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George Osborne

By Arthur Midwinter, University of Edinburgh; John Curtice, Strathclyde University; Karly Kehoe, Glasgow Caledonian University, and Neil Blain, University of Stirling

Former UK defence secretary and NATO secretary general George Robertson dipped a toe into the independence debate this week and found the water scalding hot.

In return for his comments to hawkish think tank the Brookings Institution in Washington DC that a Scottish yes vote would be “cataclysmic” and music to the ears of terrorist “forces of darkness” around the world, Better Together insiders were soon briefing journalists that this was “hardly helpful” at a time of distinct unease for the campaign.

The yes side remains behind but has been making steady progress, most recently culminating in a poll last weekend that suggested there are now just five percentage points between support for yes and no.

This helps explain why some unionists have been calling for a more positive campaign. While campaign leader Alistair Darling is still insisting that the yes side are the negative ones, we asked our panel whether they thought Better Together should change tack.


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

My impression is that the no side feels somewhat chastened that its big idea, which was to tell us we could not have the pound, has not worked. And neither has repeating statements of varying degrees of ambiguity about whether or not the financial institutions would relocate in the event of independence.

In the wake of this failure, you are certainly seeing signs of disquiet from parts of the campaign. Liberal Democrats such as Nick Clegg, Charles Kennedy and Willie Rennie have all publicly called for the no campaign to adopt a more positive tone. So we perhaps should not be surprised that George Robertson’s comments were greeted with disquiet by some in the no camp.

My view is that being negative is not necessarily a problem. The problem in the past few weeks has been ineffective campaigning.

Negative campaigning is more likely to work if you are telling people something new. Even before the currency intervention, it was already clear from the polling evidence that quite a lot of people in Scotland had twigged that they might not be able to use the pound as part of a monetary union. Whether or not they thought they would be able to use the pound also seemed not to be making much difference to whether people were likely to vote yes or no, as we saw from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013.

The source of the information has to have credibility. Telling people that, “a banker told me this” is not necessarily the most effective way of persuading people given their views about bankers as a class. And though businesses are not as unpopular as bankers, they are not that popular.

Equally, it is unwise to use a Tory to sell a big message in Scotland. They are not the most trusted source north of the border. Meanwhile, your claims should not be challenged by “experts” and quite a few senior economists have disputed George Osborne’s arguments against sharing the pound.

The problem the no campaign now faces is that nearly half of the Scottish population has decided it does not believe the claim that Scotland would not be able to use the pound, And having lost credibility on that issue its other claims about the risks of independence may now be regarded more sceptically too.

To be effective, negative campaigning also needs to be followed by the offer of a solution. But while the no side points to Scotland’s potential future economic difficulties, they are less effective at advising how the union will supply a solution.

Trouble is, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not necessarily agree about how the UK economy as a whole should be run, let alone Scotland within it. Thus the no side finds it difficult to offer a united alternative vision that could be a vital ingredient of a more positive campaign.

Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History, Glasgow Caledonian University

With George Robertson, we need to keep in mind that he was speaking in Washington, DC. He was talking to quite a reactionary audience and not to people in Britain. There were specific things that this audience would have wanted to hear from a former secretary general of NATO.

But his speech indicated that he’s already questioning Scotland’s loyalty to the West. If you suggest that an entire nation can’t be trusted, of course that’s going to alienate people. It’s very condescending. That obviously isn’t good for the Better Together campaign and that’s probably why they wanted to distance themselves from it.

I can’t agree with Darling’s argument at the weekend that those in favour of a yes vote are inherently negative in their opinions. To assume that the majority buy in to what the pro-independence cybernats are saying is irresponsible. People are paying more attention to the mainstream media.

Arthur Midwinter, Visiting Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh

George Robertson’s record on these issues is not great. He said before devolution that it would kill off the SNP. I just about choked at the time.

I have never regarded what Better Together is saying as negative. That’s a phrase that comes from Salmond. If people regard it as negative to be criticising your opponents, there’s something wrong with the quality of the debate in Scotland. You have to make arguments about the weaknesses of the economy and the fiscal position after independence. That’s not being negative, but robust and critical.

