The cold clear nights of November have given us some awe-inspiring views of the heavens. There’s nothing quite so humbling as looking at the night sky. This evening I’m taking my scout troop up to the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh to see what a tiny role we play in this galaxy of 100 billion stars.
But I like to think that, out there somewhere, there are many little Scotlands struggling to make ends meet and debating their future in a starry united kingdom. On Tuesday, Alex Salmond (first minister, Scotland, Earth) will “launch” his long-anticipated white paper on independence. It is supposed to answer all the questions voters have about the referendum next year. Can Scotland pay it’s way? What would happen to the currency, our pensions, the armed forces, our membership of the EU?
Actually, the SNP government has already answered these questions many times in the last few months. On Tuesday this week, Mr Salmond was again outlining the economic case for Scotland going it alone. We could, he suggested, create 200,000 jobs over the next 20 years by exporting more, investing in manufacturing industry, getting more women into work, cutting corporation tax and relaxing the rules on immigration.
Alistair Darling the former Labour chancellor and now leading the No campaign said this was “fantasy economics.” And he pointed to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which concluded that there was a £10bn black hole in the Scottish public finances which would need to be filled by either raising income tax by 9p in the pound (or increasing VAT to 27 per cent) or cutting public spending by 8 per cent. It transpired however that the Institute was making equally dismal estimates for the UK as a whole.
I don’t myself believe the referendum will be decided on such detailed arguments as the state of the public finances or the number of frigates in the Scottish navy, or the terms on which we would join the EU, or even the general health of the economy. I think it will be decided by emotional and cultural values. I am immediately contradicted, of course, by an opinion poll this week which found that 47 per cent of Scots would vote for independence if they felt they would be £500 a year better off (ICM poll in The Scotsman). But people will tell pollsters almost anything !
Readers in Wales might be interested to learn that their first minister Labour’s Carwyn Jones made a flying visit to Scotland this week to encourage Scots to stay within the Union. It made for a “balanced” United Kingdom, he said. He also cast doubt on whether an independent Scotland could have a place on a Sterling Zone currency board.
But to stick with my feeling that the referendum will be decided on cultural values, we had a number of indications this week of the kind of country we want to be. Dundee put in a very energetic bid to be the UK City of Culture in 2017 but graciously gave way to a forgotten city somewhere in the East Riding of Yorkshire, saying it would carry on with its £1bn modernisation programme anyway.
The blacklisting of workers by large firms will not be tolerated, the Scottish government has declared. The likes of Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Laing O’Rourke and McAlpine’s will have to assure the government they do not operate a blacklist or they will not be awarded public contracts.
MSPs also this week agreed in principle to a bill allowing gay marriage. There was a free vote: 94 for, 15 against, 5 abstentions and 8 did not vote at all. Among the doubters were those who were worried that churches which oppose gay marriage would be forced to conduct such ceremonies to avoid court cases over discrimination.
I don’t know what Jean Armour would think about gay marriage but she certainly stuck to her husband Robert Burns “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” It’s now emerged that in 1786 she gave him a silver pocket watch with a touching little love note inside. It’s a hand-pierced piece of paper showing two love-birds and the initials J and R. The watch has come from an anonymous collector and is expected to fetch £2,500 at auction in Edinburgh next week.
From the inner workings of the heart and a pocket watch to the whirrings of the universe, this column knows no bounds. To put things in perspective again, I’ll finish with the words of another poet, Hugh McDiarmid:
Mars is braw in crammasy,
Venus in a green silk goun,
The auld mune shaks her gowden feathers,
Their starry talk’s a wheen o blethers,
Nane for thee a thochtie sparin,
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn.
But greet, an in your tears ye’ll drown
The haill clanjamfrie!