Friday, December 31, 2010

It's Hogmanay!

By the time you read this, I'll be partying. At least I hope the Sudafed and Nurofen will have kicked in by then. I have a nice bottle of Elderflower Fizz for the Bells cos I'm driving.

Hogmanay is fantastic, but it's not the same without the Rev I M Jolly. Rikki Fulton's dour Church of Scotland Minister giving his reflections just ahead of the Bells was a feature of our ritual for most of my early life. He was a very funny man and this clip is from 1986. Enjoy!

Caron's Women of 2010

I thought I'd better check out what predictions I'd made for this year, and was slightly relieved to discover that I hadn't made any. A shame, really, because I hadn't done badly with the ones I'd made for 2009.  Anyway, who could have predicted a Government with Lib Dems actually doing proper Lib Demmy things in it? I'm hoping that future generations will reap the benefits of what we've managed to achieve, that success will be there for the taking for all based on ability, with their postcode of origin completely irrelevant.

So, I can't do my crystal ball check, so I shall move on to the next end of year offering for your entertainment. I wanted to put together a list of fantastic women who deserved acknowledgement for their bravery, work or wise words this year. This list isn't exhaustive and it's in no particular order as they say on all the best reality shows.

I don't think any list would be complete without Linda Norgrove on it. Linda is the Scottish aid worker who was killed in Afghanistan, not by her kidnappers, but accidentally, by a grenade thrown by one of her American rescuers. It takes exceptional, unimaginable bravery to take yourself to the other side of the World, into the middle of a war zone, to make other people's lives better. Few of us would have the gumption to do it. I certainly couldn't. It takes passionate commitment to your cause, an ability to live with the dangers you're stepping into and a huge amount of self sacrifice. Her parents have set up a foundation in her memory, putting their and her life savings into it. I have written a fair bit on this blog about the plight of women in Afghanistan. The Linda Norgrove Foundation will provide money for things like scholarships for Afghan women to go to university, education, health and childcare. It's definitely worth a New Year donation.

Talking of making a difference for women, in a different way, I think the single most sensible appointment in the Government was that of Lynne Featherstone as Equalities Minister. The next generation of girls is going to be much better off for the work she's doing on the Campaign for Body Confidence. You would never have had a minister who understands and has a real passion for all equalities issues if the Tories were governing alone.

Talking of the ideas kids grow up with, I read a book, appropriately on Hallowe'en, which both delighted and scared the living daylights out of me. Delighted because it gave a really positive account of first love, the sort of experience I want my daughter to expect that she can have, and scary because it means I have to face up to the fact that in five years' time my precious wee girl could be going to parties where there's drinking, smoking and snogging going on. That book is Della says OMG ,  Keris Stainton's debut novel.  I've been meaning to write a proper review of it - and I will do at some point - but it is one of the best books I've read this year and should be compulsory reading for teenage girls.  I love her straightforward writing style and excellent characterisation - the guy who works in the deli is a very funny character. I also respect the fact that she's written a book about first love without magic, or immortal or supernatural characters in it. She has a new book coming out in July, Jessie 3> NYC, which I ordered on the strength of reading Della, so I'm sure that'll be one of the treats of 2011.

I'm not sure whether lying on a tea tray and travelling at speed down steep, sheet ice is incredibly sensible. In fact, I know it isn't. But one night in February, Amy Williams won a gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics for doing just that. And it was the only medal we won, which makes her achievement all the more spectacular. We don't really appreciate the amount of time, self sacrifice and effort it takes to reach that level of international competitiveness. A classmate of Anna's, at 11, who is already competing and doing well in swimming, has to train every single day, at anti-social hours.  The dedication she and her whole family give to it is admirable. So this Hogmanay I want to celebrate both Amy, who has won gold and hope that she'll be an inspiration to Sarah and other girls to follow in her footsteps.

In terms of inspirations for me, this year confirmed for me what I've known for many years, that I really want to be Pamela Stephenson when I grow up. I love the way she completely threw herself into Strictly Come Dancing. She is the polar opposite of me in many ways. I like things to be safe, and am scared of everything. She will happily take risks and embraces all sorts of new experiences with enthusiasm and relish. And she's very, very funny. I mean, this is someone who just took off and went sailing for a year in the South Pacific. You have to admire someone who stumbles mid dance and looks like she's going to hit the floor, but who is smiling and shimmying on her way down, as this video shows. I want to have some of her adventurous spirit and courage. Just a little bit would do.

Kylie Minogue showed she's still at the top of her game with her summer album Aphrodite. All the Lovers is one song you just can't get out of your head (sorry.). She's still one of my favourite recording artists and she knows how to put on a show.

Of all the things Miriam Gonzalez  Durantez has had to put up with this year, being photographed by the Daily Mail coming out of a lingerie shop was, while intrusive and irritating, probably not the worst. I admired the way she dealt with the election campaign, though, saying, quite straightforwardly:

“I don’t have a job I can abandon for five weeks and I imagine that’s true for most people,”

It's time we got rid of the idea that politician's wives are public property and stopped defining them in terms of their usefulness to their husbands. It's none of our business. I like the way that Miriam has, with flair and charm, been herself and got on with her life. I also like that she's called out the media for printing their customary sexist claptrap - most memorably when newspapers suggested that the reason for a Spanish World Cup defeat was that their goalie was distracted by having his girlfriend, a reporter, on the touchline.

The woman who's inspired me most in politics, Shirley Williams, celebrated her 80th birthday this year. She spoke to Iain Dale for an edition of Total Politics magazine (which, much though it pains me to say, is one of the best reads around for the politics junkie). I trust her judgements and her instincts. She talks about how she has rebuffed all offers to go back to the Labour Party she left in 1981 because "they were bad about civil liberties". She also spoke about how it hasn't got that much easier for women in politics since her day. The problems are different, but it's still hard. I also like the way that she finds good things to say about her political opponents - have a look at her comments on Brown and Cameron.

A new face appeared in the upper echelons of the tv political reporting scene this year. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC News Channel's Chief Political Correspondent has shown that she is capable of a greater understanding than many of the dynamics of coalition and a political system with more than 2 parties in it. Her reports from College Green as the coalition negotiations were going on were very informative. She didn't seem to have any need to sleep, either as she was always there, no matter what time of day you turned the tv on. I think her less combative manner actually gets more out of the politicians she's interviewing. That's not to say she doesn't challenge them, but she knows where the boundaries are between robust questioning and being unpleasant.

And, finally, I don't think there is anyone on earth who can make me laugh quite as much as Claudia Winkleman. I'm going through separation anxiety now as she was on tv every day bar Saturday during Strictly Come Dancing. The saving grace is that we have Film 2011 to look forward to. This is a programme which entirely suits her slightly random, slightly bonkers, presenting style and also shows off her intellect and knowledge in a way we've not seen before in her TV presenting career. I'm not a huge film fan by any measure of means, and I never watched the Film programme before when Jonathan Ross was presenting. Partly that's because it was just on too late for me, but I now record it just to see Claudia. I just find her reviews funny and thought provoking and worth watching and I find her enthusiasm infectious.

