There’s an eve of battle atmosphere about the SNP’s annual conference in Perth this weekend, the last before next September’s independence referendum. The order of the day is “forward.” Alex Salmond has told his 1200 party officers that this is their “greatest opportunity” for winning independence and immortality.
So how does the battle field look? Well, to the immediate south, there are the flares of Grangemouth. Scotland’s one and only oil refinery is in danger of closing. It has been shut down till at least Tuesday in an obscure and labyrinthine dispute between a powerful trade union and Ineos, a Chinese-backed private equity firm.
It is a particularly embarrassing dispute for a country which prides itself on oil production and which virtually invented the oil industry – with James “Paraffin” Young’s first refinery opening in 1851. It’s also a sign that we haven’t been keeping up and investing in the latest developments in the industry.
To the west and north, there are fears for the postal services in the Highlands and Islands with the privatisation of the Royal Mail. Alex Salmond has pledged to re-nationalise the company in an independent Scotland. How much that might cost depends on the share price which went sky high just after the sale last week. It left the London government, and its advisors Lazards, looking pretty silly, having sold a national asset at 30 per cent below its value.
Looking further to the south, the high command at Perth are preparing for a battle royal over the Coalition’s cross-border war machines, in the form of more spending cuts and welfare reform. Local authorities this week have been warning that front line services, like libraries, will have to close if the spending cuts continue. And the SNP have promised to do all they can to end the cuts to benefits. In particular they would, in an independent Scotland, reverse the bedroom tax or spare room subsidy.
But there are bright spots on the battle field too. Scottish unemployment figures are improving, 7.3 per cent this month, compared to 7.7 per cent for the UK as a whole. And the number of Scots in employment, at 2.54 million, is the highest for five years…though a third of those jobs are temporary or part-time.
The native language seems to be enjoying a revival. More funding for Gaelic was announced at the end of a successful National MOD in Paisley. Most of the money, £350,000 will go to Gaelic TV channel, BBC Alba, which now has a weekly audience of 600,000. And the government has set a target of doubling the number of children in Gaelic medium education from 400 to 800 over the next four years.
On the football field, Scotland turned in a respectable performance against Croatia on Tuesday night (2:0), which makes it three wins out of the last four matches. There are now high hopes that Gordon Strachan can take us into the European finals in 2016. Rangers, of course, continue to disgrace us with their never-ending board-room battles, but there are signs of a new ownership pattern emerging across Scotland with the fans at Dunfermline finally taking control of their club.
So the clan chiefs gathering in Perth have some things to be cheerful about. And apparently they are in confident mood, even though the opinion polls remain unmoved from their findings that support for independence is still only running at around 30 per cent. But that doesn’t stop the SNP from winning elections and knocking all the opposition parties into a peat bog.
Alex Salmond is fond of pointing out that there are twice as many pandas in Scotland as there are Tory MPs. He was very nearly able to put that figure up to three times but we learned this week that poor Tian Tian at Edinburgh Zoo had suffered a miscarriage. There is always next year. Certainly there seem to be more pandas about than Tory MPs. I saw two at the SNP’s independence parade in the Royal Mile last month. And on Saturday night, I saw another two on the stage at the Church Hill theatre taking part in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Perhaps all politicians should change from playing the bagpipes to playing the flute.