Candidates on the spot

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AN AUDIENCE of around 100 local voters turned out on Easter Saturday to take part in a hustings with the Scottish Parliamentry Candidates for the Aberdeenshire East constituency.

Organised by Ellon Community Council and Churches in Aberdeenshire East, Ellon’s Victoria Hall provided the venue for the first official election debate of the campaign. All four constituency candidates - Conservative Geordie Burnett Stuart, Labour’s Peter Smyth, Liberal Democrat Alison McInnes and the Scottish National Party’s Alex Salmond - took time out of their campaigning schedules to be present for the afternoon debate.

Peter Keilman of Churches in Aberdeenshire East welcomed the audience, before introducing the candidates and explaining the ground rules for the debate. In the chair was Mark Grant of Ellon Community Counci.

Labour’s Peter Smyth opened with a claim that the Liberal Democrat/Conservative coaliition had systematically cut fundung to Scotland, something which, he said, the SNP administration in Hoyrood had followed up with additional cuts. Highlighting Labour pledges on knife crime, a two-year council tax freeze, cancer waiting times and apprenticeships for all youngsters who wanted them, Mr Smith concluded by declaring that he would not “make a promise to you that I can’t deliver, and not make infrastructure pledges I can’t point to the money for.”

Up next was Conservative Geordie Burnett Stuart, who set out his stall as a local farmer with 35 years experience of running a small business. Railling against what he described as a “sense of entitlement” and a failure to reform public services, he highlighted that the Westminster government was paying £120 million per day in interest charges to service the UK’s debt. People were fed up with low funding and poor infrastructure, he said. Although crediting the First Minister with making people feel more proud to be Scottish, he declared that this was a ‘price too high for the discrimination and division’ which, he said, accompanied identity politics.

The SNP’s Alex Salmond followed, and drew an early laugh by remarking that unlike other candidates, he didn’t have the luxury of being able to distance himself from his party’s record in government. Citing the council tax freeze, 1,000 extra police officers and a small business bonus scheme which had been a ‘lifeline’ to many during the recession, he claimed that 84 out of 94 SNP manifesto commitments from 2007 had been met. Locally, A90 dualling and a new Ellon Academy would benefit from government spending plans. People needed a positive vision of how things could be better when times were tough, he said, and his was the only party offering this to voters.

Last to take the floor was Lib Dem Alison McInnes, who highlighted her near twenty years of experience as a community campaigner. She had got involved in politics because she “wanted to protect what’s good about the community, and improve what’s not”, something which she said still drove her. She had, she said, a record of action, and had shown determination and imagination in campaigning for a new health centre and for better bus services. Her party advocated action on jobs, education and strong local services. Aberdeenshire East, she said, needed a strong local voice in Holyrood, and she would “continue to work tirelessly for the area.”

Questions from the audience then followed. There was broad agreement between the candidates over the recognition of same-sex partnerships and the responsibilities and obligations which accompanied the right to free speech. However, it took a question on the economy and whether the candidates thought that Scotland was a ‘rich’ country before proceedings really sparked into life.

Mrs McInness declared she had “no doubt that Scotland was a wealthy country, both in terms of the economy and our intellectual capital”. Underlining her support for Scotland remaining in the UK, she emphasised that she supported the Holyrood Parliament - something which, she said, would not exist without her party.

Mr Burnett Stuart claimed that Scotland was simultaneously rich yet also poor in terms of its tax base, before tackling Mr Salmond on the ‘arc of prosperity’. Declaring his opposition to Independence, he acknowledged that there was economic turbulance in the UK, but that he “didn’t want to live in a small country with money problems.”

In contrast, Mr Salmond described Scotland as a ‘lucky country’, with a small population and a large resource base, which would move from being in the top 20 wealthiest countries in the world as part of the UK to being in the top 10 if it were indepedent. In a riposte to the Conservative candidate, he declared that “Scotland is only a small place if you think small”.

Mr Smyth described Scotland as a great country and a rich country, before picking up the theme of arc of prosperity. Describing Norway as a high tax country, he conceded that it might have been a good decision for the Norwegians to have set up their oil fund, but the opportunity had been missed. Large parts of Aberdeenshire East had been ‘left behind’ by both Scottish and Westminster governments, he said, and it was this that the Scottish Government needed to fight rather than battles from 300 years ago.

Further lively exchanges followed on the Prime Minister’s ‘Big Society’, which Mr Burnett Stuart conceded was difficult to define, but nevertheless represented a ‘fine new idea’. Mr Salmond described the initiative as ‘total tosh’, since there was already a long tradition of volanturism in the community, before expressing a suspicion that it was really a cover for public spending cuts. It was a sentiment Mrs McInnes shared, speaking of her belief in the need to empower people and devolve decision making to the lowest possible level. Mr Smyth also weighed in, speaking of his involvement with the co-op movement, which, he said, already saw people working together outside government for the common good.

After further questions on the party’s respective positions on renewable energy, law and order and tuition fees, the alloted hour and a half ran out, something which disappointed a number of those present who felt that the candidates were just getting into their stride.

Afterwards, Margaret Clark from Pitmedden said: “It would have been better if there’d been more questions. I’d have liked there to be discussion over replacing Trident nuclear weapons, so we could have discussed how to spend the money better.”

“It was a good afternoon”, said Gillian Anderson of Ellon. “I felt the candidates were a bit long winded, but they answered the questions put to them.”

“I was disappointed that there wasn’t more mention of the NHS”, said Jill Martin of Ellon. “I’m a floating voter and came without any preconceptions. However, this afternoon has helped me narrow down my choice to two candidates.”

Emily Brown of Ellon, who studies Higher Politics at school, will be too young to vote this time round, but didn’t let this dim her enthusiasm.

“I was unsure what to expect”, she said. “It was interesting, because we study US and UK rather than Scottish politics, and we have multi-party politics in Scotland. If I did have a vote at this election, I’m now a lot clearer about who it would be for!”