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.