Friday, 26 October 2007

We won't stay silent on Trident

Published: 26 October, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

EARLIER this week, at a meeting held in Glasgow, MSPs and councillors, anti-nuclear weapons campaigners and church leaders gathered to plan resistance to the development of son of Trident.

The UK Labour Government, the Tory opposition and to a great extent the Liberal Democrats at UK level all agree: Britain won't be Britain without a credible nuclear weapons capacity. No seat at the UN Security Council, no longer a world policeman... there's a lot at stake. Not least for the Lib Dems, whose one hope of power in Westminster is a hung parliament at the next election.

When it comes to civil nuclear matters regarding Dounreay, John Thurso and Jamie Stone opt out of party policy which is against nuclear reactor development. I see that the Scottish Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen is saying that Scottish Parliamentary representatives should remain silent on the Trident issue because it is a reserved matter – imitating the position taken by Labour's leader in the Scottish Parliament, Wendy Alexander.

This directly contradicts Mr Stephen's message to Lib Dem activists at his party's pre-election conference in February where he attacked a Labour memo telling Labour Party branches to avoid all mention of Trident and Iraq, and also said that Liberal Democrats would not keep quiet on those issues and would hold Labour "accountable to the voters of Scotland on May 3".

So what's changed now? Well, the Lib Dem MP John Barrett is breaking ranks with his leader and is listed to be speaking at an anti-Trident rally on November 3 in Edinburgh. Also there's an SNP Government in Scotland that is seeking popular support for moves to block Trident deployment on the Clyde.

Obviously the Lib Dems have to oppose the SNP because it's a reserved matter and Mr Salmond, they feel, should concentrate on the NHS and education, not pick fights with London... so why do so many MPs dabble in Scottish Parliament matters?

But Mr Stephen and his dwindling band of supporters should ponder this. In a tight budget settlement with the lowest increase for any of the last several years, the Scottish Government is being hampered from delivering more police on the streets, more teachers and smaller classes, and a fully-funded NHS, because UK priorities are to spend billions on the Trident replacement, continuing to pay a huge cost in soldiers and cash to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, Brent crude oil hits a new high of $90 a barrel, which pours taxes into the Treasury but not into the Scottish block grant. Scotland's health, economy and safety and the people's wishes go against those who seek political power in London at Scotland's expense. The Scottish people want rid of Trident. They also show strong support for the SNP Government's efforts to stand up for our nation.


DURING the tattie holidays we were invited to a wedding in Brittany. The Le Lay family were celebrating their oldest son's wedding. We joined in with gusto, and a couple of days after the celebrations we saw the apple harvest for their distillery that makes cider and spirits. It was a delight to see apple varieties growing in the orchards that go to make good live cider.

On a smaller scale it's also apple harvest time here at home. The Discovery and Stirling Castle varieties have done well in our garden this year. But you'll never see these in the supermarkets. There are many old Scots varieties that grow well where we live. Since fruit is one of the low-maintenance crops, anyone with the space should be planting some apple trees.


ALSO in Brittany I had the chance to speak in Nantes at a conference of the French Society for Scottish Studies. It was organised by the research centre on national identity and intercultural matters based at the local university. Their annually colloquium focused this year on Scottish national identity in which 22 papers were read and debated over two days. My own contribution on "The Scottish Political Scene Today" had potentially the graveyard slot – first thing on Saturday morning – but amazingly the room was packed with more than 60 attendees, half of whom were students who forsook their beds on a fine Saturday morning to be there.

The slot overran due to the interesting questions that probed the Scottish body politic and found it in rude health. Then I was driven speedily across town to an old warehouse where Annie Thiec, one of the Nantes politics lecturers, conducted a half-hour conversation on the same subject for transmission on Euradio. It is a multicultural radio station run by three journalists and a dozen students from all over Europe. It has the backing of the EU Europe for Citizens programme. An FM station broadcasts locally, and the podcasts and streaming for internet audiences allow debate and discussion of views from citizens of the 27 partner nations.

By the way, the conversation was in English with Annie Thiec who completed her thesis on the momentous 1995 Perth and Kinross by-election which was won by my colleague Roseanna Cunningham, now an MSP – a fact she told me afterwards.

Out there in the world there is a growing interest in Scotland and Scottish studies. Our First Minister, Alex Salmond, has much to tell from his recent US trip. But we are far behind the Irish in academic recognition. Their culture, history and progress is studied in dozens of dedicated departments in universities the world over. Our universities are keen to make these links; several already do, but it is all the more urgent that the UHI Millennium Institute gains its full charter as the Highlands and Islands perspective is most attractive to many of the Scottish Diaspora.

