December 2, 2011

Defending climate sceptics (Thurs 24th March, 2011)

In her article Kris Anderson claimed:

1. ‘There really aren’t any scientists outside the climate-change ‘consensus’ and those statistically insignificant few that are, mostly aren’t climate scientists.’

2. ‘Emotionality, ‘belief’, and fairness shouldn’t come into it at all, especially when we’re talking about something as complex and variable as climate change. Expertise and hard data are what’s required.’

It was Al Gore who first made public the risible oxymorons: ‘all scientists are agreed’ and ‘the debate is over’ but to date, more than a thousand international scientists have challenged the IPCC reports. These include perhaps the most distinguished climate scientist of his generation, MIT’s Richard Lindzen.

In fact Gore’s claims and the knowledge that he stood to make a personal fortune out of promoting the ‘dangers’ of CO2 raised warning flags across the scientific community. Getting scientists to agree is the same as getting economists to agree: it’s like herding cats. Science progresses by investigating alternative theories and one of the fundamental characteristics of scientific research is that the debate is never over.
Climategate and the use of propaganda rather than science in the reports of the IPCC have done terrible damage to the thesis of man-made global warming. The CRU whistleblower showed the world that climate data had been willfully manipulated and legitimate arguments suppressed in peer-reviewed journals. The IPCC is a typical United Nations’ entity, fraught with waste and fraud. It has gathered data, selecting positive observations and suppressing others, then amplified and simplified the results to provide a false sense of certainty. But no scientific assertion based on observational data, let alone one based on a series of computer ‘simulations’, should be made without a clear statement of uncertainty.
Weather is complex and variable and so is climate – influenced by large amplitude short-term events, long-term trends, decadal fluctuations and lots of ‘noise’. The fatal weakness of all climate models is their inability to incorporate the natural change in cloud cover and the public has no idea how flimsy and circumstantial is their evidence. Policies based on the predictions of the existing models are also suspect because they provide such a conflicting range of scenarios.
The Met Office claims that while no individual weather event can be attributed to global warming, taken as a whole, they show a trend consistent with global warming. That is, I am afraid, logical nonsense. If no single extreme event in an ensemble is due to global warming then when taken together they cannot be used as evidence for the contrary.

Arab Spring (Wed 30th March)

Alan Fisher wrote: ‘Arab leaders suddenly woke up to the fact that the oppressive and brutal techniques to crack down on opposition would no longer work’.

How I wish that were true. Instead, if I was a strategic adviser to one of the many tyrants in the third world, the following would be my advice:

The West does not bomb nations like North Korea and Iran which possess nuclear and/or chemical weapons so despots like Gadaffi should retain their stockpiles.

Libya demonstrated that the West dithers so dictators have a window of opportunity to crush rebellions but they must maintain large, brutal forces and massacre at speed.

Egypt and Tunisia showed that unless you have the West by the shorts (like Saudi Arabia) there is no point in being an ally because western loyalty is an oxymoron.


Libyan Adventure (Thurs 11th April)

In the political satire “Wag the dog” the producer of the phony war, Dustin Hoffman, told that the rebels seek “freedom and democracy”, asks “Why would they want that?” When in 2006 we finally succeeded in bullying the Palestinian territories into holding a “free and democratic” election, the terrorist organisation Hamas won hands down. The naivety of military intervention against Gadaffi is breathtaking and the assumption that the outcome would be a “free and democratic” Libya was never questioned. Senators Lieberman, Kerry and McCain led the calls for intervention – as they did in Iraq – and Suez serves as a bitter warning against Anglo-French ploys in the Middle East. Perhaps as a rule of thumb, the next time Turkey, Germany, Russia, China, Africa and the Arab League line up to tell us a course of action is ill-advised, we should listen.

Libyan Stalemate (Tues 19th April)

If the Anglo-French had not pressured America to bomb yet another Muslim nation into “democracy” the tribal uprising in East Libya would by now have fizzled out.

The much vaunted threat of “unspeakable carnage” in Benghazi is pure hyperbole because the Islamist rebels would have melted away over the Egyptian border.

With Blair’s ghost haunting this feast of foolishness, David Cameron is being pressured to obtain an explicit UN mandate rather than allowing mission creep to continue.

Yet the Arab League and African Union are clearly unhappy that the UN sanction was used by the West to lob missiles willy-nilly into Libya and shoot the place up.

I am sure China and Russia will veto military invasion and decry the flooding of Libya with guns but not obtaining a fresh UN mandate will make this war as illegal as Iraq.

Starting over at the IMF (Thurs 21st April)

Gordon Brown, emerged from his Kirkcaldy purdah, is smooching the US in a vain attempt to replace French Presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF.

However, Brown is hopelessly uncollegiate and the economic shambles he created in the UK makes him a poor candidate in comparison to the formidable Christine Lagarde.

Sadly Lagarde is the Finance Minister of France and I suspect most nations will baulk at yet another French chief executive in spite of her brilliance and international experience.

Anyway it is time to bin the archaic and insulting trade-off by which an American is given top spot at the World Bank in return for European leadership of the IMF.

The Asian talent is beyond belief starting with the surpassingly able Joseph Yam of Hong Kong with alternatives such as Heng Swee Keat of Singapore or S Sridhar of India.

A darker side to the Arab Spring (Thurs 28th April)

Fear is mounting among Syria’s Christians that the rioters will soon turn on them and Islamists have already sent letters to their churches with the message: “You’re next.”

For decades, the Assad government protected Christian and other minorities by enforcing a strictly secular program and curbing the Muslim Brotherhood fanatics.

Christians make up only 10 percent of Syria’s population but they are highly educated professionals working in medicine, dentistry, engineering and the government.

There are numerous denominations including Roman Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Greek Orthodox sharing a history in these lands that dates back nearly 2,000 years.

Assad always visited Christian communities to pray and pass on messages of goodwill but the “Arab Spring” will bring Syria – as elsewhere – ethnic and religious cleansing.

Scottish Independence (Friday 6th May)

As a Franco-Scot married to an Anglo-Swede, I lack the xenophobia necessary to believe Scottish independence would not prove an all-round catastrophe.

An increasing number of people in England, especially in the South-East, would welcome our departure, but I do not think the Scots are mad enough to vote for it.

Scotland is still prone to Darien-style ventures so if cut adrift some lunatic scheme like “renewables” would turn it into the chilly version of a Club-Med banana republic.

Death of a Legend (Wed 11th May)

Seve Ballesteros was the finest match-play golfer of his generation. He dominated the Ryder Cup for twenty years and was the first European to win the Masters.

He was born into an extended family of golfers on the peninsula across the bay from Santander in the little town of Pedrena next to Harry Colt’s Royal Pedrena golf course.

Turning pro at the age of 16, he blazed across the international scene to win three Opens, two Masters and to captain the first winning Ryder Cup team on the Continent.

Seve bloomed early and faded early. From his middle thirties he was tormented by the physical and mental problems which would ruin his later career and private life.

But at his best, especially on that iconic day in St Andrews in 1984, he was the wildest and most exciting thing I ever saw on the links and that is the image I carry in my heart.

Moral Confusion (Tues 17th May)

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant ethicist, said “simple Christian moralism can be senseless and confusing” – as the Archbishop of Canterbury daily confirms. In the tortuous language he uses when trying to avoid taking a clear moral stance, Dr Rowan Williams insinuated that the USA acted unjustly in shooting bin Laden. Yet the US action stands entirely within the Just War tradition shaped by Christian ethics which requires non-combatant immunity, proportionality and right intention. As the information currently stands, bin Laden was given an opportunity to surrender but did not take it and surely only the morally obtuse can find that a matter for regret. A trial and life imprisonment would have left every US national overseas vulnerable to being taken hostage by Islamic terrorists in order to force the monster’s release.

Bombing for Peace (18th May)

Human Rights Watch welcomed the decision of the international court to indict Gaddafi which should tell us all we need to know of this latest piece of counter-productive idiocy. At the same time the Anglo-French are overflying the suburbs of Tripoli ‘Bombing for Peace’ and what allegedly happened in New York is doubtless ‘Raping for Virginity’. The coalition has decided to legally bind the UK to decades of drastic cuts in CO2, which will see catastrophic changes in every aspect of domestic life, transport and business. Almost half our teenagers will soon be paying £9,000 a year for a pretendy degree in a pretendy subject from a pretendy university and be rewarded with a McJob. If Gordon Brown is given the top post at the IMF it will be official – the world has gone completely mad.


It’s a gas (Tues 24th May)

Shell has completed the world’s largest gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar where catalysts are used to turn the vast new supplies of shale gas into jet fuel, diesel and other liquids. Smaller scale versions of this technology will soon be widely available and it is expected to account for more than half of U.S. production of diesel within ten years. The process will lead to a collapse in power prices and put at risk Alex Salmond’s plan for Scotland to take a world lead in producing expensive renewable-energy. His only hope must be that EU greens will block the development of our own shale gas fields thus keeping European power and fuel prices artificially high. This will end Scottish manufacturing but at least US shale will reduce the cost of the vast supplies of fertilizers our farmers still need because of the EU ban on GM crops.

Reflections on Gay Monday (Thurs 26th May)

When the 3 million-strong American Presbyterian Church agreed this month to ordain openly gay clergy, the Kirk was left out of step with the mainline reformed churches. The APC decision had brought the Presbyterians into line with other American Protestant churches such as the Episcopalians, Lutherans and the Church of Christ. The European reformed churches such as those in Scandinavia, Germany and Holland have long had gay clergy in sexually active monogamous relationships. Discrimination against gays is absolutely illegal in the British job market and surveys show that this legislation is supported by well over 90 per cent of the population. As a national church, the Kirk can hardly refuse to obey the law and this was the state of play when the issue, kicked into the long grass in 2009, bounced back into play. Fundamentalists believe the Bible is free of error as originally written even though it accepts slavery, genocide, mass murder, and the stoning adulterers to death. They hold homosexual behavior is always a serious sin and oppose same sex marriage and the inclusion of sexual orientation in hate-crime and anti-discrimination legislation. Mainline Protestants promote equal rights for all sexual orientations, same-sex marriage and civil union, equal protection under hate-crime and employment legislation. Whether by accident or design the Kirk’s mainline theological heavyweights were absent from the General Assembly leaving an open goal for the evangelicals. The only challenges to the misleading fundamentalist claim that the Bible specifically outlaws consensual homosexual relations came from American and African clerics. In fact, in the original Greek, the Scriptures are ambiguous about homosexuality and do not contain any clear references to gay activity within a committed relationship. Paul did condemn homosexual orgies, ritual gay sex in Pagan temples and the sexual rape of young boys by adult males but such a stance elicits total Christian support. The problem is that, after having been filtered through the belief systems of the many translators, some English versions of the Bible do condemn all homosexual behavior. It was interesting to see a black minister stand up to oppose our fundamentalists because it is generally assumed that all African Christianity is homophobic. This is not the case and many black leaders such as the legendary Bishop Desmond Tutu, hero of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, support gay rights. He has accused both the Churches of Scotland and England of “allowing their obsession with homosexuality to come before Christ’s mission and action on poverty.” On his last visit he addressed both churches saying he believed we were going against the teaching of Jesus in our treatment of gay people and “persecuting the persecuted”. He said it was simply outrageous to suggest that “gay people choose homosexuality” and that we should “keep a grip on reality and keep the dispute in proportion.” Before booting the issue back into the outfield, the General Assembly passed a codicil allowing gay ministers already ordained by the Kirk to apply for vacant charges. This takes pressure off the church for the moment and will prevent it appearing in court but the Edinburgh air was thick with homophobia and this is not over. The make-up of the committee chosen to look at the theological issues over the next two years is immaterial since no compromise on homosexual rights is possible. Conservatives will continue to hold that homosexual behaviour is always a serious sin and bitterly oppose gay ordination whatever the legal and ecclesiastical consequences.

Dream on, Michelle (Tues 31st May)

It was admirable of Michelle Obama to invite some of the disadvantaged girls she met two years ago at a giant London comprehensive to meet her again at Oxford University.

However her claims that it was perfectly possible for them to move on to an “Ivy League” university in the UK as she had done in the US are fanciful and unkind.

Along with Jesse Jackson’s daughter, she was hot-housed in Chicago’s first “magnet” school, an outfit so academically selective it makes our most elite grammar school look inclusive.

Both she and her brother then moved effortlessly on into Princeton and Harvard before she fetched up in one of the oldest and more prestigious law firms in America.

Empathy is a wonderful thing but I doubt these girls, now recipients of the UK’s dire state-school education, are going to walk the primrose academic path available to clever black girls in the US.

Appeal Court’s lordly self-satisfaction (Wed 1st June)

The function of the Supreme Court is to ensure people in Scotland accused of a crime have the same human-rights cover as people in the rest of the Britain.

Many of us welcome its oversight in these matters because the Scottish Court of Appeal has an indifferent record and is all too prone to lordly self-satisfaction.

When push comes to shove, it can demonstrate a woeful lack of moral fibre such as its handling of the appeal against the manifestly unsafe conviction of Abdelbaset al Megrahi.

Alex Salmond is outraged that the Supreme Court has overturned the verdict in a high-profile murder case and has demanded the right to refer appeals directly to Europe.

In fact Mr Salmond is shooting rather thoughtlessly from the hip because the EU will be much harder than London on any breaches of human rights by the Scottish judiciary.

The mystery of Flight AF447 (Thurs 2nd June)

Air France flight AF 447 – an Airbus A330 – was at its cruising altitude above the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009 when the captain left the cockpit for his rest period. As the plane flew into a tropical storm the autopilot and the auto-thrust disengaged probably because the three speed gauges on the outside of the aircraft had iced up. At the plane’s cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, maintaining a precise speed is critical with a margin of error so small that pilots call this position “coffin corner.” One co-pilot said “I have the controls.” but the aircraft pitched to the right and as he struggled to correct this his colleague called out, “We’ve lost the speeds.” The warning “Stall! Stall!” sounded and the pilots reacted with maximum thrust but the horizontal stabilizer then moved to the maximum forcing the plane into a steep climb. Whether this manoeuvre was pilot error or just the result of increased thrust (a known characteristic) will be a huge bone of contention between Air France and Airbus. If it was a programming error leading to a failure of the Airbus’ electronic flight control system, the pilots could not have forced down the nose while full thrust was on.The report indicates the captain re-entered the cockpit, recognized the problem and screamed “It’s a stall. Reduce power and nose down!” But it was too late. The jet was still pointing steeply upwards and losing vertical altitude at a rate of 200 kilometers per hour when 40 seconds later it crashed into the sea.  Questions will be asked as to why the veteran captain went for his break leaving inexperienced colleagues to cope with a tropical storm he knew to be approaching. However, of much greater significance is the part played by the stabilizer. In theory the pilots could have adjusted it but they would first have had to know it was deflected. Tellingly, Airbus has since delineated the correct behavior in the event of a stall which involves the manual trimming of the stabilizers using a wheel near the thrust levers. The other piece of kit under the microscope is the French made speed sensor used by Airbus which is known to be significantly more prone to failure than a rival US model. There are 32 cases in which A330 crews got into serious difficulties because the speed sensors failed and the maker admitted in 2005 that such failures “could cause crashes.” The industry has a bad record of tombstone technology in which known dangers are ignored until passenger deaths make it impossible so to do and this looks like another.

End of the world and all that (Wed 8th June)

The apocalyptic scares which dominated Europe at the close of the first millennium returned at the end of the second in an explosion of precaution and risk-aversion.

The success of scaremongering has little to with the reality of the threat as it depends on the ability of the scaremonger to resonate with contemporary cultural values.

Thus the Rev Harold Camping’s end-of-the-world prediction, which would have caused mass panic in the Dark Ages, provoked only hilarity and “Rapture” parties.

Yet our scientific age falls for the ridiculous Al Gore and his disaster movie and even awards him a Nobel Prize for predicting all sorts of “end-of-the-planet” nonsense.

Germany’s hysterical decision to close its nuclear power plants chimes with threats of health pandemics and all the other mega-hazards said to confront humanity today.

Soft touch Britain (Thurs 9th June)

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell claims our vast foreign aid bill has made the UK a ‘development superpower’ and should be a source of national pride.

However it is difficult to see why giving £300million a year to India when it is spending billions on its own space programme makes us looking anything other than a soft touch.

Alex Salmond warbles the same nonsense about Scotland being a “renewables superpower” and it is the sort of vanity project we could do without in the midst of this recession.

Increasing our aid by 35% to £12 billion ignores warnings from African economists that aid perpetuates poor governance and poverty by fostering dependency and corruption.

Only trade and individual effort will create and spread wealth and Africa would be better served if we insisted Europe lift its protectionist tariffs against African farm products.

Assisted Dying (Wed 15th June)

The BBC documentary “Choosing to Die” was a major contribution to the long-running debate on euthanasia which is one of our most controversial national issues.

Developments in medicine mean desperately ill patients can be kept alive for prolonged periods often by means of excessively burdensome treatments and in severe pain.

Both my physiotherapist wife and I have “living wills” as a result of the harrowing scenes we witnessed professionally in the geriatric wards of the NHS.

Claims that front line palliative care is available to all UK patients are manifestly false and the country will increasingly be unable to afford such a service.

Large numbers of doctors admit in non-identifiable surveys they have resorted to euthanasia and opinion polls show that 80% of us want an assisted dying law.

Yet our politicians, under pressure from the churches, refuse to face the matter head on and prefer to off-load this ethical dilemma abroad in a morally reprehensible manner.

Legalisation would clearly bring the practice of giving merciful release to patients in extremis out of the back alley and protect the vulnerable from abuse.

Having access to physician-assisted suicide simply allows a patient to maintain control over his or her situation and to end their lives in an ethical and merciful manner.

If such access is available here, the need for premature journeys to foreign countries and dying among strangers would be removed – surely the ultimate unintended consequence.

A sweat shop is the first rung on the ladder (Wed 22nd June)

The action most likely to kick-start Africa is the setting-up of a pan-African free-trade area to remove the barriers making it difficult for poor people to trade with each other.

We should also support the World Trade Organisation’s efforts to reduce the barriers to international trade and especially decry the EU’s outrageous agricultural tariffs.

Anything else, and I include such iconic ventures as Fairtrade or campaigns to close Third World sweat-shops, is simply window dressing or even counter-productive.

If you want to help, do not support the self-serving trade unions whose true ambition is simply to close down competition but actually purchase the products of sweat-shops.

This is how Singapore started and if the young cannot get an industrial job, the boy will back making mud-bricks on the farm and his sister on the streets selling her body.

Africa’s true prophet (Thurs 23rd June)

Desmond Tutu, in an article which will resonate with David Mackenzie (June 22), deplores the wave of hate spreading across Africa against gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

“But the worst aspect”, he says, “is that it is being done in the name of God. I demand to be shown where Christ said, ‘Love all thy fellow men – except for the gay ones’.”

He dismisses with contempt the claim that gay people choose a life of sin for which they must be punished saying that science and medicine prove no-one “chooses” to be gay.

“Sexual orientation, like skin color, is part of our diversity as a human family and I find it wonderful that, though we are all made in God’s image, yet there is still such diversity.”

“Can any of us know the mind of God so well that we can decide who is included and who is excluded from His love, or who is called and who is not called to do His work?”

What does NATO stand for (Tues 28th June)

Since March, NATO has flown over 12,000 missions employing jet fighters, attack helicopters and missile firing drones to reduce large areas of Tripoli to rubble. With the US refusing to do the heavy lifting, it remains an Anglo-French affair supported by Italy and Scandinavia with the steely disapproval of Turkey and Germany. Whatever aim Cameron and Sarkozy secretly conceived, the mission remains a murky mystery and this isolated and demoralized regime has proved remarkably resilient. The UN foolishly authorized the use of “all means necessary to protect Libya’s civilians” but NATO has clearly exacerbated the very humanitarian crisis it was intended to relieve. All Turkish and African peace efforts have been deliberately undermined by fresh attacks and the banner “NATO – Now A Terrorist Organisation” is widely seen in the region.

Sectarian Molehill (Tues 28th June)

As the son of a miner turned minister of the Kirk and having been brought in an “orange” village in the west-central coalfields I have seen my share of sectarianism. But I spent all my post-war, childhood summers with my French grandmother in the all-inclusive Catholic lifestyle of rural France captured in the iconic satire, “Clochemerle”. After university and some years in scientific research and commerce, I too entered the Kirk and served very happily as a parish minister in Broughty Ferry for 35 years. I have always had a great deal of affection for Alex Salmond and have even taken him seriously on occasion but I think he is making a mountain out of this sectarian molehill. The origin of the antagonism between the Protestants and Catholics in Central Scotland had virtually nothing to do with religion and almost everything to do with economics. It was a constant complaint throughout the industrial areas of Scotland from the start of the 19th century that the Irish migrants were strikebreakers and depressed the wages. The situation was not helped by the greatest churchman of the age, Dr Thomas Chalmers, encouraging early industrialists to recruit black-leg labour in Ireland during strikes. This would cause outrage today but Chalmers, as able an economist as he was a cleric, was a high Tory and a man of his times with a deep dislike of the early Trade Unions. The violence and hatred were especially bad in the Lanarkshire coalfields and it would not be helpful to rehearse the starvation and desperation which existed in both camps. But the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland by Pope Leo XIII at the beginning of his pontificate in 1878 did spark sectarian tensions within the Kirk. It reached its nadir in 1923 when the General Assembly massively endorsed the wholly reprehensible report “The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality” Such official attitudes only waned in the post-war period when the church saw what had resulted from Nazi eugenics and of their dangerous warbling about a “volk-kirche”. But it was not until 1986, after a bitter debate in the General Assembly, that some of us managed to have the Kirk repudiate the Westminster Confession’s abuse of Catholicism. In the years following denominational tensions subsided and the Kirk and the Catholic Church became founder members of ecumenical bodies such as Churches Together. Relations between church leaders are now very cordial and though communal tensions remain they no longer affect jobs and are pretty much restricted to football supporters. In view of this, rushing through laws replete with unintended consequences to curb what a few thousand head-bangers shout at each other on Saturday seems rather excessive.

Wimbledon (Wed 29th June)

For much of the year I find tennis about as riveting as equestrian dressage but it is Wimbledon fortnight and I have succumbed to Britain’s annual feast of masochism. It has not been the same since the divine Gabriela Sabatini was replaced by the scary Williams sisters and these Central European harpies with their Neanderthal grunts. As Wodehouse said, it would not be hard to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and Andy Murray – accompanied as ever by his famous mother Lady Macbeth. Brigadier Tony (Henman) sat for years in the centre court box displaying all the emotion of an Easter Island monolith whereas Lady Judy is Monk’s “Scream” incarnate. But my viewing highlight was the Duchess of Cambridge in a white outfit (as per the local dress code) looking so much more attractive than any of the apparitions on court.

Justice for the Pilots (Tues 19th July)

It is rare for the Kirk’s military padres to unite in protest over a Ministry of Defence report but that resulting from the 1994 Chinook crash was such an occasion. We found it quite extraordinary that the initial board of inquiry findings were ordered to be ‘altered’ by two senior RAF officers who had not taken part in the inquiry. We were also aware the Chinook involved was a newly introduced version which had been plagued with serious technical problems for which the RAF had demanded compensation. Chaplains like me with a science background knew the computer system was a serious concern as there was no manual override to allow control of the engines if it shut down. In fact the day before the crash, MoD test pilots at Boscombe Down had refused to fly the Chinook until its engines; engine control systems and FADEC software were rectified. In the last 40 years helicopters have killed more SAS men than any other cause and these vehicles are lethal at low level in adverse weather and light conditions. Queen’s regulations are at pains to emphasise ‘there must be no doubt whatsoever’ that aircrew alone caused a crash before any verdict of gross negligence can be issued. As no black box had been installed it was manifestly impossible for the air marshals to know exactly what occurred on the flight deck in those last fatal seconds. Their insistence that the pilots Tapper and Cook were grossly negligent was a clear breach of natural justice. Defence secretary Liam Fox is to be commended for righting a wrong which Labour refused to do and the Kirk is to be commended for its persistent support of the pilots.

Toxic intervention (Thurs 20th July)

Today Islamic liberalism is almost an oxymoron but it was not always so and as the Ottoman Empire collapsed a century ago there were great hopes of a renaissance. The Young Ottomans were deeply religious pragmatists who were sure a Muslim version of western liberal democracy could be introduced into the Islamic Crescent. Ironically they were appalled by racist Europe’s virulent anti-sematism but believed this evil would be countered by the tolerance inherent in the original Quran. Tragically, the last gasp of European colonialism in the former Ottoman Empire led to medieval hadiths (sayings attributed to the Prophet) becoming revolutionary themes. Most of what frightens us in modern Islam is a reaction to our past interference and our present predilection for “bombing Arabia into democracy” is entirely counter-productive.

Losing the “war on drugs” (Tues 26th July)

It has been said that those like me who were undergraduates in California in the years before Vietnam were as close to heaven on earth as humanity has ever come. I graduated in 1964 and spent the summer before my return in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury when the drug of choice was still Napa Valley wine rather than marijuana. It was the explosion of narcotics use among returning Vietnam conscripts in the late 1960s which led Richard Nixon 40 years ago to launch his ill-fated “war on drugs”. Yet British troops returned from the Great War addicted to more than cigarettes but we wisely separated the punishment of cocaine suppliers from the treatment of their victims. To keep British users within mainstream society and in work they received prescribed drugs from doctors and this enlightened system kept their numbers low for decades. But this is not the American way and narcotics “Prohibition” was introduced even though its methods had proved a disaster with alcohol and on this occasion we blindly followed. In the years after the UK’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, the number of dependent heroin users soared and today we have by far the highest level of dependent drug use in Europe. Four decades on, there is almost universal agreement that the war on drugs has failed just as thoroughly as all the other pretentious “wars” on terror, poverty and want. America has not only created a nightmare world for its urban underclass but has allowed its vast narcotics trade to effectively destroy Mexico and other nations in South America. It is this catastrophic Anglo-American legislative failure that has led to demands from the Global Commission on Drug Policy for a complete policy rethink on narcotics. Yet Gordon Brown still sacked his “drugs adviser” David Nutt for pointing out that “the obscenity of hunting down low-level cannabis users to protect them is beyond absurd”. As with alcohol, narcotics prohibition has cost billions yet has vastly increased usage causing innumerable deaths and filling our jails whilst fuelling crime at home and abroad. It is manifestly obvious we need another approach which takes power out of the hands of organised crime and treats people with addiction problems like patients and not criminals. All the arguments against decriminalizing narcotics were rehearsed in the years before the ending of alcohol prohibition and they make no more sense now than they did then.

Hate in a Cold Climate (Wed 27th July)

After the Viking era, Norwegians spent much of their history as impoverished second-class citizens under the lash of Sweden, Denmark and finally Nazi Germany. Today it is best known for the stark beauty of its coastline, disturbing paintings like “The Scream” and for choosing some very weird Nobel Peace Prizewinners. The discovery of oil increased its isolation because its new petro-currency made it prohibitively expensive for tourists – but that was how most Norwegians preferred it. They did not want to spoil their lonely idyll by joining the EU or becoming multicultural and the recent influx of Islamic refugees was met with fierce anti-immigration rhetoric. Europe has been greatly exercised about young Islamic men being radicalised online but the internet’s potential to produce lone wolves from the far-right has gone unnoticed. Breivik’s posts reveal an obsession with the old fascist issues of “volk und vaterland” especially the perceived cultural threats of immigration in general and Islam in particular. He may have acted in isolation, but we need to be aware that Breivik’s ideas are part of a European sub-culture and many of our racist demons have yet to be confronted.

EU Nightmare (Thurs 28th July)

Edward Heath, François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors were the dreamers who believed a single currency could cement the political and fiscal integration of Europe. Margaret Thatcher, the ultimate bourgeois realist, derided such a vision as “cloud cuckoo land” and at the 1990 European summit rightly said they had the cart before the horse. When opposed by all her fellow heads of government she threatened to use the UK’s veto but was ambushed and deposed by her own party and the calamitous project continued.

Thatcher has lived on to see her contention that complete political union must precede a common currency (as occurred in the United States of America) entirely justified. At present the EU, far from being a simple free-trade organisation, is a bloated nightmare of bureaucratic sleaze and financial chaos whose accounts auditors regularly refuse to sign. The disgraceful Common Agricultural Policy, going mainly to French farmers, accounts for half the budget, ramps up food prices and blocks imports from Third World farmers. For all its armies of obscenely over-paid officials, the EU is rudderless, interfering, inept and dithering – a byword for unaccountability, incompetence and impenetrability. It is known that George Washington believed a United States of Europe was possible on the American model but the latter began as a lightly inhabited wilderness. In contrast, Europe is a collection of old nation states bounded by the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, the Black and Mediterranean Seas and the Ural and Caucasus Mountains. And Teddy Roosevelt, the architect of modern America, insisted on a common language as he knew it was far more than mere communication but reflected a shared mind-set. The only states with a sufficiently common culture, work ethic and language to unite are a revamped “Greater Germany” of Austria, Flanders, Germany, Holland and Luxemburg. It is possible that this could be augmented later by Proto-German speaking areas such as Scandinavia and Switzerland and perhaps even Lombardy and Finland. Since it is better to have a nightmare solution than an endless nightmare, “The Five” should bite the bullet, leave the eurozone and reconstitute the deutschmark. The surge in value of the new DM would probably require a bailout of their banks but that would be politically more acceptable than bailing out irresponsible peripheral banks. Once divorce from the euro is complete, this natural union will have the fiscal freedom to offset export and external shocks by running large government budget deficits for a time. France along with the Club Med banana republics and the rest of the zone could retain a greatly devalued euro giving a huge boost to their competitiveness in trade and tourism. The resulting instability would require some sort of central bank to backstop their bonds but the antic of this collection of shambolic southern states would hardly threaten world finance.

We need a new foreign policy (Tues 2nd Aug)

The final collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the First World War was bound to create considerable turmoil but it took the Anglo-French to make it a total disaster. Britain and France were perhaps the most mendacious and ruthlessly competitive of all the European imperial powers and had been squabbling for centuries over colonies. Edward House, President Wilson’s foreign adviser, encouraged American support for the Anglo-French but by the war’s end he had concluded both were wholly untrustworthy. As the Versailles Treaty ended Europe’s “war to end war” with a “peace to end peace”, an unsavory bunch of Anglo-French “diplomats” were busy poisoning the Middle East. The malign Sykes-Picot treaty drew a line from Acre on the Mediterranean to Kirkuk in the Persian oilfields with everything north going to the French and the rest to Britain. We demanded “undisputed control of the greatest possible amount of petroleum”, which meant Iraq, a pipeline route through Palestine and hegemony over much of Arabia. The Levant was thus parcelled up to suit Anglo-French convenience with no regard for ethnic and tribal identity making it, as House warned, “a breeding place for future war”. After the absurd 1917 Balfour declaration, the British managed to equally infuriate both local Arab communities and Jewish immigrants with results that still fester on. It has also become the norm in recent years for UK governments of all hues to engage in absurd wars in the Middle East with no measurable objectives or quantifiable goals. With the departure of ex-servicemen like Whitelaw and Healey, no restraining hand has been laid on Blair, Brown and Cameron as they embarked on their mad-cap adventures. They blundered into Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya at vast cost both in money and soldiers lives and have done little more than produce mayhem, rubble and dead civilians. With American help, we have destabilized most of the Islamic Crescent with our unerring instinct for backing the side most likely to increase corruption and religious intolerance. We need an entirely new foreign policy because as Joanne McNally indicated last week, the current one is as morally and politically bankrupt as any seen in our old colonial era.

