Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Force is with Fisi - Spa qualifying gives Force India first pole positon

I am really feeling lousy tonight and not up to writing a full report of qualifying from the Belgian Grand Prix. I massively overdid it earlier today and am paying the price - to the extent that when I watched my infernal-wickedness-of-Sky+ recording of what was a thrilling session, I actually fell asleep.

If you want to read more comprehensive reports, these nice people at Autosport and James Allen oblige with some excellent articles so I'll leave you in their capable hands.

However, I couldn't head off to bed without commenting on two things. You really do have to be careful what you wish for in this life, just in case you get it in an unexpected way. Regular readers will know that I have on occasion been known to comment disparagingly about Eddie Jordan's choice of clothing. I'm sure the BBC production team will be aware of similar despair about the subject on Twitter so they clearly contrived to teach us a lesson by filming Jordan half naked at Rubens Barrichello's house. Having seen that sight, I'm sure we will never complain about his clothes again. Not even the white jeans combined with royal blue shirt, or the shirt in a murderous shade of pink, or the Valencia duvet improvisation shirt from last weekend.

Jordan provides a link to today's unexpected big news, as well, as the great great granddaddy of the Force India team - which started out as Jordan and went through a few changes of owners to end up as FIF1 today. I've been wanting to see them get into Q3 for a while, but their driver Giancarlo Fisichella exceeded all expectations by grabbing a spectacular first place. It's great to see the underdogs take their first pole position - they have made massive improvements to their car in the last few races. Fingers crossed that they get their first points tomorrow.

Rubens Barrichello added to his stunning win in Valencia last weekend by qualifying a full 10 places above team-mate Jenson Button. Although he qualified lightest of the top ten, he's in a good position to take some points out of Jenson's lead and keep up the momentum in his championship challenge.

I'm going to need my Official Hiding Behind Pillow for tomorrow's race, that's for sure. Let's hope that Jenson manages not to get caught in traffic and can work his way up the field into the points. I suppose the one consolation from Brawn's point of view is that the Red Bulls have not performed as well as they were expected to here, with Vettel and Webber in 8th and 9th places.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Scottish Blogging Twitterati

I thought it was about time to do a quick round up of where you can find my personal favourite Scottish bloggers on Twitter. This doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive list of the Scottish Blogosphere, so if I've left you out, please don't think I'm being ignorant - but leave your name in the comments, or e-mail me, and I'll add you to the list.

I think that us all being on Twitter does mean that we can indulge in friendly debate and banter, so please come along and find us and join in. Most of us also let you know on Twitter when we have done a new blog posting. Blogs and Twitter pages are linked to below.

So, here we go, in, as they say, no particular order, a smorgasbord of Scotland's finest:

Katy Gordon: @katygordon

Andrew Reeves Running Blog: @andyreeves

Malc in the Burgh: @MalcH

Stephen's Linlithgow Journal: @stephenpglenn. He turns into @petroltweep on F1 race days, but he isn't as prolific as @vee8 and I.

Caron's Musings: @caronmlindsay and the one I use on big Formula 1 days to spare you my passionate excesses @caronlindsayf1

J Arthur MacNumpty: and his brother @WillPMacNumpty

Holyrood Patter: @HolyroodPatter whose occasionally drunken but always amusing nocturnal tweets usually have me laughing out loud first thing in the morning. I've now added him to my blogroll, by the way

Kezia Dugdale's Soapbox: @kezdugdale

Yapping Yousuf: @yousufhamid

SNP Tactical Voting: @snptacticvoting

Subrosa: @scots_subrosa

Wardog: @wardogtweet

Love and Garbage: @loveandgarbage

Doctorvee: @doctorvee and his F1 alter ego @vee8

Fraser MacPherson: @dundeewestend

Andrew Tibbs: @andrewtibbs. Another new addition to the blogroll and a co-conspirator with @holyroodpatter in the nocturnal tweeting business.

Tom Harris: @tomharrismp

Scottish Unionist: @Unionist

Bored Ramblings of the Liberally Youthful: @kieranleach

Callum Leslie's Blog: @cleslie92

My Very Infrequently Updated Lib Dem Blog: @ruaraidhdobson

What's in Kelvin's Head: @thurible

Scots and Independent: @richard_thomson

Advanced Media Watch: @StudentNat

Odd Politics: @KevinMcP

Scottish Tory Boy: @scottishtoryboy

Willie Rennie MP: @willierenniemp

Two Doctors: @twodoctors

Freedom and Whisky: @david_farrer

It's also worth knowing about 3 people who don't have blogs yet, but who use Twitter to great effect, @joswinson, Lib Dem MP for East Dunbartonshire, @ericjoyce, Labour MP for Falkirk and @wendyfraser, who really needs to have her own blog cos she's good.

Happy Anniversary - my marriage grows up

Today Bob and I celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary, so I'd like to take the opportunity to thank my poor long suffering husband for putting up with not just me, but the Liberal Democrats in their various guises for all this time.

When we got married, Mrs Thatcher was still in power, Paddy Ashdown had just been elected the first leader of the Liberal Democrats and Labour was led by Neil Kinnock.

look what was number 1 at the time:

but this was kicking at its heels:

We were watching these films back then.

We were apparently all wearing these. I never had one, but Bob did, and, yes, it did smell.

And Richard and Judy were about to become the stars of daytime TV.

There was no internet, no blogging, no Facebook, no mobile phones, no Twitter. Do you know, I think we might have had to talk to each other, in the same room:-).

When we got married we didn't have a tv - although I got that sorted for the new series of Doctor Who which started in October. That was a complete cracker, the 25th anniversary series with Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis, two of my favourite stories ever. I loved the combination of Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, too.

Bush and Dukakis were fighting it out for the US Presidency.

The weird thing is, all this doesn't seem that long ago.......

I've just this minute had a phone call from Cllr Gerry McMullan, Lib Dem Councillor for the West Fife Villages, who tells me that he's been out and about celebrating the 150th anniversary of author Jules Verne's visit to West Fife. He'll be on STV News at 6pm. They walked from Crombie Point through Torryburn and towards what we know as Inzievar House but he called Oakley Castle in his book. So, 26th August is another famous anniversary.

You know me, any excuse to extend a celebration. I have actually worked out that on 21st September, I will have been married to Bob for more than half my life. I will have to rake out some of the photos and scan them in to show you.

Tears for Ted Kennedy, a real liberal

In the olden days, like last year, I used to find out what had happened overnight by firing up the BBC website while I had my morning cup of Earl Grey. It something major had happened, my husband would usually wake me up to tell me before he left for work.

Now I have my Blackberry, which I am still insanely in love with, and it was from it on my friend Andrew Jolly's Facebook page that I saw "Ted Kennedy RIP" at just after 6.30 am today.

We all knew that this day would inevitably come - and in some ways thought it would be much sooner after he took ill at Obama's inauguration in January signalling a return of his Brain Cancer.

I first came across him in 1980, when I was 12 and he was running against Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. At that point, I didn't like him very much, thinking that Carter was a good man and that Democrats should be working together against what I saw as the very frightening prospect of Ronald Reagan. I still wonder if he'd waited for a more tolerant time to run for President if we'd have been spared the 8 years of Dubya and would perhaps now be entering a period of Clinton presidency, Bill or Hillary, who knows?

Yes, he was flawed, yes, he behaved badly after that awful accident at Chappaquiddick, but, to be honest, I prefer my politicians to have faults and to be human, a bit like me. I don't like antiseptic, synthetic Stepford children, I admire and respect real people.

The fact that he was able to make such a mark in the Senate, earning almost universal respect, even from the most rabid of Republicans, showed just how good he was as a politician and legislator. Despite his financially privileged background, he was passionate on healthcare reform and continued to work to further Obama's cause until the last possible moment.

I know that some people still feel very strongly about the American connections with the IRA and Sinn Fein, but as peace became a possibility, Kennedy's influence on the likes of Gerry Adams was extremely helpful, his snub to them giving them a shove in the direction of the negotiating table.

He died exactly a year after this tribute was shown at the Democratic Convention before his emotional speech in support of Obama.

And here is the speech himself preceded by his introduction by Caroline Kennedy.

We've lost a true genuine liberal here but his legacy will live on through the real difference he has made to people's lives - on healthcare, minimum wage, human rights, peace across the globe to name just a few things.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Strictly Come Dancing - Sequins are Go

The line up for this year's series of Strictly Come Dancing. Don't worry, I'm not going to go through it all on here.