So, there are my famous women of the year. There are, of course, many other wonderful women who aren't famous, who make my life fantastic, from sister, nieces, aunts and cousins to my fabulous friends. Thank you all, and I hope you have a brilliant 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why is Simon Hughes' new appointment only for six months?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I'm really pleased to see that Simon Hughes has been given the job of making sure that young people aren't being put off from going into higher education after the tuition fees decision. It's been shocking to see the nursery for Labour wannabes, the National Union of Students, try to write off the hopes of a generation by implying that no poor person will be able to afford to go to university, when actually graduates on the lowest incomes will pay less under this scheme than they will under the NUS proposals.

Linda Jack, who has been one of fiercest party critics of the Coalition in general and the tuition fees policy in particular, and who works with young people has welcomed Simon's appointment and explained why it's vital.

My only real query is why is this only for six months? Surely that role is going to be needed for much longer. For this year, kids are filling in their UCAS forms now for 2011 entry and he should be continuing his tour of schools into the Autumn term this year as the 2012 students will be the first to go in under the new system.

I am particularly comforted that one of Simon's main jobs will be finding a more effective replacement for Education Maintenance Allowance. The issue with it is how kids who currently leave at 16 can be encouraged to stay on at school. The current EMA goes mainly to kids who would have stayed on anyway.

So, as I said, it's fabulous that this unpaid role has been created, and I think Simon is the ideal guy for it, but why only six months? It just doesn't seem long enough.

Nick Clegg's New Year Message 2011 - same as 2010 and 2009 really

Nick Clegg has recorded his first New Year Message with the Liberal Democrats in Government. He concentrates on the four points on which we fought the election in May: fair taxes, a fair start for every child, building a sustainable, green economy and cleaning up politics. I guess it's fairly predictable.

Two points. The last time Nick You Tubed his New Year message was in 2009, and there were subtitles on it. Why not this time?

Also, I thought I'd take a wee look back at the last couple of years' New Year Messages just to see what our priorities were then. Look back at 2009 - Nick talks about social mobility, fairness in the tax system sorting out the mess Labour has made by mortgaging our future, concentrating on families and young people, helping with childcare and the like. It's actually quite telling how much of this kind of stuff we've actually been able to implement in Government - we're going to be more flexible on parental leave to look after kids, letting families come up with their own solutions, taking 900,000 people out of tax altogether, reducing the power of the Prime Minister to choose the date of the election, a referendum on  a fairer voting system which would mean MPs would have to work harder to gain the confidence of at least half of their constituents.

Have a look at it here:

I can't find a You Tube version of last year's - and neither can these lovely people at Lib Dem Voice or I'm sure they would have published it. In it, Nick talks about pressing the political reset button in 2010 - well, the first coalition government in 70 years was a good way to go about that and again we see the same key themes of fairness and sustainability. Here it is in full:

I have a confession to make: 2009 tested my belief in politics to breaking point.
I remember once looking round the House of Commons during another Punch and Judy session of Prime Ministers Questions. In the real world, youth unemployment had just reached its highest level ever, our brave soldiers were facing extraordinary dangers in Afghanistan, the bankers were still gorging themselves on bonuses, and the economy was in the middle of the worst recession in generations. And what were the politicians doing? Yelling and guffawing at each other as if the world outside didn’t exist.
So I don’t blame anyone for feeling a sense of despair about our clapped out political system. You are being taken for granted by the people in charge. Big money is hollowing out politics with some rich donors not even bothering to say whether they pay full British taxes or not. And to top it all the expenses scandals exposed some MPs as spivvy property speculators and tax evaders rather than public servants.
This whole set-up has to change. That’s what 2010 should be all about. Big, permanent change for the better.
People’s faith in politics may be dented, but I still believe in our ability to learn from the mistakes of the past, and set things on a new course.
2010 must be the year we press the political reset button.
But that will only happen if we do things differently. More of the same won’t produce anything new.
Of course both Labour and the Conservatives have learned to parrot the language of change. But where’s the proof they mean it? Despite all the hot air about fixing politics they have both voted against giving people the right to sack MPs who’ve seriously broken the rules. Both have refused to clean up the rotten system of party political funding. Both refuse to give you your say by introducing fair votes to the House of Commons. And both refuse to shake up the City of London, so that bankers can never again play Russian roulette with your savings.

Some people say, what’s the point of voting when the same old parties always win? I say: vote for what you believe in. If you like what the Liberal Democrats stand for, vote for it. If you want real change, not phoney change, vote for it. If you think things should be different, vote for it.
At the end of the day, politics should be about what you believe. What kind of Britain do you want to live in? What kind of world do we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in?
So as the countdown to the next General Election finally begins, I have a simple question for the other party leaders: what do you believe, really believe?
People don’t want leading politicians clinging on to power for its own sake, or just telling people what they want to hear. There’s got to be more to it than that.
I have one belief above all others: a belief in fairness. Under my leadership the Liberal Democrats have been working on new ideas to make Britain the fair country I believe most people want it to be. We want to raise standards in all of our schools by giving specific help to the children most in need, and by making class sizes smaller. Soon we will be publishing new ideas to turn our economy away from its over dependence on the City of London to a new, green economy where hundreds of thousands of new jobs will be created as we rebuild our transport, energy and housing infrastructure. Above all, we are now the only party with a detailed plan to make taxes fair – removing all income tax on the first £10,000 you earn, paid for by asking people at the top to pay a bit more.
If we as Leaders want people to turn out to vote at all at the next General Election, we have got to show people our convictions, not just dividing lines, our beliefs, not just soundbites.
I hope in the coming months even more people will get a chance to find out what I believe in, and the beliefs of the Liberal Democrats. If enough people share our convictions, our beliefs, then 2010 really can be the beginning of something new.

These three messages show that the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg haven't changed. We believe in the same things as we've always believed in and are doing everything we can to implement as much of it as we possibly can Government, giving people more power, making the tax system fairer, the pupil premium which will give a real chance of future success to kids from deprived backgrounds who until now have had little chance of escaping poverty regardless of their ability.

None of these things would be done by either Labour or the Conservatives governing alone and we should be proudly and boldly saying that. The same media which ignored us for years, as we have seen, is not going to suddenly start reporting our actual successes, so we're going to have to do that ourselves. Yes there are things I don't like about what the Coalition is doing and I'll continue to tell you all about them - but you'll also hear much about the significant and life-improving Liberal Democrat gains we've brought to the Government.

That wee trip down Memory Lane has shown me that Nick Clegg hasn't changed and what makes him tick as a human being is exactly the same now as it was not just two years ago, but almost 13 years ago when I first met him.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

After a triumphant first series from Steven Moffat, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, Who fans across the country waited with fevered anxiety to see what the Christmas Special would bring. Could the high standard of writing and characterisation which culminated in stories as diverse as Vincent and the Doctor, The Eleventh Hour and The Pandorica Opens possibly be continued?

The unqualified answer to that question has to be no. It was actually surpassed. An hour long assault on our emotions ended with the at least partial redemption of the baddie, and a potentially hopeful new future for the world he controlled. Not the world he was the political head of - no, there was a President who showed a stunning lack of backbone to the person who basically had sole control of a major environmental system. After the events of this week, it kind of made me think about how much power politicians yield to big powerful businessmen with no democratic accountability. But that's enough of Cable v Murdoch.

