Column: Letter From Scotland 19th October 2012

by John Knox

So, we have started on the road to the referendum. It’s going to be a long and winding road to the autumn of 2014. Not everyone wants to go on this journey – in fact the opinion polls suggest that most voters would prefer to make the most of devolution rather than chose between independence and the status quo.

But the SNP won a mandate for a referendum with their overwhelming victory in the Scottish general election in 2011. And on Monday, a bright, cool autumn day, Alex Salmond welcomed the Prime Minister to St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh and both men signed an agreement which gives the referendum legal force and binds each party to accepting the result.

There’s been much mushing over the details of the agreement in this week’s news media. Mr Salmond is reckoned to have won the point that the Westminster parliament should give the referendum protection from annoying legal challenges. In exchange he’s accepted David Cameron’s insistence that there should be just one question – independence yes or no, and no third option. The Scottish Parliament will decide everything else – the exact date, the wording of the question, whether 16 and 17 year olds will be allowed to vote and how much each campaign is allowed to spend.

As to the substance of the campaigns, Mr Cameron underlined the value of the union earlier on Monday morning by climbing onto the hull of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier being built at Rosyth. “We’re stronger and safer together,” he told the helmeted workforce. Mr Salmond visited a children’s nursery to suggest that independence would give Scotland a better future. Their lieutenants have been manning the TV and studios all week to begin the long argument.

The opinion pollsters are finding that around 30 per cent of Scots want independence, 30 per cent want to remain in the UK and the other 40 per cent are undecided. So the SNP’s annual conference in Perth this weekend has plenty of persuading to do.

The Liberal Democrats have been first off the mark with a substantive contribution to the “Vote No” campaign or, as they prefer to call it the “Better Together” campaign. They’ve published their latest paper on Home Rule ( the list of previous authors stretches back from David Steel to William Gladstone.) Sir Menzies Campbell’s version sees the Scottish Parliament being given responsibility for raising nearly two-thirds of its spending – from income tax, corporation tax, and eight other smaller taxes. But VAT, pensions, welfare, defence, foreign affairs and the currency would remain with the Westminster government under a new federal Act of Union. It also envisages a further devolution of powers from Holyrood to the existing local authorities and to new burgh councils.

It’s a mood point whether all this constitutional stuff will be the deciding factor in the referendum. People may chose instead to vent their anger over the economy if there is no sign of recovery by 2014. The GDP and unemployment figures released this week show Scotland lagging behind the rest of the UK. Growth was down to minus 0.4 per cent in the second quarter of the year. Unemployment has risen to 8.2 per cent in Scotland whereas in the UK as a whole, it has fallen to 7.9 per cent. And the 1700 workers at Hall’s meat processing plant in West Lothian learnt on Tuesday that they will be joining the unemployment queue over the next three months.

If there is a bright spot in the Scottish economy it’s in Aberdeen. Unemployment there is down to 2 per cent. The oil industry is entering a new phase with the larger firms passing on their fields and platforms to smaller, more specialised firms, encouraged by the Chancellor’s recent tax changes (or should that be u-turns). The city is also hoping to cash in on the off-shore wind industry.

And this week, it learned it was going to get its long-awaited by-pass. The new £400m road has been held up for three years by legal challenges but finally the UK Supreme Court has ruled that the objections are unfounded. The road won’t be completed, though, till 2018.

Overall, there hasn’t been much to be cheerful about this week. The weather has been dreich – apart from that bright Monday morning. School pupils on their half-term holiday, have been dragged through the shopping centres or have stood around on street corners, their hoods pulled over their heads. I noticed two little girls in multi-coloured raincoats carefully picking up fallen leaves on the grass outside my kitchen window and carrying them inside for an art project, no doubt being organised by a desperate parent.

Other children have been competing at the annual Gaelic music and arts festival, the National MOD, in Dunoon. The organisers say more young people are speaking fluent Gaelic than ever before, at least in recent times, and more pupils are sitting Gaelic exams.

This serious week was brought to a crushing conclusion with the realisation that Scotland is, in all probability, out of the World Cup. Our glorious team when down 2-nil to Belgium, leaving us bottom of our group. Now we have to decide whether to sack the manager, poor Craig Levein, or rebuild our football society from its foundations. Let’s have a referendum about that !