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by John Knox

The International Monetary Fund says Malawi – Scotland’s twin country in Africa – is on the road to recovery after coming close to financial collapse earlier this year. In its latest report the IMF praises the new president of Malawi Joyce Banda for steering the country back to stability. And it’s approved a new loan package of £96 million.

The former president Bingu wa Mutharika died suddenly in April, just as the country’s foreign reserves dropped to danger levels – less than a month’s worth of imports – and western governments suspended aid on suspicion of economic mismanagement and political repression.

On taking over, Mrs Banda promptly devalued the kwacha by nearly 50 per cent and allowed it to float on the foreign exchanges, instead of being linked to the US dollar. She removed the restrictions on foreign exchange and allowed petrol prices to rise to the true import costs.

It’s meant real hardship for her people – the price of the staple food, maize, has doubled, petrol is up 30 per cent, prices in general rose by 25 per cent. But foreign aid has started to flow in again. Britain gives around £93m a year to Malawi and is the biggest national donor. The Scottish government’s aid programme – £5.6m over the next three years – was never in doubt, because it goes directly to aid projects in the field and not to the Malawian government.

The IMF report concludes: “ Malawi’s fiscal and monetary policies are expected to put inflation back on a downward path by early 2013, while leaving room for increased growth and social spending.”

Mrs Banda has led the austerity programme from the front. She’s cut her own salary by 30 per cent – to a reported £26,000 a year (western politicians take note !) And she’s sold the presidential jet and the fleet of luxury cars enjoyed by ministers in the Mutharika regime.

Her opponents point out however that she recently spent £612,000 taking her delegation to the UN General Assembly and has gone on visits to seven foreign capitals since she became president. Her excuse was that she was lobbying for foreign aid – which, at one point, made up 40 per cent of Malawian government spending. “ If I just sit at home like a mother hen looking after her eggs, no one will come to help us,” she said.

Mrs Banda’s unexpected elevation to the presidency came as a mighty relief to western governments – not least the Scottish government which signed a co-operation agreement with Malawi in 2005 – as they watched Bingu wa Mutharika becoming increasingly dictatorial. Mrs Banda was vice-president but had left Mutharika’s governing party, the DPP, in protest at the way things were going. She founded her own party, the People’s Party, which earlier this month won its first by-election victory in Mzimba in the north of the country.

Bingu’s brother Peter – who was being groomed for the presidency – has now taken over the leadership of the DPP and has vowed to fight Mrs Banda at the next presidential election in 2014.

Meanwhile the 14 million people of this impoverished little country struggle on with their daily lives. The rains have not been good this year and the harvest is expected to be poor. Three quarters of the population are living below the UN’s poverty line of $1.25 a day. The AIDS epidemic, although gradually coming under control, still affects 12 per of the population. Scottish charities like Mary’s Meals are feeding thousands of school children their only meal of the day.

Old Malawi hands in the western world are hoping that Mrs Banda will remain the sensible mother figure she appears to be. She’s a self-made business woman and only the second woman to become president of an African country. All of the men who have run Malawi since independence – Hastings Banda, Baliki Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika – have descended into dictatorship and corruption. Perhaps Joyce Banda will be different.

<em>Picture: Beverley & Pack

Picture: Beverley & Pack

By Stuart Crawford

Bashing our transatlantic cousins has been a popular sport for as long as I can remember, whether it be for their extraordinary dress sense, extraordinary appetites, or extraordinary rendition – or perhaps all three and everything else in between. But I’ve always rather liked Americans in general terms, and thought perhaps we should remind ourselves of some of the good things that have come out of the good ol’ USA over the years. So here are some of the things I think we should be grateful for, in no particular order.

Nobody does breakfast like the Americans. Down to the diner at some unearthly hour in the morning, sit up at the counter, and immerse yourself in the experience. Good coffee, crispy bacon, eggs over easy, pancakes with maple syrup, ye cannae whack it. Kippers aside, it knocks spots anything we can offer over here. Here’s one tradition we should adopt wholeheartedly in Scotland; why haven’t we already?

Meg Ryan
Hey, I know I’m showing my age here, but what Julie Christie was to the 60s Meg was to the 90s – and still is for the whatever age we’re in now as far as I’m concerned. Every bloke’s (well, almost) favourite actress was America’s sweetheart for a while and no wonder. We just can’t produce them like that over here, so thank you, Uncle Sam.

Coca Cola
“What?”, I hear you say. The funny tasting stuff which, according to my late mother, was “full of dye” and rots kids’ teeth? And which was the most popular soft drink in the civilised world apart from here in sunny ol’ Scotland, where the indigenous Irn Bru pipped it at the post year after year? Yep, the very same, but not for its thirst quenching qualities, such as they may be. For its medicinal applications, that’s what for. Migraine sufferers have long recognised that two soluble aspirin dissolved in a glass of Coke from a glass bottle and consumed at the onset of a migraine can sometimes stop it dead in its tracks. It must be from a glass bottle, mind, tin can or plastic containers won’t work. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know the answer, but work it does.

Lend Lease
Going back in history a little bit here to 1941, when Hitler had conquered Europe and was looking across the Channel at Britain, whose back was very definitely against the wall. And running out of money to continue the war very quickly. Across the Pond, the US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, was sympathetic but hampered in his desire to assist by the Neutrality Acts of the 30s. In March 1941 he signed the Lend Lease Bill, which enabled him to help Britain (and also other Allied countries like Russia and China) by providing military materiel and supplies. Without it, Britain’s struggle would have been infinitely more difficult and might not have succeeded at all. Lend lease material was not a gift and there was repayment required, but much of it was discounted by up to 90%. Britain finally repaid the debt in 1996.

