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Fate is a cruel thing. This week we are mourning the loss of a young, courageous and talented woman who we are proud to claim as a Scot, though she was of Russian origin and lived in England. The tennis star Elena Baltacha has died of liver cancer at the age of just 30.

Elena Baltacha (Picture from Wikipedia)

Elena Baltacha
(Picture from Wikipedia)

She was among the top 50 women tennis players in the world. She was Britain’s number one. She won 11 singles championships. She reached the third round of both Wimbledon and the Australian Open. And all this, despite suffering from a chronic liver complaint and several serious injuries. Her fellow-players have been lining up all week to say what a lovely, unassuming person she was.

She arrived in Britain at the age of 5 when her father, Sergei Baltacha a professional footballer, signed for Ipswich Town. He’d played for Dynamo Kiev and the USSR. Her mother Olga was also a sports star who represented the USSR in the pentathlon. The family moved to Scotland in 1992 when Sergei was signed up by St Johnstone in Perth. Encouraged to play tennis by her mother, Elena soon made her presence felt on the tennis circuit. By the age of 15 she was the Scottish women’s indoor champion.

Of course, she knew the Murray family and, like them, had to leave Scotland to further her career. At the age of 19 she was diagnosed with a rare liver complaint but it didn’t stop her reaching the top of British tennis and carrying our hopes in a series of international competitions. She was a big powerful player with a fast serve and a fearsome two-handed backhand.

An ankle injury last year persuaded her to retire. She married her coach Nino Serverino and they set up a tennis academy in her old town of Ipswich. But earlier this year she was diagnosed with cancer and the “bonny fichter Bally” has gone to play her tennis elsewhere.

Increase in waiting times

Increase in waiting times

The nation’s health has been another talking point this week, in particular the queues forming in the corridors of accident and emergency departments. Audit Scotland brought out a report which found that the number of patients waiting for more than four hours to be treated had increased nearly three times, from 36,000 to 104,000, over the five years to 2013.

The opposition parties took Alex Salmond to task over this “failure” at first minister’s question time. But he was able to claim that 93 per cent of patients were seen within the four hour target time and the figure is improving, and, anyway, it’s better than in England and Wales and better than when Labour were in power. The underlying causes for the increase appear to be “bed-blocking” in hospitals and the fact that people with minor conditions have no where else to go. It’s a classic case of non-holistic thinking – if you cut the budget for community or local authority services then the hospitals are swamped.

European Elections Politicians more concerned with the referendum

European Elections
Politicians more concerned with the referendum

When not thinking about hospitals, the political parties have been launching their Euro election campaigns. Polling cards have gone out, posters have appeared on lamp-posts and at railway stations urging us to vote on 22nd May. Everyone is waiting to see how well UKIP, the anti-EU party, will do in Scotland. It got just 5 per cent of the vote last time. But it’s been hard for the politicians to keep their attention on Europe when all they want to talk about is the independence referendum in September.

Finally, it’s been a good news week for the pine martin. The population is estimated to have grown to around 3,000. The Scottish Highlands have long been this furry creature’s last refuge but now there have been sightings in forests on the southern fringes of Glasgow, in the upper Tweed valley and in Annandale. It’s the first time the pine martin has been seen in southern Scotland for 200 years.

Be warned, though, they may be cuddly-looking creatures but they are wily. You need to keep you henhouse door closed at night and if they nest in your loft, call an expert !

By John Curtice, Strathclyde University and Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen

Europe is back on the agenda in Scotland. William Hague wrote to the Scottish government calling for a plan B in case EU membership is refused.

Meanwhile Alex Salmond warned EU member states that there would be consequences over fishing rights in Scottish waters if Scotland was declined membership, while attracting some bad publicity for sounding rather too positive about Vladimir Putin during an interview a month ago. Our panelists say:


Michael Keating, Professor of Politics, University of Aberdeen

Prof Michael Keating

Prof Michael Keating

I don’t think William Hague’s letter adds anything to the debate. He doesn’t say that Scotland would not be a member of the EU. That’s the most significant thing about this. It means we must assume that Scotland would be a member. It would be useful if the British government would just say that, as they have said they will recognise the referendum result.

Then he’s talking about article 49 [general entry] versus article 48 [special entry by unanimous agreement]. This is really a technical matter. If there’s a political will, Scotland will be allowed in.

The UK government’s position on the budget issue is quite incoherent. It’s true that the budgets from 2014 to 2020 are already agreed, but the UK share is for the whole of the UK not the remainder of the UK. The most likely outcome would be to divide the existing budget pro rata. The other states will not want to get into a fight between the UK and Scotland about that.

