Thursday, 20 March 2014

Bingo Budget Bulletin

Once we start deciding everything for ourselves, will Scots miss the theatricality of Budget Day?  The line-up of shop-window dummies outside Number 11, with the Chancellor holding up the red briefcase that, unbeknownst to all, contains only sandwiches and a rolled-up newspaper.  The 300-yard limo drive to the House of Commons, expensively filmed by the BBC from a helicopter because they’ve got your TV licence money, so bollocks to you!  The adversarial ranks of testosterone-addled louts, immune from everyday concerns, bellowing insults at each other and kept at bay only by an improbably pint-sized Speaker.

Then there’s the tradition that permits the Chancellor a drink of his choice during the speech, the only time alcohol’s allowed at the despatch box.  In their day Brown and Darling opted for mineral water, which was fine, because I wouldn’t like to see either of them too excited. Kenneth Clarke, who would rather have been lying back with headphones listening to Miles Davis, endured his ordeal with the aid of whisky.  Gladstone drank “sherry and beaten egg”, although he may have been secretly chastising himself for some personal misdemeanour.  George Osborne’s tipple looks like water, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it were actually the tears of the poor.

It’s very different from Holyrood, where there’s plenty of knockabout humour and gnashing of teeth to titillate the public gallery, especially when Johann Lamont is confronted with matters of detail, but nothing so compelling in dramatic terms.  Still, there’s nothing in my life these days to approach the thrill of Thunderbirds, Marvel Comics or sherbet dabs, either.  But that’s all right, because I’ve grown up.

There’s no doubt that George enjoys being in the spotlight, and not just because it helps to disguise his otherwise vampiric complexion.  It’s a great opportunity for him to put the boot in while others can only watch helplessly, summing up in one bravura performance the whole outlook of the Coalition Government.  His wickedest moment yesterday came when he announced funding for celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which he reminded us was the story of a weak leader, who betrayed his brother and was bullied by powerful barons.  The House erupted into laughter, as in response Ed Miliband's control chip activated his “smile” app while he waited for Ed Balls to explain the joke to him.

George was particularly pleased with himself this year, because the economy had grown to the point where he could afford to buy the Office For Budget Responsibility a new dartboard for its forecasts. Naturally, he attributed this to austerity, a brilliant economic strategy that he would gladly enshrine in the Constitution, if only the UK had one.  That’s as may be, but if I smash you to a pulp with a baseball bat, and you subsequently recover sufficiently to live a normal life, it doesn’t make me an orthopaedic surgeon.

The Treasury’s “lazy stereotype” unit had obviously told George that potential UKIP voters were mainly elderly people with piggy banks, because he unleashed a massive love-bomb on savers and pensioners. When he announced that £15,000 annual ISA limit, I’ll bet the champagne corks were popping in Easterhouse.  As for easing restrictions on retirees, allowing them to blow their entire pension pot on drink and drugs, what a splendid boot in the knackers for annuity providers!  Standard Life must be considering moving to Sevastopol, where the outlook is more certain.

Any crusties needing to offload some cash might want to pop down to the bingo, if their local hall isn’t too packed with hard-working people who want to get on, or to the pub, where for the second year in a row George ran a “buy 300, get one free” offer on pints of beer. 

The Tories were so proud of these concessions to the proles that their resident idiot, Grant Shapps, decided to publish a colourful poster claiming credit for helping folk “do more of the things they enjoy”.  Unfortunately, as Twitter went into meltdown, it soon became clear that what they enjoyed was humiliating the Tories for talking patronising pish.  I don’t yet know under which of his many false names Grant will appear in the soon-to-be-published Great PR Gaffes Of All Time, but I’ll try to find out once my sides stop hurting.

With a significant expression of Scottish voters’ wishes falling due in six months, we were agog to see how George would play things.  We already knew that the pound we weren’t going to be allowed to have would be changing, taking on the shape, and by 2017 possibly also the value, of the old threepenny bit.  What noise would the new coin make, we wondered, as it clunked ineffectively into the reject tray of a slot machine?  Would there be compensation for people whose jacket pockets would be destroyed?  After independence, would Scottish engineering firms still be allowed to build the new fleet of supermarket trolleys? 

In the end, George didn’t offer Scotland much in the way of bribery.  I think we’re just not his type, dear.  And we could have done without the little victory jig when he indicated that North Sea tax receipts were lower than forecast.  However, at least he didn’t raise whisky duty above its present eye-popping level, and Scottish firms did share in his attempts to breathe life into the corpse of UK manufacturing.  He even tweaked Air Passenger Duty a little, although not enough for the BBC to start pressing Willie Walsh to recant his views on independence.  Yet.

As for the inevitable stiletto, we were too busy watching George’s lips to notice it being inserted between our ribs.  Buried deep within the crannies of the Red Book was the reduction, in real terms, of Scotland’s block grant for the coming year.  John Swinney is an equable chap, but I’m sure he must sometimes want to sneak into a private sound-proofed cubicle and unleash a blood-curdling primal scream.   

Well done, James Cook of BBC Scotland, for spotting that little piece of jiggery-pokery.  There is hope for you and your colleagues yet. Now chair a TV debate where Better Together aren’t permitted to lie their socks off, ye wee scamp!

As with all Budgets, we’re now in the honeymoon period.  First impressions never reflect the full horror that lies slumbering within the Red Book.  However, it’s good to see that George has already put the ever-willing Danny Alexander in place as a human shield for the coming storm, whatever form it may take.  Let’s see how long his zealous infatuation with the Tories survives that.

Barring unimaginable political upheaval, George will be back for another dramatic extravaganza next March.  Will it be his finale as far as Scotland is concerned, or the start of a series of increasingly irritating curtain calls?

One ballot paper, one question, one moment in history.  You know what to do.


If you're interested in the Scottish independence referendum, why not have a read of my "To September And Beyond" blog here?  It's completely biased, of course.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Barrage Of Balloons

Sorry I haven't been around these parts for a little while.  Here's some of what I've been getting up to on my other blog. You know, the one with all the references to Scottish politics no-one south of Berwick can understand....

Weren’t the Oscars a disappointment?  Faced with the planet’s foremost assembly of emotionally incontinent attention-seekers fuelled by mind-altering substances, the No campaign couldn’t persuade even one of them to supply a vacuous sound-bite about Scotland staying in the UK!  We were treated to the biggest “selfie” in history, and there wasn’t an embarrassing tartan jacket in sight, nor a single designer handbag with a petite Union Jack poking coquettishly out.

I suppose it’s possible the silly buggers entrusted the flag to Liza Minnelli, only for her to end up hopping about in frustration at the back of the photo group, searching in vain for a stepladder.  But if we move back into reality, the truth is obvious:  they’ve called off the love-bombing because they just don’t fancy us any more.  Perhaps it was our constant references to Norway that put them off, or our indiscreet hand gestures during Dave’s Olympics address.

The violins may have stopped playing, but the bombardment continues.  Now it’s a barrage of bouncing bombs, skittering along the river towards the dam of Scottish self-confidence.  “You’ll be uniquely unable to use any currency whatsoever.”  “You’ll be chucked out of the EU, but mysteriously be bound by its rules.”  “You’ll be walking away from the BBC…. oh, hang on, maybe that’s a good thing…”

In fact they’re not really bombs, but giant balloons filled with noxious gas, much like the people who launch them.  Anybody capable of sharpening a pencil can easily pop them, albeit never loudly enough for the mainstream media to notice.  But we’re dealing with the UK establishment, where you earn a gong by repeating the same crap over and over again, so the balloons keep coming.  The last week or so has brought an exciting new trend, where many of the balloons have sported a “highly respected” company logo and, according to the BBC, carried the message “Vote Yes and get the sack, losers!”

That's because it’s the corporate reporting season, when, as a condition of the pen-pushers signing off on their accounts, companies must draw attention to any risks they believe will affect operations.  Even though the UK economy is a Ponzi scheme teetering on the edge of meltdown, they’re not allowed to cast aspersions on the status quo.  Independence, on the other hand, is just the ticket to set alarm bells jangling, especially if it means a firm might be properly regulated and any fraudsters thrown in the clink for a change.

