Thursday, 29 July 2010

Donnie "Gazette" - some of the legends are true

I was away last week so wasn't able to mark the retirement of chief reporter Donnie Macinnes from the Stornoway Gazette after more than 40 years holding the fort in Francis Street.

Tales about Donnie - who was a singer in the folk group The Lochies, a comedic double-act with Tom MacIver and a member of the Lochs Gaelic Choir when he wasn't scribing- are almost as legendary as the stories he had to cover over four decades in the Hebrides. No wonder he had no time to be editor, although the post was offered to him several times over.

It's his leaving do tonight which will never be as much of a party as the immortalised ceilidh Donnie once hosted in his hotel room during one of the National Mods, the exact date and location of which is lost in the mists of time.

The after-hours party was well and truly underway when there was a knock on Donnie's bedroom door. Donnie opened it only to be confronted by one of the more pious female members of Lochs Gaelic Choir.

Dishevelled as he was Donnie knew he was in for a lecture, and tried to keep the door half-closed on the sound of laughter, singing and clinking glasses coming from within.

Sure enough the righteous choir member began giving Donnie the third degree on how he should know better and should be setting an example to younger choir members, while all the time peering over his shoulder to try and identify just who and how many were cavorting in Donnie's room at that hour in the evening.

The rebuke went on for a good ten minutes, complete with biblical quotation, before the self-righteous spinster drew her diatribe to a close with the stern warning she had come to deliver in the first place: "And what's more this hotel is on fire."

Thanks, said Donnie, and closed the door absent-mindedly until the words sank in.

Fortunately nearly all the hotel's residents were in Donnie's room at the time so the evacuation was swift, if disorderly.

Donnie was always a delight to be on a story with, full of mischief and never failing to see the hilarious side of things in quite banal or serious situations.

I remember sitting with him one night on the press benches at the height of the BCCI crisis in which the Western Isles Council lost £23 million.(Yes, what Iceland did two years ago we did first in the Hebrides almost two decades ago).

As we watched yet another council meeting descend into rancour and self-loathing, I turned to Donnie in exasperation.

"Have you ever seen anything like this?" I whispered.

"Well," said Donnie, without batting an eyelid. "There was the Iolarie disaster."

All the best, Donnie, don't stop writing.

Will Bord na Cuts do for Bord na Gaidhealtachd?

I was involved in a Radio nan Gaidheal discussion about how deep the cuts that result from the Beveridge review of Scottish government spending could be.

Most of the major pillars of a decade of the Scottish parliament are up for grabs including free care for the (middle class) elderly, subsidised (for the middle class) subscription charges and free university fees.

Murdo Angus MacLeod, my erstwhile debating partner, suggested that local schemes like the Air Fare Discount that operates in the islands and the Road Equivalent Tariff, which makes ferry fares cheaper, could go.

That's good for scaring the audience awake but the cuts could be much worse than that, I argued.

A protracted £42bn spending squeeze over 16 years means massive job losses in the public sector which account for more than a third of all employment in in the Highlands and Islands.

The Beveridge report says that 60,000 jobs will go in the public sector over by 2014 and there's no reason to believe that the Highlands will be exempt.

Afterwards news dropped into my inbox from Ireland, where they have already established their own version of Beveridge to recommend cuts that politicians themselves are not brave enough to suggest.

There the chief executive of Údarás na Gaeltachta, Ireland's equivalent of Highlands and Island Enterprise, has warned that his organisation will no longer exist if the Bord na Snips, as they call it in Dublin, recommendations are carried through.

In Scotland the process of dismantling Highlands and Islands Enterprise is already well under way. The SNP government has taken against it for some reason and the organisation has already seen its budget cut by 43% since 2008. The stringency of the next few years could finish off the job.

Miliband remembers he's shadow Foreign Sec

David Milband has finally got his act together on the Cam diplomatic row, having spend more than two hours this morning (two hours!)in a radio debate with the other Labour leadership candidates.

Milband's best attack line on tv just now: "There is a fine line between speaking your mind and being a loudmouth"

David Miliband says that when Cameron doesn't have an autocue he is only able to tell half the story and that it is not good "that a British PM has to come on the BBC after a press conference to explain what he really meant". (See my previous post)

Milband senior is shaping up as leader in waiting, it has to be said. He's distinguished himself this week as the only one of the candidates to send a message out to the wider electorate in this interminably long selection process.

