Monday, December 8, 2008

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Solutions to the Eurovision political voting problem

I went out of my way to defend Terry Wogan on the All Kinds of Everything blog yesterday (I know, I've got an unhealthy fixation with that place), so it was a bit disappointing to hear him make such fatalistic remarks about the future of the Eurovision Song Contest in his commentary tonight. If he's ready to call it a day, that's his prerogative, but the idea that the entirety of western Europe is going to join him in doing so is a bit melodramatic. I wouldn't deny for a moment there's a serious problem with political voting, but the irony is that this is the year a significant first step was made towards addressing that issue. The new rules that applied at the semi-final stage successfully produced a fair balance between western and eastern qualifiers for the first time in years, so now all that's needed is a similar innovation to sort out the problem in the final. Off the top of my head, I can think of four possibilities that would provide at least a partial solution.

1) Allow each country to award points to fifteen different entries, instead of the current ten. This wouldn't have been feasible in the past, but now that only the top marks are read out, it would no longer slow proceedings down at all. Of course, under this system the top points would still be awarded on a neighbourly basis, but it's reasonable to assume the lower set of points would be distributed more on merit, leading to a fairer overall outcome. An example to illustrate - if a country happened to finish twelfth out of twenty-five in every single televote, under the current system it would finish last with no points at all. That simply can't be considered a fair reflection of the result people are actually voting for.

2) Allow each country to award points to five eastern countries, and five western countries. This would have the advantage of still allowing viewers to decide the result, and still to vote for whichever country they like - indeed it would be a strong incentive to cast two votes - but it would also, at a stroke, neutralise the in-built advantage eastern countries currently enjoy.

3) The BBC could surrender its 'Big Four' status in exchange for something more worthwhile - separate representation in the contest for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would be the right thing to do on its own merits, but it would also produce a new British Isles voting bloc that could balance out its counterparts in the Balkans, the Baltic, Scandinavia, and the ex-Soviet Union. And if anyone tells you Scotland would never award high marks to England, I can tell you for certain they're wrong. Apart from anything else, about 8% of the population is English-born.

4) Revert to a 50/50 weighting for the jury and televote. Probably the simplest solution, in that it's been done before, at least in some countries.

On the contest itself, I was a bit disappointed to see Russia run away with it - as I said before Serbia, Portugal and Albania were my favourites, but I would still have been much happier to see Greece, Ukraine or Armenia take the crown than Russia. Ah well, it's all a matter of personal taste at the end of the day. At least I had the satisfaction of seeing my prediction turn out to be close to the money, although it wasn't exactly a tough one to call this year! And at least the song that was 'clearly the worst in the whole contest' (© Keith Mills 2008) somehow managed to finish 5th out of 43 entries. Wonder how it managed that?

Belgrade boasts

"Belgrade is the city where it is IMPOSSIBLE to sleep!"

So why did Zeljko have to urge everyone to stay awake halfway through?

"Belgrade is the city where you're not allowed to be alone!"

Call me a hopeless intovert, but that sounds like a grim kind of town to me.

"The interval act does weddings AND funerals!"

A band might normally expect an increase in bookings after playing to 150 million people, but in this particular case...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Prediction for Eurovision final (Saturday)

There's an episode of the 1980s sitcom Just Good Friends where Jan Francis' character repeatedly tells Paul Nicholas there's "something missing" in their relationship without specifying what, which eventually results in an exasperated Nicholas screaming "WHAT IS THIS THING?". I felt a bit like that today when trying to make sense of the reports of Jelena Tomašević's performance in the final round of rehearsals. The most frequent comment was that she was in good voice, but that there was "something" missing. WHAT IS THIS THING?

Even leaving aside this missing thing that everyone seems utterly incapable of articulating (maybe Andy Abraham's nightmare vision has already come to pass), I was always a bit sceptical that Serbia could quite pull it off. In my view, it's definitely the class song of the field, but then I thought the same about Serbia & Montenegro in 2004 (they came second) and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2006 (they came third). So my prediction for Serbia is top three, but without any embarrassing need for Zeljko Joksimovic to present the trophy to himself. ("Great song, Zelkjo." "Thanks, Zeljko, you did a great job presenting too. And I love what you've done with your hair.")

