“O wert thou in the cauld blast….” It seems right to start with one of Burns’ wistful love-songs on this cauld Burns Day. “Or did misfortunes bitter storms around thee blaw/ Thy bield (shelter) should be my bosom/ To share it a’.”
We’ve been having a cauld blast all week with roads snowed under, 150 schools closed in the North East and the Borders and lots of pictures in the media of children on sledges, cars buried in snow, dented vehicles by the roadside, pandas at the zoo making friends with snowmen, and Shetland ponies dressed in Shetland jumpers. Even the hedgehogs have been suffering from the cold, with a rising number being handed in to the Scottish SPCA (707 last year).
The snow has led to worst tragedies too. In one of the worst mountain accidents for years, four climbers were killed in an avalanche in Glencoe. They were swept a thousand feet down Bidean Nam Bian in what the first minister described as “an appalling accident”. Two of the party survived, though one of them was seriously injured. They were all experienced climbers, from various parts of the UK, and Glencoe mountain rescue team, who went to their aid, said afterwards that the party were simply unlucky and had not done anything foolhardy.
We also learned that two Scots were among the 38 victims of last week’s terrorist attack on the gas plant in the Algerian desert. The politicians have been saying that the attack highlights the need for greater security for oil and gas workers and for the West to focus more attention on the threat of Al-Qaeda-inspired groups swarming through North Africa.
The unemployment figures have shown another fall, to 207,000 or 7.8 per cent of the workforce. But it has not led to any rejoicing, since the figure disguises the fact that many people have simply given up looking for a job. The number in work is down 24,000. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that the number of young Scots out of work has doubled to 90,000 since the recession began and those in part-time employment has also doubled to 120,000.
Among the unemployed are the 5,000 Scottish construction workers who are said to be on an employers blacklist because of their trade union activities or simply because they have raised health and safety concerns. The blacklist only came to light when the Information Commission raided the offices in Droitwich of an agency calling itself the Consulting Association. Trade unions say 40 leading British companies have been using the Association to vet its prospective employees, including firms working on the new Forth bridge. Shocking.
It’s been another referendum week – not Alex Salmond’s but David Cameron’s. Mr Cameron promised that if re-elected, he would hold an in-or-out referendum on the European Union. Mr Salmond used question time in the Scottish Parliament to tease the Conservatives by saying it appears the only way Scotland could remain in the EU would be if it became independent. He accused Mr Cameron of “making for the exit door of the European Union” while at the same time urging the Scots to stay in the British Union.
The opposition parties brought him down to earth a little by pointing out that the latest opinion poll, based on the annual Social Attitudes Survey, put support for independence at only 23 per cent. That’s sharply down on the figure for last year (32 per cent) and the experts are attributing that to a rising “fear factor” as the economy worsens. However support for a stronger form of devolution remains high, with 67 per cent saying the Scottish Parliament should either make all decisions or all except foreign affairs and defence.
It will be interesting to see how the two referendums play out against each other over the next few months and years. Will they define the political debate or will they be pushed to the sidelines as people worry more directly about the economy. Both Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond will probably have to learn the lesson of Burns’ famous mouse about best laid schemes o’ mice and men ganging aft agley.
And if that’s not frightening enough, try the last verse of that poem, in which the mouse has the advantage over the man:
The present only toucheth thee.
But och, I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear
An’ forward tho’ I canna see
I guess and fear !”