Whether it's Trident, broadcasting, higher education or cultural showcases, if Scotland's government doesn't speak up, hard experience indicates that London cannot be relied upon to do so.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Flourishing festivals give us something to celebrate

Published: 12 October, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

IT'S a shame that Gordon Brown didn't decide to go for an election this November (not least because the SNP is riding high in the polls).

However, another reason would have been to see how a Scottish Prime Minister and his Chancellor would defend this week's decision to increase Scotland's budget by (when taking inflation into account) 1.4 per cent for the next three years, starting with a 0.5 per cent increase for the next financial year.

The SNP's treasury spokesman Stewart Hosie described this as a "lousy deal" and said that Scotland had been "short-changed".

Labour has denied this, but what is undeniable is that it is the smallest increase in the Scottish budget since devolution and it comes at a time when oil prices are strong and are forecast to increase.

However, that is the nature of devolution and the SNP Government will work within the settlement.

THE pleasant Indian summer can't disguise the fact that for livestock farmers in Scotland it has been anything but. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Richard Lochhead, announced that there is to be a cull of 250,000 light lambs which should have been sent to market in continental Europe but, due to foot-and-mouth restrictions, couldn't be exported.

The lambs are set to starve on the hillside this winter. It is regrettable situation and very much an action of last resort. Farmers are to be compensated at £15 per lamb, which from what I hear is more than they are selling for at market. However, it is a situation that no-one wanted.

BETTER news came last week when the Petitions Committee unanimously agreed that the Association of Caithness Community Councils' petition on rail improvements to the Far North rail line (including a Dornoch rail link) should be put forward for consideration by the Transport Committee.

The case for the petition is attracting cross-party support and will be a great help when it comes to committee. I spoke in favour of the petition last week, as did Highland Committee members Rhoda Grant and John Farquhar Munro. There was consensus that a reduced rail journey time to the Far North is crucial to the development of a post-Dounreay local economy. I will be doing all I can to make it a reality. I am sure a cross-party approach can make it happen.

FOOT-and-mouth caused the cancellation of many "Gates Open" farm events last month. But two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Living Food festival at Cawdor Castle. Most of the produce came from Morayshire. However, Caithness and other parts of the Highlands and Islands have much to offer in terms of prime quality meat, vegetables and fruit. Hundreds of people attended the feast, showing that there is a growing public demand for tasty, local, fairly-priced foodstuffs. Producers in Caithness can capitalise on this.

IN the Education Committee we have been delving into the SNP Government proposals for a six-month pilot scheme in five local authority areas (alas not Highland) to offer free school meals to all pupils. The committee is composed of a majority of opposition MSPs and they have been at pains to find fault with the plans.

After all the humming and hawing, the committee agreed by seven votes to nil, with one Tory abstention, that the order to set up the pilot should be approved; and indeed Parliamentary approval was given on Wednesday, October 3, at decision time.

What it heralds is a food culture change for all families with school-age children or younger. But we will need £80 million a year to achieve this – so health comes at a price. I hope the public at large will applaud the SNP Government for its commitment to making a start.

AS all organisers of festivals know, it's an act of faith when you stand there waiting for the first customers to arrive. Even with electronic ticketing it can be nail-biting, especially for smaller events. It is equally true of the 40 events in the recent Caithness Arts Festival and the even more recent John Lennon Northern Lights Festival at which the eclectic programme was matched only by the unseasonably sunny weather in Durness.

I am very keen to see how the Scottish Arts Council and other bodies offer support to artists. I have been lodging a series of questions in Parliament and I'm also seeking evidence from North festival organisers to weigh up the treatment they receive from the SAC.

It was a pleasure to see so many friends from Wick, Thurso and the Back Coast among the thousand people who gathered to celebrate the John Lennon connection in the last week in September.

Mike Merritt pulled the idea together earlier this year. Despite the difficulties of funding being closed for Scotland's Year of Highland Culture he assembled a wide range of talent. John Lennon's close family were supportive from the start, as the late pop star had spent youthful holidays with relatives at Sangomore. I met his sister, Julia Baird, in Durness and was delighted to talk to someone who knew the ex-Beatle both before and during his fame.

May the celebrations develop and flourish next year in Durness. It's great to see new artistic efforts prosper in the Far North.