Saturday, 30 August 2014

Darling's Week From Hell

When the high point of your week is being drenched with a bucketful of water, it’s a sure sign that you should have stayed where you belong, in the picnic hamper with Andy, Teddy and Looby Loo.  In fairness, Alistair Darling did gain some Brownie points by facing his soaking with wry humour, appearing never to flinch. 

Yes-supporting conspiracy theorists scoffed that his flunkies hadn’t put any ice in the bucket, opting instead for room-temperature mineral water with a hint of peach from Waitrose Morningside.  Better Together propagandists crowed that their man had simply rediscovered the steely stoicism he’d displayed in 2008, when Fred Goodwin was twisting his arm behind his back and Gordon was in the other room chewing the carpet.

Of course, as any body language expert will confirm once he’s stopped creepily staring at you, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between stoicism and paralysis.  The terrified chancellor had ended up giving Fred the Shred everything he wanted, instead of chucking him unceremoniously in the clink, as would have happened in Reykjavik. Now, as the cascade sent his eyebrows careering in all directions, Darling may simply have been rigid with fear over the myriad risks and uncertainties he faced, including drowning, pneumonia, water on the brain and the hidden agonies of shrinkage in the woolly undies department.

Alex Salmond rose up from his own icy inundation with a roar of mingled discomfort and defiance, indicating his state of mind approaching this week’s second televised smackdown.  The First Minister revels in being underestimated, especially when luring a complacent opponent in front of a UK-wide TV audience for a comprehensive gubbing.  Seasoned Salmond-watchers even entertained the possibility that his peely-wally performance in the first debate had been part of a fiendish master plan.  When it comes to being a hustler, this bloke makes Fast Eddie Felson look like Laa-Laa of the Teletubbies.

Darling, awarded the first debate despite floating like a bee and stinging like a butterfly, urgently needed to put on his dancing pumps and learn some scintillating new moves.  Sadly, this would have involved coming up with his own Plan B, thereby melting his cerebellum, so he had to settle for the usual cement-filled clown shoes.  While Salmond was channelling Bill Clinton by going walkabout, Darling remained rooted to his lectern, palpably beelin’, with only his manic finger-pointing hinting at the 70s disco-dancing career that might have been.

The audience reaction to Darling’s third mention of currency, a disappointed gasp such as you’d emit if repeatedly dive-bombed by a pigeon, was the beginning of the end.  His admission that of course Scotland could use the pound, exultantly highlighted by Salmond before he could add “but it and all other currency options will be crap, and we’ll have to eat worms”, was game over.  Salmond’s offer to include Darling in his “Team Scotland” negotiating party, as if they’ll be needing a stroppy doom-mongering berk, was merely the knife-twisting coup de grâce.

So complete was the carnage that the BBC, surveying the ashen Darling clutching his lectern at the end with his trousers round his ankles, were moved to declare that the debate “had been more evenly matched” than its predecessor.  They must think English viewers are even denser than the Scots.  But never mind, the evening had given us so many memories and talking points.
  • Salmond asking Darling to name three job-creating powers to be granted by Westminster after a No vote, then two, then one, while Darling frantically ransacked his brains like a man trying to find his passport in a rubbish tip.
  • Darling scoffing that he wouldn’t spend six minutes in Panama, news that will probably suit the Panamanian authorities just fine.  Grateful thanks to Gordon Brown for not being daft enough to reshuffle this man to Foreign Secretary, otherwise the UK would by now be a gently sizzling post-nuclear wasteland.
  • The audience.  The polar opposite of the STV audience three weeks previously.  Especially the woman who laid into Darling for hypocrisy over NHS privatisation and his fancy dinners with well-upholstered profiteers, signing off with the belter, “I hope you can feel Aneurin Bevan sitting on your shoulder”.  Ka-pow!  Better Together, swiftly mobilising their green crayons, have fired off a complaint to the BBC, affording the rest of us a rare opportunity to bask in the blissful glow of schadenfreude.
  • “Why are we not better together now?”  Nailed it. 
  • Sneaky Salmond digs such as “You don’t have to point, Alistair” and “Stay calm”, amongst the most annoying things anyone can say to you when you’re teetering on the verge of a toy-throwing outburst.  The First Minister is undoubtedly a sadistic bastard.  But at least he’s our sadistic bastard.
  • The cross-examination sessions.  Why not just give the debaters a break and fire up a couple of chainsaws?  It would be more informative.  From the sidelines, a frustrated Glenn Campbell tried to introduce a bit of order, but for all he could achieve the BBC might as well have placed him in Dunoon.
  • Darling self-destructing over how many Scots children are currently projected to be in poverty by 2020.  You might have forgiven him not knowing that the answer was 100,000, except for the fact that Salmond had quoted it 20 minutes earlier.  However, he also contrived to make it look like he wasn’t that bothered.  Of course, Labour could always fix the problem by adjusting the definition of poverty.
  • “We don’t have to rise up and be a nation again, just believe in ourselves.”  Great peroration from Salmond.  A bit over the top, you reckon?  Remember that the most inspiring soundbite to come out of the No campaign this week was “Shut up and eat your cereal.”
And so ended a night of jollity in the corridors of hope and recriminations in the halls of fear.  Will undecideds have been influenced in any way, other than to smash their TVs with giant mallets to make the cross-examination stop?   The polls say they won’t, but there’s suddenly been a surge of anecdotal evidence that people are crossing over to Yes.  Of course, that could very well be because of BT’s splendidly inept “Patronising BT Lady” advert on Tuesday night, and nothing to do with our politicians’ rhetorical flourishes at all.

