I was so sad to learn of the death of Charles Kennedy this morning. Immediately I thought back to the general election of 1983 and his surprise victory over Conservative and Unionist MP, Hamish Gray, to the electors’ delight it has to be said. I did stand against him myself in the 2001 General Election and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There was genuine camaraderie with all of the candidates, and little or none of the party political dislike or outright hatred that happened in some parts; maybe it was a Highlands and Islands thing. Whatever, I’m sure the other candidates would agree, Charlie was a pleasure to oppose!
A very early public engagement for the new MP in 1983 was formally opening and speaking at an exhibition about educational opportunities held in Ullapool Primary School. The photographs remind us of how young he was; memory recalls how passionate about education he was.
Charlie belonged to the West Highlands and for many years the West Highlands belonged to him.
When the symptoms of his illness became more and more overt, most folk understood and recognised the problem; it never diminished their like of Charlie Kennedy, the man. His premature death will be felt by many and all of our sympathy is with his family for whom this will be especially hard to bear.
Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, which had originally been brought by our much-missed colleague Margo MacDonald and was taken on by Green MSP Patrick Harvie after she died last year. After much thought, I voted in favour of the bill, but it was defeated by 82 votes to 36 (you can find out how your other MSPs voted here).
I am very grateful to the many constituents who have contacted me about assisted suicide over the past months, both in support of and in opposition to the Bill. This is an extremely personal issue and many of those who have been in touch have been directly affected by difficult end-of-life situations. I considered my vote very carefully, and the views and experiences of everyone who has been in touch have been invaluable.
My own personal experience is of an elderly family member who, I know, suffered beyond human endurance and was longing to be relieved of pain. She was in a hospice in the last few days of her life, living from one shot of morphine to the next. There was nothing more that could be done for her, and I have never forgotten how I felt so completely useless; she was ready to die and no-one would, or could, let her.
If I was in a similar position, I would have sought help to end my life. I find it very hard to justify a situation where that help is withheld from people who desperately need it.
As Margo MacDonald herself said, we have learned a great deal about how to create the right safeguards since she first presented the Bill in 2010. The revised bill had very robust measures to ensure patients would get proper medical advice and could not be pressured into a decision by family.
Under Margo and Patrick’s proposals, the individual would have had to gain the consent of two separate doctors. Nurses and doctors who had been previously involved in the individuals’ care would also be excluded from the process of witnessing any declarations required in the process. Family members, and anyone who would benefit financially from the individual’s will, would also have been excluded from acting in the process.
I believe that these measures would prevent individuals from being pressurised by others and would ensure that the choice lies with the individual, and the individual alone.
For all these reasons, I believe legalising assistance to die remains the just and compassionate thing to do.
With a majority of Scots in favour of change, clearly we still have a lot to discuss. I had hoped that MSPs who had reservations might voted to allow the deliberations on the bill to continue, even if they expected to vote against it in the end. But although this particular bill won’t go any further, I would be very surprised if it’s the last time the issue comes before the Scottish Parliament.
You can watch the debate and read my speech below. My contribution begins at 2:22:40 on the video, and the transcript of the full debate is available on the Scottish Parliament website.
Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):
This Parliament has never shirked its responsibility in dealing with a number of controversial subjects that have brought about societal change. In bringing them to this chamber we hear many differing and often strong opinions, which inform and allow for the best kind of debate. As other members have done, I thank the many individuals, organisations and groups who took the time to articulate their reasons for offering their support for or objections to the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill.
I will support the motion today for various reasons. I have listened to the different contributions to this debate, all of which have been very considered and many of which have been quite powerful. My instinct is that there should be a bill of this nature. I must set aside my reasons for that and join with those who are asking for the bill to be passed, even though their instinct is that it should not, or that it should not come into law.
Agreeing the general principles of the bill today will allow for greater debate and perhaps for more public involvement in what is, for most of us, an issue about which we feel strongly. It is really not an issue that we can be uncertain about in the end, as it were, if you will excuse the pun, Presiding Officer.
My main reasons for supporting the bill are, first, for the want of choice and fairness, secondly, as an act of human kindness and compassion, and thirdly, out of respect for any individual and his or her needs and beliefs. I, too, spoke to Margo MacDonald at some length about her bill, and I am pleased to have heard her name checked so often today, because she is synonymous with the bill and her desire was to see it become law.
