Monday 30 May 2011

Netanyahu Kills off the Two State Option

Well, the cat is well and trully out of the bag now.  After Netanyahu’s little tantrum there can be no doubt about it.  The two state solution to the Israeli/Palestine conflict is dead as a dodo.  And all because the Israelis refuse to even contemplate any kind of negotiations.  Just why Netanyahu decided to come clean so vociferously and so explicitly is a bit of a mystery.  After all President Obama merely reiterated the long standing US position that a Palestinian state has to be based on the 1967 borders.  This leaves plenty of wriggle room for the Israelis to claim many, if not all, the illegal settlements.  However it is clear that even this is not enough for Israel.  Note that it is not just Netanyahu and his right wing bloc that opposes any kind of deal that leaves any settlement out of Israel.  As the leaked Palestinian Papers show even the so-called moderates like Tzipi Livni refused to accept a deal from Fatah which would have left most of the settlement blocs inside Israel.

The reason for this obduracy can only be that Israel does not feel itself to be under any pressure to reach a negotiated settlement.  Israel wants all the settlements and the right to build new ones.  Israel wants to control the Jordan river.  Israel wants all of Jerusalem.  Clearly Israel does not give a XXXX about the Palestinians.  For even the most reactionary Zionist knows that there will never be a majority of Palestinians who could agree to this kind of offer.  At least Netanyahu has done us the favour of clearing away any remaining doubts.  There is no Israeli partner for a peace deal and once again Israel has shown its unfailing instinct for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Though in the short run Israel will manage to get away with this defiance of international law, thanks to its blank cheque from the USA, it is still amazing that Israel and all its Zionist supporters have conspicuously failed to come up with a plan that would secure Israel’s future not just for the next decade or so, but forever.  To place all your eggs in the one, US basket is a bit short-sighted, to say the least.  For how long will the USA remain the world’s sole superpower?  Perhaps more pertinently for how long will the USA, even its elites, remain so much in thrall to Israel and Zionism?  Given that the Zionist project is based on memories of a past that goes back thousands of years, you would think that Zionists would want some kind of assurance that their project has a chance of surving for more than a few decades.

If Israel is to survive permanently as a enclave in an Arab and Muslim world, it can only do so by reaching a long term agreement with the people who live on the land Israel wants, and an agreement with its neighbours.  And to date there has been no sign that Israel wants to know anything about this.  It has repeatedly dismissed out of hand any and every proposal from the Palestinians and from the wider Arab world.  Not only that, Israel has already lost any support it had in Latin America, Africa and most of Asia.  Even in Europe, the tide has turned against Israel.  It is only a matter of time before European governments adopt a much more forceful stand against Israeli intransigence.

With luck Netanyahu’s recent outburst will hasten the day when more governments accept the reality that Israel does not and never has wanted a Palestinian state, no matter how restricted this state was.  Israel has always and usually violently, said no to the Palestinians.  It is time for the rest of the world to say no to Israel.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Stitching Update - May 2011

I have completed three stitching pieces over the past month or so.  The first was the my variation of Florentine Signets which I had already started.  This is based on a design from Bargello Magic, by Pauline Fischer and Anabel Lasker.  This is a wonderful treasure trove of a book for anyone interested in Bargello needlepoint.   The framework pattern was stitched in different shades of green - medium yellow green, ultra dark pistachio and bright chartreuse.  For this I used two strands of DMC cotton threads.  The centres of each signet was filled with silk threads in blue and purple.  I used three threads as I find stitching with silk quite difficult.  It doesn’t seem to lie as smoothly as cotton thread.  I then cut out a rectangle from the middle which I’ve filled with a torn piece from a some paintwork by my grandson Jamie.   
Following my course in mounting and framing I decided to finish this piece off myself.  I already had a cast off mounting frame in blue.  I only had to trim this to the right size.  The frame is a second-hand frame from IKEA, which I picked up very cheaply in Germany I think.  To make the frame a bit more attractive I added some liming wax to the wood.  This has been the most time consuming piece of work I have so far undertaken - about 48 hours in all.
Next up was another Bargello piece, but this time in wool.  I am trying to use up my stash of Anchor tapestry wool as in future I want to try out Persian wool.  This is supposed to be better for needlework.  Anyway I don’t like to waste anything, so I’m trying to use up the threads I have left.  I discovered that this stash included lots of yellows and oranges.  Hence the predominant colours of the piece as you can see below.
The background is a simple Hungarian stitch repeated in orange and yellow.  The central diamond is a pattern known as Ripples in white, green and brown.  Not sure how to finish this piece off.  So it is just lying about at the moment.  Still got some more Anchor threads to use up.  I will probably just use them for a sampler piece.
My most recent work was the lavender cube above.  I love making these little cubes and filling them with lavender, mixed in with the hollow fibre.  The designs as usual come from Louison’s blog on Biscornus.  These were from Series No 9 positif which has six patterns each for a 30 pt square.  I use all six to make a cube.  The fabric is a very pale green 18pt Aida and the threads various shades of green in DMC cotton. 

