Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Walking the walk

One of my favourite quotes from Michael Meadowcroft, the former Liberal MP who is one of the best liberal thinkers around, is that "Liberals are anarchists by inclination, but constitutionalists by necessity."

Jo Anglezarke clearly doesn't agree. She doesn't approve of yesterday's walk-out from the House of Commons by Lib Dem MPs, in protest against the Speaker ruling that an amendment to the Lisbon Treaty calling for a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU was out of order. She questions whether she is a member of the British Anarchist Party and tells the MPs to grow up.

Now, on the substantive issue, I'm not convinced that a referendum needs to be held, but I think that Nick Clegg and Ed Davey are right to say that if there is to be a referendum, it should be on the whole question of Britain's future relationship with the EU, not just the rather technical points contained in the Lisbon Treaty such as the number of European Commissioners or the existence of an EU foreign minister.

But it is absurd that the Lib Dems should be denied the opportunity to put forward their views for debate on the treaty because of arcane parliamentary procedures, especially after taking extensive advice from the parliamentary authorities about an acceptable form of wording for the referendum amendment.

But having had their amendment turned down, the Lib Dem MPs had the choice of either sitting there and meekly accepting the situation or kicking up a fuss. Contrary to what the Sermon on the Mount claims, the meek do not inherit the earth, certainly not in a political context. I therefore think it was entirely right for the MPs to take the action they did yesterday.

Indeed, I think the parliamentary party should take action like this far more often. Our political system is far too centralised, undemocratic, inefficient and rooted in the past. And no matter how good the speeches we might make in the House of Commons against it, let's face it, nobody pays attention to those. But a carefully targeted political stunt, such as the one the Lib Dems did yesterday, can make the point very well.

I'm not saying we should do something like that all the time: it would lose its effect if we did. But if this, combined with his pledge to break the law on ID cards, is what Nick Clegg had in mind by ensuring the Lib Dems had an edgy feel about them under his leadership, then I'm all for it.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Monday, 25 February 2008

A sober debate on booze culture

Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill wants to push up taxes on booze to stop the problems caused by binge drinking. He claims that a 10% rise in the price of booze would lead to a 10% reduction in alcohol consumption.

But there is room for doubt as to whether such a crude relationship exists between price and consumption, and whether that would make much of a dent in the problems caused by binge drinking. There would also be effects on other parts of the economy, in particular some smaller retailers who might well be hit by such a move.

MacAskill ought to know from his own experience that problems associated with boozing too much are not just a matter of the cheapness of drink. After all, he was famously arrested for drunkenness before the England v Scotland Euro 2000 play-off game at Wembley. Did he get drunk that day because the booze was too cheap? I doubt it. It was probably more to do with the occasion and wanting to feel good, but taking things just a little too far.

But, leaving this aside, is there a straightforward relationship between the price of booze, consumption and the problems caused by excessive drinking? Not really. Although it is widely believed that alcohol has rarely been as cheap in real terms or as available as it is today (possibly a dubious assumption if you look at things in a historical context), yet overall alcohol consumption has actually fallen.

Despite this fall, it would be exceptionally difficult to argue that problems associated with boozing have dropped. You only need to go out into UK cities any night of the week to see the anti-social behaviour caused by drunken louts, while health problems associated with boozing are increasing. The problem is not so much the overall level of alcohol consumption as the pattern in which some people drink. And that is a cultural issue, as despite higher overall levels of alcohol consumption in countries such as France, they have fewer problems with drink-related anti-social behaviour.

But let us assume for a moment that MacAskill is right and a rise in taxation is the way to sort out problems associated with booze. What other effects might that have? Well, for a start I'd expect an increase in thefts of booze and also an impact on retailers, especially smaller ones who might not be as able as supermarkets to absorb the drop in revenue created by the fall in consumption. Smaller brewers might also be hit. Another possibility is more serious, that of people distilling all sorts of spirits themselves, as happened in Russia in the early 1990s when the economic problems there made vodka far less affordable for most people. The result was a rise in home distilling, often with lethal consequences.

Now, I enjoy having a drink, particularly real ale and decent wine, but I rarely drink to excess. Most people in Scotland, and indeed the UK, are the same and generally have a responsible attitude to booze most of the time. But it is the irresponsible drinkers who cause most problems. I doubt very much whether increasing taxation for everyone who drinks is going to make much difference to the problems associated with excessive drinking. I don't think my consumption would alter that much, and I doubt whether that many binge drinkers are influenced mainly by price. Most drink because they want to get drunk and to hell with the cost.

Rather than just slapping on additional taxes (which MacAskill can't do anyway, as it is a power reserved to Westminster) and thinking that will solve the problem, the Scottish Government should be thinking seriously about why so many people in Scotland feel the need to get out their heads so often. It is a cultural issue, not an economic one. At best, taxation can make only a marginal difference to the problem. At worst, it is irrelevant.

