Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Heart disease: even fit people like me get it.

  I'm going into the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary for a heart bypass operation today.  May not be around for a while.  Here is an account - rather long - of how I discovered that Scotland's number one preventable health problem isn't really preventable.

 It began with what I thought was a chest infection that wouldn’t shift - my lungs started burning whenever I exerted myself.  I ignored it. Men do.  Then one day I was cycling uphill from the Scottish parliament and I collapsed in the gutter with a crushing weight on my chest that stopped me breathing.  Even then I didn’t think it was heart trouble.  I thought I had immunised myself against ‘Scotland’s disease’ - our number one killer.  I’m fitter than I was twenty years ago. I eat broccoli for heaven’s sake.  Even as they trundled me into the cardiac ward I was remonstrating that it must be some kind of mistake. Really, don’t waste your time.  But it wasn’t.     

      Back in the 1980s, when I worked for BBC Scotland, I remember being told that the reason the BBC pension scheme was so generous was because the average life expectancy of BBC employees after retirement was a year and a half.  It was probably apocryphal, but it rang true.  In those days, far too many journalists never reached retirement.   Hacks were notoriously self-destructive - smokers, drinkers, deadline junkies.  Typical angry Scots who don’t look after themselves and don’t do emotion.  

  But I was determined not to become just another statistic. So, after one too many funerals, I started to organise my life around not dying.  Proper diet, no smoking, exercise,  moderate drinking.  By the time I reached my fifties, I was pretty pleased with myself.  Low blood pressure, low cholesterol, the ideal weight for my height.  I knew I was fitter than I had been twenty years previously because I go up Curved Ridge and the Aonach Aegach in Glencoe three or four times a year.   That was, until I discovered that Scotland’s number one preventable disease, isn’t. 

   An angiogram showed that key blood vessels were blocked nearly 90% with cholesterol and plaque - a kind of hard connective tissue that forms in diseased arteries around the heart.  There was no doubt about it - my health-conscious lifestyle had in no way immunised me from the Scottish disease.  I had the heart of a 55 year old overweight smoker who’d been living on pies all his adult life and spent his leisure time in the pub.  In Springburn. Naturally, I felt just a little cheated.   What was the point of all that  good living if you still end up like this?  I’d ticked all the boxes, only the ticker somehow hadn’t noticed. 

   I remonstrated unreasonably with the various doctors who had the misfortune to treat me.  They all said the same thing: “Look, you’re a male Scot.  There’s really nothing you can do about it.  Scottish men just get heart disease.”   Now,  I could initially accept this as a statistical generalisation, but the more I heard it the grumpier I became.  What are they saying?  Is it something in the Scottish genes?   Is there something in the water?  Is it some kind of weird collective suicide trip, like those gypsies who‘re supposed to die if they aren’t allowed to  travel?   

     The genetic inheritance argument certainly didn’t stand up in my case.  My father lived until he was 90 and never had any problems with his heart, and nor did his father who lived until he was 84.  My mother lived until she was 89, similarly untroubled by heart disease, and her father lived until he was 92.  He was a shipyard worker at Weirs on the Clyde who lived a hard life.  I used to remember my grandfather on visits, coming back from work with his hat sparkling with metal splinters and always smoking.  Both he and my father smoked Senior Service full strength cigarettes, untipped, all their working lives.  My dad used to let me puff them sitting on his knee.

   I was a natural smoker in my teens, but  before I left university  I’d already resolved to give up the weed - and I more or less did.  But you never entirely escaped from cigarettes, of course, because when I started working, everyone still smoked in offices.  Smokers  in the eighties still regarded it as their constitutional right to pollute the atmosphere, and the rest of us just put up with it, sometimes tapping them for the odd fag out of nostalgia.  I suppose passive smoking  could have laid the ground for my own heart condition, but that didn’t really make a lot of sense either. Seven years after giving up smoking your lungs are supposed to revert to normal.  Everyone says that exercise and good diet can prevent and even reverse blocked arteries.  I don’t even eat most dairy products and I was one of those boring people who really did eat five portions of fruit a day.

