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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.

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Des Browne and multi tasking

25 November, 2007

Des is missing the point: it is not that those of us in the service community feel he could be doing more ( I am not privy to the conversations he has with the Treasury or Number 10, but I suspect that he argues our case pretty forcefully), it is that Gordon Brown apparently doesn’t think that being Defence Secretary is one of the great offices of State.

Perception is everything: we all know that, on taking up residence in Number 10, Gordon Brown was concerned about the tartan colour of the cabinet. He knew that Des was doing a pretty good job at defence, but couldn’t afford another Scot in the Cabinet as SoS for Scotland, so decided to combine the roles.

As Julia Roberts said so memorably in Pretty Woman, “Big mistake, huge.” Not only has he given the services the impression that they only merit a ‘part-time’ secretary of state, he has sent the same message out to the Scots, thus playing into Alex Salmond’s hands and running the risk of alienating his bedrock support.

I confess that I am no expert on the configuration of a cabinet, and the mutual antipathy between Alex Salmond and Douglas Alexander might have precluded his continuing at the Scotland Office, but a PM with almost 40 Scottish MPs (who is capable of creating three entirely new departments, splitting one and abolishing another altogether) can surely manage to find someone to do this less-than-onerous, but still politically important job?

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Darling and Brown – New Labour’s answer to Laurel and Hardy

21 November, 2007

Is it just me, or do others see Oliver Hardy every time Gordon Brown takes the floor? I can hear it now, “That’s another fine mess you’ve got me into, Darling.” And oh, how like Stan Laurel is our present Chancellor: an innocent victim of circumstance, he would have it, let down by the incompetence of others, none of it his fault.

Well, not quite, but, as he is merely the boot boy, a great deal of the blame must lie with his lord and master: once a Titan at the Treasury, he now raises a feeble hand, like Canute, unable to command the tide of blunders and crises that threaten to engulf him.

What I, and millions of other recipients of Child Benefit, would like to know (telephone conversation with sister today centred entirely around the possibility of someone’s using our details for identity theft) is why on earth anyone was able to download the database at all, let alone send it via snail mail.

All this talk of ‘procedures’ that weren’t followed is missing the point: it should have been physically impossible for this junior civil servant to copy such data – in my last job, systems security was so tight that I wasn’t able to alter the settings on my printer, it had to be done remotely by the IT manager. 

What is more, why is someone so junior even allowed access to, allowed to view, my bank account details? How much is he or she paid? How much would it take to bribe him or her to copy down relevant details and sell them? How easy would it be for an organised criminal gang to have one of their own apply for a relatively junior IT job in one of our big departments of state?

It’s terrifying.

Forget following procedures: such data should not be visible to any Tom, Dick or Harry who works in HMRC: are we to assume that the cleaners can look over anyone’s shoulder and make notes of details on the screen in front of them?

Gordon Brown can’t glower and say that it wisnae his fault, it wis an ijit in ra Treasury whit done it: ensuring proper systems security was very much his bag baby, when he was Chancellor.

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We need more generals like Sir Richard

21 November, 2007

I am uncomfortably aware that I can bore for Europe on the subject of Defence, but every time Mike Jackson takes to the air, I grind my teeth.

I confess that I was always underwhelmed by him, although my husband advised me to keep my opinion fairly quiet when we moved to Colchester (home of 16 Air Assault Brigade, where all berets are red, and Gen Jackson was a bit of a legend) in 2004, but, I am glad to say that, within a year, my view prevailed. I don’t know a soldier who doesn’t feel let down by Jackson’s tenure as Chief of the General Staff.

What irks everyone is that he kept his powder dry while in office, unwilling to criticise his political masters openly, only to do so as soon as he left (and had a book to publicise…)

All the hot air in the world about ‘using the proper channels’ won’t satisfy an army that feels undervalued and overstretched.  What soldiers want is to know that someone, somewhere, is fighting their corner where it counts, which is why General Sir Richard Dannat is now a bally hero in the field army.

Forget the pompous musings of armchair critics and retired Colonel Buffington Trumpingtons about keeping things ‘within the Chain of Command’, Richard Dannat has inspired those who matter: serving soldiers.

I’ve been around soldiers for 15 years now and never known junior soldiers to be aware of ‘CGS’ as the Chief of the General Staff is known: their most awe inspiring figure is that of the RSM; if CGS visits their regiment or battalion, they will be told to mind their manners, or the RSM will have them later.

