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Adventures on a Shoestring
I just had to write about this story because it made me smile.

Kerry Meek and the children conquer their own 'Matterhorn'

Kerry Meek and the children conquer their own ‘Matterhorn’

It’s appearing on the inside pages of some the regular suspects. It began with the Daily Mail, was pursued by the Telegraph and who knows what will happen in the future: publishing deals and a slot on CBBC perhaps. It’s a young family from Nottingham, Kerry and Tim Meek, both teachers, and their two girls Amy and Ella, who chose to switch off the TV a bit more often and do something less boring instead. Their website dotrythisathome.com is inspiring, full of ideas from ‘going on a reptile ramble’ to cooking with snow. Yes, adventures don’t have to be epics.

Over the past two decades, outdoor activities have seen bad press. Landmark events, like the Lyme Bay kayaking accident of 1993 or the death of Alison Hargreaves on K2 in 1995, helped form public perception that our waters and mountains were dangerous. Regulatory boards sprung into existence. The qualifications industry burgeoned. Proposed school trips were canned. Lord Baden-Powell tussled in his Kenyan grave while our culture forgot that pursuits in the wild are healthy, engaging and developmental.

What makes the tale of the Meeks special is not that they are having adventures, because lots of other normal families do this kind of thing, but that mainstream media is behind them. Furthermore, they’ve been commended for sticking to a shoestring – the Nottingham four enjoyed their first 100 adventures for less than £500. Half a grand won’t buy harnesses, Canadian dugouts and waterproof jackets all round. During times of austerity, the family has tooled up on resourcefulness.

The family lists hundreds of ways of having an adventure

The family lists hundreds of ways of having an adventure

When I asked Kerry Meek where the inspiration originated to do the first 100 trips, it was from other adventurers, including Dave Cornthwaite. He’s swum 1000 miles along the Missouri and completed other long journeys, but doesn’t limit himself to the extreme: his current project is finding 50 ways to make £50. Al Humphreys is another favourite: he rowed the Atlantic last year, but he dedicated 2011 to microadventures, like sleeping out on a hill after work: ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ he says… ‘you get a bit wet, get a bit cold… big deal. I think it’s worth the risk.’

The next step forward for the Meeks, in terms of growing the impact they’ve had, is to get more parents involved. Unlike schools, mums and dads don’t have to fill in risk assessments and, once it’s clear to them that getting outdoors is good for concentration, ability and contentment, they’ll be motivated to encourage their children and their children’s teachers.

In Scotland, thousands of people are enjoying the outdoors – walking, paddling, climbing, biking, running … exploring. I’ve not looked at the figures of hours spent outdoors over time and perhaps it’s impossible to measure, but I feel that this has fallen since the 1990s. Rock routes seem more lichenous. The bogs and the forest have subsumed formerly well-trodden paths. Perhaps it’s fear – of the known or the unknown, or being judged for not having the ‘right’ kit, or encroaching consumerism and time pressures. My argument, as always, is that more people should benefit from the mental, emotional physical pluses of getting outdoors.

Being out of doors as a family lets children experience life in the raw

Being out of doors as a family lets children experience life in the raw

I’ll take intellect for a start. There’s nothing that generates creativity better than challenge. If you cross a stream using a spattering of slimy boulders that protrude from the froth, the brain begins to churn. It recalls similar patterns from the past, calculates how balance will be compromised and ascertains what’s needed if that manoeuvre doesn’t work. In one millisecond, you’ve done risk appraisal, spatial co-ordination, future planning and disaster recovery. This is also possible on the Playstation without getting wet: it’s your choice.

Our emotional state alters when we’re in nature. Broadleaf woodland is particularly calming, perhaps through the diversity of flora and fauna, the wholeness of this type of ecosystem and how light and shade interplay randomly. When we’re engaged in pastimes that require focus, our minds forget the minutiae of problems and deadlines. We can, for some brief period in time, switch off.

You may get wet!!

You may get wet!!

I’m guessing that the closer an activity comes to actual or perceived risk and the nearer it is to something our ancestors might have done and the better your level of skill, the more chance there is to rediscover the sense of flow. That’s a wonderful feeling.

The outdoors is also good for the body. It might be cold and rain often, but being resilient is a really positive attribute. When exerting ourselves, we force our muscles to work and burn off fat. Okay, so there are things that can hurt and cause physical trauma, like slipping on that rock when crossing the burn, but developing the skills over time and resting between adventures is good antidote to this.

