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It’s been a year of reckoning

We’ve all been counting up the cost of the bankers’ recession, which shows every sign of going on and on. The bankers and the tax avoidance companies are finally being made to pay for their misdeeds. So too are the press. European leaders have been counting up the cost of the crisis in the euro-zone.

The dreadful death-count has continued to rise in the wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Gaza. Climate change has begun to exact its price, with mighty storms and floodings and the wettest summer for 100 years. Scotland is in the countdown to the referendum. The Queen is also in the counting house, reckoning up her 60 years on the throne. And the British Olympians have counted up their 65 medals.

As I look back over my diary, I feel bruised by this tough old year of 2012. It began with the storms of January, the worst for 13 years. The wind blew at over 100 mph on my local Blackford Hill in the centre of Edinburgh. It ended with an icy snap in December, which brought me skidding off my bike, and then another storm which blew in over the harbour walls along the whole east coast. But it is the events in the wider world that have shaken me more.

Where have all the jobs gone ?

Economic growth was virtually non-existent in Britain in 2012. The unemployment rate hovered around 8 per cent all year, with youth unemployment at over 20 per cent. And this while the number of part-timers has risen to a quarter of the workforce and hundreds of thousands have given up looking for work altogether. Average wage rises are well below inflation, 1.4 per cent compared to inflation at around 3 per cent. So consumer spending, especially in Scotland, is down, leading to even less growth in the economy.

The Chancellor’s budget in March did little to change this. In fact, it became known as the “omni-shambles” with u-turns becoming necessary on the pasty tax, the charities tax, and the caravan tax. But there was no turning on the 5 per cent cut in income tax for the highest earners. By the time he came to his autumn statement in December, George Osborne had to admit that national debt was rising, not falling, and that his austerity programme of public sector cuts would have to continue until 2018.

To be seen to be doing something to get the economy growing again, he announced an extra £5 billion of capital spending over the next two years. £330m of that is coming to the Scottish government for new schools, road improvements and house-building.

In the euro-zone, things are even worse. Growth in 2012 is expected to be minus 0.4 per cent. Unemployment is over 11 per cent. In Greece and Spain it’s over 25 per cent. They’ve had to be bailed out, along with Portugal and Ireland, by the European Central bank. The row over whether the European Union budget should be one for growth or austerity has led to increasing calls in Britain for a referendum on our continued membership of the EU.

Bashing the bankers

The banking year began with Fred “the shred” Goodwin having his knighthood taken away by the Queen for his disservices to banking. Stephen Hester, the new man at the Royal Bank of Scotland, was forced by public opinion to forgo his bonus (don’t worry, he still gets a basic salary of £1.2m.) Peter Cummings at HBOS was fined £500,000 for helping to bring the bank to the edge of collapse. Bob Diamond, the quiet American, was forced to quit as chief executive of Barclays Bank when it was caught fiddling the Libor interest rate. And that’s not all the banks have been up to. Alliance and Leicester was fined £7m for mis-selling payment protection insurance. Standard Chartered and Lloyds were fined for sanctions-busting. HSBC was fined for money laundering.

No wonder, the government is tightening up the regulations and bringing in a Canadian Mountie Mark Carney to police the Bank of England and wake it from its slumbers.

Blaming the press

Lord Leveson spent much of the year listening to tales of misbehaviour by the press. Milly Dowler’s parents had indeed a dreadful tale to tell. A parade of celebrities said they too had suffered press intrusion. The inquiry found that reporting by elements of the press had been “reckless and outrageous” and it recommended a strengthened press complaints council, backed up by new legislation. It seems to me, as a humble journalist myself, that Lord Leveson overlooked the fact that the main culprit, the News of the World, has been shut down and two of its editors are facing criminal charges. Phone-hacking is already illegal, so is bribing the police. And he appeared to forget that it was a newspaper, The Guardian, which broke the story that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked in the first place.

And it wasn’t a good year for the broadcasters either. The BBC got caught up in the Jimmy Savile scandal. And both the BBC and ITV had to apologise and pay damages for wrongly suggesting that “a senior Conservative of the Thatcher era” was guilty of child abuse.