  Was it perhaps the other scourge of the modern age, stress?  It is widely believed that stress causes heart disease, but the actual evidence for this is pretty thin. The American Heart Association has long said that there is very little direct evidence that psychological stress as such has any connection with heart disease. There was a huge longitudinal study in Finland by the University of Helsinki which found  that stressed workers were more likely to die than those who didn’t - but that was looking at real stress caused by living at the bottom of society’s heap. People doing menial jobs with bad housing,  poor wages and little control over their lives.  The truth about stress is that it is a poor person’s disease; the stress experienced by television presenters and newspaper columnists doesn’t really count. In all countries, the unemployed are the group most likely to get heart disease, and Scotland is no exception.

    There’s some evidence that so-called “Type A” hard driving personalities are more prone to heart disease, though this whole area is controversial.  I do get very frustrated and angry  - mostly with computers.  I’m a very poor timekeeper, and habitually late for things - and I always seem to be bumping up against the next deadline. But for an incorrigible procrastinator like me, deadlines are a kind of liberation - I’d never get anything done if I didn’t have them.  They provide a structure for life - a peg on which to hang some kind of  achievement.  And when it comes down to it, is this any worse than teaching thirty offensive teenagers? or a postman having to do a round at a minimum of four miles and hour and taking home £13, 000 a year?  Probably not. 

    Could there be more profound existential factors at work?   undressed emotional conflicts, neurotic anxieties, corrosive resentments and other New Age afflictions of the heart? Until relatively recently, it used to be commonplace to say that people “died of a broken heart”, and even though this makes little physiological sense, some still hold to the diagnosis.   A friend of mine, Jo Clifford, the transgender playwright, had heart disease and puts it down, literally, to a broken heart after his partner, Suzy, died six years ago.  Since then ‘he’ has given up being a man.   “You have to listen to what your heart is telling you” she says.  “My heart told me I had to stop - just stop.  My life, my work, was killing me”.  No, Jo doesn’t advocate sex change as a preventative measure.  But intuitively, you feel she must be right about intense emotion playing some kind of role.   I went through a hellish divorce around the same time and I remember feeling my heart ache, quite literally, in the early mornings after waking up too early, or thinking about the children.  But medical science doesn’t recognise any such condition as a broken heart.  Cardiologists are a hardhearted lot and as far as they are concerned, lifestyle factors aside, heart disease is essentially a lottery.  When your number is up... 

  Only it seems that Scots men are particularly adept at winning.  Which brings me back to this refrain that “Scottish men just get heart disease”. I’ve decided that there’s a degree of inverted sexism in this.   I was taken aback recently by a close female friend who, on hearing about my condition,  gave me a sharp dressing down about how “Scottish men just don’t look after themselves”, which in my case was laughably inappropriate.   The judgemental attitude has become quite commonplace recently following  all the health education campaigns that suggest heart disease is avoidable if you live right.   It’s easier to live with the prevalence of this killer if you think that,  through their anger and loathing and unhealthy lifestyle, Scotttish men are morally responsible for their own misfortune.  

    Men are certainly very poor at politicising their ailments, compared with women who have made turned conditions like breast cancer into moral crusades.  Every year,  21,000 Scots die prematurely from cardio vascular disease against only 1,000 who die from breast cancer.    Coronary heart disease is the number cause of premature death , and men, historically, are twice as likely as women to go pop.  Men tend to die quietly, no fuss - or at least they used to.

   But why Scottish men?  And why only in Scotland?  It’s been well established by studies of emigrants to Canada and Australia that Scots acquire the mortality rate of the host nation within two generations.  This is too short a time for any genetic adaptation to occur, which suggest that there is no genetic, or racial factor in heart disease.  Or rather - it’s not enough just to be Scottish - you have to live here for it to be fatal. Some say it is lack of sunshine and vitamin D in the dark winters. Some public health researchers in Scotland believe is some kind of social or cultural pathology at work.  