The punishment must fit the crime

It was entirely understandable for Arsene Wenger to say that Birmingham City defender Martin Taylor should never play football again following his shocking foul on Eduardo on Saturday.

It was also right that Wenger should later withdraw his comments as ones which were made in the heat of the moment and didn't reflect his considered view. However bad Taylor's foul was (and it was truly appalling), he doesn't deserve to have his career ended by it.

But it would be equally unjust for him just to be banned for three matches and then start playing again. If Paolo di Canio can be banned for 11 games simply for pushing over a referee, then I think it is entirely right that a similar sort of punishment be handed out to Taylor.

If a player is sent off for a dangerous or reckless tackle which causes injury to another player, I think footballing authorities should take the severity of the injury into account when deciding the punishment. For a truly shocking foul, like Taylor's, I do not think that a three-month or even a six-month ban would be inappropriate. After all, Eduardo is likely to be out for at least six months as a result of his broken leg and he may never be the same player again.

Monday, 18 February 2008

You don't get something for nothing

The SNP budget which passed through the Scottish Parliament the other week (thanks to support from the Scottish Tories) is already having a significant effect on Scotland - but not for the better.

Their most eye-catching and populist measure was an agreement with local authorities in Scotland to freeze levels of council tax this year. But there is a price to be paid, as shown by some of the measures which have had to be taken on the ground to achieve it.

Partly this is a matter of local authorities increasing some other charges to make up the shortfall. On Highland Council, for instance, the ruling SNP/Independent administration has increased burial charges by a whopping 50%. Taxing the dead to bribe the living is a new one.

But more common is the fact that councils have had to reduce some services, and Highland Council is no exception. The council has increased spending on elderly care, but at the cost of cuts to groups such as Age Concern Scotland, which has lost all its funding from the council. There are also cuts to the education budget in the Highlands. About 40 teaching posts are being lost, which is likely to hit rural schools the hardest. That, incidentally, is likely to make it more difficult for the SNP to achieve its goal of cutting class sizes.

Highland Council is also committed to a further £12.1 million of so-called 'efficiency savings', although these are not specified. I suspect that the detail will prove to be further cuts in services. In all, about 130 jobs are to go from the council.

And in case you think that Highland Council is an exceptional case, this report in The Herald makes clear that it isn't. The picture is the same across much of Scotland.

People know that you can't get something for nothing, so the SNP's gimmick of freezing the council tax may backfire when it sinks in just how badly public services in Scotland are affected. The story is cuts, cuts and more cuts.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

What took them so long?

The news today that Northern Rock is to be nationalised comes as no surprise. The only surprise was that it took the government so long to accept that nationalisation was the least worst option available in terms of protecting the exposure which taxpayers had towards the troubled bank.

It should be pointed out that Vince Cable and the Lib Dems have been calling for Northern Rock to be nationalised since before Christmas. I don't think that anything has changed in the bank's situation since then, so why have Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown sat on their hands and done nothing for the past couple of months?

What is also not a surprise is the reaction of the Tories towards today's announcement. George Osborne slammed the decision as a return to the 1970s, but yet again failed to come up with any idea of what the Tories would have done instead. As they are against nationalisation and also (rightly) criticised the government's proposed private sector rescue plan, the only other option that leaves would have been for the bank to go into administration. If that is what they think, they should be honest enough to say so. They should also spell out what that would mean for the Northern Rock's customers and mortgage holders.

But simply criticising the government for nationalising the bank when they haven't come up with an alternative of their own is the sort of shallow opportunistic politics that typify today's Conservative.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Another perjury charge in the Tommy Sheridan case

The BBC reports that former MSP Rosemary Byrne has been charged with perjury for evidence she gave in the Tommy Sheridan libel case.

This follows the charging of Tommy himself in December for his own evidence during the trial. Tommy's wife Gail has also been interviewed by police over the evidence she gave, although no charges have yet been forthcoming for her.

Although both Byrne and Sheridan are innocent until proven guilty, I wonder, if they are convicted, whether Rosie Kane, Colin Fox and the rest of their former Scottish Socialist Party colleagues might have a case for suing them for loss of earnings? After all, they lost their seats at Holyrood largely as a result of the splits which followed Sheridan's victory over the News of the World. I'm sure a good lawyer could make out a decent case.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

What are the odds?

I was amused by the news today that a gambling addict who lost £2.1 million is now suing bookmaker William Hill to get his money back. Graham Calvert claims he was able to open a new account with the bookies despite having agreed a process called self exclusion under which he shouldn't have been able to open that account.

However, I suspect he wouldn't have been complaining too much if his bets had been successful. I doubt very much he'd now be arguing that William Hill failed in its duty of care towards him.

