Tuesday 31 March 2009

Canada still bars "infandous" Galloway.

The Canadian Federal Court has ruled against George Galloway's request for an injunction against the Canadian government and their refusal to allow him entry to Canada. The Court ruling against the Respect MP is here.

"Tour continues by live video link" the MP's bag carrier tells me in a short text from the border. He was beaten, his spokesman states, on a "technicality".

I make that 2-0 to Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's press adviser Alykhan Velshi - a man who could go toe to toe with Mr Galloway on colourful insults.

He described Mr Galloway as "infandous" - too odious to be mentioned in polite Canadian society. Can't win them all George.

Lewis boy meets Obama.

I see on the television that Alistair Darling is at the drome, as they call it in Stornoway, to greet Barack Obama.

Ah look, there's Maggie Vaughan, Alistair's wife, with Michelle Obama. Change that headline - it's "Former Herald journalist meets President".

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that Maggie has organised to present the spouses of the G20 leaders with a Harris Tweed wrap each at the 11 Downing Street dinner being organised for them tomorrow night. Scarves for the gents, of whom there are two. Read all about it on the Harris Tweed Hebrides website.

The Commons "stairheid rammy" - blow by blow account.

Paul Waugh has the whole story of the post-Eric Pickles party fight, punch by punch, on his excellent, gossipy blog. Here's the link

Nessa for G20 summit. Tidy.

G20 scoop of the day goes to Tomos Livingstone, my Celtic cousin, at the Western Mail. He reports that Nessa, from Gavin and Stacey, has been invited to the Downing Street gala dinner for the spouses of the G20 leaders.

Comedian Ruth Jones, the co-creator of Gavin and Stacey, will rub shoulders with Michelle Obama and maybe compare tattoos.

These election results in full.

Someone, John MacLeod I think, has been in touch asking for the Stornoway Trust election results. I'm happy, courtesy of the staff at the Trust, to oblige.

Candidate name
Number of votes:

Donald F Crichton

Jean Davis

William R Macfarlane

Iain Don Maciver

Calum Maclean

Fred W Maclennan

Helen M Macleod (Elma)

Norman Macleod

Murdo Murray (Mo)

Michael Smith

Angusina Y Stewart (Zena)

The vote means that Calum Maclean, Angusina Y Stewart, Norman Macleod, Donald F Crichton and Murdo Murray who are duly elected Trustees of the Stornoway Trust Estate.

The tiger that miaowed

Before I forget, there was an excellent piece by John Arlidge in the Sunday Times magazine on the weekend about Ireland, its economy and society, since the crash.

A piece on the Tiger that miaowed was waiting to be done and John, who used to work in Scotland for the Independent once upon a time, has caught the mood and the times brilliantly. It's worth digging out. Here's a link

G20 alert

Everyone's preparing for the arrival of the big O tonight (not the title of a video rented by Jacqui Smith's husband, I mean the President, Obama). The main focus is on what presents Obama will bring Mr Brown - a boxed set of the Wire, to coincide with its BBC run?

Meanwhile Eric Pickles, the Tory chairman is tidying up after a "stairheid rammy" at his Commons party last night when a journalist had to be CS sprayed by the police.

Fortunately the arrested hack turns out "not to be one of us", ie not a member of the Lobby, but it seems he was a guest of one of the privileged journalists who can wander the Commons at will.

In other news the search is on for the mole who is, allegedly, offering the Commons expenses of MPs going back years around Fleet Street for £300,000. Sir Stuart Bell is on the case, although no confirmation that the plods have been called in. They're probably a bit busy elsewhere

The Commons Fees Office, suspected source of the leaks, has been working flat out to prepare around a million receipts filed by MPs for publication, after losing a long-running freedom of information battle to keep them secret.

The documents have now started circulating to members for them to check and make representations on which parts should be deleted for security and other reasons. They are expected to prove extremely damaging to many MPs when they are finally published before the summer recess. Total cost of freedom of information estimated at £1.2 million.

One suspects that after the next general election MPs will have to adopt the same open reporting system as MSPs in Scotland.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Crichton voted onto Stornoway Trust.

Oh how annoying to have a sibling who is better looking and more popular than you. Nonetheless, congratulations to my brother, Donald, who was last night elected as a member of the Stornoway Trust, the community-run estate on east coast of the Isle of Lewis.

