Thursday, 30 October 2008

A New Hope?

With Iain Gray's absence to attend a funeral, Johann Lamont debuted as the lead inquisitor at FMQs this afternoon.

Her line of questioning on HBOS/LTSB was pretty dubious, I thought, and made it pretty easy for Salmond to question Brown and Darling's commitment to Scottish jobs. Asking the wrong question at the wrong time has been a bit of a Labour trademark at FMQs since the change of administration.

However, Ms Lamont's delivery was excellent. She produced a combative tone without the facial contortions of Wee Wendy and without sounding hysterical. She was passionate without losing the plot. Above all, she engaged the audience in a way Ms Alexander and Mr Gray simply haven't been able to.

I'm sure there will be other things on his mind next Thursday but I have a suspicion that the Great Eck will be happy to see Mr Gray back at his post.

As for Ms Lamont, a useful marker for next year's Labour leadership election? (All right then, the next Labour leadership election.)

You can come out from behind the sofa now...

Labour and LibDem supporters must have been cringeing as they watched tonight's Politics Now.

I know that STV productions tend to lack a certain quality but that can't be used as the excuse for the truly appalling performances by Lindsay Roy and Harry Wills. This latter day Laurel & Hardy act reminded us all why the Labour / LibDem coalition were booted out of Holyrood last year.

Although it was difficult to choose which of the two performed worse in absolute terms, Roy's performance was easily the more disappointing as his candidacy has been talked up so much by many senior Labour figures, including the PM himself.

I can't remember him deliver a single line coherently and his admission that he did not know what a Post Office Card Account was while Post Office closures all across the country is one of the biggest issues of day was a remarkable insight into how out of touch the man is with people who depend on this vital service.

Let's hope for the sake of kids in Fife that Mr Roy is a far better teacher than he is a politician.

I didn't have high expectations of Wills and his chances of victory were so negligible that even his dire performance won't have made his prospects of being the next MP Glenrothes any more distant.

The SNP's Grant and the Tory Golden Boy hardly set the heather on fire but were made to look positively presidential by the competition. I'll bet that Grant in particular can hardly believe how easy a time he had of it.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Birthrights and Resident Evil

I always think that football brings out the real Scotland. There is nothing like it for stirring the passions and disarming our usually cautious approach to debate. The result is that we get to hear what people are really thinking and feeling. And, though the footballing public might not be representative of all of Scotland, it is a large part of it.

So what are we to make of the great Nacho Novo debate? Leaving aside whether he is good enough to be selected, the question is whether Novo, a Spaniard by birth, should be allowed to play for Scotland once he has qualified for his UK Passport through residency.

Unfortunately, many Scots seem to think that you can only be a Scot by an accident of birth or through a bloodline traced back to the same. I have always found that a strange point of view but it seems I am in the minority.

Why should someone who was born in Dundee but who sits on their backside all their life have greater rights to Scottishness than someone who was born in Dublin (or Derby or Dortmund or Dubrovnik) but who contributes positively to our society by working or volunteering or both. Indeed, shouldn't these incomers be afforded greater rights to Scottishness on the basis that they have actually chosen to make Scotland their home?

And to illustrate the absurdity of the debate, we now see English born Terry Butcher, effectively Scotland's Assistant National Coach, saying that obvious non-nationals representing a country would be 'absurd'. Pot and black kettles I hear you say.

For me Nationality is about how an individual defines themselves and should not be seen as a label to categorise a set of people who happen to have been born in close proximity to each other. I have known many people, friends and colleagues, born in England but who see themselves as Scottish because Scotland is the place they have chosen to live.

Our Scotland is as much the people who are here now as the the people, and their descendants, who were once born here. Surely, if we want to field a football team that is truly representative of our country, it also has to represent the tens of thousands of people who, like Novo, have chosen Scotland as their home.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Right Strategy, Wrong Tactic

It's always nice to hear someone else say what you're thinking. So thanks to Will for backing up my hunch.

I thought that Stephen and Caron were becoming a little bit hysterical about the SNP in recent postings and, like Will, I have been wondering what it is all about.

