Friday, 16 July 2010

United in a bid for devolution

TRAVEL broadens the mind and narrows the credit limit. But travel also helps us compare and contrast aspects of life we share.

Take the World Cup final. We watched snatches on a huge screen in the Plaza Espana in Vitoria, seat of the modern Basque parliament.

Spain's regions have led devolution (inside a big European state) since those dark days. The Basques have most powers and Catalans next. Others like Galicia (in the north-west) have cultural and linguistic identifiers and a huge fishing industry.

But why is Spain a very popular (and noisy) World Cup winner? They have no preconception of superiority. All the regional strengths feed the national team. However, did the popular support for the Spanish 11 boost political centralism? Hardly, the processes of devolution and gathering powers continue apace.

For example, on July 9 more than a million people held a march in Barcelona to demand national status for Catalonia and the right to self-determination. The demonstration, which was led by the current and four former presidents of the Catalan Government and parliament, came a week after the Spanish constitutional court banned certain articles of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, which was voted for by Catalans in a 2006 referendum. The leading banner of the demonstration summed up the united feeling - "We are a nation. We decide."

In the Basque lands the violent struggle led by ETA against the equally brutal Franco regime spilled over into the devolution era. Basque national parties tried to build more powers on the devolution settlement that left the main purse strings in Madrid, who resisted peaceful demands. Today ETA is losing support as terror tactics change to overwhelming demands for peaceful extension of powers.

We came to Pamplona to visit during the St Fermin festival, famous for its running-with-the-bulls event that kicks off each day's fun and bacchanalian mayhem. It's some sight to see tens of thousands of locals dressed from head to toe in white wearing red sashes and red bandanas in full-on party mode. Unfortunately I never met the lads from Caithness who drove there in their Highland cow van though. The early-morning start for a three-minute bull and mad human cascade through narrow streets is ancient, as are the nightly bull fights. My experience of a bull fight in Barcelona as a teenager put me off the idea for life. And today a big movement wants to outlaw bull runs and bull rings.


TOM Nairn, the Scottish political philosopher, warned that to compare nations it is best to start with differences rather than similarities when seeking conclusions.

When the Caithness Mod 2010 draws to a close in Caithness on October 16, a huge Basque language event and Basque Highland Games will begin in Pamplona.

A total of 80,000 participants and audience members are expected over three days. And I have been asked to lead a Highland Games and music contingent including a pipe band and heavy athletes. Highland councillors have given their support and representatives will attend.

Does size matter? Should we bother to make friends in the Basque lands? Will it make a difference to our esteem for the Caithness dialect of Scots or our Gaelic heritage?

The Basque Government gets strong popular backing to boost tourist and business links with sympathetic neighbours. The Scottish Government has similar aims with fewer resources at its disposal.

I hope that such cultural links lead to attracting more Basque visitors here. Our parliament is keen to see lots of business links made by smaller firms. We will explore the Basque taste for some Highland produce if we can and maybe strike up some contacts.

Too little has been done officially with our neighbours to make more trade. Whether it is Norway or Euzkadi, we can make new friends and build bridges of common interest in a world where diversity is in too short supply. I noted a shop full of salt cod from Faroes and Iceland. And, yes, the big langoustines on the menus probably arrived via a lorry from Scrabster. There are so many connections to make.

A sprinkling of Basque passion for shellfish, self government, business, music and culture would go a long way to lifting the dead hand of Westminster from our very viable way of life in our own dear land.


AS I write this column in a campsite close to Pamplona, across fields of sun flowers and ripe wheat there lies a ridge whereupon wind turbines twirl in the breeze.

All the way west, from Santander to Vigo, then all the way east via Leon and Castille to Navarra are huge wind farms. This denotes an embrace by landowners and local people. Green energy works, most days. Wind made up 14 per cent of Spain's electric generation last year.

It makes a sizable chunk of Scotland's green power too.

And by the way, big community benefits from wind farms would be good. Don Quixote tilted at old fashioned ones. Embracing clean, green electricity in our backyard could do us a power of good.

It would be most apt for the big electricity utilities to ensure communities share in their profits and a new source of power be given in cash and kind to help fund the Scottish footballers whose toughest target in the forthcoming Euro qualifiers is Spain.

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