The notion that Better Together can come up with a plan for after the referendum is silly because it depends on who becomes the government. There will be some form of extra devolution, but not necessarily one that is agreed by all the major parties.

Better Together has probably been affected by the turn in the polls, though it’s difficult to tell what the causes are. Appointing Jim Gallagher as strategy director has made a difference to the tone. His advice would be that they should certainly be making a more positive case for the union, which has been a good change.

You have to separate the response to the SNP and the case for the union. The case for the union is now being made more positively, but I don’t regard what they are saying about independence as negative.

Neil Blain, Director of Media Research Institute, University of Stirling

George Robertson’s comments almost worked as an unconscious satire of the no campaign. It reminded me of websites such as bbcscotlandshire.co.uk that have been inventing scares about alien invasions and such like for months. Talking about forces-of-darkness type stuff at the Brookings Institution is not going to go down well.

It raises the real practical question of how the no campaign goes about being positive. If I was in the no campaign, I would find it incumbent on me to point out real difficulties with voting yes. The currency question, banks and GDP issues are real weaknesses for the yes campaign, so of course you would plug away at them.

I was astonished at Henry McLeish advocating going for more hearts and minds. People are going to decide on the basis of the economy. I would predict scare stories right through to the referendum.

But when it comes to making the no message more positive, there is a problem that many people think the status quo is not satisfactory. The SNP as a Holyrood party is enjoying sizeable majority support for a reason. When people were asked about devo max without knowing entirely what it was, 70% plus said they would go for it.

But the no campaign has to span everyone from traditional liberal home rulers who had no difficulty with devolution to hardline Michael Forsyth types. It makes it very difficult for them to put a message together about what Scotland will get in return for voting no.

To read the previous instalments from our panel, click on the links below:

3 April 2014: What does Alex Salmond owe the Poll Tax?

28 March 2014: All about the money as currency debate rages on

22 March 2014: Can we trust the polls?

Panel announcement

The Conversation

As an adviser to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, Arthur was appointed chair of the party’s Welfare Commission, which is putting together a series of proposals for the future of Scotland.

John Curtice, Karly Kehoe, and Neil Blain 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.

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.
Read the original article.

The history of Scotland could well be written up as a search for energy. We began by cutting down the Caledonian forest, then cutting up the peat bogs, then mining the coal, then building hydro-dams and nuclear power stations, then drilling for oil offshore, and now building wind farms – on and off-shore. This week, the plan for one of the world’s biggest wind farms was given approval – 326 turbines 14 miles out in the Moray Firth.

Chancellor George Osborne 'Glee' at the estimates for oil

Chancellor George Osborne
‘Glee’ at the estimates for oil

Energy-related history can give us as much insight into our country’s character as the battles between the clans or the royal families, or the disruptions caused by religious sects or the industrial revolution or the class struggle. Would we, for instance, be having a referendum on independence if it wasn’t for “Scotland’s oil?”

The Chancellor, wisely or not, strayed into this minefield in his budget statement on Wednesday. George Osborne announced, with some glee I thought, that the official estimate of oil and gas revenues from the North Sea over the next four years had been downgraded by £3bn to £22bn and it would leave an independent Scotland, he said, with a shortfall in its government budget of £1,000 per head of population.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s deputy leader, responded by saying Westminster’s estimate of oil revenues “goes up and down like a fiddler’s elbow.” And besides, it took no account of the rise in revenue expected from the increased production which will surely follow the new investment by oil companies in the North Sea.

Freeze on whisky duty

Freeze on whisky duty

Mr Osborne pleased Scotland a little better when he announced a freeze on whisky duty, a cut in the tax on beer of a penny a pint and a cut in bingo tax to 10 per cent. How his major changes to pensions work out will have to be seen. Will retirees drawn on their pension pots and spend the money now or will they invest in annuities and the new pensioner bonds ? Scotland’s finance industry will be waiting anxiously to find out.

