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Tuesday
Apr222014

National Union of Students, still crazy after all these years

Jennifer Salisbury-Jones, a third year student at Bristol University, has written an amusing article about the recent NUS conference.

Jennifer got elected as a delegate after promising to spend the money Bristol give the union on something far more useful - namely alcohol.

The downside was she had to attend the conference - see The NUS don’t care about you and they are making your life worse (The Tab).

Anyway, it brought back memories of a similar episode when I was at university and editing a fiercely anti NUS publication called Campus.

Our candidate for NUS conference stood on the platform of 'Not Going'. Like Jennifer he got elected which suggests many students - then and now - have a far more healthy attitude to life than their po-faced political peers.

The funny thing was, all the other successful candidates expected him to go and were dumbstruck when he stuck to his manifesto and refused the kind offer of a weekend in Blackpool at taxpayers' expense.

One student politician took the decision very much to heart and was genuinely upset we could treat his beloved union in such a cavalier fashion. He didn't speak to us for weeks.

My other NUS story took place a few years later when we relaunched Campus as a national student magazine and sent someone to distribute several hundred copies to delegates attending the 1984 NUS conference.

Twenty years later the person concerned could be found working in a senior position at Conservative Central Office. In those days however he was a bit of a head case and utterly fearless - just the sort of person to send into enemy territory.

No-one, in my opinion, was more likely to find a way into the Winter Gardens in Blackpool without accreditation and I was right.

Not only did he slip past security via a back door, he managed to sneak on to the balcony where he is alleged to have dropped 200 copies of Campus on to the heads of the delegates below.

It so happened the relevant issue featured a full page cartoon in which a nuclear weapon (Willie Warhead) was seen shaking hands with a tampon. The caption read 'NATO guarantees peaceful periods' which we thought was quite funny.

Delegates thought otherwise and there were reports that Liberal students in particular were in tears.

Campus was subsequently banned by 40 humourless student unions, which forced us to sell it door-to-door, and our efforts even made the front page of National Student, the piss poor NUS newspaper.

I therefore take my hat off to Jennifer Salisbury-Jones and everyone who voted for her. To paraphrase Paul Simon ...

The National Union of Students, still crazy after all these years.

Saturday
Apr192014

From the archive: Brian Monteith

In 1997 I was sharing an office in Leith with Brian Monteith.

I was a freelance journalist, Brian was a PR consultant. He was also spokesman for Forest in Scotland.

Two years later I was back in London working for Forest and Brian was a member of the devolved Scottish Parliament.

In summer 2000 I interviewed him for the Forest magazine Free Choice:

GREAT SCOT

Evidence that the Scottish Parliament was beginning to buckle under the self-imposed pressure of political correctness caught even the most cynical observers by surprise.

Months after being warned that Presiding Officer Sir David Steel intended to crack down on smoking ("There should be no smoking within the entire Parliamentary complex and we intend to vigorously enforce this"), smokers were instructed to walk down the street, well away from the building and – wait for it – remove their accreditation badges so no-one would recognise them!

Perfect timing, or so it seemed, to launch a campaign that would stand up for Scottish smokers and poke fun at those pathetic little Hitlers in the puritanical health lobby. One of the MSPs who has agreed to support the campaign is Brian Monteith. OK, so he's a former Forest spokesman but, take my word for it, Monteith is no poodle. He's not even a traditional Scottish Tory.

Born and bred in Edinburgh, he and his family are all state educated (something of a novelty in a city where private schools are ten a penny) and he genuinely loves his football (hunting, shooting and fishing being strangers to him). In 16 years as a PR consultant clients included Budweiser, Fosters, Caldeonian Brewery and at least four Indian restaurants, a fact which may explain his slowly expanding waistline.

All things considered, Brian Monteith is as 'normal' a politician as you could wish to meet. He is also incredibly laid back. Even relegation for his beloved Hibernian in 1998 was met with a shrug of the shoulders and a sense of perspective rare among red-blooded season ticket holders.

Get him on the subject of smoking however and Monteith is as close as he ever gets to fuming. An occasional smoker who enjoys the odd cigar, he has watched with dismay as politically correct politicians of all parties have lined up to lecture his countrymen about the evils of tobacco while threatening to ban smoking in public places.