When I spoke to Kerry Meek, she sounded very keen to return to Scotland with the family for more adventures. The girls wanted to undertake a ‘source to sea’ journey and sleep on a mountain. Hopefully, she’ll be joined in spirit by hundreds of others doing the same kind of thing. With our wonderful landscape, there’s probably no easier place in the world to get involved.

———
NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

As I write, we are waiting nervously for the result of the European Union elections. Well, “nervously” is perhaps putting it a bit too dramatically. Things happen slowly in Europe. It’s taking us four days to vote but by Sunday night we will know the colours of most of the 751 MEPs – though the final Scottish result will be delayed till Monday because the Western Isles will not be counting its votes until the Sabbath Day hath ended.

The Western Isles EU votes counted on Monday

The Western Isles
EU votes counted on Monday

Then, curiously, we will not be analysing the figures for what they tell us about how Europe handled the recession or how it’s going to reform the financial industry or tackle immigration or climate change, or any of the other issues that need a continental solution. No, instead we will be wondering if the SNP is going to win a third seat in Brussels and whether the Liberal Democrats will lose out to the Greens or Nigel Farage’s waspish little party.

This is a pity because these large continental issues deserve to be debated and resolved. How else are we to protect the environment or ensure a fair market, or avoid a race to the bottom on working hours, safety standards, taxation etc except through the European Union ? But, for the moment, I suppose everything has to be seen through the brightly coloured prism of the referendum.

Church of Scotland Deeply divided on independence

Church of Scotland
Deeply divided on independence

The Church of Scotland staged a full blown debate on the issue at its General Assembly on Tuesday. There was lots of fine rhetoric but no vote was taken – wisely, since the Kirk, like the rest of Scotland, is deeply divided on Scottish independence.

On Wednesday the Assembly revealed itself still divided over the issue of gay ministers. By 369 votes to 189, the Assembly decided to consult further on a compromise which re-affirms the Church’s opposition to gay ministers in principle but allows individual congregations to follow their own conscience and elect gay ministers if they wish.

It’s been a divisive old week. The Scottish parliament was divided – the SNP versus the rest – over the future of the health secretary Alex Neil. The opposition parties accused him of favouring his own constituency by “ordering” the local health board to retain two mental health wards at Monklands Hospital in Lanarkshire. Mr Neil said he’d left the decision to his deputy and the SNP’s majority in parliament made sure the motion of no confidence, the first for 13 years, was defeated by 67 votes to 57.

440 officers routinely armed

440 officers routinely armed

Did you know that there are 440 police officers in Scotland authorised to carry guns ? And they do so on routine patrol. It seems a lot, for a police force which is supposed to be unarmed. The disclosure by Police Scotland has caused alarm among politicians and human rights groups who say it’s not setting a good example. Happily, the police officers have little to shoot at. Gun crime is at its lowest level for 30 years.

Scotland is doing well in the happiness stakes this week, despite all the political divisions above. Inverness is hosting a Happiness Festival this weekend, parading the best of British comedy. It has also come second top in a survey of the happiest towns in Britain by the on-line housing agency Rightmove. Falkirk, it reckons, is the fifth happiest town. Harrowgate in Yorkshire came first with great ratings for friendliness, safety, fine open spaces, good house prices and pride in their community. And the worst place ? East London. Don’t even go there.

Gourdon Harbour

Gourdon Harbour

Two men who chuckled all the way to their press conference on Thursday were fishermen Jim Reid, aged 75, and his grandson David Irvine, aged 35. They were telling their story of being found after two days lost at sea off the Aberdeenshire coast. They set off in their 16ft creel boat from Gourdon harbour on Tuesday to collect a few lobster pots. But, in thick mist, their compass broke down and gave them a false reading. They headed east instead of west and ran out of fuel 50 miles offshore.

A huge search was mounted but no one thought to search so far out to sea. The two men said they’d survived on a flask of tea and two biscuits and cursed each other till eventually they attracted the attention of a passing fishing boat. Miracles do happen…even in the North Sea.

They happen in Perth too. Because, for a moment last weekend, it must have overtaken Inverness as the happiest town in Scotland when the home team St Johnstone paraded the Scottish Cup through the streets of the fair city. It was the first time they’d won anything in their 130 year history.

