Friday 25 December 2009

Christmas on newspapers - then and now

I'm finishing off an extremely quiet Christmas shift at the Herald, filing remotely by wireless in the middle of the Berkshire countryside.

The boys on the newsdesk in Glasgow seem happy enough with their Tunnocks teacakes and mince pies. I was reminding one of them of my first Christmas shifts at the Herald, way back in the early 1990s.

I had flown back from a feature assignment in Barcelona to Glasgow late on Christmas Eve to an empty flat, some sour milk and a note from my fiancee to say she had gone home for Christmas. By lunchtime the next day I was starving and after asking around the newsroom in the Herald offices in Albion Street I ascertained that the only place that would be open was an Italian trattoria in the middle of town.

I made my glum way to a single, red-chequered basement table and was about to put in my miserable order when the waiter approached to say there was a phonecall for me. As the only diner there he had no problem recognising me but it was the first and last time that a phone was ever brought to my table at a restaurant.

On the other end of the line was one of the staff from the Herald library on the first floor, which in that pre-google era, was kept open on Christmas Day the same as every other day.

They had heard of my plight and although they hardly knew me (I was the new boy) they invited me, fast as my feet could carry me, back to the library to share their food - turkey, roast potatoes, pudding and all.

It was one of the best Christmas dinners I've have ever had. They even made their own crackers with restaurant receipts inside instead of jokes so you could claim the whole lot back on expenses. Okay, I made that last detail up but these were days of wine and roses at the Herald.

Back upstairs we were faced, as all Christmas newsrooms are, with the challenge of the empty page. Allan Laing, legendary Herald journalist, solved it by scraping the wires for news from around the world. Very cleverly he wove the stories from Rome, Toyko, Sandringham and elsewhere together so that the first letter of each paragraph, each one set in capital 24 pt, read out MERRY CHRISTMAS. It was genius on a wing column down the outside edge of the front page.

I tried repeating the trick years later on the Sunday Herald during a Christmas shift but, what do you know, the subs cut the middle of the story to make it fit the page! Mine read MERR ISTMAS. So a Merry Istmas to all the subs out there too, if there are any subs left out there.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Get your Christmas salt herring here

Just spotted this in the petrol station. Welcome to the Isle ... on Twitpic

Not from Denmark or Iceland, but Lewis, where this is a common sight. One of my friends used to take a pail of salt herrring to Edinburgh University every term to see him through his time away from home.

Hat tip to Iain MacKinnon for the spot at a Stornoway petrol station

Westminster wind-down

Westminster is almost like a haunted castle this afternoon, the political year being ushered out by more files on MP's expenses being handed in to Scotland Yard and the news that Gordon Brown will appear before the Iraq inquiry - after the general election.

I haven't really had a chance to deconstruct what happened at the Climate Change talks in Copenhagen but I really liked this fly on the wall account of the negotiations by Mark Lynas. He says China played a blinder and humiliated Obama. From where we sat Obama himself looked to be giving China some high handed treatment but there was obviously a huge arm-wrestling match going on behind the scenes.

Key quotes:

"I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying "no", over and over again."

"Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal, because it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China's century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower's freedom of action."

I recommend you read the account.

I'll be back on shift on Christmas Day, which hopefully, will be a day of peace and goodwill for one and all. Merry Christmas from a slushy Whitehall 1212.

Friday 18 December 2009

Copenhagen - "there is a risk of failure"

Copenhagen 1pm

With the hours ticking away the screws are really being turned on China, which the US and France are now briefing against. It seems China isn't ready to play ball on verification. Britain has jumped in too , accusing some countries of not being as committed as the UK and others are. Doesn't take a genius to work out who the British official was refering to when he said this a few minutes ago:

“The Prime Minister is involved in a tough long and intense set of negotiations and is fighting hard for a deal though the prospects are not great.

He has been asked to bring together people on the climate finance aspects where there is a degree of consensus arond the $100bn figure, particularly among the European, Americans and Africans

But a number of key countries are holding out against the overall package and time is now running short.

The PM is committed to doing all he can until the very last minute to make this deal happen but other countries also need to show the same level of commitment. There is a risk of failure.”

I'm reading this as the combination of muscle and charm that the US is deploying to get China onboard.

Politicians talk, leaders decide - in an hour or so

Copenhagen update: 11.30am

The main talks, involving 30 countries, have broken up for an hour to allow officials time to tidy up a text and some important bi-lateral meetings to take place. in the meantime the US is meeting with China on the all-important issue of verification.

The meeting will bring together the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, between them responsible for about 40 per cent of global emissions.

The US thinking is that they cannot give substantial amounts of money to tackle climate change on a no-strings basis. If so it would become a matter of negotiating foreign aid, which this isn’t. The Chinese, who have been quite vocal in the meeting we’re told, have issues over sovereignty

Paul Bengo, the chief of staff for the Papua New Guinea president, says Gordon Brown is mediating between the US and China in a bid to break the impasse.

So the critical session starts at noon (11.15am in the UK) with Gordon Brown still optimistic for a deal. The spirit of the talks is that this has to be done today.

The important thing is that they are not talking about is emission levels which means that we could see quite a bad deal on what was meant to be steep reductions in CO2 levels from the developed world. The leaders won’t be thanked for not coming to a good deal on that.

President Wen Jiabao of China is talking just now in the plenary session, where delegates and leaders go to make speeches as others sit listening (think working session of a TUC conference). Now President Luiz Lula da Silva of Brazil is on but no sign yet of Obama.

Copenhagen bogged down in "processfest"

Breaking news from Copenhagen Climate Change talks: 09.00am

Someone closely involved in the negotiations is telling us the talks that went on overnight actually moved backwards. Gordon Brown woke an angry man this morning, expressing “serious frustration” that the talks he left last night at 2.30am had become bogged down in what was described as a “processfest”

The overnight meeting of 26 nations, rich and poor - including the US, Germany, Sweden, Gabon and Papau New Guinea - was meant to forge a way ahead but ended up talking more about the text rather than the substance of an agreement.

The Prime Minister left Ed Milliband, the Energy Minister in charge when he left for some sleep, so he’lll be marked down for letting things slide.

Mr Brown, we are told, made a intervention this morning into a fairly chaotic meeting when he returned to the talks here in the Bella Centre. Remember he’s only one of 26 leaders coming and going through the revolving door to the negotiations but he is a man with a plan. He apparently is “fighting hard”, his officials told us earlier, to try and get a flavour of the points he raised in his speech yesterday onto the agenda. “We’re still trying to get a consensus on substantive content,” said this source. That doesn’t sound very encouraging.

Overnight the press pack reckoned that Obama would touch down - Airforce One is on the ground now - sign the papers, pose for a picture and jet out again, leaving us to mop up and head from a snowbound Denmark to a snowbound Britain.

The Chinese had indicated they would move on transpaerency and inspection of their carbon accounts,Hilary Clinton had put money on the table, and the mood music from the Prime Minister, when he briefed us yesterday was that we were “absolutely” more than half-way to a deal.

That doesn’t look such a likely prospect right now, but hey, it’s only early morning.

The train to Elsinore is delayed

Copenhagen, Thursday

The train to Elsinore is delayed indefinitely, I noticed. Standing on the freezing platform at Copenhagen airport news also comes through that the Climate Change talks are similarly stalled.

The leaders, most of whom have now arrived for their walk on roles in the great environmental drama, are said more indecisive than the great Dane himself when it comes to saving the planet. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” and after years of preparation and ten days of talking, it has boiled down to that Shakespearean equation and still they cannot strike a deal.

First, how to get to this conference. Getting to Copenhagen was carbon busting enough. With the Prime Minister deciding to save the world earlier in the week than scheduled the Herald had to make it’s own way to Denmark. The cost of going by train was £359 and 16 hours which compared to a cheap airline - £79 and one and a half hours - captured the climate change debate in a nutshell.

The weather is so cold that these hundreds of bikes stacked around the railway station must be frozen in for the winter. They cannot cycle in this weather, can they? But they do - statuesque valkyries kick frozen slush of the spindles before mounting and puffing off in clouds of condensing breath. Now, that is commitment to reducing your carbon footprint.

Outside the hotel the British delegation has been billeted in the Greenpeace ship, Arctic Summer, is docked at the pier. “Politicians talk, leaders decide” is the slogan strung over the gunnel. There were no great signs of statesmanship although Hilary Clinton announced yesterday morning that the US would back the $100bn deal to help developing countries

That should have raised spirits but out in the Bella Centre - can’t miss it, just past the giant Vestas wind turbine and the small group of frostbitten, protesting Africans - the mood in the massive hall remained gloomy. A deal is a long way off.

The conference barn hosted what looked like a crew of the Star Ship Enterprise reunion. Every nation on the planet is represented and they have all bought along three television channels each.

With the talks mired in procedurals Gordon Brown used his speech to call for a bit more ambition please and shuffled from talks to other talks. The Zarkozy and Merkel entourage would go one way across the conference hall, creating a human bow wave that cast aside delegates sipping coffee and watching screens. A few moment’s later Gordon Brown’s armada would sail the other way.