The ten-strong board of trustees - which runs the 68,000 acre estate including the town of Stornoway and the crofting parishes round about - is elected on a rolling basis every three years, with each of the trustees serving for six years.

Domhnall came in fourth in a slate of 11 candidates with 1630 votes. The top five are elected to join the Trust. He follows in the footsteps of our father, the late John Crichton, who served on the Trust for 24 years, six of them as chairman.

Everyone stands as an independent in the Trust elections in which about a third of the Lewis population is eligible to vote. The themes of this quiet election were renewables and a campaign by Stornoway Golf Club, one of the Trust tenants, to allow members to tee off on a Sunday. Five candidates were seen as backing that stance. My brother, a church elder, is against.

The result, as I read it, was 3-2 in favour of keeping the Sabbath ban which, courtesy of the ballot box, is probably as good a reflection of Lewis opinion on the matter as you'll get.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Voting in his slippers.

Angus MacNeil MP is usually a canny lad so why he has left an open goal for opponents with his early day motion on remote voting is a bit of of headscratch. I understand his frustration, I know the distances, but viewed from the "centre of the universe" in London this looks like he's trying to schlepp off work. The EDM has attracted only one signature so far - his own.

In any case here's the Herald story:

A plan by SNP MP Angus MacNeil to allow MPs to "vote in their slippers" from the comfort of home when the journey to London is impossible has been dismissed as an attempt to turn Westminster into an X Factor television gameshow.

Mr MacNeil, the MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, faces the longest commute of all MPs, claiming £37,000 a year to travel backwards and forwards from his constituency home on the Isle of Barra, where he grew up.

Frustrated by constant delays on his weekly odyssey - consisting of two flights, a ferry journey and a mini-bus ride - Mr MacNeil has tabled a parliamentary motion calling for a "limited number of opportunities during each parliamentary year to vote remotely on divisions in the House" when weather or technical issues prevent attendance.

Marching through the division lobbies in the Commons is regarded as sacrosanct in Westminster but the MP for Na h-Eileanan na Iar insisted his proposal was a serious, not an excuse to stay at home during the lambing season.

The MP, who left Barra at 9.45am on Monday morning for constituency business in Stornoway spoke to the Herald from Glasgow airport yesterday afternoon and expected to make it to London about 9pm on Tuesday.

"Say there is a hung parliament and the SNP has the balance of power it would become crucial to be able to vote," said Mr MacNeil. "For many people London is the place that is remote and maybe two times a winter there are real travel difficulties and democracy should not be a casualty of that in a technological age," said Mr MacNeil.

His proposal, which he said could save on Westminster’s carbon footprint, was ridiculed by rival MPs. Jim Sheridan, chair of the Scottish Labour group, said that there was no place for MPs to behave like participants in a TV game show. "Westminster is not X factor and Mr MacNeil is no Simon Cowell," said Mr Sheridan. "It is unacceptable for MPs to sit at home and vote when they should be scrutinising and holding the government to account. If he feels the job is too much for him he should step aside for someone more enthusiastic."

Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem MP for far flung Orkney and Shetland, who faces an equally challenging round trip to Westminster each week, found the suggestion of remote voting "quite bizarre". He said: "If it’s worth voting its worth turning up for. We should be looking for ways to improve the House of Commons’ part in the national debate not marginalising it by calling for voting in our slippers."

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Cameron signals hard times

Herald sketch of Cameron press conference.

The cherry blossom is out early in St James’s Park in Westminster. Through the french windows of St Stephens’s Club people can be seen actually picnicking on the grass across the road, The weather is milder, as if we have turned a corner. There is a promise of change in the air and this is even before David Cameron steps into the room to announce just that. The slogan on the podium, "now for change" foreshadow the man and his message.

Why the Tory leader chooses the private club at Queen Anne’s Gate for his press conferences is a mystery until you realise that when the cameras click they capture him in profile with a portrait of Winston Churchill is hanging in the background. He must like the signal that sends.

This is the first time the grieving father has faced the Westminster media since the death of his son, Ivan, and while these must be difficult days for him, he looks remarkably fresh and ready for business as he thanks the press for giving his family "space and time".

Then he just gets on with it making an easy strike at the BBC by calling for the corporation’s licence fee to be frozen for a year as an example of a public institution "doing more with less". It’s the kind of thing we would do right now, if we were in government, Cameron tells reporters, who shrug with a lacking conviction.
There’s a fine tradition of politicians from Norman Tebbit to Alistair Campbell bashing the BBC as a distraction but if the government does not heed his call and freeze the licence fee it matters little to Mr Cameron right now.