Sunday 22 May 2011

Scotland - Independence Lite Anyone?

The shockwaves from the SNP’s recent electoral tsunami continues to reverberate around the media.  The latest wheeze is that an independent Scotland will not actually really be fully independent.  Why, Scotland might continue to share lots of things with England and whatever remains of the UK.  This notion has so excited some Unionists and most journalists that it does make you wonder about the sanity and intellectual competence of some of these highly paid and supposedly well- educated people.  We have even had the spectacle of that old warhorse, Jim Sillars, riding forth to give his imprimatur to all this nonsense.   Alex Salmond and his gang must be delighted with all these Unionists running around like headless chickens.
What seems to have confused all our oh so bright journalists is that the establishment of independence necessarily involves two distinct negotiating strands.  The first strand will deal with what I term the Independence Settlement - basically what assets and liabilities Scotland will have at the moment of independence.  The second strand will deal with all those matters that have to do with the post independence situation.   For most of these matters there will be no change at all.  Under devolution the Scottish parliament and government already have responsibility for most matters - education, health, social services, police, the law, local government etc.  Independence in itself will make no difference to these areas.  Where it will make a difference is in the other areas of government which are currently known as reserved matters and as such, dealt with by Westminster and the UK government.  These areas, such as economic and fiscal policy, foreign and defence policy will, on independence become the responsibility of the Scottish parliament and government.  
This is where the confusion seems to lie.  As there can be no hiatus before independence, this second strand needs to be sorted out before independence becomes reality.  Hence the fact that this second strand of negotiations will need to take place in parallel to the first set of negotiations.  In addition the two strands will be intimately linked.  Nevertheless they will be distinct negotiations.  Let us take a brief look at a couple of the issues that this second strand will have to look at.
An independent Scotland will need to have a currency in place at the moment of independence.  There would seem to be three options - 1. set up our own Scottish currency; 2. use sterling;  or, 3. use the euro.  From all the indications given by the SNP, they favour option 2, at least in the medium term.  Scotland would then continue to use the pound sterling as its currency for the payment of salaries and all other financial exchanges.  In this case, there would of course need to be extensive negotiations between the Scottish government and the Bank of England and the UK Treasury.  These negotiations may well result in some formal arrangements or even a treaty between Scotland and England, or whatever the rest of the UK is to be called.  Now clearly this would mean that Scotland would not have full control over an important part of its economy.  Just as is the case with all those countries, such as France, Germany, Italy etc who are part of the Eurozone.  Whether this would be a good decision is not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is that it would be a decision by the government of an independent country.  And as such could only be taken once the decision to become independent had been taken and agreed.  Though this decision would come into force at the same time as independence, it would not be part of the independence settlement, but rather an arrangement entered into post independence.  And unlike the independence settlement arrangements, this one can change.  At some point in the future a Scottish government may decide to issue its own currency or to join the euro.  The kind of decision that all independent countries can make.
Another area where some kind of sharing arrangement may be put in place is defence, and in particular the various military bases in Scotland.  The government of England may want to use one or more of these bases and the Scottish government may agree to this.  In which case, to ensure continuity of use, there would again need be parallel negotiations on this matter, alongside the negotiations on the independence settlement.  As with the currency issue, this arrangement can change in the future.  Other countries may want to use bases in Scotland and it would be up to the Scottish government to decide whether to agree to such a request or not.  Once again the power to decide would rest with Scotland.
Now some people may want to call all this independence lite, in which case virtually all countries are only “litely” independent.  Last I knew for example the USA continues to have the use of bases in the UK.  Does this mean that the UK is not fully independent?  Or what about Germany, which also has US bases in its country and shares a currency with 20 or so other countries.  I am not sure what independence lite really means, but I am more than happy for Scotland to have the same kind of independence that Germany or the current UK has.  Unionists can call it what they like.  

Wednesday 18 May 2011

FC Barcelona - what next for 2011/12?