UK officials muttered that the process was in "serious difficulty" with time running out to sort out a deal but Mr Brown himself remained doggedly optimistic.

After talks with the Chinese president the Prime Minister declared that the conference was now more than half way to a deal. “Absolutely,” he said, though he added a note of caution: “Nothing’s agreed till everything is agreed. This is a unique process present. Everyone has a general wish to get an agreement but it’s very complex indeed.”

The main man flies in on Friday morning although such are the levels of despair that it was rumoured that Barack Obama would stay away. But with China signalling it would move on transparency, the EU could raise it’s game on cutting emissions, and the US throwing in cash a deal, an agreement in principle, was closer than the Brown team thought possible 24 hours earlier. Dinner with the Queen of Denmark - scallops, turkey and date cake to the strains of “Here comes the sun” - was like Hamlet’s play within a play, or talks within talks late into the night.

A legally binding agreement will have to wait to another conference in Mexico which Mr Brown indicated would come earlier in 2010, possibly July. That may be in time to save the world, but with a UK election due before then, will it be in time to save Gordon Brown?

Monday 14 December 2009

Haemochromatosis - welcome to my personal vampire movie

Here's a longish piece I wrote for today's Herald to publicise a little known blood disorder with a very long name. The Haemochromatosis Society is petitioning the Scottish parliament tomorrow for widespread screening for the condition which causes an overload of iron in the blood. Untreated it can cause liver cancer, heart disease, you name it. I'm lucky I was diagnosed early. Anyway read on and if you're like me you'll start recognising the symptoms.

From “True Blood” to “Let the Right One In”, a bit of fictional bloodsucking has become quite fashionable. Always a trendsetter I’ve been living in my own personal vampire movie for the last eight months.

Every Monday, and sometimes on Thursdays too, I have nearly a pint of blood drained from my body. My ‘vampires’ are benign, pleasant in fact, they work daylight hours in the NHS and without them I’d be in serious trouble.

I have, it’s been discovered, a fairly common genetic disorder called haemochromatosis - a long word meaning I have too much iron in my blood.

An iron overload caused by Genetic Haemochromatosis (GH, from now on) can cause liver disease, diabetes, weaken the heart, leave you impotent, depressed and give you arthritic pain in your bones. So, you can understand the incentive I have to seek out these friendly vampires, the nurses who bleed me regularly until the amount of iron in my blood reaches normal levels.

It’s an old-fashioned treatment for a genetic disorder that’s not widely known but might affect as many as one in 200 Scots. So, read on you might be in the wrong movie too.

GH can’t be cured but taking the iron out with the blood reduces the risk of more serious illness. So far with me it’s been about three gallons of blood down the drain, enough to keep the Twilight film franchise going for another few seasons. I’m just about half way through my treatment and physically, well, it’s tiring. But before I get into that let me start my vampire tale at the beginning.

AS usual, I blame my brother. I felt perfectly fine until he started complaining of abdominal pains and listlessness. I made the elder brother diagnosis - he was obviously suffering from sloth. Fortunately, for us both, he had a second opinion and blood tests showed excessive levels of iron. One gene test later and he was diagnosed with haemochromatosis. “What-o, what-o, what?” I asked on the phone. “Haemo - blood, chromo - iron - tosis - lots of it,” he answered. If he had it, then it was quite likely his siblings did too.

My GP was endearingly honest, she hadn’t heard of GH either but soon we were both up to about the same level of wiki-expertise. I was swiftly referred to a consultant haematologist who took one look at my stratospheric iron levels and started the bloodletting without waiting for a gene test.

The average level of iron in the blood, measured by the amount of ferretin, the protein that binds to iron in the blood, can vary between 50 and 300 depending on the individual. My brother come in at an impressive 1000 ft. I weighed in with more rivets than the Forth Road Bridge - 2500ft - which made me feel more like live rust than flesh and blood. With treatment my brother’s levels have dropped right down. I’ve proved more resistant, replacing the iron as quickly as they can drain it away, hence the sometimes twice weekly venesection.

As the consultant started explaining the effects of GH quite a few things began to make sense. For some months I’d been waking in the night with a worrying “pins and needles” sensation in my arms. One knuckle was permanently sore and swollen and I had occasional shooting pains in my wrist, all of which I ascribed to keyboard-related RSI or the beginnings of the arthrtic-type symptoms that affect my mother.

The iron accumulated in the body has to go somewhere, the consultant explained. The liver, the body’s blood filter, deals with most of it but excess amounts can crystalise in the joints causing pain, usually in the knuckles, and can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, pressing on nerves in the wrist. Immediate x-rays showed no sign of arthritis and the pain has all but disappeared in the months since I started treatment.

A word here about my treatment. It has been quite unbelievable - unbelievably good that is which seems to be everyone’s impression of their direct contact with the NHS. Every Monday I walk back down the Mile End Road shaking my head in bewilderment at the professionalism of it. All these tests, all the expertise and the care with which it is administered - it’s all free.

My brother, in rural Scotland, enjoys a walk-in, personal venesection service. In London I book my treatments at the local hospital and wait with people who are genuinely ill with other blood disorders and whose discomfort knocks my inconvenience into a pint pot of plasma fluid. Admittedly, I had to wait some weeks over the summer to see another consultant but when I did meet him he treated me like the chairman of Shell Oil, fixing appointments for a battery of further tests there and then - all of which were completed within a few weeks.

The tests have been mostly fun - glucose absorption for diabetes, barium meal (okay, not that much fun) and a ridiculously intimate encounter with a sonographer, who wrapped herself around me as she applied an ultrasound to my chest. "Your heartbeat is slow," she said in our strange embrace. "I think it's about to speed up," I giggled, as I opened my heart to a stranger.

An excess of iron also causes bronzing of the skin, which I found a bit of personal blow. There’s a theory that some of us Hebrideans are descendants of shipwrecked sailors from the scattered Spanish Armada. I’ve always enjoyed being mistaken for a stray Iberian but my GH gene blows that myth out of the water. However, it does raise the intriguing possibility that the Armada story is a 16th century Gaelic explanation for a defective gene condition that is apparently prevalent across the Celtic nations of the UK.

One theory is that the gene emerged as a method of absorbing high amounts of iron from a meagre diet in times of famine, common enough in rural Scotland and Ireland centuries ago. It’s been called the Celtic Curse but that’s something of a misnomer because it’s really a Scandinavian Scunner and far more of our Nordic cousins suffer.

Women, because they menstruate and lose iron that way, develop the condition later in life. My sister for example, has the gene but is slightly anaemic. Diet does little for it, the amount of iron in a pint of guinness or a rare steak is minuscule compared to my internal Ravenscraig absorbing the iron out of what I eat.

GH is surprisingly common,In Scotland it is estimated about 25,000 people are affected with the condition, having inherited two copes of the mutated C282Y gene and 600,000 carry one copy of the mutated gene. That's about one in 200 people who could be affected.

While I make light of my early diagnosis, untreated it can be a killer. In fact people like George Scot, who heads the Haemochromatosis Society, think it is the unrecognised factor in Scotland's bad health story. Tomorrow Mr Scott is due to present a petition to the Scottish parliament calling for routine screening for the rogue gene which is easily affordable and could save lives.
That makes perfect sense. Late onset diabetes, cirrhosis, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, loss of libido, fatigue are all part of Scotland’s basketcase of bad health statistics. Many people could be suffering from these conditions because they have a gene that leaves too much iron in their blood.
Remember, it starts with waking in the middle of the night with a tingling feeling in your arms. Next, the tell tale puncture marks and then you find yourself walking around in a tired, half-sleep letting people drain blood off you. Haemochromatosis - just your typical vampire movie really.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Tairsgeir tax on peatcutting on the way?

I knew things were bad in Ireland - but a tax on cutting peats?

Buried in the Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan's Budget speech last week was a whopping £15 per tonne carbon tax on domestic fuel oil, coal and, wait for it, peat.

That is a message that will send shivers through the aching spine of anyone on Lewis still devoted to the ancient craft of peat cutting.
Anyone who has been bent double in a poll-moine throwing wet peats for three hours at a time in the face of a south westerly sleet storm probably reckons that they ought to be paid to cut the damn things, not the other way around.

I reckon £15 a tonne is about a trailer load of moine dubh, the hard black peat prefered for the rayburn, or two trailer loads and three sacks of fadan bhan, the more fibrous peat suitable for the living room fireplace.
I know Alistair Darling, a Lewis boy, would never dare tax the tairsgeir but that George Osborne and his his oil-fired Aga, (which you paid the £1500 fuel bill for last year incidentally), I wouldn't put it past him.

Friday 11 December 2009

Herald Scottish MPs expenses league table

Feeling a bit wiped out after trawling MPs expenses all day yesterday. Read the results and the league table in the Herald or click on the picture below.

If you want to check individual MPs expenses then click through to the Parliament website. The latest releases are the 2008-09 ACA and the first quarter of 2009-10. Happy reading.