When the show started, I wondered at first if I'd hit the wrong channel. I mean, half a bottle of decent Chateauneuf du Pape and a generous sherry and it would be an easy mistake to make. I mean, it looked like we were on board the Starship Enterprise. There was even a guy with what could have been a visor sitting where Geordi La Forge should be and the choreographed lurching as the ship crashed its way along its turbulent path looked out of place somehow.

The appearance of Rory and Amy in Roman and kissogram costumes, implying that they were putting the honeymoon suite to good use, was just slightly icky but also very funny.

Also of note was that Arthur Darvill has finally found his way into the title credits so it looks like he's here to stay. I still haven't worked out quite what his character Rory is for, but anyone willing to wait 2000 years guarding the big box his dead girlfriend was being restored in is worth some respect.

We cut from ship in peril to a pseudo Dickensian scene with a Michael Gambon voiceover telling us that at the end of the year, people come together to celebrate being "halfway out of the dark".

Then we're in the narrator's house, and we discover that he's a thoroughly unpleasant, cruel, nasty and heartless man. A man so cruel that when he lends money to poor families, he takes a family member as security and freezes them. Bankers don't look quite as bad now, do they? In a single scene, we see Kazran Sardick (hint of Balkan warlord there?) turn down a humanitarian request from the President to allow the ship carrying Amy and Rory to land, and refuse the poor family's request for their relative to be released for just one day. You shudder at Sardick's malevolent glee as he says "I don't make the rules. Hang on, I do."

One of Moffat's real strengths is being able to portray comedy and tragedy in the same scene, almost in the same sentence, and neither lose their effect. We see it when we realise that omnipotent though Sardick may be, he's not immune from the Doctor coming down his chimney and landing in his fireplace. While he's being all jokey and chatty, showing off photos of Sinatra, Einstein, himself and Father Christmas (whom he calls Geoff. I always thought he was more of a Bernard myself, but never mind) from 1952, he's also sizing up Sardick and telling him that in 900 years of travelling through space, he's never met anyone who's not important.

We see it again when Abigail tells the younger Karzan that she has only one day left to live. While they tearfully embrace, the Doctor, complete with lipstick mark on his cheek and rat pack tuxedo,  is in a tizz because he's apparently promised to marry Marilyn Monroe. Tragedy and comedy together, in perfect proportion.

Just as an aside, it wasn't said, but it crossed my mind that the money Abigail's family borrowed was to pay for her medical bills. And I'm also fairly sure that the Doctor knew what he was doing from the minute he met her, as soon as she said "Doctor? Are you one of mine?"

But I'm moving on too fast. The Doctor realises that simple persuasion and appealing to Sardick's good side isn't going to work. It's only when he's talking to Amy on the phone about Christmas carols that he remembers the Dickensian classic and decides that the only way is to totally reconstruct Sardick's character. Best way to do that? Find the raw material, by going back to the 12.5 year old boy and giving him memories that the modern day Sardick will find embedded in his psyche, even though he hasn't lived through them. And he lets Sardick know what he's doing by recording it all and playing the film back to him in the present day by flitting back and forth through time.

The dialogue between the Doctor and the 12 year old Kazran was hilarious. He found Sardick at a time when he was an extremely compassionate and curious little boy, despite his upbringing from a father who was even crueller than he would grow up to be.  From telling the youngster who had observed that babysitters didn't climb in the windows, the Doctor replied that "If I was climbing out of the window, I'd be going in the wrong direction." He also invented these creatures called face spiders, little arachnid babies' heads whose sole purpose in life was to scuttle up the backs of cupboards (later saying that actually they slept in Kazran's mattress during the day. Then there was the psychic paper which showed Kazran just wavy lines, the Doctor explaining that it had shorted out at the enormity of the lie he'd expected it to tell - that he was a mature, responsible adult.

Moffat also seems to have a thing for giving cameo roles to marine creatures. In The Beast Below, the whale is critical to the plot, but we don't see that much of it. Same too with the shark. It's purpose is to polish off half the Doctor's sonic screwdriver and have Katherine Jenkins sing to it as a plot devices to help them at the end, but the real story is about the people around it. We discovered in Confidential that the prospect of an evolutionary advanced shark appearing in his bedroom gave Moffat nightmares as a child. I wonder what else went through his childish mind, because no doubt it'll come out onto screen at some point.

Katherine Jenkins excelled herself. Of all the Welsh singers they could have chosen, I'm first of all glad it wasn't Charlotte Church. She may have the voice of an angel, but Katherine has the angelic looks and the haunting quality in her voice that was so perfect for this story.

Gambon's portrayal of Sardick was also very clever. You could sense a man who almost felt liberated as much as he was confused by the new memories, looking out the photos taken on his and Katherine's Christmas Eves together, all over the World from the Pyramids to Hollywood.

All that the Doctor only really wanted to change Sardick's character to the point where he'd allow Amy and Rory's ship, with its 4003 passengers to land safely. He'd warned Sardick that they were his priorities at the beginning but I'm not sure that he anticipated the real torment he'd have to put him through. Sardick discovers his compassionate side, but his character has been changed so much that the machine he solely controls doesn't recognise him any more. We're then in a situation where, in order to save people the Doctor loves, he asks Kazran, with the expectation that he'll comply, to sacrfice his last day with the woman he's only recently discovered he's loved all his life.

We can't be too hard on him, though. This is the guy who gave up his own life to save Wilf just a year ago, the guy who gave up his last moments to flitting around his companions bringing good and even life saving fortune. This is the guy whose love ended up in a parallel universe. He knows what intense grief and love feel like so he understands what he's asking Kazran to do. The Doctor thinks that having your heart broken is better than having no heart at all, and he's probably right, but Kazran rightly says to him "you try it"  The Doctor can't make that judgement of course - although of course he in his 9th form was doing what he could to suppress his feelings, grief stricken as he was after the time wars which destroyed his people and home planet.

There is no denying, though, that it's a massive impertinence to go back and visit someone as a child to re-shape their whole life, even if the outcome will ultimately be for their own good and the benefit of many other people. And there was a point when it looked that the Doctor's meddling was not going to work and he had to go to the extreme of bringing the 12 year old Kazran in and asking him if that's how he wanted to grow up.

And all this from the guy who says you can't interfere with the course of history. It's what he always does, of course, but this time it was deeply personal. One question I want answered, though - and we saw this in the Pandorica Opens, too - how can a person and a younger version of themselves interact? In the Pandorica Opens, this is all explained away by the stuff where Amy and Amelia met never actually happened cos the Doctor flew the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS this restoring time to its normal state. There isn't that get out this time. Even Anna pointed out that there should have been a colony of Reapers there as there were in Father's Day. There is wriggle room from that as the Reapers were there to sort out the mess caused by Pete not dying when he should have done and not the adult Rose being in the same room as the baby Rose. Similarly, you had Ace with her mother as a baby in the Curse of Fenric.

The other thing worth noting is that the conclusion depended on the shark who came into Kazran's bedroom when he was 12.5 surviving for 50 or so years with the sonic screwdriver inside it. You kind of have to wonder why this wasn't disposed of in the usual way we dispose of our waste food.