This is particularly relevant for the financial sector, which a couple of weeks ago was a ravening monster whose demands would suck Scotland dry, but is now a pillar of national prosperity we can’t afford to lose.  Hence the hullaballoo about Standard Life “threatening Scottish jobs”, even though that’s not really news, because they sack people all the time, especially when the directors’ bonus pool needs topping up. 

Similarly, Alliance Trust, tiptoeing on to the scene today with a bland statement about forming additional companies, soon found themselves waving in the wind on top of the media flagpole, as commentators sucked their teeth in concern.  By contrast, Aviva, through the brilliant stratagem of announcing they weren’t fussed about independence, guaranteed themselves peace and privacy for the duration of the campaign.

It’s difficult to conceive of any situation that can’t be made more annoying by the intervention of a banker.  Sure enough, an old Square Mile chum of Robert Peston popped his head out of the trough the other day to deliver a sly tip-off.  While looking for buried treasure, he’d found a cobweb-encrusted piece of European legislation, forgotten by everyone and never tested in the courts.  After some restoration work with Tipp-Ex and a felt pen, lo!  the magic document proclaimed that upon independence RBS and Lloyds would have to move their head offices from Edinburgh to London.  Surprisingly, Robert assumed we’d interpret this as bad news, whereas it actually prompted a surge in sales of pitchforks and firebrands as we prepared to help them on their way.

In opposing independence, oil companies are on the sort of sticky wicket that defies all lubrication.  As soon as they praise the UK as a bastion of stability and continuity, it’s a fair bet that Osborne will move the taxation goal-posts again and UKIP will have a five-point boost in the opinion polls.  They also know that it would be a bugger of a job to extract the oil, transport it into English waters, bury it and extract it again, just to keep in with the chancers at Westminster.

So the oil sector’s comments about independence tend to be restricted to remarks by chief executives, whose grasp of the real world slipped away long ago.  Bob Dudley’s pro-Union views in a BBC interview were sentimental claptrap, albeit carefully judged to mask his own diabolical performance at BP.  Still, at least they were internally consistent, unlike those of Ben van Beurden, who at Shell’s annual reception waxed lyrical about the certainty provided by the EU, but didn’t notice that a Yes vote might be the best way to prevent it being flushed down the toilet.  Perhaps he was simply reading from the script Mr Cameron left behind after the Cabinet had finished posing in Shell’s Aberdeen offices.

And so it goes on, and on, and on.  The nay-sayers in the mainstream media are in clover here, because unless a company has something to gain from independence, such as British Airways hoping for Air Passenger Duty cuts, it isn’t going to leap on the Yes bandwagon in its annual report, any more than it would eulogise about its favourite colour or Kylie Minogue single.  So the best we can hope for is neutrality, although that hope seems somewhat forlorn when so many company boards are festooned, like Standard Life’s, with former Thatcher acolytes.  “What would Maggie do?” they ask themselves, and the answer’s always “Knee Scotland in the balls!”

Meanwhile, a million miles from the microphones and the lurid headlines, membership of the pro-independence group Business For Scotland has hit 1400 and continues to rise.  They’re mainly small enterprises, trying to make a living for their owners and the ordinary folk they employ, so they needn’t expect Westminster to give them so much as the time of day.  But they have a clear glimpse of something that’s plainly in front of us, when it isn’t obscured by the Unionist propaganda that surrounds us like a cloud of midges. 

Hope, not fear.  Opportunity, not risk.  A decent society, not an austerity-ridden hellhole.

And maybe, just maybe, the chance of a Saltire in next year’s Oscars selfie.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Après Le Déluge

In May 2012 the good folk of Staines, down the road from where I used to live, upgraded the name of their town to Staines-upon-Thames.  They were trying to boost the local economy by promoting its riverside location, albeit with the unfortunate side-effect of making it sound like a layer of scum.  Two winters later, it turns out they simply got the words in the wrong order:  it should have been Thames-upon-Staines.  As for the local economy, sadly, the river’s been not so much a shot in the arm as a punch in the guts.

I get stressed and shouty when I can’t find my keys or the broadband connection goes wonky, so I shudder to imagine what sort of meltdown would ensue if an endless tide of filthy water ever came frothing through my living room.  When I walked the Thames Path a couple of years ago, in the days before scuba gear was required, I did feel twinges of envy at some of the fantouche properties strung out along the riverbank.  Yes, householders, I was that furry lardball in shorts flicking surreptitious V-signs at your dream home.  But don’t worry:  BBC News 24’s relentless visual onslaught has touched my heart, and now I weep for you along with everyone else.  (I know that probably isn’t helping much.)

If the Jet Stream hadn’t shimmied southwards as smoothly as John Travolta in his heyday, this fusillade of gales and tempests would be battering the west of Scotland, and the BBC would be struggling to fit the story in between shots of Andrew Mitchell removing his cycle clips and ageing celebrities arriving at court for their acquittal.  The narrative would be far simpler too, since clearly the whole thing would be Alex Salmond’s fault.  

In England, where media bias is more evenly distributed, the question of who gets the blame is more complex.  But now that the devastation has spread from rural areas to the homes of people who actually count for something, it’s becoming hugely important.  We know this because every politician who pops up on the screen is now swearing blind it doesn’t matter a jot.

David Cameron, discomfited to find Kent and Somerset locals haranguing him rather than strewing rose petals in his watery path, swiftly concluded that “lessons had to be learned”.  In his case the lesson proved to be “I need a human shield”, which led to a fresh outbreak of Owen Paterson, a comedy legend in the shadowy world of ready meals, but not exactly a dab hand at retrospectively dredging rivers.  Mr P gave everyone involved six weeks to sort it all out, or he’d come down on them like a ton of bricks, just as he’d done with the badgers.  It was empty posturing, naturally, but enough to leave the scapegoat vacancy tantalisingly unfilled.

The situation clearly demanded an amiable but undynamic peer with Labour connections, nominal responsibility for the crisis and his hands tied behind his back.  Lord Chris Smith, in the three hours he was allowed in Somerset before being yanked to safety by a giant shepherd’s crook, could hardly have had a worse reception if he’d set about a wasp’s nest with a golf club.  When he said flood prevention meant difficult decisions and he was proud of his Environment Agency staff, it was undoubtedly true, but it was also as welcome as a doctor telling you, “The NHS has some smashing drugs, but you’re not getting any because, with your lifestyle and genetics, you’re completely buggered.”  

Ladbroke’s immediately stopped taking bets on the identity of the scapegoat.  The local Tory MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, a man of royal blood currently 309th in line to the throne, shook off the shackles of in-breeding to deliver the lacerating critique, “He’s a git… he’s a coward… I’d like to stick his head down the loo and flush.”  Could Disraeli have put it more wittily? 

There was little comfort for Lord Smith at Westminster, where Owen Paterson was undergoing an eye operation and had temporarily been replaced by Eric Pickles, who is still waiting for his people skills operation.  On the Andrew Marr Show Eric weighed in, horrific as that may sound, by blaming the Government’s failure to carry out repeatedly requested dredging in Somerset on bad advice from the Environment Agency, bleating that “we thought we were talking to experts”.

As Messrs Osborne, Balls and Alexander may shortly discover in connection with the Scottish referendum, you don’t back people into a corner unless you’ve taken the standard Tory precautions of breaking their arms and legs.  The Environment Agency soon had a snarky rebuttal doing the rounds, pointing out that successive governments had slashed their overall funding and the current lot’s arbitrary spending limits prevented them from recommending any course of action that had the remotest chance of achieving anything.

The spotlight was shifting and the outermost reaches of Eric’s ample girth began to appear in its glare.  Cartoonists sharpened their pencils and depicted his buttocks as the ultimate sandbag.  But, as everyone knows, weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.  Eric went straight to the despatch box and poured out undying admiration for the EA’s works, in words that definitely didn’t contradict his previous statements, though they happened to have the same pronunciation as ones that did.

Meanwhile, the Thames Valley was now underwater and civilisation under threat.  Instead of a couple of squaddies with a bucket awaiting orders that would never come, we had whole battalions of beefy troops and even a couple of Royal princes manning the pumps to divert the flood from the playing fields of Eton.  David Cameron promised “money is no object”, at which the Chancellor’s eyes grew even more coal-black, his complexion slightly greener and his vision of Dave’s ultimate death at his hands more painful.

