Friday, 21 December 2007

We must match the mood of growing self-confidence

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.

Friday, 7 December 2007

There must be no 'arrogant use of power' by any police force

Published: 07 December, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

AT the weekend I was reading about the riots in Paris suburbs and a warning from the journalist Mary Riddell of The Observer contained in the heading, "A French lesson we ignore at our peril."

It was a stark message about the police as authority figures alienating the young. It also referred to the removal of neighbourhood policing by Monsieur Sarkozy when he was interior minister. Ms Riddell recalled how, following the Brixton riots in London in 1981, Lord Scarman talked of the "arrogant and abrasive use of power" by the Met. In Brixton the scenes of devastation left 50 residents and 400 police injured.

That made me recall views expressed by Northern Constabulary's Chief Constable Ian Latimer about SNP Government proposals to recruit 500 new police nationally and to redeploy more experienced personnel into frontline duties. He was reported as saying he wanted new recruits, not redeployed older officers. Given the tight budget settlement handed down from the London Labour Chancellor, the SNP manifesto pledge for a thousand new officers on the beat will have to be delivered in phases.

But Mr Latimer, knowing the political circumstances, still delivered his tuppenceworth: new men, not retreads. Now I realise there are operational issues that Joe Public and the Northern Joint Police Board know little of. In our family my father was a policeman and so was my brother, much more recently, so I understand a bit about shifts and deployment patterns being designed to suit circumstances. Therefore I would expect our chief constable to make a constructive contribution which I don't expect from our political opponents. Peter Peacock, for example, has been scaremongering on many issues, including raising doubts about the deployment of a score of new bobbies in the North. Perhaps Mr Latimer could adopt a different mode of expression.

It all came together last week when the report was issued by the Scottish Police Complaints Commissioner Jim Martin on the Kevin McLeod case. Mr Martin called on Mr Latimer to personally apologise for the shortcomings in the police inquiry into Kevin's death in Wick in February 1997 and the offhand way the family have been treated since.

Surprise, surprise, Mr Latimer responded that he had already apologised by letter to the family expressing "professional regret" for the conduct of the inquiry into the as-yet-unexplained death of Kevin. Also unsurprisingly, Mr Latimer refused to accept that Northern Constabulary had shown "institutional arrogance".

There remain many unanswered questions about this case. To name but two, key evidence was destroyed rather early and the force refused to meet the McLeod family after the 2003 independent report by Chief Constable Andrew Cameron of Central Scotland Police.

Some still believe there could have been a murder or culpable homicide. Kevin's family are unlikely to find out. But there could be a killer at large in Wick today.

From another point of view there's the accumulated police knowledge of the victim. Also there are questions about police expertise in dealing with such cases. With most other crime in the area there is a high clear-up rate, but there is also the unenviable record of Northern Constabulary in failing to solve violent deaths.

Therefore, drawing some conclusions, neighbourhood policing with a full-strength force is key with well-trained specialist back-up available when necessary. However, there is a need to beware "arrogant and abrasive use of power" by any police force. The SNP Government is committed to delivering the resources. Make no mistake, we back community policing and officers on the beat. So I hope the police board will act on Jim Martin's report because they are the local democratic representatives to whom the chief constable reports.

I also think not only that the McLeod family deserve an early meeting with Mr Latimer but that he should review his public pronouncements in the interests of good police and public relations in Wick and every other community in the North.


SEVERAL years ago, early in the Labour/Lib Dem coalition government, they spent £300,000 on consultants to decide how best to brand Scotland. The answer was to use the Saltire, Scotland's national flag. A no-brainer, you might say.

Last week a row broke out when Labour leaders threw up a smokescreen to hide their palpable troubles north and south of the border with ineligible donors by rubbishing the refreshed Scottish Government logos, photos and slogans to make visitors "Welcome to Scotland".

I appeared on Radio 4 and Radio 2 with the Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, who coined spurious slogans such as "the home of Chip and PIN" as examples of the kind of thing on offer. The myth about Europe ordering the production of straight bananas has as much credence. For £125,000 we developed, produced and erected a new suite of posters. You don't get many 30-second adverts on prime-time TV for that price. Frankly it's great to get rid of the cringeworthy Labour/Lib Dem line about the greatest wee country in the world.

Listeners to Radio 2 did lighten up the debate with some of their own suggestions, from the banal to the plain wicked. These included "Scotland – the most subsidised wee country in the world"; "Scotland – England's last colony"; "Scotland – find out why it's called bonny"; "Scotland – for ever"; and so on. My favourite dotty one was "Scotland – hilly and chilly!"

Maybe the Leith Agency, who also designed the award-winning advertisements for Irn Bru and the anti-smoking campaign ads, has a little more savvy.