The ending, where Katherine Jenkins sings a hauntingly beautiful specially written song into the other half of the sonic screwdriver to calm the skies so that the ship can land, is so well done. It made me a bit tearful as it evoked memories of last year's similarly moving end to David Tennant's life as the Doctor. This time, though, there was happiness and optimism. You had Kazran and Abigail having a truly joyful last day together, in the rickshaw, being pulled, sleigh style, by the shark, repeating the ride they'd had on their second day together. You just wonder why they didn't go the whole hog and give the shark a luminous red nose. For the future, though, there's a world without Abigail for Kazran to deal with, but the Doctor hopes that he's pulled him "half way out of the dark", that his newly rediscovered childhood compassion will make him release the many people who still languish in the frozen coffin like boxes in the basement.

This was to my mind the best Christmas Special yet. Anna's favourite episode to date is The Sycorax Invasion, Tennant's first after his regeneration. I'm not so fussed about that, preferring the Voyage of the Damned. A Christmas Carol I think trumps both of them - although the episodes with singers in them are definitely the best.

And don't even get me started on the new season trailer, or I'll be here all night. We've a fun year ahead. I hope the fact that next year's series is going to be shown n two halves is not going to stop us getting a Christmas Special. It has become one of the highlights of Christmas Day.

My Festive Scottish Roundup

Those nice people at Scottish Roundup have let me take on a second stint as Admin Editor (ie sorting out the paperclips and organising the tea rota) for the next couple of months.

We were going to leave the Christmas week, but with my love of Christmas sparkle and kitsch, and Mr Sheridan's wee spot of bother, I thought I'd do one for posterity and you can find it here. We ask people to send in their nominations each week but everyone clearly had better things to do in the run up to Christmas because we'd had three in total. I thought that someone, somewhere must have taken photos of the lunar eclipse that happened on the Winter Solstice, so I did a quick search of blogs on Google and found one which had posted some stunning images of the eclipse from a snowy north east. Truly amazing.

This weekend, my aim is to do a wee review of the year, so if you want to nominate any particular posts from or about Scotland that you've written or read this year, just comment here and I'll make sure they're included.

If you fancy trying your hand at putting a Roundup together, it's really easy and enjoyable. I'm preparing a rota for contributors to take us up to the middle of March. The slots I have left are 20th and 27th February and 6th and 13th March. You don't have to be a blogger - regular readers/commenters are also welcome to try their hand if they want. Just let me know if you want a go and tell me the date you'd like.

But now, having watched it twice, I'm off to write up my review of the amazing Doctor Who Christmas Special.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Santa Claus and the Purple Glitter

Anna was delighted this morning to find a letter, on the thickest, most luxurious parchment from the man himself, Santa Claus. He certainly seemed to know a lot about her, so it's comforting to know that the naughty and nice list is evidence based.

It appears that there's been a bit of a calamity with a couple of her presents, which came a bit of a cropper after the elf carrying them to the sleigh slipped on a slide made by some over enthusiastic baby penguins and landed in some fresh reindeer poo.

He also asked her, as she's particularly interested in animals, to add extra purple glitter to the reindeer food as this keeps them warm. We always add several different colours - blue for hydration, green for speed, gold for altitude, silver for contentment and red to keep them, err, regular. So we spent some time getting the proportions right and it's all ready to put out for them tonight. When I first read of the request for purple, I wondered if the reindeer were supporting the Yes to AV campaign. I probably need to get a life.

Apart from Bob, who, bless him, has been doing battle with the supermarkets again, we're having a very relaxed Christmas Eve. When I was a little girl, it was always a frantic day, when everyone was grumpy because everything had to be clean for Christmas Day. I tend to favour the more slovenly approach, which I prefer to describe as relaxed  - no surprise there - so having spent the morning snuggled up with Anna watching the Santa Clause 2, I am now at the laptop with a bottle of alcoholic ginger beer at my side.

I watched the first Santa Clause movie yesterday, when I didn't even have the excuse of a snuggly child. It seemed ironic to me that it occupied the same slot as First Minister's Questions at Holyrood. Don't get me wrong, these films are dire, but just for this overly sentimental couple of days, they set the right tone.

So, the rest of the day involves some light baking - mince pies, with puff pastry and cheese and then dinner, Nigella's fish gratin and green vegetables with a nice bottle of M & S white grenache. There will inevitably be the QI Christmas Special, which Anna couldn't miss, but she knows that she'll have to get to her bed straight after. If I can't convince her, Norad will. The US military has its uses.

It was good to get an early Christmas present first thing - the Clifton Terrace One, Andrew Reeves, has been freed from Twitter Jail in time for the big day. That took some doing and many e-mails back and forth.

Up until a few minutes ago, it looked like, despite having had loads of snow for four weeks, we might not count as having a white Christmas as none was forecast to fall on Christmas Day. My very helpful local councillor has just sent me the latest weather update which is forecasting some overnight.

And now a couple of wee festive gems for you. Stephen posted this last Friday and I think it's fantastically funny, although I had to explain some of it to my husband. I thought I'd share it with you.

And Kelvin, as ever, one of the wisest people I know, has some typically sensible words for those who are single at Christmas.

As for my blogging, it'll be lighter and more whimsical for the rest of the year. Thank you to everybody who reads and comments, even those who tear me to pieces.

Wherever you are and whatever you're doing when you read this, it comes with my good wishes that you have a peaceful and contented festive period.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What would the Telegraph have heard at Labour MPs' surgeries last year?

It amuses me to hear Ed Miliband being so dismissive about the nature of the coalition, saying it's a sham. I actually think that what we've heard over the past few days proves that it isn't. Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers are not making life easy for themselves, but they know that they can do more good in the Government than out of it, and that life would be much worse if they weren't there.

I got to thinking, though, what if the Telegraph (or some other paper) had decided to throw ethics to the wind this time last year, and gone around some Labour MPs' surgeries. I mean, we all know what a happy little band of campers they were, don't we? Imagine if they'd gone to Geoff Hoon's or Patricia Hewitt's surgeries and asked a few well worded questions about Gordon Brown? I mean, those two spent Christmas plotting about how to overthrow him and made spectacular arses of themselves (and, in Hoon's case, not for the last time this year) trying to pull off a coup in the first week of January.

Would James Purnell, or Alan Johnson or David Miliband all have praised their leader fulsomely, or damned him by their lack of enthusiasm?  I'm absolutely certain those amoral journalists would have found some interesting snippets to report.

Actually, I wonder what they're all saying about Ed Miliband now. I mean, Ed's team still seems in shock that he won and everyone else is being suspiciously silent. I am fairly certain that even now metaphorical daggers are being lined up right between his shoulder blades.

Like I said, just a thought.

News from the Fairer Votes people - they need YOU!

Here is the latest campaign video from those nice people who are running the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign.

They are working hard to make sure that the referendum is won next May 5th. There are a lot of powerful vested interests who don't want to see change. They don't want MPs to have to work harder, and they don't see why an MP should have the support of even half their electorate.That's why the Yes to AV people need lots of volunteers to add to the 150,000 people who've already signed up.

I know that you may well have an inbox full of help requests, or maybe have had a phone call. In the run up to Christmas, it's so busy and hard to find time to commit to things, but over the holidays, think about offering them some time, support and money.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Michael Moore's Telegraph Tape

So Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore has fallen victim to the Telegraph sting operation where they send wired up young women posing as constituents to record private conversations with ministers during their surgeries. This is a right wing newspaper's underhand attempt to split the coalition up. Don't be in any doubt about that. They don't like the fact that the Tories aren't governing alone and would much rather see the crazier Tory policies on scrapping the Human Rights Act, marriage tax breaks and helping the rich at the expense of the poor being put into action.