Into the breach now stepped Philip Hammond, the man who sneers at an independent Scotland’s ability to defend itself while allowing Russian ships to roam unchecked in Scottish waters.  He’s anxious for his troops to relieve the crisis speedily, so that he can get on with giving them their P45s. Moreover, he’s the MP for Runnymede, a place coincidentally just downstream of Datchet, which got lots of help with manpower and sandbags, and across the river from Wraysbury, which didn’t. 

Philip therefore didn’t look entirely comfortable on Newsnight, explaining to a live audience in the George Inn at Wraysbury why they, unlike their neighbours on the opposite bank, had been left to fend for themselves.  Er, it was down to the differing “topography” of the two areas, announced Philip queasily, playing the duffest “Get Out Of Jail Free” card you could possibly imagine.  Nothing like a nearby Cabinet Minister’s footprint to change the landscape in subtle but important ways.

In truth, it’s difficult to envisage a level of preparation adequate for weather conditions last seen when Mozart was doing his pre-pubescent tour of Europe.  But the current crisis is a genuine once-in-a-lifetime exception  - isn’t it? - and, however prolonged it may be, the inundation will at some point go away.  Westminster politicians with a penchant for empty promises and circular back-stabbing are, I’m afraid, harder to get rid of, since you can’t even sack one without inadvertently electing a replica.   Until we learn not to give attention-seeking loudmouths a respectful hearing, but to fling them into the nearest dungeon and throw away the key, this problem will simply continue.

If only we had some sort of Ark to take us away from it all.  Whatever the uncertainties of the voyage, I’d happily clamber on board and I’m sure a lot of people living around me would too.  We could give it an ambitious forward-looking name, such as the “Ark of Prosperity”.  What would we use for currency?  You know, I don’t flaming care.

Friday, 7 February 2014

The Greatest Love-Bomber of All

Mr Cameron addresses three-quarters of the nation.

People of England, Wales and Northern Ireland!

Scotland!  Stop pulling that face.  This is about you, but it’s not for you.  Daddy’s speaking to the other children now.  Don’t interrupt.  Why?  Because it’s rude.  Look, I don’t care if that IS what Evan Davis does on the Today programme.  Evan is a big boy, so he knows when he needs to step in to stop you embarrassing yourself. 

Sorry, everyone, I’m afraid Scotland is a bit tired and crabby this morning.  Must have had a little too much Irn Bru last night.  (Pause while acolytes hold up signs saying “LAUGH NOW”.)  Anyway, we have lots to talk about, so let’s ignore their high-pitched whining and get on.

Look around you at this magnificent Olympic park.  Isn’t it a splendid example of what we can achieve as a united British people?  It doesn’t matter in what corner of these islands you were born, or whether you can afford the outrageous train fares to get here.  You still had the honour of paying through your taxes for these splendid facilities, which the people of London and its burgeoning tourist industry will enjoy for decades to come. 

That’s why the warmth of our gratitude, which is a thousand times more valuable than money, will always be radiating outwards from the M25 to wherever it is you people live.  But as well as gratitude, there’s glory, with the memory of our Team GB competitors kicking the arse of the world, really sticking it to those bastards in the G20 who said we were just a titchy offshore island with delusions of grandeur.

But it’s not simply about the winning;  it’s about the red, white and blue.  Blue is in my blood, so can you imagine how it would feel to have that drained out of our flag?  The French would never let me hear the end of it, Obama’s flunkies would simply put the phone down instead of putting me on hold, and Vladimir would taunt me about the flag going pink in the wash.

Think of our connections with each other.  The UK is an intricate trap… I mean, tapestry.  Look at me:  I have West Highland Cameron ancestors, but I’m also the 5th cousin of the Queen. The name Cameron may mean “crooked nose”, but my forebears had good enough spin doctors to fix that.  They coined the motto “Let Us Unite”, a useful rallying cry in 1707 when the overwhelming mandate of the privileged brought Scotland into England’s embrace.

We can’t unpick institutions and infrastructure that have grown up together.  Can you imagine how Scottish supermarkets would suffer if lorries had to queue for hours at border posts we’d erected for no discernible reason?  What about the chaos if Scotland had a different legal system?  Or a different tax regime?  I don’t know how the Europeans manage, not that that will matter a jot after 2017.

Our prosperity, which from personal experience I can tell you is very real, even though invisible in your own daily lives, depends on sticking together.  We have a long term economic plan -  no, a vision, though I’m sure George hasn’t done drugs since college -  for Britain to be innovating, creating and shovelling the proceeds down our banker pals’ throats until the Sun goes nova.  Without access to Scottish resources, George and I could find ourselves getting boiled in oil, in a nice ironic touch, at the next Bilderberg conference.  

Our armed forces?  Finest in the world, though Philip Hammond is working on that.  Our shipyards?  Thanks for taking one for the team there, Portsmouth.  But it’s not just about national vanity, although obviously that’s mostly it. 

We’re also the soft-power super-power, a crucible of creativity that produced Emeli Sande, whose CDs the people of Kazakhstan would chuck on a massive bonfire if they discovered she was Scottish and not North British.  And what about Sherlock, whom Conan Doyle would have been too poor and stupid to create if the country had just stopped at Hadrian’s Wall?  (Is that where the border really is, Tristan?  Can someone check before the speech?)

Then there’s the BBC, whose reputation for fairness and impartiality goes without saying.  More and more frequently, as it happens.  But Aung San Suu Kyi was a fan, so that’s the moral high ground secured against annoying questions.  (Tristan, can we leave out the part about her bopping along to the DLT Show?) 

This is a country where, if we see someone who’s sick, or has lost their job, we don’t just walk on by.  We kick them in the nuts, get them evicted from their home and say it’s all their fault.  Let’s keep speaking out for these values together, filling the gaps with “la la la” if we must, to shut out any dissenting voices pointing out the immense moral vacuum at their heart.

We are the pride and hope for the world.  Think of the British ships, named after different parts of the UK, sailing to the Falklands to protect the then-popular principle of self-determination.  Think of how, in 1964, Nelson Mandela, even though he was at that time a terrorist, delivered a moving speech in court about his respect for British institutions such as Parliament.  Can you imagine? Unlike the Jocks, he had no place to air his grievances!  Whereas we gave the SNP at least 10 minutes yesterday to make themselves heard above the heckling, and some unelected peers as long as they liked recently to explain why the very idea of independence was pants.

My favourite book when I was growing up was Our Island Story, which may be sub-titled A Child’s History of England, but also contains several compelling paragraphs about the provinces.  I want to give it to my three children so that they, too, can pee their pants with laughter about the gigantic con we’re… I’m sorry, I’ll read that again.  Britain is our family home, which we built brick by brick through brave buccaneering belligerent blustering brash brawny brilliance.  I couldn’t bear to see it torn apart, and to prevent that I’ll fight with everything I have, except my debating skills.

So let the message ring out, from Manchester to Motherwell (Tristan, is that where we shut down those steelworks?) , from Pembrokeshire to Perth (shooting and fishing country, we’re on firm ground there), Belfast to (crap, can’t think of anything!  Will they notice if I just say Brigadoon?  Oh, wait a minute, there’s an earl of…of…where is it?) BUTE, from us to the people of Scotland:  we want you to stay!  Please please please!  Don’t go breaking our hearts!

Alternatively, let us have all the oil, then you can bugger off.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Accentuating The Positive

Selected highlights from the Independence Referendum Campaign in January.

Alan Cochrane is in a tizz.  The bitterness of the independence debate will create fissures in Scottish society for generations to come, says the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish Editor.  Or maybe it’s the stand-up comedian with a similar name;  I do tend to get the two mixed up.

As Alan sobs gently into his comfort blanket, he should rest assured that kindred spirits are available to offer him a group hug.  For January 2014 was the month when several stalwarts of the No campaign, including Alistair Darling, Jim Murphy and up'n'coming Labour starlet Kezia Dugdale, appalled us with fearful stories of “Cybernats” hurling online poison at them from dank bedrooms across the land. 

Online abuse is disgraceful, but most would agree that it’s (a) a general problem, by no means specific to the referendum debate, (b) a minority pursuit, (c) present on both sides of the argument, and (d) not masterminded from an underground bunker by Alex Salmond.  However, this view proved too nuanced for the Daily Mail, which under its guest editor Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a two-week witch hunt of separatist agitators, even door-stepping a few who’d escaped detection by the elaborate double-bluff of using their real names and not actually saying anything very controversial.

