Archive for December, 2010

It’s the last day of 2010 and a time to look back at the year coming to an end, as well as forward to 2011.

There have been many big stories over the year and none bigger than the general election with its unexpected outcome of a Tory/ Lib Dem coalition. It has been a good year for David Cameron although not so for Nick Clegg, whose u-turns have caused division in his party and an alarming drop in support.

The government’s cuts that have been announced will bite soon and the VAT increase will be the coalition’s New Year gift to us al. The year ahead will be an extremely difficult one for many people.

For Labour, new leader Ed Miliband will hope to make an impact in 2011. He has a short window of opportunity but must lead his party to a strong showing in the elections of English local authorities, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Anything other than gains all round will be seen as a poor performance.

And there will be a referendum on the proposed move to the Alternative Vote for future Westminster elections in May too. This might be one for the political anoraks, but there could be some novel alliances given that there are those for and against the move in both of the main parties.

The Scottish election will be an interesting one. For the first time the SNP will be facing the electorate as the government party, and this will change the dynamics of the campaign. With moves towards independence falling down the agenda following the dropping of referendum plans, the SNP’s record as a governing party will come under scrutiny.

It is highly likely that Labour will end up as the largest single party, but well short of an overall majority. But what happens then? A return to the Labour/ Lib Dem coalition of previous parliaments would seem unlikely and a minority government is a real possibility.

In footballing terms, 2010 saw the Spanish triumph in the World Cup. With no major international tournaments on the horizon the focus will be on the club scene. And, as ever, the year will kick off with a vital Glasgow derby. While it will not decide the title, the result will set the tone for the remainder of the title race.

Off the field it has been a year of turmoil for Scotland’s football authorities. The McLeish report roundly criticised the SFA as not fit for purpose and we have seen referees refuse to take games as well as the dismissal of Hugh Dallas for circulating a sectarian e-mail.

A full scale overhaul of the governance of Scottish football is required to bring the game up to modern standards. New CEO Stuart Regan has a massive task ahead of him, but the elusive goal of a fair and transparent game may just be moving a little closer.

In Europe, Barcelona will be favourites to take the Champions’ League, playing the best football around. The EPL sides will have their hopes of glory but I can’t see any of the four being strong enough to beat the Spanish masters.

Many people will be looking to make New Year’s resolutions tonight. The usual favourites of giving up smoking and taking more exercise will be up there, although there may be some interesting variations. Personally, I gave up making any long ago.

Whatever you are doing at the bells, and wherever you might be, I hope that 2011 is a good year for us all. I’m not too sad to see the back of 2010, and personally hope for a better year to come.

A Happy New Year everyone!

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Edinburgh will host its usual Hogmanay street party to celebrate Hogmanay. But the event could be bad news for those living around Princes Street.

As access to the street event is by ticket only, residents have been allocated six free tickets per household so that they can get to their own houses. But what if they want to have family or friends round for the bells?

A letter from the event organisers explained that additional passes “for uses such as private entertaining” can be applied for. But there’s a large catch – an administration fee of £15 for each ticket!

And you’ll have had your tea then. Only in Edinburgh …

A spokesman for Unique Events, which is employed by Edinburgh City Council to run the Hogmanay event, said that the cost is to stop abuse of the system.

Their claim that individual arrangements could be worked out with residents on a case by case basis cut no ice with one householder who had called and been informed that there was no alternative to paying the charges.

And one local, Denise Berger of Castle Street, said she had considered celebrating elsewhere, believing she would have to pay £300 for 20 house guests.

Local residents already have to put up with the noise and inconvenience of a public party on their doorsteps. Surely it is going too far to expect them to pay to have guests in their own homes.

C’mon folks. It is the festive season, isn’t it?

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The Orange Order is beginning its campaign to challenge Glasgow City Council’s policy of limiting marches and parades through the city centre.

Just a month after threatening to cause chaos in the city, the Orange Order has submitted an application for a parade on 22 January – to mark the 110th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death.

