Published: 21 December, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier
I WAS intrigued by the recent spat in the Groat on the merits of the writer Neil M. Gunn.
He was a Caithnessian whose work inspires more and more folk round the world for he valued "the primordial goodness in man, a natural generosity". Therefore Iain Sutherland should be able to detect more than two or three local people who know Gunn's work are more than the few who immediately respond to his provocative remarks.
Neil Gunn gave up civil service work and went Off in a Boat in 1937 from which he concluded some very positive lessons. His journey took him from Skye to Iona, then on to the Caledonian Canal and back to Inverness where he warned at one point that "One could hope for less individual mistrust in the Highlander, or, if one likes, the Scot and so envisage a wide emergence of cooperative effort". We are still waiting.
Would that the world in which we live was also listening. On his retiral this week, the outgoing UK chief of security Sir Richard Mottram warned that global warming, flu pandemics, the emergence of rogue states, globalisation and its impact on power balances, global poverty and its impact on population movement, energy security, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and serious and organised crime are significant problems alongside his prime business of global terrorism.
In the Scottish Parliament we do have some ways of addressing many of these issues from a local perspective on the north-west coast of Europe. Of course, we could do with more powers to tackle certain of these issues ourselves. I'm glad that in the coming year parliamentary committees will address some of the issues of climate change to set us all targets for CO2 reduction. We will back energy security via the clean, green power of our seas and winds. We will try to build a national food policy to use more of our own abundant resources. Also my party, the SNP, seeks to pledge one per cent of our national income to help fight global inequalities that threaten so many of the planet's peoples, just as the Norwegians do. But we need the full tax powers to deliver.
In Scotland we face a tight cash settlement of a 0.5 per cent increase in this year's budget share dictated by the London Treasury. So, from national gallery directors to local recycling charities, cries of neglect and betrayal fill the air. Maybe I'm more sensitive this time round, but we should be feeling more confidence about the concordat between the Scottish Government and councils that will lead to a more shared and open way of deciding the priorities for local spending that people say they want. But councillors beware: in the past council officials have followed their own agenda. You will have to choose carefully from the options that include the excellent value we gain from services delivered by the voluntary sector. These must not become a victim of some official's private fiefdom.
Two Thursdays ago the Scottish Government Finance Secretary John Swinney announced his council spending plans. They embody a new partnership with councils that will require mature handling. For example, he said: "In 2007/08, some three-quarters of the funding from central government to local government is not ring-fenced. Under the concordat, we are extending the element that is not ring-fenced to about 90 per cent. A relatively small number of specific grants will remain ring-fenced. The largest of those is the police grant, which in 2008/09 amounts to £600 million."
SCOTLAND under the SNP Government has embarked on a new course to trust the people. The scowls on the Labour benches told their own tale, for their micromanagement of spending suppressed local debate and stifled voter interest. That has to change to match the mood of increasing self-confidence across the country.
When people are asked about Scotland's constitutional future, we are told that a System 3 poll finds 40 per cent of voters for independence (with a far higher percentage in the Highlands). The question asked envisages the Scottish Government negotiating this with Westminster. That's why the Unionist Labour, Lib Dem and Tory parties tried to head off that largest minority position. They won a parliamentary debate to order the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to arrange a constitutional commission but one which concentrated on more powers, not total power for Scotland. They want to ignore the Scottish Government's National Conversation launched this summer which is open to all options. It has had the most impact of any government consultation, with tens of thousands of hits and responses. So I think that we should all make it a New Year resolution to get informed and demand that all options be reviewed.
TALKING of new moods of optimism, in 1937 Neil Gunn saw a new mood that would conquer the defeatism that epitomised the era of the Clearances.
He wrote: "How great the change since then! Though hardly yet a suggestion of what will be when the Highlands develop their natural industries through water power and recognise they have fish and trout and salmon, mutton and game and meat, heather honey and milk and berries, roots and vegetables and whisky, that cannot be excelled, if they can be equalled, for quality and flavour anywhere in the world. The end is not yet. To realise that this is no great prophecy – consider the eyes of industrial combines. These combines will beat the landlords and the scenic sentimentalists. And if it does not go well with the workers after that, the workers will fight. There will never again be the defeatism of the Clearances. The folk will come into their own. God hurry the merry day!"
As we celebrate Christmas and the new birth it proclaims, as we follow that with a new year, let's apply hope and resolve to all the possibilities for our families our community, nation and world. Season's greetings to you all.