To an extent, the bill as drafted may still be far from perfect, and what is clear from the Health and Sport Committee report is that there are still many questions to be answered and many details to be clearly articulated and understood by everyone. On such an important issue, the devil really will be in the detail. However, I believe that all of that can and should happen.
The right of an individual to be released from life at their own request should be acknowledged as their choice, and they should be supported. It would appear that the majority of people in Scotland, if we are to believe recent reports in journals and newspapers, now broadly agree that it is a matter of choice.
Scotland has an ageing population, many of whom will suffer degenerative conditions. The debate about the quality of life and how we can live it will continue for years to come. Meantime, anyone who out of compassion and love wants to help a friend or relative to die will remain open to prosecution, and inevitably more and more people who can afford to do so will travel abroad in order to have their wishes met. That cannot be right.
I acknowledge the views of those who are of a religious faith — I am not — and they do appear, judging by my mailbox, to be the largest group opposing the bill. They have their reasons for doing so, and I can respect that. They would never consider using the permissions that the bill would allow, and that is their right, but I would ask that they respect those of a different belief. It would be very wrong if the bill were to fail today on any religious grounds.
The problem will not go away, but rather will increase, and therefore the bill is timely. There is a strong feeling across the country, I believe, that recognises that and supports the generality of the bill.
Every contribution in the chamber today has been interesting, thoughtful and considered, and the Parliament is surely here to allow the debate to continue and not to shut it down prematurely. Please, let us not shut down this important debate. I urge members to support the motion.
Jean has this afternoon condemned Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael for failing to admit to his responsibility for the now infamous leaked ‘memo’ which falsely accused First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of favouring David Cameron to be Prime Minister.
The false memo was leaked following a meeting between the Scottish First Minister and the French Ambassador. Both Ms Sturgeon and the Ambassador rejected the memo’s version of events, which said Ms Sturgeon would prefer a government led by David Cameron and stated that she did not think Ed Milliband was ‘of prime minister material’.
The memo was later found to have been leaked by the Scottish Office during the election campaign – when the Government was in purdah. Speaking at the time, the then-Scottish Secretary Mr Carmichael dismissed the leak, saying ‘These things happen from time to time.’
His admission this afternoon comes after an official Cabinet Office inquiry found that Mr Carmichael’s adviser leaked the document under direction from the Scottish Secretary.
Speaking from Shetland following Mr Carmichael’s statement, in which he described the matter as an ‘error of judgement’, Jean said:
“Mr Carmichael’s actions go far beyond a simple ‘error of judgement’ – this was a calculated and deeply cynical attempt to undermine the integrity of Scotland’s First Minister during the election campaign.
It was a deliberate attack on a fellow politician and this incident seriously calls into question Mr Carmichael’s fitness to continue as MP for Orkney and Shetland.
Politics is all about best judgement and integrity, and he has failed his constituents on both counts – by leaking the memo in the first place, and then by delaying his admission of guilt until after the election. Mr Carmichael is the Liberal Democrats’ ‘last man standing’ in Scotland – but only as a result of intentionally deceiving them about his role in this under-handed attempt to undermine Nicola Sturgeon.
Working in Shetland this afternoon I have spoken to a number of residents, and they are shocked and appalled by Mr Carmichael’s behaviour.
He has said he considers that this would be a matter which, had he still been in cabinet, would have required his resignation as a Minister. In my view, had Mr Carmichael continued to be part of the government post-election, this may never have come to light. It is exactly this kind of cover up in so many aspects of the Westminster bubble that the majority of the people of Shetland and Scotland voted against.
It is incredible that he believes he can continue to represent the constituents he has openly misled.”
On Tuesday, the Scottish Parliament debated a Government motion calling for a return of the post-study work visas, once known as the ‘Fresh Talent’ scheme, that allowed overseas students who graduated from Scottish universities to stay and work in Scotland after their degree. Jean supported the motion, and called for Scotland to have control its own immigration policy more generally, so that we can have a welcoming system that meets our needs. The motion passed by 93 votes to nil, with 12 Conservatives abstaining, as did a Labour amendment recognising the work of former First Minister Jack McConnell in creating Fresh Talent.