A year is a long time in politics

The SNP chose Burns Day, of course, to published their white paper on an independence referendum. It suggested the vote should take place sometime in the autumn of 2014 and that the Scottish Parliament should determine the question, or questions, and that 16 and 17 year-olds should be allow to vote. After several months of wrangling, a deal was signed on 15th October in Edinburgh in which David Cameron promised to introduce legislation at Westminster giving the referendum protection against legal challenges, in exchange for Alex Salmond agreeing to have just one question – independence yes or no ?

The “devo-plus” campaign, launched in February, was disappointed that the option trending best in the opinion polls – more devolution – was not being put on the ballot paper. The Yes campaign was duly launched in May and the first march and rally was held in Edinburgh in September. The No campaign, preferring to be called the Better Together campaign, was launched by the three main opposition parties in June.

All things political in Scotland are now seen through the prism of potential independence. In the local council elections in May, for instance, the SNP emerged as the largest party, winning 424 seats to Labour’s 394. It is now involved in running 13 of Scotland’s 32 districts.

At Westminster more cracks in the coalition have emerged. The Liberal Democrats are unhappy with the Conservatives over Europe, the welfare reforms and the NHS. Nick Clegg even insisted on making a separate speech from the Prime Minister on the Leveson inquiry. But the Liberal Democrats have gone along with the Chancellor’s austerity programme and his tax cuts for the rich, in exchange for lifting low-earners out of income tax altogether.

Abroad, France turned decisively left, electing a Socialist president. In Russia, Vladimir Putin won a third presidential term, claiming 64 per cent of the vote. The United States saw its most expensive and divisive election campaign ever. In contrast, Xi Jinping walked stiffly onto the stage at the Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing and was declared supreme leader of over a billion people.

In Japan, the chaos caused by the tsunami has scared the voters back to the old regime. And in the emerging democracies in the Middle East there’s a cauldron of tribal, Islamic and secular parties and no one knows which will finally bubble to the top.

War and peace

The civil war in Syria has now claimed the lives of 40,000 people. The West has been forced to stand by and watch as the Assad regime clings to power and pounds rebel areas with heavy artillery and aircraft fire. The UN has been unable to act because Russia and China have vetoed any direct intervention, for reasons which are still unclear.

But Syria is only one of a dozen major conflicts which have been raging this year, each one causing more than a thousand deaths – in Burma, Afghanistan, NW Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Mali and the drug war in Mexico.

In Afghanistan, more than 3,000 people have been killed this year, 44 of them British soldiers including Captain Walter Barrie (right). It brings the total number of British troops killed in the 12 year-long-war against the Taliban to 438. This year there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of insider attacks by Afghan army and police recruits on Western soldiers sent there to train them. These so-called “green on blue” attacks now constitute 15 per cent of all foreign troop deaths. The latest Scottish soldier to die in this way was Captain Walter Barrie from Glasgow. He was shot dead after a friendly football match with Afghan troops on Remembrance Sunday.

On the peace side of the equation there is not much to report. But Israel did conclude a peace agreement of sorts with Hamas in the Gaza strip. There are talks going on between the government of Sudan and some elements of the rebel fighters in Darfur. And the Colombian government has begun talks with the Farc rebels to bring an end to a conflict that has cost 600,000 lives since it began in the 1960s.

It was the Norwegians who brought the two sides together. And it was again the Norwegians who decided that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize should go to the European Union for keeping the peace in Europe since the Second World War (except, of course, for the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia).

Shocking and inexplicable events

What possessed the captain of the Costa Concordia to take his cruise ship so close to the Italian coast on the night of 13th January ? Although 4,000 passengers and crew were rescued, 32 died. What caused the driver of a Belgian school coach to crash inside a tunnel in the Alps on the way to an Easter ski-ing holiday ? Twenty two children and six adults were killed. What secrets did the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbassset al Megrahi take to his grave when he died at the end of May ? Why were two policewomen shot dead when all they did was attend a routine call at a house in Manchester ? Why was the al-Hilli family gunned down on a remote road in the French Alps ? And how was the school shooting in Newtown Connecticut allowed to happen ?