But if not Serbia, then who? The bookies seem to agree (although they've been spectacularly wrong before) that the only other countries in serious contention are Russia, Ukraine, Greece, Sweden, and possibly Armenia. Personally, I just can't see Sweden winning - Hero is slightly higher quality than their usual fare, but it's still sticking to the same basic formula that frequently delivers them fifth or sixth place but no higher. I think Greece and Armenia will similarly come up short, so that leaves a battle between Ukraine and Russia. If that's the case, I feel Russia might just sneak it, if only because it cunningly draws the ice skating and violin-loving demographic into the pool of potential televoters (I'm being flippant).

So my prediction is :

Winners - Russia
2nd - Ukraine
3rd - Serbia

Potential dark horses :

Norway (aka 'clearly the worst song in the contest', © Keith Mills 2008)

Mr Mills' musings also lead me to have an even greater interest in the fate of the UK this year. He confidently stated at a ridiculously early stage (when many songs had yet to even be selected) that Andy Abraham was 'certain' to finish in the bottom five, and was highly likely to finish last. I responded that I felt he could achieve the UK's best result since Jessica Garlick, which would mean a top fifteen placing. Unfortunately, I made that prediction before the UK received its lousy place in the draw, so I'm less confident than I was, but to be honest I'd settle for top twenty - since that would be sufficient to show up Mr Mills' "certainty" for the closed-minded nonsense it always was. Here's hoping.

My issues with this year's Eurovision contestants - no. 8

Andy Abraham of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
(just in case anyone thinks he's representing 'England')

"Even if the world stops loving
I could never stop loving you
Even if the sun stops rising
I still wanna wake up with you
Even if all words lost their meaning
You would understand I love you"

I'm not sure Andy fully appreciates the sheer horror of the picture he's painting here. For starters, many would argue that our facility for language is the one and only thing that separates us from the animals, but it seems not for much longer if 'words have lost all meaning'. Furthermore, if the sun really did stop rising, crops would fail, and we'd have a major famine in store. Which all begs the question - who exactly is this poor woman that Andy is waking up beside, and what God-awful state will she be in as she meets his 'loving' gaze? Let's face it, she'll certainly be in dire need of a square meal, and at a more basic level, given that it'll be pitch dark will she even be sure that she's woken up in the first place? Let's also not forget that she'll be going through the unimaginable emotional anguish of knowing that her dearest friends and family have utterly forsaken her, since they have, along with the rest of the entire human race (save our Andy) lost their capacity for love.

But fear not, because in spite of these rather serious misfortunes, and in spite of the fact that she'll be in the arms of a man spouting complete gibberish (words have lost all meaning, remember), she'll just somehow know what he feels for her in his sweet little heart. So that'll completely make up for global calamity, then. There's always a silver lining.

My issues with this year's Eurovision contestants - no. 7

Maria Haukaas Storeng of Norway

"Love can be hard sometimes
Yes, it can catch you off guard like bad crimes"

Hmmm, this is problematical on just all sorts of levels. First of all, Maria seems to be drawing a curious distinction here between 'bad' crimes on the one hand and, well, 'good' crimes on the other. What are all these good crimes? Perhaps I shouldn't dismiss this out of hand, after all I'm instantly conjuring up an image of Tony Benn with pipe in mouth, arms flailing about like only Rory Bremner can, saying "oooh, think of the suffragettes, they had to break the law". So, in the interests of fairness, I've taken this issue very seriously and done some painstaking research, ie. I googled it. And, indeed, it seems there are some things that are against the law which are, if not exactly 'good', then certainly relatively harmless. For instance, in Miami, it is strictly illegal to impersonate a bison, while in Missouri you could find yourself hauled before a court for shaving without a licence. So presumably these are the sorts of things Maria has in mind for her 'good' crimes, while the bad ones are obviously things like murder, rape, arson, and grievous bodily harm. But while being randomly murdered or having your house burnt down could certainly be said to "catch you off guard", does that entirely capture the gravity of the situation? I think not. On the other hand, it might just capture the lesser gravity of being the victim of an unprovoked bison impersonation, so in my view Maria should really be singing "love can catch you off guard like those not-so-bad crimes they have in Miami".

(Phew, I thought I'd never get to the end of that paragraph).

To be fair to Maria, though, she offers a far more robust and convincing argument later on in the song -

"If it ain't right, it is wrong"

Let's face it, the girl's got a point. Which is more than anyone's ever said about John Barrowman.

