LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 30th May 2014

Edinburgh Trams at Gogar waiting to start running

This weekend I will ride like an anxious shareholder on the Edinburgh trams. I will feel every shoogle, look for every fault, wonder whether my investment as taxpayer and patient citizen will ever be worthwhile.

Trams start running this weekend
Trams start running this weekend

This project, as all the world knows, has been a disaster, an embarrassment and a joke. But finally now it is a thing of hope. Can the shiny red and white trams restore the city’s reputation? Will they be well used? Will they be extended and fulfil their original ambition?

The trams will start answering these questions at 5am on Saturday. The fare will be the same as the buses for all city journeys, £1.50, but £5.00 if you want to go all of the 9miles from the city centre to the airport. You can buy your ticket from a machine at each of the 16 stops or from the young and enthusiastic conductor on board. Your tram will, hopefully, be carrying 331 other passengers. It will pass gracefully through the red lights, avoiding startled pedestrians and cyclists, and make its way sedately to the airport in about 35 minutes – longer than the airport buses take, curiously.

On such a day, would it be unseemly to ask who was responsible for the three year delay to the project? For it costing £776m instead of £375m, and for it being half the original length? No it would not. The council’s own inquiry may not have started, but my own inquiry has found the bosses of Edinburgh Transport Initiatives to blame, aided and abetted by the politicians.

The Scottish Parliament  Another project with a financially shaky shart
The Scottish Parliament
Another project with a financially shaky shart

The Edinburgh trams were not the only post-devolution project to suffer a shaky start. The Scottish Parliament building makes the trams look financially frugal by comparison. But hey, this is what nation-building is all about, trial and error, pride and fall. This week we’ve been taking the delivery of weighty reports about an independent Scotland. The UK Treasury brought out a report saying every Scot would be £1,400 a year worse off if we vote Yes in September’s referendum. The SNP government not only disputed that figure, it predicted we would be £1,000 better off.

It turned out that both figures could be correct because the £1,400 refers to the start-up costs of a new nation and the £1,000 reflects a resurgent nation, predicted to grow its economy at 3 per cent a year. Which goes to prove that the referendum is not a question in a mathematics exam but more a question of history and culture.

So too is the European Union which will now have a rabid anti-EU member of parliament from Scotland in David Coburn. He stole one of Scotland’s six seats from the Liberal Democrats who are plunging towards oblivion as I write. They came 6th in the Euro-elections in Scotland, behind Mr Coburn’s UKIP and the Greens. The SNP won most votes, though Labour and the Conservatives held on to their seats pretty comfortably on a 33 per turnout.

Danny Alexander  Help for the GSA
Danny Alexander
Help for the GSA

Notice how keen the politicians are to please in these sensitive electoral times. No sooner had the firemen put out the blaze at the Charles Rennie Mackintosh art school in Glasgow than Danny Alexander the treasury minister was promising funds to repair the damage. Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish government’s culture secretary, was standing by the smoking building doing much the same. Was the art school not insured, I wonder?

Indeed the city of Glasgow and the art world generally I think rather over-reacted to the fire. No one was killed or injured. The building can be rebuilt. The fire service saved most of it anyway and much of its contents. Sure, the library was badly damaged and some students lost their current works, but several arty types were composing eulogies as if the whole of Western art had been destroyed. Perhaps I’m biased – and certainly unfashionable – but I find Mackintosh’s style heavy-handed, dark and uncomfortable. That library must have been a scary place in which to work.

The nation has been agonising again over its landed estates. A report published by the Scottish government’s review group has called for a limit on the number of acres of land an individual or company can own. The Duke of Buccleuch for instance owns 240,000 acres, the Duke of Atholl 124,000, the Duke of Westminster 94,000, the Dutch fashion billionaire Anders Povlsen 160,000.

Bowhill House Part of Buccleuch Estates
Bowhill House
Part of Buccleuch Estates

The landowners and the gamekeepers have, of course, condemned the idea of a cap on acreage, saying it would starve the countryside of investment. Those in favour of smallholdings or community ownership say a cap would release the true potential of the land. And I notice this week that the Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis, and the 1400 acres of land round about them, have been taken over by the local community with the help of a government grant.

No such help has been available to two pieces of hallowed turf here in Edinburgh, Tynecastle and Easter Road. Both Hearts and Hibs have been relegated to the second division of Scottish football, strangely called The Championship. Hearts have gone down for financial reasons and Hibs lost out to Hamilton in a tearful penalty shootout in the rains of last Sunday afternoon. Thank goodness Gordon Strachan restored our football reputation by taking the national team to a respectable two-all draw with World Cup qualifiers Nigeria in a friendly and exciting match in London.

It’s strange how so many stories touch upon our national pride, from trams to parliaments, art work to sport. And each time we are humbled.