Friday, 29 May 2009

More Stitching

My canvas work has continued more or less unabated over the last few weeks. I finally managed to finish the Bargello pattern I was working on. Here it is.

I am still not sure what to do with it now. My original idea was to make a loose frame, at least on the sides, using driftwood, so it could hang on a wall. Unfortunately I have not yet found suitable pieces of wood – not that I have tried very hard. Will need to go on more beach walks.

However I have completed my other project. This was to make sleeve covers with a stitched insert, for notebooks for my daughters Emma and Elena. I ended up doing three as one of Emma's pals, Arlene, wanted one too. The inserts were done on 18 count Aida fabric, using two strands of DMC cotton thread. Here are the inserts on their own.

The next stage and the more difficult one was to work out how to get them into a book jacket. For this I consulted an old, or rather long established friend, Gill, for advice. Gill was a book binder, before she retired, so I reckoned she would know what to do. As indeed she did. She also very kindly gave me three sheets of buckram cloth for the jackets. Making a book cover was not as easy as Gill made it sound, though I did manage in the end. Not exactly fine art, they will serve their purpose. Here are the finished notebooks.

Now that I have started a new career as a book binder, or at least, a maker of shoddy book jackets, I may well continue as I am now the proud owner of a rotary cutter, a cutting mat and a metal ruler. Need to put them to regular use. My next stitching project though is to make door plates for my three grandsons. Again the idea is use driftwood and glue the stitched canvas on to it. Really must get out on the beaches soon.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Reforming the UK Parliament

The recent disclosures about MPs' expenses and the resulting public wrath has forced our political leaders to come up with some suggestions for reforming not just the allowances but for reforming how Parliament as a whole works. Everyone seems to be getting in on the act and suggestions have included reducing the number of MPs, fixed term Parliaments, giving Parliament more power and so on. As they say up here, I hae me doubts. I am sure that some minor reforms will be enacted, especially covering MPs' expenses, but most of the proposals amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. To bring about change requires a Parliamentary majority and if you have one, you are less inclined to use it to reduce your powers. As a general rule, turkeys are not known for voting for Christmas.

I do not want to go into great detail about the full range of possible reforms, but rather focus on two issues that any substantial reform needs to address – namely disentangling Parliament from the government of the day and the need for a written constitution. Many of the problems and weaknesses of the current set-up stem from the lack of clarity about the roles of Parliament and the government. Many commentators use the terms interchangeably, which is understandable since the two are so closely entwined. In the UK there is no formal separation of powers. Indeed the Crown, in the person of the Queen, is a key part of both Parliament and government. If you go to the Parliament's own web page you will discover that Parliament is made up of the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Queen. All governments make regular use of the Royal prerogative to rule without Parliamentary scrutiny and of course use this prerogative to make treaties, go to war, dissolve Parliament, award honours etc. The government itself is of course Her Majesty's government and not the people's government. It is a lousy system and needs to go.


Governments need to be separate and distinct from Parliament. Though this at first sight seems akin to awarding an undeserved prize to the government, this is not in fact so. As we will see the main reason for this separation is to make Parliament more powerful. The counterpart to this is the need to place clear limits on what a government can and cannot do. No more Royal prerogative. The other benefit is that this reform would come with a fixed term for the election of a government. Most countries opt for four year terms, though the Scandinavian countries manage with three year terms without descending into chaos. From the government's perspective the reform means that a government is, barring some really, really serious scandal, guaranteed a full term without having to worry about Parliamentary revolts and votes of no confidence. Any legislation and all financial matters will still require Parliamentary approval, but failure to pass a bill would just mean that the particular bill had failed, it would not threaten the survival of the government.

Essential to this proposed reform is how the government is elected. In essence the country would be asked to elect a Prime Minister, who without the need for Royal approval would form and lead the government. Ministers need not come from Parliament, but Parliamentary approval may be required. To minimise the election of a Prime Minister on a very low percentage of the popular vote it would necessary to move away from the simple first pat the post system currently in use for the UK Parliament. One option would be have a second ballot, as they do in France, if none of the candidates won over 50% of the vote. This second ballot, usually a fortnight later, is between the two leading candidates from the first round of voting. The benefit of this system is that in order to win the second round of voting, candidates have to appeal beyond their core support. They may even offer a formal or semi formal deal to other parties. The result is that whoever does win has to have won the endorsement of at least some other voters. The use of a second ballot makes it clear who the final the choice is between, but a similar outcome can be achieved without recourse to a second round of voting, by using the Single Transferable Vote (STV). All is then decided on the one day of voting. Whatever system is used it is important to have a voting system that encourages potential Prime Ministers to reach out for the widest possible support and not just rely on winning power with a minority of the votes.