On Tuesday, the Scottish Labour Party published its “white paper” on further devolution. Finally, after some internal wrangling it seems, we have Labour’s alternative to independence. The Scottish Parliament, it says, should have more control over income tax, 15p out of every 20p. It should also take over the administration of housing benefit (allowing it to abolish the so-called “bedroom-tax”), some disablement benefits and the work training programme.

Crucially too, the Scottish Parliament should have the power to increase the income tax rates on the highest earners and reform the property tax system. The party leader Johann Lamont said: “ The Scottish Parliament would then have the power to reverse the Tory cuts for the rich and ensure that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden.”

Meanwhile the Tories have been outlining a totally different direction of travel. At their conference in Edinburgh last weekend, their leader Ruth Davidson said: “We shouldn’t be digging deeper into people’s pay packets. The Scottish Conservatives are committed to cutting the tax bills of working Scots.” She talked of rewarding the “everyday grafters” and the “working class” and shaking up the “amoral” welfare state. Revolutionary stuff indeed.

The Thin Red Line History will not repeat itself

The Thin Red Line
History will not repeat itself

This, while a real revolution has been going on in the Ukraine…a president ousted, the province of Crimea lost. The small Ukrainian community in Scotland has so far supported the new pro-western government in Kiev. But I can’t help the thought that “it’s Russia’s oil” which will determine the outcome of this crisis. Back in 1854, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders bravely held the “thin red line” against the Russians at Balaclava. But I doubt if we can do the same this time. Indeed, we shouldn’t attempt it. The referendum in Crimea has been decisive. We should accept the result, as hopefully we will do in Scotland in September.

Worrying though all this is, we won’t escape war or history during the Edinburgh Festival this summer. The programme has just been announced by the outgoing director Sir Jonathan Mills. One of his main themes is war, especially “the war to end all wars” which began 100 years ago this year. The programme includes Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, “All Quiet on the Western Front” by the Thalia Theatre of Hamburg and Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony performed by young musicians from the Ukraine.

The currency hasn’t played the part the ‘No’ campaign expected

One could almost feel sorry for the ‘No’ campaign. They must have thought they’d played a blinder – part deliberate, part accidental.

Chancellor George Osborne Hardly played a blinder

Chancellor George Osborne
Hardly played a blinder

The deliberate part came with the now infamous speech the Chancellor, George Osborne, gave in Edinburgh a few days ago. He stated quite categorically that, if Scotland walked away from the Union, it would also walk away from the Pound. That was supposed to scare the ‘don’t knows’ (and even perhaps some of those leaning towards a ‘yes’ vote). It was supposed to have been the ‘game changer’ in the campaign – the one that would stop the independence movement in its tracks.

The first polls since the speech suggest it’s achieved exactly the opposite. A poll for the Daily Mail might be assumed to lean towards the Unionist cause. Instead, the first indications are that the strategy has singularly failed. It show a five point fall in support for the ‘No’ campaign – and a seven point rise in the ‘yes’ vote. The poll surveyed 1,005 people. The headline result shows that 38 percent supported the aim of ending the 307-year union with England, up from 32 percent in January; 47 percent would vote to stay in the UK, down from 52 percent.

In a statement, the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said it was “clear that there has been a severe backlash to George Osborne’s bluster and threats on the pound. Far more people,” she argued, “(are) more likely to vote Yes on the back of the Westminster establishment’s attempted bullying rather than No.”

However, the poll did suggest that the SNP would do well to come up with a ‘Plan B’ over the currency issue. A poll in ‘What Scotland Thinks@ suggests that 65% of Scots think they should!

The ‘accident’ part of the blinder can when European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso suggested that it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to join the EU. Now, a former senior European official has claimed that his words were “unwise and inaccurate”. Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament Europe committee, Jim Currie, a former European Commission director general, insisted that Scotland had a right to membership.

He explained that the issue would concern “a territory which is currently part of a full member state. We’re dealing with people who would have certain rights as EU citizens and which would be very difficult to take away, and nobody would want to. The bottom line for me is that it would be dealt with in a pragmatic way, and it would involve inevitable negotiations which would be rather tough.”

