Friday, 18 August 2006

Giving ourselves a fighting chance for the future

Published: 18 August, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

AT the very time the Caithness Socio-Economic Strategy Group has been consulting on the way ahead for the county’s economy, my party has been consulting on its proposals called Let Scotland Flourish. Both are sustainable growth strategies – one for the Dounreay travel-to-work area and the SNP ideas for every part of Scotland.

Comparing the goals I also find similarities. The SNP highlights three key words: solidarity, cohesion and sustainability. Firstly, we need to raise the overall national wealth but in particular to increase the wealth of the lowest-paid quarter of our people. Secondly, the SNP aims to increase the wealth of every region of Scotland, reducing the disparity from richest to poorest by 10 per cent in five years. Thirdly, we would commit to continue cutting CO2 emissions far beyond 2012 at an equivalent two per cent annual reduction. In summary, the SNP suggests getting more people into work, making sure there’s a home for every family, and meeting our environmental duties. These go hand in hand to give every part of Scotland a fighting chance to share in future prosperity.

The Caithness proposals centre on developing existing businesses, attracting new ones, and adding government decentralisation to create new administrative jobs in the Far North. Secondly, they seek enhanced public services that will attract new workers and businesses as well as meet existing local needs. Thirdly, it intends to make sure the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority conducts the Dounreay transformation in a way that transfers staff into new work of similar status and quality and helps fund new developments.

We can see that ambition and ideas are needed both locally and nationally to make headway. Communications, resources and actions are the identified means to achieve the Caithness transformation.

The SNP national plan is to reduce the burdens on small and medium-sized businesses and focus on our strengths, which include industries well represented in Caithness. Farming, fishing and tourism, but most all the knowledge economy, can be successful wherever there are the skills and broadband links and renewable energy sources.

Big questions require bold answers. Can we really believe that devolution under Labour and the Lib Dems will meet our needs, be they in Caithness or for the nation as a whole? We have the resources like Norway, Ireland and Iceland but are frustrated by not having our hands on them.

Should we allow Gordon Brown’s tax policies to leave us as producers of wealth but with the highest fuel costs and highest loss of young people on the mainland UK to the benefit of others?

I look forward to making a submission to the Strategy for Caithness and North Sutherland. You can find copies at and the closing date is August 20.


TALKING of ambition, I note the new estimates of a £5 billion surplus for Scots tax contributions to the London Treasury this year. That means, as the world price of oil rises to around £80 a barrel, we contribute £1039 extra per head for every man, woman and child in Scotland this year. Remember the doom-laden prophesies that oil would be running out very soon? Well, the Blair Government’s recent energy review suggests there are still 25 billion barrels of oil recoverable from the Scottish sector of the North Sea. So it will remain a strong revenue earner for decades to come.

That also suggests that a more competitive Scotland can become a reality if we change out of second gear that is devolution and move to the full tax and economy powers that our neighbours have. Long-term sustainability for every part of Scotland is at stake. That makes the Scottish Parliament and local council elections next May the tipping point. People across the land see the possibility of Labour losing power in Scotland for the first time in fifty years.

As MSPs prepare for the last session of this Parliament, the need for a new lead party in the next coalition should put the SNP’s ideas to the test and try them out in the driving seat; after all, a fresh start can bring out the best in every part of Scotland.


THROUGHOUT my summer travels through Caithness, Sutherland, Ross-shire, Lewis and Skye the same theme comes up. When will Parliament cut down the civil service to size? When will red tape be top of the agenda?

Since better communications are cited as key to new prospects and prosperity, I suggest that the civil servants be set to work to free up as many parts of Scottish life as possible. Ministers should be tasked by our parliamentary committees to run a programme to take service after service and cut out reams of paperwork. One person suggested a single transferable form, with standard details of applicants followed by standard questions on reasons for applications, etc.

For my part I’ll be taking the advice of farmers and crofters I met at various agricultural shows. I’ll be seeking simplification of the cattle and sheep movement documents with the help of our Environment and Rural Development Committee. But all applicants for economic support or regulatory returns deserve a break. A few less civil servants checking we cross our t’s and dot our i’s could free up bureaucrats to be more creative. Or is that a contradiction in terms?

I hope not, for if communications are to lead to action for the economic well-being of the Dounreay travel-to-work area then civil servants will have to be relocated here – say, a major division of SEERAD from Pentland House to the shores of the Pentland Firth.

Also proper road and rail communications funded realistically are needed to include us in the mainstream of Scottish life. In addition, Government commitments must offer satellite broadband for every household in this digital age if landlines are too weak and exchanges too distant.

Getting a grudging Government to serve us and not the other way round would be a culture change of monumental proportions. But voting for change is much more straightforward by comparison.