His move to sign up Gillian Duffy, maligned by Gordon Brown as a "bigot", to his campaign was clever, sending out the message "I listen" and "I'm not the other guy" to the thousands of Gillian Duffys that support Labour and the Tory party across the UK.

Cam - still not governing in boring prose

"I think you should say what you think and be frank and clear," said David Cameron this morning, having left a trail of diplomatic disaster from Constantinople to the Kyber Pass.

Cameron has managed to upset both Israel and Pakistan with comments made while being hosted by the geographical rivals of both countries. Whether this marks a new phase of candour in British diplomacy remains to be seen. From the sound of heads banging desks emanating from the Foreign Office one suspects not.

I noticed last week in Washington that the Prime Minister has a problem not just with megaphone diplomacy but with the calibration and consistency of his message. A small example were his words at Arlington Cemetery, which were briefed to the traveling press beforehand, but with the caveat that we should actually wait until they were spoken because Cameron sometimes prefers to go off-script. The confusion over British withdrawal from Afghanistan is another example, but that involved other people putting their foot in their mouth.

Cameron's trademark is, after all, speaking off the cuff. It's how he won the Tory conference round with that(much rehearsed) no notes performance in 2005.

He speaks in a fluid, relaxed style which comes from being confident with your material and your own ability to deliver it. But while that suited him well in opposition he still appears not to have learned the lesson of having to be absolutely, repetitively, boringly consistent in the office of Prime Minister.

There is a large cohort of literal critics in the press lobby (some literary critics too, no doubt) who can pick up on a single word change and mark it down as a major change in policy. Call them pedants but they interpret any deviation as anything from finetuning policy to a major u-turn. Diplomats are trained in the sensitive interpretation of political statements too which is why so many of them have burst eardrums this week after listening to Cam in Turkey and India.

Friday, 23 July 2010

What next - a US boycott of Scottish food?

Will the senators empty chair MacAskill and Straw next week? Will there be demands for sanctions against Scottish goods, like the "freedom fries" campaign against France during the Iraq invasion?

As it’s Friday, I’ll take the opportunity to republish that full US Homeland Security list of boycotted Scottish products and the advice on how Americans ought to order them in restaurants during the Edinburgh Festival.

Scotch Product - Suggested ordering technique

Scots Porridge - Afghan muesli

Arbroath Smokie - Arbroath smoking gun

Otacakes - Taliban biscuits

Scottish salmon fishcakes - Pinko burgers

Forfar Bridies - IEDs

Haggis and Neeps - Baghdad dhal

Scotch Whisky - Humvee fuel

The Lockerbie boomerang

Why these shortbread-eating surrender monkeys, they'll be saying in Washington today.

I just put my jet-lagged head down for five minutes last night and the Lockerbie story leapt to another chapter.

Salmond, MacAskill and Straw are now being called to give evidence to the Senate committee hearing on Lockerbie. Tony Blair, intriguingly, has been excused duties although a letter was drafted to him.

Predictably, and wisely, everyone is running a mile from this invitation to a hanging.

Whoever turns up in the Senate would carry the can for the depth of US anger over the Gulf of Mexico oilspill which the release of the Lockerbie prisoner has become a lightning rod. And let's face it Kenny MacAskill and Jack Straw - they're no George Galloway.

There will be yellow belly headlines and the anger of US relatives to bear out over the next few days but Salmond, and everyone else, will be strategising how it plays to a domestic audience.

At the time of the release the political forecast was that such a polarising decision would not change Scottish voting intentions too much one way or another.

Those who thought MacAskill made the right call, largely SNP supporters, would stay loyal and those who thought him wrong would carry on voting the other way.

Being reminded of the Lockerbie bomber release won't, I don't think, swing the election but if voters are building a unconscious list in their minds of why they're unhappy with the SNP it will in in there.

The election will be fought over who can best defend Scotland from "Cameron's cuts". Salmond, who can't run on independence and can't boast a great record in government, will present himself as Scotland's champion.

But the defining image of Megrahi's release - the flags over Tripoli welcome - was the beginning of a long boomerang shot that has landed back in the SNP government's lap this week.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Cam's Lockerbie curveball to Salmond

Baltimore, Wednesday afternoon.

On a train bound for New York after what David Cameron must consider a fairly successful Washington leg to his short US tour.

