Letter from Scotland: 2nd November 2012

by John Knox

We’ve heard a lot about Europe this week. Would an independent Scotland be accepted as a new member of the European Union and on what terms? Indeed, on what terms is the United Kingdom prepared to remain in the EU? These questions have spooked us more than any Halloween witches.

The debate has raged in Holyrood and at Westminster. David Cameron is going off to the annual scrum in Brussels over the EU budget with a Commons defeat behind him. Fifty three of his own Tory MPs rebelled against the government and called for a cut in the budget (£826b for the period 2014-20). Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Alex Salmond faced more criticism from all three opposition leaders over his claims that an independent Scotland would be welcomed with open arms into the EU while at the same time remaining in the Sterling zone.

Mr Salmond neatly side-stepped a debate in the Scottish Parliament over the legal advice he had, or had not, sought on the EU issue and instead went to a conference in Glasgow to declare that Scotland is fast becoming “the renewables power-house of Europe.” He announced that the target date for generating half our electricity from wind, wave and hydro-power was being brought forward from 2020 to 2015. And Highland Council joined in the euphoria by approving a huge hydro-electric storage scheme at Coire Glas, north of Fort William.

But the Westminster government would not let the independence issue go. It dispatched the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond to Faslane to warn Scotland that it could not just walk away from its commitment to NATO and the Trident nuclear deterrent. In fact he upped the ante and announced that he had allocated another £350m towards renewing the Trident submarine fleet and would base all the Royal Navy’s submarines at Faslane by 2022. He warned that over 8,000 jobs would then be at stake. The SNP and CND say only 520 of those jobs are linked to Trident missiles.

The fallout from all this independence-in-Europe debate even reached the editorial page of The Washington Post, which you would have thought would have more pressing issues on its mind…like the biggest storm ever to hit New York and a presidential election campaign. But it found time to declare: “An independent Scotland would significantly weaken the foremost military and political ally of the United States, while creating another European mini-state unable to contribute meaningfully to global security.” It says it’s part of a worrying trend of the fragmentation of Europe which may not stop at Scotland but go on to involve provinces like Flanders in Belgium, Venice in Italy and Catalonia in Spain (where there is an independence-inspired election later this month).

As if all this was not scary enough, I was visited by a gaggle of witches on a wet and dark Hallow’een. They screeched out a song of sorts and then asked for a “trick or treat”. It’s unusual these days to have any sort of entertainment, so I gave them a treat in the form of hard Sterling currency.

The Scottish Parliament was, at that very moment, passing a new law increasing the tax on haunted properties, or at least empty properties where witches and warlocks may be hiding. Business leaders said it was “a tax on distress” as the many empty premises in Scotland had enjoyed a 50 per cent rebate on their rates. That now goes down to just 10 per cent and councils will also have the power to increase rates on empty houses.

It’s enough to make many a witch or warlock blow up the houses of parliament, which is what one foolhardy Englishman tried to do on 5th November 1605. Indeed, I hear his efforts celebrated as I walk the streets around my house every evening this week. It’s another sign of the year moving on towards winter, like the leaves falling, the salmon returning to the rivers, the clocks going back and the dark evenings.