Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sky to have primary rights to #F1 races - a sad day for sport #bbcf1

I have written many times about how utterly fabulous I think the BBC's Formula One coverage has been over the past two and a half years. The passion of presenter Jake Humphrey, the precision of Ted Kravitz, the empathy of Lee McKenzie, the delighfully hilarious commentary of Martin Brundle, the top quality bitching between Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard. They maybe focus on McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari a tad too much, but I'm nitpicking. As soon as you hear "The Chain" come on, you know fine you're going to enjoy pretty much every minute. The way Jake has interacted with fans on Twitter has been so appreciated. Every race has been a delight.

Any attempt to move F1 away from this fabulous team would have had me outraged and distraught. So, you can imagine how I felt to discover on Friday morning that the primary rights to F1 had not only been given away by the BBC, but were going to the Infernal Wickedness of Sky. Next year only half the races, qualifying and practice sessions will be shown live on the BBC and there'll be a highlights programme for the races they don't show live. All the races will be shown on the Wickedness, without adverts. And for this, I would have to pay an extra £20 a month on top of  my basic Wickedness package. It's the only thing I would watch, so that seems like a hell of a lot to fork out.

Basically what happened was that the BBC simply decided that it had better things to spend its money on than F1 in the current financial climate. When the BBC was strapped for cash, saving £30 million a year by sharing the rights with Sky must have seemed an obvious saving. I've seen it suggested that the Coalition's freezing of the licence fee deal was all done to get the F1 rights into Murdoch's hands, but I'm fairly certain it wasn't quite that blatant. The Tories have never been keen on the BBC and would happily undermine it.

But if the BBC was looking to get rid of its rights,  what options did Bernie Ecclestone have? Let's not kid ourselves that the wishes of the fans would even touch the outer realms of his sub-conscious. For him it's all about maximising the dosh. I am as likely to be taken out for dinner by Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny as Bernie is to care about fans.

Now, ITV had already got rid of the rights to F1 to concentrate on polluting the schedules with ever more football, so they were unlikely to want them back. And we maybe have to be grateful about that because other than Murray Walker and Brundle, their coverage was  horrifically bad.

Channel 4 doesn't have the money or the desire for F1 and we should probably be grateful that Richard Desmond didn't snap it up for Channel 5. Heaven knows what he'd have done with it, but it surely wouldn't have been respectful to women.  Actually, I need to correct this after Neil Monnery told me on Twitter that C4 had valiantly done the decent thing and offered £45 million, but this wasn't enough for Bernie.

An exclusive deal with Sky would have left F1's sponsors grumbling as audience figures would plummet. What Bernie has managed to do is get for himself the best of both worlds - the lucrative income from a subscription channel combined with the audience from a limited deal with our public service broadcaster.

For fans, it's a nightmare - and how are new people going to become interested in the sport if the only way they can follow it properly is via a £40 a month subscription? Sure, they can go down the nearest pub, if they're over 18 - but if there's a clash with a football match, guess what's going to win out? Also pubs don't tend to be open at the crack of dawn when the races in Australia, Japan, China, Korea, India and Malaysia, more than a quarter of the year's races, take place.

The BBC team themselves have had mixed public reactions. Commentator Martin Brundle is not a happy bunny.

Jake Humphrey's glass was more than half full. 

I think it's fairly safe to say that fans on Facebook and Twitter are really annoyed about this. A Scottish Liberal, Andrew Page, summed it all up on my Facebook wall:
I'm not the world's bigest F1 fan but I like the BBC coverage...more importantly I like the fact that curently watching the world's best racing drivers in action is something avalable to everyone. Pretty soon the only sports we're going to have on the BBC or TV are showjumping and World Series snail racing.
So will I sell my soul to the Devil? I don't know. I love F1, but I loathe and detest subscription sports channels.  I could say definitely not on principle, but I may well weaken. I am only human after all. I certainly won't even think about if unless they have Brundle. He has become so integral to my enjoyment of this sport over 14 years that he's a deal breaker. Hiring DC and EJ would also help. I am fairly certain Jake will stay with the BBC, but we'll see him loads anyway. I always have the option of watching the races not shown on the BBC on their website. Whatever my ISP charges me for the extra hit on data is bound to be less than a Sky subscription. And I'm sure it'll be lovely on the iPad.

This whole thing really sucks, though.  There's a strong argument that sports with such a massive following should be shown on free to air channels.

We'll just have to relish every single moment of the BBC 's superlative coverage for the rest of the season. That last race under the current system in Brazil is going to be so sad. It'll be worse than David Tennant leaving Doctor Who, Take That splitting up the first time and Dobby's demise in Harry Potter. Better stock up on the tissues, then.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Feminist Friday XII: The global perspective - teaching our kids to value equality

This is a really brief contribution to this week's Feminist Friday and it poses more questions than it resolves.

As mother of a 12 year old daughter, I have huge concerns about the pressures she'll be under in the next decade of her life. These years will see the greatest pressures on her to conform in terms of looks and attitudes to what an unforgivingly misogynistic culture expects.  Boys her age are already watching freely available internet pornography in which the women are portrayed as mere receptacles instead of equal partners. That is bound to affect their expectations of how relationships work.

I spoke to somebody who works with young women in this area, half hoping she'd tell me that I was worrying too much about this. She told me I wasn't.

I want for her to come out of the next decade a happy, confident woman with a clear idea of where she wants to go in life and how she can achieve that. I want her not to take any nonsense from anybody in relationships and to be able to recognise and expect healthy dynamics within them. I also want her to believe passionately in all women having the opportunities open to her.

I think it's important for all young people, boys and girls,  to know that, actually, many women in the world have much more to worry about than what they weigh, or how they look. There's a balance between scaring them and making them aware of the effects of a culture in which women are not treated as equals. Every day women, some not that much older than Anna is now,  are forced into marriage against their will, beaten, raped, systematically abused. Mutilation is a cultural norm in other places. Kids need to understand that there are huge restrictions on what women can do across the world.  Boys need to understand that the women in the pornography they watch online have no power in its creation and may be forced into participation after being trafficked. They need to know that for women without access to even basic medical care, a pregnancy is a potential death sentence.

There are so many cultural influence which seek to narrow the focus of teenagers to looks and relationships and pretty much nothing else. Raising awareness of the terrible injustices women face across the world is surely a win win, as it gives kids a different perspective on their own issues and will hopefully make them angry enough to do something lasting about it.

How do we engage more of our young people with these issues and ensure that they learn to appreciate the need for a society to value all sorts of equality and diversity? How do we cut through the crap that's bombarding them and let them see how others are forced to live.

The opening of the National Museum of Scotland in pictures

This morning the National Museum of Scotland re-opened its doors after a refit that's taken more than 3 year and cost £47 million. Anna and I went along - although we couldn't stay for too long as she had her final Glee Week workshop to get to.

The Museum was one of our favourite places to visit - a real treasure trove for an inquisitive mind. We've really missed this part of it. Anna's never been as absorbed by the exhibitions in the new building.

When we arrived in Chambers Street around 9:30, there was already a fair sized crowd. Unfortunately, we were too late for the animatronic dinosaur and acquatic dancing creatures, but who needs them when you can have Grant Stott? He was dressed in a frock coat, and my first thought was that it was like pantomime come early. For those of you who aren't based in Edinburgh, Grant is a DJ on Radio Forth and a perennial star of the pantomime at the King's Theatre. He introduced us to 11 year old Briony who recounted that she'd taken her first steps in the museum.

We were quite alarmed to see the lengths some people went to go get a decent view of the proceedings:

But they weren't as high up as this guy. And look - he's going to jump!

And off he went!

Ribbon safely delivered

As they reached the bottom to a fanfare played on a 2000 year old horn, there was an almighty noise. I'm not really up on pyrotechnics but I guessed they were firecrackers. Lots of them. It was very noisy and a little bit glittery.

