Friday, 15 September 2006

Independence wouldn't turn us into foreigners

Published: 15 September, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

WHAT would the modern image of Ireland be like without the annual bash on St Patrick’s Day that is held around the world? It’s a day to celebrate an ancient nation with a distinctive language and culture that today is recognised as the Celtic Tiger. Against the odds, Ireland has clawed its way up to boast a higher gross domestic product than the UK, from which it fully seceded in 1937.

It was the UK Wyndham Act of 1904 that turned Irish tenants into farm owners. This further fuelled their step-by-step demands for full self-government. That said, poverty still drove many Irish people overseas, till today Irish people are returning in droves and they are even importing labourers from England like we are doing from Eastern Europe.

Today 25 per cent of people in the UK claim Irish ancestry; in London it is as high as 77 per cent. But citizens of the Irish Republic are part of a Common Travel Area set up many years ago that allows free passage all around the UK, Ireland and the Channel Islands, and now the EU has extended these bounds enormously.

So isn’t it strange that the candidate to be next Labour leader in London and his supporters argue that, because Scots have family in England and vice versa, that must mean we should be in one state and have decisions about Scottish taxes and the direction of the Scottish economy forever decided in London? It hardly makes foreigners of any of our relatives inside Europe, or even worldwide, so why would independence make foreigners of Scots in England?

Even more grudging is Labour’s man in Scotland, First Minister Jack McConnell, who has finally conceded a holiday for St Andrew’s Day just so long as we forgo another public day off. We Scots are entitled to eight public holidays annually. That’s two fewer than the Irish and four fewer than the EU average. Isn’t it about time that the gloom spread by business representatives about the loss to their tills was countered with indignation about being denied a day to celebrate Scotland, our ancient and modern nation, that wasn’t created merely by the tally of pounds and pence? We should also be demanding that the next Holyrood government actually supports the small businesses that suffer so badly from half-baked government under devolution.

TALKING about promoting successful businesses, I was heartened to meet a party from Kentucky who visited us in Parliament en route for 10 days in the Highlands and Orkney to see how we support and nurture small businesses hereabouts. These Kentuckians are volunteers from their own rural entrepreneurial institute which works to promote more self-employment and rural sustainability.

One thing each US state can do is to decide the level of taxes to be levied for state services from citizens and businesses. Indeed, some states have extremely low business taxes to attract new start-ups and firms from other states. Nebraska is a good example. The idea is simply to increase business activity, and tax revenues flow from success. Would that Scotland can make our taxes attractive so that vulnerable areas like our own can get an advantage.

That could help small businesses here in the North grow into larger ones. To promote this debate, the SNP is consulting on a Small Business Bonus Scheme in which 120,000 small businesses across Scotland could have their rates abolished and a further 30,000 businesses could benefit through higher rates relief. Put that into Highland Council terms under SNP proposals: 8900 firms would pay no business rates and 2200 would have reduced rates. That’s a big proportion of the 15,000 businesses in total across the North.

As part of our wider economic strategy, the SNP is determined to support the small business sector which has been let down under the administration of Jack McConnell and Nicol Stephen. Small businesses have traditionally been important to the economy of small towns and rural areas like Caithness for a variety of reasons: as a source of entrepreneurship and innovation, as a driver of competition and local economic vibrancy, as a mechanism for job creation and as the backbone of our rural economy.

Next year there is a straight choice between the failing Labour Party, with their Lib Dem allies, and the SNP. In preparation for government the SNP can deliver a real boost to small businesses and help Scotland reach its economic potential. At an initial £150 million cost to the Scottish budget, this should diminish as more small businesses benefit from the economic boost at the very time Scotland can also take charge of our tax system and economy. Who knows, it could tempt thousands of Scots driven south to find jobs over the years to make the same homecoming as the Irish. We can have more and more to celebrate each St Andrew’s Day when we follow the Irish success story.

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