As for after 2020, the big difficulty is the UK keeping its rebate, not Scotland getting a rebate. The UK is going to find it very difficult to do that if it is going to pick a fight with Europe over renegotiating the terms of membership and have a referendum in 2017. The idea that it will be able to keep all the rebate as well seems much more implausible than anything the Scottish nationalists are proposing. In fact, it’s rather dangerous for them to talk about the rebate at all.

After 2020, the only friend that the UK would have over keeping its rebate might be an independent Scotland. The UK has to be able to argue there are special conditions that apply to the UK to justify the rebate continuing. It would enormously help the UK if Scotland were a member because it would mean that someone else was getting it too.

London is just raising hypothetical problems and is evading the big question: would the UK support Scottish membership of the EU? Everything else can be negotiated.

It’s more than likely that the other states would just follow the lead of the UK. The Spanish government has said that Scottish independence is a matter for the UK and Scotland. They have not said they would veto it, so you have to assume they would agree to it.

As far as the fishing issue is concerned, Salmond is effectively just taking the unionist position to its logical conclusion. If you are threatening to throw Scotland out of the EU, your fishing boats aren’t going to be allowed there.

In any EU negotiation for Scotland, fishing is not going to be a particularly powerful card. The only other people that care are the Spanish. It may be part of a deal with Spain, but I don’t think it would be a dealbreaker.

John Curtice, Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde/ScotCen Social Research

Prof John Curtice

Prof John Curtice

I think the Scottish Government now accepts that it will in some way have to apply for membership. It has suggested it might be possible to use the procedure under article 48 as opposed to article 49.

But as I understand it, the article 48 procedure still requires the unanimous consent of all the members –- just as a Article 49 application does. So although the Scottish government is arguing that it is a way of facilitating Scotland’s membership relatively quickly, either option is going to require at some point the acquiescence of all existing 28 members.

This has implications that are not always appreciated. One is that if one accepts the argument that the rest of the UK would be the successor state, the UK will have a veto on the terms of Scotland’s membership.

One knotty issue is the UK budget rebate. Nobody will wish to unravel and reopen the EU settlement through to 2020, and from the EU point of view the easiest solution might be for Scotland and the UK to agree on how to divvy the rebate up. Obviously this could still lead to problems between the two sets of negotiations.

But after 2020 Scotland would probably struggle to maintain the rebate. Making it clear that would be the case might well be one of the ways that a country like Spain, facing demands for Catalan independence, might hope to show there is a price to pay for going it alone.

The fact that Scotland’s membership is not automatic weakens its bargaining position to some degree. There will have to be a bit of negotiating and hand-holding to sell the political deal to the 28 members. You can see why some countries would prefer Scotland not to vote yes and you can certainly see that none of the states are going to say before the referendum that everything is fine.

On the other hand there are the thousands of EU migrants whose current right to stay in Scotland rests on Scotland’s membership of the EU. It is sometimes argued that if Scotland was not allowed to maintain membership, those citizens would potentially have standing in the European Court of Justice to argue that the EU cannot just take away their rights as citizens.

But the EU issue is largely irrelevant to the outcome of the referendum. Scotland is more europhile than England. Scotland would probably vote to stay in. But even so, the modal voter in Scotland would probably take the view that it would be good if Brussels was not so powerful -– a position somewhat similar to David Cameron’s.

The Scottish people’s commitment to Europe is too weak to think that many are going to vote yes to avoid an EU referendum initiated by a future UK Conservative government or alternatively that they vote no on the grounds that independence potentially undermines the stability of Scotland’s membership of the EU.


The rest of our panel’s analysis of the referendum campaign can be found here

The Conversation

Michael Keating receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

John Curtice does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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.

Kenny MacAskill is in trouble again. Scotland’s justice secretary is like one of those skate-boarders who always seems to be tumbling towards a fall but always manages to stay upright. This time he’s been forced into a u-turn on “corroboration”.

Kenny MacAskill  Justice Secretary

Kenny MacAskill
Justice Secretary

His Criminal Justice Bill has run into mounting opposition for proposing to abolish the ancient tradition in Scots Law of two independend sources of evidence being required before a case can be brought to court. His idea is to increase the low rate of prosecutions in cases of rape, sexual assault and child abuse. Victims, he says, should have their day in court, even if their case does not pass the corroboration test.

To me, this whole issue is just a semantic dispute, since I don’t suppose there is a country in the world – or at least in Europe – which would put someone on trial without there being some sort of credibility test applied to the allegations, whether you call that “sufficient” evidence or “corroboration”. But the lawyers and the opposition parties have got themselves into a fury over it and now Mr MacAskill has been forced to postpone that part of his bill until a review of the “safeguards” is undertaken by a former judge Lord Bonomy.