Darling’s punishment for the debacle was savage, as Wednesday saw him subjected to a reunion with his old boss Gordon Brown, whose leadership his self-serving, but in this case possibly accurate, memoirs had labelled “hopeless” and “a brutal regime” after the electorate had finally had a bellyful of them both.  It was fun watching them sit awkwardly side by side, trying to crowbar their faces into smiles, ignoring the ever-present reality that Gordon, if provoked, could crush Alistair like a grape. 

Best, probably, for Alistair to sit very, very still indeed.  And just hope that no-one tried to chuck an egg at Gordon.

Monday, 25 August 2014

NHYes: Part 2

Hi there!  Thanks for coming back. If you’re asking “From where?” you probably need to go and read Part 1 of this blog post here.

So far we’ve demonstrated, in the face of frenzied denials from Scottish Labour, that the NHS in England has lately been undergoing jaw-droppingly hazardous surgery, with no obvious sign of voters having signed consent forms, because of the Tories' irresistible privatisation fetish.

But we still have work to do to establish that this presents a threat to the Scottish NHS if we stay within the UK.  And it’s well worth doing so, even if it’s only to annoy the sanctimonious twerps who snarl that it’s a filthy great lie, often in the same breath as asserting that after a Yes vote cross-border co-operation on organ transplants will simply melt like snow and bouncers at Great Ormond Street will shoo sick Scottish kids away with cattle prods.   

So fasten your seat belts, it’s time for a demolition job on all those faux-outraged “Yes is scaremongering” arguments.  No doubt nay-sayers will decry it as simplistic and straw-mannish, but (a) that’s what they get for reading a comedy blog written by a fat middle-aged bloke whose affection for grandiose words can’t disguise his lack of intellectual rigour, and (b) they can just piss off, right? 

NHS Scotland is completely devolved

Well, it’s independent, if you don’t mind me being picky.  Has been from the very start. Unlike the English NHS, where vested interests such as the BMA kicked up a fuss, creating the Scottish NHS was like pushing at an open door, a natural development of the existing framework of health provision, and Nye Bevan was too smart to mess with that.

Of course, the Scottish Government has no control over its funding, unless it wants to provoke a refugee crisis in Carlisle by exercising its booby-trapped “tax-raising powers”. Swinney’s magic abacus can achieve only so much if the Cameron/Osborne nexus of evil shrinks the overall purse. 

And NHS Scotland independence lasts, as does the whole kit and caboodle of devolution, only as long as the UK Government wills it.  Baby-Face Burnham, for one, is on record as saying he’d like health policies that are “consistent across England, Scotland and Wales”, so who fancies a game of Russian roulette at the 2015 General Election?

Nobody’s suggesting dismantling the Barnett Formula 

Uh huh.  Apart from swathes of the English public stirred up by the mercenary tarts of the London-based press.  Or various purple-faced politicians in other parts of the UK, who I’m sure are not shaking their fists, but merely trying to empty an invisible bottle of ketchup.

NHS England funding is going up, not down

This one is actually true, as far as my muddled brain can make out.  But, as they say in Stock Market offer documents, well aware that goggle-eyed investors won’t pay any attention, past performance is no guide to the future.  It beggars belief that the Tories, never knowingly out-Scrooged, would have devised the present upheaval in the NHS if it weren’t going to result in spending less money over time.

