Motion: Shetland’s Emily Shaw, Scotland’s Young Ambassador

Motion S4M-05238: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 18/12/2012

Shetland’s Emily Shaw, Scotland’s Young Ambassador
That the Parliament congratulates Emily Shaw, Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament (MSYP) on being selected as Scotland’s new UK Young Ambassador; understands that the project gives young people the opportunity to discuss issues that affect them at an international level; notes that, in 2012, Emily has already represented Scotland at the Commonwealth Youth Parliament as well as representing Shetland in her role as an MSYP; applauds Emily’s engagement with and interest in the democratic process; believes that she is a positive role model for young people across Scotland; considers that Emily’s experiences demonstrate the benefits of the youth parliament to young people and Scotland, and encourages young people to get involved in their communities in whatever way they can.

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Motion: Ainslie Henderson, International Animation Award Winner

Motion S4M-05244: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 18/12/2012

Ainslie Henderson, International Animation Award Winner
That the Parliament congratulates Ainslie Henderson of the Edinburgh College of Art on being named winner in the animation category at the 2012 Adobe Design Achievement Awards; understands that Ainslie’s work, I Am Tom Moody, beat nearly 5,000 entrants from 70 countries; further understands that Ainslie enlisted the vocal help of the actor, Mackenzie Crook, for his project; considers that Ainslie’s victory, given the number of entrants, demonstrates the creative talent studying at Scotland’s colleges and universities; believes that this international recognition further demonstrates the opportunities available to those who pursue an interest in the arts, and encourages young people with creative talent to use it in whatever way they can.

BLOG: You Can’t Spell Constitutional Change Without A Constitution

Amid the bluster and fireworks of the current debate on independence, many seem to have forgotten the body of work that lies ahead in the event of a Yes vote in 2014. As my fellow MSP Patrick Harvie noted in the Sunday Herald, the time between the referendum and the first prospective elections to an independent Scottish Parliament in 2016 does not leave much room for manoeuvre.

For myself and many others, one of the most vital elements of an independent Scottish state that must be addressed is how it sets in place its social, political and cultural ethos. For them, and for me, the answer is through the conception of a written constitution.

Last weekend, I hosted a small gathering in the Scottish Parliament on behalf of the Scottish Democratic Alliance (SDA). Although my own views don’t necessarily tally with the SDA on every issue, I was keen to hear their thoughts on the need for a written constitution and how this could be taken forward.

The arguments in favour of a written constitution are myriad, particularly in the case of a newly independent state seeking to define how it will be governed, by whom and through what means. I can’t recall any democratic country that has gained its independence in the 20th century and has not established and enacted a written constitution. Iceland even seized the opportunity following the 2008 crisis that struck its banks to ‘crowd-source’ a new constitution, engaging the people in an open, innovative and participative approach to re-imagine the governance of their country that in turn captured the imagination of people the world over.

The arguments for a written constitution are only enhanced by Scotland’s experiences as part of the UK, whose placing of sovereignty with Parliament lies in direct conflict to the sovereignty of the Scottish people as asserted in the Claim of Right.

Indeed, only this week, the idiosyncrasies of Westminster were on show as the unelected Lord Forsyth questioned Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance as part of a House of Lords Committee investigation into the economic implications of Scottish independence.

The next step, therefore, is not for Scotland to determine whether it will have a written constitution, but what will be included in that constitution and, just as importantly, how and when that constitution will be drawn up. For a document of such massive legal, political, moral and social importance, we cannot dither and we must not delay.

Already, there have been a number of meetings held by the Constitutional Commission on this topic; the constitutional scholar W. Elliot Bulmer has written his own draft constitution, as have the SDA, and the Scottish Government has stated in its 2009 paper “Your Scotland, Your Voice”that an independent Scotland could formulate and agree a fully codified and written constitution.

From my own experiences of hosting ‘Changin’ Scotland’ along with Gerry Hassan over the last 10 years, I know that there are so many other organisations and individuals who have dedicated time and effort to thinking and writing about what could and should be included in a constitution for Scotland. We don’t need to wait for permission from above to begin this process- civic Scotland absolutely has the capacity and, I am convinced, the will for this task, just as it did before with the Scottish Covenant and the Claim of Right.

It is absolutely vital that this bubbling groundswell continues to rise, and that the people of Scotland are encouraged to think about what independence could and should mean. In my opinion, a gathering to share ideas between interested groups in the New Year could then lead to an event which would concentrate on the process of developing a written constitution. This could help to encourage engagement with the referendum and, more importantly, empower Scotland’s people to take charge of their own democracy. I would be interested in speaking to others who share these ideas on how best we might take this forward.

Regardless of our position on independence itself, we cannot be complacent about how it will work, or arrogant enough to not plan for the possibility. Time is of the essence, and we must step up to the plate now.