Alex Salmond MSP Lowest level of crime

Alex Salmond MSP
Lowest level of crime

At first minister’s question time on Thursday, Alex Salmond faced calls from Labour and the Conservatives for Mr MacAskill to be sacked for the way he has handled the affair. And, of course, they had a list of previous “offences” which they said should be taken into account – the introduction of a single police force, the closure of many local court houses, the legal delays over the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol, the high rate of stop-and-search operations in Glasgow, and his decision in August 2009 to release the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

But Mr Salmond pointed out that Mr MacAskill had presided over the lowest level of recorded crime for nearly 40 years. It’s dropped 22 per cent since he’s been justice secretary. He declared his “enormous confidence” in Mr MacAskill. As well he might, since Kenny MacAskill has been a firebrand member of the SNP since the beginning of nationalist time.

He rose through the ranks of the party while working as a lawyer. He has the craggy good looks and speech delivery of an evangelical preacher but off-stage he’s amusing and surprisingly laid-back. His hobbies include writing books on SNP theology and following the Tartan Army wherever they go. One football match he missed, however, was Scotland against England at Wembley in the Euro 2000 competition when he spent the entire game in a police cell due to “a misunderstanding” on his way to the match.

Alex Salmond has kept a stable team

Alex Salmond has kept a stable team

It’s inconceivable that Alex Salmond would ever sack Kenny MacAskill, however accident-prone he might be. It’s not the sort of thing Mr Salmond does. In fact the SNP front row have been remarkable in how well they’ve play together and remained loyal to each other despite the ideological differences there must be between them. The fight for independence is a strong unifying force.

No amount of the flag-waving south of the border on Wednesday, St George’s Day, could deter Alex Salmond going to Carlisle to declare that an independent Scotland would be good for business in the North of England. He even made a cheeky offer to start building the new high-speed rail line from Scotland, without waiting for the Westminster government to get going from its end.

Kenny MacAskill wasn’t the only one to stumble this week. The business organisation the CBI thought it would be a good idea to register as an official supporter of the “Better Together” campaign, presumably because it could then hold a few fund-raising dinners without falling foul of the referendum spending rules. But that prompted a rush of resignations by organisations I didn’t even realise were in the CBI, like the universities and the broadcasters, government quangos and the Law Society, all of whom said they must remain neutral in the independence debate.

Russian Bomber (MoD)

Russian Bomber
(MoD)

With the Russians pouncing on Crimea and clanking along their border with Ukraine, we’ve all become a little sensitive about Russian military manoeuvres. So when a couple of bombers appeared off the North East coast of Scotland on Wednesday afternoon, the RAF was sent to investigate. Two Typhoons were sent up from Leuchars and confirmed that the bombers were indeed Russian “Bears”, Tupolev-95s. The RAF chaps warned the Russians they were coming dangerously close to Scottish – or rather British -air space and they’d better turn back.

It then transpired that there had been a similar incident at sea a few days before when a Type 45 destroyer had to be sent out to shadow a Russian warship, The Kulakov, on manoeuvres off the north coast of Scotland. Apparently, we’re not to panic. Such incidents happen all the time – there were eight last year – and they are all part of routine operations to test our defences. But, right now, they certainly test our nerve. What would happen, I wonder, if there is one of those “misunderstandings.”

David Moyes Sacked after 10 months

David Moyes
Sacked after 10 months

I certainly misunderstand the decision by Manchester United to sack that fine Clydesider David Moyes after only 10 months as manager. OK, he’s had a bad run of 11 defeats but his illustrious predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson took time to find his form. Clubs rise and fall, that’s what football is all about thesdays. Paying a reputed £10m severance fee to a man who’s hardly started the job seems to me crazy. But apparently it’s pleased the shareholders, such is the bizarre world of high finance. Moyes will probably walk into another job next week, a richer and wiser man, so my tears are less for him than for the fallen state of professional football.

Another man who’s been shedding tears this week is Andy Murray, but this time tears of joy. He was overcome by emotion when he was given the Freedom of Stirling at a ceremony in his old school in Dunblane. He left the town as a promising young player, 15 years old, to train to be a world champion in Spain. He too has experienced the ups and downs of sport but he said the people of Dunblane have always supported him. It’s a lesson that could well be learned in Manchester.

By Jo Armstrong, University of Glasgow; Karly Kehoe, Glasgow Caledonian University, and Trevor Salmon, University of Aberdeen

Poll after poll shows Scottish women are considerably less keen on independence than men. Alex Salmond has been reaching out to women voters since the campaign kicked off two years ago. We asked our panel about the reasons for the gender gap in the polls.


Jo Armstrong, Professor of Public Policy, University of Glasgow

It might not be that women are more reticent about independence. It may be that the cry for more evidence is coming from women and at the point they get it, they will be just the same as men in their preferences around independence. Wanting more evidence doesn’t necessarily make you more cautious. It does make you more analytical though.