Facing a very difficult start to the day yesterday, with most of the US media and the travelling UK press lobby demanding answers on the Al Megrahi release, Cameron managed to throw what the US baseball commentators call a curveball in the direction of Alex Salmond.

The day should have been all about geo-politics and global economics but the focus was almost entirely on the release of the most notorious prisoner Greenock jail has every held.

At his White House press conference, with the most powerful politician in the world at his side, Cameron managed to de-couple US anger over BP and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

He did this by making sure he thought BP should carry the can for compensation and clean-up in the Gulf while emphasising that it was not the oil company that freed al Megrahi. That, he said, was the Scottish government in Edinburgh.

By offering a review of all the Whitehall papers relating to the case Cameron offered Obama a way out of calling for a full inquiry, as Hilary Clinton and several US senators still demand.

But with Obama saying the answer was simple: "we need all the facts" the pressure piled on Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to reveal the full evidence that led him to his momentous decision to release al Megrahi. The Scottish government insists it has already published as much as it legally can on the case.

Cameron is holding the inquiry card back, carefully wording his responses to leave the door ajar. Tempting as it might be for the Prime Minister to trash the previous government, and Tony Blair in particular, by ordering an investigation into the “deal in the desert” and all it entailed it would also mean dragging BP through the mud at a time when the company is already on its knees.

And who knows where an inquiry would end. As I said on Newsnight Scotland last night with the Lockerbie conviction we are already in a hall of mirrors. There are many people, including relatives of some of the victims, who do not believe that al Megrahi was the bomber at all.

When I returned to the British ambassador's drinks reception from the BBCs' Washington studios Cameron's people allowed themselves a wry smile when they heard Alex Salmond had been on Newsnight and Newsnight Scotland.

I suppose any evening that ends with Alex Salmond having to rush around TV studios defending his Justice Minister's decision while the PM sips cranberry juice can be considered a domestic success by Downing Street.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Mr Cameron goes to Washington, and gets a Scottish hangover

WH1212 is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue today as David Cameron comes stateside for his first official meeting with President Barack Obama.

And what a day to be a Scottish journalist in Washington. The controversial release of Abdelbaset Ali al Meghari by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is dominating Cameron's time here in the capital.

A story the size of Sauchiehall Street has just landed in the West Wing where we're sitting waiting for the joint press conference.

In response to US pressure on the issue Cameron has already asked Cabinet Secretary Gus O' Donnell to review and release all papers relating to the Libyian prisoner.

Many Whitehall documents already have been released under FOI requests but the PM's dictat won't include the full medical evidence that led to MacAskill's decision to release Megrahi.

These are Scottish government papers and in any case medically confidential although that hasn't stopped the Scottish Tories demanding their release again today.

Cameron has just now been holding the line in radio and tv interviews, saying once again that he disagrees with the Scottish government decision to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds.

"I agree with the senators and huge numbers of people not just in America but also in Britain that releasing Megrahi was wrong.

"He was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history. In my view that man should have died in jail full stop, end of. You don't release people convicted of a crime that serious.

"We should be clear about who was responsible for the decision to release him. It was a decision taken by the Scottish government. They believe they followed all the correct processes under their law, and they took that decision and they have to be
the ones held accountable and responsible for it.

"Today I'm asking the Cabinet Secretary in the UK to go back over all the paperwork and see if there's anything that should be released so there's the clearest possible picture out there of what decision was taken and why".

But Cameron left the door open for a Westminster inquiry into Megrahi's
release with a carefully worded answer: "I don't currently think another full inquiry by the British government is necessary. I don't need an inquiry to tell me what I think I already know which is it was a bad decision to release

When Cameron flew into Washington last night, on a commercial flight, he announced he would invite four US senators to a meeting later today (tues) to discuss their concerns over the release of the Lockerbie bomber from a Scottish jail.

Cameron has adjusted the schedule of his first visit to the US because he
says he recognises "the strength of feeling" over the SNP government
decision to free of Abdulbaset Ali al Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

As he touched down in Washington for his first official meeting with US
president Obama Cameron invited New York and New Jersey senators
Bob Menendez, Frank Lautenberg, Charles E Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to
the British residence.

The move is designed to head off growing US anger that is linking the BP
oil spill and lobbying for access to Libyian reserves to the controversial
release of the Megrahi from Greenock jail last year.