Once again it has been an immensely successful season for FC Bacelona.  Two trophies already in the bag - the Spanish Supercup and a third successive league title.  There is also the little matter of reaching the final of the Champions League - the second time in three years.  Irrespective of what happens in the final against Manchester United, it has been by anyone’s standards a great season.  Yet, a team is only as good as its last match and soon the current season will be over and everyone will have to start again from scratch.  Can Barça maintain this run of success?  And what changes to the squad will be needed it the club is to continue winning titles.
Barcelona are pretty much unique among the top clubs in the world in that they deliberately run a very small first team squad.  Excluding goalkeepers, they only have 19 players for the 11 outfield positions.  This has been the Barcelona way for a couple of decades or more, ever since the arrival of Johan Cruyff as manager way back in the late 1980s.  And on the whole it has worked.  However it does place a lot of strain on the 19 players.  And sometimes the team is left short of key players as happened in season 2006/7, when injuries to Eto’o, Deco, Messi, Edmilson, Iniesta among others left the team limping to the finishing line in the league, which they tied on points with Real Madrid, but lost on the head to head results.  It was almost the same this year.  Though Barça have won the league quite convincingly they have lost their cutting edge over the last couple of months.
This has been due to a combination of injuries and loss of form by key players.  The defence has been the most affected by injuries with Puyol and Abidal out for most of the second half of the season.  Maxwell and Adriano have also been unavailable for much of this time.  Though in theory Barça still had the option of Milito as cover for centre back, Guardiola hardly ever used him and never in any of the key matches.  Another option is to bring in players from the B team, but it is most instructive that Guardiola never used that option, at least not until the league was more or less won.  What he did do was to recycle his defensive midfielders as centre backs.  First Busquests, then Mascheranno was used in this position.  And Puyol, just back from his injury was pressed into service as an emergency left back for the crucial games against Real Madrid.  This shows the extent to which the squad was exposed during the latter part of the season.  Somehow they managed to get away with it, in large measure because the rest of the team managed to dominate possession of the ball and keep it well away from the defence.  Still a very risky situation to be in.  And one I am sure Guardiola with not want to repeat.
Another cause for concern has been the sharp decline in goalscoring over the last couple of months.  David Villa has not scored in something like 14 league games, while Pedro has also had a bit of a goal drought.  Even the great Messi has not been scoring with his usual free abundance.  What has made this worse is the lack of experienced alternatives up front.  Bojan, who is still only 20 years old, is their most experienced reserve forward, and he has also been unavailable through injury.  Jeffren is another youngster, but with very limited first team experience.  He also seems prone to injury and does not seem to be a prolific goalscorer anyway.  The other option available has been Ibrahim Affellay, who arrived from PSV during the winter transfer window.  He has played well when used, but like Jeffren, does not look like a player who will score 20+ goals a season.  And this is precisely what Barça lack.  A proven, reliable goalscorer who can substitute for Villa or Pedro and indeed challenge them for a first team place. 
This then would seem to indicate that the priorities for Barça for next season are to strengthen the defence and the attack.  Which will make the transfer talk all the more interesting as just about everybody assumed that their star signing would be midfielder Cesc Fàbregas.  However midfield non longer would appear to be the main priority, through additions would be welcome even there.  There is also the small matter of the cost of signing Fàbregas.  Arsenal seem intent on holding out for €40-45K which would use up just about all of Barça’s transfer budget.  While this budget may rise, especially if they can offload some fringe players, this does not really change the equation, as these fringe players would need to be replaced and anyway, given their difficulties this season, Barça may want to increase the size of their squad.
This has already been reflected in the local press in Barcelona where the name of Giuseppe Rossi, the Italian striker who plays for Villareal, has been regularly linked with a move to Barça.  Rossi, who is 24 years old has played in Spain for the last four seasons and this season has scored over 30 goals for his club.  However Villareal are not likely to sell him cheaply and already the figure €30-35K has been floated in the press.  No doubt other names will appear in the list of possible signings. So I would expect at least either Bojan or Jeffren to leave over the summer to be replaced by a more experience striker.  The key point is any replacement, at least one with proven experience of regular goalscoring, will cost mucho dinero.
The same applies in defence.  With Milito almost certain to leave and Guardiola’s reluctance to use either Fontàs or Bartra in important matches, a new central defender is almost a certainty.  What makes this even more urgent is the fact that both Puyol and Abidal, already the wrong side of 30 have missed much of this season through serious injuries.  So at the very least I would expect to see one experienced central defender to arrive in the summer.  There does not seem to be front runner for this position at least not according to the press.  However, whoever does come will not come cheap.
All this of course leaves the prospect of Cesc Fàbregas returning to the Camp Nou an increasingly unlikely event.  Which would be bad news for Guardiola.  For though the midfield has performed wonderfully well pretty much all season, there is the usual shortage of players in this area.  Xavi and Iniesta are the only two experienced creative players in the squad.  Keita, who has contributed much to the team, is a different type of player, less skillful on the ball, but his physical presence and height offer an important and useful alternative.  Busquets, who usually plays as the holding midfielder, can play further forward and is a very skillful player in his own right, though not quite in the same class as either Xavi or Iniesta.  However I would expect that Guardiola will continue to use Busquets primarily in a more defensive role.  The great hope for all Barça fans is that Thiago Alcántara will fulfill his immense promise.  Only 20 years old Thiago has already made quite a few appearances for the first team and has been promised a place in the first team squad for next season.  Thiago is a very talented and gifted player, though he can be a bit reckless at times.  Not a facet much favoured by Guardiola.   So long as both Xavi and Iniesta remain fit and well, then no doubt Barça can get by another season mainly relying on these two, as Thiago gains more experience and becomes a more mature and reliable player.  So unless a great deal of extra money becomes available from somewhere I do not expect great changes in the midfield for next season.
This season has not yet ended and already the anticipation for the next is palpably there.  Can’t come soon enough.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Al-Nakba 2011