On this page you can read Jean’s speech, and watch the video of the debate – Jean’s contribution starts at 1:58:35. You can read the full transcript of debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.
Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): This is a timely debate and it is heartening to hear that there is cross-party support for the reintroduction of post-study work visas.
We have heard from all members who have spoken about the contribution that overseas students make, whether cultural, social, economic and educational, but in spite of the reputation of Scottish colleges and universities, we cannot assume that they will keep coming.
Competition in the education sector is tough. Many of our colleges and universities are making greater and greater efforts to attract students from around the globe, even to the extent of changing their names. The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. That change to the name was not made because people demanded it; it was made to attract students and so that they could better understand the college’s work and its potential.
It is no matter that our universities and colleges are the best or that they are opening branches in many other countries around the globe. It might be that the growing number of such courses will produce graduates there with degrees from the University of Glasgow, the University of Edinburgh or, indeed, the University of the Highlands and Islands.
What will bring those students here? It is not enough to be the best, or to provide good student associations and a welcome. As the institutions know, they need all the support that they can get to maintain or grow the international student community. The post-study work visa is only one good reason to apply to one university over another, but it is perhaps the most important.
Some of the partner colleges in the University of the Highlands and Islands have developed the potential for business experience to follow the course as well as being part of the course. For example, were they allowed to stay after graduation, textiles students in Shetland could access equipment—large industrial knitting machines, for example—to develop better business skills and experience whether or not there was a market for their products.
Manufacturing must be one of the most important areas for us to cover, so the opportunity of getting such experience for the period after graduation is certainly an attractive option, and Scotland has a great deal to offer in that respect.
All the papers that we have received from NUS Scotland or business organisations show cross-sector and cross-party support for the reintroduction of post-study work visas.
I am not sure about the Smith Commission process. It occurs to me, particularly after listening to Lord Lang on the radio this morning, that that process might not be the quickest method by which to put in place the developments that we need. It is incumbent on all members to show that there is real urgency about the issue. The fresh talent initiative has been referred to—all credit to Jack McConnell and the Labour Party for it. It is important to acknowledge that they brought it about, but it is also important to note that if we had the powers over immigration that Scotland needs and clearly deserves, the fresh talent initiative would surely still be in place and we would not need to have this debate.
It was disingenuous of Liam McArthur to try to somehow link all the evidence from academics, businesses and agencies that support the post-study work visas with the danger that not everyone will agree. By way of evidence, he cited BBC Scotland’s evidence that people in Scotland are not unlike people south of the border in their views on immigration.
Liam McArthur: The point that I was trying to make is that the assumption that the population in Scotland takes a radically different approach to immigration from the approach of the population south of the border is not borne out by the BBC survey or by attitude surveys over a number of years. Kenny MacAskill made a fair point about the leadership that we need to show, and it is worth acknowledging that we do not work with a more enlightened or progressive population on the whole.
Jean Urquhart: I thank Liam McArthur for that. In fact, I was just going to refer to Kenny MacAskill’s point that it is up to us to take a lead. It ill behoves us to constantly hark back to what is in some ways a bigger issue. We had a debate on immigration last week, in which we were all very much agreed, and those points were well made by members at the time.
Joan McAlpine talked about MIT, which is a great example of the fact that, where creativity is developed, it can flourish. Scotland needs to have control of immigration if we are to realise our full potential. We must push for the issue to be considered outwith the Smith Commission process. It is a serious and important issue for Scotland and for our colleges. More than that, it is seriously important for the kind of economic development that we want. We have acknowledged that we are talking about thousands of students. Why on earth would we want that talent to be educated in Scotland and then insist that they leave? That cannot be right. I hope that we will push for the issue to be dealt with in the House of Commons and for our case to be made outwith the Smith Commission process.
There was an unusual display of unity after the debate, as MSPs voted unanimously to approve the motion, and to add both the Labour and SNP amendments.
In a world that is more interconnected than ever and in which historically our societies have developed as a result of the transnational mobilisation of cultures and peoples, it is intellectually moribund that we rarely hear politicians or the media make the positive case for immigration. It is with alarm that we are witnessing the development of increasing hostility, xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance towards immigrants. I am gravely concerned that the tone of public discussion about immigration is contributing to a climate of hostility and fear. In this regard, we risk facing a race to the bottom. It is, it seems, politically fashionable to oppose immigration and, increasingly, the whole concept of multiculturalism.
