Friday, 27 February 2009

Condolences to the Camerons

I haven't been able to write on the blog for the last couple of days due to work commitments, but I wanted to take this chance, however belated, to add my condolences to David Cameron and his family.

It was terrible to hear about the sad death of their son, and I hope that the messages of support that they have received from across the country and across the political spectrum can be a tiny bit of support in such a horrible time. Politics is an important and combatitive environment, and correctly so, but it is reassuring to see how opponents can put aside their disputes in the face of such real human loss. The added poignancy of Gordon Brown, who himself has experienced the loss of a child, offering his thoughts and support to the Camerons is a clear reflection of the fact that whilst our political ideologies may differ, we are still humans united by the shared experiences of life.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Discrimination is alive and well.

Makes you proud to be British doesn't it?

Parents are complaining because the BBC has hired Cerrie Burnell as a new presenter to front CBeebies shows. Her crime - she was born without one of her arms, and therefore is 'scary' to children.

This is disgusting, and I am glad that the BBC are choosing to ignore the poison pen letters that a few 'parents' (and I use the term loosely - this sort of attitude seriously implies a lack of parenting ability) have been motivated to write. Frankly it is disgusting that we should still be encountering such pathetic attitudes in 2009, but sadly there is always a remnant of rubbish which can be scraped from the bottom of the barrel.

As someone who is soon to become a parent for the first time, I am delighted that the BBC are continuing to produce high quality childrens' programmes, and are ensuring that they hire the best presenters for the job, regardless of any identifying features. This wasn't a stunt on the BBC's behalf (they stand by the fact she was hired on ability) but has reflected well on them, especially given their recent appalling run of news. I hope that the parents who felt motivated to spill their bile about Cerrie stop and consider the example they are giving their children rather than poisoning them with their own prejudices.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Tearing up...

A day of high drama yesterday at Holyrood, with Iain Gray tearing up a copy of the SNP's manifesto. Not only did this demonstrate his outrage at the Government's blantant disregard for the voters in dropping manifesto commitments so quickly, it also showed that he is without a doubt the He-Man of Holyrood, the Prize Fighter of Parliament. Next week it'll be the phone book wot gets it.

I happened to be at Holyrood at the time on unconnected business and was watching the debate on the tv in the waiting area. I was struck by the fact that Iain Gray had got to Salmond. It wasn't obvious at first, but as you watched you could see that Salmond's bombast was a bit too bombastic, his hands a bit shaky and his impressive jowls a bit more, well jelly like. It wasn't a fatal blow - Scottish politics seems to be more a case of a death by a thousand cuts - but it rattled the Great One in a way that he likes to pretend never happens.

He shouted and he preened, he avoided the question and did his best to cover everything with that vague rhetorical approach that he calls humour, but ultimately he was a little bit shaken. Well done Iain Gray, let's hope for more of that in the coming weeks!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Scottish Government reshuffle

So the first reshuffle of the SNP Government has taken place, with a few junior Ministers making way. The changes are:
  • Mike Russell replacing Linda Fabiani as Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture
  • Roseanna Cunningham taking Mike Russell's Environment brief
  • Alex Neil replacing Stewart Maxwell as Minister for Housing and Communities
  • Shona Robinson adding Sport to her Public Health brief
  • Keith Brown replacing Maureen Watt as Schools Minister

All in all nothing dramatic - certainly not Cabinet posts that have been effected. Bit surprised about Stewart Maxwell, most people I have spoken to were fairly happy with his perfomance, at least in regards to the Community aspect of the portfolio - wonder who he annoyed?

Opposition parties have sniped a wee bit but to be honest there is little to be said about the changes. It will be more dramatic once Salmond decides to move around his main players - however, with a relatively small pool to choose from and a generally successful government thus far, I wouldn't expect to see changes any time soon.

Edit: Andrew Burns raises some interesting points with his blog - could Salmond have chickened out of sacking any Cabinet Ministers? Fiona Hyslop certainly would have seemed the most likely option - would be interesting to find out whether there were indeed any refusals.

In addition, I forgot to mention that Mike Russell also has responsibility for 'consitutional' matters, meaning that he will be driving the process of the referendum and the submission to the Calman. As a keen associate of Salmond it will be interesting to see how he does in this role - certainly the referendum seems a distant possibility in the current political climate of Scotland.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Minister tours pubs and clubs - best excuse ever!

Kenny MacAskill MSP, SNP Justice Secretary took the unprecedented step of touring pubs and clubs at the weekend. What a brilliant excuse to get out in Glasgow on a Saturday night!

I wonder which facilities he visited - the Brazen Heid maybe? Or the Garage to check out what the students were up to?

It is good to see a Minister actively exploring the areas within their remit, although I hope that his responsibility for some other 'justice' areas doesn't require the same level of investigation! It was dangerous enough on this excursion, as he was narrowly missed by a thrown bottle - goodness knows what would happen if he went touring the red light district!

