even-handed.

2. Mr Eugenides

He probably doesn't need the vote, but then, who really does?

3. SNP Tactical Voting

Quality and quantity. The undisputed king of nat pack bloggers.

4. Lallands Peat Worrier

Witty, erudite, cultured and always bang on the money. Wouldn't be surprised to learn that he's kind to animals and phones his mother every week as well. His picture is to be found both prominent and hole-ridden on my dartboard in consequence.

5. Clairwill

Thought-provoking and often plain laugh-out-loud funny.

6. The Steamie

Lets David Maddox show that there's more to his repertoire than simply knocking politicians as hard as he can. Also allows Geri Peev to be more prolific, which is always a good thing in my book.

7. Bill Cameron

A place where I find disagreement without disagreeableness.

8. Adam Price

Quite possibly the cleverest MP in the country. Certainly one of the best public speakers, and definitely the most thought provoking blogger in Westminster.

9. Alex Massie

The best thing about the Spectator Coffee House.

10. Leaves on the Line

Didn't get where he is today by wearing underpants decorated with Beethoven, apparently. Another favourite read.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Social Unions

I entrusted myself to the tender mercies of Nationalised Express this weekend to make a visit to London. The occasion was the wedding of two of my friends, Tom and Jacqui, with whom I used to share a house when I stayed in the city. There was never any question of me missing their wedding. Tom and Jacqui are both very dear friends of mine, with whom I always try to hook up on the infrequent occasions I'm down there now.

Their friendship got my experience of London back on an even keel following an early bad flat experience. Politically, it was an interesting house in which to live. Tom and Jacqui met while working as researchers in the House of Commons – he for a Tory and she for a Labour MP. With a Lib-Dem sympathising lodger and myself as an SNP staffer in tow, we very nearly had the full set represented.

Their wedding was a spectacular affair. The church was grander than many a Cathedral I've visited and the mass, with the addition of a choir, was a world away from the rather more austere, if for me familiar surroundings of the Kirk. Officers from Tom's TA unit provided a guard of honour, before we headed off to the Terrace of the House of Commons for the reception.

However, it was the previous evening which provided a cameo as touching as the wedding itself. Heading pubwards up Shaftesbury Avenue around 9pm, we passed Soho Fire Station. There, in one of the doorways, were two firefighters standing behind a table, collecting for Ewan Williamson of the Lothian and Borders Brigade, who tragically lost his life on July 12 tacking a blaze in Edinburgh's Dalry Road - not far from where I went to school.

Those London firefighters most likely never knew Ewan, but that's not the point. It could just have easily been one of their own watch members who had left a family behind in the line of duty, which is why they were there, collecting change from the late night revellers for someone whom through the bonds of the job they regarded as one of their own.

If it's possible to be both humbled and uplifted in the same moment, that's how what remained of our evening began.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Taking Kerrful Aim

It's official, then. With the Labour Government voting down the SNP attempt this afternoon to move the writ for the Glasgow North East by-election, the constituency is going to be left without Westminster representation at a time when job losses in the seat are at the top of the political agenda. Had the bid been successful, a poll could have been held on August 20th - long after the holidays had finished. Compare and contrast Labour's reticence and tactical disarray with their dash last summer in Glasgow East, or the impending contest in Norwich.

Consistent? Only in pursuit of what the Labour Party perceives to be its own best interests. Anyway, with lurid headlines about supposed 'meltdown' now wrapping chips and in the knowledge that we're in for a marathon rather than a sprint, it's maybe worth sharing some thoughts about the SNP candidate, David Kerr – a guy I've known for well over a decade, from when we were both in the Federation of Student Nationalists.

The first time I recall encountering him was at a meeting of the Federation's National Council in Dundee in the mid-90's. Right from the off, it seemed pretty clear that he was someone who was going to go places in life. Turned out in a suit while the rest of us slummed it in jeans and rumpled shirts, he reported on his role as a representative to the party Executive.

Speaking fluently and without notes, he held court for a good ten minutes, keeping eye contact with delegates all the time, making it seem as if he was speaking to every person in the room, rather than just a group. Issues had been long mastered, with their complexities distilled elegantly. Even the most pointed questions were handled with courtesy and a slightly wicked but genial humour. By the end of his stint, someone whom a fair number of those present had began by regarding with suspicion had the room eating out of his hand.

