The Politics of the Picture Desks

April 22, 2007

The snapper stands like an ornothologist – still, silent, patient waiting for the moment, waiting, waiting. The politician scratches his nose Trr, Trr, Trr, Trr the camera shutter flutters. Job done. Next day’s papers we, the public, get a photo of Gordon Brown or whoever picking his nose next to the report about pension fiddles etc. Since it is impossible to sit on a stage for an hour without scratching your ear, nose, head – especially under lights – the snappers know they’re going to get the shot sooner or later – it just requires patience.

Clearly all of this began in the tabloids and the women’s magazines – the getting out of the car up the skirt shot is a peculiar British speciality (I’m told), but the principle has now permeated into what was once known as the serious press.

Now if every shot was like this it would give the game away – so who makes the decision to dish out the embarrassing picture treatment? Well, ultimately the editor, but it’s the picture desk who see the range of available pics and whittles them down. And, when you’re looking to choose a single pic from a big pile, then the “party” shot is always going to make it into the final selection.

Any PR will tell you they’d rather have a pic to go with the copy, which reflects the fact a readers eye is drawn to the picture, then the headline, then the body of the copy. With pictures in full colour on every page the role of the picture is in the ascendancy, which makes the subliminal politics of the picture desk critical. It doesn’t matter if the text says that Gordon Brown was having a good day if the picture shows him slapping his forhead in despair (even though he was only smoothing his hair)



In these last days before the elections I’m offering a fiver for the most twisted published pictures of a politician.


Mrs England wants rid of Scots now.

April 21, 2007

The 7pm Edinburgh train was crowded when it pulled out of Kings Cross on Friday. But the dining car wasn’t, so dinner became the only elegant solution. I like dinner on the train because the company of strangers usually generates some interesting chat and the food’s remarkably good.

My dinner companion for the evening worked his way through the FT and the Wall Street Journal before the food came and the conversation commenced. I’m always interested in the views of English about the Scottish question, so when it came up over coffee I was suprised by the alacrity with which the woman at the other table jumped in – “We English subsidise you Scots. You’ve got free personal care and your students don’t have to pay – it’s our money that makes this possible. etc etc.”

Unexpectedly my dinner companion jumps in and points out that for very many years Scotland has been subsidising England through oil revenues. It transpires he worked in the oil industry. And I’m always happy to point out the rubbish in GERS like the regressive nature of the defence poll tax which means that defence (and other non geographically specific UK expenditure) are allocated on a pro-rata basis. This means a highland granny pays the same as a stockbroker in Surbiton. Non specific UK expenditure should be allocated on the basis of income tax receipts – SURELY.  Oh and let’s not forget the £2.9 billion of depreciation and “accounting adjustments” that we get stuck for even though they have nothing to do with how a Scotland would thrive going forwards.

But let’s not get bogged down with the detail. Mrs. England has been sold the lie that Scots are a bunch of subsidy junkies who are draining the English exchequer. And, of course she’s right. So I agree vociferously and point out that Scots have no control over the constitutional arrangement so if she want to get rid of the Scots she needs to take it up at Westminster. And, of course that I’d welcome any support that she can give as we share a common desire for Scotland and England to be Independent.

Independence – common ground for everyone! – The oil executive was Irish.


McGellie x 

Starved of Good Ideas – Crimes and Misconceptions?

April 16, 2007

I’m no expert on crime and prision policy but…STOP right there. Don’t need to go any further to realise that today’s jaunt into this territory by the political parties can only go in one of two directions – rehearsing well tried prejudice or conjouring up eye-catching initiatives. Either way, one suspects that Tony Cameron’s (retired Scottish Prison Service’s chief executive) intervention about prison numbers wasn’t going to interfere with the party political hooplah. Certainly the birch rod (for beating their own back) approach of the Conservatives is unlikely to impress.

