Sunday, 28 February 2010
I've been in Snowdonia this past week, and all in all it's not a bad time to visit; yes, it's still fairly cold and many tourist attractions are shut, but the roads are mercifully quiet and it's actually possible to walk in the mountains and not meet another soul. The above picture - taken on Snowdon's Miners' Track - is a good example; in the height of summer the route is swarming with trekkers. It felt like I had the place all to myself.
I also got to meet my new niece for the first time. Cassandra was born on New Year's Day and although I had already seen pictures of her this was the first opportunity I had to meet her in person. A very sweet child she certainly is.
The parliamentary constituency in which Cassie and the rest of this particular branch of my family live is Meirionnydd Nant Conwy; I once had the distinction of being the youngest member of the local Labour party when I was based here for a short stint during the holidays back when I was a university student. And perhaps that shouldn't have been surprising, for this is Plaid Cymru country; at the last election in 2005 Plaid candidate Elfyn Llwyd romped home with 51.3% of the vote. He's also the current party leader in the House of Commons.
Interestingly Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is soon to be abolished, to be replaced by the new Aberconwy and Dwyfor Meirionnydd constituencies. Whether this will make any difference to the nationalist stranglehold on this part of Wales remains to be seen, but one suspects that in this, the birthplace of Plaid Cymru, any tinkering of parliamentary boundaries won't alter the perennial dark green tint on the national map come election day.
Saturday, 27 February 2010
The Conservative conference has kicked off in sunny Brighton with the forthcoming general election firmly in the party's sights; already we have learned that their campaign will concentrate on the national debt, the economy, family, the NHS, schools and changes in Westminster. Perhaps more interestingly they have chosen to fight Labour with the slogan "Vote for Change", without doubt a reference to the ultimately successful campaign of that liberally-minded President across the Pond.
The conference happens to coincide with a similar event Welsh Labour are hosting in Swansea and which has seen them launch a new poster campaign attacking George Osborne. The Tories will be concerned at their recent slip in the polls, and although they continue to remain ahead of Gordon Brown their seeming near-invincibility of no-so-long ago no longer rings true. The Prime Minister himself has been in bullish mood, telling the party faithful in Wales that the only truth in the Conservative claims of being the "party of change" was their propensity to change their mind. Labour's focus will no doubt be the cuts to public services the Conservatives will almost certainly inflict if they come to power.
I suspect ost people won't be aware that the collective party knees-up are taking place; their intention, after all, is not necessarily to win new converts but to focus the attention of those already committed to the cause to prepare for the upcoming fight. But it is in everyone's interest that this year's general election is likely to be the most keenly contested since 1992; that, if anything, is something to get excited about.
Friday, 26 February 2010
The SNP have finally published the details of its referendum on independence in the form of a draft bill, proposing to offer the electorate the option of voting for either new powers for the Scottish Parliament or full independence from the rest of the United Kingdom. Opposition parties have reaffirmed their stance on the whole issue by saying that they will vote it down.
First it would ask whether voters support new powers in the form of either the so-called 'Devolution Max' option - control of everything bar defence, foreign affairs and financial regulation being transferred to Edinburgh - or the more limited recommendations proposed by the Calman Commission.
It would then in a separate question whether "the parliament's powers should also be extended to enable independence to be achieved."
The timing of this bill is fully intentional; consultation is due to end on the 30th April, just before the general election expected to take place the following week. Salmond is clearly hoping that the issue of independence will thereby form a significant part of that election campaign.
But some have even questioned whether - if it actually takes place - such questions constitute a valid assessment of the support for independence and whether a successful 'yes' vote would grant a mandate for a Scottish government to enter negotiations with Westminster. For is voting for an entity to be given the power to enact a specific piece of legislation the same as demanding that that legislation should be enacted outright? It's an interesting point, even if ultimately it's more about semantics then anything else.
I've mentioned my own personal opposition to a referendum before, and still think it at heart an unattractive and undesirable method of deciding Scotland's constitutional future. It'll be interesting to see how much this draft bill plays a part in the build up to the summer general election.
Thursday, 25 February 2010
UKIP leader and MEP Nigel Farage has been summoned by the head of the European parliament for launching a surreal tirade against European Council President Herman van Rompuy. Parliament President Jerzy Buzek is fully expected to reprimand Farage and potentially enforce a suspension over a speech in which he accused Rompuy of having "the charisma of a damp rag" and the appearance of a "low-grade bank clerk". The attack came after the former Belgian Prime Minister made his maiden speech in Brussels.
Buzek is said to consider the Eurosceptic's outburst - Farage prefaced it with "I don't want to be rude" - to have been "completely undignified", believing it "crossed a line" between the right to free speech and being plain insulting. And apparently not content with just drawing jeers from the chamber Farage may have also transformed himself into something of a persona non grata in the land of van Rompuy's birth, declaring to the European Council President that "you seem to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation states. Perhaps that's because you come from Belgium, which is pretty much a non-country." It's not likely to be rated among the most diplomatic of outbursts amongst European circles.
