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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History, Glasgow Caledonian University

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

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

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

Arthur Midwinter, Visiting Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 March 2014: Can we trust the polls?

Panel announcement

The Conversation

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

John Curtice, Karly Kehoe, and Neil Blain do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

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

Flags of Norway and Iceland

I wondered why the Norwegian and the Icelandic flags were flying in the strong wind blowing off the Solway Firth. Was this an invasion from Alex Salmond’s “arc of prosperity”? Afterall, we are living at a time of changing national boundaries across Europe. But it turned out that the flags were to welcome feathered visitors to the nature reserve run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Caerlaverock.

Whooper Swans in Galloway

Whooper Swans in Galloway

Thousands of barnacle geese fly down to spend the winter here from Svalbard in the far north of Norway. Hundreds of whooper swans make the journey from Iceland every year. We watched as the swans were fed. The warden cast grain on the water from his wheelbarrow and the yellow-beaked birds jostled for position. At first they all faced one way, then the other and all were cautious about going near the nets where they were caught for tagging the day before.

It all symbolised for me the state of Scotland’s local government. An unlikely comparison I know. But if we take the warden to be the SNP government casting its £10.5bn funding to the 32 local councils and the whooper swans to be those councils each fighting for their “fair share”, then this is the situation we are in.

Councils Split

Councils Split

The issue has come to a head over the last few weeks, with the threat of seven local councils – and perhaps more – leaving the umbrella organisation COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and forming a rival grouping. The dissidents so far are: Glasgow, Inverclyde, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire, West Lothian, Aberdeen and Dumfries and Galloway.

Of course, party politics is involved. Labour control half of the 32 councils, and therefore have control of the central decision-making committee in COSLA, the committee of council leaders. The other parties don’t care for this arrangement and are suggesting that decisions should be taken at the quarterly convention where they stand more chance of success.

This squabbling among the whooper swans wouldn’t matter too much, were it not taking place against an overall cut in the size of the spending wheelbarrow. There’s also a divisive public debate over the role of local government and the services they run. Not to mention a referendum over which national flag should be flying over the council chambers.

Glasgow Council - left CoSLA

Glasgow Council – left CoSLA

For the last six years councils have all faced the same way and accepted a council tax freeze imposed on them by the SNP government. Now the straight-jacket is beginning to hurt and many councils are asking themselves why they should stick with a system that limits even the 20 per cent of revenue that councils raise for themselves through local taxes. Like the whooper swans, many are now cautious of being caught in the centralising net of national government.

Those who want to keep COSLA together argue that local government will lose out if it has no collective voice. Each council will be bullied by central government in turn. Besides, negotiating pay and conditions for the 250,000 people who work for local councils is easier done through one organisation. So too is common research, or “best practice” guidance or co-operative arrangements between councils on issues such as special schools, road repairs, re-cycling etc.

This story of local government flux is often overlooked and yet it is of immediate importance to our everyday lives…..how schools are being run, rubbish collected, old folk looked after, parks and libraries kept open, businesses given the services they need to operate. It is also about democracy, giving people control over their own lives in a world which is being increasingly centralised.

Yes, birds of a feather flock together but they also have individual lives. The interplay between these two aspects of both birds and humans is still a bit of a mystery. But it is a process which has served us well and should not be given up.

Soon the whooper swans will take off for the breeding grounds in Iceland and the barnacle geese will fly back to Norway. A collective decision will be taken, but no single bird – or even a central committee of birds – will dictate when they will fly and where.

A chance to get away from it all?

As I lay in my wind-battered tent last weekend, I must admit I did not think about how the events of this week would unfold…the clash of the cabinets, the debate over North Sea Oil, the vote on corroboration. Instead I was wondering if the scout leader would call me out to help rescue a tent-full of 12 year-olds which had been struck by a blown-away tent from further up the field. Luckily, he handled the crisis by himself and I remained snug in my sleeping bag…until I too had to get up and re-peg my own tent before it blew away.

Church of Scotland LogoThe annual “Brass Monkey” camp held at Bonaly Scout Centre on the edge of the Pentland Hills really puts life in perspective. Here the concerns are high winds, rain, tents, rucksacks, meal times, wide games and watching the citizens of the future cope with life’s early challenges. All 160 scouts seemed to be having a great time, untroubled by the sterling zone, the EU entry requirements, jobs, house prices, climate change and life’s later challenges.

