Sunday 21 December 2008

No one's as Leodhasach as Barack MacBama

We all know that it's been proved beyond doubt that Barack Obama's ancestors actually hail from the Isle of Lewis but you have to hand it to the Corrigan Brothers from Limerick for having the chutzpah to claim President-elect O'Bama as one of Ireland's own

Their song "There's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama" is in danger of becoming the accepted truth. Watch their witty and audacious claims on YouTube.

Last February, the band discovered that Obama’s great great great grandfather, a shoemaker called Falmouth Kearney, emigrated from Moneygall in County Offaly in 1850. They decided it was perfect song-writing material.

“We sat down on the Saturday and wrote the song in 20 minutes,” said Ger Corrigan, whose been tooling around the music circuit in Ireland with his brothers Brian and Donncha for many a year. “We recorded it on the Sunday and put it straight up on the internet. It just came flowing out of us.”

For the first couple of weeks, the only people to view the clip were the Corrigans themselves. Now, thanks to an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show, guess where they're playing on January 20th 2009? Good luck to them and I love Ger's golden songwriting rule: “Our best work comes to us quickly. Anything that we have to agonise over, we don’t do it.”

Okay, so the Lewis connection is an 11th cousin through marriage but we can't let the Irish hi-jack our inheritance like this without some kind of musical response. Where is Donnie Large MacDonald when you need him?

Monday 15 December 2008

Idle talk of an election?

All the weekend dinner table talk was about what the best timing for a general election would be, how long it would take for Peter Mandelson to melt as Gordon Brown’s heatshield when Superman re-enters the earth’s atmosphere and whether it would be best to stay at home for Christmas and watch the pound go down and down against the Euro. Oh, that last one’s already happened.

Well, the conversation was probably about a lot more than that but the fragments I remember are that one side of the table thought Brown had no choice but to soldier on to 2010, if only for the fear of being labelled a bottler once again for considering an earlier election.

The other side of the table thought the Prime Minister should make a dash for it in the spring - with May 7th being the favoured date. It would follow on from the G20 summit in London, starring Barack Obama, and it would be too early for anyone to tell whether the multi-billion fiscal stimulus had worked or failed. Unemployment would be on the way up, but not at catastrophic levels, and with the economic storm still raging wouldn’t people want an experienced seadog at the tiller?

Other people must have been having the same conversation. This morning the possibility of February election is being punted by Trevor Kavanah in the Sun and Ben Brogan in his Daily Mail blog. They’re both men in the know.

Ben reveals plans for a meeting of the Messiahs in Washington in February. A Barack meet Brown moment (surely the other way around) that would serve as a handy launch pad for the snap February election that Trevor Kavanah considers in the Sun.

Absolutely no hints from anyone in government that an early poll is planned. They say all eyes on the economy, which means all eyes on the opinion polls that have the Conservatives ahead. The last February election was in 1974. Labour won then — and again a few months later.

Thursday 11 December 2008

All quiet on the shopping front.

I knew you’d all want a dispatch from the frontline of the retail wars so I took a walk along Oxford Street and down Regent Steet, the ventricles of the Britain’s retail heart, on the way back from a lunchtime press conference.

Despite the local paper, the Evening Standard, declaring this "Super Thursday" in shopping land, with 50% discounts signs in many of the windows, it was quiet out there, too quiet.

Meanwhile, what's happening to my beloved Woolworths? It was the only chain store we had in Stornoway when I was growing up. Every airfix, every album, every sweetie and Corgi car of childhood came from there.

The island branch was one of the most profitable outlets the company had and while we've got enough on our plates to be nostalgic about in the Hebrides it'll be sad to see that bit of retail heritage go.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Sell sterling, buy into Bed and Breakfast

Can't get to sleep at night because of fears about the Pound falling to 1.13 Euros? Worry not fellow Highlanders, at least those involved in the tourist trade. The(only) silver lining on this afternoon's news that sterling is under sustained attack from speculators determined to send the pound to its lowest level ever against the Euro is that the domestic tourism market ought to benefit.

Past recessions have shown the Scottish tourist trade bucking the trend as more and more people opt to stay in Britain for their summer holidays. If the pound falls any more against the Euro these domestic tourists will be joined by continental hordes who usually find the UK, with its ridiculous per head per bed rates, an expensive outing.

Fears that the UK will suffer "the worst recession in the developed world" (thanks, Commerzbank analysts) and that the economy will shrink by 2% in 2009 - double what the chancellor has forecast - has prompted heavy selling on the pound that could see it achieve parity with the Euro in a few months time.