The Lib Dems are being attacked from left and right for having sold out - but if we weren't having  big influence on the Government, why would the Torygraph go to all this bother?

Here is their highly edited audio and transcript of what he said. It's not a full transcript, because, like with Vince yesterday, they haven't published the lies the journalists must have told.

Nothing that Michael Moore said in that conversation was in any way surprising to me as someone who has known him for 10 years and there is very little that I can disagree with.

  • On Child Benefit, he agreed the inherent unfairness - something I was quick to point out at the time. The price we had to pay, maybe, for ensuring that there was no cut off at 13 or 16.
  • On Tuition Fees - of course it was a mess
  • On the fact that Liberal Democrats come from Venus and Tories come from Mars - or words to that effect. A statement of the bleedin' obvious if ever there was one.
  • On the good things that the Coalition is doing
You get a sense of how hard it's been for our ministers over the past few months, especially on tuition fees. That's part of the reason I find it really difficult to be hugely angry with our MPs who voted for the Government's proposals even though I'd have taken a different decision, because they've clearly been through hell and they've reached the conclusions they have for the most honourable of reasons. Look at what Mike said here:

It's not a decision taken likely by any of us and beyond the specifics of the issue, what we've all had to weigh up is the greater sense of what the coalition is about. If I felt that the coalition was about was clinging on for the sake of saying I was in Government, that's not worth it because......any of us ministers could be out on our ears at the whim of the party leaders......that's not a particularly sensible basis on which to go through a lobby.
in terms of the other issues which I've outlined to you whether it's on fairness issues that we've put into the spending review, welfare reform, the spending review, in terms of Scottish constitutional reform, the freedom agenda, environmental issues, all that for me stacks up. But I accept I have, along with my colleagues, a huge challenge to get that understood and accepted.
I assure you that our party and me individually are passionately liberal Democrat. I came into politics, frankly as a kid as much because I hated what the Tories did to Scotland and the UK as I was motivated by constitutional reform and freedom and that sort of stuff that made me want to be a Liberal. 
On tuition fees, he mentions that he said exactly the same thing as on the tape in public at a high school earlier in the day. That doesn't surprise me, because I know him to be completely straightforward and genuine.

All of these so-called revelations just prove the point that the Liberal Democrats are having a big impact on this Government and they are staying true to themselves and their principles.

One thing that made me howl with laughter from the Torygraph's main report on this, when they summarised their conversations with Mike along with Steve Webb and Ed Davey, was this wee gem:
It emerged that senior Liberal Democrats are boasting privately that they were responsible for delaying government plans to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent, which means nothing will happen on the project during the current Parliament.
Boasting privately? I rather thought we'd been shouting it from the rooftops that this was a major Liberal Democrat win. Who on earth else would have made that happen? Honestly! I mean, whose policy was it not to have like for like replacement of Trident at the General Election? Not the Tories, (or Labour, for that matter), that's for sure.

The thing that I take from this is that these recordings were clearly done in the last fortnight so we know that even months after announcements have been made, our ministers are continuing to work within the Government to try and get some of the things that are difficult to live with changed. And a note to George Osborne, what Steve Webb doesn't know about the benefits system simply is not worth knowing. You would have to be very stupid indeed not to listen to him. So if I were you, I'd dig out the letter he wrote to you on the Child Benefit changes and read again what he's telling you about the details not being right. He will not be wrong.

Our ministers are taking a lot of flack at the moment, but I'm sure about one thing - things would be a lot worse without them.

And just to illustrate that point, have a wee look at this, proof that ID cards are now a thing of the past. The Identity Documents Act getting rid of them received its Royal Assent yesterday. It's just a pity that so much money was needlessly wasted by Labour on something that was always going to be very expensive and ineffective, the worst of all worlds.

To come in the New Year, the finalisation of the Bill bringing in the Fairer Votes referendum, the Scotland Bill, giving more powers to the Scottish Parliament, which the Tories were trying to wriggle away from.

Already delivered, 900,000 low earners will be taken out of tax completely next year, an extra £2 billion for Child Tax Credits for the poorest, the minimum wage up by 13p an hour, the full rate going to young people and for the first time to apprentices, the pensions-earnings link restored, an end to child detention for immigration purposes and justice for Equitable Life holders.

And that's just the start.

Tim Farron; I'll not be checking birth certificates at my surgery

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

If Simon Hughes is the comfort food, the custard, or mashed potato, for the Liberal Democrat soul, President Elect Tim Farron is the gutsy, spicy chilli that warms, reinvigorates and motivates us. To people who aren't political activists, he's a down to earth guy who talks a lot of common sense.

He's just been on BBC Breakfast talking about all the shenanigans of the last 24 hours. Now, he could have been bogged down in the minutiae of what Vince and other Lib Dem ministers said but he used the occasion to give a very effective and common sense look at the coalition as a whole and the nature of compromises within it.

He talks about how the Coalition is a business arrangment, not a marriage, and how both sides have had to make compromises for the good of the country. Sian Williams tried to divert him into tuition fees, but he raised her by mentioning kicking Trident into the long grass as a big Liberal Democrat win.

He talks about how this coalition is a lot healthier and grown up than the rancour filled Blair-Brown coalition which preceded it.

One of the reasons for voting for him is that he was pretty clued up on what was going on around the country, and he highlighted the successes of the coalitions in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff, making the point that people and journalists in those places are more used to how coalitions works.

He also said that he's not going to asking for birth certificates and proof of being a constituent at his surgeries - the next of which will be going on around now - and  that he would be as candid and human with people as he always has been.

I don't think anybody expected anything else, but he covered a lot of good and positive ground in his inimitable style in just a couple of minutes. The next two years will be fun!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

If it's Cable v Murdoch, I'm on Vince's side in the politician being honest shocker

To be fair, there aren't very many people I'd back if they were in a war against Vince Cable. This is the guy who gave this party economic credibility. His message wasn't so different to our long standing principles of delivering a sustainable, green economy, but he was able to articulate a credible, professional response to the economic turmoil of the credit crunch, that was absolutely right for its time. When he was acting leader, I respected his decision not to attend any events surrounding the state visit of the Saudi King on human rights grounds. He is a good man. End of.

I wrote earlier of my annoyance at the way he was duped by two Telegraph reporters posing as constituents who then reported his comments on life in the coalition told to them in confidence to the world.

This afternoon, the plot thickened when Robert Peston, the voice of economic doom at the BBC, announced that the bit the Torygraph hadn't published had been leaked to him. This involved Vince Cable making some rather inflammatory comments about Rupert Murdoch and his various companies:

"I am picking my fights, some of which you may have seen, some of which you may haven't seen.
"And I don't know if you have been following what has been happening with the Murdoch press, where I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win."
This, apparently is scandalous because Vince, in his role as Business Secretary had responsibility for the decision on whether to allow Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to take over BSkyB giving the same company unprecedented control over print and broadcast media. Vince had already referred this to OFCOM. Now, to me, that was a total no-brainer. Any Minister with a shred of integrity was going to do that - and refer the whole thing to the Competition Commission as well regardless of what OFCOM said. Murdoch's Fox News in the US presents not so much news, but Tea Party/Republican/big business propaganda from morning until night. Sky News here has shown signs of going the same way. Anyone remember when they were the only news outlet to think Cameron had won the first debate when every single other one had Nick in the lead.

