Letter from Westminster 28.11.08

THE LIFE of a member of parlia­ment may be many things but no-one could ever suggest that it lacks variety.

That thought came to me last Thursday as I listened to my friend, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, and newscaster John Snow talk about the campaign to close the US camp at Guantanamo Bay.

The day had started with a meeting with colleagues trying to predict the contents of the chancellor’s pre-budget statement and what our response would be. There then followed a series of meetings to discuss variously MPs’ allowances, funding for the creative arts and the campaign to support the Gurkhas.

There was then time for a quick bowl of soup before committing the rest of the afternoon to the House of Commons chamber for the annual fisheries debate.

After such a varied and disjointed morning it was good to spend the afternoon concentrating on the one subject. In years gone by, as a newly-elected MP I had to fight to get a few minutes in a debate which is, for my constituency, one of the most important in the parliamentary year.

In recent years, however, I have been able to annexe the front bench role as the party’s shadow secretary of state for Scotland so my speaking slot has been guaranteed.

This year it was a case of another year, another fisheries minister. Jonathon Shaw was moved to the Department of Work and Pensions and has been replaced with Huw Irranca-Davies. To be honest I was not desperately optimistic about our new minister but I was pleasantly surprised at the way in which he has been able to master a fairly complex brief in which he had no prior experience.

The real test will come when he attends next month’s fisheries coun­cil in Brussels. There will be some difficult challenges to be faced; in particular as they discuss the prop­osed closures of whitefish grounds off the west coast of Scotland. I hope that if our new fisheries minister understands nothing else, he will now understand that any solution to the pressures on stocks must have the support of the fishing industry.

It was something of an intellectual leap to go from an afternoon of talking total allowable catches and quotas to thinking about the closure of Guantanamo Bay. As I headed home that night I reflected that five years ago the debates on both Guantanamo Bay and the December fisheries council would have been much more highly charged than the ones which I had just witnessed. In one, some said that Guantanamo was a permanent fixture and in the other that cod stocks in the North Sea would never recover. Arguing the contrary view in each was an often lonely and frustrating furrow to plough. My head may be harder than I thought or maybe the brick walls on which I was beating it were less solid than they seemed, but somehow progress has been made.

Alastair Carmichael


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