But, I hear the refrain: Surely an instant ASBO will solve anti-social behaviour, keep the youth out of the court system and relieve pressure on the prison population. Oh yes. Oh yes – if only it was that simple. 

The problem is not just in creating the ASBO, it’s also in enforcing it. If you create an exclusion zone or a curfew based on the instruction of a couple of coppers, how do you make it stick? Tagging? How do you demontrate the legitimacy of the order. Part of the due process of the court system is that at the end of the day everyone gets their day and there’s always an appeal process. If instant ASBOS (community protection orders) are to be like getting a ticket from a parking warden, then will there be a) enough enforcement officers – it’s the Liberal who want the extra 1,000 local community officers and b) enough imagination for them to know how to handle their new acronyms.

Small example from the world of traffic wardens: I put my car in for a service and got a courtesy car which then got three traffic tickets in three days parked in my usual permit holders parking space, in spite of the explanatory note on the windscreen. I asked a warden why, as she printed the ticket, she explained: Procedure! If “community” police officers, looking younger ever day, don’t have the imagination or confidence to know when to apply discretion then we’re all doomed I tell you.

Today’s  Sun carries a piece about Billy Connolly’s support for a new National Service. I don’t go with that because teaching people a polarised “us and them” approach is too simplistic and then adding guns, knives and fear management as standard sounds like courting disater. Never-the-less I take the Big Yin’s argument that you need to do something with YOUTH not something to them. Instant ASBOs are about as close to resolving the causes of crime as…well…as the UK winning the war on terror (thanks Hilary!). If, as we’re told, people are bogged down in lives of hopelessness, poverty, unemployment, drugs etc.  then no wonder THEY don’t buy into the heavily subsidised goodies the middle classes enjoy. Or less abrasively, no wonder they don’t buy into the law abiding creative adventure that will make Scotland it’s best.

Yup, it’s easy to criticise.

My best partial solution is not national service but International Development Service. I’m not putting this in my manifesto because I don’t have one and because at least I know I’m not an expert. But being put in a very foreign context helps you to think. With a broader horizon – maybe filled with the much greater misery and poverty of others – who knows what can happen. If Tony Cameron reckons it costs £40k a year to keep someone in prison, then take that money (as a voucher??!!) to fund an “Internship” in Malawi or Darfur or Somalia. Oh no doubt the worthies at the aid agencies would squeal, and right enough, if I was suggesting that they do the babysitting. But if the SPS/Police etc managed a programme that supplemented and complemented the work of DfID and the Aid Agencies then surely something good could come of it.


McGellie x

This Scottish election campaign’s really taxing me and it is boring me stupid!

April 15, 2007

Ok, let’s get down and dirty with tax. Since tax is all the media and the parties really appear to get off on. God I’m so bored with Jack and Nicol and Alex parading their alternative tax policies. Do they think anyone knows whether they’ll be better off with the snake of the council tax or the ladder of a local income tax – they can’t even agree it’s that way round! Oh I dare say that, as in the budget specials printed the day after a Westminster budget, little case studies can show that Mr & Mrs X and their wains will get this or that. But surely the debate should really about the (fiscal) direction of the country as a whole, (as opposed to a bribery bidding war) or at least don’t you think it should be? At the moment this is not even horse trading, which has a slightly romantic ring about it, this is just grown men talking taxation – how boring is that.

Do you really think the electorate want to vote on taxation policies which only Arthur Midwinter professes to understand? Taxation may fire up the accountants and the tax consultants, but it’s pissing me off. I thought we might get to talk about the future of Scotland as a country, a people, an adventure. If you’ve got any ambition in this life, I recommend you don’t give up first because you can’t figure out how to fund it.

