Friday, 19 January 2007

Independence is natural state for small, successful nations

Published: 19 January, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

LAST week in Parliament I met up with a delegation from NFU Scotland, whose manifesto I fully endorse. It seeks better regulation, less red tape across all government departments, and a level playing field to sell Scottish produce.

Do independent countries put up with inferior imports and grasping supermarket chains? Among our EU neighbours outside Britain, the answer is: definitely not.

It never rains but it pours; whether it's the atrocious weather or the spate of opinion polls, climate change and political change are both kicking in. It's time to think seriously about growing self-belief among Scottish voters, as well as tatties. Calls for an independent Scottish government are not unrelated to the frustrating record of the Labour/Lib Dem government.

It so happens that this week 300 years ago Scotland's landed classes in Edinburgh voted away Scotland's Parliament to forge a Union with England – among them James Dunbar jnr of Hempriggs and the Earl of Sutherland. But also this week in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the restored, eight-year-old Holyrood Parliament there is even more at stake for Scotland's prosperity and sustainable future.

Sophisticated media commentators can't imagine why voters are so frustrated. Let me tell you that SNP MSPs are even more frustrated, because we get dog's abuse from many ministers in Holyrood whether in debate or at question time. The campaign is well under way ahead of the May 3 polls. This tells me that they are wide open. These spokespeople for news media owned and controlled south of the border portray Gordon Brown as the UK's saviour. Meanwhile, the reasons why schooling, health and social issues are still not up to scratch have a lot to do with Gordon clutching the purse strings even more tightly.

Gordon Brown's ambition to be PM in No. 10 has him talk of "shared values". Tell that to the small, scattered communities up north. Let's remember, Scotland is spread over an area half the size of England but with only one eighth of England's population. Yet we are berated as subsidy junkies for spending more on our services than they do in England. Brown et al ignore the "Arc of Prosperity" of small, northern European independent nations like Ireland, Iceland and Norway, all in the top six best places to live in the world. We in Scotland languish at 18th. Why should we?

Holyrood has seen two Lib Dem and Labour coalitions, so it's eight years since we had a change. The one way to get that is an SNP-led government. Polls say this is gaining wide support. I would argue that nowhere more needs SNP vision and action than the North of Scotland.


THREE centuries ago, an incorporating Union was foisted on Scotland by bribery and intimidation. Ironically, the so-called Equivalent, the "Union dividend", was basically paid for by Scottish taxes and there was an English army waiting at the border for the "correct" result to be declared in Edinburgh by the parliamentary commissioners, as Scots MSPs were then called.

The people were against it, but they had no right to choose. The nobles who put their signatures to the Treaty of Union were chased though the streets, forced to hide in a cellar to get away from the disgruntled crowds!

In 2007 the SNP offers our people the opportunity to choose progress for Scotland. The SNP trusts the people to make the right decision on Scotland's future. That is why we offer the right to choose independence in a referendum held in the four-year term of an SNP government.

Over 80 per cent of Scots believe that a referendum – putting the people in charge of the process – is the right way to decide Scotland's future. But the London-based parties try to justify denying the people their right to choose independence in that referendum. Why?

Near to our shores is that "Arc of Prosperity" I mentioned earlier. It shows that independence works in the modern world. It is the natural state for the successful nations. To the west is Ireland, to the east is Norway and north, north-west of Dunnet Head is Iceland. All are smaller than Scotland, all have gained their independence in the last century, and all three are now among the top half-dozen nations on the planet in terms of wealth per head. They are the model for Scotland economically and also in cultural, environmental and social terms.

We also deserve the right to choose a new and positive relationship with the other nations of these isles. Such a new partnership of equals should be designed for the Scotland of today and tomorrow, not the Scotland of 1707.


CRAWFORD Beveridge, who was chief executive of Scottish Enterprise for nine years to 2000, said recently that during his days at Scottish Enterprise "our numbers about Scotland's finances came down in favour of fiscal independence"; and that the claims about a deficit in Scotland are "illogical" and "offensive". He believes that "independence could focus the minds of politicians to create the conditions for economic growth, which would translate to better jobs, higher wages and stronger communities"; and his opinion on independence is based on his "confidence that Scotland is just as capable of running its own affairs as any other country".

Mr Beveridge, who today is a top executive of Sun Microsystems of California, reminded us that on May 3 what we are voting for is our confidence in one of the political parties to be in power for the next four years. The question is who will represent our hopes for the future and help lead us to a more prosperous Scotland. Personally, said the former CEO of Scottish Enterprise, "I believe that leader could be Alex Salmond."

