Wednesday 26 November 2008

Scots to the fore at PMQs

Big Scottish presence through the entire half hour of Prime Minister’s Questions today. We, the media, rarely record it but on each occasion there is a death in the armed forces in Afghanistan or Iraq, and it is almost on a weekly basis, the leaders of each party pay tribute to the fallen. Today it was Marine Alec Lucas, from, Peebles, who was mentioned by both Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

David Cameron is pretty fluid at PMQs and may have won his set but it was Gordon Brown who dominated the session, raising a laugh for once and trashing the Tories with another lecture on economics.

The Scots dominated in the questions too, if only because the Conservatives have been asking the same questions - did the Prime Minister cause boom and bust - for the last three weeks.

Following on from his peroration on Newsnight John McFall, chairman of the Treasury select committee, rose to ask the Prime Minister to get all the bankers in the land into a room and bang their heads together on starting to lend money.

“You need to get them into a room and collectively and simultaneously ensure that they resume that lending,” said Mr McFall, reflecting the parliamentary anger on this issue. Dennis Skinner punched a clenched fist into an open palm for those of us who are hard of hearing.

It was Ian Davidson, Glasgow South West, who delivered the punch of the day- claiming the “rich kids” on the opposite side didn’t get the seriousness of the economic situation. “Would you agree that it is easy for those who have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths not to want to do anything, and that real people want some action taken,” said Mr Davidson. “Will you tell us what you are doing internationally with other countries to get us out of this crisis?”

This gave Gordon Brown an opportunity to mention, in passing , that the G20 will meet in London on April 2nd and that one Barack Obama will be present.

Off the subject of economics Tom Clarke, (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) asked about troop deployments in the Congo. When Siobhain McDonagh (she has Scottish friends) rose to ask a question it was only confirmation that the Labour troops would now die in ditch for the Prime Minister they had written off less than six months ago.

Mark Lazarowicz,(Edinburgh North and Leith), rose to complain about credit card cheques, “the most pernicious ways of trapping vulnerable people into debt”, and the Prime Minister said the Business Secretary would look into it.

No intervention from the SNP but Angus Robertson (Moray) has his teeth into this U-turn on duty on whisky - up to 8% but now down to 4% so he’ll be having a go at Alistair Darling (Edinburgh South West) in the ongoing debate on the PBR

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Alistair Darling's sleepwalking spell

My parliamentary sketch, from today's Herald which has a whole section on the Pre-Budget report.

"I blame Baron Baker of Dorking - you'll remember him as Kenneth Baker, the old Tory home secretary. I don't hold him personally responsible for the world economic crash that took us to this pretty pass, oh no, but it was him who yawned first, within five minutes of Alistair Darling getting to his feet.

You know what it's like. One person yawns, then another, and before you know it the whole place is nodding off, sleepwalking through £20bn of expenditure and the biggest borrowing spree since the beginning of time.

Officially this was a statement to end of the Age of Irresponsibility and mark the beginning of an Age of Austerity. It could have been the beginning of the Age of Aquarius as far as most of the audience was concerned; it seemed to last forever.

Baron Baker wasn't on his own, the whole row of Lords, snug in their gallery above the Commons floor, were in the race to be the first to nod off. Only the ex-chancellor, Lawson, and Lord Forsyth (still so avowedly Thatcherite that he forces himself to get by on four hours sleep a night) managed to remain alert.

Now we know what Alistair Darling was doing spending all that time locked in the Treasury. He was practising the correct pitch for a speech that would put the House of Commons to sleep.

The effect wasn't immediately obvious. When he started his sonorous statement the Tories jeered in a perfunctory way whenever he emphasised that the economic crisis had started in America. But soon they were hushed by the shepherd of Bernera.

Michael Fabricant, the outrageously blond Tory, kicked against the drug but he too was silenced with the help of Mr Speaker. Michael Moore, the Scottish LibDem, managed stay awake, or asleep on his feet, at the entrance to the chamber, for the entire speech. The rest of us fought for consciousness and calculators as the numbers tumbled out.

On and on he droned and with a few billion here, a few billion there, a spell of somnolence fell across the chamber. He sped up only once, when reading the figures for national borrowing. How much was that?

Obviously there were some exceptions. Mrs Darling, the Chancellor's wife, sat in the upper gallery, rapt, but in front of her the rows of Lords, people who sleep for a living, were among the first victims.

When Mr Darling announced his red and Sherwood Green credentials - robbing the rich to pay the poor - the Labour benches could only be prodded awake for a delusory cheer. This was meant to be a symbolic moment guys, the return of socialism - wake up!

At one stage only George Osborne, Stewart Hosie for the SNP and Vince Cable were taking notes because they were speaking next. In fact, Vince was not taking notes, he already knows the answers.

Outside the immediate environs the spell did not work, though. The financial markets shot up and in TV studios graphs showing national debt shot upwards too.

It took George "danger UXB" Osborne to jolt people back to life. A voice as shrill as a Monday morning alarm clock, the shadow Chancellor accused Mr Darling of being addicted to borrowing. He was wrong, on figures like that it is borrowing that is addicted to Alistair Darling. It seems we are in hock for £458bn between now and 2013, and that's being optimistic.

For those of you who slept through the whole thing let me put that figure in some perspective - it's a huge sum of money.

Oh, I've just checked, the Age of Aquarius lasts only 2150 years and I'm sure Darling's statement took longer than that. Or is that the year the debt will be paid off, or the year of the next election? Anyway, the figures are a nightmare.

What's that? Wake you up when it's all over? Some hope.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Carson tha pris na h-ola air tuiteam?

Leis gu bheil pris na h-ola air tuiteam mu cheud agus leth cheud sa coig dolar ($155), tha impidh ga chuir air companaidhean dealain 's gas na prìsean acasan a' thoirt a-nuas. Tha eolaichean a’ tomhais gum faodadh gach dachaigh ceud gu leth not a shabahladh sa bhliadhna, nan tigeadh prìsean sios a-reir prìs na h-ola.

Ach carson a tha pris na h-ola air tuiteam co-dhiu? Diofar adhbharan. Tha i an duigh fhein sios gu leth cheud sa coig dolar ($55) am barail agus tha sin direach mar dhearbhadh air a’ bhuaidh a tha aig staing a’ chreideis air eaconomaidhean air feadh an t-saoghail.