I’m sure Alistair and his friends would be horrified if this unpleasantness were to distract us from the real debate.  So let’s stick with the positive campaign stories of January, such as Alistair’s own heart-warming reconciliation with former neighbour and boss from hell, Gordon Brown.  Through boom and bust they’d shared a brotherly bond, until the day Alistair had spoiled it all by giving an update on the economy in the style of Private Fraser from Dad’s Army.  Now, with Westminster’s throttle-hold on Scotland at stake, they’d put all the volcanic tantrums and self-serving memoirs behind them and were back in harness.

The rapprochement didn’t extend to appearing in public together, which saved someone the job of ensuring all throwable objects were nailed down.  But it did involve Gordon smiling in that peculiar, disconcerting way of his, lavishing praise on Alistair in a speech and even remembering to remove his radio mike before getting in the car.  Gordon is now scheduled to disappear for months on end, as usual, and step in to save the day once Alistair’s cocked everything up.  Alistair’s views on all of this are not recorded, but he seems to be fluttering his eyelashes quite a bit.

Meanwhile, Labour were busy launching their latest buzz-phrase, “pooling and sharing resources”, or, as the rest of us say, “kicking the Barnett Formula in the nuts”.  They also added to the mystery surrounding their classic slogan “a bigger idea than independence”, in a First Minister’s Questions performance by Labour leader Johann Lamont that was extraordinary even by her standards. 

In Johann’s words, which Alex Salmond helpfully repeated back to her in case of any mistake, removing Trident, avoiding illegal wars and tackling child poverty are “wee things”.  Blimey, you might think, this idea Labour’s got must be really massive.  That must be why they didn’t get round to implementing it in 13 years of government.  Maybe they’re worried about its gravitational pull causing tidal surges.  Or perhaps Johann is just looking at independence through the wrong end of a telescope.

The spate of “love-bombing” promised by Better Together was almost a positive story, but didn’t work out as expected.   William Hague marched into Edinburgh to deliver a lecture, long on bombast and short on understanding, that was more of an oaf-bombing.  Then on Burns Night John Barrowman didn’t show a great deal of love, but certainly bombed, punctuating a bizarre Immortal Memory with elephantine asides calling Alex Salmond a pudding.  About his jacket it’s kindest to say nothing, except that the day’s statistics for self-inflicted eye injuries must have been somewhat alarming.

Elsewhere on the explosives front, a stink bomb went off at BBC Scotland, as the University of the West of Scotland released a report demonstrating bias in their referendum news coverage in favour of the No campaign.  Everyone assumed it was part of the university’s “Bleedin’ Obvious” series of reports, a successor to the ground-breaking “Cows Go Moo” and “Ye Canny Shove Yer Granny Aff A Bus”.   

The BBC certainly seemed to assume it wasn’t news, since they didn’t report it.  Instead, in a letter sneakily copied to his boss, they demanded that the author, Dr John Robertson, show them his workings, so that a middle manager with no relevant academic qualifications could “evaluate” them.  “Heroic Apparatchik Debunks Hate Report Using Plain Common Sense” -  now that’s news!

Another notable publication during January was Jim Sillars’ alternative vision for Scotland, in Place Of Fear II.  Its title’s a nifty homage to Nye Bevan, it’s downloadable to your Kindle and, at a sixth of the length of the White Paper, you can read it in an afternoon without your head exploding.  Its release coincided with Jim’s appearance on BBC Question Time from Dundee, where his natural authority never lost its grip on the audience’s attention, even when he strayed off topic into a lengthy reflection on quantitative easing, while David Dimbleby shuffled uncomfortably in his seat, steam gently hissing out of his ears.

Jim doesn’t agree with the SNP on a number of things, including a sterling currency union, so he may have had a beady eye on Mark Carney’s “technocratic” outline of how to operate one.  The BBC marked this key moment in the campaign by switching into “gloating in advance” mode.  Would Salmond be handed his chosen currency option in a bin bag, or be given a dustpan and brush and ordered to sweep up the mess himself?  What would “Ye cannae dae it” sound like in a Canadian accent?  The occupants of Downing Street gathered round the telly with beers and Cheesy Wotsits in anticipation of a rout.

Instead, what we got was a scrupulously even-handed, non-judgmental analysis, a master-class in tightrope-walking over a minefield with a nuclear warhead strapped to one’s back.  The subsequent press conference re-enacted the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider, but with an alternative outcome, as time after time James Naughtie and his colleagues tried to put words in Carney’s mouth, only to be gently encouraged to sod off and get a life.

“The idea of a currency union is now normal, not risky or outlandish,” we thought, until we read the brain-shredding spin in the newspapers the following morning and realised we’d been visiting a parallel universe.  It seems that if you can’t pin a damaging quote on someone, you declare it’s what he didn’t say that matters.  As he left Edinburgh, Carney’s parting words had been, “It’s over, it’s over.”  But it never is.

In the universe inhabited by Better Together, not so much parallel as accessed by falling down a rabbit hole, it was as if someone had flicked a magic switch.  “Goodbye to the pound,” screamed their new leaflet, aimed at commuters on the basis that one must always have something sensational to read on the train.  It’s unclear whether they really printed the 500,000 copies they claimed, or someone in the press office had fat-finger syndrome.

Never mind, though, I’m sure there are many uses to which squillions of unread leaflets can be put.  We could even knit a few together and make a nice new comfort blanket for Alan Cochrane.  I’m positive his old one’s getting a bit worn.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

UKIP If You Want To

As Walter Mitty characters go, no-one lives the dream quite like Nigel Farage. 

His party has never won a Westminster parliamentary seat and he’s personally never polled higher than third place, yet he’s goaded squeaky-bum Tories into UKIP tribute band mode, cranking up the xenophobia.  On TV, his atrocious grasp of detail allows even Andrew Neil to use him as a chew toy, but it’s still news editors, not comedy producers, who have him on speed-dial.  When barracked by an irascible Edinburgh mob, he’s able to summon his uncanny powers of pub detection to escape them, and the polis even give him a taxi ride home.  Burping contentedly, no doubt, at his charmed life.

Still, when a jammy fourth place in the Cowdenbeath by-election is comfortably the high point of the party’s week, it’s time to wonder whether the Farage carriage is reverting to a pumpkin.  UKIP’s lately been encountering increasingly stormy weather, which is what happens when you disobey God by being a bunch of hateful bigots.

Hang on, fair-minded readers will protest, surely there’s more to UKIP than simply yelling about the EU, foreigners and whatever sub-section of the population has disgusted them this week?  Sorry, folks, we’ve just discovered there isn’t.  It turns out Nigel can’t remember a word of what was in their 2010 manifesto, although he does recall it was written by an “idiot”. But that’s OK, because he’s completely disowned it anyway.  (Bet Nick Clegg wishes he’d thought of that one.)

Amnesia is an essential defence mechanism for Nigel.  How else could he witness his colleagues’ constant horrendous gaffes without waking up in a cold sweat to find he’s eaten half his pillow?  But, even if he’s truly blanked out the manifesto’s contents, it’s a teensy bit weird that he managed to put his name to its foreword without spotting at the time that the whole document was drivel.  Surely he’d have noticed little clues here and there, such as the cover being decorated with glitter and a picture of a pony, or the N and S of “MANIFESTO” being written the wrong way round.

Could it be that Nigel – and, mind, I’m not implying this was after a few pints - just scribbled down whatever popped into his head for the foreword, without actually reading the manifesto?    It’s a daring time-saving strategy, to be sure, but it does lead to dodgy results.  Can you imagine if it were standard practice?  “Jeffrey Archer’s elaborate word-pictures sparkle with literary virtuosity.”  “Oedipus Rex:  the perfect Mother’s Day gift.”  “The New Testament is packed with handy tips on carpentry and wine-making.”

Nigel may not have known what was in the 2010 manifesto, but he certainly knew where to find it, since no sooner had he confessed his ignorance than it was deleted from the UKIP web site.  That’s a shame, for it contained some charming ideas, such as painting trains in jolly colours.  Wouldn’t that be a huge tonic for jaded commuters?  Who’d give a monkey’s about overcrowding, tardiness or outrageous fares if the front carriage were done up to look like Thomas the Tank Engine?  Let’s stick to primary colours, though.  Once you begin mixing shades, you never know what sort of beastliness will follow.

