Friday, 31 December 2010

Looking back over 2010

John O'Groat Journal

31 December 2010

2010 came in with a wintry blast and it is going out with more snow and ice warnings in the coldest December we’ve seen in decades. Our public services and neighbourly behaviour in the North is coping as ever but we don’t have transport systems that can really cope at below 10 degrees Celsius. Deep snow drifts and salt that doesn’t work at minus 15 requires a rethink along Scandinavian lines. On Holyrood’s Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee I have asked for urgent reviews as a key legacy paper for our Parliament’s new team. We close this session in late March before the May election. Meanwhile my advice is - we'll keep our heads as long as we can keep our feet!

Some extra challenges have been set us. After years of Labour hostility to Scotland experienced by us from Chancellor and then PM Gordon Brown it was followed by the LibDem and Tory Coalition Government elected to Westminster last May which promised to show Scotland respect but also to balance the books.

Respect came in very strange forms. The proposed Scotland Bill could potentially cut the Scottish budget even more than the cuts we suffer this year unless the Scots Parliament Unionist majority wakes up. A specialist committee in Holyrood is led by the Calman creator, Wendy Alexander MSP. The key question is - will Scotland be allowed to invest in our abundant assets if we are to have so few borrowing powers in three or four years time? Meanwhile how are we to fill the gap in funding the renewables industry that is straining at the leash when the Fossil Fuel Levy was denied us?

Meanwhile Westminster cuts could see Stornoway and Shetland coastguards go the way of many previously cut from the Pentland Firth area. Rescue tugs including the Stornoway based ‘Anglian Prince’ is under threat. It was funded by Westminster after learning the lessons of the Braer tanker disaster off Shetland in the 90s. With the Nimrods gone from RAF Kinloss our sea areas are being exposed to greater dangers when oil, marine renewables are in full swing and fishing is still very important here. We also know that the north-west and north-east passages round Canada and Russia will soon be ice free long enough for Arctic voyages by our merchant fleets. Why should north Scotland be so ill equipped to benefit, by remote London diktat?

A hesitant end to recession and the long list of job losses in construction don't make a happy tale this year. However a rise in manufacturing is beginning to get Scotland moving. We hope that the success of Global at Invergordon and worldwide can be added to by the frustrating end to the Nigg yard stalemate.

We can also see with our own eyes that packages of cash are building up for the Scrabster harbour project with the allocation of wave and tidal leases making new demands on harbours. Nothing should be done to undermine delicate and ongoing negotiations.

That’s why the Fossil Fuel Levy denied to the Scots Government by the London Coalition is such a miss. I attended the Green Energy Awards earlier this month in Edinburgh. What a breath of youthful vigour and grit for our economy. From Scottish Government to local developers, from offshore wind farm lessees to skilled workers working in oil and gas abroad who want to come home, it's a big hope that 2011 will see the breakthrough a healthy Scots economy requires.

At Scottish level the SNP Government received deep cuts in funds from the London Tories and LibDems like Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander have cut government spending with an unwelcome passion. Student fees as in England will rocket and a Scottish solution will not bring in tuition fees like English universities. Benefit cuts hit the poorest. The privatisation of the Royal Mail threatens small post offices and the universal service obligation are hanging by a thread. My colleagues in Westminster join other MPs to demand that the London Department of Work and Pensions keep its contract to pay benefits and pensions through the trusted local post offices.

Throughout the year the Scottish Government has continued the Council Tax freeze, maintained the small business bonus and scrapped prescription charges to aid families and businesses.

A couple of sporting high spots included the impressive run of Wick Academy in the Highland League and the story of Ross County's Scottish football cup run to the final at Hampden Park. Local pride was only dented at the last moment but the dream of a wee team getting in about the big boys is the stuff of legends and a friendly confirmation that football is best when rooted in communities that care. In Caithness the start of the Halkirk sports and countryside complex is a most welcome initiative in the same community vein.

2010 saw not just the first and very successful Caithness National Mod but a vast leap in self-belief in our native music and languages which the SNP Government has backed to the hilt. The census in March 2011 will include a question on Scots, to which Caithness dialect speakers can place their ticks.

The North Highland Initiative set up by the Duke of Rothesay five years ago hopes to create more jobs. Our local food producers are well served by its expansion. I hosted the awards to the Young Highland Chef of the Year in the Burghfield House Hotel School Dornoch. Back then in autumn we could see the promise of local talent judged the cream by Albert Roux and his team of top chefs. In my village Evanton the local staff of the Coop Foodstore showed that Highland pride could beat 3,000 other stores for customer service across the UK. It was the year of food and drink and our part of Scotland played a big part.

Let's spare a thought for our troops who are at war in Afghanistan and hope for their safe return as soon as possible. And to all of you I hope you are having a Happy Christmas and will enjoy a healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year. In 2011 together we can make Scotland better.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010


From Rob Gibson SNP MSP highlands and Islands
It came in with a blast of winter and its going out with another whiteout. Our public services and neighbourly behaviour in the North can cope. We'll keep our heads as long as we can keep our feet!

The hesitant end to recession and the long list of job losses in construction don't make a happy tale. However a rise in manufacturing is beginning to get Scotland moving. We hope that the success of Global at Invergordon and worldwide can be added to by the frustrating end to the Nigg yard stalemate. From Scottish Government to local developers, from offshore wind farm lessees to skilled workers working in oil and gas who want to come home it's a big hope that 2011 will see the breakthrough.

At Scottish level the SNP Government received deep cuts in funds by the London coalition of Tories and LibDems who have attacked government spending with an unwelcome passion. Student fees in England, benefit cuts that hit the poorest, the privatisation of the Royal Mail, a paltry Scotland bill that is more set to keep Holyrood accountable than to give the Scots Parliament the powers to invest in our huge natural assets.

Throughout the year the Scottish Government has continued the Council Ta freeze, maintained the small business bonus and scrapped prescription charges to aid families.

Other high spots included Ross-shire and Scotland warming to the story of County's Scottish football cup run up to the final at Hampden Park. Local pride was only dented at the last moment but the dream of a wee team getting in about the big boys is the stuff of legends and a friendly confirmation that football is best when rooted in a community that cares.