Curbing the internet (Wed 3rd Aug)

As the most populous democracy and the inheritor of an ancient, fabulous civilisation, India has an increasing impact on every aspect of humanity’s intellectual development. We should therefore take note of its attempts to balance a wish to retain freedom of expression on the internet with a need to curb its plots, obscenity and defamation. New Indian regulations will make Web sites, search engines and service providers liable for objectionable material which must be removed within 36 hours of notification. Internet cafes will also be required to install surveillance cameras and must keep a record of each customer’s identification and their browsing activity for the authorities. Predictably critics are outraged saying the rules give the state power to introduce blanket surveillance and will force all internet providers to toe the government line. Yet after the attacks in Mumbai, police found vital clues to the bombings in cyber cafes and say tighter rules would deter such activity and help them with their inquiries. On the other hand, anti-corruption crusaders have used the internet to mobilize thousands of people across India to protest a series of graft scandals engulfing the government. This is a conundrum Europe will have to face because similar surveillance would have given the authorities early warning of the London bombings and the Norwegian atrocity. At the same time we need a free internet now that our supine judiciary routinely gives ‘contra mundum’ injunctions to hide the nefarious conduct of the rich and powerful. It used to be said “As goes America, so goes Britain” but it will be intriguing if we now look east rather than west and glimpse the future in our other, giant, former colony.

Fiasco in Libya (Thurs 4th Aug)

 By the time I finished my schooling, the imperial pink of the British Empire was fading on the wall maps and Kipling half-century old prediction was already coming true. “Far-called our navies melt away, on dune and headland sinks the fire; lo, all our pomp of yesterday, is one with Nineveh and Tyre.” – yet a new Elizabethan age seemed to beckon. Another half century on it is disturbing how resilient that colonial gene has been in the generations of politicians who have strutted their ridiculous stuff across my adult life. David Cameron’s reckless gesture in Libya with his absurd little French friend is now a full scale fiasco and it is only a matter of time before British boots are on the ground. Our recognition of the Transitional Council, a hotchpotch of unsavory tribal chiefs and murderous al-Quaeda placemen, was pretty crass even by our own low standards. And there remains no sign that our terror-bombing of civilian areas is contributing to victory any more effectively than that of Arthur Harris and Winston Churchill. Our boys will soon be dying to “keep the peace” in a shambles entirely of our making and like Suez but unlike Helmand, there will be no Americans on hand to bail us out. How did we get here? Where were the checks and balances? When the red lights flashed in Germany and Turkey did they not flash in Whitehall? Where were our “diplomats”? Like Blair, Cameron had no experience of war and none of the military nous required to see that if that our army wanted no part of the operation, he had a big problem. He assigned Libya to the RAF and the Navy, giving control to two services without an iota of strategic sense but each desperate to show its latest bit of expensive kit can be of use. Yet it is parliament, as silent and feeble over Libya as over Iraq though consumed with ridiculous hysteria at the Murdoch press, which must shoulder a great deal of the blame.

 School grade inflation (Tues 9th Aug)

Politicians love hyperbole such as Alex Salmond’s claim of 100% renewable energy in a decade and Gordon Brown’s to have conquered “boom and bust” and saved the world. Yet Education Secretary Mike Russell set new standards with his assertion that Scotland, alone in the English-speaking world, has not dumbed-down its school qualifications. This was in response to unkind comment that the Standard Grades’ pass rate of 98.5% was an acceptance figure unmatched in Europe since Adolf Hitler’s plebiscites. The universities and the CBI also observed they needed to run remedial courses for holders of Highers in Maths and English who appeared barely literate or numerate. In fact the first serious study of school grade inflation in England by Durham University concluded that an A pass at A Level in 2009 was equivalent to a C pass in 1989. It would be completely disingenuous for the Scottish government to believe our Highers have not suffered similar degradation whatever staff may feel obliged to say in public. Pass rates have increased every year for the last three decades and yet the OECD has noted we are falling further and further behind other nations in Maths and Science. Fundamental reform is simply not possible with the present ensemble of complacent local authority leaders and Holyrood’s revolving-door Ministers of Education. Reacting to disastrous OECD surveys by bailing out of them or to the existence of “failing schools” by banning the use of such a description is an infantile response. Parents know that teachers need liberation from town hall pen-pushers but the main teaching union claims they will be “distracted” if they are given more responsibility. The Curriculum for Excellence is pure spin and the new “Nationals” will permit a child to pass through the entire system without ever taking an externally-assessed exam. Yet Scottish education in the 1950s let me rise from a mining village school through the local high school to a leading university in a tsunami of other bright working-class kids. Recently there has been no lack of trendy initiatives designed to remedy state school problems and lift the life chances of children from the industrial graveyards of Scotland. Everything in fact except what was critical in my escape: iron discipline, a strong work-ethic and the “three Rs” as the door-opening passport to a fulfilling life and career.

Reaction to the Riots (Thurs 11th Aug)

There is a pernicious spirit of entitlement and instant gratification, transcending race and class, infecting the current generation of urban youth in Britain. And this is driven on by an army of politically-correct apologists, pandering to their shallow juvenile whims and offering an orgy of excuses on their behalf. We are expected to believe that these rampaging hooligans are motivated by their rage at inequality, deprivation, unemployment, police brutality and ‘Tory cuts’. It is nothing of the sort. In recent years there have been disgraceful scenes in the capital where the perpetrators have largely been white, privileged middle-class students. What we witness in every “protest” is not a political act or a cry for social justice but a despicable mixture of mindless criminality and opportunistic looting. With such things as Twitter, any demonstration can be hijacked by anarchistic thugs and perhaps it is time we saw these “social” networking sites for what they are:  “anti-social”. The victims of this mayhem are law-abiding, hard-working local citizens – black, white and Asian – who have been made homeless or had their livelihoods ruined. The riots should have been met by a strong, rapid response with water cannon and tear gas but police moral has been undermined by our supine courts and politicians. Only fully signed-up members of the “light-touch” school are promoted to senior positions so it is absurd to reproach the police for acting in a style we imposed. The Scarman, Macpherson and other reactionary reports from the bien pensant led to policemen being “retrained” and feeling that avoidance is safer than involvement. Yet police injuries show we still have brave people in the force but too often they are led by senior officers imbued with the crass “sociology” expounded at our police colleges. I remember New York when it was a jungle but that was transformed when Mayor Giuliani encouraged the police to adopt an aggressive enforcement/deterrent strategy. Boris Johnson is just as much a free spirit as Giuliani and he would have a much more valued place in history as the man who cleaned up London than the next Tory leader.

School Trips (Tues 16th Aug)

 The news that a British schoolboy was killed by a polar bear and four others seriously injured brings into sharp focus the dangers of adventure trips to wilderness areas.  Longyearbyen, an old mining village on the bleak Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, is the most northerly settlement with a population greater than 1,000 souls. It is the meeting place for cold polar air and the wet sea air from the south, creating fast-changing, low-pressure weather with fog and bitter winds even in high summer. Polar bears are its iconic symbol but they are extremely dangerous and fatal attacks on humans occur frequently so that everyone is required to carry a high-powered rifle. The British Schools Exploring Society was warned repeatedly that they should use guard dogs and an armed lookout but decided to rely on tripwires triggering explosive flares. On their August expedition the party did have a rifle and a flare gun but they did not test them as the local tourism chief Stein Pedersen had strongly advised. Their final disastrous decision was to camp on rocky ground which meant that the stakes holding the trip wire were not anchored properly and were just propped up with stones. When the bear pushed through the tripwire, the stakes were simply knocked over without forcing out the pin triggering an explosion to sound the alert and scare away the animal. The flare gun also failed and group leader Michael Reid only managed to get the rifle to fire at the fifth attempt by which time a child was dead and others terribly injured. The rifle was the old Mauser 98 firing the traditional 30 caliber cartridge of 1906 (the famous 30-06) which is still an excellent weapon but it must be cleaned and tested. BSES will almost certainly face criminal proceedings for negligence and the local police are said to be less than happy with their cavalier approach to team safety. The company has “form” having been fined £1,200 last summer when they burnt down a Spitsbergen emergency shelter by “leaving embers in a flammable place”. Providing young people with “self-discovery in the last true wilderness environments” is an admirable aim but bringing them back alive requires “due care and attention”.

Gaddafi is not all bad (Wed 17th Aug)

When we hounded Saddam out of office Tony Blair thought Iraq had entered broad sunlit uplands and would soon be a peaceful, prosperous democracy. Thus David Cameron’s claim that the fall of Gaddafi will be met with flowers and chocolates all round in Libya gives me a sinking feeling of déjà vu. The idea that Benghazi forces will occupy Tripoli and be welcomed as ‘liberators’ by their old tribal enemies is as likely as Berliners embracing the Russians in 1945. We must expect scenes of revenge and retribution, tribal warfare, extra judicial killings and Sharia law with religious freedom and women’s rights gone for good. Already the fear that al-Quaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood will soon be in control has led to the Copts and other minorities taking to rickety boats and heading for Italy. Tripolitania was an independent state at times in the last century and is very much more European and secular than the Islamist rebel area of Cyrenaica. Our interest in this inter-tribal dispute has its roots in the reign of King Idris who was the Emir of Cyrenaica before we installed him in 1951 as the puppet ruler of Libya. He did our bidding till 1969 when he was ejected in a bloodless coup by the Tripolitanian Colonel Gaddafi who thus earned our undying enmity. Our press dubs him ‘The Mad Gaddafi’ yet his 42 years in power make him one of the longest-serving non-royal rulers and, by African standards, his rule was not at all bad. He gave one of the poorest nations in the region food security by irrigating the desert and ensured water supply to all urban areas until NATO bombed the pumping stations. Libya had free healthcare, state housing and education up to and including university so its welfare service was considerably more comprehensive than our own. In spite of Cameron’s claim that Gaddafi has no support, it is clear many heed Belloc’s advice: ‘Always keep ahold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse’. Whether to settle old scores or in a fit of absence of mind, we recognised this rag-bag of Islamist rebels and eastern tribalists as Libya’s legitimate government. The outcome for Tripoli is bleak and it is clear we have again shown our unerring ability to back the side most likely to increase religious intolerance and deny human rights.

Shark Attack (Tues 23rd Aug)

I was a surfing addict when I lived in California in my late teens and early twenties and we constantly discussed sharks and the various ways of avoiding attack. Some surfers and divers feel safer in a wet suit which presents less open flesh but it would be dangerous to count on a curious shark not having an exploratory bite. In general we would avoid surfing alone at dawn or dusk when sharks tend to feed and areas inhabited by prey animals (such as seals) or where fish remains have been dumped. This practice – known as ‘chumming’ – is increasingly used by boatmen in coastal resorts to lure sharks closer to the shore to thrill their clients but it places even paddlers at risk. In July a girl wading in 3 feet of water at a US beach was attacked and without a shark net round the beach – whatever the tourist reps may say – your children are in danger. Most shoreline attacks involve the Great White, Bull and Tiger sharks but Jacques Cousteau considered the open water Oceanic Whitetip the most dangerous of all. However other large sharks such as the Mako, Hammerhead, Galapagos, Lemon, Silky, Blue and the various Reef sharks have all attacked humans and are dangerous. It is also not widely known that the freshwater range of Bull sharks will attack far up-river in tropical regions and the river systems of India are infested with the Ganges shark. The number of fatal shark attacks worldwide is uncertain because the vast majority of third world coastal nations do not officially report attacks on locals and fishermen. Two thirds of “reported” attacks occur in the USA and most of the rest in South Africa and Australia but it is clear that a vast number go unreported worldwide. Seychelles tourism boss, Alain St Ange, claimed Ian Redmond’s death was a freak attack by a ‘foreign shark’ but it was not all that rare and sharks do not have nationalities. The fact is that swimmers are at risk in most of the coastal and coastal river resorts of the developing world and the tendency for tourist authorities to cover this up is intolerable.

 Scottish Education (Wed 24th Aug)

We Scots often talk about our proud tradition of free university education but as with many Scottish “traditions” it has a fairly short history and dates back only to the end of the Second World War. The maintenance grant was an even more fleeting phenomenon lasting a mere from 30 years from 1961 but is fondly remembered by the tiny percentage of the population who benefitted. The recent explosion of tertiary education and the proliferation of what Billy Connolly unkindly but not unfairly called “pretendy universities” created financial mayhem. Alex Salmond, for reasons best known to himself, has always refused to admit the true extent of the funding gap faced by Scotland’s plethora of universities and colleges. Instead he introduced a cunning plan to close the gap by making English students pay full tuition fees of £9,000 while Scottish and other EU students continue go for free. Under EU rules, governments cannot discriminate against students from any other EU state but as Scotland is only a region within the UK, he argues such rules do not apply. It also has the delicious side effect of being extremely annoying to the English in general and Boris Johnson and the Home Counties in particular. It is of course a dangerous ploy and is now to be challenged by Phil Shiner, the leading British human rights lawyer and a legal expert of international repute. Shiner quoted a former Education secretary who said, “Discrimination on the basis of nationality is unacceptable and it is high time the government stopped defending the indefensible. Such discrimination is not only wrong in principle; it also damages the reputation of Scotland’s higher education system and undermines the Scottish four-year degree.” And who was the former education secretary: why none other than our own Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister of Scotland and SNP Secretary for just about everything.

 DSK (Thurs 25th Aug)

The case appears to be over and Dominique Strauss-Kahn will return to France and may even be acclaimed for his “triumph” over the egregious elements of American justice. It appears as if he was not so much guilty of rape as of not paying a “working girl” for services rendered which I suppose it not quite as bad but is still pretty unsavory. France being France, he may be able to kick-start his career in national politics but I suspect his days as a major international diplomat ended with his “perp walk”. In the end, US prosecutors were forced to admit to Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers that they knew within days the hotel maid was an inveterate liar and involved in criminal activity. Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance’s case collapsed when his “rape victim” used the Brooklyn hotel in which he had placed her to continue her part-time job as a sex worker. She was also recorded phoning (in Guinean dialect) a drug-dealer colleague in an American jail saying, “Don’t worry, this guy has lots of money. I know what I am doing.”  The prosecutors now believe that regular extra-curricular activities in the bedrooms of the Sofitel Hotel were the source of the $100,000 in her bank account. Well, that’s all very fine but she has done irreparable damage to rape victims everywhere who may find that they, more than the accused, will once again become the target. Legal protection for rape victims, so hard won by feminists and sympathetic male jurists, such as rape shield laws and the removal of corroboration requirements are in jeopardy. The international scope of this seedy episode cannot be underestimated and many victims already scared to come forward, will lose all hope of seeing their abuser convicted.

R2P Report (Tues 30th Aug)

The charter of the African Union claims the right of the AU to intervene in member states to protect populations against war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. This followed the international community’s clear failure to act in the Rwanda genocide and the much debated UN report “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). This report is rooted in the work of Hillary Clinton’s policy planning chief, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a fierce critic of US passivity in the face of genocide dating back to the Nazis. She had called for a new Wilsonian agenda of supporting global security by spreading western values through international law, alliances of democracies and the market. R2P first achieved official recognition at the 2005 UN world summit which decided it had a responsibility to protect populations suffering gross human rights violations. The Security Council’s resolution 1973, the basis for NATO’s intervention in Libya, would appear to indicate that R2P is now the UN’s default position in world politics. I have considerable reservations with this development because the difference between R2P and the neo-imperial meddling of George Bush and Tony Blair is far from obvious. Both are pre-emptive and both ask the public to trust policymakers and their knowledge of what is happening on the ground – which is a big ask! I would be more reassured if I thought anyone in Washington, London and Paris had the remotest clue about Libya and the rag-bag rebel “government” they have recognised. There is also a troubling selectivity because who decides when R2P should be applied? Why Gaddafi and not Assad? Would America ever accept R2P might apply in Gaza? Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy displayed an extraordinary self-belief in their own moral rectitude when bombing Libya which I suspect many Muslims may not share.

Roof over our heads (Thurs 1st Sept)

The National Housing Federation predicts British home ownership will fall to its lowest level since 1980 and become the preserve of better-off families. It also claims that those locked out of the property market face a future of soaring rents, limited rental stock and state housing waiting lists at record levels. From a national perspective ownership rates go from a whopping 90% in Singapore down to 40% in Germany, 50% in Holland with the English-speaking nations around two thirds. I was in the odd position of living for 35 years in a tied house – my fabulous manse in Broughty Ferry – before retiring to a small flat near the Old Course in St Andrews. But, having also been a “son of the manse”, I had a mind-set closer to the Germans and did not feel deprived to be bringing up a family in a house which did not belong to me. Of course renting, even for the Germans, is not necessarily the cheap option and in major cities like Hamburg, Cologne and Munich, tenants spend up to half their wages on rent. But Germans do not appear to be as frustrated as Brits if they cannot get on the property ladder and the difference in attitude reflects the difference in the housing markets. There is an excellent supply of good quality rental stock with housing associations and municipal authorities holding 15%, housing firms 10% and private investors the rest. In fact selling off state housing was one the few things done by the Blessed Margaret I opposed and not replacing the stock was one of New Labour’s greatest failures. Over the past 10 years, the endless roller-coaster of UK residential property prices has nearly doubled while in Germany they have only risen about 2 per cent. In part this is due to Germany having stringent lending requirements with a deposit of 20% and proof of years of good earnings thus avoiding the lunacy seen in the UK. Finally, German tenants get a much better deal not only from a greater choice of stock but more transparent transactions and serious support from various tenants’ associations. With real prices falling, it is hardly surprising there is no rush to owner-occupation but an acceptance that savings and settled maturity will finally make it possible.

The Class War (Tues 6th Sept)

A remarkable aspect of the urban riots was the general assumption that Britain is home to a vast, respectable middle class with this frightful underclass lurking down in the cellar. Yet when Jilly Cooper produced her waspish commentary “Class” in 1979, three quarters of the population still proclaimed themselves to be “working class and proud of it”. During the long Thatcher/Blair era we adopted the American habit of referring to nearly everyone as “middle class” – even New Labour’s national treasure, John Prescott. However, although our mainline political parties espouse the convenient myth that class is dead, birth determines destiny with a far greater certainty than it did half a century ago. In the post-war period, high rates of literary and numeracy allied with selective education produced a social mobility of which we in the 21st century can only dream. Yet the disappearance of working class pride was not driven solely by education because my mining village pals did not feel defeated or demeaned when I went off to high school. I was known to be a bit odd and to read weird stuff like poetry and they turned in relief to prepare for the real world of work in the tool-packed trade rooms of the junior secondary. The change had more to do, I believe, with a basic flaw the bien pensant inserted into the welfare state: the premise that the working classes could not look after themselves. This had an infantilising effect and undermined the deeply conservative way this proud class handled such key aspects of family life as illegitimacy and paternal responsibility. On top of this came the execrable concept of political correctness whereby talk of “class” became unacceptable and the whole focus was shifted to other “conflicts”. In particular the Harmanesque school of New Labour speak redefined “equality” to mean gender and race equality while social and economic differences were ignored. The employment market now consists of two fairly static tiers: professional/managerial and skilled/semi-skilled trades plus an ever expanding “catch-all” tier of Mac Jobs. It could be argued that today one’s “class” is based on which tier one occupies and that our “all must have prizes” education is producing a rigid economic caste-system.

A Very British humour failure (Thurs 8th Sept)

My French grandmother returned to France just in time for the German Occupation so I have always had considerable sympathy for the wartime experiences of PG Wodehouse. Like her he did not take the thing very seriously – and from what she and my cousins told me, ‘Allo ‘Allo! is really a documentary – but other people took it very seriously indeed! Although Wodehouse and his novels are quintessentially English, he spent much of his adult life abroad and from1934 he lived in France, at his seaside home in Le Touquet. The Germans interned him as an “enemy alien” first in Belgium, then in Upper Silesia of which he said, “If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like…” While there, he entertained fellow prisoners with witty pieces gently teasing the guards before being released in 1941 when he reached 60, as per the Geneva Convention. He settled in Paris where he ill-advisedly accepted a German invitation to broadcast several of these humorous dialogues to America (not then at war with Germany). To describe the British reaction as hysterical would be an understatement of the most sublime dimensions and he was accused of treason and libraries burned his books. He was unfortunate that the British ambassador in Paris after the Liberation was the martinet Alfred Duff Cooper whose loathsome socialite set gave him a very bad time. His saviour was the unlikely MI5 war-time agent, Malcolm Muggeridge, who conducted the investigation and dismissed all charges – a finding upheld later by a senior judge. Continued ridiculous ranting at home led Wodehouse and his wife to move permanently to the delightful hamlet of Remsenburg on Long Island never to visit his homeland again. After much campaigning by Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman, he was recommended in 1967 for the Order of the Companions of Honour for outstanding literary achievement. This was blocked by Sir Patrick Dean, our ambassador in Washington, on the risible grounds that he was “giving currency to a Woosterish image of the British character.” Dean was a nasty bit of work involved in the notorious Yalta prisoner repatriation, the Nuremberg trials and the execrable British Control Commission in occupied Germany. Finally Betjeman’s old friend Mary Wilson prevailed upon her Prime Minister husband to have Wodehouse knighted in the 1975 New Year Honours shortly before his death. It was one of the few achievements worth recalling by Harold Wilson’s dysfunctional second government and a rare moment of light in the depressingly Sombre Seventies.

Reflections at Three Score Years and Ten (Tues 13th Sept)

I was born during the war and as my three score years and ten draw to a close, I see the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” fulfilled in those flying years. The decade and a half in Britain following the war were indescribably drab and dreary made endurable only by the indefatigable belief that things might be getting better. The Sixties I spent knocking about the universities of California and Scotland so I am bound to say they were fantastic: hedonistic idealism in an amoral paradise with great music. The Sombre Seventies were unquestionably the bleakest days I recall in the UK and, both at the time and in retrospect, starting a family as I did in the middle of that decade seemed a preposterous act of faith. I rather liked the can-do vulgarity of the Thatcher years and, along with many more Scots than ever seem willing to admit it, I did so well financially that I could coast comfortably home. I am too close to the last decade and a half to have any perspective save a sense of lost opportunities, of 9/11 and all that followed plus the slow-moving train-wreck that was Gordon Brown. “If by reason of strength” I live on a while longer I expect America to remain dominant in every way but the Pacific Rim, South-East Asia and South America to prosper. The European ability to regenerate from seemingly hopeless situations should not be discounted but to drive a recovery, some form of Grossdeutchland will need to separate itself from the linguistic and cultural nightmare of the eurozone. Though I will not live to see it, I am sure a bridge will be built across the Mediterranean from Iberia to a giant, peaceful Arab sūq where a blossoming Africa will trade with Western Europe. I believe Christianity will lose its European roots, the cultural side of Islam will replace today’s fervour and all the green panics of the present will go the way of the tulip mania. Sadly I also suspect that out there in the dark and endless sky is a giant asteroid with our name on it. Yet even as hope subsides, curiosity remains and human love and laughter do not lose their value because they are not everlasting.

 The Darling Book (Wed 14th Sept)

Alistair Darling, the London-born, Lorettonian advocate from a relentlessly Tory family always struck me as a rather odd member of the Scottish Labour Party. Of course Tam Dalziel was there before and, as an Aberdeen student, Darling toyed with Trotskyism but I thought he was simply doing that to wind-up the folks back home. I recalled that Gordon Brown’s first act at the Edinburgh University Fresher’s Fayre had been to join the Atheist Party in a (successful) attempt to annoy his father. Darling’s gripping account of his three-year period as Chancellor is a good read and is hardly the act of vengeance against his former friend and boss it is portrayed to be. It is the wry reflections of an honourable public servant trying to remain detached from a drama being played out by ruthlessly ambitious politicians and economic ideologues. He explains with admirable clarity and succinctness why it was right for governments all over the world to borrow through the crisis and to still keep borrowing today. He also delineates the differences between banks and other business and why the former sometimes need to be bailed out with public money. I am not entirely convinced that the whole economic philosophy of the Thatcher-Reagan free market capitalism has been permanently transformed by this crisis. Nor do I believe his argument that Labour could have used this moment as an opportunity to present a convincing programme of active government. His forlorn hope that Gordon Brown would acknowledge the necessity of reductions in public borrowing ignores Brown’s total inability to admit mistakes. Once the worst was over, Darling sensibly wanted to supplement short-term stimuli with a long-term plan for deficit reduction by spelling out specific spending cuts. He also wanted to phase in VAT increases so as to avoid crushing the economy and creating needless inflationary pressure. Brown, however, vetoed Darling’s prudent Keynesian agenda in favour of his Manichean slogan: “Tory cuts versus Labour investment” – and their time in office was over.

Black marks for green jobs (Tues 20th Sept)

The persistent use of the term “dirty” to power produced by fossil fuel is a blatant attempt to frame climate change as a “moral issue” and thus impervious to rational analysis. Crucial experiments are taking place at the European organization for nuclear research (CERN) into the link between solar activity, cosmic rays and the Earth’s cloud cover. The results of these experiments strongly suggest that solar activity is far more important to global climate variation than human greenhouse-gas emissions. This not only appears to put a tungsten nail in the coffin of the “official” science, but pulls the rug from the alleged need for vastly expensive renewable energy schemes. An academic study by economics Professor Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University is the latest to point out that the green employment emperor has no clothes. As a former advisor on energy and environmental policy to the World Bank, he will be hard to write off as a “denier” or as a clone of renegade tobacco and medical scientists. His report The Myth of Green Jobs, argues that green policies boost inflation and lower growth since renewable capital costs are up to 10 times those of conventional energy. Present U.K. policies entail the diversion of £120-billion from productive investment elsewhere and higher energy costs will cause companies to relocate or go under. In this he is supported by the Danish Centre for Political Studies (CEPOS) which found that creating employment in one sector through subsidies detracted labor from others. This resulted in no increase in net employment but simply a transfer of employment from the non-subsidized private sector to the subsidized neo-public sector. Spanish economist Gabriel Calzada also analyzed the subsidized expenditure necessary to create green jobs compared to private expenditure needed to support conventional jobs. He concluded that each subsidized green job in Spain eliminated over two conventional jobs and this ratio is supported by every other major national study in Europe. The intent of a subsidy should be to increase the production of a good or service that is underprovided by the market and this is most certainly not the case with energy. The market, not taxpayer-funded industries, provides the most affordable energy while mandates, subsidies and preferential treatment benefit the few at the expense of many. Finally, the claim by Alex Salmond that Scotland will be able to create comparative advantage in renewable energy is the most risible scientific and economic illusion.

The Eurasian Phoenix (Wed 21st Sept)

President Truman’s incomparable Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, was spot on when he commented in 1950 that “Britain has lost an Empire but had not yet found a role”.  For much of the 20th century, the same could be said of Turkey whose fabulous Ottoman Empire peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries before starting its long decline. Modern Turkey was immensely fortunate to have as its architect Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the military commander who made Winston Churchill look ridiculous at Gallipoli. He became the new republic’s first president and was responsible for many radical reforms, founding a new secular republic from the remnants of its Ottoman past. Islamic law was separated from secular law, its religious courts were closed, and women were freed from the veil and given equality in such matters as inheritance and divorce. The entry of girls into the professions was established with the unification of education because Atatürk believed modern civilisation required gender separation to cease. To combat a 90% illiteracy rate he replaced the old Arabic script with the Latin alphabet raising literacy to over 70% in two years – an act of inestimable benefit to the nation. Yet for decades a thoroughly modernized, secular Turkey knocked in vain at Europe’s door being disdainfully rebuffed for all manner of foolish and insulting reasons. That is over and today, the turmoil in the Levant caused by Western military interference and the convulsions known as the Arab Spring has created new opportunities for Turkey. It is the coming Middle Eastern power with the canny veteran Recep Erdoğan’s strong, democratic, mildly Islamic government ruling 80 million increasingly prosperous people. Erdoğan is sparing no effort to broaden Turkey’s regional appeal and in a hopeful sign he strongly endorses secularism to the chagrin of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel must take his escalating hostility seriously because unlike the PLO and Hamas gad-flies, losing one’s most powerful regional ally would constitute a situation of real gravity. Europeans should also note that Turkey has turned its back on them and is resurrecting the old Ottoman strategy of aligning its interests with those of the Arab World. The belief that Palestinian land “was stolen to create a Jewish state in order to assuage the guilt of the Holocaust” is one of the most pervasive and unhelpful Middle Eastern myths.

 The CERN Cloud Experiment (Thurs 22nd Sept)

The theory of late 20th century global warming popularized by Al Gore is that the phenomenon was caused predominantly by industrial greenhouse gases – especially CO2. It is highly unlikely that trace elements of such gases are solely responsible as Paleo-climate reconstructions find comparable climate variations throughout the whole of the Holocene (last 10,000 years). These reconstructions also show clear associations with the solar variability recorded in the light radio-isotope archives measuring past changes in cosmic ray intensity. However, despite clear evidence of a solar-climate link, the estimated changes of solar irradiance were judged to be too small to account directly for the climate variations. It was argued there must be some sort of indirect solar forcing mechanism and finally satellite observations suggested cosmic rays might be affecting cloud formation. In 1997, the Cosmo-climatologists Henrik Svensmark and Eigil Friis-Christensen of the Danish National Space Centre published their famous theory in the Physical Review. It is known that low-altitude clouds have a cooling effect on the Earth’s surface hence variations in cloud cover caused by cosmic rays can explain climate variations. In the late 20th Century, the Sun’s magnetic field which shields Earth from cosmic rays more than doubled, thereby reducing the average influx of cosmic rays. The resulting reduction in cloudiness, especially of low-altitude clouds, was clearly a significant factor in the global warming the Earth underwent during that period. However, there were no experimental results to confirm the Svensmark-Christensen theory such as evidence of a mechanism linking cosmic rays to cloud formation. The CERN particle-physics laboratory in Geneva, famous for studies of the fundamental constituents of matter, thus decided to devise experiments to test the theory. Researchers have just released results from these experiments which mimic conditions in the Earth’s atmosphere by firing beams of particles into a gas-filled chamber. They discovered that cosmic rays enhance the production of cloud-seeding aerosols thus confirming the rays do play a major role in cloud formation and climate change. Climate science is extremely complex (though it attracts its fair share of infantile responses) and readers can find CERN’s preliminary results in ‘Nature’

A Lose-Lose Situation (Tues 27th Sept)

The belief that Palestinian land ‘was stolen to create a Jewish state in order to assuage the guilt of the Holocaust’ is one of the most pervasive and unhelpful Middle Eastern myths. The UN partition plan made no reference to the Holocaust and the League of Nations had previously declared in favour of giving the whole of mandated Palestine to the Jews. The San Remo Conference in 1922 accepted the Jews’ historic claims of their continuous settlement in the country for 3,500 years in the face of repeated foreign conquerors. It was argued that, as the Arabs were to be given Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and North Africa, it seemed fair to return the small area of Palestine to its historical owners. However, for imperial reasons, Britain gave 85% of Palestine to the Hashemite family to create the Kingdom of Transjordan and gave the Golan Heights to Syria. A vote in the UN to upgrade the Palestinian status from ‘observer’ to full membership will not alter the realities on the ground nor help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The vote will not assuage the gruelling Palestinian poverty or prevent the rampant corruption of its feeble leadership which swells its coffers at the expense of its own people. Hamas, with its visceral hatred of Israel, still tightens its grip on Gaza and one wonders how peace can ever be achieved amid such insurmountable obstacles.