Rock ‘n’ roll
Funny one this one, because the Americans, or white Americans anyroads, didn’t really wake up to the fact they’d invented rock and roll until we Brits repackaged it in the form of the Beatles and their many imitators and exported it to back to them. But invent it they did, emerging in the southern states from a mixture of rhythm and blues, country, soul, gospel, folk and jazz music in the 1940s and 50s, espoused by musicians and singers like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino et al. Its development went hand in hand with the adoption of the electric guitar as instrument of choice for the young. Then the Beatles got hold of it and changed it forever, in the same way as they changed more or less everything they touched in that period in the 60s when the world changed from monochrome to colour. But hats off to our US cousins for letting us have it to play around with.

Henry Ford
Scotland has a long standing love affair with the automobile, and those of us driving around in our Volvo estates (Edinburgh)*/white BMW X5 four wheel drives with tinted windows and personalised numberplates (Glasgow)* (*delete as applicable) have Mr Ford to thank for our motoring joy and freedom. The Americans didn’t invent the motor car, but they brought it to the masses via industrial scale production, even if initially Henry would let you have any colour of his Model T Ford as long as it was black. Before him, motoring was the preserve of an elite few; after his intervention any gangster, ned or ne’er do well can afford a set of wheels. Thanks, Henry…

History hasn’t always been kind to President John F Kennedy, what with his philandering, Bay of Pigs fiasco etc etc, but for anyone alive at the time he was in office he signified one thing; hope. He signified for many people the beginning of leaving the post war austerity behind and facing a bright new future, and few of us can forget where we were when news of his assassination reached us. His presidency was, for lots of folk, when the sun began to shine again, and for that all too short interlude we should be grateful.

Making Us Look Thin
This one came from one of my offspring, and it might just still hold water in 2012. America’s pole position in the obesity stakes is now under threat – from us as well as from elsewhere – but I think they still have a comfortable claim to top the fatness table. It’s one of life’s great paradoxes that a certain portliness was once the mark of wealth and now it is the mark of poverty. Junk food, once a semi luxury for the relatively well off, now provides sustenance mainly for the disadvantaged. Yes, the Americans still, just, make us look thin(ner), but only just. Be warned.

A bit of an odd one but I was lucky enough to spend a year in Kansas whilst a student at the US Army’s Command and General Staff School in 1990/91 and have many fond memories of the state and its people. My eldest was born there, in Providence St Margaret hospital in Kansas City, so I own my very own American, complete with dual nationality and US passport. I also learnt to fly there, a lifelong ambition, thanks to the patience and generosity of my instructor Bob Drennan and the Fort Leavenworth Flying Club, something I could never have afforded to do back home. And I’m still in touch with many of the folk I met there, both within the military establishment and the wider community. So, a personal thanks to Kansas for looking after me and my family so well and, in the words of General McArthur, “I shall return.”

Finally, we’re stretching the definition of “American” a little bit here, because lacrosse was probably invented by Native American Indians in Canada – but, hey. As you may be aware, the game is very much a minority sport in Scotland, mainly played in girls’ independent schools. Apparently the first modern women’s game in Scotland was played at St Leonard’s School in St Andrews in 1890. I had never seen the game before my two daughters started playing it, but I must say it’s great fun to watch. I also saw the Scotland Women’s international squad training once and it was pretty frightening too at that standard, such was the speed and athleticism of play. A real pity it’s only played by private school kids here as far as I know.

There we are then, a personal list of nine and a bit things to thank our American cousins for, and I’m sure I could have thunk up many more. I plan to return to the fray at a later date with some things which we’re not so grateful for, just to bring a bit of balance to the debate, but this’ll have to do for now.

Joseph Kabila

Joseph Kabila

By Andrew Macdonell in South Africa

On Tuesday 20 December 2011, Joseph Kabila is scheduled to take the oath for a second full term as president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The huge country in Central Africa has just completed its second democratic election since the end of the civil war in 2002, a war which claimed an estimated four million lives.

The conduct of the 28 November poll has been heavily criticised by both local and international observers – but, according to the official results, Kabila was re-elected president with 49 per cent of the vote, ahead of the veteran opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi on 32 per cent.

Following this year’s “Arab Spring” in North Africa and the democratic change of government in nearby Zambia, the election should have been another example of democratic progress in Africa. Unfortunately, the integrity of the election has been called into serious doubt by accusations of ballot-rigging, or what are euphemistically called “electoral irregularities”.

The Carter Center’s observer group has said the results “lack credibility”, while the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kinshasa, Laurent Monsengwo, said the results “comply with neither the truth nor justice”. The US government has also added its voice by calling the process “flawed”, while the EU has called the election “deplorable”.

Given that election monitoring outfits typically issue bland pronouncements to the effect that the elections “broadly reflect the will of the people”, or are “substantially free and fair”, the blunt, outspoken statements by observers such as David Pottie – the Carter Centre mission manager in Kinshasa – are worth repeating:

“Carter Center observers reported that the quality and integrity of the vote tabulation process has varied across the country, ranging from the proper application of procedures to serious irregularities, including the loss of nearly 2,000 polling station results in Kinshasa. Based on the detailed results released by [the DRC electoral commission], it is also evident that multiple locations, notably several Katanga province constituencies, reported impossibly high rates of 99 per cent to 100 per cent voter turnout with all, or nearly all, votes going to incumbent President Joseph Kabila. These and other observations point to mismanagement of the results process and compromise the integrity of the presidential election.

