Sir Terry Wogan

I was shocked and saddened yesterday to hear of Sir Terry Wogan’s death.  He seemed like a real gentleman and a very decent human being.  Of course, one passing of a 77-year-old former BBC presenter should not outweigh all the many murdered, starved and drowned in our dark world, but I was moved to write a pair of limericks, which I believe is a fitting tribute to a man who hailed from Limerick and, by all account, was rather fond of his home town.

There once was a Sir named Terry

Who made us all very merry

With witty remarks

And humorous larks

On both radio and telly!

 

Our friend so sadly departed

Was warm, affable, big-hearted:

Helped children in need

Both with word and deed,

Let’s advance this work undaunted.

Clemency

In all the furore after the diabolical attacks on Paris less than a fortnight ago, we seem to have forgotten something very important.  There was one human being, who although he planned some of the most shocking crimes possible, decided at the last minute to walk away, dump his suicide vest and flee.

Salah Abdeslam is on the run and no-one seems to have a clue where he is.  Interestingly, IS statements after the raid exulted in barbaric strikes in the 10th, 11th and 18th arrondissements, except there was no bloodshed at the last location.  Surely, this was where Salah was meant to blow himself up but balked at the prospect because he let his mind dwell on the real-life consequences.  The “eight brothers” became just seven and lives were spared by the conscience of one man.

Clearly, Salah has many questions to answer and should give himself up to face justice.  However, should we in our civilised, Christian-shaped democracies not show some clemency?  Rather than hunting him high and low like a criminal with overwhelming force, what if we tried to reach out to him?  Remember, he is probably now hated by former IS comrades who will regard him with disdain for failing the basic test of a jihadi terrorist.  He is caught between a rock and a hard place with nowhere to go, unless he can somehow alter his identity and evade detection.

We cannot conquer terror through bullets, bombs and bloodshed.  If we are to win this fight, we must learn to reconcile with those like Salah Abdeslam who turned back from the brink, who seem to have realised that violence solves nothing and who give us some hope that there is humanity left which is worth saving.

Corbyn: Disaster already happening!

Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted criticism of Islamic State and comparison of their barbarism to the USA’s military action in Fallujah once again illustrates the inconsistency and blind spots of the extreme Left.  Like George Galloway, he seems quite capable of cosying-up to, or overlooking the “faults” of, those who are perpetrating the most appalling crimes against humanity.

He is on the record as saying, for an interview with Russia Today last year, that what IS has done is “quite appalling, likewise what the Americans did in Fallujah and other places is appalling.”

To rate the evil of Islamic State below (note the use of “quite”!) the United States of America is utterly appalling and indefensible.  Rather than publicly and personally apologise, specifically to all the IS victims of rapes, beheading and heinous tortures, all Corbyn would do was send out a spokesperson to mouth platitudes.  He was very quick to dismiss evidence of anti-Semitism against him as “very appalling, disgusting and deeply offensive.”  So, in his mind, does that mean that US incursions in Fallujah, and by extension IS barbarism, is less reprehensible than someone questioning why he shared a platform with Dyab Jahjah who says “Every dead British soldier is a victory.”

He either has a poor grasp of English or no sense of proportionality, no comprehension of the real evils that are lurking in this world and threatening to engulf civilisation.

According to the “Left Foot Forward”, this is only one instance of many where Corbyn is failing to take a stand against terrorism.  Whilst there is much to commend in his commitment to re-energise the state to tackle the fundamental problems dogging Britain, his grasp of international politics and basic ethics makes him a truly frightening prospect for leadership of the Labour Party and Prime Minister in-waiting.

Connecting the public to the police

I was very annoyed to see a large camper van left illegally on double
yellow lines in Cooper Park last Saturday afternoon for at least two
hours during the inaugural Children's Festival. I took two photos,
about 30 minutes apart, to serve as evidence as there was not a traffic
warden or police officer in sight. 

Returning home, I was further disappointed to find no easy way of
reporting this offence and submitting the pictures to the relevant
authorities. I did, however, discover that a tech startup in Canada has
already developed an app to enable Joe Bloggs to identify and flag-up
motorists breaking important traffic rules.

Yet another example of where we are woefully behind the curve in
empowering our citizens to help police this country and ensure there is
more respect for democratically-agreed laws. I understand that the 101
non-emergency number is available, but many people (especially the
young) tend to be much more comfortable with computer technology, which
can enable better screening of information and submission of
photographic evidence.

There are obvious efficiencies the Scottish Government can make in
order to meet their challenging spending reduction targets by
encouraging and enabling people to be more involved in looking after
their communities. We can do so much better. 

