As I lay in my wind-battered tent last weekend, I must admit I did not think about how the events of this week would unfold…the clash of the cabinets, the debate over North Sea Oil, the vote on corroboration. Instead I was wondering if the scout leader would call me out to help rescue a tent-full of 12 year-olds which had been struck by a blown-away tent from further up the field. Luckily, he handled the crisis by himself and I remained snug in my sleeping bag…until I too had to get up and re-peg my own tent before it blew away.
The annual “Brass Monkey” camp held at Bonaly Scout Centre on the edge of the Pentland Hills really puts life in perspective. Here the concerns are high winds, rain, tents, rucksacks, meal times, wide games and watching the citizens of the future cope with life’s early challenges. All 160 scouts seemed to be having a great time, untroubled by the sterling zone, the EU entry requirements, jobs, house prices, climate change and life’s later challenges.
But hey, the life of the nation is not at all the same as “life” in general. And thank goodness for that. The Church of Scotland brought out a report this week which tires to bridge this gap between the two worlds. It appeals to voters in September’s referendum on independence not just to ask; “What’s in it for me ?” (pensions, wages, oil revenues etc ) but to consider what’s best for the country. The debate, it says, should be less about currencies and constitutions and more about social values such as fairness, equality, integrity and participation.
So how does this apply to “Scotland’s oil” ? Well, not one but two cabinets met to discuss this in Aberdeen on Monday. David Cameron brought the UK cabinet to Scotland for only the third time in its history. Ministers had before them a report from Sir Ian Wood calling for a new oil industry regulator which will encourage smaller companies to take over mature wells and squeeze the last £200bn of oil and gas from the North Sea. But it cannot be done, Mr Cameron warned, without the “broad shoulders” of UK investment.
The UK energy secretary Ed Davey also found time to pop up to Peterhead to announce that, at long last, the gas-fired power station there is to have a pioneering £100m carbon capture system installed.
Alex Salmond meanwhile staged his own cabinet meeting in a church, a few miles down the road, in Portlethen, followed by a public question and answer session. He wanted to highlight the difference between his down-to-earth “people’s government” and the posh boys from London who “jetted in and jetted out” to a meeting behind closed doors deep inside BP’s main Aberdeen office building. They were only here, he said, to keep Scotland’s oil for themselves “and squander it as they have done for the past 40 years.”
Back in Holyrood on Thursday, Mr Salmond was facing another foe, Labour’s Johann Lamont, who asked him how many companies it would take to consider leaving Scotland before he realised independence was bad for jobs. “It isn’t just Bathgate no more, or Linwood no more,” she said, quoting the Proclaimers, “It was Standard Life no more, Royal Bank of Scotland no more, if Scotland became independent.”
Standard Life bosses told their shareholders this week that they were planning to set up new companies south of the border and abroad if Scotland voted to be independent, because of uncertainty over the currency and pension and insurance regulations.
The Royal Bank of Scotland said it would have to shed jobs in Scotland, as it down-sized to concentrate on retail home banking again. It’s just reported a loss of £8.2bn for the year 2013. It’s the bank’s biggest loss since it had to be rescued by the UK government in 2008. But amazingly, it’s didn’t stop the bank paying out £576m in bonuses. Perhaps the bank is considering a move to another planet.
The SNP government was undaunted by these headwinds and it pressed ahead in parliament with its latest legal reforms. MSPs voted 64 to 5 in favour of the Criminal Justice Bill, which includes a controversial measure to drop Scotland’s unique and age-old rule of “corroboration” – the need for two distinct pieces of evidence for a prosecution to be mounted in court. Most Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs abstained and called on the government to think again, as indeed has the parliament’s own justice committee and a string of senior judges and court lawyers.
So the battered tent of democracy continues to be blown to and fro. I’ll be amazed if the Criminal Justice Bill makes it through all its parliamentary stages unaltered. I’ll be amazed too if more large companies and UK government ministers don’t raise more doubts about independence in the weeks ahead. But I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t just result in more Scots saying “Yes we can ” to independence. Like those scouts at Bonaly, they won’t be put off by head winds, rain or negative messages.