We were then allowed in. Not the old way, through the famous wooden doors,but into stone lined basement.

We then went upstairs to what used to be the entrance hall.

They had some random exhibits there. I am not usually very good with my technical things, but I was quite pleased with myself for correctly identifying this as a printing press:

Anna was taken by the Communications display. I was completely and utterly freaked out by it. I just don't think I'm old enough to see inventions from my adulthood, like the earliest mobile phones, appear in a museum. The thing that really made me sit up and think was that Anna had absolutely no idea how to work a dial phone. I had to show her.

I was a little disappointed that they seemed to have every phone known to man on display except the standard issue BT phone of the late 70s and 80s. How I desperately wanted one of them with its proper ring that sounded like a proper bell. I hated the fact that we had one of these horrible trim phones at home:

Anna thought it was creepy before I told her how much I loathed it. Good girl.

My favourite photo of the whole day has to be this view from the top.

Now, I have been told that I shouldn't mention goldfish. I, however, don't see any harm a little piscine nostalgia. There was much consternation when it was announced that the goldfish ponds which used to be in the main entrance hall were not going to survive the refit. I will admit that we were sad to be them go but this new hall just looks fantastic. It's all kind of light and airy and Great Exhibition like. If it were filled with people in Victorian dress, they wouldn't look out of place.

When we saw this, I thought that it was so good that my sister wasn't doing her Land's End to John O'Groats charity cycle ride in Victorian times. A modern road bike may not be the most comfortable way to travel, but it's better than this old boneshaker.

There was another moment of slight discomfiture as I saw computers invented within my lifetime displayed - this time compared with the modern iPad - in which you can see my leg reflected.

The final photo looks down on the Stewart Ford F1 car.

I know that these barely scratch the surface. We saw but were didn't have time to take a picture of the shiny new escalator. There are also better quality snaps around than my iPhone, with the best will in the world, can manage. I hope you've enjoyed our perspective, though. You can have a look at some more professionally done pictures on the National Museum of Scotland's Facebook page.

I'm so glad we were there for the first day, even if we did have to rush off. We'll be back soon - and often.

My Bob was on Reporting Scotland!

I went out last night to bid farewell to a fabulous former colleague of mine, Elspeth, who is going to Hull to live with a boy. I didn't get to see Reporting Scotland but had a text message from a friend to say that Bob was on it.

So, I checked when I came home - and he was, too. He didn't have a speaking part, but the look on his face was of someone who was thoroughly fed up with the world in general and Scotrail in particular.

You can see him by watching the video that's about half way down this page. When the guy in the white shirt is being interviewed, you can see Bob walking right past him. He's the one with the pink shirt and the glower.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Caron's Corkers - 28 July 2011

There has been a surfeit of stellar blogging in the past couple of days.

The thing that's making me watch the news from behind a pillow is the shenanigans in the US. I've been having nightmares about all the potential consequences globally if this isn't fixed.

Cicero's Songs gives me no cause for cheer - and he's not often wrong.

David Boyle over at Lib Dem Voice talks about hospital patients being thrown out at bayonet point as the hospitals close down. I just hope that people are listening to his "life before banks" mantra.

Mr Potter uses a word that would cost me 50p in fines to my daughter if I repeated it, but he's summed it up pretty well. He's going from strength to strength at the moment - earning praise from Diary of a Benefit Scrounger.

Sophie Bridger, again at Lib Dem Voice, says we must do better on welfare reform - and the awesome Liberal Youth are leading the way.

The Shoogly Peg, despite the surprisingly friendly staff, felt a bit uneasy when she visited the Supreme Court.

The Burd is a bit wary of the Scottish public sector carousel.

And Spidey explains why she's immersing herself in Olympic fever.

Jo Swinson MP strikes blow for honesty in advertising

I was really pleased to see yesterday that 2 adverts by L'Oreal had been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority after a complaint from our MP for East Dunbartonshire Jo Swinson. If you want to see the judgements in full, you can do so, here and here.

Jo complained because she felt that the adverts were misleading as the photos of Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington had been digitally manipulated. If that's the case, then, clearly, the claims made for the comments they were promoting could not possibly be accurate. Put simply, we ordinary folk can't airbrush our faces when we go out in the morning.

I remember Holly Willoughby once saying in an interview that she rarely let her husband see her without make up because he would say she looked tired. We're living in a world where women are expected to conform to impossible standards. Men can't cope with a normal face because they're used to seeing airbrushed celebrities in magazines. You just have to watch Channel 4's sex education shows to see that boys are growing up thinking that the enhanced breasts they've seen in porn movies are the norm and expecting their future girlfriends to have a similar shape. That is not an easy burden for young women to bear.

I can't see the cosmetic industry rushing to change their practices as a result of these judgements  - we just have to make sure that each and every example is highlighted. That way, hopefully everyone will see that it's those images that have things wrong with them, not women.

Jo was all over the media yesterday, but my favourite report was this STV one, which, unfortunately, they won't let me embed here. You wouldn't have seen a politician use a phrase like "freaked out" in my young day - this has to be progress. And it also shows how almost everybody  gets Jo's point.

Jo herself said of the judgement:

"This ruling demonstrates that the advertising regulator is acknowledging the dishonest and misleading nature of excessive retouching. Pictures of flawless skin and super-slim bodies are all around, but they don't reflect reality. With one in four people feeling depressed about their body, it's time to consider how these idealised images are distorting our idea of beauty.
"Shockingly, even the ASA weren't contractually allowed to see the pre-production photo of Julia Roberts. It shows just how ridiculous things have become when there is such fear over an unairbrushed photo that even the advertising regulator isn't permitted to see it. Excessive airbrushing and digital manipulation techniques have become the norm, but both Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts are naturally beautiful women who don't need retouching to look great. This ban sends a powerful message to advertisers - let's get back to reality."

Jo's and Lynne Featherstone's work for the Campaign for Body Confidence is, I think, one of  the most important things we are achieving within the Government. It's been a good week for Jo. No wonder the Americans want her.

First Scotrail derailed

In the middle of the rush hour yesterday afternoon, a train derailed in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. Thankfully there were no passengers on board and nobody was hurt. However, the ensuing chaos which continues to envelop Scotland's rail network is causing misery for commuters in Central Scotland.

Princes Street Gardens is one of the busiest stretches of track in Scotland, carrying every commuter train to and from the west and north - that's everyone to and from Glasgow, Stirling, Perth, Aberdeen, West Lothian. A whole load of people. 23 million passengers use Edinburgh's stations every year. You get the picture.

I've written about First Scotrail's incompetence at the first sign of trouble on many occasions before and, unsurprisingly, they have fallen to their usual standards.

Last night my husband didn't get home until 8 pm - and that was only because he got a bus to the west of Edinburgh (first time using his new bus pass) and I went to pick him up. He told me that it was the usual story - Waverley thronged with commuters wanting to go home and absolutely no information being provided to them by First Scotrail about what was going on. A friend of mine was also similarly stranded and said on her Facebook page that she'd been told that there was no replacement bus service because it was Network Rail's fault, not  Scotrail's. Well, nice to know that in the midst of a crisis everyone's playing the blame game first. Would it not be better, more satisfying, to work together to try to help out customers?

In these situations, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotrail actually enjoy putting their passengers through hell.  I've been told to walk to the other end of the station to catch a train and when I've got there, been told that it's changed and I have to go back to where I've just been.  This morning at Livingston North railway station, the website told passengers to go up to the road and wait for a replacement bus service to Edinburgh, while the information boards said there would be a train at 8:36 and people should wait at the platform. When people used the information service to question this contradiction, they were told in no uncertain terms that there would be no trains before 9am, only to say just a few minutes later that there would be a train at 8:36 after all.