That it hasn’t yet produced that outcome may well be down to the initial splurge of private contracts turning out to be a bit of a shambles.  Top of the list, and possibly tip of the iceberg, is the recently-reported botching of a series of cataract operations by a cowboy outfit in the West Country.  Don’t worry, folks, the part of the local NHS that still remains has donned its white hat and come galloping to the rescue, but Mr Taxpayer has had to say cheerio to an arm and a leg in the process.

Basing the security of Barnett Formula funding on the continuing incompetence of the Tories?  Hmmm, not as bad a shout as one might think, but the law of averages says even Jeremy Hunt can’t make a dog’s dinner of everything forever. He can’t, surely?

Whatever happens to funding, privatisation of NHS Scotland isn’t inevitable

No, of course it isn’t, as long as you ignore the angry-looking cloud on the horizon called TTIP  - “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership”, I’m advised, although if you prefer to call it “Terrible Treatment, Inflated Profits” I won’t stand in your way. 

TTIP is an agreement that the EU, in one of its inexplicable bouts of corporate tummy-tickling, has concluded with the USA to “liberalise” trade.  Blowing away the flimsy construct of democracy, it forces member states to place their public services open to competition from American multinationals, in return for what looks suspiciously like bugger-all, though I’m sure it’s covered somewhere in infinitesimally small print.  The transformation, needless to say, is irreversible, unless you’re Peter Capaldi and can remember where you’ve parked your police box.

It doesn’t apply in cases where there’s an existing state monopoly.  An independent Scotland, starting with the NHS as it’s currently administered, could make a rock-solid case for exemption.  However, if we remained part of the UK, and therefore not a “state” which could aspire to any sort of monopoly, that would be tantamount to painting a bloody great target on our backs.  With Hunt and his fellow clowns busily pimping the NHS as the new Klondike, any escape route would be well and truly kyboshed. 

Of course, this all becomes academic if Westminster slashes our pocket money and forces us to put the NHS entirely through the mincer.  In that event nobody will care about any pinstriped vultures enjoying a tasty scavenge, because we’ll all be too busy trying to ward off sickness with herbs and superstition.

Folks, NHS Scotland isn’t perfect, although as a consumer of health services on both sides of the border I like the cut of its jib.  But I’d like it to stay ours, to be run by people we can hold to account and ultimately controlled by politicians we elect and, if necessary eject. 

That may happen whichever way we vote in September, or it may not.  If I had a crystal ball, I’d be spending my time at Ladbroke’s growing disgustingly rich instead of wasting your time here.  But looking at the direction of the wind, and the various aromas it’s wafting our way, it’s not too difficult to judge the balance of probabilities.

Vote Yes, Scotland.  For the good of your health.

If you’d like to find out more about the NHS arguments in the referendum debate from people who aren’t fat middle-aged blokes whose affection for grandiose words can’t disguise their lack of intellectual rigour, may I recommend the following:

Any YouTube video featuring Dr Philippa Whitford!

NHYes: Part 1

If you’re sick or thinking of becoming sick, it’s been an interesting few days in the referendum debate.  

The Scottish NHS, previously noted for being clamped to a giant spinning wheel in BBC Scotland’s knife-throwing sideshow, was thrust centre stage as the shining star of Alex Salmond’s Second Declaration of Arbroath.  It instantly became a certainty, barring the discovery of another massive secret oilfield, to produce the mother of all rammies in 2014’s other big Holyrood sequel, Great Debate II.
“Scaremongering!” spluttered the dismal Unionist chorus, twisting their faces into a lame impression of The Scream and hoping the wind wouldn’t change. To be fair, they do own the exclusive rights to the politics of fear, so they may have been over-egging things in the hope of getting away with a claim for royalties.  Jim Murphy’s balloons and Irn-Bru crates don’t come cheap, although he’s usually able to skimp a bit on amplification.

It’s heartening, albeit weird, to see official Yes representatives generating a flash of brimstone, instead of sheltering under a blue and white umbrella, smiling meekly as the No campaign poo-chucking brigade lets fly.  But, frankly, it’s not all that controversial to predict a financial squeeze on the basis of the UK Government’s declared NHS policy affecting a pre-determined funding formula with “Consequentials” in its title.  Even if it were, it would be an angel’s kiss compared with Better Together’s lurid tales of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rampaging through Mrs McIntosh’s front garden if she even thinks about putting her cross in the Yes box.