My issues with this year's Eurovision contestants - no. 6

Teräsbetoni of Finland

"Missä miehet ratsastaa
Siellä lampaat ei voi laiduntaa"

"Where the men ride
There the sheep can't pasture"

This is undeniably informative, but does such commendable attention to detail really lend itself to a situation where you're got just three minutes to impress the whole of Europe? Maybe it does, and if Finland win tomorrow, I'll seriously consider entering a song next year that takes regular detours to ponder the latest fascinating evidence on the causes of peat-bog erosion in eighteenth century Kazakhstan.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Do you know, I actually found myself punching the air when Portugal were named as the final qualifier. I had to remind myself I've never even been to Portugal, but it was my second-favourite song of the night, and I would have been heartbroken if it hadn't made it through. When there was only one spot in the final remaining, I honestly believed it was going to Malta.

And as for my favourite Albania - well I'm obviously rubbish at predictions, but on the plus side there is some justice in this world after all! My dream result for Saturday would now be a Serbian victory, with Portugal and Albania also in the top ten. And a top fifteen finish for Andy Abraham and the UK, if only for the pleasure of watching the sainted Keith Mills being forced to eat his words - again.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Prediction for second Eurovision semi-final (Thursday)

I probably should quit while I'm ahead on the prediction front, but here goes nothing (as my Mum would say). In no particular order, here are the ten countries I think will qualify for the final tomorrow night -

Macedonia (or FYROM if you're Greek)

The first thing that may leap out at you is that I've omitted one of the frontrunners for the Eurovision crown this year, in the shape of Switzerland. It's strange to find myself doing that, because I think it's a fantastic song, but it seems to have been completely drained of its dynamism in the two rehearsals I've seen. I'm still a little unsure about its prospects, however, because I haven't seen today's dress rehearsal, and frustratingly the reports of how Paolo got on are somewhat contradictory. Belarus probably wouldn't feature in my list on the merit of the song alone, but it's there because a) the choreography and visual impact of the performance is superb, and b) even with the new rules Belarus will still have one or two natural allies to boost its points tally.

The other point of uncertainty is what you might call the Kate Ryan factor - how many times have we seen a western European country with a superb song, well performed, yet inexplicably failing to qualify? It's not too difficult to imagine that scenario playing out again for, say, Iceland or Malta - especially since the Maltese entry is penned by the same Borg/Vella combination that came a cropper with Olivia Lewis last year. However, my instinct is that both countries will sneak through - perhaps assisted by the new jury vote.

And who will I be voting for? Call me peculiar, but it's definitely Albania for me. As I mentioned the other night, I only vote for songs performed exclusively in a language other than English, but even if I didn't follow that rule I'd do the same thing anyway. It's incredible to think it was way back at Christmas that I first had the chance to fall in love with Olta Boka's beautiful song. I've tried not to let my personal regard for it cloud my judgement in terms of its prospects tomorrow, but if there's any justice at all in this world...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dustin's Demise is Down to his Diabolical Diction

The TV commentary box isn't necessarily always the first port of call for incisive analysis on the Eurovision Song Contest, but its occupants did make one telling point last night, right after Dustin the Turkey posed the poignant question "did I win?". Caroline Flack observed "I didn't understand a word of that", to which Paddy O'Connell replied "well, I heard something about a wig." This was surely the rather fundamental flaw in Ireland's approach from the word go - what's the use of a joke entry if hardly anyone can actually make out the jokes? Thinking back to when I first heard the track two months ago, I had to resort to the text of the lyrics before I could understand about two-thirds of what Dustin was saying - and I'm a Scot. What chance has your average Azerbaijani got?

My issues with this year's Eurovision contestants - no. 5

Morena of Malta

"Spy One to Spy Four
I’ve deciphered the code, yeah…
Vodka – that’s the secret word
Vodka – and they want it so bad
Vodka – I’ve deciphered the code"

That's a tremendous achievement, Morena, congratulations. Just one small thing though - and brace yourself for some grim news at this point - you've just won a destination in the centre of our resident enigma's heart.

Weakest joke of the evening from the Eurovision hosts

I imagined myself being here all night trying to work that one out, but then Zeljko and Jovana came up with this, which I think is without question in a league all of its own -

"Give me five."
(She gives him high-five)
"No, I meant five envelopes."

And what on earth was Jovana wittering on about when she told Novak Djokovic that he was facing brighter lights in the hall than he would in Paris? Did no-one think to point out to her that they tend to play the French Open in daylight hours?