  There’s evidence that Scotland’s cardiac health is deteriorating relative to comparable regions  in Europe.  In fact, in ten years time, according to a recent study by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health,  the West of Scotland will have the lowest life expectancy in Europe.  In places like Silesia in Poland,  mortality is falling faster, even though the region is far poorer than the west of Scotland and has worse unemployment and housing and has far less spent on preventive health.  It’s led people like Professor Phil Hanlon of Glasgow University, co-author of the report, to conclude that there might be a Scottish ‘x-factor’.  Something about the way Scots relate to each other that explains why we do so much worse than anywhere else in Europe.  “This is a real challenge to us as a nation”, he says. “In Mediterranean countries, the extended family unit and a young man’s role in it seems to have remained stronger and it may have protected them from some of these effects”.  In Scotland half of all children are now born out of wedlock.

    This is echoed by writers like Dr Carol Craig of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing who has long argued that Scots’ low life expectancy may have something to do with the negativity, lack of confidence and low self-esteem that seem to define Scottish male culture.   But this is fiercely contested by the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Harry Burns.  He insists that there is no mystery about Scotland’s poor health, and that it can be explained simply by unemployment and deprivation in West Central Scotland.  “There’s actually no evidence”, he told me, “that Scottish males’ health risk factors are any worse than anywhere else in Europe.”   In fact, take the West Central Scotland out of the equation, and Scotland’s mortality from heart disease is the same as the rest of Europe. 

   Burns sounds a note of optimism. He says that Scots are making the right changes -  like giving up smoking taking exercise.  Better treatment and earlier detection has halved mortality rates from heart attacks in the last decade, though there is an increase in the numbers of men seeking treatment for angina, the pain associated with coronary heart disease. You’ll never stop people getting against the trend and it’s wrong to suggest that my experience in any way diminishes the value of a healthy lifestyle.  

   Plus the good news is that the NHS in Scotland is now very good at dealing with heart disease, and truly amazing things can be done now with minimal surgery.    I’ve had stents - little lattice tubes - inserted into my arteries to unblock them.  Witnessing surgeons conduct this procedure live on large TV monitors was one of the most curiously moving experiences of my life.   Medical advances like these and better drugs like statins have saved thousands of men from having to go through open-heart surgery.   But it isn’t infallible, and it doesn’t stop you having symptoms.  I look pretty normal, but I still have angina which comes on when my heart beat rises above 120, which is depressing because it means not being able to go out in the hills. The worst thing is the drugs, four in the morning, three at night, which leave you feeling as if your head is on the wrong way. 

   Almost everything changes when you have heart disease, and yet nothing does.  The condition of your heart becomes the prime focus of existence, but ordinary life goes on and you just have to manage it.  Emails still pile up, bills go unpaid, contacts get huffy that you haven’t called.  But this is just how life is for the 620,000 Scots - an astonishing number - who currently suffer from heart and circulatory disease.  And be in no doubt: one day it could be you - no matter how many Glasgow marathons you’ve run. 

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why is unemployment not an election issue?

On Wednesday I was sitting staring into space, wondering what I was going to write about this week. The press were preoccupied with mounting debt, and the creeps at Strathclyde Passenger Transport circumnavigating the globe at our expense.  Then my phone rang.  It was a BBC producer wondering if I would come and talk about why unemployment was no longer an issue. Now, that’s a very interesting question.

  Hardly anyone seems to think that unemployment, currently running at 2.5 million in Britain, is going to be a key issue for the general election.   An issue, yes, but hardly a dominant one.  Yet back in 1979, the last time a refreshed Tory opposition challenged  an incumbent Labour government after an economic crisis, unemployment was THE number one issue.  “Labour Isn’t Working” said that Saatchi and Saaatchi Tory ad, possibly the most  infamous election poster of all time.  Unemployment then was only 1.4 million.  

    True, the unemployment figures were calculated rather differently in 1979, but that doesn’t alter the point.  The return of mass unemployment has not been the burning issue it was in the past.   In 1979, 53% of voters believed unemployment to be most serious issue facing the country against only 30% today, according to Ipsos Mori.   Yet unemployment really is back in a big way.  The slight decline in the UK figures last week ( they continued to rise in Scotland of course) by no means indicates that joblessness has peaked.  There has been a huge increase in underemployment, with over 7.6 million on part time working.  Economic “inactivity” is also up - the numbers who have given up looking for a job, like students, long term sick etc. has risen to 8.8 million.   Hundreds of thousands of workers have accepted big reductions in pay in order to hang onto their jobs.  One in five young people is unemployed.  And the Chartered Institute of Personnel  and Development warns that a new shakeout of employment is almost inevitable later this year because of the sluggish economic recovery. 