Let’s make sure that when Independence Day comes, we’re ready. 

BLOG: The Finance Committee Budget Votes

A number of press outlets have carried a story regarding a vote that took place at the Finance Committee last Wednesday. As reported, I did vote against an SNP amendment to our Committee’s budget report that would have explicitly supported the budget; however, I also voted against an opposition amendment that would have explicitly condemned the budget, a fact that seems to have somehow been missed out by the media.

The Committee system, in common with the Parliament’s original ethos, was designed to engender consensus and to encourage co-operation among MSPs regardless of their party affiliation. Holyrood’s Committees are also intended (perhaps optimistically) to be the yin to the Chamber’s yang, allowing thoughtful debate free from the partisan point-scoring that can, on occasion, take place in the Chamber.

The Budget Report, so ably distilled into a concise document by the Committee’s staff from the hours of expert evidence taken by the Committee on the impact of the Government’s proposed Budget, is a fair and balanced analysis of the Budget. It recognises that there are a range of opinions on the strength of the Budget, praising it where it deserves to be praised and offering constructive suggestions for change or further thought where the Committee considered that would be useful.

It’s a report that I am proud to put my name to, and that I was determined to keep clear from any amendments which would seek to change the spirit of the Report for pointless political point-scoring without any empirical evidence to back them. Michael McMahon, whose scrutiny has been an asset to the Committee, unfortunately put forward an amendment seeking outright criticism, an amendment that could not be backed by any interpretation of the evidence. To counter this, John Mason, who has been an able and thorough Deputy Convener of the Committee, put forward an amendment offering outright praise, which would also not have been fair given the evidence taken by the Committee.

In both instances, I voted to retain the original Report. Had the Report been altered by either amendment, it would have been difficult for the whole Committee to agree to support the Report, which would have been incredibly damaging and only added to the partisan cloud hanging over Holyrood these days. I’m delighted that the original report was wholeheartedly endorsed by the Committee, and hope that this consensus can be built on in the New Year.

Blog: The Real Threat to EU Membership

Scotland’s future within (or outside) the European Union (EU) has once again hit the headlines, with the Scotsman reporting that “the European Commission has written to a House of Lords committee stating that if Scots voters back independence, existing treaties which cover the UK’s EU membership willcease to apply’”. The Scotland Office is quoted in the article as saying that Scots have the right to know the full implications for Scotland if it were to “leave the UK family”.

Before we reach the meat of this topic, it’s rather disingenuous to claim that standing on your own two feet is akin to leaving a family. When our sons and daughters grow up and make decisions for themselves, it’s the mark of a developing, mature relationship, not of abandonment. An internationalist, co-operative Scotland would seek the same relationship, as is already shared with the other nations on the British Isles through the British-Irish Council.

Anyway, pedantry aside, we must remember that the Scotland Office’s argument should cut both ways. It looks likely that, regardless of who wins the next Westminster election, there will be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.  David Cameron, under fire from the right wing of his party and the growing prominence of UKIP, has all but promised one should the Conservatives emerge victorious; senior Labour MPs have suggested holding one and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats promised one in their 2010 manifesto.

Opinion polls consistently show that, although the small number of Scots in each survey are more evenly divided on EU membership, a strong plurality of UK voters would vote to leave the EU in a referendum.  For example, in the latest YouGov poll, this antipathy towards the EU translates into outright majorities in favour of withdrawal in the North of England and the South of England and 48% in the Midlands and Wales. This ‘cold house’ is hardly surprising, given that the UK press, whose attitudes towards Europe range from critically supportive to spluttering outrage, can hardly be described as being well-disposed towards Europe.

So, given that both major parties at Westminster would hold a referendum on EU membership after the next election and that there’s a consistent public and media majority in the UK in favour of leaving the EU, why do the No campaign continue to show their concern over Scottish EU membership? Surely it’s more at threat as part of the UK than as an independent country?

Of course, an independent Scotland would need to negotiate new terms of membership, as the Scottish Government itself says. However, it would do so from within the UK (and the EU) in the 2 years between the referendum result and the planned first elections for an independent Scottish Parliament in May 2016.

To suggest that the EU would be willing to perform an expensive and elaborate hokey-cokey, where Scotland was in, out and then in again, is ludicrous. Given the human, financial and natural resources that Scotland contributes to the EU at a time of uncertainty and financial instability across Europe, does anybody honestly expect the EU to wilfully eject a long-standing partner of almost 40 years?

Over the next 2 years, there will be attempts to obfuscate the debate by attempting to boil down 50 years of complex European treaties into doom-laden, doubt-ridden claims about Scottish membership of the EU while ignoring the very real threat posed by Westminster sabre-rattling. I hope, and believe, that the people of Scotland can see through the scaremongering and apply the common sense logic that has served us well in the past.