The Herald
11 Dec 2009

Thursday 10 December 2009

An truaghan bochd x 2

The latest MPs expenses files which we're ploughing through show that Angus MacNeil (SNP, Na h-Eileanan an Iar) was allowed to submit his expenses forms late, having written an email to the fees office in which he points out that he lives in the Outer Hebrides so it would not be "environmentally sensible" for him to deliver them by hand.

He wrote that he is a "parent with a young family" and that it was to his "utter shock" that he was told he had to "subsidise his job to the tune of a thousand pounds" when the deadline passed.
Perhaps the fees office were merely testing the postal system in the Western Isles when Mr MacNeil asked for, and received, a "quick response to this surprising and tense situation".

Meanwhile new boy Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) has had a claim for a £24 Babybliss hairdryer cruelly rejected by the Fees Office.

PBR - dull? Far from it.

It’s hard to say that was dull. How can talking about a £178bn financial deficit this year alone possibly be dull? Yet it is only when contrasted to the slightly histrionic counter-punch of the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, that Alistair Darling begins to look more than worthy. Then he looks sober, perhaps cool even. Measured, is that the word he kept at the forefront of his mind as he lulled us towards the hard decade of debt?

Last year at the PBR the chancellor cast a sleeping spell over the nation as he racked up the bill for bailing out the banks - the chamber snoozed its way into historic deficits.This year they were more alert because there were other figures to consider which might be measured in slim hundreds rather than billions. The numbers that worry Labour MPs most is the size of their parliamentary majority and there was too much at stake in this Pre-election, sorry pre-budget report, for them to even consider falling asleep.

Darling gave them every opportunity to nod off, his softly spoken voice barely rising above a whisper. If someone coughed in the chamber you were in danger of missing £3bn down the back of a leather bench.No one could expect a flight of capital on the back of such a soothing presentation. There were no rabbits out of the hat, if you discount that we all have to pay another 1/2p more in national insurance.

Even when, bang on schedule, for the one o’clock news the man in the grey suit and grey tie announced a tax raid on the piggy bankers bonuses it raised barely a cheeer from the Labour benches.When he announced a 2p cut in bingo duty someone ought to have shouted "full house" but in truth the Labour benches knew that if this dividing line budget doesn’t work then they will be looking at far less than that in a few months from the benches opposite.

Chancellors always speed up through the bad news and even the best copytakers had trouble following Darling’s rocketing deficit trail. Up clicked the numbers until they settled close to the mileage on a mid-1970s Volvo 240 estate. The opposition gave a collective plumber’s sucking sigh when the till stops ringing at £1.26 trillion. It could be worse, we could have been born Irish.

He squeezed public sector pay but Mr Darling spared himself and his Labour colleagues any more pain by refusing to hold a public spending review, clever move.

If being the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the middle of the biggest financial firestorm ever is hard work 363 days of the year then the day of the PBR, and the Budget, are when the Shadow chancellor earns his spurs.George Osborne, flourising the fountain pen of privilege, scrawled notes to himself as Philip Hammond and Oliver Letwin, swapped calculations on the back of Blackberry.

He’s a dangerous boy is Osborne on a good day but his savage attacks on Gordon Brown bounced off the Prime Minister’s boiler-plated hide, which, incidentally, he could trade in for new, more efficient one under the chancellor’s green flannel scheme.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Darling ushers in the hard decade

Maybe someone will write a piobaireachd -'Alistair Darling's welcome to the hard decade'. It will have to be a fast tune because these figures are headspinning - £1.26 trillion of debt over the next two years. I can't even imagine what that looks like let alone begin to hum it.

But somehow Alistair Darling's slow air, deadpan delivery of the PBR today makes it all that stored up pain palatable - that was the intention anyway.

Quote of the day has to go to Vince Cable , and not for the "bingo and boilers budget" quip. He nailed the whole PBR by pointing out that the increase on National Insurance won't even begin to touch the sides of the debt bucket .

"All of the money that is going to be raised in additional tax will now be spent (on) public spending," he said. "None of this increase in taxation is going to be used to pay down the borrowing requirement or the deficit, it is complete distortion of the priorities the Government should have."

The National Insurance increase will hit everyone earning more than £20k and take in several billion compared to the paltry amount to be raised on the bankers bonus tax (which they will only pay if their accountants aren't smart).

Public spending, some £14.6bn, will continue for at least another year to help the economy through the recession but then the "black hole", as George Osborne called it, of a public spending review.

That means deep cuts and it's going to hurt whoever wins. Meanwhile four million public sector workers will face a real terms pay cut for two years.. That too is storing up trouble with the unions - Unison says it is "just not on" - and the next government Tory or Labour won't find that an easy bomb to defuse.

Scotland? The most money flowing north since Antonine's Wall was built according to the Scotland Office with £23m more in Barnett consequentials. Robbing Scotland by not repeating accelerating capital spending says Stewart Hosie of the SNP. Take your pick. There are some good news items for Scotland, like support for the games industry for example.

The winners? If you're a pensioner in Partick who comes home from a bingo win to find that the boiler has broken tonight, well you'll be dancing a jig to Darling a' ghraidh.

I'm on an La, BBC Alba, Sky ch 168 at 8pm tonight turning all that into common sense Gaelic.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Journalism frozen out in Iceland

Fascinating piece about the freedom of the press in Iceland on the rather excellent Iceland Weather Report. (I will write about my trip there soon!)

Scarlett's WMD evidence to Chilcott today

Looking forward to Sir John Scarlett's evidence to the Iraq inquiry this afternoon. Sir John, friend of Alastair Campbell, chaired Tony Blair's Cabinet Joint Intelligence Committee which produced the flawed intelligence dossier on Saddam Hussain's weapons of mass destruction. If anyone knows where these pesky WMDs are it's Sir John.

Meanwhile I laughed this morning at Mike White's take on the Daily Mail story that the intelligence for the existence of WMDs came from a Baghdad taxi driver.

The Guardian sage writes: "In politics, as in life – or email leaks ahead of the Copenhagen climate conference – timing matters. With another opinion poll closing the gap between Labour and the Tories we can expect plenty more like this morning's "Was Iraqi cabbie source of dodgy dossier?" yarn in the Daily Beast.

What? You haven't heard? Tory MP Adam Holloway has talked to a chap who has talked to other chaps. Lots of these chaps now believe that one of the chaps from whom they used to get information in Saddam Hussein's Iraq may have got some of it from a chap who was, professionally speaking, a taxi driving chap in Iraq's western desert.

Well, I never. Intelligence culled under pressure for results from the boss class, obtained from doubtful sources."

Just noticed that John Scarlett's middle name is McLeod. Mmm, the head of British Intelligence was a Highlander.

Monday 7 December 2009

Hundredth British fatality in Afghan conflict

The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The epitaph sums up just how news of the 100th fatality in Afghanistan will have been received by the British Army and at the Military of Defence back in London.

In the Portland Stone building on Whitehall Gardens - where the lights have not been completely dimmed in the eight years since British Marines first help secure Bagrham airport in December 2001 - every death affects the mood and the morale of staff. Each death gives pause for thought but the shooting of a soldier from the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglican Regiment earlier today marked a particularly grim milestone in the war in Afghanistan. This year has been the deadliest year for British forces since the Falklands War in 1982.

Britain is not alone taking the hits. More than 40 US servicemen were killed in August in the run-up to the deeply controversial presidential elections which resulted in a tainted President Hamid Karzai continuing to nominally govern the country from a fortified palace in Kabul.

The extra security for the election campaign does not properly account for the rising death toll. A deadly and successful switch in tactics by the Taliban has been the main cause of the huge spike in casualties in 2009.

Having learned that they cannot take on well armed Nato troops in pitched battles, particularly when airstrikes can be called in at short notice, the Taliban have changed to using increasingly sophisticated home-made bombs against the western forces.

About three-quarters of the 100 UK deaths in Afghanistan in 2009 are thought to have been caused by insurgent-improvised explosive devices (IEDs). British troops have been hit particularly hard because nearly all of them are based in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and major centre of opium production.

The growing complexity of the IEDs suggests that the Taliban are getting help from either state sponsors or - more likely - experienced Islamist insurgents who have learned their trade in Iraq or Chechnya.

Government critics have blamed a shortage of helicopters for the high number of UK deaths but for counter-insurgency the amry argue is vital for troops to move among the local population. As the vehicles get more protection, the bombs get bigger and no vehicle is invulnerable.

By the time the British military death toll in Iraq reached 100 in January 2006, there had only been five fatalities in Afghanistan as British paratroops prepared to move into Helmland.

John Reid, the former Defence Secretary still bristles when his comment, that he would be "perfectly happy" if UK troops left Helmand three years later "without firing a shot", is still quoted back at him out of context. Whatever the semantics more British bullets have been fired in Helmand that in any fighting since WWII.

There were 39 British deaths in the Afghan conflict in 2006, 42 in 2007 and 51 in 2008. The death toll soared this year as UK troops launched major missions over the summer, like Panther’s Claw which claimed ten British lives, to provide security ahead of August’s presidential and provincial elections.

