Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015

Planet Earth (image: courtesy of NASA)
Planet Earth (image: courtesy of NASA)

And so that was Christmas, to mis-quote John Lennon – “And what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just begun” as he actually sang on Happy Christmas (War Is Over).

Well, we know one thing for sure, war and violence is not over. If anything, terrorism seems more unpredictable and brutal than before.

And, like any year, the world of 2014 was full of misery, poverty, illness and accidents – this year’s litany including, but by no means restricted to, Ebola, the Ukraine, lost airliners, the suicide of Robin Williams, desperate refugees in overcrowded boats, Syria, Palestine, more cases of historical abuse of the young in the UK coming to light, the list goes on.

Closer to home, and equally painful for those involved, many folk had personal tragedies. I know two women who unexpectedly lost their husbands this year at desperately young ages.

Sometimes I muse on the world, and human beings – is it essentially evil and hopeless, or essentially loving and positive? Your own answer might depend on your perspective, your beliefs, or on what happened to you in 2014.

I tend to think we are overwhelmingly loving and positive – perhaps I am kidding myself, perhaps I’m a hopeless optimist – but most people get through most days without inflicting violence on others, perhaps do a few good deeds, and at the same time appreciate the beauty of the natural world around them. At least I hope so.

Leaving aside the tragedies of 2014, it has been an interesting year politically – and if, like me, you live in Scotland it was fascinating and exciting. The referendum on Scottish independence ignited the political debate like nothing else has done for years.

What of next year? Well, only fools make firm predictions but it seems unlikely any one party will get an overall majority at the UK General Election on May 7. It also seems likely that the SNP – despite failing to gain Scottish independence – will make considerable gains at the expense of Labour. Meanwhile the Green Party and UKIP will probably get large numbers of votes but may struggle to translate them into seats at Westminster.

Will we have another coalition government? Perhaps, though the various parties concerned might not be so willing this time around. A minority government? Maybe more likely. Minority governments are, of course, more unstable so that could lead to another election in quick succession.

So having moved the Scottish Parliamentary elections back a year, to 2016, to avoid the General Election, we could still end up with both elections in the same year. We shall see.

One outcome of the Referendum was the resignation of Alex Salmond as Scotland’s First Minister, to be replaced by Nicola Sturgeon, the first woman to hold the post. And, like her predecessor, she is far more capable than most if not all Westminster politicians – someone you would want on your side, whatever your political beliefs.

Here in Orkney the reassuring rhythms of the year continue (see my blog: The Rhythms And Markers Of An Orcadian Year) but even in our sometimes apparently cosy world there have been losses, of individuals, of people’s jobs, of dreams and schemes.

During the year Orkney’s commercial so-called community radio station closed. Sadly, the Super Station Orkney was a missed opportunity, not really a community station, more a jukebox with adverts, something I wrote about in a 2011 blog (Where Is The Super Station In Orkney?). Not only that, the station’s management handed the licence back to Ofcom without giving local folk the chance to take it over and create a genuine community station.

Fortunately here in Orkney we have The Orcadian, a proper and detailed local newspaper, and excellent programmes from BBC Radio Orkney, an opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland which fulfils many of the functions of a community radio station.

Orkney in 2014 has also seen some exceptional weather. Despite what a few folk in the south of England believe, we are not in “the frozen north”. Yes, it is frequently wet and windy, and sometimes stormy, but rarely frozen. We have milder temperatures than the Highlands of Scotland, for example, because we are surrounded by water and because we benefit from the Gulf Stream.

However, towards the end of this year we had a large number of thunder storms, and numerous lightning strikes. Some people lost chimneys, and many folk lost telephone lines and their internet. In fact, on New Year’s Eve BBC Radio Orkney reported this: “BT say that more than 300 lightning-related faults remain outstanding in Orkney and it will be well into the New Year before the backlog is cleared. Additional engineers from Inverness, Glasgow and the English Midlands are being drafted in from next week.”

We had some lightning strikes in Orkney last year as well – and one family lost their home in a fire as a result – so we all hope this will not become an annual event.

What has happened on a personal level this year? My wife, Kathie Touin, has had some excellent musicians and artists pass through her Starling Recording Studio. And as the year ends she is working on her own recordings – listen out in 2015.

During 2014 Kathie acquired her first grand piano, so realising a lifetime ambition – see Kathie’s blog for more on that (My Life In Pianos).

We enjoyed trips to northern Arizona, where Kathie’s family now lives, and closer to home – but still two flights away – to the Isle of Wight and London. More about these trips in previous blogs as well (Arizona Dreamin’; London Calling, And The Isle Of Wight Too).