I know that I'm already trying the patience of some of you with my copious postings on Formula 1, and I fear that you'd just lose the will to live if you were subjected to Strictly as well, so I've given my Strictly blog the kiss of life.

I am going to think seriously about doing a dedicated F1 blog for next year, but I really want to keep all this season's stuff in one place, so please bear with me. There's only another couple of months till the end of the season - a thought that already fills me with dread.

Anyway, those of you who want to indulge in sequin related discussion will be very welcome at Strictly Sequins and Sparkles.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Not in my name

I haven't listened to the whole proceedings from this afternoon, so I'll need to look at the Official Report tomorrow. That's what happens when Parliament is recalled at school chucking out time. I heard the statement and had to leave fairly early on in the questions. My initial impression is that there was a bit too much political posturing from all sides. I'd hoped for a bit more light than we actually got, although I was impressed that Tavish did ask clear and relevant questions relating to the visit to Al Megrahi, none of which I think were adequately answered.

My view hasn't changed, though - I still believe absolutely that Kenny MacAskill made the right decision, however much he and his department cocked up on its delivery.

According to Gary Gibbon, Channel 4's political editor, in his blog, there's a plot afoot for a "Not in Scotland's Name" style campaign over the 9 days until Parliament debates the matter in full next week.

Let me tell you what I don't want done in my name:

Slagging Kenny MacAskill and the SNP for the outrageous scenes in Libya which greeted Megrahi's return. It was obvious that it would happen, despite, as MacAskill said, requests to the Libyans for them to behave with a bit of restraint, but you don't base a decision on an application for compassionate release on the expected actions of a foreign government. You would think from what was said in Parliament that he'd sent John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon to take the saltires to Tripoli themselves. Just stop it, please.

Suggesting that it might have been appropriate to send Megrahi to a hospice. How stupid an idea is that? What planet is Annabel Goldie on? Does she actually understand what the hospice movement tries to do? For a start, he wouldn't have spent all the time till he died there. Most people don't - they may have short visits, or day visits to get pain under control, but they tend not to be admitted full time until a few days before they die. And who would have been shouting loudly if Megrahi had been sent to a hospice, sending the establishment into complete turmoil for all the patients inside it? That would have worked for nobody and I can't believe they put it forward as an idea.

In a similar vein, the Tories would have been foaming at the mouth if 48 Police officers had been taken off the beat to look after Megrahi for 3 months. Can you imagine? David McLetchie should know the difference between policing a football match on a Saturday afternoon and providing round the clock protection/security for an indefinite period.

Annabel Goldie ought to be ashamed of herself for the performance of her team today. I wonder if this will mean an end to the virtual coalition they've enjoyed with the SNP for these past two years. We shall see.

What I do think needs to happen, and it would be better if Kenny MacAskill was more open about it, and didn't have to have the information dragged out of him, is for us to be told exactly what happened at that meeting in Greenock jail. I don't really get the whole business of Megrahi making his representations in person when he had his lawyer present. What I really want is a pretty much verbatim account of that meeting, which there should be. If there isn't, why on earth not? Nothing that was said today convinces me that MacAskill was obliged to have this meeting, but seeing as he did, he needs to tell us more about it.

For what it's worth, Yousuf has reported, and he admits himself it's only one poll, that only a tiny minority of people approve of his release on compassionate grounds. Jeff quotes another poll which says that 35% approve and 53% disapprove and gives more analysis on the split by each party's voters. In real life, I've found that the people I've come into contact with, and my husband feels the same, are split half and half. There's certainly not enough disapproval to warrant Iain Gray inferring that there's widespread opposition. What's more, even when people have been quite angry about it, I've found that they have been quite open to persuasion, to the idea that if we have a policy to release terminally ill prisoners, why shouldn't it apply to Megrahi?

On balance, I'm not convinced that this afternoon's early recall of Parliament was worth it. We had little new information and more heat than light. Let's hope that next week's debate has more quality about it. Let's hope we have more contributions like those of Malcolm Chisholm, Labour MSP for North and Leith, who very thoughtfully expressed his support for the compassionate release of Megrahi. I think he was the man of the match for me.

Kenny MacAskill prepares to face his critics

MSPs troop back to Holyrood this afternoon at 2.30pm to listen to a statement from Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill on his decision to release the Lockerbie Bomber on compassionate grounds. You can watch it live on their website

As I've said before, I think that this decision was absolutely the right thing to do. I've had problems with MacAskill's presentation and with the very flawed process, particularly his visit to Megrahi in prison, but does it really matter if he did the right thing in the end?

I suppose I have to imagine how I would have felt if the reverse had been the case, if he'd got the process right and decided to keep Megrahi in jail here. I'd have felt that was wrong, that he'd taken a political decision to deviate from our normal policy of releasing terminally ill prisoners with less than 3 months to live. That inconsistency would to my mind have been wrong and unfair and I'd have felt a lot more angry with him than I do now. How outrageous would it have been for someone to have been kept in prison when anybody else in the same situation would have been released just because a minister feared public disapproval or political consequences?

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with Scottish Lib Dem Leader Tavish Scott on this issue. He's said that Parliament should have been recalled before the decision was made. I'm not so sure. My whole reasoning on this is that it's not and shouldn't be a political decision. A Parliamentary debate on a compassionate release application would have taken the decision from the judicial to the political much more than MacAskill's visit to Megrahi and is not the right way to go about things.

If there is to be a Parliamentary scrutiny, then the right time for that is now, after the event. Parliament shouldn't influence a judicial process, but it is there to hold the Minister who made that decision to account. I'm hoping that MSPs will use their chance to question the Minister wisely. I want to know more about Megrahi dropping his appeal, for example. He didn't have to do that and I want to be reassured that there was no suggestion to him that he should do that in order to make a favourable decision on his compassionate release application more likely. I want to see him questioned on his decision to visit Megrahi which I don't think was either necessary or wise. I'd be interested to know what, if any, communications between the UK and Scottish Governments on the issue there have been. UPDATE: I really should check out my blogroll before I write things - Scott also has a useful list of questions for Kenny

For what it's worth, I can't imagine that even if there had been any pressure from London to release Megrahi, that it would have had the slightest bit of influence on Kenny MacAskill.

While I do think that there is definitely some short term damage to Scotland's international reputation - ie, the Americans are very pissed off with us - I don't think that's really relevant either and certainly shouldn't have influenced the decision. The US goes down in my estimation every time it executes anybody but I'd still happily go there on holiday. The Labour Party has a total nerve to suggest that the SNP have damaged the reputation of Scotland when any dent in our standing will be tiny compared to the disapproval they heaped on us by invading Iraq.

While I said yesterday that the Americans' attack on the Scottish Government was unjustified, Stephen took it further with this fantastic post, exposing the inconsistencies in their argument about giving comfort to terrorists. He's also made a few wry observations about what the implications of a US boycott of Scotland would be.

The American disapproval was as predictable as Libya's horrible celebrations, but they can't really argue with a decision made on principle and policy. What Kenny MacAskill did wrong was to make that decision political by visiting Megrahi in jail. By doing so he's handed opponents of release at home and abroad a chance to fling mud that actually sticks. If MacAskill hadn't done that, he would have my unreserved support for a brave and humanitarian decision - although I'd still have cringed at the wording of some parts of his statement. While of course he deserves credit for doing the right thing, it ain't just what you do, it's the way that you do it that's important.

While I don't think he should pay with his job, he will deserve the criticism on those points he gets from MSPs this afternoon and I think he needs to take it on board with a certain amount of humility. This afternoon's proceedings are not the time for theatrics and bluff and bluster, but for serious and careful questioning of the Government.

While MSPs gather their thoughts, I hope they'll be taking note of this article in today's Scotsman which says, as I've said all along, that decisions of this nature should not be a matter for politicians.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fired up and flawless - Barrichello takes first victory for Brawn

Wel, I'm smiling! Half an hour ago I would have been typing this through tears! As a Brawn fan I'd have been thrilled with either of the drivers winning, but as a Rubens Barrichello fan of some 16 years' standing, I'm ecstatic that he's had his first victory for the Brawn team. He hasn't stood on the top step of the podium since China in 2004, a year when he also won at Monza, but more of that later.