The surge tactic is to be deployed on a greater scale next year, hitting the Taliban even harder to buy time to train up vast numbers of Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police recruits and to hand over district by district control. Taliban resistance to that plan, which they have promised to repay in blood, inevitably means that soldiers, families, the politicians and the public must brace themselves for other dark milestones.

Copenhagen Day One

Day one read through of the UN Climate Change Conference for the Herald.

"This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we got a new and better one. If we ever do." - Connie Hedegaard.

Thousands of officials, environmental campaigners, politicians and journalists arrived in the Danish capital Copenhagen yesterday to begin two weeks of negotiations that will attempt to strike a deal on curbing carbon emissions and supporting poor countries in the fight against climate change.

Welcoming the world to Copenhagen Connie Hedegaard, the conference president and Denmark’s former climate minister delivered a simple warning that the next 14 days would determine the future of the planet. She said: "This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we got a new and better one. If we ever do."

The UN’s chief climate official Yvo de Boer said the negotiations will only be a success if they deliver ‘’significant and immediate action’’ on global warming. "The time for formal statements is over. The time for re-stating well-known positions is past," he told delegates.

He was confident there would be a political deal at the end of the summit next week and a legally binding treaty forcing the world to reduce emissions that will be signed in June of next year.

But on the first day of the summit, divisions were evident between various blocs particularly the rich world, which causes most of the pollution and the poor world which has to live with the consequences. The small island states indicating they would not accept anything less than a legally binding deal including deep cuts in emissions.

The industrialised G8 bloc of nations and some major developing countries have adopted a target of keeping the global average temperature rise since pre-industrial times to 2C but the small island states think this would cause serious climate impacts from rising sea levels, and have been arguing for a lower target of 1.5C. A number of African nations also back the lower target.

The African Union has also threatened to walk out of the talks if industrialised countries do not agree to help poor states pay for the transition to cleaner economies.

From Britain Gordon Brown, who will attend the summit later along with other world leaders headed by US President Barack Obama, who has decided that signals from China, Brazil and other emerging nations on the possibility of a deal merit his attendance.

In Washington, the Obama administration is poised to declare carbon dioxide a public danger, sending a powerful signal that America will act on global warming – with or without a law in Congress – by 2010.

The official declaration would allow Obama to use the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions. That would avoid waiting for action from Congress, where a proposed climate change law has stalled in the Senate.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday raised the bar for the negotiations, urging world leaders to give their promises at Copenhagen the full weight of international law within six months and Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband went on the attack against climate change deniers who have tried to derail the debate in recent weeks.

Mr Miliband warned that those who argue climate change is not the result of human actions are "profoundly irresponsible". He said: "The overwhelming consensus of scientists across the world is that climate change is real and is man-made and is happening."

Mr Miliband warned the next two weeks, during which the Copenhagen talks will be attended by more than 100 world leaders and representatives of 192 countries, were "crunch time for the planet".

Mr Brown yesterday talked by telephone to Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and Swiss president Hans-Rudolf Merz, and on Thursday to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and the Japanese Prime Minister as part of efforts to secure a strong deal.

Environmental activists are planning to hold protests in Copenhagen and around the world on 12 December to encourage delegates to reach the strongest possible deal.

Liam Clancy - beannachd leat.

Today was the funeral of Liam Clancy, Bob Dylan's personal folk god. This links through to Paul Evan's blog and the first PA take on the mass. Goodnight and God Bless

14 Days to save the world

The UN Climate Change conference starts in Copenhagen today, which means politics is on environmental duties for the next while. More importantly it means that we have just under a fortnight to agree on saving the planet.

New pledges on emissions cuts by the United States, India and China ahead of the Copenhagen summit had raised hopes of a meaningful deal but there's still plenty of room for discord.

An impressive front page editorial on the Guardian (and 56 other global newspapers) sets out what is required and here's the video that delegates arriving in Copenhagen were given on arrival.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Campbell's knock-out soup sustains Brown

Gordon Brown found his pre-election stride at yesterday's PMQ, thanks to his old friend. Sketch from today's Herald.

Ker-pow! The clunking fist back. What did they put in Gordon Brown’s porridge yesterday morning, the hacks asked after a blistering performance at Prime Minister’s Question Time. "Oh, he’s a full English breakfast kind of guy," said his - for once - cheery spokesman.

On the way to the mid-day bout it was beginning to feel like an abnormal week at Westminster. Gordon Brown wasn’t on the ropes, which was an unusual state of affairs. He’d come to the Commons on Monday to detail troop increases in Afghanistan and gone home unscathed. The yachties were taken by the Iranians but that resolved itself and a second poll showed the Tory lead narrowing. Still, it was only Wednesday, plenty of time for things to go wrong. Like, the recession never ending Mr Cameron taunted from the dispatch box.

"The purpose of asking this question is that he has policy to put forward or he is simply talking down Britain," said Mr Brown to a throaty roar of approval from the ringside, I mean backbenches."The voice may be that of a modern public relations man, the mindset is that of the 1930s."

Wow, a new line. That woke us up and had Labour MPs cheering. But Cameron is light on his feet. "That one must have sounded great in the bunker," retorted Cameron. He should have held fire while the Speaker calmed the Labour benches.

Lots of great gag writers have their careers ruined by the what we in the trade call the "human delivery mechanism" - just watch Harriet mangle a good joke. But Brown was on form, he was actually laughing while he gesticulated to Cameron to sit down and stop flannelling.

Mr Brown got up to the dispatch box again. He looked around momentarily, as if to say ‘watch this’, and then the clunking fist came down on the Tory leader. "You know, Mr Speaker, the more he talks the less he actually says," chortled Mr Brown.

Then it dawned on me - not porridge - he’d been supping Campbell’s soup (that’s Alastair Campbell, back in the Number 10 kitchen to prove he is funnier than Armando Ianuchi).

Cameron was winded and there was uproar on the Labour benches. "The more noise there is...," began Mr Speaker in admonishment.

Cameron, as surprised as the rest of us, fought back but against Brown transformed it was useless. Sometimes the old tactics are the best. You remember the "rumble in the jungle" - Muhammad Ali took all the punishment Frazier could throw at him for the whole fight and then floored him with a haymaker.

Brown’s was a quick one-two on inheritance tax non-dom tax status. That one reverberated out of the ring with the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith surrendering his offshore status within the hour. "With him and Mr Goldsmith their inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton," roared Brown. Class war knock-out. "Order, order", shouted Peerie Bercow to no avail. Campbell’s soup - meat and drink to the Labour benches.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Hyslop puts a brave face on demotion

Just finished doorstepping Fiona Hyslop, who was sacked by Alex Salmond this morning as Education Secretary. She caught the first plane south to Westminster to sit on a joint committee as the SNP’s new Culture and External Affairs Secretary.

She put a brave face on her situation, portraying it as a "regrouping" of the minority SNP government rather than a demotion.

Importantly Ms Hyslop pledged her continued loyalty to the First Minister, so we conclude she won’t be any immediate trouble to him. "We’re a tight integrated team and the First Minister has kept me in his cabinet to support him personally and that is what I am going to do," she said.

"I was very pleased that I had the support of Alex Salmond and my cabinet colleagues in saying we had to re-appraise where we were with education policy. It’s a new stage and it’s correct that a new minister takes that forward."

She added: "We’re a minority government, we have to re-group, and it allows me to pursue many of the constitutional issues as I have just done at the joint ministerial committee today. On day one I am here at Westminster and we have already made progress in pursuing Scottish interests."

She denied that she had been sacked. "I haven’t. I have been appointed to a new position. The important thing is that as a minority government we have to take what comes. We’re celebrating the publication of our white paper on independence but when things develop we have to move quickly and it gives Mike an opportunity as Education Secretary to take on some of the interests we identified on Friday."

Ms Hyslop put the blame for the failure to deliver on the flagship policy of reducing class sizes firmly at the doorsteps of local authorities. "If we are going to re appraise where we are in relation to local government and its ability, or currently inability, to deliver on national policy then it’s right that a new minister takes that forward. I think that’s the right thing to do."

She added: "We have had major achievements in education - we introduced free education for university students, a package moving from loans to grants for many students and a revolutionary approach to early years. I’ve launched the major driver and the biggest transformational change in education for a generation with curriculum for excellence. I’m very satisfied with the support I’ve had a cross the sector."

If I were her, I’d be secretly happy. The SNP education promises were always over-ambitious and the culture brief is surely the most fun that can be had as a Minister in a Scottish government if part of the brief is to hang out with artists, go to the opera and attend Celtic Connections.

Shock poll - politics is still interesting

The latest UK wide opinion poll shows Westminster is on course for a hung parliament after the general election. The ComRes telephone poll at the weekend for the Independent puts the Conservatives on 37%, down three points on last month, Labour static on 27% and the Lib Dems up two points on 20%. Other parties were rated at 16%, up one point.

The figures would leave the Tories six short of an overall majority in the Commons if the swing was repeated universally across the country. David Cameron would have 320 seats, Labour 240, the Lib Dems 58 and other parties on 14%.