But hey, the life of the nation is not at all the same as “life” in general. And thank goodness for that. The Church of Scotland brought out a report this week which tires to bridge this gap between the two worlds. It appeals to voters in September’s referendum on independence not just to ask; “What’s in it for me ?” (pensions, wages, oil revenues etc ) but to consider what’s best for the country. The debate, it says, should be less about currencies and constitutions and more about social values such as fairness, equality, integrity and participation.

Two cabinets talked of  'Scotland's Oil'

Two cabinets talked of ‘Scotland’s Oil’

So how does this apply to “Scotland’s oil” ? Well, not one but two cabinets met to discuss this in Aberdeen on Monday. David Cameron brought the UK cabinet to Scotland for only the third time in its history. Ministers had before them a report from Sir Ian Wood calling for a new oil industry regulator which will encourage smaller companies to take over mature wells and squeeze the last £200bn of oil and gas from the North Sea. But it cannot be done, Mr Cameron warned, without the “broad shoulders” of UK investment.

The UK energy secretary Ed Davey also found time to pop up to Peterhead to announce that, at long last, the gas-fired power station there is to have a pioneering £100m carbon capture system installed.

Alex Salmond meanwhile staged his own cabinet meeting in a church, a few miles down the road, in Portlethen, followed by a public question and answer session. He wanted to highlight the difference between his down-to-earth “people’s government” and the posh boys from London who “jetted in and jetted out” to a meeting behind closed doors deep inside BP’s main Aberdeen office building. They were only here, he said, to keep Scotland’s oil for themselves “and squander it as they have done for the past 40 years.”

Standard Life nae mair?

Standard Life nae mair?

Back in Holyrood on Thursday, Mr Salmond was facing another foe, Labour’s Johann Lamont, who asked him how many companies it would take to consider leaving Scotland before he realised independence was bad for jobs. “It isn’t just Bathgate no more, or Linwood no more,” she said, quoting the Proclaimers, “It was Standard Life no more, Royal Bank of Scotland no more, if Scotland became independent.”

Standard Life bosses told their shareholders this week that they were planning to set up new companies south of the border and abroad if Scotland voted to be independent, because of uncertainty over the currency and pension and insurance regulations.

RBS - Record Loss but huge bonuses

RBS – Record Loss but huge bonuses

The Royal Bank of Scotland said it would have to shed jobs in Scotland, as it down-sized to concentrate on retail home banking again. It’s just reported a loss of £8.2bn for the year 2013. It’s the bank’s biggest loss since it had to be rescued by the UK government in 2008. But amazingly, it’s didn’t stop the bank paying out £576m in bonuses. Perhaps the bank is considering a move to another planet.

The SNP government was undaunted by these headwinds and it pressed ahead in parliament with its latest legal reforms. MSPs voted 64 to 5 in favour of the Criminal Justice Bill, which includes a controversial measure to drop Scotland’s unique and age-old rule of “corroboration” – the need for two distinct pieces of evidence for a prosecution to be mounted in court. Most Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs abstained and called on the government to think again, as indeed has the parliament’s own justice committee and a string of senior judges and court lawyers.

So the battered tent of democracy continues to be blown to and fro. I’ll be amazed if the Criminal Justice Bill makes it through all its parliamentary stages unaltered. I’ll be amazed too if more large companies and UK government ministers don’t raise more doubts about independence in the weeks ahead. But I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t just result in more Scots saying “Yes we can ” to independence. Like those scouts at Bonaly, they won’t be put off by head winds, rain or negative messages.

Scotland – overburdened by iconography

by Charlie Laidlaw

Companies stand or fall on the authenticity of their brands, with brand value an integral element in corporate and marketing strategy – the same is true of countries.

Scotland's 'brand' draws heavily on its history

Scotland’s ‘brand’ draws heavily on its history

This is a pertinent observation ahead of Scotland’s independence referendum later this year. If Scotland does vote to go it alone, it is the value of the country’s brand that will sustain it – driving everything from inward tourism to international investment.