As I said yesterday, he was in a very strong position, being heavier on fuel and was in fact the true pole sitter once fuel weights were factored in. That's easy to say but much more difficult to turn around when you are behind two cars which are running KERS.

At the start, the first three got away in order, while Jenson, in 5th had an absolute disaster - ending up way back in 8th and then 9th after Webber got past him. He briefly passed Webber back but because he'd cut across a chicane, he had to give the place back.

Kimi Raikonnen, on the other hand, had an excellent start, getting himself up to 4th place where he sat quietly and ended up getting past Kovaleinen. I'm not sure how, to be honest but I suspect it was in the pits.

The first question was whether Rubens would be able to get past the McLarens at the first round of pit stops, and he was in fact able to leapfrog Heikki Kovaleinen. At this point it looked like he had 4 more laps of fuel than Lewis Hamilton, opening up the possibility that he might be able to get past him, too.

Rubens rose to the challenge and started putting in flying lap after flying lap, setting fastest laps here, there and everywhere. The margins were tight, but it looked as if he might just do it. I'd been struck by his confidence and determination earlier when Martin Brundle chatted to him on his grid walk. He gave the impression of a man who knew this was his moment and he was going to get on with delivering the goods. He did absolutely everything he had to do, perfectly.

Then fate in the form of a massively cocked up pit stop by McLaren put Rubens in an unassailable position. McLaren had initially told Lewis to come in at the end of lap 37. They then worked out that they could leave him out another lap, but he had committed to coming in to the pits by that point. So, he appeared in his box, with no tyres ready for him. McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh reckoned that the mistake alone didn't cost him the race because the cars weren't fast enough. He may have been right, but we'll never know, I guess. Hamilton's pitstop took 13.4 seconds, almost double Barrichello's a few laps later. That was so slick that I was scared for a while that they'd had the same problem with the fuel rig that they'd had at the Nurburgring last month and we'd see him coming in again on the next lap. I don't think I breathed until I saw him drive past the pit lane entrance.

Those last laps with Rubens in the lead, being chased by Hamilton, were thrilling, but Rubens didn't falter and drove like a demon all the way to the chequered flag.

It's a sign of how popular a driver he is that the entire pit lane turned out to cheer him as he drove back in. He's an emotional man at the best of times and I'm surprised he hadn't drowned in tears by the time he took his helmet off. His team radio transmissions on his in lap were pretty much intelligible, but you were in no doubt he was happy. He wondered later if he had said "anything bad", but to be honest, you wouldn't have been able to tell if he had. Ross Brawn, on the other hand, sounded pleased on the team radio, but cool and calm as ever. He said it was "just like the old days" at Ferrari. Rubens had a fair few wins there too, despite the times when he so obviously did have to play second fiddle to Michael Schumacher.

He was also keen to dedicate his win to the recovering Felipe Massa, which was lovely. He'd worn a helmet with a get well message to him all weekend.

The implications of his win is that Rubens is now the main challenger to Jenson in the drivers' championship - and main rivals for the constructors' crown, Red Bull, scored no points at all. Jenson Button was able to eventually get past Mark Webber, leaving him out of the points - so another triumph for the Brawn strategy people combined with Jenson also driving some stonkingly fast laps in the middle of the race.

Sebastian Vettel suffered another engine failure, which leaves him with 2 engines to last 6 races. He's going to have to nurse them gently like they were orphaned puppies to make them last - but I don't like his chances of doing that. None of the other drivers of Renault engines have suffered failures, so I wonder if it's something he's doing that's pushing them too far.

While Kimi raced to the podium, the driver of the other Ferrari, Luca "Slower" Badoer lived up to his name - but also got himself into big trouble after a pit lane near miss with Renault rookie Roman Grosjean. He ended up going over the white line on the way out, which is a big no-no and ended up with a drive through penalty. He wasn't last though, just - that honour went to Kazuki Nakajima who suffered a puncture in the middle of the second round of pitstops, for a moment making Anthony Davidson wonder if there would be a safety car.

Also worth mentioning is that the soon to be retiring BMWs got a point for Robert Kubica who, BBC rumour has it, is off to Renault next year.

For the first time ever, I deprived myself of the Brundlemeister's commentary and decided to give Crofty and Ant at Radio Five Live. While I think Brundle is brilliant, I'm not keen on the chemistry between him and co-commentator Jonathan Legard. I know that a relationship takes a while to develop, but, to be honest, I think their's is developing the wrong way. I've detected a fair bit of needle between them which is getting worse with every race. On the other hand, the banter between Brawn test driver Anthony Davidson and David Croft is very good. Their commentary is thoughtful, as it has to be for radio and they can be very funny. At one point, Ant was going through the drivers in turn speculating on what they would be doing next year. When he got to Badoer, he said "who knows, probably fishing." They seem very comfortable with each other and it just seems to gel better. The only problem is the constant interruptions for football and cricket updates which annoyed me a bit, but not so much I switched back to the tv. I have Brundle's commentary sky plussed, though so I may watch it again later to compare.

The BBC build up was fantastic - Eddie Jordan managed a real triumph by nabbing Michael Schumacher and getting him out of the Ferrari garage which wasn't quite compensation for not seeing him race, but a bit of a coup nonetheless.

In terms of the future, this could well be the start of Rubens' challenge for the championship. It's not without the bounds of possibility that he could overtake Jenson and win. There's only 18 points between them and 6 races to go. I can't imagine the rivalry would make Ross Brawn do anything other than smile. Two team mates, cool enough headed not to do anything stupid, scrapping it out for every possible point, isn't going to do his constructors' championship bid any harm and if his drivers finish first and second, in whatever order, that's a result.

Rubens has a fairly strong record at both Spa and Monza - he won Monza twice and finished on the podium twice in his time at Ferrari an even at Jordan and Stewart got a couple of fourths and a fifth. He's been on the podium at Spa a couple of times as well.

If he is going to challenge Jenson for the title, then he needs to eat into his lead at these next races. By mid September we'll know whether it's game on.

Homecoming Tripoli style angers world

I said in my post the other day that I hoped that Libya wouldn't go over the top in its welcome to Abdelbasset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi when he was set free and returned to Libya. Of course that was always going to be a forlorn hope. The scenes of saltires waving, cheering and the parading of Megrahi on tv meeting Gadaffi and his relatives was cringeworthy, sickening and, sadly, entirely predictable.

Having said that, I still hold to my point of view that it was correct to send Megrahi home to die. If it's a matter of policy that people with 3 months or less to die are released, then the only thing that should be taken into consideration is the safety of the public. The Libyan Government deserves all the criticism it's getting for the way it's handled this. Gadaffi is clearly enjoying his time in the spotlight, trying to implicate everyone from Gordon Brown to Prince Andrew as he wields his wooden spoon. It's pretty vile stuff.

I watched Kenny MacAskill's statement the other day and found its length and its sermon like tone distasteful to say the least. He really didn't need to go on for the best part of half an hour. I got an absolute pasting from Jeff for a tweet that I made in response to what I felt was MacAskill overegging the pudding about Scottish people were a compassionate people. I tend to think that human beings are generally compassionate, regardless of their nationality. Here's Jeff's comment and my reply so you can judge for yourself:

"Caron momenarily lost leave of her senses with this Tweet: "two things shocked me - trying to drag UK Govt down with him and making out Scots have monopoly on humanity"

A monopoly on humanity? What on earth are you talking about? It's all the more bizarre given that Caron actually agrees with the decision taken by the Justice Minister" said Jeff

I replied:

"As you know, I think he made the right decision, but the process has been tainted by the leaks, the delays and the decision to visit Megrahi in prison which, to be honest, I don't think was adequately explained today.

I feel as well that he could have made his statement in half, a quarter, even of the half hour it took him.

I don't feel that it was necessary for him to slag off the UK Government for not participating in the transfer application consulting he did. Given the rest of the stuff he was saying, that sounds like it wasn't a goer anyway. No doubt if they had participated, he'd have found fault with what they said.

I wondered if I had been a little harsh in my tweet, which had come at the end of a very long sermon, sorry, statement, but then I looked at it again:

"In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity.

"It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.

I tend to view humanity as being a defining characteristic of human beings, not just those who happened to be fortunate enough to have been born north of the border.

I read MacAskill's quote out to my husband without telling him that you'd slagged his wife off in public and asked him for his opinion. He is probably the fairest person in the world and he said he felt Scotland was mentioned too many times in that sentence.