I don't want to blow my own trumpet, but...

Since Keith Mills is, with his customary humility, busily awarding himself a royal pat on the back for correctly predicting all ten qualifiers tonight, I may as well point out that I achieved the same feat. Actually, I think my own accuracy should count for more, if only because at no point in the last two months have I ever made the (now demonstrably bizarre) claim that Norway is "clearly the worst song in the contest"! Keith really can't be let off the hook about that, because while Maria's performance has undoubtedly become more polished over the course of the rehearsals, at the end of the day it's still exactly the same 'appalling' song she started out with. As Keith has noted himself in previous years "you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear", so I think that stands as pretty conclusive proof that Norway never had a sow's ear to begin with. Face it, Keith, your radar was way off, however much you've tried to row back in recent days - and I've noticed a few signs of you trying to do the same with Andy Abraham. Now there's a "slight chance" that he won't finish last, apparently. Such generosity. Doubtless if he finishes in the top ten, Keith will somehow trumpet that as yet another "correct prediction".

OK, rant over. For now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prediction for first Eurovision semi-final (Tuesday)

In no particular order, here are the ten countries I think will qualify for the final tomorrow night -


I've based this partly on the songs, partly on what I've seen and heard of the rehearsals, and partly on the familiar political voting patterns that I still expect to have a huge impact in spite of the new format. Probably the biggest call I've made is that I don't think Ireland's temptingly edible representative will quite make the cut, but that may prove to be more wishful thinking than anything else.

And the question I don't hear you all asking - who would I vote for? (This is hypothetical, because living in the UK I don't get a vote until Thursday). You might assume Norway, given the way I've been championing Maria over the last few days, but unfortunately I have my own personal rule that I only vote for countries that sing entirely in a language other than English. I suspect that would lead me to vote for San Marino - more in hope than expectation, as you can see from the list above!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A post about Macedon...well, you know, that country Skopje is the capital city of

You know you've got an international dispute of some seriousness on your hands when even the lyrics of a novelty pop song form part of the battlefield. Ireland's Eurovision entry Dustin the Turkey has been forced to drop all mention of what I can only describe as 'a certain country in the Balkans', because he inexcusably referred to it as Macedonia, a name Greece does not recognise. Dustin tried to smoothe things over by pointing out that geography wasn't his strong point, and that he hadn't set out to offend any "Greeks or Macedonians". But surely the sensibilities of any right-thinking Greek will have been even more outraged by this calculated insult disguised as an apology? He singularly failed to say he didn't mean to offend any "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonians".

Couldn't they have yodelled for Scotland?

Having had a few days to reflect on the riot in Manchester on Wednesday, it strikes me that this is genuinely the first time in my life that I've ever felt a little bit ashamed to be Scottish. Wouldn't it be nice for the country to get a swift opportunity to present a more positive image of itself to the rest of Europe, and what better arena to do that than the carnival of fun, colour and refreshingly non-violent skulduggery that is the Eurovision Song Contest? Sadly, though, we've never been allowed to compete in our own right, and there's no sign of that situation changing any time soon. Personally, I've always sensed that if the BBC were willing to trade their 'Big 4' status in exchange for separate representation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that would be likely to gain some traction from other countries, but to date they've shown no sign of putting that case forward. That being the position, it's about time Scottish songwriters and artists at least started getting a fair crack of the whip for the UK at Eurovision - it's been a full two decades since a Scot last represented the country (Scott Fitzgerald). And, correct me if I'm wrong, but in the whole time since then it seems to me there have only been two Scottish acts in the UK national selection - City Chix with All About You a couple of years ago, and the unforgettably-titled Yodel in the Canyon of Love that almost upset the apple-cart for Katrina and the Waves in 1997. With 9% of the UK population, two songs in two decades is not exactly generous representation, is it?

This, ladies and gentlemen, has been an insight into the trials and tribulations of being a Eurovision fan and a Scottish nationalist all at the same time. I've suffered from the affliction for years...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Visual aid required

Gordon Brown was said today to be "relaxed" about the ruling that MPs are required to fully disclose their expenses. I think if his spokespeople want to make that line stick, they'll have to produce an artist's impression of what a relaxed Gordon Brown actually looks like. I can't be the only one struggling to conjure up the image.