Of course, defining a national brand and its value to the economy is virtually impossible, as perceptions vary enormously. The Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index,which ranks countries against a number of criteria, offers some insight.

We are, of course, hotwired to think in shorthand. For example, think of Italy, and what do you associate it with? Pizza? Ferrari? Do you have a positive view on Italian manufacturing quality? Would you buy an Italian product against a competitor product from, say, France?

Think Italy - Think Ferrari

Think Italy – Think Ferrari

In some instances, the national brand guessing game is easy. Germany, for example, despite being on the losing end of two world wars, has achieved an international reputation for engineering excellence that has made it the economic powerhouse of Europe.

In that sense, Germany has reinvented itself. So too, Japan. “Made in Japan” once meant cheap and second-rate. Now, the Japanese automobile and electronic industries straddle the world, and stand for excellence and reliability.

Scotland too has reinvented itself, most obviously by Sir Walter Scott who organised King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. It represented nothing less than a national brand makeover, making all things tartan chic and fashionable. Later, Queen Victoria put the heroic back into the Highlands.

A national brand make-over in the 1820s

A national brand make-over
in the 1820s

In some ways, for such a small country, Scotland is overburdened by iconography: from tartan to whisky, from lochs to glens, shortbread to haggis, bagpipes to the Loch Ness Monster, golf to kilts…the list goes on.

National symbols are important because they sustain economic activity. For example, Scotland’s tourism industry employs some 200,000 people and visitors spend almost £11 billion a year – with many of those visitors coming from other parts of the UK. Will they still come if Scotland becomes independent?

The tourism and hospitality industry seems split on that one, despite the Scottish government promising to cut VAT for the sector and reduce airport tax.

Whisky is another icon, an industry that employs 10,000 people and, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, exports in excess of £4 billion. But food and drink extends well beyond the water of life. Scotland is also home to about 25% of the UK’s beef cattle, and we catch over 50% of the nation’s fish. Our salmon rivers are world-famous, supporting rural and remote communities.

Scotland invented retail banking

Scotland invented retail banking

Or financial services, another national icon, with Scotland also credited with “inventing” retail banking. Yet if Scotland achieves independence, banks would have over 1,000% of Scotland’s GDP. When Iceland’s banks went bust, their assets were some 880% of GDP. Is that brand strength, or brand risk? Westminster politicians obviously think so, having blocked Scotland from entering into a UK Poundland after independence. Does Scotland therefore revert to its own currency? Or, longer term, think about the Euro?

(Incidentally, it was Sir Isaac Newton, then Master of the Mint at the Tower of London, who brought Scots coinage into line with the rest of Britain following the Act of Union).

Oil and Gas A diminishing asset?

Oil and Gas
A diminishing asset?

The financial case for independence is based, at least initially, on two iconic industries – North Sea oil and the financial sector. The SNP hopes to secure some 90% of tax from oil and gas, albeit a diminishing source of revenue, and a healthy slice of income from the country’s financial sector. (That’s leaving to one side the issue of Scotland’s share of national debt).

That means that Scotland the Brand will be dependent on a diminishing asset under its waters, and a sector that (post-crash) the country can’t necessarily rely on to deliver a safe return. Let’s not forget that, against Scottish tax revenues of some £60 billion annually, the cost of the bank bailouts was some £500 billion in loans and guarantees.

Scottish Government Committed to renewable energy

Scottish Government
Committed to renewable energy

It’s why the SNP government is keen to develop renewables as a new icon of Scottish industry, despite some ambivalent figures – for example, that offshore wind investment halved to £29 million last year. Biggest blow was a decision by Scottish Power to drop plans for the £5.4 billion Argyll Array windfarm.

Scotland has other strengths, particularly its track record of invention: from penicillin to the postage stamp, from TV to the telephone, the steam engine to logarithms…that list also goes on and on, to modern advances in gaming to Dolly the Sheep. If Scotland the Brand stands for anything, it must also be about education, innovation and invention. Medical and scientific research may become brand icons of the new Scotland.

Festivals - all part of the brand

Festivals – all part of the brand

However, in this year of decision, Scotland the Brand will also step onto an international sporting stage, helping the country to redefine itself (again) as a country of beautiful cityscapes and wilderness. The Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup couldn’t have come at a better time for the pro-independence lobby.