I feel that it's quite a dangerous thing if we think that just because we're Scottish we're somehow better than everyone else. I'm really proud to be Scottish, I love this country and missed it to the point of despair when I didn't live here for 11 horrid years - but lovely though the Scottish people generally are, we're no more human than the French, or Canadians, or the people from Papua New Guinea or wherever.

You may not agree with me, but I wanted to put my side of the story."

August 20, 2009 9:00 PM

Another part of MacAskill's statement that made me gag was the bit where he'd clearly been at the dictionary of religious cliches:

“However, Mr Al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die."

I don't believe in a "higher power" anyway, certainly not one who goes around handing out nasty diseases as punishment, but I know a guy who does. Kelvin's response to this part of MacAskill's statement was absolutely spot on.

"The notion of a God who skips about the world deciding who does and who does not get cancer is horrible. That kind of thing gives religion a bad name.

There is no God worth believing in who is so capricious."

Kenny MacAskill is taking a whole load of pain at the moment. Some of it, though understandable, is unjustified. Robert Mueller's letter is completely over the top. I can't imagine for a second that any potential terrorist will think that the Scottish judicial system is soft on them. The Americans don't understand the concept of compassionate release because they don't have it over there. I think the US penal system is way too harsh in so many ways, particularly in the way it treats vulnerable people, so I don't think we should take his criticisms too much to heart.

Where MacAskill does deserve criticism is his handling of the process. Scott at Love and Garbage did all the research and wrote this post in response to MacAskill's statement to show that there was in fact no reason for MacAskill to meet Megrahi.

I think that MacAskill may well eventually pay for making the right decision with his job. With a bit of thought, he could have avoided that. It's clear to me that by his actions he has fuelled the suggestions of deals which I doubt exist and has brought the integrity of his decision into question. In turn, that has done some unnecessary damage to Scotland's standing in the world. For that, he should take the consequences.

BBC Hyperbolic Headlines - now they tell us candles cause cancer

Do you know, you can name anything that's remotely pleasant in life and somebody is bound to come along at some point and say that it's somehow dangerous, or bad for you.

Today the humble candle comes under the spotlight, not for anything to do with fire, but, apparently, if you breathe in too many of their fumes, they might give you Cancer and Asthma. Like walking down a busy road, which most of us do every day, won't.

I have a hunch that if you locked yourself in an unventilated room lit only by hundreds of candles for days on end, then I guess it might not be good for you, but any one of us could have worked that out.

I doubt that a candlelit dinner, such as the one I have planned for our 21st wedding anniversary this week, or the occasional candlelit bath is going to do anyone any harm.

The BBC really ought to know better - this is yet another example of where their headline is way out of proportion to the rest of the story.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Barrichello in strong position as McLarens take front row

I have to admit that the word that rhymes with "duck" was being used with volume and frequency in this house at the end of F1 qualifying in Valencia this afternoon. I knew that it was going to be a long wait for the fuel weights to come out so that we could really see the lie of the land.

At the end of a thrilling final shoot out, the McLarens took the prime positions on the front row. It was Lewis Hamilton who emerged triumphant - Heikki Kovaleinen came close but had a wee mishap on the final corners of his last flying lap. Hamilton's fastest lap was in fact the first that he set in Q3. He then did an extra lap, which he didn't really need to do. However it transpired that the McLaren team had worked out that the track would get slower during the ten minutes of the session and while they did send him out for an "insurance" lap at the last possible minute, he aborted it because he didn't need to finish it. Rubens Barrichello, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button made up the top five.

It just shows the miniscule calculations and variables that are required in Formula One. Such attention to detail and strategy can make the difference when your currency is tenths, or even hundredths, of a second.

Today there was less than two seconds covering the entire grid. Well, there was less than half a second covering the first 19 cars, but Ferrari substitute Luca "Slower" Badoer was a second and a half off the pace and brings up the rear of the year. I really think that it wouldn't harm Ferrari to rethink their plans for the next few races. Team Principal Stefano Domenicali openly said that Badoer had been given the drive for his 10 years of loyal service as the Scuderia's test driver. In a way, that's quite charming that they were prepared to do that, but if I were Badoer I'd have been cringing with embarrassment at those comments. There are a pair of decent drivers, Sebastien Bourdais and Nelson Piquet with recent experience of F1 who would relish the chance of a Ferrari drive, I'm sure.

BBC commentator Martin Brundle again showed his sense of humour when he wryly wondered whether he should volunteer to drive for Ferrari at Spa next weekend - he reckoned he could drive and commentate and still be faster than Badoer. He's probably right.

Speaking of the BBC coverage, I wish I knew what goes through Eddie Jordan's head when he gets dressed in the morning. I've never come across a hotel room yet that doesn't have a mirror. He was wearing this purple shirt with flowers all over it. Did he lose a bet or something? Or maybe he forgot to bring a shirt and improvised with the hotel curtains.

New Renault driver Roman Grosjean qualified pretty much where Nelson Piquet was doing, making a bit of a mockery of Flavio's decision to fire the Brazilian.

Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella unfortunately didn't make it into Q2, by 0.17 of a second, but Adrian Sutil qualified in 11th. Unfortunately he didn't make Q3 but this is a big stop forward for the team.

As ever, the raw positions don't tell the whole story and we had to wait for the fuel weights to come out to assess who was the true pole sitter. Third placed Rubens Barrichello is almost 10kg heavier than Lewis and 7.5 kg heavier than Heikki so he has the definite advantage.

The start will be crucial. If he can get past Kovaleinen at the start, and keep pace with Hamilton, he will have the advantage and could win the race. If he's stuck behind Kovaleinen for the first 16 laps, with Kovaleinen not feeling any particular need to go particularly fast while Hamilton storms off into the distance, then the McLarens could take a 1-2.

It's equally possible that we could end up with two Brawns on the podium, with Rubens as the winner, which would be absolutely brilliant.

The relative consolation of all of this is that the Red Bulls have not been so competitive this weekend. Mark Webber, at second place in the Championship, is in 9th and Vettel, in 4th, is much lighter than Jenson in 5th so Jenson should get past him at least.

This could well end up being a thrilling race!

Leopards, Spots and the Tories

Oh dear! David Cameron has devoted much of the past few years trying to convince that the all new Conservative Party is a fluffy, tolerant organisation with a commitment to equality and diversity.

I say trying, because there have been a few banana skins for them on the way, as the real Tories, not Call me Dave's Stepford Children, have escaped from the cupboards where they've been locked to keep them out of public view, to give us all the evidence we ever needed that this leopard's spots haven't changed at all.

Even in the last week and a half, they've had an MEP deny the existence of homophobia, and a health spokesperson being revealed as a paid consultant to a private health firm. What's interesting about the Lord McColl issue is that all new fluffy right on Dave thinks that it's fine. In the same week that Daniel Hannan has been telling any American who'll listen nonsense about our NHS without the mildest rebuke from Cameron, this shows that the Tories can't be trusted to deliver universal health care if, heaven forbid, they should gain power.

Now we have Alan Scard. Never heard of him before? Well, he's the guy charged with finding a new Tory candidate for Gosport after sitting MP Sir Peter Viggers has had to resign to spend more time with his duck island. He has some interesting views on the qualities you'd look for in a candidate. The best bit is:

"when asked if he supported Conservative leader David Cameron's attempts to create more women MPs, he said: 'If they are attractive, yeah I would go for it.
'I know it's a sexist thing to say, but you could get the blokes saying ''Oh... I would vote for her because she's really attractive."

After the horse had bolted, he tried very hard to lock the stable door:

'As a proud parent of two girls the last thing I would ever want to do is say something sexist.'

I wonder if he thought he was being right on by using the word "parent" instead of "father".

The Tories are trying to portray themselves as a modern, progressive, inclusive Party, but in reality their core values remain in the 1950s.

F1 Returns in Scorching Valencia

It's been a long 4 weeks without Formula One. Although the sport has been making loads of headlines, with Michael Schumacher's coming back and then not coming back and lovely Nelson Piquet Jr being given his marching orders by Renault, there really is nothing like the scream of a V8 engine at full pelt to get your heart beating a wee bit faster.

I'm a bit of a Valencia virgin. For some reason, that I strongly suspect has to do with the Glenrothes by-election, I missed this race last year. The circuit is weird. You have shots of cars speeding round a marina with no boats on it and then through what seems like a fairly nondescript concrete surrounded series of turns. It's not got the magic of the other street circuits in Formula One and has no chance of ever becoming a Monaco.