But if you do want to talk tax, well, I’ve already shown in previous posts that Labour’s obsession with their £5,000 per family is GARBAGE and economically illiterate (see Growling at Gers below). Instead, let’s take the BBC’s Glenn Campbell argument that the Inland Revenue won’t collect the SNP’s 3p because it’s Scottish and quickly we get back to the fact that Fiscal and Economic policy are reserved to Westminster. The Devolution settlement allowed a 3p variation in Income Tax but it seems they may have forgotten to get agreement for the Inland Revenue to collect it on behalf of the Parliament. Pitiable but not my point.

My point is that we’re back talking like Income Tax and Council Tax are the only tricks in town. It’s like a re-run of Thatcher’s obsession with income tax rates or Tony thinking that slapping a penny on regressive national insurance was somehow acceptable, or Gordon cutting 2p but abolishing the 10p rate. Do politicians think we’re thick. Actually, yes. Which is why reducing an election campaign to a question of competing tax methodologies is fucking idiotic and serves no one.

If they want to get down and dirty on tax then read this table – my favourite GERS Appendix B: Go on, but try not to fall asleep.

UK Scotland
£ million
£ million
as a share of total revenue as a share of UK revenue
Income tax (after tax credits) 122,920 8,914 24.5% 7.3%
Corporation tax (excl North Sea) 29,730 2,422 6.6% 8.1%
VAT 73,026 5,949 16.3% 8.1%
Social security contributions 78,098 6,461 17.7% 8.3%
Non-domestic rates 18,975 1,813 5.0% 9.6%
Council Tax 19,966 1,615 4.4% 8.1%
Capital gains tax 2,278 186 0.5% 8.2%
Inheritance tax 2,924 171 0.5% 5.9%
Stamp duties 8,966 720 2.0% 8.0%
Fuel duties 23,313 1,313 3.6% 5.6%
Tobacco duties 8,100 984 2.7% 12.1%
Alcohol duties 7,876 703 1.9% 8.9%
Betting and gaming duties 1,421 122 0.3% 8.6%
Customs duties and agricultural levies 2,195 179 0.5% 8.2%
Air passenger duty 864 73 0.2% 8.5%
Insurance premium tax 2,359 200 0.5% 8.5%
Climate change levy 764 75 0.2% 9.8%
Aggregates levy 334 45 0.1% 13.6%
Landfill tax 672 57 0.2% 8.5%
Vehicle excise duties 4,737 348 1.0% 7.3%
Other taxes and royalties 11,741 978 2.7% 8.3%
Interest and dividends 5,639 460 1.3% 8.2%
Gross trading surplus, rents & misc transfers 22,668 2,826 7.8% 12.5%
Other revenue 1 -2,135 -177 -0.5% 8.2%
Total 447,431 36,439 100.0% 8.1%

That’s right, there’s 24 different taxes liste. TWENTY FOUR. And how many does the Scottish Parliament control – council tax and 3p on income tax. Go on have a look at just how little that is.

It get worse. I’ve previously protested at the sloppy nature of the GERS methodology, in spite of all of Labour’s experts who I’m just going to have to assume are being misquoted. Try this for VAT:

“VAT Scotland’s share of UKVAT revenue was estimated on the basis of Scotland’s share of household expenditure on those goods and services subject to VAT, as estimated from the Expenditure & Food Survey ( EFS). The results should be treated with caution since they are based only on household expenditure estimates and not the share relating to the amount of VAT received from businesses registered with Scottish VAT offices or received from businesses trading within Scotland.”

That is disgraceful. Worse when you realise that the EFS might involve a sample of less than 667 Scots!!

So, if you’ve got this far, then perhaps you should consider a career in accountancy – I hear it can be lucrative. But for God’s sake let’s not bog the future of Scotland down in bickering over alternative models of how to pay the bills.



McGellie x

Reservations about Scottish energy policy

April 14, 2007

If a party political manifesto doesn’t mention Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) in the context of their proposals for energy, does that mean:

A.) They don’t know what they’re talking about?

B.) They understand but patronisingly don’t want to make their manifesto too technical?