Tha a’ phris a-reir an iarratais a tha ann airson na h-ola agus fiu’s ann an Siona agus na Innsean tha meud an ola a tha iad a’ cleachdadh a’ tuiteam fhad ‘s a tha na eaconomaidhean aca gun a’ goil mar a bha iad.

Cuideachd tha a’ phris mothachail air staid an t-saoghail - cogaidhean agus stoirmean poileataigeach agus stoirmean nadarrach - agus tha i sios agus suas a-reir an dolair agus nam margaidhean, na hedge funds, a bha a’ ceannach is a’ reic ola airson prothaid. Chan eil iad ris a’ chleas sin a-nis. Seo nis, caran trath airson searmon goirid air economics, ach sin as coireach gu bheil a’ phris a’ tuiteam.

S e an duilgheadas nach eil an sluagh a’ faighinn moran buannachd as an seo. Tha mi a’ faicinn pris peatroil sios - tha e ceithir fichead sa sia deug sgillin an litear an seo ann an Lunnainn - ach chan eil soidhne gu bheil prisean gas neo dealain anns na dachaighean againn tighinn a-nuas.

Cuimhnich gun deach prisean suas da fhichead per cent an uiridh. Chan eil fhios agam an tig iad air ais cho iosal agus sa bha iad a’ chaoidh.

Tha a’ phris airson gas agus dealain fhathast ard airson na companaidhean sa mhargaid slan-reic, neo wholesale - sin an leisgeul aca, agus cha thuit prisean gun a’ Bhliadhna Ur.

Acch tha na eolaichean eaconamach a’ cumail a-mach gum bu choir ceithir gu leth billean not thighinn bho phrisean blathachadh dhachaighean a-reir an isleachaidh ann am pris na h-ola.

Tha Rùnaire a' Chumhachd Ed Milliband air a bhith a' cuir cuideam air companaidhean geta na prisean aca a thoirt sios. Aig coinneamh an latha riomh dh’aontaich iad gu feumach na prisean a thighin sios. Esan ag iarraidh glusad ro am an Nollaig neo beachdaidh e air lughan ur a bheir orra na prisean ioslachadh. Chan eil fios agam an tachair sinn.

Ach aon rud tha sinn cinnteach as se an "winter fuel allowance". Dha cheud gu leth not airson painsearean a tighinn a dhachair, agus tha duil gun dead sinn an ard anns a mini-budget aig a chancellor an seachdan sa tighinn.

Taing do Eilidh Dhubh

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Strictly between ourselves

John Sergeant's decision to quit Strictly Come Dancing, on the grounds that there was a serious chance of actually winning, is the talk of the steamie down here.

Ben Brogan, of the Mail, and formerly of this parish, speculates that Vincent Cable, Hazel Blears or even Peter Mandelson may be parachuted in as late replacements. I know Hazel Blears has a prior appointment at the Glasgow University debating union this week and Mandelson has ruled himself out and urged the former BBC political editor onwards with the following statement:

"John Sergeant should not bow out. He has become the People's John Travolta and he should be a fighter not a quitter." - Peter Mandelson.

Genuine quote. So over to you Vince.

That BNP list in full

"Rud a tha anns a' bhaile mhor, thoisich e anns a' bhaile bheag".

You won't find it here but disappointingly there are a few BNP members on Skye and at least one on the Isle of Lewis and a scattering of supporters in Inveress. There's even a BNP member on Islay.

The irony is that most of the surnames look as if they are immigrants to the area themselves but that's not to say racism isn't alive and well in the Highlands, with or without the BNP.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Spring is in the air - Con 40%, Lab 37%

Is that a Spring 2009 election I see in the near distance?

This from PA:

"Gordon Brown has slashed the Conservative lead in the polls to just three
points, according to a survey released today.
The Ipsos Mori November Political Monitor put David Cameron's Tories on 40% -
down five points on a similar poll by the same organisation last month - and
Labour up seven points on 37%. Liberal Democrats were on 12% (down two).
Public satisfaction with the Prime Minister also showed a sharp increase over
the month. While half (50%) remained dissatisfied with Mr Brown, the figure was
down nine points from last month and 19 since September.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's satisfaction rating has risen six points since
October to 41%, while satisfaction with the Government improved by seven points
to 32%, with 59% remaining dissatisfied (down from 69% last month).
The three-point gap between the two biggest parties is the closest recorded by
any major poll since March, and represents a dramatic fightback by Labour, which
as recently as September was regularly trailing by more than 20 points.
It suggests that Labour has benefited from Mr Brown's response to the financial
crisis, which saw him attend the emergency summit of world leaders in Washington
last weekend amid widespread expectation of tax cuts in next week's Pre-Budget

Friday 14 November 2008

Travels in Obamaland

New York Dispatch

“Wish you were here” is the headline on the New York Daily News, next to an obligatory picture of Barack Obama. The story is about the G20 meeting in Washington and how the other world leaders wish the President Elect were there.

“We want Bam, not his aides” say disappointed world leaders, according to the brash tabloid that tries to capture the spirit of the Big Apple in print.

Mr Obama has dispatched Madeleine Albright and former Republican Jim Leach to the G20 in listen and report mode but the 19 heads of state at the conference, the EU is the 20th attendee, all want to see the man.

Although this attempt at re-ordering the wold economy is essentially Mr Bush’s last hurrah nothing much that comes out of it will be certain without a nod from the new President when he takes office in January.

With the weekend conference being simultaneously hailed as historic and a non-event it is understandable how others might want to cast themselves as the fiscal stimulus substitute the event demands.

Enter Mr Brown from across the Atlantic. He understands the subject, he’s hailed by Nobel prize economists, but he has noticeably backed off the over the top rhetoric from earlier in the week when he claimed, in his Guild Hall speech, that Britain was leading the world on recapitalising banks and giving a fiscal kick to the ailing economy.

Backing Mr Brown is the current EU president, France;’s Mr Zarkozy. The French president has spoken to Mr Obama, has found common ground on financial transparency. But the European approach is collaborative but there is no guarantee that Mr Obama, although a Democrat, will want to join a cosy club that reforms the IMF and World Bank and diminishes US influence.