These are just exactly the sorts of issues that arose during the snow - you would think that the company would have learned lessons from that debacle.

Instead, it seems to think that if the Glasgow - Edinburgh line is working, then they don't need to bother themselves about anyone else. That was a common theme on my Facebook and Twitter feeds last night and one that's been noticed in today's Scotsman.

You would think that they would have some sort of business continuity plan in the event of a disruption in Princes Street Gardens that would be all ready to implement, with someone being given responsibility for empathetic, clear and precise communications to passengers. Instead, it seems to the passengers that Scotrail use the Decapitated Poultry method of crisis management.

And everyone's being very quiet about this derailment. I want to know what caused it, I want to see the inspection records for that part of the track and I want it explained in detail why there is still this level of disruption 15 hours later

But, most of all, I want ScotFail to raise its game. Surely not too much to ask.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Intrepid Inverness Spinners cross the Scottish Border.

As you know I've been following the progress of wee sister Honor who, with the Inverness Spinners, is cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society Scotland and Inverness SNAP. 

At 9:57 am this morning, they crossed the Scottish Border. I'm amazed that they have managed to cover over 450 miles in just over 5 days. 

They head to Kilmarnock tonight, Crianlarich tomorrow, Fort Augustus on Friday, Brora on Saturday and then, finally, John O'Groats, after they've tackled the evil Berriedale Braes. They look a lot less evil than they are on this video, available here on You Tube.


If you feel such a hardcore climb - and remember they're coming the other way, up to that hairpin, after cycling 850 miles is impressive, you might want to consider sponsoring them here or wishing them well on their Facebook page here

And, by way of it being a small world, I've found out through talking to my friend, a LEJOG veteran, that his wife knows someone in the team, Caroline Keith.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I am not impressed by several reports today that the Coalition has gone back on its intention to delete DNA from innocent people in line with the system we have here in Scotland. This was set in stone in the Coalition Agreement and something that Nick Clegg was very keen to promote.

There will be some improvement in that the samples will ne held in anonymised form. However individual police forces will retain sufficient information to marry up samples with their owners' details. And we've had quite enough examples of unscrupulous people accessing information they have no right to have recently.

I'm fairly sure I heard something on tv recently about the number of police forces in England being reduced so this information could end up being Held in fewer places, making access even easier in the long term.

I want to hear what our Lib Dem ministers' take on this is. On face value, this is very bad news indeed. I don't understand why on earth these samples are not going to be deleted. Retaining them in this form seems pointless unless there's some agenda to reunite all the information once the pesky Lib Dems are out of the way.

Maybe it's time for an intrepid person to submit a topical motion to Conference on the subject. It is, after all, a core issue for we Liberal Democrats & one on which we need to take a stand.

Work Capability Assessment errors slammed by Commons Committee - Lib Dems must act

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee has highlighted failures in the Government's Work Capability Assessment, saying these have caused "fear and anxiety" for claimants whose benefits have been stopped.

This will come as no surprise to the many people for whom the process has been an ordeal.

This is a problem which has been building up for years, since the assessment was introduced by the last Labour Government in 2008 for new ESA claimants.

Now it seems that administrative errors have led to people being counted as having missed appointments which they may not even have been informed about. This actually happened to a friend of mine. Thankfully they were able to get it sorted reasonably quickly, but not without a whole load of unnecessary stress, but it should never have happened.

I found it a particular outrage that disabled claimants were sent appointments in venues that weren't accessible to them:
 It is unacceptable that disabled people should be called to attend an assessment at a centre which is inappropriately located, inaccessible to them or where reasonable adjustments cannot be made to accommodate special requirements arising from their health condition. We note DWP's assurance that Atos Healthcare is "moving rapidly toward" a situation where this is no longer the case. We request that, in response to this Report, the Government sets out progress towards this aim. This should include options for the relocation of assessment centres where necessary, increasing disabled access, and improvements to the mechanisms for ensuring a claimant's needs are known to Atos Healthcare in advance of the WCA. (Paragraph 71)
In terms of the actual process itself, there are still people being found fit for work when they patently are not, despite the changes as a result of the Harrington Review. The difficulty is that it takes time to make improvements after the recognition of a flaw in the process -and when 30,000 people a week are going through this assessment, a lot of them are going to come through the wrong side of this assessment.

I think I've shared with you before that I know someone who was passed as too ill to continue in their job by ATOS and pensioned off early - and when they applied for ESA, ATOS, via the Work Capability Assessment, marked them fit for work. That, too, was sorted - but again, after a long time. The Committee highlighted the cost and stress of an overloaded appeals system.

There is some good stuff in there, though - the Government is praised for trying to do actually offer support to people to help those who can back to work and for implementing the Harrington Review. By the way, I feel a bit better that the review process is ongoing, with evidence being requested for the next stage now.
We support the Government's objectives of helping people with disabilities and long-term health conditions to move back into work, whilst continuing to provide adequate support for people who have limited capability for work or are unable to work. However, the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated and nor should the level of anxiety which currently surrounds the process. 

Conservative ministers got a bit of a slap on the wrist from the Committee for contributing to an inaccurate portrayal of benefit claimants as "workshy" and "scroungers" in the media. You don't find Liberal Democrats talking like that about people - but we do need to be more noisy about publicly challenging the Tories when they talk this sort of judgemental nonsense.

The idea of stopping contributory ESA after a year comes in for criticism too.

The other thing the Committee raised concerns about was how the people put back on the labour market would fare if employers were reluctant to take them on:
 In almost all of the discussion of the Government's plans, the emphasis is on getting the claimant ready to go back to work. However, the Government will only achieve this laudable aim if employers are willing to employ someone who might have been on incapacity benefit and out of work for some time and who might still have substantial health issues. This will require a great deal of co-operation and change of attitude from many employers. Providers of employment support have a crucial role to play in building relationships with employers so that they can gain trust and an understanding of the challenges and benefits of employing former benefit claimants. However, it is also the Government's responsibility to engage in changing attitudes and spreading good practice amongst employers. The Government must pay as much attention to this side of the "back to work" equation as it does to getting the claimant "work ready"
I still feel uneasy about this aspect of the welfare reform. I saw the mistakes that were made with the WCA when it was first introduced when I was working for an MP. It was clear that the system was flawed and stacked against the claimant. I'm not against the idea in principle - but I want the emphasis to be on supporting the person, not on taking money from them unfairly. It needs to be made to work better.

My worry is that there is no will in either the Tory or Labour parties to really make this system work fairly and compassionately. The only people in that place who have a track record of speaking up for the people affected by these changes are the Liberal Democrats. Alistair Carmichael and Danny Alexander both had a good go at the Labour Government in opposition. We know that the Tories would have been a lot harder on welfare reform but were stopped because of us. It's up to us to maintain the pressure within the Government to act on and even beyond the recommendations in this report.

So this post is really a Lib Dem call to arms - I reckon that if Mr Potter's motion was passed with an overwhelming majority at our Conference, like the health reform one was, that would be a very powerful message to the Government.

Let's get to it. Despite the awful procedures for registering for Conference, there's now a really good reason to go.

US website: "it's particularly depressing we can't vote for Jo Swinson"

American website has heaped high praise on Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire Jo Swinson for calling for speaking out against gender stereotyping on television. 

Margaret Hartmann wrote:
We get a bit jealous anytime we hear about a nation in which all political candidates have a solid grasp on reality, but it's particularly depressing that we can't vote for British MP Jo Swinson. The 31-year-old Liberal Democrat led the effort to restrict airbrushing in advertisements, and now she's speaking out against sexism in television programs for children.
I wouldn't go as far as to say every politician in the UK has any sort of a grasp on reality - but I guess we are quite balanced when compared to the "right wing nutters" in the US Congress as the Almighty Vince called them, who are holding the global economy to ransom. It is a weird thing - it's not Middle Eastern oil sheikhs or the dreaded Communism Ronald Reagan spent so long condemning that's causing such a huge threat to families and jobs in America, it's old fashioned home grown Republicans. There are no words for the contempt in which I hold these people. Playing political games with people's lives is despicable.