This is a bit of a crunch weekend for the Brawn team. After a stonking start to the season, they've had 3 races where they've struggled to get heat into their tyres and have only had one podium finish, for Rubens at Silverstone. It's not unusual for teams to make a blistering start and then struggle mid season - the same thing happened in Michael Schumacher's earliest championship wins at Ferrari. He'd win at the start of the season and then they'd struggle for a while and then come through at the end.

That said, it was a huge relief to see the Brawn boys back on top yesterday. It would have been a bit of a disaster, though, if they hadn't been able to warm the tyres in the 30 degree heat, but, still, it's good to see them back on form, with Jenson saying that the car feels like a Brawn again. Rubens finished fastest in the first practice, with Jenson second and Rubens 3rd in the second session. Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal has just mischievously suggested on 5 Live that Ross Brawn would not let Rubens win the race if he were ahead. Maybe he hasn't heard that they don't allow team orders any more:-).

After Schumi's withdrawal, the injured Felipe Massa has now been replaced by test driver Luca Badoer. The last time he raced, my 10 year old was a babe in arms. Bless him, he's lovely, but no very fast. He might as well have been driving round the circuit in my Micra yesterday, he was so far off the pace. If Massa's going to be out until Brazil, in 4 races' time, Ferrari are surely going to have to find a faster option. I don't understand why they just don't bring in either Sebastian Bourdais or Nelson Piquet, both of whom are available having been fired, unreasonably in my opinion, by their teams.

It'll be interesting to see whether Fernando Alonso, who is lucky to be racing here after Renault won its appeal against a ban, can capitalise on his success in the second practice yesterday and grab pole position. If he does, in front of his home crowd, then he will no doubt be running on fumes - he has consistently been very light in qualifying this season, and will have less chance of actually winning the race.

I'm looking forward to see how the Force Indias do, as well. They have had a huge upgrade for this weekend and are targetting at least getting both cars into Q2. Adrian Sutil is currently at the top of the leaderboard for the practice, but I think that's more because the session has been stopped after Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull spewed oil all over the track, than because he's actually fastest.

I shall be watching qualifying from behind a pillow, hoping that the Brawns grab the first pole positions and re-assert their authority on both championships. I'd really, really like to see a Rubens win, because he thoroughly deserves it. If Jenson come ssecond, he'll still be leading the drivers' championship by a long way.

Spare a thought, though, for the poor overall clad mechanics in the pit lane in the scorching heat. The garages must be roasting, especially when the cars come back in. They are the unsung heroes of the weekend.

Some things are more important than Iain Dale and his lists

As I said yesterday, I'm really happy to have risen 23 places in the Total Politics Blog Poll and am so grateful to everyone who voted for me.

However, that result is not the most exciting thing that has happened to me in the last 48 hours.

There are indeed much more important things than Mr Dale, or his lists, not that you'd think it from a brief look at the blogosphere.

Imagine my excitement, while recovering from the exhilaration of seeing the Brawn boys (and it was Rubens who got top slot, yay!) reclaim their rightful place at the top of the leaderboard in the first free practice session of the European Grand Prix, at getting a Follow Friday on Twitter from this lot!

Look at this:

(The provision of this image is possible only after Stephen responded to my plaintive cries for help on Twitter this morning. I almost had to send him a DM asking him where Paint was, but thankfully I found it on my desktop:-))

For those of you not familiar with the custom, it's tradition on Fridays in the Twitterverse to recommend people whose tweets you enjoy reading. I had a feeling that a Twitter friend of mine with contacts "on the inside" might have had something to do with it, but they are denying all knowledge.

Anyway, whatever I did to deserve it, it did cheer me up incredibly. So thanks.

And as if that wasn't enough, Stephen phoned at the back of five to ask if he could come to visit. A few minutes later, he appeared with this

and these which I thought were going to be disgusting, cos I hate haggis, but if you read the ingredients, there isn't any in them. They are, in fact absolutely delicious.

and this

He stayed for food and wine and as usual he royally entertained my daughter. Anna adores him because they seem to be completely on the same quirky wavelength. A few months ago, he came over and I went to bed cos I was feeling so ill. When I reappeared 3 hours later, they had invented a Kingdom, drawn out a map and made up its laws. Not bad for an afternoon's work. Last night, I again got quite tired so I was lying on the couch listening to them act out Build A Bear's Got Talent (with Stephen doing the voices for all 3 judges), and then Stephen telling this shaggy dog story that seemed to go on for ever. At one point I had to intervene, hissing that this "better have a happy ending" when a bunny was fatally injured. However, Anna, who adores animals and hates the thought of anything bad ever happening to them, was laughing all the way to the really bad punchline.

So, thank you, Sugar Daddy, for a lovely evening. Remarkably, there's still a little bit of chocolate left, so I'll savour that during free practice this morning.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lib Dem Success in Top 50 Scottish Blog Poll

Iain Dale is a great big tease. There. I've said it. Last night he posted a tweet saying that the Total Politics blog results would be up "soon, morning". So those of us who were on Twitter, while we pretended that we didn't actually care, went into a bit of a spin wondering whether the list would go up last night or this morning.

What he actually meant was both. At around 9pm last night, the list appeared without any fanfare on the Total Politics site. For a bunch of people who didn't care, the congratulations were very soon flying around Twitterverse.

I was completely amazed and stunned to get to number 7 from 30 last year, so I'm really grateful to everybody who voted for me. It's a rise of 23 places from last year and it appears that I'm either the top or second woman, depending on the gender of the rapidly rising Libertarian blog, Underdogs Bite Upwards. One of the depressing features of the list is that out of 50, there are only 6 women that I can see - correct me if I'm wrong, please, but it's not brilliant. I know that I would have been trounced by Subrosa if she hadn't taken herself out of the running. And if I have anything to do with it, the Scottish Blogosphere's most talented guest poster, Wendy Fraser, will have a blog of her very own to enter next year.

Congratulations must go to Tom Harris, who, unsurprisingly, comes in at number one. His blog is my guilty pleasure. Anyone who can ignite such strong emotions through the written word, even if they are often shock, anger and horror must have something going for them. He also never ever misses the chance to take the piss out of the Lib Dems. In fact, his fellow Labour MP Eric Joyce will probably not be invited back after his serious breach of protocol in this guest post earlier this week - he actually wrote the words Lib Dem without any sort of snidey comment attached to them. Despite all of that, he can also be very funny, self deprecating, down to earth, and entertaining and I do find myself reading and enjoying what he writes much more often than I'd ever admit.

It was also great to see a huge rise of 22 places for Marathon Man Malc who, by the way, you can sponsor here and to see Yousuf's excellent blog acknowledged. Nationalism and its nemesis in the form of Jeff and Scottish Unionist are up there too, along with the ever fabulous Doctorvee,whose transition to top flight journalism can't be far away and the always relevant and fascinating Will.

The Lib Dems also see remarkable success with Stephen, Andrew, Katy , Bernard, Iain, Fraser and Willie Rennie MP giving us a significant rise in our representation on the list. We are the second Party to the SNP with some very promising young bloggers, ably mentored by Blogfather Stephen ready to challenge for next year.

I'm looking forward to getting to know some of the new additions to the list in the months to come. Thank you so much again to everyone who voted for me. I really do appreciate it and I hope that I continue to do whatever it is that you like. If I don't, tell me!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

MacAskill and Megrahi - the decision and the aftermath

I have to be honest and say that I don't envy Kenny MacAskill. The decision he has had to make on the future of Abdelbasset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber is a hard one. He faces pressure from all sides.

On one hand, the irrefutable medical evidence that Megrahi has aggressive, terminal prostate cancer and has only a few months left to live. If he were anyone else, he'd have been quietly released and nobody would really be any the wiser. On the other hand, we have US politicians and even the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, requesting in no uncertain terms that he should be left in prison. The families of the 270 victims of the attack are divided - in the US, the families are indignant at the thought of release, while in this country I guess British families have had enough experience of judicial failure in the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four to doubt the safety of his conviction.