Wisely Mr Obama has left it to Mr Bush,who was signalled he would resist heavy handed regulation of the markets, to be the bearer of disappointing news to the summit.

Obama is still keeping his tinder dry, and so the world waits in anticipation. In New York there are still no signs of Obamamania faltering on the streets. At the newstands you can still buy the New York Times with the November 5th dateline recording the historic victory proving there’s no news like old news. Editions come in at a historic $1.50 a tattered copy.

Switch on the television and you’d still think the election was running. Correction, in Minnesota and Alaska, where they are still trying to count the ballots for the Senate, it is! And if you thought you’d heard the last of Sarah Palin... up she popped on all the news channels at what the anchors described as a “quote - odd” press conference at the Republican Governors Association conference.

There was more than a hint of chill in the air as Mrs Palin sucked the publicity out of the assembled press corps while her fellow governors, and 2012 rivals, stood in a dumb row behind her. One of them complained “quote - it made it look as if we were supporting her”.

Nor is there universal outpouring of love for the President Elect. In a bar at the Grand Central Station, where more people go for a drink than to catch a train, Heidi, a corporate head-hunter in Manhattan complains about the economic downturn.

Heidi, who looks as if she could be a friend of Sex in the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, used to be chairwoman of her father’s ten steel companies across the US. Her diamond studded ears are the only subtle sign of her wealth.

She declares herself a Republican - ironic that a first encounter in America should be a vocal reminder that 48% of people here did not vote for the change maker. But she reserves judgement on Mr Obama. “I don’t want to denigrate him like the Democracts denigrated George W Bush. He’s my President now.”

His policies are a different matter. She doesn’t believe in tax breaks for the poor funded by increases on the rich, a redistributive ambition of the President elect, a policy which Mr Brown dare not speak its name.

“It just doesn’t work that way,” says Heidi, sipping on her Californian pinot grigio. They don’t much like regulation in the Land of the Free and that could be a prescient warning for the hopes of the G20 this weekend.

Thursday 13 November 2008

New York, New York

Nothing beats New York traffic and nothing beats an NYPD police convoy from JFK airport to the Waldorf Astoria - nothing except New York drivers that is.

Travelling with the Prime Minister enroute to the G20 summit is meant to have its advantages but in the race against deadlines (yes, even in this age print machines have to start on time)and today it looked as if the New Yorkers might defeat the best efforts of Her Majesty's press and the Secret Service.

Only in New York would drivers think themselves important enough to join a high speed, blackened window, seven van long, security convoy. All the way in from the drome we were tailgated by eager commuters ready to join the fun of running the lights all the way downtown.

That's my excuse anyway for the slightly hasty copy I filed for the Herald, reposted below:

G20 look ahead - by Torcuil Crichton, chief UK political correspondent
New York

Appropriately, for someone who is presenting himself as a global chancellor, Gordon Brown had drinks in New York last night with a roomful of world class economists. Among their number were Joseph Stiglitz Paul Krugman, two Nobel prize winners.

Krugman it was who described Mr Brown’s bank saving bail out in the UK as the work of a “saviour”. So it was a case of god meets genius over cocktails in the Waldorf Astoria.

Mr Brown arrived in America to make history at the meeting of the G20 countries being trailed as a remake of Bretton Woods - the WWII conference that shaped the modern world’s financial institutions.

With the model broken and a worldwide crash a real possibility Mr Brown and President Zarkozy of France have seized the opportunity to attempt nothing less than re-order global finance with a shopping list for outgoing President Bush to sign.

Mr Brown’s agenda for Washington this weekend is if not short of ambitious. It includes co-ordination on a package of financial stimulus - tax cuts and public spending , a clean up of the banking system, a beefed up surveillance role for the IMF and, demands for banks to pass on interest rate cuts to customers and a new push for a world trade deal.

Is any of it possible? Well, Mr Brown comes to Washington with the wind in his sails. The economic crisis has transformed his premiership of Britain and brought home his global reputation as a leader who actually understands and delights in the machinations of economics.

He already has assurances from the Persian Gulf region to help refinance the IMF’s $250 billion bail out pot for struggling countries and he will pressure China to increase its contributions too. Last night, while attending an interfaith conference, the Prime Minister was expected hold talks with the Emir of Kuwait and the King of Saudi Arabia.

International opinion sees him as a leading the world in finding fiscal solutions for these times and he has spoken about the need to project confidence to the markets and to people fearful for their jobs and homes.

Mr Brown has emphasised the need for a clear timetable for reform - the French leading the EU delegation are talking of a one hundred day deadline - but its clear that the United States is less enthusiastic. They have their own ideas about world leadership.

With the White House in transition, and President Elect Barrack Obama distancing himself from the event, it is hard to see how binding the decisions of the conference will be on the new administration.

Number Ten foreign affairs specialist Simon McDonald and Stewart Wood are meeting with representatives the Obama transition team at the conference but these are feelers not bi-laterals. There will be no meeting with the man himself - he’s staying put in Chicago and making the world wait a while.

Mr Obaba has sent Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the conference along with Jim Leach, a former Republican Congressman who supported his campaign. Neither are expected to be members of Mr Obama’s cabinet.

Getting US agreement to curb the behaviour of hedge funds and speculators on an international basis is a big ask. Getting emerging powers like China and the Middle East countries to contribute to the IMF without giving them a bigger say in the US dominated institution will be a tall order.

Many are sceptical that agreement can be found between the developing nations attending the summit and the western powers over access to world markets.

Negotiations following Breton Woods took two years and some are predicting a decade of work before any international financial agreement can be found now. But in Mr Brown’s own words, the cost of inaction will be far greater than the cost of action. In fearful times, when capitalism itself looks shaky, people look for leadership. Mr Brown may not get that handshake this time but the most cerebral and economic of Prime Ministers will look on this as his own Obama moment.

Prime Minister's Questions - very nasty.

Poor Lindsay Roy. It was the Glenrothes headmaster's first day in the Commons and the classroom was on its worst behaviour.

Prime Minister's Questions is a barracking, gladiatorial confrontation each Wednesday, but there were seasoned commentators yesterday who could not remember such vitriolic exchanges as took place while dealing with a harrowing and tragic subject.

The spark that set off the explosion was a question from Tory leader David Cameron on the case of Baby P, beaten and left to die by his guardians despite being under the care of Haringey Council in north London.

