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Scottish parliament

We have spent much of this week discussing the Red Road flats. Should they be blown up as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer? At first people were stunned by the idea. Then they thought it might be an April Fool joke. Then came the public outcry against it. Then the defence. Then a hint that the organisers might be changing their minds. And finally a letter to the newspapers from the chief executive of the games David Grevemberg re-affirming the decision that the 30-storey tower blocks are to be brought down live in front of a world-wide television audience of millions.

David Grevemberg Chief Executive, Glasgow 2014

David Grevemberg
Chief Executive, Glasgow 2014

“By dedicating just a few moments of the opening ceremony to the extraordinary story of Red Road it is our ambition to depict Glasgow as a brave, confident and great city that is confronting the need for change,” he writes.

The trouble is that the story of Red Road is not a happy one, at least it does not have a happy ending…even before the place is blown up. The seven tower blocks were built in the 1960s and were supposedly the very latest in working-class luxury. However they soon rotted away and became the new slums. One block has already been demolished, five are empty and are ready for the explosives squad. One will remain, housing refugees and asylum seekers.

So the questions being asked this week are: is blowing up the Red Road flats drawing the world’s attention to Glasgow’s failures? Is it disrespectful to the refugees still living there? Is destruction what Glasgow is about or should it be re-building? Will the 15 second explosion sequence work? Will it be safe? Will it really be a spectacle if most people are only seeing it on a screen in the Commonwealth stadium or on television? And, since we are only seeing it on a screen, why not show a recording of it?

Must Glasgow be better than the Olympic spectaculars

Must Glasgow be better than the Olympic spectaculars

There is also the whole issue of over-the-top opening ceremonies. Must we be better than the Olympic spectaculars? Must each show be bigger than the last, more shocking, more expensiv? ( The cost has gone up to £20m incidentally). What’s wrong with a parade and a torch-bearer to open the games? And, if we really want to push the boat out, a pipe band and a speech from the Lord Provost.

And talking of over-the-top showmanship, it didn’t come any better this week than ex-NATO potentate George Robertson’s declaration that Scottish independence would have “cataclysmic” consequences for global security. The break-up of the United Kingdom, he said, would weaken the West’s defences against “the forces of darkness.” This is surely “evil empire” stuff and a sign that Project Fear has finally lost touch with planet Earth.

There was another example this week from Ed Davey, the UK energy secretary. He put out a report claiming that Scottish energy bills would rise by an average of £200 a year as a result of independence. This was because the subsidy given to wind farms and other renewables would have to be borne by Scotland alone, rather than spread across the whole of the UK. The Scottish government hit back by saying the figures didn’t take into account the subsidy given to nuclear energy in England.

Margo MacDonald  A doughty fighter

Margo MacDonald
A doughty fighter

And for good measure, the Scottish government did a little scare-mongering of its own, this time over welfare cuts. It published a report saying Westminster’s cap on welfare spending will mean a cut of £2.5bn to benefits over the next two years, pushing – according to one estimate – 100,000 more children into poverty and setting back the fight against overall poverty by 10 years.

We are all missing one of Scotland’s most doughty fighters for independence, Margo MacDonald who died last week. She was 70 and had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Words that sprang up time and again in the tributes to her included, “forthright, determined, a bright light, a blond bombshell, a force of nature.” She began her political life with a spectacular win for the SNP in a by-election in Govan in 1977 and went on to have a career in local government and then in the Scottish Parliament, sitting latterly as an independent.

I’ll remember her for her clear-headedness and her skill in putting her arguments into a few straightforward words. I’ll also remember her courage in her personal battle with Parkinson’s and her campaign to bring dignity to the process of dying.

Spring has certainly arrived this week – after a pause in proceedings for the last fortnight. Leaves are starting to open, grass in being cut, and we awaiting any day now, the first osprey egg of the season at the Loch of Lowes. Yes, the “lady” is back. This remarkable old bird has returned to her Perthshire reserve for the 23rd year and is about to hatch her 69th egg.

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.