For the Conservatives the next couple of months are all about signals. Attacking the licence fee is just a signal of the kind of belt-tightening to expect from a Cameron government. He is preparing the ground. He has already apologised for his part in the recession but cleverly he also warned that all of us must live within our means, that is get ready for big spending cuts.

He is asked a lot of questions about how cosmetic a licence fee freeze would be compared to £5 billion of cuts in public spending but he sidesteps these courteously.

"I believe it means speaking very clearly and frankly about what has gone wrong and how we are going to put it right. I don’t want to win the next election on some sort of false prospectus that doesn’t recognise how difficult things will be," says Mr Cameron.

He talks fluidly and easily, only slowing to consider his choice of words when answering on the alleged terrorist Binyam Mohamed and on whether he ought to bet on an early election. He can’t remember the correct answer on that one but the journalist asking the question kindly provided the prompt. It could be anytime.
"I want to use the time between now and then to take people with us for the difficult decisions that will have to be taken," he says.

He talks for nearly 45 minutes but in a way that engages the listener. Contrast that with Gordon Brown’s morning press conference with Jose Manuel Barrosso. After four minutes of the Prime Minister’s saving the world, G20 rhetoric everyone had stopped taking notes. With politicians groping for the right language for the times and Mr Cameron is a country mile ahead.

He is only asked one really hard question, about whether those "difficult decisions" will mean tax rises under the Conservatives as well as spending cuts? He replies smoothly that "no responsible leader of the Opposition can promise not to put up taxes". That’s a signal too, but not one Mr Cameron wants to put out before this Conservative spring has properly arrived.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Body found in South Uist

Back at work with jetlag and some kind of rsi complaint that seems to have developed while I wasn't typing for the last fortnight.

Not a great Sunday for politics, it has to be said. The saddest news seems to be the discovery of a body in a loch in South Uist this morning which police will not yet confirm as the remains of Simon Macmillan, the 21 year old Uist man, who went missing on December 26th.

According to the Police the discovery was made to the south of Loch Bee on South Uist at about 10.45am this morning, near Gerinish.

A Northern Constabulary statement said: "Police are presently at the scene, carrying out inquiries into the circumstances."

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Singapore Sling

A day later and I'm at Singapore airport en-route to Brisbane and Melbourne. That's right the story goes one way, Gordon Brown in Washington, and I go the other. Always happens to me.

I'd forgotten just how big the globe is, or has it expanded since the last time. I left home on Monday morning at 10am, by my reckoning it is now 6am Tuesday morning in the UK and I still have seven flying hours to go. I've bumped into this internet access in the transit lounge but I don't expect to be across the news for the next week or so.

Mike Settle is in Washington for the Herald and he'll be blogging on www.theherald.co.uk as if there is no tomorrow, which when you're working across timezones and deadlines, there isn't, if you know what I mean. Mmm, I've been flying too long. Right, back on the plane. See you on the beach (which was the title of a post-apocalypse movie set in Australia, as I remember).

Update: Just checked Mike's blog and it's West Wing boxed set with extras! He's actually in the Oval Office. I see now, from a distance of 4000miles, that he tricked me into taking this freebie to Australia just to get me out of the way. Mikeavelian, that's his new nickname.

Monday 2 March 2009

Gaza diary

I'm at Tel Aviv airport, on the way out of Israel after a flying visit to Gaza with Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development and Paisley and Renfrewshire South MP. It was fascinating, if not a bit grim. You can read my reports in the Herald. Here's an extended diary I kept of the trip.

Sat 9.00pm

If you think journalism is glamorous try hanging out in Heathrow’s terminal 5 on a Saturday night. The bar is closing as I order a beer and meet with Douglas Alexander’s chief press officer. He gently breaks the news that the International Development Minister will be gazzumped into Gaza by Tony Blair, who will be there tomorrow morning before we enter the Palestinian Territory. The Minister appears and takes the news with a shrug of the shoulders.


The STUC delegation has found the last bar in Terminal 5 and it shuts as I arrive. Coincidentally, the trade unions are sending a delegation to Israel for the week to evaluate the prospect of a boycott of Israeli goods. It’s a tricky one, a boycott means that Israeli trade unionists, quite likely to oppose aggression, will lose jobs.