 2011 to see not just the 25th anniversary celebrated by our home grown Feis Rois but a vast leap in self-belief in our native music and languages which the SNP Government has backed to the hilt. Also in my village home the local staff of the Coop Foodstore Evanton showed that Highland pride could beat 3,000 other stores for customer service across the UK.

Let's spare a thought for our troops who are having to wage war in Afghanistan and hope for their safe return will be as soon as possible. And to all of you have a Happy Christmas and a healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Rob Gibson SNP MSP for Highlands and Islands

Friday, 17 December 2010

Severe Weather

Severe weather, deep snow, ice, disrupted roads, rail cancellations, schools closed, concerns for the old and infirm. In the North and North East of Scotland they happen nearly every year and occasionally more than once a year.

Mostly we can cope, however we do wish to know that the Council, Stagecoach, Scotrail and Bear are keeping as closely to their contracts as we can expect. So the unexpectedly high snow dump on thirty miles round central Scotland may have a useful outcome.

When I last wrote to you a fortnight ago I listed four events I’d hope to reach that weekend. Two were cancelled due to the dangers posed for people trying to travel. So a visit to Kirkcudbright will have to wait. As for Perth, I did get there in the evening for the Scots Trad Music Awards along with many others but the SNP’s quarterly National Council earlier in the day had to be abandoned. Things did improve markedly during the day to allow bus and rail travel to return to approximately normal.

Notwithstanding our individual calculations as to what was possible, the central belt snows led to the resignation of Transport and Climate Change minister Stewart Stevenson for his unfortunate presentation on TV. Forget decency and hard work. Forget a winter resilience report published last September that lists lessons from last winter’s excesses. Forget the world-renowned Climate Change legislation. On screen Stewart misused the phrase ‘first class response’ and questioned the accuracy of the weather forecast. Unreal.

Keith Brown MSP for Ochil, whose family have Brora connections, takes over the Transport berth. And another report will be gathered on lessons to learn whilst making doubly sure existing communications between agencies and the public are tip top.

As a member of the Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee I am asking a number of key questions. Does it take an impending election for opposition leaders to take an interest in severe weather when it hit Central Scotland? What would make them interested in the much more frequent weather issues in north and north east Scotland? And is it because of our Green Party committee convener has an anti- road transport agenda that he did not make a committee spot to debate the Winter Report from last year. It was published last August, after all.

I welcome the Scottish Government commitment for the next year to preserve the number of core college and university student places. The SNP will also protect the main research excellence grant budget in cash terms. Despite deep cuts ushered in by London Tory/LibDem coalition, no existing student in Scotland will see grants decrease in the next academic year.

Meanwhile in England universities and students see deep cuts and soaring tuition fees. We saw that seven Scots LibDems backed the Tories, while Far North member Viscount Thurso abstained from supporting Nick Clegg’s backing for the tuition tax.

Tripling of fees will have serious consequences for higher education north and south of the border. Scottish students studying in England will be saddled with mammoth debts and there will be a knock on effect for Scottish spending as Barnett consequentials are cut.

Again Labour in London certainly can't protect Scotland - only the SNP in Scotland can do it: if we have the powers. People in Scotland will have an early opportunity to pass judgment on the LibDems at the elections next year and this betrayal will haunt them at Holyrood.

The Tories introduced loans, Labour brought in fees and the LibDems have now helped the Tories increase them. Only the SNP is left as the party for students in Scotland offering them the opportunity to be part of something better.

The Scottish Government has published a Green Paper on Thursday December 16, 2010 on finding a uniquely Scottish Solution to sustainable funding of higher education. This will allow a wide and mature debate in which all sensible ideas will be considered apart from one - tuition fees.

I was appalled last weekend to hear a commentator on London TV say that the Scottish Government had cut student and university support. Far from it, the Scottish Funding Council is carrying out a Scottish policy to maintain free education at colleges and universities here. It is part of the Scottish intent to grow our economy and build sustainable jobs and communities.


Contrary to opposition taunts in Holyrood, a TNS opinion poll shows a surge in support for Scottish independence.

The poll shows a record 40% of Scots want to see the Scottish Parliament have the powers of independence. The TNS poll conducted over St Andrews Day shows 40% support the Scottish Parliament having the powers and responsibilities to enable independence, with only 44% opposed.

The TNS poll follows findings by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey which shows that support for Scottish independence rises to almost half (45 per cent) if taxes were to go down by £500 – with 62 per cent also saying that the Scottish Parliament should take the most important decisions about welfare benefits, while 57 per cent say thesame about taxes.

The Holyrood scrutiny of the Scotland Bill published by the UK Government is a huge opportunity for Scotland to gain the financial responsibility it needs to prosper – but as currently drafted it falls far short of what is needed.

This poll shows that people across Scotland see the need for this country to gain the powers other countries take for granted, so we can compete on a level playing field, attract business, grow the economy and create a wealthier nation – the only alternative to the savage Westminster cuts agenda.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Energy, traditional music and the Scotland Bill

Amidst the snowdrifts and black ice the beating heart of Scotland was on display last weekend. I was privileged to attend the Green Energy Awards and the Scottish Trad Music Awards - two vibrant strands of Scottish life in rude health.

There were eighty-eight tables at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre last Thursday night, although some two hundred guests called off due to weather. This display of a young and thrusting industry has huge import for us. Many have a Highland interest. Among the award winners of the Best New Business was SeaEnergy Renewables which not only pioneered the Beatrice demonstrator turbines in the Moray Firth but also have made strategic partnerships in Taiwan. Their local partners will deliver the Moray Firth offshore wind farm in the next ten years.

In passing I must applaud the first issue of Energy North a supplement published by Scottish Provincial Press. If proof were needed on and offshore renewables will provide skilled jobs at all levels in our Highland future.