With the government a separate and distinct institution, Parliament can regain its prime role of 1) passing, after due scrutiny, new legislation; 2) agreeing to or rejecting the government's requests for money and 3) holding the government to account by questioning and probing the actions and activities of the government – this would include decisions about treaties and going to war. The benefits would seem to be obvious. No longer dependent on the government, Parliament can set its own priorities, this would include the power to initiate legislation, which would cease to be something only the government can do, as at present. Parliament can reject any proposal from the government, knowing that it will not bring the government down. This means that all legislation and proposals should be considered on their merits and not on how they might affect the government's standing and prestige. Parliament would have control over its own resources which can be used to staff and support the various select and standing committees who would then have the power and resources to adequately challenge the government. This opens the way to better scrutiny of the government and in turn should lead to better and more effective legislation. Becoming a MP would be an important, powerful and worthwhile career in its own right. MPs would no longer be seen as mere lobby fodder or future government ministers. Members of Parliamentary committees would have as much say in future legislation as ministers in the government. As part of this reform the Royal prerogative would go. All government actions would require Parliamentary approval.

A further benefit of these two reforms is that as government ministers are no longer in Parliament, there is no need for such a bloated institution. There are currently 647MPs, far too many. A reformed Parliament could easily make do with around 400 MPs. This reduction in numbers would make it politically easier to raise the pay of MPs, so that, apart from providing accommodation for those MPs who stay far from Westminster, there would be no need for any allowances whatsoever. Parliament is an extremely important part of our democracy and we should ensure that our MPs are well paid and then let them get on with buying or not buying whatever they want.

For Parliament to act in this way, electoral reform is also necessary. If we continue with first part the post, then the government would still normally have a majority in Parliament and thus less subject to genuine scrutiny and challenge. To become an effective and representative body, Parliament needs to be elected by a form of proportional representation. The exact form is less important than the necessity for the outcome of the election to ensure the greatest degree of proportionality as possible. It is only worthwhile pointing out that the much touted Alternative Vote (AV) is not in any way a system of proportional representation. AV makes such little difference to the overall outcome of an election that it is not worth even considering.

Written Constitution

This is another essential part of the reform package. If these or any other package of reforms is to work then they need to protected from the power of one Parliament to simply overturn what a previous one has done. Changes to the way our democracy works should be meant to last. This can only be assured by writing them down in a constitution which would also include the procedures by which the constitution can be changed in the future.

The overall result of the above reforms is to put limits on the powers of governments and to correspondingly increase the powers of Parliament, while reducing the number of MPs. This proposal therefore suffers from the almost certainly fatal flaw that there are too many losers. And as the biggest loser is the government and only the government under our current system can bring about such change, well the voting habits of turkeys once more springs to mind. I have no great expectation that any of the above will happen, but it is a kind of benchmark against which to judge any proposals that do emerge from our political leaders.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Remember Al-Nakba

Al-Nakba means the catastrophe and refers to the events of 1947-1948 which led to the founding of the state of Israel and the consequent ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Nakba Day is observed throughout the world on May 15, though you would have been hard pressed to find much, if any, mention of it in the mainstream UK media.

What then was this “catastrophe”?

With the ending of Britain's Mandate rule over Palestine – another inglorious and bloody chapter in Britain's imperial legacy – the Jewish settlers in Palestine launched an aggressive war against the Palestinians to secure as much land as possible for the newly declared Jewish state of Israel. During 1947 and 1948 Jewish forces seized 78% of Palestine for Israel and forcibly expelled over 700 000 Palestinians from their homes and villages – this represented well over half of the Palestinian population. As part of this land grab Zionist forces conducted massacres of civilians (e.g. Deir Yassin and at Tantura) in order to induce the rest of the Palestinian population to flee. Within the new state of Israel over 400 Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed and razed to the ground. Palestinian land was confiscated and turned over exclusively to Jewish immigrants.

It is important to realize that this mass ethnic cleansing was not an unfortunate and accidental example of collateral damage. Far from it, the ethnic cleansing was an absolutely essential part of the creation of Israel. Without the ethnic cleansing there would have been no Jewish state. The 52% of Palestine that was allocated to a Jewish state as part of the UN partition plan included almost as many Palestinians as Jews – between 400 000 – 500 000 Palestinians to approximately 500 000 Jews. Such a state could not have become a Jewish state. So to establish a Jewish state, the largest number of Palestinians had to be expelled.

