Thursday, May 8, 2008


I suppose I should write something about Labour's total meltdown over an independence referendum, but I'm almost speechless (a state of being Gordon Brown must wish Wendy Alexander would emulate for a few days). It's extraordinary how this issue has crept up on everyone - in retrospect it all started with Wendy's appearance on the Politics Show, but as you can see from my post on Sunday, what she said on the subject of a referendum didn't even leap out at me as being the most noteworthy part of the interview.

On an unrelated political matter, I was saddened to hear of the death of Ray Michie, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute. She was one of the last of a dying breed of politicians who seemed almost too nice and principled to be in parliament (and I mean genuine nice, not any sort of 'Blair Babe' synthetic niceness).

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


In Scotland today, there are four notable languages spoken - Gaelic, Scots, English and Wendy-speak. Fortunately, the latter of these is the easiest to learn. It's almost identical to English (albeit with a strange system of tones and related facial expressions that are known to grate on non-native speakers), but with one key difference - if you want to convey that you don't have a bloody clue what the answer to a question is, you instead say "well what I'm saying to you is..." Witness the textbook examples on Newsnight Scotland tonight.

"Ms Alexander, do you want an independence referendum to be held in twelve months' time?"
"Well, what I'm saying to you is..."

"If Alex Salmond said let's compromise and have a referendum in 2010, that would be all right with you, would it?"
"Well, what I'm saying to you is..."

"So when do you want a referendum?"
"Well, what I'm saying to you is..."

Monday, May 5, 2008

What is the point of PR for the London Assembly?

On the day Boris Johnson becomes master of all he surveys, it's worth pondering this point. The principal rationale for proportional representation is 'majority rule', ie. no more compulsory ID cards imposed by New Labour on the basis of 35% of the popular vote, and no more unfettered Thatcherism on 42% of the vote. But how is the London voting system supposed to achieve that objective? The key problem is that for the only substantive decision the London assembly is permitted to take - to reject or amend the Mayor's budget - a two-thirds majority is required. This means the Mayor can be elected on a minority vote (quite probable on the supplementary vote system, since in practice most second preference votes are non-transferable) and then exercise total control provided that his party has a blocking minority in the assembly, which only requires 33% of the vote. All in all, the practical effect of 'electoral reform' in London looks suspiciously similar to first-past-the-post to me.

Stalin or Hitler?

It's the debate that's raged for decades - was Stalin worse than Hitler? Is communism intrinsically even more evil than fascism? This story settles the matter conclusively. It seems fascist countries could only win the Eurovision Song Contest by cheating. Communism may be responsible for the deaths of millions, but one thing is beyond dispute - it won its sole victory at the Eurovision by talent (ahem) alone.

I'm sure no-one needs reminding, but the song in question was "Rock me, baby" by Riva, which won for Yugoslavia in 1989. As with the seemingly corrupt Spanish victory in 1968, it was the UK that was edged into second place with the (really quite good) "Why Do I Always Get It Wrong?". To clarify in the words of the Swiss host on the night - "that isn't my question, it's the name of song from United Kingdom..."

Something's afoot...

Oooh, what's going on? First, Wendy Alexander says on the Politics Show that she won't "rule out" a referendum on independence, now Douglas Alexander says he is "not afraid" of one. When the Alexanders achieve something vaguely approaching inter-sibling co-ordination, you know something's afoot. Rest assured, though, by next week they'll have changed their minds again and decided that a referendum is "a distraction from the people of Scotland's priorities" after all (translation - we've had a proper think about it and we are actually quite scared).

Curiously, Wendy is continuing with her stubborn insistence that the one thing she won't countenance is Alex Salmond's suggestion of an STV-style multi-option referendum. But surely that's what would suit her best? The alternative is a straight yes/no vote, and all the polls show that format produces the most favourable outcome for independence, and sometimes a majority in favour. Is Wendy shooting herself (and the Union) in the foot here?

Just one thing, Wendy...

Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander appeared on the Politics Show on Sunday, and took the opportunity to crow about her party increasing its share of the vote by 5% in the Abbey local council by-election on Thursday. That more than makes up for total annihalation throughout England and Wales, apparently. She also claimed that the SNP's vote in the by-election had flatlined (translation - it was exactly the same as the record high last year). But strangely, she neglected to mention there were in fact two by-elections in Scotland on Thursday - and that the SNP won the other one with a whopping 15% increase in its vote share. Funny that, must have completely slipped her mind.

Morality tales in Marrakech

Snooker is one thing, but why do I suddenly also find myself hooked on The Apprentice, a programme whose central world view I utterly loathe and despise? (That world view being not so much that backstabbing and ruthless ambition are desirable qualities, but more that Sir Alan Sugar is some sort of top bloke who we should all be in awe of, and perhaps even have a secret crush on.) I'm going to be generous to myself and believe that the reason must be that I'm a hopeless idealist who yearns to see a little bit of justice done in the least promising places. And, if the rumours are true, I'm at least temporarily going to get my wish - the resident bullies Jenny C and Jenny M are going to get their comeuppance on Wednesday's episode after making the innovative tactical decision to bribe a street-trader in Marrakech. For one week only, The Apprentice reinvents itself as Christian morality tale.

Snookered by the cynics

It was refreshing to read this article in the Sunday Herald reflecting on the ongoing therapeutic and life-affirming effect of watching snooker. I know, I know, I feel quite stupid for even having written those words. But the thing is, it's become a bit depressing each year at this time (and it's felt like this for at least fifteen years now) to read the ritual articles about how the glory days of the sport are long since past. Apart from anything else, it always leaves me with the alarming feeling that I'm wasting my life spending hours being gently hypnotised by something that's just so 1980s and past its prime. I'm also tormented by the knowledge that I probably failed one or two important exams in the 1990s because I was too busy willing Stephen Hendry or John Higgins to victory at the Crucible. There I part company with the writer of the Herald piece, though, because during the same period she was apparently willing the likes of Higgins and Hendry to fail against the so-called more 'charismatic' players like Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan. But if O'Sullivan's probable third world title tomorrow is what it takes to make others start to nod in agreement with her more general sentiment, I might just say it's worth it.