21 January 2005

The Asian Tsunami

With the passage of time our knowledge of the impact of the Asian tsunami grows, As I write the number dead approaches quarter of a million killed by the wave alone. The challenge now is to prevent further deaths and aid recovery.

But other parts of the world have long needed our help too. Much of Africa starves. And much of that is due to government failure in the affected countries.

So it was right that we have had two debates in the Scottish Parliament on the subject. Neither led to a vote as there was a common desire to avoid dividing, or seeming to divide, opinion at a time when unity is vital.

Now while the untimely loss of a single person diminishes us all, this scale of loss overwhelms our capacity to understand.

We remember the blitz during the last world war, but it killed only a fifth of the number of people who have died in the tsunami. We shiver at the recollection of atomic bombs falling Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the bombs there killed only a third of the number who were killed on 26th December.

The measure of our humanity rests in the scale and appropriateness of our response now. Impressive deliveries of food and water have tackled short-term need. Deliveries of generators, hospital infrastructure and water-purification plants have started to rebuild vital infrastructure.

When money is spent directly in the affected areas, it can start the economic recovery that must follow such disasters. Fundamentally, however, we must equip the people who will continue to live on Asian shores with the tools, the skills and the capital that will sustain their long-term future.

Over the past 30 years, I have visited many of the affected countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, India and Kenya. Based on that experience, it is clear that one size will not fit all.

Even before the tsunami impacted on each of those countries in different ways and on others that I have not visited, those countries were extremely different in terms of their cultures, peoples, languages, beliefs and development.

The best people to judge the need of people in those countries are the ordinary people who live in those countries and who can work together to decide what their needs are in relation to their local circumstances.

Some countries in the area have bureaucracies and institutions that are able to identify and articulate their people's needs. Others, however, are not so fortunate. Indonesia has particular issues—and the government is flexing its muscles to control relief. Fine if that helps, but it is beginning to seem otherwise.

Parliament have been told that a significant number of our civil servants have been seconded to help. That is a start.

And across the North East schools, churches, community groups, fishermen are all mustering to help. And that has to be good.

The Red Cross has produced a pack for schools to aid understanding.

An irony is that our communities with least, where government here seek to help, are giving more than our richer areas. So assisting others far away seems to have broad support.

But if we not still engaged with people in need around the world in a year's time, it will have made little difference.

And that was something about which there was universal agreement in our debates in our own Parliament.

Sewell who?

One of the enduring difficulties with our devolved Parliament is managing the relationship with Westminster where other powers are retained and where legislation for England and Wales is considered.

To allow for what Donald Dewar, the Labour politician who led Prime Minister Blair to the devolution trough, saw as no more than an annual need, a convention named after Lord Sewell was created.

When a Sewell motion is passed in the Scottish Parliament we are allowing Westminster to do our work for us. And allowing MPs with little or no knowledge of Scots law to legislate for us.

So alarmingly high has the usage of these become – about one a month – the Procedures Committee of our Parliament is looking at the results.

But we need look little further than two current issues.

A Sewell means that Westminster will change the arrangements for legal appeals. This despite that subject being covered by the 1707 Treaty between Scotland and England which established a UK government and that treaty preventing any change.

And more alarming in a day to day sense, it seems that a UK body, directed by PM Blair and his successors, will have some control of Scots police forces.

We need better collaboration between law enforcement agencies – yes. And across Europe and beyond. But dis-empowering our police and opening them to political interference is not the answer.

Scottish decisions are better decisions.

7 January 2005

Looking Forward

When large disasters confront us it can be difficult for us to grasp the scale. But with the loss of life in South East Asia about the same size as the population of Aberdeenshire we can feel the scale all too easily.

And being a natural disaster, the limits of our ability to anticipate and prevent are all too obvious.

The tsunami detection monitoring in place in the Pacific could certainly have helped if it had covered the Indian Ocean too. But many of the communities lost in the tidal wave were unlikely to have been able to receive the warning and respond within the time required.

Friend and SNP colleague Malcolm Fleming now works for OXFAM Scotland and was flown out to Sri Lanka soon after the event. He has been telling of the pain and loss among the survivors he has met on the BBC web site.

But for us the question must be, how can we help the survivors?

Our fishermen know the power of the sea. They stand ready to provide practical assistance.

Highland NHS staff showed the way with their donation of a day's pay to relief efforts. And the SNP proposal to do likewise in our Parliaments is gaining increasing support.

We recall the horror of atomic bombs at the end of the war with Japan. The bomb blasts killed far fewer than this wave. But in the aftermath many more died. Sixty years on we still feel the horror.

As individuals we could do little to prevent the natural event that brought death to Asia. But we can each do our bit to minimise further harm to vulnerable people and communities.

Scotland in the World

For a people to be independent and self-governing, they must control the basic communication tools of the society they inhabit.”

Not my words but a statement from New York City Council. But words I find easy to agree with. And if they are true for New York, they are surely true for Scotland.

Now of course communication comes in a variety of forms.

We have rich and diverse newspaper industry. Rather too much is owned and controlled from furth of Scotland. But enough is truly local to ensure diversity of viewpoint and independence of thought.

Radio flourishes long after the time many had thought it would have withered and died. And from community level – think of Kinnaird Radio – to Northsound and MFR, Scottish operation and control is there and active.

And Grampian TV, with sister station STV down south, report our local affairs.

BBC Scotland has a distinct identity but receives much less than its fair share of BBC spending.

But in 2005 possible take-overs threaten Scottish control of radio and TV.

The internet is the fastest growing, and least regulated, area of communication. And with most of the north-east and much of Scotland enabled for broadband, new opportunities exist for Scots entrepreneurs.

To quote the New York City Council again, “As we enter a time where most person-to-person, person-to-group, business, and government communication takes place over the Internet, an independent, vibrant, self-governing community must control the fundamental elements of that communication network. Domain names are a key part of that control.”

What they mean is that a distinct independent identity works on the internet just as it does elsewhere.

Wherever you see a web or email address ending “dot UK”, you know where the base is.

But although Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey also have their own identities on the internet, Scotland does not.

With recent changes to the way names are allocated on the internet, it would be possible for Scotland to bid, as New York City Council resolved to, for a new “dot” name.

As the NY Council said, “a dot NYC will make our community more governable, provide opportunities for small businesses, raise city revenue, and make navigating the Internet easier for our residents, prospective tourists, and businesses.”

And what makes sense for a city, ought to make sense for a country like ours with a First Minister who keeps says we should be “the best small country in the world”.

But we need our identity on the internet.

Stewart Stevenson
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