Quite simply, Monteith believes that the Scottish Parliament's attitude to smoking is all wrong. "There's a danger," he reports, "that the Scottish Parliament will be seen as puritanical and in that sense quite out of touch with ordinary people. Unfortunately politicians are ambivalent and once a bandwagon has been started by a small minority, it's difficult to stop.

"I don't advocate smoking in the chamber where we're debating but if one believes in individual liberties there should be places, including bars and restaurants, which are tailored for smokers as well as non-smokers.

"Smoking," he adds, "may offer a slight health risk to me but getting into my car or playing five-a-side football also offer a slight risk and it's a choice I decide to make. So long as people are tolerant of each other's choices we should be free to make them."

He's unimpressed by organisations like ASH Scotland, a group he dismisses as "humourless and the mouthpiece of government". ASH, says Monteith, represents an outdated presbyterianism that continues to haunt Scottish life. "There is still a sense of guilt, in some quarters, about having any fun."

He agrees the state should regulate the sale of tobacco and educate people, children especially, about the health risks, but is adamant that it should not interfere in an adult's choice of lifestyle, whether it be smoking or drinking. "The warnings on cigarette packets," says Monteith, "are completely meaningless. People ignore them. A ban on tobacco advertising will also make little difference. It's the worst form of gesture politics."

Tobacco taxation? Far too high, says Monteith. "It doesn't discourage people from smoking. It encourages smuggling which creates a thriving black market and makes cheap tobacco readily available to young smokers."

Smoking in public places? Live and let live, he argues. "I see nothing wrong with smokers and non-smokers sharing the same space, so long as it's well ventilated. There is a time and a place for smoking but the idea that it should be confined to your own home, under cover of darkness, is absurd. Yet that is the logic of the anti-smoking argument."

Smokers' rights is not the only 'unpopular' cause Monteith has supported. Indeed, the fact that he finds himself in the Scottish Parliament at all is one life's little mysteries. A former chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students, Monteith was a fierce opponent of a devolved parliament and did everything he could to convince his countrymen that here was an expensive experiment they could well do without.

"Having been involved in the previous referendum in 1979 I felt it was important that the electorate should hear the arguments for and against devolution."

According to Monteith, who devised and led the vociferous 'No No' campaign almost single-handedly, it did relatively well. "We had very little money and the momentum was completely against us from the beginning, but many of the issues we raised have never gone away and have in some ways plagued the Parliament ever since."

One issue was the price of constructing a new building. "We thought it would cost as much as £50 million but it looks like it will cost four times that. We also asked why we should have so many government ministers and were told we wouldn't. We now have 22 ministers costing us over one million pounds a year."

A close ally of Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie, Monteith says, "David is now accepted as being one of the most effective parliamentarians in Scotland. Given that he also has a sense of humour, an interest in things such as football and golf, and likes a cigar, I think he has the common touch and will be a considerable asset for us."

Having the "common touch", he adds, is vital. His greatest fear is that "129 politicians will seek to find things to do and this will mean more regulation, more political correctness and more interference in people's everyday lives."

Today, shadowing ministers on education, culture and sport, Monteith has a chance to promote two of the principles closest to his heart – choice and opportunity. "What we need in education is more choice. The way to provide it is to remove schools from local authorities and create school education boards which can provide different types of education to suit parents or children's needs. Let the parents decide.

"In football I am concerned that the league structure in Scotland is effectively a restriction of practise in that the top 12 clubs can restrict who enters into the Scottish Premier League."

On culture he believes that questions must be asked about the relationship between the arts and the state. "We should ask, for example, if state funding actually undermines artistic credibility. I wouldn't expect these questions to be asked by socialists. They look for the smothering arms of the state to support the arts because it means they can control it."

More importantly, he believes the country needs to sell itself as a high quality destination for people from outside Scotland. "We need fewer tourists who spend more money. The concept of us trying to cater for large numbers is a false one because I just don't think our roads, for example, can handle them.

"You can't sell the tranquility of the glens to coachloads of people. Increasing access to the hills might be great for the health of the nation but it makes it less of an experience than it's meant to be."

Quality hospitality also means smoking and non-smoking facilities. "If we restrict choice we will drive people away." Political correctness, he argues, could damage the nation's economic health.