Today is Al-Nakba Day, when Palestinians throughout the world remember the catastrophe (Al-Nakba in Arabic) which befell their community in 1948.   The Nakba was a real and violent catastrophe.  The deliberate destruction, looting, massacres and forced expulsion of the Palestinian inhabitants of what was to become Israel.  Because this was also of course the period of the proclamation of the state of Israel and the two are intimately linked.  Without the forced expulsions of Palestinians there would have been no Israel.  While Nakba remembers an historic event, the violence against Palestinians continues right up to the present.  Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues to be confiscated and their inhabitants forced out.  An insight into the underhand means that Israel is prepared to use to expel Palestinians can be found in a recent article by the great Israeli journalist Gideon Levy.  He reports on a study which shows that by the time of the Oslo Accords, Israel had revoked the residency 140,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.  Palestinians who had gone abroad to study or work and stayed away for more than six months had their right to return denied forever.  By the stroke of a bureaucratic pen.  As Levy put it - “In other words, they were expelled from their land and their homes.  In other words: ethnic cleansing.”  You can read the whole article here.

What is clear from all this is that without the forced expulsion of the original inhabitants of the land, there would be no Israel and without the continuing expulsion of Palestinians Israel could not survive as a Jewish state.  The more people know about Al-Nakba, the more people will start to question the whole basis for the creation and continuing existence of Israel as a Jewish ethnocracy.  Which is no doubt why the Israeli Parliament has been trying to criminalize any mentioning of the Nakba.  So much for the claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.  Not all Jews share this draconian view and Noam Sheifaz, an independent journalist has written a powerful piece for 972 magazine explaining why Jews need to talk about the Nakba.
It seems that the Palestinians are beginning to mount a credible challenge to continuing Israeli rule.  The recent unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah is one sign of this,  Another is the impact that the recent pro democracy uprisings in the rest of the Arab world is beginning to have among Palestinians.  Aziz Abu Sarah is a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem and he has written here about how the Arab Spring is inspiring Palestinian protesters.  And part of this is the Nakba Day manifestations.  Below are links to some of the works produced by Palestinians to commemorate this “catastrophe”.  
First up is this video, which I came across via Mondoweiss.  It is called The Manifesto, and is a reply to the Gaza Youth Manifesto.  The makers describe it as a simple, true, self-explanatory, expression of what we’re sick of.  I have not been able to find out just who has produced this video.  
Next is a link to Palestine Monitor, an online resource about the Palestinian struggle for justice.  There you find a video about their Nakba Day event - Return to Palestine, Take to the streets on Nakba. 
The third link is to Nakba Survivor and is  in many ways the most moving.   This is a new website, a multi-media initiative of the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), set up to for this the 63rd commemoration of the Nakba.  It features the personal testimonies of Palestinian refugees who fled (or whose parents and grandparents fled) Israel’s ethnic cleansing project that began in 1948.  Palestinians all over the world were asked to upload video testimonials or contribute their stories on Twitter.  These latter show up on a live feed on the website.  A great and moving collection.
The rest of the world can of course contribute to the ongoing struggle of Palestinians for justice.  The key, basic demands of justice are that Israel respects its obligations under international law by:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinians refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
We can our bit by supporting any local initiatives of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.  In Dundee our next campaign is to persuade the local Council to refuse to accept any bids for council contracts from any company which aids or benefits from the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.  A motion is to go before the Council in June.  If you want to help us you can find out more from either Tayside for Justice for Palestine or Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign.  
Another way to show our solidarity with the struggle of Palestinians is to support the various worldwide campaigns to break the blockade of Gaza.  Here in Scotland we hope to raise enough money to send our own ship to join the forthcoming flotilla.  For more information about this campaign visit the Scotland to Gaza website.