 Can’t Add, Doesn’t Even Try (Wed 28th Sept)

My first experience of computers took place in the early 1960s with the notorious IBM 1620 leaving me with a deep suspicion of anyone who believes IT is always the answer. The hopelessly unreliable 1620 was nick-named the CADET (Can’t Add, Doesn’t Even Try) and proved a disaster in almost every technical and industrial application. My heart sank when I heard a decade ago that the NHS was setting up a computer project because I doubted anyone in the industry understood what the system was meant to do. When I told my three medical brothers it would be “text only”, they threw up their hands in horror at the thought of a system that could not process X-ray and other pictures. The public service jobsworths in charge of the project clearly had no understanding of computer architecture nor its capabilities and limitations and were soon out of their depth.  In fact computers can do most of what large organisations (such as the NHS) want them to do but the “geeks” should have had long initial sessions with healthcare professionals. To design a system to meet its requirements, they needed to delve down deep into the fabric of the organisation to identify and to prioritise each element to be addressed. The NHS should perhaps have approached Oracle since they have systems like SQL which can meet the needs of such a central database administration. Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has developed an on-line patient data system that is the envy of all other healthcare providers. They used Defence Department IT planners to develope and deploy a patient profile model providing a complete patient history which can be updated from any VA facility. It is a massive networking, computing and storage environment located across the U.S. and its overseas territories and all healthcare providers have access to patient records. Sadly for Britain, the NHS is a sacred cow run by political hacks and appointees of such catatonic incompetence that the final bill for the disaster is likely to be £13 billion. Happily, the latest IT vanity-project disaster is a mere snip at £500 million: Tony Blair’s failed “FiReControl” system meant to mesh the 46 fire control centres in England and Wales.

Awaiting the Knox Verdict (Thurs 29th Sept)

After a highly controversial trial, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were convicted in Italy four years ago of the horrific murder of their friend Meredith Kercher. The process depended on confessions later retracted, dubious witnesses, suspect-driven investigations and marathon, night-time police interrogations of the two youngsters. Whilst one hopes that the Kercher family will finally attain some peace of mind there are a number of extremely disquieting aspects to this investigation and trial. On appeal, forensic testimony that the victim’s DNA was on the blade of the supposed murder weapon was dismissed as wholly unreliable by appeal-court appointed experts. Michael Mansfield, the great English defence lawyer, has long warned of the dangers of over-reliance on forensic evidence and this looks like another miscarriage of justice. British forensic science was certainly damaged by the part it played in the wrongful convictions of the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. In Scotland, the “canteen culture” of its practioners was on display in the deplorable prosecutions of both Detective Constable Shirley McKie and Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Clearly it is high time western judicial systems realized that, far from being immutable, forensic evidence must be treated with the same caution as witness identification. It was also disturbing to see Pope Innocent VIII’s 1486 witch-hunter’s manual, “Malleus Maleficarum” on display with its crazed beliefs about the dual nature of women. The celibate authors claimed, “A woman is beautiful to look upon, contaminating to the touch, deadly to keep and all witchcraft comes from her carnal lust which is insatiable”. I had not thought to hear such vile, medieval misogyny in a modern western court but the Italian lawyer Carlo Pacelli was allowed to besmirch Amanda Knox in similar terms. In a monstrous rant he claimed she was “a diabolical, satanic, demonic she-devil, dirty both inside and outside, with two souls only the clean one of which is on display.” Behind such accusations, regardless of whether the girl is a victim or a perpetrator, lie foul and infantile assumptions about women which are a disgrace to modern Europe.

 Speed limit doubts (Tues 4th Oct)

Low motorway accident rates, real average speeds and police speed-enforcement guidelines have encouraged the transport secretary to consider raising the limit to 80 mph. Surveys show that on decongested motorways over half of car drivers exceed the limit, a fifth exceed 80 mph and police rarely prosecute drivers travelling below 80mph. Predictably the petrol-head Jeremy Clarkson claims it will be good for ‘our souls, polar bears and the economy’ while the green loonies rant about peak oil and frying the planet. In fact, when the limit was introduced in 1964, my seatbelt-less Ford Popular with its dodgy cable brakes and dire road-holding was pretty much flat out at 70mph. My present VW Golf Plus, a beautifully engineered but none-the-less routine modern European hatch, is hardly into its sixth and cruising gear at that speed. Of course the motorways in the south are the most congested in Europe and so actually achieving 70 mph can be a magic moment for some of my London relatives. However, legalising today’s tolerated, yet unofficial, 80 mph speed limit is likely to create tomorrows tolerated if unofficial 90 mph limit in Scotland and the provinces. Such speeds may not increase accident numbers but the severity will be worse and we could resemble Italy and Germany where it is rare to have a non-fatal motorway shunt. The answer might be to extend the controlled and managed motorway sections already in use on the M25 and M42 where the limit is set according to traffic flows and density. The technology is so advanced on these southern speed cameras and the enforcement so strict that very high levels of compliance are achieved whatever the speed limit imposed. There will need to be full risk assessment and additional roadside crash protection so the transport secretary should publish firm proposals with an extended consultation period.

The Knox Verdict (Wed 5th Oct)

The legal system in Italy is under the lash this week, both at home and abroad, but we in Scotland are hardly in a position to cast the first stone.
The Italian system is a mixture of Roman and French Napoleonic law and moves at a glacial pace with an average of 10 years between indictment and a court judgement. Its penal code was revised in 1990 when its old ‘inquisitory’ system was replaced by an ‘accusatory’ system but it still retains a reputation of being fiendishly complicated. The treatment Amanda Knox received in Italy has disquieting echoes of that accorded to Lindy Chamberlain in the spectacularly unfair Australian Dingo trial in 1980. There were clear gender-specific dimensions to the criticisms of both women of not being ‘sufficiently emotional’ and responding in an ‘odd and passive’ way to the events. Of more interest to Scotland are the parallels with the trial of Abdelbaset al Megrahi who, like Knox, suffered from national and racial stereotyping by the general public. British tabloids have a tendency to suspect all Muslim men of being bombers while their Italian counterparts present west coast American girls as drug-crazed sex maniacs. Of course in the 1950s it was a ‘well-known fact’ that all French and Swedish girls were sexually promiscuous but, as a Franco-Scot married to an Anglo-Swede, I beg to differ. The prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, has form when it comes to concocting weird scenarios, and his descriptions of satanic rituals were reminiscent of our scandalous Orkney trials. The performance of the Italian forensic team was deplorable and on a par with that seen in the prosecutions of Detective Constable Shirley McKie and Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Yet Italy can be proud that its system is self-righting while our judiciary still struggles to admit culpability in the manifestly unsafe verdicts on McKie and al-Megrahi. Listening to our law lords’ prevarications, Oliver Cromwell’s iconic query came to mind, ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken?’

 Unintended Consequences (Thurs 6th Oct)

The closing years of my career as a parish minister were clouded by the increasing difficulty I experienced in recruiting volunteers to help with church youth activities. Given the obstacles placed in the way of anyone wanting to help, I suppose it is hardly surprising that the number of people volunteering in Britain is drying up. A survey from the Office for National Statistics of the proportion of the population ‘engaged in civil participation’ showed a fall from 40 to 25% in the last decade. Undoubtedly the biggest disincentive to volunteering has been the increasingly onerous regulatory impositions on those who wish to give of their time. From football coaches to parents merely wishing to help out in their children’s school, millions of volunteers have been forced to submit to criminal record checks. Even elderly ladies volunteering their services as flower arrangers in English cathedrals open to the public on weekdays have found themselves caught up in this nonsense. While it is clearly important to keep children safe, this is unlikely to be achieved by discouraging well-meaning adults from helping out in their communities. A disproportionate obsession with health and safety and an irrational aversion to risk has made volunteering needlessly expensive, bureaucratic and intrusive. The root of the problem is partly the Human Rights Act and partly ‘big government’ with its mania for micro-managing the lives of everyone from cradle to grave. There is no need for CRB checks when what is required is a register of those convicted of the sort of offence which makes them unsuitable for work with children or the vulnerable. Having volunteers repeatedly waiting months for details of their past lives to be given to potential ’employers’ in an effort to exclude this minority is just plain daft. Only a jobsworth with a totalitarian mentality could have come up with such a mindless response to the tragic – but mercifully extremely rare – murder of innocents.

 High-Tech Hero or Capitalist Swine? (11th Oct)

The death of Steve Jobs, the obsessive visionary who changed the face of the computing industry, reminded me of my early days in that strange half-world 50 years ago. As with so many 20th century technological innovations, the British picked up the ball and ran with it but then dropped it, leaving the US to make the money. It all started with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park during the last war and when the veil of secrecy was finally lifted I realized one of my older golfing buddies had worked there. I asked him, “Just how weird was Turing?” to which he replied that there were so many very odd people involved in early computing he did not really stand out. Churchill had the machines destroyed after the war on the risible grounds that the USSR might get to know (Russia knew all our secrets) but the dream survived. When I started working with computers during the early 1960s in St Andrew University, sporting a beard was compulsory even – as with the Pharaohs – for women. Scientists like me had to learn the computer language FORTRAN, write our own programmes and use the huge, ponderous machines supplied to us by America’s IBM. The IBM people, just as screwy as the geeks but in an entirely different way, dressed in company suits and were prone to start the day by singing from the company song book. As I wrote in an earlier article, I spent my nights on the “cheap and nasty” IBM 1620, a machine equipped with near-human characteristics of obtuseness and unreliability. My sanity was saved by the university acquiring the next generation computer, IBM 360, a serious piece of kit that allowed me to restart my stalled Physics PhD. Yet few who inhabited that parallel universe had an inkling of what was to come and it took Steve Jobs to realize personal computers must develop in the same way as cars. An entrepreneur rather than a geek, he saw that computers would have to be consumer-friendly because the mass-market was almost entirely made up of techno-illiterates. Founding Apple Computers in 1976, he drove the success of such iconic products as Next, Pixar, iMax, iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad in the face of severe market scepticism. Often mean and cruel, he was the model for Fox’s medic psychopath “House” yet in spite of such traits (or because of them) his place in the pantheon of capitalist gods is assured.

Global Warming (Oct 12th publication same as 22nd Sept)

 The theory of late 20th century global warming popularized by Al Gore is that the phenomenon was caused predominantly by industrial greenhouse gases – especially CO2. It is highly unlikely that trace elements of such gases are solely responsible as Paleo-climate reconstructions find comparable climate variations throughout the whole of the Holocene (last 10,000 years). These reconstructions also show clear associations with the solar variability recorded in the light radio-isotope archives measuring past changes in cosmic ray intensity. However, despite clear evidence of a solar-climate link, the estimated changes of solar irradiance were judged to be too small to account directly for the climate variations. It was argued there must be some sort of indirect solar forcing mechanism and finally satellite observations suggested cosmic rays might be affecting cloud formation. In 1997, the Cosmo-climatologists Henrik Svensmark and Eigil Friis-Christensen of the Danish National Space Centre published their famous theory in the Physical Review. It is known that low-altitude clouds have a cooling effect on the Earth’s surface hence variations in cloud cover caused by cosmic rays can explain climate variations. In the late 20th Century, the Sun’s magnetic field which shields Earth from cosmic rays more than doubled, thereby reducing the average influx of cosmic rays. The resulting reduction in cloudiness, especially of low-altitude clouds, was clearly a significant factor in the global warming the Earth underwent during that period. However, there were no experimental results to confirm the Svensmark-Christensen theory such as evidence of a mechanism linking cosmic rays to cloud formation. The CERN particle-physics laboratory in Geneva, famous for studies of the fundamental constituents of matter, thus decided to devise experiments to test the theory. Researchers have just released results from these experiments which mimic conditions in the Earth’s atmosphere by firing beams of particles into a gas-filled chamber. They discovered that cosmic rays enhance the production of cloud-seeding aerosols thus confirming the rays do play a major role in cloud formation and climate change. Climate science is extremely complex (though it attracts its fair share of infantile responses) and readers can find CERN’s preliminary results in ‘Nature’

 The Gathering Storm (Tues 18th Oct)

The introduction of the euro in 1999 led to a vast lending-boom in Europe’s peripheral economies including the group known collectively as the Club Med banana republics. Apparently investors believed that the shared currency made Greek or Spanish debt just as safe as German debt which gives “wishful thinking” a whole new level of meaning. Contrary to what is often said, this lending boom was not all about profligate government spending – Spain and Ireland actually ran budget surpluses on the eve of the crisis. But the inflows of money fueled preposterous booms in private spending, especially on housing, which ended suddenly as a result of both the economic and the fiscal crisis. Savage recessions drove down tax receipts, pushing budgets deep into the red, just at the time when the cost of bank bailouts led to a sudden increase in public debt. One result of this sudden inrush of reality was the collapse of investor confidence in the government bonds of peripheral EU nations and the post-industrial south. Europe’s answer has been to impose harsh fiscal austerity and cuts in public spending while providing stop-gap financing until private-investor confidence returns. Can this strategy work? It is difficult to see why it should since official hopes of recovery in terms of jobs and growth appear to depend on exports – mainly to other EU countries. But exports can hardly be expected to boom if other countries are also implementing austerity policies and it is more likely the whole EU will remained stalled in recession. In addition, the European Central Bank has a deflationary bias and made the terrible mistake of raising interest rates in 2008 just as the financial crisis was gathering strength. This will lead to very low inflation in Germany and deflation in the debtor nations which will increase the real burden of their debts thus ensuring all rescue efforts will fail. The EU policy elites are just as tied to hard-money-and-austerity dogma as was Weimar Germany when balanced budgets and the gold standard deepened the Great Depression. There is a yawning chasm between what the euro needs to survive and what EU leaders are willing to do (or even discuss) and that makes it hard to be optimistic.

 The myth of Peak Oil (Wed 19th Oct)

The spectre of ‘peak oil’ haunts the West, fueling anxieties about the stability of global supplies as China and other emerging economies take to the road en masse. Doomsters argue that the world has reached a point of maximum oil output so that ‘an unprecedented crisis is looming of economic recession, starvation and war’. In fact, this is the fifth time in modern history that there has been a widespread fear that the world was running out of oil, the first occurring in the USA as early as the 1880s. Production was then concentrated in Pennsylvania and it was thought no oil existed west of the Mississippi – until massive amounts were found in Texas and Oklahoma. Similar fears emerged after both world wars and in 1970 it was said that the end was nigh yet since 1978 world oil output has increased by 30%. Scientific caution and scepticism cannot preclude such panics as Charles Mackay noted in his iconic ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’. The history of social psychology and psychopathology is littered with popular follies sustained by prophetic zealots causing economic bubbles, crusades and witch-hunts. Mackay wrote: ‘Of all the offspring of Time, Error is the most ancient. It is so familiar an acquaintance that Truth comes upon us like an intruder and meets an intruder’s welcome’. No modern developments seem able to bolster confidence in our energy resiliency and the fear of peak oil maintains a powerful grip on the media and our political class. Yet for the foreseeable future, it is clear that petroleum supplies will continue to grow as a result of innovation, investment and the development of more challenging resources. Oil regarded as inaccessible or uneconomical is now on-stream, such as the Brazilian off-shore ‘presalt’. Things do not stand still in the energy industry and unconventional sources of oil, in all their variety, will soon become a familiar part of the world’s petroleum supply. Peak oil, like all simplistic Malthusian prophecies, under-estimates human ingenuity and we should recall that the Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stone.

 The hand-out generation (Thurs 20th Oct)

I remember reading with a sense of foreboding in 2008 that “the smartest guy ever to become president” was about to transform America into a liberal utopia. Clearly history is not the left-wing media’s strong suite since Barak Obama is hardly in the same league as such intellectual giants as Jefferson, Adams, Wilson and Hoover. As regards the statist paradise where wealth is spread evenly among those who labour and those who live off the fruits of such labour – that is still some way off. The idea that government can bail-out, regulate, direct and stimulate a nation into prosperity has pretty much been tested to destruction and cost the US some $5 trillion. Learning that government cannot create wealth and a private sector drowning in green taxes and red tape cannot kick-start recovery has also been costly on this side of the Pond. The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters and their imitators in London make the 1970s “Me Generation” seem altruistic and their sole contribution so far has been to take up space. To give them their due, that is their métier and they have been occupying college space for years without acquiring the skills that might fit them to contribute to the economy. Now returned to “occupy” their old family bedrooms they have come to present both nations with a list of demands starting with the cancellation of all student debt. In pursuit of pretendy degrees in pretendy subjects at pretendy universities and acquiring mind-altering substances, bills of £40,000 have been run up which they want us to pay. Wall Street occupiers also demand a “living wage” of $20 per hour, bestowed whether or not the recipient chooses to work – which, we are informed, is yet another human right. This is accompanied by a demand for open borders and all the usual railing against big oil, capitalists, global warming, genetically modified foods, nuclear power and Israel. Having from infancy denied their mothers access to clean their rooms, the occupiers have naturally prevented New York workers from cleaning the encampment in Zuccotti Park. In their favour it must be admitted that they are making attempts at getting rid of their refuse by the age-old protestor method of throwing bags of garbage at the police. Even my liberal American friends ask, “Where is Mayor Richard Daley when you need him?” but 21st century Democrats openly embrace this “I want handouts!” coalition. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warbled, “God bless them for their spontaneity. It’s young, spontaneous, focused and it’s going to be effective.” I am not sure that’s exactly good news!

Gay Marriage (Tues 25th Oct)

My gay friends – who are very far from the brassy, in-you-face, exhibitionists of the parades in Australia and America – are uneasy about the long step to gay marriage. It is so rare for a “straight” senior churchman to go into bat for them even in manifestly unfair practices like the exclusion of gay clerics they would rather I picked my battles. Yet I was an old fashioned minister of the Scottish Kirk in the sense that I was ordained into my parish in Broughty Ferry and remained there until I retired 35 years later. The words of the ordination in the Gaelic closely resemble that of a marriage service and in the past ministers were expected to remain with their people as with their wife. I saw it as my duty to serve the Ferry people in whatever way I could and that included rites of passage (baptism, wedding and funeral) for members and non-members alike. I have conducted expensive weddings in cathedrals as well as simple ceremonies on mountain tops, in ruined abbeys and, as a naval chaplain, on ships like the Discovery. With equal pleasure and diligence I have married couples of limited means or in straightened circumstances in my manse or manse garden as well as cafes and bars. Those who claimed I degraded Christian marriage by performing the ceremony in a bar received the sort of response which long ago took me off the list of potential Moderators. In fact the vows of the marriage service are so moving and transcendently beautiful I do not believe any loving couple should be prevented from making them before God. To take someone “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do you part.” The bishops claim that marriage “does not owe its existence or rationale to governments or legislatures” which is true but neither does it owe it to the Catholic Church. The Scottish hierarchy should not need to be reminded that marriage is a multifaceted institution of great antiquity which predates the Christian Church by millennia. It has never had a single unchanging definition and same-sex marriages were celebrated in the classical world of Greece and Rome as well as regions of China such as Fujian. I value the views of Cardinal O’Brien but he should not dismiss as “foolish people” other Christian clergy – and the two thirds of all Scots – who do not agree with him.

 In defence of assisted death (Wed 9th Nov)

Dignity in Dying is a campaigning organisation, funded by voluntary contributions from the public and independent of any political, religious or other affiliation. Its stated aim is for individuals to have greater choice, control and access to medical and palliative services with the option of a painless, assisted death within legal safeguards. Surveys regularly find that over 80% of the general public believes a doctor should be allowed to end the life of a patient with a painful incurable disease at the patient’s request. An increasing number of countries permit the assisted death of mentally competent, terminally ill patients suffering unbearably despite receiving optimal palliative care. That anyone could object to such a humane state of affairs seems astonishing but there has in fact been highly organised opposition to a change in the law. Some opponents appeal to obscure religious principles while others talk of slippery slopes and of theoretical pressures which could be made on the disabled and the elderly. The leaders of hierarchical Christian churches impose a rigid line on their flocks but in democratic churches it is clear many clerics and most lay people support assisted dying. I have long been an admirer of Margo MacDonald and on occasion Life and the Work, the Kirk’s magazine, has faced down official disapproval to let me support her case. The number of colleagues agreeing privately is so great conveners should not claim to speak for the Kirk as they clearly do not even speak for the clergy far less the pews. A similar divergence of opinion between committee-persons and those toiling in the trenches appears to be happening in the various branches of the medical profession. The medical knights and “merit-awardees” of the Royal Colleges are now being opposed by the foot soldiers of the Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD). Successive surveys show that almost a third of all doctors are in favour of assisted dying and it is unacceptable that their ‘representative’ bodies refuse to represent their views. Nurses have always been more in tune with the public and it is clearly easier to heroically bear the sufferings of others if one does not have to experience it hour by hour. Joyce Robins of Patient Concern wrote, “Nurses, at the bedside of the dying, listen to patients and relatives whereas doctors, appearing but briefly, stick to the status quo”.

Maybe Herbert was an intellectual giant after all (Wed 8th Feb)

I rattled some cages when I had the temerity not only to cast a jaundiced eye on the “rabble without a cause” but to infer a leading engineer might be an intellectual. In the pre-industrial age the title was only conferred on men of letters but I had assumed in the 21st century it could be extended to include men of science and technology. Orphaned as a child, Herbert Hoover never attended high school but studied at night school before entering Stanford University and graduating with a degree in geology. He first worked in China as a mining engineer and became fluent in Mandarin which he spoke for the rest of his life – which some would consider an intellectual achievement. Moving to Australia he devised a revolutionary method for recovering zinc and founded the company we know today as Rio Tinto which in turn made his fortune. From then on he became an international mining consultant and prolific author in science and economics, holding professorships at the universities of Stanford and Columbia. In World War I, US President Wilson used the dynamic and incisive Hoover to provide famine relief for the allies during the war and defeated Germany in the aftermath. At the close of the war, the New York Times rightly named Hoover one of the “Ten Most Important Living Americans” and Wilson hoped he would be his Democratic successor. Instead, he ran the commerce department under Harding and Coolidge, revolutionized business-government relations and promoted the radio, air travel and international trade. He was beyond any question the best Secretary of Commerce in US history and home ownership, long-term mortgages and product standardization are part of his legacy. Wall Street crashed soon after his election as President and though he combated the Great Depression more ably than is ever allowed, it could not be turned round in three years. Nonetheless his Emergency Relief and Construction Act gave funds for public works and government secured loans to kick-start industry in what was essentially a “New Deal”. He remained active and after World War II, President Truman asked him to tour Europe and Germany to ascertain the economic situation and what might best be done. His brilliant report highlighting the need for massive US aid was taken up by Secretary of State George Marshall and his officials and formed the basis of the Marshall Plan. Like his contemporary Neville Chamberlain, he was a potentially outstanding national leader who was unlucky in his timing and faced intractable problems. Was he an intellectual? Well, perhaps not by the exacting standards of the Scottish literati but as a scientist and economist myself, I think he might just about pass the test.

Clerical Fluff (Thurs 10th Nov)

Britain’s economy has entered an era of low growth when many will be squeezed and it is unhelpful to heap all blame on the venal rich, the feckless poor and the bankers. The fact is that for over a decade around the turn of the 21st century we all started to live beyond our means and borrowed recklessly hoping tomorrow would pay the bill. The protest movement camped on his doorstep has moved the Archbishop of Canterbury to assault the immorality of capitalism and pen an article to the Financial Times. His Grace vaguely suggests “fiscal fairness and a sense of proportion” and advocates a Tobin tax, the unintended consequences of which are clearly beyond his understanding. Other concerned clerics declare that “maximising shareholder value should no longer be the sole criterion” but the nature of replacement criteria is not disclosed. Ed Miliband, whose contribution to the mess might suggest a period of reflective silence, has instead discovered “a gap between people’s values and the way our country is run”. Of course, democracy tends to leave us feeling powerless after encouraging us to believe we have a voice so the temptation to shriek abuse is understandable. But those in positions of leadership, including the clerics, have no such excuse and the platitudes included in the church’s recent report on financial ethics were Pythonesque. It was full of abstractions such as ‘the more we are free, the more we are in chains’ and has declared a crisis in which capitalism has spread greed, wealth and inequality. There is nothing of practical value in such fuzzy moralizing and the church is slumped in the pious simplicity of Savonarola’s Florence hoping to find a banker to burn. We need caution, balance and insight as we face one of greatest challenges of recent times but I have yet to hear an ethical contribution that is not a pretentious cop-out. We also need the democratic participation of parliament, local government, the City and the unions and this should not be short-circuited by clerical fluff and mob rule.

The future is shale (Tues 15th Nov)

Escaping the economic gloom for some golf in Portugal I met an energy-supply Physicist who had attended the European Unconventional Gas Summit in Poland. He was enthused by Cuadrilla Resources’ shale gas discovery in Lancashire which had been highlighted at the summit and was the best news the North-West has had in decades. The UK Parliament’s Energy and Climate Change Committee has already produced a realistic and balanced assessment of shale gas production and the issues involved. I asked him about the green lobby which had initially supported the use of the gas as part of its decarbonisation programme but appeared to be back-tracking at high speed. He said they were between a rock and a hard place in that cheap and abundant gas will undermine renewables whose vast cost can no longer be hidden from the public. Ten years ago Gordon Brown had billions to throw around and the hideous expense could be hidden by “subsidies” but today the UK faces the biggest financial crisis in decades. With large swathes of the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable freezing and starving in their homes in an effort to keep the lights on, the coalition will have to act. No government can afford to ignore such an opportunity and our “greenest-ever” will have to give shale gas the green light which is, after all, a fairly green thing to do. In spite of myths and scares, the technology of hydraulic fracturing has a fairly long track record and the potential problems of fracking can be dealt with by suitable regulation. Objections include the use of chemicals in the fracking process and fears of underground gas escape or the waste water entering the water table but these have all been addressed. Shale gas falls into the low risk category and it must be put in context with other energy sources to produce a comparative analysis of the environmental impact. Coal and oil have much greater environmental costs; solid fueled reactors have their risks; while wind farms with their hideous transmission-clutter wreck the landscape. The costs and benefits must be measured and with half the emissions of coal, our vast natural resources of cheap shale gas will reduce electricity and gas prices right away. It does not look as if the green lobby can win this argument and in such desperate times no government should sacrifice the vulnerable for a speculative and unproven theory.

A gigantic adolescent sulk (Wed 16th Nov)

Having been accused of being unchristian by calling our occupiers the “rabble without a cause”, I trawled online for their views and those of Wall Street, Italy and Greece. Some are interesting and focused, particularly on the overweening power of corporations and the kowtowing of the political class to big money but most are vague and petulant. The UK group’s ‘manifesto’ wants no spending cuts, supports all strikes and protests, demands alternatives to the ‘current system’ and refuses to ‘pay for the banking crisis’. Then there are the usual rants against big oil, capitalists, global warming, GM foods, nuclear power and Israel plus calls for open borders and an end to ‘global injustice’. It concludes by informing us that, “This is what democracy looks like.”, but some oldies like myself rather suspect that “This is what anarchy and mob rule look like.” Their slogan “Capitalism is Crisis” is old hat and overlooks the real crisis which is our amassing of household debt through consumer demands unearned by rising productivity. It might have been better if they had protested New Labour’s reckless spending, waste, selling off gold reserves, deregulation, ridiculous wars and worship of the City. Plenty of things need fixing, but the self-righteous campers have lost focus and it is hard to think of any clear, feasible action by an elected government that would satisfy them. It has descended into a tented tantrum by groups of media-savvy Twitterati who have been inspired by muddy summer music-festivals into throwing a gigantic adolescent sulk.

The big new thing (Thurs 17th Nov)

The American inventor, Thomas Edison, said, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it finally comes.” In a more light-hearted moment he encouraged ‘active patience’ by altering the line of a popular song to read, “Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” Both admonitions played their part in the discovery of the product grapheme: a super-conductor, an atom thick but stronger than steel and as revolutionary as silicon. Two Russian Physicists Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim were employed by Manchester University to work in the field of microscopic electromagnetism. On the side, the pair kicked around the idea of using the thinnest possible slice of a metal like graphite to create a transformer rather than using a semi-conductor like silicon. Faffing about in the lab, they tested the conductivity of some graphite residue on Scotch tape and discovered with the very first sample that it worked as a primitive transistor. It was a eureka moment and the pair dropped everything to concentrate on improving the conductivity by making it thinner until it was down to an atom thick (2D graphite). Possible uses include aircraft skin, foldable touch screens, replacing glass – it is perfectly transparent – and revolutionising everything from nanosurgery to homebuilding. Graphene’s properties were announced in 2004 and the pair won the Nobel Physics Prize six years later – an astoundingly short time signifying the importance of the discovery. Bringing it to the market is another matter and their hopes of trying to patent the material or at least some of their techniques were dashed by American technology’s legal muscle. To be fair, 21st century Britain lacks the commercial scientific expertise to develop such products compared to Silicon Valley and a US (or Far Eastern) partnership beckons. Graphene itself is the gift that keeps on giving with new possibilities emerging every day and the real excitement at the moment is layering graphene with different 2D materials. For example, my medic brothers see its future use in hygiene products or food packaging because sheets of graphene oxide are highly effective at killing bacteria such as e-coli. In fact, the only limits appear to be those of the human imagination and what lies outside the box of conventional product design and development is anybody’s guess. My only regret is that the gathering years will not allow me to see how this truly amazing discovery develops because the two Russians have opened up a whole new garden.

Our reckless agribusiness (Tues 22nd Nov)

Antibiotics are widely used in intensive farming partly to prevent the spread of disease amongst livestock in cramped conditions but mainly to promote animal growth. This has fueled the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) making infections in humans harder to treat. This pathogen is responsible for more deaths each year than AIDS and though firms feeding animals antibiotics defend the practice, its link to hospital outbreaks is clear. Antibiotics came on stream over 75 years ago and were one of the outstanding advances in medicine but in recent times greed has undermined this achievement. Doctors, aware of the misuse or overuse of antibiotics, have started to limit the number of prescriptions they write for human patients but agribusiness ploughs on regardless. In the US, some 80 percent of all antibiotics go to livestock even though the American government acknowledged the attendant health risks to humans more than 30 years ago. Most are given in small doses simply to bulk the animals up for market in spite of the fact that exposure to antibiotics at levels insufficient to kill bacteria causes resistance. The Animal Health Institute, which represents pharmaceutical companies, risibly argues that using the drug in the feed does not mean that it is being used “sub-therapeutically”. It is clear that the practice is driven solely by the fear that stopping the use of antibiotics would increase production costs and the EU has now banned this dangerous practice. In his speech accepting the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine, penicillin’s Scottish discoverer Alexander Fleming delivered an ominous warning of such profit-driven irresponsibility. His fears went unheeded with the US Food and Drug Administration soon approving the use of the drugs in livestock feed and the effectiveness of penicillin quickly plummeting. In a recent lawsuit filed against the FDA, the National Resources Defense Council cited research which found that half of all US meat products contained MRSA. Over 40 years ago I was part of the ethical pharmaceutical division of GlaxoSmithKline then basking in the success of the fabulous wide-spectrum antibiotic ampicillin. But it was in that glad confident morning one of our biblically-minded researchers repeated Fleming’s omen of “a cloud arising out of the sea, no bigger than a man’s hand.”

