Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The SNP and its pro-religioinist homophobic agenda

The SNP and its leadership are skilled political operators and even someone like me who opposes (vehemently) their basic policy objective of taking Scotland out of its partnership within the United Kingdom would have to accept that they play a good political game.

But do its supporters always understand those whom they support and the less-emphasised (at least in the mainstream press reports) policy issues which underlie much of the SNP agenda? Amongst the younger age-groups which the SNP seems to see as forming its natural support-base, specially in the future, one wonders if they understand fully just who it is they are supporting?

I've written about this matter before, although the comments provoked on that occasion from a pro-SNP political-activist (and now Westminster-candidate) have unfortunately been lost, because in the intervening 18 months I have changed my commenting system from Haloscan to the one offered by Google/Blogger for technical reasons, when I was obliged to alter radically my blog template toward the end of 2008 (I wrote about the then forthcoming change here).

In the latest issue of Scotsgay magazine, Issue 94, Garry Otton (of Scottish Media Monitor fame) takes a detailed look at the SNP and its associations with (and financial support from and to) various religious groups and on various issues - you'll need to scroll down to page 10 of the linked .PDF file to find the 'Badge of Shame' article. A few brief extracts from Gary Otton's article are instructive in illustrating some of the less well publicised aspects of SNP policy, despite earlier attempts in comments to my earlier article to pooh-pooh such concerns:

"Salmond confesses that religion is the driving force in his thinking and seeks to accommodate Catholic thinking on every level, supporting (.. [*]) more sectarian or 'faith' schools and lobbying Whitehall for Catholic adoption agencies to be given an 'indefinite' exemption on gay adoption."

"Since gaining power, Alex Salmond snubbed a debate on gay equality which was attended by all political parties, even the Tories.[*]"

"... a senior SNP councillor in the Borders and Nationalist constituency party chairman, Keith Gunn exposed his 'beliefs' during a BBC Radio Scotland phone-in when he was asked why non-believers should have to treat the Bible with reverence. He confessed, 'Well non-believers are damned to Hell anyway, so why should we bother?' Presenter Graham Stewart suggested he might 'live alongside other people and have respect', but he was having none of it, 'No, I don't think so' he gushed. 'When we all went to church on a Sunday morning and we all prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ every Sunday morning, this was a much better country. Look where it is going now. We have got so-called gays who are really very sad people and we have non-believers and heathens, you know, running the country and running down Christianity. .... The SNP were quick only to dismiss his ideas as 'personal'."

"Writing in the Scottish Catholic Observer, he [Salmond] went on to promise the Catholic Church he would do all he could to secure them exemptions from equality legislation - already passed by Parliament into law - that some Catholics saw as forcing them to treat gays equally in their quest to become prospective parents in publicly-funded, Catholic adoption agencies."

Just where is the SNP trying to take Scotland, riven as it seems to be (from top to bottom) with religious 'zealots'?! It takes great care not to talk too openly about its 'theocratic' agenda, but it is there to ferret out if one cares to look - thanks are due to Gary Otton for his efforts at exposing some of the 'wackier' ideas.

[*] PS/ I have been reading Gary Otton's writings for quite a few years now so am not unaware of his definite left-wing (and probably pro-Labour) biases and his seeming visceral dislike of Conservatism, so it is probably necessary to factor similar caution into an evaluation of his feelings about the SNP in relation to Scottish politics and its rivarly with Labour for influence.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Baroness Scotland - am I being more than usually dense?

I just don't get this story at all. It is being said that Baroness Scotland did not 'knowingly' employ a person with no legal right to BE in the UK, never mind the right to work there (I write 'there' rather than 'here' because I am currently in Spain, by the way).

Either the lady (the lady of Tongan nationality formerly employed by Baroness Scotland) was in the UK legally or not and eligible to work in the UK or not. The fact that Baroness Scotland checked or did not check her documents does not alter these basic facts, or does it?

This aspect of the affair is, it seems to me, independent of whether Baroness Scotland herself verified her employee's documents and found them to be in order, but failed to keep photocopies of them. It seems to me that if the Tongan lady was in fact in the UK legally and elegible to work, then not taking the photocopies required by the law (in a Bill piloted through Parliament by Lady Scotland herself, so she might have been expected to know what it contained) could be excused as a simple oversight and perhaps subject to a fine.

But from what I've read and heard about this affair over the past several days it seems that the Tongan lady's visa to work here had expired SOME YEARS AGO and that she had worked for Baroness Scotland much more recently, well after its expiry. To say that she did check her employee's documents and saw nothing wrong is stretching [my] credulity way beyond breaking-point. I do not see how she or her apologists within the Labour hierarchy can continue to state with any credibility that she DID check the lady's documents and still did not 'knowingly' employ an illegal immigrant. The fact that she paid tax and National Insurance contributions is, in this context, beside the point.

The reason people hire employees who are in a country without the required documents can generally be traced back to one simple factor - money, and being able to pay them less than a person here legally.

I would like to know:
- a timeline for when the Tongan lady arrived in the UK and when her legal right to remain and work in the UK expired;
- a timeline for when Baroness Scotland employed and subsequently dismissed her employee;
- the hourly rate the employee was being paid and whether it complied with the legal minimum wage in force at the time;
- comparable hourly wage rates for employees in the the same part of London for those doing similar work.

I think the answers to all these questions would illustrate just how devoted Baroness Scotland and her Party are to observing the law and dealing with epmployees fairly.

Personally I think that the detail of the law that Lady Scotland contravened, by not taking the required photocopies of documents, is rather 'draconian', like a lot of Labour legislation, seeimngly designed to trap the unwary who are normally given a far rougher time than someone who happens to be part of Labour's hierarchy and who is in this instance the person who actually argued forcefully for this law and its detailed requirements to be passed into law.

She should not only be fined, but resign or be sacked.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Inverness makes choices about burying its dead

People get born, live their lives and eventually die. What to do with the bodies of the deceased? Traditionally, in western culture, the custom has been to bury people 'six feet under' in a coffin usually made of wood, for the body to decompose over time or as the minister seems always to say when 'committing' the body to the ground:
Earth to Earth
Ashes to Ashes
Dust to Dust

In more recent times it has become increasingly popular to cremate the body and either to 'scatter' the ashes or to keep them in some kind of urn or container. Partly in my view thas has been because of pressure (i.e. shortage) of space, partly for other cultural reasons. Indeed cremation was for many centuries frowned upon by an all-powerful church, until this began to be challenged in the UK in the latter part of the 19th century (and there's an interesting article about this in the University of Durham Schools area).

However, for many people burial remains the preferred way, so Inverness is to decide shortly whether to demolish a derelict house and its walled garden within the Kilvean Cemetary in order to provide upto 750 additional burial spaces. Getting a burial 'lair' or 'plot' has become increasingly difficult (and sometimes costly) in many part of Britain. In British society there does not seem be any negativity in overlooking a cemetary from one's home (certainly not the case in some Asian cultures - east Asia, at least) so if the property were redeveloped as a house or apartments I am sure there would be a market for it. I confess I have no particular feelings about this one way or the other, except that it will shine an interesting light on Inverness's priorities (and on the city where I happen to have been born).

Monday, 14 September 2009

Bill's on the move (again) ...

Keen-eyed readers may notice that I have adjusted the sub-heading at the top of the page to reflect that I shall soon be travelling to my home in Spain for a month - I won't actually be travelling until Wednesday, but may be quite busy for the next few days and not have time to make the change later in the week. I'll be in Spain until mid-October.

As you were ...

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Simplement parce que je l'aime!

One of my favourite popular songs ever; great rhythm, great words ...