If the hypothesis is that women analyse things differently, it’s unlikely that they would want to see policies promoted only for them. It’s about having policies where they can understand the implications for them and their families, which is perhaps not being communicated well in the political messaging.

I suspect that the issues that interest women are exactly the same as the ones that interest men. I can’t believe that women think that childcare is more important than the economy, jobs, or more important than better services in general.

The idea that you’ll be able to make women change their minds with women-only issues is misguided. It suggests that the political parties still have a poor idea of what equality is really all about.

Women are vastly under-represented in certain parts of the Scottish economy. For example in the Scottish Parliament, only 35% of our MSPs are women; 45 out of 128. The results appear not much better for Scotland’s various public sector boards.

The evidence suggests that the more you have diversity on boards, the better they perform. Board dynamics change and it does appear that diversity (be that women, older or younger representation and members from ethnic minority backgrounds) has a positive impact on company performance.

On the question of positive discrimination, I am certainly in favour of having representation that reflects the economy in which we live and work. There are more women than men in the country, so this should be reflected in boards and the parliament.

Trevor Salmon, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen

Traditionally women were more conservative than men in how they vote. It was said that because the men were in the factories or in the industrial plants, they learned socialist solidarity through being part of the trade unions.

But with women in relation to the Scottish referendum, I don’t think it’s a question of conservatism. I think it’s more about pragmatism. It might sound a bit old-fashioned, but in many cases women are the people that spend the household money. They are the ones that actually see what’s happening to the price of food, clothes, to the economy.

They want to be reassured that independence is going to be better. They are the ones who ask: “What if something happens to my husband’s wage? What if something happens to childcare? “What if something happens to university fees?”

In England, Labour is about ten points ahead of the Conservatives with women. Cameron has a real problem with women. Mostly it’s this argument about the cost of living. Women are more likely to ask the question: “Will we be better off or not in everyday life?”

For this reason, I think the gap between male and female voters is unlikely to narrow. In fact it may increase slightly as more and more people consider the issues carefully.

The trouble with making pledges about what will happen after the referendum is that there’s such a distrust of politicians nowadays. The only promises that either side can make to attract more women are ones where they can make them real – but that’s difficult because one parliament can’t bind the next. More than likely, the SNP will be judged on what it has already done for groups like women – not what it says it will do after the referendum.

Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History, Glasgow Caledonian University

I don’t agree that women are more pessimistic about the idea of Scottish independence – nor am I convinced that women are a harder sell for the campaign. Whenever I speak to women about this, I find that they are split down the middle.

But the tradition of women not being heard is probably having an influence on what they are prepared to say or on how they are going to vote. Or it might be the case that women are more naturally cautious because of the traditional culture of exclusion.

We have a very low participation level among women in politics. We don’t have enough female role models, women in leadership roles or enough women on senior management teams. This has an impact on women’s confidence levels.

The SNP needs to be careful with its policy announcements that women’s roles aren’t just confined to conceptions of the family – which in any case is a very diverse concept now. Women aren’t just concerned with childcare, education and family-related issues. There needs to be a meaningful engagement with the roles women play across all sectors.

I’m not attracted by the idea of taking affirmative action over women on boards. This introduces an opportunity for people to criticise a woman in a management position, suggesting that she’s only got there because she’s female. This happens. It’s a fact. I would never want to be appointed to a position because someone needed to fill a quota.

There’s not an easy fix here, but the first step is to recognise that we have a problem. We need to start for example by normalising equality in society. This can start with children by reinforcing understandings of equality through childhood and young adulthood. If you show a child how their mum and dad are equal in the home and in employment, that child is going to grow up with a balanced picture of what society is and should be.

The Scottish Government has made a decent start with equal parental rights, but it needs to go further by supporting it properly. When I’ve spoken to men in Scotland about this, many have told me their wives’ employers are much more amenable.

While I think the SNP isn’t too bad on this front, none of the political parties seem able to engage with the fact that a significant culture shift is needed to bring about genuine equality. If the failure to engage with the skills, expertise and experience that women have to offer continues then we have a real problem on our hands.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Easter has been slow in coming this year. The daffodils have faded, the weather turned mild some time ago, the school holidays are just about over and there’s been a quietness about the place. “Where have all the children gone?” asked an elderly neighbour of mine. And he answered his own question with a disapproving shrug of the shoulders: “They’re all playing on their computers instead of being outside in the park and in the streets.”

John Muir Photographed in 1912

John Muir
Photographed in 1912

Our hero of the moment, John Muir, would not have approved of that. This weekend we celebrate the great outdoor-man’s birthday (21st April) with a festival of special events. It’s a hundred years since the founder of the conservation movement died but the land of his birth has only recently got around to acknowledging his achievements and establishing a Trust in his honour. Our National Parks are barely ten years old.