“In our conclusion, we find the irregularities are significant enough to undermine the credibility of the election results. But having said that, we don’t have a smoking gun to reveal 1.5-million votes [Kabila’s winning margin], and to reverse the order of the final results.”

The criticism from the Carter Center and the Catholic church is in marked contrast to the view of the African Union (AU) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). To the disappointment of many – but to the surprise of few – in the Congo, the AU moved with unseemly haste to pronounce the elections free and fair.

This willingness of African observers to endorse dubious elections is, of course, nothing new. Followers of recent polls in Zimbabwe will have noted how South Africa and the other leading AU countries have regularly endorsed polls despite clear evidence of electoral fraud. This perception of automatic support for incumbent parties may explain why South Africa and the AU are viewed with such suspicion in Kinshasa. It may also explain why the motorcade of the South African minister of defence, Lindiwe Sisulu, was stoned on her recent visit to the capital, Kinshasa.

No election is perfect, of course. Recent elections in the US and the UK have shown that even developed democracies can struggle to pull off complaint-free elections. And the DRC presents logistical challenges of a whole different magnitude to those faced in the west.

The country is two-thirds the size of Western Europe and almost completely lacks tarred roads or other transport infrastructure. It has no democratic tradition to fall back on and – with 11 presidential candidates and thousands of parliamentary candidates – a completely trouble-free election was always going to be unrealistic. Nonetheless, it is the scale or extent of any irregularities that counts.

In the recent poll, the identified irregularities include the loss of voting returns from nearly 2,000 polling stations in Kinshasa (seen as predominantly pro-Tshisekedi) and unfeasibly high turnouts in pro-Kabila areas such as the Katanga province.

While not electoral fraud, Kabila has also been criticised for changing the electoral law to remove the need for a run-off in the event that a candidate fails to get 50 per cent of the vote. In the previous election, minor candidates dropped out after the first round and a second ballot was held between the two principal candidates. Such a second ballot would inevitably boost the chances of the main challenger as most of the reallocated opposition voters would be expected to swing behind the remaining challenger. With hindsight, this change would appear rather fortunate for Kabila, given that he polled 49 per cent to win.

With the pressure put on by the Carter Center and the Catholic church, even Joseph Kabila has been forced to admit that “mistakes” were made in the conduct of the election. Quite which “mistakes” Kabila was alluding to is not clear, but his admission does highlight that rigging an election is not always straightforward. Put simply, how much rigging is required and how can the process be controlled? There is also the risk that the irregularities may cast doubt on an election that may (as is possibly the case here) have been won anyway.

The two main contenders in this election could not be more different. Joseph Kabila has had a relatively smooth ride to power. Born in a rebel camp in the eastern DRC (or Zaïre, as it was then known), he spent much of his childhood in exile in Tanzania. He assumed the presidency in 2001 when, aged just 32, his father Laurent Kabila was assassinated. Joseph Kabila subsequently won the first free DRC election in 2006 to become president in his own right.

In contrast to Kabila, Tshisekedi is a veteran opposition figure. At 79, he is almost twice the age of Kabila and since the 1960s has had a long, and largely honourable, role in Congolese politics. Three times he was briefly appointed prime minister by Mobutu Sese Seko, but has also spent numerous spells in prison for his opposition to Mobutu. However, many feel that Tshisekedi showed poor judgment when he boycotted the presidential election of 2006. Certainly, given his age, 2011 is probably his last realistic chance of becoming president.

Journalistic prediction is hazardous at the best of times, but this is especially true in relation to the Congo. The country is rarely described without the word “chaotic”, and almost anything is possible. However, what happens next may largely depend both on the reaction of Tshisekedi and his supporters and on the pressure applied by external governments. Tshisekedi has considerable support in the capital, Kinshasa, and if his supporters take to the streets with the implicit backing of western powers it could be a difficult time for Kabila. But the Congolese are not Egyptians, and it is not clear that such pressure will be sustained.

The worst case scenario is that serious conflict breaks out. With ten close neighbours and numerous others eyeing-up its vast mineral wealth, such a conflict could suck in combatants from across the continent. The last major civil war (documented by Jason Stearns in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters) involved soldiers from at least ten African countries, and a repeat would be catastrophic.

A more optimistic alternative is that some sort of compromise deal will be hammered out. South Africa is increasingly looked to for leadership in the region – and, if its track record in Zimbabwe is a guide, may push for some sort of government of national unity.

Tshisekedi is, after all, not a young man and, despite his belligerent post-election rhetoric, may ultimately accept a deal that gives him a meaningful role. But whatever government emerges, most Congolese appear resigned to the fact that their country’s immediate future will be mapped out at the expense of both ordinary people and the truth.

Nonetheless, alternative – and marginally more optimistic – views do exist. Singing in Lingala, the popular Congolese singer, Koffi Olomide, has lyrics that capture this optimism:

“Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi.”

“Lies come up in the elevator, the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually.”

For the sake of both the DRC and Africa, it is hoped that truth’s climb up those stairs does not take too long.

For those with an interest in the Congo, the following books are well worth a read.


King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild.

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, by Michaela Wrong.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns.


Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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Linda Urquhart CroppedIn a speech on the economy delivered to 600 guests at the CBI Scotland Annual Dinner in Glasgow last night, the Chairman of CBI Scotland, Linda Urquhart, expressed concern about the uncertainties caused by the Scottish Government’s commitment to hold an Independence Referendum. She talked of the “…possible damage that could be done to Scotland by the uncertainties arising from this commitment and its timing.  This is not helpful, but with that timescale committed to, I believe that business will consider it all the more important for any referendum to deliver a clear result. Independence “Yes” or “No” and no second questions which might produce an inconclusive result.”

What follows is the substance of her speech in full.

Last year I spoke about – ‘a time of opportunity for Scotland’

One year on, with the economy more sluggish than expected and the Western economies more fragile, I’ve seen:-

many businesses seize the opportunities – exports up;

some excellent examples in some areas of the public sector of innovation and a focus on economic growth;

some highly successful partnerships between the public and private sectors.

but the pressure on business continues to be relentless and more needs to be done to improve the business environment and minimise uncertainty.  Times are very tough.  And the pace of change in public sector reform is still too slow.

By this time last year we had published our manifesto for the Holyrood elections.  Much of what we called for is still relevant and it was encouraging to see many of our ideas in the party manifestos, and later appearing in the plans of the elected Government.  Aligning policy to the overriding objective of economic growth is still a challenge, it seems, and that is a challenge which must be met.

There are positive signs of public investment in infrastructure, extending superfast broadband and investing in transport projects to get the country moving.  Positive signs on retaining poundage rate parity and keeping the small business bonus, proposals for the introduction of Enterprise Zones and the development of a strategy for science and engineering.

But our members have an overriding concern about affordability and sustainability in public spending.  We applaud the plans to tackle the deficit but concerns manifest themselves around examples such as the raid on the oil and gas industry which risks shifting investment out of Scotland, in the same way as the now abandoned large retailers rates levy did.  Certainty, consistency and competitiveness on tax is the right framework for encouraging investment, which is why our Council is not convinced that the claimed benefits of devolving corporation tax outweigh the certain costs, complexities and risks associated with such constitutional change.

Anything that adds uncertainty is unwelcome.  The Scottish Government is committed to holding a referendum on independence in the second half of this parliamentary term. That is a matter for them but concern does exist in our membership about the possible damage that could be done to Scotland by the uncertainties arising from this commitment and its timing. This is not helpful, but with that timescale committed to, I believe that business will consider it all the more important for any referendum to deliver a clear result. Independence – yes or no – and no second questions which might produce an inconclusive result. The legality of any referendum must also be put beyond doubt – the constitution is a reserved matter – so the Scottish and UK Governments must work together to ensure legal certainty and a decisive result.

In our manifesto we mentioned how vital investment in learning and skills is if Scotland is to prosper.  The uncertainty around the future funding and affordability of Higher Education causes concern.

The focus on the opportunities which renewable energy offers to Scotland is very welcome but security and stability of supply and delivery at competitive prices require an open minded approach to methods of generation in the meantime and more certainty around regulation.

Business still wants to be more involved in the delivery of public services and the procurement process often still gets in the way of Scottish businesses winning contracts from Scottish public sector procurers.

On regulation, the message from our members is as much about how regulation is implemented as about regulation itself.  We readily accept that not all regulation is bad and there has been a cultural shift at the top level here in Scotland in our regulators but it is still taking time for that shift to be seen by our members in their day to day dealings with officials.

So, that time of opportunity is still with us but we need to embrace change more quickly and have ever closer alignment of Government policy with the overarching ambition for economic growth.

This dinner sees me close to the end of my two years as Chairman of CBI Scotland.  In that time I have been hugely grateful to the support of Iain McMillan and the team at CBI Scotland and to the team from CBI in London.  They all do a great job on behalf of business in Scotland and the wider UK.  The CBI is well organised to ensure that CBI Scotland can speak for business here in Scotland but also have a strong voice at Westminster direct and in partnership with our CBI colleagues in London and other parts of the UK. CBI Scotland has a substantial degree of autonomy in the wider CBI but we never lose sight of the fact that, as an organisation, we are stronger and more influential together. I think that is a good model for Scotland going forward. Thank you, Iain, to you and the team for your excellent work.

I mentioned many of the positives I’ve seen since last year’s dinner.  In my time as Chairman I have been heartened by the optimism, enthusiasm and resilience of the Scottish business community and many leaders of public sector organisations and their collective desire to do what is right for Scotland and see our country thrive.  I have been impressed by the dedication and drive of the education sector and echoing comments made by our outgoing President Helen Alexander, I have a much better appreciation of the valuable role which our Colleges play in the pipeline of skills for business.  With the talent we have here in Scotland,  indeed in this room, I hope we can rise to the challenges which the current climate throws at us and that our Governments in Westminster and Holyrood can work together and with us to provide an environment which allows us to thrive.

I am delighted to hand over the baton of Chairmanship of CBI Scotland to Nosheena Mobarik, who, I am sure, will most ably continue the work with our members and with Iain and the team to speak up for business in Scotland and continue to focus the minds of our political leaders on the policies which are required for businesses working here in Scotland to flourish.

Thank you all for your support.

Today is World Plumbing Day. It’s not that well known – but figures from the United Nations and the World Health Organisation make frightening reading.

About a third of the planet’s population don’t have access to clean water or decent sanitation. Millions of children die every year as a result.

