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Scottish Independence Debate / Independence ‘much bigger than one party’

SNP minister Fergus Ewing speaking in Sandwick's Carnegie Hall on Monday night. Photo: Shetnews
Scottish fisheries secretary Fergus Ewing.

SNP GOVERNMENT minister Fergus Ewing used a public meeting in Sandwick on Monday night to set out why he believes a ‘Yes’ vote in September’s independence referendum would allow Scotland to build a fairer and more prosperous society.

He was speaking at a public information event organised by Yes Shetland in the Carnegie Hall which was attended by around 30 people – a mixture of pro, anti and undecided voters.

Ewing’s visit to the islands will also take in further talks with SIC leader Gary Robinson as efforts continue to enable Shetland to become connected to the National Grid. 

As Scotland’s energy minister he gave his ascent for the controversial Viking Energy windfarm in 2012 before a judicial review by opponents Sustainable Shetland was upheld. Consent was quashed before the Scottish Government appealed against that decision, and a further ruling is expected in the next few weeks.

Ewing said that if the project goes ahead, he hoped estimated community benefits of £30 million a year can be used to address the high level of fuel poverty in Shetland.

He felt it was “scandalous” that so many people in the Highlands and Islands live in fuel poverty given the UK government had taken in over £300 billion in revenue from North Sea oil and gas since the 1970s.

He criticised the UK’s failure to create an oil fund – pointing out that Norway’s is now worth over £500 billion, while the only other major nation that had discovered and extracted oil but neglected to set up such a fund was Iraq.

If Scotland had become independent in 1979, Ewing believes it is unlikely Scotland would have entered into wars in Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan. “I think there’s a fair chance that we would not have done that,” he said.

He set out a host of policies – a council tax freeze, abolishing university tuition fees, getting rid of prescription charges and introducing concessionary travel for senior citizens – introduced by the SNP government since 2007.

“We’ve operated in a different way [to Westminster],” Ewing said. “Why shouldn’t we go on to use the full range of powers for a normal country, better than those powers are exercised at the moment?”

He said not enough was being done to tackle “the scourge of poverty” – citing the way payday loan companies are thriving, and condemning the UK government’s failure to clamp down on extortionately high rates of interest.

“This is a new type of pernicious behaviour that could have been tackled by Westminster,” he told the audience. “Some of the payday loan companies charge interest of over 4,000 per cent per annum. It’s obviously wrong. How can it be defended?”

Ewing described the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s deeply unpopular bedroom tax as “seedy and quite unsavoury”, reaffirming that it would be abolished in an independent Scotland.

He insisted the UK pound belonged to Scotland as much as the rest of the country, adding that the Bank of England was “as English as Scotland Yard is Scottish”.

Ewing concluded his short address by saying he wanted his five year old daughter to grow up in a country where “we can decide what we do in terms of contributing to world affairs”, where “everybody is equal” and can access education irrespective of wealth: “A country that is free, independent and able to run our affairs.”

Local councillor George Smith, a Labour man who is likely to vote ‘No’, commended Ewing for putting forward the case for independence in a “reasoned and reasonable fashion”. But that contrasted, he said, with the “belligerent” style of First Minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon.

Ewing said the pair were “both softies at heart”, and given “the abuse he gets daily in the press, it’s surprising he’s so equable”.
But he also urged the audience to remember a ‘Yes’ vote was not about individual politicians or the SNP.

“We won’t be in government forever. My expectation is that new political allegiances will form – there could even be new parties.

“The point is that independence is much bigger than one party. Don’t cast your vote on whether you like Alex Salmond, or Alistair Darling for that matter. It’s about what’s important for Scotland over the long term.”

Local businessman Jimmy Smith criticised the SNP’s decision to exclude companies from the air discount scheme – meaning he has to pay £74 extra for a trip to Aberdeen because he is travelling on business. “I hear what you say, then I see what you do,” he said.

Another audience member referred to the Edinburgh administration’s “bad decision” to hand the £240 million North Boats contract to Serco last year.

Former SIC councillor Rick Nickerson, meanwhile, is very much leaning towards voting ‘Yes’. As a Canadian incomer, albeit a longstanding one, he has “never felt as uncomfortable” as he has in the last three or four years with the tone of the immigration debate.

“I applaud your government’s view about welcoming immigrants to Scotland,” Nickerson said. “I feel and hope that an independent Scotland will have a much more fair and just society.”