The LibDems are toiling to appear relevant. I trace this back to their strategy following their spectacular (there is no other description for it) Dunfermline by-election win. Buoyed by this win and possibly sensing that the SNP were the party struggling to appear relevant, they completely overplayed their hand in the Moray by-election.

Portraying themselves as a party poised for victory then failing to even beat the Tories (who were an extremely distant second themselves) made them look rather foolish. It's always easy to overplay the effect of these things with the public at large but, assuming the LibDems weren't being disingenuous, the disappointment of that result would be tough to recover from.

Maybe, even, the psychological effect of that result was behind the LibDems running for cover from another term in coalition last year. Mibees aye, mibees naw but back to the point...

The last thing the LibDems need in the run up to a Westminster election is a rampant SNP. Not only would this make seats such as Argyll, Gordon and Inverness immediately vulnerable but it would also seriously weaken their '3rd Party' status right across the country. I wouldn't necessarily argue that that would make the SNP likely to win other LibDem seats but it may weaken their position enough to allow either Tory or Labour candidates overtake them. There must be some real concern in some LibDem quarters that they could be reduced to two or three Scottish MPs if they can't find some way to halt the SNP advance.

So, in the run up to the Glenrothes by-election, in which they are absolute no-hopers themselves, the LibDem tactic has to be to ensure that the SNP don't win.

In itself that is fine - politics is politics after all, and all parties have to look ahead strategically and support that with tactical choices. Strategically, the LibDems are absolutely correct to try to stop the SNP in its tracks. The problem is that their tactics in support of this are way off the mark. For in concentrating their fire on a relatively popular Scottish Government while largely letting a relatively unpopular UK Government off the hook the LibDems are making themselves appear even less relevant with every passing day.

A lot has been said about the possible demise of the Labour Party in Scotland but this is too simplistic. I sense that we may see a complete re-alignment of politics in Scotland in the next few years where the Unionist / Nationalist divide becomes the major fault line and we leave the traditional and increasingly irrelevant politics of Left v Right behind.

I suspect that whatever result we get in Glenrothes, the Labour Party will lose the next General Election. However, it may be pivotal for the prospects for both the SNP and the LibDems.

Friday, 24 October 2008

McCain Had His Chips?

I've always been fascinated by the US political system. In particular, I wonder how such a sophisticated system of checks and balances can get it so horribly wrong so often.

This year's election has been one of these once in a generation elections. I don't get too hung about wanting the Democrats to win ordinarily as I don't really see too much too choose between them and the GOP on most issues, especially on defence and foreign affairs (defense) which is probably the thing that affects me most as a non-American.

The Democrats are the lesser of two evils though and, although I remain to be convinced that Obama is not just another Tony Blair, the fact that he has steered clear of raising funds from vested interests gives him a real chance to change things.

However, as we have seen in Scotland, an administration's ambition for change can be checked by past decisions and inertia and resistance amongst the civil service and other stakeholders. Change is always so much more difficult than anticipated and I wouldn't be surprised if Obama hits a brick wall should he take office.

Which is to get to the point of this post. I had seen some evidence in the last couple of weeks that although Obama's lead in the national polls was widening, his lead was shortening in the crucial swing states. But today, Ohio has moved firmly into Obama's column.

This is the most high profile movement but there are other signs that Obama's national lead is now starting to manifest itself across the board. Montana and North Dakota are on a knife edge. In some polls, Obama is leading in Indiana, North Carolina and Georgia. These are places that not even Bill Clinton could win at the height of his powers.

Save for some Act of God, it looks over for McCain and that dreadful mistake of a running mate. And, if this trend continues, we may see a despondant Republican vote stay at home and allow Obama to pick up some even more surprising states.

The Big Mo is with Obama and it could lead to the kind of rout not seen since the days of Reagan v Mondale.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A Dangerous Game

I see Gordon Brown is banging on about a GB Olympic Footie Team again.

The suggestion has caused horror at the SFA and amongst the Tartan Army for they both know that such a precedent would set in motion a chain of political manouveres within FIFA aimed at ending the independent representation of the 4 home nations.

FIFA is a very different beast to the one which existed the last time Great Britain competed in the Olympic Football tournament. The African nations now have a legitmate claim to greater representation in World Cup Finals and far greater political clout. And, following the admittance of dozens of new European members in recent years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage qualification tournaments in the context of crowded (and financially lucrative) club committments.