Realistically Monteith accepts that the Scottish Conservative party faces at least twelve, probably more, years in opposition. Undeterred he draws on his cigar, exhales lustily and declares, "This gives us time to develop policies that will be popular, have a bit of fun, and show our Scottish credentials. We've started with a blank sheet of paper so we've everything to build on. It's a great time to be in Scottish politics."

Let's hope he's right.

Postscript: Brian stood down from the Scottish Parliament in 2006 after seven years as an MSP. He currently writes a weekly column for the Scotsman and is regular contributor to Conservative Home. He also writes for and edits Forest's Free Society website.

In 2014 the Scottish Conservative party has one MP and 16 (out of 129) MSPs. It is no closer to power in Scotland than it was 14 years ago.

Friday
Apr182014

From the archive: Clive Turner's big breakfast

Over the Easter weekend I'm posting a series of articles that were first published in the Forest magazine Free Choice.

The following piece was written by Clive Turner, former director of public affairs at the Tobacco Manufacturers Association (TMA).

In my previous post I mentioned the charming Charles MacLean. Well, Clive took charm to an even higher level!

For many years he was the principal spokesman for the tobacco industry. I often saw him on television or listened to him on radio and I admired how calm he was, whatever the provocation.

He retired a few years before I began working for Forest but we had met a decade earlier – when I was director of the Media Monitoring Unit – and we kept in touch. (He was as surprised as anyone, though, when I took the job at Forest!)

In my second year I invited him to our 'Eleven Deadly Sins' No Smoking Day breakfast at Simpsons-in-the-Strand and asked him to write about it. This is what he wrote:

BIG BREAKFAST

For 18 years Britain's No Smoking Day has been a feature of the anti tobacco calendar. It normally falls early in March to coincide with, or slightly preface, the Budget. This is no coincidence, of course, although for some years the point was blunted when a former Chancellor of the Exchequer moved Budget Day to later in the year.

Originally conceived by health activists anxious to give moment to the annual rises in tobacco taxation and aimed to hit smokers at a time when yet again they are about to be clobbered by a rapacious Treasury, there was an obvious objective of reminding smokers that here was a great opportunity to give up.

But in latter years there has been a rather stealthy association with the very commercial manufacturers of nicotine withdrawal products – patches and such like, sold to people who believe such methods will assist a quit programme.

It has always been the tobacco industry's contention that if the government wishes to support a quit programme then it's not up to the industry to intervene. For that reason individual companies were seldom heard criticising or rising to the bait of countering ASH statements or proclamations.

It was principally ASH who masterminded No Smoking Day, although there's been a long list of health bodies associating themselves with the endeavour. And it's always been true that most of the money to run the day was taxpayer funded.

Yes, there have been years when the industry spoke out against outrageous campaign statements, like the ASH claim that 50,000 smokers had given up on No Smoking Day – an obvious arbitrary figure drawn from the imagination of those fevered people who work so hard to convince us all that there really is no such thing as a happy smoker.

How does a figure like that get verified? Do ASH make thousands of telephone calls to gather such information? Of course not. They just make it up!

However, there have never been any restraints on Forest in terms of speaking out to counter the more ludicrous claims and to represent those who simply hate No Smoking Day on principle. And that includes hordes of non-smokers too, very large numbers of whom feel distinctly uncomfortable at the nanny state mentality and the persuasive coercion inherent in such an expensively mounted campaign.

In 1999 Forest marked No Smoking Day by spending it in Paris, widely recognised as the European capital of smoking. In January 2000 the organisation celebrated the new century by organising a party for 300 smokers at London's Little Havana, Cigar Bar of the Year.

"The Big Smoke was a great success," said director Simon Clark, "for the simple reason that people who smoke or drink and like to listen to Cuban music, for example, seem to be a lot more fun to be with than people who don't." That's a slightly naughty generalisation, of course, but maybe there's something in it.

For this year's No Smoking Day Simon and his team decided to invite some friends, journalists and parliamentarians to a champagne breakfast at one of London's best known eateries, Simpson's-in-the-Strand.

"Under this government," said Simon, "every day seems to be no smoking day. Drink and diet will be next, so come and join us and enjoy a morning of unalloyed pleasure indulging in an Eleven Deadly Sins Champagne Breakfast."

On the menu was Cumberland sausage, honeydew bacon, black pudding, devilled kidneys, friend bread, eggs, hash browns, grilled tomato, grilled mushrooms, baked beans – and tobacco.