It is the second poll this month to point to a hung parliament. AN IPSOS Mori poll published on November 22 put the Tories on 37% and Labour on 31% and the Lib Dems on 17%.

There was some cheer amongst Labour MPs who were given the figures at the Fabian Christmas reception last night but on these scores they would be in opposition. Labour though are focusing on regional polls, and aiming to fight the election at a local level and they are more encouraging, according to themselves that is. But game on, as they say.

With the government firmly lodged on 27% Labour high command are expecting one more push in January - that is one more push from their own benches to get rid of Gordon Brown.

Monday 30 November 2009

Nach robh thide agad, Niall

Welcome to Niall O' Gallagher, BBC Radio nan Gaidheal's political editor, to the blogosphere. Niall will be penning political commentary in Gaelic on the BBC news website which means that starved Gaelic readers will have more than my "Point Gaelic" outbursts (generously rendered into grammatical sense by others) to hand on the eadar-lion.

Cybernats - the woad slips but no surprises

And we're back... Whitehall 1212 was offline there for most of a fortnight because, well because I took a break from the journalistic day job and went on a circular trip from Westminster to Iceland and all points south.

The journey included Pinewood Studios (where I was the voice of a Pictish warrior in a Roman Epic); Glasgow where I helped the city restaurants hold the recession at bay; a musical expedition to St Kilda courtesy of Alyth McCormack and finally to Bethnal Green, where Point's answer to Van Morrison - the Gaelic singer Iain MacKay - held the stage in York Hall. Afterwards we got a torrential soaking walking home from the pub which made it all feel very circular and Hebridean indeed.

Lots of adventures, and a few political lessons from Reykjavik and Scotland, which I will write about in the coming days.

Getting back online after what seems like a lifetime , and shovelling out the todhair from the inbox, I see that a bigger todhair-storm than the Referendum proposals has hit the SNP. The exposure of one a senior aide to cabinet secretary Michael Russell as a cybernat.

Mark MacLachlan quit as constituency aide to Constitution Minister Mike Russell following the revelation, which appears to have delighted but not surprised most of Scotland's journalistic community.

Cybernats, a bit like cybermidges, are a depressing part Scotland's media moorland but MacLachlan's unmasking at least puts an end to the big lie that these poison keyboarders were rogue Nat males rather than, as we all suspected, tax-payer funded character assassins.

No one is immune from them but for the most part they can be swatted away like the midges.
Realising what was ahead when I started penning a column for the Sunday Herald I got my retaliation in first. The extract contains some useful advice from a female friend.

Sunday Herald 19 August 2007

"The anonymity of the web is one of the more depressing features of the internet age. Try catching up with the future of Scotland on any newspaper readers' forum and you'll end up wanting to take a shower.

The flipside of Alex Salmond's "big conversation" on the constitution is like wading through slurry on a foot-and-mouth infected farm yard.Online, the debate is swamped by the "Wha's like us" faction of nationalism that brooks no criticism o' the oppressed Scots nation and does its best to engage in the most derogatory language possible, anonymously and preferably in a Scots accent. It's the online equivalent of being sat blindfolded in a Lochgelly pub on a wet October night with 15 bar-room bores talking simultaneously.

You begin reading a string in the hope it's penned by teenagers with a loaded sense of irony. Midway you cling to the notion of a clever, single-scripted satire but finish in the depressing knowledge that the authors are serious and beyond parody.

This army of cyber woads is tireless. Look at the timings, they hover around newspaper websites at midnight competing to be first to hurl abuse at whatever a political editor has laid out for them.

A generation ago, Scottish local newspapers were notorious for elevating the poison pen letter to an art form, printing vile allegations on letter pages under nom de plumes or "name and address withheld". In print, most have cleaned up their act but that hasn't drained the peatbog, the Pantone 300 ink brigade has been reborn online.

When I read online comments on the London or indeed Californian newspaper sites contributors sound informed and even courteous to each other. Why is online Scotland cursed by kilted keyboards with cyber Tourette syndrome where serious debate is reduced to how much you can make yourself read like a bad imitation of a James Kelman character?

One of my friends has a remedy. When the playground bile gets to boiling point she posts a comment to stall traffic. She just types: "Do you boys not have girlfriends?" It shuts them up, until they remember that online no-one can see how empty your life is."

Monday 16 November 2009

The Minch - it ain't so big any more.

I'm indebted to Iain Pope for spotting this staggering picture on Gordon Scott's Tiree blog, staggering that is if you think the Mv Isle of Lewis is the biggest ship in the Minch.

In front is the Mv Isle of Lewis, the largest vessel in the Cal Mac fleet, and behind is the Queen Mary 2, all 148,528 gross tons of her, flagship of the Cunard line and still the largest ocean liner in the world.

The Queen Mary 2 has 15 restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, a casino, a ballroom and a theatre. Aye, and if the Isle of Lewis were no stay docked in Stornoway forever she could boast just about the same facilities.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Glasgow N East - the philisophical fall out

Been off for a few days so missed the whole Glasgow North East fall out until today. This online exchange between Ben Brogan (once of the Herald parish) and Hopi Sen , who is new to me, is a good tailspin argument about the outcome.

Hopi deconstructs , in the nicest possible way, Ben's despair about how poor people keep voting for Labour. The answer seems to be the bleedin' obvious - they know Labour improves their lot - but let's not let the political debate be settled there.

Thursday 12 November 2009

PM to ride Glasgow NE train at dawn

In more audio news it's being whispered that the Prime Minister is booked for the 08.10am slot on the Today Programme tomorrow morning. Would he make himself a hostage to fortune if he did not think that Glasgow North East is in the bag for Labour tonight?

Probably still worth staying up late to see if the SNP make a dent (they're ready to throw in the towel early my sources say) and next to see where in the running order the BNP comes and, with three hard left parties standing, whether they fight each other or the fascists.

Once again, no sign of Cameron fever breaking out, but this is a working-class Glasgow constituency.

The result is expected quite late - 2am is the estimate - but that's usually a safety slot given by the returning officer to cover any eventuality. It will be all over much earlier than that.

Audio connect to a View From North Lochs

Legendary BBC Radio Scotland reporter Iain MacDonald and I yesterday took part in a radio reminiscence of the late Hector MacDonald, who wrote the brilliant satirical View From North Lochs column for the West Highland Free Press for 15 years.

The latest collection of Eachann's writings, More Views From North Lochs, has just been published and will have you rolling on the floor over Christmas.

You can hear our tribute to Eachann on Highland Cafe, including Iain MacDonald playing the part of a Stornoway Cove, on the BBC's play it again machine. It's on from about 28.45 for about seven minutes. One day I will learn how to audioblog.

PM bounces back in timewarped Commons

From the Herald 12/11/09

It was the last Prime Minister’s Question of the current term. Next week we will have a Queen’s Speech and according the strange lunar calendar of Westminster new parliamentary year will begin. In politics time has a weird rhythm anyway, one day the whole process drags on interminably and the next minute events move at a headspinning pace.

Question Time was moved to 3pm because of the special Armistice Day service and Commons traditionalists felt comfortable to be back where they had been more than a decade ago. It was all very bad for the body clock but any chronological measure Mr Brown should have been dragging himself over this parliamentary finish line.

But the Prime Minister, just back from Golgotha by Wapping, looked as if the Afghan crown of thorns and the tabloid’s vinegar-soaked spear had actually pepped him up.

David Cameron, who if he is guilty of anything it is over-rehearsing his synthetic anger, went for the Prime Minister on unemployment figures. By rights the number of young people out of work ought to have been over one million by now for this particular script to work - the figure is 943,000 - but he pressed on anyway.

He accused Mr Brown of failing in his promise to abolish youth unemployment, putting to one side that this government has been around so long that the pledge was probably fulfilled and broken again on the back of the global economic crisis.

No government in Europe was doing more than his to get young people into work said Mr Brown and the Tories had blocked every measure.

"Parallel universe," squeaked Mr Cameron. He flourished a leaked memo, a theatrical gesture matched by staged laughter from the Labour benches, that indicated the Government wanted to cut apprenticeships by 10 per cent because Gordon Brown created the "longest recession since the war".

It was the usual ding dong but Mr Brown had, for once, the sharper blade. "Every measure has been opposed by the party opposite," said Mr Brown having trapped Mr Cameron on a simple question of investment for jobs. "Every time we mention policy he loses it."

Mr Cameron flushed red as he sought to avoid the parry from the Prime Minister. He raised the issue of the mortgage rescue scheme which has helped "just 16 families". That, explained Mr Brown patronisingly, was because the government beat the forecast number of repossessions and had helped people in other ways. "Every time he tries to talk about policy he doesn’t have a clue what is happening," mocked Mr Brown.

At one stage Peerie John, the Speaker, who hates being left out of any drama, intervened to quieten Labour backbenchers. They were cheering Gordon Brown, really cheering him, because this time (3.10pm on my watch) he was actually quite good.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Gordon Brown press conference

From the Prime Minister's press conference for The Herald.