But going back to Jo, she is so right about the way in which programme makers make girl characters all pink and precious while the boys get to do the action stuff. The Disney princesses are starting to improve, slowly - in Tangled, Rapunzel does a lot of the action herself, although she does seem to think she needs a bloke to show her the sights of the outside world when she's more than capable herself.

I think the first images kids get are particularly important in forming their expectations of what life has to offer them. If kids see that the norm is for boys to have the leadership roles and all the fun, as they do in 2/3 of tv aimed at them, then that doesn't help anyone. Boys grow up thinking girls naturally take a subordinate role and they have a sense of entitlement to power and girls' confidence and expectations are limited.

Jo cites Dora the Explorer as a good example of kids' tv - although I think the programme used to be better. I wasn't particularly impressed when they brought her cousin Diego in and now I see they have a rather sickly tutu clad Dora ballet iPhone application. Why can't we just go back to the good old days, when Anna was week when it was just Dora, Isa, Backpack and Boots against the cunning of Swiper the fox? Dora was just becoming popular when Anna was a toddler and there was literally no merchandise available here - I spent a fortune buying games and stuff on eBay for her. Anna grew up with Dora - and she certainly picked up a fair smattering of Spanish from her.

I hope that tv executives take note of what Jo is saying but I won't be holding my breath. They won't listen to her alone, so they should actually hear from other people who feel strongly about this, each and every time we think there's an example of this sort of stereotyping. They don't listen when we take them to task repeatedly about gender balance on Question Time - but that's no reason why we should give up.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Thanks, but no thanks, Brian Monteith

When I was running my support groups for new mums, there were so many women who were finding the unwanted advice coming from all sorts of sources, but mainly their mothers-in-law, hard to cope with. Mostly it was because it went against every instinct they had as mothers, and sometimes it was clear how hurt they were at the manner in which the advice was delivered. Those vulnerable young mothers, trying to find their own way to develop their own family life, were made to feel really rubbish by people, often with their own agendas to put them down, who just had to interfere. What I used to suggest is that when an unwanted piece of advice was offered, was just to smile at whoever was giving it, look them in the eye, and say, simply, "thank you" and go on and do exactly what suited them, confident that their instincts were correct.

That's what came to mind when I read Brian Monteith's advice to the Scottish Liberal Democrats in today's Scotsman. He thinks we should go back to being called the Scottish Liberal Party, dissociate ourselves from the Coalition and should shout more about home rule.

Now, I'm not about to be seeking or taking advice from someone who was a Tory MSP for 8 years, thank you very much. Yes, I know, he's the Director of and above all that sort of thing, but there were a few low blows in that article. We're not in a marriage with the Tories - if we were it would be based on one thing only, our desire to govern in the national interest for five years to sort out the economic mess we're in - but his article does kind of have that mother-in-law put down air about it.

First of all, he gets his facts wrong. I'd have shed a few less tears if we'd returned 7 MSPs in May. Then he makes an assumption that losing two thirds of our MSPs would have been ok for us if we'd got AV. He clearly doesn't understand that there's not a single Liberal Democrat who would die in a ditch for AV. It was a mild reform that would have provided local legitimacy for the MP and was thus an improvement on the current system, but not one which set Liberal Democrats' hearts beating.

He then has a go at the Lib Dem led council in Edinburgh - which had one unholy mess to sort out when they took office and will approach next year's local elections with the Council on a much more solid financial footing than it was.

To complete the 360 degree feedback, he kicks our MPs on the basis solely of the Leuchars decision. He fails to mention that Mike Moore is responsible for a significant devolution of powers which Monteith's party would have kicked into the long grass had they been governing alone. Then there's the aircraft carriers, which Mike Moore fought to keep, and the fact that the overall military footprint in Scotland will be bigger. Not to mention, of course the fact that all basic rate taxpayers in Scotland have had a tax cut while some have been taken out of tax altogether. I can't imagine he'd be all that delighted  about the end of child detention for immigration purposes but I and every Liberal Democrat certainly is.  The Coalition may be far from perfect, but it is doing many good things.

Monteith does slightly grudgingly acknowledge that the tuition fees decision had no relevance in Scotland - but only after kicking is twice for it.

And his advice? We have to change our name to get back to our roots and put distance between us and the Federal Party. Except this is what the previous leadership tried in the Holyrood election, misguidedly in my view, and look where that got us.  I can just see our opponents in Scotland totally allowing us to dissociate from the Coalition, too. It's the one stick they have to beat us with and we have to respond robustly and not stick our heads in the sand. I have every confidence that we will get better at talking about the Coalition.Willie Rennie describes himself as anti Tory and pro coalition and is its most critical friend. I have high hopes that Nick Clegg, who knows fine that Willie gives good advice from the European and Westminster elections, will take account of what he has to say.

And as for going back to being the Liberals. Well, no, frankly. The social democratic tradition is important - and ditching it would be inconceivable for me. It's the Democrat bit of our heritage that is primarily about the role of the state in promoting a more equal and fair society and we need it in there. Joining it with the immense value that liberalism gives to the individual, and to communities, decentralising power, gives a poweful set of principles to underpin our policies. You need both sides to balance it.

The one bit where he might have a point is about articulating what we mean when we talk about home rule. We need to get the Scotland Bill through and support Mike Moore in that, but at the same time make plain that this isn't the end of the journey and what we want is proper home rule for Scotland - and we need to make it sound sexy. Alex Salmond can be pretty seductive - yes, I know what I've written and I don't mean it like that, don't be silly - when he's painting this wonderful picture about how fantastic independence would be. There is, of course, absolutely no substance to that picture whatever. When everyone else talks about our constitutional future, though, it can sound boring in comparison. We need to bring positive passion to the debate - and remind everyone that we are not a unionist party, we're a federalist party and proud of it.

Willie has been talking a lot about the costs of independence  - and he's right to point them out. But what I also want to hear from him is why he's so passionate about our vision of home rule and why it's better.

But when we look at these issues, we'll do so from our hearts as Liberal Democrats and not, thank you very much, from anyone from any other parties who have an obvious axe to grind. So, Brian - and I smile very sweetly at you, and say, simply, thank you.

Caron's Corkers 25 July 2011

It's been a while since I've done a roundup of the best blog posts I've read. I must get into the habit of doing it again. There has been some very good stuff recently.

Mark Pack asks why a sportsman of the quality of Mark Cavendish has not attracted the media attention you would expect for someone of his achievements.

Daddy Alex makes a rare post to talk about the atrocity in Norway and how important it is to cherish and practice your values, not ditch them when they come under attack.

If I were in a crisis, I'd want Olly Grender on my side.

I was expecting a serious, earnest post from Liberal England when he asked "Was Vince Cable right to describe some American right wingers as nutters?"  He did not disappoint.

Mark Thompson tells us why Cameron discussing the B Sky B bid with Rebekah Brooks matters.

Jennie celebrates Millicent Fawcett

George Potter tells us that Liberal Youth's motion on Employment and Support Allowance has been accepted. Now I just hope I can get to vote on it in Birmingham. And while we're on the subject, an authentic and moving open letter to Iain Duncan Smith on the realities of life with an illness from Diary of a Benefit Scrounger.

Author Keris Stainton responds to my review of Jessie Hearts NYC

Yesterday I wrote a review of a brilliant book I'd just read, Jessie Hearts NYC, by Keris Stainton. In it I made some observations about locations and a couple of nitpicky technical things.