Etienne Daho - Bleu Comme Toi

- I am of course this evening mainly enjoying the Last Night of the Proms, with my usual [large] box of Belgian Chocolates and this year a bottle of Prosecco; it's a little lighter than champagne - and I had a bottle of a very nice example of that (I buy a lot of my chanpagne and other wines from the Wine Society, of which I have been a member for over 30 years) a couple of evenings ago to 'celebrate' getting rid of my self-assessment tax return for 2008-2009 in advance of my departure for Spain next Wednesday for a month, so felt like something different this evening. (If submitting a paper return, it's got to be in by 31 October, although one may submit returns via the website until the final 31 January deadline, but I prefer to stick with paper, at least for now.)

In any case, I take an unashamed delight for one evening of the year in celebrating my 'Britishness', with music in recent years coming from all four member nations of the UK; even with our current odious Government this remains a great country and the Last Night of the Proms is a good focus for this, specially as it has for many years now enjoyed a wide international audience who seem to enjoy it as much as many Britons do - if the variety of national flags habitually waved in the Albert Hall and at the 'Concerts in the Parks' elsewhere in the UK is a guide.

Friday, 11 September 2009

"Bad elements" from Aberdeen take a trip to Banchory ...

... and are alleged to have got up to no good in the post office there.

والحزن والشفقة

Eight years already

My personal memorial is here.
('wal-Hazin wal-shafaqah' - The Sorrow and the Pity - this is of course the translation of the title of a French film about World War II in France, but I think similar sentiments are evoked when we remember the events of eight years ago today in the US.)

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Speaker Bercow hires PR-czar

Most amused to hear that the new Speaker, John Bercow, has felt the need (at our expense, of course) to hire in help to try and massage his public image. Good luck, Tim, you'll have your work cut out with Speaker Bercow as your boss!

Do you think the Speaker's successor, if Nigel Farage succeeds in ousting Bercow as an MP at the next General Election, will keep Tim Hanes on? I don't share the views of Nigel Farage on very many issues, but I wish him all success in his latest venture.

Labour forced to come clean over budget deficits

After months of pretending that whilst the country is in deep economic 'doo-doo' nothing need change in the level of spending the State indulges in, it seems that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at least, is steeling himself to say in public what most people already know - that part (a major part) of the corrective medicine for the country's soaring budget deficits will have to be cuts in spending on some of Labour's sacred cows. The phraseology of these "Government Minister will say ..." stories, based on press-releases (or leaks) of forthcoming speeches, always amuses me. What if the speech never happens, will the press-release simply be buried? Anyhoooo, here's what Alistair Darling apparently will say:

"Gordon Brown and I have spoken of the hard choices needed in public spending over the coming years.

"We won't flinch from the difficult decisions that will be necessary, and we will always act guided by our core values of fairness and responsibility.

"This will be our test of character. Properly targeted public investment can and should make a difference.

"That means making choices and setting priorities - shifting resources to the front line. It means more efficiency, continuing to reform, cutting costs, public and private sectors working together."

Bringing the name of the Prime Minister into his speech has a two-fold purpose:
- it gives Mr Darling's forthcoming 'revelations' an aura of official policy, tarnished only by the justifiedly-soiled reputation of Gordon Brown;
- it tries to bind the hands of the Prime Minister into not flying-off into his usual realm of fantasy economics in the coming political 'cycle', specially his Labour Party conference speech, when Darling obviously believes the 'comrades' will have to be told the truth.

I'll wait to hear with baited breath just how tough Mr Darling plans to be in practice in reining in the out-of-control spending on some of Labour's shibboleth policies and just how much 'spin' will be employed when announcing these cuts to the public. Or indeed whether Gordon Brown will as usual 'chicken-out' of allowing his Chancellor to get on with doing the job he obviously still cannot accept he is no longer [ir]responsible for.

Labour and Darling's strategy in pre-releasing this speech to the BBC (who are dutifully splashing it across their headlines today) is to 'soften-up' the ostriches amongst the British people who haven't yet wakened-up to the disastrous economic situation that this Labour Government will bequeath to its successors when finally it gets booted out of office! Hopefully very soon now ...