Forest chairman Lord Harris of High Cross urged people to put two fingers up to to intolerance and, as your correspondent discovered, the party was both hugely enjoyable and a small blow against the unremitting necessity the state seems to have to monitor and regulate individual enjoyment and pleasure.

It was only a gesture but, in its way, the party spoke volumes because there is a growing, welcome, and faintly rebellious movement towards kicking against the zealotry of over regulation, the 'Big Brother' syndrome, and 'control freakery', all so sadly evident at present.

There's no doubt that after 18 years the public is bored by the harassment and social engineering that No Smoking Day represents. Maybe a few smokers are encouraged to give up or cut back, and good luck to them, but the vast majority simply ignore the day because they are either not ready to give up or (shock, horror) they may actually enjoy smoking and have no intention of playing the government's game.

Forest's aims are not about encouraging people to start smoking – or to give it up. It stands full square for the right to smoke, but also for the right of people not to smoke. Tolerance from and among both camps is the call from Forest.

It believes the progressive way ahead is to expend money, skill, intelligence and common sense, all with the objective of accommodating the disparate needs of smokers and non-smokers alike, so that neither is at loggerheads.

Forest sees no need for calls to outlaw a perfectly legal social activity and one which across the world raises astounding sums on tobacco taxes for the common good.

Next: Great Scot, interview with former Forest spokesman Brian Monteith.

Friday
Apr182014

From the archive: Charles MacLean

I was rummaging through some old files yesterday when I found this.

It's an edition of Free Choice which began life as a Forest newsletter before it was upgraded to a 28-page magazine.

The cover features "bon viveur" Charles MacLean who succeeded Brian Monteith as Forest's spokesman in Scotland.

In a regular feature called 'What's Your Vice?' Charles responded as follows to a series of questions. For example:

Hello, what's your vice?
Scotch whisky

How serious is it?
Some of my friends say, rather enviously, that I drink whisky for a living.

How old were you when you first indulged?
I started at 17 but I didn't enjoy it until I was 25. Whisky is an acquired taste and you have to choose to acquire it, but once you have there are few drinks that give greater satisfaction.

How often do you drink?
Daily, and not only whisky. I also enjoy wine, beer and other spirits. I try hard to have at least one good old-fashioned lunch a week, the kind of lunch that leads to a lost afternoon.

Why do you drink?
Intellectual stimulation. Apart from a glass of sherry at lunch or two or three drams to unwind in the early evening, I rarely drink alone. Alcohol stimulates conversation. That's the joy of it. Just getting pissed is depressing.

Does drinking interfere with your work?
I can't afford to allow it to, but there is a long and honourable connection between drinking and writing and for me the two are entwined.

Have you ever tried to stop?
I tried to stop drinking for Lent once but I cracked after four days.

Best accompaniment to whisky?
Stimulating conversation, entertaining companions, and tobacco. I can't possibly enjoy a drink without a smoke. Tobacco is crucial to my enjoyment.

Has drinking ever got you into trouble?
Continually, especially with Mrs MacLean, but I've never woken up in the cells.

Your vision of Utopia?
Sitting on a yacht off the west coast of Scotland with three good friends, a full bottle of whisky and a fresh packet of cigarettes.

The same issue of Free Choice also features an interview with Brian Monteith who I described as a "smoker-friendly member of the Scottish Parliament".

Over the weekend I'll post that interview plus one or two other articles. Unfortunately most back copies disappeared when we moved office several years ago which is a pity because, according to the promotional blurb:

We've got smoker-friendly advice, comment and information, articles by Auberon Waugh and Edward Enfield and interviews with Kenneth Clarke, Laurence Marks and Antony Worrall Thompson; plus details of Forest events including our Annual Debate and the Summer Boat Party.

As for Charlie MacLean, you couldn't meet a more charming man. Today he is universally acknowledged as one of the world's leading authorities on Scotch whisky.

A few years ago he even appeared in a Ken Loach film, The Angels’ Share, playing himself. See Whisky expert turned movie star on the sweet smell of success (Daily Record).

Personally, I'll always remember sharing a room with him above a pub in Glasgow's Merchant City prior to the launch of a Forest campaign.

The following morning we launched the campaign with a smoker-friendly fry-up in that same pub. We invited some guests and it was featured as a live outside broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland.