A new John Muir cross-country trail is being officially opened on Monday, tracing the Muir family’s route from Dunbar to Helensburgh as they emigrated to America in 1849. As they passed through Falkirk they may have seen the real “kelpies”, the working horses on the canal path or in the coal-yards. This weekend, Andy Scott’s tribute to the kelpies, two 30-metre high steel kelpie heads, are to be brought to life in a spectacular son-et-lumiere show to launch the town’s new eco-park.

Red Road flats No longer part of the opening ceremony

Red Road flats
No longer part of the opening ceremony

Scotland’s other piece of outdoor theatre has had a bothersome week. The organisers of the Commonwealth Games have been forced to change their minds about their crazy plan to blow up the Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony. The public outcry had been so noisy and so widespread – 17,000 people signed Carolyn Leckie’s petition – that the organisers concluded the plan was too divisive. So they are going to fill the 15 second gap with some other manifestation of Glasgow’s ambition to move on from its chequered past.

The SNP’s similar ambition for Scotland was on show in Aberdeen last weekend, its last party conference before the referendum on 18th September. The one-word message on the big screen was “Forward.” The Yes campaign says it has seen its support in the opinion polls rise from 38 per cent last autumn to 46 per cent today. A poll in The Scotsman puts it at a more modest 37 per cent. Another, by TNS, puts it at 29 per cent. But what is not in doubt is that support for independence is growing.

Trident - part of the negotiations

Trident – part of the negotiations

The No campaigners this week brought out the top brass of the UK military machine to argue that an independent Scotland would be disastrous for Britain’s defence capability and for jobs. The defence secretary Philip Hammond suggested that negotiations over the removal of Trident nuclear weapons from Scottish soil would be linked to other negotiations – over the currency, the share of national debt, welfare and pension arrangements – and thus would take longer than the SNP realise.

But Alex Salmond put all that down to “more of Project Fear.” In contrast, the Yes campaign, he said, was “positive, hopeful and up-lifting.” In his speech to the conference he appealed to women voters to join the Yes campaign and bring about a “transformation of childcare”. And to the Labour voters he said: “ The referendum is not about the SNP, it’s about Scotland. Vote Yes and Scottish Labour can return to its core values.”

Scotland's islands - looking for more autonomy

Scotland’s islands – looking for more autonomy

A lot will depend on the state of the economy come referendum day in September. (A lot, but not everything and it’s hard to know which way perceptions about the economy will affect the vote.) But this week, at least, we had good news. Inflation has fallen to 1.6 per cent and, since earnings are increasing at 1.8 per cent, we have living standards rising for first time since the crash five years ago. The unemployment figure has risen slightly in Scotland but, at 6.5 per cent, it’s better than the UK as a whole and is much improved on a year ago.

This week Scotland’s islanders have been on the campaign trail – if not for outright independence, then at least for more home rule. They’ve held talks with UK ministers and met the Scottish cabinet on one of its away-days in Stornoway on Wednesday. The “Our Islands, our Future” campaign want more powers for the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland over issues such as energy, fishing, and the Crown Estate revenues.

Personally, I want home rule for Inch Park. It’s a cone’s throw from my house and all week I’ve been watching workmen dismantling one of its 150 year old elm trees. Perhaps it had to come down – the tree surgeons said it was rotten – but I hope the imperial government of Edinburgh City Council will plant a new tree in its place. I notice that the RSPB has announced plans to plant 100,000 more trees on its reserve at Abernethy. Maybe they could send one down to us, so that we can preserve our little bit of the great Caledonian forest.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the future of North Sea Oil during the debate on independence. The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps clearly take partisan views on this valuable asset. It’s not often therefore that we see an impartial assessment – but one has just been published in a magazine called TCE (The Chemical Engineer).

Scotland would get 85% of North Sea Oil production, though there is a disputed area

Scotland would get 85% of North Sea Oil production, though there is a disputed area

The author, Sanjoy Sen, is not only a chemical engineer working as a consultant development engineer but he has also recently completed an LLM in oil and gas law at the University of Aberdeen.

As he points out, “A ‘yes’ in the referendum would see Scotland gain independence for the first time in 300 years. In the midst of a polarised debate on the need to split or stay united, there are questions to be answered on what effects independence would have on the North Sea oil & gas industry. If Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond is correct, Scotland could finalise its separation from the UK as early as 2016, leaving those in and around the sector with what would feel like two short years to address a number of critical issues.”