For me the annual celebration of Scotland’s rich musical traditions is a must see event. This year Perth was the host and for the third year BBC Alba screened the edited highlights. The riches of local talent were on display and won awards. Our own Julie Fowlis won album of the year for Uam. Matheu Watson from the Heights of Strathpeffer won up and coming artist of the year and Eilidh MacKenzie, Gaelic singer of the year. I could list so many from the north who won. But let’s celebrate the key role of the Feisean movement as acknowledged by many of these winners. Our own Feis Rois has been pivotal over the decades in delivery a carrying stream of talent to the wider Scottish river of sound.

Announcements by the Minister for Culture, Fiona Hyslop MSP have underlined the support of the SNP Government for parity of esteem of our traditional music alongside other art forms. She found cash for the Youth Music Initiative to continue till 2012. This employs many tutors of traditional music based here. Also the new website of 130 traditional Scots and Gaelic songs for use by teachers and student in the Curriculum for Excellence has been unveiled. And Fiona announced in Perth a sum of £250,000 for Creative Scotland to develop its support for traditional music in its overall scheme of development.

These are testament to a Government that values the traditions of Scotland that are both a source of pride and identity and create many jobs in far flung parts of the land, not least in Ross-shire.


This week in Holyrood we have debated the new Scotland Bill proposed by the LibDem and Tory London Government. The dominant issue is cuts ordered by London government that most Scots think are too far, too fast, yet we have no immediate way to change our lot. But there is another way. We can have home rule instead of LibDem/Tory rule.

A stronger Scottish Parliament won’t magic away the cuts but it can make them more manageable. With more powers we could help our economy grow and protect the things that matter.

With full independence we can go further still, creating jobs and prosperity here in Scotland. The SNP trusts the Scottish people to decide the right path for our nation. That’s why we want a referendum on independence. Instead we are offered a referendum next May on a voting system that isn’t more democratic.

Our families and our future together with independence can make Scotland much better. Now that would be something to sing about, even in the snow!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Article for Independence 5 by Highlands and Islands MSP Rob Gibson

As a candidate and MSP you can get into some campaigns that po-faced journalists love to ridicule. Back in 2002 I worked with a volunteer at the Strathnaver Museum to show that JRR Tolkien had pictured the Lonely Mountain and Middle Earth in NW Sutherland.

History shows that New Zealand got the honours, the work and the tourists when the Lord of the Rings trilogy became blockbusters. However, nothing daunted this summer’s labour relations and cash issues clouded the setting for the new Hobbit movie in NZ. For a while.

Reports that the filming might be moved because of contractual disputes led me to relaunch my bid for Sutherland as a good place to film Middle Earth. According to legend the writer of the Hobbit had actually visited the area. JRR Tolkien is said to have visited Sutherland despite denying he had ever been further north in Scotland than Dundee. Perhaps he should have been asked how far north west he travelled.

My informant said that Tolkien’s name was written in a guest book in the Duke of Westminster’s hunting lodge at Achfary but proof has not been forthcoming. Nevertheless NW Sutherland would be an excellent location for filming the Hobbit. The spectacular lochs like Loch Stack and mountains like Arkle and Foinaven lend themselves to the story.

Indeed Ben Stack, pictured, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lonely Mountain in the Tolkien book. And Celtic and Norse mythology referred to the areas around nearby Strathnaver as the Middle land. Sutherland and Scotland deserve to be the home of the Hobbit where the scenery matches the grandeur of the book and also would undoubtedly boost tourism and the film industry in Scotland.


Another early set of questions in Parliament got me stick. I questioned the light pollution from badly designed and unnecessary street lamps in Shetland. What a waste of money answering such a fancy railed one Sunday paper. Yet climate change debates view all this in a new light, so to speak.

This year the London-inspired cuts loom for our councils which propose to switch off every second street lamp. Why is inappropriate street lighting de rigueur for remote villages as well as city centres? Because it’s another asinine power reserved by law to Westminster! All over Brittany which I often visit and no doubt much wider, they switch the lights off at midnight in the villages.


However, the most persistent nonsense we north members are called to answer is the southern English obsession with synchronising their clocks, in winter, with continental time, whether we in Scotland like it or not. With shorter hours of light the further north you go nothing can alter going to school or work in the dark, or in the depths of winter lightening the return journey in the evening.

So avoiding the obvious attempts by hacks to make a Scotland v England rematch I responded to the latest Tory private member’s bill in Westminster. If they are so keen to change the clocks, as the Daily Mail reported I said, they should get up an hour earlier and see the light.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Budget, Scotland Act and Winter Arrives

John O'Groat Journal Column 3rd December 2010

Last week a new IPSOS MORI poll gave overwhelming backing to key SNP policies set out in the SNP Government’s budget including freezing the council tax, supporting the NHS, abolishing prescription charges and freezing pay for those earning over £21,000 as the party maintained its polling position from before the 2007 election.

The poll conducted immediately after the budget also gave positive approval rating for Alex Salmond, the only leader to reach over 50% is over three times that for Iain Gray and more than double all the opposition leaders combined with Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott receiving a negative rating of -4 as the party continues to do the Tories dirty work in Scotland.

On the back of a tough budget caused by Tory/Lib Dem Westminster cuts, Alex Salmond’s leadership ratings are rising to near record levels, and our core policies of a Council Tax freeze as part of our social contract with the people to sustain measures such as pay restraint, support for front line services and economic recovery receive overwhelming backing.

The SNP is delivering popular measures of substance, while Labour has no coherent stance on either the Council Tax freeze or pay freeze. Three-and-a-half years into office SNP support is at the same high levels as when we won in 2007 – which is a remarkable achievement for any administration. Support rises for governments in the run-up to an election, and as Labour come under increased scrutiny their inexperience and inconsistency will be exposed as they seek to push up taxes for every Scottish household and back LibDem/ Tory tax plans that will slash Scotland’s budget.


On St Andrew’s Day this year the LibDem and Tory Coalition Government published the

Scotland Bill which is set to devolve a few more powers to the Scottish Parliament the most important being greater tax varying powers by 2015. Significantly already we know that the important Aggregates Tax and Airline tax won’t be part of it.