Over in Glasgow, Neil Lennon is happy enough with his silverware. But he announced on Thursday that he was leaving Celtic after four years in charge. Apparently he felt he’d taken the club as far as it could go in the shallow waters of Scottish football and he’s off to swim with bigger fishes.

So where does that leave Glasgow in the happiness stakes ? That depends on the success of the Commonwealth Games which this week finally sold its last 100,000 tickets. I can exclusively reveal that the opening ceremony will include a sequence in which the Queen and Sir Sean Connery will drop by parachute into the arena singing “I belong tae Glasgow” accompanied by Mr Bean on the keyboard. Now that would make me happy.

By Chris Whatley, University of Dundee and Lesley Riddoch, Strathclyde University

Scotland’s spiritual leaders have been making their presence felt in the independence debate lately. The Church of Scotland is to hold a reconciliation service the Sunday after a vote to help bring the country back together.

Earlier this week its General Assembly housed an independence debate between shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and leading theologian Doug Gay. Not to be outdone, the Free Church has also been getting in on the act. We asked our panel what religion could bring to the debate.


Lesley Riddoch

Lesley Riddoch

Lesley Riddoch, PhD student at Strathclyde University, broadcaster and journalist

The Church of Scotland did a pretty extensive exercise around the country with their congregations a few months ago, holding discussions about the referendum. I would give them a big up for that because very few organisations have taken it upon themselves to have such a widespread and grassroots discussion.

I don’t mind that they haven’t taken a position on the referendum. It means they are in a better position to be honest brokers after it. It’s such a close race that you’ll inevitably offend people if you do.

Coming from Northern Ireland, I see this question of a presbyterian Scottish psyche in a different light to many people. Nothing in Scotland could be as underpinned by religious difference. I have never really thought that Scotland was as religious as many people seem to think.

We are what we are. We are reserved to some degree. We are fairly tediously law-abiding people who have a great faith in fairness working things out in the end. It’s why people waited for land reform that never came. The Scottish people are both patient and continually disappointed.

I don’t mind the projection of a rather dour, restrained image – it’s partly true. But I take exception to the flip side. There’s a Jekyll and Hyde idea that has been around for a very long time. On the one hand you get the sophisticated, civilised Adam Smith or Sir Walter Scott types, while on the other there’s the wild-eyed hairy Highlanders who can’t control themselves.

This is my problem with the church’s discussion of reconciliation four months before the vote. It plays to this idea of a darker side to the Scots – if you scratch us, the calm veneer will drop and everything will fall out – unless a man of the cloth is there to pick up the pieces. That image has been exaggerated and fabricated by all sorts of forces, many of them from outside our borders.

Reconciliation as a concept makes me think of Northern Ireland or Soweto. Surely we can all agree that nothing in the independence debate is that fatally fractious. The only thing that is polarised is the question in the referendum, and even that had three until quite recently.

I’d prefer the church talked about facilitation. If we could use that word, I do think it has a role to play in keeping the ball rolling after the vote. Unbelievable amounts of energy have been released by the referendum – don’t we want to encourage them to do more?

Prof Chris Whatley

Prof Chris Whatley

Chris Whatley, Professor of Scottish History, University of Dundee

The keystone in the union arch at the very outset was the Protestant succession. In 1706 Queen Anne and her ministers wanted the Scots to agree to the Protestant succession that had been agreed in Westminster in 1701. The union was forged at the time of the so-called Counter-Reformation of the Catholic church, aided and abetted by Louis XIV of France, which had led to a paranoia of a Catholic resurgence in Protestant Britain.

In spite of this, the Church of Scotland was initially nervous about going into the union because it feared being dominated by the Church of England. For this reason, the agreement comprised two acts, one of which was for securing the Church of Scotland within the union.

There were always Scots on the extreme edges of presbyterianism who saw the union as sinful because the Church of England was Anglican, which included bishops and all the other vestiges of Catholicism. But mainstream presbyterians accepted the union and saw it as being about securing Protestantism until up until about the 1950s.

At that point, you start to see the demise of Christianity in terms of church membership. With that decline, the value of the union in securing people’s religious beliefs became less important. This is one of the reasons the union is now much more vulnerable than at any time since 1740.

