Friday, 25 September 2009

We are not too wee to achieve sustainable growth

THIS week the word "cuts" has dominated the language of politics in Scotland and across the UK. As the British parties enter their autumn conference season, we see each interpret what they wish us to see.

What a pity that each in turn – Lib Dems, Labour and Tories – do not recognise that demands, with which they say they agree, for more powers in Holyrood stem from a deep-rooted injustice. That injustice is the unionist denial of a right of Scots to vote in a referendum to have tax-raising powers all normal countries possess.

Lib Dems keep telling us local people should decide. But they face both ways as usual as their leaders showed in Bournemouth earlier this week. When it comes to Scots, they deny a referendum bill is our right. No doubt they will show this by opposing the bill the SNP Government seeks to introduce on St Andrew's Day.

When finance minister John Swinney introduced his draft Scottish budget last week it marked the first real-term decline in spending for 17 years. Even Labour academics agree that a cash-term increase is a real-term decrease.

The Scottish Government wants to keep up the work of ending the recession so we need the right to bring forward more funds from next year's budget to build on the investment made this year. This year's acceleration amounted to £347 million and helped housing, construction, enterprise projects and colleges, among others, to accelerate the economy and safeguard 8700 jobs.

Will Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who told the G20 ministers to keep going with government economic stimulus to revive the world economy, tell us we don't need it in Scotland? Of course none of that would matter if we had the borrowing powers of a normal nation. But the UK parties, including the Lib Dems, don't want us to be normal at all.

THE Scottish Government has become the first administration in the world to produce a carbon assessment alongside its budget. In a unique move, John Swinney published the first Carbon Assessment of the Budget for 2010/2011 together with the draft economic budget itself.

The Scottish Government recognises that climate change will have far-reaching effects on Scotland's economy, its people and its environment and is determined to play its part in rising to this challenge.

Mr Swinney said: "By publishing our Carbon Assessment of the Budget, we are taking a significant and, to some extent, experimental step towards recognising carbon implications in the budget process."

I am not aware of any other government in the world committed to delivering this work with their budgets and, once again, Scotland is proving to be a world leader.

In a practical way, this is aided by strong support for low-carbon renewable energy development which we will debate in parliament on Wednesday. This debate very much affects us in Caithness. With the regeneration conference in Wick due the day after the parliamentary debate, I am sure of the commitments of the Scottish Government.

Power production is still controlled by Westminster and the National Grid has rejected a scheme proposed by Scottish and Southern Energy, backed by others, to make grid access easier in Scotland.

Therefore, questions persist as to the fairness of a system that places charges 10 times the cost in Caithness as they do on would-be producers in London. Who can ignore this drawback and what messages we will hear when London Labour sends its representative up north? Can Jim Murphy put economic recovery through renewables deployment before an outdated, Thatcherite model of competition for grid access?

HERE's a sobering thought from across the North Sea. Three quarters of Norway's voters turned out last week and narrowly re-elected the Red/Green coalition government of Jens Stoltenberg. Firstly, it was the country's lowest turn out for decades and, secondly, voters resisted the blandishments of a Norwegian clone of Maggie Thatcher who wanted to dip into the oil funds to reduce taxes on health and education.

The national oil fund was created in 1990 to secure investment for Norwegians in future generations. It is second or third in the world among sovereign wealth funds – worth £259 billion and growing. That easily dwarfs the UK public debt burden of £175bn.

That's why Scots should closely question why the oil and gas wealth, mainly generated in the Scottish sector of the North Sea should have been used to prop up such a rake's progress in the UK economy led by unrepentant City bankers. Britain, unlike Norway, also has huge personal indebtedness due to easy credit for over a decade as well as UK Government spending which failed to save in the good times for any likely downturn. Greed and light-touch regulation has met its nemesis in the crash of sub-prime property in the USA. And the global economy pays a huge price.

Why, oh why, should we in Scotland listen to the London Government's excuses any longer? Surely the way to go is to match savings with borrowings in the old-fashioned way? Surely investment in making renewable energy, wholesome food and a return to training for the necessary skills must be the priorities?

Who is best placed to achieve sustainable growth, London or Scotland? We are not too wee, or too poor, or too stupid to do it. Do Norwegians think like that?

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