We then drove to Edinburgh where we hosted a drinks reception for MSPs and journalists (in the appropriately named Oxygen Bar), and the day ended with me dashing back to Glasgow for an appearance on Newsnight Scotland.

It was possibly the most successful campaign launch Forest has ever done and I'll always remember Charles' calmness and grace under fire!

Thursday
Apr172014

The hypocrisy of Labour MPs

Breathtaking hypocrisy from Labour MPs following yesterday's announcement that Imperial Tobacco is to close its Nottingham factory.

Chris Leslie, MP for Nottingham East, tweeted:

I hope Imperial Tobacco will work with DWP to redeploy the many affected Nottingham workers who are losing their jobs & need new employment.

Lilian Greenwood, MP for Nottingham South, went one better:

Thanks @UKLabour colleagues inc @Vernon_CoakerMP @Nik_McD & @GrahamAllenMP working together to support Imperial Tobacco workers. #onyourside

"On your side"?!!!!!

It was thanks to legislation introduced by the last Labour government that 500+ workers have now lost their jobs.

In case Greenwood, Leslie et al have forgotten, laws included a ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, a ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces, a ban on tobacco vending machines and a ban on the display of tobacco in shops.

Today they have the cheek to shed crocodile tears for tobacco industry workers, many of whom may have written to them asking them to oppose those measures in case they cost them their jobs.

The packaging industry has made no secret of the fact that plain packaging could result in more jobs being lost.

Labour supports plain packaging so if plain packs are introduced and packaging companies subsequently announce the loss of jobs, can we expect similar tweets along the lines of:

I hope x will work with DWP to redeploy the many affected workers who are losing their jobs & need new employment.

Thanks @UKLabour colleagues working together to support packaging workers. #onyourside

I think I'm going to be sick.

PS. Via Breitbart.com here's my full response to the closure of the Nottingham factory:

Simon Clark, director of the smokers' group Forest, said, "It's not pro-smoking to mourn the loss of jobs. The reality is however that the closure of Imperial's Nottingham factory will have no impact on consumers.

"What's worrying is that it follows a decade in which successive governments have introduced increasingly draconian policies designed to force adult consumers to quit smoking.

"Instead of focussing on education, government has prohibited tobacco advertising, banned smoking in public places, outlawed cigarette vending machines and banned the display of tobacco in shops. Now ministers want to introduce standardised packaging.

"How many more people are going to pay for the war on tobacco with their jobs? The smoking ban alone led to a huge number of jobs being lost as thousands of pubs closed as a direct result of the ban.

"Sadly, when campaigners are demanding further action on smoking, they don't take the loss of jobs and the impact on workers' families into account."

Via the Nottingham Post, here's an interesting article about the history of Imperial in Nottingham. Worth reading.

Monday
Apr142014

Vaping and tobacco trends 2014

The number of people using electronic cigarettes has tripled from 700,000 to 2.1 million in the past three years.

According to yesterday's Sunday Times:

More than half of all smokers have now tried the electronic nicotine inhalers, up from a third last year …

The proportion of smokers who regularly tape has risen sharply in the past two years from 7% to 18% according to a YouGov poll commissioned by the charity Action on Smoking and Health.

The study of 12,269 adult smokers also found that of the 2.1m ecigarette users, two thirds continue to smoke normal cigarettes.

See: Ecigarettes full of puff as user numbers triple to 2.1m (Sunday Times)

I'm curious to know more about the ASH/YouGov survey but it's clear the ecig market is growing fast.

It's clear too the majority of ecig users continue to smoke. This suggests to me that vapers and advocates of ecigs who have turned their backs on tobacco and are downright hostile to smoking are in the minority and must not be allowed to set the agenda because it will only play into the hands of the tobacco control industry.

Another sign of the times is the fact that the Morning Advertiser's annual 'Tobacco Trends' has become 'Vaping and Tobacco Trends'. It includes comments by Forest on e-cigarettes and tobacco regulation in general.

To read it go to the Morning Advertiser website and click on the current digital edition. Or click here and go to page 32.

Here's our Vaping and Tobacco Trends submission in full:

Impact of the Localism Act
Since the introduction of the Localism Act, whose aim was "to devolve more decision making powers from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils", a number of councils have introduced policies that are designed to outlaw smoking in and around play areas and other places where children might be present.