Another bad year for the environment

Ice caps melted. Sea levels rose. Storms intensified. Records on rainfall and temperatures were broken. CO2 emissions grew. Fewer birds flew. And still the politicians did nothing much about it.

According to a study in the journal Science, ice melting in the Arctic and Antarctic has caused an 11mm rise in sea levels across the globe in the last 20 years. Arctic sea ice is less than half what it was 40 years ago. And although there has been a pause in global temperature rises, CO2 emission are still rising by 3 per cent a year, according to researchers in the Netherlands where sea level rises matter rather a lot.

Britain had its wettest summer for a hundred years. The United States had its warmest year since records began in 1895. Globally, it was the 9th warmest year on record. Hurricane Sandy struck the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard of America in November and caused over a hundred deaths. It was closely followed by typhoon Bopha in the Philippines which killed over 900 people.

Here in Scotland, over a hundred homes were flooded in the village of Comrie in Perthshire. There was flooding too in the Borders and in Dumfries. In Aberdeen, strange brown/white foam whipped up by the worst September storm for 30 years blanketed the seafront. Then in December, the east coast was swamped again by high tides and stormy seas. The changing climate has brought sea bird numbers tumbling. According to Scottish Natural Heritage, the number of breeding birds has dropped by half in the last 25 years. This year saw continued declines in the number of kittiwakes, fulmars and arctic terns.

The Scottish government missed its interim target for cutting CO2 emissions. It abandoned its new energy efficiency standards for new homes. And yet the environment minister Paul Wheelhouse set out for the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha saying Scotland would be catching up and meeting its world-beating emissions reduction target of 42 per cent by 2020. He doesn’t have much competition, since the 197 countries represented at Doha could only agree on postponing the targets fixed in Kyoto from 2015 to 2020.

The achievements of 2012

The Queen has had a remarkably successful Jubilee year, touring the countries of her United Kingdom, attending everything from pop concerts to cathedral services. And who can forget her standing for four hours in the rain while a flotilla of boats paraded up the Thames ? And it looks like her succession is assured with the Royal Wedding at the end of April and now a great-grandchild on the way.

The London Olympics were another remarkable triumph. As team GB accumulated the medals, it dawned on us Scots that we are quite a sporting nation afterall. We won seven gold medals. Sir Chris Hoy won two of them in cycling. Andy Murray won a gold in London and went on to win the US tennis open championship in New York. The rowers Katherine Grainger and Heather Stanning both won gold. And also on the water Tim Baillie took a gold medal in the canoeing. Finally Scott Brush from the Borders helped Britain win the team event in the horse jumping.

In other sports, Scotland has not done so well. In rugby, we have had a disastrous year, falling to 12th place in the world rankings. Eve Muirhead’s ladies curling team just failed to hold on to their gold medal at the top of the European league, losing out to Russia in the final extra “end”. And in football, we came bottom of our group in the World Cup qualifying rounds.

Celtic, though, have done us proud by winning a place in the final round of the European champions league – beating the mighty Barcelona on the way. It didn’t matter they were held to a draw by St Johnstone the following week.

Rangers meanwhile have had an “annus horribilis” being forced into administration in February over a huge tax bill. Ironically, when it came to court, the tax authorities lost the case but everyone realised the taxman had won a moral victory and that Rangers had been indulging in a tax avoidance scheme which, while it may have been legal, was unfair. The club was demoted to the third division. But it has been reborn under a new owner Charles Green. It has attracted £20m of new investment and is winning its games, hoping to be back in the premier league before too long.

But looking beyond our small world, one of man’s great achievements this year has been to land another spacecraft on Mars. The car-sized “Curiosity” landed in the Gale Crater at 6.14 BST on 6th August, after a 350m mile journey lasting eight months. One of the first areas it explored was Glenelg, now twinned with the Highland village of the same name.

Also leaving the Earth this year were two other space explorers, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, and Sir Patrick Moore, the eccentric Englishman who presented “The Sky at Night” for over 50 years. He would have enjoyed one of the last achievements of 2012, the discovery, by astronomers at Edinburgh University, of a new galaxy out on the very edge of the universe. The exciting thing about Galaxy UDFj- 39546284 is that it was formed very soon after the big bang 13 billion years ago and it apparently shows us that our universe rolled out from the central bang in a fairly orderly fashion and not in one instant outburst, but rather like one of those spectacular mortar-style fireworks on Hogmanay.