Scottish Labour politicians, eagerly lapping up their daily Conservative Central Office briefings, seem to be under the impression that all is hunky-dory with the NHS in England.  Presumably they believe the modern-day Jarrow marchers are a genetically programmed long-distance walking club.  And no doubt they regard the concerns expressed by their own Shadow Health Secretary at Westminster, Andy Burnham, as his adolescent neurons getting in a tizz because he’s overdosed on Coco-Pops and 7-Up.

If a Tory shakes your hand, it’s only to draw you closer so he can knee you in the groin. So when in 2010 the incoming government trumpeted the ring-fencing of NHS England spending, there was a soul-sucking sense of inevitability about the subsequent squandering of truckloads of dosh on a cack-handed, bulldozing reorganisation that they’d specifically ruled out before the election. The pathetic Lib Dems, mere novices in the art of lying in manifestos, or at least in being found out, could only gawp in admiration as they stood holding the Tories’ jackets.

The Health and Social Care Act 2012, which should have been sub-titled “Payback Time For Our Chums Who Bought Shares In Healthcare Providers”, opened up a whole new vista of exploitation for private suppliers.  Smirking wretch Jeremy Hunt and his successors no longer had a legal obligation to provide universal health care in England, so there was no point in suing them, although the Coalition took the precaution of also knee-capping Legal Aid, just in case.  On the positive side, the NHS postcode lottery was open for business, if any thrill-seeking punks felt lucky!

The hyperactive world of Twitter went into a ferocious ferment, but the BBC felt queasy about upsetting the government before charter renewal, and the press couldn’t find an embarrassing celebrity angle, so the public remained blissfully ignorant of the privatisation earthquake.  They could still visit their GP without some cadaverous accountant eyeing up their credit card, and the NHS branding remained in place, like a modesty blanket covering up embarrassing naughty bits, so they didn’t realise that the smiley practice nurse who’d always looked after their foot problems had morphed into a stressed-out, demoralised operative of Bunions R Us plc.

The elephant in the room, which is now wearing a pink tutu and threatening to tap-dance, is that the caring imperative and the profit motive are uneasy bedfellows.  If you’re a typical rapacious capitalist bastard, how can you resist the temptation to skimp on non-essentials, such as the well-being of the patient?  Before you know it, you’re sending woozy post-operative customers home with a one-size-fits-all “DIY care package”: a small brown bag containing two tabs of Anadin, the address of a local pharmacist, a lapel badge saying “Mustn’t Grumble” and, in extreme cases, a pearl-handled revolver.

And in a world where corporate troughers just can’t get enough gold bath-taps, how long can the “free at the point of use” principle survive?  Some think tanks, presumably populated by piranha fish, are already mooting prices of £10 or even £25 for a chat with the local quack. 

Or how about introducing charges for A & E, if the triage nurse deems your injuries to be your fault because you’re a trifle pished?  If people can’t afford them, no doubt some smarty-pants entrepreneur will step into the breach with self-help booklets such as How To Remove An Axe From Your Own Head, Gangrene: Pros And Cons and 101 Uses For A Severed Arm.

So far, so grotesque.  But how does all of this affect Scotland, which, as indignant windbags on the Holyrood opposition benches keep reminding us, has had control over its own NHS from the outset? 

Naturally, I'm simply itching to tell you, but as it's a contentious issue, with steam constantly whistling out of Better Together's ears, I'd better go and put on some Kevlar first, so let's take a comfort break.   Off you go, make a cup of tea, have a smoke, rearrange the Yes stickers in your window, block a couple of people on Twitter and then feel free to come back and join me for the answers in Part 2 right here.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Shale of the Century

I'm off enjoying the delights of the Edinburgh Fringe, including the excellent 3000 Trees, so you'll have to wait until the weekend for any new material!

To tide you over, since fracking is back in the news with Fergus Ewing opposing (for all that'll be worth) the removal of your right to object to rich bastards blowing up your back garden, here's another piece from the back catalogue, written in December 2012.  It's a bit indyref lite, I'm afraid, but I was living in leafy Berkshire at the time, so I knew nothing about anything.


As the 2011 census officially proved, in the North the weather is always filthy, no-one can understand a word people are saying and the guacamole tastes alarmingly of peas. This is excellent news for the Government, which can now proceed with its proposals to blow Lancashire up.