Collapsing 4 national teams from the UK into 1 would ease a lot of those pressures and don't think for a moment that there are many movers and shakers in FIFA that are looking for any excuse to push for this. Football is not in the same position as Rugby, Hockey or Cricket who all need as many international teams as possible to keep the sport viable globally.

Looking at the situation from the perspective of other countries, I can understand their frustrations. Why should Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - regions of England / the UK as they it - have separate representation?

The SNP are making the noises you would expect but I wonder if the threat of an end to Scotland's independent status as a footballing nation wouldn't bring its objective closer?

I've said before that Scotland needs to get its obsession with football into perspective. It would be interesting to see what would happen in an Independence Referendum if one of the issues at stake was the very future of Scotland's National Football Team.

If Brown and Seb Coe keep pushing this idea and the SNP manage to secure a Referendum for 2010 we may very well find out.

The Age of Consent?

I'm not at all convinced that the Scottish Government's plans to raise the age for off-sales to 21 will have much of an effect. However, I'm glad that the SNP supported the Government's plans at their conference becasue I think we have go to the stage where we have to try things, even if there is not much evidence to suggest they will work.

I know that Ministers point to the trials in Falkirk, West Lothian and Fife but it seems these were very focussed and rigorously enforced in a way that a national rollout never could be. That doesn't mean to say that it won't work, of course.

Some of the arguments against the proposals are disingenuous - particularly the ones about ageism and age anomolies. Society is full of similar situations already:
  • you can marry and have kids at 16 but you can't buy a drink to celebrate either until you are 18
  • you can legally have sex when you're 16 but you can't watch a porno movie until you're 18
  • you can drive a car at 17 but you can't buy one on credit until you're 18

I'm sure there are plenty more examples.

I hope the plans are allowed to proceed and we can see if they have any impact. At the end of the day we are in the hands of responsible retailers. Maybe there is an arguement for the Swedish model where off-sales are only allowed through government run outlets?

Monday, 20 October 2008

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

I'm a bit behind on this one but I think it is important enough to make a belated contribution on Christine Grahame's calls to repatriate the remains of Mary Queen of Scots.

From what I am told, Ms Grahame is an excellent and tireless local campaigner. But those of us who aren't lucky enough to have her representing us can only be left with the impression that she is either a bit of a lunatic or a serial self-publicist.

Coming hard on the heels of the Bring Back Berwick campaign, this latest episode really does plumb the depths of bad taste and pointlessness. Scot Nats like their symbols and icons but the only hairs that will stand to attention for decayed bodies, however regal they might be, are the ones in their nostrils.

I know that minority Government will keep whips and business managers busy but surely they can spare some time to persuade Grahame to stop this nonsense. It is escapades like this that give credence to the line that Scotland will get her Independence in spite of the SNP.

What are non-nationalists (as opposed to Unionists), i.e. those that the SNP must persuade to vote for Independence, to make of it all. I can't help thinking that it simply re-inforces the idea that Independence is about being insular, narrow-minded and petty.

I've looked at the results of last year's election and I think they demonstrate that Ms Grahame's approach is fundamentally flawed. After coming a close second to the LibDems in 2003, she should have romped home in Tweeddale based on the National swings. But although her vote increased, so did that of her LibDem opponent, to the extent that she was no closer to winning.

Looking elsewhere, notably in Argyll & Bute for the most comparable electoral contest, but also in places like Stirling, Falkirk West, Livingston and Edinburgh East we see the SNP winning from far less favourable positions.

My conclusion is that while Ms Grahame gained a lot of support for her tremendous local campaigning efforts she also stirred up a great deal of antipathy with her nonsense which resulted in as big an anti-Christine shift as there was a pro-SNP shift last year.

Lucky for Jeremy!!!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

He Asked For It

Today may have been the biggest test for Alex Salmond since becoming First Minister.

He may not have given his most barnstorming performance but for content it was possibly the speech of the entire conference season.

Gordon Brown must have been feeling pretty good about himself when he allowed himself the luxury of dismissing the ability of an Independent Scotland to face up to the current financial crisis. It was a bizarre outburst - why would someone basking in such unfettered positive publicity go out of his way to make such a negative point?