Signatories to a letter from concerned business leaders and economists were also published and it shows a wider Scotland wants greater debate about the bill that will only focus on the recommendations of the Calman Commission. When the bill goes through its stages in Westminster, the Commons and Lords must discuss and agree a greater level of fiscal responsibility for the Scottish Parliament.

The North is well represented on the distinguished list of signatories by Dan Macdonald property developer of Macdonald Estates and mining millionaire Dennis Macleod from Helmsdale.

They argue that the best way forward would be to devolve most current taxes to the Scottish Parliament since this would make politicians more accountable for the financial decisions they take, while giving them both the incentive and the fiscal tools necessary to achieve improved public services and faster economic growth.

Further, it would help to foster a healthy relationship between Westminster and Holyrood.

All of the main Scottish and UK parties agree that the Scottish Parliament should have greater financial powers. The debate is now about which powers should be devolved and when. We hope that the publication of this bill will lead to an open-minded discussion about what is in the best interests of Scotland and the UK as a whole.

The opportunity now exists to fashion a new, sustainable financial settlement to underpin the devolution settlement. We believe that ultimately the Scotland Bill should be measured by the economic levers and responsibility it transfers.

The political scientist Prof John Curtice of Strathclyde University made an important comment on the proposed Scotland bill. On BBC Newsnight Scotland on Monday evening he said, “The truth is – that bill that is published tomorrow – is in fact the true legacy of the Nationalist victory in 2007. The nationalists haven’t been able to get that referendum bill through, but their victory in 2007 forced the Labour Party in particular to re-think its attitude towards devolution, to work together with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to produce this proposal that the Coalition is now putting forward. So, the SNP will undoubtedly put out a lot of criticism about this, but the truth is, they are probably principally responsible for this proposal at least getting as far as the statute book.”

That suggests that unless a strong vote is made by people for the SNP no other party will make any meaningful change in Scotland’s government.


Much more urgently on most minds have been the deep freeze from the polar winds that have paralysed so many communities. My own week began on Monday digging out the car at home in Evanton. My first steps to get to Parliament to get to Inverness station. Train left slightly late and reached Perth on time, however, rail disruption further south left no driver and conductor available. Half an hour went by and a relief crew were ready.

Rob digging out the car on Monday Morning
In Edinburgh I trudged through the slush to the flat with the roller bag as I needed the contents later this week for the Green Energy Awards in Edinburgh on Thursday night. Two committee meetings some questions and a speech followed at Holyrood.

I am returning the favour to Dr Aileen McLeod’s whose adoption meeting takes place in Kirkcudbright on Friday. Aileen came to support me at my adoption as SNP candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross in the middle of last month. On Saturday I’ve to get to Perth for the SNP quarterly national council meeting and then join friends at a table for the Scottish Traditional Music Awards which is also in town that evening.

But above all I have nothing but praise for the train and bus crews that keep us moving and the health workers and social work staff who tend the old and inform in such difficult weather conditions.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Missed Opportunities and Opposition Confusion on Tax

John O'Groat Journal Colum 19 November 2010

The SNP's flagship plan for a minimum price on alcohol was rejected by Labour LibDems and Tories at the Scottish Parliament. Commentators lashed the opposition and one usually hostile critic Angus MacLeod of The Times newspaper said Nicola Sturgeon’s speech was the best he had heard this year in Parliament.

Her amendment was rejected by 76 votes to 49 proposing the 45p per litre minimum pricing measure. What a sad day for Scotland when party politics took precedence over the very clear consensus among many public health bodies across the UK.

The measure had the support of the medical profession, including all four UK Chief Medical Officers, the BMA, the Royal Colleges of Nursing, Physicians, Surgeons and GPs, the Faculty of Public Health, the British Liver Trust, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, many publicans and retailers and the World Health Organisation – and there was clear evidence that it would have made a big difference to the huge problem of Scotland’s relationship with drink.

Despite this Unionist parties did not want to see the SNP Government get credit for dealing effectively with chronic alcohol misuse, which has been allowed to get worse while previous governments failed to act.

Previously the smoking ban was supported by all parties as it was a crucial intervention to massively improve health and wellbeing.

Labour and the others have failed to come up with any other proposal to effectively deal with the alcohol problem. They had no real grounds for rejecting minimum pricing – other than party politics.

Yet the cost of alcohol misuse to Scotland's economy and public services in £2.25 billion each year, with 3,000 deaths, 42,000 hospital stays and 110,000 GP visits directly linked to alcohol. At the same time, alcohol is 70% more affordable than in 1980 - and during the same period consumption has increased by around 20%.

The problem is so serious that doing nothing is not an option. They will have to explain to the electorate why they failed to support minimum pricing which had such wide and informed support behind it.


This week John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth presented the most challenging budget he has yet had to present, indeed, it is the most challenging budget in the history of devolution.

No-one is under any illusions about the scale of the cuts imposed on us by the UK Government. Two-thirds are the legacy of the previous Labour administration, while the remaining third due to the Tory-Liberal Westminster Government which is cutting too far and too fast.

Their cuts agenda threatens a Scottish economic recovery which, between April and June this year, saw the strongest GDP growth of any major world economy bar Germany, largely driven by the construction sector. But Scotland’s recovery remains fragile.

Therefore, we want to do all in the power to safeguard that recovery, protecting jobs and household incomes across Scotland from the worst impact.

The scale of the challenge we face was made clear last month when Chancellor George Osborne announced his Comprehensive Spending Review, which cuts Scotland’s budget by £1.3 billion next year.

Hard choices are needed, but we can ensure cohesion within our communities by developing a “social contract” with the people of Scotland.

Council tax soared massively under both Labour and the Tories, which is why the SNP took the decision when we came to office in 2007 to freeze it across Scotland. Thanks to our partnership with local councils, that freeze has now been delivered for three years running. It has brought much-needed relief to households in every part of the country.

If that help with household bills was a welcome boost in better times, it has become absolutely essential in the current economic climate.

Labour leader Iain Gray thinks council tax bills should rise, just as people are dealing with pay restraint and rising household bills looming through a rise in VAT.