The 2015 UKIP manifesto isn’t yet written, folks, so it’s up for grabs.  There’s a lifetime subscription to the Daily Mail to be won.  Stop barking at the moon, put on your tinfoil hat, dig out a felt pen and stick your suggestions on a postcard!  (Please keep polysyllables to a minimum. Use nuance only when making snarky comments about homosexuals. Entries postmarked “Bongo Bongo Land” will be disqualified.)

There’s still time for UKIP to get their ideas sorted out.  They don’t need coherent policies for the coming Euro elections, since all UKIP MEPs ever do is pick up their humungous expenses and hurl abuse at Herman van Rompuy.  Most MEPs manage only the first part, so that’s pretty impressive productivity.  Sadly, however, the plooks erupting on UKIP’s puss go beyond lack of policies.

The party’s Scottish branch, which once startled everyone merely by existing, is now providing a rollicking adjunct to the pantomime season by hilariously falling apart.  One senior figure’s been sacked by e-mail, another’s flounced off in sympathy and a third is currently dynamiting himself through Twitter misbehaviour.  Six Euro election candidates have already jumped ship, and it’s rumoured that the other three are waving at passing UFOs to see if they can hitch a lift with the aliens.

Of course, Scotland is expendable for Nigel, since UKIP is about as popular here as anthrax, and its name may well make no sense after 18 September.  But there’s also plenty to fret about in England, where Godfrey Bloom’s potty mouth eternally lurks, and you have to keep watch for councillors talking to the hatstand, thinking it’s God.  Of professionalism and “good, solid people” there is not a sign.  Is UKIP attracting the wrong sort of candidate, wonders Nigel?  

No, Nigel, it isn’t.  It’s attracting exactly the right sort of candidate.  If we’re going to have deranged numpties entering politics, it’s far better for them to join an unelectable shower of half-wits than winkle their way into one of the mainstream parties and accidentally get near the levers of power.  Our existing political classes give us enough bother as it is without an extra layer of homophobia, bigotry and racism shovelled on top.  I could go into more detail, but you’d probably forget it, so I’ll keep it broad-brush.

Sorry if that seems a bit harsh.  As an olive branch, remember you’re always welcome to make your home in the new flourishing Scotland once you’re a busted flush in politics.  We’d need to avoid disturbances on the streets, obviously, but we have plenty of uninhabited islands where we’d be quite happy for you to be king. 

In your Walter Mitty dreams, anyway.   

Saturday, 25 January 2014

To A Grouse (Epistle to Alistair Darling)

Happy birthday, Robert Burns, 255 years young!

(On Him Turning Up In Newspapers Everywhere, Whining)

Wee, sleekit, glowerin’, troublous Darling,
O what a panic’s set thee snarling!
Thy bare-faced claims we can’t use sterling
Dinna convince.
The imprecations thou keep’st hurling
Are full o’ mince.

I ken wherefore thou art sae crabbit,
Thy fizzog like a startled rabbit,
Thy point of view sae parched and scabbit,
Thine aspect grim.
Faith! Thou maun earn a handsome habit
Wi’ ermine trim.

I doubt na but thy denigration
O’ Scotia’s self-determination
Is based on wild imagination,
Or pauchlin’ lies!
Such mischief bears its indication
In blinkin’ eyes.

Thy Project Fear has fallen tae ruin!
The Cybernats gave it a doin’,
Noo all deride its idle spewin’
O’ stories strange,
And bold September’s wind’s ensuin’:
The wind o’ change!

Thou saw Carmichael, bare and wast,
And moothy Sarwar, speakin’ fast,
And Michael Moore, in ancient past,
For mercy plead,
By Nicola’s scything wit outclassed
And left for deid.

O Grand Panjandrum o’ Finance,
Wha reads White Papers at a glance,
Whose style o’ banking governance
Was fair found wantin’,
It’s nae surprise we look askance
At a’ thy rantin’!

Gowk, thou maun learn the lesson plain:
Thy negativity is vain,
Awa’ back hame and think again,
Thy scheme’s agley.
An’ nought remains but grief and pain
On voting day!

How drab thy lot, compared wi’ me!
Westminster only toucheth thee,
And, as I backward cast my e’e,
It turns tae dust,
While forward, though I canna see,
I hope and trust!


Author's Note:  

In the spirit of "I am Spartacus", I hereby embrace the term "Cybernat" in the neutral sense of "supporter of Independence who comments and debates online". 

Recent use of it by politicians and the Daily Mail to tar ordinary Independence supporters with the same brush as online abusers and bullies is outrageous, and can't be allowed to stand unchallenged. Online abuse and bullying is to be unreservedly condemned and must be stamped out - but it exists on both sides of this debate and, alas, many others.  

If you're abused, that's dreadful, but there are laws to protect you and you should report it to the police. Don't attempt to hijack the moral high ground;  it's not clever, it's not pretty and it's very, very tedious.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

So the door of the windowless room is firmly locked from the outside, the water level is inexorably rising and a couple of sharks are circling ominously.  How will the Lib Dems get out of this one?  It’s a sad, sad situation, and it’s getting more and more absurd, but this time a Nick Clegg style charity single ain’t gonna cut it.  Especially when half of the potential performers are trying to throttle the other half in an argument over who should be saying “Sorry”.

With just one MP sent to jail and one sex scandal during this Parliament, you could say it’s been a tame few years for the Lib Dems.  But the absence of lurid headlines isn’t much consolation when your collective soul’s gone AWOL.  It speaks volumes that what’s sparking fireworks amongst Lib Dems isn’t their gutless complicity in a merciless onslaught on the poor by a pitiless elite.  Nor is it the fact that the only way to make an honest document of their 2010 manifesto is by rewriting each sentence to mean its precise opposite.  No, they’re fine with all of that, but when it comes to arguing about what level of serial sexual harassment is appropriate for a party big-wig, they’re like ferrets in a sack.

The House of Lords doesn’t do High Noon, because these expenses-claim lunches won’t eat themselves.  So Monday’s showdown was scheduled for 2.30 pm.  That was when, to the background accompaniment of his charity single “The Oldest Swinger In Town”, the triumphantly returning Lord Rennard was due to be winched into his appointed bench, with half of his colleagues strewing rose petals underneath him while the other half sat with steam whistling out of their ears. 

Then, at 2.29 pm, pandemonium!  A press release, cobbled together by a Lib Dem committee none of us knew existed, came whizzing across cyberspace.  Lord Rennard’s party membership, it announced, had been suspended while he was investigated for not apologising for the wrongdoing their previous investigation hadn’t been able to prove.  They wanted his party badge back, but he could keep the coloured pencils and bumper stickers.  (This last concession was largely drowned out by lawyers across London popping champagne corks.)

Lord Rennard could still have come to the House if he’d wanted, although he might have had to bring his own folding chair if he intended to sit.  But there was a crowd of photographers at his door, all set to re-enact a chase sequence on the Benny Hill Show, which would raise the alarming prospect of becoming the first life peer to go viral on YouTube.  Anyway, he was indisposed, having barely the strength to compose a 2,256-word self-exculpatory press release of his own.  So we were denied our promised coup de théâtre, although, on the positive side, the bricks that would otherwise have been hurled through TV screens can now be used to build affordable housing.

Seriously, though, why can’t the Lib Dems just get a grip?  In the real world, disciplinary procedures don’t faff around with “beyond reasonable doubt”, or hastily-arranged investigations to buy time before the next embarrassment engulfs you.  

We don’t know exactly what this guy did, because the behaviour of which he’s accused happens in secret, rather than with a tannoy blaring “Uninvited frottage taking place in Room 94”.  And you do have to tread carefully just in case an accusation is malicious.  But when you’ve got several women independently affirming they don’t feel comfortable sharing a working space with him without having a can of Mace handy, it should be game over.  He doesn’t need sympathy for being misunderstood;  he needs a bin bag for his personal effects and a tersely-worded instruction to go and lurk at the Job Centre.