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

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

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

Jackie Baillie MSP Called for an energy price freeze

Jackie Baillie MSP
Called for an energy price freeze

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

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

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

The Big Six  Competition investigation

The Big Six
Competition investigation

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

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

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

Price of a returned laptop £250,000

Price of a returned laptop
£250,000

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

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

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

The Scottish Wildlife Trust was founded in 1964 by Sir Charles Connell, an Edinburgh lawyer and keen ornithologist. He brought together a small team of experts and enthusiasts who were inspired by the wildlife trust movement already under way in England. Within two years it had started a network of local groups and acquired its first reserve, a small woodland in Ayrshire. Since then it has grown to become one of the major environmental organisations in Scotland with 120 reserves, 35,000 members, a staff of about 100, 20 local groups and over a thousand working volunteers.

Puffin on Handa

Puffin on Handa

Most of its reserves are small patches of woodland, marsh, bog or moor, close to where people live, so that wildlife and human life are not seen as opposites but as part of the same natural world.

But the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) also has some large and spectacular reserves – the Loch of Lowes with its famous ospreys, the Falls of Clyde with its peregrines, the Montrose Basin for migrating geese and the isles of Eigg and Handa on the west coast.

This year the Trust is also celebrating the first five years of two important wildlife projects. It has re-introduced native beavers to Scotland after an absence of 400 years. There are now 15 beavers living wild in Knapdale in Argyll, the subject of an experiment to see what effect they will have on the local environment.

SWT LogoThe SWT has also been heavily involved in the fight to save the red squirrel and there are signs that this native species is holding out well against the grey invaders in the marginal lands of the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and South Ayrshire and in the more northerly battlegrounds of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

The Trust has also branched out into wider campaigns to save Scotland’s landscape and marine environment. Its “Living Landscape ” project in Coigach and Assynt has recently won a £100,000 lottery grant to plant trees, restore bog and moorland and create footpaths. The idea is to link wildlife territories across a large and diverse area of the countryside. It’s also been campaigning hard to have marine protected areas established around Scotland’s coast.

Rabbit in AssyntSWT volunteers were recently invited to a reception in the Scottish Parliament, acknowledging their role in campaigning and working for the environment.

Along with the other conservation organisations – RSPB, WWF, John Muir Trust, Friends of the Earth – the Wildlife Trust has been influential in driving Scotland’s environmental agenda.

Its chief executive for the last ten years, Simon Milne, is a well known figure on the environmental landscape and has established the SWT as one of Scotland’s most respected institutions. He now goes on to the prestigious post of Regius Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

His successor as chief executive is Jonathan Hughes who began as a ranger on the SWT reserve at Loch Fleet in the 1990s. Since 2009 he’s been the Trust’s director of conservation. He takes over with this disturbing thought in the latest edition of the Trust’s magazine:

“ We have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. We are living through an era of profound changes to the planet’s biosphere, changes which are happening almost entirely due to the influence of human activity. It is within this context that the Trust faces its next 50 years.”

For details of your nearest SWT reserve: www.scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk

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.

Spring is in the air

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

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar Castle

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

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

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

Gordon Brown Out of hybernation

Gordon Brown
Out of hybernation

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

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

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

Dounreay

Dounreay

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

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

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

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

‘What Women Want, What Women Need’

380 women from throughout Scotland are expected to descend on the Scottish Parliament to celebrate International Women’s Day. The theme for this year’s event is ‘What Women Want, What Women Need’. Through an annual roadshow programme, the SWC meets with women from all over Scotland, who provide an insight into what they want and need in order to improve their lives

Agnes Tolmie

Agnes Tolmie

Issues such as better transport, accessible, affordable childcare and opportunities for education and employment are consistently discussed. Employer support, Government initiatives and local investment are just some of the mechanisms required to support the achievement of these wishes.