The current Chairman of the World Plumbing Council is Robert Burgon, President of the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation. He sent out this message about why this day should matter to more people:

<em>Picture: Thejaswi</em>

Picture: Thejaswi

By Stewart Weir

And the FA Cup takes centre stage south of the border with a mixture of ties and replays to decide who would progress through to the fragmented quarter-final draw, and a place in the last ten. No, I know that doesn’t sound right.

Live Saturday early evening viewing on all ITV regions (except for viewers in Scotland on council telly as you lot should have been going to see your local team even though they weren’t playing on Saturday and STV don’t show any Scottish domestic matches anyway) was Manchester United, managed by a Scot, Sir Alex Ferguson, against non-League Crawley, led by another from these parts, Steve Evans.

Stop there for a second. But does anyone else think there is something of the Freddie Starrs about Evans?

Continuing, and Fergie was not best-pleased after his side’s efforts in only managing a 1-0 win. While others would take that result and move on, a win is not a win in Ferguson’s eyes if you fail to put the likes of Crawley in their place.

Ferguson had of course been a cheerier wee soul beforehand, saying how he would welcome Starr, I mean Evans, who had brought along a special bottle of red wine as a gift for the Knight, hoping he would be offered the chance to commune in the presence of the oh so great one.

Sir Alex nodded his way through the pre-match platitudes, saying that Crawley would be given every respect on their Cup Final day.

What did irk him, was the interviewer’s assertion that “and of course, this is a match-up between two Glaswegians.”

“Naw, no he’s not … he’s from a wee village on the outskirts of Glasgow [Cambuslang to be exact],” said the Govan boy. Nothing like showing all of England how parochial us welcoming Scots can be

I read with some interest (which is more than I will do with his threatened tome) that the British Olympic diver Tom Daley has signed a megabucks deal to write his autobiography – at the age of just 16. Maybe crayons will be included.

But what has he done at that age? What will the chapters be: Almost Drowning For The First Time, Santa – The Truth, Hair, Where! and Spots?

I can’t imagine it will be terribly honest either. Who’s going to go into detail about how they were always tired as a 13-year-old, not because of the training regime but because masturbating four times a day really takes it out of you. Not to mention being embarrassing if you are standing on top of the ten-metre board.

Still, Penguin (the publishers, and not some teen fantasy) aim to bring out the youngster’s life story in spring 2012, three months before the London Olympics start.

So sales of the book won’t be affected if he fails to make a splash …

Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting loses half his match fee after being found guilty of taking out his frustrations on the dressing room TV following his run-out for just 28 against Zimbabwe.

While Australia won in the end, Ponting was the financial loser after it was reported he’s broken the telly by throwing his gloves at it. In addition to his fine, he also offered to replace the damaged item.

Never nice to see someone like Ponting joining the John Logie Baird Memorial Club, which of course was set up for sportsmen who had shown particular venom either in or through (or should that be threw) televisions. I think Graeme Souness is still their president.

“When Ponting was run out, he was perhaps frustrated. He threw his gloves straight at the TV,” Gujarat Cricket Association secretary Rajesh Patel said. “It was an LCD TV, which was properly damaged. We could not view anything.”

That was before they found out it wasn’t connected to a satellite dish …

It’s all about the numbers today when the Olympic Velodrome in London is opened.

Apparently It took a team of 26 carpenters eight weeks to install the Siberian pine track and more than 350,000 nails were used on its 56km of timber surface.

I’m thinking these are the same chippies that did the flooring in my house, 56 kilometres of wood for a 250m track. A bit of waste there I think.

But no. The whole 23-month Velodrome project cost £94 million – which is on time and under budget.

This was on the same day MPs deliver a scathing report on waste by the Ministry of Defence who had cost the taxpayer a staggering £8 billion after cancelling the Nimrod and Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft and an overspend on the Eurofighter/Typhoon order.

Now, far be it for me to suggest such a thing, but, maybe if the Olympic purse-holders had been in charge of the military purse, then we might have got the planes we needed, to a cost, and on time – handily ignoring they were constructed out of Siberian timber and pedal-powered.

Cancelling any sporting event has a knock-on effect somewhere.

Anyone who has ever tried to return a thousand pies back to the local bakery when a fitba match has been frozen off will empathise with Formula One Management picking up the tab for the cancelation of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Formula One Management is Bernie Ecclestone’s business, where all empathy ends.

Bahrain was to have been the first round of the 2011 world F1 championship, but civil unrest meant the race was put off in the meantime, or for all time. It’s difficult to gauge civil unrest.

And the cost of cancelling that race? Around $40 million. That’s a lot of pies in any currency.

And still in the Middle East, it is reported that the royal family of Qatar is preparing a fresh £1.5billion bid for Manchester United after the Glazers (who don’t do new PVC windows) rejected an earlier offer.

It appears the Americans have already knocked back £1bn, and are holding out for a figure closer to £1.8bn, give or take a few pies. The royal family of Qatar is preparing a fresh £1.5bn bid for Manchester United after the Glazers rejected an earlier offer.

Compare that to the £20 million United “sold” for in 1989. Of course, it didn’t sell, because the deal struck by Isle of Man-based property tycoon Michael Knighton fell through when his financial backers backed out.

So he bought Carlisle United instead. And those bankers have never regretted their decision since – much …

Former Celt Aiden McGeady may have turned his back on Scotland. But indirectly he could have ensured Scotland two Champions League places from 2012/13.

His Europa League goal meant Spartak Moscow beat Basle on aggregate, a result likely to keep Scotland ahead of Switzerland in coefficient rankings.