You just wonder if the leaders of Highlands and Islands Enterprise have reached the same conclusion.

Friday, 5 January 2007

McRae's vision for crofting counties holds true today

Published: 05 January, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

TODAY we live in one of the officially designated crofting counties, even though there are fewer crofters than 30 years ago and crofting has less impact. And yet the issues of 30 years ago have still to be resolved.

In 1974 the SNP held Moray and Nairn, the Western Isles and Argyll; it was a close second in Inverness-shire, Ross-shire and Caithness and Sutherland. But Willie McRae, the SNP's Ross-shire firebrand, wasn't just a fine campaigner – his long experience helped to fashion the party's policy for the crofting counties.

Giving it a read again this holiday week, I find it's as fresh now as in the full flush of those boom years for Dounreay and the oil industry.

He wrote that it was impossible to look seriously at crofting without considering the whole fabric of life in the crofting counties. His guiding purposes for the SNP policy sought to restore the ability, the power, the will and the resources to rebuild depleted economic and social life. That was before the rise of Inverness, or the broadband revolution, or the prospects for the second renewable energy revolution of wind, wave and tides. It did recognise that in the long term you can't rely on large single industries to underpin an area's future. The experiences of Dounreay, the Invergordon smelter and the Fort William pulp mill were to bear that out, while the oil industry has contracted and reshaped to its present impact such as the pipe works at Wester and the new exploration base at Lybster, while the Beatrice oilfield is now a base for offshore wind power.

SNP policy in the 1970s wanted to build on successful hydro-electricity, the first green power. Then the lairds and the country-sports lobby were the objectors. Today there is far too little local consent and ownership of clean power projects – witness the many wind-farm debacles around Caithness. With a Scottish energy strategy and locally-agreed Clean Energy Plans, we can harness this power for local needs. That's what Norwegian communities have done, as visitors to Norway with the West Norway/Highland partnership have seen recently. Local municipalities recycled the revenues from supplying their own needs and selling the surplus to the national grid. So the SNP believes that locals should have the power to harness multinational businesses to help with the technology but for the major benefactors to be us, not just faraway shareholders, the Crown Estate and absentee lairds.

The 1970s SNP policy called for practical, radical land reform.

Under today's partial land reform laws, which were only passed due to the existence of the Scottish Parliament, we are starting to catch on. But few crofting communities have bought out their land except in the islands and in north Sutherland. In Caithness many of us still see our children choose to seek a life elsewhere because land for house-building is so expensive and local capital is still scarce. Willie McRae clearly saw that need to build up and extend crofting, partly to allow more people to have homes here, but also to see more local food production. These are just as urgent priorities in 2007.

There were hopes 30 years ago in SNP policy for the educational and social background in which Gaelic language and Norse dialects of different areas could be revived and could flourish, be living, working languages in daily use, and take their place in the multiple strands of Scottish culture. Excitingly, the success of Gaelic education has improved where parents wish to see this and there has been a huge boost to our native musical traditions through the Fèisean movement and its local equivalents like the Wick Traditional Music Workshops. These were all begun locally before gaining Scottish government support. In an unsettled world, the attraction of a strong-rooted culture will be even more essential for the future confidence and self-esteem of young Scots of whatever origin.

Above all, Willie McRae's policy saw the need to provide the crofting counties with the resources in land, in cash and in people to make the rebuilding of the Highlands after centuries of depopulation a vibrant reality. He saw this going hand in hand with integrating the North into the mainstream of Scotland's social, educational, agricultural and industrial life. We still need an injection of professional jobs in legal services, medicine and the energy sciences to meet the needs of our far-flung communities.

In this new year, the UHI will move ever closer to becoming a fully-fledged collegiate university. North Highland College will be a bastion of its dispersed structure. Recognising that the Highlands are an example to the rest of Scotland, the Scottish government has supported the celebration of 2007 as the Scottish Year of Highland Culture.

What we need to "take off" is more of that consistent vision that the SNP saw possible three decades ago and have it applied today. Each part of the nation can support many more working families, not just in cities like Inverness but by using our priceless natural resources here in Caithness to build satisfying lives. To get the cash and backing for local prosperity we need Holyrood to have full tax-raising powers. We need a national renewable energy strategy that puts communities at the centre of the action, and we need rail and road links fit for this climate-change age.

Don't let another 30 years pass when you can soon vote and demand a big say in the achievement of these essential goals to sustain the Far North's future. A Guid New Year tae ane and a'.