What sort of country do you want to live in? That question was the principle message of Scottish government energy minister Fergus Ewing at a meeting at Carnegie Hall in Sandwick on Monday night prior to a Tuesday meeting with Shetland political leaders.
Mr Ewing was keen to emphasise that the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence is not about personalities – whether Alex Salmond or Alistair Darling – but about splitting Scotland from the other UK countries to offer greater democratic control of our political and economic futures.
“It’s not about Alex Salmond and it’s not about Nicola Sturgeon. We will not be in power forever, I would not have thought, but don’t quote me on that,” said Mr Ewing on a theme that was to be repeated – the need to concentrate on the big questions rather than politicians or even political parties – vote Yes in the referendum and you may well have seen the last SNP government, it was suggested.
He warned people not to cast their votes for trivial reasons. “Independence is much bigger than any one party. Do not cast your votes on the basis of whether you like Alex Salmond or Alistair Darling. The crux of it all is what sort of country do you want to be?”
In Mr Ewing’s opinion, Scotland should eliminate the scourge of poverty and abolish pay day loans, which Westminster, almost uniquely among “advanced countries”, had failed to do. The bedroom tax, which was “beyond the pale” would be quickly be scrapped too if the SNP had the power, he added.
In fact, Mr Ewing started his speech with the burning yes or no question: have you recovered from the South Mainland Up-Helly-A’ yet? That raised a few titters but he soon launched into a discourse on the advantages of independence, one of which was the superiority of Scots at co-operating and ironically “working better together”.
Winning independence will not be easy, he told the 30-odd audience, but nothing in life worth having is ever achieved without a lot of hard work and effort. Meeting chairman Brian Nugent certainly made the effort – he missed Albion Rovers’ “once in every 93 years” Scottish cup semi-final with Rangers to attend.
Mr Ewing early on made the case for Viking Energy’s planned wind farm. Along with the host of other renewable projects Shetland could sustain, it promises to bring in £30 million to the local economy and will provide the momentum for an inter-connector which will be necessary for all other green projects to connect to the national grid. “Shetland is the windiest part of Scotland, if not the western hemisphere,” Mr Ewing stated, though it was only blowing a gentle Force 5 outside the hall.
It was shameful, he added, that so many people in the Highlands and Islands were living in fuel poverty, many in old, traditionally built houses, when the entire country, and especially Shetland, is sitting on a treasure chest of renewable heat sources.
Mr Ewing turned to another “tragedy” – the lack of an oil fund for Shetland, Scotland, and, indeed, the rest of the UK after 40 years of North Sea oil and the quite astronomical figure of £300 billion of oil tax which has gone to prop up the ailing economy. The only other country in the world that had its own oil industry for so long and had not set up such a fund, was Iraq, Mr Ewing pointed out.
“It’s a tremendous lost opportunity that this money has not been spent on the people of Scotland and south of the border,” he added.
“Respected oil and gas leader”, Sir Ian Wood reported recently that the industry had been bedevilled by fiscal instability and a licensing and regulatory regime so poor that it should immediately be taken over by a new, independent regulator. This was hardly an endorsement of the stewardship of the industry under the UK government.
Mr Ewing said that one of the underplayed benefits of independence was making your own decisions on big issues – like going to war. Britain had three times gone to war in the last three decades – twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan, and Mr Ewing questioned whether an independent Scotland would have participated in any of these ventures. The Liberal-Conservative coalition had also been minded to go to war in Syria, only to lose the vote in Parliament. “The decision to go to war is one that I would like us to have a say over, which we do not have at the moment,” he added.
Mr Ewing said that the Scottish Parliament had generally been a success since it was established in 1989, and was improving with age. His mother Winnie, incidentally a great lover of Up-Helly-A’, had reconvened the Scottish Parliament and was still the only person who could tell Alex Salmond what to do. The SNP had also done most of the things it had set out to do on coming to power – a council tax freeze, concessionary travel for senior citizens and the abolition of prescription charges. At the same time the Scottish government had to balance the public purse, which was difficult when you could neither borrow nor print money. The SNP government had also been serious about doing its bit personally – government employees earning more than £22,000 had had a wage freeze since 2007.
The government had helped small businesses by reducing rates. “If we can use these powers reasonably well running our own affairs, why cannot we do better running them with the full range of powers.”
Travel was one of the most pressing issues for islands, Mr Ewing said. The cost of transport had been in general terms far too high and “we would like see the introduction of measures to tackle that.” The abolition of air passenger duty in Ireland had seen Ryanair take one-million more passengers in the first year, there was no reason that stimulus could not be applied in Scotland.
On the question of currency, Mr Ewing said that the pound sterling was jointly owned by all the UK countries and that the Bank of England was “as English as Scotland Yard was Scottish”.
These arguments from the no campaign had been aimed at engineering a state of fear which had been quite damaging to genuine debate, he claimed.
“In conclusion,” said Mr Ewing, “I have a five-year-old daughter and want her to grow up in a country where we decide what we do as regards contributing to the world’s affairs. I want her to grow up in a country where everyone can feel equal and can get an education irrespective of how rich or poor they are and, finally, grow up in an independent country that takes its own decisions on its own affairs.”
For more from the Carnegie Hall meeting, including questions from the audience, see Friday’s Shetland Times.