Although I don't think he has a leg to stand on, if Mr Calvert has a spare £50,000 available, I'll gladly offer him odds of 25-1 against him winning his case.

Skye's the limit!

Maybe there is a case after all for Berwick-upon-Tweed to rejoin Scotland, as it might have to replace the Isle of Skye, which seems to have declared UDI.

The Boundary Commission for Scotland has published its draft proposals for new boundaries for Scottish Parliamentary constituencies. But if you look at the maps provided, the Isle of Skye doesn't seem to feature in any of the three Highland seats. Whoops!

Monday, 11 February 2008

Time to give Shetland back!

I see that our beloved Nats are supporting a bid to make Berwick upon Tweed part of Scotland once again.

I take it that if this bid succeeds, they would have absolutely no objection to returning Orkney and Shetland to Norway, together with all appropriate oil revenues?

Friday, 8 February 2008

The wisest fool in Christendom?

Dr Rowan Williams comes across as an intelligent and thoughtful man. He rarely jumps in with both feet on an issue and clearly weighs up his words before delivering them.

So it's quite surprising that he managed to come out with something so foolish as his comments on sharia law. It is a coherent opinion to say that sharia law should be introduced into the UK - coherent, but in my view wrong. What is not coherent is to say that only bits of sharia law should be introduced (who decides which bits?), and that they should run alongside separate civil laws.

Even worse is to say that should be done in the name of social cohesion. I can think of few things less likely to promote social cohesion than having separate laws for different groups of people.

Where the critics of Dr Williams are on less sound ground is in the assertion that we must have just one set of laws which people must obey. I agree with the first part of this - on having just one set of laws which apply equally to everyone - but I don't necessarily agree with the latter part. There are unjust laws and I believe that when confronted with an unjust law, there can be grounds for breaking it.

For instance, I think the introduction of ID cards and the national identity database which lies behind them has the potential to alter significantly the relationship between the citizen and the state, giving the state a dangerous extra level of control over its people. I intend not to carry an ID card if they are introduced, even though that will mean breaking the law. I recognise that that law does apply to me just as it applies to everyone in this country, that it has been passed by an appropriate authority and that there will be consequences for breaking it, but it is not a law I will be obeying.

Dr Williams is right to think that the legal system must try and promote social cohesion, but he is wrong to think that can be done through the introduction of sharia law. Though his comments were foolish, I think he has done us a service in opening up this debate. Although he is maybe the wisest fool in Christendom, we should be grateful that he did raise the issue.

It takes two

I was at Eden Court Theatre last night to see acoustic duo Kathryn Williams and Neil MacColl. It was a great night and I can highly recommend seeing them if you get a chance. They've got a national tour coming up, so get along to see them if you can.

Their concert in Inverness rounded off with an excellent version of the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah". This has been recorded by so many artists that it is difficult to bring something new to it, but that's what Kathryn and Neill achieved. Terrific stuff.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Nats go nuts over notes

Yet again Alex Salmond shows that he's only interested in symbolism, rather than concentrating on important issues affecting Scotland's future. With Scotland facing significant issues over its health record, economy and commitment to social justice, what's putting the wind up Salmond's kilt? Yup, it's that hoary old chestnut of the future of Scottish banknotes.

I have to say, the issue of whether Scotland has its own separate banknotes is not one I am greatly bothered about. I think it's rather anachronistic that Scottish banks still feel the need to issue their own banknotes. I have to say I'm more concerned about what a tenner can buy than who issues it or what design is on it.

But what makes Salmond's diatribe yet another example of his unlimited capacity for opportunism is that the SNP also believes in getting rid of Scottish banknotes. Like me, they believe that introducing the euro would be a good idea, as this quote from their 2004 European Election manifesto makes clear:

The SNP believes that the euro offers significant economic benefits to Scotland and would be preferable to sterling...Joining the euro-zone would almost halve Scotland's interest rates, helping the average homeowner as well as boosting our economic growth.

But if we (whether that we is Scotland or the UK) joined the euro, then we'd be joining a system where the banknotes would be the same across all Eurozone countries. Scottish banks would no longer have the right to print their own banknotes - and quite right too.

However, I can't blame Salmond for taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him by Labour. You'd have thought that with Scots in charge at both No 10 and the Treasury, they would realise they might be presenting Salmond with an open goal, giving him the chance to present the evil Brown and Darling as somehow anti-Scottish.

But apparently not. In a typical Labour bureaucratic move, they look for a solution to a non-problem. Or, if there is a problem with the current system of Scottish banknotes, they should explain what that is and say how the proposed change would remedy the situation. As it is, they are left trying to defend a technical change which few people thought necessary, which has allowed a political opponent to make the running in the most shameless way. Good work, chaps.

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