These ‘critical issues’ include working out exactly where the boundary between the Scottish and English sections of the North Sea would lie. They also include serious decisions for a future Scottish Government about how to deal with what he describes as ‘external pressures’. As he explains, “’It’s Scotland’s oil’ proved an emotive SNP slogan in the 1970s but in today’s debate, the Scottish government recognises the importance of stability. To encourage continued investment, the government plans to engage with industry and to honour existing licences post-independence.”

He goes on: “There is likely to be influence from outside of the UK as recent buyouts of Nexen and Talisman have given China control of 10% of UKCS production. Aside from profits disappearing abroad, concerns have been expressed over external political pressures. Investment decisions by multi-nationals, comparing projects across their global portfolios, could also have a major impact on Scotland. Government intervention helped to resolve the recent Ineos Grangemouth dispute and prevent the site from closing down. Post-independence, such infrastructure would become even more critical; industrial action, unplanned outages or severe weather could cause major disruption to the national economy.”

This is an important article and deserves wider attention. To read it in full, follow the link above.

By Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen; Chris Whatley, University of Dundee; Jo Armstrong, Glasgow University, and Trevor Salmon, University of Aberdeen

Scots would continue to use the pound as part of a formal currency union after independence, the SNP long argued. But Chancellor George Osborne ruled that out in a recent speech, following advice from Treasury civil servant Sir Nicholas Macpherson.

Since then the issue of currency has been the dominant one in the independence referendum campaign. And the SNP’s case appeared to be strengthened when Beijing-based professor Leslie Young criticised Macpherson’s claims and appeared to suggest that currency union was still viable.

Members of the Scotland Decides ’14 panel assess the state of the currency debate.


Professor Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen

The nationalists have lost the currency union argument because if the Treasury and the Bank of England don’t want to share the currency, they don’t have to. This is not to say that Scotland could not continue to use the pound. It could do so without the consent of the UK but this would mean accepting monetary policy made in London for the rest of the UK.

It’s really not convincing for the Scottish Government to say rUK [the remaining UK] will give way and share the currency with us anyway. It leaves them in a weak position in negotiation if they do not have a fall-back. It also rules out the euro, which nobody wants to talk about at the moment but many want to leave open for the future.

I have not seen many outside the SNP on the yes side who think that currency union should be the only option on the table. There are several other options. One is to opt for a Scottish currency, at least in the longer term.

Another is to leave things open and say it will be up to a future Scottish Parliament to decide, although this would be risky politically.

The SNP argument that it’s as much Scotland’s currency and so London has no right to say it belongs to them is more of a moral argument than a legal one. If you withdraw from the state, you withdraw from the currency.

But the SNP’s threat to not take on any UK debt is certainly a counter argument. The UK has already said it will pay the debt and then ask the Scottish Government to pay their share. That allows the Scottish Government to say they will withhold their share, which puts them in a stronger position. That might give an independent Scotland a battering in the financial markets, but it might only be temporary.

Having said that, it’s a kind of nuclear weapon, because it might invite all kinds of retaliation and open up conflicts in other fields.

Professor Jo Armstrong, University of Glasgow

The Leslie Young report was useful because it neatly highlights there is more than one set of answers to the questions posed (and then answered) by Sir Nicholas MacPherson on the key issues surrounding Scotland joining a formal currency union with the rest of the UK.

The key questions were: “Are the fiscal rules that will be required and the monetary conditions sufficiently tight that an independent Scotland would be able and willing to comply?”

Young implies that the fiscal and monetary rules would need to be sufficiently tight, or the markets would react negatively against Scotland. Hence a key reason against Scotland formally sharing the pound, he suggests, falls away.

But using his article as evidence in support of sharing the pound runs counter to the idea that Scotland wants to have its own fiscal levers, particularly around corporation tax. Would the Bank of England be comfortable with that? Macpherson’s letter suggests not.

Macpherson also highlighted that Scotland’s banking system is too large for Scotland to be able to provide the necessary guarantees, and would need to rely on the rest of the UK to provide such insurance, which would not be desirable to London.

Young suggests this banking issue will not be a problem as he envisages the banking sector in Scotland will become smaller, if the lender of last resort is the Bank of England.

Given limited fiscal manoeuvring and a largely local banking sector, it is somewhat unexpected that the Scottish Government is arguing this paper cuts a swathe across the Treasury’s arguments for not having a currency union. Is the Scottish Government really arguing for a formal sterling currency union based on Young’s propositions?

Professor Chris Whatley, University of Dundee

Some say the English are bullying the Scots with issues like the currency union, but I don’t think so. George Osborne and the Treasury are entitled to say: “If you guys and girls go for independence and separatism, that’s fine, but these will be the consequences.” This is just stating the facts of economic life.

It was exactly the same in 1707. The Scots knew that there would be consequences from not being in the union. One of the reasons why some Scots went into the union in the first place was because there was a threat that England would close the border to Scottish goods or increase the taxes on them, which was actually already happening.