The West’s naivety (Wed 23rd Nov)

In 1979 the Shah of Iran was deposed by a massive popular uprising but what happened next should have given pause for thought among the promoters of the Arab Spring. As violent protests flare up again across Egypt, the West’s fashionable narrative of a new era of democracy across the Middle East is being exposed as hopelessly naïve. And the nightmare created in Libya by NATO’s neo-colonial adventure has also resulted in widespread anarchy, murder and looting as its medieval tribalists settle old scores. By supporting revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the West meddled in affairs it did not remotely understand and unleashed the beast of fundamentalism just as it did in Iraq. For far from paving the way for freedom and pluralism, the glad confident morning of the Arab Spring has turned is into a winter of chaos, oppression, torture and arbitrary arrest. Egypt’s new rulers are far more autocratic than Mubarak and in the past eight months more civilians have been tried in military courts than in all his 30 years in power. Worse still, women, Christians and other minorities like gay people should be especially afraid of the fearsome terror of Islamic fundamentalism now waiting in the wings. The Iraqi constitution claims equal rights for all citizens, but Article 2 undermines this by saying that “no law contradicting the established provisions of Islam may be established.” Egypt’s constitution also has an ‘Article 2’ saying much the same and though Egyptians had the chance to change that language in a March referendum, they chose to keep it. This is hardly surprising given that polls show over 80 percent of Egyptians support the execution both of adulterers and of Muslims who dare to leave their religion. The West’s naivety is shown in its belief that democracy will keep radical Islam in check whereas it is far more likely the new theocracies will make scapegoats out of minorities. Everywhere economies worsen, unemployment rises and living standards collapse which only plays into the Islamists’ cynical, Machiavellian, long-term game. It will be the same story in Syria where the “brave freedom-fighters” battling against the barbaric Assad are in fact Muslim radicals yearning for a totalitarian theocracy. As Harold Macmillan rightly warned, “Things never turn out as you expect, dear boy, and in the Middle East, no regime is so bad it cannot be replaced with something worse.

White House Hubris (Thurs 24th Nov)

The iconic political image of the year is of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton watching the real time link from the helmets of the US Navy Seals as they finally avenged 9/11. Exactly eight years after George Bush declared “Mission Accomplished”, Obama went on air to gleefully announce that in fact it was he who had finally given America justice. Sadly the President’s precipitant announcement devalued the intelligence gathered by the mission and the remaining Al-Qaeda leadership had time to scurry to another bolt hole. Worse still, his hubris in claiming credit for the mission angered members of Seal Team 6 whose version of events is contained in ‘Seal Target Geronimo’ published this week. The Seals’ own accounts differ from the White House version, which is not surprising as Obama was in fact watching video shot from 20,000ft by a drone circling overhead. Helmet cameras were not worn and White House watchers only knew the result when the words, “Geronimo Echo KIA” were spoken into a satellite phone after the mission. Four reconnaissance satellites were in orbit over the compound to obtain information and the Seals deny it was a ‘kill-mission’ which they dismiss as a ‘Washington fantasy word’. Obama put the operation at risk by refusing to allow the use of the near-silent Ghost Hawk helicopters because their fighter cover would “endanger relations with Pakistan”. Instead they had to use the older Stealth Hawks with a Prowler electronic-warfare aircraft from the carrier USS Carl Vinson jamming Pakistan’s radar and creating decoy targets. The intention was to capture Bin Laden alive but he pushed his screaming wife Amal in front of him and grabbed his AK-47 assault rifle at which point he was shot dead. Far from Obama’s “prolonged fire-fight” at the end of which Bin Laden lay dead, he was killed within 90 seconds of the start and only 12 bullets were fired in the entire operation. The author is Chuck Pfarrer, a former Seal Team 6 commander and it is a wake-up call for politicians like Blair, Brown and Obama with absolutely no military experience. For all his many faults, George Bush flew with the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group and was always accepted as ‘one of us’ by the Joe Shmoes of the American military. Effete elitists who would not be seen dead in a uniform need to get their facts right when doing their John Wayne stunts because they are not playing before a home-field crowd.

Is democracy inevitable? (Tues 29th Nov)

José Manuel Barroso, the former Portuguese Maoist now eurozone ‘leader’, proclaimed, “Our salvation lies in stronger governance, both in discipline and in convergence”. Technicians already run Greece and Italy but he wants the other ‘euro’ nation-states to submit draft taxing and spending budgets to Brussels for ‘enhanced surveillance’.  It is only twenty years since Francis Fukuyama wrote of ‘democratic inevitability’ but Barroso’s pronouncements would not sound out of place in Napoleonic Europe. And beyond the eurozone, democracy is everywhere under attack with America’s fiscal system collapsing, the Arab Spring turning theocratic and mob-rule appearing in Britain. The sun is rising on dictatorial China, oligarchic Russia, kleptocratic Africa and ‘tongic’ Asia while a vast army of public servants hold the UK’s private-sector helots to ransom. Fukuyama thought democracy was self-correcting but under the credit bubble, western electorates voted for a series of spendthrift governments building up stupefying debts. American democracy fell into the hands of lobbyists while New Labour plunged the very depths of economic mismanagement with reckless public spending and ridiculous wars. Across most of the eurozone, electorates goaded politicians to promise ever more and if asked to show restraint or accept a measure of austerity, they simply voted them out. In fact ten years ago a Norwegian government study on the future of democracy warned that Fukuyama was mistaken and democracy is not an inevitable state of government. As we have seen in Britain, it withers first at the local level where centralism clogs access to the seats of power, restricting it to professional politicians in league with big money. This is what happened in interwar Germany and it is happening now not only in Britain but in America and the upper echelons of almost every European government. The Economist blandly assured its readers this month that “the eurozone will muddle through and Europe, with a sigh of relief, will continue down the path of genteel decline”. Well perhaps new disciplines under German guidance will provide the eurozone with a benign future and a re-elected Obama will rally the US – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

A German Hero (Wed 30th Nov)

Exactly seventy years ago one of the most compelling and attractive combatants of the Second World War was killed in an air crash while landing in a storm near Berlin. Werner Mölders was the first pilot in aviation history to claim 100 aerial victories but is best remembered by his RAF opponents for his chivalry and ethereal personality. He was devoutly religious and demanded that all Allied aviators captured under his command be treated with the utmost civility and many were invited to dine with him. Douglas Bader, the legendary British pilot, was one who joined Mölders and his great friend and fellow ace Adolf Galland for lunch after he was shot down in August 1941. The pair petitioned Herman Goering to allow safe passage for a replacement artificial-leg for Bader and within a few days it was parachuted down from a Blenheim bomber. Years later I caddied for Bader and he was still full of admiration for his long dead foe describing him as “a man of indisputable charm and a simply marvellous tactician”. That autumn Mölders became the first of only 27 German servicemen to be awarded the Knights Cross with Swords and Diamonds, an award beyond our VC in its rarity value. He was then appointed Inspector General of Fighters and given responsibility for ‘the future tactics and operational doctrine’ of Germany’s fighter command. His death of the 22nd of November 1941 in the early stages of the monumental struggle in the East was a major set-back and was to have serious repercussions later in the war. The Americans were never convinced of the cost-benefit ratio of the long range strategic bombing of Germany and facing a foe like Mölders might have tipped the balance. Arthur Harris would have been no match for the German tactical genius and if the 15 per cent loss rate of the Nuremberg raid had become routine he would have been sacked. Britain invested a wholly disproportionate amount into long-range bombing and reverting to army support would have prevented war-crimes like Dresden in the final days. The final result was inevitable but the shameful carnage inflicted on refugee-packed cities with the war already won, which still stains our reputation, might have been avoided. The regime casts a long shadow yet fliers like Mölders and Galland, generals like von Manstein and Rommel and seamen like Langsdorff and Kretschmer were noble foes.

What global warming? (Thurs 1st Dec)

Regardless of whether the globe is actually warming, interest in the subject is cooling and the opening of the Durban conference on climate change attracted almost no attention. With the world on the brink of economic depression, global warming is yesterday’s news and climate hyperventilation is no longer fashionable or even intellectually respectable. Scientific mistakes and green propaganda have undermined public confidence while the behaviour revealed by the Climategate whistleblower’s latest e-mails is deplorable. In political debates heralding next year’s elections, US presidential hopefuls described global warming as a “hoax” and outrage at such a suggestion was remarkably muted. Europe promoted the Kyoto Protocol at the same time as it promoted the disastrous euro and today costly green initiatives are the very last thing voters are prepared to welcome. Its economic nightmare is forcing the EU to face up to the reality that more than €200 billion has been squandered on completely inane and ineffective climate policies. A new report by Swiss bank UBS reveals the emissions-trading scheme has already cost European energy consumers many billions with ‘zero impact” on CO2 emissions. The UN notion of a rich north making emission cuts and a poor south being compensated was always a bit simplistic but with China still classed as ‘south’ it looks plain daft. BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – have also kicked the ball into the long grass by announcing any future agreement must await the 2014 IPCC report. So the overall message of the Durban summit is already clear – the hopeless gridlock of international climate diplomacy is set to continue for the foreseeable future. Some nations, like Scotland, may try to ‘go it alone’ but fuel poverty and the departure of any remaining energy-intensive industry will eventually induce some common sense. However the green obsessives at the back end of our pantomime horse of a coalition are still intent on sending one third of a billion to Africa to fight ‘global warming’. Sadly, even when aid is given for something practical like a hospital, it tends to end up in Harrods and it will get there a lot faster when the target is such nebulous nonsense. Given the manifest reluctance of the world’s big emitters to accept legally binding targets we should expect the emergence in Durban of climate realpolitik of ‘wait-and-see’.

The Kirk’s incoherent opposition to gay marriage (Tues 6th Dec)

Extreme intolerance of homosexuality was the Kirk’s default position and it was the reason Scotland was exempted from the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalising gay love. Willie Ross baulked at crossing the powerful national church and it was another thirteen years before Margaret Thatcher managed to bring Scotland into line. She subsequently received a hostile reception at the General Assembly even though Lord Mackay was not alone in judging her speech one of the best heard there in modern times. Today things have changed, the Kirk is a shadow of the power it once was and recent national surveys show Scots support gay marriage in the ration of 3 to 1. Even if the pronouncements of the Kirk’s Legal Questions Committee represented the views of the entire church – which is did not – no religious body has a monopoly definition of marriage. And it most certainly should not seek to impose its view on the rest of a pluralist society composed of all faiths and none where a clear majority rejects that opinion. Quakers, liberal Jews and other Protestant churches accept the Scottish government’s gay marriage proposals and rightly see the issue as being about civil rights and not some perceived morality. The Kirk insults our intelligence by claiming homophobia is a sin, insisting it ministers to all ‘regardless of sexual orientation and practice’ and refusing to marry gay members. It beggars belief that a gay Church of Scotland couple is denied the freedom to wed in their own church and to have that union registered by a celebrant of their own faith. In Scotland last year there were less than 500 civil partnerships compared to some 30,000 different-sex marriages so it is crass for the Kirk to claim the institution is threatened. Secular society in the UK has moved on and its tolerance is now exemplary yet our church leaders foam at the mouth over this manifestly fair-minded legislation. To claim polygamy must follow, our human rights will be subverted and Scotland will be ‘shamed in the eyes of the world for intolerance’ (sic) is both idiotic and incoherent. The very people one might expect to support diversity and inclusiveness misuse biblical language to insist discrimination against gay people must continue on hallowed ground.

Celebrating the Pill (Wed 7th Dec)

The oral contraceptive finally arrived for use on UK shores exactly 50 years ago and was immediately made available to women on the NHS by health minister Enoch Powell. The first commercial product was Enovid based on the progestin norethynodrel which was originally synthesized by the Polish-American chemist Frank Colton in 1952. It was marketed for menstrual disorders initially and trialed in Puerto Rico but in 1960 the US Food and Drug Administration approved its use as a contraceptive. Today, it is taken by around one in three British women of reproductive age and has given women throughout the world unprecedented control over their fertility. The technology has had a key role in the economic rise of women by setting back the age at which they married allowing them to make long-term educational and career plans. Yet this separation of sexual activity from reproduction was not universally welcome and was denounced by Pope Paul VI in his famous 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Across the years it has been variously blamed for sparking the 1960s sexual revolution, loosening society’s morals, promoting teenage promiscuity and altering the sex of fish. However, growing up in a mining village just prior to its introduction I recall its impact on the girls I knew as immediate, life-changing and almost entirely beneficial. Families were huge (six children was normal), parents disowned unmarried mothers, backstreet abortionists were thriving and orphanages were full of illegitimate children. There can, of course, occasionally be complications but my medic brothers say that fears about the damage the pill may do to women’s health have been grossly overstated. It did not cause the sexual revolution: studies show many 1950s women had pre-marital sex and one third of all children born in the UK during WWII were illegitimate. Half a century ago maternal health in the West was as much of an issue as it is today in the developing world with unplanned pregnancies trapping women in a cycle of poverty. Without control over their reproductive lives women can never have full equality, and though taken for granted today, it truly was a quantum leap in human progress.

The futile strike (Thurs 8th Dec)

The lasting effect of the public sector strike may be to divert attention beyond efforts to bring its pensions into line with the private sector to the larger issue of its pay. The gap between employees’ pension contributions and costs will rise to £10 billion per year but their pay bill is £200 billion – over half of everything spent on public services. The colossus cannot be reformed without tackling pay and the Chancellor was right to highlight the fact that almost 5 million people are covered by national pay scales. Because the problem is not that workers earn too much but that pay systems are so rigid with incremental progression ramping up NHS and other salaries in spite of the freeze.  Gordon Brown proposed regional wage bargaining in his 2004 Spending Review but he blinked and the coalition needs real courage to face down the health leviathan. With its ring-fenced budget the NHS remains impervious to reality whereas the police, prisons and local government are using the “cuts” as a catalyst to rethink services. It would certainly be more consistent with the coalition philosophy of localism to control spending by limiting financial allocations rather than interfering directly with pay. In Germany wages are settled regionally but it would be even better if the coalition encouraged heads of bodies like schools and hospitals to negotiate wages individually. This process exists in Sweden where the move in the 1990s from centrally set pay to individual contracts has proved hugely popular even in that highly unionised nation. The spectre has been raised of a return to the 1970s with a three-day week, inflation over of 20 %, IMF bail-outs, a Winter of Discontent and constant, debilitating strikes. That is unlikely because today’s unions are much less powerful and while the public sector can inconvenience ordinary people, it cannot bring whole industries to their knees. In addition, the reforms introduced by Margaret Thatcher and retained by New Labour make it much more difficult for union anarchists to hold the country to ransom. The facile one-day strike placed not only public sector pensions but public sector pay at the top of the coalition’s agenda and this is surely the moment to call the unions’ bluff.

The Euro Farce (Tues 13th Dec)

The fundamental economic problem at the heart of the euro crisis is but the latest version of an issue which faced policymakers at Bretton Woods and was never resolved. In 1944, John Maynard Keynes argued the planned new exchange rate regime required symmetrical obligations on creditor and debtor countries to deal with imbalances. Keynes lost the argument so the problem has returned regularly to haunt the world and was the basis of the US-Japan discord in the 1980s and US-China trade tensions today. In general terms there are four criteria for a successful currency union: wage flexibility, labour mobility, common business cycles and regional fiscal transfers. The size of these transfers should equal the size of the trade surplus so that Germany and other surplus countries should, in perpetuity, hand over money to the deficit countries. In the euro’s gestation period François Mitterrand blackmailed reunification-obsessed Helmut Kohl for support but then found he was trapped in Germany’s embrace. Mitterrand was elected on the promise of delivering an expansionary economic policy but Kohl would have none of it and demanded French fiscal rigour and the ‘franc fort’. For France, the pay-off has been existential because Europe is the engine room of French power and without the euro there would be nothing left of its global pretensions. At present I see no trace of German recognition that the roots of the crisis lie in Berlin’s massive and permanent export surplus secured by the very existence of the euro. Outside Europe, Germany gains hugely from having the euro because if there were a return to the Deutsche mark, foreign investors would consider it a “safe haven”. That would result in the mark’s exchange rate and the cost of its exports rocketing so it is no wonder Merkel is desperate to ‘save’ the euro. The desire to retain a eurozone configured to its interests drives Germany’s attitude to currency reform and its nonchalance at the binning the original ‘European project’. President Sarkozy lays the blame for the recent fiasco on David Cameron but the UK could hardly sign up to a new structure so blatantly designed to be in German interests. Whatever is enshrined in the new treaty, a supranational scheme which condemns much of Europe to indefinite austerity will not survive the realities of national politics. The Eurocrats have exchanged ‘Stability and Growth’ for ‘Austerity and Contraction’ and the UK was right to dissociate itself from this collective suicide pact.

Frozen Planet (Wed 14th Dec)

You know you have become a national treasure when, like Sir David Attenborough, you have been spoofed by both the legendary Spike Milligan and Michael Palin. Who can forget his Aussie ‘cousin’ David Rabbitborough searching the outback for the Walkabout Tree or his beautifully filmed series on the primitive urbanites of Sydney? I was therefore taken aback to hear that the last episode of his recent BBC series, ‘Frozen Planet’, was judged so controversial it had been withheld from international release. This has only happened to “The War Game” and even Al Gore’s disaster movie was shown to school children albeit with a health warning imposed by a high court judge. It turned out to be his usual doom-laden message issued with the reverential tones used by Dr Cameron of Tannochbrae to tell the old ghillie he would walk the hills no more. To remind us of the time when he lay in the arms of a lovelorn Silverback gorilla, he sat beside a ‘dead’ polar bear whose nose twitched alarmingly as the anaesthetic wore off. At first I thought the reason the episode was withheld was that the bear had woken up and David had become the first presenter to be captured on film being eaten alive. In fact the problem was he focused on the Antarctic Peninsula – the only part of the continent where there has been a significant ice melt. He failed to mention this was caused by ocean current shifts due to changing wind patterns – not global warming – and Antarctica has grown colder in the past 50 years. As it contains 90 per cent of the planet’s ice, the growth in its sea ice has more than counterbalanced any shrinkage in the Arctic so sea levels will not change. Research done by the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska reveals that the Earth’s climate is actually still recovering from the Little Ice Age. This started in the late 13th century when the Atlantic pack ice spread and the next six centuries showed humanity has infinitely more to fear from global cooling than warming. It had nothing to do with CO2 and resulted from our climate’s inherent variability caused by orbital cycles, decreased solar activity, volcanoes and altered ocean current flows. Attenborough also failed to mention that for 98% of the Earth’s existence there was no ice at either pole and on six other occasions there was ice at the equator – ‘Snowball Earth’.

The God Particle (Thurs 15th Dec)

Peters Higgs was the professor of theoretical physics at Edinburgh University after whom the Higgs boson is named – the most sought-after particle in modern physics. Much to the atheist Higgs’ annoyance, it is often called the ‘God particle’ after being so described in Leon Lederman’s book ‘If the universe is the answer, what is the question?’ Many other scientists dislike the name since it overstates the particle’s importance and its discovery will still leave unanswered questions about the ultimate origin of the universe. At present physics has reduced the laws governing the behaviour and interaction of all known forms of matter and energy to a small set of fundamental laws and theories. The goal is to find the ‘common ground’ uniting all of these theories into an integrated theory of everything of which the other known laws would simply be special cases. The famous Standard Model groups two major existing models into a consistent theory describing the interactions between all known particles in terms of quantum field theory. It is a subject which has intrigued major western scientists of the 20th century like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman as well as surpassingly brilliant Asian physicists. Trying to find an explanation for the origin of the mass of elementary particles, Higgs (and others in the field) predicted the existence of a new particle now bearing his name. The Higgs boson plays a unique role in the Standard Model by explaining why the photon has no mass and why the other elementary particles are massive. As yet, no experiment has conclusively detected the Higgs but it is hoped CERN’s Large Hadron Collider will either observe it or provide reasons to exclude its existence. Earlier this year CERN’s director Rolf-Dieter Heuer said: ‘By the end of 2012 we will have an answer to the Shakespearean question for the Higgs boson: to be or not to be’. Even discovering its non-existence would be huge, requiring a serious revision of the Standard Model and its explanation of the fundamental mechanics of the universe. Such a revision is probably coming anyway because the Model cannot incorporate dark energy nor provide a theory for gravitation as described by general relativity.

Václav Havel – Cold War Hero (Tues 20th Dec)

One of the most depressing moments of my life occurred on the day Russian tanks rolled in to crush Czechoslovakia’s brief moment of the political freedom in 1968. It was called the Prague Spring and unlike the Arab equivalent 43 years later it was not immediately followed by a new oppression but by freedom of speech and of travel. Sadly Alexander Dubček’s forlorn attempt to grant his people a modicum of human rights, democracy and economic decentralization infuriated the Soviet Union. Within a few weeks all that remained was the movement’s inspirational art and music and even that was suppressed in the darkest hour before the long awaited Russian dawn. But the work of its leader, Václav Havel, was effective abroad leading to the demise of the British Communist party and the defection of its most iconic figure Jimmy Read. In spite of long periods of imprisonment, Havel remained a passionate supporter of non-violent resistance in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Finally, he was able to lead the Czech people out of tyranny during the bloodless end of communism in 1989 known as the Velvet Revolution and he became their first president. One of his first acts was the general release of those imprisoned during the Soviet era saying the decisions of the corrupt courts of the previous regime could not be trusted. He was the ultimate Cold War hero and played a pivotal role in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe though of course, like Gandhi, he was not given the Nobel Peace Prize! Yet he did receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the Gandhi Prize both of which have an infinitely better list of recipients than the heavily politicized Nobel award. Though a Czech Green party member, he was an excoriating critic of global warming describing it as “a metaphysical ideology with nothing to do with the natural sciences.” He dismissed the IPCC as “a neo-political body; a non-government organization of green flavor. It is neither a scientific institution nor a balanced forum of climate scientists.” Recently he had looked thin and drawn and on Sunday he finally succumbed to chronic respiratory problems – a legacy of the years he spent in dank communist prisons. Apart from Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, I consider Havel the most sympathetic and ultimately successful of all the modern West’s revolutionary leaders.

Is Sarkozy mad? (Wed 21st Dec)

French President Sarkozy is lashing out at all his ‘enemies’ and now plans to prosecute people who deny that the deportation of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide. The respected US historian Bernard Lewis has already been fined in a French civil court for saying, “The events constitute genocide only in the Armenian version of history”. During World War I the Ottoman Empire was under extreme pressure not only externally but also internally as both Armenian and Arab nationalists provoked armed revolts. In eastern Anatolia, during the Caucasus Campaign the Armenian population engaged in open warfare and in 1915, a separatist government was proclaimed in Western Armenia. At the same time a joint French and British operation was mounted in the Dardanelles to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople and secure a sea route to Russia. The Ottomans were desperate to remove the Armenian threat because its brigades were causing mayhem in their homelands and fighting alongside the Russians on the front. Turkey today takes the position that subsequent Armenian deaths were, on the whole, the result of WWI turmoil and the terrorist activity of their radicals should not be ignored. These dreadful events cannot be seen in isolation and it is clear Christian propaganda in Asia Minor helped to initiate a region-wide conflict between the Crescent and the Cross. In addition the West glosses over the fate of millions of Ottoman Muslims expelled from the Balkans and Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries to focus solely on the Armenians. Certainly Franciscan monks living in the region have always claimed it was not an act of genocide but a two sided battle with Armenian militia supported by Russian troops. Turkey never accused Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro of genocide and argues the events were part of the war so it is absurd for Turkey to be alone in the dock. The worst instances of famine occurred in what is now Syria and its reasons must include bad harvests, men at the front and the total blockage of the coast by the French navy.  If France goes ahead, Turkey will retaliate by denouncing its vile record in Algeria as well as its part in the Armenian famine so a little discretion might be warranted.

Thoughts for Christmas (Thurs 22nd Dec)

During my years as a parish minister I longed for Christmas Day to fall on a Sunday – as it will this year – because services between Christmas and New Year are so forlorn. Apart from Remembrance Sunday, no other act of public worship is easier to lead as long as the celebrant remains focussed and does not get in the way of the traditional message. Alan Clark, the revisionist historian and wayward Tory minister of the Thatcher era, wrote in his otherwise execrable diaries of a Christmas service attended in the Highlands. He had ceased to believe it was possible for the iconic story to be delivered by a British clergyman without it being deluged by all kinds of politically-correct twaddle. To his delight, the service was led by an old Highland minister who simply read from the King James Bible and chose well loved carols instead of “tuneless modern rubbish”. Of course, clergymen should speak up for the poor and excluded but it is a huge mistake to use Christmas Day to stray from general encouragement to political point-scoring. Kirk Moderators are now dissuaded from being ‘prophetic’ and in view of some of the stuff coming from the Catholic hierarchy and Rowan Williams it is perhaps no bad thing. I have always thought one of the greatest contributions of Christianity has been its belief in ‘willed change’ – the belief that tomorrow can be better and we can make it so. It is extraordinary that it should all have begun with these very obscure events taking place among poor, illiterate and subject people in the badlands of the Roman Empire. No contemporary Roman could possibly have imagined a new civilisation was starting which in terms of art and science and knowledge would reach unimaginable heights. Christians recall these events on Christmas Day and they will be joined for perhaps the only day in the year by families from our fractured and increasingly secular society. Hopefully they too will hear the old story in traditional language and sing the old carols with all party-political garbage and tuneless music binned for the festive season.

At the gate of the year (5th Jan)

I will always remember 2011 with delight as the year my daughter was married but for most people it turned out to be a pretty depressing and frustrating year. On the other hand, all punditry and long term weather forecasts were wide of the mark with Wall Street, the western currencies and even sea levels ending where they started. No geopolitical or intelligence agency foresaw the Arab Spring or the replacement of the Greek and Italian leaders by personal representatives of the German Chancellor. My recollection is that they predicted an Israeli attack on Iran, another banking crisis, the collapse of the US dollar, the Japanese bond market and British house prices. As it turned out, the Anglo-French finally got an excuse to bomb Gaddafi and Islamicists everywhere attacked their minorities which is deplorable but it could have been worse. The year’s non-event occurred at the Fukushima nuclear plant following an earthquake driven tsunami: 20,000 people died in the real (natural) disaster – nobody at the plant. We said a sad farewell to icons like Seve Ballesteros, Steve Jobs and Václav Havel but some not-so-sad farewells to the likes of Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-il. British golf had its best year ever with Rory McIlroy in the US Open, Darren Clarke in our Open and the progress of that ultimate touring-professional Luke Donald. Mark Cavendish was rightly British Sport Personality of 2011 but it was Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara on the 90-foot Portuguese monster that will live in my memory. It was an appalling year for popular music and films but ‘All Hell Let Loose’, Max Hastings’ magisterial history of the Second World War, redeemed the literary scene. Looking to 2012, the only truth I know is: “Don’t bet against America” and since China’s approach to macroeconomic management is much the same, don’t bet against it either. We are too close to the EU to avoid another year of stagnation and the best we can hope for is the eurozone forging a single nation or arranging an orderly break-up. Finally, December 21 2012 marks the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar but Mayan scholars dismiss apocalyptic scenarios leaving that field to the doomster Al Gore.

The greatest scientist since Einstein? (10th Jan)

Stephen Hawking turned 70 on Sunday – an achievement almost as extraordinary as his contributions to cosmology. For 30 years he was a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University and is best known for ‘A Brief History of Time’, the least-read best-seller in literary history. His key work involved the gravitational singularities of general relativity and the prediction that black holes should emit radiation, now known as ‘Hawking radiation’. To the delight of the media he is prone to stray into other fields where he makes saloon-bar comments on theology and controversial prophecies about humanity’s future. As his illness has advanced he has become profoundly pessimistic suggesting that we will be wiped out by a virus (possible), nuclear war (unlikely) or global warming (joke). He now believes we have no long-term future on earth and that the survival of the human race requires the space programme to be restarted with a view to mass travel and colonisation. In a BBC Radio 4 programme to mark his 70th birthday Hawking answered some listeners’ questions which provide an insight into his current thinking. He is highly sceptical of the results of the CERN experiments which appear to show neutrinos travelling faster than light because they are not supported by parallel research. The existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is statistically inevitable but he warns the outcome of any interaction will resemble Europeans arriving in the Americas. The media often refer to Hawking as ‘the greatest physicist since Albert Einstein’ which I suppose means superior to all those who have been around since his death in 1955. However to claim his contributions were more significant than those of the likes of Bohr, Born, Dirac, Feynman, Heisenberg, Landau, Pauli and Schrödinger is just ridiculous. I value him as an indomitable human being and treasure his reflections on his condition: ‘It is a waste of time to be angry about disability. One simply has to get on with life’.

Michelle unlikely to be fazed (Wed 11th Jan)

The first black student to gain entry to Harvard Law School at the turn of the 20th century was a graduate of the relentlessly elitist Californian ‘hidden Ivy’, Pomona College. It was therefore no surprise when I entered Pomona 50 years ago to face formidable black female academics – the forerunners of Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama. The civil rights movement was still in its infancy and they had to be wary in the south, but in the liberated atmosphere of western academia they were no shrinking violets. During the 2008 election, I was more intrigued by Michelle than by her husband, who struck me as a smooth-talking Chicago machine-politician with unsavory backers. In the last century, the unwritten rules of presidential electioneering permitted no-holds-barred attacks on the candidate but placed his wife and family strictly off-limits. This broke down during the Bush-Gore election when the desperate Democrats targeted the Bush twins Barbara and Jenna, then at the universities of Yale and Texas. Michelle will be a victim of Republican retaliation with muscular depictions already appearing of her as an imperious, vacation-obsessed, shopaholic Marie Antoinette. Her situation will not be helped by ‘The Obamas’, a book written by journalist Jodi Kantor which details the feuds between the first lady and key presidential advisers. The Republicans will probably try to portray her as a cross between angry and divisive White House wives of the past and Britain’s loose-cannon Cherie Blair. I doubt this will faze her because, unlike her husband, she really is the invincible product of America’s slave plantations with a history of storming the bastions of privilege. Hot-housed through Chicago’s ‘magnet’ school system, she went up to Princeton where she read African-American studies before gaining her law degree at Harvard Law School. She worked for a couple of years as a lawyer in intellectual property before opting for state administration as well as salaried board memberships as her husband’s status grew. Racist labels could backfire because this high-profile African-American woman in a stable marriage is both a positive role model and a clear example of racial mobility. Given the fruits-and-nuts-and-flakes on the Republican ticket, it is hard to see Obama losing, which may explain why Fox News is kick-starting a ‘Draft Hillary’ campaign.

John Cameron replies to the claim that he confused Havel and Klaus. (Thurs 12th Jan)

Václav Havel and Václav Klaus were such rivals there was a tendency to exaggerate the differences between them on policy issues such as the euro and global warming. Klaus studied ‘the economics of foreign trade’ at Prague University and international finance as a post-graduate student at Cornell University in the United States. From the very first he was opposed to the political extension of the EU and called for such aspirations to be scrapped and a return made to the original idea of a free trade area. He could not understand why having just escaped the dead hand of Soviet communism the Czechs should be so keen to subject themselves to the dead hand of Brussels. In a similar vein he opposed the global-warming activists whose tactics reminded him of ‘Soviet communism’s methods, practices and prevention of counter-arguments’. As an economist he was especially critical of the ‘deeply flawed’ Stern report on the cost of global warming based on what he termed ‘a gross cherry picking of doubtful facts’. Havel on the other hand was a playwright, essayist and poet, a politician by force of circumstances and a close friend of Milan Horácek, founder of the German Greens. It was therefore easy to portray him as a rabid cheer-leader for the eurozone and global warming yet though he was clearly an environmentalist he also exercised some caution. As grave doubts started to surface after he left office about both euro-economics and climate-science he grew increasingly uneasy about the huge sacrifices being demanded.
In later speeches he would say:
‘The end of the world has been anticipated so many times in the past but it has not happened and it is not going to happen this time either. The effects of possible climate change are obscure and hard to estimate because our planet has never been in a state of balance but has evolved over billions of years. I think it highly unlikely such a complex phenomenon problem can be solved by a single branch of science or that change is driven by a single one of the many factors involved. Observations must be analysed with an open mind, ideological obsession must be resisted and wide discussion encouraged rather than prevented by claims that the debate is over’.

