LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 24th January 2014

The poetry of Robert Burns
Hand written manuscripts on display at the National Library of Scotland

It has come three years late but it’s welcome for a’ that. We have finally seen a significant fall in unemployment. It is down to 6.4 per cent, the lowest figure for five years and a big fall from the usual figure of over 7 per cent. (It’s still 7.1 per cent for the UK as a whole.) In particular there has been a very welcome fall in youth unemployment, though it is still nearly 20 per cent.

Unemployment is down
Unemployment is down
Does it mean the years of austerity are over? Certainly not. Firstly, it’s not clear if the figures can be trusted – they seem to have caught the experts by surprise. Secondly, the bald figures do not give us the breakdown for part-time or temporary work – and the Labour Party tell us that a third of jobs in Scotland are now part-time or temporary. Thirdly, real earnings are still falling behind inflation. And fourthly, the Chancellor seems intent on cutting more jobs from the public sector.

So I’m left feeling unsure about whether we are entering a period of sustainable economic growth or just stumbling towards another quagmire. Certainly the Scottish government has been complaining that the budget it’s been given is still in austerity mode. But when the finance secretary John Swinney outlined its £35 billion worth of spending to parliament this week he did manage to squeeze out a little more money for childcare (£59m) and free school meals (£55m) and £20m to help council tenants offset the so-called bedroom tax.

Alex Rowley MSP Victor in Cowdenbeath
Alex Rowley MSP
Victor in Cowdenbeath
This was enough to persuade the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to add their votes to the SNP majority and the budget was passed by 90 votes to 13. There was a further outbreak of collaboration when Labour’s finance spokesman Iain Gray revealed he was in “constructive” discussions with Mr Swinney about the best way to protect people from the “Tory bedroom-tax”. This is rainbow politics indeed.

While this was going on at Holyrood, across the water in Fife the parties were fighting each other in the Cowdenbeath by-election. It was no surprise that Alex Rowley held the seat for Labour – he is after all the leader of Fife council. On a low turnout, of 34 per cent, the other parties did as expected, the SNP coming second, the Conservatives third. But the Liberal Democrats suffered another disaster, coming in fifth, behind UKIP.

In the wider referendum campaign, we’ve had another of those curious opinion surveys showing that if people thought they would be £500 a year better off, then support for independence rose from its usual 30 per cent to over 50 per cent. And if they thought they would be £500 a year worst off support for independence sank to just 15 per cent. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey also shows that voters are not much influenced by arguments over currencies or membership of the EU. Professor John Curtis says, in his analysis here in the Caledonian Mercury, that this is because opinion on these issues is equally divided among supporters of both the Yes and the No camps. It leads him to the conclusion that the economy is the crucial battle-ground.

Prof John Curtice Are modern Scots just a 'parcel of rogues'
Prof John Curtice
Are modern Scots just a
‘parcel of rogues’
I am reluctant to disagree with the world expert on these matters but here goes. I think the 1500 Scots who took part in the survey were not being serious. They were caught in bar-room mood. We are not such a parcel of rogues to be swayed by a £500 bribe, or by predictions over currencies or memberships. I think as we get closer to 18th September, people will vote with their heart not their head, and cultural and historical issues will determine the matter.

There was evidence of that Scottish heart last week when 3-year old Mikaeel Kular went missing from his home in Edinburgh. Hundreds of neighbours turned out to help the police search for him. And then, sadly, they turned out again to lay flowers and attend a church service to remember him. His body was found in woodlands in Fife and his mother Rosdeep Kular appeared in court on Monday charged with his murder.

We suffered another very different tragedy on the same day young Mikaeel was found. This time there were no crowds, only a mountain rescue team. Donald Tiso (50), of the famous Tiso family of adventurers, died while climbing with a friend on Ben Starav south of Glencoe. He was a director of the chain of 21 Tiso outdoor clothing and equipment stores and a keen photographer and supporter of the Scottish music scene. His father, who founded the firm in the 1960s, was also a keen mountaineer but died in a boating accident when he was just 57.

Burrell Collection  Items can now be leant out
Burrell Collection
Items can now be leant out
MSPs had one final duty this week. They passed the Burrell Collection Lending and Borrowing Bill, a private piece of legislation which will allow Glasgow City Council to lend pieces from the Burrell art collection to galleries abroad. It breaks one of the conditions laid down by the shipping magnate Sir William Burrell when he left his huge collection of world paintings, tapestries, sculptures etc to the city when he died in 1958.

It’s a timely example of Robert Burns’ famous line: “Nae man can tether time nor tide.” Circumstances change. One generation cannot bind another.

To celebrate Burns Night – on Saturday – the National Library has put on public display one of its greatest treasurers, the Glenriddell Manuscript, copies of some 50 poems, all in Burns’ own hand, and 27 of his letters sent to his friend Captain Robert Riddell in the 1790s. They somehow found their way to a gentleman’s club in Liverpool which disgracefully put them up for sale in 1913. Luckily, a rich American John Gribbel from Philadelphia bought them and returned them to Scotland. Unlike Sir William Burrell he did not need a parliamentary vote to persuade him to do the right thing. The collection contains such classics as Holy Willie’s Prayer and the aforementioned Tam o’ Shanter.

Unfortunately it doesn’t contain his later song, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” which is perhaps best suited to these times of austerity and with which I raise a glass to honest Rab on his birthday.

“Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an a’ that:
The coward slave we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that !
For a’ that and a’ that,
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.”