Friday, 17 August 2007

A positive agenda to transform Scotland

Published: 17 August, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

MOST people agree that the SNP Government led by Alex Salmond has set a very positive agenda in its first hundred days. Every part of the country has something to gain. Even the crises of a failed terror attack in Glasgow or the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey have been handled skilfully.

But it's the proposals to transform Scotland that really stand out. However, I'll offer a few thoughts firstly on the effects of the FMD issue.

The Pirbright research complex in Surrey seems to have led to the contamination of farm animals three miles away. No doubt a careful inquiry will pin the cause and advise precautions for the future. Meanwhile, livestock businesses in Scotland and the rest of England and Wales take the hit. As I've said before in Parliament, farming and crofting may contribute only around two per cent of our gross domestic product, but without them nothing else can happen – unless we go completely mad and rely totally on imports and the poorer standards of food this offers.

That's why Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, has consulted widely with all parts of the livestock industry and has made sure Scottish interests, needs and concerns are conveyed directly to GB ministers. Since Britain is one epidemiological unit in exotic disease terms, this needs careful handling so as not to disadvantage Scotland which relies far more heavily on farm incomes than down south. That's why Richard Lochhead has gained praise for his speedy, but measured, orders to free up movements to abattoirs and on the islands to keep the food chain on track from farm gate to the customer's plate.

We shall see what happens as the facts emerge on the FMD outbreak but the SNP Government will try to protect those businesses, especially in the North, whose annual pay cheques look distinctly hard hit by these faraway events such that the huge crop of small lambs are now excluded from the continental market. I have been discussing the way forward with farmers and crofters around the North and I'm sure that the previous experience gained by Richard and myself on the Environment and Rural Development Committee in Holyrood in the aftermath of the 2001 outbreak of FMD will stand us in good stead.


A BROAD range of opinion has welcomed the First Minister's announcement that broadcasting in Scotland needs a shake-up and cash support to make many more programmes here. In particular, a news-gathering operation in Glasgow working with the BBC's worldwide network could easily produce a Scottish Six – an hour of Scottish-centred but not parochial news coverage.

Such a broadcasting luminary as Alan Clements, a principal of Wark Clements and recently appointed director of content for SMG, or STV to you and me, sees the need to have Scottish political clout to dispel the myth that there is no talent here to make more programmes for the UK TV network. He knows that talent abounds in Scotland if funds can be channelled here as the three per cent current share of BBC funding alone should be nine per cent on a population basis. I did some work recently for an STV commission to cover the Highland Clearances and I can think of many Scottish subjects that have been ignored for far too long.

I was intrigued by the remarks of Philip Schlesinger, professor of cultural policy at Glasgow University, when he compared the content of the BBC's Six O'Clock News and Reporting Scotland. There is often overlap and double reporting. As for the weather forecast, he suggests turning the weather map upside down to see how the UK audience takes to seeing the North of Scotland being given proper information. Each programme can have off days but there is little reason why the increasing importance of the Scottish Government and Parliament in our lives should be sandwiched between human-interest stories and the football and almost ignored on London-based output. I believe Alex Salmond's 10 Scottish Broadcasting Commission members led by Blair Jenkins have a really positive brief to meet the needs of every part of Scotland and suggest opportunities for more control of TV output in Scotland to educate, entertain and build national confidence without robbing any viewers of their favourite programmes.


THIS week saw the launch of a national conversation on Scotland's future status and the SNP Government's ideas about the benefits of independence. It has predictably met with united Unionist party opposition to any debate. So that's why the SNP Government, which has been given unprecedented polling support for its actions so far, wants to ask people across the land what they see as the main ways we can make Scotland happier, healthier, more productive, and greener. We need to discuss how to achieve the specifics that people want us to achieve.

I will be conducting my own discussions through a series of meetings in the autumn to seek advice and hear voters' views, and I'm glad that I'll be chairing a workshop at the Caithness Partnership conference in mid-September. So I am also delighted that Jim Mather, Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, was here in the county this week to kick off discussions on the way ahead with Dounreay stakeholders and HIE Caithness and Sutherland.

I know that Jim has his own style of analysis that seeks common agreement and common ownership over the biggest things that can make a real difference to our lives. We need to guarantee secure, steady funding for decommissioning and a smooth transition of highly-skilled work into global decommissioning based here and in marine renewables associated with the Pentland Firth. It is clear to me that Caithness's future needs, and similar ones across Scotland, all point to the kinds of issues that Alex Salmond wants in the national conversation on Scotland's constitutional future. I'd be very pleased to hear from Groat readers what they see as the big changes that will secure our future.

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