At the Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee today, where MPs were looking at the effect of the economic crisis, Professor David Bell of Stirling University said that the Caledonian economy was going downhill at the same rate as the rest of the UK. Some studies have said that Scotland would fare better in the recession, others that it will do worse.

I'm telling you, get the B&B brochures ready now. You couldn't do better than my friend CA's classy Scandic cabin in Achmore.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Lunch with Alistair Darling

Just back from an entertaining Press Gallery lunch with Alistair Darling. These are regular grillings for politicians in front of the Westminster journalists and their guests at which MPs are fed (some tasty patridge today) and then expected to sing for dessert.

Despite the gloomy times the chancellor gave a very entertaining speech. At one stage he confessed how deflated he’d been to discover that he was not the only famous politician to hail from the Lewis, the island where he gave his notorious, retrospectivly accurate, 'we’re all doomed' interview to the Guardian last autumn.

Apparently, Barack Obama’s 11th cousin in Canada, one Mary Forsythe, is descended from a family of Murrays and Morrisons who left the blessed island in 1851. As Mr Darling explained, 11th cousin, over 157 years, is really quite a close relation when you come from Lewis.

He was uncharacteristically aggressive too, attacking David Cameron’s speech earlier in the day in which the opposition leader said that the government is putting the British economy and the pound at risk with its £20bn "borrowing binge". Cameron said the country is on the brink of poltiical catastrophe and called for an election so voters could stop a "fundamentally bad decision".

Darling’s response, perhaps sensing that Cameron is moving onto the ground where Labour want’s him to be, was bring it on.

Here’s a flavour of what the normally low-key chancellor said, quite passionately, about the world facing economic meltdown:

"The key question is what should the government do in the face of all this? Right across the world governments and institutions are saying with one voice that we all need to support the economy. I really do think that what David Cameron said today is showing unbelievable complacency"

"I cannot really believe that it is right that we should stand back, as he is implying, and let the recession take its course. You still meet people who were laid off in the 80 and 90s and never went back to work, we cannot allow that to happen again. I believe that the government, and only the government, has a key role to play here. And it isn’t only me saying that, the IMF, the CBI are saying it."
"John Maynard Keynes said it is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong. And I believe that Cameron here is precisely wrong.

"Is he really saying that President Elect Obama is wrong? Obama campaigned on "yes we can", the Tories now appear to be campaign on a slogan of "no we can’t". The choice that faces this country now, and political parties, is a very clear one . You either support the economy now or you run the risk that conditions will be far worse than they could otherwise be, that the cost of failure will have to be met in the future and the cost will be far greater than the cost of taking action now."

"There is pretty clear dividing line, and if it’s a choice between yes can and yes we will, and no we can’t and let recession take its course, that’s choice I’m happy to put before people."

Election battle lines drawn then, but Darling said he and the rest of the cabinet were focused on the economy, not an election campaign but I'm sure he's seen the latest opinion poll in the Times, closing the gap with the Tories on 39% and Labour on 35%.

Friday 5 December 2008

Once a boy racer always a boy racer

You can take the boy racer out of Point but usually he runs out of petrol on the Braigh, which is where my friend Alistair McCallum took this picture of me last month.
I was passing by when I spotted Alistair and Jane filming in the beach car park between the Peoples' Republic of Point and Lewis on what was a beautiful day.

As I left they were trying to jack these souped up cars onto giant swivels to make swing sideways. How they were going to this with a length of fishing line and a supermarket trolley is beyond me but they're permanently inventive, the two of them.

Their company, Designiscentral do the really clever "magnetic north" idents for BBC Alba and this one is due to feature some hot rods being drawn to the north star. It looked like an ambitious shoot and it won't be on TV until the New Year but you can preview the stills on their flickr account.

Alistair's atmospheric time lapse sequences, filmed on St Kilda are well worth viewing too. They're all on the designiscentral site and I've put one of clouds dancing over Boreray below as a taster.

Thursday 4 December 2008

The Speaker's Gaelic Motto

I strive to be fair but that Michael Martin, he owes me - and not just for the sympathetic portrait in yesterday’s sketch of parliamentary proceedings (see below).

A guide to the Speaker’s House, which my esteemed political editor, brought back from a nice drinks reception with Mr Martin yesterday, has fallen open at the page about the Speaker’s Coat of Arms. His motto, written in Gaelic, is “Tha mi a’s stri a bhi cothromach”. It translates “I strive to be fair”.