I wrote this originally as a letter to my SNP MSP three weeks ago
and the tragic case of two young motorists dying near Bannockburn in
Scotland has impressed on me the urgency of making these ideas more
widely known.  Their plight was reported to the police but for three
days the details were left incorrectly recorded and nothing was done
to help the couple. We clearly need to make improvements and harnessing
the power of the Internet and modern computing should be a priority for Police Scotland.Double yellow park 1

Thriving communities are worth paying for

If only we had the cash. This seems to be the oft-repeated refrain in a recent edition of my local weekly newspaper, the Northern Scot, whether from our four-star tourist attraction Museum or the historic, centrally-positioned St Giles Church. We could add to this list: restoring Grant Lodge in Cooper Park, building more cycle lanes connecting our growing suburbs to the town centre, upgrading the A95 so there are no single-lane bottlenecks, opening tennis courts in Elgin free for everyone to use…

Are we missing the point? Whilst the Scottish Government whine about Westminster’s austerity programme, they have presided over eight years of a Council Tax freeze and completely failed to reform an unfair system based on property, rather than income. No wonder public services and projects are suffering so badly. We must challenge the delusion that you can have something for nothing or decent civic amenities for a pittance. If we want Elgin to flourish and thrive as a community, we need to pay for the transformation.

Still, I was excited to read that Morayvia in Forres is seeking to crowdsource funding for their proposed visitor attraction. This is a route that must surely be pursued by more charities in Moray. Crowdfunding is an excellent way to gauge people’s interest in and support of various ventures. I believe the principle should also be used routinely by Moray Council to identify the public’s priorities for spending additional funds and to seek extra revenues. Imagine if you could go on one website for Moray, check exactly what projects were being pursued, read details of how these will benefit the local area, make pledges of support as you desire and, ultimately, see the dream become a reality. Peolpe can see exactly what their investment achieves. Surely, that would be worth paying for?

Sprucing up our High Streets

On a recent visit to Stirling, I was very impressed, not just by the city’s lack of litter and profusion of well-maintained flower beds/planters, but also the presentation of empty shops.  As you can hopefully see from these photos, high quality prints completely filled the windows of retail units that could so easily have become eyesore and headaches.  These posters could clearly be taken down and reused, as required.

Whilst obviously everyone would prefer to see a successful business inside, this determination to improve the appearance of the community, coupled with creativity in achieving this goal, was highly commendable.  Moray (and many other places) could learn much from Stirling.  If we want to attract tourists and boast our economy, a modest investment of cash and a razor-sharp attention to detail can lead to great accomplishments, just as Robert the Bruce, with a small force largely composed of well-trained schiltrons and keen eye for exploiting the terrain around Bannockburn, overcame a better-armed, more numerous invading army in 1314.

Creative idea for sprucing up an otherwise empty shop!

Creative idea for sprucing up an otherwise empty shop!

Leave of Sense

Having recently welcomed my first child into the world, I took two weeks off my public sector, College lecturing. I was shocked, however, when my pay arrived in the bank, considerably less than usual, as I’d only been given the ordinary statutory payment (SMP), which is £138.18 per week! My bank account was empty – just at the time when life has suddenly become more expensive.

That time off was vital in helping me to adjust to all the new duties – nappy-changing, baby-bathing and, of course, coping with much less sleep than previously. Being there and helping for the first two weeks was incredibly important and I think that government should ensure that fathers are not penalised for taking time off.

Why can’t employers just treat this as two weeks absence (equivalent to the usual length of a holiday or illness) with full pay maintained? Surely, this would have a negligible effect on businesses, but be a huge boost for new dads (and their families!)? Of course, a fair cap would need to be introduced, possibly set at the level where individuals start paying higher rate income tax (£41,865 or about £800 per week – before tax!). This would reduce costs of change and be more equitable.

Both the Local Council and College where I live seem to have the same policy and do not offer any top-up to the statutory minimum. I note, however, that NHS Scotland seems to be much more generous and basically keeps fathers on full-pay during their two-week paternity leave. Meanwhile, Council workers in the Highlands, doing exactly the same job, receive one week full pay, followed by one week SMP, which is a considerable improvement.

Sweden, however, lead the way. There appears to be a “daddy month”, meaning that if both parents take at least one month leave, then they’ll receive an extra month on their total allowance. Then, in 2002, this was expanded to TWO MONTHS!

Surely, two weeks fully-paid leave for a new dad is the least that should be offered.

Scotland’s Future Still in Our Hands

I was very saddened, the day after referendum voting, to come across about fifty “Yes” leaflets someone chucked all over the pavement, littering our bonny nation. Ironically, the SNP propaganda claimed only a vote for full-blown separation could ensure our future remained in our own hands, “forever”. To complete the effect, as you can see below, a young baby adorned the missive.