It's perhaps fortunate that in Britain UKIP remains something of a fringe grouping, with a sum total of no MPs and a few MEPs courtesy of the high propensity of the domestic anti-EU bloc to vote in elections - utilising proportional representation - to that institution. One wonders how Farage could have considered his remarks well-considered or productive; whilst supporters will claim that he was well within his rights to bring attention to what they regard as an unelected bureaucrat on a salary greater than Barack Obama's, others - as they did almost unanimously on Question Time in Cardiff earlier this evening - will see it as little more than a unwarranted personal attack that overstepped an invisible but widely acknowledged boundary. Come the national elections in this country later this year it's possible that, for those with longer memories at least, the purple leader may have gone a rant too far.
Farage remains unrepentant after being reprimanded and docked 10 day's allowance - equivalent to around €3,000 - for last week's tirade. The UKIP leader said he did not think he had been insulting or that he used "unparliamentary language" and that his comments had sparked a debate on van Rompuy's role as president of the European Council. European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek disagrees, stating that such language is "not acceptable" and that he defends "Mr Farage's right to disagree about the policy or institutions of the European Union" but also that "his behaviour towards Mr van Rompuy was inappropriate, unparliamentary and insulting to the dignity of the House."
Wednesday, 24 February 2010
The looming World Cup football tournament offers many businesses a golden opportunity to make some quick money, not least those in South Africa's overpriced tourism sector where this year's event is taking place.
Entrepreneurs closer to home have also realised the World Cup's economic potential and have acted accordingly, either by putting up prices for things like airline tickets or by producing souvenirs such as replica shirts for those keen to follow the fortunes of their favourite teams.
A Scottish-based company falling into the latter camp has found itself on the receiving end of a visit from police - purely in an 'advisory' capacity - for selling T-shirts with the slogan "Anyone but England" emblazoned across the front. Grampian police said that the visit to the Slanj store in Aberdeen was not in response to any public complaint but rather out of concern that such a slogan might increase "incidents relating to nationality" and as a result they were duty-bound to investigate. In response a spokesman for Slanj said staff were "flabbergasted" by the warning and that in the three months the offending item of clothing had been on sale they had had "a great response".
A lot of people might well think the police in Aberdeen should be focusing their time and attention on more pressing criminal matters rather than investigate garments that - according to Slanj - are "just a bit of tongue-in-cheek football banter" with no genuinely racist undertones. England, after all, are the UK's sole representatives in this year's World Cup and such teasing is bound to occur in those areas of the country not taking part.
But there does seem to be something uniquely Scottish in the "anyone but England" mentality - so famously articulated by tennis player Andy Murray four years ago - that has loomed in one form or another at virtually every major footballing tournament where there is English participation, a phenomenon I've noted previously. Claims that such statements merely constitute 'banter' is, in my mind, undermined by a dearth of similar slogans - and T-shirts - emanating south of the border during tournaments where nations of the UK other than England qualify. I've long suspected that there is some deeper psychological issue at the heart of the matter that transcends mere sporting rivalry.
Slanj's T-shirts will almost certainly continue to sell like hotcakes, perhaps even more now that Grampian police have afforded the store some inadvertent and welcome publicity. One just wonders exactly why a demand for such a product exists in the first place.
Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Some of Turkey's top military leaders have been arrested for suspected involvement over an alleged plan to topple the government. Around forty suspects - including the former heads of the navy and air force - are being questioned over the so-called "sledgehammer" plot. Now the Turkish army has issued a statement warning that there is now a "serious" situation in the country.
The Turkish military has a history of intervention in the state's affairs; the army has overthrown or forced the resignation a total of four governments since 1960, the last time in 1997. The details of this most recent attempt - contained in documents uncovered by Turkish newspaper Taraf - would have seen the bombing of two Istanbul mosques and the deliberate provocation of old enemy Greece into shooting down a Turkish plane over the Aegean Sea, thereby undermining the Turkish government and justifying a coup. The army has since claimed that the documents were part of a planning exercise at a military seminar, and not a plot.
This isn't the only alleged coup attempt currently being investigated in Turkey, similar as it is to the reported Ergenekon conspiracy in which military figures and other staunch secularists allegedly planned to foment unrest. Dozens of people are already on trial in connection with that case. Many Turks see both as merely the latest stage in an ongoing power struggle between Turkey's secular nationalist establishment and the governing AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam.
It's this aspect which gives these latest shenanigans a particularly Turkish twist. In this nation that straddles Europe and Asia the military see themselves as guardians of the secular and modernist Republic of Turkey as conceived by master statesman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at the tail end of the First World. There aren't many examples elsewhere in the world where a relatively liberal military elite see it as their duty to defend the nation from innately conservative regimes.
This susceptibility to political instability is also another stumbling block in the way of Turkey's protracted membership talks with the European Union, first applied for in 1987 and to date an issue as divisive for current EU states as foreign wars in the Middle East and common agricultural policies. And although the current government claims it is attempting to bring the country closer towards a place in the EU there are real fears that it will turn Turkey into an Islamic state.