A deeply upset Gordon Brown yesterday apologised once again for the errors in a hand-written letter of condolence he sent to Jacqui Janes, the mother of a young soldier killed in Afghanistan

At a sombre press conference in Downing Street - during which he signalled that British troops could hasten withdrawal by moving to an overwatch role in Helmand province in Afghanistan as they had in southern Iraq - a haggard looking Mr Brown said the sentiments in his controversial letter had been genuine.

Mrs Janes had angrily dismissed the Prime Minister’s error-strewn letter on the death of her son Jamie as "disrespectful" and attacked his failure to apologise properly.

It was only by drawing on his own experience as bereaved parent that Mr Brown able to draw a line under the affair after being confronted with the raw emotional anger of Mrs Janes in the published transcript of a telephone conversation he had with her

"I’m a parent who understands the feelings when something goes terribly, terribly wrong, and I understand also how long it takes for people to handle and deal with the grief we have all experienced," said a tired and deep-voiced Mr Brown.

Last night Mrs Janes said she accepted Mr Brown’s apology after 48 hours that left the Prime Minister personally battered and his officials bitterly anger at how The Sun newspaper had "manipulated" the story to make him appear uncaring when he had not intended any offence.

Downing Street officials held that the Sun story was deliberately timed around Armistice Day to inflict maximum damage on the Prime Minister, a charge the newspaper denied.

Advisers to the Prime Minister, grasping for good angle after a bruising few days, said the incident had at least brought to people’s attention that Mr Brown sends a personal letter to the families of all soldiers who lose their lives in action. Downing St also received calls and e mails from the public expressing sympathy for the Prime Minister who had to apologise on Monday for his bad handwriting, the result of his poor eyesight.

Almost lost in the controversy was Mr Brown’s confirmation that by mid-2010, British forces will begin handing over control of some districts of the southern Helmand province to Afghan military leaders and local politicians — a tactic aimed at preparing the way for an eventual withdrawal from the province.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel renewed her call yesterday for a strategy to eventually hand over responsibility in Afghanistan to local forces. Germany has more than 4,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan in non-combat roles.

At his press conference Mr Brown rejected demands - voiced by former Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells - to adopt a "fortress Britain" strategy by abandoning its mission in Afghanistan and concentrating on homeland security in the UK.

He said it would also be wrong to concentrate purely on al Qaeda by attacking its strongholds in the Pakistani province of Waziristan, while allowing the Taliban to regain control in Afghanistan.

Mr Brown claimed that "half of the leadership of al Qaeda have been eliminated in recent months", but said Britain would be at greater risk if they were once more allowed access to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He accepted that he faced a huge task to explain to the public how important the mission is. "This is a land that is far away and people have got to know why we are there," he said.

His news conference was held early in No 10 so that its broadcast would not clash with tv images of the bodies of six UK servicemen - five of whom were shot by a "rogue" Afghan policeman- being flown into RAF Lyneham. The cortege was met by hundreds of members of the public who lined the rain-soaked main street of the nearby village of Wootton Bassett in a now familiar ceremony.

The MoD yesterday named a British soldier who died in hospital after an explosion in Afghanistan as Rifleman Samuel John Bassett, 1 Platoon, 4th Battalion The Rifles, serving as part of the 3 Rifles Battle Group. He was injured by a bomb near Sangin, in northern Helmand province on 1 November. He died on Sunday, aged 20.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

How the Berlin Wall fell - the hack's tale

There has been a mountain of stuff to read about the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down but if you read only one piece... this one by journalist Ewald Koenig, one who was there and saw, tops just about every other account I've seen.

The Rolf Harris spelling challenge

I challenge anyone to top Tomos Livingstone's four degrees of separation between the war over Gordon Brown's spelling and Rolf Harris. Read it yourselves on 07.25 to Paddington

Brown, The Sun and the war over spelling

No politician comes off the better from an encounter with the raw rage of a grieving mother but I think Gordon Brown did his level best to express his sincere apologies for messing up his letter to Jacqui Janes at his press conference this morning.

You’d think that the whole row, stoked by the Sun newspaper, could have been over much earlier if Mr Brown or his official spokesman could have admitted at the outset, to Mrs Janes and the press, that he had made a mistake.

But in the world of jackal journalism it is impossible for Number 10 to admit the Prime Minister is fallible - he’d be strung up for not being the Pope if they said that.

The whole episode has given us all a taste of the cynicism and the ferocity of the tabloid onslaught against Mr Brown from here to a general election in which the rest of the media is swept along.

So the war over the letter continues for another day and it dominated the Prime Minister’s press conference although it’s hard to see where it goes from here. Having said sorry in person, having apologised to everyone for his handwriting (which is much the same as having to apologise for being blind in one eye) and having said that he has experienced a parent’s sense of bereavement through the death of his own daughter there is not much more the Prime Minister can do.

The Sun is unlikely to call a truce until it detects that its attacks on Mr Brown on this front are actually engendering some sympathy for him. It’s clear from the recorded telephone conversation between Jacqui Janes and the Prime Minister that her anger is about a lot more than a mis-spelt word. Some people think the Sun is manipulating her grief (it is) but she is nobody’s fool. She is steeped in military culture and seems to know all the issues when she is discussing equipment or lack of medivac helicopters.

Meanwhile the war trundles on. The coffins of another six soldiers - including the five killed by a rogue Afghan policeman - have been flown into RAF Lyneham and the MoD have named a British soldier who died in hospital after an explosion in Afghanistan as Rifleman Samuel John Bassett, 1 Platoon, 4th Battalion The Rifles, serving as part of the 3 Rifles Battle Group.

Rifleman Bassett was injured by a bomb near Sangin, in northern Helmand province on 1 November. He died on Sunday, aged 20

Monday 9 November 2009

Eilbheas left the building - empty handed

Crichton and Kidd - I think we scrub up nicely for writers
That's me in the penguin suit with Mairi Kidd, my glamorous co-writer, at the Scottish Baftas last night. Eilbheas, a Gaelic script we wrote for BBC Alba last year didn't win a Bafta in the TV drama category. Never mind, it was nice to be nominated and to finally meet Sean Macleod, my cousin, who played the part of Tonaidh in the film and many other old friends. We danced like crazy and caught the red eye shuttle back to work this morning.

There were lots of stars out at the Baftas but the best hand I grasped on the weekend was that of Malcolm Jones, the Runrig guitarist, who was playing a set in the Park Bar on Argyle Street when I pulled in for a pitstop pint with Capt. Bob on Saturday night. Slainte leat, Malcolm.

Gaffe-gate II - PM makes statement

Dowing Street, realising what a hash the morning lobby was, has rushed out a statement from the Prime Minister clarifying his apology to Mrs Jaqui Janes.

"Commenting on the letter he wrote to bereaved mother Jacqui Janes, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:

“I take very seriously my responsibility to the bereaved. Every time I write a letter to mothers and fathers and partners who have suffered bereavement to express my sincere condolences, it is a moment of personal sadness to me. And I am in awe of the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces.

“I send a handwritten letter to every family and I often write to more than one member of the family.

“I have telephoned Jacqui Janes to apologise for any unintended mistake in the letter.
“To all other families whom I have written to, I can only apologise if my handwriting is difficult to read.

“I have at all times acted in good faith seeking to do the right thing. I do not think anyone will believe that I write letters with any intent to cause offence.”

Gaffe-gate and a car crash lobby briefing

The issue of the Prime Minister's gaffe-strewn letter to the mother of a young soldier killed in Afghanistan dominated a very lengthy lobby briefing this morning.

It all turned into a slow motion crash with questions over whether the Prime Minister had actually apologised to Mrs Janes (not Mrs James as he wrote) for making a mistake or simply said he was sorry that she had been upset.

It culminated, as you knew it would, in questions about the Prime Minister's eyesight and if he can accept that, like every other human being, he does make mistakes sometimes. The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman appeared reluctant to accept that his boss was capable of the latter.

Not a great start to the week for Downing Street, but there have been few of these of late. A wee glimmer of hope for Mr Brown in this morning's Herald poll showing Labour dominating in the Westminster vote ahead of this Thursday's by-election in Glasgow North East.

Friday 6 November 2009

New book from Norman Campbell

My old mucker Norman Campbell, of Radio nan Gaidheal fame, has written another book, this one a biography of the Rev Archie Cook, the 19th century Free Church crusader.

"One of Heaven's Jewels" tells the story of the life and times of Cook and the 19th century Highland church. His preaching was preserved on many Highland bookshelves into the 20th century in copies of "Cook's Gaelic Sermons". This is the story behind the legend.

The pulpit and the congregation were driving forces of politics in the 1800s and the radical land reform movement helped tear the Presbyterian church apart. Cook was bang in the middle of that upheaval and this book gives you a flavour of the spiritualism and the politics of the age. You can buy it through the click-through below.

Cue drum roll, here's the plug:

A fearless minister who influenced wide areas of the Highlands and islands is the subject of a new book -- One of Heaven's Jewels -- published in aid of Bethesda Care Home and Hospice on Lewis.