The SNP disagrees and wants to continue the council tax freeze for the next two years. Also scrapping prescription charges, will make the pay restraint that is necessary fairer and more acceptable which will enable us to protect employment, by maximising the resources available to invest in front line services and economic recovery.

Salaries account for approximately 55 per cent of Scottish Government revenue spending so pay restraint can save nearly £300 million in the budget, as a result protecting some 10,000 jobs in Scotland next year.

In return for an understanding that pay restraint is required, we can relieve pressure that people face with their household bills. Other measures such as reducing senior civil service costs and removing bonuses will also be needed.

Amid the tough choices which this week’s budget outlined, one thing above all is crystal clear, the financial damage inflicted on Scotland by the UK Government means that we literally cannot afford to cede economic control to Westminster. There is no point in having a pocket money parliament when the pocket money runs out.

And the next age of self-government must see Scotland take charge of its own future, with independence and financial responsibility. That way, with the economic powers other nations take for granted, we can take decisions in Scotland, for Scotland, and develop a growth strategy as the only alternative to a decade or more of Westminster-imposed cuts.


A bright spot last week was the annual Business in the Parliament conference. I invited Gary Reid of Thurso’s award winning bakers to be my guest. We agreed that the networking opportunities were excellent and the debate hugely valuable for businesses across Scotland.

Friday, 5 November 2010


Last Thursday the LibDems and their Tory allies were heavily defeated by the SNP, Labour and the Greens when they tried to tell the Scottish Government that it could have the £191 million Fossil Fuel Levy surplus to spend on immediate priorities for renewables development, such as harbour infrastructure.

We had been waiting for the Comprehensive Spending Review to find out how the London coalition was going to tackle this longstanding sore. Labour had prevaricated in office, giving hints before the Westminster election in May that they would make it available. This did not happen.

Over the summer the SNP Government was told by the Treasury that it was nigh on impossible to change their rules in order to release this small amount of money that was raised in Scotland and is urgently required for Scottish marine renewable development.

Instead the LibDem motion in Holyrood conveyed the London Government message that offered us a £250 million sub to the new Green Investment Bank, purely for Scottish use, you understand. But only after it is created in 2014.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government was urged to draw down the £191 million now and use it for harbour development etc. Just one snag, £191 million would be cut from our Scottish block grant next year – yes a 100% penalty! Yet the LibDem speakers told us that it was time the SNP Government started cooperating with London, and, implied we should do as we are told!

Right when we are suffering drastic cuts in our coffers they want us to cut even more. And this despite Chris Huhne, the Coalition Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, seeing with his own eyes the urgent need for cash on a visit to Caithness and the northern isles last month. As previously reported he re-announced a £2 million grant from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's regeneration fund for the Scrabster harbour development package.

SNP MSPs were furious with the LibDems. Even more so with John Thurso and Michael Moore staging a carefully choreographed question session in Westminster the day before our debate so as to show how keen the LibDems are to see renewable development.

As I said in the Holyrood debate, that was smoke and mirrors. Michael Moore pretends that he cares, but refuses to make Scotland's money available when it is urgently needed without a penalty of equal amount to the Scottish block grant. Tell that to the people of Caithness and the enterprising board of Scrabster Harbour Trust, which is trying to facilitate the renewables revolution in the very week the Inner Sound seabed lease was awarded to MeyGen who want to use Scrabster as a base.

There is zero respect for the Scottish Parliament in London and among Liberal Democrat MSPs a similar view. In reality, our efforts to promote renewables could set back by more than three years. What a record for five months of Liberal Democrats in the UK coalition.

No wonder that Stewart Stevenson, the Minister replying for the SNP Government rounded on the LibDems. He said,

“It is absolutely vital that the money is made available to Scotland immediately and in a way that is additional. It will enable us to start making investments in Liberal areas right across Scotland—Scrabster harbour, Orkney, Shetland and Kishorn. Liberal voters will be looking at the behaviour of their MSPs in denying them access to the money with some grave concern indeed.”

The debate about port developments to support marine renewables in Scotland has taken a new turn this week. HIE has to support the delivery of the Scrabster package as a matter of urgency.


You may now see how urgent and important was the First Minister’s Conference call in Perth three weeks ago that “The independence I seek is the independence to create jobs”. It is precisely that subject that the Economy, Energy and Tourism committee explored on its visit the Isle of Skye last Monday. As vice convener I was pleased to see our committee visit the Highlands again, for we came to Caithness on a fact finding visit on energy matter eighteen months ago.

Much comment has been made on the effectiveness of HIE to back the transformation of Caithness and many other mainland areas and islands outwith Inverness. I know that the SNP Government expects it to pull out the stops to deliver government policy, such as marine renewable development. That will be the litmus test for the Far North. HIE bosses will be heard in committee in January.


You know I have a soft spot for stopping climate change. Yes, it’s a large peat bog in the Flow Country. That’s been the subject of much comment on radio and papers this week. I led a member’s debate on Thursday evening to coincide with the IUCN UK Committee peatland enquiry held in Edinburgh University.

It means that large areas of peat bog if kept wet or rewetted can hold as much carbon dioxide and methane as can be saved from half of other sources of emissions in this country. Scotland has 80% of the UK’s peatlands and of the 175 peatland countries of the world the UK is in the top twenty.

No it isn’t sad compared to watching the X Factor on TV. There could be new jobs both for the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso to measure the health of the bogs and workers wielding spades and diggers to rewet the Flows to help the process.

It is hard to imagine us thinking of the Arctic prairies of the Flow country in this way twenty years ago. But today the world appreciates there worth. So should we all.

Friday, 29 October 2010


All the news from Westminster on forthcoming public service cuts must not be allowed to hide the positive option for Scotland. This was spelt out clearly at the recent SNP Conference in Perth in plain language by the First Minister and party leader Alex Salmond. He said

“Either Scotland stays in the Westminster straightjacket of low growth, public sector cutbacks and blighted futures or we take responsibility and deliver the better society we all want.” And he followed on, “The Independence I seek is the independence to create jobs.”