But he’s such a brilliant election strategist, bleat his apologists, launching into a note-perfect rendition of their charity single “Nothing Compares 2U”.  Look, chaps, I know you have village idiot competitions to enter, so I’ll keep this brief.  

Firstly, are you really saying that, therefore, his victims should just “take one for the team”?  Secondly, there are 2.39 million on the unemployment register, of whom I reckon quite a few could con votes out of a gullible electorate just as readily as Chrissy-boy, without fondling someone’s patella.  Thirdly, no election strategy on the planet is going  to save the Lib Dems in 2015, unless all 57 of their MPs are discovered trussed up in a warehouse in Newport Pagnell, and it turns out they were impersonated after the last election by malevolent shape-shifters.  The Lib Dems don’t need a strategist;  they need a taxidermist.

On that argument, maybe there’s no time like the present for the Lib Dems to destroy themselves in an eruption of mutual loathing.  It can’t make their next election result any worse, and perhaps, like a forest fire, it will clear space for fresh growth.  New thinkers, bright ideas, a gleaming vision about a middle way for society.  Those of us who used to consider them their second-favourite political party, because that was an important component of British life, like saving milk bottle tops for the Blue Peter appeal, might once again be able to smile.

And if they knock on the door asking us to vote for them?  No problem, we’ll just whistle a few bars of our new charity single: “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Curry At The Balti Shop

Trawling the depths of my back catalogue and coming up mostly with silt. This one comes with apologies to Oscar Hammerstein II, and amateur vocalists can belt it out in the shower to the tune of "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top" from "Oklahoma!"  OK?

When I take you out tonight with me
Swanky joints and greasy spoons let’s flee
No pub meals or lecherous Italian waiters
There’s just one hot spot I wanna see.

Your GP had best start to worry
When I take you out for a curry
When I take you out for a curry at the Balti shop.

Shovel in that Madras-style chicken
Hear them Geiger counters a-tickin’
Grab your throat and yell “What the dickens?”
As your eyes go pop.

The rice is yeller, the sauces are brown
The recipe book’s Bengali
Here’s a pint of lager to wash it all down
And make you tremendously jolly.

One last item each dish to embellish
Silver trays of luminous relish
Even though the taste may be hellish
You won’t want to stop
Damping down that little curry from the Balti shop.

Burger King’s relentless bonhomie
Masks ingredients you'd be shocked to see
Chinese food is sickly sweet and insubstantial
And the plum sauce makes me want to pee.

If you’re lookin’ weak-kneed and scrawny
Soupe du jour is Mulligatawny
Builds you up till you’re beefy and brawny
When you start to flop.

Pappadums piled up to the ceiling
Vindaloos discreetly congealing
Give your heart that warm kinda feeling
That it’s hard to top.

The waiter glides round as if on wheels
Indulging in question and answer
“Can I light your candle?” “Enjoying your meal?”
“Would you like some Peshwari Nan, sir?”

Sag Aloo gets caught interdental
Wield that toothpick – mind and be gentle
One more pleasure subcontinental
That you’d never swap
Is the stickiness of curry from the Balti shop.

We’ll eschew the haute cuisine of France
It pales into insignificance
This cuisine is haute enough to melt the icecaps
And to make a statue wanna dance.

Pubs all shut and in spill the drinkers
They are not the world’s greatest thinkers
But as multiple lager sinkers
They just cream the crop.

Three pints down and they’re raucously singing
Fights break out and samosas they’re flinging
Soon the polis the building are ringing
It’s a fair old cop.

Even now the delights are not complete
And the atmosphere still lingers
There’s a cup of coffee and a chocolate sweet
That melts all over your fingers.

When you’ve had that rich chicken korma
You’ll jig about like a circus performa
And tonight it’ll be nessun dorma
Though your eyelids drop
You’ll recall that little curry from the Balti shop.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

All Together Now

One of the striking things about the “Better Together” campaign whose positive message over the last few months has so galvanised the Scottish independence debate is how excitingly inclusive it is.  It doesn’t matter how ridiculous you are, how anti-democratic, how irrelevant to the debate or how tainted by past failure; you’re still welcome to point out to the Scottish people that we’re uniquely incapable of making our own decisions, and that if we try to do so the entire planet will be torn from its axis and hurled into the void.

Take the grey, cobwebbed figure in a deserted corner of the pavilion at Lord’s that startlingly came to life shortly before Christmas and revealed itself as Sir John Major.  Sir John’s affinity with Scotland is such that at the 1997 election he became the only Tory leader in history to preside over the complete obliteration of his party’s representation here.  But he did leave sterling out in the rain on Black Wednesday for speculators to rip apart, so currency is kind of his specialist subject.  As long as he keeps his clothes on, anyway.

It’s often hard to be sure of what Sir John is saying, because you’re so busy stabbing yourself with a pencil to stay awake.  But the gist of his remarks seemed to be that after voting Yes we could forget about negotiating a sterling currency union with the remainder of the UK.  Any of that malarkey and a gang of Phil Mitchell lookalikes would show us off the premises faster than we could say, “Mmm, aren't these knuckledusters delicious?”  Thereafter, we’d have to rely on bawbees, pibrochs or Irn Bru bottle tops until being grudgingly permitted to join the Euro in 2099, twenty years after Ruritania. 

We had little opportunity to consider what George Soros and his fellow vampires might think of a sterling zone shorn of oil revenues, for within seconds a weedy, knackered-sounding trumpet voluntary announced the arrival of the next uninvited guest.  Why, if it wasn’t Mariano Rajoy, Prime Minister of Spain!

When we’d last seen Mariano, he and David Cameron had been engaged in a red-faced, middle-aged shoving match at the head of a seven-mile traffic queue outside Gibraltar.  But with a tiny sprinkling of “Better Together” fairy dust, they were now best buddies, standing shoulder to shoulder against slippery secessionists.  It’s unclear whether they were in some sort of bromance-related clinch, or simply using each other as glove puppets. 

When Mariano said that a region splitting off from a larger country would “remain outside the EU”, it’s a pretty solid bet he was talking about Catalonia, Spain’s own little pocket of troublemakers.  Naturally, having the politician’s usual allergy to unambiguous statements, he didn’t come out with it explicitly, but merely left his words hanging there like a fart in a lift. 

Of course, he didn’t have a scooby what would actually happen, since the EU has no mechanism for chucking out entire populations for unacceptable voting choices, but who cares?  Better Together simply slapped clothes pegs on their noses and got their pet journalists to disgorge some tripe spinning his statement as a dire warning from the EU to Scotland.  One suspects that shortly Dave will issue a reciprocal weasel-worded threat, expertly timed to banjax Barcelona.

Since Scotland’s untimely removal from the EU would result in Spain’s fishermen being kicked out of Scottish waters and his paella having to be made from tofu, I rather think Mariano would be amongst the first to summon us back down from the naughty step.  But never mind, it’s great to see that ignorance and guardianship of a tottering economy mired in scandal aren’t barriers to inclusion in the grand Unionist charm offensive.

As 2014 has dawned it’s become apparent that Better Together have significantly ramped up their game.  Perhaps they’ve been spending the NoTunes vouchers they got for Christmas.  We’re promised that, just as soon as they can identify candidates with the right combination of shamelessness, cashflow problems and fake sincerity, “English celebrities” will be all over the airwaves, telling us how much they adore us and can’t live without us.  

What toe-curling telly might we expect?  Luvvies in “I Heart Scotland” T-shirts getting the words to Auld Lang Syne wrong?  Jeremy Paxman introducing Newsnight wearing a Jimmy wig?  The cast of Strictly doing a White Heather Club tribute?  OR MAYBE THE BBC COULD JUST PRODUCE A WEATHER MAP WITH SCOTLAND THE CORRECT FLAMING SIZE?

This technique is known as “love bombing”, a vaguely pornographic-sounding term often associated with religious brainwashing cults.  It worked a treat with the Quebec independence referendum in 1995, something Better Together think we’re too stupid to have noticed.  The current retread will also feature “ordinary folk” cold-calling Scottish voters in an initiative called “Blether Together”.  (That isn’t satire, folks.)  If I were a candid friend, I’d advise against recruiting too many callers from the North of England, in case discussions take an unexpected turn and we end up with the border at Sheffield.