Of course, every single Scots football fan will be grateful for McGeady’s contribution. Not.

Because others will point to the fact that Maurice Edu is responsible for keeping Scotland ahead in that particular race thanks to his late, late goal for Rangers against Sporting Lisbon.

Indeed, that goal was so late, that there were several dozen re-writes made by those covering the game. But none had to work as quickly as the moderators on BBC’s soon-to-be-scrapped 606 forum.

A certain Alfonso1234 – a Celtic fan on the Rangers board – thought it would be clever to have a pop at Gers fans, stating that they now wouldn’t have the excuse of paying too many games when their team lost the SPL title.

Unfortunately for Alfonso1234 (presumably a pseudonym, although there is no guarantee of that), his barb remark came seconds before Edu’s dramatic equaliser. And once it was up, there was no taking it down.

Texts and emails flew around the nation as poor Alfonso was ridiculed, pilloried and abused to such an extent that BBC’s mods had to take every reference of the poor man off their site, as shown in this (broken) link www.bbc.co.uk/dna/606/A81798871.

I have to say, the great majority of the comments were hugely funny, the best arguably being; “If Carlsberg Did Premature Ejaculation …” – which even gained praise from Celtic supporters!

Omar Suleiman

Omar Suleiman

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak may have gone but did he matter anymore? Cairo’s ambassador to Washington, Sameh Shoukry, believed the Egyptian intelligence chief and vice president, Omar Suleiman, had become the “de facto” president, presumably with the full backing of the armed forces.

Mubarak always vowed that he would never step down and never leave Egypt. Because of this, his claim that he had set up a constitutional committee to implement reforms ahead of elections to be held in September failed to convince the crowds in Tahrir Square.

Now Suleiman, who has close ties with Israel, has handed power to the military, saying: “In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country.”

Mubarak has retired to his home in Sharm el-Sheikh, where he spent much of his time anyway.

So what happens now? Here are some possible scenarios:

– Suleiman will use the months leading up to the presidential election in September to consolidate his government, to seek a presidential candidate amenable to manipulation and acceptable to the United States and Israel. During this period, security forces would round up possible opponents.

– The armed forces install a secular Egyptian nationalist as president. This would represent more of the same for the Egyptians in Tahrir Square; it might conceivably lead to a break with Israel and a wave of Arab nationalism across the Middle East. Enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran become strange bedfellows in that they feel threatened.

– The Muslim Brotherhood, which has said it will not take part in the elections, will go back on their decision, or, if persecuted, go underground and resort to violence as it has in the past. Other secular groups may join them in armed rebellion.

– The Muslim Brotherhood wins elections and declares an Islamic state on Iranian lines, plunging the Middle East into uncertainty.

– Many Egyptians, witnessing fraudulent elections or a nationalist or Islamic coup, but who had simply sought change, modernisation and a better life, will be forced to emigrate.

– The best scenario is that Suleiman and the armed forces will keep their word and hold free elections as promised, banning no political movement from the democratic process. Egypt emerges, of its own volition, as a much stronger “beacon for democracy” than Iraq or Afghanistan will ever be.

<em>Picture: Ramy Raoof</em>

Picture: Ramy Raoof

The uprisings in the Arab world, as The Caledonian Mercury has suggested, (in words that are now being echoed
by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague) are a moment of opportunity that must be seized.

Hague is beginning to lean on Israel, subtly urging the United States to do likewise, for fear that Israeli intransigence at a time of profound change in the Arab world may jeopardise the possibility of any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question.

But how willing is Israel to listen? Not very, judging by the tone of a recent US diplomatic document put out by Wikileaks. The document suggests the Israelis are very comfortable with Omar Suleiman as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s vice president. Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief, is Israel’s preferred successor to Mubarak, as the US document shows:

“In terms of atmospherics, [Israeli ministry of defence Arab affairs advisor David] Hacham said the Israeli delegation was ‘shocked’ by Mubarak’s aged appearance and slurred speech. Hacham was full of praise for Soliman, [sic] however, and noted that a ‘hot line’ set up between the [Israeli] MOD and Egyptian General Intelligence Service is now in daily use. Hacham said he sometimes speaks to Soliman’s deputy Mohammed Ibrahim several times a day. Hacham noted that the Israelis believe Soliman is likely to serve as at least an interim President if Mubarak dies or is incapacitated. (Note: We defer to Embassy Cairo for analysis of Egyptian succession scenarios, but there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.)”

Meanwhile, the Israeli media is reacting with predictable concern about the situation in Egypt, with some commentators urging the Israeli government to approach the Egyptian opposition rather than dismissi the entire Arab world as a sea of “blood eyed fanatics”. Others warn of a transition to yet another phase of fascism:

Bradley Burston, Haaretz

“There’s a distinctly uncomfortable but ultimately healthy humility, in realising that we have no idea what’s going on in the only region we seem to know anything about. I want to thank you [Egyptians] for that.

“It is beginning to dawn on my people, the Israelis, that freedom for Arabs may have nothing to do with annihilation for Jews. I have you to thank for that.

“Here and there, people are recognising that the Arab world, and this grand nation which is its cultural epicentre, is vastly more complex than this view of a vast sea of blood-eyed fanatics barely restrained by the brittle dykes of a heavily subsidised corps of despots.

“And there’s another lesson we need to learn, most of all.