We're not going to know what is going to happen until 1pm, when Kenny MacAskill makes his announcement and he's certainly going to be doing that in the glare of the international spotlight. To my mind, the right announcement would be compassionate release, as I've said before . I know that puts me a bit out of step with good people in my Party and it's only fair to mention their opposition. I disagree with Jim on this, but I understand where he's coming from. Since I wrote that posting, I've discovered that compassionate release is the usual course of action for a terminal illness of less than 3 months' prognosis. To my mind that humane prinicple should be sacrosanct and not subject to political intervention. For that reason, I think what I said in my last posting about these sorts of decisions being made by an independent body, considering the medical evidence, and risk of danger to the public alone, was justified.

There shouldn't really be a political factor in this. We shouldn't buckle to pressure from the US, nor should the decision be portrayed as one of standing up to the US. If I had lost someone I loved, I may well be spitting mad at the thought of compassion being shown to their murderer, so the families deserve our thoughts and sympathy at what will be a difficult time for them.

Having said all that, boy have the SNP completely cocked this up. If he was in a room with a locked window and an open door, it seems like Kenny MacAskill would choose to go out the window. This is where I totally agree with Tavish Scott. MacAskill took his decision from the judicial to the political the moment he set foot in Greenock jail. No way should that ever have been allowed to happen. I can't imagine what on earth he was thinking. When do Ministers ever go and visit convicted murderers in jail? There was no need for that. All MacAskill needed to have was the report from Megrahi's doctors.

Not only that, but there was the leak to the BBC a week ago saying he was going to be released, then the dropping of his appeal which posed many more questions than it answered about whether a deal had been done with him. Why on earth has this process been as drawn out as it has been? Why has the Scottish Government not been able to manage the flow of information in a more competent manner?

I suspect there will need to be full scrutiny of the way in which this decision was made at some point so that we can understand the processes involved. We need to ascertain how he came to drop his appeal. He has always maintained his innocence, and, to be honest, when the trial was going on, I had my doubts as I listened to what was presented. Wardog outlined some of the issues in what I found to be a very helpful posting on the background to all of this.

I certainly hope that if MacAskill frees Megrahi today, we are not subjected to him receiving a hero's welcome in Libya. He's not a returning hero. He would be a convicted murderer being released on compassionate grounds to spend his dying weeks with his family.

This is a day when everyone in the world will be watching Scotland and its judicial system. I think that there are clear questions over the way in which this decision, however right I think it is, has been made - and these questions could have been avoided. The SNP's incompetence on this is not going to show Scotland at its best.

UPDATE: Scott has given a link to his excellent posting on this subject in the comments but it's worth putting here. Despite chatting on Twitter for months, I'd never actually got round to visiting his blog until just now. I was impressed with what I saw, so I've added him to my blogroll.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Panorama shows plight of Afghan Women

Last night I settled down to watch Panorama, knowing that I'd find it absolutely horrendous to see its depiction of the terrible repression in Afghanistan.

Reporter Jane Corbin had been to Afghanistan and had interviewed women who had suffered terrible brutality, who showed incredible bravery in speaking out about their ordeals. My 10 year old daughter came in to the room just as 17 year old Saida was explaining how she'd been married off at the age of 9, sold by her brothers to a 60 year old man who beat her and forced her into prostitution. It took her 7 years to excape this vile creature. Anna was quite shocked by the contrast between her carefree life, reflecting on the fun we'd had altogether at a fruit picking farm, where the most taxing thing she had to do was help her daddy find a way through the maze, and the lives of these young girls her age thousands of miles away.

Then there was Zeinab, who had set herself alight after years of beatings from her husband and who saw no alternative but to return to him after she recovered.

We heard that despite the law, the majority of marriages are forced, that 80% of women face domestic violence, and, not at all coincidentally, the same proportion is illiterate, yet in this climate of oppression, courageous and inspiring women look to the future. There's the lawyer, Maria, who has armed guards outside her house after the Taleban tried to blow her up to stop her working. There's Maryam, driven out of her village after winning second prize in the Afghan version of Dragon's Den and who plans to use her winnings to build a factory and employ women - which she can only do if their husbands consent but which will show women that there's another way to live where they can have a say in their own destiny. There's the young MP, frustrated at the Government's failure to make progress on women's rights.

I was particularly moved by the 13 year old girl who was determined to continue her education and become a doctor. When asked what would happen if she was forced into marriage, she said that her husband would just have to let her continue her studies. I hope her idealism is not in vain and she gets the chance to do that.

Depressingly, there was also the only woman remaining in President Hamid Karzai's cabinet. She looked resigned and almost uncomfortable as she spouted the Party line -that cultural change doesn't happen overnight and could take decades. I suspect it'll take a good bit longer than that if men can get away with beating and raping their wives, never having to fear prosecution because they'll likely be able to bribe their way out of it. Presumably the Minister's willingness to comply was the reason she was the sole woman in office.

We also heard that President Karzai's wife is herself a doctor, who could show an example to other women - remember these powerful images of Mousavi's wife in Iran and how that turned the election - but who is not allowed by her husband to appear in public.

I think what made me most uncomfortable, though, was the fact that they were showing the footage of women's situation to the mother of a soldier who died there. At the end, Jane Corbin asked her more than once whether she thought her son had died in vain given the treatment of women in Afghanistan. It looked like they were pushing her to say that he had, which I felt was a bit insensitive and unfair.

I think what the programme showed was that the Afghan Government, despite having the benefit of thousands of international forces to help them, is only able to pay lip service to the laws guaranteeing equality and fairness to all. It's surely time for President Obama and Gordon Brown to put more pressure on whoever the President is after the elections to put its words into actions and stop the terrible abuses faced by most Afghan women.

Save our Apostrophes!

I'm still feeling rubbish but I was tickled by this article pointed out by Wendy.

I have to say that I do have a huge amount of sympathy with Stefan Gatward, who has been adding in the missing apostrophes which have been omitted from his local street signs. If I was confronted with a sign that read St Johns Close, I'd have been tempted to do the same.

I don't know quite what it is about an apostrophe in the wrong place that brings me out in hives to the extent that I even have to persecute my fellow bloggers, but I do think it's important to get these things right. I have to say that I really appreciated Yousuf's gracious response - even if he did make the same mistake in a later posting.

They're a useful tool for any sort of written communication and in the wrong place can drastically change the meaning of a sentence.

Our language does lose out if we continually dumb it down and fail to teach the next generation how to properly express themselves.

Hysterical overreaction? Possibly, but I can't afford the therapy to get me over it, so you'll just have to put up with it:-)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Afghan President betrays Shia Women

How far would you go to win an election?

I don't think anyone I know in any party would ever betray women in the way that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has done. In order to get the support of Shia men in the forthcoming Presidential election in Afghanistan, he has quietly allowed the enactment of this law. Incredibly, it states that men can starve their wives if they refuse to have sex with them. This is supposed somehow to be better than the original law which Karzai shelved in April which removed the requirement to consent within marriage and stated that women were obliged to have sex every 4 days.

This law is like a game of cat and mouse in which the mouse is bound, gagged and tied to the cat's food bowl. If a woman decides to say to her husband "Stuff you, I'll go and get a job and buy my own food", she can't because she's not allowed to work without her husband's permission. If she decides to leave an abusive husband, then she'll lose her children as husbands and grandfathers automatically have custody. This is bad enough on its own, but if you look at this blog posting from around a year and a half ago, you'll see that it alleges that between 60 - 80% of all marriages are forced, often on very young girls.

So, tell me, please, how is forced sex on threat of being denied food any different from rape.

It's not enough to say that Karzai is the best of a bad bunch. Our soldiers, 201 of them now, have lost their lives trying to keep him in power during an awful war of attrition with a Taleban that shows no signs of going away any time soon.

I am just so appalled that these are the values our men have been sent to defend and I think that the Government really ought to start thinking about what it's going to do to ensure that this evil and barbaric law is repealed as soon as possible.

Don't Mess with our NHS

As I was writing the title to this, it dawned on me that it sounded like some sort of Union slogan against Tory spending cuts. They must have used it at some point. They get it right sometimes!

As I said before, I'm a big fan of the NHS. It's not perfect, and there's room for improvement, but the principle of universal healthcare free at the point of need is an absolutely brilliant one. I would fight tooth and nail to preserve that principle and the last thing I want to see is the Tories dismantling it as I fear they might given half a chance.

Charlotte's blog seems to have become a forum for robust debate on this issue and I wanted to respond to some of the points that have been raised there by Charlotte and others.