Theories on the Costa Concordia (Tues 17th Jan)

I was still serving in the Royal Naval Reserve when the behemoth cruise liners emerged and it was pointed out their safety standards were designed for vessels half their size. Ironically in the centenary year of the Titanic drills and evacuation procedures are still a major cause of concern and lifeboat design has barely moved on since 1912. Boats are still lowered on wires and if the vessel is listing badly half are unusable yet oil rigs use rapidly-launched enclosed pods that drop into the water from a sloping ramp. In addition the same fears have been heard about ships officers too reliant on electronic navigation aids as have been heard about air crews in their fly-by-wire cockpits. At present there are at least three conflicting theories as to how the Costa Concordia, one of the largest passenger ships in the world, came to capsize within yards of the shore. The first is the captain’s claim that it hit an uncharted rock and as he steered into the safer, shallow waters off the island of Giglio it hit more rocks and rolled on to its side. The second is that there was a massive electrical and/or computer failure which sent the navigation systems haywire causing it to sail too close to shore where it hit the rocks. A third theory is that it was old-fashioned human error or macho recklessness – still the main cause of 80 per cent of shipping accidents – or a combination of all three. The investigation will take months to look into every decision, order and event but it is already clear that there was an earlier explosion and that the ship’s lights failed. A bank of diesel engines generates electricity to power these ships and an engine-room explosion will cause the lights to fail and the engines and steering to shut down. A similar failure hit the Queen Mary in 2010 as it approached Barcelona but there were no hazards nearby so the crew had time – 30 minutes – to restart the engines. It is certainly possible the captain hit an uncharted rock because in 2007 another cruise ship struck a reef incorrectly shown on official maps in the waters off Greece. Whatever the cause, the accident highlights the fact that the behemoths are hard to steer and evacuate, vulnerable to side wind and list badly if they take in water.


Forensic Report on the Lockerbie Bombing

June 16, 2011

The international success of Anthony Zuiker’s US television series “Crime Scene Investigation” (CSI) led to a wildly inflated view of the reliability of forensic science. From the start the American police cautioned that the series gave members of the public an inaccurate perception of how crimes were solved. Of course, forensic scientists loved the show and delighted in their enhanced reputation though what actually happens in the real world is markedly different.

One of the UK’s foremost criminal lawyers, Michael Mansfield has long warned against over-reliance on forensic evidence to secure convictions. He said “Forensic science is not immutable and the biggest mistake that anyone can make is to believe that its practioners are somehow beyond reproach. Some of the worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history have come from cases in which the forensic science was later shown to have been grossly misleading.” There is, in fact, a kind of “canteen culture” in forensic science which encourages officers to see themselves as part of the prosecuting team rather than investigators seeking the truth.

At first this did not seem to matter in the aftermath of the destruction Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. It was quickly established by air accident investigators that there had been an explosion in the forward cargo hold in the baggage container AVE 4041. Fragments of a Samsonite suitcase which appeared to have contained the bomb were recovered, together with parts of a Toshiba Bombeat radio cassette recorder in which the bomb had been concealed. There were also items of clothing which looked as if they had also been in the case. At this stage the forensic evidence appeared robust and no credible doubt has been raised in the years since the event that this was the method by which the plane was destroyed.

The police discovered that the baggage container AVE 4041 had been loaded with interline baggage at Heathrow. The baggage had been x-rayed by Sulkash Kamboj of Alert Security; an affiliate company of Pan Am. John Bedford, a loader-driver employed by Pan Am told police that he had placed a number of cases in the container before leaving for a tea break. When he returned he found an additional two cases had been added, one of which was a distinctive brown Samsonite case. Bedford said that Kamboj had told him he had added the two cases. When questioned by the police, Kamboj denied he had added the cases or told Bedford he had done so. This matter was only resolved at the trial when under cross examination Kamboj admitted that Bedford was telling the truth.

All the evidence at this stage pointed to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine –General Command (PFLP-GC). Five weeks before Lockerbie, a PFLP-GC cell was apprehended in Germany. Haffez Dalkamoni, right-hand man to the group’s leader Ahmad Jibril, and the bomb-maker, Marwen Khreesat were arrested while visiting electrical shops in Frankfurt. In the boot of Dalkamoni’s car was a Toshiba cassette recorder with Semtex moulded inside it, a simple time delay switch and a barometric switch. Under German police interrogation, Dalkamoni admitted he had supervised Khreesat when he built bombs into a Toshiba radio cassette player, two radio tuners and a TV monitor. He also admitted that Khreesat had built other bombs including a second Toshiba containing similar pressure
switches but he claimed to have no knowledge of its whereabouts.

The involvement of the PFLP-GC was consistent with what was assumed at the time to be the motive for the Pan Am atrocity. In July 1988 Iran Air Flight 655, a passenger jet containing some 300 Iranian pilgrims, had been shot down over the Persian Gulf by the renegade US battlecruiser Vincennes. Not only did America
refuse to apologize, the captain of the ship and his gunnery officer were decorated for their actions. This crass behaviour caused outrage within Iran and throughout the Middle East. Tehran Radio condemned the attack as an act of naked aggression and announced it would be avenged ‘in blood-splattered skies’.

Soon the US Air Force Command was issuing warnings to its civilian contractors: ‘We believe Iran will strike back in a tit for tat fashion with mass casualties.’  Later warnings were more specific: ‘We believe Europe is the likely target for a retaliatory attack due to the large concentration of Americans and the established terrorist infrastructures in place throughout Europe.’

Within weeks the CIA reported that Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the PFLP-GC had met government officials in Iran and offered his services. Interpol circulated warnings about the PFLP-GC bombs to all European airports. Heathrow Airport issued its own warning to security staff, stating that it was ‘imperative that when screening or searching radios, radio cassette players and other electrical equipment, staff remain extra vigilant’. After the arrest of the PFLP-GC cell Heathrow received more information, including photographs of the Toshiba bomb from the German authorities.

In the aftermath of Lockerbie, all the Toshiba cassette bombs seized by the Germans were tested and found to run for 30 minutes after they were set. The advantage of the barometric timer employed is that it is not activated until the plane is airborne so the bomb will not go off on the ground if the flight is delayed.  Some seven or eight minutes will elapse as the aircraft gains height and the air pressure drops enough to activate a barometric timer set to go off 30 minutes later, i.e. 37 or 38 minutes after the flight took off. It was precisely 38 minutes after Pan Am Flight 103 took off from Heathrow on 21 December 1988 that it exploded over Lockerbie.

The clothing thought to have been in the suitcase with the bomb contained labels which allowed the items to be traced to a shop in Malta. A member of Dalkamoni’s cell, Abu Talb, who was then awaiting trial for separate offences in Sweden, was known to have visited Malta shortly before the atrocity. When first questioned the owner of the shop, Tony Gauci, described the purchaser of the clothes as a dark-skinned, 50 year old man over six feet in height – which fitted Abu Talb – and identified him from a photograph.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) issued a memo on September 24th, 1989 which stated, “The bombing of the Pan Am flight was conceived, authorised and financed by Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, Iran’s former interior minister. The execution of the operation was contracted to Ahmad Jibril, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command leader, for a sum of $1m. $100,000 of this money was given to Jibril up front in Damascus by the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Muhammad Hussan Akhari for initial expenses. The remainder of the money was to be paid after successful completion of the mission.”

A DIA briefing in December 1989 entitled “Pan Am 103, Deadly Co-operation” confirmed the American belief that Iran was the state sponsor of the bombing. It claimed that the PFLP-GC was “fast becoming an Iranian proxy” and that the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 to avenge the shooting down of the Iran Air 655 airbus was the result of such Iranian and PFLP-GC co-operation. It specifically discounted Libya’s involvement in the bombing on the basis that there was “no current credible intelligence” implicating her. It stated: “Following a brief increase in anti-US terrorist attacks after the US airstrike on Libya in 1986, Gaddafi has made an effort to distance Libya from terrorist attacks.”

Then, in August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait thereby putting at risk the stability of the Saudi and Gulf sheikhdoms on which the West depended to preserve the status quo in the region. A sudden shift of alliances was necessary. If Iraq was to be confronted, then Iran had to be treated with kid gloves and the Syrian regime must be brought on board. At the beginning of 1991 Syrians joined Western troops in the attack on Saddam’s invading army and the increasingly isolated Colonel Gadaffi gradually became the chief suspect on the Lockerbie bombing.

As a result of the change in overall narrative and the fact that there had been absolutely no Libyan activity in London, interest in Heathrow as the scene of the bomb planting suddenly ceased. Now the Maltese connection became crucial. Heretofore it had simply been assumed the clothes were purchased at a Maltese tourist shop in preference to the more regulated shops of Frankfurt or London.
But there was a long standing connection between Malta and Libya which survived all the twists and turns of international diplomacy. In particular, it was one of the key conduits through which essential supplies could be transferred to Tripoli when Gaddafi’s behaviour had provoked yet another set of sanctions being imposed on his country.

The purchaser of the clothes in Tony Gauci’s shop in Malta now magically morphed from a non-Libyan giant in late middle age to a youthful, 5’ 7” tall Libyan in his mi -thirties. His name, it appeared was Abdelbaset al Megrahi, head of security for Libyan Airlines. Educated in the USA and Britain, he was also director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Tripoli. A cosmopolitan figure with a wide range of international contacts it was rumoured that he was used by Libya to import essentials during periods of sanctions. The claim that he had suddenly changed into a terrorist bomber was met with derision at home and abroad. The idea that he and his colleague Khalifah Fhimah, the station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines at Luqa Airport in Malta, had somehow secreted an unaccompanied suit case onto flight KM180 was thought to be absurd.

The Maltese police also protested that this was a most unlikely scenario. They had questioned the senior airport baggage loader who was adamant that he always double-counted his luggage: once when it was finally gathered and again as it was physically loaded onto the plane. This extremely reliable official was absolutely certain that there were no unaccompanied cases in the luggage that he counted on to the flight. In fact, not only was there no evidence that the bomb had been put on board in Malta, but Air Malta had won a libel action in 1993 establishing that it was not!

The theory that the bomb entered the system in Malta as a piece of unaccompanied baggage and rattled around Europe before finding its way onto Pan Am 103 in London was widely ridiculed. The excellent screening at Frankfurt would have surely picked it up or, if not, it could well have been lost on the twilight zone of European baggage handling. But the greatest problem lay with the barometric trigger which would have caused flight KM180 to explode 38 minutes into the first leg to Frankfurt. This was the moment when the forensic scientists stepped up to the plate.

The two British scientists involved in the Lockerbie case were the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment’s Alan Feraday and Thomas Hayes. Charred material found some weeks after the bombing in woods near Lockerbie in mysterious circumstances had been sent for analysis to explosives laboratory at Fort Halstead in Kent. According to his later testimony Hayes teased out the cloth of one piece of the material, later identified as the neckband of a grey Slalom-brand shirt. Within it he found fragments of white paper, fragments of black plastic, a fragment of metal and a fragment of wire mesh—all subsequently found to be parts of a Toshiba RT-SF 16 and its manual. Hayes testified that he also found embedded a half-inch fragment of circuit board.

The next reference to this famous circuit board fragment occurred when Alan Feraday sent a Polaroid photograph of it to the police officer leading the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector William Williamson, asking for help in identification. In June 1990, Feraday and DCI Williamson visited FBI headquarters in Washington and together with Thomas Thurman, an FBI explosives expert, finally identified the fragment as being part of a timer circuit board.

Thurman’s involvement in identifying the fragment later proved highly controversial because in spite of his claim to be an “explosives forensic expert” he had no formal scientific qualifications whatsoever. He read politics at university and had somehow drifted into the FBI Labs. Worse was to follow when in 1997 the U.S. Inspector-General Michael Bromwich, issued a report stating that in other trials Thurman had “circumvented procedures and protocols, testified to areas of expertise that he had no qualifications and fabricated evidence”. Numerous defendants had to be released and Thurman was fortunate not to be prosecuted himself. He was fired from the FBI labs and banned from acting as an expert witness in any other court case.

Thurman could not therefore give evidence at the Lockerbie trial and the Crown’s case would be further damaged when the testimony of his UK counterpart, Alan Feraday, was called into question. In three separate cases—where Feraday had been the expert witness—men against whom he gave evidence have had their convictions overturned. Like Thurman, Feraday was not actually a professional scientist and in 2005, after yet another successful appeal, the Chief Lord Justice said that “under no circumstances should Feraday be allowed to present himself as an expert witness in electronics”.

By the time of the trial the career of Thomas Hayes was also over because a British Parliamentary inquiry had found he had conspired to with-hold evidence in the notorious trial of the Maguire Seven. Sir John May had said, “The whole scientific basis on which the prosecution was founded was in truth so vitiated that on this basis alone the conviction should be set aside.”  Hayes jumped before he was pushed and by the time of the trial was working as a chiropodist.

As the argument for a Maltese connection and Libyan involvement progressed the tiny fragment of circuit board became increasingly important. Thurman now “indentified” it as part of a batch made by the Swiss manufacturer Mebo for the Libyan military. This was not the simple design thought to have been used in the Pan Am 103 bombing but a complex type of long timer. Edwin Bollier later revealed that he declined an offer of $4 million by the FBI to testify that the fragment was indeed part of the Mebo MST-13 timer. Fortunately one of his employees, Ulrich Lumpert, was prevailed upon to do so at the trial though later, in a sworn affidavit, he would admit he had lied. The other co-owner of Mebo, Erwin Meister, confirmed that MST–13 timers had been sold to Libya and helpfully identified Megrahi as a “former business contact”.

All the ducks were finally in a line and the Anglo-American authorities indicted the two Libyan suspects in November 1991. Gaddafi was then ordered to extradite them for trial in either the United Kingdom or the United States. Since no bilateral extradition treaty was in force between any of the three countries, he refused to hand the men over but did offer to detain them for trial in Libya, as long as all the incriminating evidence was provided. The offer was unacceptable to the US and UK, and there was an impasse for the next three years.

In November 1994, President Nelson Mandela offered South Africaas a neutral venue for the trial but this was rejected by John Major. A further three years elapsed until Mandela’s offer was repeated to Major’s successor, Tony Blair, when the president visited London in July 1997 and again at the 1997 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh in October 1997. At the latter meeting, Mandela warned that “no one nation should be complainant, prosecutor and judge” in the Lockerbie case.

A compromise solution was eventually engineered by the legal academic Professor Robert Black of Edinburgh University of a trial in the Netherlands governed by Scots law. Since this was in accordance with the New Labour government’s promotion of an “ethical” foreign policy, it was given political impetus by the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook. A special High Court of Justiciary was set up in a disused United States Air Force base called Camp Zeist in Utrecht.

In recent years no forensic-based case has caused greater concern than the Lockerbie trial and the prosecution has been widely accused of using the tactics of disinformation. The lead prosecutor was the highly controversial Lord Advocate, Colin (later Baron) Boyd who three years before had prosecuted DC McKie in another forensic disaster. The policewoman denied an accusation by Scottish Criminal Record Office (SCRO) fingerprint officers that she left her thumb print at a murder scene in January 1997. She was arrested in March 1998, charged with perjury but at her trial in May 1999 the SCRO fingerprint evidence was rejected out of hand and she was acquitted.

A senior Scottish police officer, James Mackay QPM, was appointed by the Crown Office to investigate the matter and he submitted his report to Boyd in October 2000. It found that the actions of the SCRO personnel amounted to collective manipulation and collusion’ and four of them were immediately suspended by the SCRO. With the Lockerbie trial in full swing Boyd was obviously reluctant to prosecute the officers involved and to great public indignation he allowed them to be reinstated. It would clearly have damaged his fragile case in the Lockerbie trial to have four of Scotland’s forensic scientists prosecuted for covering up acts of criminality. The finger-print scandal was only resolved in 2006 when the policewoman was awarded £750,000 compensation and Boyd was rightly forced to resign as Lord Advocate.

There were profound inconsistencies in much of the evidence presented to the trial. For instance, the entry of the discovery of the timer fragment was recorded at widely different times by UK and German investigators. The German police files indicate that fragments of the bomb timer were found on the shirt in January 1990. So the shirt collar could hardly have been examined nor the items of evidence extracted on 12 May 1989 as was claimed by Hayes at the trial. German documents also contain photographs showing a piece of the shirt with most of the breast pocket undamaged but the images presented to the trial were different.

It is also disconcerting that an additional page was inserted into the evidence log detailing the discovery of the Slalom shirt with particles of the bomb timer on it. The record of the discovery was inserted into a loose-leaf folder with the five subsequent pages re-numbered by hand – a procedure for which the scientist could offer no explanation at the trial. The prosecution’s evidence looked at times like a co-coordinated effort to mislead the court. Yet the Judges helpfully concluded that the compromised evidence log did not matter because “each item that was examined had the date of examination incorporated into the notes.”

During the trial, MeBo engineer Ulbricht Lumpert – whose evidence was crucial in connecting the famous fragment to the Libyan batch – caused consternation by adding that the fragment on display belonged to a timer that had never been connected to a relay i.e. had not triggered a bomb. This claim could not be countered by the prosecution because Hayes had inexplicably not thought it necessary to test the tiny timer fragment for explosive residue. However, given their conduct of the trial it came as no surprise that the three Scottish judges were untroubled by what should have been a disaster for the prosecution.

The lead judge was the veteran Lord Sutherland accompanied by an inveterate tribunal chairman, Lord Coulsfield, and the sentencing and parole expert Lord MacLean. They admitted the uncertainties in the testimony and the dangers inherent in “selecting parts of the evidence which seem to fit together and ignoring parts which do not fit”. They also admitted it was possible they were “reading into a mass of conflicting evidence a pattern and conclusion which was not really justified” but ploughed on regardless.

In the end, the judges accepted that the absence of a credible explanation of how the suitcase was placed into the system at Luqa airport was “a major difficulty for the Crown case”. However they still managed to convince themselves that this was indeed what had happened. “When the evidence regarding the clothing, the purchaser and the timer is taken with the evidence that an unaccompanied bag was taken from KM180 to PA103A, the inference that that was the primary suitcase becomes, in our view, irresistible.” This statement was met with derision in Scotland and rightly dismissed as “inference piled upon inference”.

The judges further accepted that the PFLP-GC were also engaged in terrorist activities during the same period but found “no evidence from which we could infer that they were involved in this particular act of terrorism, and the evidence relating to their activities does not create a reasonable doubt in our minds about the Libyan origin of this crime.”

If most observers found this a very odd way of looking at the evidence, the final decisions of the judges provoked utter consternation. It appeared beyond any shadow of a doubt that the two accused were either both guilty or both not guilty but the Law Lords managed to find clear blue water between them. The judges were unanimous in finding the second accused, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, not guilty of the murder charge. He was freed and he returned to Libya on 1 February 2001.

As for Abdelbaset al-Megrahi the judges said: “There is nothing in the evidence which leaves us with any reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the first accused, and accordingly we find him guilty of the remaining charge in the indictment.” Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a recommendation that he should serve at least 20 years before being eligible for parole.

Huge doubts remain about the prosecution’s case and the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) in 2007 found prima facie evidence of a miscarriage of justice. It is clear from their report that the unreliability of the prosecution’s key witness Tony Gauci was one of the main reasons for the referral of Megrahi’s case back to the Appeal Court. Gauci had been interviewed 17 times by Scottish and Maltese police during which he gave a series of inconclusive statements and there was evidence that leading questions had been put to him. Gauci was clearly not the “full shilling” as Lord Fraser, Scotland’s senior law officer during the investigation, had admitted. And yet he was not entirely stupid. The Americans paid him $2 million for his revised identification and he now resides in comfortable obscurity in Malta.

The review commission also discovered that the prosecution failed to disclose a document from a foreign power which confirmed beyond any shadow of a doubt that the bomb timer was supplied to countries other than Libya. This document, passed to the commission by the foreign power in question, contained considerable detail about the method used to conceal the bomb and linked it to the PFLP-GC, the first suspects in the investigation. Moreover, the Iranian defector Abolghasem Mesbahi, who provided intelligence for the Germans, had already told the prosecutors in 1996 that the bombing been ordered by Tehran, notTripoli.

Scientists generally recommend selecting the competing hypothesis that makes the fewest assumptions. Known as Occam’s razor, we use it to cut out crazy, complicated constructions and to keep theories grounded in the laws of science. The Maltese evidence linking Megrahi to the atrocity is so fragile, so complex and so full of unsupported assumptions it depends almost totally upon the integrity of the forensic scientists.  It is therefore unfortunate that it would be difficult to find three more disreputable practioners than Thurman, Hayes and Feraday. It should be a matter of deep concern that Megrahi is the only man convicted on the evidence of these three individuals whose conviction was not reversed on appeal.

There is also no credible evidence that the clothes from Tony Gauci’s shop found among the Lockerbie wreckage were really bought on the day stated in the trial. The sale seemed much more likely to have happened on a day when Abu Talb was on Malta and Megrahi definitely was not. It is also known that when the Swedish police arrested Abu Talb for a different terrorist offence they found some of the same batch of clothing in his flat in Uppsala. No explanation for that was forthcoming at the trial.

Finally, the behaviour of the chief prosecutor Colin Boyd, both in concealing the nefarious activity of his forensic scientists and withholding essential evidence from the defence, is utterly reprehensible. Together with lack of moral fiber shown by Lord Cullen and the Court of Criminal Appeal it has left a permanent stain on the reputation of the entire Scottish legal system.

Scotsman Letters

November 9, 2010

In the fall of 2010 I started to contribute letters to the Scotsman and some of these I have placed below:

Doubtful Evidence

I noted today in your columns that Lord MacLean, still a staunch defender of the controversial decision to jail Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing, said, “I have no doubt, on the evidence we heard, that the judgments we made, and the verdicts we reached, were correct.” I am reminded that the head of the FBI later admitted, “We would never have gotten that stuff (evidence relating to the bomb timer) past a jury.”

Poignant Moment in Tripoli

The meeting of Dr Jim Swire whose daughter died in the Lockerbie atrocity and Abdelbaset al Megrahi dying in a Tripoli hospital was a poignant moment. It reminds us that while the decision to release the Libyan may have been the responsibility of Kenny MacAskill, he was not without support. The release had been recommended by the Scottish Prisons health director, the parole board, and the Greenock prison governor. It had also long been sought by Nelson Mandela, the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Church, the law faculties of the Scottish universities, the representatives of British relatives and the UN’s official observer at the notorious trial in The Hague. The inquiry demanded by the visiting US Senators should include the original investigation and trial as well as the part played by the downing of the Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf by the renegade American battlecruiser Vincennes. It would certainly appear that many people in Scotland believe the grubby fingerprints of Iran and Syria were all over this dreadful episode and that the guilty verdict on Megrahi was manifestly unsafe.

Papal Ascendancy

I am not sure I agree with the names put forward by Stephen McGinty (your report, 21 September) as possible successors to Benedict XVI. The front-runner is the hard-liner Francis Arinze of Nigeria, but as he is approaching 80 his chance has probably gone. He was the favourite last time, but was blind-sided by a late run from Cardinal Ratzinger. This was a huge disappointment to many of my Catholic friends, who valued his long record of good relations with Muslims. The name of the brilliant polymath, Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras, is close to the top of most lists. Aged only 67, fluent in Spanish, English, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, and with a superb grasp of all things financial, the South American star would seem the ideal candidate. However, he is a moderate and while that is attractive to the outside world, it probably renders him unelectable among the old men of Rome. That leaves the Italian Angelo Scola, 68, the present Patriarch of Venice. After a Polish and German pope, many will feel it is time to go back to Italy. With his long interest in education and youth and the pastoral scene in general, he could be seen as the man to clean up the Augean Stables of child abuse.


Mass unemployment was used by American demagogues in the 1930s to attack Europe, Jews and immigrants and recently to denigrate China, Muslims and immigrants. Sarah Palin and others have rubbished Muslims and immigrants to such an extent that one in five Americans now believes the President is a secret Muslim and not born in the USA. Yet high American unemployment has little or nothing to do with China or immigration and a great deal to do with the collapse of demand after the US housing bubble burst. No longer able to borrow against the rising value of their homes, the vast American middle and working class are not spending enough to keep the economy going. China bashing will not educate the public about what must be done in the years ahead and will simply reinforce the politics of resentment, isolation and xenophobia.

Unfair rules

The award of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Robert Edwards for his work in IVF was long overdue but it is sad that the rules did not allow the inclusion his co-worker Patrick Steptoe. Often decades pass before the significance of a discovery becomes apparent so that having a rule which forbids the names of deceased co-workers is manifestly unfair. It has led to such outrageous exclusions in the past as Rosalind Franklin for her contributions to the DNA structure and Richard Feynman for his seminal work in Liquid Helium. The Victoria Cross was in like manner initially restricted to live heroes since the old Queen wanted to present the medal in person. This incongruous restriction was lifted as soon as Victoria departed and the Nobel committee should revisit this exclusion.

 Fall-out from Climate Change

Alastair Harper rightly draws attention to the perils of our ruling class simply accepting the word of self-serving scientific cliques. In fact the Second World Conference on Research Integrity held in Singapore has addressed this very problem and laid the basis of a new international agreement on the ethics and professional responsibilities of scientists. In the light of recent scandals such as Climategate, scientists taking part in public discussions will be required to clearly distinguish between professional advice and opinions based on personal and political views. There have been too many instances when they have gone far beyond their professional expertise in making policy recommendations to national governments and studies have shown a disturbing tendency for their views to be influenced by their source of funding.

Damage Limitation

The welfare state was never the seamless robe originally planned and even the flagship NHS does not have a satisfactory dental service or care system for the elderly. In education, the existing commitment to free primary and secondary education has continued and for a time after 1960 free higher education was also achieved. In recent decades, however, tertiary education ballooned from its base of a few elitist universities catering to high flying undergraduates from grammar and public schools. While there was no comparable disaster in the universities to the catastrophic destruction of the grammar schools, there has been an increasingly fierce competition for resources. The Browne Review limits the damage but does not solve the problem of New Labour’s reckless overspending and our universities, students and their families are the victims.

Same old Labour

Listening to Ed Miliband, I had to keep reminding myself he was Gordon Brown’s policy wonk and responsible for the dire manifesto on which Labour fought the last election. His speech was, for the most part, as bland as a pan loaf and the “brave” bits, such as the Iraq denunciation, were not really so courageous.  He wanted to declare himself part of a new generation, yet his ideas and language came straight from the old, and every policy statement was qualified out of sight. He praised big government but criticised its consequences; he was for spending cuts but gave reasons to oppose them; he slated “irresponsible” strikes but not those looming.

English nuclear plants to save Scotland?

At last reality is dawning even among the Lib Dems as to the dire future of energy supplies faced by the UK after years of green warbling about renewables. The Coalition’s Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, once a vocal opponent of nuclear power, has accepted that such power plants are crucial to filling our looming energy gap. “A large slice of our current capacity is shutting down and we will need a mix of proven and reliable nuclear and fossil fuels as well as renewables hooked up to the Grid.”  He has shelved the wildly expensive £30 billion project to build a ten-mile barrage across the Severn estuary to produce (at best) very limited supplies of ‘green’ electricity. Announcing the plans, he admitted the stand-off between advocates of renewables and nuclear has been self-defeating – as we have seen only too clearly in Scotland.

Miliband Loyalty

In his first speech as leader, Ed Miliband told the nation: “You saw jobs disappear and economic security undermined and I understand your anger at a Labour government that claimed it could end boom and bust”. While I fully agree with the content of that statement I was somewhat taken aback that it should have flowed from the lips of the Honourable Member for Doncaster North. After all, “Red Ed” is the former policy wonk of Gordon Brown and, as such, bears at least some responsibility for the financial disaster the coalition inherited. Miliband was chairman of the Treasury’s council of economic advisers and if he had such concerns about government policy he certainly kept them strictly to himself. I am sure his colleagues have noted that neither brotherly love nor loyalty to his former mentor have been allowed to stand in the way of his manifest destiny.

 Benefits Problem

The absurdity of paying benefits to the wealthy should have been addressed decades ago but the whole scenario was such a hot potato that even the Blessed Margaret flinched. It is a complex issue which goes far beyond the perception of what is fair to what is within the bounds of financial perversity and complexity. Means testing government services has failed in the past because the administrative costs and delays in processing applications outweigh any potential benefit. The legendary inefficiency of the British civil service simply results in yet more bureaucratic red tape while the effect at the sharp end is to encourage fraud and idleness. I wish the coalition all the luck in the world but that dedicated reformer Rab Butler would surely remind them of Bismarck’s warning, “Politics is the art of the possible.”

Defence Review 

Rudyard Kipling saw a time when, “Far-called, our navies melt away; on dune and headland sinks the fire, and all our pomp of yesterday, is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” Half a century later the British Empire started to collapse and today, a further sixty years on, any pretension we retained to being a world power has finally been finished off. The two aircraft carriers will be built but only because Gordon Brown’s “pork-barrel” politics locked us into Byzantine contracts to provide jobs for his constituents. In the aftermath of New Labour’s disastrous military adventures and shambolic economic stewardship it is probably sensible that we stop pretending we can police the world. For Lord Curzon, the greatest Viceroy of India, prophesied at the height of our Imperial power that one day we would resemble Belgium — small, comfortable and powerless.

Pensions Apartheid

Some public sector workers spend 40 per cent of their adult life in retirement, so reform of their pension schemes was coming, even without the dire legacy of Gordon Brown. Less then 10 per cent of private sector pensions are based on final salary, in comparison with 90 per cent in the public sector, and this is rightly seen as a form of apartheid. The crisis should have been dealt with by the last government, but New Labour’s financial reliance on their client state made this impossible. Unlike so many in the real world whose entitlements were reduced overnight, public sector workers will retain final-salary pensions for at least the next four years. The unions hyperventilating over Lord Hutton’s proposals would be advised to see these as the best offer they are going to get, because it may be necessary to go much further.

Military Blunders

New Labourites in their days in student politics fought like ferrets in a sack and the only thing uniting them was their utter contempt for and ignorance of all things military. It was, therefore, only to be expected that Tony Blair would be unaware that the reason the bar for resort to military action is set so high is that wars always go wrong. He pledged unquestioning support to US president George Bush in his reckless over-reaction to 9/11 and helped to invade a country that had nothing to do – at that time – with al-Qaeda. Now WikiLeaks has laid bare the arrogance with which he dismissed Colin Powell’s warnings of power vacuums, sectarian strife and breakdowns in civil order. Blair is clearly shown aiding and abetting America in one of the greatest foreign-policy blunders in its history.

Crown Prince Eccentric

The Prince of Wales has produced a New Age bible entitled “Harmony” in which he claims we must reject science and evidence in favour of following our instincts. Obsessively convinced of his own rightness, Prince Charles has always viewed his scientific and medical critics with the weary ­resignation of an early Christian martyr. He craves the return of a “happier, ­simpler, more natural world” forgetting that while rural grandees such as he may have enjoyed times past, peasants most certainly did not. His ideas include homeopathic quackery such as a carrot juice cure for cancer, insisting GM crops are “the devil’s work” and global-warming tosh that would embarrass Al Gore. Sadly the Prince insists upon addressing a range of issues beyond the scope of mortal man and his book is often as devoid of reality as the meditations of a Buddhist mystic.