I am proud today to be one of those who are making the positive case for immigration, and who are highlighting not just the economic benefits but the cultural enrichment that flows from embracing it, rather than proposing an agenda that is set on creating resentment and division. I stand as an advocate for multiculturalism who recognises the benefits of viewing integration as a two-way process, in which we learn and develop from our fellow citizens who hail from other countries and who bring with them their own heritage and traditions. The world is a more interesting place and our communities are made more vibrant and outward looking if we encourage understanding and tolerance and adopt a welcoming attitude to immigrants as citizens in equal partnership.
We barely hear such arguments. Instead we are faced, on a daily basis, with a toxic barrage of headlines demonising immigrants and an increasingly xenophobic politics that stems from the UK Independence Party but now, it seems, is infecting the mainstream parties, particularly in Westminster. The whole debate has been shifted rightwards, as it becomes increasingly popular to make opposing immigration a political principle. Even those who might have stood up for multiculturalism in the past find it difficult to do so now. That tide must turn, and we must challenge ourselves to testify for a modern, inclusive and humanitarian approach to immigration.
Of course, Presiding Officer, the scapegoating of immigrants at times of economic crisis is nothing new. Throughout history, immigrants have been a useful section of society for powerful interests to blame in order to rationalise their own failures. Far better that our attention is focused on blaming immigrants for the lack of job opportunities and deteriorating living standards than on our unbalanced economy or corruption in the banking sector—or indeed the political establishment. The economic facts, which are rarely exposed, show that, rather than representing a drain on Britain’s finances, European migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to the Exchequer between 2000 and 2011.
However, it is in these circumstances that organisations such as UKIP thrive. They build on the fears that emerge as a result of economic precariousness and on the anti-immigrant sentiment popularised by sections of the media. The two have a near-symbiotic relationship, all set within a policy framework that has been shifting away from embracing multiculturalism and immigration for many years, under successive Westminster Governments.
UKIP now advocates the scrapping of the racial equality laws, a move that would regress race relations by decades. Unless partisans of diversity and racial equality make the positive case for immigration—challenging though that may seem—we risk sliding down the slippery slope of an inward-looking xenophobia. That is a xenophobia that detracts from our culture, economy and the important sense of human solidarity that has always been the bedrock for making progress in society. I believe that the majority of our population can be won to such a perspective if only we unite our voices to amplify our case beyond the parameters of the current stale, stultified and one-sided debate.
We so often hear the tiresome mantra, repeated throughout the decades, that immigrants are “stealing our jobs”. We should ask why the jobs market is so poor, how it came to be that our society is so unequal and why access to well-paid jobs is so privileged. We hear of immigrants “taking our houses”, but we must ask why our housing stock is so inadequate and underfunded, and why we do not put the necessary investment into building more high-quality, affordable homes. Why not inquire further, with a critical mind, to unearth beneath the waves of anti-immigrant headlines just how much of a contribution they make to our country?
Let us talk about how much our communities have gained from immigration—all the doctors, nurses and public servants who help us in our time of need, and without whom we would be much worse off. Let us talk about the music scene or our constantly renewing creative culture and the extension of our palate into the world as each period of immigration—if embraced—emboldens our human need to experience more than ourselves, and to explore the things that we do not yet know about, in the pursuit of knowledge. Immigration, far from being a burden, is a gateway.
We in Scotland should know that. Surely it is part of our DNA. Scots are immigrants. They are dispersed around the globe, where they have found and created work and shared their culture and made their home in another country. We should be among the first to recognise that the flow of immigration adds momentum to the progressive aspects of human history, and excites the potential in all of us, regardless of where we were born. Thus, I share the Scottish Refugee Council’s concerns at the recent poll conducted by BBC Scotland on Scottish attitudes to immigration, and I have signed Christina McKelvie’s motion questioning the methodology, outcome and timing of the poll.
I was taken aback, listening to BBC Radio Scotland’s morning news programme a few days ago, to hear the Spanish immigrants in Inverness referred to as an “invasion”. For many, that confirms that the BBC is not acting impartially.
It is time for a wholesale change in approach to how we discuss immigration and realise its benefits. I do not just want our Polish friends to be able to learn English—I want Scots to be able to take advantage of the diversity in our population to learn Polish. Imagine how our nation might develop were we to cut through the headlines of the Daily Express and Nigel Farage’s false narrative and recognise the potential that exists.
