LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 2nd May 2014

This being exam season, Alex Salmond faced a tough test in international relations this week. He travelled to Bruges in Belgium on Monday to spell out how an independent Scotland would be an enthusiastic and positive member of the European Union, unlike Mrs Thatcher who’d used her Bruges speech 25 years ago to voice the UK’s euro-scepticism.

Challenge to minimum price policy
Challenge to minimum price policy
Unfortunately, his speech was overshadowed by two domestic difficulties, the price of alcohol and the living wage. Both are currently the subject of dispute in Europe. The SNP have argued that they are being prevented by EU rules from insisting on the living wage of £7.65 an hour in all public contracts. No so, say the EU mandarins. And on a minimum price for alcohol, the Scotch Whisky Association won a court ruling this week that will allow it to take its case against a minimum price to the European Court on the grounds that it is a restriction on free trade.

Unfortunately too, this was the week when Tony Blair’s old spin-doctor Alastair Campbell published his version of an interview with Mr Salmond, given at the time of the Sochi Olympic Games. It contained a few firecrackers. On whisky he said: “You cannot promote it from a nation of drunks.” On Rupert Murdoch: “ He is a remarkable man…why shouldn’t politicians engage with people in the media.” And on Vladimir Putin, Mr Salmond said he admired certain aspects of the Russian leader: “ He has restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.”

Alex Salmond  Under fire over comments
Alex Salmond
Under fire over comments
For these remarks, out of context or not, Mr Salmond got a roasting from all three opposition leaders at first minister’s question time on Thursday. They said he was unfit to represent Scotland on the world stage. Mr Salmond stuck to his text as best he could and said he’d tried in vain to find anything at all the Scottish opposition parties had said about international affairs.

The employers’ organisation the CBI is rather wishing it had not said anything at all about the Scottish referendum. Last week it faced a walk-out of its members over its decision to register as a “No” campaigner. This week, it said it had all been a mistake by a junior official in London. But its u-turn was not as spectacular as that of the other icon of modern capitalism Donald Trump. Last month he was saying he would no longer focus his investments on Scotland – because of the planned wind-farm off his Menie golf course on the Aberdeenshire coast. But this week he invested £35m in the championship course at Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast where Marine Scotland says there is a good wind-farm site just three miles off-shore.

It’s all worthy of an entry in the new Library of Financial Mistakes which was opened in Edinburgh on Tuesday by a man who admitted he’d made a few himself, Norman Lamont, the former Conservative chancellor. The man behind the venture, stockbroker Russell Napier explained its purpose: “The more we know about why smart people do stupid things, the fewer stupid things we might do.”

Elish Angiolini
Elish Angiolini
We could apply those words of wisdom to the scandal of how babies’ ashes were handled at the Mortonhall Crematorium on the south side of Edinburgh. A damning report came out this week from Dame Elish Angiolini detailing how for decades families had been told it was not possible to return the ashes of small babies. But it transpired they had been buried secretly or swept up with the ashes of adults cremated around the same time.

The first minister told parliament that the practice had now changed and that the 250 families concerned were being offered counselling. Futhermore, a more wide-ranging report was being drawn up by Lord Bonomy, covering crematoriums elsewhere in Scotland and legislation would follow, spelling out how the death and burial or cremation of young babies should be handled.

We learned this week that Scotland’s population continues to grow. There were more births than deaths last year and a net inflow into the country of over 10,000 people. There are now 5.3 million of us, the highest number on record. The beaver population is also growing. There are now 19 living in Knapdale in Argyll in the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s official re-introduction programme. The experiment began five years ago with 17 beavers brought over from Norway and a survey has found that 60 per cent of humans questioned supported the idea. However, landowners in Tayside – where there are thought to be 150 unofficial beavers – are not so keen.

Finally, let us praise Britain’s longest-serving post mistress. Mrs Esther Brauer has run the Kylesku Post Office in Sutherland for 61 years. She’s now retiring at the age of 83 because she’s having computer problems. Her little wooden post office over-looking the sea will almost certainly close, and with it a chapter of Highland history.