Reality Bites

The Honeymoon appears to be over for President Obama - I bet he would have wished for one closer in length to that of Alex Salmond. After a hectic and difficult introductory period to his Presidency, in particular with the disaster of three cabinet picks being forced out due to allegations of impropriety, the current fight over the stimulus package is proving a minefield. It may not be impacting upon his popularity as of yet, but it could turn out to be an issue which rebounds on his administration at a later date.

The problem is that the Republicans, for the first time in several years, are being quite canny. Yeah, the stimulus package is needed to counter the effects of their control and yeah it was a Republican President who helped to destroy a massive surplus and turn it into a deficit of staggering proportions, but they are not letting these mere facts stop them.

Rather they are taking the moral high ground and attacking the wasteful spending of the Democrats. Senator Shelby of Alabama declares that it will lead to disaster while Mitch McConnell (R-Ken) the Senate Minority Leader complained about how the public don't quite understand just how big a trillion dollars is (for interest sake, a million seconds is 11.5 days, a billion seconds is 32 years and a trillion seconds is 32,000 years. Pretty big then).

Of course the irony (not always considered a strong point of American humour) is that the main reason that trillions are being talked about is due to the policies of a Republican President. The party of small government, tax cuts and fiscal responsibility abandoned its principles and savaged the economy in an orgy of greed and misdirected financial interventions. A focus on the 'death tax' as the pinnacle of Republican financial policy ignored the destruction being wrought upon the economy on their watch and it is now the Democrats, and President Obama in particular, who have to try and restore the US economy.

The problem is that voters very quickly forget whose fault it was, and the stimulus package has the potential to become very unpopular. People have already seen billions pumped into the economy and are getting fed up of it - they are therefore getting fed up of further interventions which do not seem to be making a difference to their own standard of living or job opportunities.

The stimulus will pass (there are enough moderate Republicans, just, left to make it fillibuster proof) but the Republicans will happily and shamelessly run with this area of attack, aided by the fact that Democratic control of Congress has not exactly been life changing to date. President Obama has had a shaky start to his tenure, his team not supporting him and guiding him correctly, leaving him open to questions about his commitment to the integrity he pledged to introduce to government. The vetting process did not fail - the problem was that it identified the tax problems which existed but ignored them, presuming them unimportant to the American people. This was a terrible mistake which sent out completely the wrong message to people at a time of economic hardship.

However, his willingness to hold his hands up and admit he got it wrong was a welcome change of approach from a politician and one that our own elected reps could do to learn from. He needs to see some success now if he wants to keep the American people on side. The key criticism of his campaign was that it was all style with little concrete evidence of the policy which would drive his administration. He now needs to stabilise his team, strongly outline his political vision for sorting out the mess he has inherited. Otherwise he could find that the honeymoon becomes little more than a distant memory.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Bashir Ahmad

Just wanted to say how sad I was to hear of the sudden death of Bashir Ahmad MSP. It is a terrible shock and my thoughts are with his family.

His role as the first EM MSP at Holyrood was an important one and he will be missed.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Petition to keep Jeremy Clarkson in Australia (Sorry Australia!)

So the mighty Jeremy Clarkson, self proclaimed voice of the people, has felt fit to make pronouncements on British politics whilst Down Under.

Seriously, do you think if we start a petition we could get the Aussies to keep him?

The fact of the matter is that he is an arrogant opinionated boor who basks in his self-importance and pontificates on matters of which he has very little understanding. And that's just his car writing!

It's not really because he insulted Gordon Brown - we are a democracy and he is within his rights to do so. It's more the depressing fact that he is somehow viewed as being a representative of the UK, a pseudo-ambassador whose words carry some sort of importance, rather than a TV presenter and 'reporter' - one so clever that by publishing his bank details in his column in an attempt to make a point he cost himself money.

I'm biased I admit - I don't watch the programme and if I'm being honest I think Boris Johnson is a better writer about motor vehicles. However, it is a shame that he is somehow held up as a role model for the UK and a reflection of the zeitgeist of the nation.

I suppose it's probably more the case that I'm the one out of touch - after all the petition wanted him to be made PM!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Money, Money, Money

So the Budget is going to pass. Not too much of a surprise, it should really have passed last week but for some posturing/incompetence on the part of the Government in not getting the Greens on board.

The surprise, I must admit, is that the SNP have gone to the length of bringing Labour into the agreement. With the Lib Dems rather hasty u-turn, the Budget deal was sorted very early on, leaving the SNP not needing to make any overtures to Labour. Admittedly, the situation has meant that the concessions have hardly been ground-breaking, but they are concessions none the less.

Considering the intense rivalry, if indeed not hatred, between the two main parties it would not have been a huge surprise to have seen the Nats deliberately snub any input from Labour. Labour have assessed that there is some public discomfort with the Budget not passing which explains some of their move to a supportive position, but the SNP's acceptance of it is an interesting one.