And so we enter a new year, reckoning that we have learnt the lessons of the old one.

The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen <em>Picture: Hamish Macdonell</em>

The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen Picture: Hamish Macdonell

No email, no texts, no mobile phone coverage, no heat, no electric light, no power – it was like being back in the 1970s during the three-day week.

The storm tore into Islay at 5:20am on Tuesday. By 5:30am we had lost our electricity supply and we didn’t get it back for another 53 hours.

For the first day, it was something of an adventure – especially for the children who had to take a candle or a torch everywhere they went, including the bathroom. As dawn broke on the second day, though, and we were still cold and sitting in the dark, the novelty had begun to wear off. By the third, when we would have given at least half our New Year whisky supplies just for a hot bath or a shower, the power cut had started to make us more than a little grumpy.

But at least we had water. Neighbours not that far away from us had to try to catch rainwater because there was no power to drive the electric pumps bringing their water up from their bore holes.

And at least we had an open fire. The local cottage hospital was reported to be full of elderly, vulnerable people who had been rescued shivering in cold, dark, unlit houses because they had absolutely no way of getting warm or producing any hot food.

We also got our electricity back during that third day (thanks very much to the power company engineers who worked hard to get all of us reconnected). There were parts of Islay where the electricity was still not back heading towards day four and others may not get it back even today.

Despite everything, though, the whole experience was both salutary and revealing, in many ways.

For a start, I learned some new skills which I never thought I would need: like trimming the wick on an oil lamp, fitting a mantle to a Tilly lamp in semi-darkness and changing the butane canister on a single ring gas ring with a torch clamped between my jaws.

We also learned to live by the natural rhythms of the day – which, on Islay in the winter, means that dawn doesn’t really break before 8:30am and, with the clouds low and heavy, there isn’t much light much before lunchtime and it goes again by 4:10pm.

There was simply no point trying to get up before the sun was up because it meant laying the fire in the dark, refuelling oil lamps and shivering in the dark.

We learned how much we rely on electricity and how far we have to adapt when we don’t have it. But it also taught us how much there is to enjoy without it – like how good an open fire, a few flickering candles and a bottle of Ardbeg can be after a day struggling to complete even the most basic of tasks.

The children got to find out what it’s like to make breakfast by toasting bread over an open fire and how to cope without television, computers and all other appliances they take for granted.

Our house lost a decent number of slates but we came out of it in a far better state than many. The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen’s main hall, which has withstood storms and gales for more than a century, had a large part of its roof ripped off by the winds.

On Tuesday morning, I drove down the main street in Port Ellen and it was as if the road had been paved with broken house slates which had rained down over the tarmac from all sides.

The storm was preceded by such a deluge of rain that the ground everywhere had been turned to mud. Apparently, this was one of the reasons so many trees were torn up and thrown about – because there was nothing firm for the roots to hold on to.

One of the most extraordinary aspects, though, was the speed with which the storm passed over the island. Islay is relatively flat and the weather doesn’t tend to linger very long. But the wind barrelled in at 5:20am and was gone by 6:30am.

Lying in bed, it sounded like the sea had risen up from the shore some half a mile away and was crashing against the house – then it was gone, leaving months of repair work and fixing in its wake.

We have our electricity back (and emails and the internet – which is both a blessing and a curse), and most others should get reconnected soon.

It was inconvenient, yes. It was uncomfortable, certainly. But it made us stop and think – and, looking back in the electricity-generated cosiness of a warm and well-lit house, that may be no bad thing.

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Fallen tree beside the Albert Halls, Stirling

Fallen tree beside the Albert Halls, Stirling

Well, that was quite a blow. It was several notches down the ferocity scale from what happened in the USA the day before, and it certainly wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a heck of a storm by Scottish standards.

Windspeeds in excess of 100mph in Shetland, or at Cape Wrath, or on the 1,200-metre summit of Cairn Gorm are not as unusual as some might think – but the same strength of gust at just 560 metres on the flank of Glen Ogle is a different matter. (Not that Glen Ogle has been a stranger to extreme weather events in recent years – at least one of the bridges taken out hereabouts by the 2004 cloudburst has still to be replaced.)