The big shock in all of this is that so few of us are angry about the potential dangers of any one rich, powerful organisation controlling a big chunk of the media. In my view, the very act of wanting to have that sort of domination should disallow you. Such an organisation will only print what they believe in. We are spoiled by having the BBC as a genuine public service impartial broadcaster. It's maybe a bit narrow minded and simplistic about our politics, but it's a million miles away from the iniquities of Fox News. 

A tweet which seemed to sum it up rather perfectly came from Toby Hadoke, about whom, you may remember, I raved when I saw him twice in a week at  the Edinburgh Festival this Summer. He said:
BBC, being impartial (as it is obliged to be) breaks story advantageous to Murdoch (a threat to the BBC). Would he do the same? I think not.
There was a time this afternoon when I was worried that the Government was going to lose this good man but thankfully, he was allowed to stay. Unfortunately, and here's the rub, he loses all power over broadcasting decisions to Tory Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt. It'll be interesting to see if the Today programme has managed to get his name right, at least. Sad thing is, though, he's generally tended to be fairly pro the sort of deregulation that Murdoch wants. And speaking after he took office, he took Sky's side against the BBC.  This is not a good thing.

What was absolutely incredible, though, was the way the Labour Party queued up to prostrate themselves to present Murdoch's case. In the olden days, when the Party had principles of sorts, they were all demonstrating against them and boycotting his publications. One might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that they were trying to win back the support of the Murdoch tabloids that they lost last year.

The irony is that the Liberal Democrats never either wanted, or had any chance of getting the favour of the Murdoch press and the removal of those powers from Cable takes a minister, who is genuinely not beholden to Murdoch's quest for domination, out of the frame.

Sure, Vince should have toned it down a bit. His remarks had an odour of indiscreet pomposity, but they were also honest. There's little chance of the media giving him an easy ride, but perhaps the public will see that he was acting in their interest and was on their side. He's also on the side of ordinary people and businesses when he takes on the banks - and that's not the instinctive position of the Tories.  That is the reason he is an asset to this Government and needs to stay there.

Vince Cable, devious journalists and stating the obvious

So, that's how it's going to be, is it? The confidentiality of the MP's surgery breached by a couple of journalists wired up with a concealed microphone. 

I always thought that it was illegal to record a conversation without the other person's knowledge and consent. That's why, when you phone the tax credits office, or your insurance company, or your bank, they tell you that your conversation may be recorded. If the Telegraph hasn't broken the law, they've certainly been sneaky, devious, discourteous and lazy. I find it interesting that they've released the audio of Vince, but not of these women telling lies.

If papers go to this length, how long is it going to be before they try to get reporters into private family occasions, maybe posing as friends, or even people who date their kids?

In a week when we've lost two journalists, Brian Hanrahan and Anthony Howard, who displayed integrity and wisdom throughout their careers, and who genuinely illuminated our lives, it's difficult to associate the profession they practiced with what passes for journalism these days.

In terms of what Vince actually said, I guess most people will read it and think that it's pretty much fair comment, that this is what they expect life to be like in a coalition. There's no nasty, bitter or personal tone, to it. In fact, the two Conservatives who are mentioned by name are spoken of in good terms.

There's no doubting that Vince has had some of the biggest battles to fight in his ministerial role. The furore over tuition fees alone would be enough to exhaust anyone. While I have my own difficulties with the system that's emerged, there is no doubt that it's the fairest option that was available and will actually cost graduates less than the current system. And if you stay on a low income throughout your career, your tuition will effectively be mostly free. Vince made sure of that in a way that wouldn't have happened had Labour or the Tories been governing alone.

In addition to that, he's also had the effects of the Tories' ill thought out immigration cap to deal with. He's been honest all along about how he feels about that.  I am fairly certain that every single Liberal Democrat will have smirked with pleasure when the Court Judgement ruling the temporary cap illegal came out last week. That's an issue which isn't over yet.

It's patently obvious that there are going to be policy divisions between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats governing together and Government ministers have never tried to hide it. There's no doubt that they have managed to forge a professional working relationship and there's been a fair amount of give and take on both sides. It wasn't a Tory idea to raise the tax threshold, taking nearly a million people out of tax altogether and the NHS reforms and free schools weren't Lib Dem ideas and we're going to feel less comfortable with them.

I reckon that this Government is probably a great deal more functional and grown up than any Government in the last 30 years. We had Thatcher ruling with a rod of iron, then Major's government being ripped apart on Europe and the pure venom and internecine bile that marked much of Labour's time in office.

All these recordings have done is to confirm that Liberal Democrat ministers are fighting hard to introduce Liberal Democrat policies within the coalition. I'm glad to hear it. I had enough faith in our people to think that anyway, even if I can't agree with the final outcomes on some issues.

I found Vince's comments about Howard Flight particularly interesting. This is the guy who Cameron's appointed to the Lords who's had a series of controversies, most recently when he spoke about Child Benefit changes being disincentive to the middle classes to breed. The guy is clearly the sort of Tory prat who treats the Daily Mail as if it's Holy Writ and is a walking cocktail of ill-informed prejudices.

Vince said of him:
 Howard Flight is actually a very nice guy, I know him well, but he is very, kind of, crass. They sacked him in the middle of the 2005 election, because he blurted something out that he wasn’t supposed to say. Howard sacked him, but you know, he is a nice but rather silly public school boy with a few prejudices to boot. But we don’t control their appointments, so they don’t control ours. That’s the basis.
Vince shows the maturity of seeing the person beyond the daft ideas and I respect him for that. I've had friends, or close relatives who have views that to me are eye-wateringly scary. My lovely Great Aunt Vera was one such. She had some pretty right wing views, but when it came down to it, when her great niece ran off with a divorced man twice her age, she welcomed him and was absolutely tolerant. Her son, at her funeral, who's of a similar leftie bent to me, spoke so lovingly of her and said that while they'd disagreed about issues, those arguments were always worth having.

Secret recordings are supposed to shock, but what the Telegraph has done is to confirm the good things about Vince, that he's a good MP who's prepared to be open and honest with his constituents. Much of what he said was a complete statement of the obvious. We'll see what else comes out, but I suspect they'll have played their trump card early on.

I hope that revelations like this will not lead to politicians being more careful about what they say in private situations. Most people don't record conversations and it would be a shame if Government ministers started to talk in Government press-release speak all the time.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Can you help get @andyreeves back on Twitter?

Now, I love Andrew Reeves as much as the next person, but unlike Lisa and Jennie I am way too selfish to do anything to help him in the middle of the Strictly Come Dancing Final.

Let me explain.

Until this afternoon, Andrew had been a stalwart of my Twitter timeline every day of the 27 months I've been on the micro-blogging site. When I try to access his page at the moment, all I see is a massive Twitter Fail Whale and a message saying that his account has been suspended. He has no idea why this has happened. He just hasn't been able to access Twitter since about 2 this afternoon and his attempts to resolve this with Twitter have been fruitless.