Gordon Brown has underestimated David Cameron in the past. Yesterday he made the error of mis-reading the man. The Prime Minister was prepared, as he has been in the past few weeks, to wipe the floor with the opposition leader over the economy.

The stage was set for the battle - jobless total rising, Bank of England predicting dire forecasts of the economy. There were even a few helpful early economics questions lobbed in by friendly backbenchers and unwitting opposition MPs which had the government benches roaring.

Mr Cameron rose to his feet, saying only the Prime Minister could look so "smug on the day that 140,000 lost their jobs". But then he changed the script, reading off the front page news about the Baby P case.

The PM gave a stock response about the nation being shocked and saddened by what had happened. There was a national review of practice, said Mr Brown, and a report just arrived from Haringey on which the government would take action.

Mr Cameron demanded more than a stock response. Why, he asked, was the person who runs the children's service department in the council having a role in writing that report and investigating her own actions?

Labour MPs suspected he was trying to avoid asking the obvious about the economy and bayed like wolves. Mr Speaker called for order.

The Tory leader was angered by their attitude, his papers went flying as he became more passionate on the subject. Mr Brown gave the stock answer again, groping to find some cross-party unity, but unable to help himself from adding: "I do regret making a party political issue of this."

That infuriated Mr Cameron. "What the Prime Minister has said just now is frankly cheap," he said. "I ask the Prime Minister to withdraw the remark that it was about party politcs."

Twice he asked Mr Brown to withdraw the allegation, and twice Mr Brown blustered on with his slim briefing on the subject. The Commons was in uproar. The Speaker had to appeal to the MPs not to shout across the chamber while dealing with such a horrifying subject. They carried on shouting in an unedifying performance that left everyone discomfited.

A third time, a furious Mr Cameron asked the PM to withdraw the accusation. He would not let go, drawing in Westminster Children's Minister Ed Balls as someone who had also highlighted the problem of social service directors investigating their own conduct.

Mr Brown probably thought that Mr Cameron's finger-jabbing, desk-banging anger was a construct. It didn't look like that from the press benches and it certainly won't have looked like that on TV last night. Contrast, said Labour sources afterwards, Mr Cameron's tone with that adopted by Lynne Featherstone, the LibDem MP who had been leader of the opposition in Haringery Council during the Victoria Climbie scandal. Later she called, calmly, for an independent inquiry into something that was never meant to happen again.

The opposition leader might have ducked another drubbing on the economy but, in the exchange, Mr Brown was exposed as the man he was before the economic storm lifted him from the doldrums. He looked a lumbering, disconnected leader, incapable of nimble footwork, unable to see a Tory, on any issue, as anything other than an enemy to be flattened.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

From Woolwich Crown Court

I spent most of yesterday in Woolwich Crown Court where the case of Dr Bilal Abdulla, the suspected terrorist arrested at the scene of the blazing car bombing of Glasgow airport, is taking place.

Abdulla and
28-year-old Jordanian Dr Mohammed Asha are on trial for conspiracy to cause explosions and murder. It is alleged they were part of a small British-based terror cell intending to "murder on an indiscriminate and wholesale scale" as revenge for the persecution of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his evidence Bilal said he loved England
has no hatred for British people and even went so far as applying to join the British Army to further his medical career. He gave a dramatic account of life in Iraq under Saddam and under US occupation. Here's what made it to the Herald:

November 11 2008

For five weeks Dr Balil Abdulla has sat, separated from the well of the court, by a glass security screen, listening to the detailed evidence ranged against him.

At times the NHS medic, arrested at the scene of the Glasgow Airport bombing in June 2007, has appeared relaxed and nonchalant. He spends most of the time looking ahead, at the bench of Mr Justice Mackay, and studiously avoiding eye contact with the jury or his co-accused Dr Mohammed Asha.

Both men deny the conspiracy charges laid against them and yesterday, at 12.30pm in court three of Woolwich Crown Court, the alleged terrorist stood in the witness box and began his side of the story.

Dressed in a black suit and blue open-necked shirt, Dr Abdulla gave an articulate, coherent account of himself. In a distinct Iraqi accent he spoke fondly of his affection for England, which he said he regarded as his second home.

However, he also talked passionately about his homeland of Iraq being destroyed in two Gulf wars and gave a dramatic account of his childhood under Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime.

In the first hour of evidence led by his defence counsel, Jim Sturman, QC, Dr Abdulla recalled how war had traumatised his young life and irrevocably changed Iraq in the last three decades. He spoke of the devastating effect of growing up in a militarised tyranny during the Iran-Iraq war and how the Gulf wars left his country in chaos.

He remembered childhood TV programmes beginning with an hour of footage of corpses from the Iranian battle fields and, as a young doctor, he encountered the cancerous medical consequences of depleted uranium (DU) weaponry used by US forces. He saw for himself how UN sanctions meant hospital patients suffered without simple painkillers. When he spoke about children dying from leukemia, linked to DU shells, he had to pause to control his emotions.

It was a narrative that portrayed Dr Abdulla as a victim of brutalised circumstances who began questioning the concept of Western "civilisation" after the first Gulf War.

Dr Abdulla denies conspiracy to cause explosion and conspiracy to murder after failed car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow. His defence is based on the plea that he sought to damage property, not attack people.

Although his experiences are shared by thousands, his was not an everyman story.

Born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, in 1979 into an Iraqi family with a long medical tradition, Bilal Abdulla returned to Iraq aged five, attended an elite private school in Baghdad and went on to be one of the brightest students in the country, the court heard.

Dr Abdulla said his parents could be described as "liberal or pro-Western" Sunni Muslims and he had inherited the same attitude to the UK. When he returned in 1999 as a young medical student with a British passport, he regarded it as his "second home - simple".

Asked by his barrister what he thought of England, he said: "I felt that England was home; I loved that country." He returned to Iraq, reluctantly, in 2000 only after a long discussion with his father to complete his studies: "I wasn't happy to do that. I wasn't happy at all to leave the country and go back to Iraq."

The Abdulla family fled Baghdad in 2003, as they had in the first Gulf War, after the opening night of the "shock and awe" offensive that toppled Saddam. "A 5000kg bomb just destroyed the whole neighbourhood. We left Baghdad immediately," he said.