Airport Safety

In my experience, Heathrow is much worse than any American airport and BA chairman Martin Broughton was absolutely correct to speak out against pointless security searches. It is possible an al-Qaeda cell could be disguised as a three-generation family on holiday but surely it is absurd that officious staff should insist that elderly grandparents remove shoes and belts. Aviation experts argue passenger profiling is far better, in spite of the fact that the politically correct will throw a hissy fit 

Obama Euphoria Fall-out

The high flown rhetoric and political baloney of Obama’s presidential campaign has inevitably led to his problems in the mid-term elections. He gave a stupendous hostage to fortune in making over 500 promises though, to be fair, of the 25 most significant, about 20 were ‘carried out’ or are ‘in the works’. New Labour never came near fulfilling any of their pledges yet kept the British on board for 13 long years so it is sad to the Obama euphoria evaporate so soon. Like Kennedy he surrounded himself with highly-educated metropolitan elitists but JFK had the obscene wealth and gangster-gloss which entrances small-town Americans. That much-loved vulgarian, Bill Clinton, warned, “It’s still the economy, stupid.” and those who lead the most materialistic society on earth must take material very seriously.

Entente Cordiale Mk II

The fall-out of the disastrous New Labour era continues with the toxic residue of the Blair-Bush adventures undermining our trust in the US as sensible allies. The financial wasteland left by Brown and the complete economic shambles made of all things military has left the coalition clutching at the straw of a French lash-up. As a Franco-Scot I am at a loss to see where British and French interests might coincide or any possible way in which their radically different way of doing things might work. During my service career I saw the excellent fit of British and German forces but German officers spoke English and the idea of our squaddies speaking French is simply hilarious.

Student Fee Discrimination

New Labour’s ability to create legislation guaranteed to produce a stream of unintended consequences caused mayhem in such disparate areas as GPs’ salaries and student fees. The Devolution Act is littered with the toxic residue of their incompetence including the “legal” discrimination against English – but not European – undergraduates. There are many instances when an opt-out from EU law might be beneficial but this exemption effectively permits a form of racism within the borders of the UK. It will only draw further attention to the obsolete Barnett formula which forces the English to pay for a range of services in Scotland not available in England.

A flat-rate pension scheme ?

The fell hand of Gordon Brown left us with the worst state pension system in Europe, managing to be both over-complicated and niggardly. His Byzantine credits maze was not only extremely expensive to administer but so obtuse that over 2 million pensioners entitled to the payment simply give up trying to claim. There was also the scandalous nonsense of “qualifying years” which permitted less than one third of women to qualify for a full payment state pension. However the new flat-rate pension could drastically cut the income of those moderate earners who have paid SERPS or second state pension contributions and it is not even clear if the scheme will apply only to new pensioners. It is welcome as a statement of intent but much critical detail remains to be revealed.

Pushy Parents

In a disturbing study, Leicester University has found that deterring “pushy” parents is a huge mistake, since they are the critical factor in a school’s success. Examining data from the National Child Development Study which follows 17,000 people born in 1958 throughout their lives, they uncovered an unexpected phenomenon. They found that a child’s propensity to try hard at school is not greatly influenced by its socio-economic background but that does affect the performance of the staff. It is surely deplorable that teachers are so much more likely to be conscientious when faced with vocal and demanding professional (“pushy”) parents than less advantaged ones.

Green Swindle

Alex Salmond’s announcement of a £70 million investment fund for the renewable energy industry reminds us of the tempting sums of money swilling around. Carbon billionaire Al Gore was rightly accused in Congress of a conflict of interest when he campaigned for huge subsidies for his own green-energy technologies. L Ron Hubbard advocated starting your own religion as a sure way of making money and certainly Gore’s “carbon trading credits” look like green Papal indulgences. Prince Charles, our Royal renewable-energy hustler, is behind the expansion of offshore wind farms – though he refuses the onshore variety on any of his vast estates. Is it an act of lèse majesté to note that the Crown Estate owns the seabed of our territorial waters and he will earn tens of millions from the planned 8,000 offshore turbines?

Naked Prank

It was only to be expected that Ed Miliband would rush to defend the naked DJ prankster. After all, he was officially photographed at home in front of a weird painting of 13 fleshy women bouncing around in the nude. The Labour leader’s wife compounded my sense of wonderment by assuring the nation that he found the painting “deeply meaningful.

Welfare Reform

Iain Duncan Smith’s plans to tackle the vicious cycle of benefits dependency have been denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, as “unjust and unfair”. Yet, when the last government failed totally to come up with any rational plan to help people out of the downward spiral to a life on benefits, Dr Williams was silent. In fact it is two years since he last intervened in the secular affairs of the nation, on which occasion he claimed the adoption of sharia law in parts of the UK was “unavoidable”. As for international trade, he believes that “every transaction in the developed economies of the West is an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game”. I suspect his long career in the groves of academe has not really helped this gentle poet from the Welsh mountains to understand the grim reality of life in modern Britain.

London Student Riots

The most depressing picture to emerge from our students’ day of violence in London was of a group of Neanderthals with a mis-spelt placard stating, “We are your future”. The obvious alternatives include highly concentrated degree courses in local colleges and a return to the night-school and day-release programmes available to my generation. Or students could apply to elite American universities such as George Bush’s alma maters Harvard and Yale which offer free (“needs-blind”) classes and accommodation. Sadly in spite of the contempt they have for the former President, only a couple of thousand of our half-million students are bright enough to have any hope of entry.

Bull safety rules

Bulls of a recognised dairy breed (Ayrshire, Holstein, British Friesian, and Swiss Brown) and over ten months old are entirely banned from fields crossed by public paths. There is no such thing as a totally safe bull but the most lethal is a dairy bull that has been raised alone – though any bull penned alone for long periods can be dangerous. A bull will perform a broadside threat prior to attack (standing sideways to show his size and power) and you must back slowly away and never, ever, turn tail and run. Any bull that performs a broadside threat to “milkers” is removed from a commercial dairy and certainly a mature bull that charges people must be culled. I believe the bull in the Nottinghamshire tragedy was a Swiss Brown and if that is the case I cannot understand why he was let loose in a field where ramblers cross.

The Royal Bride

Kate Middleton belonged to the group of well-off, privately educated young women to be found at St Andrews University and known collectively as the “hair-flickers”. They are tall, striking and usually (but not necessarily) blonde – typically wearing Barbours, pashminas, tailored tweed jackets, padded bodywarmers and pearls. They are mainly English but if not they are “preppy” American transfer students from the Ivy League, notable for an even greater awareness of family lineage. Some may even be Scots but these will have accents just as cut-glass as their southern sisters though they are generally more skilled on the ski slopes. As a group they are highly decorative, lifting the spirits on a winter’s day in the auld grey toun, and geriatric natives such as myself would be quite lost without them.

Doing harm by doing good

It has long been known that the foreign aid we provide has propped up despots, fostered corruption, destroyed local enterprises and harmed the communities we tried to help. The one area where unquestionable good has been done is where people with transferable skills such doctors, nurses and engineers go out to train local people. But this has morphed into “voluntourism” where western teenagers bestow their surplus graces on slum schools and tourists actually pay to hand out food to poor rural families. A devastating report by the Human Sciences and Research Council has challenged this new fad of the bien pensant and lays bear the toxic effects of these guilt-trip jollies.

Bishop rains on royal parade

As is the case with many prominent churchmen, Peter Broadbent spent precious little time working in a parish having been mainly chaplain to this, that and the other thing. He is essentially a committee man, preferring the life of an Islington Labour councillor and chair of its planning committee to being a pastor to ordinary parishioners. This is all very fine but it results in clerical leaders who believe no-one will mind what they say unlike a lowly vicar who knows his people mind very much indeed. Referring to Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana as “Big Ears and the Porcelain Doll” may go down a treat with the Islington anarchists but outrages the rest of us. Most people do not think Prince William and Kate Middleton are “shallow celebrities” and see no reason to believe their marriage “will last just seven years”.

Margo’s Bill

Margo MacDonald’s “End of Life Bill” looks as if it will not find favour with her fellow MSPs though opinion polls routinely show it is supported by 80% of the country. When non-identifiable surveys are carried out, large numbers of doctors in the UK admit they have resorted to euthanasia when all other options have failed. In Oregon and elsewhere, when legalisation finally passed into law, it brought out of the back alley the practice of giving compassionate release to patients in extremis. Access to physician-assisted death allows the patient to maintain control over his or her situation and to end life in an ethical and merciful manner. Having such access in Scotland would remove the necessity of a premature journey to a foreign country and dying among strangers – surely the ultimate unintended consequence.

Prophylactic Pope

Pope Benedicts’ remarks on contraception are in line with much of Catholic lay opinion since oral birth control come on stream in the early 1960s. A medical commission established by Pope John XXIII in 1963 to study contraception was broadly in favour of the change requested by the Catholic laity. After his death the commission, extended to include theologians, bishops and the laity, also advised the new Pope Paul VI that the Church should move with the times. A horrified curia encouraged Paul to issue “Humanae vitae” but this provoked huge lay dissent demanding freedom of conscience in such personal and private issues. Sadly the encyclical, which Paul realised almost immediately was a mistake, has also frustrated efforts to contain both the population explosion and the spread of AIDS.

Gay animal sensitivity

The fuss over gay animals (Letters, 25 November) reminds me of an otherwise peaceful London street protest in 2006 when a student approached a mounted policeman and said: “Excuse me, officer, I’m sure your horse is gay.” He was immediately arrested and charged with causing “emotional distress to the horse and its rider” before being released with a warning as to his future conduct.

A Poisoned Chalice

New Labour’s toxic legacy lives on with the Government’s decision to accept Harriet Harman’s “equality” bill with all its political correctness, red tape, and quotas. Clearly I have been wrong to assume that all liberals endorsed the idea that individuals should be judged on their own merits and not according to their class, race or gender. This change in the law will encourage firms to choose women, gays, trans-genders, ethnic minorities and the disabled ahead of better-qualified, straight, white males. It is difficult to imagine a more illiberal piece of legislation and government attempts to block law suits for unfair discrimination by rejected candidates are bound to fail. The highly subjective judgements employers are now being encouraged to make will inevitably find their way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Charity begins at home

In the last year alone, the UK paid £500 million for new wind farms, solar panel power plants and forestry protection schemes across Asia, Africa and South America. Now the Government is to sign us up for a further £3 billion to be thrown at dodgy governments in India and elsewhere for “global warming” projects. These are mainly flood defences to protect beach resorts from rising oceans though the International Commission on Sea Level Change reports no change in the last century. Quite apart from this hard evidence, the elementary laws of physics undermine the UN’s flood-apocalypse conjured up by the notorious “Climategate” computer models. Yet one third of Scots families are living in fuel poverty in the worst winter for ages and our money would be better spent here than on some fatuous foreign non-problem.


The Wikileaks cables may have been written by Americans for Americans but, on the whole, they were well-informed, well-sourced and well-judged. The US thinks Ahmadinejad uses “Hitler brinkmanship”, Karzai is a “corrupt paranoiac”, Kim Jong-Il is a “physical and psychological wreck” and Gadaffi is “truly weird”. The admirable Angela Merkel is “risk averse”, Putin and Medvedev are the “Batman and Robin show”, Sarkozy is “thin-skinned” and Berlusconi is a sleazy “lounge lizard”. Gordon Brown was a “weak and unstable”, our forces made a horlicks of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and everyone is scared of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. I think that is pretty much spot on and it is certainly interesting, if not entirely surprising, to hear that our Arab allies would not really mind if someone bombed Iran.

Pandora’s open box

As a Ph.D. student in X-Ray Crystallography almost 50 years ago I operated the giant, slow, infuriating main-frames having first learnt the computer language FORTRAN. I had to write my own programmes and few who spent their days and nights on second generation machines such as the IBM 1620 could have dreamt what was to come. The bacillus escaped the laboratory late last century when Steve Jobs and others launched the personal computer and Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web. Some maintain we should know absolutely everything about absolutely everyone but privacy is crucial in our personal lives and security is an essential tool of government. Sadly, the fact is that if something is recorded or transmitted electronically, it is vulnerable to exposure and I cannot see how we will ever get this genie back in its box.

Benefit of the Doubt?

The British ambassador in Tripoli, Vincent Fean, gave Gordon Brown a “heads-up” that Gaddafi was becoming increasingly desperate to have the dying Megrahi released. Until the recent Wikileaks hoo-ha I thought that is what ambassadors were supposed to do and the PM understandably did not want the Libyan to die in a British jail. It is a huge jump to go from this routine diplomatic exchange to claiming that for reasons of fear and greed Brown then “instructed” Alex Salmond to release Megrahi. Anyone acquainted with these veteran politicians knows this is a ludicrous scenario but not as ludicrous as the idea that Salmond would cave in and “do his masters bidding”. There are far more obvious reasons for the Scottish government to seek closure on this sad affair one of which might actually be compassion for a dying man far from home.

An Inconvenient Nightmare

Our government’s unachievable goals for emissions reduction and its wildly optimistic forecasts of the availability, cost and performance of new technology are alarming. Its meddling with the energy market is also a mistake now that the Canadian oil sands and giant new oil fields off the coasts of Brazil and Africa are coming on stream.  Meanwhile, almost limitless supplies of natural gas have been discovered in shale rock fields across the United States, Europe and Asia and gas prices are plummeting. The world of energy is being turned upside down and experts predict decades of residential and commercial power at reasonable prices – except in Scotland. Committed to ruinously expensive renewable sources of energy, Scottish households will suffer years of high fuel costs to pay for our government’s moment of green insanity.

Climate caravan rolls into Mexico

Even if delegates to the Cancun jamboree face the threat of being kidnapped by gangs of local drug dealers at least they are assured nice warm weather in Mexico. This will be a relief because Copenhagen showed the difficulties of selling “global warming” to world leaders trying to flee before an ice storm grounds their flights. However, the hopes of compelling countries to pay vast sums to underwrite the UN’s green wish list look as forlorn as they did last year in the aftermath of Climategate. Europe and America are now battling the financial crisis while China, India, Brazil and South Africa are even less likely to agree cutbacks on their growth.

A Poisoned Chalice

New Labour’s toxic legacy lives on with the Government’s decision to accept Harriet Harman’s “equality” bill with all its political correctness, red tape, and quotas. Clearly I have been wrong to assume that all liberals endorsed the idea that individuals should be judged on their own merits and not according to their class, race or gender. This change in the law will encourage firms to choose women, gays, trans-genders, ethnic minorities and the disabled ahead of better-qualified, straight, white males. It is difficult to imagine a more illiberal piece of legislation and government attempts to block law suits for unfair discrimination by rejected candidates are bound to fail. The highly subjective judgements employers are now being encouraged to make will inevitably find their way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Benefit of the Doubt?

The British ambassador in Tripoli, Vincent Fean, gave Gordon Brown a “heads-up” that Gaddafi was becoming increasingly desperate to have the dying Megrahi released. Until the recent Wikileaks hoo-ha I thought that is what ambassadors were supposed to do and the PM understandably did not want the Libyan to die in a British jail. It is a huge jump to go from this routine diplomatic exchange to claiming that for reasons of fear and greed Brown then “instructed” Alex Salmond to release Megrahi. Anyone acquainted with these veteran politicians knows this is a ludicrous scenario but not as ludicrous as the idea that Salmond would cave in and “do his masters bidding”. There are far more obvious reasons for the Scottish government to seek closure on this sad affair one of which might actually be compassion for a dying man far from home.

OECD Education Rankings

In the OECD rankings British schoolchildren are now ranked 16th in the world for science, 25th for reading and 28th for maths. Before New Labour took over with the silly mantra “Education, Education, Education.” the rankings were 4th for science, 7th for reading and 8th for maths. Their claim to have “improved” our schools is utter nonsense and the increased spending of £30 billion was simply thrown into the black hole of comprehensive education. Both Blair and Brown colluded with the exam boards to keep lowering the bar in a desperate attempt to hide the fact that Britain’s state schools were failing. The OECD also found that in Finland, Japan, Turkey, Singapore, Korea and mainland China almost half of all disadvantaged pupils excel at school despite their background.

Doing harm by doing good

It has long been known that the foreign aid we provide has propped up despots, fostered corruption, destroyed local enterprises and harmed the communities we tried to help. The one area where unquestionable good has been done is where people with transferable skills such doctors, nurses and engineers go out to train local people. But this has morphed into “voluntourism” where western teenagers bestow their surplus graces on slum schools and tourists actually pay to hand out food to poor rural families. A devastating report by the Human Sciences and Research Council has challenged this new fad of the bien pensant and lays bear the toxic effects of these guilt-trip jollies.

Fuel Bills to soar

The Climate Change quango has laid out a blueprint for “green” energy requiring around £200 billion to be spent on infrastructure over the next couple of decades. Consumers will have to pick up the tab for unreliable wind farms and other weird contraptions as well as the networks needed to support them. This will send electricity prices for hard-pressed families and the elderly into the stratosphere and household bills will rise from today’s £1200 to over 2,500 a year. The vulnerable would not be in such a desperate situation if “global warming” was true but there has been no warming since 1995 and our winters are increasingly severe. Of course, winter fuel bills are nothing to wealthy “believers” such as Prince Charles and Al Gore who can in any case jet off to a green jolly in the likes of sunny Mexico.

Finance Secrets

Wikileaks has revealed it was Mervyn King who insisted that developed countries must override the “dysfunctional” G7 and orchestrate an international bailout for global banks. Six months before Gordon Brown’s epiphany, the governor of the Bank of England told both the Prime Minister and US officials that a coordinated effort was required to recapitalise the global banking system. The leaked US embassy cables may have had security implications but they have also resulted in the delightful deflation of many political egos and much innocent mirth.

Snowy evidence of Gaia’s wrath

The green guru James Lovelock dreamed up the quasi-religious “Gaia hypothesis” which claimed that the sum of the parts of the Earth’s ecosystems make up a living thing. Gaia was the old Greek goddess of the Earth and the advantage of proposing an irrational, pseudo-scientific theory is that it is impervious to rational, scientific argument. Adherents of the parallel theology of Global Warming react to any extreme weather as evidence that modern economic and technological activity has doomed humanity. Pagans believed the angry gods could be appeased by the sacrifice of precious things and similar sacrifices are now demanded of us to appease the offended ecosphere. Yet the good and the great were usually excused and there is an echo of that today when the elite fly off to endless green jollies in exotic places to demand a halt to plebian travel.

Arrogance and Impotence

I am intrigued by the notion that we have the right to be able to travel to the furthest corners of the globe regardless of the weather, and if we cannot it is somebody’s fault. Clearly many believe the infantile nonsense that we can control climate change and are infuriated when nature once again demonstrates our arrogance and our impotence. And, of course, local authorities are also influenced by Met Office baloney and anyone advocating more gritters in the autumn would have been branded a “denier”. So why don’t we just take this opportunity to settle somewhere cosy, give the stressful family Christmas nightmare a miss, and wait for the snow to go away.

Unwinnable wars

Forty years ago, the late and unlamented President Richard Nixon launched his infamous war on drugs, transferring the prohibition tactics that had failed with alcohol to narcotics. Today, 80 per cent of Americans believe it has been a vastly expensive fiasco which has made US violent crime endemic and destroyed its southern neighbour, Mexico. Then ten years ago, George W. Bush declared a war on terror which has proved just as counterproductive, uniting the enemies of the West and aiding terrorist recruitment.  Not to be outdone, Al Gore launched his war on carbon, which the scientific illiterates among our political class have used to undermine modern western lifestyles.  Now Barack Obama looks set to become the fourth horseman of the apocalypse by declaring war on WikiLeaks and starting an unwinnable cyber-conflict with every geek on the planet.

Same-sex disparity

The European Court recently ruled that its convention on human rights had not been violated when Austria refused to allow two men to marry. However, unlike Austria, our civil partnerships give gay couples virtually the same rights as married couples in all key areas including adoption, surrogacy, and donor insemination. Our exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage and different-sex couples from civil partnership is thus discrimination purely on grounds of sexual orientation. The twin bans clearly violate article 14 (protection against discrimination), article 12 (the right to marry) and article 8 (the right to respect for family life). I can see no justification for Britain continuing to withhold access to both arrangements and look forward to the UK government’s position being tested in Strasbourg.

New Year Resolutions

We are pretty judgmental about self-destructive behaviour even though such behaviour does not appear to be simply the result of personal weakness, peer pressure or heredity. The true meaning of such conduct is likely to be unconscious and develops because it serves deep-seated needs which are important building blocks of our identities. Thus New Year’s resolutions rarely work because for every conscious decision to change there is an unconscious commitment to keep things exactly the way they are. In spite of the advances in psychoanalysis in recent decades we seem to be as far as ever from understanding the forces that motivate our behaviour and inhibit our development. Yet in my time in the ministry I was aware that some do manage to hang on long enough for the demons to subside and battle through the surf into the quiet lagoon of later years.

A perilous rush to sainthood

The Catholic Church is traditionally cautious when the question of honouring public figures arises because all too often unsavory actions and inactions surface years later. Usually the process leading to sainthood does not begin until at least five years after death and Pope Benedict’s rush to beatify his predecessor is a cause for concern. Under John-Paul II, the Vatican clearly mishandled its infamous pedophilia cases and failed to expel the guilty priests many of whom went on to molest other children. The fast-tracking of Mother Teresa was a bad precedent because serious doubts emerged later about her “cult of suffering” and the millions lying inNew York bank accounts. Another precipitant sainthood would make it difficult for the Church to refuse the likes of Argentina’s demand sixty years ago for the immediate beautification of Eva Peron.

 Costly energy epiphany

British wind farms ground to a halt during the coldest spells in December and the National Grid had to rely on coal and gas stations and even French nuclear power. Our coldest winter spells are typically cyclonic and the government is now to insist that power companies build standby power stations to cover for their unreliable turbines. Some of these will be nuclear but most will rely on fossil fuel including the vast new shale gas supplies soon to come on stream after major technological breakthroughs. This late acceptance that wind power cannot “keep the lights on” will cost industry and consumers billions with household bills set to double by 2020.

US Gun Culture

Attempts by the US media to explain events in Tucson ignore the elephant in the room – over-the-counter sale of guns – to blame a rare moment of divisive political debate. Yet gun culture is a central feature of the American identity and has its roots in the myths of the Wild West when settlers slaughtered buffalo and native people. Before the Revolutionary Wars, standing armies were seen as a threat so that providing one’s own weapons for service in the local militia was mandatory for all adult males. This ended with independence but obtuse misinterpretation of the Second Amendment over many years has put 300 million firearms in private hands. Gun crime in Scotland accounts for less than half of one percent of all crime and sharing a common language does not help the Scots understand this American obsession. Clearly allowing deranged people to buy powerful automatic weapons in supermarkets to kill school children and even presidents is seen byAmerica as a price worth paying.

A necessary debate

Blackburn has not had serious ethnic disturbances even though it has one of the highest proportions of Muslims in England and its MP, Jack Straw, usually speaks his mind. He caused hysteria in “liberal” Britain last week by refusing to ignore the elephant in our sitting room which is that some Pakistani men clearly regard white girls as an easy target. The politically correct led by the Guardianistas will not even discuss the cultural background of such criminal groups and the Home Office refuses to collect statistics. For far too long, this has suppressed any inquiry into why most of those involved are Muslim men even though their community abhors such predatory sexual crimes. But any examination needs to be extended to our own debauched society where highly-sexual behaviour by even pre-teens is ignored, excused, condoned or encouraged.

The beam in thine own eye, Sir?

Prince Charles told the European Parliament that our economic model is
flawed and that encouraging growth to bring the global economy out of its downturn is an “eco-sin”. Yet it is beyond dispute that the more advanced societies in Europe and North Americahave a much better track record on environmental policies than other parts of the world. In addition, many of the prescriptions he promotes, such as biofuels, are part of the problem and have been the cause of food riots in some of the poorest parts of the world. Rain forests are being destroyed and land formerly used to grow food in the Third World switched to the production of the “green” fuel he uses in the Royal Train and his cars. He also claimed that sceptics have eroded public confidence man-made global warming but the damage was really done by his exaggerations and events such as Climategate.

Wiki tax justice

It is difficult to have sympathy for the two thousand obscenely rich tax
evaders whose names look likely to be exposed in WikiLeaks’ latest bout of whistleblowing. Julian Assange is to hand the information to the Serious Fraud Office and hopefully action will be taken against those who hide their loot in the infamous Swiss banks. Many international celebrities clearly feel that laws are only there for the “little people” and the outrageous expenses scandal demonstrates our politicians are no better. Southwark Crown Court was told yesterday that it was not only plebeian politicians who broke our tax laws but that graft and corruption was just as rife in House of Lords. As one of the “little people” who religiously kept every receipt and honesty filled every tax return I expect these plutocrats to be treated as I would have been if I had tried it on.

Tolerance Please

As she must have expected, Tory chairman Baroness Warsi provoked a fierce backlash by claiming that Islamophobia is commonplace in British dinner-party conversations. In fact Britain has a long history of tolerance and diversity and Lady Warsi would serve us better by encouraging greater integration within our 3 million Muslim community. Intolerance for Jews, Christians and Hindus is expressed socially and legally across much of the Islamic Crescent so that a slightly less hectoring tone would also be appreciated. I agree with parts of her speech but I cannot follow the reasoning behind her assertion that distinguishing between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Muslims fosters prejudice. Like many other indigenous Scots I have gentle, cosmopolitan and much-valued friends within the Islamic community and most certainly distinguish between them and al-Qaeda.

The Ball is in Ed’s court

When Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair he tried to change: to smile, to be collegial, empathetic, open to other people’s views – for about a month. I wonder how long the new improved Ed Balls, all soft and cuddly, not plotting against his colleagues, hiding his intellectual arrogance under a bushel, will last. Balls was bullied at school for his surname and his stammer and Brown felt out of his depth at Edinburgh University after dominating the industrial graveyard of South Fife. At some stage both decided to become the aggressor, going ballistic, shouting and threatening people, humiliating colleagues and endlessly briefing against them. Can Balls break all his old habits? Can the clone learn from the glaring failures of the original? I doubt it. As many a forlorn wifewill attest, most men don’t change.

 Incomparable Scottish Genius

The invention of the telephone was one of the great moments in modern technology and like the jet engine and the personal computer it was an idea whose time had come. Acrimonious debate exists over who “invented” the jet engine, the birth of the PC arrived in a blizzard of law suits and Alexander Graham Bell’s patents are still disputed. However, Bell did for the telephone what Henry Ford did for the automobile and succeeded where others had failed in assembling a commercially viable system. He was not the first to experiment with such devices, but the practical instrument was his alone and there is absolutely no doubt that he invented the telephone “industry”.

Egyptian Uprising

Thirty years ago, Anwar Sadat, the heroic Egyptian leader who restored the nation’s self-belief in the October War of 1973, was publicly gunned down by Islamic assassins. His crime was the noble gesture of visiting Israelto promote a lasting peace and his killers belonged to Gamma Al-Islamiyya, one of the groups behind the present unrest. Some forty other groups, including all the usual suspects in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood, aim to turn Egypt into an Iranian-style fundamentalist state. If, as seems increasingly likely, an extremist regime does take over this ancient land it will revoke the peace treaty with Israel and the lights will go out across the Arab world.

Egyptian Warnings

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, initially expressed hope of a gradual and peaceful transition in Egypt but refused to pull the plug on the embattled Mubarak. President Obama was less cautious and may rue the day because the result of the present rioting is likely to be the replacement of the West’s “partner in peace” by a clone ofIran. In a similar situation thirty years ago, Jimmy Carter treated America’s long-time ally, the Shah, like an international pariah and the democratic government replacing him imploded. We should not forget that the Iranians also rioted for freedom and human rights but ended up with a rogue régime promoting Islamic terrorism and hungry for nuclear weapons. Sadly there is no credible secular alternative in Egypt and the political vacuum is going to be filled by religious extremists organized and supported by our deadly nemesis, Iran.

Watching brief on Egypt

In a move which Barack Obama and David Cameron would do well to follow, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu instructed his ministers not to comment on the situation inEgypt. Some 40 groups aim to turn Egypt into an Iranian-style fundamentalist state, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Gamma al-Islamiyya, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Like al-Qaeda, they use Egyptian theocratic hero Sayyid Qutb’s “Signposts” as the basis of their training manual in Islamic fundamentalism and international terrorism. It argues that God alone should rule the state and that any society which does not accept this edict should be attacked and destroyed in the name of Islam. If an extremist regime does take over the “heart of the Arab world” and bins the crucial peace treaty with Israel, the last lights will start to flicker out in the whole region.

PM on the right track

The Prime Minister has opened the long awaited debate on the UK’s experiment with “state multiculturalism” and signalled a crackdown on extremist groups of every hue. It is difficult to argue that most multiculturalists are not at heart ethnocentric separatists who see little in British heritage other than the “crimes” of the Christian West. Certainly under New Labour the doctrine encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream, weakening our collective identity. And our individual rights such as liberty, democracy and equality before the law must not be replaced by the rights of groups, defined by race, ethnicity, sex and sexual preferences. The Archbishop of Canterbury claimed many British Muslims don’t like our legal system and Sharia Law should be sanctioned. That is inane and David Cameron is right to say so.


As our deplorable politicians dive for cover for fear they are accused of moral courage I prefer to recall the noble people who did seek freedom for Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. First among these is the English GP, Jim Swire, whose daughter Fiona was a victim but who relentlessly campaigned for the unsafe verdict at Camp Zeist to be over-turned. He was joined by such seekers after justice as Nelson Mandela, Lockerbie’s Jim Black, the UN observer Hans Köchler, Tam Dalziel and the leaders of the Scottish churches. Even in the vengeful USA, there were brave individuals such as President Kennedy’s valued adviser, Pierre Salinger, who protested the innocence of al-Megrahi. He reminded Americans that, not only was there no evidence that the bomb had been put on board in Malta, but Air Malta won a libel action in 1993 establishing that it was not!

Pensioner Drivers

Almost every day reports appear in the press of fatal accidents caused by elderly motorists becoming disorientated and driving on the wrong side of a motorway. Italy, with some of the most dangerous roads in Europe, is considering the highly controversial move of rescinding the driving licenses to all drivers over 80. Any Italian over the age of four score years who wants to continue to drive will have to re-apply and pass stringent mental and practical examinations. All over the Western world the first generation involved massed motoring is approaching extreme old age and dementia is an increasingly serious problem. Perhaps the Italians go too far but pensioner motorists like me should be routinely screened because driving on our increasingly crowded roads is a privilege not a right.

Is the future India?

The US has already tapped and commercialized North America’s vast reserves of shale gas and, working with Canada, will completely revolutionize the energy market. In his State of the Union speech, Obama gave shale gas the green light by moving the debate from “renewable” to simply “clean” energy and sacking his climate change czar. Now India has also found unlimited reserves of this low-cost, eco-friendly fuel in the Damodar basin and the future looks ever brighter for the sub-continent. With a growth rate as impressive as China, abundant raw materials, skilled workers and brilliant professionals, India may end up the dominant power of the eastern hemisphere.

Wedding Tips

I agree with Jim Davidson’s general advice to groomsmen preparing their speech (14th Feb). When a couple approached me to discuss a wedding during my 35 years as a parish minister, I would always ask if I could talk to the mother-of-the-bride. I would tell her that there are only two things that routinely go wrong in weddings: an out-of-control photographer and the best man’s speech. For reasons I could never fathom men, tend to choose the greatest loony they know for the job and if in any doubt she should insist on seeing the speech and that he stick to it. She should also set the photographer strict time limits because most people have a light lunch on the day of a wedding and a four hour wait in the free bar results in mayhem.