Clearly this is an excuse to make life difficult for the Council. After all, they have failed to mark the previous 109 anniversaries of Victoria’s death, so can hardly fall back on their usual excuse of tradition.

And the organisers have left it until the last minute to request permission, filing an online application just before the 28 day limit, rather than allowing time for discussion and advance planning.

It should also be noted that the Council’s new policy prevents parades with more than 1,000 marchers from passing through the city centre without a valid reason. How many marchers does the Order expect, according to its application?

A very specific prediction of 950.

Edward Hyde, the Orange Order’s County Grand Master for Glasgow, is unrepentant. ‘It’s fair to say this is a bona fide parade and it would be correct to say that 950 remains within the council’s limits of 1,000 and what it deems a high-risk parade,’ he claimed.

Hyde also told the Herald that, ‘There’s only one band, which will be playing traditional and not Orange tunes.’ I would be interested to know how he defines the difference between the two.

The Council has said that the parade application is incomplete and will wait for organisers to provide all the information that it requires before a decision is made.

The motives of the Orange Order are clear. They are using a manufactured excuse for a parade to test the Council’s resolve.

While freedom of assembly is an important right, the Council’s policy is correct in attempting to manage the disruption that is caused to the city by parades. And as Orange marches are regularly accompanied by drunken disorder there are also cost implications to be considered.

I hope the Council is resolute in considering this request for a parade that has no real justification.

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Support for Coalition Falls

The latest Guardian/ICM poll will not make happy Christmas reading for David Cameron and Nick Clegg, as it shows support for their coalition government is falling.

Following May’s general election 59% thought the coalition was a good thing for the country. But the latest figures show that only 43% think that the two party agreement is a positive.

Part of this result is due to increased Labour support: 39% in the poll stated that they would vote Labour. This will be welcomed by Ed Miliband, as the party secured only 29% of the votes at the election. Tory support is at 37%, actually up by 1% on May’s result.

The big losers are the Liberal Democrats, who polled 23% but are now down to 13%. And among those who backed the party at the election, only 47% support the coalition with 46% believing it was a mistake.

With the full effect of the government’s public spending cuts still to hit it would be expected that government support will fall again next year. And the poll shows pessimism for the future of Britain’s public services.

Almost half of those surveyed, 49%, believe that the NHS will be worse off next year, while 54% believe schools will have a worse year than in 2010. Even amongst Conservative supporters, only 13% say schools will improve in 2011 and 15% say the same of the NHS.

The VAT rise will hit very soon too and many people expect to cut their spending. While almost half, 45%, say the change will make no difference, 38% claim they will spend less and a further 17% say more.

Asked about the governing parties’ leaders, only 12% thought Nick Clegg’s prospects would improve in 2011, against 47% who think he will have a worse year. For David Cameron, 23% think 2011 will be better and 36% worse.

With elections in Scotland, Wales and many English local authorities just a few months away, pressure on the coalition will increase in 2011. And with clear opposition to the deal growing within the Lib Dems it could be another very interesting political year

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At this time of year we all love to have our friends and families around us. We eat too much, spend too much and turn the heating up high as the temperature outside falls.

But spare a thought for those who do not have these luxuries – or even homes to live in.

Can you imagine what it is like to sleep rough on nights as cold as -12C, as we have seen recently? To struggle without money while crucial support services being cut? Yet we wonder why many homeless people resort to alcohol or drugs to try to dull the pain and the hopelessness.

It is easy to believe the right wing media’s claims of people choosing to live rough. Of beggars making fortunes on the streets. But the reality for many is that unemployment, bankruptcy and repossessions are all on the increase, meaning that the risk of rough sleeping is an issue for many people.

A survey of more than 400 rough sleepers carried out by Sheffield Hallam University revealed the desperate steps taken by many in an attempt to find shelter.

Nearly 30% admitted to committing a “minor crime such as shoplifting or anti-social behaviour” in the hope of being taken into custody for the night.