   So, why is unemployment not an issue?  Make no mistake,  a lot of people are really suffering. Ask yourself: could you live on £64 a week jobseekers allowance?  Britain has some of the lowest benefit rates in Europe. In Ireland, unemployment benefit is nearly three times what it is here.  Many British workers have exhausted their savings and are hitting rock bottom, as the dramatic rise in the claimant count indicates.   The pain is partly mitigated by he various government schemes which have frozen mortgage payments and credit card debt.  But these subsidies can’t last indefinitely, and when they unwind, we could be facing a huge social problem. 

  But where’s the public outrage?   Where were the ministers squirming on Newsnight?   In 1991 when the Tory Chancellor, Norman Lamont said that unemployment was “a price worth paying” for economic recovery he was rounded on by the media.  Now no one bothers to compute the price of joblessness. It’s as if we don’t think that governments have any responsibility any more - even though Gordon Brown said, some years ago, that “full employment” was the government’s goal.  

    In the 1970s and 80s, joblessness was regarded as THE great social evil.  The prospect of just one million unemployed was enough to make Ted Heath, the Tory PM, radically change his economic policy in 1971.  The Labour PM, James Callaghan, came to grief over it in 79.   Under Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist policies in the 1980s, unemployment soared and so did social unrest, culminating in the miners strike in 1984/5. Now it’s back, and we all seem to be just accepting it as inevitable.  Even the response to the Corus ending steel-making in Redcar after 150 years has been muted, though a ballot on industrial action has been called. 

   So, what’s changed? Well, for one thing the nature of employment has.  Instead of being in large workforces in manufacturing industry, workers today are largely employed in small companies of under 50 often in poorly organised service occupations.  The great strikes and factory occupations in the 70’s and 80’s, like Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and the British Leyland Bathgate, were mobilised like military campaigns.  The foot soldiers were workers who all knew each other, lived in the same streets, had similar status and a great sense of class solidarity.  Now they are dispersed across all manner of occupations, as security guards, supermarket shelf-stacker, or in call centres.  They also have mortgages, which most didn’t in the 1970s, and big debts which put a dampener on industrial militancy.  And whisper it, but the influx of several million poorly unionised immigrant workers, willing to accept poor conditions and low pay, has sapped the strength of British  labour  Instead of union militancy, we have apathy and incapacity benefit.  As a result, trades unions are not the political force they were in the 70s and 80s. The last attempted strike action was the farcical BA non-event at Christmas.  Before that, it was power station workers downing tools in favour of “British jobs for British workers”. 

   The other big difference is that the public sector unions have not yet been mobilised in this economic crisis.  The recession has hit in the main the private sector.  Employment by the state has actually risen by around 100,000 since 2008, during the deepest recession in eighty years, and wages in the public sector have continued to rise, even as non-state workers are taking pay cuts.    In the past, public sector workers - nurses, teachers, fire-fighters - had a deep sense of grievance at their poor pay and were leaders in industrial unrest.  Nowadays they are a relatively privileged class earning higher wages and with better pensions than their private sector equivalents. 

   However, this might all be about to change.  If and when the next government tries to tackle Britain’s unsustainable public deficit, sacking hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs, then unemployment and industrial militancy are likely to stage a dramatic comeback.  There have already been threats of strikes from public sector unions at the mere suggestion of a pay freeze - but much more than that will be required to balance the government books.  This may explain why Labour, which tends to do rather badly in times of industrial distress, has held off cutting public spending until after the election is safe and gone.

    So politicians may be fooling themselves if they think unemployment is no longer an issue. There is a lag in social awareness.  It has taken some time for people to remember what it actually means in terms of ruined lives and social dislocation.  If we think society is broken now, just wait until next year and the year after that.  When people lose hope they become desperate - and the clock is ticking.  


Friday, February 19, 2010

Let Mossad Air take you there.