For centuries there has been a sense of Scottish distinctiveness and identity. Much of it was concealed during the high watermark of unionism in the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. But the tide of unionism has ebbed and we are now left with the rocks of Scottish national feeling.

It’s interesting that the Church of Scotland is not taking a position on independence. Fifty years ago they would probably have been strongly supporting the union, but I sense there is now a variety of views within the church. Instead their big concern is what happens after the vote, which I share. This vote mustn’t lead to ugly divisions within Scottish society. The church is rightly calling for calm and reason and forgiveness and healing.

As for the Scottish national character, presbyterian caution certainly led to the two acts of union. We also know that many Scots prayed to God for guidance about whether the union would be a good thing. Saying that, there were others who were cautiously opposed to the union, such as the Jacobites, who were mainly Episcopalian, so you can’t pin it to presbyterianism.

Wherever it comes from, my sense is that there’s a strong element of caution, of canniness, in the Scottish character, which you are seeing in the present debate. My reading is that there’s still a sizeable proportion of the population, the don’t knows, who remain to be convinced about independence. They are the archetypally cautious Scots looking for more security with currency, VAT, pensions, business and so on.

In 1707, the financial terms of the union were settled before the vote in the Scottish parliament. Now we are in a situation where we have the option of independence but we don’t have the detail. That’s why the canny Scots are saying they want greater certainty about the future.

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.

Switzerland’s leading leisure airline, Edelweiss, has inaugurated its new non-stop service from Edinburgh to Zurich today. It will operate twice per week – on Mondays and Fridays, during the summer season.

Karl Kistler  CEO of Edelweiss

Karl Kistler
CEO of Edelweiss

“We are very excited to add Edinburgh to our network”, said Karl Kistler, the airline’s Chief Executive Officer and captain who piloted the inaugural flight on 16 May 2014 himself. “Our two weekly flights throughout the summer season from May till October will carry approximately 8,000 passengers to Scotland and will have a significant impact on incoming tourism from Switzerland and other connecting markets.”

Gordon Dewar, Chief Executive of Edinburgh Airport, was delighted to welcome the airline, adding that Zurich was “an important business link and this new route will offer passengers even more
choice of how they travel. Switzerland is also a popular tourist destination and we’re delighted to be working with Edelweiss to offer Scottish passengers the chance to visit this beautiful country. Of course with the fantastic summer of sport and culture we’re about to enjoy, we’re looking forward to welcoming many Swiss visitors to Edinburgh.”

Since 2008, Edelweiss has been a member of the Lufthansa Group and sister company to Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS). More than 1.3 million passengers a year fly with the airline. The airline’s globally distinctive mark is the famous alpine flower which adorns the Swiss mountain peaks and represents the “little extra” that makes Edelweiss so special. Other new Edelweiss destinations launched in 2014 are Las Vegas, USA and Havana, Cuba.

A report from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Scotland, 98 Scottish towns and cities are facing or have been hit with the closure of a local service because of big business and public sector reorganisations. Clydesdale Bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Post Office, Police Scotland, HMRC and the Scottish Courts Service either have or plan to close services to the public, or shut local buildings, in Scottish towns and cities. The organisation has warned that the will disrupt government, local council and small business efforts to turn around Scottish high streets and rejuvenate local economies.

Colin Borland Closures have a "cumulative effect"

Colin Borland
Closures have a “cumulative effect”

Colin Borland, the FSB’s head of external affairs in Scotland pointed out that, over the last few years, “we’ve seen large public and private bodies evaluate their operations and come to the same conclusion – they can no longer afford to operate at the same level in towns and high streets across Scotland. We are concerned about this trend and are encouraging those in charge to consider the cumulative impact of their decisions on local economies. We also fear that colleges, the Ministry of Defence and other large organisations may be making decisions which will put their hometowns under additional pressure.

“After the disappearance of many big names such as Woolworths, we know that the future of our high streets can’t rely exclusively on retail. We need to make locating in small towns and high streets more attractive and affordable for large and small, public and private bodies alike.

“We recognise that many of these towns are looking at new ways to reinvigorate their local economies and drive footfall into their centres and schemes like the Small Business Bonus continue to give local traders a real boost. However, the public servants tasked with turning our high streets around are being undermined by their colleagues in other bodies looking to rationalise their estate. Similarly, banks will not improve relations with small businesses by closing branches.