Speakers on the day include Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP; Alicia Castro, Argentine Ambassador to the UK; Alison Fraser, SWC Volunteer; Abby Mavers, an actor in BBC’s ‘Waterloo Road’ and Scottish comedian Susan Morrison

SWC Chair, Agnes Tolmie, explained that there was “a feeling that in many ways, women ‘have it all’. The reality is far from that ideal. Significant obstacles still exist across a number of areas such as education, employment and representation in political and public life. One of the most important ways of breaking down these barriers is to listen to women and take on board what they really want and what they really need. This will not only improve their lives, but the lives of their families and communities as a whole.

The SWC are delighted to be able to bring women together from different backgrounds and of diverse ages from throughout Scotland on International Women’s Day. We look forward to celebrating with all women attending.”

By Murray Pittock, Glasgow University

Scotland has always been a distinct nation but since the Act of Union in 1707, it has been a nation within a larger political entity: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The election of a minority Scottish National Party (SNP) government led by Alex Salmond in 2007 brought about the first indications that situation could change. When the SNP won a convincing majority enabling it to rule in its own right last year, the possibility that Scotland could again become a sovereign nation became a distinct possibility.

Now the Westminster coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is striking back. Prime Minister David Cameron seeks to define a referendum on independence on London’s terms while Salmond says he has a mandate to run a referendum from Scotland.

The Conversation spoke with Glasgow University expert Professor Murray Pittock to find out exactly what the state of play is between two close neighbours with a long and storied history.

Can you explain what the situation is at both Westminster and in the Scottish Government as regards a referendum on Scottish independence?

The Westminster government have looked to seize the initiative over the Scottish referendum by saying that they will use their powers to either amend the current Scotland bill going through the Lords or more likely the 1998 Scotland Act to enable a binding referendum on the future of Scotland to be held.

Other referenda would simply be consultative. There was an indication at the weekend that they would wish this referendum to be held within 18 months, to wrongfoot the Scottish National Party government in Holyrood who have said all along, publicly, that they would hold it at some point in 2014.

There has been some sign of a retreat from that position by the UK government – particularly by the Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition – where the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore is looking to resolve the issue with the Scottish Government.

Earlier this week First Minister Alex Salmond made very clear that the mandate the Scottish Government had was to hold a referendum in 2014 and that is when he would intend to hold a referendum.

There are a number of bones of contention. One of these is whether there should be a third question about repatriating maximum powers short of foreign affairs, the so-called “devo max” question.

Another is whether the UK Electoral Commission or a Scottish Referendum Commission should run the referendum.

The third is whether 16 or 17 year olds should be entitled to vote rather than over-18s. The First Minister has indicated that 16 and 17 year olds would vote if the Scottish Government organised the referendum.

Can you explain the “devo max” option in some more detail?

There is some variety as to the powers that are suggested under devo max but the fundamental issue is that devo max represents what tends to be the polling evidence in Scotland, which is that there is a majority in favour of repatriating all powers to Scotland – including taxation and macro-economic policy to a significant degree – but excluding defence and foreign policy.

Although it must be said that the Scottish administrations since 1999 and particularly since 2007 have operated a nascent foreign policy.

In terms of the question of a mandate, the Tories only have one Westminster seat in Scotland and the Lib Dems have 12 where the SNP won a very considerable victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. Who will be able to claim better that they have the mandate to decide what referendum should be held and when?


Lib Dem Nick Clegg and Tory Prime Minister David Cameron can work together in government, but can they defend the Union together? AAP/Stefan Wermuth

The question of mandate has two aspects: a constitutional aspect and a political aspect. From a constitutional point of view the UK government has a case. From a political point of view, its case is very weak because clearly the Scottish Government was elected to govern Scotland and to conduct a referendum on independence and it has won an overall majority under a proportional system which is very difficult to do.

The Scottish Government clearly does have a political mandate and most of the counter-arguments have been constitutional and legal arguments. The question is how far those will give way to the politics. The early response in Scotland, not from politicians, from the public – judging by radio phone-ins and the like – is very hostile to the idea of Tory interference in Scotland, even from people who do not support the SNP.

I think if this was a Labour London government, it would be easier for them to put Alex Salmond in a corner. I think that the risk here is that in pandering to the anti-Scottish or anti-Salmond views of some of his backbench MPs and thinking he doesn’t have very much to lose in Scotland because he only has one seat, David Cameron has re-animated Scottish views that the Conservative party is a toxic brand and (also re-animated) antipathy to it and all that its stands for.