Friday, May 16, 2008

There is always someone out there who will eat his words

Has the world just turned upside down? Keith Mills now says that Norway is a guaranteed qualifier for the Eurovision final. The reason is this amazing second rehearsal -

Wow. Maybe that'll persuade one or two of you to vote for Maria in our poll after all. Having said that, I've just seen what Ani Lorak's going to be wearing on the night and it's, well, short...

Forget Esctoday's "Big" Poll - this is the one that counts!

A warm welcome to everyone who's dropped by to take part in our very own death-or-glory Eurovision MegaPoll. So OK, I give in, I'm obviously not going to convince many of you to vote for Maria Haukaas Storeng, but how about voting for anyone outside your own country? Even if it's only a very nearby country? I mean, what hope is there for the human race if not even lust can transcend national boundaries? What terrible future lies in store for our children and grandchildren if as a species we fail to realise...OK, I'll shut up now.

Breaking News : Chicago at risk of nuclear attack

If you're interested in witnessing a textbook example of just how paranoid some of our right-wing, gun-loving cousins across the pond can be, cast an eye over this surreal little debate I took part in yesterday at the Althouse blog with somebody called Revenant (it's towards the bottom of the page). He/she genuinely seems to believe that the only thing preventing the American people from being massacred by their own government is the widespread ownership of guns. It is simply a fact of human nature, apparently, that if a government enjoys a monopoly on the possession of weapons, it will eventually turn them on its own people. So if the government has guns, the people must have guns, and that's the contract that preserves life and liberty in the good ol' U.S. of A. The only slight flaw in this theory is that, the last time I checked, the US government also has a massive stockpile of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons up its sleeve, while individual American citizens most certainly do not. Evidently we should be standing by for a surprise American nuclear attack on downtown Chicago any day now.

And fortunately nobody picked me up on my claim that the murder rate in France is ten times lower than in the UK - I double-checked that later and I was completely wrong! I'm also not sure how I ended up being quite so effusive about the virtues of the European Union - the existence of the Common Fisheries Policy must have temporarily slipped my mind...

My issues with this year's Eurovision contestants - no. 4

Regína Ósk of Iceland

"This is my life"

Life, perhaps, but not quite as we as know it. How else do we explain why a woman now looks like this...

...when just two short years ago she looked rather more like this?

Now try and tell me that's the same person. You can't, can you? It seems to me there is only one satisfactory explanation - that, horrified by her 2006 look, she decided to use up one of her twelve regenerations. On last week's episode of Doctor Who, Catherine Tate posed the obvious question "what do you call a Time Lord who's a girl?" Answer : a caterwauling Icelandic Eurovision megastar, that's what.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Without repetition, hesitation or deviation...

There was a fab new late-night game show on BBC2 tonight, presented by Gordon Brewer. The concept is deceptively simple - contestants have to answer exactly the same question over and over again, but without uttering the words "yes" or "no", while always remembering to work the phrase "no blank cheques" into each reply.

Tonight's impressive winner by a large margin was Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm.

My issues with this year's Eurovision contestants - no. 3

Ani Lorak of Ukraine

"Since I've lived in your shade
Every step that I made
Brought me nothing but zero"

Nothing but zero? That's a helluva lot of zero. Fair dos, the girl's got my sympathy, but there's still no excuse for the display of petulance we see later on -

"Baby, don't call me baby"

Round our way, we'd call that rank hypocrisy, baby.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I'll raise your 'no more than thirty'

I read the headline this morning - "Survey : women think Cameron is good in bed". How many women exactly, and how do they all know? Nick Clegg is going to be devastated.

Always listen to the ones you love

It must be obvious by now that I'm no fan of Gordon Brown, and I was certainly cheering Frank Field on during the 10p tax row. I have to say, however, that the tone of Field's latest pronouncement on the Prime Minister's long-term prospects was sanctimonious beyond belief. Any self-respecting Brownite (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) would be fully entitled to say in response, "I think Frank should speak to those he loves most, and those who love him, and heed their honest counsel as he reflects on whether he's let this childish personal grievance fester for just a little too long..."

My issues with this year's Eurovision contestants - no. 2

Ishtar of Belgium

"O julissi na jalini
O julissi na ditini
O bulo diti non slukati
Sestrone dina katsu

O julissi na ti buku
O julissi na katinu
Dvoranu mojani bidna
Marusi naja otcha tu"

Of course, if you're not a fluent Flemish speaker, it may not be immediately clear what my problem with these lyrics is. Indeed, from the way the Belgian audience are whooping in the clip, you'd be forgiven for thinking they're spontaneously responding to some ingeniously inspiring feel-good lyrics. So I've gone to the trouble of providing a full English translation below. It's important to note, however, that in one or two cases a particular word may not be translatable, because it has no meaning as such - ie. it's a nonsense word that does not actually exist in Flemish (or in any other language for that matter). Wherever this is the case, I have simply retained the original word in the text.