Lib Dem Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Davey’s reversal today of the ban on shale gas “fracking” was based on two principles. Firstly, he’d spent the last few weeks tied up in a lonely Westminster toilet cubicle being kneed in the groin by his Tory colleagues. Secondly, according to a hastily-commissioned report, fracking had indeed caused a couple of earth tremors in Blackpool, but it had been an accident and, for God’s sake, it was only Blackpool.

As you’d expect from his demeanour, that of a man swimming in shark-infested waters without wearing any trunks, Ed is a cautious soul. He therefore announced that there would be “strict seismic controls”. If any future fracking activity produces a tremor, the men will knock off for a fag break and dispatch an ice-cream van round the district to appease everyone with jolly tunes and 99s. If, upon resumption, the ground continues to shake, the Government will blame it on an obesity epidemic caused by too many ice-creams. If there are any fatalities, fatuous whitewash inquiries have already been pencilled in for 2019, 2026 and 2033.

There’s little consensus on the effects of fracking, largely because the conversation is being conducted by vested interests, two feet apart, yelling into megaphones. Does it pollute the air and cause headaches and breathing difficulties? Maybe, but so does Jeremy Hunt, whose smirking gob seems immune to even the strongest dose of Ibuprofen. Does it contaminate drinking water? Well, not directly, but perhaps methane naturally present in the rock “finds its way” into water supplies because of vibrations during drilling. Boil it for a week and sieve it through a pair of tights and you’ll probably be all right.

Fracking has been established for decades in the USA, in wide open spaces where, apart from one or two isolated cults awaiting Armageddon in armoured compounds, few people live. Just as well, since the big insurance companies would rather dig out their intestines with a spoon than offer cover to locals. Will UK insurers adopt a more benign attitude when Mrs McDonald’s B&B on the seafront at Crail collapses in a heap?  I’d like to convince you, but you may be enjoying a cup of tea, and if you laugh too much you may accidentally squirt it out of your nose.

One benefit of fracking US-style is that it appears to have brought domestic energy bills down. Naturally, the UK energy industry regards this as shocking negligence on the Americans’ part, and has sweated blood to ensure it can never happen here. As statutory underpinning, look out in the near future for a law that, if your supplier can’t put up prices annually by at least twice the rate of inflation, meter readers will be allowed to rob you at gunpoint, household wiring will have to be made of spaghetti and the only permitted lightbulbs will be in the shape of a pair of testicles.

American fracking installations ain’t pretty, even after you’ve got high by drinking the contaminated local water, so what about the problem of industrial scarring over here? Thankfully, comprehensive surveys have revealed that no-one in the South East actually gives a toss, so the political heat is off. Isle of Man residents have indicated that they may feel compelled to rip out their own eyes rather than gaze on the horror of England's North West coastline, but they have lots of money and can surely afford to erect a giant screen all along their eastern shore, with pictures of flowers and bunny rabbits.

Will today’s announcement affect the chances of the UK meeting its carbon emission targets? Of course not, because when you start out at “nil” there’s nowhere further to go. But I do think the targets have now got to the stage where they deserve their own special soundtrack. Anyone able to lay hands on an old 78 recording of The Laughing Policeman?

In the end, it’s about injecting oomph into the economy as well as sand, water and chemicals into a chunk of rock. If fracking is allowed to flourish, first in the North West, then in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, think of all the engineers who will flood across from Eastern Europe to knock the stuffing out of the landscape! After a hard day at the well-face, they’ll flock to whatever local pubs are still in business and carouse the night away. Across the nation, that represents an opportunity to employ at least two or three extra minimum-wage bar staff, and maybe even an extra cleaner. Perhaps we have to destroy Austerity Britain in order to save it.

There are, of course, sizeable shale gas deposits underneath parts of the Home Counties as well. However, there’s little prospect of things shortly shaking in Surrey, or crumbling in Kent. Reckless, blinkered and slightly vindictive the Government may be, but they aren’t bloody stupid.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The White-Crested Buffoon

Just for a bit of fun while I'm away enjoying the delights of the M62 corridor with friends in West Yorkshire -  lots of rib-tickling jibes about border posts, ooh what thrills - here's a piece I published in my "not-so-Scottish" blog This Time It's Personal back in December 2013 about Boris Johnson. 