Is it not time to move on as a society? We must stop repeating time and again the age-old fallacies around immigration, and move to a period of enlightenment where, rather than creating fear and division around difference and the scramble for resources, we work together to solve the economic problems we face and, at the same time, enjoy our distinctive and valuable cultural identities.
UKIP is said to be making a “bold stand” on immigration. The truth is the opposite. It is those who stand up for the rights of immigrants and champion the benefits that they bring to a multicultural society based on social progress that are the 21st century’s trailblazers.
Many members would have joined with Sheena Wellington at the formal opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 in singing the words of Burns:
“That Man to Man the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.”
It is time to show that there is a difference between the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament, by making and profiling the positive case for immigration and celebrating Scotland’s diverse communities. Please support the motion.
That the Parliament believes that Scotland’s diversity should be celebrated and rejects the negative attitudes expressed in the media and politics toward immigration and immigrants; also notes with concern the impact of these attitudes in the context of the approaching general election; believes that there should be recognition of the very real and positive contribution made by immigrants from all over the world to Scottish society, culture and history; also notes that the Scottish population is comprised of a rich mix of peoples and cultures from all over the world and believes that all immigrants and their descendants are an integral part of the Scottish identity; calls on politicians and the media to stop the demonisation of immigrants, and calls on media outlets to take a more responsible approach toward their reporting of immigration to Scotland and the UK.
Today at the Scottish Parliament, Jean launched Not My Xenophobia, her new campaign to challenge xenophobic attitudes in politics and the media.
Not My Xenophobia invites Scots social media users to name-and-shame examples of xenophobic language, stereotypes and attitudes they see being used by newspapers, adverts, TV programmes and politicians, using the hashtag #notmyxenophobia.
Jean Urquhart was inspired to create Not My Xenophobia by the success of the #everydaysexism social media campaign, and the Scottish Government’s See Me campaign against mental health stigma.
“From exploitative programmes like Immigration Street to the UKIP MEP David Coburn’s disgusting, racist comments about Europe Minister Humza Yousaf, we are surrounded with xenophobic messages in politics and the media.
“But speak to ordinary Scots and you will find a very different attitude. Most of us value our friends, neighbours and colleagues from all over the world. The xenophobia we are being bombarded with isn’t ours – it’s being imposed on us by people in positions of power and influence who want to set us against one another.
“This influence is especially pernicious in the run-up to the General Election, as the big parties compete over who can be tougher on immigrants, never mind that immigrants are and always have been an essential part of the country those parties want to run.
“I’ve started the Not My Xenophobia campaign to give a voice to the majority of Scots who reject these hateful attitudes, and to name and shame the media organisations and politicians who promote them for their own gain.
“I’ve worked closely with the Polish community in the Highlands, and seen first-hand the real pain that is caused by xenophobic language, stereotypes and attitudes. The Polish contribution to Scotland has been huge, from the Polish soldiers who defended our east coast in World War II, to the nurses who support our NHS today. Newspaper headlines that scream about the ‘problem’ of immigration insult that contribution and promote discrimination and even violence.
“The Scottish identity is defined by migration. Our own nation is a rich mix of peoples and cultures from all over the world, and Scots have settled all over the world in return. We are an exceptionally international country, and are better off for that.
“I hope very many Scots, old and new, will join in the Not My Xenophobia campaign to challenge xenophobic attitudes head on, and to show that our diverse and beautiful nation will not be divided.”
Jean was joined at the campaign launch by Roza Salih, the Glasgow Girls campaigner who came to Scotland as a child from Iraqi Kurdistan and is now Vice President for Diversity and Advocacy at Strathclyde Student’s Union, and Maggie Chapman, the co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party and councillor for the Leith Walk ward in Edinburgh, who is a South African citizen and grew up in Zimbabwe before coming to Scotland as a student.
Maggie Chapman said:
“As someone who came to Scotland from southern Africa over 17 years ago, I’ve always found a warm welcome in this country. Sadly my experience isn’t shared by others. The ward I represent is the most diverse in Scotland, and I want everyone in my ward to feel as welcome as I did when I came to Scotland. The crass comments by UKIP’s MEP for Scotland, David Coburn show that there is too much xenophobia in Scotland. Jean’s campaign is a great start to that, and I’m delighted to support it.”