But it’s the future that will better define Scotland the Brand: how the country’s universities engage internationally; how Scotland diversifies from oil and financial services; how Scotland can find niche industries to build worldwide reputation; how it attracts inward investment; and how it promotes its festivals, cities and landscapes.

Scotland may or may not vote for independence. But the debate has done one great thing for Scotland: it has raised awareness internationally in Scotland the Brand, a marketing opportunity that the country should grasp with both hands.

Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott.

By Jan Eichhorn, University of Edinburgh

A lot of things have been said about those who have not made their minds up yet with regards to whether they will vote yes or no in this year’s referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future.

Sometimes those undecided have simply been declared as those who probably do not care at all and are therefore not likely to think about it – and who will probably not turn out. On other occasions links to a range of socio-demographic variables have been made suggesting that people from particular backgrounds, in particular those from lower socio-economic backgrounds would be less likely to make up their minds.

But very few of these propositions have been backed up with actual data.

The vote: should Scotland be an independent country? SSA

Using the representative 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSA) we have been able to properly investigate what characterises those undecided. We found a lot of the commonly expressed assumptions paraphrased above could not be supported.

But about one-third of voters say that they have not made their mind up yet. Therefore it is worth engaging with them in more depth to properly understand their reasons for indecision.

Age, sex and class

First of all, demographic differences do not show major differences in the likelihood of being undecided. There is no consistent age pattern – most age groups are similar to one another. While those older than 65 appear to be a little more decided and those 25-34 a little less, none of these differences are actually robust when you account for other influencing factors at the same time, such as sex and social class.

Proportion of voters undecided by age group. SSA

Similarly there are no major differences in decidedness between different social classes. Most are very similar, with those that may be considered about in the middle (small employers and own accounts workers) being slightly less likely to be undecided and those in lower supervisor and technical occupations being slightly more likely. But there is no clear pattern. The percentage of those undecided is effectively the same for those in the highest and those in the lowest social class (at 35 and 36% respectively).

Again, when controlling for other demographic factors we do not find the relationship between social class and decidedness to be robust.

Proportion of voters undecided by social class. SSA

There is a small relationship between indecision and general political interest. A small group of politically very disinterested people (about 10% of respondents overall) has a substantially greater likelihood not to have made up their mind. These “usual suspects” indeed exist, but they are only a small proportion of all those undecided. Whether people have more or less interest in politics only relates marginally to their likelihood of having made their minds up.

Political interest only matters at the extremes. So many of the undecided voters are not disengaged, but can be identified by other factors.

Proportion of voters undecided by interest in politics. SSA

There are some differences between men and women, with women being somewhat more likely not to have decided yet. This is a robust finding when taking into account other demographic variables, but the difference can be explained when we look at whether people think they know enough about the issue.

Those who feel that they do not have enough knowledge about independence yet are more likely to be undecided – and women are more likely to report the desire to know more about independence before deciding.

Proportion of voters undecided by political party identification. SSA

Those who feel independence would affect their lives more significantly are more likely to have made up their mind. So campaigns for both sides have been given a clear message – and a strategic approach would need to clarify this indecision on how independence would affect potential voters on each side.

Playing politics

Indecision is greatest among those who do not identify with any political party (at 48% indecision). This makes some sense, as those voters are probably not receptive to the clear pointers that the various political parties are providing. But there are also differences between parties in the campaigns. While nearly all those who identify as Conservative and Liberal Democrat have made up their mind (89% and 85% respectively) Labour identifiers, show similar levels of indecision to SNP identifiers (36% and 35% respectively), despite Labour being part of the Better Together campaign.

There is one more important group of undecided voters the campaigns should pay close attention to: those who do not have their favourite option on the ballot paper.

Decidedness by constitutional preference SSA

Approximately one third of respondents in the survey stated their most preferred option for Scotland would be further devolution (commonly referred to as “Devo Max”). Among the Devo Max-inclined voters, 45% were still undecided (compared to only 30% among those who preferred other constitutional solutions). Neither campaign has been able to capture a large number of potential voters who would have preferred further devolution to either independence or continuing full union.

If they want to reach these people, they will have to convince them that their proposals come closest to the preferred option of these voters.