Vast numbers of west coast fishermen and herring women heard him preach at the Gaelic services he set up in Wick in the 1820s and this helped bolster the new wave of evangelical ideas in places like Lewis and Skye. His brother Finlay was the first evangelical minister in the Church of Scotland in Cross in Lewis. People can still recall hearing anecdotes of preaching by Rev Archie Cook of Daviot or reading his Gaelic sermons. The original Free North church in Inverness was built for this Arran-born preacher who attracted thousands of hearers at communion seasons.

Cook would challenge landlords face to face about plans to evict individuals he knew and Cook fearlessly criticised the competitive tenancy where people were forced to bid against each other for the right to pay rent on crofts or farms. The losers in the process often had to leave the Highlands and author Norman Campbell suggests the clearances in Arran during Cook's childhood may have radicalised him.

One of Heaven's Jewels tells how Archie Cook's generation lived and worshiped. A warm-hearted mixture of community, social and church history, it describes a man of deep spiritual discernment who was loved for his ability to detect and encourage the least sign of genuine spiritual life, while also exposing hypocrisy. A man of action, he would tramp through deep snow to keep preaching .

It also tells of a time when preachers were the celebrities of their day and when the Scottish Gaelic culture was dominant from western and southern Caithness to the south of Arran in the Clyde estuary. Campbell also places the stirring events of these days in Scottish and British political and historical context. Some of the issues such as Patronage (where the landlords and councils and crown chose ministers up until the late nineteenth-century) went right to the heart of debates about freedom and state recognition of religions.

The first six chapters describe the revival-era atmosphere in Arran where Archie Cook grew up, as well as his three pastorates and the famous struggle by the Daviot people during the Ten Years' Conflict to call him as their minister. Several further chapters describe urban grass-roots evangelism in Inverness, the 1857-1861 revival movement in the Highlands, the Union controversy, the early Inverness career of the Rev Duncan Macbeth (now better known for his later Ness ministry), Cook's friendship with Rev Jonathan Ranken Anderson, communion seasons and the Separatist movement. The last two chapters discuss the possible influences that his mentor, the godly Dr John Love of Anderston, Glasgow, had on Cook's thought, and Cook's own emphases.

The paper-back sells at £19.99 pounds and all profits will go to the Bethesda Care Home and Hospice in Stornoway.
One of Heaven's Jewels has 27 colour photos, several black and white pictures, 278 pages and reflects many year's worth of research by Norman Campbell. It is available in Borders Inverness, Roddy Smith's (Stornoway), the Blythswood book-shops in Dingwall and Stornoway, Harris Christian Bookshop (Tarbert) and on-line at the Bethesda Care Home web-site shop:

Brown tackles Afghan war as support falters

Gordon Brown will this morning pledge to stay the course in Afghanistan against mounting political and public disquiet over the eight year military campaign that has now cost 230 British lives.

At the end of grim week for British soldiers in Afghanistan Mr Brown is due to make a major speech in London in which he will restate his personal determination "not to walk away" from the war.

With increasing numbers of voters questioning why British troops are losing their lives in Afghanistan the Prime Minister will use speech to define the mission to deny Al Qaeda at training ground on the Afghan-Pakistan border from which to plot attacks on the UK.

With Remembrance Day approaching Mr Brown is due to set the mounting British losses in Afghanistan in the context of the sacrifice of British soldiers in WW1 and WWII, saying the fallen in the conflict would be remembered as heroes who "fight to protect freedom both in our nation and the world".

An as yet unamed serviceman from the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles was killed yesterday in an explosion in Afghanistan bringing to six the number of soldiers killed in the last 48 hours. This year 93 British service personnel have been killed in Afghanistan, making it the bloodiest year of the conflict to which 9500 troops are now committed.

SAS troopers are still seeking a rogue Afghan policeman who turned his weapon on British soldiers, killing five and wounding six, on Wednesday. The UN yesterday began withdrawing more than half its foreign staff from Kabul after five of its employees were killed in an attack last week.

With a call for British withdrawal by the former Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells adding to the sense that a tipping point is approaching for British involvement in Afghanistan a poll for Channel 4 news showed that public support for the war has fallen sharply.

Two weeks ago the Yougov poll showed 42% of the British public thought the Taliban could be defeated, while 48% thought they could not. Following the deaths of five British soldiers on Wednesday and President Karzi’s much-challenged victory in the recent election, just 33% of those questioned think the war can be won, while a clear majority, 57% think victory is no longer possible.

As a result, 35% now think all British troops should be withdrawn immediately – compared with 25% two weeks ago. Only 20% think they should remain in the country "as long as Afghanistan’s government wants them there" – down from 29% two weeks ago.

Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader who was vetoed by President Karza for the role of UN representative in Afghanistan, said the government had "completely failed both to make a cogent case for this war or to convince us that it has a strategy worthy of the sacrifices being made."

He added: "There is a real chance we will lose this struggle in the bars and front rooms of Britain before we lose it in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan."

Today Mr Brown is expected to say that Britain will not be deterred by setbacks and while he will emphasise the international nature of the forces in Afghanistan he will not bring any fresh news of an increased contribution from European Nato allies.

Despite the killing of five troops by an Afghan policeman they were training Mr Brown will state that the mentoring strategy will continue "because it is what distinguishes a liberating army from an army of occupation’.

Labour left-winger Paul Flynn MP said last night that politicians were "deluded" about the mission and that Britain was relying on an Afghan police force that was "endemically corrupt" He said: "We cannot succeed in Afghanistan and we must stop now sending our young men out there to die in vain."

Thursday 5 November 2009

Playing catch up

Task saturated is what the helicopter pilots call overload and that's how it felt at Westminster yesterday. There was the Kelly report on expenses, five dead in Helmand and Kim Howell breaking ranks calling for a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and David Cameron making a major policy announcement on Europe. In the middle of all that I had to go interview Culture Minister Ben Bradshaw about broadcasting in Scotland.

With each of these big stories it feels as if we are close to arriving at a tipping point.

Howell's interview on Afghanistan was gloomy indeed. He's no left winger, he's no dafty, he knows the situation on the ground and he's linked into the intelligence community through his supervision of the Intelligence and Security Committee. More tellingly, on the day of five deaths in Afghanistan, no Minister stood up to contradict him.

Gordon Brown will make a "major" speech on Afghanistan tomorrow, which we reckon will be a retrenchment and a commitment to keep on keeping on. Instinct, and the front pages of the newspapers today, says that he has a very short time to start spelling out a very clear exit strategy or he will end up behind the curve of public opinion.

On Europe, Cameron made his big speech and while it will mollify neither his own Euro-sceptics or the Europhobic British press it confirms his status as a lucky politician, and you need luck as well as policies and skill to become Prime Minister.

He will hope he has now parked the issue of Europe for a parliament and that the tears before bedtime will be well out of the way before a general election. Europe has a nasty habit of biting the Tory Party in the bum though, and UKIP might benefit. But while dropping a referendum pledge might cause internal divisions the voting public don't give too much of a toss.

Expenses - the saga of the year is not over yet but the Kelly report goes a long way to cleaning up the image of parliament, even though there are genuine doubts about the new rules discouraging less well-off people from standing.

You can read my take in the Herald page on expenses and thanks to Jo Swinson and Michael Connarty for taking time to stick their heads above the parapet.

I should point out, for the record that the quote from an anonymous MP "This is tempting - I could sack my wife or divorce her" should not be attributed to Tom Harris MP who appears in picture next to the article with Carolyn Harris, his wife. I'd hate to land the blogpin in trouble.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Beware the Ides + 10 of March

March 25th 2010 - that's the latest rumoured date for a General Election. The morning lobby is usually a dull run through of the Prime Minister's day but the BBC's Carole Walker threw a spanner in the works by asking if Ministers were preparing for a March 25th general election.

It is probably the first of many rumours we'll hear about possible dates. This one apparently emanates from the Labour whips office. It concurs with what staff in the Palace of Westminster have been saying for weeks and dispenses with the need for a difficult budget but that could mean nothing - or everything.

Monday 2 November 2009

No "tartanisation" without representation?

It was inevitable after the publicity surrounding the French parliamentary vote for people living abroad that there should be a similar debate about granting British ex-pats not just voting rights in UK elections but their own "constituency" MP too.

There's an article in the Guardian today about granting ex-pats not just voting rights but their own MP in the House of Commons which is persuasive, up to a point.

I remember Ron MacKenna, former Herald hack turned lawyer and food critic, launching a late campaign to be elected as an ex-pat member of the Italian parliament a few years ago.

But where does it stop you ask, all this ex-pat political voting power? What about voting rights in Scottish parliamentary elections for the estimated 800,000 Scots living in England, the kingmakers over the water?

Should they have a say in a referendum, if it comes to it, on the future of their own country?

Friday 30 October 2009

All power to the workers at the Free Press

It's official - the West Highland Free Press, my old newspaper, has been bought over by its staff from the shareholders of West Highland Publishing, including the founding editor, Brian Wilson.