One of the comrades has an image on his computer of the late Yasser Arafat holding a Glasgow Rangers scarf aloft. The blue scarf bears the slogan, borrowed from another intractable conflict, “No surrender”. I didn’t know Arafat was a Hun.

10.30pm - Flight
. Sleep, going to need it

Sunday 5.30am
Tel Aviv

Clear customs at Tel Aviv airport through a special channel. Coming back out, with a Gaza border stamp and no government Minister, won’t be so easy the British officials warn me. More bad news on the publicity front -the STUC delegation make it to page 6 of the Jerusalem Post, no mention of the DIFD visit. Just can’t get the staff, jokes the Minister.

Sheets of blue lightning outline the high rises of Tel Aviv as we drive through a thunderstorm into the city to the British Ambassador's residence. To bed as the thunderclaps explode overhead.

9.00am Sunday Ambassador's residence

Breakfast on the terrace, sheltered from the rain, with the ambassador’s wife, her French goddaughter and new husband while the Minister is briefed inside. I join them for the Oxfam briefing and a presentation by an advocacy agency that challenges the Israeli government in court over the border restrictions.

Killer facts, as they say in all these briefing documents are: about one million more litres of diesel are required each month to restore electricity, no construction materials are allowed in; pasta was only allowed in after a four day argument and Hilary Clinton’s intervention .

Some 50,000 people have no access to water. Mike Bailey of Oxfam says it costs them $3 million extra a month to transport food to the southern entrances to Gaza which they are allowed to use. Annually this would provide food aid for a one third of the population.

10.00 am Speed off to the border in a fast car with a flashing blue light driven by a charming, Hebrew-speaking, ex-IDF driver. Past palm trees, nuclear power stations, pylons, not beautiful scenery, and remember that every inch of this land is, for someone, disputed territory.

11.45am Mordekhay petrol station. A name I last heard from Old Testament readings in church. This is where we have a quick coffee and swap cars and drivers. We get into armoured Mercedes jeeps, doors as heavy as stoveplates and windows that do not wind down. Our British Embassy driver has only been here one week and, like a character out of Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”, he cheerily admits he doesn’t have a clue yet. Pretty soon we see the grim, concrete security wall that marks the border.

12.30 am. Erez border crossing. Empty, cavernous, and not very friendly border guards. It takes all day to do move anything. Waiting for one politician to come one way - Douglas Alexander is behind us - and another, Tony Blair, to come the other way. News reaches us that about 50 journalists are trailing Blair. Oh, great.

Both politicians turn up at once. Blair and Alexander exchange pleasantries and body guards. Blair’s staffer is an ex-Labour press officer so I get a few words with the heavily scented Middle East envoy. He’s all charm and does that thing were he remembers you from the last time. How can he?

Blair says he’s been appalled by the damage he’d seen. “The dangers of this kind of thing happening again are fairly large unless we get the politics right, “ he tells me. “That’s why we have to get the blockade lifted and we get a stable basis for peace here. Otherwise its going to be harder all round.”

Mr Blair heading to the donors conference in Egypt where western powers will pledge billions more funding for the reconstruction. In a parallel move the Egyptian government is nudging Hamas, who run Gaza,and Fatah, the party of the Palestinian Authority, into unity talks.

1.00pm Palestinian border point

We pick up another driver, Jamal, who is from Gaza so knows his way around. Through the Palestinian Authority checkpoint and then through the Hamas checkpoint. Then through a wasteland of rutted roads where all the buildings have been flattened

1.10pm - driving through concrete campsite that is Jabalia refugee camp. Jamal grew up there. Most of the people now blame Hamas for the latest Israeli violence, he says.

1.15pm Izbet Abed Rabo village.

Gaza Khaled Abed still loiters in the pile of rubble that used to be his house in the village of Rabo. A phalanx of cameras and reporters have joined us by now.

Mr Abed was not involved in any resistance in what was a peaceful Palestinian village only three kilometres from the border “We are not Hamas so we stayed at our house when the invasion started. There was no resistance in this area, so the IDF knows we are peaceful people,” Mr Abed tells Douglas Alexander, standing in the muddy ruins.

On the fourth day of the invasion, just after midday, three Israeli tanks drew up outside his house. The Abed family came out waving white flags and a soldier started firing.

Through a translator Khaled Abed takes up the story of the shooting of his family: “My daughter, two years old, her abdomen came out. My daughter seven years old was badly hit in the chest. My four year old daughter, she is paralysed and is under treatment in Belgium now. My wife was shot in the arm she was holding the flag with and twice in the abdomen,” says Mr Abed.