Civil war looms for the Kirk

In the turmoil of late 20th century changes in public norms and values, the traditionally austere Kirk surprised many by proving more adaptable than the Church of England. Women clergy were ordained without fuss in the 1960s and the first female Moderator elected in 2004 while the Anglicans engaged in an all-out civil war over the issue. Until recently, the innocent party in a divorce was refused an Anglican remarriage but the Kirk left the decision to the individual minister and ignored the blessing of gay unions. But the issue of gay clergy may see a reversion to type now that the Church of England is to drop its requirement for clergy to disclose their “marital arrangements”. In contrast, at the General Assembly in May evangelicals will demand the Kirk ignore secular employment laws and expel gay clergy and all hell will break loose.

Mistaken Parallels

I suspect that the European events which most closely parallel the present upheavals in the Middle East are the revolutions of 1848 rather than those 1989. The street revolutions ending communism followed similar patterns because they resulted from an identical event: the abrupt withdrawal of Soviet support for the local dictator. The Arab revolutions, by contrast, are the product of diverse national technological, economic and demographic issues as was the case inEurope in 1848. It was also the case that most of the 1848 rebellions collapsed in what the historian A.J.P. Taylor called a moment when “history reached a turning point and failed to turn.” Television creates the illusion of a linear narrative but it is likely these revolutions will also fail and tyranny be re-imposed because Arab democracy won’t work at this juncture.

Time to get a grip

Two Greek ferries evacuated around 5,000 Chinese workers from Libya through heavy seas but 1,000 risk-averse Americans remained at the dockside. Turkey also braved the big seas to evacuate more than 7,000 of its 25,000 citizens in two ships but HMS Cumberland, lacking the Nelson touch, refused to risk entering the port. There is sheer chaos in Tripoli airport but France, Russia and the Netherlands bribed Libyan officials and evacuated all their citizens. Whitehall refused to indulge in “unethical activity” and failed to get a plane airborne even though the much denigrated BP managed to fly out its 150 workers. It would help if the Foreign Office’s “Humphrey Appleby” got a better grip on reality and we deployed a couple of our big military transport aircraft.

False Spring

The media touted the “Arab Spring” as an unambiguous leap forward towards democracy and pluralism but now that the circus has moved on, the outcome in Tunisia is chilling. In spite of political restrictions, it was the most progressive country in the Islamic world with the least brutal regime and the wealthiest and best educated population. But its traditional secularism and unprecedented championing of Muslim women’s rights have now been replaced by armed fanatics declaring an Islamist state. Anti-Semitic slogans are heard everywhere in a land which never persecuted its Jewish minority and a Polish priest died in the first sectarian murder in its modern history. Talk of a new era of freedom was hugely premature and the sad truth is that Islamic fundamentalists, under the cloak of democracy, are already imposing a new dark age.

Fair v free trade

My gravest sin as a parish minister was asking the General Assembly: “Is Fairtrade fair?” and it would clearly have been less odious had I questioned the divinity of Christ. However, in a former life I was an economist and felt it right to ask whether, as just another form of market manipulation, it really was so morally superior to free trade. Fairtrade claims to bring better working conditions to poor producers, together with higher prices and better social infrastructure, but unsatisfactory practices abound at every level. Poor farmers have to pay large sums to join and have to organise themselves in particular ways which are clearly not suitable for all producers, especially in the poorest countries. It castigates free trade, but real development requires not only good governance, the rule of law and property rights but also free enterprise in markets at home and abroad.

Libya and the Law

The resurrection of liberal interventionists calling for action against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya requires an urgent debate over the legal status as well as the wisdom of such activity. The starting point of any legal analysis is the basic prohibition in international law of the use of armed force against the territorial integrity of an independent state. An exception would be operations authorised by the United Nations Security Council in response to a threat to international security, but in the case of Libya that would be quite a stretch. Fortunately, permanent UN Security Council members France and Russia are poised with their vetoes and the three Arab members are absolutely against such a move. In any case, the unlawful use of force will hardly encourage Arab respect for the rule of law and will damage our ability to influence events in the region over the longer term.

Key issue kicked into the long grass

Over three-quarters of civil servants are in final salary schemes, compared with a fifth in the private-sector, yet the latter provide 80pc of public-sector pension contributions. It is a toxic societal division because the gold-plated public service pensions are a rising tax burden on private sector workers who are less able to save for their own retirement. As an interim measure it would be sensible to introduce immediately a “career average” scheme with a salary cap of £30,000 with defined contributions above that. This would protect lower earners, however, with the unfunded public-sector pension liability already £1 trillion (£50,000 per household), defined contributions are inevitable. Yet it has clearly been decided to kick the issue into the long grass because the hyper-cautious Lord Hutton has yet again been resurrected to do the pensions review.

Permanent damage to Christchurch foundations

A terrible feature of the otherwise unremarkable 6.3R Christchurch quake caused such liquefaction of the earth that large parts of the city will have to be abandoned. The Richter scale measures the total size of an earthquake whereas the key feature in this case was peak ground acceleration (PGA) which measures how hard the earth shakes. This value, expressed in G (acceleration due to gravity), is one of the main parameters in earthquake engineering in vulnerable cities such as San Francisco and Tokyo. Until recently, seismologists thought quakes could not produce a PGA greater than 1G but the shallow Christchurch quake was a catastrophic 2G dwarfing Haiti’s 0.7G. This has caused consternation in California casting doubt on the safety estimates for all tall structures as well as its ubiquitous multi-unit condos and apartment buildings.

The Top Ten

The most powerful earthquake in modern times was the phenomenal 9.5R Chilean quake in 1960 followed by the 9.2R quake in theGulf of Alaska in 1964. Chile makes the top ten twice more (1868 and 2010) joining Sumatra (2004), Russia (1952), the Canadian Pacific (1700), Assam-Tibet (1950) and Japan (2011). Europe features only once but the giant Portuguese quake in 1755 led to the near-total destruction of Lisbon and the deaths of a quarter of the city’s population. While the resulting tsunami devastated the coasts of North Africa and France, the cultural impact spread even further inspiring sensationalist art and philosophical tracts. Scientists of the European Enlightenment found a wealth of written first-hand accounts which did much to advance their understanding of the physical world.

A new economic reality

Virtually all the reforms in the Hutton report have been considered by both Conservative and Labour governments across the years and rejected out of sheer political cowardice. It suggests that civil servants, doctors, teachers and others work longer and contribute more to a pension based on a career average of earnings rather than final-year pay. Such a reform benefits the lower paid and public sector workers will still receive a secure pension with employer contributions which is more than most people can expect. In his years in power, Gordon Brown irresponsibly hid the true situation from his client state but rising life expectancy requires everyone to face the reality of a longer career. Threatening strikes is an infantile union response because the alternative is for the public sector to decay into the sort of protection racket for existing groups we see today in Italy.

A whole new ball game

Former Israeli Premier, Golda Meir, complained that: “Moses dragged us for 40 years through the desert to bring us to the one place in theMiddle East where there was no oil. Unnoticed in our hysteria over Japan’s nuclear plants that situation is ending because one of the largest deposits of oil shale in the world has been discovered inIsrael. All known undersea gas fields together have some 25 trillion cubic feet of gas, but the US geologists estimate there are 125 trillion cubic feet of gas in Israel’s Levant Basin. Even more dramatic, the Israeli oil shale reserves could be the equivalent of 250 billion barrels (that compares with 260 billion barrels in the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia). Finally a by-product of the new technologies separating the oil from the shale rock 300 meters underground will be water and the Middle East is a whole new ball game.

Dangers of radiation

Some things we are hardwired to fear such as heights and fierce animals which fire our “fight or flight” response. Such rational fears have preserved us since pre-history. But we also have “learned” fears which are irrational and stem from our childhood or culture and no amount of reassurance can erase these deep-seated, personal phobias. Today only kindergarten science is taught at schools so that many people have a visceral terror of nuclear power production and believe all plants to be potential atom bombs. To scientists like me, the Japanese incidents simply highlight the safety of nuclear energy because the plants automatically shut down as planned and radiation leakage was trivial. Thousands died in the tsunami but no-one was killed by radiation; and the greatest risk Scots face is death through hypothermia brought on by insanely expensive renewables.

Common Sense Melt-Down

As hysteria engulfed the West’s scientific illiterates, Japanese engineers laid a new power line to the Fukushima plant and skillfully carried out emergency holding procedures. The old line was comprehensively wrecked by the earthquake and the tsunami created a perfect storm by damaging other facilities such as the pool containing the spent fuel rods. I remember a similar melt-down of public common-sense during the incident at Three Mile Island in 1979 which occurred shortly after the release of “The China Syndrome”. This wildly unscientific film, starring noted conspiracy-theorist Jane Fonda, claimed the fuel would melt through its containment structure and the Earth until it reached China. In the end, local radiation exposure was negligible, lessons were learned and resource-rich America continued to generate over 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants.

This could end in tears

No-one becomes the world’s longest serving ruler by accident and though the western media routinely refer to the Libyan dictator as “The Mad Gaddafi” he is a survivor. Supported by his formidable sons, his determination to fight contrasted starkly with the aging Tunisian and Egyptian presidents who quickly lost the support of their military. In spite of the enduring belief of his involvement in Lockerbie, Gaddafi is not an enemy of the west and two years before 9/11 specifically warned America of the al-Qaeda threat. Though his warning was contemptuously ignored by both Clinton and Bush, in the wake of the attacks Libya was the first Muslim nation to denounce the bombing out of hand. There are disturbing parallels between the Arab and Prague Springs, between tribal Libya and tribal Afghanistan, and Gaddafi’s clever son Saif is surely preferable to anarchy.

“You break, you own it”

The foreign policy of most US Presidents has been characterised by circumspection and even George Bush was initially determined not to be drawn into dirty little foreign wars. Few have looked less like a “wartime consigliere” than the cerebral Barack Obama and he is as cautious as the first great African-American military leader, Colin Powell. Cameron and Sarkozy made all the running for the Libyan intervention and it was clear from the start that Obama shared the doubts of Angela Merkel and Turkey’s Premier Erdogan. To date, all combat operations have taken place under American command but Obama and his generals are desperate to hand over responsibility toEurope. It is a pity the British and the French did not remember Powell’s bleak warning before the Iraq invasion: “It’s china shop rules, Mr President: You break it, you own it.”

Italian Justice – The Seattle One

Some criminal cases leave a nasty taste and I found the proceedings against Amanda Knox particularly disturbing. She was subjected to a relentless character assassination she had no chance of fighting and the piecemeal leaking of salacious information by the prosecution was a disgrace. There was not one iota of reliable forensic evidence placing the American girl at the crime scene and the case against her struggled to reach the realm of the circumstantial. Even the Italian prosecution at the trial acknowledged it could not supply a motive for the involvement of Knox in the killing. Certainly, nothing in the facts sustains the prosecution’s absurd belief that the murder was a she-devil’s sex game gone wrong. That was conjecture, pure and simple.

Oh dear! How sad! Never mind!

Schadenfreude overcame me when I read your report that Irving Picard, the trustee recovering funds from the Madoff scandal, is now seriously targeting the bankers. So far he has retrieved some $10bn of the missing $18bn from settlements with financial institutions, feeder funds, peddler-cronies and insiders who scored early and left. In an effort to recoup the remaining $8bn, Picard is now after the likes of Morgan Chase, UBS and HSBC who continued to pass on client money when all was flashing red. These bankers made the fatal error of giving post-trial interviews where they presented themselves as great sages who were too smart to fall for the likes of Bernie Madoff. This ticked off the old rogue now serving 150 years in the subtropical humidity of the Carolinas who is now said to be singing like a canary and the bankers are in a panic.

 Learning Respect

George McMillan is right to say that the greatest problem faced by teachers in state schools today is the attitude that they are there to be challenged, mocked, and abused. A miner’s son like me could have been a handful but in the 1950s there was a shared concept of reasonable behaviour which united teachers, parents and the police. The Butler Education Act allowed me to move on from the west-central coalfields to the high school in the nearby town where I joined a tsunami of bright working-class kids. Recently there has been no lack of trendy initiatives designed to remedy state school problems and lift the life chances of children from the industrial graveyards ofScotland. Everything in fact except what was critical in my escape: iron discipline, a strong work-ethic and the “three Rs” as the door-opening passport to a fulfilling life and career.

Campaign Costs

Jimmy Carter’s tragic error of arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan cost thousands of US lives and Barack Obama looks set to repeat the mistake by arming Libya’s Islamist rebels. Such an action would intensify hostilities resulting in really serious civilian casualties, the avoidance of which I understood to be the purpose of trying to remove Muammar Gaddafi. He has been selected from some 70 of the world’s ruling megalomaniacs such as Kim Jong-il, Mugabe, Burma’s Than Shwe, Sudan’s al-Bashir and Ethiopia’s Zenawi. Gaddafi is by no stretch of the imagination the worst and his deposition could have been left to the Libyans but if we must interfere, it should be via trade and diplomatic isolation. Our leaders were deaf to the endless warnings from Turkey that trouble was brewing in the Islamic Crescent and at this stage we should simply avoid making things worse.

 Education Deficit

Undergraduates in Englandmarch against “an increase in student fees” but “fees” have actually been replaced by long-term, government-guaranteed, taxpayer-funded loans. The confusion is understandable because both north and south of the border the sharing of education costs between government, universities, parents and students is shambolic. After the Stalinist control-freakery of recent governments it had been hoped the coalition would re-establish the autonomy which allowed British tertiary education to thrive. But Vince Cable’s decision to pay for the tripled loans in England by cutting teaching grants and Scotland’s “electioneering” economics will doom most universities. For some there is no escape, but the likes of Oxbridge, St Andrews and London could opt for a fee-paying “Ivy League” which relies solely on the enduring appeal of quality.

Eastern Biomass Failure

Hopes that Japan could become the world’s first recycling-based society have been dealt a severe blow by a report which should be required reading for the Scottish government. Japan’s Internal Affairs Ministry, tasked to evaluate public work projects, is about to pull the plug on some 200 vastly expensive biomass projects which are clearly failing. These cost a mind-boggling $80 billion of public funds yet an official report concluded that none had “produced effective results in the struggle against global warming”. The six ministries conducting the biomass projects using sewage sludge, garbage and wood were warned that this excessive hemorrhaging of tax payers’ money must stop.

The Boomer Legacy

Our soldiers started to come home in the summer of 1945 and this spring, 65 years and nine months after that joyful time, the first baby-boomers draw their pensions. The average boomer-pensioner will enjoy a further two decades but a million will survive to receive their telegram from King Charles, possessor of the royal longevity genes. Conceived amid the rubble of post-war Britain and brought up in a society moving from austerity to affluence, they were fromthe first absolutely sure of their own uniqueness. Supported by social security and grammar schools, delighting in cheap holidays and the shopping revolution, they enjoyed comforts their parents could only imagine. Yet in spite of their high flown rhetoric, they had a toxic “buy now, pay later” mentality and the two boomer-premiers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, left a terrible legacy.

Beware Attila the Hen

Nanci Griffith put into song one of the pillars of 20th century feminist thinking: “If women were in charge, wars would cease.” but that was not how Libya played out. At the start of the Arab Spring, the US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, observed that any President thinking of bombing another Muslim land needed “his head examined”. Yet he lost out to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the warrior ladies of the White House who bullied President Obama into the ill-advised North African incursion. The wilting maiden story has never played well in Scotland because our greatest military defeat was not inflicted by macho figures such as Edward I, Cromwell, or Cumberland. It was a pregnant Catherine of Aragon who road north in full armour to annihilate our army at Flodden and sent the blood drenched coat of James IV back to Henry VIII.

Missing 50 million refugee

In 2005, the United Nations shaded a world map to show areas where sea level rises of up to 20 feet, caused by global warming, would create 50 million refugees by 2010. This was reinforced three years later by Prince Charles who claimed the world would end in 18 months with all sorts of biblical disasters, plagues of frogs and other ‘thingies’. As a geriatric retiree reduced to playing increasingly bad golf I was looking forward to seeing some of this exciting stuff in the great coastal cities of Europe, America and Asia. Sadly sea levels remained disappointingly constant and far from populations fleeing the likes of the Caribbean, the Pacific islands and Bangladesh, they are rapidly expanding. If anyone has seen the missing 50 million global warming refugees perhaps they could let us know and Prince Charles would love to hear of any disasters.

Hope subsides but curiosity remains

I much appreciated Allan Massie’s magisterial overview of the proposed reform of the British voting system and agree that we should take another look at the French set-up. Our experience of the Scottish parliament has been disappointing but the expectations were simply manic given the quality of the candidates and the scope of their powers. The “tail-wagging-the-dog” was not as bad as many feared though its fox-hunting legislation was farcical and we will pay dearly down the line of its obsession with renewable energy. The last, execrable, Labour government with its vast Commons majority and minority electoral support showed that “first-past-the post” can land us with a tyrannical regime. Yet hopes should be muted because the coalition has shown the same delusional thinking at home – and propensity to interfere abroad – as we saw with their unlamented predecessors.

Doubts over viability of wind power

Ed Miliband pointed out that Alex Salmond’s renewable energy plans will require an upgrade of the National grid fare beyond our means in an era of tight budgets. The spectacular growth of renewable energy sources, driven by high subsidies and green rhetoric on global warming, has meant the national grid is already struggling to cope. The costs and technical obstacles soar with offshore wind facilities and the problems of tailoring this highly variable source of power to our needs may prove intractable. If reducing emissions is what truly motivates Mr Salmond, he should bin plans for the expansion of renewables and build gas power stations to replace those based on coal and fission.

Another self-righteous campaign

The new furore about the use of child labour in 3rd world sweat shops is
being supported in lofty moral tones by the bien pensant, the churches and tellingly, our trade unions. There are the usual demands that their products should not be retailed here unless the people who make them receive decent wages and work under decent conditions. Well, that’s all very fine but follow-ups done when such campaigns succeed in blocking supplies do not find the former child workers in school or enjoying three squares meals a day. The boys are back making mud bricks and the girls in prostitution because although fat-cats do benefit from the industry, the biggest beneficiaries are the children. Sweat-shops are not the problem: as we saw in Singapore, they are part of the solution and if you, like me, want the poor to get rich, buy things made by poor people.

The Kirk’s gay dilemma

Councillor John Stewart, leader of Aberdeen City Council, is right to warn the Kirk that a decision to exclude gay clergy would undermine its position as the national church. The law of the land makes discrimination against gays in employment illegal and recent surveys show this is supported by well over 90 per cent of the population. Other mainline protestant churches such as those in North America, Scandinavia, Germany and Holland accept gay clergy in sexually active monogamous relationships. The disastrous 19th century schism in the Kirk was driven by the evangelical wing’s insistence on the absolute right of a congregation to choose its own minister. It would be deeply ironic if the successors of these Victorian dissenters caused another split by denying that right on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Libyan fall-out

I doubt that the Muslim world will miss the irony of the UK celebrating the wedding of our ruler’s grandson and the next day slaughtering the grandchildren of Libya’s ruler. UN Resolution 1973 authorised action to “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas” but NATO took this as permission to shoot upTripoli’s suburbs and kill civilians. Serious questions need to be raised about who authorised yet another failed attempt at the state assassination of a foreign leader which yet again resulted in the deaths of children. Of course, as was spelt out at Nuremberg, only the defeated are ever guilty of war crimes otherwise there might be a case for Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy to answer.

Bin Laden’s mark

Winston Churchill said of Afghanistan, “Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid”, for the past runs deep in such places and in men like Osama bin Laden. The military mission to kill him has been completed but the cultural task of expunging his toxic vision of history and the dictates of Islamic destiny has not even begun. For bin Laden, the present jihad is simply part of an endless war with the infidel, begun by the Prophet and seamlessly including the Crusades and 19th/20th century imperialism.His take on history may be one-dimensional but it is highly contagious. The Prophet said, “The ink of the scholar is worth more than the blood of a martyr”- and we shall see.

Atmosphere of St Andrews brought out the joy in legendary Ballesteros (Mon 9th May)

After he retired, Seve Ballesteros was asked why he had danced on the last green at St Andrews in 1984 when on other occasions he simply tipped his cap and walked away. He said he had always hoped to hear the sound that meets a Spanish footballer or matador but it did not happen because in his home country golf was still too up-market a sport. To the “Confederate” galleries at Augusta or the polite English crowds he was just another foreign winner and he had no idea until 1984 of the support he had in Scotland. Vast numbers of Scottish working-class golfers packed the amphitheatre in St Andrews that day and when he holed his final putt they erupted in a prolonged “Hampden” roar. The bedlam went on and on, echoing off the houses and buildings lining the Old Course, and at last he was engulfed by the sound he had waited so long to hear.

Fears for the Copts (Tues 10th May)

Fear is mounting among Christians throughout the Middle East that rioters will turn on them and their churches have already received letters with the message: “You’re next.” For decades, secular Arab governments protected Christian and other minorities by enforcing a strictly non-religious program and curbing the Muslim Brotherhood fanatics. However, with Mubarak gone, Egypt’s Copts are on their own and Salafi thugs shot up and fire-bombed Christian churches in Cairo on Saturday killing twelve and injuring 230. In many countries the Christians make up only 10 percent of the population but they are often highly educated professionals in medicine, engineering and the government. The “Arab Spring” has not proved to be a glad confident morning but has instead brought widespread violence and is likely to end with total ethnic and religious cleansing.

Healing words (Tues 24th May)

The General Medical Council’s decision to give GP Richard Scott an official reprimand because he discussed his Christian faith with a patient could lead to his being struck off. Had Dr Scott withheld orthodox medical treatment, the GMC would have had a cause for concern but all he did was discuss spiritual faith as an element of the healing process. I believe the GMC acted with inappropriate and disproportionate force and applied its own guidance about personal beliefs in medical practice in a selective and unbalanced way. This says, “Discussing personal beliefs may, when approached sensitively, help doctors to work in partnership with patients to address their particular treatment needs”. GPs report that patients often seek help in other ways than prescriptions and want to discuss everything from relationship problems to unemployment and work stress.

Being gay is a sin only in translation (Wed 25th May)

Whether by accident or design, the Kirk’s mainline theological heavyweights such as Dr Iain Torrance were absent from the debate about gay ministers and the field was left to the conservative wing (your report, 24 May). The only challenges to the misleading fundamentalist claim that the Bible specifically outlaws consensual homosexual relations came from American and African clerics. In fact, the scriptures in the original Greek are ambiguous about homosexuality and do not contain any clear references to gay activity within a committed relationship. Paul did condemn homosexual orgies, ritual gay sex in Pagan temples and the sexual rape of young boys by adult males, but that would elicit general Christian agreement. The problem is that, after having been filtered through the belief systems of the many translators, some English versions of the Bible do condemn all homosexual behaviour. The make-up of the Kirk’s committee to look at the theological issues over the next two years is immaterial, since progress towards compromise on homosexual rights is unlikely. Conservatives will continue to hold that homosexual behaviour is always a serious sin and oppose the inclusion of sexual orientation in anti-discrimination legislation.

Flying is more than monitoring computers (Tues 31st May)

The 2009 crash of an Air France Airbus in a tropical storm over the Atlantic casts doubt on the safety of the fly-by-wire system if computers controlling the cockpit fail.

While a degree of automation is inevitable, the whole interface between pilots and such systems should be re-examined in the light of the performance by cabin crew that night. Used to simulators and automated flight controls, young pilots trained by civilian airlines appear to lack the skills and experience to cope when their screens go blank. Certainly the French pilots compared badly with veteran Captain Sullenberger, ex-US Air Force, who coolly landed his crippled plane on the Hudson River earlier that year. There must be a more physically-aware, hands-on approach and tellingly, after the AF447 accident, Air France pilots were given extra training in coping with speed-sensor failures.

Regarding Lagarde (Wed 1st June)

Christine Lagarde, the French front-runner in the race for top job in the IMF has two things going for her: she spent most of her career in the US and she is not Gordon Brown. Yet it would be astonishing if one the major architects of the punitive and ineffective bailouts in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, should find herself at the helm of the IMF. Though an haute-bourgeoisie aesthete would be a relief after that seedy libertine Strauss-Kahn, she too is involved in scandal involving Sarkozy’s sleazy financial backers.After the Strauss-Kahn fiasco, the IMF may be embarking on a Lagarde debacle and it should surely look for a replacement in the fabulous talent pool lying outside Europe.

Political Cowardice Rules (Sat 4th June)

The Home Office has re-issued its standard response to any suggestion that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 be revisited: “Drugs are illegal because they are harmful.” But in a liberal democracy, you need a reason to make things illegal and all international studies confirm prohibition has been as big a disaster with drugs as it was with alcohol. The number of dependent British heroin users soared from 4,000 in 1970 and the UK now has by far the highest level of dependent drug use in Europe. The US has not only created a nightmare world for its urban underclass but has allowed its vast narcotics trade to effectively destroy Mexico and other nations in South America. Only political cowardice prevents Anglo-American governments removing this problem from organised crime and treating victims like patients and not criminals.

Gas attack in Follyrood (Mon 6th June

A couple of years ago George Foulkes caused general hilarity – and great offence – by calling Alex Salmond, “Il Duce” – a reference to the roly-poly fascist leader of Italy. Mussolini was portrayed in Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator” as the verbose Benzole Gasolini who bore an even closer resemblance to our First Minister. Question Time in Follyrood descended into farce with the FM doing his Fidel Castro impressions and the Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick cowering in frozen silence. Donald Dewar was warned this could happen but took no notice and Scotland is now at the mercy of the belligerent incompetence of this “elected dictatorship”.

 The coming Apocalypse (Thurs 9th June)

I once worked in an ethical pharmaceutical division of what is now GlaxoSmithKline and I have never forgotten their scientists’ warning of humanity’s microbiological timebomb. Most of my initial training was in the sales and marketing of drugs but what stuck in my mind was their researchers’ dismay at our GP’s over-prescription of antibiotics. But that dismay turned to fear when they started to describe the massive and unregulated overuse of these drugs on livestock by farmers not to cure disease but increase profits. Large doses of antibiotics modify the gut of perfectly healthy animals making them put on weight more quickly – but this procedure will eventually create superbugs. The practice was later banned in the EU but farmers are still allowed to administer huge prophylactic doses to intensively reared pigs, cows and chickens. This recent morphing in Germany of a common and normally manageable bacterium into a deadly strain may not be the Apocalypse – but it is coming.

Dress Sense (Tues 14th June)

Like many fathers of daughters, I sympathise with the policeman who warned girls that “dressing like sluts” was asking for trouble. I thought the inflation of his well-meaning – if incautious – advice into a thought-crime and the international explosion of “slut walks” was self-indulgent and absurd. No girl dresses to be raped but clothing, like all social conventions, carries meaning and girls are surely aware of the effect such “signals” have on hormonally-driven young men. Insisting her behaviour never contributes to any harm that befalls a woman is deeply anti-feminist. It infantilises women as incapable of taking responsibility for their actions.

Bombing for peace and raping for virginity (Mon 20th June)

The line from Robert Burns, “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us”, applies to our air force and what it stands for at home and abroad. To us the RAF evokes the image of fighter pilots and the Battle of Britain – abroad it stands for wanton destruction and the pointless saturation-bombing of civilians. We protest that our brave bomber crews had a causality rate in WWII higher than any force other than the U-boats – but both groups were widely perceived as neo-terrorists. After three months of shooting up the suburbs of Tripoli and other “targets”, we are doing little more than shifting rubble and increasing our already deplorable rate of “collateral”. In recent decades, we flattened the suburbs of Dresden, Bagdad, Belgrade and a hundred other cities and if this is all we can contribute to world peace, we should stay home.

Rights of Passage (Mon 27th June)

The passage of the marriage equality bill through the New York state senate is a huge victory for gay rights and a significant step forward for the human race. It is clear that most Americans are no longer prepared to have people told they have no right to partake in a basic human ritual on the basis of sexual orientation alone. One can only hope that it will hasten the arrival of that moment when this dispute – which seems jarringly ridiculous even today – will be relegated to the dust-bin of history. Perhaps one day children will be taught about it in school alongside slavery and the burning of witches to show how far America has progressed from barbarism. I congratulate those gays who, through sheer force of will against truly unthinkable levels of hostility, have forced New York to recognize their fundamental humanity.

A whole new culture (Sent Sat 2nd July)

Recalling my time in industry, this is how things would look if public sector “culture” was replaced by private sector “culture” and the whole operation run in “survival mode”. The lower pay grades would be kept but all managers would reapply for their jobs to a panel of local businessmen with successful candidates re-employed on new, lower, salaries. Departments supporting spurious Labour and EU legislation will be cut and managers’ pay reflect their ability to reduce their budget/headcount whilst improving services. To keep the title “manager”, they must have at least 20 people under their direct control whose performance they will measure with all non-performers retrained or sacked. As regards pensions, private sector rules apply: pay more, work longer and receive what can be afforded. Welcome to the real world, ladies and gentlemen of the public sector.

Wedded Bliss (Mon 4th July)

Heidi Withers was invited to spend the weekend with her fiancé’s father and his second wife and told to make herself “feel at home” – which the girl clearly did. Without realising what happens when you send stuff into the ether, the stepmother, Carolyn To-The Manners-Bourne, fired off a stunningly snobbish e-mail, (your report). It reached the entire planet, as did the father of Heidi’s description of the sender: “She has her head stuck so far up her own arse she doesn’t know whether to speak or fart.” This response is worthy of Oscar Wilde (or at least Billy Connolly) and well-deserved. During my 35 years as a parish minister I loved conducting weddings, which were always happy occasions – except when the parents-in-law were divorced and remarried.

Dressed to lose (Mon 4th June)

In the iconic film ‘The Hustler’ after completing the grueling early rounds, Minnesota Fats days to his young opponent, “Fast Eddy, let’s play pool.” When Andt Murray waklked onto the court, unkept, unshaven, looking as if he had spent the prioe evening in a bar and the night in a park, he looked like a loser. A large retunue of portly ladies wrapped in Scottish flags watched him fail with almost half his serves, double fault 15 times, and commit 40 unforced errors before the end. Unlike great international champions, Murray has always looked lost and fragile – the very antithesis of the old truism, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Caring for the vulnerable should be a priority (Wed 6th June)

Long term social care is a scary problem for most people in that entails unlimited costs for which it id difficult to plan leading to considerable distress at  the point of need. Aswith many of the professional middle class, I am only a generation away from the pits and heavy industry which curtailed the lives of my male realtives to around 60. Though I rattle with the number of pills I take, I have now outlived my ex-miner father by a decade and – much to my surprise – long term care is starting to appear on my radar. While I love him for trying, I do not believe Henry McLeish’s free personal care is affordable in the long term and we need to explore alternative methods of funding. I like the sound of Andrew Dilnot’s idea of a huge social insurance policy with a large but affordable ‘excess’ which means that once I have paid it, the state will take over.