Unwanted sex has become a way out of homelessness for many. One in seven men and 28% of women had spent a night – or longer – with an unwanted sexual partner simply to put a roof over their heads. That’s in addition to the 20% of women who have resorted to prostitution.

And a fifth of those questioned said they had avoided being given bail or committed “an imprisonable offence with the express purpose of receiving a custodial sentence as a means to resolving their housing problems”.

Crisis, the homeless charity which commissioned the report, describes its findings as “shocking”. Chief executive Leslie Morphy said it was, “desperately sad to see the lengths that people are taking to escape the horrors of homelessness”.

And the situation will get worse as the coalition government’s cuts bite.

An impact equality assessment carried out for the Department of Work and Pensions warned that the cuts will lead to “increases in the number of households with rent arrears, eviction and households presenting themselves as homeless”.

Westminster Council, which accounts for more than a third of all rough sleepers in London, is planning to cut almost a million pounds from help to homeless people over the next two years. And other local authorities will follow suit.

So as the festive period comes to an end, remember that there are many for whom the phrase Merry Christmas is meaningless.

And if you can spare a little money for charities that work to help those who are forced to sleep rough, I’m sure it will be very well spent.

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It’s Christmas Eve!

It’s the day before Christmas. Hands up who hasn’t finished their shopping yet? Or is it a day of preparations for tomorrow? Maybe visiting, or possibly partying?

Have a great Christmas Eve, whatever you’re doing!

Here’s a special seasonal message to the UK from America’s number one family.

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Earlier this year I wrote about the most watched TV programmes from 2009. Depressingly the so called “reality” shows and soaps made up much of the top 10, with documentaries and factual programmes nowhere.

But does the 2010 list look any different?

Well, last year’s top show, the final of the misnamed Britain’s Got Talent slips all the way to number 6, leaving the X Factor final to move up one place to the top spot. And two more finals of these mind numbing shows make the top 10: I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Strictly Come Dancing at numbers 7 and 8 respectively.

Dancing on Ice falls out of the top 10. Was it even on this year? I’ve really no idea. Was it replaced by that jungle thing I heard people talking about?

The top two soaps make the list again, with live episodes seeing Eastenders at number 3 and Coronation Street one place below, exactly as they were last year.

It’s all looking very predictable so far, isn’t it?

Two dramas made it onto last year’s list, and this is repeated. Doctor Who remains at number 9, while last year’s Doc Martin, which was at 7, is replaced by Downtown Abbey at 10. Perhaps if Scottish viewers had been allowed to watch the latter programme it might have made it higher up the chart.

The second show to drop out of the rankings is Children In Need, which was the eighth most watched programme of 2009. What does this say about our society?

Those who have been following closely will have worked out that there are two new entries into this year’s list of top programmes. It should be fairly obvious where these came from: it was a World Cup year after all.

But it’s not the final that makes the list. At number 2 is England’s defeat by Germany. Well, we all enjoyed that one, didn’t we? And at number 5 is England’s second game of the tournament: the dull 0 – 0 draw with Algeria.

So once again it is clear that the British public likes its reality shows and soaps. A bit of football slips into the list and a couple of dramas, but comedies and feature films fail to make the cut.

The fact that this year’s top programmes look so similar to last year’s list will probably see programme makers dealing up more of the same in 2011.Unless there is someone brave enough to take an chance and perhaps come up with a surprise hit, it will all look very much like déjà vu all over again.

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Should the top four teams in the league play off at the end of the season to decide the champions, as proposed by Hearts and now supported by Dundee United? Of course not!

To paraphrase, I agree with Neil. That’s Celtic manager Neil Lennon who described the idea as, “one of the most silly ideas I’ve heard in the last few weeks.”

There has been much talk of league reconstruction in the wake of part two of Henry McLeish’s excellent report on Scottish football. And there are some very sensible suggestions around, such as the removal of the ludicrous SPL split that has operated for many years.