The press conference in an hour should all be about standing "shoulder to shoulder" on Afghanistan and tackling the global economic crisis. Obama is the last Kensyian standing in the room calling for governments to spend thier way into growth while Cameron has come to Washington like a Herbert Hoover - the US president who saw the huge deficit caused by the Wall St Crash of 1929 and started cutting spending to pay off the deficit. The result was the Great Depression.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Welcome to New Amsterdam: Stornoway

I was very fortunate to be offered a day's sailing while I was home on Lewis aboard a beautiful yacht that took us from Stornoway, south through the Minch by Kebcock Head, to Scalpay where we came ashore as disorientated as Davie Balfour on Erraid island.

We saw a Minke Whale breach between us and the Shiant Islands, some dolphins and too many seals for my liking. And we feasted on home-smoked mackerel and copious cups of tea.

But the beginning of the voyage was fascinating because of the great perspective sailing at water level gives you of Stornoway harbour.

Stornoway is long renowned as one of the great natural harbours on the west coast of Scotland. It's a huge, sheltered horseshoe bay with the town at the centre of the arc spreading north easterly to Goat Island and the settlements of lower Sandwick.

On the west side of the bay are the magnificent, wooded Castle grounds and then a long stretch of rough moorland to the Arnish oil fabrication yard at the mouth of the bay.

Seeing other yachts arrive for the annual boat festival gave me the impetus, once ashore, to travel out the Arnish road and look back onto the town.

It's a great site - looking in across the bay to the settlement on one side and out into the Minch, beyond the Arnish lighthouse, on the other.

Standing there, with the Arnish harbour to the right and the walkways of the Castle Grounds to the left, it struck me that this is the perfect location for a new town - yes, a brand new town. A New Amsterdam if you like, not on the Hudson but on the Minch.

Like every other small town, 21st century wealth is extending dear Stornoway beyond it's 18th century grid. The New Valley and New Market townships are rapidly becoming an unsightly "rurubia" dormitory of the town with more and more croft land being taken up in a bunglowmania to match Ireland in the boom times.

There is a big planning debate to be had about whether extreme rural areas - Lerwick, Reykjavik and the like - only become viable in terms of social services and infrastructure if people live in large concentrations.

In fact, the debate is almost over - schools and hospitals are already centralising and many of the outlying populations are moving into the towns. Two thirds of the Iceland population lives in the capital, Stornoway itself has become a town of majority Gaelic speakers for the first time as the Maws (the rural islanders) take over the place.

So, the solution for Lewis? To keep building out into the wilds of the Barvas moor as the dormitory townships continue losing any of their village character?

What about a new, planned settlement, firstly of houses, on the Arnish shoreline linked to the town by a great walkway through the Castle grounds and the service road to the oil yard.

The land is extremely rough and boggy, but why build on the land? Pylons and piers and decking and exciting design could give us a series of shoreside homes linked by decks that would be the envy of any Nordic city, where that style of construction is common. There is a fabrication yard on the doorstep with the requisite skills.

A "Staten Island" passenger ferry linking the old and new town would naturally follow as the car-free town grew (Worry not, the 4X4s could be parked behind in piece of reclaimed moorland next to the road).

If the idea sounds too far-fetched go look at Gulberwick, south of Lerwick in Shetland where a fortune must have been spent building a new private housing estate into the side of a steep hill where no one would have practically thought of building before. You look at that scheme, built to meet the kind of demand all rural towns are feeling, and wonder why the houses are not by the water. You look at the Barvas moor and you ask do you want to build on it?

The land for this New Amsterdam is already owned by the community, through the Stornoway Trust. They just need a developer to do the sums and an imaginative group of planners, engineers and architects.

That kind of step of your yacht into your harbour-side home doesn't come cheap, it's not for everyone, but the infrastructure costs could be recouped in house sales and once the initial outlays are met more buildings, hotels and shops, could follow. Build it I say, and they will come.

The Big Society writ large at the Point Show

WH1212 was quiet last week because I was on Lewis. Not that the island was quiet, it was jumping and I was busy between whale watching, planting bushes, visiting relatives and opening the Point Agricultural Show, which was a great honour for any Rubhach. The sun shone on the event and, with the speech over, it was a great day out.