It's my way of thanking Boris for giving the Yes campaign a timely shot in the arm by declaring that he intends to stand in the 2015 General Election as part of his inexorable rise to power.  There's nothing like the thought of a trichologically disastrous, elephantine Bullingdon alumnus with no "off" switch lording it over us to concentrate the minds of the undecided!


To the American lady who asked, yes, we do have television in Scotland. Angus the postie has one in his living room and invites the rest of the village round once a week to watch Strictly over porridge and bannocks. We sometimes have to thump the set a few times, and when it’s blowing a gale wee Jamie has to shin up the drainpipe and hug the dish, but we usually arrive at a tolerable black and white picture.

Occasionally, when Angus is feeling generous because he’s come across a postal order in the mail, he passes round the Famous Grouse and conversations break out. If it doesn’t all deteriorate into a big punch-up, the TV often stays on until the evening news, and we’re treated to a grainy glimpse of events in the small south eastern enclave where what happens actually matters a damn. It’s here that, surprisingly often, a white-crested buffoon comes galumphing across the screen, typically on a bike creaking under his weight, invariably trailing in his wake the debris of another public relations disaster. Why, look, it’s Boris.

Boris. Choreography by Nellie the Elephant, witticisms by Cicero, personality by Teflon, coiffure by Salon Ken Dodd. There aren’t many political figures who can be almost universally identified simply by a given name. “Maggie” can, likewise her idol whom she referred to as “Winston”, then maybe there’s “Bibi” over in the Promised Land, and “Saddam” over in the Rogues’ Gallery. I’m sorry, Mr Blair, “Sleazebag” doesn’t count. It’s a perfect fit, but you have too many competitors.

Boris. He actually has three given names, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel. “Alexander” means “protector of men”, “Boris” means “warrior” and “de Pfeffel” means “extremely bad choice of letters in Countdown”.

He’s emerged from sundry legitimate and clandestine couplings over the centuries as an exotic mixture of Turkish, American, German, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and what Irish commentators refer to as “gobshite”. This has enabled him to survive the standard Eton College process, where they wrench out your soul with massive forceps and upholster the cavity with a wad of superiority, and still have a great deal of his individuality intact. Now he’s a half-toff who plays whiff-whaff but appeals to riff-raff.

Boris. The blonde bombshell who once succeeded Michael Heseltine as MP for Henley-on-Thames and whose tub-thumping demagoguery now produces in Tory bosoms the frisson only Hezza could previously stir. At the Glasgow Empire, in its heyday, his rhetorical flourishes would have earned him some succinct travel advice wrapped around a brick. But at party conferences his speeches are the hottest ticket in town, with local entrepreneurs flogging oven gloves to queues of Conservatives stretching as far as the eye can tolerate.

What are his ambitions? Under the Tories’ unique equal opportunities scheme, being a clot has never been a barrier to attaining high office, and anyway that unruly mop clearly conceals the zinging about of more than a few neurons. Right now they may be busy composing iambic tetrameters in Ancient Greek, but it would be easy to redeploy them on greasy pole climbing strategies for bulky blokes.

BoJo’s no bozo, although he assiduously promotes that fictional impression. Climb all the way up to the attic of his well-appointed townhouse and I bet you’ll find his portrait hidden there, staring out at you with a face set with hard-jawed, flint-eyed ambition and perfectly groomed hair.

He is, after all, the only high-profile Tory in charge of something whom the electorate actually meant to put there. In 2012 the non-entity currently chairing his party, a “Grant Shapps”, claimed that Boris lacked many of the necessary skills to lead party or country, a judgment comparable to a chihuahua telling a giraffe it needs a stepladder. Sorry, Grant old bean, but Boris is well capable of putting your assertion to the test, especially since he has in his spin-doctoring corner Lynton Crosby, admittedly no more than the latest poor man’s Karl Rove to infest British political life, but nevertheless Australian and so militantly unacquainted with the art of losing.

To Scots, Boris is rollicking good fun to watch, but is he relevant? Of course, like other taxpayers in the “provinces”, we’re pouring money into the giant suction machine of which he’s the figurehead as it drains the lifeblood from the rest of the economy. But it’s nothing new to have our dosh siphoned into vanity infrastructure projects south of Watford while we patiently wait for life-threatening sections of the A9 to be upgraded to a dual carriageway.