It’s a reminder of Mr Martin’s island background. His mother was a McNeill whose people came from Barra, and the galleon on his coat of arms also represents the connection while its diced royal blue sail is a reference to his wife’s maiden name, McLay. There’s a steel rule to symbolise Mr Speaker’s time as a sheet metal worker and a chanter to reflect his passion for the bagpipes.

It’s a great coat of arms but that’s all by the way. I remember as a callow youth, okay, seven years ago, being introduced to the the newly elected Speaker in one of the Commons canteens. He explained how he wanted the motto of the Coat of Arms he was then designing to be in Gaelic and I promised to check the spelling for him.

I sent the motto to some friends who made sure it was spot on (Gaels tend to be very pedantic about spelling) and e-mailed it by return to one of the Speaker’s staff. So, the Gaelic translation was provided by yours truly.

And that was the last I heard of it, until the booklet fell open on my desk yesterday. And who gets the invite to the Speaker’s reception after the Queen’s Speech?

Michael Martin Speaks

Sketch, The Herald 4th Dec 2008

So, let's say the Old Bill are at the door. "Allo, allo, can we come in and have a look around?"

How many television detective series do you have to watch before you know the answer is: "Do you have a warrant, officer?"

Apparently the Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons does not watch much television. She allowed the officers of the Metropolitan Police force into the portals of Westminster Palace with just a piece of paper. "And, if you'd like to sign here ma'am, thank you very much."

That this happened in the case of Conservative MP Damian Green, whose Westminister office was raided by police last Thursday, was a matter of "regret" the contrite Speaker of the House, Mr Michael Martin, told a seething Commons yesterday. Viewed from within parliament, the invasion of Westminster by agents of the Crown is a national "scandal", not just a matter of regret.

However, on the Richter scale of parliamentary scandals that excite the public, its reverberations, although they have deep implications for our democracy, are contained by the north embankment of the Thames.

Still, the issue has generated kilowatts of anger and yesterday it was all refracted into a laser of ire focusing on an avuncular former shipyard worker whose job it is to be the protector of parliament. Mr Martin, his nervousness betrayed by a voice an octave above his normal range, stood before the Commons to give a statement on the affair.

It wasn't his fault, he said in so many more words than that. The Serjeant-at-Arms did not tell him the police did not have a warrant, the police didn't tell the Serjeant-at-Arms that a warrant could have been insisted on. Now, when Speaker Lenthall defied King Charles I he came up with better lines than that.
At the other end of the chamber Jill Pay, who always cuts a flamboyant Serjeant-at-Arms in her ceremonial frock coat, sat carefully clutching her sword, presumably lest she should fall on to it.

Her expression was hard to read, but in Mr Martin's Glasgow North East constituency they'd say "her face was tripping her".

Mr Martin displayed genuine remorse and showed flashes of frustration when the Tories dared to jeer him. "Others have been on television, I have not had that luxury," he said.

Mr Martin reminded the House that parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of criminal law and he cited chapter seven of Erkine May, the parliamentary bible.

David Davis, the Conservative MP who fought by-election against himself in the cause of civil liberties, flipped sceptically through the pages of the tome to check and looked unconvinced by anything Mr Martin had to say.

The same was true of most of the Conservative benches, many of whom hold the snobbish belief that Mr Martin is elevated above his station.

One by one they rose to make their point - that they regarded this as a parliamentary crisis for which they held the Speaker responsible. Former Tory leader Michael Howard, LibDem grandee Sir Menzies Campbell, veteran Labour MP David Winnick all had a go with John Reid rising to remind MPs of the principle that they remain subject to the rule of law.

Damian Green, seated immediately behind Conservative leader David Cameron, was greeted by cheers from the Tory benches as he rose to speak.

"An MP endangering national security would be a disgrace. An MP exposing embarrassing facts about Home Office policy which ministers are hiding is doing a job in the public interest."

Mr Martin said he was aware of the anger in the chamber, and there was plenty. It's difficult to imagine a situation where the headmaster is carpeted by the pupils, but this was as close as it gets.

Earlier, there had been that rap on the door. Black Rod, the Queen's bodyguard, chapped the door of the Commons, as always before the Queen's speech. Dennis Skinner, the resident maverick, responded: "Are there any Tory moles at the palace?"

That glint of the humour, like the tiaras and the dazzling jewels of the State Opening of parliament, were lost yesterday. The Speaker and the Serjeant-at-Arms were at the centre of a darker kind of political drama.