Back in sweltering London I see that David Cameron is making a speech to flesh out the concept of the "Big Society" tomorrow before he sets off for the States. If I clear border control hopefully I'll be going with him.

Funny he should be making a speech about the Big Society, it was the theme I took for my opening remarks to the Point Show. I spoke about that and an idea I had for for micro-housing associations to t rent out empty homes in villages to young people, and a cracking plan to make the biggest family photo album in the world - the Rubhach Album. Here's a flavour of the speech:

"To be honest I don’t know what Tory MPs would make of the Point show. But I think David Cameron could learn a lesson or two from a day like this and a place like Point.

You see when David Cameron talks about the Big Society – his big idea – you get the feeling he’s never seen what he’s talking about.

But I know what he means when he talks about people taking responsibility for their own patch, having respect for their neighbours and their neighbourhood, being involved in the decisions about their own lives.

What he means is this, this place, the small community.

Now around 2000 people and ten miles square some people think Point is a huge community.

I always think of Point the Hong Kong of Lewis - densely packed, inventive, highly competitive and immensely rich compared to it’s neighbours.

In truth it’s about the right size for a community, and the truth is that it works as a community - events like today prove that.

And although we don’t do so much of the hard communal labour that used to bind us -at peats, the harvest, the fank - we still have common interest and the common purpose that bring us together.

That sees Point through good days like this, and has seen Point through bad days in the past and probably bad times in the future.

And there are other things that we sometimes take completely for granted - from the splendor of the Braighe that we cross to get to mainland China to the psalms we sing at church - that make us what we are, a community.

As a journalist I always look for the small detail to give me the big picture, and for me one of these details in Point is the Rubhach magazine.

It’s a great paper but I have to admit, like someone said to me when I joined the Daily Record, I read the pictures first.

The hundreds of photos that appear in the Rubhach each year, everyone carefully named, are great mini stories in themselves. They’re an incredible example of the interaction of the community with its own newspaper, and with itself.

The newspaper industry that I work in, an industry that wonders what the future it has at all, would love to tap into the kind of loyalty.

The kind of trust that allows readers to share their family photos - the things we would run back into a burning house to save - with a local newspaper. It’s amazing but here in Point you do it month in month out without too much thought.

And it is such a precious resource and I hate it when I have to pass the Rubhach on to my sister. I lose the pictures and I’d like to see a permanent record of them

I think it would be great if all these digitized sepia photos could all be uploaded onto a website of their own. It would be a great asset for Point. The Sheshadar website is showing the way, you can see things like the village in a snowstorm in 1976 and people who are no longer with us.

And if you were to do that for Point you could have a map of the peninsula and click on a village, and even click on a house number who lived there and how they are related and how they are connected to you.

And you could get it to show, if you wanted, the military history of this community – you could see photos of John Munro from 23 Swordale, the lost war poet, who won the Military Cross.

Or Lt John MacLeod, 19 Swordale, whose name is not just on the memorial here in Garrabost but another one in Basra, modern day Iraq, where he died fighting in 1916.

Or you could click on school photos, they would all come up by year, by school, in order, and we could see ourselves and our parents and our children grow up in front of our eyes.

I don’t think there’s anything like that in existence yet - in the Highlands of Scotland anyway - but you know Point, always inventive, always first.

And it would be a first - the Rubhach Album - the biggest family photo album in the world.

And while we try to use technology to capture this sense of belonging I know we sometimes wonder if our community is slipping away.

I look at my own village, Swordale, being diminished each season with the passing of the generations. And I hear the uncertainty that creates - when older people do not know who their next neighbours will be when they lived their whole lives up to now with the same neighbours.

I do wonder if we do enough to make sure young adults, who leave to be educated, return to carry our community forwards.

I must admit I wince when students tell me their parents have bought them a flat in Govan or in Aberdeen. Not because its is wrong, its a sensible idea, but I know that because I know that after college is over that is where they will carry on living there and they won’t come back.

And meanwhile the houses in our own villages are emptying quickly.

They are good houses, reasonable houses, and if they belonged to the community, or to a small housing trust with community involvement, they could be looked after and rented out to young, local people

We have to start thinking these kinds of serious thoughts about encouraging young people to come home on their own terms.

That means allowing young people to set up their own home, with their own rules, in our own villages. Because after living in their own place for three years they want independence from the family home.