I can only conlcude that his instinctive urge to Nat-bash had been suppressed for so long that it was simply an uncontrollable verbal ejaculation of unadulterated release. There was nothing to be gained politically from it but he did succeed in antagonising someone who is proving to be a far superior politician.

I said in my last post that Brown and his new man in Scotland, Jim Murphy, might live to regret their ill-conceived interjections but I didn't think it would come so soon. They gave Salmond a justifiable platform to remind us all of this Labour Government's considerable failings. But more, Salmond very cleverly harnessed another two enormous issues, Iraq and Trident, where Brown is completely out of kilter with Scottish opinion to provide the context for his arguement that Brown is at least partly responsible for the impending recession. It was powerful stuff and I suspect its craft will have taken Labour by surprise.

Salmond's 'Arc of Insolvency' looks like a paragon of virtue compared to Brown's 'Isle of Irresponsibility'. Once more Brown's questionable judgement and morality is centre stage in Scottish politics - and he has no-one to blame but himself.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Time for Clarity

This financial crisis has had some strange effects. It has allowed Team GB to appear decisive. It has caused a temporary political truce - broken, incidentally, by Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy with their anti-Indpendence rhetoric rather than David Cameron and Alex Salmond. (One suspects that both the timing and content of these remarks will come back to haunt the Labour men.)

But, for me, the major effect has been a simplistic reporting of the crisis that has sought to fuse two entirely separate issues into one. We have an economic downturn, recession, depression - call it what you will - and we have a banking crisis.

Turning to the latter first of all. I'm not going to blame Gordon Brown for this directly. As has been widely reported not even FSA auditors were able to understand how the banks were selling their debt on. It is therefore not realistic to expect someone like Brown, with no economic training or industrial experience, to understand it. However, it does mean that the regulatory framework was deficient and, ultimately, the man responsible for that is the now Prime Minister.

Lets be fair. Now he knows what the problem is, he is trying to do something about it and he may even sort it. If he does, then in my book he comes out of the banking crisis even. If he doesn't fix it then he has to carry the can.

But the far bigger issue is the general economic downturn. Forget how the banks were raising the finance for a moment. For years, the US Federal Reserve and their accomplices in the leading economies of the world have been allowing consumer spending to be funded by ever increasing mortgages and remortgages. For almost as long, some of the most successful contrarian investors (Warren Buffet anyone?) have been warning that this was not sustainable in the long run. It is difficult to argue with their analysis.

So why did Alan Greenspan, Gordon Brown et al not pay any heed and put the brakes on this flood of unearned liquidity into the economy? Quite simple really - to do so would halt the much heralded period of continuous economic growth dead in its tracks.

No more boom and bust was the cry and Greenspan and Brown knew that as long as house prices kept rising, then people could continue to withdraw equity and drive growth in the economy. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that house prices were being driven higher through policy measures - lack of new house building and the raid on pensions resulting in the rapidly increasing buy to let market, for example.

Eventually, though, as the contrarians were warning, it was always going to come crashing down. Real earnings couldn't possibly keep up with runaway house prices so, eventually, nobody would be able to afford them which would inevitably result in a downward adjustment, negative equity and general misery. was always in the plan for the banks to just continue to lend as much as we needed to keep the housing bubble afloat. Surely not? But then why relax all the regulations and drastically increase the permissable lending/deposit ratios.

The economic growth of the last decade has been founded on a pipe-dream and is undisputably the root of the current economic difficulties. The simple fact is that those in charge of the US and UK economies are the architects of today's recession. That's Greenspan, Bush, Blair and Brown. Sadly for Gordon, only one of them will be in office long enough to pay the price.

I could go further and suggest that it was this fatally flawed economic strategy that forced banks into more and more 'imaginative' financial instruments to allow them to keep funding the house price boom. In that case, the roots of the banking crisis are also in this crazy economic 'plan' but the benefit of the doubt leads me to believe that the banking crisis is down to a combination of light regulation and individual and corporate greed.

