The house sparrow – making a recovery

The long term decline in the population of the humble house sparrow appears to have been halted. It was one of the great achievements of 2013, thanks to all those suburban gardeners. But the recovery of this little Biblical bird is slow and uncertain, just like the recovery in our economy.

George Osborne 'Not done yet'
George Osborne
‘Not done yet’
The Chancellor says he is “not yet done” with his austerity programme and the national debt will increase before it declines. But he reckons we’ve seen 1.4 per cent growth in the economy this year, the first real sign of recovery since the bankers’ crash in 2007/8. Unemployment is coming down but is still above 7 per cent (around 20 per cent for young people).

Thank goodness we have seen a return in consumer spending, for that is, above all, what is going to fire up the economy. Unfortunately in 2013 we could not shake off the 19th century belief that we can manufacture and export our way out of recession. It’s as if the other 75 per cent of the economy didn’t exist !

The heather set on fire
The heather set on fire
Another believe we have been reluctant to let go of is that climate change does not matter much. We were happy to see the government postponing petrol tax rises and taking action against energy price increases. And it didn’t occur to us what might be causing the long dry spring and summer, the strong winds and flooding in the autumn, the bush fires in Australia (not to mention the Scottish Highlands), the tornado in Oklahoma and, in the Philippines, the most powerful storm the world has ever seen.

And when disasters have been more directly man-made, we’ve convinced ourselves we can do nothing about them. As in the clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh in April which killed a thousand workers, or the war in Syria which has left 100,000 dead and 2 million refugees. Where we have intervened, as in Afghanistan, we have done so half-heartedly and we are now winding down our operations there.

The White Paper
The White Paper
Here at home, this has been the year of pre-referendum nerves. The Yes camp has published its case for independence in a 650 page “white paper” promising everything from a written constitution to free child-care. The No camp couldn’t agree on a similar manifesto and have confined themselves to sniping at the SNP’s figures. The opinion polls are still showing a 60/30 split between those who want Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom and those who want independence. The remaining 10 per cent have yet to make up their minds.

Whatever happens on September 18th 2014, it will be clear that a lot of Scots want more say over the way their country is run. The Independence march and rally in September this year saw 10,000 flag-waving people – and a couple of pandas – parading through the streets of Edinburgh in a scene worthy of Sir Walter Scott. Containing this patriotic fervour will be one of the post-referendum challenges.

Another bad year for the reputation of bankers
Another bad year for the reputation of bankers
The top bankers have continued to disgrace themselves. The latest figures from the European Banking Authority show that in 2012 nearly 3,000 bankers in Britain collected bonuses worth four times their annual salaries and their average pay went up 35 per cent. These are the chaps who caused the recession in the first place and were responsible for a string of offences, including miss-selling insurance and investment “products”, breaking international sanctions and fixing interest rates. And the Scottish banks, RBS and the Bank of Scotland, have been among the worst offenders.

State Funeral
State Funeral
Even Mrs Thatcher has been turning in her grave. We gave the grand old lady a grand old send-off in a state funeral in April. The former Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie died in August after a valiant struggle against cancer. The Labour party lost one of its loved ones, with the death of the Fife MSP Helen Eadie, again from cancer. The SNP also lost one of its MSPs but for quite different reasons. Bill Walker from Dunfermline was sent to jail on 22 charges of assault against three former wives.

The Catholic Church had another traumatic year, with further allegations of child abuse – this time at its former boarding school in Fort Augustus. Cardinal Keith O’Brien was forced to resign in February after admitting inappropriate sexual relations with young trainee priests. The Church only began to restore some respectability when it brought in a reforming new Pope from South America.

Angela Merkel Stormed back as German Chancellor
Angela Merkel
Stormed back as German Chancellor
In the world at large, we’ve seen President Obama survive the “fiscal cliff” but only just. Angela Merkel stormed back for a third term as Chancellor of Germany. South Africa has said a fond farewell to Nelson Mandela. And the Chinese have landed a spacecraft on the Moon.

Where politicians have failed, wars have continued. There are currently a dozen going on, including, of course Syria and Afghanistan but we’ve seen new outbreaks in Nigeria, Mali and the Central African Republic. And there have been dreadful acts of terrorism in Nairobi, Boston and in the streets of London where soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death by two Islamic extremists. There have been violent riots too in Cairo, Kiev and, shame of it, in Belfast where over 50 police officers were injured in August.

Scotland has had its fair share of disasters this year. It began with four climbers killed in an avalanche in Glencoe in January. Another four people died in a North Sea helicopter crash off Shetland in August. And at the end of November, a police helicopter fell from the sky onto the Clutha bar in Glasgow killing 10 people.

Andy Murray
Andy Murray
But it hasn’t all been bad news. We have gloried in our sporting stars. Fresh from his gold medal winning achievement at the London Olympics last year, Andy Murray also became the first Briton to win Wimbledon for over 70 years. Hardly surprising that he was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

In football we’ve been celebrating Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career at Aberdeen and Manchester United. In science we have a new Nobel Prize winner in Professor Peter Higgs. And in music, the Aberdeenshire lass Emeli Sande stormed the Brit Awards and 16 year old Nicholas McDonald from Glasgow very nearly won the X-Factor.

The Bible story of the sparrow, of course, illustrates the point that even the rise and fall of the most ordinary and humble creature matters in the whole scheme of things. Sparrow numbers may be rising, but others are falling, like the corncrake, the skylark, the curlew and the lapwing. Every one matters. The events of the year 2013 are not confined to the news headlines. They are only the touchstones by which we can navigate though our own personal history and perhaps help us flock together.