Of course, Scotland voted “nay” – or “wait and see”, as one “Yes” supporter aptly described the outcome to me. However, does this mean that we are now disenfranchised citizens and neutered activists for the common good? Absolutely not!

The battle goes on on so many different fronts and the people of Scotland are being called to get stuck in. Whether cleaning-up litter or mentoring less fortunate souls in their neighbourhoods, planting new community gardens or developing new business enterprises, we are (as always) desperately in need of citizens to step-up and take the lead. Where are the individuals who care less about safeguarding their rights and more about shouldering their responsibilities, pursue not only their own interests, but what benefits their fellow human beings?

How can a campaign which claims to be about making Scotland better degenerate into flinging ugly accusations on social media, or creating more mess on our already rubbish strewn streets?

Certainly, we must hold to account those politicians who promised so much and must now focus on delivering a more representative, fairer democracy for the United Kingdom (see this excellent petition for another to keep up the pressure). Nevertheless, I believe a much more comprehensive settlement is needed to sort out these issues for the foreseeable future and right the historic injustices that have evolved over the years of cobbling together different parts of these sceptred isles.

This constitutional change desperately needed to improve perceptions of how democracy works in our country and demonstrate that representatives serve the people who elect them, not narrow party or self-interest. I am astounded that the likes of Ed Balls – questioned closely on Radio 4’s “Today” – could not agree that the simple principle, English matters should only be decided by English MP, is fundamentally fair. There should be no hesitation for any political party to follow the SNP’s example and adopt – as constitutional convention – a policy of not voting where a decision does not affect their constituents, such as a MP for Blackburn in West Lothian influencing what happens in Blackburn, Northern England.

Clearly, this does not preclude further constitutional reform, but merely begins the process with what is possibly a temporary – but nevertheless essential – expedient. Establishing this principle would improve cross-border relations and reduce resentment towards Scottish MPs who could easily hold the balance of power in key votes that do not even concern them.

One of the best solutions to this challenge would, I believe, involve much closer collaboration between regional and national parliaments, merging Scottish MPs and MSPs. Scottish (as well as Welsh and Northern Irish) representatives could be sent to Westminster when there are matters under discussion pertaining to the whole of the UK (though cost-savings would be achievable if more use is made of appropriate ICT). Obviously, they would always be kept informed of developments through video conferencing and data sharing. This would mean that there is only one Member of Parliament for each constituency, which would deliver the following benefits:
 Reducing voters’ current confusion as to what falls under which jurisdiction.
 Enhancing the talent as only the best representatives are called upon to represent the people
 Increasing the quality of debate at Holyrood as the best parliamentarians are no longer forced to choose between Scottish or UK government
 Lowering costs as fewer salaries would be required, but maintaining an equal workload across all remaining Members of Parliament as they must all keep abreast of the same number of issues
 Only English MPs would be gathered when there are debates and votes at Westminster on English issues, satisfying the demands of UKIP et al.

Personally, I would prefer the regional “party list” MSPs to be scrapped as they add little to democracy, but I could envisage a situation where they are integrated into the process, to add extra depth to the Scottish parliament.

This path to real change would be difficult for our politicians, who must make considerable sacrifices and see some of their own jobs disappearing, but this is exactly the process seen in our health, education and police services. For example, the BBC (since 2009) has reduced the senior manager bill by 35% (from £78.5m to £51.1m). Surely, they represent what is possible and what our representatives must aspire towards?

Picked-up by myself at the bridge between Asda and Lidl in Elgin

Picked-up by myself at the bridge between Asda and Lidl in Elgin

The Multiplier Effect

So often in current debates about public spending, particularly in Health, we hear that budgets must be slashed in the aftermath of recession and in the era of austerity. Whilst undoubtedly there is waste that needs reduced, we must see through this false economy that is presented. Increasing investment in key areas of the NHS can pay huge dividends, from more workers putting their hard-earned salaries directly back into the economy to the general population being much more healthy and productive.
Jobs such as nurses and porters, essential to the smooth-running of health care, are relatively low paid, so the vast majority of these wages are spent on essentials and pumped back into the GDP figures. More people in employment reduces the numbers drawing Job Seekers’ Allowances from the state and also improves individual well-being, multiplying the benefits.
Health care is especially beneficial because, whether assisting someone out of debilitating, clinical depression or providing physio after a broken leg, promptly removing the chronic pain of a rotten tooth or defeating cancer in a twenty-something, people are being enabled to lead more productive, fruitful and successful lives. Improving national well-being should be at the centre of what government is about, not an incidental expenditure that can be left to the vagaries of markets. Next time you hear a politician bemoaning the billions spent on this budget, remember the benefits a healthier population can deliver.