 Tired of boring old package holidays to Tenerife and Marbella?  Fed up sitting around at airports waiting for the next cancelled flight?  Had enough of brutal customer relations from low cost carriers?    Now, for the first time in Britain, a totally new way to travel and see the world, and all from the safety and comfort of your living room: Mossad Air. 

  Yes, Let Mossad Air take you there.  Go on fabulous adventures in exotic locations. Connect with a whole new social network of anonymous helpers who can give you money, safe houses, cars and new identities.  Liquidate suspected terrorists with the a bewildering array of lethal  weapons.  Learn all about how to poison people and set booby trap bombs in car head restraints. (NB: No animals will be harmed in any of these operations)   Perhaps meet the girl of your dreams.  And the beauty of it is this: with Mossad Air you don’t even have to get our of your armchair.  

  All you have to do is send your British passport, a copy of your birth certificate and a few details about your financial circumstances and let Mossad Air do the rest.  In fact, don’t even bother to do that, because Mossad Air already has them.  Soon you’ll be featuring on CCTV screens in some of the world’s finest hotels, waving happily at the camera, having a whale of a time. Getting involved in exciting arms deals and hunting down bad people.

    “Electrifying!”, said Mahmud al-Mabouh,    “I went to meet my Hamas colleagues in  Dubai, and I ended up meeting my maker thanks to Mossad Air”. “I never knew who I was, ‘till I discovered Mossad.Air. Or was rather they found me.” said  Mrs X of Berkhampstead.    “Mossad. Air left a really sweet taste in my mouth” says Yasser Arafat (deceased).

      So remember.  Next time you want to go, go Mossad Air - the holiday company where people come first and body bags come later.  You don’t know you’ve travelled until you’ve travelled with us. 

 (Important: terms and conditions.  Assassination of any individual living or dead is entirely coincidental.  Mossad Air accepts no responsibility for injuries that might occur as a result of reprisals. The British Government does not support Mossad Air and takes a jolly dim view on this kind of caper,  quite frankly, but has agreed to turn a blind eye to any violations of UK sovereign rights because the Israelis are pretty decent chaps on the whole. All actions denied. All rights Reserved. No refunds.  )


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cash for terrorists. Brilliant.

 Gordon Brown recently gave his backing to an international fund to raise $500 million to be used to pay Taliban Mujihadeen in Afghanistan not to fight – at least not to fight us. Cash-for-terrorists brilliant British contribution to modern military science. Instead of firing bullets at the Taliban, we fire bucks instead. 

    The video game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, will have to be reprogrammed to show bank managers in camouflaged fatigues going into action in Helmand province armed with pocket calculators and ATM machines. Mercilessly hurling wads of cash at the enemy with all the skill that made the British fighting man the envy of the world. Special forces working under cover will be taking high-impact cheques deep into enemy territory depositing them in Taliban accounts in the high streets of Kandahar. 

If this strategy had been used in previous conflicts, the whole media image of warfare would have been very different. Imagine what Green Beret, John Wayne, would have made of it during Vietnam. “Okay you commie scum – eat dollars!!” The Second World War would have been a very different story indeed. Not so much Saving Private Ryan as Private Ryan's Savings being used to buy off the Germans. There would have been a whole new meaning to the Thin Red (bottom) Line. Films like the Longest Day would have to be remade as the Longest Pay Day.

And great political speeches in wartime would have been very different. Here's Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain on usinghard cash against Hitler. “We will pay them on the beaches, we will pay them in the streets and in the fields, and we will never surrender. And though the British Empire lasts a thousand years, people will say that this was our finest payout.” 

But will it work. Will Ali Afghani really be prepared to lay down his Kalshnikov in exchange for bribes from Brown? And won't this be seen as – well – a reward for terrorism? Al Qaeda will be asking for a piece of the action, and on the face of it, I can't see why they should be excluded. If the Taliban can be offered money to go back to their fields to grow opium poppies, why can't Osama Bin Laden be bribed to go back to building roads in Saudi Arabia, which was what he was doing before he became public enemy number one. Buy him a fleet of diggers and send over a contingent of crack labourers from Britain's depressed construction industry. 

