Fergus Ewing MSP

By Fergus Ewing MSP, Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber

Independence can seem a very intangible concept for people but when put in ordinary terms it can show why it is the best path for Scotland. All of us leave the family home at one point in our lives. We go out into the big world to make our own decisions, achieve our own ambitions and pay our own bills...and I have yet to hear from anyone that they regretted leaving home. And in most cases leaving home is not the acrimonious affair some would like to paint independence as - it would in fact allow us to join the greater family of nations and deal with our neighbours on an equal and co-operative footing.

Scottish independence is like that. We have taken one step to decide how we run our health service, our legal system, our schools, colleges and universities and how we invest development money to create jobs. However what we have is more like having the key to the door of the family home rather than to our own home.

Westminster, like an overweening parent, still makes the big decisions and still holds the purse strings. It knows best and any signs of striking out on our own are quashed with lectures about not being good enough or resourceful enough to strike out on our own.

Independence means gaining confidence - whether that is the confidence of independent living or the confidence of a country to take its own decisions and have its own responsibility. Confidence is not only the key to Scottish independence but also the prize of Scottish independence which will open up new possibilities in the wider world.

So how can Scottish independence benefit the Highlands? I would argue that many of the problems most prominent in the Highlands are the result of NOT having independence.

Take petrol taxation. With petrol prices over 4 a gallon in some areas of the Highlands - $6 a gallon for those across the pond - the issue of taxation is extremely vexed since tax makes up 75% of the price.

This is a power that the Scottish Parliament does not have - it is reserved to Westminster and Whitehall. Would a Scottish Parliament have introduced the policy of raising fuel duty well above inflation, like the Tories, considering the expanse of Scotland? Would it have continued this policy, like Labour has in London, had it attained this power? I think not.

Consider also the differential in petrol prices between the Highlands and urban Scotland. Westminster ministers say there is nothing they can do to iron out this problem because of EU rules. However that hasn't stopped other EU countries, such as Greece and Italy, from arguing for and gaining derogations for their island and mountainous areas.

As a member state of the EU a Scottish Government could and would do this. As part of the UK the Highlands and Islands barely has 1% of Westminster's MPs but in the Scottish Parliament we have 12% of the MSPs - not bad for an area with 7% of the Scottish population. With such influence and the power to be a member state of the EU I am sure an independent Scottish Government would fight for the interests of the Highlands on fuel price differentials.

Post Offices are another issue where power is retained at Westminster. Sub-post offices are of particular importance to rural areas like the Highlands & Islands and lately we have seen a return to policies which could damage their very existence. Before it was Tory plans for privatisation, now it is Labour plans for withdrawing benefit payment by cash .

Rural post offices have a far wider role than that which the UK Government Fully appreciates - they act as a focus for the local community and are often the local village store. There are currently 186 Post Office outlets in Highland alone and the withdrawal of paper benefit payments would sorely undermine their economic means to survive. Without them small communities would lose a much needed central focus as well as the other income they generate.

I do not believe that it is the Government's intention to close them but their policy strikes me as one of a faraway government which remains arrogantly sure of its policies despite the word from the provinces. Much better that Scotland decided how its post offices were run since, as I have said, the influence we enjoy in the Scottish Parliament cannot be ignored compared to that of Westminster.

Agriculture and fishing are areas of great importance to the Highlands & Islands and lately we have seen these industries under great strain with falling incomes and the high pound hitting farm prices. Yet despite being devolved areas many of the policies that affect them are decided in Europe.

In Europe the power lies with the Council of Ministers made up of ministers from the member state Governments. Whilst the Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department (SERAD) can attend these meetings it is the London based Ministry for Agriculture, Fishing and Food (MAFF) which leads and has the ultimate say.

Would it not be better if SERAD could go direct to Europe to put the case for our agriculture and fishing rather than waste time agreeing and undoubtedly toeing the MAFF line? In the cut and thrust of EU negotiations the UK sees them as bargaining chips but an independent Scotland would not be so hasty.

Agriculture and fishing may be seen as superfluous industries by Westminster and Whitehall but that is not the case for Scotland. In terms of their importance they are more important for Scotland than for the UK with, for example, over 60% of the UK's fishing fleet are based in Scotland. Just has Spain has got the best for its fishing fleet and Ireland has negotiated the best for its farmers we would do likewise.

More so the recent debacle of Assisted Area status for the Highlands proves a point about how small member states benefit from EU membership. Assisted Areas are those areas agreed by the European Comission that can receive Government aid to help investment and create jobs. In the case of the Highlands & Islands the area was one unit but large areas in the Inner Moray Firth have lost this status. Whilst the UK Government failed to keep the integrity of the Highlands & Islands as a single area and delay followed delay in even getting to that point, all the maps for the smaller countries had been agreed months ago.

Is this because the smaller member states have just as much time to argue their case but with less competing interests within their borders? I think so and the failure of the UK Government to stand up for the Highlands & Islands was exemplified last year when they failed to keep Objective 1 status for the area.

Then we have the situation at Barmac as yet another example of London policy detrimentally affecting the Highlands. Barmac is made up two yards that build off-shore oil rigs for the North Sea and they have recently laid of hundreds of employees because of a lack of contracts. Apart from the strength of the pound one other factor that led to the drying up of North Sea contracts was the London Treasury's review of North Sea taxation.

Tax breaks to stimulate offshore fabrication should have been considered but were not. London sees the North Sea as a cash cow not a provider of jobs but Scotland knows the importance of this industry which, like agriculture and fishing, is of far more important to Scotland than the UK.

But just like any other area of Scotland the Highlands & Islands has concerns on the issues that affect us all - health, education, housing, pensions and social security. Even here the power of Westminster is too influential.

Just now we are hearing that the Chancellor's apparent largesse for schools and hospitals will not be met in Scotland through the block grant we receive from London. Would it not be far better that we decide how we spend our taxes on hospitals and schools instead of London? Even counties in the United States have far more powers in this area than the Scottish Parliament. Taking responsibility for our taxation would allow us to prioritise our cash for these services instead of having London decide what our share is.

And as for social security there is the matter of pensions. I am not surprised that pensioners are angry at the paltry increase they got in their pensions - particularly when you compare how other small European nations look after their pensioners. Independence would give us control of our social security system and the chance to free ourselves to emulate our neighbours.

I believe in Scottish independence because I believe Scotland is a nation in its own right and should be like all the other democratic nations of the world - free to make its own decisions. I believe this is right for Scotland as independence breeds confidence and responsibility which will itself open up the energies that lead to greater prosperity.

I believe it is right for the Highlands & Islands since as part of the UK we are a weak afterthought whilst as an independent Scotland we would be strong region with a powerful voice.

Fergus Ewing MSP


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The above article is copyright to ©Fergus Ewing

August 2000