And while a seriously big gale sweeping across Scotland is bad enough at any time, for it to happen in late May – with the trees in almost full leaf and catching the gusts like the sails of a ship – was always going to cause major damage and disruption in terms of power failures, bridge closures, ferry cancellations, etc.

There was one death – in Balloch at the foot of Loch Lomond, where a 36-year-old van driver was crushed by a falling tree – and it’s surprising there weren’t more, given the number of whole trees and heavyweight branches that came down. A mid-evening walk around Stirling – in lashing rain as the gale began to slacken a little (while remaining strong enough for trees and slate-shedding roofs to be avoided wherever possible) – was through a scene of leafy destruction, and it was the same across the whole central swathe of Scotland.

It was interesting to observe which kind of trees had succumbed and which had survived, as there did appear to be a trend. Aspect was crucial of course – anything exposed to the south-west was very vulnerable, as was any tree at the end of a corridor of buildings where the wind had scope to bounce and funnel through in even more concentrated form. Anything sheltered – even by other trees, in a static, arboreal version of animals bunching together for safety – stood a better chance of remaining standing.

Stocky, rounded trees didn’t come out of it well – a neighbour’s sturdy-looking fruit tree, tucked into what looked to be quite a sheltered corner, was over on its side, roots ripped out, and there were others of this type including a couple of cherry trees close to a riverside walkway. Conversely, tall thin trees showed amazing elasticity as they bent and flexed in even the biggest gusts. Our young birch – ten years old, five or six metres high but still very slender – appeared unbreakable, despite bending not far off 45 degrees from the vertical at times. Similarly, a tall, bare-boned eucalyptus in another neighbour’s garden never looked like snapping.

Perhaps the biggest toll, however, came from the horizontal branches of old sturdy sycamores and the like – there were any number of these strewn around, potentially lethal as they fell, then blocking roads and pavements once they lay. I chatted with a man and his son in the well-heeled King’s Park area of Stirling – they had spent the past couple of hours chainsawing a large branch, and were now putting several dozen logs into barrows to be stashed for next winter’s firewood. “Just imagine how much wood there would be if the whole thing came down,” the man said as he looked up at the massive tree with its bright wound where the branch had been torn off.

Transport was a lost cause in the late afternoon and early evening, with trains cancelled and roads turned into slow-moving backlogs even where they weren’t actually blocked. There will have been many instances of people helping each other to cope with problems and to clear roads and pathways, and one such incident – instructive in its way – happened close to my own house. I was meant to be driving into Glasgow for the evening, and didn’t really fancy it – but decided to give it a go and see how far was feasible.

Exactly half a mile proved to be the answer, as the only road out of the village was blocked by a massive fallen branch. A visiting workman – trapped on the wrong side of the obstacle – was literally scratching his head when I pulled in alongside, and despite moving a couple of smaller branches between us, it was obvious that the big one needed machinery of some kind or another.

On the way back home, I flagged down a neighbour who was just about to drive out of the village and passed on the news that she wouldn’t be able to get anywhere. She was taking her wee girls to Brownies, and collecting the local farmer’s daughter en route. “I’ll see if Andy [the farmer] can do anything,” she said. And right enough – in as long as it took me to try – and to fail – to get through to both the council (“You are number 16 in the queue. Please wait”) and the police and then to drive back along to see what could be done manually, Andy the farmer had already been out in his big JCBish seed-spreading machine and shoved the offending timber on to the verge.

Perhaps it was a Big Society moment – or perhaps it was simply what used to be known as sensible, helpful, all-pull-together behaviour. Problem solved – and road quickly re-opened – anyway.

Talking of politics, one final thought. The biggest weather-and-transport disruption to hit Scotland since the December snowstorm came just three days after Stewart Stevenson returned to the Holyrood cabinet table. Mr Stevenson had – rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly – lost his previous portfolio, that of transport minister, on the back of December’s icy gridlock. And pretty much the minute he returns – to take up the environment and climate change brief – we get this. Could it be that the weather gods are trying to tell us something…?

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