The only ones left out would be the poor old British squaddies. They don't get any cash-for-dying. Well, now they know what to do if they want a better deal, don't they?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is the psychological state of the prime minister a legitimate matter for public debate? A new book, The End of the Party by the journalist Andrew Rawnsley, claims that Gordon Brown hit one of his aides, dragged a secretary forcibly from her chair and subjected party workers to a tirade of abuse. Rawnsley, who once claimed that his key source “knows the mind of Tony Blair” wrote in similar vein in an earlier book “Servants of the People” in 2000. He reported that Number Ten believed the then Chancellor Brown had “psychological flaws” - was a paranoid obsessive, given to furious tempers,and unfit for the office of PM.  Now, I wonder who it was who told him that?

    Rawnsley's sources are known to include Alistair Campbell. Over the years, the Observer columnist has become a repository for the bile and loathing of most of the Labour 'big beasts' who have had cause, over the years, to feel slighted or injured by Gordon Brown. And the PM has made a lot of enemies as we know. It is of course an important matter if the Prime Minister is emotionally unstable. But do I believe the new allegations? Students of Brown know that he can be a clumsy individual with poor social skills. But I don't believe for a moment that he would ever actually hit someone John Prescott style, or intentionally man-handle a secretary. These allegations sound very much like the hyped up tales of “abuse” that are relayed to divorce lawyers by celebrity wives – like Heather Mills' allegations about Sir Paul McCartney. 

I'm sure Brown is quite capable of colliding with an aide while rushing out of Number Ten to an official engagement - and being too preoccupied to notice or apologise. He may even have brusquely 'assisted' a secretary to make way for him at a computer, but I could never believe that he would throw her across the room. And for neavens' sake, what leader in history hasn't lost their temper occasionally. Apply these standards to Winston Churchill, and he would never have got into parliament. 

These tales are pretty feeble – and of course denied by Number Ten. So why am I giving them the oxygen of publicity? Doesn't it just help Rawnsley sell copies of his book? Well, it matters because this latest round of Brown smearing is yet another astonishing demonstration of  Labour's fratricidal death wish – it's seeming determination to lose the forthcoming election. The very day these stories were going to press we learned that David Cameron's lead over Labour is shrinking fast. The latest opinion polls in the Telegraph and the Mirror, both show that Labour is in striking distance – 7 or 8 percent - of the Tories . Something very interesting is happening in the undergrowth of public opinion. With unemployment falling and the economy apparently recovering from recession, people are thinking anew about Labour. Some voters are clearly thinking that, while they don't like Gordon Brown very much, he seems to be doing the right thing, on the economy at least.

People are also thinking twice about David Cameron. The Tories have suddenly started saying that they aren't actually going to make “swingeing” cuts in public spending after all. This is presumably because focus groups have shown them that promising to slash and burn public services isn't very reassuring to voters. Some six million people in Britain work for the public sector and many private sector jobs depends on state spending of one form or another. As the response to my column last week on public sector pensions and privileges demonstrated  -I was soundly bitch-slapped across the Herald letters pages - that is a pretty vigorous fan base for the state. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is of course one of them and has warned against Tory plans to “pull the rug” from under the economy by making premature cuts in public spending

Cameron has also been all over the place on his key policy on tax relief for married couples – last month he didn't seem to know that he was indeed committed to introducing it. And other policies have gone astray. Are they for the war in Afghanistan or against it? Stuffed if I know. Do they really want to introduce a right to kill burglars? Do they intend to cut the number of Scottish MPs in Westminster or not? It doesn't exactly inspire confidence that, three months from a general election, so many Tory policies are ill formed. An air brushed face of David Cameron on Tory bill-boards doesn't compensate for a lack of words.  So,it might just be that Labour has a real opportunity here to counter the Tory's main argument: that it is 'time for a change' . Labour could equally say: 'you don't change horses in mid stream'. That was what won John Major the 1992 general election, against the odds, and I'm beginning to believe that it could possibly be the same for Brown. At the very least, it might be a hung parliament.