It’s not an answer, just an idea. Young people need work too. But again I look at my own village and see the expertise there - sea captains, master engineers, health experts, educationalists, craftsmen who have run their own companies for 20 years.

These are people who have a wealth of experience of taking responsibility, of managing other people, delivering projects and creating solutions in the workplace.

For me they are the ideal people to have as directors of small businesses or projects to help young people explore their own ideas for living here.

A big problem like depopulation does not have a big answer. It has a million small answers - from hiring a graduate to put the Rubhach photo archive online to finding a village that has the courage to become its own landlord, and to buy up and refurbish the empty houses and rent them out to young people from the village.

These are not small things, especially when they rely on volunteer effort and community spirit, like this show itself.

I don’t underestimate them. But big challenges need big communities to take them on, and this place is one, this is the real Big Society.

Which is really why David Cameron should be standing here opening the show – maybe next year.

But, on with the show.

You know nothing beats the smell of Point on the day of the Point Show.

If you drive down from Swordale, we are the kings of the hill up there, down through the villages all the way to Aird the air is alive with the wonderful scent.

Not todhar or sheep dip, no, it is a heady aroma of lavender and rosewater and camilla.

It is the combined scent of the finest hair washing products known to man. And none of it goes on human hair. It is all for the sheep.

In years to come when the community windfarm is making millions for the Point –as I know it will if you support it - we should maybe just send the profits directly to Superdrug in Francis St, because they make more money this week on shampoo sales than on any other week of the year.

And that is only for the sheep.

There is knitting and sewing and baking and cows and horses.

There is the effort of a year, the fruits of the summer the harvest of the winter hearth.

And the hopes of a hundred contestants await us. Like my new Conservative friend said - it a right royal show we should get on with it.

So, it is my pleasure to declare the 2010 Point Show open. ‘S math theid leibh."

Friday, 9 July 2010

Now we know who Moore is - the new bogeyman

We've all had that morning after feeling when we wake up and hope that the events of the previous evening were just a nightmare.

Unfortunately for Michael Moore the BBC have invented i-player so he can see himself being booed and barracked and told "to get a grip" by an Edinburgh audience on Question Time all over again.

It was Moore's first major public outing on behalf of the coalition government, and boy did the Secretary of State get a measure of what the Scottish public make of his pact with the Tories.

When he was confronted by a young woman who faces homelessness because of cuts in housing benefit he didn't really have an answer.

It was the sight of a man perplexed. In his heart Moore is on her side, in his coalition deal he is cutting her benefit and creating more economic problems for the poor of the country than he will ever solve.

It is the story of the Lib Dems in one toe-curling piece of television. A few minutes later Moore was booed by the audience, a fairly rare event on Question Time.

Ironically, sitting next to Moore was the Conservative peer Michael Forsyth, who until last night was reckoned to have been the most unpopular Secretary of State for Scotland. The body language was interesting. Forsyth just sat back and watched Moore take the flak, I didn't see them operating as a team.

For the Lib Dems this is frightening. Their Conservative colleagues may pour oil in their ears that their majorities are big enough in Scotland to withstand any erosion of their vote because of the consequences of the brave but unpopular decisions they have to make. Last night's viewing signals a different story.

The mistake Moore kept making is using defensive language about "difficult decisions" and expecting to get credit for it. People know that politics is actually about difficult choices, and Moore saw last night that his party might have made the wrong one.

Great audience, by the way, that kept the panel on their toes, all of them, and didn't go parochial as Question Time sometimes goes when it tours Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

And I love the cut-aways that caught Moore and Forsyth sneering at Ed Byrne, the Irish comedian on the panel, before he had opened his mouth properly.

Yet, agree with him or not, Byrne wiped the floor with the pair of them in getting his point and his politics across.

It's called communication and in that race Moore lost out. The night was won by the woman from Edinburgh who floored him with one blow and told the Secretary of State to "get a grip".

UPDATE: I hear the Lib Dem leader of Liverpool City Council is warning today that the party will disappear inside five years thanks to the coalition with the Tories.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Michael Moore - if you passed him in the street...?

I did wonder at Prime Minister's Questions today whether Michael Moore has yet realised that he is actually a member of the cabinet.

He stood at the bar of the house, the far away end from the Speaker, and then popped up again behind the Speaker's chair, at the other end. As Secretary of State for Scotland he should be sitting on the front bench along with his Tory cabinet colleagues.