“I have a child who is seven years old,” says Mr Alexander as he walks away from the wrecked village. “You can see the television pictures, you can read the reports, of course I have received briefings from officials but little prepares you for the stories of human suffering and the physical destruction.”

1.30pm - A rainstorm puts paid to a survey of a destroyed ice cream factory. The meeting with businessmen is re-scheduled for the UN compound later. These entrepreneurs, who trade with Israel, who would have been seen as collaborators by Hamas, had to watch the IDF destroy their businesses in the last days of the conflict. It seems senseless but economic, as well as political and military strangulation seems to be the Israeli policy.

In a sharp five minute meeting with the International Development Secretary the businessmen ask that he presses for the border to be open for trade again. Trade is a win-win for all sides say the businessmen.

The UN, and western donors, are just as keen that trade, which doesn’t discriminate and forces people to look beyond their own borders , is established as soon as possible. Without business the mosque becomes the whole focus of social life and into the vacuum of hopelessness steps extremism.

-driving into Gaza.
Hole in the wall shops sell anything from sweets to mobile generators. Posters on the walls show men with guns. They are election posters not wanted posters. There are few cars or people on the streets, groups of idle men on corners. We spot a few fruit and veg stalls, so some food is getting in.

2.00pm UNRWA, relief and works agency, compound.

We troop into the calm civility of the UN. There is an “In the thick of it” moment as we all follow the Minister through the complex, up a flight of stairs, through an office and to the toilet. We all reverse.

2.10pm Meeting with the businessmen and a little sweet tea. Nice.

2.15pm John Ging, one of these lucid, passionate Irishmen that seem to populate the upper echelons of the UN and other aid agencies, takes Douglas Alexander on a tour of the UN complex.

The storehouses, with $10 million of aid, were shelled by the IDF. The UN staff had to run from cover to drive lorries away from shrapnel and phosphorus shells.

“Ten shells in there and three there in a two hour period,” say Ging pointing to the charred remains of the warehouse. He wants justice too. “It shouldn’t just be accountability for the UN, it should be for mothers and fathers who have lost their children,” he tells me. “They have to be guided to a mechanism that delivers them justice otherwise the rhetoric of the extremists prevails, which is there is no justice in the rule of law join us in the rule of the gun.”

2.30pm - Douglas Alexander does a press conference for the local media. The BBC and Sky had grabbed him earlier in the day and we all know Blair will top the story.

- Sit down interview with Minister as we speed back to the border. He re-emphasises the points he’s been making all day - the borders must open, aid must get in. He’s on his way to tell this to the Israeli Social Affairs Minister he’ll see next. Mr Alexander said Britain would work with trusted partners to deliver aid. No Western power will deal with Hamas, the Islamist party that seized power in Gaza after winning elections and violent street battles with rival party Fatah. It is still pledged to destroy the Israeli state. As we talk Oxfam lorries, funded by the UK, are delivering clean water to some of the 50,000 Gazans who do not have access to even a standpipe.

He's staggered by the "pasta war" - it took four days to get the foodstuff approved by the Israelis - and the fact that the UN can't get paint and paper in as counselling tools for children in the UN schools leaves him dismayed. "You can't make rockets from poster paint," he says.

Still, there is no here is no political capital for Israeli ministers in easing border restrictions that currently keep Gaza hovering just above a humanitarian crisis. Vilified abroad, Israeli politicians know they have to maintain a strict security regime to get a hearing from their electorate.

Nor is there any sign of their belligerent enemy, Hamas, embracing peace, despite reports that the organisation tried to open channels to the Israeli government in the run-up to the December conflict. After this he’s off to Afghanistan, which can’t be any less disheartening than the situation here.

3.15pm - Waved through the Palestinian checkpoint and drive to the Israeli side of the border only to be sent back, they aren’t ready for us. I think the close protection codeword for this is “ar**ing around”.

News comes through of an incident, a rocket attack from Gaza. Back through the Israeli checkpoint, sniffer dogs, passport check three times, machine guns, concrete bollards, out.

- Mordekhay petrol station. The rocket landed over there, just beyond the tall tree in the field, the waiting British staffers tell us casually. “We’re used to it,” says the driver as we speed north.

4.55pm - Back in Tel Aviv, the beautiful coastal city. A different world, I realise I'm kind of depressed.