30 September 2014

Involved, Energised and Excited

For over two years our country has spent extensive amounts of time on both sides of the Referendum trying to create a better Scotland. I congratulate both sides on their efforts in what has been achieved. With the votes now counted, our best course of action is to keep the momentum and move forward.

Last Thursday was a historic event as we saw one of the biggest turnouts in history. For democracy, it was indeed a day to be celebrated. Eighty-five per cent of voters in the Aberdeenshire Council area turned up to vote. Both sides gained many, many more votes than any party.

We also saw the younger generation given the chance to participate, as thousands of 16 and 17 year-olds put in their vote for the first time. With the successful turnout there is already talk of extending this right in further elections. They have proved that they are willing to vote and shape their future, and should have the opportunity to do so again.

This involvement is in large part why this marks such an important time for Scotland. The real opportunity and challenge we have now is to maintain the momentum. It is no longer a division of yes and no, but a pursuit to enable our country to reach its potential.

For either winning campaign, there was always going to be a lot of work to deliver on promises. All Scotland will now be watching and testing the delivery against the campaign rhetoric.

Despite a no vote, the Referendum brought an awareness of the disadvantages we currently have under the UK. There is still a strong need of EU representation for our fishing industry. We have a successful economy but there is still more we can achieve.

With a difficult road ahead the real test now will be what happens next. I hope that the immense involvement we have seen in the past two years continues. We have seen a huge increase political activism as more people are recognising the need for change.

Combining our efforts in the agreement of progress is essential to our future.

The significant turnout at the referendum reminded us that democracy is the property of the people not of politicians. This will have a great effect on the outcome in the upcoming elections.

I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg of Scotland’s political activism. For two years now we have seen people get involved, energised and excited about their role in democracy. And it is not going to stop.

23 September 2014

Well Done Scotland

Well that's the votes counted. I found, as I expected, that my opposite numbers standing at the polling places were, like me heartened by the engagement of Scotland's citizens in the great debate. I remain on good terms with them and, I believe, they with me.

Scotland can stand proud about the manner in which we spent our moments in the world's eye. A few eggs thrown, in both directions, could not detract from the absolute civility with which we all conducted ourselves.

The School of Athens by Raphael
from Wikipedia
But fundamentally, we have all been reminded that democracy is the property of the people not of politicians. Correctly as the word's origin is from dēmos 'the people' and kratia 'power'.

Where does it leave us all? Highest ever turnout – good. An absolute vote for change – “No” ultimately won on the back of a promise of radical new powers for Scotland. And both sides obtaining a bigger share of the vote than any political party at any recent general election. And both sides gained many, many more votes than any party.

The test for democracy is how we treat our minorities. And as a Yes campaigner I am part of a very big minority -1.6 million. More than all the voters in the European elections earlier this year.

Whoever had won the vote, there was always going to be hard work for the winners in delivering on their promises. All Scotland will be watching and testing delivery against campaign rhetoric.

I noticed a note of envy from commentators south of the border about the positive energy walking our streets and glens. For it has raised questions about the disconnect between Westminster and communities across England as well as in Scotland.

The UK has become both highly centralised and at best faux democratic as its parliamentary institutions have stumbled into a kind of self-centred, self-seeking oligarchy.

Successive generations of UK governments have appointed increasing numbers of lords to rebalance the second chamber in their favour. It must be time to look, at the very least, at fixed term rather than life-time memberships of the House of Lords.

And with about 1,470 members in the UK's Parliament, the centralising tendencies of that place have grown. I sense stirrings of a desire to debate democracy for England after our great debate.

For my part, campaigning is always invigorating. It's now back to delivery and like any true democrat, I shall be working with others to benefit our folk, our communities.

Well done Scotland.

16 September 2014

Thinking about Fishing

This is it. The decision that has been awaiting the Scottish people for the last three years, and indeed the last 300 years will be made, and we are about to discover the result of the only poll that will matter.

And this is what it is all about – the people of Scotland. Political parties may fight their battles on the streets and on television screens across the country, but it is the individual with their white card who will go along to the polling booths, grip a pencil, and make their mark on history.

But whatever the decision this September, some issues will remain of vital interest, and I would like to focus on something that is close to the hearts of many across the Banff and Buchan Coast, and one that was highlighted recently by the First Minister.

Fishing is an industry that is in the life blood of our community and one that should be given national priority across Scotland.