There has always been that animosity, that contest and even dislike between England and Scotland. Now that rivalry is re-emerging. There were sensible people around in 1707 who recognised that it wasn’t good for either country.


Will the pound save the union?
The Laird of Oldham, CC BY-SA

That was one of the reasons why some people supported the union in the first place, including the then monarch, Queen Anne. We seem to be slipping back and reopening some of those festering wounds. It’s not a good place to go to.

So if there’s caution about independence this shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as being “feart”. It’s about being prudent, asking whether an entire breach of the union is worth the dislocation this will cause.

Professor Trevor Salmon, University of Aberdeen

If we go for currency union, an English Government that agreed to it would lose the next election. People in England have high antagonism towards the Scots and Alex Salmond. It’s not going to be equal partners negotiating.

I don’t think Alex Salmond quite understands what the English think of him and Scotland. Too much debate is intelligent and rational, but at the end of the day it’s perception that counts.

The perception is that the Scots are getting about £1200 more per head than England. The more concessions that the prime minister makes, the more support he will lose among the voters.

The Conversation

Michael Keating receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

Chris Whatley, Jo Armstrong, and Trevor Salmon do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Another battle has broken out in the energy war. Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) has thrown down the gauntlet to its competitors, and the government, with a promise to freeze its electricity prices until 2016.

SSE LogoSo the old Scottish dam-builders, and their electricity board comrades in the south of England and Wales, have challenged the other five companies in Britain’s energy business to match their offer. And they’ve challenged the Coalition government by showing that Labour’s price freeze idea can work.

Meanwhile the market regulator OFGEM has cast a smokescreen across the whole battle field by recommending an 18-month long investigation into the whole business of energy supplies by the Competition and Markets Authority.

Jackie Baillie MSP Called for an energy price freeze

Jackie Baillie MSP
Called for an energy price freeze

The issue was top of the agenda at the Scottish Parliament when Labour’s Jackie Baillie challenged the first minister Alex Salmond to admit that a price freeze was the best way to protect households from ever-rising fuel bills. “Will he change his mind or will he continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories in opposing a price freeze ?” she asked, three times.

Mr Salmond said the SNP government in Scotland was already cutting fuel bills by £70 a year by agreeing to switch the renewables subsidies from energy bills to general taxation. He went on to welcome the competition inquiry but pointedly added that it should include an examination of the “massive subsidy” being given to the nuclear industry.

To me, it all seems like another case of political cowardice by all the parties concerned. The cruel fact is that energy costs are going to rise as the world becomes more industrialised and more populated. Of course the public complain about it – and a quarter of Scottish households are being pushed into “fuel poverty” – but the cruel fact remains. It would be better if the politicians accepted the fact of rising prices and encouraged people to use less energy.

The Big Six  Competition investigation

The Big Six
Competition investigation

Instead, all political parties are behaving like medieval witch-hunters and are hell bent on roasting the “big six” energy companies at the stake. The very fact that there are six of them, many of them global companies, indicates that there is no monopoly. The competition inquiry will be hard pushed to find any other large-scale industry which is more competitive. Britain actually has some of the lowest energy prices in Europe. They went up just 4 per cent last year, not a great deal more than inflation. The average household bill is £1,260 a year. The profits of the energy companies are running at around 5 per cent, not a lot considering the amount of capital invested.

SSE, for instance, has invested more in energy projects and its distribution network than it made in profit in each of the last five years. But now it has given in to political and consumer pressure and been forced into a price freeze which means it can no longer continue its wave and tide development programme. It’s all so short-term and so short-sighted.

If you think the energy companies are behaving badly, consider the banks. We had another example of their cavalier approach to their customers this week in the case of North Sea oil worker Richard Durkin. He bought a computer from PC World in Aberdeen with the help of a credit agreement for £1500 with HFC Bank, part HSBC. The following day he took it back, realising it did not contain an internal modem. But the bank continued to collect his monthly payments and when he fell behind, they put him on a credit blacklist which he could not challenge.

Price of a returned laptop £250,000

Price of a returned laptop
£250,000

Not only is this a scandal, but the legal system has taken 16 years to clear the matter up – finally awarding him £8,000 in damages at the Supreme Court in London. Mind you, Mr Durkin could have settled for £116,000 damages in Aberdeen Sheriff Court back in 2008 but he chose to challenge that ruling, saying the amount was too little. He reckons the litigation has cost him £250,000, leaving him a little rueful. “I’ve got mixed feelings,” he said. “But I’m glad I’ve helped the greater good with a consumer victory.”