She had wanted to leave a comment here but Blogger seemed to have been playing silly monkeys yesterday so wouldn't let her, so she answered me on Twitter. Here is the conversation we had:

I should clarify that I didn't know off by heart where the typo was - I'm not quite that sad. I did actually have to look it up.

I love the fact that she's given a bit of extra insight into one of the key locations in the book

And as an added bonus, here's the publisher's promotional video for the book.

My Liberator article on where now for the Scottish Liberal Democrats

I wrote an article for the last Liberator on the future for the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the wake of a bruising election result.

The new edition is now out so the old one is available online here. It'sprobably very wrong and utterly egotistical that the only time I've drawn your attention to the publication that's in many ways the Party's conscience is when I've written in it, but it is worth reading. I let my subscription lapse for a couple of years and regretted it. I've now got it up and running again and can definitely recommend it.

Alongside my article, there's a critique of the ill-fated Yes 2 AV campaign from James Graham, Peter Black explaining how the Welsh remained relatively intact in the elections, Dinti Batstone urging the appointment of more women to the Lords and a particularly fascinating article by Nigel Scott, a Haringey Liberal Democrat Councillor on the campaign to free Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito,convicted in Italy of the murder of student Meredith Kercher. He outlines the flaws in the Italian judicial system.

I have to say that I share his concerns. Many years ago now, my sister-in-law and her boyfriend ended up in jail in Italy for a short period, but it took literally years to clear their names and cost a fortune. The Italian judicial system is certainly flawed and difficult to negotiate.

Anyway, go and have a read of this edition and let me know what you think of any of the articles.

Clare's Law: an effective measure to prevent domestic violence?

You have to have sympathy with Michael Brown, a man who's seen his daughter brutally murdered by her violent partner. I can only imagine the pain he's gone through, and he will quite rightly be looking for ways in which this violent tragedy could have been prevented.

Clare Wood met George Appleton online in 2007. In their relationship, she was subjected to repeated, horrific physical and sexual violence. She ended the relationship, but Appleton continued to harrass her and ultimately murdered her in 2009. Appleton had a history of violence towards women, which the Police were well aware of. Michael Brown argues, supported by his local MP Hazel Blears and the Victims' Commissioner Louise Casey, that the Police should have been able to tell Clare about Appleton's violent past. Then she would have been able to make an informed choice about whether to continue with the relationship.

On the face of it, this sounds like a good idea. Any woman, particularly if they have children, is bound to be wary of allowing a new person into their lives. Developing an intimate relationship with a complete stranger always has its risks, but this would be a great way of minimising them, right? It would keep more people safe.

Except, imagine if you meet this really cute, sweet, kind guy. He's baby faced, looks like he wouldn't hurt a fly. You go to the Police. They tell you that he was in and out of their cells because he'd beaten up his last partner. By this time it may well be too late. You may already be into deep with this guy. He may have told you already about his evil ex partner and how she doesn't let him see his kids and how she had affairs all over the shop and wrongly accused him of beating her up when, in fact, it was the other way around. He might have told you about how unfair it was that he'd been put in the cells, how the Police had got it all so wrong, how the law is totally stacked in favour of the woman, who is free to make all sorts of false accusations with impunity. You may well have read something in the Daily Mail that makes all this sound plausible. And he really seems genuine. And you really are falling for him. What do you do?

One of the key skills of perpetrators of domestic abuse is the ability to manipulate and control their victims. Making this information available isn't necessarily going to stop new abusive relationships being formed. By the time the victims realise that the Police were right all along, they're in too deep and don't always seen an escape route.

And what happens if both parties to a new relationship discover that each has previous issues with domestic abuse - and often abusers accuse their victim to escape justice themselves. You can see that this is not quite as clean cut as it looks.

Hazel Blears writes on Labour List why she thinks this is a vital step.

Women in Clare's position rarely know that they are at risk from men like Appleton. Despite his record of systematic domestic violence against different women she had no way of knowing that he posed such a threat. Information about his violent and vicious past was known to the authorities but she was left in the dark.
We need to change the law to give women like Clare the right to know of the threat that they face. It's important to stress that this change would also give men the right to know - we want to tackle serial perpetrators of domestic violence regardless of gender.
I tend to instinctively have more sympathy with family law barrister Lucy Reed's article in last Friday's Guardian. She argues that:
Such a system also risks creating a false sense of security and a tendency to rely on official agencies rather than a person's own instincts when judging the suitability of partners. There are many violent and potentially violent offenders who would be given a clean bill of health under the proposed scheme. Would that make their partners safer?
I think that maybe the issue I have with it is that it's yet another solution that puts the responsibility on the person entering the relationship to protect themselves rather than highlighting that abusively violent behaviour within a relationship is simply not acceptable. Don't get me wrong, I do think it's important that people grow up learning to recognise and achieve healthy dynamics in their personal relationships, but there needs to be a strong emphasis that violence and abuse are wrong and those who perpetrate it are never, ever justified. Society needs to show, in a much stronger way than it currently does, that it does not tolerate abusive behaviour  within relationships. The conviction rates are embarrassingly low given that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence and there's much more cultural acceptance, or turning a blind eye, than we would like to admit.

I think Clare's Law is the wrong approach, even as part of a wider ranging strategy to tackle domestic violence. I'm just not sure it will save lives and may even make the situation worse.

The Inverness Spinners are on their way - Day 4 of their Land's End to John O'Groat's Cycle

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that my wee sister was cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats as part of an intrepid group called the Inverness Spinners.

They set off from Land's End on Friday morning. I've never been down to that part of the country, but apparently it has an awful lot of hills so the first couple of days until they got to Bristol were pretty hard core. I think if any of them ever saw another Mendip it would be too soon.

They are doing a phenomenal amount of miles - 310 in just three days covered so far. By this evening, they'll be in the north of England, in Preston.  They are feeling proper pain, now, too, as their bodies protest loudly at what they are being asked to do. Obviously they have been training hard for many months, but the reality is quite a shock to the system.

I can't put into words exactly how proud I am of my wee sister. She's the least experienced cyclist in the group and I'm so impressed by the way she's embraced this challenge.

It's a long, lonely road for them, and there are some rather awkward looking hills ahead of them this week. Moral support would be very welcome - please leave them a message of encouragement on their Facebook wall, or, if you are a cyclist yourself, why not join them for a little bit? Their route is here.

By the end of tonight, they'll have completed 406 miles, not that far from half way through. I probably wouldn't be able to drive that far. They are doing an amazing job and I wish them well for the remaining days.

They aim to raise £10,000, of which £7,270 has already been pledged already for MS Society Scotland and SNAP so if you have any spare cash on pay day this week, we'd all be ever so grateful if you could add to that total here.  Last year's Annual Review from MS Scotland shows the sort of things they spend the money raised on - from supporting people with MS and their families to research to find a cure. A very worthy cause, and one that is motivating the Spinners to get over the next hill.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book Review: Jessie Hearts NYC by Keris Stainton

Over the past couple of years, I've got to know Keris Stainton on Twitter through my F1, chocolate and book loving friend Kate who introduced us because of our mutual love of Strictly Come Dancing.  I later realised that she writes books for young adults and she's recently had her second book, Jessie Hearts NYC, published. I started to read this on Aberdour beach last week, but Anna swiped it and wouldn't give it back until she'd finished it. She absolutely loved it.

By the time I finished it yesterday morning, I had quite a rosy glow of contentment. Enjoyment of the book starts with Mike Lemanski's gorgeously eye-catching cover. I would never be able to resist a book with the Chrysler Building, my favourite building on the planet, on its spine.

It's gold, shiny and makes you want to read it - not to mention the competition to win a trip to New York....although you can just enter that here......

And you get more Chrysler building and the fabulous Manhattan skyline on the back

Whether you have been to New York or not, you will fall in love with the city which provides the backdrop for the story. You'll recognise the movie and tv locations - although the one glaring omission for me was the cafe in Serendipity.  Anna's never really shown much interest in New York before but she will now be a very useful ally to have in constructing future holiday plans.