However, the “marquee signing” of the whole BT campaign is surely the one just announced… oh, all right then, denied by official sources, so obviously true.  Step forward Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, President of Russia, tough-talking tiger-tranquillising macho man, the world’s first authentic super-hero!   Yes, he’s a repressive, homophobic thug steeped in the ways of the KGB who doesn’t give a monkey’s about democracy, but protocol demands that we listen politely to him this year, because Russia has the presidency of the G8.  What better time to call upon him to stem the shock waves of self-determination currently buggering up the world for bankers and oligarchs?

It’s easy to imagine Putin striding topless through the heather, the midges bouncing off his leathery skin as he pauses occasionally to wrestle a lion rampant into submission.  With him around there’d be no more dissent from musicians:  Eddi Reader’s behaviour on Question Time would have to be peh-eh-eh-eh-eh-erfect and the Proclaimers’ proclamations would be limited to weather forecasts for Leith.  He’d win appeal, too, as the sort of guy with whom you’d happily share a pint.  I mean a single pint;  damned if I'd drink anything he offered unless he were drinking it too.

Still, this could all rebound on Better Together if Putin were to stumble across the nuclear base at Faslane and realise that independence will stop the warheads pointing at Moscow.  Of course, the missiles are useless and Putin could personally punch each one out of the sky as they fell, but it’s the principle of the thing.  And Putin’s probably drunk more toasts to St Andrew and Robert Burns than the whole UK Cabinet put together, so who can be sure he doesn’t harbour a soft spot for Scotland under that adamantine exterior?

But that’s Better Together for you:  devil-may-care risk-takers in their anxiety to ensure everyone gets a proper chance to rubbish independence from their all-encompassing tent.  It’s a pity they can’t attract the one figure whom voters are actually clamouring to see directly involved in the cut-and-thrust.  But Mr Cameron remains forever in the background, steadfastly maintaining his unimpeachable neutrality.  On what grounds?  Why, that the independence debate is just “for Scots”.

Aye, right.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Benefits Street

On Benefits Street it’s freak show time,
Observe and salivate
As indolence, drugs and petty crime
Besmirch the Welfare State!

We don’t cover those who scrimp and save
And play it by the rules;
It’s glittering BAFTAs that we crave,
D’you think we’re bloody fools?

No mention for working poor who earn
A pittance answering phones;
You only make headlines if you learn
To piss off Owen Jones.

Our cameras shun disabled folk
Beneath the ATOS heel;
We’d rather see Twitter up in smoke,
And hear the lynch mobs squeal.

So caricatures we’ve put on screen,
Condemned by their own lips
As feckless, corrupt, weak-willed, unclean,
With great shoplifting tips.

“Community spirit” we profess
As central to our tale;
Our cast even boasts a shared address
When they’re hauled off to jail.

Though poverty comes in many forms,
It’s sexier on TV
To indicate that the welfare norm’s

When residents whine to Channel Four,
Our answer’s short and sweet:
Collateral damage we abhor,
But our CVs look neat!

On Benefits Street they’re well pissed off,
But we’re cool with the flak,
Protected by rules that let you scoff
At those who can’t hit back.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

All Quiet On The Westminster Front

As the members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery sat sharpening their stilettoes yesterday for the first Prime Minister’s Questions of 2014, they must have been acutely aware of the end of an era.  Simon Hoggart, prince of Parliamentary sketch writers, passed away last Sunday at the ridiculously young age of 67.

I’m a huge admirer of Hoggart’s style.  I’ve frequently attempted to ape it, typically in my dreams, but even my very best shots have all the flavour of a thrice-used tea-bag.  These days, with access to live pictures, news blogs and the Twittersphere, we’ve no excuse for missing a syllable of any debate, but we’ll never appreciate its underlying truths as we did when laughing out loud at his witty, expertly-crafted vignettes.

Hoggart’s House of Commons was stuffed with fascinating characters who lodged themselves in your memory like Tenniel’s Alice In Wonderland illustrations.  There was the grandiloquent Sir Peter Tapsell, Father of the House, whose every utterance was handed down amidst awed silence;  Michael Fabricant, whose hair defied all attempts to take it seriously;  Nicholas Soames, lampooned in a single paragraph as a bouncy castle and a barrage balloon;  and, of course, John Major, of whom Hoggart wrote that seeing him govern was “like watching Edward Scissorhands try to make balloon animals”.

His humour was rarely, if ever, vicious, probably the first test most of us wannabes fail.  Its targets were usually happy to be part of the joke, in the classic tradition of Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas victims.  Not always, though:  John Prescott, never with a chip on his shoulder when a plank is available, may have felt ill-equipped to respond to his verbal shafts, and irritated that their source was a bloke educated in his beloved Hull who’d gone over to the posh side. And there did seem to be lasting antipathy with Tony Benn, whom Hoggart appeared to regard as a national treasure, but of the sort best kept hidden.

So what would Hoggart have made of yesterday’s PMQs?  As a fantasy escapade it didn’t quite measure up to Alice In Wonderland.  Instead, it had all the rip-roaring excitement of Alice Goes To The Shops For Some Milk

Of course, no-one was expecting fisticuffs.  News had broken of the death of Paul Goggins, a colleague clearly highly regarded on all sides, and MPs’ genuine shock and sadness had put them on their best behaviour.  Even so, exchanges were remarkably civilised.  If this was the Punch and Judy Show, it was an ‘elf-n-safety approved version played out by sedated nuns, featuring feather dusters for weapons, vegetarian sausages and a crocodile who’d forgotten to put in his false teeth.  Had the Speaker gone into the dressing room beforehand to lecture the team captains on playing nice for the cameras?

Ed Miliband’s opening question, on power distributors’ slow response to storm-related blackouts, certainly prompted high-fives from those of us who had “Lessons To Learn” on their “Cameron Buzz-Phrase Bingo” card.  But surely Ed would now fillet Dave by bringing up Environment Agency spending cuts?  On the Tory front bench, Owen Paterson nervously shuffled his Post-It notes.  But no!  Instead we got some old mince about asking DEFRA to report on future flood defence capability, which the PM effortlessly rendered harmless by declaring it a jolly good idea.

It took Diane Abbott, summoning her super-power of annoying the hell out of people, to inject some verve into proceedings. What, she enquired, about landlords evicting, or refusing as tenants, housing benefit claimants who were in work?  What did the Prime Minister have to say to these hard-working families?

“We’re cutting your taxes!” roared Dave triumphantly.  (Well, I’m sure extra disposable income is always welcome if you want to provide your own blankets at the night shelter.)  Then, suddenly, the spirit of the Daily Mail, which hovers eternally over the Tory benches, swooped down and took possession of him.  “Housing benefit bill far too high!  Payments of sixty thousand!  Seventy thousand! Housing benefit used to buy yachts!  Alabaster bathroom furnishings!”  Concerned colleagues dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a Wet Wipe.

But, just as quickly as it had arisen, the passion subsided.  Ed returned to his feet and with a confident flourish tore off his velvet glove, only to reveal a tissue-paper fist.  He brought up the spread of fixed-odds betting terminals, which Dave pointed out had begun when Labour relaxed gambling laws in 2001.  “Our reforms in 2005 limited them to four per betting shop,” bleated Ed, trying desperately to dig in his heels.  But he was too close to the edge.  “They didn’t go far enough…..”  Off he hurtled into the abyss.

The session continued to pootle along in predictable vein.  Each time a Labour MP complained about some dreadful state of affairs, the PM referred to his spreadsheet of “Crap that happened between 1997 and 2010”, and told us it was all Labour’s fault.  And each time a Tory MP mentioned a local business that hadn’t yet been driven to its knees, the PM endorsed this as evidence that the Government should stick to its plan of making everyone’s life miserable.

We did make some discoveries.  Despite spending cuts forcing the local police to use public transport, crime in Bassetlaw is down by 27%, presumably because the yobs can’t nick panda cars any more.  Dave seems to believe in climate change, possibly heralding a permanent drop in the temperature of his relationship with the Environment Secretary.  And it seems that Samantha Cameron’s late step-grandmother was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. Wonder what she would have made of Dave’s current pet phrase “difficult decisions”?