It could be a reflection of the consensus building nature of Scottish politics, particularly for a minority Government, however I feel that this may be too idealistic. I think rather there is some clever politicking going on behind the scenes for the SNP. As the Government they carry the responsibility should actions to improve the economy and life in Scotland be less than successful, however by tying the other parties into the Budget they can legitimately attempt to pass some of the blame should things not go well, whilst retaining the praise if they work.

The point of the Budget debate was that the SNP tried to push through a Budget without too much consideration of other parties (other than their bosom buddies the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party), seemingly forgetting that they are a minority administration. Salmond's bombast about resigning was hot air and a reflection of displeasure with Swinney's handling of the negotiation process, with breakthrough swift to follow. Consensus was the name of the game in the end, but it needn't have ended up that way.

So where does it leave the parties? The SNP left themselves open to looking less all powerful than they like to portray whilst Labour were attacked for putting petty politics above the national interest. Both of these portrayals were unfair, however that is the nature of the political game. The Tories, as bedfellows of the Nats, secured their desires early on and therefore were able to remain above the fray - all in all a successful operation for them I feel. The Greens had the chance to make themselves heard and to play an important role in the process - if they choose to be the sole dissenting voices in the vote then they will also argue that they alone had the courage to stick to their convictions.

The losers, and not for the first time, were the Lib Dems who handled this really badly. The only issue which all the parties seemed to agree on before the first vote was that the tax cut plan was badly thought out, if indeed not rather inane, leaving the party looking clueless as to how to respond to the economic challenges Scotland faces. This was then followed by a u-turn which bordered on unseemly, leaving them looking weak, especially as their main concession secured appears to be to get the Scottish Government to make a submission to the Calman Commission. Heck, I've made a submission and given oral evidence, so it ain't all that powerful! And getting the SNP to argue for greater fiscal devolution...well, there's a breakthrough. All in all, a continuation of a dreadful period for the Liberal Democrat party.

Normal service will now resume and the Scottish Government can get back to the important process of spending money. It's been an interesting week or so but fundamentally the SNP are getting the Budget they want (as has become the norm for Budgets in Scotland). Will be interesting to see whether their proposals can make a difference, and if not, to see who will carry the can.

Monday, 2 February 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth.

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Steelers who broke NFL history by winning the Superbowl last night for the sixth time (said through slightly gritted teeth - I'm a NY Giants fan and was hoping we could do back-to-backs). For the first time in quite a few years I didn't stay up to watch the extravaganza - the combination of working on a Monday morning and, more crucially, having a pregnant wife who needed to work on a Monday morning meant that I only watched the pre-match and first drive, with the rest taped.

I love American Football. I know lots of people in the UK don't, finding it too slow, or too incomprehensible, or too glitzy. I suppose really it's the fact that some folk find it just too darn American. However, that is partly what I love about it so much. And the Superbowl represents the pinnacle of this, a party which is open to the world but which fundamentally celebrates America and its way of life.

I know it's only a game, but the Superbowl does provide an insight into the heart of US life and its differences to other parts of the world. Stereotypes are caricatures, but are often rooted in certain truths or realities. The Superbowl shows that the stereotype of Americans as loving a show, highly emotional and patriotic can be seen to be a very real occasion. Quite simply, the Superbowl could not happen in the UK, where our national stereotype of repressing our emotions would hamper such celebration.

The Superbowl encompassed tributes to the crew of flight 1549 who heroically saved the lives of their passengers when it was forced to crash into the Hudson; the singing of the National Anthem by Jennifer Hudson in her first public appearance since the horrific murder of several members of her family; the award of the Walter Payton man of the year to the NFL player who had done the most charity work ove the year (won by Kurt Warner the Cardinals' starting QB); and a concert by Bruce Springsteen over the half time - it was an extravaganza of celebration rather than a mere sporting event.

The patriotism in the US is an incredible phenomenom, unmatched in the UK by a long distance. I think we Brits can find it a bit overpowering at times and can be struck by the use of US flags everywhere - sadly we have allowed the far right to steal the use of our flag to a large extent in the UK. Americans genuinely have a pride in their country which in many ways we could learn from. The Federal system means that Americans can be very proud of their State and their country - it is not too often that demands for secession are made nowadays in the US as citizens are able to cope with multi-faceted identities, rooted in the immigrant history which the majority of Americans possess. Whilst here in Scotland we are told by the Nationalist movement that it is incompatible to be both proudly Scottish and proudly British, Americans quite happily manage to be proud of their state and proud of their wider country. I realise that the Nationalist response to this would be that Scotland is no mere state and I am not seeking to diminish the debate; however, the issue of multi-faceted identities is an important one which is ignored in the arguments which rage in Scotland.

Anyways, I seem to be attempting to turn my love of the Superbowl into some sort of half-baked debate on self-definition - and this is without being sleep deprived due to staying up for it! Superbowl XLIII was a good un - here's hoping that the Giants are back in the Big Show next year!