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Labour, Libya and Oil - 'for the greater good'

The sordid truth about Gordon Brown and Labour's role in promoting trade with 'former' terrorist-state Libya at the expense of victims of IRA bomb outrages; the Semtex used by the bombers was, naturally enough, funded by Libya.

Maybe later stories will provide further clarification about what has been going on with our illustrious 'Great Leader'. Maybe. For the moment my reaction is one of simple disgust. But not surprise.

Remind me - why is this awful man still our Prime Minister? A Labour-putsch is urgently required! And a General Election.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

What was the point of getting consultants to report on the NHS?

Before we get on to discussing the consultants' report on the NHS, a preamble. I find it pretty bizarre that any employer, in this case the British government, pays out good money (our money of course) for an external consultancy firm to provide recommendations for the NHS. Particularly a Labour government. How likely was it, do you think, that a Labour government was ever going to accept a report from a firm such as McKinsey? Did the government think McKinsey might recommend staff increases?

The NHS is apparently the largest employer in the world. Many people (and politicians wanting to get elected) are happy to trot out the mantra, as Health minister Mike O'Brien does:

"... In core frontline services like maternity, nursing and primary care we need more staff rather than fewer."

- without then going on to look at the obvious corollary: what's to happen with levels of non-frontline activities. Quite the contrary! In the sentence immediately preceding the one I quote above, Mike O'Brien opines:

"The government does not believe the right answer to improving the NHS now or in the future is to cut the NHS workforce.

So what, according to you Mr O'Brien, is the right answer? Bearing in mind that the government brief to the consultants was to "come up with proposals for how savings could be made". There is silence from Mike O'Brien on this vital matter, except to put the kybosh on the whole report thus:

"Ministers have rejected the suggested proposals in the McKinsey report and there are no plans to adopt these proposals in the future."

OK, so another tens/hundreds(?) of thousands of Pounds of our money down the drain! No surprise there then, that's what this government specialises in - squandering money it does not have.

The context of this ridiculous exercise in self-delusion is electoral politics - no politician has the courage (whether in the governing Labour Party, or the likely future government of the Conservative Party) to state the obvious - that much of the waste that is said to exemplify the NHS is a function of its chronic over-manning, not its under-manning! Of course it needs to become 'more efficient' rather than simply indulge in yet more job-creation for the sake of it and think that this will solve the underlying problem, which is people working less-efficiently than they should be. For Gawd's sake, what planet do these people live on? No, the real reason for this determined myopia is that with a country mired deeply in recession and with an election inevitable within 9 months at the maximum, and with official unemployment figures already already rising rapidly (the 'dsguised' unemployment is already much greater and has been so for many years) the last thing an unpopular government needs is to accept a report which plans for an increase of 137,000 in unemployment numbers - for who else, even if there were not already a recession, would be likely to employ many of these people?

The whole mind-set which has blighted healthcare politics in the UK for decades is summed-up in these ridiculous statements from two of the 'unions' who effectively dictate to the Labour government (and in various ways to other political parties, too, in rather blunt terms) how this country's healthcare has to be run to avoid them 'cutting-up rough'. First from the self- acknowledged union, Unison, whose head of health, Karen Jennings, says:

"The McKinsey report comes up with the same old formulaic answers and their much-repeated mantra of job cuts as the answer to NHS savings.

"There is no room for complacency in the NHS. We must constantly look for new ways to be efficient and to deliver better patient care."

- fair enough, in her first sentence she trots out her ideological objections to reducing employment levels, that much I understand, although I disagree fundamentally of course. But what does the obfuscatory second sentence mean? It seems to me to be trying to say a lot when it actually says almost nothing, other than that Ms Jennings is skilled in the art of meaningless verbiage masquerading as intelligent commentary.