This week the golfing authorities, almost as fast moving as the legal system, have entered the 21st century. The governing committee at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews has written to its 2,500 gentlemen members urging them to vote in favour of admitting women to the club for the first time in its 260 year history. The vote – in person only – takes place on 18th September this year. And if that date seems familiar, it’s the day Scotland decides whether it wants to remain part of Club GB or perfect its golf swing on its own.

Celtic Football Club, meanwhile, is wondering if it is to continue playing on its own or whether it can compete in a new mini-European league which has just been given the go-ahead by UEFA. It won the Premiership title with seven games to spare when it beat Partick Thistle 5-1on Tuesday night. Its arch rival Rangers still have a year’s probation to serve in the Championship league after their financial collapse and this week we learnt they are still making a loss of £3.5m a year. All this, I’m sure is worth discussing more, but I’ve run out of this week’s supply of energy.

Spring is in the air

After nearly a week of fine weather, I have finally been convinced that spring has arrived. The daffodils opening their bright little faces was the confirmation I needed. They’ve made me as light headed as William Wordsworth, the man who stole some good lines from his wife and sister to write that famous poem.

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar Castle

I was wandering as lonely as a cloud through the Craigmillar estate when I saw my host of golden daffodils this morning. Of course the snowdrops and the crocuses have been out for weeks and the gorse on Arthur’s Seat has begun to blossom but daffodils, for me, are the real sign of spring.

The cold gales have gone. The deep snow on the Cairngorms is melting fast and the wettest winter for over a hundred years is over. Suddenly life seems easier and more cheerful.

Even the long road to the referendum seems less daunting. We were treated this week to the usual spring ritual of a row over the GERS figures (government expenditure and revenue, Scotland). They revealed an embarrassing public sector deficit of £12bn (8.3 per cent of GDP), caused largely by a 40 per cent fall in oil revenues. It’s the first time in five years that the deficit was higher than for the UK as a whole, which allowed Alex Salmond to claim, at first minister’s question time, that last year was a blip and that new investment in the North Sea will bring in much higher revenues in the future.

Gordon Brown Out of hybernation

Gordon Brown
Out of hybernation

This week also saw Gordon Brown come out of post-prime-ministerial hibernation to enter the referendum debate. He made a speech in Glasgow calling for more tax powers for the Scottish Parliament, allowing it to raise up to 40 per cent of what it spends. He cast it as part of a plan to write a new constitution for the United Kingdom, guaranteeing home rule for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

This came perilously close to the Liberal Democrats’ idea of a federal Britain. And indeed Sir Menzies Campbell – elder statesman of the Lib Dems – said he could see common ground emerging among all the pro-Union parties for more powers for the Scottish Parliament. He called for a constitutional summit of all parties within 30 days of a “NO” vote in the referendum in September.

O dear, there’s been another leak. Actually, it’s a leak about a leak. It all happened at the Dounray nuclear establishment in Caithness in the spring of 2012. A test reactor for the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines apparently sprang a leak and a small amount of radiation escaped. At first this was described as “level zero” on the safety scale and there had been “no measurable change in the radiation discharge”. But the defence secretary Philip Hammond later changed this to “no measurable change in the alpha-emitting particulate discharge.”

Dounreay

Dounreay

Whatever this covers up, he could not disguise the fact that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency was not informed until nine months after the incident – and was asked to keep it quiet. The Scottish government was not informed at all. We only found out about it last week as part of Mr Hammond’s announcement to the House of Commons that he was spending £120m on refuelling one of the navy’s submarines because of the incident at Dounreay. As in most nuclear matters, it’s all as clear and simple as Higgs-Boson.

It’s not been a good week for the Royal Navy. The 800 strong workforce employed by Babcock to service the submarine base at Faslane and Coulport on the Clyde walked out on strike for the first time in 40 years. They’re protesting against a one-percent pay rise at a time when they say managers are giving themselves a 9 percent rise.

Still at sea, on the surface this time, a Scottish round-the-world yachtsman has been rescued after his boat was hit by a huge wave off Cape Horn at the southern tip of Chile. Andrew Halcrow, aged 54 from Shetland, described how his mast was broken by the wave as he lay in his bunk. “It was so brutal, I was sure a ship had rammed into me,” he wrote on his website. It’s the second time Mr Halcrow has tried to sail single-handed around the world. His first attempt in 2007 ended when he became ill while sailing off the Australian coast. He’s now trying to recover his 32ft boat and we should all cheer his bravery if he ever sails it back to Shetland.

Finally, I see that Rangers are bravely fighting their way back from financial disgrace. They’re now unbeatable at the top of Division One after their 3-0 defeat of Airdrie on Wednesday night. They will go into the Championship league next season against the likes of Dundee, Falkirk, Alloa, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South. And if they triumph again, they will be back in the Premier League this time next year. All they have to do now is hold a board meeting that doesn’t end in tears and a court hearing.