In Ross-shire there is no doubt that the SNP is setting the policy agenda as elsewhere ahead of this year’s Scottish budget and the 2011 Holyrood elections. A series of opinion poll questions show the SNP is hearing the views of the people of Scotland and responding to their priorities.

A YouGov poll carried out immediately after SNP conference shows that Labour and the LibDems are on the wrong side of the argument, with strong public support for SNP plans to freeze the council tax for two more years and to abolish prescription charges. Labour has failed to back both policies with Iain Gray specifically calling for council tax to increase. 59% of people back the SNP’s decision to extend the council tax freeze. Here in Highland the LibDem council leaders agree with Gray.

In addition, the SNP plans to extend the living wage and call for more financial powers to help grow Scotland’s economy. It’s the only alternative to a dismal decade of cuts from Labour, Lib Dem and Tory London governments. Support for the full powers of independence are increasing since the UK Election.

Over the coming weeks the SNP will continue to listen to the priorities the public share with us through our website. We will set out further details of the policies we will pursue in government now and at the election.


All the talk is that the LibDem and Conservative coalition in London expect private firms to take up the work the public sector has to cut. Huge loans required to stabilise the pound sterling after the crash of 2008 can be coped with better if we grow the number of jobs people had.

During the recess, at my own expense, I visited the huge complex of cooperative industries in the Spanish Basque Country around Mondragon. After 50 years development the workers are still the bosses. There are now two hundred and fifty-six coops in the group. They employ over 90,000 workers who have their own coop social security system, health service, university and bank. their turn over is 16,700 million Euros in 2008.

I defy anyone to say that there is only one solution to strengthening our local and national economy. However Mondragon is also based in Basque culture and language, it breeds local self-esteem. and now they have factories in China and Brazil to name but two outposts of their work.

It should be noted that Basque parliament has more economic powers than Scotland raising all its own taxes….

Can we learn from them? Surely so! Last week I noted Lord Thurso calling for competing firms to join together to free up and use Nigg to create new jobs. Remember that Scottish Government wants offshore renewables developed, yet Highland Council under the LibDems has baulked for eighteen months against compulsory purchase of Nigg. Another approach is needed, you say? Some of Lord Thurso’s councillor colleagues are in the competing firms, so I don’t see competing firms actually cooperating. You have to build that ethos from the start. If Highland Council has the guts, change can come.

An independent country like Norway with the rich resources Scotland also has would not have such fearful local ‘leaders’.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

I recently signed the VoteforSport Pledge agreeing to act as a Sporting Champion upon your election to the next Parliament.

In the elections on May 5th 2011 Scotland will elect the Government that will take Scotland up to and beyond what is arguably the most exciting time ever in Scottish sport, including the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. This is Scotland's greatest chance to get it right, to deliver a lasting legacy from this excitement and to recognise that sport is not just an income generator and medal winner - it is a vehicle by which to improve and enhance our nation. Sport is Scotland's missing link.

Rob Gibson signs the VoteforSport pladge

Friday, 22 October 2010

Rob Gibson MSP addressesthe Munduz Mundu festival's supporting a language declaration

Be part of better... a Basque example

We should be feeling a bit more pride for our country following the fine medal tally and performance at the Commonwealth Games. Did you see the rapturous passing on of the baton from India to Scotland for the friendly games in Glasgow in 2014?

In Caithness I enjoyed the opening of the Mod and the wonderful procession of talented musicians and performers who came north to enhance our culture. We should all welcome expressions of our healthy cultural life. As I’ve said before they are the experiences that make life richer.

In between the Mod and leading a Highland Games and music party to the Basque Country I breathed in the positive air of the SNP conference in Perth. Be part of better was the campaign spelled out there.


Winter's is on its’ way at the end of the golden road of autumn biting winds of the arctic will begin to blow, brining a new season. At the start of this week the biting winds of budget cuts were announced, bringing with it a era of austerity, which will be as keenly felt and last longer than the impending winter.

Whilst we look to the North for the coming winter we can look to the South for cuts. As individuals are powerless to stop the onslaught of this winter the Scottish Government is powerless to stop the spread of cuts from Westminster. As it stands just now the Scottish Parliament does not have the financial powers which would allow a Scottish solution for a Scottish problem.

Unable to borrow or pull the financial levers which other countries in the world take for granted the Scottish Government is reliant of a block grant from the Westminster Government. So cuts to the block grant from the UK Government mean that the Scottish Government have to make the money go as far as it can. Given this week’s announcement it seems that cuts are greater than anticipated.

Not for the first time in history the Labour Party has left a legacy of debt and economic mismanagement on a grand scale. Not for the first time the Conservatives have come in wielding the axe with privatisation on their mind, however this time they are aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats, who in the main seem to have forgotten their SDP roots in their embrace of power.

As we see this week these cuts are deep however they would have been under Labour too (witness Alasdair Darling declaring that if Labour won the election then he would implement cuts which were deeper and tougher than Thatcher).

The Conservatives are clearing up the debt left by Labour the only way they know, ruthless public sector slices and the vulnerable left to fend as best they can. The Lib Dems are contributing with zeal, Labour is trying to absolve itself of responsibility and the SNP Government has to make the best of it, without sufficient powers at its disposal to do things differently. Any Scottish Government would be in the same position regardless of colour.

The Scottish Parliament was set up to find Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. However at the moment neither the Parliament nor Government have those powers. It is like facing down a force 10 northerly on Dunnet Head in a t-shirt. That’s why the First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond told the SNP conference that ‘the independence I seek is the independence to create jobs’.


Readers, you should be in no doubt that Scotland faces stark choices next May. But so do many other peoples. Some have full powers over their futures. Others like the Basque provinces of Spain already have more powers to raise taxes than we do. I found out more about them when I supported the Scots Highland party whose games skills and music captured the hearts of thousands of Basque people of all ages. In Ordizia the Highland Games attracted four thousand spectators. In Burlada near Pamplona fifty thousand local people enjoyed the fund raising festival for their local Basque language school which is run on cooperative lines. The addition of Scots guests was highly popular.
Cllr Roy Peterson, School Head and
Rob Gibson MSP with Language Declaration

 I had the pleasure of contributing to a declaration that all those who wish to speak their own languages should be supported and encouraged. The Munduz Mundu festival goes from town to town each year. It helps some cultural or education purpose there. What a good idea.