I went to New York City for a long weekend in December 1994 and have been wanting to go back ever since.  This book had me googling places I hadn't seen, like Strand bookstore (18 miles of books. Heaven) and The View restaurant. Although I suspect the Campbell Hotel is either so exclusive as to not bother with something as common as the internet or made up, as the only one I can find is in Tulsa.

The story itself follows Jessie, a girl from Manchester off to spend the Summer with her playwright mum who lives in New York, and Finn, an 18 year old native New Yorker deciding what to do with his life. The story switches between their two points of view in a way that's insightful and sometimes comedic. Keris' key strength in both her debut novel Della says OMG and Jessie is a very prescient understanding of what goes on in the heads of teenagers which comes across in her likeable, rounded characters. I saw bits of myself in Natalie, Jessie's mum, which made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Anna noticed the same things, but they seemed to make her laugh rather than traumatise her, so no harm done, I guess.

 Themes from both books include a perfectly healthy interest in delicatessens - her books certainly march on their stomachs.

I like her lively, funny dialogue too - although is the odd instance where the New York characters say things in a distinctly English vernacular. You should also know that I found a typo. You know how irate they make me, but the book had chilled me out so much, I reacted with just an affectionate tut. That has to be a good sign.

This story is perfect Summer reading, sweet without being schmaltzy, authentic and funny. Once you start reading, you really don't want to put it down. It covers themes of parental expectation, conflicting loyalties to separated parents, and early love and relationships. It struck me that maybe part of the reason the story draws you in is that Keris is writing not only about young love involving her characters, but about one of her first loves, for New York City.  It's one of these books that's just good for the soul.

It's part of the buy one get one half price promotion in WH Smith's at the moment, so grab it while you can and read it on holiday.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sky's Eamonn Holmes uses Twitter to crow over BBC about Amy Winehouse's death

There are times when advertising and opportunism are completely inappropriate. In matters relating to someone's death, for example.

A series of tweets from Sky Sunrise presenter and all round cheeky chappie presenter type Eamonn Holmes showed brash insensitivity in the face of a tragedy.  It really wasn't the time to go advertising:

I mean, for heavens' sake, it's a tv news channel.  Of course it would be covering this tragic event. That did not need saying.

And he didn't react too well to criticism, either, when someone took him to task for it:

But, the thing is, if it was just a public service announcement, why then did he feel the need to have a go at the rival BBC?

That's just too much. I'm sorry, but there are some times when such blatant one-upmanship is completely out of order and I think Eamonn should apologise. He's rightly one of our most loved tv presenters and I've followed his career since the Open Air days in the 80s. I like the man and his cosy style, but he didn't do  himself any favours tonight and I'm really disappointed in him.

As if that weren't enough, the way Sky News and the Sun have covered the Norway crisis - with Kay Burley wondering what language people in Norway speak and the Sun deciding it was another 9/11 with the inference that Islamic extremists were responsible - has been absolutely appalling.

The suspect in the Norwegian atrocity had links to right wing groups. The whole right wing press in this country, while obviously distancing themselves from the odious extreme right might want to take a look at the way they report things. To say the least, they don't always portray those on benefits, or foreign nationals seeking to live in the UK in the best possible light.

The last few days has shown that elements of the Murdoch empire haven't found any scruples, despite their protestations to the contrary.

Amy Winehouse deserves our compassion too

I would be lying if I said I was shocked by the news that troubled singer Amy Winehouse has been found dead. At the time of writing, there's no indication that drugs or alcohol caused her death but it's not an unreasonable assumption that they did.

I am incredibly sad, though. Whatever the circumstances, the loss of a young life is terrible and wrong.

Some people, many of whom I like and respect, expressed views on Twitter in reaction to the news of Amy's death that in some way she was less deserving of our sympathy than those who died in Norway. I don't see it that way.

Amy Winehouse was a prodigiously talented musician whose work often reflected her inner struggles. She was clearly a very troubled soul. It's right that someone who with just two albums made such an impact on the music world should make the headlines on their passing. She also deserves our compassion.

For sure, recovery from addiction requires the active work of the addict. That doesn't mean, though, that continuing to take drugs is some sort of self indulgent lifestyle choice. It is not easy to throw off the grip of an addiction and many who try with every ounce of strength they have will fail. Watching someone you love struggle with an addiction is so hard. You go through all manner of emotions and experience, from intense anger with the person to guilt and despair at not being able to help them. The truth is, though, that if they could stop drinking or gambling or drug taking, or whatever, they would. They deserve compassion and understanding not condemnation.

I feel for Amy's parents tonight. The stress, the exhaustion, the constant worry they will have gone through over the past few years is something I wouldn't wish on anybody.

I can't imagine that the interest the tabloid press showed in Amy was in any way helpful. They were always quick to print distressing & intrusive images of Amy. Legal? Yes. Ethical? Not so much.

The sadness I feel at Amy's passing does not diminish my horror at and sympathy for those affected by yesterday's events in Norway. Our hearts are big enough to deal with all sorts of life events at the same time. They have to be.

The loss of a young life, for whatever reason, is searingly sad. Let's have compassion, not condemnation.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sympathy for Norway

When I went to bed last night, the news from Norway was bad enough. At that point, 7 had died at the site of the Central Oslo explosion & the toll from the Utoeya massacre was around 20. When I woke up this morning, that figure had risen to over 80.

I feel so much for every single parent who saw their sons or daughters off to that camp. Norwegian culture seems in many ways so much more mature than ours & it punches above its weight in its contribution to peace & tolerance in the world. Young people being involved in politics here can be regarded as a bit weird, a bit mad, by their peers and even their families and it may be so in Norway. Nobody would ever expect, though, that attending an event designed at developing political knowledge and skills would turn out to be dangerous.

But for some reason, Anders Behring Breivik wanted to punish those young people who were so engaged in the democratic process. We may find out, but never understand, what was going on in his head. Psychopaths capable of cruelly despatching their fellow human beings can come from any ethnic background and espouse any manner of religious and political belief to justify themselves. Thankfully such individuals are few and far between.

It's so sad to think that so many of the next generation of potential leaders, at a camp in a beautifully tranquil location, were wiped out in an instant. I'm heartened, though, by the robustly liberal response from the Norwegian Prime Minister who pledged that this would not change the democratic heart of the Norwegian people. The appropriate tribute to those young people is to do more to encourage peace and tolerance, to challenge ideologies which threaten those things.

My heart goes out to the Norwegian people in general and particularly anyone affected by yesterday's horrific events.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, July 22, 2011

High drama in the Tour de France #tdf

You might remember that last year I wrote about my growing interest in the Tour de France. It's basically all Stephen's fault for sparking my interest the year I was ill. My big regret is not discovering it sooner. What a combination of bravery, drama and adrenaline! I love my F1 but the Tour takes excitement to a whole new level.

I still can't get over the fact that the top 8 riders are within 5 minutes of each other after 18 days of hardcore cycling. And, at the time of writing, the day before the final time trial, we really don't have a clue who is going to win.

There is literally nothing like watching a group of a couple of hundred cyclists speed along a narrow road together with spectators within touching distance, dressed in all manner of weird costumes. This year's tour has had its heartbreakingly dramatic moments. An early new hero of mine was Johnny Hoogerland. Early in the race, the driver of a French tv car decided, crazily, to go keep going no matter what rather than use the brakes that had been helpfully provided. This resulted in injury to two cyclists. Poor Johnny Hoogerland was catapulted into a barbed wire fence and the poor guy was seen, still cycling, being patched up by a medic in a car riding alongside him. What was even more remarkable was his forgiving attitude towards the driver whose recklessness could have killed him - saying that he probably felt bad enough himself.