Friday 13 May 2011

Take Five Books

The idea for this post comes from Stuck in a Book.  A brief look at five books currently or recently on your shelf.  It’s a great idea and here are my five books.
1. The book I’m currently reading - War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  This is part of my reading for the East European Reading Challenge.  I did read War and Peace decades ago, but this is a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I am enjoying the book immensely, though at over 1,200 largish pages it will take me ages to finish - I am only at page 182.
2. The last book I finished - The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa.  I don’t normally read so many classics at the one time, but this was the book of the month for our Reading Group.  I felt it did not fully succeed as a novel, but did enjoy much of the flowery baroque writing.  
3. The next book I want to read -  Ritos de Muerte by Alicia Giménez Bartlett.  This is part of my own personal challenge to read at least one book a month in another language.  Mostly these will be in Spanish.  I came across Giménez Bartlett via José Ignacio Escribano’s bilingual blog.  It is a crime novel and the first of her series featuring Inspector Petra Delicado.  Looking forward to this very much. 
4. The last book I bought - Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell.  I have not read many of Mankell’s novels, though I have been an avid follower of the various Wallander series on TV.  This is a bit of departure for Mankell, as Italian Shoes is not a crime novel.  It is rather a bittersweet, though at times tender account of how a 66 year old recluse is forced to confront his past and come to terms with himself and the future.  A lovely book.
5. The last book I was given - Dark Blood by Stuart Macbride.  I was given this book some time ago, but have yet to get round to reading it, though I have it pencilled in for June.  Macbride is another in a long line of great Scottish crime writers.  In his case the crimes are set in Aberdeen.  This will be my first Macbride book and I am looking forward to it.
If you want to find out what others have been reading then please go to Stuck in a Book and check everyone out.  I would also recommend that you all try this fun little meme for yourself and post it to Simon at Stuck in a Book.  Good reading.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Scottish Elections - Whither the Unionist Parties?

The recent Scottish Parliamentary elections were a disaster for all three Unionist parties, with each recording their worst result ever.  Their leaders in Scotland have all announced that they will stand down.  So at the very least a new leadership is required.  However a much more serious root and branch review is probably needed.  Already, it seems that every Tom, Dick and Mary has jumped in with their tuppenceworth.  Not to be left behind all this fun, after all when better to kick someone than when they are down, here are some of my own thoughts on the future prospects for the Unionist parties.
From some of the forests of words already written by Unionist politicians and bloggers, one of the great dangers they face is that some of them are still not willing to face up to the scale of the disaster that overtook them last Thursday.  I have just read one Labour supporter claim that the lack of campaign money was the major reason for the scale of Labour’s defeat.   If the Unionist parties are to have a long term future in Scotland then they need to focus on four key issues - policy, mindset, structure and personalities.  
Policy is vital for any political party.  It is even more vital in Scotland where there are currently five parties represented in Parliament, and previously there have been six parties at Holyrood.  So to succeed you need to have a set of policies, or vision for the country, that is both distinctive and inspirational.   While negative messages have a place in any campaign I would contend that a party is likely to more successful if its distinctive message is primarily positive.  That way it is more likely to motivate people to come out and vote and more important to get people to talk to others about the party and their policies.
From a policy perspective while the Tories did as usual have their own right of centre message to offer, it clearly did not inspire many voters.  The LibDems and Labour on the other hand had very little in the way of a clear and easily articulated vision of what kind of Scotland they wanted for the future.  The most distinctive parts of their manifestos were pathetic, narrowly focussed policies - a non-mandatory but somehow mandatory policy on carrying knives for Labour and save the status quo of the current police structures for the LibDems.  Really inspiring stuff!  Neither party had anything constructive or positive to say about how they would make Scotland a better, more prosperous country.
A major problem for the Unionist parties in developing a coherent vision for Scotland is what I term their mindset.  They are after all Unionist parties and as such their prime focus is the UK as a whole.  This works doubly to their disadvantage.  Any vision they have for Scotland is constrained within the UK and the limited powers available to the Scottish Parliament.  While they are prepared to consider some limited additional powers for Scotland, they are all, with the possible exception of the LidDems, at least while in opposition, unwilling to give significant financial and economic powers to Holyrood.  So the most they can offer is to manage Scotland - a little bit of tinkering here and there.  In no way can they even begin to imagine how to transform Scotland - that would require real powers for Holyrood.  To make matters worse, faced with a resurgent SNP all the Unionist parties have retreated into a “save the Union at all costs” mindset.  The more they think about how to preserve the Union the less they question the value Union itself.  Thus every option they come up with has to be framed within the primacy of the UK.  It is this that surely explains why just about all Unionists continue to assert that Scotland is too poor to go it alone.  They are currently trapped.  If the Union is to have any chance of surviving they need to break free of this mindset and more or less start afresh.  Start from the perspective of Scotland first.  In the 21st century, with Scotland as a member of the UN, the WTO and the EU, what additional benefits does Scotland get from the UK?  What benefits could it get from a changed, reformed UK?  Unionists need to come up with some kind of coherent and inspiring answers - soon.
Linked to the mindset issue is the question of the structure of the Unionist parties in Scotland.  While all have the word Scottish in their title, this means little in practice.  Because they are primarily UK parties the word Scottish means nothing more than the location.  Thus the Scottish Labour party is no more than the (UK) Labour party in Scotland.   This of course is a major factor in reinforcing the mindset I referred to above.  It is most clearly seen in the Tory and Labour parties, neither of which has a Scottish leader.  Both Ian Gray and Annabel Goldie were merely the leaders of their respective Parliamentary groups in Holyrood.  Their is no overall leader of either party in Scotland.  In fact the real leader of their parties is their leader in Westminster.  The LibDems have mover furthest in separate structures, in that Tavish Scott, their leader in Holyrood, is also the leader of the whole party in Scotland.  However the Scottish LibDems do not exist as a separate party - they are when all is said and done merely the Scottish branch of the UK LibDems.  This was most evident last year after the UK general election.  The  Scottish LibDem MPs all worked more closely with their fellow MPs from the rest of the UK than they did with their fellow LibDems in Scotland.  Given what everyone knew was likely to happen to the LibDems in Scotland once the UK party went into Coalition with the Tories the question is would a separate Scottish LibDem party ever have agreed to participate in such a Coalition?  
Will any of the Unionist parties go along this route, sometimes dubbed the CSU model.  After the experience of the Christian Democrats in Germany, where in Bavaria the Christian Democrats do not exist as a party, but instead are represented by another party altogether - the Christian Social Union.  The two parties work very closely at the Federal level and have so far at least always presented a joint platform for Federal elections.  However the CSU is and remains primarily a Bavarian party, with no outside interference from elsewhere in Germany.  Once again it all comes down to the mindset of most Unionists.  At present their main focus is the UK.  Until they are prepared to change that and make Scotland their main focus, then little will change, whatever rearrangements are made on the deck.
Finally a word about personalities, and in particular the personal qualities of the leaders.  There are two aspects to this.  One is the public persona of the leaders.  Here there is no doubt that the SNP benefitted from having Alex Salmond as their leader.  After all, even their own supporters recognize that the phenomenal success of the SNP is due in large measure to the larger than life personality of Alex Salmond.  None of the other parties has as yet managed to find anyone of his stature.  Quite why is an interesting question and worthy of further thought.  However it is not only the public persona of leaders that matter.  Their own personal preferences and antipathies all come into play.  For example it is widely claimed that it was the personal hostility of Tavish Scott towards the SNP which prevented the LibDems from even entering into negotiations with the SNP after the previous Scottish elections.  So not only do political parties need to have a leader who can articulate their vision, assuming they have one, and motivate the electorate, they also need to ensure that their leader does not carry any deep seated personal baggage that may scupper their prospects in any coalition negotiations.  Back to the all importance of that mindset again.  Given the scale of the SNP victory last Thursday open hostility to the SNP and by implication the people who voted for them, may not be the wisest move to make.