Friday, 4 August 2006

Will Caithness food fight bring better nutrition?

Published: 04 August, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

A JULY break abroad, in my case in Brittany, returns me reinvigorated, and some holiday reading also added zest.

Zorro by Isabel Allende tracks the “origins” of the foxy swordsman who was, of course, a Spanish Californian fighting for freedom and justice long, long before the USA got its hands on the place or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s great-great-grandfather was conceived in far away Austria.

My other gripping read was our own Joanna Blythman in Bad Food Britain.

It graphically details how a nation ruined its appetite. As a family the Blythmans have contributed much to Scotland since the late Morris Blythman penned radical songs in the 1950s such as “Sky-high Joe”, “Scottish Breakaway”, “Ye’ll no Sit Here”, and “Bonny Wee Prince Chairlie”. His wife, Marion, was a distinguished innovator in the teaching of the deaf who turned down an honour from the Queen in the Thatcher era in protest against nuclear weapons expansion. Now Joanna carries on the family traditions as an investigative journalist, whose exposé of supermarket practices in Shopped won her the Glenfiddich Food Book of the Year Award for 2005.

It was a useful reference when our Scottish Parliament committee called for an independent review of supermarket monopoly. I’m glad to say that the Blair government has allowed the Competition Commission to undertake this after huge pressure across the whole UK.

Did you know that one in every four households no longer has a table that everyone can eat around, or that one in every three Britons says they do not eat vegetables because they require too much effort to prepare? Also, only 50 per cent of Britons really enjoy eating and 40 per cent of food bought in the UK is never used! The downfall of the British diet led in 2003 to us consuming more ready meals than the rest of Europe put together. Far too many think almost everything other than food is more important.

Returning home to the great supermarket battles here in Caithness, Tesco hopes to see off the Co-op and Asda wants to dominate the other side of the county. I can understand the popular demands for the range of produce the big four sell under one roof. But I seriously question the groaning shelves full of convenience food that is now standard fare. Microwavability seems to be essential. That’s why I had hoped our councillors would be trying to make conditions on Tesco, such as stocking a wide range of local produce. They could also insist that supermarkets use the railway to carry in goods. But even better they could raise a health warning on the public’s belief that cheap, processed food and nutrition are not the same thing.

Local producers with stalls at Highland gatherings and agricultural shows are offering healthy local food. I also know the Highland Council tries to buy local and organic produce for our schools and old peoples’ homes.

But the vast bulk of us still seem to want cheap, processed food that has little connection with healthy children or sustaining families, whose waistlines spread on the diet of bad food that Joanna Blythman highlights in her chapter “Britain makes you fat”. I welcome John O’Groat Journal headlines on the Mey Selections as a great way to boost high-quality food exports from the county, but what are people eating here and what should we demand of incoming supermarkets?


ON holiday, the local Breton newspaper Ouest France, the equivalent of the Press and Journal, led with carnage and devastation in Lebanon, Gaza and Israel. Now back home it seems the USA and UK leaders are in no hurry to restrain the combat and give every impression that Arab lives are cheap. Clearly their morality has been dulled by believing that their destruction and destabilisation of Iraq was a just war. Everyone knows that Israel and the Palestinians will have to live side by side. Eventually the US military and financial backing for Israel has to be turned off and the parties brought to the table.

It’s just as a big concern in this peaceful corner of northern Europe because the use of Prestwick airport for US aircraft to refuel bears no comparison to World War Two when our remarkably fog-free Ayrshire airfield was a key transatlantic staging post. Yes, the Americans eventually came into the war after the Japanese attacked their Pacific bases and Germany declared war on the USA three days later, on December 10, 1941.

On the way home from holidays we stopped off at St Valery en Caux in Normandy where the Highland Division were forced to surrender to Hitler’s forces in June 1940. Today it is a beautiful, small port tucked between huge chalk cliffs, just like those at Dover. Yachts fill the harbour. But the Highland Division monument in the eastern cliff top reminds us how our men were abandoned to years as prisoners of war at the behest of Winston Churchill and the British war cabinet who managed, with great luck, to evacuate so many from Dunkirk while the Scots and French acted as a diversion.

Thankfully the Allies, with the help of Scots servicemen and women, defeated Nazi Germany and fascist Japan in that just war and the United Nations Organisation was founded. But will its founders, the USA and UK, now revitalise the UN as a peacemaker and the sole peace keeper in this turbulent world? When will they stop including Scotland in their unjust wars? Even the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland is worried about Scottish opinion as we do not accept the unasked-for role in arming one side in the Middle East conflict.

Scottish membership of the UN would come with independence. In a much stronger UN we would be a clear voice to help end Anglo-American indifference to the future of so many vulnerable peoples for the sake of dwindling oil and American arrogance.