But people sure as hell aren't going to vote for a party that is divided amongst itself. That is filled with resentful ex ministers who seem to place attacking Gordon Brown above the interests of the Labour Party. Granted, Brown wasn't exactly 100% Blair-loyal in the past, but the Brownites never behaved as badly as this. In June, remember, a whole raft of Blairite Labour cabinet ministers including James Purnell and Hazel Blears walked out on the very eve of the Euro election. In January, in the very week Cameron was adrift over marriage tax reliefs, a claque of Blairites led by Patricia Hewitt and Geof Hoon, tried to mount a coup against Brown. 

Now, with the election campaign in sight, we have a new attempt at character assassination of Brown by the Blairite old guard via their conduit du jour, Andrew Rawnsley. I don't know about the enemy, but with friends like these... Now this column hasn't exactly stinted on criticism of Gordon Brown in the past. But I have to say, he doesn't deserve this. Brown has often been his own worst enemy in the past. But if he is going to lose the general election, he should be at least allowed to lose it his way – and not this way. 

Toryota Camron - Total Product Recall

 There are renewed fears for the future of the Toryota firm  this week as further flaws have been discovered in the company's leading models. The brand image of Toryota has been seerious damaged by the mass recall of thousands of policies over the last few weeks. Their once top selling model, the Camron - supposedly and environmentally friendly vehicle - has turned into an erratic death trap, unable to run in a straight line and seemingly having lost its ability to stop at junctions. 

    “My Camron is all over the place,” said one disgruntled buyeer. “You just don’t know where it’s going from one minute to the next”. In its latest mishap, the Camron careered into Scotland without proper guidance and ended up colliding with political reality.  Then it was found that the speedometer reading was out by a factor of ten. 

  Toryota had looked like becoming the top sellier in Britain during the last couple of years as its fresh-faced models benefited from a mass advertising campaign.  Pictures of the Camron appeared on billboards across the land, attracting much attention from consumers bored with other brands that have been looking their age.  But the shiny new exterior concealed serious flaws in the construction of the leading Toryota model. The billboard ads have had to be pulled from the hight streets because of online photoshop parodies.  

    Unpublished blueprints showed that there were unresolved issues in its financial management system.  Promises that it would be much cheaper to run a Camron, because of its new green image, turned out to be false. Its security system has also been giving trouble and many people who have bought the Camron say that it just doesn’t perform in they way that’s promised. Attempts to conceal the flaws in the Camron only made matters worse.  

Embarrassed company bosses have had to make grovelling apologies for ambitious early claims made for the vehicle.  Shares in Toryota have been on the slide since before Christmas and there are fears that punters could dump their stakes entirely before the all important public floatation in Westminster in May.

  Sales of Toryotas have been particularly weak in Scotland for a number of years. Toryota had become a by-word for flash, overpriced and English.   Earlier models simply couldn’t cope with the numerous potholes and zig zag bends in the Scottish high road.  Questioned about why he once again came to Scotland without a functioning sat nav, the boss of Toryota insisted that problems with the brand had been exaggerated. . “Look, Scots will be buying literally tens of Camrons come May 6th., you mark my words” he said.  “You can be taken for a ride by us or you can stick with  your boring old banger which isn’t going anywhere at all”   

   The government says it is considering extending for the popular scrappage scheme to cope an expected deluge of people trying to get rid of their Camrons in the next three months. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nicola Sturgeon didn't do anything wrong - but politicians need to think about who they help.

   Sturgeon intervenes in aid of benefit cheat; First Minister lobbies for illegal immigrant on drug charges; SNP leadership in cash-for-access row over sale of parliamentary lunches... You could be forgiven for thinking that the SNP administration had taken leave of its senses recently, or belatedly started playing catch up with Labour and the Tories over sleaze. 

  It's given the Scottish press a new angle on the SNP administration, which has been boringly competent for nigh on three years now.  Brings to mind one of those cod ‘apologies’ in Private Eye: “Readers of the Scottish press may have been under the impression that Super Salmond and his team of political visionaries were transforming Scotland through a virtuoso display of modern minority governance and sheer hard work. We now accept that there is not a jot or tittle of truth in this.  In reality, Fat Eck and his sleazy crew of misguided misfits have turned Scottish democracy into a disgrace from which it will never recover. We apologise for any misunderstanding.”