We are concerned that in the name of public health and child protection some councils may use the Localism Act to extend the smoking ban to outdoor areas including beer gardens and existing smoking areas. This is happening in other countries, notably English-speaking nations such as Canada, Australia and parts of the United States where it is becoming harder to light up outside.

The hospitality industry needs to be conscious of this threat because for some anti-smoking campaigners a ban on smoking outside pubs is the next logical step. We can argue on the figures but the smoking ban did an enormous amount of damage to the pub industry. The British Beer and Pub Association may be reluctant to admit it, but the legislation was a significant factor in the closure of thousands of pubs after 2007.

Extending the smoking ban to outdoor areas could have a similar impact on publicans who have spent a considerable amount of money creating comfortable outdoor areas for the many customers who continue to smoke.

Electronic cigarettes
Vaping is increasingly popular among smokers, some of whom are using e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid while others view them as a useful alternative to tobacco in places where they are not allowed to smoke.

Some anti-smoking campaigners want the use of e-cigarettes banned in pubs and bars. With no evidence to support their argument, they claim that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking.

Proprietors must be allowed to decide their own policy on e-cigarettes. If they choose to ban e-cigs that's their right but we believe they would be misguided to do so.

Some pubs have banned e-cigarettes on the grounds that they "look like cigarettes". That's like saying water should be banned because it looks like vodka.

E-cigarettes are still in their infancy but as more people use them more people will get used to them and see them for what they are. A simple sign above the bar – 'Vaping allowed here' – will make it clear to customers that people are vaping not smoking.

Smokers know that by lighting up in a bar they put the owner at risk of a fine or worse. That's why the smoking ban was self-regulated. There is no evidence to suggest that people will start smoking in pubs if someone is vaping.

Instead of joining the chorus of disapproval for e-cigarettes, publicans should support their use and defend their freedom to choose a policy that best suits the interests of their staff and customers.

E-cigarettes are an opportunity not a threat. By embracing the use of e-cigarettes publicans have the chance to bring many smokers back in from the cold. That is a business opportunity that should not be wasted.

Smoking shelters
Despite the rise of e-cigarettes, smokers still outnumber vapers by a substantial margin and many vapers are dual use consumers who continue to smoke and don't want to quit.

There are many examples of proprietors spending money on comfortable outdoor smoking shelters and we hope this trend will continue. A well designed smoking area with heating, tables, chairs, even a sofa or two, and an awning is a major attraction not just for smokers but also for their partners and friends.

It may not be politically correct to say so but for a great many people smoking and drinking still go together. In the words of internationally famous artist David Hockney "pubs aren't health clubs" and publicans would be foolish to forget that. A good pub should be an oasis from the stresses of modern life and landlords owe it to their customers not to side with the hectoring public health lobby in areas such as food, drink and tobacco.

For many of us pubs are places where adults go to relax and unwind. The shrill voice of the puritanical health brigade has no place in Britain's pubs and bars but the industry has to take a stand and say so, without equivocation. If they do that they can be assured of a huge amount of goodwill and support from ordinary people, smokers and non-smokers alike.

Saturday
Apr122014

United, Rangers and me

Call me a masochist but I'm back in Scotland for the second time in a week.

Dundee United are playing Rangers at lunchtime today in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup and it's a game I couldn't miss, especially after our 5-0 win against Inverness in the last round, which I also went to.

Semi-finals are supposed to be on neutral territory but this one's at Ibrox, home of, er, Rangers. Apparently they've been given the home dressing room too.

Bizarrely, United-Rangers has become a bit of a grudge match. Not sure why. Something to do with United not being sufficiently supportive of Rangers when the latter went into administration and were demoted to the fourth tier of Scottish football in 2012.

There was also the time, a few years ago, when a game at Tannadice had to be abandoned and United had the temerity to charge Rangers fans the full price to attend the rearranged match. (Unlike Rangers, United try to operate within their means and a rearranged match incurs the same costs as the original game. They're not a charity but Rangers supporters took offence.)

Anyway, when the two teams were drawn against each other in the Scottish Cup last year Rangers fans boycotted the game. The idea was to 'hurt' United by reducing the size of the crowd and therefore the gate receipts. In response United organised a 'Beat the Boycott' initiative and thousands who might not have gone to the game, including me, made a special effort to be there.