But then it seems he's not alone in forgetting that he is a Minister. The Times newspaper devoted a page today to civil service cuts and illustrated the story with one of these generic pictures of people walking up and down Whitehall. The caption reads: "...tens of thousands of civil servants lose their jobs"

But wait a minute, who's that in the front of the picture texting while walking up the most famous street in politics? It's none other than Scotland's man in Dover House, Michael Moore - totally anonymous.

Of course the Times is now locked behind a paywall so I can't refer you there but hats off for a great spot by Alex Barker at the FT Blog

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Austerity fever hits 40% - the Krugman diagnosis

Crazy talk this Sunday morning, and not just about the life chances of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, who could live for 10 years or longer or will die within weeks, depending on which Sunday newspaper you read.

Thinking about it you could insert anyone's name into that sentence and the story would be the same. But, hey-ho Sunday shift, so the story has to be checked out.

No, the real crazy talk this morning is about the proposed 40% cut in government spending that Whitehall departments are being told to brace themselves, and us, for.

It's a great Sunday story which leaves the dailies trying to work out how much of this is bluff, to make the eventual cuts seem a relief, and how much of it represents the zeal of the chancellor unleashed. Mostly bluff, we're beginning to conclude, which is not to say that cuts of 25% down to 10% will not be eye watering enough.

Coincidentally, or not, one of my correspondents passes on a piece by Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and now New York Times columnist, on the Myth of Austerity

It is as sound and entertaining an argument as can be mustered against this notion that cuts need to be deep, savage and immediate - which the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is trying to turn into conventional thinking. Even the Lib Dems are mouthing "unavoidable", but with less convincing sincerity than your average Brazilian soap opera actor.

Anway, over to you Professor Krugman:

Myths of Austerity

Paul Krugman (Nobel winning Economist)

When I was young and naïve, I believed that important people took positions based on careful consideration of the options. Now I know better. Much of what Serious People believe rests on prejudices, not analysis. And these prejudices are subject to fads and fashions.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s column. For the last few months, I and others have watched, with amazement and horror, the emergence of a consensus in policy circles in favor of immediate fiscal austerity. That is, somehow it has become conventional wisdom that now is the time to slash spending, despite the fact that the world’s major economies remain deeply depressed.

This conventional wisdom isn’t based on either evidence or careful analysis. Instead, it rests on what we might charitably call sheer speculation, and less charitably call figments of the policy elite’s imagination — specifically, on belief in what I’ve come to think of as the invisible bond vigilante and the confidence fairy.

Bond vigilantes are investors who pull the plug on governments they perceive as unable or unwilling to pay their debts. Now there’s no question that countries can suffer crises of confidence (see Greece, debt of). But what the advocates of austerity claim is that (a) the bond vigilantes are about to attack America, and (b) spending anything more on stimulus will set them off.

What reason do we have to believe that any of this is true? Yes, America has long-run budget problems, but what we do on stimulus over the next couple of years has almost no bearing on our ability to deal with these long-run problems. As Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, recently put it, “There is no intrinsic contradiction between providing additional fiscal stimulus today, while the unemployment rate is high and many factories and offices are underused, and imposing fiscal restraint several years from now, when output and employment will probably be close to their potential.”

Nonetheless, every few months we’re told that the bond vigilantes have arrived, and we must impose austerity now now now to appease them. Three months ago, a slight uptick in long-term interest rates was greeted with near hysteria: “Debt Fears Send Rates Up,” was the headline at The Wall Street Journal, although there was no actual evidence of such fears, and Alan Greenspan pronounced the rise a “canary in the mine.”

Since then, long-term rates have plunged again. Far from fleeing U.S. government debt, investors evidently see it as their safest bet in a stumbling economy. Yet the advocates of austerity still assure us that bond vigilantes will attack any day now if we don’t slash spending immediately.

But don’t worry: spending cuts may hurt, but the confidence fairy will take away the pain. “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect,” declared Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, in a recent interview. Why? Because “confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery.”

What’s the evidence for the belief that fiscal contraction is actually expansionary, because it improves confidence? (By the way, this is precisely the doctrine expounded by Herbert Hoover in 1932.) Well, there have been historical cases of spending cuts and tax increases followed by economic growth. But as far as I can tell, every one of those examples proves, on closer examination, to be a case in which the negative effects of austerity were offset by other factors, factors not likely to be relevant today. For example, Ireland’s era of austerity-with-growth in the 1980s depended on a drastic move from trade deficit to trade surplus, which isn’t a strategy everyone can pursue at the same time.