“These institutions cite our modern habits including increased use of communications technology and declining town centre visitor numbers. We know that how we shop, live and work has changed for good – the challenge is to ensure that our local towns and economies thrive despite this shift.”

In just a few days time, the people of the European Union will go to the polls to select their new MEPs. Having just returned from a trip to the Irish Republic, it’s very clear that attitudes there are very different from those in Scotland. In Dublin for example, the streetlamps are festooned with posters with pictures of the various candidates and their assorted parties. Come back to Edinburgh and, by contrast, you would hardly think an election was actually taking place.

Euro Election Posters in Dublin

Euro Election Posters in Dublin

Even allowing for the economic turmoil of the past few years, the Irish have embraced the EU in a way which the peoples of Great Britain have not. Nonetheless, there were many posters which appear to be indicating that enough was enough when it came to economic austerity. That appears to be a common enough attitude across many of the member countries. Euroscepticism appears to have been growing, something borne out by the latest YouGov survey.

That survey confirms a trend lately been building up a head of steam for some considerable time. People across the European Union have been becoming increasingly distrustful of the established political parties and individual politicians in particular. It’s perhaps a surprise that the swing away from the establishment – and indeed support for Europe – looks as though it has been even stronger in France than it has been in parts of this country. Support for the National Front there has grown even more strongly than support for UKIP in England.

Swing to Eurosceptics Source: YouGov

Swing to Eurosceptics
Source: YouGov

The poll did not look at Scotland separately. In recent days, the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has posted that his party will do much better north of the border than anyone had predicted – even taking one of the seats on offer. Few of the pundits agree with him. But there is some concern that the turnout in Scotland may be very low – the focus of so many people and parties is much more on what will happen in September rather than in May.

However what happens in Brussels and Strasbourg is important in determining our future. The evidence from the YouGov survey is that the next European Parliament could well have a very different make up to anything we’ve seen before, with many more politicians being elected from minority parties. However, the analyst to study the results of the survey feel confident that there isn’t a surging tide of nationalism or of anti-EU feeling. Rather, votes for minority parties are being interpreted much more as protests against their politicians at home.

Speaking to people in Dublin, there does appear to be a growing sense of optimism about the future. They can see changes taking place around them – the amount of construction is a good indicator both of economic activity and of confidence. There is no evidence that people there now want to leave the European Union. Few were willing to admit that they would vote for a Eurosceptic party – but several suggested that this year’s result could be closer than anyone would previously have imagined.

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 !

John Mckendrick

John Mckendrick

By John H McKendrick, Glasgow Caledonian University and W David McCausland, University of Aberdeen

Scotland is home to some of Europe’s oldest universities, and the sector plays a key role in the economy there. But what impact would independence have on it? This week academics have been doing battle over the future of higher education research funding in an independent country. A recent Scottish government report claimed that the current joint funding arrangements between Scotland and the rest of the UK would be maintained after independence. But the UK government has ruled this out.

Rival camps of academics on unionist and nationalist sides have been writing to Scottish newspapers over the issue. We asked two of our panellists for their views.


John McKendrick, Senior Lecturer, Glasgow Caledonian University

All is not well with higher education in the UK. For example the line that the UK government has taken on immigration is regressive in universities. If you are making it more difficult for students to come to study in the UK, that creates a problem because the fees paid by international students are a major source of university income.

Increasing the international student population is a key component of universities’ strategies to generate more income. You might argue that if an independent Scotland was more welcoming and open to those students, that might generate income that is not there at present. But that does assume that those students would come here rather than to English universities.

There’s a lot of talent in Scottish universities. Our top universities rank highly in the international league tables. I can’t see that changing dramatically in an independent Scotland. Our research-intensive institutions will continue to prosper whatever lies ahead.

But if the cake did become slightly smaller after independence, what would that mean for the sector as a whole? Would everyone get an equally smaller share? Would money flow to the top universities to protect their standing in the international arena? That has to be a real possibility. I don’t think Scotland would want to weaken what are significant drivers to the economy and beacons for its standing in the global arena.

Many supporters of independence see it as an opportunity to address enduring inequalities. But you might end up with a situation where higher education pulled in the opposite direction – drawing money from less research-intensive institutions. There’s no evidence to suggest that might be the case, but we should be alert to it as a possibility.