It is worth bearing in mind that a survey for the BBC of the issues that most concern voters show that neither the currency nor Europe were high in the list of priorities. Keeping the Pound came 5th while the EU came 9th. It’s also worth remembering that one poll doesn’t make a trend!

Is there a ‘Plan B… C… or D’?

It may be St Valentine’s Day but the message from London has suddenly changed from “Love” to a stony “No.” Last week, David Cameron went to the Olympic stadium to declare his love for Scotland and his desire for us to stay in the United Kingdom. This week, the declaration from “Mount Olympus” was followed by a rare trip to Scotland by the Chancellor George Osborne to warn voters that if they choose independence, there will be no currency union with the rest of the UK.

Danny Alexander  Fell into line with the Chancellor

Danny Alexander
Fell into line with the Chancellor

Labour’s Ed Balls and the Liberal Democrats’ Danny Alexander fell smartly into line. The SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon complained that the unionist parties were “ganging up” on Scotland and we were being “bullied” into voting No to independence. It was all part of “project fear”, she said, and it would backfire spectacularly.

The currency question is undoubtedly an important one. It’s something very real, in your hand every day, and something to be worried about. So the SNP and the Yes campaigners have been responding to the London offensive with the assurance it’s all a bluff, that the rest of the UK would find it in its interest at the end of the day to keep Scotland in the sterling zone, making trade easier and sharing the UK’s debt.

Nicola Sturgeon 'Feisty'

Nicola Sturgeon
‘Feisty’

In interviews this week, the feisty Ms Sturgeon was reluctant to talk about her plan B or C or D, saying she was not going to be bullied out of her plan A, an agreed currency union. She didn’t want to threaten the rest of the UK with plan B which is for Scotland to use the pound sterling unofficially but not take on its obligations, such as the debt or limitations on borrowing.

Plan C of course is to join the euro, which was SNP policy until the global crash and the euro zone crisis. Plan D is for Scotland to have its own currency, the groat or the bawbee, which would float on its own on the turbulent seas of the international money markets. Unpopular though it may be, I think an independent Scotland should join the euro. It would certainly make our entry into the European Union much easier and there are signs that the euro is gradually recovering its credibility.

Scottish Power investing in Ben Cruachan

Scottish Power investing in Ben Cruachan

There were indications from the heavens this week that Scotland is indeed a separate country. We were spared the storms and floods that have swept the coasts of England and Wales and swollen their iconic rivers. The gods have clearly taken the view that we in Scotland are at least trying to take global warming and climate change seriously. We may be still be missing our emissions targets but our legislation is among the most ambitious in the world. And we are making a real attempt to switch to renewable energy.

This week Alex Salmond was in Spain to see a pump storage hydro scheme operated by Scottish Power’s owners Iberdrola. The company is now investigating a £600m expansion of its similar scheme at Ben Cruachan near Oban. When the windmills are turning, water is pumped up from Loch Awe into a reservoir inside the hollowed-out mountain and when the wind drops, the water flows down to the loch again through a series of electricity turbines. Result: the holy grail, renewable energy all the time.

Donald Trump will no longer invest in Scotland (Pic: Gage Skidmore Creative Commons)

Donald Trump will no longer invest in Scotland
(Pic: Gage Skidmore Creative Commons)

One man who does not like it, because he doesn’t like windmills, is Donald Trump. This week he lost his court case against an experimental wind farm in the sea off his new golf course at Menie in Aberdeenshire. “Wind farms are a disaster for Scotland,” he’s quoted as saying, adding (and I can’t quite believe he said this) “a disaster, like Lockerbie.” He promptly announced he was abandoning plans for a hotel and luxury village at Menie and instead he had bought a new golf resort at Doonbeg in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. It’s said to have cost him £12.3m and will be the 16th golf resort in his portfolio.