I think it's quite telling that the people who are saying the NHS is rubbish are either young, rich or healthy or a combinstion of these elements. I was shocked to see people describing it as crap yesterday. How can you call a system crap that, amongst other things:

immunises all our children from all sorts of diseases that were real killers just half a century ago, diseases like Polio, Whooping Cough, Diphteria, Tetanus, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Meningitis;

provides free access to contraception which is so liberating for women in particular;

that provides a huge range of health care, routine and critical, every single day without people having to worry about being handed a huge bill at the end of it?

I'm clearly not alone, as the momentum that the #welovethenhs discussion on Twitter has shown. I'm quite perturbed that an organisation which has even the most tenuous connection with our party is behind the rival #no2nhs. It's worth pointing out that these people are very much in the minority within the Party. James posted about this the other day.

Mark has not wasted any time getting back to top form on his return from holiday with this posting analysing Daniel Hannan's comments, so I don't need to. Hannan was just plain wrong and I think it's very worrying that David Cameron has not pulled him up severely for what he said. The only reason I can think of for that is that his position is a commonly held view within the Tory Party which will always put the interests of the wealthy first and not bother about the vulnerable.

Where Mark and I part company is his suggestion that we look at insurance based systems such as those in Singapore and Holland. I think we need to keep the NHS funded through taxation as it is at the moment and to maintain its free access. We can debate how it delivers its services and look for different and creative ways of meeting people's needs, but that principle really is sacrosanct.

Part of the reason I feel so strongly about this is because of my father in law. I never knew him - he died in 1974, long before I met my husband. He was for over 30 years a General Practitioner in St Andrews. If you're called Thomas and were born in St Andrews between 1933 and 1963, it may well have been after him cos he delivered you. He moved there in 1933, when he had already been qualified for several years. He was in his 50s when my husband was born, and in turn my husband was almost in his 50s when our daughter was born. I guess there aren't many people who can say that they were born almost exactly 100 years after their grandfather.

He had around 20 years of experience of practice before the NHS was invented and he found it very hard. We don't know much about his early career, but we do know that he spent some time in Yorkshire working with other young doctors in a very poor area. He spoke of people dying unnecessarily because they couldn't afford the treatment. He apparently also spent some time campaigning for greater public sanitation, being well aware of how poverty reduces life chances and health.

He did used to treat people who couldn't afford to pay, but there were obviously limits to what he could do. He found it very traumatic that he couldn't save everybody.

When the NHS came in, obviously all of that changed, and he was able to ensure that everybody got the medicines he needed. Bob says he used to complain even in the early days about all the forms that had to be filled in, though in the creation of this massive bureaucracy.

I don't think that any insurance system that you could bring in would give the vulnerable sufficient protection. They put a much greater proportional burden on people on lower incomes which is why I guess rich young Tories like Hannan are so much in favour of it. What they really want is to pay less tax to the Government and to only provide for themselves without seeing any greater obligation to society as a whole.

Please don’t let anyone kid you that the private sector is going to make better decisions than the public sector, given their imperative to make profits for their investors. If you've ever tried and failed to get an insurance company to pay out on a travel insurance or redundancy protection insurance, just imagine what it would be like if a family member needed a life saving operation and the insurers refused to pay for it. I wouldn't rule out the NHS using the private sector if necessary, though, and I do think there needs to be some flexibility on things like allowing people to supplement their treatment as Nick Clegg suggested last year.

Nor do you want to go believing that you get loads of choice if you have an insurance based system. You don't tell your insurance company that you want to go to a particular hospital. Or you cam, but most likely they'll turn round and tell you that you have to go to the hospital that they have the commercial arrangement with. So there.

It's also worth pointing out that one of the people who posted on the Twitter #welovethenhs thing was Sunday Times journalist India Knight. She told, in 140 characters, how she had gone private with her third child and how she had to fall back on the NHS when things went wrong.

I also read somewhere that the average monthly wage in Singapore is round about £2500 - much more than it is here at around £1900 - and of course many people earn less than that.

I am also concerned that people think that the US system, which leaves at least a fifth of its citizens uncovered for double the proportion of GDP of our NHS, is being lauded as some sort of a success story.

If the US system does provide protection for most of its people, then why is it deemed necessary to bring in what seems to me quite basic comsumer protections - for example, stopping your insurance company from refusing you cover if you’ve been sick, or discriminating on the basis of gender, or charging ridiculous amounts for expenses. To me what Obama is trying to do seems quite mild.

Despite it not being perfect (and find me an organisation, particularly one with over a million employees, which is), I think it's great that people have stood up to be counted in their support for the NHS at the moment, to defend it from the misrepresentations not just from Daniel Hannan but the powerful and rich American right and its health related commercial interests. Remember that a lot of the inaccurate information about the NHS comes from organisations with direct financial interest in maintaining the status quo.

However, Labourlost, with your orgy of self congratulation, and Tom Harris, who seems to think that Daniel Hannan is some sort of get out of jail free card for the Labour Party take note: this alone is not going to win you the election. I suspect that Labour spin doctors are putting together an election campaign that relies entirely on fear to get their core vote out. That might work, but it won't help them where they need to win. If you have a hope in hell of avoiding your worst defeat ever, you're going to have to come up with some half decent ideas that capture people's imaginations on a whole range of things. I won't hold my breath.

Drink Beer for Healthy Bones, Girls

In the days of yore, when I was a student, if I strayed too far into normal pubs and away from the usual student hangouts, I was looked upon with great suspicion if I tried to order a pint. I remember being told at least once that they didn't serve pints to women. Needless to say, I left. Even when we lived in Nottinghamshire, ordering a pint of real ale and being female had its incompatibilities.

Anyway, I was amused to see this story which suggests that moderate consumption of beer can actually protect women from Osteoporosis. However, you get the best results if you're naughty and consume more per week than the Government thinks is safe - around a pint a day on top of the two units you are allowed to be exact.

The Osteoporosis Society was at best bemused by the research and was at pains to warn us not to drink too much:

"While low quantities of alcohol may appear to have bone density benefits, higher intakes have been shown to decrease bone strength, with an alcohol intake of more than two units per day actually increasing the risk of breaking a bone.

"There are also many other health concerns linked with alcohol which cannot be ignored."

The good thing about the research is that they think that plant hormones present in beer may have something to do with improving bone health and these will no doubt be studied more and might lead to something which helps reduce the misery of Osteoporosis.

In the meantime, mine's a pint of St Peter's Well....

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fraser MacPherson - top Lib Dem Councillor Blogger

Iain Dale has started publishing his top bloggers' lists from his recent poll. Today was the turn of Councillor bloggers to come under the spotlight.

The top Lib Dem in the list is none other than the Scottish Blogosphere's Fraser MacPherson from Dundee, whose blog is one of my favourite reads. As well as loads of local information for the people in his ward, Fraser also discusses Scottish and UK wide politics from a Lib Dem perspective as well as his favourite music - it's Shirley Bassey week this week.

Congratulations to Fraser on a well deserved achievement.

John Prescott - did he convince you?

Oh, bless him, John Prescott clearly sees himself as the knight in shining armour rushing to the side of a beleagered Barack Obama. He's been tweeting his You Tube video decrying the preposterous claims about the NHS made by Daniel Hannan to various official US Government sources and media networks.

I know he means well, but I'm not sure if he's really thought through what he's saying and his audience.

I think he could have done a much better defence of the NHS - surely to goodness Labour have some party election broadcast footage inside NHS health facilities that they could have used with a voiceover from Prescott or others. I'm not sure that Prescott's at times faltering delivery from the House of Commons Terrace with his chin looking like it's going to drop through the bottom of the screen compares too well with Hannan's slick delivery on the broadcast networks. The fact that Hannan is talking complete bullshit and Prescott is almost right is irrelevant in a country where image and presentation are taken so seriously.

The line that made me laugh the most was the one which basically said yes, we have waiting lists, but it's all the Tories' fault. I'm not sure that traditional British political quarrels are going to resonate much with the Americans. It's also quite a tragedy that the Labour Party actually believes that. The NHS has now been in their hands for 12 years, and there's lots more they could have done to improve delivery of services, making them less bureaucratic and more people centred.

Prescott was right to point out that in Daniel Hannan's own constituency, health was improving and deaths from cancer and heart disease were reducing, but, honestly, he did make a bit of a pig's ear out of delivering the information. Sometimes, it's just better to do another take. What was the rush? The internet's open 24 hours a day - it's not as if he had to meet a deadine.