Now on to that other 'union', the British Medical Association (BMA) which, despite its name which [deliberately?] suggests it is some kind-of quasi-official body is in fact a professional 'trade' body designed to protect the interests of medical practitioners of one kind or another as well as enforcing professional standards as the price of admittance to the 'club'. On the one had it does a lot of good, but ignore at your peril its naked self-interest on behalf of its members in other ways. At least Dr Mark Porter of the BMA is being intellectually honest when he stated clearly its official position:

"If implemented, these short-sighted proposals would have been disastrous.

"We welcome the commitment given by the government that it has rejected them and does not see workforce cuts as the solution to the challenges facing the NHS."

This brings me to a question that I have for many years asked about the NHS. Does the National Health Service exist to provide medical care to the British people, or is its principal function to provide employment to the 1.3 or so million people employed by it? Of course even I would agree that the answer to this question has to be a combination of both to a certain extent, but I give definite priority to its basic function being to provide health services, whereas the 'unions' (and politicians, whether ideologically supportive or coerced by the electoral realities of a benefits-addicted electorate) seem to think it is basically a glorified 'make work' scheme.

John Appleby, chief economist at The King's Fund, basically talks about 'tractor production figures':

"I don't really see the necessity for actually cutting jobs, but I certainly do see the necessity for employees and the NHS overall to find new ways of working, being more productive, being more efficient."

However, Sir Gerry Robinson, a successful and apparently wealthy businessman, sums the whole issue up:

"You wonder at the mindset behind getting a report like that and then saying because it is not politically acceptable, we are not actually going to do anything with it," he told Radio 4's Today.

"It's infuriating, the way the government handles the NHS and the way the opposition handles the game that gets played."

As he says, he saw an "enormous amount of waste" and [felt that] jobs should go (when he presented a BBC series about the NHS), saying that he was "infuriated" by yet another report, which cost a lot of money and "tells you the obvious". Quite!

Welcome to Britain and its crazy healthcare politics.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Turmoil in 'The National Trust for Scotland'

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has been in financial difficulties for quite some time. I take an interest in it because I have been a member for most of my life - since I was about 12 I think - so that means for around 45 years; in my earliest years I funded my membership subscriptions out of my pocket-money as no-one else in the immediate family was (or is) involved or particularly interested, although my parents were quite happy for me to join. Indeed I made my first ever trip outside the UK at the age of around 15, completely on my own, on an NTS 12-day cruise and was on another cruise with them some years later (when I was already living abroad, but back in Scotland on holiday). More recently I have been a member of the Higland Members' Center, based in Inverness, since soon after I came back to live in the UK about 15 years ago after a career spent mostly elsewhere. So I have a lot of personal history and sentiment invested in the NTS.

I have believed for many years that the fundamental problem is that the NTS over many years, and under many of its previous Chairmen and Chief Executives has taken on more properties or land for management, without adequate (or in some cases any) endowments to help fund their upkeep and maintenance, than was sustainable in the longer term and resorted to special appeals (to members and government/lottery etc) to assist. The motives were undoubtedly good - that the importance of the property/land concerned for Scotland's heritage was of such importance that they had to be saved. There was also, in my view, a certain personal vanity involved to ensure that certain of these acquisitions could be associated with the names of the then current Chairman and the management team (see even the NTS news report linked to further down this page where the President, one of the 'old guard', continues with this kind of thinking in his eulogy to the Chairman's announcement she is standing down). Added to that was a very top-heavy management based on 'the great and good' of Scotland's charitable and conservation bodies, without much care and attention to their selection on the basis of their strategic management skills, which in my view were (and perhaps still are) in some cases sadly-lacking. To sum up 'glory now rather than longer-term fiscal stability'.

Something had to change. I think, but am not absolutely certain, that the current Chairman (Shonaig Macpherson), like her predecessor (whom I met on a few occasions), have genuine management ability and has been trying to take the drastic measures necessary to put the NTS back on a sounder footing. But for a venerable (although not that old - it was founded in the early 1930s) institution this has been a very painful experience - job cuts, closure of some properties that cost a lot to run and had few visitors. So now we have the news that Ms Macpherson will not seek to renew her contract when its current term expires in September 2010 and that a search is starting now to find her successor (the report in the NTS website is here).