Our rescue Border Collie, Roscoe, continues to amuse and entertain us, and more than repay our time and vet’s bills.

We both continue to volunteer with the RSPB and I now find myself on another committee – this time working to restore Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial in a way that better remembers the more than 700 men who died when HMS Hampshire sank, a couple of miles from Orkney, in a terrible summer storm.

The centenary of this event is 5 June 2016, less than 18 months away. It will be a timely reminder of how fragile and precious life is.

I will close with the words I posted on my Twitter account in the early hours of 2015: Happy New Year, one and all. Keep relaxed, cherish your loved ones, be kind to those you know, smile at strangers.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia on The Gulf Stream: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_Stream

Kathie Touin

Starling Recording Studio

The Orcadian

BBC Radio Orkney on Facebook

Kitchener Memorial on Facebook

Kitchener Memorial on Twitter

Dump the EU? Be rid of nuclear weapons? Be the next Greece? Developing thoughts on Scottish independence

The Forth Rail Bridge: an iconic view of, and route into, Scotland
The Forth Rail Bridge: an iconic view of, and route into, Scotland (image: Kathie Touin)

Here is a quick re-cap for new readers of this blog. I am an Englishman who moved to Orkney, off the north-east coast of mainland Scotland, in April 2010.

At present Scotland has its own parliament with many powers over domestic policy but it is still part of the UK and the Westminster parliament retains control over many matters, notably financial, defence and foreign affairs. The Scottish National Party, or SNP, currently form the Scottish government under First Minister Alex Salmond and they want full independence.

In a previous blog entry in February 2012, “We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?”, I wrote about the forthcoming referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country. This is a referendum in which I, as a resident of Scotland, will get a vote.

Since I wrote that blog a deal between the UK and Scottish governments means that the referendum will probably take place in 2014, with anyone resident in Scotland over the age of 16 able to vote, and with a single yes or no question – though exactly how the question will be phrased is not yet decided.

As this debate will continue for two years it will make a US Presidential election seem like a quick business. But already some themes are emerging.

Firstly, nuclear weapons. The SNP have changed their policy ahead of the referendum. Now they want Scotland to remain part of NATO. But they have kept their opposition to nuclear weapons.

This matters because the Faslane Naval base, home to the Royal Navy’s Trident nuclear-armed submarines, is in Scotland. If we vote for an independent Scotland the UK Government will have to find a new home for this most expensive of defence systems – at least that is how the media portray the issue.

But this slightly puzzles me. Let’s for a moment say that the good people of Scotland do vote for independence. What happens next? Surely one of the first events in this newly-independent country will be an election to its newly-independent parliament. And who is to say which party, or parties, will emerge victorious?

The implication of much of the media reporting is that if we vote for independence we sail off into a Saltire sunset with the SNP at the helm. But it might not be like that.

Remember the UK General Election at the end of the Second World War. Did a grateful nation overwhelmingly vote war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill back into power? No, the voters decided the Labour Party was best placed for the peace ahead.

So, while I am not comparing Alex Salmond to Churchill, it is possible Salmond will see his dream of an independent Scotland but find others are elected to run it.

Secondly, the European Union. For some time we, the voters, were under the impression that Alex Salmond and the SNP were in possession of legal advice that an independent Scotland could remain part of the EU. Following a campaign under Freedom of Information legislation to get the government to make this advice public it now transpires this advice did not exist at all and that the SNP is only just seeking legal advice.

So where does this leave us? Might an independent Scotland automatically be part of the EU? Or perhaps not? And if an independent Scotland, as a new country, does not get a nod into the EU where does that leave the rump of the UK? Might that be considered a new country that has to apply all over again?

Those who have complained for years about the EU might get a chance to oppose Scotland, and the UK rump, from applying for membership.

Thirdly, currency. Alex Salmond and the SNP want to retain the pound in an independent Scotland. But where would this leave Scotland? Key decisions about the pound, the economy and interest rates would remain with the UK Government – currently with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, not a popular man in Scotland – and with the Bank of England.

The unhappy experience of Greece suggests that if you do not control all the financial levers yourself, and have your own currency, you are at risk of being told what to do by other governments. That doesn’t feel very independent to me.

In the end, as I said before, I think the referendum vote will run quite close but it will be a decision to remain in the UK. People will probably vote for the option they think is less risky economically, and they may well decide that means being in the UK. But much can happen in two years. Still, we’re all strapped in and enjoying the ride. Put your hands in the air and shout yeah!

To find out more

My previous blog: We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?

BBC News: Scotland politics

SNP website