When the idea of sale was first mentioned there were obvious concerns about what might become of Am Paipear Beag and its tradition of combining local news and radical journalism with lamb sale prices and first rate shinty coverage. This outcome guarantees an independent editorial and commercial future for the paper.

In the West Highlands the newspaper, and its politics, are taken foregranted as part of the landscape but in the context of British journalism it's important too. The Free Press is the only survivor of the flourishing alternative publishing movement of the 1970s and just about the only weekly periodical I can think of, apart from the New Statesman, that maintains a solidly left of centre editorial line. It also just happens to be a very good local newspaper.

Its values and its journalism are safe in the hands of Ian McCormack, at the helm now for 33 years and possibly the longest-serving newspaper editor in the country. The rest of the staff that I know are completely rooted in Skye and I have no doubt they're capable of carrying on what they have been doing to a large degree anyway, running the company smoothly.

Ian (or "James Shaw Grant" as we're now calling him) is the most modest of media barons. He is one of the unsung heroes of the Free Press who kept the presses turning, week after week, when lesser men would have been defeated by faulty technology, power cuts, winter ferry timetables and my bad spelling.

The changeover marks the end of an era for Brian Wilson, though hopefully not the end of his involvement in the paper. You can read Brian's thoughts in the Free Press itself and he gave a stirring and superbly fluent Gaelic interview to the BBC yesterday.

I gave him a quick call the other day to wish him well after handing over ownership of the paper that he founded in 1972 as a long-haired graduate newly arrived in Kyleakin along with Jim Wilkie, Jim Innes and others. He said he felt quite unsentimental about the whole thing and I didn't believe him for a second.

I feel a great attachment to the paper myself, although I only worked there for five years. Brian and Ian set me on the path to journalism and the paper has been the foundation stone for many lifelong friendships. It also nurtured for me an enduring love affair with the Isle of Skye, which I have still to confess to the Isle of Lewis.

The Free Press, I believe, has had a far more fundamental effect on its readers - mirroring and defending the language and the culture of the modern Highlands, broadening and strengthening a sense of community. It can pretty much claim to have vanquished the influence of Highland landlordism through campaigning, exposure, ridicule and by fostering in its columns the debate that culminated in the community land ownership movement.

If you had to sum it up you'd just say the Free Press has made people feel more confident about their own place and that's no small achievement for any paper. A lot of that is due to Brian Wilson who for most of these years has been the embodiment of the Free Press, just as much as the paper made him a substantial political figure in Scotland long before he became an MP.

He told me the other day he didn't want to carry on with the Free Press for another 20 years, but when he has time for reflection he might find he doesn't have that much choice in the matter. I can't imagine the paper without "Brian Wilson Writes", unlesss he starts "Brian Wilson Blogs", and he's always been a late adopter.

The Highlands will have to cope with the change, I'm sure the West Highland Free Press can. Meala naidheachd oirbh.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Nimrod lawyer looks for criminal charges

John Cooper, the lawyer representing some of the Nimrod families in their negligence case against the Ministry of Defence, is considering whether there are now grounds to pursue the private companies named in the damning report into the crash.

He was on radio this morning expressing as much astonishment as anyone else at the incredible complacency within the MoD, BAE Systems and Qinetiq, that were laid bare in the report published yesterday.

The inquiry by Charles Hatton-Cave, a leading aviation lawyer, is the most damning indictment of institutional failure that anyone in Westminster can remember reading.

Here' s a summary I did for the Herald of its main findings:

THE 14 men who died on board Nimrod XV230 on September 2, 2006 stood no chance of surviving the fireball that consumed their aircraft over Helmand Province.

Before the first onboard fire warning lit up their fate was sealed not by any mistaken action on their own part – indeed they appear to have acted "with calmness, bravery and professionalism" in the face of certain death.

They were killed aboard an ageing aircraft, that was overdue for replacement, by three decades of design mistakes, by complacency in the private support industry responsible for
their safety and by a culture of cost cutting at the MoD that valued business models over old-fashioned airworthiness.

Charles Haddon-Cave, the leading aviation lawyer who wrote the highly critical report, identified "a failure of leadership, culture and priorities" as contributory factors.

The largest loss in a single day for the MoD since the Falklands represented a "systemic breach" of the military covenant of care for the armed forces and devastating failings on the part of the Ministry of Defence, BAe Systems and QinetiQ, he said.

He named 10 individuals five from the MoD, three from BAe Systems and two from QinetiQ who bore responsibility for the "yawning gap between the appearance and the reality of safety" in a system not fit for purpose.


The earlier RAF Board of Inquiry and the coroner’s inquest found that the explosion was caused by fuel leaking into a dry bay and igniting on contact with a hot air pipe. Fuel couplings should not have been in the same compartment, the inquest was told. Mr Haddon-Cave said that overspillage from mid-air refuelling may also have been a cause.

Once the fire ignited the crew had no means of tackling the initial flames. They issued a Mayday and attempted an emergency descent to Kandahar air base, but at 3000ft the aircraft exploded, broke into four pieces and hit the ground in 12 seconds. The fire, and the bad design that allowed it to happen, could have been avoided if earlier warnings had not been ignored.

The report noted that design flaws introduced at three stages, each 10 years apart, played a "crucial part" in the loss of XV230. A Nimrod Safety Case, drawn up by BAe Systems with help from Qinetiq, between 2001 and 2005 was meant to identify "potentially catastrophic hazards before they could cause an accident"


Mr Haddon-Cave said "failure" or "failings" 24 times in his press briefing.

"Serious design flaws" with the aircraft had "lain dormant for years" his report stated.

"Warnings from as early as 1998 that "the conflict between ever-reducing resources and ... increasing demands, whether they be operational, financial, legislative, or merely those symptomatic of keeping the old ac (aircraft) flying" and that close attention should be paid to safety standards were ignored.

As well as a safety review that was "riddled with errors" the inquiry found there was an assumption by those involved that the Nimrod was safe because it had flown successfully for 30 years.

This contributed to the "general malaise" that fatally undermined safety.


Mr Haddon-Cave accused the MoD of sacrificing safety to cut costs. The department sustained a "deep organisational trauma" during the strategic defence review from 1998 to 2006 that led to a distraction from airworthiness as the priority. .

Senior officers focused on the priority of achieving the "strategic goal " of a 20% reduction in costs in five years against a backdrop of increased operational demands.

"Airworthiness was a casualty of the process of cuts, change, dilution and distraction commenced by the 1998 strategic review. These failures of leadership and the failure to keep safety at the top of the agenda contributed to the loss of XV230." said Mr Haddon-Cave.

One former senior RAF officer told the inquiry: "In the 1990s you had to be on top of airworthiness, by 2004 you had to be on top of your budget if you wanted to get ahead."

Delays in procurement for a replacement for the Nimrod aircraft also contributed.


The 585-page report singles out 10 people for criticism. Five are from the Ministry of Defence – including two very senior military officers of four-star rank – three from BAe Systems and two from QinetiQ.

At the MOD General Sir Sam Cowan, who has since retired, whose task it was to unite the separate logistics support agencies for the Royal Navy, Army and RAF into a single Defence Logistics Organisation, was criticised for the "Stalinistic efficiency" with which targeted cost cutting by 20% by 2005

He did not give enough thought to the impact of imposing his target and should have realised it
could come at the expense of safety and airworthiness, the report said.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger, who has since retired, succeeded Gen Cowan as chief of defence logistics in September 2002 despite later admitting to Mr Haddon-Cave’s review he did not believe he was fully qualified for the job. He was "handed a poisoned chalice" and was torn between delivering the 20% cost savings and supporting the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. That does not save him from criticism,

The report said he should have questioned whether it was "feasible, realistic and sensible" to achieve the 20% goal at the same pace and within the same timescale. "There should, at least, have been pause for thought," the report said.

Air Commodore George Baber and Wing Commander Michael Eagles were slated for accepting the flawed BAe safety case and delegating much of the task to an MoD civil servant Frank Walsh who was "out of his depth" and since retired.

BAe Systems managers Chris Lowe, Richard Oldfield, and Eric Prince bore "primary responsibility" for the company’s failings in relation to the safety case. Mr Haddon-Cave also said defence firm QinetiQ bore a "share of responsibility" for the failure of the Nimrod safety case in not properly carrying out its role as independent adviser.


Overall, Mr Haddon-Cave said many of the organisational causes for the loss of XV230 echoed other major accidents including the loss of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the sinking of the Marchioness and the King’s Cross fire.

He said the MoD was committed to addressing the "numerous weaknesses" in the RAF’s system for ensuring the airworthiness of its aircraft. It has grounded all Nimrods whose engine-bay hot air ducts had not been replaced but the inquiry had found no reason to recommend the grounding of the Nimrod MR2 fleet which is due to come to the end of its service life within months.

The two named RAF officers, who are still in service have been stripped of their responsibilities for safety and the RAF would now consider if any "further action" would be taken against them. A team has been put in place within the MoD to implement the report’s recommendations.

Mr Haddon-Cave concluded: "In my view, XV230 was lost because of a systemic breach of the military covenant brought about by failures on the part of all those involved. This must not be allowed to happen again."