And current examples of austerity are anything but encouraging. Ireland has been a good soldier in this crisis, grimly implementing savage spending cuts. Its reward has been a Depression-level slump — and financial markets continue to treat it as a serious default risk. Other good soldiers, like Latvia and Estonia, have done even worse — and all three nations have, believe it or not, had worse slumps in output and employment than Iceland, which was forced by the sheer scale of its financial crisis to adopt less orthodox policies.

So the next time you hear serious-sounding people explaining the need for fiscal austerity, try to parse their argument. Almost surely, you’ll discover that what sounds like hardheaded realism actually rests on a foundation of fantasy, on the belief that invisible vigilantes will punish us if we’re bad and the confidence fairy will reward us if we’re good. And real-world policy — policy that will blight the lives of millions of working families — is being built on that foundation.

If you've read this far and have an appetite for more I suggest the Krugman blog and follow the click through there for a NY Times report on the situation in Ireland.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

May 5th 2011 - Super-Thursday PR referendum and Holyrood vote

Breaking news all in tomorrow's Daily Record

A REFERENDUM on proportional representation will be held next May on the same day as the election for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, it emerged last night.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg - the Lib Dem leader - is due to announce that the referendum will be held on Thursday 5th May 2011.

A Westminster government source said holding the referendum on the same day as the Scottish parliament and English local government elections should improve voter turnout.

But the last vote for Holyrood, held on the same day as the Scottish council elections, ended in chaos when voters became confused between ballot papers. An inquiry called for the council and parliament votes to be separated

As a result the Scottish councils don’t go to the polls again until 2012.

Last night Labour warned that the chaos of the 2007 vote could be repeated and the SNP said bouncing Scotland into a Super-Thursday vote for the Holyrood election and PR reform would amount to a “dis-respect agenda”

A spokesman for the First Minister Alex Salmond said: “David Cameron talks about a respect agenda but it would be dis-respect to have a vote on the same day without a single word of consultation with the Scottish parliament.”

But the Lib Dems are desperate to rush through a referendum before the cuts outlined in the budget begin to make the coalition government deeply unpopular in the country and amongst their own supporters.

Clegg made a change from the current first past the post system a key demand of the agreement which took the Lib Dems into coalition with the Tories after the general election.

He has now won the cabinet battle on the timing of the referendum. Although the Tories will allow a referendum to go ahead David Cameron’s party is free to campaign against a change in the voting system.

Under the proposed AV system, voters rank candidates in order of preference and anyone getting more than 50% in the first round is elected.

If that does not happen, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters' second choices allocated to the remaining candidates. This process continues until a winner emerges.

The referendum is linked to a Tory proposal to make constituencies more evenly sized with an average of 70,000 voters, a move which could see up to five Scottish seats disappear.

The Lib Dems are certain to back the AV referendum. The three front runners in the race for the Labour leadership, David and Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, are also in favour but Labour are bound to ask if they should not campaign against the proposal in order to crack open the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

Labour’s Shadow Scotland Office minister Ann McKechin last night called for clarity and consultation with the Scottish parliament.

She said: "Nick Clegg must get this right and have urgent discussions with MSPs in Holyrood before making a final announcement.

"The Gould report into the last Holyrood elections warned of the dangers of holding two elections with different methods of voting on the one day.

"Unless this is done properly, there is a real risk of electoral chaos.

"The Lib Dems have to work with political leaders in Scotland and I will be seeking urgent clarification from the Government about what on earth they are planning."

The referendum announcement also raises the issue of a vote on Scottish independence,planned by the SNP.

A spokesman for Alex Salmond said a PR referendum makes it “utterly impossible for the London-based parties to oppose holding a referendum on Scotland’s future.”

The spokesman added: “This piles the pressure on the London parties. The penalty for opposing a referendum on Scottish independence will be paid in the ballot box next May.”

Alex Salmond’s minority SNP government proposes holding a referendum on independence next March at the same time as Wales votes on more powers for the Welsh Assembly. But the nationalists have still not managed to marshall a majority in Holyrood to pass a bill paving the way to a vote.