Which is perhaps predictable but is not going to make his task in gaining ascendancy over the Scottish Government any easier.

Is there a situation where a divided Unionist camp advantages the Scottish Nationalists?

I think that is a significant advantage. The other thing is the 2014 date. People have said it is chosen because of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, or it has been chosen because of the Commonwealth Games but one reason it has been chosen is, I suspect, because the next UK general election is in 2015 and holding it within six to nine months of that General Election, especially in the autumn when the campaigning season has started after the party conferences, will make it very difficult for the Labour party and the Conservatives to appear on the same platform.

The indications are that they won’t be able to do that.

Would the SNP, even though they will campaign for independence, be happy with devo max?

I think the best guess there is that the Cabinet and the parliamentary party in Holyrood have got a variety of views on this and some of them will be keen to have devo max and some of them would be uncertain about having a third question. I think that circle may be squared by having a consultation process on the form a referendum should take with the electorate in Scotland.

My suspicion is the First Minister probably is interested in a third question and we will see whether people feed back to say they would like one.

Murray Pittock is involved in developing the Studying Scotland agenda in schools and elsewhere with the Scottish Government as part of his work in leading the Scottish Studies Global research theme for the University of Glasgow.

The Conversation

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Children now have a right to a better life
(Photo: Sergey Ivanov/Creative Commons)

At last we are doing something for our children. Ashamed at leaving a quarter of them in poverty, a fifth of them unemployed, an economy in ruins and an environment increasingly polluted, this week the Scottish Parliament took one small step towards accepting their right to a better life.

Bill passed after a marathon session

Bill passed after a marathon session

MSPs passed the Children and Young People Bill after a marathon session on Wednesday. It confirms a few policy changes announced recently, such as the extension of hours for free nursery education and free school meals for all children in the first three years of primary school.

But, more radically and more controversially, it requires health authorities and education authorities to provide a “named person” or guardian for every child in Scotland up to the age of 18.

This health visitor, and in later years school teacher, will have a statutory duty to guard the rights of the child, make sure he or she doesn’t fall through the child protection net, and be someone who the child or the worried parent or relative can turn to for advice. Right wing politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders complain that this is the nanny state going too far. They still seem to believe that children are the goods and chattels of their parents, to be brought up as they see fit.

Children need to be seen as individuals (Pic: Steve Bowbrick Creative Commons)

Children need to be seen as individuals
(Pic: Steve Bowbrick Creative Commons)

I think that most of the modern world realises now that a child is an individual person and has his or her own rights. These rights should be protected by the community at large and include the right to a decent home, an education, free time and free thought, freedom from drug or alcohol addition or physical or emotional abuse. Obligations come later.

So, good for the Scottish Parliament for setting out this principle in law. All it has to do now is to find the funds for the 450 extra health visitors required and to make sure the system doesn’t get bogged down in bureaucracy.

There was some official rejoicing this week that unemployment appears to have fallen again, down 3,000 to 195,000. However the percentage figure has gone up from 6.4 per cent to 7.1. One wise man, interviewed in the street in Govan, put the case well: “They just move the figures around from one heading to another.”

A degree is no guarantee of a job (Pic: Creative Commons)

A degree is no guarantee of a job
(Pic: Creative Commons)

There are still an awful lot of people unemployed, or in part time work. One survey found that a quarter of all graduates are still looking for work a year after leaving university and nearly half of those who are in employment are in non-graduate jobs.

We have had a dramatic intervention in the independence debate. It came in just five words from a man who didn’t even turn up to say them. But that man happens to be David Bowie, speaking through the beautiful lips of Kate Moss at the British Music Awards in London. “Scotland, please stay with us,” he/she declared. Not usually noted for his Unionist political opinions, one wonders if he was put up to it and how many more celebrities will be deployed in the battle for hearts in the next few months.