The launch of the campaign will be followed on Wednesday by a Scottish Parliament debate, led by Jean, on the motion “Celebrating Scotland’s Diverse Communities”:
S4M-12677 Jean Urquhart: Celebrating Scotland’s Diverse Communities—That the Parliament believes that Scotland’s diversity should be celebrated and rejects the negative attitudes expressed in the media and politics towards immigration and immigrants; also notes with concern the impact of these attitudes in the context of the approaching General Election; believes that there should be recognition of the very real and positive contribution made by immigrants from all over the world to Scottish society, culture and history; also notes that the Scottish population is comprised of a rich mix of peoples and cultures from all over the world and believes that all immigrants and their descendants are an integral part of the Scottish identity; calls on politicians and the media to stop the demonisation of immigrants and calls on media outlets to take a more responsible approach towards their reporting of immigration to Scotland and the UK.
Jean has urged the Scottish Government to resist religious calls to criminalise the purchase of sex. 36 religious leaders signed a letter to the First Minister demanding Scotland adopt the ‘Swedish model’ of making buying sex a criminal offence, but sex workers say such a move would put them in more danger while doing nothing to help eradicate trafficking.
The most up-to-date study on the law in Sweden, released this week, concludes that there is no evidence that it has reduced demand, and that it has only made sex workers more isolated, vulnerable and afraid.
“Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes there is, and eradicating it will take a serious response, drawing on the best evidence. This effort to piggyback a knee-jerk, moralising reaction onto vital human trafficking legislation is deeply unhelpful.
“The ‘Swedish model’ that the churches call for in their letter cannot demonstrate any success at all in reducing trafficking. What it does do is put sex workers at greater risk of violence and sexually transmitted infections, which is why sex workers and international health organisations alike oppose it.
“What would absolutely help protect both sex workers and migrant workers from coercion and mistreatment would be measures to guarantee their labour rights. The better supported and organised both groups are, the safer they will be and the easier it will be to detect and prosecute crimes like trafficking.”
“The Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, has offered to meet the authors of the letter to discuss the issue. I have written to him to ask that he also meet with sex workers themselves, as they are the people who have real experience of the situation and who will be those most at risk if the churches’ campaign were to succeed.”
Jean has been working with the sex-worker-led charity SCOT-PEP to understand the reality of sex work in Scotland, and press for changes that will genuinely protect sex workers. The co-chair of SCOT-PEP said earlier:
“If the Church of Scotland think that this law will reduce trafficking, they’ve been misinformed. The Swedish government cannot show a reduction in trafficking – but sex workers in Sweden are more vulnerable, isolated and afraid. The vast majority of trafficking happens into the agricultural industry and domestic service, and yet no one is recommending criminalising the purchase of groceries or the hiring of a cleaner. All migrant workers need their labour rights protected: that is what would genuinely fight exploitation, not more failed criminalisation that drives people away from support and services.”
Emma, a former sex worker, added:
“As a former sex worker living with HIV, I am saddened at this Church of Scotland call. In the 80s and 90s the Church were at the forefront of new approaches to harm reduction, drug use and HIV. They funded the work of Shiva, a street based sex work project. I always considered that they were our allies in a fight against HIV discrimination and violence, and we would love the opportunity to sit down with you and talk. These laws would put another generation of sex workers at risk of the violence, HIV and stigma that the church helped us climb out of”.
Tomorrow, the Parliament holds its first debate on the Scottish Government’s proposed budget for the coming year. Most of the MSPs’ speeches we’ll hear will be about specific taxes or expenditures, but I hope some will take the opportunity to question whether the prevailing economic strategy as a whole is the right one.
We got an insight into how Ministers think about the economy in a Government-led debate two weeks ago entitled “Boosting the Economy”. MSPs were discussing and voting on this motion by John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution & Economy:
Motion S4M-11993: John Swinney, Perthshire North, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 06/01/2015
Boosting the Economy
That the Parliament welcomes the continued growth of Scotland’s economy and the fact that Scotland’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the UK; further welcomes the fact that, since 2007, Scottish exports have increased by a third, business research and development has risen by 29% and that the total number of registered businesses in Scotland has grown by 10%; agrees that delivering sustainable economic growth and addressing longstanding inequalities are reinforcing, and not competing, objectives, and welcomes the actions that the Scottish Government is taking to foster a supportive business environment, invest in infrastructure, support entrepreneurship, innovation and internationalisation, and to help to ensure that economic growth is characterised by income, regional and social equality.