C.) They understand, but are shy about pointing out that energy is a reserved matter and there is nothing they can do about the pseudo market ROCs solution that’s currently in place and which priveliges onshore wind because it’s here now.  Even though the resultant wind rush will trash Scotland with 8,000 mega turbines and the associated pylons, turning Scotland into an industrial energy generating plant for the benefit of the English? (woops did I let the curtain drop).

If you know the answer to this question dial 0990 8570 999 to win a really irritating microgenerating personal wind turbine that will look worse than a SKY satellite dish. Calls cost 50 quid each.


McGellie x

What’s the World Bank got to do with Scotland – and why Sunday 15th of April is Development Day

April 14, 2007

More like: What’s Scotland got to do with the World Bank? Well, there’s £25 million of Scottish money gets pumped into the World Bank and The International Monetary Fund every year. That’s five times as much as the total Jack McConnell spends on his Malawi adventure. And what does that money buy? Well I couldn’t say, but apparently Paul Wolfowitz’s girlfriend was getting paid $132,000 a year as a communications officer. Excuse me, but if the World Bank pays their communications officers that much, it’s quite amazing what a poor return they get for their money. Do you know what the World Bank does (clue, they don’t issue banknote or take deposits)?

But the tradgedy is that, like Clinton and Lewinski, Wolfowitz has managed to become the story and drag the news agenda away from the work he’s supposed to be doing. Instead of focusing on a review of key strategy in Africa that was to be undertaken this weekend, the media get to prey on something they can understand – sleaze. Watch everyone from the Washington Post to the Sunday Times let this tabloid story dominate their coverage.

Should we carry on giving funds to the World Bank? – well that’s the kind of question you never get to vote on. Firstly because all £377 million that Scots pay towards the department of international development goes to London where we don’t control it. And, secondly because even if it is part of the Westminster parties manifestos, nobody ever takes it seriously.

Which is why I applaud the major aid agencies in Scotland for calling Sunday 15th of April “Development Day”. They’re holding a hustings at 2pm at St. Augustines church on George 4th Bridge, Edinburgh and all of the political parties have signed up to take part. Go there and ask difficult questions like: Why is international development a reserved matter? Why do we only invest in Malawi? Why do we spend so little? Why can we afford an upgrade to Trident without any bother but can’t meet the commitment we made at the UN 37 years ago to give 0.7% of our income in development aid?

I don’t expect anyone’s going to cast either of their votes on the basis of a party’s international aid programme, but it’s the sign of a civilised country that we’ve got one (even if it is titchy). And the sign of a confident country that we want to look beyond the limitations of the existing devolution structures and think our way into being a responsible citizen of the planet. The sooner our £377 million is repatriated from London so we can set our own grown up development agenda the better. Then we can decide if we want to carry on funding Paul Wolfowitz’s pecadillos.


McGellie x

It’s time for Beltane to Be Scottish!

April 14, 2007

When Beltane was revived as a May the 1st shindig on Calton hill in the 90’s, I was delighted. But as spontaneity can be strangled by the most unlikely hands, so it comes that far from developing into an authentic communal festival, the organising committee have imported all kinds of foreign practices into it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly bovvered, but I’d like to share my fear that this most Scottish of traditions might miss a trick and overlook the fact that this year Beltane coincides with the 300th anniversary of the day the Act of Union came into force.

Wouldn’t it be great if May 1st this year was a massive spontaneous popular festival elided with Beltane and focused on Calton Hill. Not only a liminal time but a popular protest against Scotland still being held back by the centrifugal dominance of England. Whilst the Scottish parliament voted itself out of existence, the people, the crowds, the masses across Scotland opposed it. What better way to echo that objection now, when Independence seems possible again, than to throw a great big meaningful party.

Unfortunately, I expect the Beltane organisers will find themselves unable to deviate from their usual ritualised performance. At the very moment when they could be part of history they’ll just carry on recreating their fantasy of the past. What a shame.


McGellie x