As I write, Scotland is still waiting for a medal at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Our curling teams are testing our nerves with up and down performances. Team GB is celebrating Jenny Jones’s bronze medal in the snowboarding, said to be Britain’s first ever Olympic medal won on snow. Only, it’s not quite.

Alain Baxter from Aviemore won a bronze in ski-ing at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002. The medal was denied him at first because he failed a drugs test. However he was later cleared when it was discovered the banned substance was in an ordinary inhaler he’d bought quite innocently over-the-counter in the USA. The British version of the inhaler, which Baxter normally used, did not contain the forbidden substance and, in any case, the amount was not enough to affect performance. He’s still waiting for his medal to be returned but has meanwhile congratulated Jenny Jones on her achievement.

Olympian justice, like Olympian love, is a fickle thing.

Scotland would ‘walk away’ from the pound after a ‘Yes’ vote

So – the gloves are off. The Westminster politicians have changed their tactics – from charm offensive to plain offensive. And it’s all happened so quickly.

David Cameron Stay - for the sake of the family

David Cameron
Stay – for the sake of the family

First, we had the Prime Minister choosing the rather curious location of the velodrome in London’s Olympic Park to send out an ‘emotional, patriotic’ appeal to Scots to stay in the union. David Cameron stressed that he wanted Scots to realise that people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were not looking the other way. As his put it, “it’s so important for Scotland to realise that the rest of the family see this as a very important family decision.”

Shortly before that, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, had been to Edinburgh where he didn’t appear to rule out the prospect of a currency union after a ‘Yes’ vote in September. What he DID say was that an independent Scotland would need to give up some power to make such a currency union UK work. Again in his words, the proposal from the Scottish Government “requires some ceding of national sovereignty”.

Thus far, so friendly! Then the Chancellor, George Osborne, comes to town. His message was rather like Margaret Thatcher at an EU Summit – No, No, NO! He insisted that a vote for independence would mean Scotland walking away from the pound. Indeed, he said that was “no legal reason” why the rest of the UK would want to share sterling with an independent Scotland.

George Osborne Why would the rest of the UK want to share the pound?

George Osborne
Why would the rest of the UK want to share the pound?

“When the Nationalists say the pound is as much ours as the rest of the UK’s,” he asked, “are they really saying that an independent Scotland could insist that taxpayers in a nation it had just voted to leave had to continue to back the currency of this new, foreign country? Had to consider the circumstances of this foreign country when setting their interest rates? Stand behind the banks of this foreign country as a lender of last resort? Or stand behind its foreign government when it needed public spending support?”

What made this speech more important in the independence debate than that (say) of David Cameron was a series of hints that this was not his view alone. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander, appears to support Mr Osborne’s position, as indeed may Labour’s shadow chancellor, Ed Balls.

It would therefore seem that the politicians from London are playing ‘good cop, bad cop’. But the risk they run is a hardening of feeling on both sides. After all, the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has warned that if UK ministers decided to hold to this position, then an independent Scotland could retaliate by refusing to accept a share of UK debt.

It doesn’t bode well for the likely tone of the Independence Referendum campaigns as we move towards September.

It’s ‘Today’ Jim – but not as we know it!

The world of the Keltie Clippie seemed to go quiet for a while. It could have something to do with the way that fact’s been stranger than fiction recently. One just has to think of the conflicting messages coming from the Coalition in London!

However, she has decided that the time has come to poke a little fun at one of the bastions of Britain – the BBC!

Childcare – a political issue

Childcare has leapt to the top of the political agenda. It’s now one of the big issues of the referendum campaign, maybe the defining issue because it helps describe the kind of country we want to be. Alex Salmond chose the very first parliamentary day of 2014 to announce that the Scottish government is to hugely extend its childcare programme.

Free childcare for all two-year-old children  in families seeking work

Free childcare for all two-year-old children
in families seeking work

From this summer, all two-year-old children in families seeking work will be offered free childcare every school day for either a morning or an afternoon session. From next summer, that will be extended to two-year- old children in families on jobseekers allowance and certain other welfare benefits. Over the two years, that will involve 15,000 children or a third of all two-year-olds and cost nearly £60m.