Like the current British government I've always been broadly supportive of Turkish membership of the European Union, albeit with the caveat that it achieves targets in the areas of - among other things - good government and human rights abuses that have so far alluded it. The country's inclusion would not only bring geostrategic benefits in the not-entirely stable Eastern Mediterranean but also demonstrate the feasibility of a notionally Islamic secular state with a separation of mosque and government at its very core. If Turkey is a success in Europe it might act as a light for other Muslim majority nations to throw off the shackles of despotic government.
This last point is perhaps the most significant. Turkey currently has - despite denials to the contrary - a conservative and pro-Islamic government at its head. Evidence of the growing influence of Islam on Turkish institutions is well documented. A Turkey brought into the European fold would be far less susceptible to the religious fundamentalism that has already swept so much of the Middle East.
Monday, 22 February 2010
The latest twist in the saga that is the UK political scene in this, a general election year, is that Prime Minister Gordon Brown has apparently bullied staff working for him to the extent that several - amounting to "three or four" calls over several years, in fact - have felt compelled to ring an anti-bullying helpline. The palaver follows claims in yesterday's Observer alleging that the head of the civil service Sir Gus O'Donnell was so concerned at the situation in Downing Street that he had a word with Gordon Brown about his behaviour. Now Conservative leader David Cameron has thrown his two pence into the affair, saying that he expects an inquiry into what will inevitably be dubbed 'Bullygate'.
The story has surfaced as a result of a book by the Observer's chief political commentator Andrew Rawnsley and includes details of incidents where it is alleged Mr Brown grabbed staff by the lapels, shoved them aside and shouted at them. Brown - with the backing of the party faithful - has vehemently defended his position, describing the accusations as "lies".
If the story has any real substance - Peter Mandelson has said it is unfounded and a "political operation" against the Prime Minister - then it is worth investigating. It would deliberately ignorant to suggest that working in the upper echelons of government is not extremely stressful for employees and politicians alike, but if bullying has taken place due process needs to be involved. I'm just not convinced that the acres of airtime and newsprint dedicated to Rawnsley's book - whose publicist, it must be said, has done an outstanding job - are either justified or necessary.
Sunday, 21 February 2010
As the designated 'green champion' at work it's part of my job to encourage the discussion of and engagement with environmental issues in the workplace. This includes the usual culprits, such as reducing waste, encouraging recycling and other suitably 'green' activities.
One of our more ambitious targets is to reduce our carbon footprint by a tenth this year, a vision encouraged by the snazzily-named 10:10 scheme which we are taking part in. A lot of its hints and tips that it suggests are really just common sense; turn lights and computers off when not needed, car share where possible, that sort of thing. We now monitor our electricity use to see how much impact such actions actually make.
Climate change sceptics may shake their heads at such schemes and mutter under their breath, but the reality is such actions stand to benefit all whether one chooses to believe that humans are having an adverse effect on the environment or not. After all, who doesn't want a cheaper electricity bill landing on their doormat?
Saturday, 20 February 2010
On occasion I like to challenge Irish Republicans who argue that Northern Ireland has no right to exist and that a British administration in the 'Six Counties' is a denial of the 'Irish right to self-determination'. I'm currently embroiled in such a dispute over on the blog of Ógra Shinn Féin, Sinn Féin's youth wing.
West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty has made this same argument at a Sinn Féin conference in London with the question of Irish unification at its heart. He has claimed that the "denial of the Irish people's right to self determination" remains a core outstanding issue of the peace process and that "for Irish republicans, the cause still persists - the British government's claim of jurisdiction over part of our country".
Whilst this sort of language is clearly meant to appeal to old guard Irish Republicans disillusioned with the Shinners' involvement in the Peace Process and participation in UK government institutions, it also reveals that any acceptance of the people of Northern Ireland's right to decide their own constitutional status without interference - article 3.1 of the Good Friday Agreement declares that "a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island" - is regarded by Sinn Féin as mere political expediency than as any real commitment to democratic ideals. For even if the prospect of Northern Ireland's political allegiance being dictated by the political wishes of another nation state was somehow made palatable - and behind the rhetoric and the slogans Irish Republicans have not made a convincing argument that it should - such a move has been rendered impossible by the democratic approval given to the GFA via referendums carried out and passed in both Irish states.
This is my main gripe with the radical Irish Republican movement and in particular Sinn Féin's interpretation of it. There is nothing wrong with seeking to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic via conventional democratic means, even as someone opposed to nationalism as a political concept I find the ambition distinctly unsavoury. But by arguing that Northern Ireland has no right of self-determination and that the will of a majority in what is effectively an arbitrary geographic area should ride roughshod over a minority who have declared via the democratic process for the continued union of Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom - and have done so for the entirety of their almost 90-year existence as a distinct political unit - betrays their very real contempt for democracy. It's time the movement demonstrated that its supposed support of democracy adequately translates into the rousing rhetoric which it is so adept at creating.
A large car bomb exploded outside Newry courthouse in County Down last night. There were no deaths or injuries; prime suspects are dissident Republicans.
