A Week at Westminster

Russia’s failings highlighted

The highlight of the Christmas season for me was the unexpected release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a totally unjustified incarceration in Russian prisons for ten years. I am delighted that sustained international pressure and the fear of possible boycotts of the winter Olympics due to start shortly in Sochi brought about this pardon along with those of the Greenpeace activists and the members of punk group Pussy Riot. I am pleased all are re-united with their families

Mr Khodorkovsky was a Russian oligarch who turned Yukos into the most successful company in post Soviet Russia which paid the highest taxes into the Russian Exchequer.

He used his money for charitable and philanthropic purposes but also, to the fury of Vladimir Putin who brooks no challenge, he also supported opposition parties such as the liberal Yabloko party and the Communist Party – now the only surviving challenge to Putin’s cronies after various devices were introduced to outlaw other opposition parties or render them ineligible to contest elections

Khodorkovsky was arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges and a travesty of trials, with new charges brought when he was due to be released from his first sentence which had been extended. Yukos was seized by the Kremlin after being presented with a tax bill for more than its annual turnover with 30 days to pay and no right of appeal. This is still the subject of a multi-billion dollar international court case but no justice will be administered within Russia. The company’s final board meeting took place in London and, in the light of Mr Khodorkovsky’s arrest, directors sought political asylum in the UK. A legal advisor to the board who returned to Moscow was arrested, removed from her young children, beaten and sentenced to hard labour as a proxy for the out of reach board members.

When this was going on I told senior executives in BP that I believed that they would not find Russia a congenial place to do business. They haven’t and nor has Shell.

Let us not be fooled, Russia is not any kind of democracy or trustworthy partner.

Elections are neither free nor fair and the Kremlin has dominant access to the media. Everything Mr Putin learned in his training in the KGB is being put to powerful effect in the sad successor to the Soviet Union that is Russia today.

Scotland will need to come together

As 2014 dawns, focus in Scotland will inevitably be on Scotland’s destiny in the referendum in September.

Economic recovery is beginning to take hold although it is still fragile. Will this encourage Scottish voters to take a leap into the unknown or will it focus attention on what binds the United Kingdom together? What is clear to me is that if Scotland chooses to leave the UK, economic reality will not evaporate. Taxes will still have to be raised and public services and benefits paid for. The assertions and promises attached to the pro independence case may prove unaffordable and oil taxes, whatever the settlement, cannot bear the weight of all. Whether for or against independence, everyone in Scotland surely has the best interests of Scotland at heart and all will have to work together to secure the best future whichever side of the argument they were on before the decision is finally made.

Weather disrupts festivities

The extreme weather over the Christmas season has caused inconvenience for many and misery for thousands more. My own village was without power for more than seven hours on Christmas Eve with some households not reconnected until Christmas Day. I’d like to thank the teams from SSE who restored power in time for Christmas Day. We are of course in the Scottish Hydro area but the other half of the same company was faced with even greater challenges in Kent where thousands were without power for days.

Personal run-in to A and E

I had personal experience of emergency services when the tailgate of a car was accidentally slammed down on my head. An ambulance was called and arrived in around eleven minutes. The paramedics deemed a visit to A and E was necessary and as it was after 11pm on Boxing Day this inevitably meant a trip to Aberdeen – no blue lights and no speeding, of course.

It was a pretty busy night – not so much from festive revellers come to grief but from elderly people who had fallen or been taken ill.

South Sudan engulfed in conflict

Having visited South Sudan shortly after it became independent I am alarmed and saddened to see a country which needed to build up the instruments of state from almost zero apparently disintegrating into internal conflict having only just emerged from open conflict with Sudan with whom most of the disputed areas remain unresolved.

The problem is that the country has hundreds of thousands of former soldiers and freedom fighters who have no useful peacetime role. Building a new nation from scratch when most of the population are illiterate and without education is a formidable task even with the support of the UN and the international community. When conflict reigns it is impossible and there must be real fears that South Sudan could be heading for the same fate as the Central African Republic or the ironically misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo