Archive for December, 2007

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Death of an icon

29 December, 2007

Jemima Khan may have referred to her – somewhat unkindly, I felt at the time – as a “Kleptocrat in an Hermes scarf”, but Benazir Bhutto was much more than a flawed politician.

I, too, was disappointed at her inability to advance the cause of women’s rights in Pakistan when she was Prime Minister, but she faced almost implacable oppostion by the army – an enormously powerful force in Pakistan – during her tenure. It was interesting to listen to a friend of hers on the Today programme yesterday morning, talking about how she felt that Benazir had perhaps lacked the leadership/management skills necessary to force through the changes she genuinely wanted to see.

Whatever it was that held her back from achieving all that she had set out to, Benazir Bhutto was still the first woman ever to be elected as the democratic leader of a Muslim country; an achievement in its own right, even if it owed more to notions of dynastic inheritance than meritocracy.

She was perhaps the best chance Pakistan had of bringing together the three apices of power: President, head of the army and Prime Minister, to work together against the twin scourges of extremism and poverty.

Whatever the truth of her assasination (is it just me, or does it strike you as nit-picking, to argue that the fall from the blast of a suicide bomber killed her, rather than the bullet that was aimed at her?), she will remain an icon in international politics, someone in whom the west had invested great hope, it is true, but with a core of steel that would doubtless have seen her prepared to argue with us if necessary, when it came to the country about which she cared so passionately.

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Talking to the Taliban

29 December, 2007

I bought my husband this year’s book of Matt cartoons as a stocking filler, silently acknowledging that I really wanted it for myself. I spent a pleasant half hour on Christmas Day, sitting on the sofa (ignoring the inner voice telling me to start packing the bags for our trip to Granny’s), revisiting all of my favourite cartoons from the past year.

One that struck me anew was that of the Devil skating, behind him a newspaper, bearing witness to the new power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

I admit that, had you asked me three years ago whether Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would ever be in the same building together, let alone office, I would have suggested that Hell would indeed freeze over first.

And yet, it came to pass (couldn’t resist it – influence of the season).

The situation in Northern Ireland once seemed as intractable as any other on Earth, yet proved not to be, in the end, after years of work. That that work included low-level, behind-the-scenes talks with the IRA from the outset should not surprise us.

Ultimately, the situation in Afghanistan requires a political solution, and we won’t ever achieve that unless we are prepared to talk to people we would rather avoid. History teaches us to be wary in Afghanistan, I agree, but refusing to establish lines of communication will lead us nowhere.

I can assure you, as a Service wife, that I hope we are talking to elements of the Taliban: we want a resolution to the apparently intractable problems of the region as soon as possible. We owe it to our hard-pressed Service personnel, not to expect them to stay in Helmand a moment longer than is necessary.

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The importance of being earnest

18 December, 2007

Oh, for Heaven’s sake. What next? 

On my way to bed (having managed to stay awake through the News tonight), but felt compelled to sit down at the computer en route.

A government agency has managed to lose another disc full of personal information: a hard drive this time, to ring the changes. I am now put forcibly in mind of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, “to lose one source of personal data may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.” I paraphrase, of course. 

A government with its finger on the pulse, or the Keystone Cops – you decide.

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David Cameron and the state of the Union

17 December, 2007

carolyn-brodie-david-cameron-share-a-joke.jpgI popped into Edinburgh last week, to listen to David Cameron pledge his support for the Union – a most welcome intervention in the current debate. The speech also served as a coded warning to those Little Englander Tories, who have been so vocal recently, bold in their assertions that their constituents are paying for our children’s education.

 Well, as the Herald demonstrated but a few short weeks ago, that is nonsense: Scotland may indeed have high levels of spending in its more deprived areas, but we pay our own way. £49 billion in tax revenues going south and £49.2 bn being spent across the country as a whole. (If I were a Nat, I’d be a bit worried about the net deficit: £200 million might be small change in government spending terms, but, if you have to find it, as well as fund captial spending on Defence and Foreign affairs, that’s quite a shortfall you’re having to find from the tax payer), but I digress.

The main point is that we are not feather bedded by the English, so that’s one chestnut that shouldn’t be deployed this Christmas.

“Better an imperfect union than a perfect divorce,” were David’s words, which I echo wholeheartedly. I believe firmly that we all benefit from being part of one realm, with our separate cultural identities: as Annabel Goldie says, “Alex Salmond doesn’t have the monopoly on patriotism.”

It was slightly dispiriting, therefore, standing among the faithful, to hear one Edinburgh matron, complete with fur coat, assert that it would be even better when “we get rid of that building there,” indicating the Scottish Parliament. My heart sank: when are the die hards going to realise that the Scottish Parliament is here to stay; what is more, it is wanted by the overwhelming majority of the Scottish people and regarded as their primary government. If we can’t accept the settled will of the Scottish people then we will not prosper in Scotland. The Parliament is not going away, so we have to work with it. Annabel has realised that and is wielding her current influence with the minority administration to good effect.

