What a remarkable year it’s been.
The SNP’s National Conversation was derided by the Unionist parties. They voted for their own constitutional enquiry, now called the Calman Commission, and lo and behold before it has met the Labour partner in the scheme has changed the focus due to er… problems for the boss in London. So now the outright opposition to a referendum on Independence has been replaced by Wendy Alexander demanding an early poll. Whether it should contain a straight yes or no question and many other issues is unclear. Whether London supports her is now clear…
I’m sure that all the premonitions about a minority SNP administration sown in the minds of the voters and in the minds of civil servants by the last administration have been dashed by the popularity of SNP policies and the competent team of Ministers who have rolled their sleeves up and been so much more proactive than their Lab-Lib predecessors. So much so that the opposition are reduced to complaining about the increased car use of Alex Salmond’s team.
What can we gain from this exciting atmosphere in Caithness and North Sutherland? Well, as I have already reported in recent weeks, there have been a steady string of improvements to life and the services we use.
The SNP organised a national 'Day of Action' for 3rd May 2008 across Scotland to mark the first anniversary of the 2007 election. Thurso SNP played their part by campaigning with our Westminster candidate for the Far North Cllr Jean Urquhart. The activists distributed the SNP Vision magazine which reflects on some of the political and personal highlights of the past year.
Last year, people across Scotland put their trust in a new Government led by Alex Salmond and the SNP. I consider it to be a huge privilege to represent the people and communities across the Highlands and Islands. Helping people and families with the range of cases they raise is very rewarding - especially when we make sure people access the benefits and services like central heating for older people who have received 110 new systems this year compared to 66 in the last year of the LabLib Executive across KW postcode areas. I have applauded the reduced business rates for local firms and indeed this has put some much-needed smiles on business faces across the country.
Politically there have been so many memorable moments, especially for me voting to confirm Alex Salmond as First Minister and to pass the Abolition of the Graduate Endowment, which so affects those from poorer families.
Personally it has been a hectic year, but an enjoyable one, as I play a part in moving Scotland forward. The Scottish Government has a vision of an ambitious, confident Scotland and over the last year a series of policies which go toward achieving that vision have been put in place.
FERRIES I have travelled on? The list grew last month to include the overnight sailing from Aberdeen to Lerwick on the Hrossey. So this year I have been to Arran, on the CalMac ferry MV Caledonian Isles, on the Superfast Ferry from Zeebrugge to Rosyth, as previously reported in this column and last week from Stornoway to Ullapool on the MV Isle of Lewis. However, we’ll see the biggest ferry change here in Caithness later this summer. In recent visits to Orkney via Gills Bay I’ve enjoyed fine sails on the aging Claymore, but news of the launch in the Philippines of the spanking new catamaran Pentalina will be a treat in store.
Much of my travel has been in pursuit of Scottish Parliamentary business, in particular the ferry enquiry undertaken by the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. We have uncovered a catalogue of outdated thinking in the big combines, CalMac and Northlink. We are afforded glimpses of how successful ferry companies are in applying new technology across Europe and beyond. So the enquiry about Scottish lifeline services is timely to say the least.
Last week we met EU Transport Commissioner Jacque Barrot who was reported as offering the idea of an independent ferry regulator to tackle complaints about competition and assess to public service obligations [PSOs] as a key to the much-needed subsidies which provide for non-profitable routes. Amazingly the previous Scottish Executive’s successive LibDem transport ministers Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott turned their backs on PSOs and any suggestion of such an independent regulator. Too costly, too bureaucratic and unnecessary they said.
Well the chickens have come home to roost. Complaints by aggrieved parties have forced the EU to investigate Scottish ferry practices. I believe that the Committee’s enquiry will neatly dovetail with the EU enquiry. It should lead to an EU compliant support system, but also it should set up a debate in the chamber of Parliament that allows the Scottish Government to put ferry policy and practice on a more transparent and innovative basis. That is long overdue and gives due weight at last to the services for local people in far flung mainland and island communities.
In conversation with my colleague MEP Alyn Smith I was reminded of our direct links to Iceland via the Norrona sailing in summer from Scrabster, and yesterday I was entertaining a group of Icelandic health administrators in Parliament. They see lots in common with us and are seeing ways to make Icelanders square up to the debate about entering the European Union. Recently Alyn was discussing, in the Icelandic Parliament, how Iceland can better co-operate with the EU institutions and member states. Cooperation with Scotland on fishing and energy issues could gain us an important ally.
Iceland has to rely on friends and neighbours within the EU to take into account its concerns. Scotland has to rely on London. Probably Scotland and our northern neighbours could be a new force to reckon with as the EU develops and expands. Let’s hope with the installation of their new President we can eventually persuade the Russians it’s a good idea to be more European too.