I can't see how Andrew's suspension can have had anything to do with his blogging about a gaffe made by the ITV News Twitter account which has since been deleted, although an apology was made for a rogue tweet made from that account. All he did was report an event in the public domain, which he was well within his rights to do.

I'm sure in the circumstances that he won't mind if I repeat his blog post in full:

Oh dear, whoops a daisy, crap etc etc

Earlier this morning the ITV News twitter account sent out the following tweet;

Nigella Lawson is nowhere near as attractive as she thinks she is
I do feel for the person responsible for tweeting this, but it shows when you have a personal account and you operate a business account, check which you are logged into before you tweet.

One of my followers pointed out that Nigella is the same age as Gillian McKeith which means whoever tweeted this from ITV News is wrong anyway!

The offending tweet has been removed but as you can see above it was real.

That was it. Nothing particularly earth shattering. Just a report of one of those there but for the grace of God go I moments. 

Back to me, now. Gillian was born in 1959, and Nigella was born on 6 January 1960, so there's not that much in age between them. I'm with the general consensus that Nigella is the more attractive of the two by a long way and in every way. I'm sure my friend James Shaddock, whose Facebook feed is often full of extremely complementary remarks when Nigella is on the tv, would agree.

Andrew Reeves is one of the loveliest people on Twitter and the Lib Dem blogosphere. Please e-mail to ask them to reinstate him as soon as possible. And if you have your own blog, or Twitter or Facebook account, please spread the word far and wide asking people to do the same. 

Now, back to the Strictly Final. It's not the same without him - I've nobody to argue with about Gavin Henson's general uselessness.

UPDATE: the man himself is still suspended, but is very grateful for all the help he's had. He's now come to the conclusion that it's something to do with him tweeting all the people who had re-tweeted his original tweet about ITV News' gaffe with a link to his blog post with more info. He was basically sending stuff to people who'd already expressed an interest in the subject, not spreading indiscriminate spam to random people. I am missing him terribly and think that Twitter are being very harsh with him and should let him back.

Here's what The Twitter One has had to say today.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Liberal Democrat Iain Smith calls for enquiry into rail failures

I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only Liberal Democrat who is disgusted with the shoddy service First Scotrail has been providing recently. I know that they've had a challenge, but their management and communication is shambolic. If you don't believe me, go back and read about my game of musical platforms the other week or my husband's frozen encounter with the train that wasn't really cancelled.

Iain Smith, Liberal Democrat MSP for North East Fife is generally a very lovable human being. He does get grumpy, though, if his trains don't run on time, or if First Scotrail muck him about, at the best of times. I remember seeing a video profile on the Parliament website in which he was asked about what made him angry. Many other MSPs had said things like poverty and war and pestilence. Iain talked about shops selling Christmas stuff too early and Scotrail's rubbish communications, both causes very close to my heart. I am not sure if this is the one as I am stuck on the slowest laptop in the world but I'll check it later. (Update, much later, actually it's not, but it's worth watching anyway. And a note to the Test Match Commentary Team - if you are lucky enough to get an invitation to dinner at Iain's house, go, for goodness sake. The food will be amazing.

Anyway, he stood up for long suffering commuters by writing to Patrick Harvie, Convener of the Parliament's Transport Committee, to ask for there to be an enquiry into First Scotrail's many shortcomings over the Winter period.

During a debate on Winter resilience yesterday in Holyrood, Iain said:

"Part of [the problem] is simply down to ScotRail's inadequate information systems; its website failed to provide accurate information. If we wanted to find out whether a train was running, it was guaranteed that if it said on the live rail departure board that a train was on time, it had been cancelled. If the board said the train was delayed, it had been cancelled. The only way of knowing if the train was running was if it could be seen moving down the line.
"There is also the issue of whether the rolling stock is capable of the job. ScotRail says that the brakes freeze and the snow accumulates under the carriages, which causes damage to the equipment. We are told that there are infrastructure problems, such as freezing points. Those issues are all of concern and need to be addressed. A once-in-a-lifetime event has happened twice within 12 months, and we need to upgrade our railway network so that it can cope."

This will resonate with the many thousands of people who rely on a functioning rail system to get them to work. It's ridiculous that here in West Lothian we didn't have any service at all for 10 days with an occasional replacement bus service that turned up when it felt like it and was wholly inadequate to cope with the number of passengers.

Iain also raised the issue of heating oil supplies. It's awful that some people have been told that it'll be January before they will get a delivery and even the suppliers have no idea how much it'll cost when it does come. He said:
The issue is that the heating oil companies are being told that they are unlikely to get supplies at present, and the customers are unlikely to get deliveries until January. That is the situation on the ground, and it needs to be addressed. I accept the point about the derogation of the drivers' hours regulations, but that does not help if there is no heating oil to supply, which seems to be the problem. Someone has that heating oil, but they are trying to make a huge profit from it, and that is unacceptable.
Let's hope that that gets sorted and that people don't have to spend a cold and miserable Christmas either because they have no oil, or they're keeping their boilers turned down low to make the supply that they do have last.

Icy Dangers - frozen lakes are not for walking on

As the temperatures plummet again, and it looks like we're in for another long spell of Arctic blasts, I thought it might be an idea to let you see a status update from a friend on Facebook which filled both her and I with absolute horror.

Her husband, very cute puppy dog, and youngest daughter went for a walk round the reservoir near our home during the last cold snap. A few nights of -14 had made sure that the reservoir had frozen over, but the temperature was starting to rise.  What they saw scared them as my friend wrote:
OMG!! (Husband) and (Gorgeous youngest daughter) just back from walking  (cutest and most spoiled puppy dog ever) around the frozen reservoir and can you believe there are kids footprints where they have walked across it and even made a snow angel......WTF!!!!!!!
Thankfully that didn't end in tragedy, but the thought of what could have happened, the ice breaking and the children drowning, made shivers run down my spine. I'm all for teaching children to cope with hazards, but they also have to know that there are some things you just don't do. They can't judge how thick the ice is, or whether it's likely to have become thinner as it thaws. It's not worth it just to make a snow angel.

Please, if your kids are likely to be playing near water which will have frozen over, please warn them within an inch of their lives not to walk on it. It's not just me saying that. Much as it pains me to link to a story that started off life in the Daily Fail twice in one week, look at what the British Waterways Board are saying:
 'We urge visitors to Scotland's canals, including the Caledonian Canal, not to walk on frozen water under any circumstances, no matter how tempting this may be.' 
And Nottinghamshire Police issued a warning after finding 3 people in the middle of a frozen lake:

“The recent freezing temperatures have covered numerous lakes, ponds and streams with a layer of ice.
“No matter how safe this appears, youngsters or adults should never venture out onto the ice, which can crack quickly and without warning. 
“If a child falls through into the cold water they can become trapped under the ice and unable to break through to the air.”

Please be careful - kids love to play in the snow, but there are limits.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stella to win The #Apprentice

Last night's Apprentice semi-final was compulsive viewing. For ten weeks, we have veered between annoyance, horror and disbelief at the antics of 21 year old Isle Of Man contestant Stuart Baggs, who styled himself "The Brand". Lord Sugar seemed to have gone soft and was completely taken in by scatology more related to bovine creatures than to the "field of ponies" Baggs famously swore he could deliver for him.