And those who move to Scotland from the south of England, looking for a better quality of life, must be prepared to accept the differing realities that obtain north of the Border. I can well remember moving in 1994 from my job in a large government department in Edinburgh to a job in an even bigger government department in Norfolk. Overnight, I had gone from being the office Right Wing Facist Reactionary to the new Office Pinko, but my politics hadn’t changed: I was still the moderate, right-of-centre being that I had been the previous week.

 What had changed was how I was perceived. All Conservatives, north and south of the Border, must remember that the political yardstick is calibrated differently in Scotland from England.

David Cameron knows it; time some of the die hards took their lead from him.

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Did Scrooge have a point?

7 December, 2007

Going home on the last train from Glasgow Central last night, the young woman opposite me raised her head from where it was slumped against her boyfriend’s shoulder and vomited over the floor in front of me, missing my favourite party shoes by a fraction.

Nativity plays are on the wane, panto stars in Norfolk are banned from throwing sweets into the crowd for fear of litigation and – surely the ultimate absurdity – Historic Scotland has banned candles from being lit in Glasgow Cathedral, also on Health and Safety grounds (I’m not an historian, I admit, but electric light is a fairly modern invention: the Cathedral has stood since the 13th Century and appears to have coped with candles fairly well for 800 years).

Modern Britain: unrepentantly drunk and obsessed with Health and Safety.

 Add to that the fact that most people seem to start Christmas in November and consider Advent to mean ‘time to start Christmas shopping’, rather than time for reflection, and you could be forgiven for saying ‘bah humbug’ to the whole thing.

Except, except.

I was invited to the Cancer Research UK Concert in Glasgow Cathedral last night at the very last minute, to replace far more important guests who had had to drop out. The invitation came via a tenuous Conservative Party connection, and was extended to my husband. As HRH the Duke of Gloucester was attending, I had to provide a quick bio on self and husband, for security purposes.

It was a wonderful evening, with a drinks reception first, then the Concert, followed by a truly sumptuous dinner in the Crypt.

We had been allocated seats in row seven, but, just as we were going into the Cathedral, I was told that we were now in row three, right behind the Duke, with a fabulous view of everything. The concert captured my attention from the outset, so it was only mid way through that I began to wonder why I, as a last minute invitee, and a Nobody to boot, should have been given a position so close to the salt. Then it struck me: the compliment wasn’t for me as a newly-selected PPC, but for my husband, as a serving officer, and for me as a Service wife.

Conscious perhaps of the feelings expressed by soldiers that the people of this country don’t really understand or appreciate the sacrifices they are now being called upon to make, Cancer Research had found time in the midst of its last-minute arrangements for this high-profile, hugely important fundraising event to make a public show of support for our Service personnel and their families. We were their representatives last night, but the message was for all serving soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families.

As a Service wife, I was touched beyond measure. And that is surely the true spirit of Christmas.

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Schadenfreude should be avoided

7 December, 2007

“You haven’t updated your blog since 25th November,” said my neighbour to me at a charity dinner last night. He was mildly unimpressed by my lack of output, but I was delighted to discover someone who actually read it, apart from my husband and my brother-in-law.

 Apologies to anyone else out there who might read my wandering thoughts on a regular basis: I spent last week travelling between Paisly, Lochgilphead and Edinburgh, arriving home regularly after 10 pm, and this week I started my new job. Working full time again has meant a return to my old habit of falling asleep in front of the News and stumbling to bed, with little enthusiasm for sitting at the computer until late into the night.

 If I subject myself to closer scrutiny, however, I admit that I have been conscious of a slight reluctance to tackle the subject that has dominated the headlines recently: the Donations Scandal(s). 

Oh, I can’t deny that I have watched the Prime Minister’s discomfiture with a small degree of satisfaction (although I’m willing to bet that Tony has been hugging himself with glee at the headlines), and anything that could remove patronisingly ueber-politically correct Harriet Harperson from our television screens just has to be A Good Thing in itself, but I have watched Ms Alexander’s troubles with less satisfaction.

There are two problems with Schadenfreude (apart from the fact that we don’t have a word for it in English): as well as being a deeply unattractive quality, it can rebound on us later. I have only recently been selected, and, to my certain knowledge, any donations I have received to date have been from fully paid-up members of my local Association (for which I am very grateful!), but who knows what murky secrets lie in the undergrowth of party funding?

Are all of our politicians satisfied that they have checked the source, personally, of every single donation that they have ever received? Have they, perhaps, as Wendy did, trusted others to do so properly and in accordance with the law? She may well have signed a thank-you letter, but I took two letters into a meeting for my Boss to sign this week; letters she had looked at in draft, which she then signed hastily, while continuing with her introductions around the table. She didn’t read them again.

I am willing to bet a large sum that one of Wendy’s assistants shoved a couple of ‘bread-and-butter-thank-you-letters-to-donors’ under her nose, while she was talking to someone else, and asked for her signature. None of this excuses her breaking the law, but it might well explain how it happened.

We should all be a little wary of throwing stones, as I suspect that there are politicians out there from all the other parties who are living in glass houses.