“What is the common thread that ties Hosni Mubarak and Ehud Barak, that makes Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman increasingly resemble the rulers of unapologetically non-democratic Mideast regimes? Why has this Israeli government done its best to emulate in two years, repressive measures Hosni Mubarak took 30 years to refine?”

Seth Frantzman, Jerusalem Post

“To understand tyranny’s relationship with popular democracy, we must fast forward to the period 1917 to 1950. In that period almost all of the liberal democracies in Europe were brushed aside by popular fascist or communist movements. It began with Russia where a brief period of democratic government in 1917 was followed by the communist seizure of power.

“The fascists and their enemies used mass protests and chaos, including rioting, to secure power against weak democratically elected patricians who proved incapable of dealing with the street. Yet those who look to Egypt and admire the protesters don’t see that these types of mass protests, while they demand democracy, also walk hand in hand with dictatorship.

“It isn’t about the Egyptians being Arabs. It isn’t about Israel ‘integrating’ into its region. It’s about the fact that no one notices that what is going on in Egypt is not a sign of democracy, it is just a sign of chaos and mass protest. Mass protest may cause a government to implement democratic reforms.

“But as we have seen in Tunisia, when the government simply collapses and runs away, that doesn’t represent a ‘democratic transition’. Chaos, as there is in Egypt, has a much better track record of producing more tyranny and fascism, than it does at producing democracy.”

Ray Hanania, Jerusalem Post

“Today, there are two governments in the Palestinian territories – the religious fanatics who oppose peace with Israel, and the secular moderates who support it. In a stagnant political environment, time is not on the side of the moderates.

“Every day of stalemate sees Hamas gaining strength.

“Had there been no interference in Palestinian affairs, things would have worked themselves out. Voters would have eventually ousted Hamas. Its ridiculous religious extremist demands have already started to turn people off.

“To do the right thing, sometimes people need to see the wrong thing happen. But the meddling blinded the Palestinian public to the extremist fanaticism of Hamas, and Israel’s arrests of its leaders only fed the group’s popularity.

“Today, Hamas continues to feed off of the failure of the peace process.

“Democracy is the antidote to tyranny. It doesn’t always seem that way, but it is always better than relying on dictators. Didn’t America learn anything from its experiment with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War? The same choices are rearing their ugly heads in Egypt.

“Israel doesn’t want Hosni Mubarak out because it believes his successor would likely revoke the peace accord, or change the terms significantly, though that may well happen. But even if it did, in a democracy, Egypt would return to peaceful public discussion and debate.

“Egypt’s turmoil might prompt Israel to do the right thing and move forward with the peace process.

“What democracy needs are strong voices who believe in it – Palestinian, Israeli, Arab and Jew.”

Carmel Gould, Just Journalism

“Editorial boards across the spectrum of the [British] mainstream print press have been seriously challenged by this story. The dilemma was instantly apparent. Coming out in support of a democratic revolution in a notoriously undemocratic region feels instinctively right, but the outcome could mean the destabilisation of an already volatile region and, specifically, the rise of an extremist Islamist force in the Arab world’s most populous country.

“No-one wants their newspaper to come out on the wrong side of history.

“It should be obvious that Israel has reasons to be seriously nervous. The 1979 peace treaty with Egypt represents 50 percent of the total number of peace deals it has with the 22 Arab countries in whose midst it exists. For 32 years that agreement has played an undeniable role in preventing follow-up wars to those of 1967 and 1973, which killed at least 24,000 people. It doesn’t take an expert to understand why Israel would want this relationship preserved and not reversed.”

Protesters in Egypt. <em>Picture: Helge Keitel</em>

Protesters in Egypt. Picture: Helge Keitel

The revolution sweeping the Arab world poses some interesting questions for policy makers in the West, who must find new ways of making friends in the region rather than repeat the failed policies of the past.

Propping up autocratic regimes in the Middle East may have secured the West’s oil supplies for decades, but at what price today? Like our casino banking system, which for years gave us a false sense of prosperity, Western influence in the Middle East was an illusion that is coming to an end.

It was only made possible through repression exercised by proxy and, though some will argue that this is the way business has been conducted by governments from time immemorial, we are in the age of instant communication. Whether this is going to be a good thing or a bad thing in the long term, only time will tell, but in the meantime it seems to have made the usual way of conducting business unworkable, and only Hosni Mubarak doesn’t seem to realise this.

Well, perhaps not only Mubarak. It has been a worrying time for Israel, who has had in Mubarak a useful friend for the three decades he has been in power, and it really would like to maintain the status quo in the region.

Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who after years of antagonising the West has ironically found himself back on almost friendly terms with Washington and London, has also taken a dim view of the Egyptian uprising. And well he might: after all, he has been in power since 1969. (Looking further afield, what will Cuba’s Raúl Castro be thinking? You can find what his brother Fidel thinks here, but you’ll have to scroll a long way down).

Rightwing commentators in the United States are having a field day blaming President Barack Obama for abandoning George W Bush’s so-called “freedom agenda”, but they are not being truthful. They would have us believe that Bush would have forcefully encouraged Mubarak to step down. Then why didn’t he when he could? Are Bush’s supporters calling for regime change in Saudi Arabia? Of course not.

What was Bush’s “freedom agenda” in any case? The invasion of Iraq was not designed to “liberate” the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, but to stamp out a dictator who had once been backed by the West in its confrontation with Iran (yet another case study) but who had now become the focus for pan-Arab nationalism, as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was in the 1960s. And again, maintaining oil supplies was at the heart of US thinking.