In addition, the Scottish government is to match the Westminster government’s pledge to introduce free school meals for all pupils in the first three years of primary education. That will cost around £50m.

Mr Salmond freely admitted that this was only a down-payment on the “transformation of childcare” the SNP has promised in its independence white paper. But it allows him to illustrate what would be possible if Scotland were independent. His argument is that getting more young mothers into work would yield the Scottish government enough money in income tax to pay for the “free” childcare. And it would do more for the economy besides, not least creating 2,000 new jobs in childcare.

David Cameron wants to move  on to 'more emotional ground'

David Cameron wants to move
on to ‘more emotional ground’

The tactic also answers the question the unionist parties have been asking since the white paper was published back in November – if more childcare is good for Scotland why not introduce it now? But having introduced it now, a more difficult question for the SNP emerges – if this can be done with the present powers, why does Scotland need independence?

But childcare wasn’t the only battle-cry of the first week back. David Cameron declared that he wanted to move the referendum debate on to more emotional ground – the close ties of family and culture between Scotland and the rest of Britain. But he ruled out coming north to debate the issues personally with Alex Salmond on TV. The pro-Union parties have also come under more pressure – from an unlikely alliance of Nicola Sturgeon and Henry McLeish – to publish their own white papers, outlining their alternatives to independence.

George Osborne More austerity to come

George Osborne
More austerity to come

Meanwhile, south of the border, the Chancellor George Osborne was doing his bit to boost the cause of independence by announcing that he wasn’t nearly finished with his austerity programme. If the Conservatives win the next election, he promised another £25billion in cuts, half of it to come from the welfare budget.

This might bring a smile to the City fat-cats, if to no one else. But by Wednesday the fat-cats (bosses of our top 100 companies) were already smiling because that was the day when their earning overtook the average man or women’s salary for the entire year. The High Pay Centre told us that executive pay had increased by 74 per cent over the past decade to around £4m a year, while the average wage has remained pretty flat at around £26,000.

Edinburgh Airport Closed because of bomb scare

Edinburgh Airport
Closed because of bomb scare

I wonder if any of the top executives were caught up in the chaos at Edinburgh airport on Tuesday. Apparently what happened was that a scanning machine at check-in threw up an alarming image of a possible bomb inside a suitcase. The check-in was shut down immediately and the owner of the suitcase was asked to give a swab sample from the palms of his hands. This showed signs of an explosive substance. The whole airport was shut down for the afternoon and a full emergency drill was put into effect.

It turned out however that the items in the suitcase had simply arranged themselves by chance into what looked like a bomb on the x-ray machine and the owner’s hands merely had traces of ordinary chemicals which are often mistaken for explosives. The only things left flying were questions. Did the airport managers over-react? Should the suitcase have been opened sooner – in a safe place? By even reporting the disruption, are we encouraging terrorists to try again?

At least it wasn’t the weather closing the airport. Not this time. Scotland escaped most of the storm-damage and flooding which struck the south and west coast of England on Monday and Tuesday. But 70mph winds and very high tides led to nearly 29 flood warnings being issued in Scotland, mainly along the coasts of Ayrshire, Arran, Argyll and Bute, and parts of the Firth of Clyde, including Helensburgh and Dumbarton.

I wonder if the year 2014 will be remembered for its weather storms or its political storms or for no storms at all.

Ardrossan wind turbine fire caused by the storm force winds
Pictures: Stuart McMahon on Flikr

It came roaring out of the north west, the first real storm of the winter. Cycling to work early on Thursday morning was like sailing a windjammer in a North Atlantic gale….and this was in town ! Out in the wild west, winds were reaching 100mph, power lines were being brought down, roads disrupted, trains halted, ferries cancelled, schools closed.

At the height of the storm, winds reached 140mph on Aonach Mor near Fort William. In Glenogle in Stirlingshire gusts of 106mph were recorded, and even in Edinburgh and Glasgow we were struggling against gusts of 60mph. A lorry diver was killed when his vehicle was blown over near Bathgate. More than 100,000 homes were without electricity for a time and all trains were cancelled. Over 200 schools were closed and, later in the day, low lying areas of the east coast were flooded by heavy rain and high tides.