I was hoping to speak in the debate, but I wasn’t called by the Presiding Officer – instead, here are some thoughts on what I think are two vital issues in creating an economy that works for ordinary people: small-business-friendly government procurement, and seeing past GDP figures to measure what really matters.
Human-scale government contracts
42% of private sector workers in Scotland are employed in firms with fewer than 50 employees, and that’s much higher in the Highlands and Islands:
Orkney: 72% (the highest in Scotland)
Eilean Siar: 64%
Argyll & Bute: 57%
Small businesses are particularly essential if we’re serious about the ambitions in the last line of John’s motion. They have far lower wage inequality than big firms, and being locally-based means they don’t suck money out of regions like the Highlands and Islands and into their headquarters in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London or beyond.
Governments have sought to make public procurement contracts more accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises, with varying success. But what is notable in these efforts, for example the Scottish Government’s Suppliers’ Charter, is that the focus is always on information and process, not on the contracts themselves.
Things like simplified tender processes and adequate advertising of tenders are very welcome, but don’t help much if the job can only reasonably be fulfilled by a large firm. It would be good to see a commitment to delivering more public spending through smaller-scale projects which smaller businesses are able to deliver. That means things like encouraging schools to serve locally-produced food instead of demanding massive bulk orders; or ordering new social housing in tenders of a few houses at a time, instead of massive estates of identikit boxes.
The energy sector has particularly low small-business involvement. Perhaps there was really no alternative to that when it was about oil-fired power stations or nuclear reactors. But our renewable future can and should have a huge contribution from community-scale clean energy facilities. There’s no reason to assume we have to replace giant corporately-owned nuclear power stations with nothing but giant corporately-owned windfarms.
In general, smaller projects have more opportunity for community involvement, provide more local jobs, and have a host of other social advantages over huge contacts. But they do require a bit more work on the part of the government. I think that extra effort is worth it.
Measuring what matters
John Swinney’s motion starts with the ‘growth’ of the economy. For the Scottish Government it is ‘growth’, measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that is the most important measure of economic success or failure. That’s not surprising, because that’s also the attitude of almost every other government in the world. But they’re all wrong.
GDP is a terrible indicator of whether the economy is doing its job, which is delivering the things that people want and need, from physical goods like food and shelter to social ones like security and community.
It measures only the size of monetary transactions in the economy, regardless of what the money was spent on. That means if all of a sudden the number of car crashes doubled, GDP would tell you things were going great – all those repair bills and new cars would ‘boost the economy’. But would people actually be happier, safer, better off?
And because it only measures the bits of the economy that run on money, it pays no attention to the value of the work done by carers, stay-at-home parents, grandparents who babysit or volunteers who run sports clubs – who are all benefiting the real wellbeing of Scots as much as any paid worker.
GDP was never intended to be used as the paramount measure of economic success. Its inventor, Simon Kuznets, recognised the shortcomings I’ve mentioned, and warned that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”
I give credit to the Scottish Government for beginning to recognise more useful economic indicators, for example including them in the National Performance Framework. But the fact remains that these aren’t mentioned in John’s motion, while the GDP figures are the first clause.
Encouragingly, there are alternatives. Oxfam’s Humankind Index provides an excellent example of how we could measure the performance of the economy in terms of things that actually matter to people’s lives.
It’s difficult to imagine us achieving a country, in John’s words, “characterised by income, regional and social equality” until we make the clear decision that that equality, rather than an abstract and abused 1930s econometric, is the yardstick by which we judge our economic success or failure.
Jean has written to President Barack Obama, requesting the release of Private Chelsea Manning, the US Army intelligence analyst that has been imprisoned for leaking information about the conduct of America’s wars, including the shocking and infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ video.
Jean was writing as part of Amnesty International’s annual Write For Rights campaign, which asks supporters to appeal to governments on behalf of twelve victims of human rights abuse, and to send Christmas cards or other messages of solidarity to the victims themselves.