Another hero of mine over the last two weeks has been Thomas Voeckler, the current overall leader. Every single day since he acquired the yellow jersey on stage 9, he's said that he's not going to keep it for long - and, certainly, people who know more about cycling than I do tended to agree with them. He was definitely going to lose it in the Pyrenees, and absolutely incontrovertibly he would lose it yesterday on the brutal and unforgiving climb to the highest ever stage finish at the top of the Galibier. Voeckler may well have believed the commentators himself, but he has been brave and brilliant and managed to hold on by the skin of his teeth. His lead went down from 1:45 to a mere sliver of 15 seconds. There's a lot of me that wants him to pull off a race win because for sheer tenacity he deserves it.

But he's not the only brave one. Luxembourg rider Andy Schleck, last year's runner up, took some criticism the other day for having a bit of a gripe about the final descent of a stage being too dangerous. Do you know what? Anyone who's been through 16 stages of the Tour de France is entitled to be a bit grumpy in my view and, as someone who much prefers going up to coming down, I sympathise. I don't like walking down a hill, but coming down a hill laced with spectators and hairpin bends at up to 60 kph along with a couple of hundred other cyclists is the ultimate in craziness to me. Whatever you think of him, and I like him, his bravery yesterday, breaking away from the main field with 60 km to go, and winning the stage, was amazing. He has to be at least on the podium - and he's owed a victory from last year.

Cadel Evans, who set the pace in the group behind Schleck yesterday, which helped Voeckler to hang on, ironically, is another contender. He's ridden a good race too. He and the other two would be my ideal podium.

I, unusually, managed to catch a load of yesterday's thrilling stage live. You seriously didn't know from one minute to the next who was going to win the stage or who was going to be wearing the yellow jersey at the end of the day. It was fantastic - and apparently it rates as one of  the most exciting stages ever. I was gripped by it.

The defending champion, Alberto Contador, is lagging a bit behind but still seems to be a danger. He can't be written off. I find it hard to warm to him after last year when he took advantage of Andy Schleck's mechanical failure on the Tourmalet. It's not his fault his drugs cases haven't been resolved before now, but it's possible he could win the Tour and have his victory taken off him.

The riders I have most sympathy with today are the sprinters. They are not best suited to this sort of Alpine torture - the second assault of the Galibier in 24 hours has to go down as cruel and unusual punishment, surely - and our Mark Cavendish lost 20 points (but thankfully not his place in the race due to the number of people who had the same issue) of his lead in the green jersey competition for toiling in after the cut-off time yesterday. Let's hope he can hang on until Paris and win that competition.

Today's stage ends at the top of the Alpe d'Huez. By tea time, we may have a clearer idea of who's going to win this thing. The only thing I can say for sure is that I'm an ABC (anybody but Contador) girl.

Wicked Girls

Bob has a couple of weeks' holiday coming up and we've been dithering for months about what to do with it. We'd thought of going to Mallorca, but we don't really fancy it at the beginning of August - too hot, too busy, so we might leave that until the October holidays.

Our resolve was shaken a bit last weekend when our friends managed to get a last minute deal for the island for £1000 for five of them, but we decided against it.

Anna and I have both been desperate to see the musical Wicked for a long time. I became mildly obsessed by it after seeing Samantha Barks singing Defying Gravity on the Dorothy programme a few years ago. It rapidly became one of my favourite songs of all time. I'm sure that you will see no coincidence at all in me taking a song about the moment a witch turns "bad" to my heart.

Anyway, we decided to just go for it and we'll be in London for 2 days soon. I do want to put on record, though, my total contempt for Ticketmaster who charge you £2.75 to print off your own tickets over and above their booking fee. Licence to print money or what? We're also going with friends so it'll be fabulous to see them.

 I've just been looking around on the web and there's the Doctor Who Experience at Olympia which I really fancy and I know Anna will. I also want to go to the state rooms at Buckingham Palace to see the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress, but that'll be a harder sell.

Two days in London will cost proportionately a lot more than a week in Mallorca, or maybe even a fortnight - but I'm really excited about it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Elaine Morris' defection

So, early this morning it became apparent that Edinburgh Lib Dem councillor Elaine Morris had joined the SNP. Apparently it's because she doesn't like the UK coalition and she thinks that we've not shown enough leadership over the city's troubled trams project.

Yes, you heard that right. She supports the trams but has joined a party whose noisy opposition to the project was less than helpful. No, me neither.

If the truth be known, she took a lot more than she gave to the vibrant and awesome campaign team in North Edinburgh and Leith. The people who worked so hard to get her elected & who delivered her leaflets over the last four years no doubt feel a sense of betrayal, but it'll pass.

I suspect that in the long term, Elaine Morris will come to miss that fabulous bunch of people much more than they will miss her. I also wonder how well she'll cope in a group where dissent is a dirty word, where she'll be expected to obey the edicts of the SNP leadership unquestioningly.

I am not impressed by her actions, particularly the way she went about it. My understanding is that senior party figures had been told she was going to sit as an independent as recently as yesterday afternoon.

People defect all the time. Most often there are underlying tensions. The Liberal Democrats have had people join us from other parties even recently. Ultimately it won't make a difference. When the people of Edinburgh vote next year, it'll be on th.e issues affecting them & not a councillor's decision to join another party.

When Jenny Dawe & her team took over in 2007, they inherited a council in a perilous financial mess. They have since been commended on the improvements they've made & Paul Edie has done much to improve housing & social care. They've done a creditable job in difficult circumstances.

Jo Swinson presses SNP ministers on fuel poverty

I had a bit of a grumble when I saw the news today that Scottish & Southern Energy were going to whack up our electricity & gas. We are lucky enough that it only makes us grumble. Rises of way above the rate of inflation are going to cause real problems for people, meaning that some will have to choose which basic necessities they will have Nd which they will have to go without.

It's hard to sympathise with companies who make great big profits and then say they need to hike prices. They would doubtlessly argue that they have huge costs & the fuel market is volatile. Nonetheless, they don't seem to be suffering.

Scottish Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Jo Swinson has called for action from the SNP Government to help those struggling. She said:

"As predicted, other energy companies have followed Scottish Power and announced a rise in prices. Many customers will be unconvinced about the reasons for these price hikes.  It still seems to be the case that the energy companies are far quicker to put prices up than they are to bring them back down.
“This is the last thing that hard pressed households will want to hear and will push thousands more Scots into fuel poverty. Ensuring measures are put in place to help meet the needs of vulnerable individuals and households must be a priority for Scottish Ministers over the course of the coming months.
“With company after company announcing price increases, it is particularly welcome that the UK Government is also taking steps to help smaller companies break into the market and end the dominance of the big six suppliers.”

I get what Jo is saying about the UK Government bringing more suppliers into the Market, but I do wonder if a regulatory body with more teeth might also help.

Silver linings to the Leuchars cloud

My husband tells me that when he was a teenager he used to sneak onto Tentsmuir beach and watch the Lightning interceptors take off from RAF Leuchars. He stood there in awe as they virtually stood up on their tails after rocketing down the runway.  Maybe that's what inspired him into engineering, although a very different kind. yi We've been reminiscing this morning, as the space shuttle made its final landing, how great technological and engineering advances in our youth and childhood have now lapsed with nothing to replace them.

He remembers being woken up at night in his St Andrews home by the sound of engines being fired at Leuchars.