News of the World closure (Sat 9th July)

Though the Good Book says, “Greater love hath no woman than this, that she lay down her scribes for her life” I doubt News Corporation’s Rebecca Brooks can survive. After all, it was on her watch that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked, the police were bribed and such sensitive headlines as “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up” appeared. She also oversaw a campaign which the authorities called “grossly irresponsible” of naming and shaming paedophiles which led to pediatricians being attacked. Only the truly delusional can now believe that News Corporation is a fit and proper business and should be allowed control of the £10 billion satellite broadcaster BskyB

Work Experience (Mon 11th July)

As life expectancy increases and retirement benefits decline, more people will remain in some form of work and – in spite of public sector hysteria – it is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not all about money because work gives people a purpose, as well as a structure and social connections – what the Japanese call ikigai: a reason to get up in the morning. The rise in working seniors aged 75 and beyond began long before the recession and the US Bureau of Labour Statistics say 8 per cent are now employed in some capacity. A limiting factor has been the reluctance of employers to accept that the stereotype of the senior worker as slower, less flexible and less tech-savvy is out of date. Older workers come from generations significantly more literate and numerate than today and some seniors, like me, have been working with computers for almost half a century.

Echoes of expenses scandal in hackgate (Wed 20th June)

The repeated statements by Sir Paul Stephenson that he had done no wrong in accepting a £12,000 jolly was an uncomfortable echo of similar protests from our MPs last year. Police freebies at the highest level and our MPs’ gross sense of entitlement show a nation with a Third World mind-set where officials expect to enhance their lifestyle with perks. And the unedifying sight of Gordon Brown in a fit of moral outrage should not blind us to the fact that most of these misdeeds were done on New Labour’s watch. From the very start, the United Nations and the European Union have been riddled with corruption which only sees the light of day when uncovered by the rare whistleblower. To my mind, the most dangerous aspect of the recent phone hacking farrago is that it will give those in authority the chance to clamp down hard on press freedom in general.Teutonic solidarity is the euro soluition (Fri 22nd July) As its is better to have a nightmare solution than an endless nightmare, an economic ‘Greater Germany’ of Austria, Germany, Holland and Luxembourg should bite the bullet and leave the euriozonme. This revamped Grossdeutschland could also include the workable (German speaking) parts of Italy and Belgium, namely the Lombard League and Flanders. The resulting surge in value of the newly reconstituted Deutsch Mark would require a Germano-bank bailout but that would be politically more acceptable than bailing out irresponsible peripheral banks. Once divorce from the euro is complete, this natural union of Proto-German speakers will have the fiscal freedom to offset export and external shocks by running large government budget deficits for a time. France, the Club Med banana republics and the rest of the zone could retain a greatly devalued euro, giving a huge boost to their competitiveness in trade and tourism. Resulting instability would require the European Central Bank to backstop all of their bonds but it would encounter much less resistance to doing so in the absence of a German mindset.

Hate in a Cold Climate (Mon 25th July)

After the Viking era, Norwegians spent much of their history as impoverished second-class citizens under the lash of Sweden, Denmark and finally Nazi Germany. Until oil was discovered, it was notable only for the stark beauty of its coastline and its obtuse preference for the likes of Arafat over Gandhi as Nobel Peace Prizewinners. But oil only increased its isolation because its new petro-currency made it prohibitively expensive for tourists which, to be fair, was exactly how most Norwegians preferred it. They did not want to spoil their lonely idyll by joining the EU or becoming multicultural and the influx of Islamic refugees has been met with fierce anti-immigration rhetoric. It is this spirit of “volk und vaterland” that has turned murderous and Norwegians will clearly have to confront their racist demons as we have had to do in Britain.

Wrong Debate (Sat 6th Aug)

It is disappointing that British voters, when invited to petition Parliament on-line for an issue to be debated, chose that old chestnut: capital punishment. Polls have found that, in spite of the murder rate having doubled since its abolition in 1965, support for the death penalty has waned from 70 to around 50 per cent. Amnesty International claims most countries are “abolitionist” and the United Nations has adopted resolutions calling for a global moratorium with a view to eventual abolition. My late father was a leading spokesman for the Kirk in the debate half a century ago and was fiercely opposed having a jaundiced view of our judiciary’s ability to get it right. Nothing has changed and the most likely recent execution would have been that of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi whose conviction showed our courts are as implacably obtuse as ever.

 Testing Times (Wed 10th Aug)

When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey gave Scots children a dire education report our reaction was to bail out of the survey. Equally infantile was our authorities’ response to questions being asked about the increasing number of “failing” schools – to ban the use of such an adjective. Now the Scottish Qualification Authority is to axe appeals by teachers against their frequently flawed marking of children’s exam papers. A much more sensible response would be to fax a copy of the marked script back to the school so that the teacher could judge whether further appeal was worthwhile. This is done in England but the spirit of secrecy and official arrogance is so great north of the border that no-one should hold their breath.

Feral Parents (Fri 12th Aug)

The problem is not simply feral children but feral parents who produced these Lord of the Flies degenerates and are now too drunk or drugged to care what they are doing. This was exacerbated by our schools’ child-centred approach which expected children to learn and decide for themselves, leaving them illiterate, innumerate and unable to think. But behind it all are our amoral bien pensant who have undermined everything which could socialise these children and turn them from feral savages into civilised citizens. And the worst of these non-judgmental wreckers was deputy leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman, who has the gall to blame the recent riots on “Tory cuts” necessitated by New Labour’s economic incompetence. In fact, Harman was the last government’s principal promoter of lone parenthood, the side-lining of fathers and the toxic welfarist entitlement culture the looters displayed.

Different Brown (Wed 17th Aug)

I was taken aback to hear Gordon Brown berate the British press for being “politicised” and for daring to challenge politicians’ motives and integrity. Could this be the same Gordon Brown whose spokesman, Charlie Whelan, was forced to resign after he was found trashing Peter Mandelson in leaks to the press? Whose special adviser, Damian McBride, was caught publishing sleaze and innuendo on the internet about Brown’s political rivals in the Labour Party? Whose election campaign manager, Derek Draper, posted personal smears about David and Samantha Cameron in the “LabourList”? Perhaps this is another Gordon Brown, equipped with moral compass and righteous indignation, ready to redeem the world from spin and sin.

Change for the worse (Mon 22nd Aug)

Wag the Dog, the Dustin Hoffman-Robert de Niro black comedy based on a cover- up of Clintonesque indiscretions with a fake-war is best remembered for two prescient scenes. Dreaming up ‘official’ reasons for the Albanian attack, it is suggested they might be ‘fighting for freedom and democracy’ but Hoffman character asks, “Why would they want that?” The other is when told there is no a war because CIA surveillance units gave no warning de Niro, in an observation recalled after 9/11, says ‘intelligence’ never gets it right. Now six months after the unexpected ‘Arab Spring’ burst out, it is clear we have misread the situation and the joyous outcome we predicted looks more absurd by the day. As Harold Macmillan warned, “Things never turn out as you expect, dear boy, and in the Middle East, no regime is so bad it cannot be replaced with something worse.

Flawed Genius (Mon 29th Aug)

Stephen Jandali, the German-Syrian computer genius better known as Steve Jobs, has announced his resignation from his role as Apple’s Chief Executive. Like Bill Gates, he was a college drop-out managing but one term at Oregon’s Reed College before leaving to train for the contemplative life of a Zen Buddhist monk. Finally he returned to California to become a unique individualist in a world of corporate conformity known for both his technical genius and his commercial eccentricity. He bequeaths a business model of a company redolent of the vision, innovation, quality, perfectionism, marketing genius, arrogance and sheer weirdness of its founder. The huge allure of Apple’s products allowed Jobs to break every rule but his proprietary instincts made him spurn compatibility with other brands and that was a major flaw.

Rough Justice (Wed 31st Aug)

The demand by US politicians that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi be extradited to the United States and tried again for his “crimes” is redolent of both ignorance and arrogance. Not even the vengeful American judicial system, for all its tiresome exhibitionism and glacial pace, permits someone already convicted of a crime to be re-convicted of it. Such a request, though it comes from the usual rabble-rousing suspects, is based on the absurd presumption that all other judicial systems are inferior to American “justice”. It may be that not even Megrahi’s death will satisfy this vindictive nation, where the primitive biblical injunction of “an eye for an eye” is so woven into the judicial fabric. Some may wish to follow the precedent of the medieval Catholic Church, which allowed Pope Stephen VII to exhume the body of his predecessor and put the corpse on trial.

Are we all on the same page? (Wed 7th Sept)

Phil Shiner, the leading British human-rights lawyer, is to challenge this latest attempt by Alex Salmond and Edinburgh University to drive Boris Johnson and the Home Counties bonkers. Shiner quoted a former Education secretary who said, “Discrimination on the basis of nationality is unacceptable and it is high time the government stopped defending the indefensible. Such discrimination is not only wrong in principle; it also damages the reputation of Scotland’s higher education system and undermines the Scottish four-year degree.” And who is the former education secretary? Why none other than the all-singing, all-dancing Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister of Scotland and SNP Secretary for just about everything.

The Catholic Church has no single claim to marriage rights (Mon 12th Sept)

Archbishop Mario Conti opposes same-sex marriage claiming that the “capacity to create a natural family is an essential characteristic” but that is a subjective opinion. Marriage is a multifaceted institution of great antiquity pre-exiting the Catholic Church by millennia and has never had a single unchanging definition. Same-sex marriage itself has a long record in world history and it was certainly celebrated in Ancient Greece and Rome as well as regions of China such as Fujian. The Church has been repeatedly assured that the law will continue to guarantee its right to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages and that should surely be enough. The Archbishop should not presume to speak for Kirk ministers like me who are not bound by Catholic tradition but by the Scriptures and the inclusiveness of Christ.

Fuel Poverty (Mon 19th Sept)

Utility price rises have pushed the average household hjeating bill to almost £1,300 a year much of it driven by ‘green’ taxes imoposed by Energy Secretary Chris Hume. With the winter months now looming, he has had the gall to tell families facing fuel starvation that it is their own fault because they do not shop around. Not only does this self-serving nonsense ignore his stealth levies of 20 per cent for wind turbines, it also ignores the complex nature of the tariffs in our uncompetitive energy market. It is totally unacceptable for this wealthy political maverick to blame poverty-stricken families for the distressing out-come of his utopian green obsessions.

An obvious barrier to recovery (Fri 23rd Sept)

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore told the Lib Dem conference of his cunning plan for a new talking shop to identify the barriers that are holding back our economy. He surely does not need “the good and the great” to tell him that the greatest barrier is his colleague Chris Huhne’s ruinous fixation with costly renewable power generation. In The Myth of Green Jobs, Gordon Hughes points out that as costs rise in manufacturing and related sectors, firms will simply relocate taking ever more Scottish jobs with them.

Particle Exchange (Tues 27th Sept)

If CERN’s discovery of neutrinos moving faster then light is independently verified (your report, 24 September), such an anomaly will require a revisitation of Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Fortunately, it has nothing to do with global warming so theoretical physicists will not feel compelled to defend Einstein by referring to the CERN researchers as Holocaust deniers, flat-earthers and religious creationists. Incidentally, when the German-Jew Einstein was asked in the 1930s what the consequences would be of his theory being proved wrong, he said Germany would refer to him as a Jew and France would refer to him as a German – and vice-versa if he was correct.

The truth must be fearlessly pursued (Tues 5th Oct)

 The trial of Amanda Knox in Perugia had echoes of that of Abdelbaset al Megrahi who, like Knox, suffered from national and racial stereotyping by the general public. British tabloids have a tendency to suspect all Muslim men of being bombers while their Italian counterparts present West Coast American girls as drug-crazed sex maniacs. The prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, had form when it came to concocting weird scenarios, and his descriptions of satanic rituals were reminiscent of the scandalous Orkney trials. The performance of the Italian forensic team was deplorable and on a par with that seen in the prosecutions of Detective Constable Shirley McKie and Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Yet Italy can be proud that its system is self-righting while our judiciary still struggle to admit culpability in the manifestly un-safe verdicts on McKie and al-Megrahi.

 Change of heart (Wed 12th Oct)

The Rev Scott Anderson was the “closeted” gay Presbyterian minister of Sacramento, California between 1983 and 1990 until a Christian couple threatened to “out” him. The next day he admitted from the pulpit that he was gay and, in spite of protests from his supportive congregation, resigned from the then homophobic US Presbyterian Church. Twenty years later, the national church accepted that being gay “was only a sin in biblical translation” and last Saturday Anderson took over a church in Madison, Wisconsin. In a moving service he was “preached-in” by the Rev Mark Achtemeier of Iowa, once a fierce critic of gay people but who, like St Paul, experienced a Damascene conversion. If such an event can take place in the land of conservative Christianity there may yet be hope for mainland Scotland – if not the gulags of the Highlands and Islands.

Yellow card would have been sufficient for Warburton (Mon 17th Oct)

 The law is quite clear, “lifting a player from the ground and dropping him so that his head and upper body come into contact with the ground, is ruled dangerous play”. But the law also specifies either a penalty or a yellow card and to go further to a red card is such a critical decision most referees would have consulted their officials. I do not think the fact that that Wales v France was a World Cup semi-final, that there was no malice involved and that Sam Warburton’s tackle occurred early in a largely clean match can be dismissed as irrelevant. Having the knee-jerk decision of a referee in the early stages affect the outcome of such an important game is simply deplorable.

Modern Nursing (Tues 18th Oct)

The Care Quality Commission’s report that half of all English hospitals fail to provide adequate comfort and nutrition for the elderly signals the collapse of nursing ethics. Its horrifying revelations have nothing to do with that perennial excuse, “lack of money”, but illustrate the replacement of altruism and compassion by apathy and indifference. In recent decades, in order to achieve professional equality with doctors, nurse training was taken away from the hospitals and turned into an academic university subject. Student nurses study sociology, politics, psychology and management with core vocational skills of caring increasingly perceived as beneath the dignity of “professionals”. Yet Florence Nightingale wrote that “the greater part of nursing consists in preserving cleanliness and if a girl declines to perform such functions, nursing is not her calling”.

Gadaffi’s death (Sat 22nd Oct)

With the execution of Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s longest serving non-royal ruler is gone (your report, 21 October). In contrast to the recent slaughter, he overthrew the Anglo-American puppet King Idris in a bloodless coup 42 years ago and dismantled the corrupt remnants of Western colonialism. As a result he replaced Nasser as the Western bogeyman, was styled “the Mad Gadaffi” and every act of terrorism up to and including Lockerbie was laid at his door. In practice he was one of the better third-world rulers, giving one of the poorest nations in the region food security by irrigating the desert and ensuring a stable water supply. Perhaps his great achievement was to protect Libya’s minorities from Islamic repression and the real losers of this Western neo-colonial interference are the Coptic Christians.

Fathers’ Rights (Fri 4th Nov)

The long-awaited Family Justice Review will disappoint many by supporting the bias of family law which puts the rights of mothers above those of fathers and grandparents. The latter will have no legal right to see their grandchildren and the report disparages the notion that men should have equal or even shared time with their children after divorce. This is so monstrously unfair I cannot believe it will fly as there are decent people in the Cabinet like Iain Duncan Smith who will surely fight for more equitable legislation. The review bears the hall marks of its originator Harriet Harman and was chaired by David Norgrove, the failed M & S “director of clothing” who almost destroyed the firm. It flies in the face of all recent research in Europe and America which shows that it is essential for a child to have extensive access to both its father and mother.

Flawed seekers after power (Mon 7th Nov)

The late Auberon Waugh endeared himself to my generation by proclaiming that his ideal government would be a “junta of Belgian ticket inspectors”. As Europe’s political pygmies vainly strive to prop-up their pretentious monstrosity, it is clear such limited ambitions as having the trains run on time is preferable. At home, having endured the pomposity of Gordon Brown’s economic delusions, we face the nightmare of heating our mid-winter homes with Alex Salmond’s becalmed wind-mills so it appropriate to recall that Waugh also said: “Until the public accepts that the urge to power is a personality disorder in its own right, like the taste for rubber underwear, there will always be the danger of circumstances arising which persuade people to start listening to politicians and taking them seriously.”

A dilemma – but not a moral one (Sat 12th Nov)

When I sent my two children to boarding school, many of my friends thought I was daft, that it was not worth it and they would do just as well in the local comprehensive. But I thought it was, not only because they were sports fanatics but because it widened their radar to include everything from US colleges to German technical universities. Now all parents face a similar dilemma over tertiary education and must ask themselves: is a UK university degree, now that every second person has one, worth £9,000 a year? This is not a question of morality or fairness but simply the inevitable consequence of the convergence of student fees in both American and European research universities. If students benefit from higher education they should bear a larger burden of its costs. But will your child benefit or is direct entry into the world of work a better option?

Golf’s heart of darkneww (Mon 14th Nov)

THE dismissal of Steve Williams’ vile comment by Greg Norman as “not racist” and his claim that golf has “always been cohesive” are an insult to our intelligence. I am old enough to remember when Charlie Sifford, the black former caddie from the Carolinas, was finally given his PGA card in 1960 at 40 years of age. In spite of vicious and relentless abuse from the loathsome “Confederate” galleries who would kick his ball into the rough, he was eventually a champion on the Tour. His election into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 was a belated gesture of recognition by the golfing world of his long and ultimately successful fight against racial exclusion. Golf has NOT always been “cohesive” and Norman may be too young or insensitive to acknowledge our deplorable past, but this incident must not be swept under the carpet.

 Herman’s little helpers (Mon 21st Nov)

The poet John Betjeman said that in light of the wanton destruction wrought by the 1960s planners in London, Herman Goering deserved a medal for architectural preservation. The Scottish conservation architect James Simpson has produced a widely acclaimed plan to convert Perth City Hall into a beautiful and much needed covered-market. However the city’s councillors, not previously known for their architectural flair, are determined to spend the same amount of money to knock it down and create a ‘plaza’. Their last effort was the St John’s shopping centre – a dire construction with a façade of unparalleled charmlessness and an absence of grace so total it is a thing of wonder. The City Hall hides this monstrosity and the wrecker’s ball should be stayed because Edinburgh’s Festival Square is an example of the sort of ‘plaza’ Perth has in mind.

Those were the days (Wed 23rd Nov)

The Government plans to intervene in the property market by guaranteeing mortgages but such schemes were common practice when I bought my first flat in 1970. There were no mortgage advances in excess of 80 per cent of value and the guarantee was underwritten by a commercial company for a premium paid by me. In addition building societies would only provide a mortgage equal in value to between two-and-a-half and three times of my salary and my wife’s income could not be included. This was deemed the amount that could be repaid within 25 years, allowing for other family expenditure, pension savings and the likely pregnancy of my wife. I do not know why this sensible set-up was ever changed and it certainly allowed me, aged 26 and just married, to acquire a top-floor flat in Marchmont Road – for £3,500!!!

 Let’s play ball (Sat 30th Nov)

The country should not be held to ransom, especially at a time of economic crisis. Only a third of union members even took part in the ballot and less than a quarter of Unison’s members have triggered this facile, political strike. If the unions go ahead, the Government should give notice they will freeze all existing pension schemes with a view to moving state employees to money-purchase. The public-sector clearly wants to play hardball, so let play commence.

Life on Mars (Wed 2nd Dec)

Aircraft dials used to be painted with a phosphorescent compound mixed with radium which made them glow in the dark. At the end of the Second World War a number of planes were dismantled at the old Donibristle airfield on the River Forth. Some equipment, including the dials, was incinerated, mixed with runway rubble and building material, and used to reclaim the coastline where Dalgety Bay was later built. Traces of radioactivity were discovered in 1990 by a monitoring team from Rosyth and though observable with sensitive devices the danger to humans is absolutely negligible. There are protozoa on Mars with a greater knowledge of Physics than Gordon Brown and he should return to his self-imposed purdah and not ramp up silly scare stories.

The Kirk’s incoherent response (Mon 5th Dec)

Quakers, Jews and liberal Protestant churches accept the SNP’s gay marriage proposals and rightly see the issue as being about civil rights and not some perceived morality. The Kirk insults our intelligence by claiming that homophobia a sin, insisting it ministers to all ‘regardless of sexual orientation and practice’ and refusing to marry gay members. It is regrettable secular society has moved on in the UK and its tolerance is exemplary yet our church leaders foam at the mouth over legislation which is so manifestly fair-minded. The very people one might expect to support diversity and inclusiveness misuse biblical language to insist discrimination against gay people must continue on hallowed ground.

Granny Muggers (Wed 7th Dec)

The HSBC fiasco is only the most recent scandal to hit our banks and will come as no surprise to those of us who spent our professional lives caring for the elderly. The FSA found “serious and systemic” mis-selling where frail elderly people struggling to pay care-home fees were lured into gambling their life savings on risky investments. It has been going on for decades and I have not the slightest doubt many more pensioners have fallen victim to snake-oil salesmen in other financial institutions. Granny-mugging is clearly industry wide. This case should be a wake-up call for anyone with a trusting elderly relative.

Ainslie disqualification sends wrong message to media (Mon 12th Dec)

The disqualification of Britain’s triple Olympic gold medalist sailor Ben Ainslie after a confrontation with a media boat at the World Championship in Australia is surely sending the wrong signal to the media. What next: paparazzi racing onto the pitch and interfering with play during the World Cup or setting up on the track during the Olympic Games forcing the sprinters to run round them? It is about time the Hooray Henry’s in the Royal Yachting Association stopped fawning over the television industry. I trust they invited the skipper of the press boat over for a pink gin and reminded him of that old law of the sea: “sail before steam”. Or would that be too provocative?

More questions than answers (Tues 13th Dec)

Alex Salmond misses the point when he accuses David Cameron of “blundering” by using his veto to protest a deal which leaves the EU configured to the interests of Germany. John Maynard Keynes first identified the fundamental problem we see today in the euro crisis and the US-China trade tensions and saw earlier in the 1980s US-Japan discord. Sadly at Bretton Woods he failed to convince the others that the exchange rate regime needed symmetrical obligations on creditor and debtor countries to deal with imbalances. Germany today is clearly in denial of the growing need to balance its enormous (euro-driven) trade surpluses by making fiscal transfers to the debtor nations of the EU. Yet a supranational scheme which condemns much of Europe to indefinite austerity will not survive the realities of national politics and Cameron was right to walk away.

Green Energy (Fri 16th Dec)

At the Rio de Janeiro UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, George Bush Snr drew a line in the sand: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” He was just being realistic and no democratic government should be expected to take measures which significantly and overtly undermine its electorate’s standard of living. Portraying the debate about global warming as a simplistic morality tale of good against evil does nothing but entrench attitudes. The only way to achieve effective action is to develop methods that can maintain existing living standards at around the same cost and sell these methods to the general public. Expensive and unreliable wind farms which blight the landscape and drive a large section of the population into fuel poverty is the wrong way to go about it.

Je ne care pas (Mon 19th Dec)

Infuriated by Anglo-Saxon remarks like, “We told from the start the euro was bonkers.” President Sarkozy ‘outmanoeuvred’ Britain into exile from the main EU disaster zone. Since the vast majority of Britain had longed for this outcome for decades and despaired of our supine political class, this was something of an own goal. Just how much of an own goal is shown by the bile flying our way but Nick (Fotherington-Thomas) Clegg’s sissy phone calls are exactly the wrong way to react. As a Franco-Scot I advise Sergeant Wilson’s reply of “How terribly kind” – preferably in Franglais – with cartoon platefuls of bile and the query, “Can we have chips with that?”

 Timely change (Wed 21st Dec)

Given our obsession with home ownership and the disproportionate influence of property prices, anything that threatens loan accessibility is going to raise a storm of protest. However, the Financial Services Authority’s effort to put common sense back into the mortgage market and curb its runaway lending is surely a step in the right direction. In the aftermath of the worst financial crisis in decades, precipitated by a housing bubble fuelled by ludicrously lax mortgage deals, the status quo is simply not an option.

Bleak is not best (Mon 26th Dec)

 The idea that some bleak off-shore islands in the remote and inhospitable North West of Europe offer the highest quality of life in Scotland is frankly bizarre. The fact that the closest opposition is claimed to be Aberdeen and the Orkneys rather than Edinburgh, North Berwick or St Andrews is suspicious. It may be that the islanders live longer than most mainlanders but they still have to live in Shetland and as Elton John sang, “Life isn’t everything.”

 Railway disgrace (Sat 31st Dec)

In the end, New Labour admitted British Railways, with its poor rolling stock, decrepit permanent way and over-paid, strike-prone workforce, was an “intractable problem”. Despite being showered by deplorable amounts of taxpayer largess, the last government left a “shambolic inheritance” which, by a clear margin, was the worst in Europe. It is also the most expensive, with fares up to ten times more than in the rest of the EU and huge new fare-hikes coming plus even worse time-keeping – if that is conceivable. Those who delight in the spacious comfort of the Continent’s high-speed trains or marvel at Swiss rail’s punctuality in a snowy winter know our train system is uniquely bad. It is the product of Neanderthal union barons, management of awesome incompetence and adversarial governments incapable of making apolitical, strategic decisions.

Victory for police (Fri 6th Jan)

Convictions in the retrial of two men suspected of involvement in the murder of Stephen Lawrence were secured by advances in forensic science since the crime took place. Holding the police accountable when they make mistakes is essential, but it is grossly unfair to blame them for every aspect of the delay in arriving at this result. The Macpherson Report claimed the police were institutionally racist, called for privately made racist statements to be criminalised and insisted double jeopardy be abolished. But William Hague and others rightly observed the bien pensant have used it “as a stick to beat the police”, thus damaging morale and fueling a 30 per cent rise in street crime. Macpherson’s “tendentious reasoning and illiberal recommendations” – to quote Michael Gove – impair effective policing, with police now blamed for every disorder, including last year’s riots.

Unbridled greed (Wed 11th Jan)

Tony Blair paid tax of just £315,000 last year on £12 million income by claiming “costs” of £11m, which raises UK political expertise with “expenses” to a whole new level. Since the start of New Labour, fat-cat pay has risen ten times as fast as that of workers, with FTSE chiefs now earning princely packages of around £4m. No-one resents high earnings for entrepreneurs who create jobs, but most chief executives are just climbers of the greasy pole and rarely able to organise the hen’s march to the midden. It is deplorable this unbridled greed continues amid the human and financial wreckage of recent years and that no banker saw the inside of a prison following the idiocies of 2008. However, the greatest insult is to see Blair jet-setting around, hoovering up millions while the nation he helped steer over a financial cliff struggles to regain basic solvency.

Salmond alienates with his Irish claim (Mon 16th Jan)

Alex Salmond has been much criticised for comparing the coalition’s attempts to start discussions about Scottish independence to military interventions in Ireland. Yet the two independence movements do have similarities – in particular the radically diverse nature of the populations of Ireland and Scotland. In 1922, the Ulster Protestants were allowed to remain in Britain, but would the proto-Saxon populations of south and east Scotland be allowed to remain with England? Or would the Celts of the west and industrial Scotland allow the proto-Vikings of Orkney and Shetland to opt for union with Scandinavia – and take their oil with them? The First Minister is justified in drawing such parallels, which raise issues as important as our new currency or whether the Airdrie Savings Bank might set our interest rates.

A boon for the world’s poor

September 18, 2010

The refusal of the West to countenance drug legalisation has fuelled anarchy, profiteering and misery and produced an industry with untaxed profits of £200 billion a year. It has wrecked Mexico and Latin America, financed the Taliban in Afghanistan, turned the ghettoes of America and the West into a nightmare and filled British jails. In pursuit of Richard Nixon’s insane “war on drugs” the US spends $40bn a year on prohibition, imprisons 1.5m of its citizens and still blames poor supplier countries. As usual the UN is a disaster, their drugs czar maintaining that cannabis is as harmful as heroin and cocaine and trying to interfere in the drug policies of individual countries. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown turned a blind eye fearing the tabloid press yet if it was legalised, taxed and controlled it would be boon beyond price to the world’s poor.

Another one’s escaped!

September 18, 2010

Terry Jones preaches to a congregation of 50 people in Gainesville, the Florida town named after General Gains, infamous ethnic cleanser of the Second Seminole War. Jones also wrote an execrable book, “Islam is the Devil” of such stunning mediocrity that even the most radical local Muslims dismissed it with derision rather than anger. Now this ridiculous, attention-seeking cleric is planning to burn a couple of hundred copies of the Koran to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the 9/11. It is totally contrary to Christ’s teaching, is the sort of behaviour which gives religion a bad name, and would be prosecuted in Britain as an “incitement to violence”. The manic American attachment to free speech renders this clown untouchable but in Afghanistan, General Petraeus fears retribution will be taken on his soldiers.


September 18, 2010

New Labour’s 13-year binge on the public services driven by Gordon Brown without even a trace of quality control achieved little except the near bankruptcy of Britain. Our hospitals remain infection-ridden, their front-line staffs overworked, with patients, especially the elderly, so badly treated it has become an international disgrace. Our state primaries turn out illiterates, our state secondaries award qualifications so dire that the private sector is abandoning them, while 80% of our “universities” are a joke. Our pensions system is wretched, our infrastructure inadequate, our Armed Forces sabotaged by over-use and underfunding, and our police force demoralised. Who can look across this wasteland and seriously believe the narcissistic non-entities squabbling over the rotting carcass of the Labour Party could possibly have the solution.

Boots on the ground

September 17, 2010

Gross political mismanagement by New Labour saw vast sums wasted in defence as elsewhere but the fall-out will land on our Services rather than the perpetrators. The two giant aircraft carriers, Gordon Brown’s final constituency job creation program, should be mothballed as our real need is for frigates to chase pirates and smugglers. Helicopters, airborne gun-ships, heavy-lift aircraft and UAVs (armed spotter drones) are essential and we could get by with a very modest force of high altitude interceptors. The Trident nuclear deterrent is irrelevant to the threats we face in the 21st century and this sacred cow should be binned or at least replaced with a cheaper alterative. But it would be insane to cut 16 infantry battalions, slashing the Army from 98,000 to 62,000 men, because something always turns up and we need boots on the ground.

What a shambles!

September 17, 2010

Obama and the US media placed the entire blame for the oil spill on BP but I doubt that poor American drilling procedures and slack Federal regulation can be ignored. The Gulf of Mexico tragedy arose from a series of mechanical failures, human mis-judgments, engineering design faults, operational errors and poor teamwork. The initial explosion was triggered by methane gas escaping from the well, shooting up the drill column, and bursting all the seals and barriers before igniting. The Texas firm Cameron International’s blowout preventer which failed to seal the well pipe at the sea bottom has finally been recovered and will be examined by NASA. Halliburton was part of a similar disaster last year in the Timor Sea and it is surely unacceptable that eight separate safety systems broke down on the Transocean rig.

Aging Britons

September 17, 2010

Britain has become a land with a ballooning population of elderly, debt-ridden people, many with no pensions or savings, who cannot afford to retire. Retirees rely much more heavily on credit than in the past with one in five still holding a mortgage of around £60,000 and credit card debts of over £3,000. Britain had the best private-sector pension system in Europe before it was destroyed by Gordon Brown and replaced by a Byzantine system of pensioner means-testing. Social disasters such as divorce, later families, dependent adult children and property misinformation hit the Boomer generation too late in the day to be repaired. Yet the politicians who created this geriatric apartheid and their public-service client state sail on serenely with gold-plated pensions their victims are forced to fund.

Royal Procession

September 16, 2010

Prince Charles and his warmist colleague Al Gore are the highest energy consumers on the planet and their carbon-footprints are the only ones visible from outer space. Yet the Crown Prince is on his two week extravaganza to demand that lesser mortals “lead more sustainable lives”, touring the country in the Royal Train. It is reminiscent of Elizabeth Tudor’s Royal Progress with her 400 carts and carriages to carry her staff and stuff.  He will then host a nine-day summit of business and industry “thought” leaders to discuss what should be done to enforce “economic, environmental and societal sustainability”. It is touching to see this obscenely wealthy man with three vast homes and four large cars endlessly touring the world by private jet to urge the plebs to live modestly.