Martin Hannan: A bitter taste to panda politics

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Apart from being a gift to headline writers, what exactly have our guest pandas brought to Edinburgh? Quite a lot, actually. The positive publicity surrounding their arrival at Edinburgh Zoo was quite extraordinary, and must have had tourism bosses thinking all their Christmases had come at once.

For once, tram was not the first word that people associated with Edinburgh, and Sunshine and Sweetie at least brought some light relief from an unremitting diet of bad news and rotten weather.

Yet Tian Tian and Yang Guang have not pleased everyone by coming to the zoo. From various quarters we have had what I can only call propapanda, which is aimed at making the presence of these two creatures in Scotland into a political issue.

As an SNP member it never ceases to amaze me how the Unionists and their lackeys in the press jump on any excuse to give Alex Salmond and his government a kicking, but the abuse handed out over the two giant pandas has been beyond the pale.

Reading some commentators, you would think the First Minister had personally bribed the Chinese Government to send us the pandas so our poor wee minds could be diverted from the delayed referendum issue. He was accused of hogging the limelight – bizarre, given that the First Minister was in China the day the pandas came here.

Satirical magazine Private Eye joined in recently, suggesting it was all a conspiracy linked to China’s decision to impose greater import controls on Norwegian salmon because the Nobel Peace Prize went to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Scottish salmon farmers will supposedly benefit, and China’s panda diplomacy will also ensure that the Scottish Government will go soft on China’s human rights record.

Except that, when he was in China, the First Minister did indeed raise the issue of human rights. So much for that theory... Last week we even had an animal rights mob enter the debate by slagging off the SNP Government for supposedly spending £43,000 on a welcome party for the pandas.

I don’t know if the Captive Animals Protection Society – if they were honest they would call themselves Prevention Society as they basically hate zoos – are tools of the Unionists, but their intervention was political and, if you play politics, you take the consequences.

Even now some diligent researchers are looking into CAPS and its charitable status. For instance, were those people in Scotland who donated to the charity told the society would issue damning and overtly political press releases against the SNP Government?

I’ll keep you informed as to what emerges from the research, but in the meantime any SNP member like myself should think twice about donating to this organisation. Don’t get me wrong, if CAPS and everyone else who hates the idea of Sunshine and Sweetie being here wants to get together and petition the Chinese Government to take them back home, then that is their perfect right to do so. But to attack this Scottish success story is just plain daft.

For a start, the actual amount donated to the Zoo Society’s welcoming was just £12,900 specifically for ceremonies that celebrated Scottish-Chinese friendship. The rest of the money went on the staff time and marketing budget to celebrate the pandas and the boost they are bringing to the vital relationship between this country and China.

As any sponsor will tell you, the amount you spend in actual sponsorship has to be doubled, tripled or more in marketing the fact that you have given the money. The Scottish Government legitimately made the grant and backed it up with a clever campaign to show that China and Scotland are becoming friendlier.

Of course, any organisation like CAPS which has both Peter Tatchell and art snob Brian Sewell among its patrons might make you think “strange bedfellows”.

Sewell once said he would like to see a plague reducing the population so we could abolish the North. Whether that meant north of Watford, Scotland or wherever, this crashing bore of a man did not say. But CAPS is welcome to him even if Mr Sewell’s involvement wasn’t trumpeted when they made their attack. Can’t think why.

No doubt, CAPS are well intentioned, but I will give animal rights bleeding hearts some credence the minute I see them queue up to campaign against human-on-child brutality first. And sadly, there’s plenty of that in Scotland as East Lothian’s new holder of the OBE, Anita Green, would tell you after her 12-year stint as vice-chair of the NSPCC.

I don’t think giant pandas will survive in the wild, and at this moment in time I can only hope the zoo breeding programme is the correct way to proceed in preventing extinction, though I am not 100 per cent sure that it is. However, I’m willing to take the word of animal experts that it will work, whereas CAPS, like all such campaign groups, seems certain in their views and unwilling to accept an alternative.

Meanwhile, those who would play politics with the pandas should be aware of this – the public love them and any attempt to use them to score political points will backfire. Indeed, there will be no sunshine for any sweeties trying such tricks.