Thursday, 30 January 2014

And if there's nae anither place you'd raither be

I never like to begin with an apology, but that was a longer hiatus between posts than I'd planned, certainly for a blog 'relaunch'. Sadly, my grandfather, Gordon Easton, passed away shortly after the new year.

Both my grandfather and my grandmother Isobel, who passed away just a few months before him, spent most of their lives on their croft just up the road from here at Tyrie, near Strichen. He was a fantastically talented singer, multi-instrumentalist and storyteller. It was grandad more than anyone else who gave me the inspiration to learn the fiddle and to enjoy all of the opportunities which have come from that.

His funeral, at the kirk at Tyrie, which was attended by friends from far and wide, was hopefully a fitting send off and an occasion at which he might liked to have been at himself to hear all that was said and sung. His coffin was carried out of the kirk while fellow champion bothy ballad singer Joe Aitken sang 'Annie McKelvie' - a favourite of my grandmother's which she always like to ask Joe to sing for her. When everyone in the church joined in during the choruses, I could just have imagined him singing along with us.

One day, I might write something more about them and the lives they lived but for now, here's a link to an obituary which the Ellon Times was good enough to print, which gives a flavour of a remarkable life.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

South-Eastern Comfort

One of my writing 'gigs' is as a monthly columnist with the 'Scots Independent' newspaper. I'll be posting them up here a month in arrears, so that I can keep the blog ticking over without overly antagonising Jim, the newspaper's editor. Here's my copy for December's edition...

Let's avoid the same mistakes as London
I visited London recently for the first time in almost 4 years. It was a good opportunity to see some old friends that I'd been to university with and others with whom I'd once shared a house. All of them making their way in life, settling down, making plans, getting married, starting families and generally just getting on and doing fine. It was good to be back with them, even for just a short time.
I was down on a weekend, where the city takes on a completely different character as people swell in from the outside. Nevertheless, it struck me again just how young and international a demographic London has. Multilingual and ambitious, drawn from all over Europe and the world, in some cases (but not always) doing good, well-paid jobs, many of which simply don't exist here in Scotland.
There's any number of reasons why that should be, of course, most of which will be quite familiar to a nationalist audience. The presence of a major seat of government for one thing, resulting in power which in turn attracts those who seek to influence that power. Then there's the international connections which result and the growth of advanced services around this.
Add to this the preponderance of arts and cultural spend, both from the state as well as from private benefactors, the vast public infrastructure spend and the drawing in of resource from the 'periphery' needed to keep the whole show on the road. Against that self-perpetuating cycle of ingrained advantage, it's hard for other places to keep up with what has become a virtual city-state almost set apart from the hinterland surrounding it.
Hard, but not impossible. There's no question that - providing you have everything you need in place – London is a great place to live and work in your 20s and 30s. After a while, though, you have to think about leaving the shared house lifestyle behind and getting your own space.
If you're settling down with a significant other, there's the small matter of children, where they can go to school and whether or not you'll be able to afford somewhere for them with a garden. From there, the choice for most people is to make a flight to the suburbs, where they see their salary swallowed in childcare costs, season travel tickets and large parts of their day disappearing in the drudgery of the extended commute.
Inevitably, I contrasted it with the life we now have in Aberdeenshire. We have a primary school at the end of the road with a roll of just under 50 and a brand new academy in the nearest town set to open in just under 2 years time. We have fresh air, drinkable tap water, beaches and mountains within easy reach, good local food producers and once the Aberdeen bypass is opened, a commute which should be no more horrible than it would be anywhere else. In terms of quality of life, there really is no comparison.
London is both problem and opportunity for Scotland. We can never block the outflow of talent, nor should we even try. However, we can offer greater opportunities for our young people over time through independence. By focusing on continuing to improve the quality of life we offer and enhancing the scope of what we do for ourselves instead of having it done distantly by others, we can provide opportunities that people will want to stay for or return home to, as well as continuing to attract the immigration we need.
The existence of the Scottish Parliament has helped to counter the pull of London, giving Edinburgh the political centre of gravity which it had previously lacked. Independence would certainly add to that. It would draw in foreign diplomats, new government departments as we scale up to the responsibilities of full statehood, as well as a wide range of public and private sector decision makers as headquarters functions are beefed up in response.
For sure, there are costs associated with this but right now, they are paid in the form of a diversion of resources from Scotland to South East England. A 'Yes' vote and the resulting move to independent statehood would start to see that kind of additional growth take place. Bluntly, if we want Scotland to matter to others to the extent that this takes place, we first have to show that Scotland matters to us.
But – and there's always a but – let's not forget the early hopes that devolution could lead to a decentralisation of government power in Scotland – something which no government ever really got to grips with. Independence must be different, and that means ensuring that the benefits are shared out fairly around the country.
Scotland's other cities deserve their share of the action, too. Let our critique of how the South East of England has unbalanced the UK economy serve as fair warning to ensure that in the event of a Yes vote, we don't allow the same thing to happen to the South East of Scotland.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Hello (Part II)

And while I'm on the subject of hellos, a big 'hello' to Jim Gallagher, the former Scotland Office civil servant, who according to yesterday's Scotsman has officially joined the 'Better Together' campaign as an 'advisor'. This cheers me for a number of reasons, but let's deal with a couple of the non-partisan ones to begin with.

