LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 27th SEPTEMBER 2013

Independence March – confusion over the numbers

I could not help being swept along by the roaring tide of blue which surged down the Royal Mile last Saturday. There were 10,000 people carrying Saltire flags, Yes banners, bagpipes, children on their shoulders. I even saw a couple of pandas. It was a huge turnout – by Scottish standards. The march ended with a rally on Calton Hill, addressed by the clan chiefs of the “Yes to Independence” campaign.

Independence Rally
Independence Rally
The police estimated the crowd at 8,000, the organisers said 30,000, which makes me suspect they were speaking about different things. But the thought that went through my mind as I stood by the Tron Church and watched the parade go by was that this was too big a crowd to ignore. Whatever the outcome of the referendum next year, something will have to be done to assuage this patriotic Scottish fervour.

No less a body than the Electoral Commission feels the same. It has appealed to both sides to spell out exactly what will happen after the referendum, whatever the result. It will be a sore and tender period. It may even be angry.

If they Yes side win, the SNP government says it will begin negotiations on separating from the UK and joining the EU. If the No side win, there have been promises of more powers for the devolved Scottish Parliament. Various conventions have been suggested. But the Electoral Commission says there needs to be greater “clarity” from both sides so that voters can make an informed choice.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon sought to sharpen the differences between the two sides this week by suggesting that in an independent Scotland, the retirement age may not go up as fast as in the rest of the UK. She said an SNP government would review the planned move to age 67 in 2025 because Scotland would be more prosperous and Scots, on average, do not live as long as the English or Welsh. Though, of course she was not against people living to a ripe old age !

The UK party conferences are all sending out frantic messages to Scotland to ignore the SNP and stick with Great Britain next year. The Liberal Democrats said they would be “heart-broken” if the Scots left the Union. Instead, they called for one of those “conventions” on more home rule for the Scots.

Ed Miliband used part of his without-notes speech to plead: “ I don’t want Cathy to become a foreigner.” Cathy Murphy from Glasgow, he told us, collapsed at Labour’s conference in Liverpool in 2011 and was rushed to the local hospital to be treated for a heart complaint. She still goes back to Liverpool for check-ups. “At the hospital, they don’t ask if she’s English or Scottish, they know she’s British.” No doubt we will get more heart-rending stories from the Conservatives in Manchester next week. It’s interesting, though, that the latest census figures for Scotland show that 62 per cent of the population describe themselves as “Scottish” and only 18 per cent as “Scottish and British.”

Kenny MacAskill Justice Secretary
Kenny MacAskill
Justice Secretary
Meanwhile the SNP keep on governing in Scotland. The justice secretary Kenny MacAskill told parliament he was pressing on with his plan to abolish the “corroboration” requirement before cases of rape or sexual assault are brought to court. He said the corroboration rule was unique to Scotland and was formulated in a different age. “It’s a barrier to obtaining justice for the victims of crime committed in private or where no on else was there,” he said.

A review by Lord Carloway found that of 141 sexual offences not taken to court in 2010 because of a lack of corroborating evidence, two thirds would probably have led to convictions. I must say, though, that I find it rather worrying that I could land up in court on a charge of rape, simply on the say-so of a women with a grudge against me. And I am not alone. The Law Society, the Faculty of Advocates and the Police Federation are equally worried about dropping the fairly obvious need for corroboration.

As with any legal matter of course, the debate is somewhat confusing. The requirement for corroboration does not apply in the case of scientific evidence. And on his side, Mr MacAskill is taking the precaution against miscarriages of justice by requiring juries to reach a verdict by a two-thirds majority.

Cyclists - concerned about the court ruling
Cyclists – concerned about the court ruling
Another worrying case – for me as a cyclist – is the appeal court ruling this week that a driver who killed two cyclists should only be banned from driving for five years. Gary McCourt served a two year jail sentence nearly 20 years ago when he killed his first cyclist but he was back at the wheel again two years ago and knocked an elderly woman off her bike. He was sentenced on that occasion to 300 hours of community service and a five year ban from driving. The prosecution service appealed, on the grounds that that was too lenient a sentence. But the appeal court judges didn’t agree.

The cyclists’ lobby are rightly outraged. They want McCourt banned from driving for life. They also want a presumption of fault for drivers in all accidents involving a cyclist. Car drivers, they say, are in charge of a large and powerful machine and it is up to them to avoid hitting cyclists. Too right.

I suppose it’s a case of sticking up for the underdog in the war of the highways. I’m also in favour of the underdog in football. I was glad to see little Greenock Morton beat Celtic 1-nil on Tuesday night and knock them out of the League Cup….even though it was with a penalty in extra time. Justice is sometimes a hard thing to pin down.

  • woodzo

    Like you I was struck by the fact that in the last census a whopping 62 per cent of the population described themselves as Scottish rather than British.
    But then I read further: in Wales 66 per cent think of themselves as Welsh and in England 70 per cent say they are English, not British.
    Perhaps we are not quite as nationalistic as we, or others, think we are.

  • Dandelion

    Call me an establishment stooge, but the police have to provide security and maintain order at marches and gatherings as a matter of course. Therefore I would expect them to be able to make a reasonably accurate assessment of how many people attended this march.
    The numbers quoted (8-10,000) would be about 0.5% of the Scottish electorate – so I suspect they may be eminently ignorable – personally I am shocked that the turnout was so low given that polls indicate that 30% of the population support independence.
    If only 20% of the eligible-to-vote population of Edinburgh alone had gone along, this would have been 80,000 marchers. That they seemed to scrape together only 10,000 to 20,000 is very low.
    Finally – it is notable that both the professional accountancy and actuarial bodies in Scotland have grave doubts about the SNP’s pension promises. They SNP have not provided any figures or evidence backing up their claim about keeping the retirement age low. Arguably it is also a very bad idea, as retirement tends to reduce, rather than extend, people’s life expectancy.

    • The Police Fed ‘tweeted’ that their members had policed a march of 20000 or more. So much for the ‘reasonably accurate assessment’ of their media centre.

      Have you calculated the numbers that Better Together have mustered so far?