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Cold winter messages from Scotland

von Wilfried Klöpping

We’ve had our first real cold snap of the winter. There’s been snow over the Highlands and the North East. Temperatures dropped to minus 8 degrees in places. In the cities, the pavements have been covered in black ice. I know this because I have joined the queues of cautious penguin-like figures edging along the slippery surfaces wondering when we are going to break a flipper. Later in the week it all turned to a kind of sleety rain, as it does in Scotland. Inside, huddled round our TV sets, we’ve been watching the Chancellor’s bleak mid-winter message…the years of austerity will go on and on, beyond 2015 and until who-knows-when. In the Scottish parliament, the first minister Alex Salmond said „the poor will bear the brunt.“ On average, he said, they will be £200 worse off as a result of the mini-budget. He welcomed the £330m of extra capital spending allocated to Scotland but reminded us that it only slightly reverses an overall 23 per cent cut in capital spending previously imposed by the Chancellor.

Everyone is now waiting to see what the extra money will be spent on. John Swinney, the finance minister, has a list of 33 „shovel-ready“ projects which could begin by the spring. They include business developments on the Clyde and in the port of Leith, affordable housing in deprived communities, trunk road maintenance, college improvements, and Commonwealth Games legacy projects. A full list comes to a total of £800m which is what – says Mr Swinney – the government should be spending to get the economy going again. The cold economic climate was reflected in the latest household spending figures which show a drop in Scotland – unlike in the rest of the UK. The Scots families are spending on average £440 a week, cutting back on holidays, new cars, televisions and furniture. House repossessions rose by 30 per cent last year, to 20 a day. We are even drinking less – there’s been a 5 per cent drop in sales of alcohol over the last two years.

The hard times are inevitably being used by the SNP to underline their case for independence. In a major speech in Glasgow on Monday, the deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: „We are already half way there – we have brought half the powers home and made a success of it.“ She argued that the referendum in 2014 should not be about how „British“ or „Scottish“ we feel, but should be about what kind of country we want to be. It’s an interesting sign that the SNP pitch during the campaign will not be about constitutional matters – independence, membership of the EU or NATO or the Sterling zone – but about the economy and social justice. They will be campaigning on issues like government support for industry, free education, a free health service, free care for the elderly, all paid for by progressive taxation in a more equal society.

The unionist parties may thus be out-manoeuvred if they continue to stress the legalistic issues, as they have been doing this week. They made much of a leaked letter from Brussels suggesting that an independent Scotland would have to negotiate its way into the European Union rather than being automatically accepted. Regular readers may remember me reporting a storm in the turbulent waters of the Scottish arts a few weeks ago. Well, it has blown away the chief executive of the new arts agency Creative Scotland Andrew Dixon. He resigned after months of criticism by leading artists, writers and musicians. It was never clear what they were complaining about, other than „ill-conceived decision-making and a lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture.“ Could it be that their own projects were no longer being supported and that Mr Dixon is from England? I only ask.

You will be glad to hear that the „high hedges bill“ is back on the agenda in the Scottish Parliament. It is ten years since a limit on the height of garden hedges was first suggested and a backlog of some 5,000 cases has been steadily growing, as quick as leylandi trees. Committee members were told that hedges were being used as „weapons“ in neighbour-wars over solar panels or planning applications. There is already a law against high hedges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the suggestion is that Scotland should follow suit with a limit of two meters on the height of any garden hedge. Wildlife experts have warned however that we should not be too trimmer-happy and that individual trees should not be classed as hedges, as they provide valuable habitats for birds and insects. It is perhaps fear of the new anti-hedge law that has driven a robin red-breast to take up residence in a Tesco store in Inverness. Staff have been forced to close the store from time to time to usher him back to his hedge. The housing charity Shelter should feature him on this year’s Christmas card.

But I don’t want to end on bleak mid-winter news. So let us rejoice that Celtic have made it into the final 16 of the European Champions League. It may have been a last minute penalty which took them past Spartak Moscow but it shows that, despite the distressing state of Scottish football, there is hope that after a tough winter there will eventually be a Scottish spring.

John Knox

Fotocredits: Udo Haafke

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