Friday, 27 October 2006

Time for us to think big on energy and the environment

Published: 27 October, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THERE are good reasons why Swedish dentists have been seeking work in this country. Their people have achieved one of the best records for oral health in the world, so Sweden needs far more dental hygienists than dentists.

In sharp contrast, figures released this week show only 24 per cent of adults in the Highlands are even registered with a dentist.

Is it taking the throwaway society to a new low to think that false teeth could be the lot of a growing number of our young people, not to mention a big proportion of the 75 per cent not registered with dentists? NHS provision of salaried dentists may be too little, but let's hope it's not too late.

However, the Scottish government has to resolve the central issue. In a rich country, when will we train enough dentists who are willing to work in the Far North and across the land? Secondly, what is a reasonable salary for a dentist that does not make registration with private practice so far out of reach for the low-paid?

I wonder if the Convention of the Highlands and Islands that meets in Forres next week will discuss the dental crisis. Who knows, but does this organisation do anything to ensure we get basic services we need?

According to its website the Scottish Executive meets its main partner agencies, represented by the chairperson of each organisation. Held twice yearly, hosted by a different local authority each time with alternating mainland and island locations, it seeks to strengthen co-ordination between member organisations, the Executive and other representative bodies to better inform the development and realisation of strategic economic, environmental, cultural and social justice objectives.

Since they came to power New Labour and the Lib Dems have excluded Highlands and Islands MSPs and MPs, except as observers. So there is little democratic input and it sums up a tick-box mentality. Endless rounds of meetings hide the huge gaps in delivering better government. The Forres meeting will provide helpful public-relations pictures for ministers. But it's a moribund symptom of the deep lack of democratic accountability in this hangover from Westminster rule.


A CONFIDENT SNP conference in Perth rallied as party leader Alex Salmond strongly urged voters that it is time to think big. He argued that, seven years after a spirit of optimism was abroad in this country in 1999 when the MSPs were cheered into the first Parliament building, Scotland has been let down.

"It is not just the track record of the Executive," he said, "it is the total lack of ambition. It is what they have not done – as well as where they have failed. They have raised mediocrity to an art form which is summed up in the First Minister's favourite slogan, 'Scotland is the best small country in the world.'

"This one phrase encapsulates everything that is wrong with the First Minister, with the Executive and with our national tourist agency – the only one in the world named after a website. It combines the worst of 'Wha's like us?' with the worst of an inferiority complex. We are not the best wee country in the world – not by any measurement.

"Perhaps we could be, but not now. But why should we think of ourselves as a small country? Scotland is only small to those who think small. It is time to think big."

Our nearest neighbours to the east, north and west – Norway, Iceland and Ireland – are the second, fourth and six wealthiest nations on the planet. Why not Scotland too? Scotland needs big thinking on energy and the environment, but let us contrast our political opponents' claims they are going green – actions speak louder than words.

The UK has spent £500 million in the past three years developing alternative energies. Seems like loads of money. In fact, it is but one tenth of the spending on the war in Iraq.

Here we are in the North of Scotland with all the advantages of land, water and infinite clean power and yet between them this blundering Executive and the Department of Trade and Industry have failed us. Suffice it to say that our communities are in a state of mutiny, being denied the local benefit from our energy resources that is the norm in Norway for long-term local investment.

Generating local sources of wealth will be one big way to remove that feeling of dependency and remoteness that a dozen Conventions of the Highlands and Islands cannot achieve behind closed doors. To every community of Scotland, the message from the SNP conference is: we have heard you, we're coming, and we are bringing a message of hope and change for Scotland, because it is time.


I HAD great fun writing the short title to a current motion which fifteen colleagues have so far signed: "Congratulations to Eejits." It praises Itchy Coo Publications on the success of its book The Eejits, a best-selling Scots translation of Roald Dahl's children's favourite The Twits.

Itchy Coo's development officer, Matthew Fitt, who translated The Eejits, has made over 500 school visits in the past four years to encourage pupils to recognise how much of the Scots language they know and use.

I went on to deplore the status of the Scots tongue whereby few pupils when asked can name their own language as Scots, Doric or Lallans and not slang. So here in Caithness the blend of Scots and Norse tongue fits the bill too, and I hope Matthew Fitt will be able to inspire our youngsters here in due course.