But not now: now all the junior soldiers I speak to know the name of General Dannat, for he has spoken up publicly in their defence; he has done what a senior commander should do, and put their welfare before his career or public embarrassment for the government.

Surely his leadership serves as a paradigm for any officer in HM Armed Forces.

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Fortress Britain

15 November, 2007

Or so the Telegraph headline has it today. I am aware that I should now include a hyperlink to the article, but I haven’t read the instructions on how to do that yet, and I am rushing to go out – another time. Of course, I could also ask one of my techno gurus: husband; brother; brother-in-law (how depressing that they are all male) to show me how.

Back to the fortress. I am aware that the security threats we face today make some extra security measures necessary, and I suppose it is only sensible to build structures in future that will absorb the blast from IEDs, but I can’t deny that I was conscious of a feeling of depression yesterday that it had come to this in Britain. Bad news on the economy and more disruption for travellers.

It is more than that, however: it is the open acknowledgement that life has changed, and not for the better. We need to balance individual liberty against protecting our citizens, no one can doubt that, but are we going too far? I have been shouting at the television for years, calling for telephone intercept evidence to be acceptable in court: how much better to have a few people targeted than all of us inconvenienced, but I share Admiral Lord West’s stated reservations on the Today programme about the need for an extension to the 28 days’ detention without charge.

He called himself ‘a simple sailor’, but you don’t get to be First Sea Lord if you’re simple, believe me. No, what he said in the morning was what he felt. How sad then, that he allowed himself to be pressured into retraction later.

I know that the Police are arguing for an extension, but a liberal democracy is wise not to be ruled by its police force: they are there to serve communities, not decide policy.

And then there is the question of who is to blame for the current situation.

 Messrs Blair and Brown, and the rest of New Labour, that’s who. It was their craven unwillingness in the early days of their government to take on the radicals who were preaching hate outside (and inside) our mosques that allowed such pernicious seeds to be sown here in the first place. My Muslim friends have always maintained that the moderate majority would have been only too pleased to see these people shown the door, but New Labour wouldn’t risk it.

Add to that the unwisdom of the invasion of Iraq and you have the situation we face today. I am not arguing that Iraq gave rise to al-Qaeda: we all know that al-Qaeda was around long before 2003, but its targets were American – either directly or abroad, but its focus was on the US.

In choosing precipitate action against Saddam, instead of taking the time necessary to build coalitions and bring the UN on board (which would have happened eventually, but might have needed a year of pressure), we moved the crosshairs squarely on to us.

We have allowed a loose grouping of dogmatic murderers to claim our action in the Middle East as a war against Islam, and recruit accordingly.

(I am aware that the Tories voted for the invasion, but I didn’t agree with that decision at the time, and still don’t: I don’t disapprove of the desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein, just how did so.)

John Reid always argued that al-Qaeda’s enemy was the West, not just the US and UK, but, if that is the case, why aren’t there these security measures in Oslo, or Stockholm, or even Paris? Norway, as Alex Salmond is so fond of telling us, is a small, oil-rich nation, so why is it not the target of international terrorism?

Why us? That is the question that no one in the government is truly happy to answer.

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Prescription charges

15 November, 2007

Surely I can’t be the only person in Scotland who feels that she is able to afford to pay for her (already heavily-subsidised) prescriptions.

I applaud the Scottish Government’s determination to improve the nation’s health, but I feel that the £97 million it will cost could be better spent.

My own feeling is that children, pensioners, pregnant women and those on benefit (including Working Families’ Tax Credit – to help those on lower incomes) should be exempt from prescription charges, but solicitors, doctors, fund managers? Why on earth should people who earn decent money not pay something towards the cost of their prescriptions?

I know that the argument is the same for Child Benefit: universal benefit is easier to administer, but should prevention, not cure, be our focus? What are the statistics for people not obtaining their medicine and using it because of cost? And to what extent does it really impact on the nation’s health?

 There are no mothers out there who don’t collect their children’s prescription for those reasons: children are exempt from prescription charges already, as are those on income support and incapacity or disability benefit, so who is the Government intending to target with this measure, and how will we judge its success?

Healthy and inviting primary school meals (it’s too late by the time they are teenagers), plus the re-introduction of cookery in schools, will do a great deal more for our future health than more prescription drugs.