What did the Scots contribute? At a civil society level, leaving politics to the side the Basque mood is to end memories of violent disagreement between Basque and Spanish ideas of government. It is civic and non-party call for change for the better.

Rob visited the Mondragon cooperatives seen around
their valley home in the heart of the Basque country
 After the festivals I fulfilled a dream of thirty years standing to visit Mondragon the home of the biggest Basque cooperative movement which started in 1956 as a way to educate some local young men and make work in the Spain of the Franco dictatorship that was down on all things Basque.

The local priest Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta applied Catholic social doctrine to start cooperative working. Today it consists of two hundred and fifty six enterprises and foundations. They are committed to greater social wealth through customer satisfaction, job creation, technological and business development. This has embraced continuous improvement, promotion of education and respect for the environment. In 2009 92,000 work in its companies, and a total turnover of 16 million Euros. Factories in China and Brazil are but the latest ideas being developed.

I’ll tell you more of this in due course because it works. Would that we could find model of work that are resilient and release our potential? That’s what drives me to work for a consensus in the Far North to find the best ways for our skills to build not just jobs but a common belief we can do it.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Questions over Huhne snub

Rob Gibson SNP MSP for Highlands and Islands has questioned why Chris Huhne snubbed the Scottish Parliament's Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, preferring instead making a repeat announcement on a £2 million grant for Scrabster harbour development by the NDA.

He said, "on Tuesday this week the Secretary of State for DECC Mr Huhne agreed to give evidence to Holyrood's EET committee. We agreed to shift our normal meeting time from Wednesday mornings to accommodate him. Ten days ago the committee was told his plans could no longer fit in an evidence session. The respect agenda towards MSPs by the London minister is shaken by Mr Huhne's action.

Mr Gibson went on,

"News that Mr Huhne visited Caithness instead and reannounced a welcome £2 million grant from the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency to help develop Scrabster Harbour. Newspapers carried this grant news two weeks ago. Why did Mr Huhne not announce the release of the Fossil Fuel Levy, raised in Scotland and locked up by Treasury rules? That would have helped bridge the funding package needed to get renewable related work at Scrabster going more quickly."

"All in all, Mr Huhne's visit to Caithness and then Shetland were LibDem party oriented. When he snubbed the Scottish Parliament he did not have the decency to bring new funds from the London coalition that can allow prime Scottish wind, wave and tidal resources to produce clean electricity that is vitally needed to meet UK carbon reduction targets."

Sunday, 10 October 2010

On music, culture and food

This week we can celebrate local evidence that Tory PM David Cameron should have regard to his ‘passion’ for the Big Society. The Mod begins in Caithness, the Feisean movement goes from strength to strength and this area’s food and drink offer huge nutritional and spiritual [pardon the pun] sustenance for healthy people and healthy communities.

First of all, the National Mod hits Caithness, or Mod Ghallaibh 2010. Yes it celebrates Gaelic culture and has never ventured o’er e Ord before. Despite early concerns about imposed Gaelic road signs that furore has died down and so many folk in the County and neighbouring Sutherland communities have pitched in to take part, to offer their musical talents and accommodation, food and produce for the event.

Quite rightly the lessons learned from past Mods show a big boost to the local economy and a friendly invasion. Indeed the recent Oban Mod produced over 8,000 visitors to that area and £2.5 millions into the economy at the ‘shoulder’ tourist season. All cultures and musical traditions will surely be boosted by taking part.

Secondly, and still on the Gaelic and musical theme, a report on the Feisean movement, the non-competitive learning festivals of traditional music and Gaelic traditions, through teaching festivals scattered across the land contributes another £2 million a year to small places and large.

The newest member of the Feisean, Fèis Ghallaibh was established in March 2009. In February 2009 the Gaelic Roadshow, Cuairt Chiùil Gàidhlig, reached children in P4- P7 in every Caithness Primary School while “Drop in Lunchtime Ceilidhs” were held in the secondary schools in Wick and Thurso.

This was followed by the first Fèis Ghallaibh on 21st March 2009 that attracted seventy children to workshops offered in fiddle, accordion, chanter/pipes, whistles, keyboard, guitar, bodhran and Gaelic song. Gaelic language was present throughout the day in workshop and games sessions.

Since then there have been further Fèis Ghallaibh Days in May and September 09 and a Fèis Fun Day in August during the school holidays. Meanwhile step dance and clarsach have been added to the choices available and most tutors have been recruited from Caithness and Sutherland although some have come from much further afield.

Lots more young competitors can seek medals this week in the Mod competitions. Good luck to them and to our athletes representing Scotland in Delhi.

The third part of the Big Society I’d like to highlight is the Highland Young Chef 2010 competition of which I was compere in the Burghfield House Hotel in Dornoch two weekends ago. Fiona Murray from Helmsdale won the top prize judged by Albert Roux’s family of distinguished former students. However, Tongue Hotel, Melvich Hotel and MacKays Hotel in Wick provided just some of the other prize winners as reported in the Groat.

Rob compered the Awards, Albert Roux, chief judge, Fiona Murray, the winner, John Thurso MP and Richard Lochhead MSP Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment.

Now I know fine dining is a rare treat for many, but just think, so many of our local restaurants and hotels have young, ambitious chefs and managers who see the sense and worth of good food, locally sourced and beautifully crafted.

My point is that music, culture and food are the distinctively human qualities that make us a distinctive and proud community, county and nation. They must not become victims of the cuts in public support that is under siege from Tory LibDem Coalition government intent on reducing the public sector and putting private services in its place.

It is our passion and right to be ourselves, to boost Caithness dialect, to make our own music, to celebrate great food produced and presented right here. That’s at the heart of Scottish wellbeing and self-esteem. Maybe the Tories should heed the message, if they attack the councils, the arts bodies, the sports supporters they may destroy the key elements of the Big Society that thrives here right now.