Friday, 19 February 2010
I remember a few years ago poking fun at a colleague who without fail had a copy of The Daily Mail tucked under his arm as he came into work every day. With my interest in journalism and a left-wing background it was probably to be expected.
Luckily he didn't seem to mind, his devotion to the Mail based not so much on related points of view as habit and ease of reading which the tabloid format afforded, vital for those lunch breaks eaten al desko. He expressed surprise at my suggestion, however, that the paper could contain any sort of political bias because as a paper it was "surely restricted to carrying the facts".
I thought it a slightly naive - if well-meaning - notion; any prolific reader of British newspapers will quickly tell you that each and every one will present different stories in different ways, and be selective about what is included. Unlike broadcast there is no onus on individual papers to be impartial, as long as rules of libel and journalistic accuracy and integrity are followed. This is most evident in the opinion pieces that every newspaper of every political persuasion carries.
Recently the Mail published a set of pictures depicting cheetahs in Kenya apparently playing with an impala, its natural prey. The report - and its online equivalent - claimed that the young antelope managed to make a swift exit after the spotted felines apparently lost interest. Heart warming stuff, you might think.
Except that the rest of the pictures the paper decided not to include appear to show the same impala being eaten by its former playmates. The full set of photographs can be seen here; the gory final scenes photographer Michel Denis-Huot has captioned "after playing with the young Impala, Cheetah brothers have killed it and eaten". Satirical magazine Private Eye is particularly scathing, alleging that the paper had all of Denis-Huot's cheetah-impala portfolio but that the photo desk was told that they "couldn't let the truth get in the way of cute pictures".
The Daily Mail was particularly vocal in its criticism of television fakery; that it has itself indulged in a spot of truth manipulation readily demonstrates that you can't always believe what you read in the press...
Thursday, 18 February 2010
A few years ago I watched Steven Spielberg's Munich, a film loosely based on Israel's response to the killing of 11 members of their Olympic team during the Summer Games held in the Bavarian capital in 1972. Although largely fictitious the film is closely based on Operation Wrath of God, a covert operation led by Mossad which aimed to kill individuals thought to be closely associated with the planning and execution of the Munich Massacre. Since then the use of assassination as a political tool is considered by many as a defining characteristic of the Israeli intelligence services.
The spectre of a new Israeli-orchestrated hit has now reared its ugly head. Senior Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was murdered last month in a luxury Dubai hotel; the local police chief has said that he is 99% certain of the involvement of Israeli agents in the killing, but Tel Aviv says there is no proof.
What has made the conspiracy even murkier is that the alleged perpetrators - authorities in the UAE have released pictures of the suspects - travelled to the Emirates using European passports including six British and three Irish, with two more with French and German papers. The names of innocent citizens were inscribed in the passports, puzzled as to how their identities were stolen; the actual suspects are still at large.
The prospect of a full-blown diplomatic row between the UK and Israel appears to be gaining ground; foreign secretary David Miliband has said that the use of fake British passports in the murder is an "outrage" and he has vowed to "get to the bottom" of the mystery. Government fingers are firmly pointing at Israel in spite of the denials.
Ultimately the inquiry currently underway in Dubai needs to reach a more solid conclusion before a safe and informed accusation can be made. But if it is found that al-Mabhouh's killers were in fact sponsored by the Israeli government then Netanyahu's cabinet has much to answer for employing a thoroughly despicable and repugnant form of state terror.
Wednesday, 17 February 2010
Argentina has announced new controls on shipping passing through its waters en route to the Falkland Islands in a growing dispute over British oil drilling plans, with ships now requiring a permit if they plan to dock in the disputed archipelago. Argentina continues to claim what it still refers to as the Islas Malvinas - currently a self-governing Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom - despite a failed invasion attempt and subsequent surrender in 1982.
At the centre of the spat is the growing possibility that potential oil reserves around the islands may soon be exploited; Argentina has already formally protested to the UK about oil exploration earlier this year and has previously threatened that any company searching for fossil fuels in the waters around the territory will not be allowed to operate in the South American nation. Only last week a ship carrying drilling equipment was detained by Argentine officials; in the meantime a drilling rig from the Scottish Highlands is nearing the islands and is due to start operations in the next fortnight. In response the Foreign Office has stated that the Falkland Islands' waters were controlled by its authorities alone and would not be affected.
Justifying the move Argentinean Cabinet Chief Anibal Fernandez said the decree sought to achieve "not only a defence of Argentine sovereignty but also of all the resources" in the area.; in response the Chairman of the Parliamentary all-party Falklands group Sir Nicholas Winterton claimed the action was "pathetic and useless" and designed simply to try to impede the economic progress of the islands.
This isn't the first time in the years since 1982 that the Argentinean authorities have indulged in a spot of sabre-rattling; islanders have previously complained of the blocking of charter flights heading to the Falklands through Argentine air space, and the stopping of fishing and cargo vessels.
