21 October 2004


The Banff and Buchan area contains communities rooted in traditional industries and values. Both fishing and farming depend heavily on the environment and weather.

Both breed exceptional people able to respond and adapt to changing circumstances.

Since the late 1980s, unemployment has fallen substantially to a current level just over a quarter of that when my colleague Alex Salmond was first elected.

That has been possible with changes in the world and state economy but has utterly depended on the spirit of entrepreneurship in local folk. We have over twice as many self-employed people in our area when compared to Scotland as a whole.

But despite the presence of good schools and the very active and successful Banff & Buchan College embedded in our midst, we retain a substantially lower level of qualified people than elsewhere.

This may be about to bite.

It is well documented that our major industry of fishing has faced over recent years, and continues to face, quite exceptional challenges.

Our pre-eminence in the fishing industry in all its variety – catching, processing and servicing – has always been firmly based on catching, without which other sectors would never have existed.

While the pelagic sector has grown and prospered, despite the best efforts of UK and EU governments to deny our fishermen fair quotas, it remains the junior partner in the catching sector.

White fish catching remains paramount. But for how much longer?

Each year has seen unreasonable the EU and its Common Fishing Policy bite deep into the capability of our industry. The recent scientific report once again recommending a complete ban on cod catching in the North Sea does not signal any useful change of heart.

But it is not just those currently hunting the cod and haddocks that are affected by the current artificial restrictions in catching.

Faced with an industry palpably in decline and an apparent inability or unwillingness of the present governments to fight for it, youngsters are making choices about future careers outwith fishing.

And not just catching. Processing factories depend on special skills. As earnings have dropped among filleters, paid largely on a piecework basis, new entrants to the industry have dropped and advertised positions attract few applicants.

When the catching sector suffers, the effects are widespread and subtle. Clearly fewer boats mean fewer shore-side jobs – painters, engineers, icemakers, etc.. – supporting them. But when you have a limited number of days at sea each month it is compounded by crews undertaking self-maintenance that would previously have been done by shore based locals.

And what economists call ‘third level effects’ also kick in. The butcher’s shops – we have about 16 in Banff and Buchan – suffer as fewer crews buy their grub for fewer voyages. Paper shops sell fewer small items as fewer men stop for last minute items enroute to their boats. Fewer new cars are bought as earnings drop.

So the ill effects of policy decisions do not just affect those directly employed.
The oil industry has helped mop up some of the slack. But this notoriously boom and bust business has two generations – at most – to go.

Individuals in the industry continue to innovate. And that is one of our community’s great strengths.

One of the most interesting suggestions I have heard is to develop a ‘brand loyalty’. The ‘Eddie Stobbart Fan Club’ personalises and glamorises an English trucking company – ‘Eddie spotters’ collect numberplates!

The ’16 Men of Tain’ are part of the legend that has kept the Glenmorangie brand pre-eminent in a crowded industry and meant a £300 million price tag on their heads.

Perhaps we will see the faces of our notable skippers beaming off the supermarket shelves as southerners fight for the last pack of cod on the shelf caught by their favourite, and trusted, north-east man.

And then the justified pride that we have in our industry, and in those who go to sea to sustain it, will carry forward for more future generations than we can number.

13 October 2004

Female Talent

One of my nieces, Jo, visited me in Parliament within the last few weeks. As a member of the UK Orienteering squad she is a top line athlete and lives in Sweden.

And she has until recently been a recipient of a development grant from sportsScotland. So when we saw Scotland’s Sports and Culture Minister at the next table when we went for lunch in the canteen, I nobbled him to come across for a chat.

Now while orienteering – nicknamed “cunning running” – is a very popular sport and attracts thousands of participants for its Scottish Week event each year, it is not an Olympic sport. And it has therefore been taken off the list of sports being supported by our government.

That despite it being a very cheap sport, and a sport where we do well. Jo’s brother Jamie won the world sprint orienteering championship last year and others do very well.

So while Frank McAveety made encouraging noises, seemed interested at how little it took to support a sport that only needs the countryside as its resource, and asked Jo to write to him, I counselled speed.

Rumours of a re-shuffle were rife and Frank’s coat was generally thought to be on a “shooglie nail”. For it was he who had been eating a mutton pie, beans and chips in the canteen when he should have been I front of Parliament answering questions.

In any “proper” government, Frank would have had his jotters that same day.

Instead it took until the beginning of October – many months later – before the First Minister finally gave Frank the right to linger in the canteen for as long as he wants.

But while the fate of Frank might concern my niece and her fellow orienteers – personal contact made, personal contact broken in less than a week – the re-shuffle has a more interesting story to tell.

Our new leader of the opposition – Nicola Sturgeon – is the first woman to have held a party leader’s position in our Parliament. And Jack has struggled for every one of the five weeks of encounters at First Minister’s Question time.

That tells us something about our First Minister. But so does his continuing failure to use the undoubted talent of impressive women on his own backbenches such as Susan Deacon, Jackie Baillie and Wendy Alexander.

The question is whether they were asked and said “no” or why were they not asked.
In a new Cabinet with as little talent as the old one, many are now coming to the conclusion that Jack is afraid to have talent in the same room as himself.

The poor soul is now besieged by clever females behind him and in front.

Open At Last

George Reid was elected as the SNP member for the parliamentary constituency of Ochil in 2003. Previously a list member, he had been one our Deputy Presiding Officers.

In this Parliament he was promoted – by secret ballot of all MSPs – to Presiding Officer.

In this role he keeps order during our debates. But, more critically, he chairs the Corporate Body that manages the operation of Parliament.

By general consent, it has been George who has finally knew how to crack the whip and get our new building ready for its formal opening on 9th October.

As a senior official at the Red Cross in Geneva, he had been involved in disaster relief and knows how to make things happen. He tells of one occasion when he arrived at an earthquake zone ahead of much needed Red Cross supplies.

They were stuck in customs and local officials were insisting on seven copies of each bit of paperwork. And insisting on one original and six carbon copies – photocopies would not do. The snag was no one in that country had carbon paper.

George simply chartered a plane from Germany to bring carbon paper and the relief work went ahead.

So it was no surprise that when George took charge of our faltering, failing building project, things started to happen.

On a fair but chilly day, I found myself on the “Riding” from the old Scots Parliament – the oldest purpose built such building in Europe and now an ante-room to our highest court – down the Royal Mile to our new home at Holyrood.

A “riding” it may have been called – after the ridings of the old parliament – but we walked down the hill. There were a few muttered curses from the ladies – high heels, long walks and cobbles don’t mix – but we enjoyed it.

My guest for the day, Ellon Steele from Chalmers Hospital A&E, and I waved and laughed with the crowds. And yes, she gave our First Minister a brief insight into life at the NHS coalface.

Stewart Stevenson
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