Monday 9 May 2011

Photo of the Month - April 2011

April was a wonderful month, weather wise, one of the warmest and sunniest on record.  We also had a visit from Emma and Alessio.  So at long last we were able to get out and about a bit and enjoy the countryside.  We started with a trip down to one of our favourite haunts - the East Neuk of Fife.  Below is a view from the local cheese makers over Anstruther and out to the isle of May in the Firth of Forth.
Sunday 3rd of April was Mother's Day over here and Elena and her boys treated Kathleen to afternoon tea at Rufflets, a lovely Edwardian house, now a hotel and restaurant.  It is just outside St. Andrews and has lovely gardens.  Luckily I was invited too.  Here are the two of us in a photo taken by Jamie I think.

 As the good weather kept up we managed to get in a visit to Montquhanie gardens where they had a few wooden sculptures lying about the grounds.  Below is a giant sized pear. Unfortunately they were rather expensive, as I quite fancied one for my garden.
 Our own little garden was ablaze with colour for all of the month, especially with tulips.  Below are two photos of the same part of the garden, one early on with the tulips just ready to burst open and the other with them in full bloom.
 Later in the month we had the pleasure of a visit from Emma and Alessio.  The photo below was taken by Alessio on one of our lunches out.
 We took advantage of Emma's visit to explore some of the nearby countryside.  Below is a study in red with Emma and Alessio by a lovely red rhododendron bush on the banks of the river Tay in the grounds of Dunkeld Cathedral.  This was one of the few rainy days -  really only the morning.
 Beatrix Potter the famous writer of children's classics such as Brer Rabbit, used to spend her summer holidays in this part of the world.  Here are some of her characters which are on display in a wonderful chocolatier shop and café in Grandtully, a tiny hamlet just north of Dunkeld.
 Food was quite a highlight of the month and Emma treated us all to these gorgeous cupcakes from a speciality shop in St. Andrews.  They were yummy.
 Alessio of course, like all little boys, likes nothing better than running around, especially in a playpark.  Luckily there are some very fine ones close by.  Here he is pretending to skateboard at the Blue Seaway park in Monifieth.
 We ended the month where we started, back in the East Neuk.  Alessio had a great time playing on the sandy beach at Pittenweem.  As well as the sand there are some lovely pebbles and rocky outcrops on the beach.  I end with this photo of some seaweed washed up on the beach.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Scottish Elections - Historic Win for SNP