Those who like me are sceptical of the American Right’s claims that Bush’s policies have been vindicated by what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt (and is about to happen elsewhere) might argue that regime change is more effective when it is carried out from within, by the people themselves, even if it takes years to come about.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are proof, if any were needed, that, given time, the Iraqi people would have removed Saddam themselves. (Thatcher’s war over the Falklands may have precipitated Galtieri’s fall, but he was on his way out anyway: with the economy in a mess and inflation spiralling out of control, the people had already taken to the streets against the regime. An invasion of Argentina, however, would have galvanised even those who opposed the occupation of the Falklands against Britain).

As Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fatah has pointed out, the Egyptian uprising shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as there have been strikes and demonstrations there since the Nineties over the Gulf War, IMF-imposed austerity programmes, torture and in support of Palestinian intifadas. It has taken time for these protests to evolve into today’s all-encompassing revolt, which is why it is unlikely the Egyptian people will accept anything other than sweeping changes to the way they have been governed – or misgoverned – for so long. But surely it is healthier that they have done this themselves rather than with help from a foreign power that is not seen, to put it mildly, to have the Arab world’s best interests at heart.

If we were still in the Cold War the West would almost certainly have blamed Moscow for the momentous events taking place in the Middle East. Interestingly, in the new world order they are unlikely to find anyone to blame but themselves; assuming they are still looking they would be hard-pressed to find any evidence linking Osama bin Laden or any other Islamist terrorist organisation to the revolutions.

The US and Britain are playing wait and see; that is the right approach. But don’t wait too long: this should be seen as an opportunity to put right the wrongs of the past, such as support for hated autocratic regimes, the oppression of the Palestinian people and the invasion of Iraq. There is a new generation in the Arab world that is hungry to embrace many Western values without abandoning their religious beliefs.

They are seizing their opportunity, and we should too.

Robert Burns25 January is a significant date for any Scots because, of course, it is the date The Caledonian Mercury first came into being. There’s another birthday attached to some poet, who has the occasional dinner thrown in his honour.

To celebrate Burns Night, BBC Radio 2’s Friday night Arts Show hosted by Claudia Winkleman travelled to the new Burns museum in Alloway, which is being opened by Liz Lochhead today, the same day the programme airs. The report is on around 11.15pm but you can catch it on iPlayer for a week afterwards.

Here are – what other number would do? – 25 lesser spotted facts about our most enduring international sensation. Some you may know, others you may not.

1. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to honour the man with a commemorative stamp in 1956.

2. The world’s first Burns Supper was held at Burns Cottage in 1801.

3. Burns had the “honour” of being the first person to feature on the side of a Coke bottle, the only occasion to date where Coca-Cola have designated a design to one nation.

4. At pedestrian crossings in Japan, the sound indicating that a walker can cross is a rendition of Coming Through The Rye.

5. The annual Kremlin Burns Supper is televised.

6. US president Abraham Lincoln could recite Burns’ works by heart.

7. In 1996, a musical chronicling his life called Red Red Rose won third place at a competition for new musicals in Denmark.

8. Burns was played by John Barrowman. (Do not click on this if you are easily offended … by shiny suits.)

9. Early visitors to Burns Cottage included John Keats and William Wordsworth.

10· “The awkward squad”, “Man’s inhumanity to Man”, and “the best laid schemes of mice and men” – these phrases all originate in Burns’s poetry, the last inspiring the title for John Steinbeck’s most famous book.

11. In 2008, Michael Jackson was reported to be teaming up with his mate David Gest, one of the former Mr Liza Minnellis, to produce an album of Burns poetry. It was unreleased, which avoided making countless thousands mourn.

12. The same year, Bob Dylan picked Burns’s A Red, Red Rose when HMV asked him for a lyric for their My Inspiration series. Dylanologists and Burns aficianados would have recalled the My Heart’s in the Highlands nod from His Bobness on 1997’s Time Out of Mind album.

13. Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman is less of a fan, describing him as “a king of sentimental doggerel”.

14. Burns’s work has been translated into Mongolian, Faroese and Esperanto – among many other languages

15. Robert Burns’s wore his hair in a pony tail in defiance of his father as a teenager. No-one’s saying he was perfect.

16. Burns fathered at least 13 different children by four different women. Again, see above.

17. Burns’ foot size was a size 8 – we know that because the museum in Alloway has a perfectly preserved pair of his monogrammed socks

18. There are more public statues of Robert Burns around the world than any other writer

19. Despite being a hugely popular poet, Burns’s net worth on his death was calculated at just £1.

20. A Man’s a Man for a’ That was chosen to open the Scottish Parliament

21. In 2009 (when the Alloway Museum was originally scheduled to open), the Homecoming Scotland campaign celebrated Burns’ 250th birthday with an all-star singalong – of a song by someone else: Dougie Maclean’s Caledonia.

22. James Boswell’s son, Alexander, convened the committee to build Alloway’s Burns Monument but never saw it open as he was killed in a duel before it could be completed

23. Formed in 1814, Burns Monument Trust was the world’s earliest literary heritage organisation, predating the Shakespeare Trust by 32 years.

24. The Burns-penned Auld Lang Syne has appeared in well over 170 Hollywood films including The Apartment, It’s A Wonderful Life and When Harry Met Sally.

25. In 2009, an STV poll voted Burns the Greatest Ever Scot above William Wallace, Alexander Fleming, Jock Stein and fifth-place David Tennant.