It's hard to feel sympathy for the Argentine position towards the Falkands, its claims of sovereignty appearing to rest on little more than geographical proximity and a brief period of control in the early 19th century. That it has attempted to take the islands by force - islanders have consistently expressed their ongoing desire for the maintenance of political links with the United Kingdom and have rejected any such overtures from their South American neighbours - is a damning indictment of the moral unsustainability of their current stance. And as one islander succinctly put it; "we come to expect it when Argentina's government are experiencing difficulties at home. We're a very convenient distraction."
Back in 1982 the failure of the attempted invasion of the Falklands led to the downfall of the military junta which then ruled Argentina, a regime which had attempted to hide very real domestic problems behind a veil of rampant nationalism. It's imperative for the peace and prosperity of the region that the people of Argentina are not fooled by their government's latest piece of economic chicanery.
Tuesday, 16 February 2010
The online networking phenomenon that is Twitter has reared its head once again in the national press. This time Labour whip David Wright has been accused of calling the Conservatives "scum-sucking pigs" in an online message, or 'Tweet'; Wright has admitted writing part of it but claims that the offending "scum" line was written by an as-yet unknown third party 'tinkering' with his account.
Tory chairman Eric Pickles has been particularly offended; he has rejected Wright's explanation, insisting that it was "not credible" and that he had repeatedly called Conservatives "scum" in the past. He called on the Labour whip to "stop treating people like fools". Pickles has demanded an apology for what he regards as behaviour unbecoming of "a minister of the Crown".
I suspect that a lot of people - myself included - will find this story akin to the proverbial 'storm in a teacup' or a playground spat. Politicians and ministers alike know that the key benefit of online social media is the ability to relay messages and to reach out to a wide audience, and one not always receptive to more traditional forms of electioneering to boot. Needless to say it is this very strength which necessitates a vital caveat; that anything that might provide ammunition for political opponents will almost certainly be seized upon with relish. Every Tweet, every blog post and every Facebook status update will be closely scrutinised by those just waiting for the unwary to trip up.
It's also no great revelation that members of different parties may well have a strong disdain for their opposite numbers, but what seems to matter here is how this particular individual has articulated these not-so-secret feelings. Perhaps Wright should in future be much more careful how and where he lets his opinions be known.
Monday, 15 February 2010
The Conservatives have wrongly claimed that more than half of girls in the most deprived areas of England get pregnant before they turn 18. The party had said the conception rate for this age group in the 10 most disadvantaged areas of the country was 54% when the real figure was actally only 5.4%.
The Tories had cited the erroneous figure in a 20-page dossier which argues that the current Labour administration has allowed the creation of "two nations" - the wealthy and the impoverished - to come into being. And despite the unmasking of the error Tory HQ have rejected Labour's claims of opposition "smears and distortions" by arguing that the misplacing of a decimal point made "no difference" to its assertions that the current government has let down the poor. In response Labour said the correct figure represented a fall from 6% back in 1998.
There is no doubt that this spat is highly embaressing for the Conservatives; a reliance on statistics in the formulation of an argument can be fatally undermined if those statistics are found wanting or - as in this case - completely inaccurate. But what is perhaps of more concern is that the error - apparently made by a junior within the party - was not spotted by any of the Tory heirarchy before publication. One can only assume that the booklet was either not adequately proof-read before publication or that the Conservative elite are so out of touch with modern society that they readily accepted this figure as plausible. I'm not sure which is worse.
Perhaps the quote of the day, however, belongs to Lib Dem chief of staff Danny Alexander: "The Tories seem to think that half our teenagers are pregnant, our cities are like The Wire and that people will get married for a few extra quid. If they really believe Britain is like this, it's remarkable that Conservative MPs can pluck up the courage to leave their houses. They should lower their drawbridges, spend less time tending their moats and duck houses, and join the rest of us in the real world."
Sunday, 14 February 2010
Later today there is to be a protest march, beginning at Westminster Cathedral in Central London and finishing up outside the Italian Embassy. Taking part will be secularists, gay rights groups, feminists, and humanists. The target of the protesters' collective ire? None other than the spiritual head of the Catholic church, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
The Pontiff, with his innately conservative interpretation of papal doctrine, has managed to successfully alienate such a disparate swathe of society in a number of ways; chief among them are his controversial comments regarding homosexuality, his stance on assisted suicide, the systematic cover up of child abuse most notably in Ireland, and speaking out against the use of condoms in halting the spread of HIV infection in Africa. There is also the small matter of a publicly-funded papal visit to the UK later this year; some have even expressed concerns at the Vatican's influence in European politics.
I've never been a huge fan of Catholic traditions or the institution itself, the reactionary opinions of the current Bishop of Rome crystallising all that I find objectionable with this particular branch of Christianity. I just hope others will sit up and take notice.
To his credit the Pope has condemned Irish Catholic bishops over their handling of the sex abuse scandal which has rocked the Emerald Isle. Cynics may well fear a damage limitation exercise but I suspect that, in all honesty, he is sincere.
Saturday, 13 February 2010
The Daily Rant is a year old today. It's been a funny old twelve months but it's also been a lot of fun, what with political scandals, recessions and all the rest ensuring that a blogger's work is truly never done. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it, and that you'll join me in wishing for another interesting year ahead to keep those of us who blog in business.