The Yes campaign would presumably have to convince them that a No is unlikely to result in substantial further devolution, while the Better Together campaign would have to persuade those people of the opposite, that a No would be followed by effective further devolution.

If either campaign is able to do this we may see a relevant number of those undecided still shift correspondingly.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions. The graphics were reproduced with the kind permission of ScotCen Social Research.

Jan Eichhorn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013 with ScotCen Social Research.

This research has been funded by the ESRC. Members of the research team are Jan Eichhorn and Lindsay Paterson (both University of Edinburgh) and John Curtice, Rachel Ormston and Susan Reid (ScotCen Social Research).

The Conversation

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

Is there a ‘Plan B… C… or D’?

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

Danny Alexander  Fell into line with the Chancellor

Danny Alexander
Fell into line with the Chancellor

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

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

Nicola Sturgeon 'Feisty'

Nicola Sturgeon

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

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

Scottish Power investing in Ben Cruachan

Scottish Power investing in Ben Cruachan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Statute of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

It will take place, as the original one did, over two glorious days, at the end of June. The 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s victory over King Edward II will be a battle for independence fought, not for real, but for a virtual reality…as befits our modern age.

Bannockburn Re-enactment (Picture: NTS)

Bannockburn Re-enactment
(Picture: NTS)

The SNP’s propaganda war-machine will be using the images conjured up by the re-enactment of the battle, on the supposed field at Bannockburn on the 28th and 29th June, to lob a few emotional rocks at the No campaign. Meanwhile, up the road in Stirling, the No campaigners will be hoping that the British Armed Forces Day, will be attracting 100,000 spectators waving Union Flags. The flat carse-land at Stirling will not have seen anything like it since 1314.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to draw some parallels. Edward II (David Cameron) was coming north to relieve the siege of Stirling Castle ( occupied by the No campaigners). Robert the Bruce (Salmond) drew up his troops in front of the castle and, by skilful manoeuvring, beat off a force at least 10 per cent larger than his own (the current gap in the opinion polls).

Such amusing parallels may seem too obvious and too extreme but there’s no doubt that a lot of political strategy has gone into these visitor attractions. The 700th anniversary of Bannockburn was always going to be an important even – no matter what the political circumstances of the time. No doubt the National Trust set about rebuilding of the visitor centre, at a cost of £9m, in all innocence. This is due to open in March and will include, of course, a virtual reconstruction of the battle.

bannockburn 11It then looks like the Scottish government persuaded the National Trust to stage a real re-enactment of the battle and a whole weekend of colourful events over the 28th/29th June. It would include a number of themed “villages”, live music, craft shows, and food and drink stalls. It couldn’t help becoming a patriotic, if not nationalist, event. It was part of the euphoria package of Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup and Homecoming which might persuade doubting Scots to vote Yes for independence.

Then some bright sparks in the No camp in Stirling – where the Conservatives and Labour have formed a Unionist coalition against the SNP – thought up the idea of bidding to hold the UK Armed Forces Day on the same weekend. It would reinforce “Britishness” and spike the guns of the SNP down the hill at Bannockburn. The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond jumped at the suggestion and announced that Scotland should again host this important annual event – even though it had only recently been in Edinburgh – and, of course, Stirling would be the ideal place. Let battle commence…for visitor numbers and TV coverage.

Bannockburn Re-enactment (Picture: NTS)

Bannockburn Re-enactment
(Picture: NTS)

The National Trust panicked. It had only sold 2,000 tickets out of 45,000 at that stage and it was fearful of making a massive loss. Mr Salmond sent Visit Scotland to the rescue but the event was trimmed from 3 days to 2 and its budget cut from £950,000 to £650,000. Visit Scotland bosses are currently in trouble with MSPs at Holyrood for not telling them about the changes when they gave evidence to the tourism committee in mid-January. The bosses at Stirling Council are also in trouble, explaining how they will pay the bill of £250,000 for staging the Armed Forces Day.

Faced with such jolly confusion, I decided I should do my patriotic duty and go to both events on Saturday 28th June. They both sound like a great day out – or, at least, half a day out each. But as with so many things these days, it’s not that easy to get tickets.

