Wednesday, 31 December 2008

It's time to move the focus of the economy northward

Published in the John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THE year 2009 has to be the year we take our natural and human resources far more seriously.

I've been a long-term champion of the Far North as an economic dynamo for our nation's future. In the committees of the Scottish Parliament that recognition is rising. That's my job and that of other MSPs but it requires a huge adjustment to many of their outlooks.

In the 1970s the emergence of the Aberdeen-based oil industry led to a major shift in Scottish economic thinking. The old heavy industries of west central Scotland were destroyed in the 1970s and '80s by merciless Thatcherite logic and when clapped-out businesses failed to modernise, so the eastward shift of population, jobs and ideas began in earnest. Aberdeen and Dundee United became the New Firm of Scottish football and the recent census information shows clearly that it's the eastern counties and seaboard that grows their towns and villages while Galloway, Ayrshire and the Clyde Valley decline. We can work for some population reversal in Caithness and north Sutherland as the next phase.

However, the fallout from world financial chaos has to be carefully understood. On the one hand Gordon Brown tries to avoid a terminal run on the pound sterling by urging shoppers to spend their last pennies in the sales; on the other hand wiser heads are saying you have to invest in new, more resilient, types of work than just financial services. The headline spats between Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel don't tell the whole story. On the one hand Brown claims to have saved the world by resorting to Keynesian-based government spending while the German chancellor is mindful of the disastrous decade of inflation and ruin in the 1920s that led to Hitler and the scars in the German psyche against over-borrowing.

In Scotland we have other options. Like the Germans, we still have manufacturing skills to build on. Albeit Germans earn 30 per cent plus of their annual income from making things, while in Britain it's about 14 per cent. Because of the oil industry, of the nuclear decommissioning in our midst and the push to tap the infinite power of waves, tides and winds, we have a different outlook.

That's why 2009 has to be a year for a united effort to get the transport, research and development and production of new clean power up a gear.


WHILE commentators laughed at the collapse of Iceland's banking-based economy, and the troubles that beset Ireland with a housing crash as spectacular as their housing boom, the jibes about "arc of insolvency" will not show Iceland and Ireland going under for ever.

Far bigger countries, such as the UK, are able to hide, more successfully for the moment, the dire straits we face due to Mr Brown's deregulation mania and his age of irresponsibility.

Near this year's end, the European Union in its Council of Ministers and Parliament agreed that Scotland's green power should be a key part of Europe's powerhouse. We can provide secure and accessible electricity fit for this climate-change age. My party, in Scottish Government for 18 months now, has been building these ideas and the international contacts to create a new age of climate responsibility and resilience.

Look out for more developments along with our European friends in 2009.

London Labour has so far rubbished Scottish energy links to Norway: witness Jim Murphy traducing the Norwegian foreign minister's words which were speedily rebutted by the Norwegian embassy in London. I predict New Labour will accept that reductions in greenhouse gases via Scots clean-power production must bring targets into reach as set for the UK in the European pitch to lead the world's aim of climate common sense.


'WHAT'S on your plate?" was the big question posed by the National Farmers' Union of Scotland.

Was your Christmas dinner locally sourced? Can we sustain week after week a majority of our food and drink coming from Scotland? I believe that producers and consumer deserve a real choice in the matter. That's what most supermarket chains have so far denied. When they fly Scottish saltires near their produce take a close look at the labels. If price is your main criteria then you are unlikely to source local produce. That's because farmers, growers, crofters and distributors find it hard to compete with cheap imported food that has far more questionable ingredients and farming practices than supermarkets let on. That's why high-quality Scots fare costs a little more.

This year I hope many more of us will learn that making our own food from basic ingredients can be fun for all the family. Jamie Oliver showed TV viewers how, while the Scottish Parliament vote agreed on the principle of free nutritious school meals for P1 to P3 pupils. It's also why support for more home-grown produce, such as that from Mey Selections, will be good both for economic recovery as well as individual health and wellbeing.

For our Christmas family meal we had Black Isle-reared turkey and potatoes accompanied by peas, red cabbage, kale, Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips from our garden as well as frozen greengages to make the base for our trifle. The bread was made by A-Bun-Dance in Invergordon, one of the new artisan bakeries setting up locally. The cheese board carried Caithness goat's cheese and blueberries, Orkney cheddar and Connage crowdie. Climate change doesn't yet mean making quality wine here so French Côte du Rhone was just dandy. Finally the Maritime Malt of Wick followed with the Fairtrade coffee and Culloden-made mince pies.


OUT of this column come some possible New Year resolutions. It's up to you, attentive readers, to make you choices. Let's all toast the prospects of our northern land as we seek the best for our families and our neighbours as we enter this New Year. A' the best to ane an' a'. Bliadhna Mhath Ur 2009!

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