Friday, 12 February 2010
Today I received my first piece of party campaign literature of the year; a newsletter from the local Labour party detailing recent activities in the locality, and introducing the party's Parliamentary Candidate for the upcoming elections, Rachel Reeves. Our current Labour MP John Battle is due to stand down - a decision made, it should be noted, before the recent expenses scandals which has been responsible for so many of our MPs deciding not to contest their seats this summer.
Labour have historically been very strong in this part of Yorkshire, and today all bar one of the city's seats is in red hands. The party also form the largest group on the city council despite the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that runs local affairs so ineptly and which tarnished its reputation so spectacularly during the recent refuse collection strikes.
I've met Rachel several times and there is no question of both her dedication to the people of West Leeds and her eminent suitability as a parliamentarian. Her level and depth of involvement in local affairs is astonishing and despite the narrow gap between Labour and the Conservatives in nationwide polls I suspect she will be an extremely tough candidate to beat. I look forward to voting for her in the general election and wish her campaign team every success.
Thursday, 11 February 2010
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's Deputy First Minister, is facing calls to resign after writing a letter in support of a man who is facing jail for benefit fraud. Sturgeon said she was "duty-bound" as a constituency MSP to make "reasonable representations" on behalf of 60-year-old Abdul Rauf, who has defrauded more than £80,000 from the Department for Work and Pensions.
Whilst Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said Ms Sturgeon had shown an "appalling lack of judgement" and should quit First Minister Alex Salmond has defended the Govan and fellow SNP MSP's decision to ask a court to consider alternatives to custody in the case. Earlier Glasgow Sheriff Court had heard how Rauf admitted failing to declare a £200,000 property in Edinburgh on his application for income support and received £650 a month in rent whilst claiming benefits, all at the same time living in a £400,000 house in Glasgow.
Nationalist bloggers have been quick to come to Sturgeon's defence, arguing that as a publicly-elected representative she is obliged to help her constituents - criminal or otherwise - and accuse Gray of trying to score political points. Others, however, may question the Deputy First Minister's decision to write to the courts and use her position of high office to influence the punishment meted out to a repeat offender - Rauf was previously convicted of fraud in 1996 - who has already pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have condemned the move, although both have stopped short of joining Labour in demanding she resign.
It's a difficult conundrum, and one cannot help but feel that Sturgeon's defence that she was merely doing her duty is at best starkly naïve. No-one can begrudge a political representative helping a constituent, even if that constituent has committed an act all find disagreeable. But by appearing - however inadvertently - to be interfering with the judicial process Sturgeon has opened herself up to attack from across the political spectrum. It'll be interesting to see how she and her party weathers the storm.
The Deputy First Minister has aplogised for her actions. She told MSPs that she had acted in good faith but accepted that the wording of the letter was "wrong".
Wednesday, 10 February 2010
The foreign secretary has lost an Appeal Court bid to stop the disclosure of secret information surrounding the alleged torture of Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born UK resident detained by the United States during the early stages of the "War on Terror". Mohamed was originally detained in Pakistan in 2002 before transfer to Morocco and eventually to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre until his release without charge las year; he has alleged that the British authorities knew he was being tortured by the US in the years he was kept prisoner.
Efforts to keep the documents secret had hinged on the argument that the UK does not have permission to reveal any intelligence that the US passes on in confidence. But in reaching their decision the courts had decided that the secret seven paragraphs related to potentially criminal ill-treatment rather than matters of national security. That the Obama administration has also been keeping itself busy declassifying material relating to their Republican predecessor's post-9/11 activities has almost certainly played a part as well.
Many considered the detention without trial - and eventual release without charge - of so many people as an affront to the very democratic ideals that such actions were meant to protect. Accusations of British collusion into torture - particularly of its own residents - merit a complete and thorough investigation. The release of these papers will help accomplish that.
Tuesday, 9 February 2010
Look North, the BBC's regional news programme for this part of the world, featured a report earlier this evening on the growing concern over the Clarence Dock riverside development, just outside the city centre. It caught my attention because for six months last year it was home.
Clarence Dock's story is depressingly familiar; a once-vibrant part of the city that had long since fallen into decline, huge sums of money were pumped into developing the site during more financially optimistic times in the hope of creating an exclusive, fashionable and upmarket shopping and living destination.
The reality has turned out to be different. The development itself is isolated from the city centre by, among other things, a brewery and numerous blocks of trendy apartments, and the expensive local shops and restaurants have failed to attract the high footfall rate required to keep the district economically viable. Several have already closed down, including a Starbucks that - as part of a global chain - many would have thought would have staved off recession better than some of the more specialised stores. It joins the growing number of empty commercial premises that line both sides of the otherwise attractive docks.
During my brief stint as a local of Clarence Dock I often had cause to wonder at an area so quiet that some are describing it as a ghost town. The sight of so many yuppie-style apartments are, it has to be said, not for everyone's taste, but the sight of so many longboats bobbing gently in the water and families flocking to the popular Royal Armouries Museum in what used to be a neglected part of the city certainly makes up for it.