You can support the call to free Pvt Manning by signing the petition on the Amnesty website, or by writing your own letter to:
President Barack Obama, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington D.C. 20500, USA.
You can send messages of support to:
Chelsea E Manning 89289, 1400 North Warehouse Road, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 66027-2304, USA.
I am writing to ask that you grant clemency, and immediate release, to Pvt Chelsea Manning.
Pvt Manning has, courageously in my view, taken full responsibility for her actions. However, the court’s understanding of those actions has been skewed by the decision barring evidence that she acted in the public interest from being presented in her defence.
I am appalled by the conditions that Pvt Manning experienced in her imprisonment prior to trial. You will be aware that this treatment was described by senior military officials, including the judge in her trial, as being in breach of military standards, and that it was condemned by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture as “at a minimum” cruel, inhuman and degrading.
In your election campaign, you promised to protect whistleblowers, describing the disclosure of material that reveals abuse in government as “acts of courage and patriotism” which can save lives. The severity of the treatment received by Pvt Manning not only conflicts with this pledge, it discourages other potential whistleblowers from coming forward; it is good news for corrupt officials and bad news for public confidence in government. You were right to make that promise; I urge you now to fulfil it.
Given these shortcomings in terms of due process and human rights displayed during Pvt Manning’s pre-trial detention and trial, and your election promise, I urge you to commute her sentence to the four-and-a-half years she has already served and release her immediately.
In Scotland, as in countries around the world, there is horror and anger at the human rights violations exposed by Pvt Manning, and in the recently-published Senate Intelligence Committee report. We feel particularly close to these abuses because they were committed in the prosecution of wars in which our servicemen fought alongside Americans, and because the CIA’s rendition programme appears to have used Scottish airports.
If America wishes to be seen even as part of the ‘free world’, it is essential that you urgently investigate the human rights abuses revealed by Pvt Manning and by the Senate report, and that you treat these not simply as historical events from which to move on, but as crimes to be prosecuted.
Jean is to question the new Cabinet on what they are doing to tackle the rise of anti-immigrant attitudes in Scotland.
She will put a question to the Scottish Government during a question time session at Holyrood, at 11.40am tomorrow. The Government will decide which Minister is best placed to answer, but it is likely that it will be answered by Alex Neil, whose new Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights brief gives him responsibility for equalities and human rights issues.
After the Minister answers she will be entitled to ask a further ‘supplementary’ question.
“Scots are consistently more positive about migrants than the rest of the UK. For example, most Scots say immigration has been good for the country while most south of the border say it has been bad.
“And this week the Polish Consul General for Scotland, Dariusz Adler, said Poles find Scotland ‘more friendly’ than other parts of Britain, highlighting the Scottish Government’s positive attitude which is, he said, ‘exactly different from the approach of David Cameron’.
“There can be no doubt that people who have come from other countries to live and work in Scotland have made an enormous and essential contribution to Scotland’s economy and our rich culture.
“But there is a concerted political and media campaign to undermine our welcoming attitude, and it would be naïve to think Scots are entirely immune. Westminster politicians fall over each other to claim to be the toughest on immigrants, while newspapers scream misinformation and bigotry from the front pages.
“It’s hard not to see this as an effort by right-wing vested interests to deflect blame for economic problems away from the banks and governments who are actually responsible.
“Under this bombardment, even Scotland has now, for the first time, elected a UKIP MEP, though thankfully that noxious party remains a barely-relevant afterthought in Scottish politics.
“I am grateful that the SNP Government – unlike the Westminster parties – has always made the case for welcoming new Scots. But I want to explore what more can be done to push back against the tide of xenophobic rhetoric.”
Jean has also written to the Scottish Daily Express, criticising their front-page description of Scots-born children of migrant parents as “hidden migrants”.
Yesterday’s front page screamed that children born in Scotland to migrant parents are ‘hidden’ from ‘official’ immigration figures.
They are not included in immigration figures because they are not immigrants. How hard is that to understand?
To single out some Scottish children, who are British citizens, and call them a problem because of where their parents are from is nothing but bigotry.
People from all over the world, and their descendants, have always made a huge contribution to our country.
The Express claims to be the ‘Voice of the new Scotland’. So why is it such a cheerleader for the campaign of fear and hate against new Scots?