He and many Iraqis were "extremely happy" to see the end of the Saddam regime - but, within two months, tensions began to mount.

Dr Abdulla said the Americans showed "utter ruthlessness" and arrogance when they took control of Iraq. He claimed he would have been happy for them to take petrol as a reward for freeing the country, but instead said they allowed Shia militias to take control and upset Iraq's "social cohesion".

He described the "chaos" of American occupation and, as Sunni and moderate Shia leaders were assassinated, he turned his support to the insurgent attacks on Western forces. "I looked high upon those fighting the invaders," he told the court. "I supported that insurgency."

Asked to qualify whether he hated the governments of the West or the people of Britain, he remarked: "I didn't have any hatred to any innocent person anywhere, not in this country or any other countries."

The trial by jury continues.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Calman Commission - No 10's "helpful" response

If you bear in mind the default position of Whitehall is that it wants nothing at all to change then the Westminster government's 126-page response to the Calman Commission is a triumph in the Machiavellian diplomatic art of appearing helpful.

In one of the lengthiest submissions to the devolution inquiry, no policy solutions on how the governance of Scotland could be developed are suggested. Instead, the paper spreads out a range of political weaponry with which to club over the head the idea of giving Holyrood more powers.

The commission, which is due to make its first report before Christmas, is not in danger of recommending independence but No 10 appears determined that it should not move too far from the status quo.The message is spiced with hints that devolution is a two-way street and that, in some cases, power ought to come back to Westminster.

The Calman Commission was born in the Scottish Parliament in opposition to the Scottish Government's "National Conversation", a rival consultation that hopes to nudge a nation towards independence.

The 15-member commission, with three nominees from the pro-union parties, is avowedly pro-devolution and does not consider independence. Gordon Brown quickly took over its reins by providing funding for the administrative backup.

The main thrust of the UK Government's response to Calman is "steady as she goes" on devolution. The introductory passage makes great effort to emphasis the shared interests, the shared citizens' rights and cultural heritage that the Scotland and the rest of the UK have in common.

This is the basic philosophy that underpins the Labour government's approach to devolution which it describes as "deep and wide-ranging", "benefiting the whole of the United Kingdom", and regarded as "maximalist settlement".

This glowing reference for its own creation is followed by submissions from government departments which serve as a guide to the way devolution is, and sometimes isn't, working across Whitehall. Between the lines, and sometimes right across them, the paper highlights the tensions and the unresolved issues of devolution and then invites Sir Kenneth and his commission to find a path through them.

"Why get a dog and bark yourself," quipped one senior government source yesterday when asked why the government did not come forward with its own solutions to some of the conundrums of devolution.

The most notable example of No 10 highlighting an issue and then backing off comes through in the passages on taxing and spending, the nub of financial and political power. The paper quotes from a Gordon Brown speech last September in which the Prime Minister hinted strongly that the Scottish Parliament needed to be more financially accountable for the money it receives and spends.

Many read that as an indication that Mr Brown was, at last, willing to consider a development of devolution that would mean replacing the current Barnett formula for funding which causes so much grief with little-Englanders in Labour and Tory ranks. But in its paper the government submits: "We do not seek here to provide detailed evidence on the options that might be available."

The same approach is taken on each policy area - emphasising what works and highlighting what needs to be changed. The exceptions are when Westminster sees the Scottish Government using powers devolved for one purpose to cut across reserved matters it gets quite uppity.

Referring to how the Scottish Parliament has threatened to use planning powers to stymy plans for new nuclear power plants in Scotland, the document states: "It was clearly not the intention of parliament in passing the Scotland Act that the use or threatened use of devolved powers should undermine the delivery of reserved policies.

"The government suggests that the commission may wish to consider how such problems might be avoided."

Could this be interpreted as a veiled threat to take the power to commission new nuclear power stations back to Westminster parliament level? "Not at all," says the government source, for which the SNP and many others read "absolutely, yes".

The same tension is evident when considering everything from broadcasting - no case for devolution, it concludes - to fisheries, where Westminster feels the Scottish Government's moratorium on the transfer of quota licences is quite possibly illegal.

Variations in tax collection or benefits (council tax rebate is the best example) are a bad idea according to the Treasury and the Department of Work and Pensions.

The Ministry of Defence states its duty to defend the nation, the economic benefits it brings to Scotland and reports it is "following developments" on Alex Salmond's "Scotland Without Nuclear Weapons Working Group".

The document may not bark itself but neither does it take a bite at what Calman is trying to achieve - how to make devolution work better.

Monday 10 November 2008

Òraid Ghòrdain Brown a nochd.

Blog sa Ghàidhlig, airson a'chraic

Bheir Gòrdon Brown òraid seachad aig dinneir mhòr Mèar Lunnain a-nochd. Mar 's trice aig an òraid seo 's ann air polasaidh chèin 's àbhaist dha'n Phrìomhaire bruidhinn ach am bliadhna tha dùil gum bidh aire Ghòrdain Brown air an eaconomaidh cuideachd.

S ann coimhead air adhart ris an deireadh-sheachdain a bhios e nuair a tha fichead dùthaich a' coinneachadh ann a Washington airson riaghailtean ùra a stèidheachadh airson margaidhean airgid eadar-nàiseanta agus mar a dhèiligeas a'choimhearsnachd eadar-nàiseanta, tron an IMF, ris an t-seòrsa crathaidh air an eaconomaidh a thachair le staing a'chreideis.

Tha an saoghal aic crois-rathaid - le ceann-suidhe ùr deiseil airson an Taigh Ghil, an eaconomaidh eadar-nàiseanta a'crìonadh gu mòr, agus na margaidhean airgid air fàilligeadh. Tha Mgr Brown air a bhith cantainn airson bliadhnaichean gu feum òrdugh ùr a stèidheachadh - fear a tha a-nis cothromach. Uill, seo an cothrom mòr aige.

Chan eil an òraid slàn againn fhathast is chan eil mi cinnteach am bi e a'bruidhinn mu dheidhinn feachdan Breatannach thall thairis, 's gu sònraichte cuin a bhios saighdearan a' fàgail Irac.
Tha fios againn gu bheil na saighdearan a'tighinn a-mach à Irac co-dhiù ach tha an riaghaltas a-nis fo ìmpidh gun na saighdeanran sin a chur a-null a dh'Afghanistan ann an cabhag.