There can be no faulting the optimistic intentions of the Dock's developers but their short-sightedness in failing to take into account the possibility of a contracting economy is depressing in the extreme. It would be awfully sad if it heralded the end of an attractive part of Leeds so soon after being brought back to life.
Monday, 8 February 2010
Sir Mota Singh QC, Britain's first Asian judge, has said that Sikhs should be allowed to wear their ceremonial daggers - known as Kirpans - to school and other public places. Referring to cases of Sikhs being refused entry to venues for wearing the Kirpan or other religious ornaments, Sir Mota said that "not allowing someone who is baptised to wear a Kirpan is not right."
In Sikhism the Kirpan is one of the five "articles of faith" that must be carried at all times by baptised Sikhs. The knife is carried in a sheath attached to a cloth belt, and is normally worn under clothes so discreetly that most people would be unaware that a person was carrying one.
Only last year a schoolboy was banned from wearing his Kirpan at the Compton School in Barnet in north London. The school offered the boy the option of wearing a smaller knife, welded into a metal sheath, but his parents refused and withdrew him - an action by the family that Sir Mota said he supported. "I see no objection to a young Sikh girl or boy, who's been baptised, being allowed to wear their Kirpan if that's what they want to do," he said.
Others may well disagree. Although Sikhs carrying the Kirpan are exempt from prosecution under the offensive weapons act many will express fears at the knowledge that a readily identifiable member of a particular religious group may be carrying a concealed weapon in public. Some might even suggest that religious dogma should not be allowed to put others at risk, even if - as Sir Mota has pointed out - instances of Sikhs using their ceremonial knives in anger are virtually non-existent.
I've always been uncomfortable at the notion of a code of law dictated by religious demands. Whilst mutual understanding and respect for different religious practices is essential in a multicultural society there must be a mutual recognition by those same religions of the need for an overarching civil code that can guarantee the safety of society's citizens. If Sikhs must wear the Kirpan then there is no reason to argue otherwise - as long as their inability to be utilised as a weapon can be guaranteed. Compromise is needed on both sides; let the dagger be fused to its scabbard and all must be happy.
Sunday, 7 February 2010
I love this time of year, for it means one thing and one thing only; the 6 Nations is up and running. Any thoughts of philandering footballers are soon banished as groups of improbably large men run into each other with the force of an articulated lorry in the age-old tradition of Rugby Union.
And what a weekend so far. A good win for England over old enemies Wales at Fortress Twickenham, a perennially strong but underperforming French team making hard work of a plucky Scots side in Edinburgh, and defending Grand Slam champions Ireland strolling to a routine victory over tournament underdogs Italy at Croke Park. Pick of next week's fixtures must be the mouthwatering France versus Ireland in Paris, a match which could easily decide where this year's trophy will be heading come the end of the tournament in March.
As a proud southerner currently exiled in the bleak frozen north of Yorkshire the rest of the year can be a dark time, with Union's evil twin Rugby League holding sway over the land; the aimlessness of running at the opposition five consecutive times before kicking the ball away over and over somehow providing an unfathomable entertainment to the local populace. Those few precious weeks when the Six Nations dominates domestic weekend screens are a blessed reprieve from the predictable tedium of League and provide an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the Union code.
Personal prediction for Six Nations champions 2010? Why, England of course...!
Saturday, 6 February 2010
The shadow home secretary Chris Grayling has been heavily criticised for his use of crime statistics, with UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir Michael Scholar claiming that his statements are misleading and "likely to damage public trust in official statistics".
Grayling and his Conservative colleagues had sent figures to activists in constituencies throughout England and Wales in an effort to demonstrate the government's failure on law and order despite the fact - fully known to a party aspiring to government - that the way the figures were compiled changed back in 2002, rendering direct comparisons impossible.
In the letter sent to Grayling the Authority declared that "a comparison, without qualification, of police-recorded statistics between the late 1990s and 2008/09 (is) likely to mislead the public" and that the British Crime Survey - an annual questionnaire of some 46,000 people - indicated there had been a big fall in violent crime since 1995. The aspiring home secretary has responded bullishly, stating that "however you caveat these figures, whatever qualifications you make about changes to the recording methods, they show a big increase in violent crime over the past decade and we are going to carry on saying that."
Crime is naturally of great concern to the electorate, and those who class themselves as among the more cynical members of the public are as unlikely to believe Tory claims of a crime-ridden Britain as they are to put faith in the Statistics Authority's - and the government's - riposte to them and instead see all parties as self-serving. But the Authority is a neutral body - Labour were admonished in 2008 for releasing what it said was "premature and selective" data about hospital admissions for knife wounds in certain parts of the country - and its concerns about the political use of the data it produces merit close consideration. If the Conservatives have been found to be scaremongering with the use of spurious and unfounded claims regarding the amount of violent crime throughout the UK then they and Grayling both deserve to be taken to task for it.