The Clutha Tragedy

The Clutha Tragedy

But that was not all that came out of a clear cold sky this week. The helicopter accident in Glasgow last Friday night has plunged the country into national mourning. Nine people were killed when a police helicopter dropped suddenly from the sky and crashed through the roof of The Clutha bar in Stockwell Street in the city centre. The pilot and two police officers on board the aircraft died, along with six customers who were drinking in the bar at the time.

There’s been much praise for the local people who rushed to the scene to help – though the first emergency services arrived within a minute. It took two days to search the building for survivors because of the fear of further collapse. And it was several more days before the helicopter could be safely lifted out. A week later, we still don’t know the cause of the accident. And, foolhardy as it may seem, other helicopters of the same type, Eurocopter EC135s, have not been taken out of service.

'Cold comfort' from the Chancellor

‘Cold comfort’ from the Chancellor

There was further cold comfort on the economic front this week. The Chancellor’s “autumn statement” contained the chilling news that the austerity programme is to continue, with a further £3bn cut in government spending over the next three years. The Scottish government’s block grant will fall by £308m or 0.2 per cent. George Osborne told MPs that “the job of recovery has not yet been done.”

He did however predict that the UK economy would grow by an optimistic 2.4 per cent next year. And he had a few sweeteners for Scotland – £250m in cheap loans for Scotland’s struggling local authorities, £10m to ease Shetland Island Council’s housing debt and £10m for the new Higgs physics centre at Edinburgh University.

The Royal Bank of Scotland has suffered another embarrassing week. Its computers went down again, during the big spending spree on Monday, and customers were left unable to pay by credit card or to draw money for automatic teller machines. The bank’s new chief executive Ross McEwan admitted the bank had not been investing enough in its computer systems for years. Then on Thursday it was fined £325m for fixing interest rates in Europe and Japan.

But if the top bankers have disgraced us yet again, then one man who can restore our national pride is Denis Rutovitz. After a life-time helping people in poor countries, the Edinburgh academic has set out – at the age of 85 – to climb Mt Kenya (17,057ft) and visit an AIDS orphanage his charity, Edinburgh Direct Aid, has been helping to fund. His climb recreates his first ascent 50 years ago, when, as a young mathematics lecturer in the country, he joined a climbing party to raise the Kenyan national flag on the summit of the mountain on independence day, 11th December 1963.

The Edinburgh Tram enters Princes Street for the first time

The Edinburgh Tram enters Princes Street for the first time

If that doesn’t restore some pride, then consider this: trams have been seen running on Princes Street in Edinburgh for the first time for 50 years. But only men in yellow jackets saw them. It was a test run for the long-awaited new tram system which will take its first fare-paying passengers in May next year. The test seems to have gone successfully, and, given the somewhat chequered career of the tram project so far, it was perhaps thought wise, that the trams should make their first appearance on Princes Street in the middle of the night and in the middle of the first storm of the winter.

PS. As I write, news has just come in of the death of Nelson Mandela. He was, of course, one of the global heroes of our time. He was also one of Scotland’s heroes. “Free Nelson Mandela” was the war-cry of the left when I was young and we all went on many an anti-apartheid march. Glasgow was the first place in Britain to offer him the Freedom of the City. This was in 1981when Mandela was a “terrorist” languishing in prison on Robben Island. Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh soon followed suit. In 1993, just before he became President of the new South Africa, Mandela visited Glasgow to thank the city for its support at that crucial moment when the world was only just waking up to the injustices of the apartheid system. It was Scotland’s part in one of the 20th century’s greatest stories.

Growth double the forecast in March

In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has said the country is growing faster than any other major economy thanks to his policies. Britain, he claimed, would be back in the black within five years but the job of recovery was “not yet done” and money was still tight. As expected, millions would have to wait longer before they got a state pension, all to “keep track with life expectancy” something that would save future taxpayers £500bn.