Well, well, well - after a pretty miserable and uninspiring campaign we end up with the most unexpected and spectacular election result possible.  Against all expectations the SNP win an absolute majority of seats in the Parliament.  Something that everyone thought was impossible.  Scotland uses a modified form of the PR system used in Germany and it was designed pretty much to prevent any one party winning an overall majority.  Yet the SNP did.  The map on the left shows the extent of this success.  The yellow areas show the constituencies that are now SNP.  Red areas are Labour, blue are Tory, while the two orange coloured islands to the north are all that is left of the former LibDem strongholds.  What is even more remarkable about this victory is that in Scotland we have four major parties, five if you include the Greens, contesting elections.  Such a stunning achievement is just way beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings that we still haven’t really got over the shock yet.  To win 45% of the popular vote in a four/five party system is just amazing.  I am of course absolutely delighted and wish the SNP well in their challenging tasks ahead.  Once the dust has settled all sorts of experts will pick over the pieces of the election and try and work out how this all happened.  Here are a few of my initial thoughts.
While the SNP did exceptionally well, the flipside is that all the other parties did exceptionally badly.  Not just the LibDems, but the Tories and Labour.  Even the Greens did badly.  For Labour, Tories and LibDems these are the worst results ever for these parties in Scotland.  Some Tories are trying to claim they came out not too badly.  Not true, their share of the vote went down, while it went up everywhere else in the UK.
A major factor in the vote in Scotland was the collapse of the LibDem vote.  Due primarily to their misguided decision to enter into coalition with the hated Tories at Westminster.  While this might seem to suggest that this was an example of UK politics influencing the Scottish election, I do not think so.  In the first place many LidDem successes in the past were due to gathering the anti Tory vote.  This was certainly the case in North East Fife, where I used to live.  Many people voted LidDem primarily to keep the Tories out.  This was not just for UK elections but for all elections.  Once the LibDems got into bed with the Tories, then their attraction as the anti Tory party went out the window.  Secondly their actual voting record at Westminster and in particular their incomprehensible decision to vote in favour of raising tuition fees for students in England and Wales.  The key here was that all LibDem MPs had signed a written pledge not to do so.  To then so early in the life of a Parliament to break such a solemn pledge took away any credibility they had left.  And of course if they could do this at Westminster then they could do it at Holyrood.  The anti Tory vote had deserted them and you couldn’t trust them anyway.  No wonder their vote collapsed.
A key question then is why did Labour not pick up any of these disgruntled former LibDem voters?  This goes to the heart of Labour’s monumental failure to understand the election up here.  Labour, no doubt buoyed by their success in last year’s UK election, tried to do a simple re-run of that campaign.  Their main strategy was to focus on the core Labour vote and bring that out.  Hence the initial focus on the Tories as the main enemy and bogeyman.   And to a large extent it worked.  The Labour vote did hold up in Labour areas.  Unfortunately for them no-one else seemed interested in voting Labour.  For this was not a re-run of the last UK election.  People were electing a government for Scotland and Labour did not seem to offer much in the way of a positive and practical vision.  One example of this was was the promise to introduce mandatory prison sentences for anyone caught carrying a knife in public.  Widely dismissed by almost all the other parties and by experts in the field, including the police, this was however, probably very popular among core Labour voters.  Alas it almost certainly put off any potential LibDem voters thinking of switching to Labour.
The final point about the election was that this was a Scottish election.  This was another area in which Labour failed badly.  Their initial tactic of trying to fight the Tory government at Westminster and their claim that a Labour victory would annoy David Cameron all gave voters the impression that Labour was more interested in using the election as a way off getting back to power at Westminster rather than presenting themselves as a credible government for Scotland.  For throughout the campaign one message that kept coming up again and again was that most people wanted someone to stand up for Scotland, someone who would put Scotland first.  And all the other main parties, excepting the Greens, are perceived to a greater or lesser extent as branch sections of UK parties.  None of the UK wide parties have as yet fully adjusted to the realities of devolution.   All of them need to somehow become more clearly Scottish.  
What next?  The stunning victory is a bit of a double edged sword for the SNP.  Now that they have an overall majority in Parliament they can get any measure they want passed.  Equally of course they will have no one else to blame to things go wrong.  This will be most clearly felt in relation to independence - the raison d’être of the SNP.  They have promised to hold a referendum on independence within the next five years.  But when?  As everyone knows only a minority of Scots are currently in favour of independence.  How will the SNP go about trying to convince a majority of Scots to take that next step?  And how will the Unionist parties react?  All this against a background of weak economic growth and severe cuts in the Scottish budget coming from London.   Politics has just got much more interesting. 