The 700 000 plus Palestinians expelled from their homes and villages became refugees and still are refugees. There are now close to five million Palestinian refugees! Most of them live in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank, with others based in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. To this day Israel has refused to recognize the right of Palestinians to return to their homes or to receive compensation as required by UN Resolution 194, Article 11 of which reads:

Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.

Moving forward

Though much of the discourse about resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict is based on the establishment of two states with Israel returning to its pre-June 1967 borders, this conveniently (and almost certainly deliberately) ignores the real origins of the conflict and thus what needs to be done to achieve a just and lasting settlement. An essential starting point is for the rest of the world and most importantly Israel to finally acknowledge the enormous loss and suffering that the creation of the state of Israel caused to the Palestinian people. With a genuine acknowledgement Israelis and Palestinians can then together begin to work out a solution to the refugee issue based on return, compensation or resettlement. Without a willingness on the part of Israel to confront its past there can be not just and lasting peace. As the former colonial power the UK still has a constructive role to play by the UK itself to formally recognize Al-Nakba and to put pressure on Israel to do likewise.

Jewish Voice for Peace has produced an informative Fact Sheet on Al-Nakba which you can access here.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

In praise of Zürich

Zürich is without a doubt one of our favourite cities. It is not too big, about the size of Edinburgh, so there is little danger of getting lost. We have been going there for over a decade now to visit to Emma. Now that little Alessio has come along, we have even more excuses for visiting Zürich. Thank you Emma for choosing to live in such an interesting place. Here are some personal reflections on what makes Zürich such a wonderful city.

Cafés, coffee and cakes
Vienna is perhaps the city par excellence for cafés, but Zürich can give it a good run for its money. There are cafés to suit all tastes and they come in all shapes, sizes and locations. Over the years we have tried out quite a few, but there are three that we keep going back to. Café Ernst is a traditional style café on the Bahnhofstrasse, the main shopping street. This was one of the first cafés we visited and it still has a luxury feel to it. On the first floor you can get a window table and look out on the passers by below. Features a wall length mirror and delicious cakes. A more bohemian look dominates the Café am Neumarkt, which shares the building with the Theater am Neumarkt, Zürich's avant garde theatre. A very small and intimate place, the café serves wonderful amaretti biscuits. If you want to sit outside and watch the world go by, then there is no better place than the Rathaus café where you can sit by the river Limmat. The Rathaus café is very tiny inside, so it is best kept for a sunny afternoon. On our last visit we came across two new cafés. The Caffetteria am Limmatplatz is a bit out from the centre, but is on the route to the Museum for Contemporary Art. Another long established Café but less luxurious than the Ernst. The final newcomer came via Emma and is definitely the most luxurious of all the five (no surprise there). Café Felix am Bellevue is inside a renovated old style hotel and is very much like a classic Viennese café, with richly ornate décor and the sumptuous cakes. These are really just thick squares of cream with a paper thin surrounding of pastry or sponge – but delicious nevertheless.

A word on coffee in Zürich. We always order a café crème which consists of a strong black coffee served in a medium sized cup with real pouring cream served on the side. We love it as it suits our taste perfectly. However we have found it quite difficult to get this combination elsewhere. When we asked for a café crème in Vienna for example we got a large black coffee with thick cream on top. Eventually on our last day there we discovered that to get a café crème in Vienna you have to ask for a “brauner mit crème separat”. A bit of a mouthful.

Lake, rivers and hills
One of the charms of Zürich is its setting. Most of the old town is centred on the two banks of the Limmat river and further expansion took in both sides of the river Sihl. As a result much of central Zürich is built on a plain which makes it very easy to wander about on foot. The rivers themselves are interesting, especially the Limmat and you can walk along much of the river. There is also the Schanzengraben, which was formerly a moat in front of the city's defensive walls. Now it is a pleasant waterway with a pathway which leads all the way to the Lake. Though much of central Zürich is relatively flat the city is surrounded by hills, including the Zürichberg and the Uetliberg, the latter rising to 871m. The Zürichberg is part of the city and is great for walking and of course has wonderful views of the old town.
For us the main attraction of Zürich's setting is the Lake – the Zürichsee. The waters lap the eastern parts of the city and provide a welcome if crowded place to take the sun and watch the activities on the lake. The one disappointment is that the much of the lakeside is privately owned so there is no complete walkway round the lake. Still there are enough publicly owned spaces to keep most people happy.