Friday, 5 February 2010
In the latest episode of the ongoing expenses saga three Labour MPs and a Conservative peer have been charged with false accounting under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968. If found guilty they face a maximum sentence of seven years' imprisonment. Making the announcement Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said prosecutors had decided there was sufficient evidence and it was "in the public interest to charge the individuals concerned". All four have strenuously denied the allegations.
Many people will be pleased that the nine-month investigation into MPs' expenses have finally resulted in criminal charges, even if the gang of four in question only constitute some 1.07% of the 372 MPs who were ordered to repay money claimed in second homes expenses. It will be interesting to see if the MPs' threatened use of Parliamentary privilege - usually reserved for libel actions - will create as much outrage as their expense claims did in the first place.
Thursday, 4 February 2010
The time has come at last; MPs past and present have been asked to repay over £1 million back to the taxpayer for claiming inappropriate expenses. Sir Thomas Legg, who headed the audit, said that the expenses system was "deeply flawed", the rules "vague" and that it had been up to MPs to "self certify" the propriety of their claims. Some 372 MPs have been asked to repay money.
The actual MP-by-MP breakdown makes for interesting reading, with no political party seemingly immune from the taint of corruption. Having a look at the situation of each party also reveals that any claims of a moral high ground are almost certainly baseless:
- Conservatives: 59% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £550,774.23 which equals £4831.35 each.
- DUP: 75% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £14,622.87 which equals £2437.15 each.
- Labour: 54% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £511,422.20 which equals £2734.88 each.
- Liberal Democrat: 40% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £63590.07 which equals £2543.60 each.
- Plaid Cymru: 33% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £1194.60 which equals £1194.60 each.
- Respect: 100% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £3187.28 which equals £3187.28 each.
- SDLP: 33% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £3854.00 which equals £3854.00 each.
- Sinn Féin: 20% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £3,000 which equals £3,000 each.
- SNP: 57% of MPs ordered to repay money. Total owed £3361.95 which equals £840.49 each.
It's interesting to note that of all the UK-wide parties it is the Tories who have made proportionally the highest number of rejected claims and the highest average amount to boot, and although the greatest amount recommended for repayment is £42,458 from Labour junior minister Barbara Follett the Conservative husband and wife MPs Andrew MacKay and Julie Kirkbride have been asked to repay around £60,000. It's also ironic that there have been several MPs who do not wish for the continued existence of the United Kingdom and yet have still been more than happy to take advantage of the generous expenses system that Westminster has to offer, including the SNP - contributing proportionally more MPs than Labour of those asked to make repayments, no less - and Sinn Féin, who are famous for not attending the UK parliament at all. Perhaps it is the allure of power, and not solely British political institutions, which is really to blame...
Wednesday, 3 February 2010
This year I'll be attending - purely as an observor - the 12th of July parades in Belfast, the second time I've done so. I previously went along to the annual Orange Order march through Northern Ireland's capital city back in 2006, and given that there has supposedly been an accelerated pace of change in the Province in the last decade it'll be interesting to see if anything is markedly different from four years ago.
What has visibly changed on Belfast's streets - at least in some areas - are some of the eye-catching murals that delineate local political affiliation. Some of this is due to natural degredation over time, or the ever-changing political scene, but a few are the results of conscious efforts to move away from some of the more overtly paramilitary paintings of men in balaclavas brandishing weapons to the celebration of local personalities or historical events. Google Street View has provided an excellent snapshot of the pace of change in the intervening period between my last visit and now; the above Short Strand mural, for example, has been replaced with something much less overtly political but still identifiably Nationalist all the same. It should make for an interesting and enjoyable trip.
Tuesday, 2 February 2010
It might sound obvious, but it really does seem that a dodgy photo on Facebook or an ill-advised Tweet can seriously effect your chances of getting a job. A survey of around 1,000 companies commissioned by Microsoft has revealed that some 43% of European recruitment professionals routinely analyse prospective candidates’ online reputations before deciding whether to select them for interview. And it gets even worse; here in the UK some 41% of recruiters have gone as far as rejecting candidates based solely on their internet shenanigans.
Some would argue that this is grossly unfair, and that potential employers should be basing their selection criteria purely on what is contained within an application and not by looking at other sources of information. But one can understand the other side of the argument as well; why would an employer not want to find out as much as possible about a potential employee, particularly if information on social networking sites has been released into the public domain by a candidate's own free will?
In the information free-for-all that is it the internet it might be best to play it safe, especially if you're job hunting. Now how do I delete these embarrassing pictures again...?
Monday, 1 February 2010
The results of the latest poll are in: when asked "Will Scotland become an independent nation within the next 20 years?" 6 visitors - or 40% - voted 'yes' and 9 said 'no'. It would have been interesting to know if all those who think Scotland will secede from the rest of the UK in the near future consider themselves nationalist and those who believe the status quo will prevail are of a Unionist persuasion or whether there is some overlap between the two.
The latest poll turns its attention to Northern Ireland, and asks a very similar question. Do you think that in 20 years time Northern Ireland will continue to be an integral part of the United Kingdom or will it have combined with the Irish Republic? All will be revealed at the end of the month...