Events at Grangemouth remind us just how quickly government promises can be derailed, writes Bill Jamieson
How fickle our fortunes when events can humble the boldest aspiration. Less than a week ago, the First Minister made a rousing speech to fill us with confidence for an oil-rich, renewables-driven independent Scotland. Today, we are queuing at garage forecourts as the Grangemouth oil refinery supplying 70 per cent of the fuel at our filling stations is faced with closure.
The plant, with 800 employees and thousands of related jobs at risk, and accounting directly for 8 per cent of Scottish manufacturing, is a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the chemical, petrochemical and plastics industries of the UK.
How can we go so quickly from confidence to vulnerability, from light to dark? We do, because that is the nature of the world we are in. We hope a solution may be quickly found and a disastrous outcome averted. But it serves as a reminder of our vulnerability.
Former prime minister Harold Macmillan famously voiced his fear of the disruptive power of “events, dear boy, events”. But what of the observable hazards we face, those that are all too clear and predictable, but which politicians choose to ignore? There are constraints of finance, resources and demography that limit what we would wish to do. When we ignore them, our frailty before events is acute. That frailty may seem to disappear for a time and anything seems possible. But we set ourselves up for a painful moment of truth ahead.
Over the past few weeks, party political conferences have seen a cascade of reality-defying pledges and commitments – as if money was made of ever-stretching elastic.
Last week’s SNP conference was by no means alone, but provided a particularly egregious example. The list of the party’s commitments spanned renationalisation of the Scottish operations of Royal Mail, abolition of the so-called bedroom tax, a pledge to cut household energy bills by 5 per cent, raising of the minimum wage, the maintenance of universal welfare benefits, improved terms and conditions for our armed forces, larger increases in pensions and more support for carers.
No-one doubts the desirability of any or all of these. But in the Perth conference hall, Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon were able to suspend a natural scepticism, as if a magical spell was cast from the stage. The bigger and bolder the uncosted commitment, the louder the cheer from the hall. Such is the power of The Hypnotist and the Hypnotist’s Apprentice.
Aiding this suspension of disbelief was finance secretary John Swinney, who surely knows better. He berated the huge debts run up by London governments. These are indeed the biggest and most troubling feature of our political landscape. But it is wrong to suggest that somehow the increases in public spending in Scotland over the past decade formed no part of the Treasury’s outgoings and were financed not by a share of that increased borrowing but by some magically separate and unconnected means.
We would all wish such debt and its annual interest cost not to be there. But they are – and they bear down on our scope for spending discretion. That is why old-style retail politics cannot continue as if nothing has changed.
Other constraints, too, should alert our natural scepticism and put us on guard against awkward “surprises” and so-called unforeseeable events. Prominent among these is Scotland’s changing demographics. This alone compels caution on future public spending commitments.
Over the next 20 years, we are set to experience a marked and unprecedented change in our population make-up, with consequent demands on our health and welfare budgets that will need to be met either through tax increases or spending reductions in other departments – more probably a combination of both.
Last month, Sturgeon claimed that Scotland’s population was ageing more slowly than the rest of the UK, resulting in people being able to retire earlier with more money, under separation. But the Scottish Government’s own agency, the National Records of Scotland, gave evidence to Holyrood’s finance committee last summer declaring the exact opposite and made clear that the country’s population is “projected to age more rapidly compared to the UK”.
I am grateful to Dr Richard Simpson MSP for alerting me to the latest assessment from the General Register Office for Scotland posted on its website last week. “2010-based population projections,” writes Registrar General Tim Ellis, “suggest that the population of Scotland will rise to 5.76 million by 2035 and that the population will age significantly, with the number of people aged 65 and over increasing by 63 per cent, from 0.88 million to 1.43 million.”
The changing age composition within this group is also noteworthy, with a 46 per cent increase in those aged 65 to 74 and an 82 per cent increase in those aged 75 plus. Not only does this place a considerable question mark by the Scottish Government’s pension projections but, as Dr Simpson points out, the SNP assumptions also refer to more premature deaths making pensions more affordable. This, he notes, implies a failure to tackle health inequalities past and future – “a rather despairing approach”.
Now a population that is ageing at such a rate is not, and should not be, treated as a burden, but it does compel policy attention on future provision and a more sceptical view of new and uncosted spending commitments elsewhere. Recognition is surely needed of the limits to policy discretion imposed by such clearly observable trends.
When these are not acknowledged, we set ourselves on a course in which future ambush by “events” is inescapable. Beware of those proclaiming bold new futures that ignore such a backcloth. Today’s spending largesse sets us on a course for disappointment. It is not hard to envisage a future in which the reining in of yesterday’s promises is explained as the consequence of “300 years of unionist mis-rule”, the baleful legacy of Westminster that will blight our prospects, just as today’s social problems of deprivation, poverty, drink and drug addiction are viewed as the legacy of our industrial decline. A bleak, resignation to the regrettable necessities of independence will be the inheritance.
I am reminded of the story told in 1930s Soviet Russia when the early largesse and liberalism of the Bolsheviks was steadily dismantled under the catch-phrase “the regrettable necessity of socialism”. So frequently did this phrase appear in the 1938 Soviet Encyclopaedia that in the edition in the Moscow Central Library alongside the item headed “Reproduction, Sexual … when the penis enters the vagina”, a laconic pencilled note appeared in the margin: “Another regrettable necessity.”
What is needed here is not cynicism or defeatism – a surrender to the view that nothing can change for the better – but a natural and sensible scepticism over the uncosted visions of a bountiful, all-pleasing, no-expense spared energy-rich Scotland. At a stroke this week, we have been reminded how vulnerable we are to an unanticipated industrial dispute. But it’s our vulnerability to those things we can well anticipate that should concern us no less.