From a Scottish referendum perspective, the slogan should clearly be “Vote No, Get Boris (Some Time In The Not-Too-Distant Future)”, but I know Better Together is opposed to scaremongering, so I won’t annoy them with that. Anyway, at the moment Boris doesn’t even have a seat in the Commons, although I’ll bet Lynton has a dirty-tricks file of filthy rumours about certain party colleagues who do.

Yet what if UKIP rips the Tories a new one in the European elections, or David Cameron is discovered in a stable, in a compromising position with Rebekah Brooks’ horse? Will Boris be prepared to allow the 2015 election to fall to Ed’s Charisma Bypass party, potentially exiling him to Boris Island until 2020? Or will he bin the Mayor’s job and throw down the leadership gauntlet faster than Kim Jong Un editing his Christmas list?

In the event of a Yes vote for Scotland, I’d certainly buy tickets for independence negotiations pitting Boris against the forensic skills of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. If it’s No, I’d be less enthused about Boris becoming the charming but ruthless face of the next round of austerity. He may have been bumming on lately about his “I Heart Scotland” feelings, but the reality is that, when it came to it, he wouldn’t piss on us if we were on fire. That’s a great pity, because it would be fun watching him try, and getting his wobbly bits accidentally caught in the zip.

Not as much fun, however, as it would be going round to Angus’s cottage and watching Boris and Ann Widdecombe do Strictly.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Great Debate

Tuesday. 43 days of campaigning to go. A big night out for a hand-picked and somewhat feisty audience.

As The Great Debate rumbled inexorably towards our living rooms, most folk agreed that Alex Salmond was the overwhelming favourite and Alistair Darling would end up taking his bum-cheeks home in a carrier bag.
So unquestioned was this outcome that Monday’s Telegraph tried to reframe the debate as a bizarre handicap event.  To earn even a draw, Salmond would be required to rebut each of Darling’s arguments in hilarious rhyming couplets, then kick him in the nuts and dance around his writhing frame singing Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia without at any point appearing to be a bully.  Meanwhile, if Darling could just remember his name, tie one shoelace and count backwards from 10, the victor’s garland would be his and he’d be chaired from the stage accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus.
It was clearly a set-up.  It couldn’t have been a more obvious trap if it had consisted of a luminous arrow pointing to a pile of carefully-arranged twigs beside a neon sign saying, “OVER-CONFIDENT ELEPHANTS THIS WAY.”  As the Twittersphere crackled with Yes supporters’ accounts of Darling being spotted in Morningside looking nervous, or outside his house trying to rescue his prompt cards from his dog’s jaws, or on the verge of the A9 hitching a lift to Caracas, I found it hard to stop myself grabbing people by the lapels and shouting, “Listen to me! I may be a wild-eyed old man with soup stains on his cardigan, but this is hubris and we must all beware!”

Notwithstanding Nicola’s triumphant romp through early skirmishes with pussycat Michael Moore and puffball Alistair Carmichael, TV political debates are circuses that rarely yield a conclusive result.  Even George W Bush, a man in whose cranium thoughts often die of loneliness, was able to find a way of getting through them unscathed. 

Labour politicians possess all the tools to do likewise:  a complete absence of shame, turbo-charged mouths and unhindered access to Jackie Baillie’s Big Book of Fibs.  You wouldn’t put Alistair Darling in charge of a bank even if it had the word “bottle” before it, but he’s been an MP for 27 years, held five Cabinet posts and spent three years dodging staplers hurled by Gordon Brown, so maintaining a constant flow of drivel in high-pressure situations is second nature to him.

As a further incentive for Darling, tucked into his sock was a hand-written message from David Cameron, absent in Portugal on a sudden holiday, saying, “Just found enough oil in the Clair Field to bankroll London’s vanity projects for the next 50 years, so you’d better not foul this up, dipstick!”  Finally, in a dastardly piece of wrong-footing, he’d switched spectacle frames to disguise his truth-betraying facial tics. This raised the chilling prospect of one of his eyebrows escaping unobserved into the audience, but no doubt he considered that a price worth paying.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond’s gas was at such a low peep you wondered whether someone had stuffed a potato in the supply pipe.  Apart from a Paxmanesque multiple challenge of Darling’s tap-dancing around the words “Scotland isn’t a basket case” and “I agree with David Cameron”, and a rumbustious filleting of the former Chancellor’s wafer-thin credentials as a financial regulator, he seemed content to leave the attacking to his opponent.  During the prolonged currency inquisition, which I personally watched from behind the sofa with a paper bag over my head, this appeared to take rope-a-dope tactics rather too far.