I wonder how long it will be before the commercial interests opposing Obama's very reasonable reforms get hold of the footage of JP's wee argument with a voter from the 2001 election? I can't imagine that going down too well with an American audience either.

Prescott had the right idea, but maybe with a bit more thought, his production could have been much more relevant to the people he's talking to.

Much as I'm loathe to say it, the British politician the Americans would have listened to is Tony Blair - is it time to send him round the US networks defending the principles and practice of the NHS? He's well known there, the right, who are the ones who actually need to be convinced, respect him and might listen to what he has to say.

What do you think of Prescott's efforts?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Why I Love the NHS

Apologies for light blogging - I'm in the midst of a particularly poor spate of health at the moment. It's really frustrating because there is so much I want to write about and I just don't have the energy. I lie in bed with ideas in my head that I'm going to have to hope hang around long enough for me to be able to write them down.

I couldn't let the day go by, though, without writing a little bit about the NHS and what it means to me. I'll jump into the political fray at some point - and I still haven't read Charlotte's posting on the subject - but I want to keep this simple. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few examples of what the NHS has done for me and mine.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the NHS gave me my grandparents: when I was born, my Granny was 66 and my Grandad was 77. They did not have a lot of money. Unlike many Tory MPs, they didn't live a life of riches and privilege. In fact, they lived in this tiny, cramped two roomed flat which was up some pretty treacherous and precarious stairs. The toilet was two floors down and shared with other people. Grandad died when I was 9, but Granny lived there until 1982 when she moved into sheltered housing. She died 14 years ago at the age of 93.

Both of them suffered from health conditions which were easily managed with drugs that they would not have been able to afford if they had been in the US, where they would probably not have been able to get health insurance. If it hadn't been for the NHS care they received, I don't think they would have lived for as long as they did, and I wouldn't have got to know them. They were also my parents' main source of childcare when I was in primary school. I went to Granny's every day after school and during the holidays or when I was off sick.

The NHS gave me my sister: My sister's birth was wrought with complications and it took some skilful intervention on the part of the doctors and midwives to persuade her to breathe on her own. I don't think my parents would have been able to afford private health care in those days so it's possible that we would have lost my lovely sister.

The NHS looked after my premature niece: My niece Laura was born 7 weeks prematurely just under 17 years ago. She was in Special Care for ages in an incubator and received phototherapy for jaundice. While she was in Special Care, we saw the dedicated and skilled staff save the lives of many premature babies. Laura now has just got fantastic results in her Highers and has all sorts of opportunities open to her.

Just recently, she had a really unpleasant bout of Tonsilitis which, without antibiotics, could have been an awful lot worse - what if her parents had been in America,and had lost their jobs and with it their family's health insurance as a result of the recession? What if they hadn't been able to afford the drugs that Laura needed? It doesn't bear thinking about.

My youngest niece, Aimee, who's now 4, got Pneumonia as a toddler - a terrifying event for my sister, as you can imagine. Thankfully a spell in hospital sorted her out, again freely accessed by her parents.

Her brother, Ru, who's 10, had his appendix removed at the start of the Summer holidays. A simple procedure, but one which if he had been in the US without health insurance may not have been accessible for his parents.

I should mention my remaining niece, Emma, who hasn't had any medical dramas in her life, but, like my daughter Anna, owes her safe arrival in the world to the NHS. All the children have been immunised against diseases like Diphtheria, Tetanus, Whooping Cough, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Polio and several forms of Meningitis at no immediate cost to their families. When my husband was growing up in the 1950s, he knew children who died or suffered long term consequences as a result of these conditions.

My husband had a very severe chest infection after Flu a couple of years ago - he was treated and cured at a cost to us for drugs of no more than around £40, much less than the drug companies sell them for. If we had been on a low income, these drugs would have been provided free.

These are just a few simple examples of what the NHS has done for me and the people closest to me. I could think of many, many more. Thankfully, we've so far been lucky enough to enjoy reasonably good health, but if we need it, I know that the NHS will be there to provide us with treatment which is not dependent on our ability to pay.

There have been so many scare stories in the US about what right wing Republicans and insurance companies with their own commercial interests to protect see as state socialism. Sarah Palin has even had the nerve to talk about death panels and others have mentioned rationing.

What do they call their system, which provides excellent care for the rich and the well, but leaves a quarter of their population with no health insurance other than an extreme form of rationing? Why do they not want to give the vulnerable the access to health care that, let's face it, they need a lot more than the rich?

To me, this is big business putting profit ahead of people and, for all its imperfections, that's not something you could accuse our NHS of.

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan's appalling comments denigrating the NHS on US TV have brought nothing more than a shrugging of David Cameron's shoulders and a dismissal of him as if he were a drunken uncle at a wedding. I expect that if a US politician came over here and slagged off the American way of life on British TV, he'd have hell to pay when he got home. I remember Bush Senior slating Bill Clinton for going on protests against the Vietnam War while he was at Oxford, virtually painting him as unpatriotic.

I don't trust the Tories on any sort of public service mainly because most of them are so independently wealthy that they don't actually need to use them, but Cameron's non reaction to Hannan's comments prove that I am right to be sceptical about their commitment to the NHS. Views such as Hannan's are not unusual in the modern day Conservative Party.

I am not alone in my gratitude to the NHS. It's amazing to see that #welovethenhs on Twitter is one of the ten most popular topics and for a while today was actually ahead of the always busy #FollowFriday. When I first heard of the campaign, I was a bit concerned that the Americans might react to it as they had done to the infamous Operation Clark County in 2004 where the Guardian encouraged British people to write to voters in a marginal county to get them to vote for John Kerry instead of George Bush. To say that this did not go down to well would be leaving the eggs out of the pudding.

However, #welovethenhs is our response to wildly inaccurate lies being spread about a system of health care which may have its flaws, but we are right to be proud of.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Schumacher halts F1 Comeback - for the moment

A fortnight of almost intolerable excitment at the thought of seeing Michael Schumacher race for Ferrari again has given way to disappointment and tears in the Earl Grey as he announced today that he's had to pull out because the effects of a neck injury he sustained in a bike race in February mean that he can't take the stresses that an F1 race would inflict on him.

His statement had a very interesting turn of phrase, though:

"That is why my neck cannot stand the extreme stresses caused by Formula 1 YET." The emphasis is all mine, and I know I might be reading too mucch into it, but why say it if nothing else was planned and this was it, over, finito, for good.

I kind of thought that I was clutching at straws until this story came out via Autosport later in the day saying that Ferrari were trying to find a way of getting a third car on the grid for next year for Michael Schumacher to make at least a partial comeback. Now, I can't see it myself, especially as the FIA have opened selection for the final two slots on the grid, but I do wonder what they're playing at.

It certainly seems that Schumacher wants to race again, even if just for a little while. I wonder if the YET could also signify that, with training and physio, he could be race fit for Monza in mid September or for one of the later races in the season if Massa has not returned.

It's a big shame for all the people who had bought tickets for Valencia to see the Schumi comeback. It would be really nice if he was able to go down there and meet some of the fans. Mind you, they're going to have a lovely weekend in a gorgeous place, so they're not really missing out - and hopefully they're going to see the Brawns back on form.

This whole episode makes it seem to me that Ferrari have been really bad at succession planning. The second Ferrari at Valencia will be driven by Blast from the Past Luca Badoer who has been Ferrari's test driver since his remarkably unspectacular Formula 1 career ended in 1999. Ferrari seems to me to be like this big close knit family that when it takes you to its bosom, doesn't let you go again. Even Ross Brawn, who is a big boy now and has his own team said to Gazzetta dello Sport, an Italian paper, that “Michael has simply responded to the passion and the bond of loyalty he has for Ferrari,” says Brawn. “A passion I continue to feel myself." (Hat tip to James Allen ). You get the feeling that Ross would have understood a huge part of his team's fan base trying and failing to suppress the words "Go Schumi" as they watched Michael race. It's kind of like the ex you've never quite got over coming back when you're settled in a new relationship.

Anyway, to get back to the point, once you're in the Ferrari family you're in, but they don't seem to do that much planning for the future. Why are they not getting younger test drivers, with talent, in so that they can grow up with Ferrari and drive for them in the future. It's been the Ferrari way to grab the hot driver of the moment and hang on to them, but there are obvious flaws in that strategy, as we are now finding out.


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