Because fishing is so important, the Scottish Government has made five promises to Scotland if it becomes an independent country. The fishing industry would be recognised as a national priority, it would benefit from clear representation in the EU, which would mean there would be the ability to negotiate our priorities without compromise, and Scotland’s fishing quotas would be protected. There would be the assurance that the country’s fishing levies would promote Scottish seafood and we would benefit from a fairer share of the EU Fisheries budget.

I say ‘we’ because although those working in the fishing industry may be the first to experience the benefits, improvements would soon filter down to locals in my constituency and the wider country.

Scotland’s fishing industry contributes £550 million to the Scottish economy every year, and is a key player in the country’s booming food and drink industry, which has an almost £14 billion annual turnover.

In an internal document circulated by the UK’s Conservative Government on 9 November 1970, Scotland’s fishing industry was infamously described as “expendable”, in relation to EU accession.

This couldn’t be further from how the fishing industry should be viewed and valued.

The economic success story of Scotland owes much to the fishing and seafood sectors, and they need to be given the recognition they deserve with a greater voice around the European table. This is an area of the Scottish economy that, with a fairer deal in funding and quota protection, could successfully thrive beyond expectation.

In the EU, Scotland is one of the leading fishing nations as the waters surrounding it account for at least 20 per cent of the EU’s catch. It is also the fourth largest of the EU’s core sea areas, demonstrating the wealth that we have all around us.

Our significance in Europe cannot be underestimated and with independence more potential could be unleashed. Currently the situation is that there are landlocked countries within Europe, such as Slovakia, Austria and Luxembourg that can speak on EU fisheries policy, while Scotland does not have this ability.

The way it stands at the moment, Scotland is third bottom of the European fisheries funding league tables. This is hardly a fair deal for such an important Scottish industry.

2 September 2014

Boosting our Beef

In previous columns over the course of the year I have spoken a great deal about farming, agriculture and the bounteous produce of the North-east.

The reason for this is that the potential in our region – in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast and beyond – is huge, and although being realised to some extent, the agricultural industry could benefit from an even greater future in the coming years.

Compared to the rest of the UK, food and farming is a far bigger priority north of the border, and there are a number of things that demonstrate that Scotland is distinct, particularly in these industries.

Currently 85 per cent of Scotland’s farming land is classed as ‘Less Favoured Area’. In other words it is considered to be poorer quality ground, in comparison to England that has 15 per cent of land in this category.

Scotland’s agricultural industry is also far more reliant on the livestock sector than England’s is. Scotland has more than 25 per cent of the UK’s beef herd, and its livestock sector accounts for 42 per cent of agricultural output, compared to 34 per cent in England.

In addition, the Food and Drink sector is six times more important to the Scottish economy than in England. Exports of food and drink from Scotland account for 30 per cent of the country’s total exports. By contrast, these exports only make up six per cent of total overseas exports from the UK.

The Scottish Government recognises the unique nature of what the land of Scotland brings to the economy.

Beef production is the single biggest farming sector in Scotland. This month, industry experts released a 23 point action plan to reinvigorate Scotland’s beef production over the next few years, and further build it up as an even stronger player in a global market.

The Beef 2020 report is aimed at creating sustainability and long term growth in beef production while improving the industry’s environmental credentials by reducing greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef produced.

This is an example of how Scotland’s rural economy could benefit from taking the future into its own hands, to realise its potential for the good of the sector and the country as a whole.

Although the decision on the referendum is with each individual voter on September 18, there are specific ways that farming and crofting could benefit if the answer of the Scottish people is yes to independence.

The opportunity would be created to increase direct farm payments, and to increase rural development funding. There would be a guarantee of direct representation in the EU to negotiate the priorities of Scotland, as distinct from those of the UK, and there would be opportunity to use the full range of fiscal powers to encourage farm tenancies and new entrants.

Scotland would also finally be able to ensure that Scotland’s agricultural levies would support Scottish produce, with obvious knock on benefits.

As much of the Banffshire and Buchan Coast is rural with a thriving agricultural industry, I believe it is vital that this and the many entrepreneurs, who have started and continue to produce a vast array of food and drink all over the country, are given all the opportunities possible to exceed in their chosen field.

The rural economy of Scotland is incredibly strong - with food and drink exports worth £14bn - but we have a fantastic opportunity in our hands to grow this key industry even further.

Stewart Stevenson
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