Still, as wiser heads subsequently intoned to squeamish jellies like me, Salmond’s objective may have been to flip… sorry, turn the tedious “SNP are bullies” myth on its head, and give Darling ample opportunity to reveal himself as a hectoring, finger-pointing jackass.  If so, going by the ludicrously over-egged photo-montage on the front of Wednesday’s Daily Record, it worked a treat. 

More intriguingly, though largely ignored by the press and hotly disputed by nay-sayers on Twitter armed with snazzy but inconsequential graphs, a snap ICM poll immediately after the debate seemed to suggest that Yes had actually made a small gain amongst undecideds.  Great news, and I’m whooping inwardly with delight as I type this, but I still have the distinct feeling of watching my team scrape through after a penalty shoot-out, having spent the whole match booting the ball into the stand.

So, apart from the obvious lesson that watching political debates on TV is like voluntarily head-butting a porcupine, what did we learn from Tuesday’s confrontation?
  • If Kezia Dugdale, the doyenne of the Spin Room, is constantly encountering the currency issue on the doorstep, she must be canvassing a lot of forex traders.  The rest of us, frankly, are bored to the point of narcolepsy. 
  • Salmond patently has a Plan B amongst the options on page 110 of the White Paper, but he can’t explicitly disclose it any more than a poker player can start the betting with his cards pinned to his chest, face up.  I’d support a more crowd-pleasing technique for countering Darling’s patronising guff, such as asking him whether he believes any currency arrangement whatsoever can survive in an independent Scotland, or whether we should construct a mediaeval barter system and start stockpiling furs and trinkets. 
  • Debate Catchphrase Bingo cards urgently need updating to include Darling’s new sound-bite “barriers, borders and boundaries”.  However, the game will in any case probably be banned soon, once the authorities realise how many alcoholic poisoning cases resulted from Tuesday’s cliché-fest.
  • Alex, if you’re going to skewer Project Fear scaremongering, choose organ transplant availability, or continuing access to BBC programmes (what, people still want that?), or the entire contribution of Gordon Brown, who would be more honest if he gave up speaking in public, and just covered himself with a white bed-sheet and made blood-curdling noises.  Don’t waste valuable seconds, and the audience’s patience, on Andy Burnham’s schoolboy gags about driving on the right, or whatever weird space invasion messages Philip Hammond is receiving through his tin-foil hat. The flippancy and satire bit is my job.
  • Dinna mess wi’ Bernard Ponsonby. 
  • Darling doesn’t have a scooby about the Westminster parties’ promised “new powers”, which have now advanced to the stage of not being written on a classy parchment lined with explosives timed to detonate on 19 September. Amidst his frantic gabbling I thought I picked up some vague waffle about “income tax” and possibly “housing benefit”, although by that stage of the debate I’d moved off popcorn and on to hard liquor, so it’s hard to be sure.
  • Alistair, those body language training sessions that cost so much?  Hope they were on expenses, because otherwise, mate, you were done.
  • The abomination of frustration known as “STV Player” is stupendously unfit for purpose, although in a mediaeval barter system it could be exchanged for several tons of manure without anyone noticing.
Suitably tranquillised, I’ve watched parts of the debate again, and I’d rate it as too close to call.  It certainly wasn’t the mythical creature known as a Game-Changer, nor should it be when the real game is taking place, uninterrupted by heckling, on countless streets and doorsteps.  I fear it didn’t add greatly to the public’s knowledge, which given the inanity of some of Tuesday’s audience questions - on both sides - is probably an urgent priority.

That was a bulletin from the real world.  In mainstream media land, the No campaign is home and hosed, the Yes campaign is mired in despondency, Ian Davidson is busy getting the bayonets out, people can again say “Darling” and “genius” in the same sentence without busting a gut laughing, Salmond is about to get the sack any moment and the Telegraph is preparing an authoritative editorial calling for this silly referendum nonsense to be cancelled.

Actually, that’s fine.  Just as triumphalism on the Yes side produces a knot of foreboding in my stomach, triumphalism on the No side makes me intensely relaxed.  They think we’re toast, they’re coming to stick a fork in, and they don’t notice they’re only giving us a glimpse of the whites of their eyes.

First they ignored us, then they laughed at us, and now they’ve definitely come to fight us.  Remind me, what comes next….?