But play offs for the league title is an idea that should be well beyond serious consideration. The whole point of a league set up is to find the top team over a complete season based on an equality of fixtures, which is precisely where the split falls down.

The notion that the team that finishes top of the league then has to play the fourth placed team in a semi-final is a strange one. Given the way the Scottish league has worked out in recent seasons there is usually a very large gap between first and fourth: an average of 32 points over the last five seasons.

You can see why teams like Dundee United and Hearts favour the idea. Finish way behind in fourth place and then fluke a win with, say, the odd dodgy refereeing decision or in a penalty shoot out and they have a chance of the title.

In my view, sporting integrity should prevail. The championship should be decided over the course of the league campaign, rather than, to quote Lennon, “your season goes down to two or three games at the end of the season, which is absolute rubbish.”

Play offs for promotion and relegation may work, bringing more meaningful games at the end of the season.

But for goodness sake leave the title race alone!

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Happy Winter Solstice!

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the time when the earth tilts furthest from the sun. Technically this is a moment in time, and it will happen at 23:38 tonight, UK time. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days.

For thousands of years the winter solstice has been celebrated as the rebirth of the sun by societies who placed astronomy and the turning of the seasons at the centre of their beliefs. One of the functions of Stonehenge, built at least 4,000 years ago, is to mark the time of the solstice.

And as many of these societies worshipped the sun as a deity, the idea of the winter solstice marking the birth of a god an ancient one.

The Celtic festive of Yule is celebrated at the solstice; the name refers to the wheel of life. The winter solstice was considered a mysterious and powerful time. After the longest night of the year the sun is seen as growing stronger and the eventual return of the warmer season is welcomed

The Celtic tradition of bringing sprigs of holly and ivy into the home pays homage to the masculine and feminine elements. Both plants are evergreen, a reminder in itself that the earth never dies, but merely sleeps during the winter months. The male element is represented by the prickly holly, with its sexually potent red berries. The mistletoe is the female; entwining, gentle yet powerful.

Roman pagans later introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between 17th and 25th of December. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule”. The victim was then forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week.

At the festival’s conclusion on December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

This was actually based on an older Greek festival. The ancient Greek historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions widespread intoxication, going from house to house while singing naked, rape and other sexual license and consuming human shaped biscuits.

In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival into its own rituals, hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans by promising them that they would continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians.

But they decided to rename the festival to make it less pagan sounding. They chose to mark the final day of the festival, December 25th, with a special mass to mark the birth of Jesus, calling it the Christ Mass. The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence and singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern carolling, perhaps). I guess it has changed a little since then!

So any talk of the true meaning of Christmas should really include the honouring of ancient festivals that go back much further than 2,000 years.

Happy winter solstice, folks!

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Figures from the Association of Public Health Observatories suggest that the UK is one of the unhealthiest nations in Europe. And we have the dubious distinction of the highest obesity rate out of all the 27 countries included.

Within the UK it is not Scotland, but the West Midlands that had the highest percentage of obese adults at 29% – double the EU average of 14% and much higher than the 19% rate seen in Greater London.

Royal College of GPs spokesman Professor Steve Field said, ‘I’m appalled by the figures and feel ashamed as a GP working in the West Midlands that this area has the highest percentage of obese adults in Europe.’

The report also revealed that cancer mortality rates for women were high in comparison to other EU countries.

The rate in the South East region was the highest in the UK at 185 per 100,000, followed by Scotland at 179 per 100,000. The European average was 139.5 per 100,000.

But there is some good news with life expectancy figures in the UK slightly better than for EU counterparts and we also excel at treating heart disease. And early action on smoking has had a very positive impact on health outcomes, the report’s authors say.

Dr Claire Bradford and Professor John Wilkinson, who compiled the figures, said the information could help the UK improve its track record. “People that are able to influence which way we are going as a nation should look at this to decide on priorities and actions. Our problem with obesity might be a good place to start,” said Dr Bradford.

So when it comes to making new year’s resolutions there are quite a few of us who should know exactly where to start.

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