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Reading Highlights - April 2011

April was another good months for books, though I only managed to complete seven novels this time.  A couple of the books have already been reviewed on the blog - One Day by David Nicholls and Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell.  Both very good reads.  In addition to the Mankell, I revisited a two favourite authors last month.  Five Ways to Kill a Man is another in Alex Gray’s series featuring DCI Lorrimer and his psychologist helper Solomon Brightman.  The series is set in Glasgow and while basically a crime novel, Gray does allow her characters to develop as real people.  Not just a whodunnit.
Australian Peter Temple is another favourite author.  I have now read four of his books and all have been excellent.  The Broken Shore is another great crime novel.  The first Peter Temple book I read was Truth and The Broken Shore was the first of his novels to feature Detective Joe Cashin the main character in Truth.  In this one we get to know a bit more about Cashin who has left Melbourne after some case went wrong.  He is now the sole policeman in a fairly remote part of rural Victoria, in the house that he grew up in.  Though rural this does not of course mean that nothing bad happens.  In fact quite a lot bad happens and Joe finds himself digging deeper and deeper into the past, including his own, in order to resolve the mystery of the apparently random death of an old man.  Great stuff - I cannot praise Peter Temple too highly.
I finally got round to reading one of Nick Hornby’s novels.  I am quite familiar with his work through the film versions of High Fidelity and About a Boy,  both of which I enjoyed.  A Long Way Down is another very funny book.  It relates the tale of four disparate strangers who all by chance try to commit suicide by throwing themselves off the top of a block of flats in London, known locally as Topper’s Tower.  When one by one the others appear, the immediate rush to kill themselves dies a death, so to speak.   They do however decide to form a kind of mutual self help group and the remainder of the novel recounts the various adventures they get into as each of them tries to rebuild their lives and find a reason for carrying on living.  As the characters are so different, two women and two men for a start, it all makes for some very funny and witty scenes.  Some of the lines ares so funny that you just burst out laughing aloud in side splitting pain.  I listened to the audio version, which unusually featured two readers - a man for the male characters and a woman for the female characters.  This I am sure made the tale even funnier.
For my foray into non English language novels I read Die Haushälterin by Swiss author Jens Petersen.  Set in Hamburg this is a rather sweet, though at times bittersweet tale of a teenage boy’s first steps towards adulthood.  Despite the title, the story is really about the difficult relationship between 16 year old Phillip and his father.  Phillip’s mother is dead and as the novel opens, his father has just lost his job.  His father has found life difficult enough without his wife and this new blow quickly sends him into depression, thus forcing Phillip to try and manage the home.  To help in this task the young lad advertises for a housekeeper, imagining she would be an elderly woman.  He ends up with Ada, a young, attractive and outgoing Polish immigrant.  Both the father and son quickly become smitten by Ada and she becomes another point of tension between them.  The novel is related in the first person by Phillip and while there is no big denouement this is a sensitive and simply written book.  Mercifully, for me it is also short, only 168 pages.  To read a book in German I need the constant help of a dictionary and one of the reasons for trying the odd book in German is to add to my store of German vocabulary.
This month I also made my first dip into Chinese literature.  Though in this case Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah was written in English.  The novel is subtitled The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter and is in effect an autobiography.  Adeline was born in 1937 to a rich business family living in Shanghai.  Unfortunately her mother died almost immediately after childbirth.  Her stepmother, half French, hence the name Adeline, did not like any of her step children and for some reason positively hated Adeline.   Though there was no real physical hardship Adeline did suffer emotionally throughout her life.  The most interesting parts of the book are the earlier parts describing life in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese war and the early years of the Communist take-over.  Adeline eventually manages to get to America where she becomes a successful medical practitioner and finds marital happiness at the second attempt.  I was looking forward to this novel but was slightly disappointed.  Partly this is because Adeline remains the victim throughout, no doubt accurately reflecting the traditional Chinese acceptance of family hierarchy.  Still it is hard to believe as Adeline has become a successful and wealthy American.  The novel also tries to recount the histories of all her siblings and this is a bit boring and not really essential to the core of the novel.  While worth reading I much preferred The Calligrapher’s Daughter which I read last month and describes the struggles for survival and recognition of a young Korean girl.