"O julissi na jalini
O julissi na ditini
O bulo diti non slukati
Sestrone dina katsu

O julissi na ti buku
O julissi na katinu
Dvoranu mojani bidna
Marusi naja otcha tu"

Are you starting to sense the issue here? The Dutch entry a couple of years ago implored us to realise "there is a way to understand without a language". Whatever that way is, I think we can safely say this isn't it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Labour is United

"No-one is saying Gordon Brown takes an identical position to Wendy Alexander," says Malcolm Chisholm in the Scotsman today. "That's what devolution is all about." What are you on about, Malcolm? Everyone knows their positions are identical. Gordon Brown does not want a referendum, and Wendy Alexander completely agrees with him. On the other hand, Wendy Alexander does want a referendum, and Gordon Brown completely agrees with her too. So now they agree with each other twice over. That's why Labour have emerged from last week more united than ever.

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. Labour is United.

And if you're still not convinced, David Cairns is available for further interviews.

There's always someone out there who will care for you...

The rehearsals for the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest are now well under way in Belgrade, and judging by the accounts that have come out from the hall, it seems that Norway was the clear winner from the batch that had their turn on day one (Sunday). We can tell this not only from the people who actually said the Norwegian singer Maria's performance was good, but more particularly from the report of a certain Mr. Keith Mills, who had previously said that it was "clearly the worst song in the contest" and that Maria is a "charmless and robotic performer". Intriguingly, he conceded yesterday that it's not quite "as bad" as before, and then hurriedly changed the subject onto what a large bottom Maria has. Hmmm. I think I've seen this pattern before with Keith when it suddenly dawns on him that he's called it wrong. Norway could be onto something here...

Yet another twist...

The spin in all the Sunday papers this morning was that Gordon Brown had finally won his tug-of-war with Wendy Alexander, and forced her into a humiliating climbdown, removing an independence referendum from Labour's agenda. But then, Wendy appears on the Politics Show for the second week in a row, and basically restates her original position that she is fairly likely to allow the SNP's referendum bill to pass in 2010. You really couldn't make this up...

On the same programme, David Cairns tells us that he's not the sort of politician to pretend that everything is wonderful when it quite obviously isn't. Funny that, because he's done an astonishingly good impersonation of exactly that sort of politician up till now - not least in the run-up to last year's Holyrood election fiasco.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

My issues with this year's Eurovision contestants - no. 1

Kalomira of Greece

"An open book, an open book, well I'm sorry I am not..."

Is it entirely healthy to be quite so bloody triumphant about not being an open book? I'm not a slightly ajar door but I don't feel the need to witter on about it endlessly. But the lassie's narcissism doesn't end there -

"Sometimes I'm acting like a lady
sometimes woman, sometimes baby"

Oooh, what an enigma. If it's all the same to you, love, I might forego all this "finding your secret combination" and "winning a destination in the centre of your heart" malarkey and just concentrate on having a chocolate hobnob instead. At least you know where you are with one of those.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


I suppose I should write something about Labour's total meltdown over an independence referendum, but I'm almost speechless (a state of being Gordon Brown must wish Wendy Alexander would emulate for a few days). It's extraordinary how this issue has crept up on everyone - in retrospect it all started with Wendy's appearance on the Politics Show, but as you can see from my post on Sunday, what she said on the subject of a referendum didn't even leap out at me as being the most noteworthy part of the interview.

On an unrelated political matter, I was saddened to hear of the death of Ray Michie, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute. She was one of the last of a dying breed of politicians who seemed almost too nice and principled to be in parliament (and I mean genuine nice, not any sort of 'Blair Babe' synthetic niceness).

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


In Scotland today, there are four notable languages spoken - Gaelic, Scots, English and Wendy-speak. Fortunately, the latter of these is the easiest to learn. It's almost identical to English (albeit with a strange system of tones and related facial expressions that are known to grate on non-native speakers), but with one key difference - if you want to convey that you don't have a bloody clue what the answer to a question is, you instead say "well what I'm saying to you is..." Witness the textbook examples on Newsnight Scotland tonight.