The Big Society is also under attack from the Labour Party. Just three days after the UK Labour Conference in Manchester Iain Gray, Scottish Parliament Labour leader has confirmed they will end the SNP’s council tax freeze and allow it to be increased again.

After wrecking the economy Labour now want ordinary Scots to pay for the mess they created. This is the council tax they put up 77% in Highland Council area when they were last in office with the LibDems. Why should the SNP Scottish Government be a message boy for London cuts?

Labour seems to want to hammer Scots families and pensioners by pushing up their council tax. By way of contrast the SNP Government has helped hard-pressed households by freezing council tax year on year – saving average households nearly £300 when people’s finances are under real pressure. Labour now wants to punish people at a time when money remains tight for many.

This confirms what we have long suspected – Scots can't afford a Labour government at Holyrood or a would-be Labour MSP here and the Far North should reject them next May.

In Highland Council area during Labour’s reign from 1997 and with the LibDems from 1999 the council tax increased by £504 on average, while their new call to end the freeze could amount over four years at a 4.5% cap to another £223.90. These are amongst the highest increases in the country.

Iain Gray wants to put this tax up - making an already unfair tax even harsher. The SNP wants to abolish the unfair council tax in favour of a fair local income tax. But we need extra MSPs to achieve that goal and allies in Parliament to demand that Scottish taxes be set and collected in Scotland. At the same time we must expand our economy to make new jobs that will increase income tax take and win new revenues from oil and gas as well as the burgeoning renewable energy sector.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Royal Mail should remain a public service, not privatised

Published: 24 September, 2010

THE SNP Government has laid out a forward-looking programme for this session which will have delivered 80 per cent of our manifesto pledges by May 2011.

This includes a new item of making Scottish Water an income earner for Scots of future generations as a public corporation.

The news from the coalition in London, on the other hand, was bleak in this London party-conference 

Over the years I have campaigned on a range of Royal Mail and Post 
Office issues and opposed the possible loss of the universal service obligation (USO) which is so important to our communities in far-flung areas. Now the Lib Dem and Tory coalition has signalled full privatisation of Royal Mail. Who can trust the Scottish Lib Dem pledge to secure the USO?

This goes much further than Labour, which also wanted to get rid of Royal Mail, and it could be the beginning of the end with job losses, service cuts and deterioration in the working conditions of postal workers. The service provided by Royal Mail is a public service and it should remain so.

If presented with the choice in a free Scotland we would co-operate with our neighbours but maintain a universal service obligation in a Scottish postal service.

I get letters from government departments from other than Royal Mail carriers. No wonder Royal Mail is running at a loss.

We all know it costs more to deliver to rural areas than to cities but the whole point of Royal Mail is that everyone can use it at a reasonable price. It is not only individuals but, crucially, business in rural Scotland that will suffer.

It is ironic that this policy is being driven by the Liberal Democrats. Did those voters in the North of Scotland who supported them in the general election vote for further reductions in their postal services?

Do you remember the Lib Dems’ “save our post offices” campaign? Now that policy page has been removed from their website.

Are they now regretting such a pledge given the likelihood many more post offices may have to close under the new proposals?

THE Holyrood economy, energy and tourism committee has called for evidence on the future of the enterprise network.

Early headlines show quite a reaction. Some say break up Highland and Islands Enterprise, some say merge it with Scottish Enterprise and others ask does it ever take seriously the needs of the more remote areas furth of Inverness.

For example, the Western Isles Council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, called for control over HIE funds for its island needs. HIE replied that more was spent per head in the Hebrides than around Inverness. Well of course it is, but that may still not meet the islands’ needs. Similarly small population centres like Caithness need clear evidence that HIE is committed to giving our economy more priority.

As deputy convener of the EET committee, I want to see a genuine view of enterprise promotion focused on the needs of disparate urban and rural areas. The evidence sessions will include one in Skye, the rest will be held in Edinburgh.

AS requested by John O’Groat Journal, I submitted the names of the group of MPs elected by crofters and their supporters in 1885 as my Highland Heroes. They did not make it to the hundred in the supplement last week. Yet they did much to spur on Gladstone’s Government to produce the Crofters Scotland Act of 1886.

I recall from a year ago attending a commemoration of Thomas Telford, the engineer, in the town house in Wick. We were shown the portraits and pictures there, among them Sir John Pender MP.

Few recall he was knocked out by John MacDonald Cameron, the Land Leaguer in 1885, and changed his spots from Liberal to Tory and was retuned in the Khaki election of 1900.

Who were these crofters’ MPs and why are they heroes?

Dr Gavin B. Clark was elected in Caithness in 1885 and was only defeated in 1900. He was a friend of Karl Marx and a supporter of Boer independence.

John Macdonald Cameron, a Gaelic speaker born in Dornoch who had lived in Saltburn before gaining worldwide engineering experience, was elected for the Northern Burghs comprising Wick, Dornoch, Tain, Dingwall, Cromarty and Kirkwall till 1900.

Sutherland voted in the radical local laird in 1885 but elected Angus Sutherland as Land League MP in 1886. Donald Macfarlane, previously a Parnellite MP in Ireland, was elected in Argyll in 1885 but was knocked out in 1886 in a sectarian campaign. He regained the seat in 1892. Inverness-shire elected local laird Charles Fraser Mackintosh in 1885 as a key member of the Land League.

In Ross-shire Dr Roderick Macdonald, from Skye, was re-elected in 1886 and was replaced by Mr Galloway-Weir in the 1890s.

These Land League MPs with Irish and radical support opposed the Gladstone Crofting Bill of 1886 because it did not go far enough to return the land to the people.

As I said in the Holyrood debate on the Crofting Bill last June: “The cherished view of the Land League was to ensure that every productive piece of land was put to good use and placed at the disposal of those who were able and willing to till the land.”

The Land League MPs voted against Gladstone because they wanted much more. On the other hand, Labour and Lib Dem MSPs voted in the 2010 Crofting Bill for fewer regulatory powers – unlike the active crofters who want rigorous regulation to ensure good land use.

We’ll see who the Highland Hero is, but the crofters’ members were up there with the best.