   So what exactly is going on?  Is it all got up by the press as the legion of cybernats believe? Has the SNP been infected with mad party disease?  Is it all over for nationalism?  Well, first of all this is about the curiously intense relations politicians choose to have with their constituents, especially those from an ethnic background. I’ve often been surprised by the lengths MPs and MSPs will go to help them.  As the SNP rightly pointed out last week, Gordon Brown himself has been known to give character references to people on drugs charges, just because they happen to live in his constituency.  Alex Salmond got into some presentational difficulties  lobbying the home office on behalf of a Chinese asylum seeker, also facing drugs charges.  Why do they bother?   Well, partly it’s about votes.  Supporting a member of an ethnic minority in a seat like Govan, where the Asian vote is crucial, can’t do any harm at election time. But I don’t think that was Nicola Sturgeon’s prime motivation.  
   These days MSPs are desperate to show that they can actually do things for people. They hope that helping constituents in a jam will generate goodwill as the tale gets circulated round Somerfield and Tescos.  No -  I can’t really explain why Nicola Sturgeon didn’t see why helping this particular individual, guilty of defrauding £80,000, would go down badly in these establishments.  There is nothing that angers people more than benefit cheats.  I can accept that she genuinely felt that Abdul Rauf had shown remorse and started to pay back the money and that incarceration might endanger his health.  But many Govan constituents will say he should have thought of that before he did the crime..  Alex Salmond insisted at First Minister’s Question Time last week that it was an MSP’s “bounden duty” to support a constituent “without fear or favour”.   But that doesn’t mean supporting them right or wrong. 

   Of course, Nicola Sturgeon herself did nothing wrong, as far as we know. There was no ministerial impropriety, no money involved and no cover up.  But these issues are all about perception, about judgement.   There was an echo of the al Megrahi affair, when the SNP justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill suffered collateral damage from his dogged decision to follow “due process” and release the Lockerbie bomber to die at home in Libya.  MacAskill similarly argued that he had done the right thing - while others said that giving special treatment to convicted mass murderers sent out the wrong message.  

 Actually, I think these latest scandalettes have more to do with independence than constituency politics or the law.   How so?   Well,  because this latter half of the first ever nationalist term of office was supposed to be about one thing and one thing only: securing that referendum on independence.   The bill should have been presented by now,  allowing Scottish voters the opportunity to demonstrate their enthusiasm for leaving the UK.  Nothing was supposed to get in the way, which is why there’s nothing really hot on the legislative agenda right now, nor any innovative policies emerging from Bute House.   

   Cynics might say that the SNP were anyway running out of ideas and running out of puff.  A lot of manifesto promises have had to be ditched -  local income tax, class sizes, the futures trust.   But  in Alex Salmond’s plan, 2010 was always marked out as the year for “raising Scotland’s game”.  Unfortunately, the Scots don’t seem to want to play at the moment.   I’m not saying that independence is a dead duck, but it’s not looking too healthy right now.  Support for independence in most tests of opinion remains well below 30%, while the SNP itself is losing ground  to Labour in voting intentions, both for Holyrood and for Westminster.  Partly this is an inevitable backwash from the economic crisis - people simply have other things on their minds right now, like their jobs, houses.   There’s some truth in the claim by Jim Murphy, the Labour Scottish Secretary, that the banking crisis made voters look to the security of the UK.   But whatever the cause, the urgency seems to have gone from the whole constitutional issue. This doesn’t mean it’s all over for nationalism, but what it does mean is that the SNP is stuck on the stage without any music to play - or anything the voters want to hear.  The government has begun to drift, and when governments drift, thing go wrong.  Ministers lose concentration and become accident prone.

  They should console themselves that Alex Salmond’s approval ratings are still high.  Labour’s performance in Holyrood has been dismal until the row over Nicola and the benefit cheat presented Iain Gray with an open goal last week.   After an inordinately long honeymoon  normal political service is is jut reasserting itself.   Never having been in government before, the SNP is unused to this experience and is in danger of overreacting to it.   Governments must get used to being disliked and stay calm when things go wrong. They could still come out strengthened.   This is a test of the moral fibre of the nationalist movement.  They must learn the most important quality in government is an ability to keep the heid.