His integrity, personal charm and obvious ability ensured that he was held in the highest regard by all sections of the party, even in the old and unlamented pre-devolution days when being regarded as a 'fundamentalist' or a 'gradualist' still mattered. With his ability to communicate, it was no real surprise when he joined the BBC, and even less so when his name began to appear in the credits of Newsnight as the programme's producer.

The biggest surprise, at least for me, was that he 'broke cover' to contest the Falkirk West by-election just as network greatness seemed to be calling. He almost pulled it off as well. However, there's no second prizes in politics and despite his proven impartiality at the Beeb, the career options at the corporation for an unsuccessful SNP candidate were sadly limited. Reading the football scores – BBC Scotland's answer to Siberia - was to be his most public task for a long time afterwards.

I've no doubt whatsoever that David is a candidate whom Labour fear, which likely goes a long way towards explaining some of the nonsense we've seen in the papers over the past few days. They would be wise to do so. His ability to connect with people means he's as happy singing karaoke or calling bingo as he'd be debating the finer points of the Lisbon Treaty. In David, the SNP has a candidate of uncommon ability, who will have no difficulty keeping the focus where it should be – on Labour's appalling record in Glasgow.

As one lady of a certain age put it to me back when he was cutting his candidate's teeth in Falkirk, 'that boy's got it all'. He certainly has, and I can't help but feel it's not going to be to Labour's advantage to give him until November to prove it on the stump in Glasgow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Made To Give A Flying Pluck

There’s few more useful skills in life than knowing how to complain properly when things go wrong.

I’m not talking about shouting your head off at some poor underpaid and under-empowered customer service rep, or writing a snarky, self-satisfied letter guaranteed to elicit something equally unhelpful in return. Rather, it’s all about sticking to what’s relevant; not personalising the issue; carrying yourself with a courteous assertiveness and where appropriate, using the right amount of humour.

Having spent a few years working in the complaints department of a big Edinburgh life assurer after leaving university, I know of what I speak. Similarly, having also spent a few years dragging myself and my violin across various continents, when it comes to airlines and musical instruments, I also know of what I speak in this regard.

Luckily, I’ve never had any mishaps. BA has always been excellent, as has Air France. Bizarrely, the worst experience was when I was about to fly from Gatwick to Miami to join a ceilidh band aboard a P&O cruise ship. Despite P&O having chartered the plane for the entertainers joining the ship, a member of the cabin crew was adamant that I wasn’t getting on with my violin since "it could be used as a weapon" (??!), and that it would have to go in the hold instead.

After explaining gently that this really wasn’t a good idea and pointing out that she’d already let another violinist past without demur, off she went to consult with the pilot, never to be seen again. It did make me wonder exactly how she expected me to use it as a weapon, though. Perhaps there’d been a recent spate of violinists bursting into the cockpit mid-flight yelling ‘Fly me to Tehran or I’ll play you something you won’t like’…

Anyway, given the way that baggage gets thrown about, the idea of ground staff chucking fragile and valuable instruments about with no care for their condition fills me with horror. Luckily, a violin can fit in the overhead luggage locker quite happily if the crew and check in staff are agreeable. However, when it comes to something like a guitar, it’s a different story.

Which brings us to our tale. Canadian band ‘Sons of Maxwell’ were en route to Nebraska via Chicago’s o’Hare airport using United Airlines. While on the plane, they spotted ground staff throwing their guitars about on the tarmac. Unsurprisingly, upon reaching their destination, one of the guitars was broken.

Equally unsurprisingly, the band complained and demanded compensation. After a few months of procrastination, United finally said ‘No’ and refused to discuss the matter further. Big mistake – for instead of getting mad or calling their lawyer, the band decided to get even and recorded the following track, which is fast on its way to becoming a YouTube hit:

Anyway, all’s well that ends well. After seeing the video and sensing that they might be about to have a major public relations disaster on their hands, United has decided to reconsider its position and is now in serious talks about compensation. The airline has even gone so far as to ask if it can use the video as part of their staff training. If only the handling of their ground staff had been so adroit to begin with.

So, full marks to Sons of Maxwell for making their point with humour and dignity, and full marks to United for belatedly righting a wrong. I can’t see the songwriter replacing the solicitor any time soon, but it’s still a nice note on which to end the week.