As we checked our watches and looked around for the lady with the choc ices, Scottish Independence came trundling into view, with the SNP’s Angus Robertson inviting Dave to debate with Alex Salmond.  A simple “No” would have sufficed, but I’m sure we’re all grateful to Dave for advising us, “It’s all over, the Yes campaign is toast, how can you haggis-munching separatists even get up in the morning, looooo-zers.”  I suspect SamCam Gran and her Bletchley Park colleagues would have pretty rapidly decoded that. “I’m feart.”

And so Dave departed, his expensively coiffed hair barely ruffled.  We all know what happens to New Year resolutions, so no doubt next week the two party leaders will return to hitting each other with giant frying pans in a febrile atmosphere.  The non-combative approach certainly doesn’t work to Labour’s advantage, since it seems to involve Ed using up all his questions on topics such as flower-arranging, but still gives Dave free rein to lambast Labour for all the ills of the world.  It might be smart to stop scoring own-goals, too.

As for Simon Hoggart, even during yesterday’s phony war I’m sure he’d have identified several quirky moments to fashion into an entertaining narrative.  If you have imagination of that calibre, you can count on it when it matters.  Then he’d have padded off to a familiar restaurant for an agreeable lunch.  Not quite the same as me slouching off to the kitchen for a Cup-a-Soup and Heinz Ravioli on toast.  Still, it gives me something to aspire to, doesn’t it? 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Back To The Grind

Isn’t the end of the festive season dismal? 

“Wipe that smile off your face, sonny,” says the calendar, as you gloomily unhook the baubles, stuff the lights into their box in a hideous tangle and prepare for another joust with the loft ladder.  The logic of getting an artificial tree becomes unanswerable as your natural one, humiliatingly stripped and already anticipating the touch of the bad burny fire, reacts by chucking its needles all over your carpet and inviting your Hoover to have a go if it thinks it’s hard enough.

If you’ve had guests, the laundry basket is full to the brim with sheets and towels, and your smalls are having to slum it in a bin bag.  Cupboards and fridge, seemingly at random, contain none at all of some foods and massive quantities of others.  (In our case we have a tremendous surfeit of Weetabix, although if this filthy weather continues it may come in useful as an alternative to sandbags.)

You watch Sherlock, recalling its captivating brilliance on New Year’s Day, only to find that while sober you can’t understand what the hell is going on.  At Tesco, the “seasonal goods” shelves, lately so alluring, now stand idle pending the arrival of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and World Cup 2014 merchandise.  Your true love stops sending you things, and even the five gold rings you liked so much turn out to have been bought at Poundland.

To add another spoonful of salt to your cuppa, it’s time to go back to work. And you’d better arrive at the station early, to grab a seat before they’re all taken by the 69 million extra Romanians and Bulgarians.  And watch out for passengers with brand new iPads who haven’t yet perfected simultaneously juggling them and a hot grande latte.  And stand close to a defibrillator when it dawns on you what the new fares are going to be.

Politicians also enjoy their holidays, although it’s invariably a shock to them to have to pay for their own meals for a few days.  But the siren call of duty, or trough, or mistress, affects them just as the threat of penury does normal people, so it’s back to the office for them too.  This is for the best.  A temporary sojourn in the real world is good for MPs, especially Lib Dems who will be searching for a job in 2015, but be honest:  wouldn’t you rather have them all in one place where you can keep an eye on them?

First to set the start-of-year agenda was David Cameron, with his appearance on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show.  Marr’s questions were topical, in the sense that they were as challenging as the easy-to-hit rubbish the news had shown England’s bowlers serving up against Australia.  Dave protected his wicket with an assortment of platitudinous drivel, then thwacked the ball to the boundary with an outrageous bribe to pensioners.  He said nowt about what would happen to bus passes, or free TV licences, or the winter fuel allowance, or pensionable age, but hey, the Tories have never shafted people in the past, so why would they start now?

Dave made one other pledge amongst the general dross: not to debate with Alex Salmond about Scottish independence.  Well, Alex and Dave are hardly comparable as leaders, are they?  One of them gets things done via a clear working majority in his Parliament, and the other has to exploit the grotesque spinelessness of his coalition partners.  Anyway, Dave’s personal improvement plan for 2014 doesn’t involve having his arse handed to him, especially when there are so many Labour and Lib Dem politicians available to scapegoat if Scotland votes Yes.

It wasn’t long before George Osborne was also manifesting himself all over the place, like the remnants of a paper hanky in a dark wash.  Apparently Austerity is not only a consequence of “the mess Labour left” - although obviously it is, with knobs on - but it’s also a bloody good scam, and that’s the hard truth of it!   So, after George has cut some more tax for the rich, he’ll begin slashing away at the welfare budget. “George, would that be the welfare budget Dave is going to use for those increased pensions?” we might have asked, had George not been occupied showing off the la-la-can’t-hear-you ear muffs he'd got from Santa.

As we trudge back to our desks, we should remember those who have to work all the way through Christmas – this year, thanks to the weather, in unusually large numbers.  If the wind hadn’t already blown off my cap, I’d doff it to each and every one.  But it’s all very well giving people practical help.  What about bland assurances? 

Fortunately, our political elite were on top of that too, with Dave taking a photo-opportunity in the Kent village of Yalding during a flood and power outage, and being “ambushed” with complaints by a member of the public. “We must learn lessons”, he declared.  In this case, presumably, the lesson foremost in his mind was, “Sack the special adviser who allowed me to be cornered by that stroppy local.”

Other Cabinet members also deserve mention for providing Christmas cover.  Owen Paterson, for example, brilliantly timed his announcement of 1,550 redundancies at the Environment Agency to coincide with staff working tirelessly round the clock to deal with the various floods.  As if that weren’t enough, he followed up 24 hours later with a cunning plan to solve the housing crisis by bulldozing ancient woodland.  This latter gaffe had the Woodland Trust spitting rivets, or possibly splinters.  You can see how the badgers were able to outwit him. 

Meanwhile, Michael Gove, on his own initiative, single-handedly rewrote the history curriculum and the story of broadcasting in one go.  Now, we realise, the First World War was a fantastic idea, and we should definitely celebrate it with ubiquitous Union Jacks a month before Scotland votes in its referendum.  Oh, and Blackadder wasn’t a documentary, though the presence of Stephen Fry and Tony Robinson might have fooled you on that score.  A gold star and prefect’s badge to Michael!

It’s fine hearing about politicians getting back to the grindstone, but not so great to realise that we’re the ones receiving the grinding.  Still, if this thought adds to your post-Yuletide despondency, remember that things could be worse.  In fact, give it a couple of weeks and they will be.  Monday 20 January is officially “Blue Monday”, when, experts assure us, it will still be raining, the Christmas shopping credit card debts will fall due and the accumulated stresses of living cheek by jowl throughout the festive period will result in the break-up of your relationship.

You’ll probably be needing a treat at that time.  Maybe you could save some of your Christmas chocolate, so that you can scoff a chunk or two to boost your blood sugar.  Or perhaps I could interest you in a tasty, nutritious 96-pack of Weetabix?

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Builders (A Cautionary Tale)

So what's your New Year resolution?  Maybe it's time you finally got round to building that extension you've been contemplating for years? If so, here's a word of warning you might want to read first.  If you're of musical bent, it can be sung to a rather well-known tune by the name of "Those Were the Days".

Once upon a time we had a kitchen,
Functional but cluttered to extremes,
So we planned a glorious extension
And wallowed in idealistic dreams.
We got the builders in,
Cement began to spin,
They turned the house a dirty shade of grey,
The garden’s full of skips,
We’re out of PG Tips,
And you should hear the music that they play.
We got the builders in,
That was our greatest sin,
For once they came, they never went away.

We retreated to an upstairs bedroom,
Hoping for some respite from it all,
Till with one blow from his mighty mallet
Pat demolished our supporting wall.
We got more builders in,
They all had double chins
And ample flesh on permanent display,
They caused a real to-do
By bricking up the loo,
Then burst a pipe and washed the cat away.
We got more builders in,
Our nerves are growing thin,
The population’s growing every day.

We got settled in a downstairs cupboard,
Hoovers and gas meters all around,
Then we got a visit from the council
Telling us they’d judged the place unsound.
We got contractors in
Our house to underpin
And weigh it down when it began to sway,
So back and forth they passed
Soon treading down the grass
And now we own a public right of way.
We’ve got contractors in,
So pour another gin
And please don’t ask us why we’ve come to stay.