The RAF at Leuchars have been a part of the local community in North East Fife for as long as anyone can remember. The announcement made on Monday that the base would be taken over by the Army has caused sadness and anger in the local community - and not least its local MP, Liberal Democrat Ming Campbell, who told the Courier yesterday:
"I am steadfast in my view that the decision to close RAF Leuchars has been made for the wrong reasons. This base is best placed to protect the skies above Glasgow and Edinburgh, to patrol important installations like Faslane and Torness and to answer the call should the need arise to protect the population throughout the UK from a terrorist attack from the air in a manner synonymous with the events in the USA on September 11, 2001."
Now, we have rightly played up Ming's expertise in strategic defence and foreign affairs many times in the last few years. Nick Clegg gave him the tricky job of working out our policy on the replacement of Trident. We can't now dismiss his views as irrelevant. He's worked incredibly hard on the Save Leuchars campaign and I totally sympathise with the frustration and disappointment that he must be feeling at the outcome. I also can't pretend to know the first thing about air defence strategy, so it would be really stupid of me to try to comment one way or the other.

I guess, though, that if you look at it on a Scotland wide basis, the military footprint overall is going to increase, with Army batallions being based at Kinloss and Leuchars. The rumours the other week that Fort George near Inverness was going to close have, thankfully proved to be unfounded.

Nowhere did Labour muck up in Government quite as much as they did in defence, with massively unsustainable overspends leaving a total nightmare to sort out. I guess we have to judge this Government on what they've managed to achieve for Scotland that the Tories would  not have delivered alone.

Mike Moore fought for the aircraft carriers, knowing the impact on the economies of Fife and the Clyde if they were cancelled - and they were retained. RAF bases at Kinloss and Leuchars are to close - but they will be used by the Army. It would have been a huge blow for the Moray economy to lose Lossiemouth as well, so that's going to stay open.

And then you have to look at how we've ensured that the iniquitous leave arrangements for personnel introduced by Labour were changed. Now leave does not begin until people are back on UK soil.

Of course there will be sadness and concern over the changes announced on Monday. You would expect Danny Alexander to find good things to say about the economic impact as reported in the Herald today:

THE shake-up of military bases in Scotland, including the doubling of the Army to 6500, will boost the Scottish economy by £200 million a year, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, revealed last night.The Highland MP acknowledged the decision to close RAF Leuchars was difficult but insisted the changes represented a “positive statement by the UK Government of its commitment to Scotland”.
North East Fife will notice a huge change as the RAF departs and the Army arrives, but the Chief Executive of Fife Chamber of Commerce thinks there are opportunities for local business:
"The RAF base is traditionally a major business and huge employer, so it is disappointing to lose it," he said. "But if it is going to become an army base with more personnel it will require significant investment in housing and local services like schools — that might be an opportunity for a positive impact on the area."
This could have been a lot worse for Scotland, and  credit I think, has to go to our ministers and MPs for ensuring that the military footprint in Scotland has increased. In the 80s, we saw catastrophically careless decisions made by a remote Conservative government. The Coalition has shown some regard for the communities who live near the bases. If anything, the net effect should be more money in the local economies. It's not ideal, though, and the Coalition still needs to win over the North East Fife community particularly.

My "next steps" for the coalition are to ensure they deliver on what they've committed to and that they ensure that they provide proper support for ex servicemen who too often find themselves homeless and vulnerable. They need to show that they can treat our service personnel with more respect and dignity than they were afforded under the last lot.

Downton Abbey to be shown in Scotland at last

Seven Sunday nights in Autumn last year saw my Twitter feed full of praise for new ITV drama Downton Abbey. It really annoyed me that I wasn't able to join in as it sounded exactly the sort of thing I, as a child raised on the antics of Mrs Bridges and the Bellamys in Upstairs Downstairs, would love.

The reason? STV's protracted and unnecessary dispute with ITV which basically meant that anything decent ITV produced was not shown in Scotland. Unless people were lucky enough to have the Infernal Wickedness of Sky, they couldn't see this quality drama up here.  And what did we have in its place - home grown, maybe, but still tired old Taggart.

I spent £15 on the DVD in January. It was definitely worth it, but I feel a bit cheated that I had to.

Happily, though, the BBC reports that the second series will be shown on STV after it resolved its dispute with ITV. This means that we'll get the first season on Sunday afternoons in August and then the second series plays from 18th September.

If you haven't seen it, do take the chance to watch it. The interplay between Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton is fantastic. The characters are very well written and portrayed, the plots interesting and the photography is absolutely beautiful.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A debate to inspire public confidence?

There are landmark occasions in every Parliament. I remember writing about the Holyrood debate on the release of Megrahi a couple of years ago that there are times when you really want your parliamentarians to step up to the plate and show how good they can be. Given the worrying allegations over the last few weeks, which go way beyond the hacking of anybody's phone, we needed MPs to show that they understood the dangers of the murky inter-relationships between politicians, the police and the media.  We don't really need to hear any more of the details used as ammunition in a pathetic attempt to be slightly less bad than the people on the opposite benches. The two biggest parties in there have an equal amount of form for sucking up to Murdoch.

Let's be clear. If there are points on offer, the only people who deserve them are the Liberal Democrats. We generally do understand the issues involved and  have shown that by words and actions consistently for decades. Our leaders haven't been sucking up to Murdoch and his cohorts and we have been calling for changes in regulation and scrutiny for years. Again, as on the economy and MPs' expenses to name two issues, we have been shown to not only have been right but acted right as well. Vince Cable has been talking to the Evening Standard about the furore over his comments last year, taped by the Telegraph, about declaring war on Murdoch.

There's been some unseemly behaviour in the Commons today. It's just as well that the debate is about public confidence in the police and media, and not politicians. One of the worst occasions was the barracking of Jo Swinson for asking a perfectly reasonable question of the Prime Minister:
In the light of Mrs Brooks’ revelations about quite how cosy and close the relationship was between News International and Tony Blair, and Murdoch’s secret back-door meetings at No. 10 under both the last and present Governments, does the Prime Minister agree that this explains why successive Governments have been so reluctant to act in response to the 2003 Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommendations, the 2006 Information Commissioner report, and calls last year from Lib Dem MPs for a judicial inquiry into phone hacking? [ Interruption.
How many times have we seen John Bercow rush to shout at MPs who behave badly? Every PMQs, he's out there telling people off.  But what did he do when Jo was being shouted down today? Not a thing. To give Cameron credit, he had a go at the hecklers:
 People should not shout the hon. Lady down, because she is making a very fair point, and frankly, it is a point that does not reflect very well on either Conservative or Labour, which is that there were a lot of warnings about what was going wrong—warnings from the Information Commissioner, warnings from the Select Committee—but we did not put high enough up the agenda the issue of regulating the media. We should not be pointing fingers about this; we should be recognising that we need to work on this to get it right, to respond to those reports and actually put some of their proposals into the law.
David Cameron took a lot of flak today over Andy Coulson, and rightly so. But, to be honest, he just should never ever have employed the man. It didn't matter who tried to tell him what after the event. It was just wrong for the leader of the Opposition to employ anyone who had been at the head of a paper where criminal practices had been going on under his oblivious little nose.

What worries me is that Tory and Labour politicians might hope that today's debate will be the end of the matter and it'll all die down over the Summer. Actually, this hasn't started yet. Lord Leveson's enquiry, judge rather than Downing Street cat led because of the intervention of Nick Clegg has serious issues to consider and it will come out with recommendations for change. That, however, is going to take a long time. Challenging the way power is exercised in this country, and the inter-relationships between the powerful needs a cultural change that I don't think the establishment is quite ready for. That process need not wait for enquiries to report before it can begin.

The phone hacking is relatively new but questionable conduct by a minority of journalists is not. Murdoch is not the first newspaper owner to hold senior politicians of both major parties in his thrall. News International may have broken the camel's back, but politicians and proprietors have been too cosy for decades.

If we are going to see change, though, the public needs to not only understand the sort of tactics used by journalists in their quest for information and sales and the inter-relationships between the power elites in the country but to demand meaningful change.

I am being evicted from the laptop now, and I recognise that this is only half a post, but this is a theme I want to return to over the coming months. Watch this space.


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