(With thanks to the blogless Russell Horn for the hat tip earlier today)

UPDATE: The band has just posted this short video which brings the story up to date and thanks everyone for their support. It's always nice to see a happy ending where the good guys win and the 'baddie' manages to redeem himself.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

So, Was That It?

So, was that it, then? The Calman Commission – the grand Unionist masterplan – the one which was going to stymie independence and the SNP? The Commission which began with no preconceptions, except that Independence was a bad idea? The Commission that no unionist party saw fit to argue for before the SNP took power? The Commission, in short, designed to improve upon what was already perfection?

You must surely have seen the ecstatic crowds, the cheering throngs ever grateful for being spared the burden of being asked their opinion in advance, hoisting Peerie Kenny aloft? The sundry 3 cheers for Iain, Tavish and Annabel? The melodious sound of a band striking up the Unionist jig to which Alex Salmond would now surely be made to dance?

Nope? Me neither.

Forget all the hokum, flim-flam and flapdoodle about this being an 'intellectually rigorous report'. It's nothing of the kind. Quite simply, it is the result of empty minds being brought to a problem which essentially has no right answer. It is the lowest common denominator solution to how far Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are prepared to allow Holyrood to progress, carrying with it the pseudo-scientific conceit of being somehow 'evidence based'.

Ah, I hear you cry! But surely there were all sorts of brainy Professors involved! Iain McMillan was there to speak for the CBI! There was even a big Brother contestant to make sure that the kids were who they were down with! How can you be so cynical about such a stellar panel of critical, enquiring minds?

Easy. Just look at the proposals for financial powers – in fact, you needn't bother looking all that closely at all - and it will explode any vestige of belief that we might be dealing with any kind of worthwhile analysis here. Half of income tax revenues raised in Scotland are to stay in Scotland, we hear, in order to improve accountability. Well, cock-a-doodle-doo. What happens in a recession when income tax receipts fall? Why not broaden the base by supplementing this with VAT or Corporation Tax revenues? Why is it a good idea to tether the basic and top rates so that they cannot be altered independently of one another? More to the point, why no control over the North Sea tax regime? Really, if it happens it will be a Potemkin power – there for show and nothing else.

The problem with this power, as many eminent economists have pointed out, including some of those on Calman’s expert committee, is that it removes the certainty of the block grant without substituting it for the benefits of full fiscal autonomy. Without an enhanced funding base, Calman’s funding proposals have the potential to do more harm than good.

While proposals to devolve control over air guns and drink drive limits are welcome, let's not forget that these are areas where the SNP was accused in the past of 'picking fights'. Together with proposals to transfer animal welfare (remember the shenanigans over foot and mouth?), it seems that these are matters which perhaps should, in the opinion of the supreme arbiter, be devolved after all. Is this vindication for the SNP here, or is it simply an approach which owes more to reading back through the papers than any attempt to work out what the best division of responsibilities might be within a union state?

It's exactly the sort of timid and irrelevant stodge you'd expect to get when you seek the resultant of the politically inept but nonetheless enormously self-important great and good. And for that, the SNP should probably be grateful – after all, it now means that people can see exactly how little difference 'more powers' would actually make. This is as little as the British State is prepared to concede – if you want more, you're going to have to vote SNP and keep the prospect of independence at the top of the agenda – it really is the only language they speak.

Even then, as one Commission member put it, 'The potential for long grass is considerable'. How true – the Conservative Scottish Parliamentary Group is split on the matter, while you assume that the Lib Dems would have preferred it to go much further. Meanwhile, Labour are back to their old tricks again, with Jim Murphy claiming that the Scottish Parliament funded report is the 'property' [I kid you not] of the British Government and the parties party to the Commission. Despite there being unanimous agreement across Holyrood about the implementation of certain powers, according to Labour the report can only be implemented as a whole, and to suggest otherwise is SNP politicking.

Which must be news to Calman himself, who has said publicly that elements could be progressed fairly quickly. Meanwhile, there may not be sufficient parliamentary time left to allow Labour to implement any or even some of what has been recommended. Irony of ironies, it may be left to a future Prime Minister Cameron to implement the scheme on behalf of a party that has never entirely come to terms with the devolution we already have.

It promises to be an interesting aperitif to the independence referendum or the 2011 election – whichever comes first.