Jose Manuel Barroso  Comments dismissed as part of 'project fear'

Jose Manuel Barroso
Comments dismissed as part of
‘project fear’

His profound few words dwarfed all the others this week. Sr. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, told us it was “unlikely if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to win the approval of all 27 members of the EU if it wished to join. Danny Alexander, the chief secretary of the treasury, followed this up with a warning that the cost of a mortgage in an independent Scotland would go up by £5,000. But all of this was dismissed as part of “project fear” by Alex Salmond who said Scots would not take kindly to suggestions that they can’t be a successful independent country. “Yes we can,” he told a conference of business people in Aberdeen.

Barack Obama might enjoy the use of his phrase by a fellow politician but he might not be so pleased to learn that Glasgow University students have elected Edward Snowden as their new Rector. He’s the American security contractor currently hiding in Russia after telling the world about the USA’s electronic spying operations. By a large majority, the Glasgow students have send a defiant message to all in authority that they value their privacy and their freedom.

Eve Muirhead Bronze medal at Sochi (Pic: Wikipedia)

Eve Muirhead
Bronze medal at Sochi
(Pic: Wikipedia)

Glasgow citizens meanwhile have sent a defiant message to the authorities in the art world that they rather like Jack Vettriano’s paintings. They’ve gone to see them at the Kelvingrove Gallery in record numbers – 123,000 since September. Self-taught Vettriano is mocked by the art critics but his realistic, story-telling pictures are loved by the public and by the auctioneers.

And havn’t we done well in the Winter Olympics ? Scotland has played its parts in giving Great Britain its best medal total since 1924. England may have produced Liz Yarnold and Jenny Jones in the sledging and snowboarding events, but Scotland has triumphed in the game it invented, curling.

Blue-eyed girl Eve Muirhead and her team have won a bronze medal in the ladies curling and, in the men’s, David Murdoch’s team have reached the final, giving them at least a silver medal.

I happen to live only a stone’s slide from Thomson’s Tower built for the gentlemen of the Duddingston Curling Club who first wrote down the rules of the game in 1804. I wonder what they would have made of the ice maidens of Sochi.

Scottish Government needs to act

SELECT, the trade body for Scotland’s electrical sector, has urged the Scottish Government not to delay the implementation of the Sustainable Procurement Bill which is in the late stages of examination in the Scottish Parliament. The organisation believes that the Bill addresses most of the important outstanding issues regarding public sector procurement and that it is imperative that it becomes an Act of Parliament, with minimal amendment, as soon as possible. It also believes that the importance of the Bill, in a country dominated by the public sector, cannot be understated, arguing that it will determine for the foreseeable future how fully indigenous, private sector Scottish firms will be able to participate in vital public expenditure.

David Wright

David Wright

Head of External Affairs, David Wright, accepts that the consultation process has been “very genuine and many of the provisions for which we lobbied have been taken into consideration. It is now a matter of immediate concern to firms up and down the country across all sectors to see the Bill entering the statute books as an Act so that the benefits of public expenditure can be more efficiently shared by Scottish companies.”

Mr Wright pointed out that the Bill, for the first time, lists all public sector organisations covered by it, removing the argument by some authorities that its provisions do not apply to them. It also means that they are covered by the same procurement procedures, meaning that companies do not have to deal differently with, for instance, 32 different local authorities. This Single Portal means that there will only be one place where jobs go out to tender, making the identification of relevant work easier for companies.

Crucially, there will only be one pre-qualification requirement for companies, removing the need for repetitive pre-qualification submissions to different authorities, a hugely expensive and time-consuming process involving immensely complex paperwork. Nor will public sector bodies be allowed to continue to charge for providing the forms which companies need to fill in.

Mr Wright went on to say that the provisions would “expedite the process, making it far easier and much less costly for Scotland’s companies, especially small to medium enterprises, to play on a level playing field. But what is really encouraging from a local point of view is that there is a provision in the Bill for organisations to purchase locally. Where Community Benefit can be demonstrated, public sector bodies can justify favouring a local enterprise. This could be as simple as a reduction in carbon footprint through buying closer to home”