So what’s the vision for Scottish universities in an independent Scotland? To what extent will be prepared to adequately fund those institutions that have proven to be so successful at facilitating widening participation?

Will the principle of free higher education at the point of delivery be a cornerstone of our educational system? Are we sure that it is in the national interest to sustain a system that generates such high levels of personal debt for young people at the start of their working lives? Not much attention is being paid to these issues at the moment.

Instead I see no difference between the higher education debate and the general independence debate. The nationalists pick out a fault in the current scenario as a way of pointing to an opportunity for an independent Scotland to do differently. The unionists say, “We have a good deal just now, we get more than our fair share, it will all be jeopardised.”

David McCausland, Head of Economics, University of Aberdeen

Dr David McCausland

Dr David McCausland

The Scottish government paper suggests that there will be greater fiscal levers available to support research in higher education. But if an independent Scotland were to enter a currency union with the rest of the UK, as is presently favoured, then monetary policy would continue to be determined in London. This would mean that the burden of economic policy in Scotland would fall on fiscal policy. Those fiscal levers will be subject to many competing demands.

The report is right to say that the main source of sustainable economic growth is technological progress. And research by universities is key to driving this process forward.

The report makes much of academics determining which research gets funded and continuing research assessment through the REF (Research Excellence Framework) process, with the government setting research priorities set by research councils. While it is understandable that governments wish to have this input given the taxpayer contribution to higher education, it could perhaps be argued that the balance has shifted too far towards these thematic priorities and away from genuine blue-skies research.

The measurement mechanism inherent in the REF process tends to skew research towards the measurable and to meeting particular targets. As well as being a time-consuming process that diverts activity away from research and teaching, it also slants activity in universities towards research. This is possibly to the detriment of teaching, which is also a core part of universities’ role in driving economic growth.

The government report is right in its assessment of the damaging effect of the UK’s immigration policy –- not only in terms of signalling that overseas students are not welcome, but also in denying to universities valuable sources of revenue during times when other funding sources are becoming tighter.

The report says much about universities tapping into other sources of funding for research after independence. But EU schemes like Horizon 2020 have much smaller budgets available than previous schemes like Framework 7. This is against the backdrop of Scottish Funding Council funding overall roughly flatlining (despite increases in some areas like knowledge exchange).

Overall, whether Scottish universities can continue to punch above their weight after independence very much depends on whether access can be maintained to current research funding. If universities have a funding environment that enables the very best researchers to be attracted to Scotland, there is no reason why current successes cannot be maintained.

The downside risk would be if the post-independence financial position necessitated a greater degree of austerity in public spending. If this fed through into declining resource for university research, making the environment less attractive to world class researchers, then future prospects for economic growth may be put in jeopardy.

The rest of the Scotland Decides ’14 panel debates are here

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.

Stuart Brooks  John Muir Trust

Stuart Brooks
John Muir Trust

A new survey from Survation has revealed that half the population of the Highlands fear that the spread of large scale wind farm across wild land could damage tourism in the region. The poll, conducted for the John Muir Trust, asked over 500 residents across the eight Highlands and Islands constituencies ‘What impact do you think the spread of onshore wind farms on wild land in the Highlands and Islands might have on the tourist industry in the region?’

The results were:

  • A positive impact – 5.8%
  • A negative impact – 49.4%
  • No impact – 44.9%

The same poll found that a majority Highlands and Islands residents support a draft proposal by the Scottish Government draft to offer special protection for wild land areas as defined and mapped by Scottish Natural Heritage. Excluding don’t knows, that part of the poll revealed:

  • 53% support wild land protection (including 34% who ‘strongly support’ it)
  • 24% oppose wild land protection (including 10 % who ‘strongly oppose’ it)
  • 23% neither support nor oppose the proposal

Commenting on the tourism findings, Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive of the John Muir Trust said that the poll showed two things. “First, that people in the Highlands and Islands support protection of wild land. And second, there is deep concern that if it is not protected, the impact could be damaging to the economy of the region.

“On the positive side, the wild land map of Scotland drawn up by SNH could help some of the lesser known parts of the wild Highlands to market themselves to the rest of the world, boosting tourism in some of our most remote areas. We want to protect wild land for its sake, but we also see it as a great asset for the people and communities who live in the adjacent glens and coastal strips.”

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.
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