Tha ceannard Feachdan Bhreatainn, Sir Jock Stirrup, a'cantainn gun diùlt e saighdearan Breatainn a ghlusaid mar sin, 's iad sgìth as dè còig bliadhna do chogadh.

Tha Sir Jock a'coimhead a-rithis ri na feachdan eile aig NATO airson am beàrn sin anm an Afghanistan a lìonadh. Agus shaoilsinn gur e sin a bhios Gòrdon Brown a'coimhnead ris cuideachd.

Bho chaidh Barrack Obama ainmeachadh mar an ath Cheann-suidhe air Ameireagaidh tha Mgr Brown air cothrom fhaicinn airson poileasaidh chein Bhreatainn agus an cairdeas eadar an dà dhùthaich a neartachadh.

A-rèir Mgr Brown 's ann a cheangaileas poileasaidhean Mgr Obama ris an fheallsanachd phoileataigeach aige fhèin - gum feum òrdugh ùr eadar-nàiseanta a bhith ann far a bheil na margaidhean ag obair airson sochair a'mhòr-chuid, le riaghailtean a bheir cead do riaghlteasan làmh a bhith aca ann an gnothaichean airson daoine àbhaisteach a dhìon.

Tha fathannan anm mu ghearradh ann an cìsean cuideachd agus 's ma dh'fhaoidte gum faigh sinn iomradh beag air an sin agus san òraid, priobadh na sùla, air sgàth agus gu bheil rèis ann a-nis eadar na Tòraidhean agus an Riaghaltas airson na planaichean aca airson cìsean a ghearradh fhoillseachadh.

A-màireach, bidh Seòras Osborne a'mìneachadh mar a ghearradh na Tòraidhean cosgaisean An Àrachais Nàiseanta (National Insurance) airson duine a chumail ann an obair fhad 's a tha an eaconomaidh a'crìonadh.

Tha na Làbaraich cuideachd a'coimhead ri cìsean a ghearradh, sin a'ciallachadh barrachd iasadachd, ach 's ma dh'fhaoidte buannachd sna cunntasan-bheachd. Tha iad sin fhathast a'cur nan Tòraidhean trì puing deug air thoiseach air na Làbaraich.

Taing do Eilidh Dhubh

Calman and Number 10 go nuclear

Read that paragraph 13 from the No 10 response to the Calman Commission again (my bold italics) :

"13. Nevertheless, there are areas of policy where the inevitable overlap between devolved and
reserved matters has the potential to cause difficulty. Some of these relate to the devolution of
land use planning powers, and analogous powers under the Electricity Acts which are the subject of executive devolution (i.e. they are exercised by Scottish Ministers even though the Scottish Parliament does not have legislative competence over them).

It was clearly not the intention of Parliament in passing the Scotland Act that the use or threatened use of devolved powers should undermine the delivery of reserved policies. The Government suggests that the Commission may wish to consider how such problems might be avoided".

Could this be interpreted as a veiled threat to take the power to commission new nuclear power stations back to Westminster parliament level?

No 10 response to Calman Commission

Here are some of the key paragraphs from the early pages of the Westminster government's response to the Calman Commission on Scottish devolution.

I've given bullet headlines for each of the subject areas and then lifted the key quotes from the document.

The Devolution Settlement - No 10 believes that the settlement is maxiimalist

pars 12-13
" In terms of the range of functions devolved under the Scotland Act and subsequent Orders under that Act, Scottish devolution has been called a ‘maximalist’ settlement. The Government regards this as the right approach, because that was and continues to be the best way of ensuring that those domestic policies which most immediately affect the daily lives of people in Scotland are delivered in a way that meets their needs and wants; with direct accountability to the Scottish Parliament.

13. Nevertheless, there are areas of policy where the inevitable overlap between devolved and
reserved matters has the potential to cause difficulty. Some of these relate to the devolution of
land use planning powers, and analogous powers under the Electricity Acts which are the subject
of executive devolution (i.e. they are exercised by Scottish Ministers even though the Scottish
Parliament does not have legislative competence over them). It was clearly not the intention of
Parliament in passing the Scotland Act that the use or threatened use of devolved powers should
undermine the delivery of reserved policies. The Government suggests that the Commission may wish to consider how such problems might be avoided.”

Broadcasting - no ground to devolving Broadcasting powers to Scotland

“18. The evidence provided by DCMS highlights the strength of the BBC as one of our most widely respected and authoritative institutions, providing a diversity of programming appealing to a wide range of tastes and interests across the UK, reflecting our shared traditions of freedom of speech and a vigorous media. As the report of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, set up by Scottish Ministers, recognises, Scottish interests are represented within this structure and Scotland has ‘undoubtedly benefitted from being part of the overall broadcasting ecology of the UK’.

Shared interests - No 10 wants the UK to speak with one voice

“24. Similarly it is in the interests of all the nations of the UK to speak with a single voice at an
international level. Our shared interests on the international stage extend beyond security. We all gain benefits from the international reputation of the UK, built up by the whole of the UK, including Scotland. Increased international influence is of particular importance in a world where the major challenges are increasingly global – climate change, terrorism, economic challenges.”

Financial Accountability - they duck reform of the Barnett formula

“32. The devolved funding arrangements provide the Scottish Parliament with not only a rising budget but also continuity and a stable, transparent and predictable way of funding public services in Scotland. The Government are keen to consider with the Commission, in accordance with its terms of reference, how the financial accountability of the Parliament may be improved. As the Prime Minister said at CBI Scotland on 4th September:

“Devolution has worked, but I do see one problem: while there have been good reasons why
this is so, the Scottish Parliament is wholly accountable for the budget it spends but not for the
size of its budget. And that budget is not linked to the success of the Scottish economy. That is
why we asked the Calman Commission to look carefully at the financial accountability of the
Scottish Parliament and this is a critical part of Calman’s remit.”

33. We do not seek here to provide detailed evidence on the options that might be available. The Government stands ready to engage with the Commission, on improving the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament.”

Their conclusion - steady as she goes?