I had been particularly furious when Lord Sugar fired the highly competent Liz last week. The only saving grace from that is that he knew what was coming to Stuart - an encounter with Margaret Mountford, who has become pretty scary in her absence. Her replacement, Karren Brady, is lovely and fair, but totally lacks that wonderful brand of acid Margaret brought to the show and which has become much more concentrated.

Stuart walked into the office, saw Margaret there, and greeted her as if she was a long lost aunt. Margaret cast him a look that would have reduced anyone else to sherbert like powder and suggested that his friendly greeting was inappropriate. Stuart found that his patter didn't wash with her at all. He tried the "but I just feel like I've known you for ages" but that was brutally cast aside with a "but you don't". She could have let it go there but she actually dragged a "Ms Mountford" out of him. Absolutely brilliant.

Even after that encounter, though, Stuart still tried to pull the wool over the eyes, and try to run rings round Viglen's CEO Borden Tkapchuk who had discovered that he didn't quite have the licence his CV suggested. The man's sheer nerve was unbelievable.

The quote of the day came from another of the interviewers, Claude Littner, who told him in response to a Baggs boast that he was a big fish in a small pond, that "you're not a big fish, you aren't even a fish".

Margaret was on fine form when she tackled property developer Jamie Lestor, taking him apart for a "puerile" joke he'd made on his application form about having a third nipple.

I was a little sad to see Jamie and Leicester cleaning business owner Joanna Riley go. Joanna had annoyed me intensely at times but she had shown originality and leadership ability and competence through the process - more than Chris Bates, who did go through.

The final will be between two from the world of banking - there's an irony there - Stella English and Chris Bates. Now, every time there's been a man/woman final in Apprentice history, the man has won, even though he has been in my opinion anyway, the poorer candidate. Tim v Saira, Simon v Kristina, Lee v Claire - each time the guy had demonstrated less competence and flair than the woman. The only times a woman has won has been when there's been two women in the final.

I'm not going to hold my breath for Stella, but, for me, she's shown much more personality, adaptability and ability throughout the 10 weeks and I want her to win.

Jeremy Purvis puts fair access to higher education at heart of Liberal Democrat thinking

Today Cabinet Secretary for Education Mike Russell outlined the proposals in his long awaited Green Paper for Higher Education. He outlined a number of various options with the aim of maintaining Scotland's reputation for world class academic excellence.

The six options under consideration are:

  • the state retaining primary responsibility for funding
  • the state retaining primary responsibility for funding but with a graduate contribution
  • charging more for students who come to study from other parts of the UK
  • increased donations and philanthropic giving
  • more money from business
  • efficiency savings
Basically what will happen now is that everybody will study the paper, get some magic numbers about future funding from John Swinney in January and will then draw up their own proposals to go in their manifestos for the election next year and whatever government is elected in May will act accordingly.

Liberal Democrat finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis only had a minute to respond but he used it well.  After barbed encounters with Des McNulty, Liz Smith and George Foulkes, there was a bit more reason to the exchange with Jeremy. While the others concentrated on trying (and failing) to pin Mike Russell down on whether he would rule out or rule in a graduate contribution, Jeremy's question was typically practical. I'd always expect a Liberal Democrat to look at issues of fairness and he made the point that only 20% of students in higher education came from a poorer background, even with free tuition and it was important to address that. Mike Russell actually gave quite an intelligent response, saying how you needed to tackle that issue at the school and nursery gates with early intervention. That might be an encouraging sign that the SNP might be prepared to support a pupil premium like the Liberal Democrats are bringing in south of the border.

Liberal Youth Scotland are unimpressed by Mike Russell's statement, with their President Kristian Chapman saying:
The only concrete announcement we’ve had from this SNP Government is that they are cutting 12% from University funding, but with no answers on how this will be replaced.
“NUS research has shown that a huge number of students have thought of dropping out because of a lack of student support, and again, we still have no answers from the SNP on how they will address this.”
There's a long way to go on this. Mike Russell himself has given signs that he might be prepared to introduce a graduate contribution to pay for education. This would differ from the graduate endowment introduced by the Liberal Democrats in the first Holyrood coalition as it would actually mean graduates paid some of the cost of their education. The endowment did not pay for teaching staff or materials or lecture halls - it helped poor students go to university. So, Nicola Sturgeon, you can't take away the Liberal Democrat achievements in that first coalition. Without the Scottish Liberal Democrats,  you'd have come into office with students paying fees and top up fees and you'd have had to have found the money to get rid of them, or not...

Nick Clegg ends child detention

It's fair to say that we Liberal Democrats have had some tough times over the past few weeks, but today's announcement by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that child detention for immigration purposes will end shows that we are doing good in government.

Richard Grayson wrote in the Guardian this week about how the party should be pursuing a policy agenda with the Labour Party because for some reason they're better than the Tories. So much better that they detained 1000 innocent children in horrible places like the notorious Yarls Wood in Bedfordshire. Look what the Labour Government did to young Janipher Maseko as she told the Guardian 3 years ago:

The police called an ambulance and they took my children away to Brighton hospital. I was taken to a local police station. My breasts were engorged because I had just had a baby and was feeding. A doctor saw me and asked if I wanted a breast pump, but I never got one.
I was still bleeding from the birth. My clothes were filthy. For three days, I was given no shower, no clean clothes. I was just given food three times a day. Every so often, a police officer would slide open the hatch and say, "Are you OK?" That's all.
I was transferred to Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire. I arrived at midnight. I told them I had just had a baby and had been separated from my kids, but they just gave me a paracetamol. I was distraught. My children weren't with me. I was crying all the time. I couldn't eat. They put me on antidepressants.
During the two weeks I was there, no one organised for me to see my kids or told me how they were. Whenever I asked one of the officers, "Please, I have to see my kids. I am breastfeeding. I am in pain," all they said was, "Have a paracetamol." I was told to take drugs to dry my milk. But I wanted Colin back, I wanted to breastfeed because I knew it was best for him.
Worse, there came a time when she thought she was going to be sent back to Uganda without her children.
"Good news, Janipher. We have booked you a flight back to Uganda." There was only my name on the notice of removal directions. I was distraught at the thought of being deported without my children. I know of at least one woman who is now back in Uganda while her children are still in foster care in this country.
To treat a young girl and her two babies with such brutality and inhumanity is wicked and must never happen again. Depriving a mother of her children and making her worry that she'll never see them again is no less than torture. Nick Clegg has ensured that these sorts of distressing things are history.

Don't think for a minute that the Tories in Government would ever have done this on their own - and we know Labour didn't. 

Nick Clegg, announcing the immediate closure of the Family Unit at Yarl's Wood, said:

Today the Coalition Government is setting out, for the first time, how we are ending the detention of children for immigration purposes in the UK.
“How we are ending the shameful practice that last year alone saw over 1000 children – 1000 innocent children - imprisoned.
“Today’s announcement marks a big culture shift within our immigration system.
One that puts our values – the protection of children – above paranoia over our borders.
“One that prioritises doing the right thing over looking and sounding tough.

This is genuinely a big Liberal Democrat win for the party to celebrate, but more importantly it's also great news for children and anyone interested in their welfare.


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