The Chancellor says the Scottish Government budget will increase

The Chancellor says the Scottish Government budget will increase

In his 50-minute speech, Mr Osborne stressed that he wanted a “responsible recovery” and warned of “more difficult decisions” to come on spending. He acknowledged that the effects of the economic crash on family budgets were still being felt, but he insisted that the hard work of the British people was paying off and “we will not squander their efforts.” He insisted that “the plan is working – it is a long-term plan for a grown-up country. The job is not yet done but Britain is moving again – let’s keep going.”

The Chancellor had good economic news – the economy is expected to grow 1.4% this year – double the 0.6% predicted at the Budget in March. The Office for Budget Responsibility now predicts 2.4% growth next year up from its previous estimate of 1.8%. The level of borrowing has fallen more than forecast and forecasts for employment have been revised up. However, Government Departments in Whitehall can expect to face a further series of cuts over the next three years – £1bn in total.

The planned 2p rise in fuel duty scrapped

The planned 2p rise in fuel duty scrapped

As expected, Mr Osborne announced that offshore wind farms would receive Government support instead of onshore ones and he also announced plans to invest £375bn in energy, transport, communications, and water projects. He also announced that next year’s planned rise of 2p a litre for fuel would be scrapped

For Scotland, the Chancellor said that the government’s budget here would increase by £308m over the next two years. Unlike departments South of the Border, those run by Holyrood would face cuts of less than 0.2%. However, the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, argued the increase failed to make up for earlier cuts and said that the Autumn Statement showed the “damaging economic consequences” of remaining within the UK.

FSB welcomed some of the measures

FSB welcomed some of the measures

The reaction of business was positive. Andy Willox, the Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) Scottish policy convenor, said that Scotland’s small businesses would welcome many of the measures outlined this morning by the Chancellor. “By refusing to increase fuel duty,” he said, “he has recognised the big impact the price at the pumps has on independent enterprise and the economies of remote communities. “By abolishing employers’ National Insurance Contributions for employees under the age of 21, the UK government will give both firms and young people’s job prospects a boost. To have the maximum impact in Scotland, we must see our education system producing more young people with the right skills for the modern workplace. We must also ensure that we tackle the other barriers to small businesses recruiting.”

By contrast, Grahame Smith, Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) General Secretary said there was “nothing today’s statement to help embed the recovery and create decent jobs. While recent growth is largely attributable to consumer spending, real wages continue to fall at rate unprecedented in modern times. Yet the Chancellor brazenly adopted a triumphalist tone just as the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) revised down its forecast for wages growth. He continues to ignore the glaring disconnect between growth and living standards.

Grahame Smith STUC Nothing to embed recovery and create jobs

Grahame Smith STUC
Nothing to embed recovery and create jobs

“Business investment,” he added, “is contributing very little to growth and remains well below pre-recession levels. Net trade made a negative contribution to growth over the last quarter. This is not the ‘rebalancing’ promised by the Chancellor in 2010. Additional departmental cuts were announced although the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and others have questioned whether it will even be possible to implement previously announced cuts.”

Philip Hogg, Chief Executive of industry body Homes for Scotland, acknowledged that the Chancellor had drawn attention “to the weakness of housing supply and measures being implemented to address supply-side constraints such as the issuing of £1bn in loans to unblock large house developments. Builders face the same difficulties throughout the UK so we look forward to learning whether this loan facility applies in Scotland or, if not, what consequential funding is to be received north of the border. With yesterday’s Scottish housing statistics showing continuing falls in output and demonstrating the fragility of any market recovery, we hope that councils will look to take every opportunity to support the delivery of new homes in their areas.”

And in his first thoughts on the Autumn Statement, Graeme Brown, Director of Shelter Scotland, warned that the Chancellor’s optimism about the recovery “won’t be shared by the families struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, or the 4,574 children who’ll face homelessness this Christmas in Scotland. Beyond Westminster, thousands of people will be wondering if today’s announcements mean that their family faces yet another cut to the money they have to live on.”