"Ms Alexander, do you want an independence referendum to be held in twelve months' time?"
"Well, what I'm saying to you is..."

"If Alex Salmond said let's compromise and have a referendum in 2010, that would be all right with you, would it?"
"Well, what I'm saying to you is..."

"So when do you want a referendum?"
"Well, what I'm saying to you is..."

Monday, May 5, 2008

What is the point of PR for the London Assembly?

On the day Boris Johnson becomes master of all he surveys, it's worth pondering this point. The principal rationale for proportional representation is 'majority rule', ie. no more compulsory ID cards imposed by New Labour on the basis of 35% of the popular vote, and no more unfettered Thatcherism on 42% of the vote. But how is the London voting system supposed to achieve that objective? The key problem is that for the only substantive decision the London assembly is permitted to take - to reject or amend the Mayor's budget - a two-thirds majority is required. This means the Mayor can be elected on a minority vote (quite probable on the supplementary vote system, since in practice most second preference votes are non-transferable) and then exercise total control provided that his party has a blocking minority in the assembly, which only requires 33% of the vote. All in all, the practical effect of 'electoral reform' in London looks suspiciously similar to first-past-the-post to me.

Stalin or Hitler?

It's the debate that's raged for decades - was Stalin worse than Hitler? Is communism intrinsically even more evil than fascism? This story settles the matter conclusively. It seems fascist countries could only win the Eurovision Song Contest by cheating. Communism may be responsible for the deaths of millions, but one thing is beyond dispute - it won its sole victory at the Eurovision by talent (ahem) alone.

I'm sure no-one needs reminding, but the song in question was "Rock me, baby" by Riva, which won for Yugoslavia in 1989. As with the seemingly corrupt Spanish victory in 1968, it was the UK that was edged into second place with the (really quite good) "Why Do I Always Get It Wrong?". To clarify in the words of the Swiss host on the night - "that isn't my question, it's the name of song from United Kingdom..."

Something's afoot...

Oooh, what's going on? First, Wendy Alexander says on the Politics Show that she won't "rule out" a referendum on independence, now Douglas Alexander says he is "not afraid" of one. When the Alexanders achieve something vaguely approaching inter-sibling co-ordination, you know something's afoot. Rest assured, though, by next week they'll have changed their minds again and decided that a referendum is "a distraction from the people of Scotland's priorities" after all (translation - we've had a proper think about it and we are actually quite scared).

Curiously, Wendy is continuing with her stubborn insistence that the one thing she won't countenance is Alex Salmond's suggestion of an STV-style multi-option referendum. But surely that's what would suit her best? The alternative is a straight yes/no vote, and all the polls show that format produces the most favourable outcome for independence, and sometimes a majority in favour. Is Wendy shooting herself (and the Union) in the foot here?

Just one thing, Wendy...

Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander appeared on the Politics Show on Sunday, and took the opportunity to crow about her party increasing its share of the vote by 5% in the Abbey local council by-election on Thursday. That more than makes up for total annihalation throughout England and Wales, apparently. She also claimed that the SNP's vote in the by-election had flatlined (translation - it was exactly the same as the record high last year). But strangely, she neglected to mention there were in fact two by-elections in Scotland on Thursday - and that the SNP won the other one with a whopping 15% increase in its vote share. Funny that, must have completely slipped her mind.

Morality tales in Marrakech

Snooker is one thing, but why do I suddenly also find myself hooked on The Apprentice, a programme whose central world view I utterly loathe and despise? (That world view being not so much that backstabbing and ruthless ambition are desirable qualities, but more that Sir Alan Sugar is some sort of top bloke who we should all be in awe of, and perhaps even have a secret crush on.) I'm going to be generous to myself and believe that the reason must be that I'm a hopeless idealist who yearns to see a little bit of justice done in the least promising places. And, if the rumours are true, I'm at least temporarily going to get my wish - the resident bullies Jenny C and Jenny M are going to get their comeuppance on Wednesday's episode after making the innovative tactical decision to bribe a street-trader in Marrakech. For one week only, The Apprentice reinvents itself as Christian morality tale.