Firstly, he's extremely knowledgeable about devolution and its history – he was around when the original 1998 Scotland Act was being drawn up and is therefore familiar with all the arguments which took place in Whitehall way back then about which powers to devolve and which ones not to. As I'll contend later on this could be useful, but not necessarily for BT and certainly not in the way their campaign might think.

Secondly, he's a highly intelligent man who – unlike most of the BT political leadership – actually makes an effort to engage with the arguments of his opponents. Adding Gallagher to the BT team in an official capacity could mean that they might be about to come up with a more nuanced critique of independence instead of the usual bald litany of "can't, won't, couldn't, shouldn't, wouldn't, haven't and aren't". If so, this would be good for the general standard of indy debate. 

Now, let's get to the more partisan stuff, since that's what you're probably all here for. Anyone who thinks that adding Gallagher's heft to BT increases the likelihood of a more positive case for the union emerging is likely to be disappointed, although to be fair he has given that a try before now. No, what Gallagher excels at isn't so much the vision thing as explaining the history behind why things are as they are and why, if you want to retain the union, certain things probably can't be devolved.

To quote directly:

“Excessive fiscal autonomy is inconsistent with effective social solidarity”. “There’s more to political union than devolution, and more to devolution than funding.” And: “Parliament at Westminster matters hugely. It defines Scotland’s place in the world, but also Britain’s territorial constitution. And if home rule is good for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, what to do about England?”

So there you have it. In a nutshell, you really can't devolve welfare if you want inter-regional solidarity; it's hard to have more tax powers if you want to keep a unified tax base; and in terms of any move towards federalism, you'll be going at the speed of the slowest hiker in the group, which right now, has no intention of taking so much as a single step down the federalist route.

As one of the driving forces behind the Calman Commission, we already know what he thinks the 'maximalist' version of devolution looks like, and right now, it looks pretty similar to what we already have. His is the authentic voice of the post-1970's Scottish devol-unionist establishment telling us that this really is about as good as it gets, and that you shouldn't expect any major increase in Holyrood's powers if you vote 'No'.

Which means that those voters seeking substantially increased devolution have an interesting version of the Lorraine Mann Question to answer – namely, 'what is your second choice?'. Will the majority second choice of those seeking more powers be to endorse a union unreformed, or will it be to take no chances with our Parliament and seize the clear and unambiguous further powers offered by a 'Yes' vote?

So welcome, then, Jim. I've no doubt that you'll increase the quality of the 'No' side's arguments and by doing what you do best, help the 'Yes' campaign to persuade that chunk of voters wanting 'more powers' to take those last few baby steps towards independence.

And FWIW, if there is a 'Yes' vote, you'd be one of my first picks for the Scottish team negotiating the terms of our independence. Not that I'll have anything to do with those decisions of course but nevertheless, if asked, I hope you'd be willing and able to play your part.


Well, hello. For those of you who who might vaguely remember a long-mothballed blog called 'Scots and Independent', I'm back. And for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, then a big 'hello', quite possibly for the first time.

I'm Richard Thomson and I stay in Aberdeenshire with my partner and our daughter. I've done quite a few things to make a living over my life, from being a professional musician and working in a pensions company to toiling in Alex Salmond's Parliamentary Offices. More recently, after standing for election to Westminster as an SNP Candidate in 2010, I took up writing professionally as a reporter/columnist/photographer/'digital curator' (yes, really) with the Ellon Times and Inverurie Herald – two fine weekly newspapers here in the North East of Scotland.

I decided to mothball my old 'Scots and Independent' blog in 2011, partly because I wanted to make a clean break from politics for a while but mainly because I didn't fancy feeling obliged to churn out blogposts when I'd already spent all day writing professionally. Being perfectly honest, I'd never really liked the name of it anyway. For that reason, I always vowed that if I ever took a break from blogging, I would only come back if it was with a completely fresh platform.

So here it is. Hopefully it won't all be politics, but what with my day job as an Aberdeenshire Councillor and the Independence referendum I've long campaigned for being only a few months away, it's inevitable that politics is going to be centre stage here. While robust debate is encouraged, partisan narkery from cybernats or cyberbritnats (yes, you do exist) will be dispatched swiftly to the web equivalent of the circular file. Be interesting, be challenging, even be amusing if you can – just don't be boring.

Anyway, when it comes to the new blog, I hope you'll enjoy it, link to it, share it or whatever else takes your fancy. Let's see where this goes.