SNP urges debate

The SNP's transport spokesman, Kenny MacAskill, has called for a debate in the Scottish Parliament on the Skye Bridge and has insisted that his party remains committed to the abolition of tolls.

Mr MacAskill's rearguard action came after the Free Press had reported his silence on the issue when a sub-committee on legislation considered an Order from the Scottish Executive which will result in tolls on the bridge being frozen at their present level.

Last week, Mr MacAskill - whose silence has caused dismay among Nationalist activists in Skye - claimed in another Holyrood committee that he did not set out his party's position because he would have been unable to amend the Order and he supported the freezing of tolls.

Mr MacAskill continued:  "We need an opportunity to discuss the whole concept of tolls.  There is a festering sore in Skye, the Western Highlands and throughout Scotland about the Skye Bridge and sooner or later the issue must be debated in this Parliament."

The chairwoman of the committee, Ms Cathy Jamieson, told him:  "Members who feel strongly about this issue can lodge a member's motion."  Mr MacAskill has written in similar terms to the Free Press and his letter can be read here.

However, Rhoda Grant, a Labour List MSP for the Highlands and Islands, told the Free Press this week: "It is pretty cynical to shout about tolls on the Skye bridge and then when they get the opportunity to do something about it they do nothing.  It is pretty typical of them.  There were no headlines in it and that's why there was no comment."

Of Mr MacAskill's argument that the committee could only reject or approve the order to freeze tolls, and could not comment on policy, Mrs Grant replied: "That has never stopped them before."

Meanwhile, the West Highland Free Press published an editorial regarding Mr Macaskill's recent letters and press releases:-

Touching a raw nerve

The bluster by Mr Kenny Macaskill, the Scottish Nationalists' transport spokesman, about the Skye Bridge fails to conceal the basic fact - that, given a golden opportunity to present the view of his Party to a committee of the Scottish Parliament, he instead acquiesced without comment or caveat in the proposals by the Scottish Executive to freeze the tolls at their current level.

We did not report that fact to criticise Mr Macaskill. On the contrary, he was absolutely right to recognise that the Labour position (also now accepted by the Liberal Democrats) of freezing the Tory tolls is a significant advance, particularly when taken in conjunction with other ameliorations since the General Election, on the inflation-linked regime which would otherwise have continued to apply.

Mr Macaskill's retrospective protests arise from the fact that our brief report touched on a very raw nerve. It simply confirmed that the Nats have been saying one thing in the Highlands and doing another - i.e. accepting an unsatisfactory compromise - in Edinburgh. There is no shame in the acceptance, only in the hypocrisy.

The imposition of a privately-funded, high-toll bridge on Skye without the consent of the people it most directly affected was wrong. Everyone, except the Tories, can agree on that, and the Free Press was several years ahead of Mr Macaskill in saying so. But once the bridge was built on those terms, with the full approval of Highland Regional Council, the reality was crucially altered. Thereafter, the sensible balance has been to maximise the benefits while minimising the disadvantages.

In the run-up to the General Election and the Scottish Elections, a great deal of political dishonesty crept in. The nationalists' chief political objective was not to relieve Skye of a burden but to shift blame seamlessly from Tories to Labour and, at Holyrood, Labour/Lib Dems. That phase has now effectively been abandoned. Everyone agrees that freezing tolls is a good thing. It remains to be seen whether any party, in its next manifesto, promises to spend tens of millions of pounds more in order to remove the remaining burden. We very much doubt it.

West Highland Free Press, Friday 11 February 2000

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Copyright Ray Shields, 2000.

Most recent revision, 25 March 2000