Snookered by the cynics

It was refreshing to read this article in the Sunday Herald reflecting on the ongoing therapeutic and life-affirming effect of watching snooker. I know, I know, I feel quite stupid for even having written those words. But the thing is, it's become a bit depressing each year at this time (and it's felt like this for at least fifteen years now) to read the ritual articles about how the glory days of the sport are long since past. Apart from anything else, it always leaves me with the alarming feeling that I'm wasting my life spending hours being gently hypnotised by something that's just so 1980s and past its prime. I'm also tormented by the knowledge that I probably failed one or two important exams in the 1990s because I was too busy willing Stephen Hendry or John Higgins to victory at the Crucible. There I part company with the writer of the Herald piece, though, because during the same period she was apparently willing the likes of Higgins and Hendry to fail against the so-called more 'charismatic' players like Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan. But if O'Sullivan's probable third world title tomorrow is what it takes to make others start to nod in agreement with her more general sentiment, I might just say it's worth it.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Kellner conundrum

Michael Portillo was widely ridiculed on Thursday night for suggesting that the Tories' 44% showing wasn't good enough, and that they "should be doing better" if they wanted to win the general election. At the time, I thought the rubbishing of this claim was entirely justified - after all, the Conservatives' lead of 44% to 24% looks remarkably similar to the 47%-25% lead Labour enjoyed in 1995 in the run-up to securing a record parliamentary majority of 179 in 1997. Anthony King (not my favourite psephologist, a subject I may return to another day) confirmed that a 20 point Tory lead in local elections has few historical precedents.

But now Peter Kellner of the polling company YouGov has muddied the waters by suggesting that, in real terms, Gordon Brown's 24% is somehow less bad than John Major's 25% in 1995. This is because, he claims, Labour tend to under-perform in local elections when compared to general elections, while the Liberal Democrats tend to over-perform. This has left me deeply confused. The point about the Lib Dems is undoubtedly true, but surely it's the incumbent government - whether Labour or Tory - that tends to see its vote depressed? Is there really a separate phenomenon that hurts Labour regardless of whether they find themselves in government or opposition? If I ever have a spare month or two, I might try to wade through the figures and work it out.

Positive thoughts on local elections

One of the untold stories of the local elections (untold outside Wales, that is) has been the solid progress made by Plaid Cymru in their first test as a party of government. Across Wales the party scored a net gain of 33 council seats - just one short of what the Liberal Democrats managed across the entirety of England and Wales. That figure looks better still when you realise it was achieved even as Plaid were taking something of a hit in their Gwynedd heartland due to a local controversy over schools.

Not that you'd be likely to be aware of any of this if you live outside Wales, of course. The so-called 'national' UK media's coverage of political life in Wales is so minimal it makes their treatment of Scotland look positively fair (well, perhaps not). The truly historic moment of Plaid ministers taking up office for the first time last summer barely seemed to even register - there was, perhaps, fifteen seconds on it halfway through the Six O'Clock News. On last night's BBC election results programme, there was an extensive interview with Peter Tatchell on behalf of the Green Party of England and Wales. Quite right too - but given that the Greens won just 47 seats to Plaid's 207, that makes the omission of an interview with a Plaid represenative all the more indefensible. I dare say the defence would be the usual line that there was extensive coverage of Plaid's results during the Welsh opt-out segments. This is simply not good enough. If political coverage is to be ghettoised in that way, I really struggle to understand why those of us in Scotland have been subjected to relentless chatter about the London mayoral election for several weeks now. (And, no, repeated contrived explanations from Nick Robinson of 'Why This Matters to You Even If You Live Outside London' do not really alter that fundamental point.)

On the subject of the Ken and Boris show, I hear that Boris has finally been declared the winner, a mere twenty-six hours after the polls closed. We in Scotland set an impressive record of twenty hours last year, but it seems London with its instinctive understanding of its own importance simply couldn't resist taking matters to the next level. As for the result itself, I feel weirdly disappointed. In recent years, I've tended to be allergic to Labour under all circumstances, but the stubbornly progressive Ken is perhaps an exception. It's been quite amusing watching New Labour's finest (ahem) Tessa Jowell forced to defend him to the hilt - if only someone had put her on the spot about his pro-Chavez foreign policy!

Nevertheless, Boris it is. Of course, it's his multiple appearances on Have I Got News for You that have got him to where he is, but I think my own favourite Boris moment was when he won a prize at the Channel 4 political awards two or three years back. For the life of me, I can't remember exactly what he said, but it has to be one of the funniest acceptance speeches ever - and to be fair, I think that time I was laughing with him, not at him. Hopefully somebody might stick it on YouTube at some point.