When I typed Bannockburn into my computer, I landed in the National Trust’s visitor centre with its game-boy presentation of the battlefield. No mention of the June weekend. The next two Bannockburn entries turned out to be “unavailable”. I then tried the Visit Scotland website but there was no link to a ticket office. There was however a telephone number, which turned out to be the rather harassed lady at the aforementioned National Trust visitor centre. Once her computer had been cranked up she was able to give me the name of a website, called Ticket Soup, which might sell me some tickets.

This indeed was a useful website. It didn’t sell soup but it did sell tickets for “the performance” on Saturday 28th. Prices ranged from £20 to £75, plus a £2 booking fee, plus an outrageous £2.30 for postage. They must be heavy and bulky tickets but I look forward to them thumping down on my door mat.

Not everyone will be as persistent in their patriotic duty. As often is the case, Scotland will need to get its tourism business up to speed if it’s to make a success of either of these events in the summer. We also need to get rid of the petty divisions and rivalries which have led to such a farce.

The Tale of the Lonesome Pines

Gosh, we are becoming an imperious nation. The mighty Scots Pine has just been declared our national tree. The Scottish Parliament is considering making the Golden Eagle our national bird. We already have the lion rampant. I hate to think what insect we might choose as a national emblem…the praying mantis perhaps. Thank goodness for the humble thistle.

Silver Birch Came well down the list

Silver Birch
Came well down the list

The Scots Pine came top of a consultation exercise carried out by the parliament’s petitions committee, well ahead of the rowan and the holly.The silver birch, my favourite candidate, came well down the list. I can only think this is because of the Scots Pine’s grandeur. They are not unique to Scotland. We don’t have that many of them, we are down to our last 250 million (around 8 per cent of our woodland). We chopped most of them down, remember, when we felled the ancient Caledonian forest.

They are only called Scots Pines because they do not grow naturally in England. But they are native to much of northern Europe, from Spain to Siberia. In Norway they are called the Norway Pine, in Mongolia the Mongolian Pine. Besides, they are not nice-looking trees. They are scraggy below and bushy on top. They don’t turn golden in autumn or light green in spring. They don’t sway in the wind or give shelter to much wildlife. And, like most of us these days, they live too long.

The Golden Eagle too is a worrying statement of national aggrandisement. The Conservative MEP Jackson Carlaw reminded us this week that the eagle was a symbol of the Roman invaders and the Nazis. He suggests we should adopt instead the cheery little Robin. The late Helen Eadie, MSP for Cowdenbeath, once championed the cause of the pigeon, though she called it the “dove of peace.”

Golden Eagle Scotland's favourite wild creature

Golden Eagle
Scotland’s favourite wild creature

The merciless Golden Eagle came top of a poll carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage, not just as our favourite national bird, but our favourite animal, beating the red squirrel, the red deer, the otter and the harbour seal. And, again, way down the list came some of my favourites, the puffin, the pine marten and the wildcat.

I’m left wondering if this is the sort of country I want to live in. It’s a question constantly on the lips of the referendumistas these days. And there was plenty for them to obsess about this week. The Governor of the Bank of England (and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland incidentally ) came north to meet the First Minister to discuss his plans for a currency union after independence.

Mark Carney Governor of the Bank of England

Mark Carney
Governor of the Bank of England

This cool Canadian, Mark Carney, hinted vaguely that Scotland would have to sacrifice some of its financial sovereignty if a sterling zone was to avoid the problems the euro zone had been experiencing. The pro-union side took that to mean that an independent Scotland would have to accept whatever interest rate, debt level and tax-and-spend plans the Treasury in London might dictate. Mr Salmond read it rather differently – it was the Governor of the Bank of England accepting that independence could happen and that “technical discussions” could get under way about how a sterling zone would work. There would be no question however of an independent Scotland having its tax or spending plans dictated by London.

The Scottish government has meanwhile been making economies of its own this week. It announced that the number of police control rooms are to be cut from 11 to 5 and fire control rooms from 8 to 3. The fire brigade union said it will be “a disaster” for the north of Scotland but the government says it will lead to a more efficient service. The changes will be phased in over the next five years and there will no compulsory redundancies.

