LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 18th January 2013

Scotland has been dramatically drawn into the war on terror in Africa. At question time in parliament the first minister Alex Salmond announced that several Scots are among the hostages taken by rebels in Algeria. It’s a frightening illustration of how politics has become global.

The Islamist group Katibat Moulathamine ,“the masked ones”, claim they stormed the In Amenas BP gas field in eastern Algeria and are holding 41 foreigners hostage. They say it’s in retaliation for the Western intervention in Mali, where French troops, supported by British transport planes, are fighting Al-Qaeda-inspired rebels in the north of the country. Somehow, Scots oil workers have got caught up in this East-West struggle. We are now living from news bulletin to news bulletin wondering what the outcome will be.

Should the West be going into Mali? Answer, probably “yes”. The UN certainly thinks so. How else are we to stop warlords devastating the lives of people living in that poor part of Africa? And can we allow yet another nest for international terrorists to become established? No, but let’s do a better job for the post-conflict population of Mali than we did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And do we allow the hostage-takers to go unchallenged? Answer, certainly not. We have to rescue our oil workers; and I leave it to the experts to figure out if that should be done quickly and by force or whether it should be done softly softly.

Meanwhile here at home, we have had another example of international politics coming to haunt us. The prime minister David Cameron’s big speech on Europe has rather overshadowed Alex Salmond’s announcement that he is planning to draft a new constitution for an independent Scotland. The SNP’s New Scotland would, of course, be firmly in the European Union before Mr Cameron’s referendum, so the debate over Europe has become slightly muddled in Scotland.

This week, Westminster ministers made it plain that they would not enter into any pre-separation talks, ahead of Mr Salmond’s referendum in 2014. They said it would be a “betrayal.” The SNP said it was “a scare tactic.”

What is becoming clearer, to me at least, is that the SNP are determined to make the independence referendum a vote on what kind of Scotland we want to live in. They are painting a picture of an oil-rich Scotland, safely inside the EU (with an opt-out on fishing of course ). It would have a modern constitution which guarantees, among other things, a free education, a decent home, care in later life, no nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, and even a state pension scheme which, in Nicola Sturgeon’s words “reflects Scottish values” ie protects the poor and not the rich.

It’s an attractive proposition. The pro-union camp will have to come up with an equally pleasant future, as former first minister Henry McLeish pointed out this week. Until then, he says he is not joining the Better Together campaign.

On Tuesday, I found myself in a heavy snow-shower as we worked on the wildlife reserve at Duddingston. Wisely, most of the wildlife was warmly tucked up in bed, except for one inquisitive robin who kept asking us what on earth we were doing out of our hides on such a cold and miserable day. Cold misery turned out to be the theme of the week, with temperatures down to minus 13 in Braemar. Local councils say they have stocked more road-salt than ever before. This winter is forecast to be the coldest for 100 years, according to the Daily Mail.

Anglers, though, were braving the cold to begin the salmon fishing season on the River Tay. They are expecting a good catch this year because the average weight of fish making their way up-stream last year was at a 25-year high.

Scotland’s other national sport, some call it football, was at an unusual high this week with news that Gordon Strachan has accepted the challenge of manager of the national team. After 40 years in the business, as player and manager, the former Celtic boss said he’s happy “to give it a go.” Brave man.

Trust the Glaswegian to try to cheer us up this week. They are staging the Celtic Connections folk music festival for the 20th time – despite troubles over finding venues and sponsors. And the Commonwealth Games organisers began their call for 15,000 volunteers to be “games makers” in 2014. By the end of the first day, they had 10,000 offers. Now that has cheered me up.