In summary, Gordon Brown deserves support in his attempts to resolve the banking crisis as I believe that no Chancellor would have known to take corrective action earlier. But, he also deserves a pasting for presiding over a sustained period of irresposible consumer credit which has now driven us into a what looks like being a long and deep recession.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Labour Recovery Requires Defeat in Glenrothes

Anyone else think that the Brown / Darling bailout is a little like someone cutting your throat then trying to make amends by offering an elastoplast?

Now the deeds have been done, it seems that the long awaited scrutiny is on the way judging by tonight's Panaroma. Such programmes can never guarantee that the opinions offered by their guests are representative but the overall impression about the Dynamic Duo's action was along the lines of 'It's the bloody least they could do'.

We'll return to this theme another day, but sooner or later, Brown is going to have to explain his part in getting us into this mess. He is by no means uniquely culpable but he is culpable nonetheless.

I welcome Labour's bounce in the polls. Frankly, it is no good for anyone when the outcome of an election becomes a forgone conclusion. I suspect that Brown and Darling have got a far bigger problem on their hands with the 'real' economy however.

All this activity may fix the banking system but there is no guarantee that this is going to stimulate the increased demand our economy so badly needs. Even supposing the banks start lending to each other again, who are they going to pass these loans on to? All these folks that are losing their jobs? I don't think so. All these small businesses that are seeing their order books plummet? Try again.

Trouble is we are already in the ever-decreasing circle of recession and the only ways to stimulate demand are to increase public spending and seriously cut interest rates so that those of us who still have a job and a house have more cash to burn. Unfortunately, Brown's stewardship of the economy has left us with a ridiculous national debt and spiralling inflation. Is there any way to increase spending without tax rises? If taxes are raised won't that cancel out any benefit in cutting interest rates? Tell me it's not so Darling.

One bi-product of this flurry of activity is that Labour now think they can hang on in Glenrothes and that Brown's involvement may even be a positive. Time will tell of course but I suspect that if they do hang on it will do little to prevent their demise at the next election. On the other hand, might a defeat in Glenrothes ram home the message that sorting out the banks is one thing but the real job at hand is sorting out the economy?

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Boyd Spits Oot the Dummy

In typically Scottish fashion Kris Boyd has declared he will not play for Scotland again while George Burley is our National Coach. One has to wonder whether Kris Boyd is really thinking of what is best for his country or what is best for himself. I'd suggest that his attitude confirms that Burley was right not to play him as it speaks volumes for his commitment to Scotland.

One thing that was pretty obvious to anyone at the Norway match was that Scotland were not creating any chances. I don't care what any Rangers apologist says about Boyd's strike rate, if his team isn't creating chances he won't score (unless Mark Kerr is playing for the opposition).

So playing Boyd from the start or having him come on as a substitute was never going to help Scotland yesterday. As it turned out, Burley's double substitution had an immediate impact with big Iwelumo's presence leading to Scotland's first meaningful shot on goal within seconds of his coming on. And, if weren't for that miss, Burley would be being hailed as a master tactician today.

Burley still has to prove himself to me but the stick he is getting is completely out of order. Yes, he took too long to change the system against Norway but when he did, he showed he knows how to change a game. He also showed he is not afraid to make difficult decisions by substituting the ridiculously over-hyped McFadden when he knew it would be unpopular with the crowd.

I'm pretty certain we'll finish 2nd in this group - we may even still win it if we can turn in a couple of decent performances against the Dutch and carry the same kind of luck Walter Smith and Alex McLeish enjoyed against France in the last campaign. On the other hand, I'm not sure finishing 2nd is going to get us a play-off berth.

When all is said and done, Burley may not lead Scotland to the World Cup Finals. In the grand scheme of things what difference is that going to make to anyone's life? We'll be disappointed temporarily but nobody is going to die as a result. Scotland really needs to get its obsession with football into some kind of perspective.

Until she does there will always be elements that will sympathise with a moderately talented prima donna that throws in the towel at the first sign of difficulty rather than knuckle down and prove his critics wrong through application and hard work.

So away you go in your pathetic cream puff Kris and give us all a break from the tiresome debate about whether you should be playing for Scotland despite the fact you can't even hold down a regular first team place in a team that was humiliated by a bunch of barely competent Lithuanians.

Those of us that care about Scotland will support the manager and the team come what may.