Mike Russell Attacked UK immigration rules

Mike Russell
Attacked UK immigration rules

The education secretary Mike Russell also breezed into the independence debate this week with a tirade against the UK immigration rules. He said they were preventing Scottish universities attracting valuable graduate students from India, China etc. He accused the Westminster government of being driven by xenophobia and the fear of UKIP. But an opinion poll in The Scotsman earlier in the week showed that more than half of Scots favour new limits on immigration. And I havn’t heard the Scottish government offering to take in refugees from Syria.

While on opinion polls, it’s perhaps worth recording what looks like a decisive shift in favour of independence. An ICM poll in Scotland on Sunday shows the Yes camp on 37 per cent, up 5 from last autumn. And when the 19 per cent undecided are excluded, the figure rises to 46 per cent. It’s being seen as a vindication of the SNP’s white paper putting the emphasis on child care.

I hope the children of Shetland were safely tucked up in bed on Tuesday night, as the Up-Helly-Aa celebrations saw the streets of Lerwick invaded once again by the Vikings. The Jarl Squad, a fearsome looking bunch of men in beards, threw their flaming torches into the traditional longboat and pushed it out to sea. Apparently in Norse mythology, the eagle was a symbol of strength and I guess the longboats were built of good Norway Pine. So perhaps our choice of national emblems is a sign that we are following our North Sea neighbours and heading for independence.

Childcare – a political issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Osborne More austerity to come

George Osborne
More austerity to come

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

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

Edinburgh Airport Closed because of bomb scare

Edinburgh Airport
Closed because of bomb scare

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

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

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

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

The battle for hearts and minds is starting

The Better Together campaign needs to move on to positive ground if it’s to win the referendum honestly and convincingly. It should outline its vision of Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom as comprehensively as the SNP have done in their 650 page white paper.

The 'Yes' camp has laid out its stall

The ‘Yes’ camp has laid out its stall

So far, the difficulty has been that the Better Together campaign has three different visions of a future Scotland – Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat – all within the United Kingdom. But this needn’t be such a stumbling block. The SNP’s white paper steps round it by first outlining the advantages of independence – whether you are left, right or centre – and then going on to write its manifesto for the next election.

The Better Together campaign should do the same and publish a “Blue Red and White Paper” of similar length and in similar detail. It would set out the case for remaining in the UK, and then allow each party to outline its policies on childcare, health, education, defence, environment , transport, local government, justice etc. As the SNP have rightly concluded, you cannot really separate the constitutional issue from the question of what sort of country do you want Scotland to be. No one should despair of seeing his or her utopia created in a united Britain.

The 'No' camp has still to make its mark

The ‘No’ camp has still to make its mark

It’s important that the case for remaining in the UK is a positive one, built around the idea of co-operation and inter-dependence. How do we achieve what everyone wants – full employment, good public services, decent housing, fair and free markets, sustainable energy, living wages, secure pensions, care for the environment? I think most people now recognise that sovereignty needs to be shared in this complicated world. Some decisions are best taken at a global level, others on a European level, others at a UK level, others at a Scottish level, others at a local council level. And all decisions should be taken as near the people affected as possible. So independence, as the SNP has already discovered, is not a clear concept.

Emotion will also play a large part in this campaign – indeed I think the largest part. And here, the Better Together Campaign needs to emphasise the UK’s common language, culture, way of doing things, family ties, our island home, our shared history for the last 300 years. And what we can still do together….stand up for freedom, equality, helping others in times of disaster or war. Even if Scotland could be richer on its own – thanks to its oil or its renewable energy or its water or the inventiveness of its people or whatever – we should be sharing that good fortune with the poor people of Yorkshire or Liverpool or Cornwall or Wales or Northern Ireland or the neglected boroughs of London. Britain will not be Britain without us.

And there is one last point that should go into the “Blue Red and White Paper “. Let’s not abandon this pioneering project of devolution, so soon after it has started. Britain – by increasing the powers of its four kingdoms – is rightly following the example of the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany and Spain and dispersing power downwards, nearer the people. All three unionist parties are committed to making devolution work and indeed, adding to the powers of the Scottish Parliament. In all the opinion polls, this is what most people in Scotland say they want.

So let’s see the Better Together campaign get away from negative sniping over figures or constitutional niceties – try instead to agree with the SNP on these issues – and get on with publishing the substantive case for Scotland staying in the Union.