“The wide range of competence already enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament forms a sound basis for continuing success, and clearly remains in line with the wishes of the Scottish people
The government remains open to proposals, in accordance with these principles, to adjust the settlement further to strengthen devolution.”

Sunday 9 November 2008


I'm just back from the Remembrance service at the Cenotaph - in fact the march has just stoppped going past the Westminster office window. I try to go every year, in memory of my father, a Royal Navy rating, and the generation who fought in WWII.

I'm always amazed by numbers who turn out and by the huge sacrifice individuals and communities have made over the years. Trevor Royle, who wrote in “The Flowers of the Forest” about the effect WWI had on Scotland, tells me that the highest proportion of British volunteers in the Great War came from the Western Isles.

Home on Lewis last week I was scrolling through the Roll of Honour for the district of Point and came across the name of Lieutenant John MacLeod, who came from 19 Swordale, the croft next door to our own.

I've written about how war affected 19 Swordale before. The first buff telegram that came to the village in WWII, informing a family of the death of a beloved son, Murdo MacKenzie, came to that address.

That was a story that we heard growing up but with the history of the Great War dominated on Lewis by the Iolaire disaster on New Year's Eve 1919 we knew little of the people who fought in “Cogaidh an Kaiser”.

My eyes alighted on Lieutenant MacLeod's name not just because of where he had left from but where he died in January 1916 - Basra.

Lieutenant John MacLeod: 1st Seaforth Highlanders. Date of death: 7 January 1916 at the age of 42. Killed in action in Mesopotamia. Memorial: BasraMemorial reference: Panel 37 and 64Lewis Memorial: Point (Garrabost)

If you thought that British strategic interests in oil and in Iraq, where we still have 4000 soldiers in harm's way, think again. When I looked through other records I found that many other young Lewismen lost their lives in Mesopotamia, the place know as modern day Iraq.

There are, for example, two from my mother's home village of Tong - Malcolm MacDonald and Malcolm Finlayson - who died there and are remembered on the Basra war memorial.

Lieutenant MacLeod was the uncle of the late Kenneth MacLeod, “Am Bowan”, who was himself a kind uncle to us village boys. I don't know the details of his service with the 1st Seaforth Highlanders, although a visit to the Records Office in Kew would solve that, but I have been able to find out about the campaign in which he died.

The British sent a military detachment to protect Abadan, one of the world's earliest oil refineries, against the Ottoman Turks in 1915 as some of its warships had already stopped being fuelled by coal.

The British took Basra early in the Mesopotamian Campaign but it was when they attempted to march on Baghdad, led by General Charles Townshend, in September 1915 they were stopped by an Ottoman force about 25 miles south of the city. Withdrawing to Kut, on a U bend in the river Tigris seems to have been a mistake. While the city could be defended it could not be resupplied.

In the long siege that followed many attempts were made to lift the siege. Some 23,000 British and Indian soldiers died in the attempts to retake Kut, probably the worst loss of life for the British away from the European theatre. It was, according to the histories, a grim slaughter against a backdrop of heat, sand, marshes and mosquitos.

Townshend, with some 8,000 surviving soldiers, finally surrendered Kut in April 1916 by which time John MacLeod and many others must have laid dead in the sands of Iraq. Kut was re-conquered the following year. The names of the dead, on memorials across Britain, are also inscribed on the Basra Memorial which itself has an interesting recent history.

Until 1997 the Basra Memorial was located on the main quay of the naval dockyard at Maqil, on the west bank of the Shatt-al-Arab, about 8 kilometres north of Basra. Because of the sensitivity of the site, the memorial was moved by Saddam's presidential decree, and considerable expense, and relocated 32 kilometres along the road to Nasiriyah, in the middle of what was a major battleground during the first Gulf War. Again, Trevor Royle tells me that the Commonwealth Graves Commission has been able to carry out some restorative work in Iraq recently.

Lest we forget, the Basra Memorial commemorates more than 40,500 members of the Commonwealth forces who died in Mesopotamia from the Autumn of 1914 to the end of August 1921 and whose graves are not known.

Friday 7 November 2008

Glenrothes - how did Labour win?

How did Labour hold on to its seat in Glenrothes against the political tide? Well, serious times demand serious people, said the Prime Minister, and if by-elections are referendums on governments then the voters of Fife would seem to concur with the claim that Gordon Brown is the right man in the right place – for now.

First, a reality check. Labour held Glenrothes; the party did not storm a Nationalist stronghold. This was their safe seat with a majority of 10,000 cut to 6737. However, given the way Labour had been written off after Crewe and Nantwich and after Glasgow East, a swing to the SNP of 22%, it was a remarkable result for the party.

The Brown bounce might, then, be more than a political aphorism. In the midst of a financial crisis not seen since the Great Depression, Mr Brown’s lengthy experience and reputation as a financial goliath plays well, at least in his home territory of Fife.

All honeymoons come to an end and Alex Salmond’s was unlikely to defy gravity for ever. The SNP First Minister had made the most of the political weather in Scotland until the global storm swept across the financial markets, claiming one of Scotland’s most powerful banks and weakening even the mighty Royal Bank.

The idea that Scotland would be able to resist the economic storm was held in ordinary voters’ minds against the experience of Iceland and contrasted against the staggering £500bn bailout of the banking system by Mr Brown and his Chancellor, Alistair Darling. After Glasgow East it was claimed that there was no safe Labour seat in Scotland and the nationalist momentum seemed unstoppable. The SNP juggernaut is now stopped on a roundabout outside Glenrothes.

Leading from the front as usual, to the degree that he almost eclipsed the candidate Peter Grant, Mr Salmond may now have to reconsider his tactics. People may be turning against the halo effect of him leading and the nation following. However, not winning a by-election is but a flesh wound compared with what it would have been like for Mr Brown if Labour had lost.

Mr Brown’s decision to campaign personally – he was, frankly, crow-barred into doing it– played well on the doorstep. Labour’s campaign was better organised than Glasgow East, which shows what the party can still do when it gets its act together, and a well-oiled SNP election machine knew that it was in a contest.

The SNP also had a record to defend, not just in Holyrood, but also running the local council. It was new territory for both parties with Labour delighting to be putting the boot in to the local authority. The SNP was hurt badly in repeated attacks but the party felt it had rebutted most of the charges.