Window shopping
Zürich is a shoppers paradise, with a wealth of shops catering for the wealthy and the super wealthy. Unless you actually own a bank or have an MP's expense account better not think of buying anything in Zürich, other than the basic necessities. However some of the window displays are so beautifully created that they are almost works of art in themselves. And it is always insightful to glimpse at how the top 5% or so live, or at least what they spend their money on. In addition to the main world renowned labels – Armani, Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna, Grider etc – Zürich also has a wide range of small and trendy designer shops, most of which are just as expensive. Still nice to pop into a few of them now and again. A particular favourite of ours is the furniture design shop – Neumarkt 17. This really is a work of art. A very old, narrow building has been converted into this shop displaying some fancy and pricey furniture of all kinds. Much of the space had been opened up to allow you views up and down. This has been helped by the use of suspended iron walkways. There is even a pool of water on the lowest floor. A must place to visit and adore.

Boats, trains, trams, buses and bicycles
Another great plus for Zürich, at least compared to the UK, is the comprehensive and integrated public transport system. A daily or weekly ticket allows you unlimited travel on all means of transport. The trams are a favourite of ours and whenever possible we choose a tram to get around the city. The fleet is gradually being modernised though there are still some of the older models in use. Since much of Zürich is relatively flat it is perfect for cycling, even for those who are not particularly fit. There is an excellent cycle network and you can hire a bike from the main stations for free – you just leave a deposit. Wonderful idea. For something a little different the boats on the Zürichsee are hard to beat. Lovely old steamers with open air upper decks, the boats ply their way all around the lake, all the way to Rapperswill at the other end of the lake. As Emma now stays in Kilchberg, just outside the city, we often take the boat to get back. If you time it right you can even take the long route – one hour on board – for no extra charge. You also get wonderful views from the boats. On our latest visit the mountains were still covered in snow.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

The death throes of New Labour

It has been great fun over the past few weeks watching New Labour implode.  A little bit of schadenfreude has been unavoidable given the arrogance of the preceding 12 years.  The cumulative effect of the recent revelations has probably sealed Labour's fate.  The steady drip, drip of details of how MPs and Cabinet Ministers have played the system in order to maximise their income from expenses is now rising to a swell which threatens to stain the whole political process.  As does the way the government continues to use advisers and sundry "spin doctors" to misinform and mislead other MPs and the public in general.  And of course with each revelation of the extent of the financial crisis and its effect on the economy in general, the government's and in particular Gordon Brown's reputation for competence continues to evaporate.

It is very appropriate that it should be Gordon Brown who is presiding over this debacle, as he, more than anyone, is responsible for the creation of New Labour.  Looking back it is surprising to see how the New Labour project could have lasted as long as it has.  Back in the mid 1990s, after Labour's fourth election defeat in a row, there was much debate about how or even if, Labour could ever win power again.   At that time I was a member of the party and participated - in a very small way - in these debates at our local branch meetings.  I don't think that many of us then, ever suspected that Labour would seek to win power by becoming Thatcherism with a human face - for this is essentially what New Labour was all about.

As the record shows, most of New Labour's policies are just a continuation of the neoliberal policies of Thatcher and co.  The voice was less strident - sometimes - but New Labour has still maintained an arrogant hostility to the European Union;  continued, at a faster pace the privatisation and marketisation of our public services;  eroded our civil liberties in the name of this so called war on terror;  and has even more slavishly followed the USA in illegally invading and occupying other countries.  The one area of real achievement was to deliver on devolution.  With our own Parliament in Edinburgh, we in Scotland have had some protection against the worst of the neoliberal excesses emanating from London.

However this schadenfreude at New Labour's expense  comes with a health warning.  In the first place, it looks like Gordon Brown will linger on, clinging to the illusion of power in the hope that something, anything, will turn up that might improve his chances of winning the next election.  This means we have to put up with the current shenanigans for another year or more.  There are only so many times you can laugh at New Labour's demise.  Very soon it will cease to be funny and become just plain tedious.

The other, even more worrying prospect is that David Cameron and the Tories will be running the country in a year's time.  For all that New Labour deserve to lose the next election, I am far from sure that we all deserve to have the Tories in exchange.  I find it very hard to believe that Cameron and co. have the determination or the vision to push through the necessary changes in the financial sector so that we, the public, are never again held to ransom by the immoral elites that run our top financial companies.  Nor have I any confidence that the Tories will do anything other than cut back on public services and cut back on the conditions of pay and pensions for public workers.  All in the name of preserving the wealth of the already wealthy.  For when push comes to shove, the Tory party is at bottom the party of the rich and the traditional establishment.  I fear that we could be in for a lot of schaden and precious little freude.