I heard Ms Macpherson being interviewd on the BBC Today programme last week, when it was announced that members had tabled a vote of 'no confidence' because of members' dissent at the drastic cuts she has put in place. I thought she stood up for herself pretty well, in the face of some pretty tough questioning, and I did not and do not believe that a lot of the criticism of her is justified - she was brought in to help resolve a difficult and unsustainable structural financial position (more money going out or required to be put aside in 'reserve' than is coming in on a regular/permanent basis) and she has been doing what is required, whilst managing to get membership numbers to continue to rise to their highest ever levels. This is a painful exercise and I understand that members' protests have already led to some properties being given a 'reprieve' (which the NTS can ill-afford) from closure. I understand the frustration of many members with what is happening, but I think their anger is mis-directed at Shonaig Macpherson and I hope wiser heads at the AGM will not carry the motion of no-confidence. My own ire is directed at some of the former members of the board of management of the NTS and at certain of the current members there, too, who seem to me probably to be acting as a 'rearguard movement' for the old ways that got the NTS into its current mess.

In any case I hope the NTS can identify a suitable successor for Ms Macpherson - whoever is chosen will find that a lot of work remains to be done, to build on an improve what she has started whilst trying to balance the sometimes contradictory pressures coming from a part of the membership and board of management.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

My absolutely final word on the al-Megrahi release saga

There has been a lot of fall-out from the release of the release of al-Megrahi back to Libya and that fall-out may not be over as yet. However, there is an article in today's Times newspaper by the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, that lays out pretty clearly what happened; three brief extracts:

"Decisions concerning the fate of criminals, not least those responsible for mass murder, often provoke widespread public anger. But the outrage at this one has crossed continents and damaged our relationship with our closest ally, America. It has been a fiasco.

"At its heart lies a series of failure of judgment. The first failure was the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, to release al-Megrahi on “compassionate grounds”. Due process found al-Megrahi guilty, a verdict upheld on appeal. The Libyan Government accepted responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the Lockerbie families. Any doubts about the safety of al-Megrahi’s conviction should have been tested by the second appeal, which he instead withdrew. That is why I said that compassionate release was completely inappropriate. We are dealing here with someone convicted of one of the biggest mass murders in British history. Al-Megrahi’s victims were not allowed the luxury of “dying at home”. What on earth was Mr MacAskill thinking of when he made this utterly bizarre decision?"

"The second misjudgment was Gordon Brown’s failure to speak up clearly and promptly. On a matter fraught with such emotion, and with the potential to damage Britain’s reputation abroad, a decisive lead from the Prime Minister was required."

And finally:
"The Government needs to understand that it cannot reject this as an overhyped summer story and dismiss these suspicions out of hand. This issue goes to the core of how this Government operates. Unless these suspicions are properly put to rest, the al-Megrahi case will mark another damning chapter in the sorry history of Labour’s years in power."

- the whole article merits close study I think. I don't pretend to agree with everything that David Cameron has done so far, or that he seems to be planning should he become Prime Minister fairly soon (increasingly likely, on present trends, I'd say), but I have to say that those, both on the left of politics and on the gerontocrat-wing of the Conservative party itself, who declare Cameron to be 'light-weight' or 'shallow' seem to me to be way off-beam. That man is no light-weight and I think his clear-sightedness in this case makes that abundantly clear.

Almost done. Two articles in the Spectator's Coffee House are useful to read, too (here and here) - it is clear that Labour's connection to what happened is not as 'hands off' as they would have us believe. My earlier articles on the release are here, here and here.

Of course it's his interpretation, which I happen to agree with. A lot of people, particularly supporters of one of the political parties in Scotland (the governing Party here which made the decision to release al-Megrahi), disagree strongly with that view. Whatever we may think of the decision by Mr MacAskill, it was made in good faith I have no doubt (if in my view for misguided reasons), but it is done and cannot be reversed. We must now live with the consequences, whatever they are.