Labour presented the winner, Lindsay Roy, headmaster of Gordon Brown’s old school, almost as apolitical. Well, he is no Barack Obama and with bigger marches in history dominating their thoughts, people outside Scotland’s political and media class seemed to have forgotten that the Glenrothes by-election was on yesterday.

It just proves that the real world is different from the political hothouse. In the greenhouse on the Thames there was new-found optimism among Labour MPs when Gordon Brown found his gravitas as the global economic crisis deepened.

Even if he had lost Glenrothes, there was never any danger that Gordon Brown would be out before Christmas – and just remember, eight weeks ago there were more than whispers in the corridors.
Back in the real world again, though, not too much has changed for Labour since the disastrous showings in the polls during the summer.

Labour’s overall level of support did not climb any higher after the bank bailout last month, according to the results of nine surveys.

The weighted average of the polls taken in October shows the Conservatives on 43% (down one percentage point on September), Labour on 31% (up four points), the Liberal Democrats on 16% (down one point) and other parties at 10% (down two points). These figures would give David Cameron a majority of 62 at a general election.

For Lindsay Roy, for Gordon Banks MP who ran the campaign, for Gordon Brown, for Labour, a corner may have been turned. The trouble is that no-one knows what comes next as the financial crisis unfolds.

Glenrothes shows that Brown can bounce; that Salmond does obey the rules of political gravity; and that no outcome is predictable in an era of uncertainty.

Monday 3 November 2008

Dateline Stornoway II

Just to prove Stornoway is the news centre of the universe two stories pop up on the radar with a Hebridean connection.

Watching the lunchtime news here my mother gasped as it was announced that US billionaire Donald Trump has won his battle to have his golf course in Aberdeenshire. She, of course, knows him as “Mac nighean Chaluim Alasdair UIlleam” (the son of Calum Alasdair William’s daughter) who came from the same village as she does. As part of his publicity campaign Trump dropped in on his late mother’s village of Tong earlier this year (9th of June my mother, who keeps a better news archive than Bill Lucas, tells me) He'd never found time to do so before. I wonder when we’ll see him next in these parts.

Then the news drops that Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy has joined the campaign to give the Stornoway Black Pudding European Geographical Protected Status.

There are imitation “Stornoway-style” black puddings flooding the market and it just isn’t good enough, or rather having been blind tasted, they aren’t good enough.

Now Highland MSPs want to give the “marag dubh” the same status as Parmigiano and Champagne and Metlon Mowbray pork pies. On his way to Iceland to extract the money that Scottish councils deposited there (not the Western Isles Council this time) Murphy stopped off in Edinburgh to endorse the campaign.

Stocking up on puddings this afternoon I chatted briefly to Iain "Barley" MacLeod, one of the local butchers. He reckons it will take ten years to get protected status. Great news for local freelance journalists, this is a story that will run and run.

I've just remembered that Jim Murphy is vegetarian so his endorsement is generous considering what goes into black pudding. He's on the way to Reykjavik but I suppose there's no chance of getting him to stop off at Sulasgeir to grab a guga for the pot.

Mid-Atlantic book feast

Whoosh - there goes a month. I took a holiday - the Torc went to Turkey - missed the Osborne/Mandelson Corfu affair, most of it, and watched the global economy carry on down the pan from afar.

I'm mid-Atlantic now which, I'd like to pretend, is the opening dateline for my US election coverage but the sad truth is that I'm home at my mother's house on the Isle of Lewis.

My colleague Jim Cusick won the toss for the USA and has filed some great copy from Cleveland overnight. See the Herald website. Jealous, me? Not while I sit here, feet by the peat fire, eating scallops and Stornoway black pudding - great combo - with the armrests freighted down by a collection of new books from the Hebrides. Bet Alistair Darling wishes he was here now.

First off the shelf is Donald S Murray's "The Guga Hunters", a history of the Ness men who harvest the young solan geese from the Atlantic outcrop of Sulasgeir each autumn. Their story is an ancient one - ten men against the elements, a rock 40 miles out in the Atlantic, the last remaining seabird harvest in western Europe.

It takes courage to eat a guga far less go hunting for one. But brave is the writer who takes up his pen to draw even a sympathetic portrait of his own community (you always end up offending someone). But "Rufus", as we know Donald S, has succeeded in steering his book between the reefs of eulogy and documentary to produce a fine history of the hunt the what drives the men of Ness to go to sea time after time.

Sam Maynard's Guga Hunters


Someone who's never afraid to give offence, the writer John MacLeod, has weighed in with "Banner in the West", a spiritual history of Lewis and Harris. Don't underestimate how fascinating, or popular, a book on religion in the last stronghold of Calvinism will be.

It is, as Roger Hutchinson notes on the cover puff, the book this son of the manse might have been born to write - and he is a sparkling writer. Once I prise the tome out of my brother's hands I'll get down to reading it properly. I read the post-war section first which draw on the late Rev Kenneth MacRae's diaries (an under-rated resource until now) to debunk the hysteria surrounding religious "revivals" in the islands from the 1930s to the '50s. Anyone looking for scandal will be disappointed. John quite rightly bodyswerves more recent schisms and controversies and says at the outset that he has avoided Presbytery papers that give "the impression of a church in ceaseless, loveless strife".


When Bill Lucas started freelancing in Stornoway 50 years ago he knew the churches would be a good source of scandal. The legendary Stornoway journalist has just issued a memoir of anecdotes and stories from his half century as Her Majesty's press representative in the Western Isles. "Dateline Stornoway " is a rollicking good read, written as straight and raw as the copy he first filed, with humourous asides thrown in every turn.

As a framework for remembering some of the amazing stories an characters in the islands it's a great resource. I'd forgotten how many of these tales I was involved in covering myself. It contains a good first draft of a history of the BBCI affair, in which the local council lost £23 million. My only complaint is that the book is good on everyone except Bill himself, who has been in many a scrape and close call himself during his time. Like the BCCI affair Bill's own story will, one day, get the full treatment.

On the subject of legends my friend, the amazing John Neil Munro, has produced another Scottish rock history, this time on the "The Sensational Alex Harvey" (Birlinn again). It's unopened here but his book on John Martyn was well received last year and the cove writes as if he was sitting next to your elbow telling the tale in the Lewis public bar. Time to put another peat on the fire.