United won 3-0 with the first goal being scored after 15 seconds. Something similar would help settle the nerves today because I don't feel that confident! Regardless of Rangers' current plight, history is not on United's side. Rangers have won the Scottish Cup 33 times, United have won it twice. (The good news is, I was there on both occasions.)

The first time I watched United was in August 1969. Rangers were the opponents then too. It was a capacity crowd – 22,000 in those days – and my father and I stood in the family enclosure, standing room only.

The enclosure was below the level of the pitch so my ten-year-old head was at ground level. There were adults all around me so I saw very little of the game – which ended 0-0 – but I loved the atmosphere.

After that I became a regular. Most of the time I went on my own, travelling to Dundee by bus, then walking the final mile to the ground from the bus station in the city centre.

Dundee, United's local rivals, were still perceived to be the bigger and more successful of the two Dundee clubs so friends were more likely to support them. In truth, most supported Celtic or Rangers which is one of the problems with Scottish football. Provincial clubs don't get enough support from people in their own area.

I never went back to the family enclosure. My favourite spot was high up on the uncovered north terrace. To my mind you got the best view of the game from there. By modern standards it broke every health and safety rule in the book but I loved it. Later they lopped a bit off the top, reducing the height and making it less steep, and added a roof. Finally the whole thing was replaced by a colourful but rather characterless all-seater stand.

In those days there was no segregation of opposing fans either. Home supporters would stand behind one goal, with visiting supporters behind the other. At half time they would swap ends, rubbing shoulders as they did so.

An average crowd at Tannadice in the early Seventies was 10,000. And that's before the club had any success. Today it's half that.

After I went to university the number of games I could go to fell dramatically but I went to the big games whenever I could.

In 1978 my parents moved to Cumbria. I'd passed my driving test but I had very little experience on the road. Nevertheless I was allowed to drive my mother's Triumph Vitesse from Kendal to Glasgow for a Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden - against, you guessed, Rangers.

The journey took a lot longer than it does today because the current M74 didn't exist. For long stretches north of Carlisle it was a normal A-road, upgraded here and there to a dual carriageway. Instead of motorway services there was the occasional petrol station.

The match itself was disappointing - United lost 2-0 - but after that they got the hang of semi-finals. With two notable exceptions (in 1979 and 1980 United won the Scottish League Cup, albeit not at Hampden), it was the final itself that proved troublesome.

During the Eighties, when I was living in London, I found myself returning to Scotland at regular intervals to watch United lose a succession of cup finals against both Celtic and Rangers. The most frustrating occasion was the 1981 League Cup final. For 80 minutes United played Rangers off the park but lost two late goals and the match, 2-1.

Thankfully I was there in 1994 when we overcame our long-running Hampden hoodoo. After six Scottish Cup final defeats, United finally lifted the trophy with a 1-0 win against the overwhelming favourites - Rangers. Ironically, the team that won the Cup that year was a pale shadow of the teams that did so well at home and in Europe throughout the Eighties.

Today, despite Rangers' home advantage, most people expect United to win. I'm not so sure. I have a sense of foreboding which isn't helped by the weather (it's wet and miserable) and the fact that the last time I saw United play Rangers at Ibrox we lost 7-1.

That was four years ago. Today's kick off is 12.45. Don't let me down, boys.

PS. A friend did once come to Tannadice with me. Bill was a Rangers supporter and came to watch a United-Rangers match in, I think, 1975.

He lives in Ireland now and we see each other two or three times a year. Sometimes he reminds me of that day and why he has never gone to a match with me again.

Apparently my constant shouting - and the torrent of abuse I hurled at the referee and opposing fans - made him feel "unsafe".

That's not how I remember it but it's true that one team brings out the worst in me. I call it The Rangers Factor. I promise I'll be on my best behaviour today.

Thursday
Apr102014

Jail sentence for flicking fag end at neighbour

A man has been given a suspended jail sentence for flicking a cigarette butt at a neighbour's head.

According to the Cork Evening Echo, Anthony Lacey was also fined €300 for threatening to wreck the neighbour's car.

I don't condone Lacey's behaviour – he sounds like a lout – but a four month jail sentence (suspended or otherwise) for flicking a fag end at someone?!

It's hardly GBH, is it?

On the other hand, if someone scratched my car I'd want to string them up.

Threatening to do so is just as bad.

A €300 fine? He got off lightly!