Brian Wilson: Alex Salmond hung by his own canard?

Alex Salmond with his independence white paper ' what does he say now about paragraph 423? Picture: Robert Perry

Alex Salmond with his independence white paper ' what does he say now about paragraph 423? Picture: Robert Perry

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WHETHER talking about energy or playing up his own future role, the would-be MP must be called to account, writes Brian Wilson

Anyone – and there is one obvious candidate – who is basing his career plans on the prospect of a hung parliament would do well to contemplate the case of Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader who died last week.

In 1974, Thorpe led the Liberals to their best election result for more than half a century, with six million votes. The prospect of high office briefly beckoned, with Edward Heath offering coalition to overtake Labour. Then the whole thing fell through; Harold Wilson, by dint of leading the largest party, became prime minister and Thorpe’s career evaporated.

Different times, different names, but the lesson is relevant. Hung parliaments leading to coalitions happen by accident. The Liberals waited nearly a century before one emerged, though little good it has done them. No matter how much it is predicted, the odds are against our electoral system producing another next May. Far more likely that a winner will take the spoils.

So when Alex Salmond seeks to appoint a role for himself as kingmaker, calling the shots on whoever wins, he is not offering an option so much as a self-aggrandising off-chance. Far more likely that the Nationalists will end up in their familiar role at Westminster as an ineffectual gaggle, even if a larger one than at present.

The question is not who they will support but who they can damage, and there is no doubt about Salmond’s target in that respect. It is Labour. His overblown disavowal of doing business with the Tories flies in the face of history, some of it recent. And it does not alter the basic fact that fewer Labour seats in Scotland would correspondingly diminish the prospects for a Labour government in the UK.

If that is what people want, they should vote accordingly. If they would prefer a Labour government, they should vote Labour. As simple as that. What nobody should fall for is some convoluted theory that voting Nationalist is likely to produce a Labour government with Mr Salmond and his colleagues orchestrating its agenda. That is complete and utter baloney.

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It seems to be taken for granted that the good people of the Gordon constituency will sweep the former first minister to Westminster by acclaim and regard it as a privilege to do so. One does wonder why they would want to do that. Most of them, according to the referendum result, do not want Scottish independence, which is really all the Nationalists have to offer.

But if Alex Salmond was judged on his actual record, in a part of Scotland where the energy industry is disproportionately important, then the duty of the electorate next May would be to be call him to account and deliver a deeply unfavourable verdict – not reward him with another platform from which to make ridiculous assertions.

There is even less doubt now than there was three months ago that the North Sea oil industry is facing one of the most testing periods in its history. Everything Sir Ian Wood said in his report about the dangers of falling investment and huge job losses is coming to pass as a result of the price of oil going into sharp decline, even beyond the point that credible forecasters had predicted. He is now right to say that the UK government should accelerate the promised changes in the tax regime, to promote investment.

But – as the price of Brent plunges towards $60 a barrel – let us not forget what the Scottish Government was saying just a few months ago. In paragraph 423 of its white paper, it declared: “Production in Scottish waters can generate approximately £48 billion of tax revenues between 2012-13 and 2017-18 based on industry estimates of production and an average cash price of approximately $113 a barrel”.

Remember that this was a white paper, funded by taxpayers and written by supposedly neutral civil servants, rather than a party tract. Yet it has been clear from the day it was published, and is even clearer now, that this crucial statement on which so much depended – jobs, schools, hospitals – was a complete and utter fabrication, concocted for purely political purposes.

There was no evidence or credible body of opinion which remotely justified these statements. If the Scottish Parliament had a committee system worthy of the name, it would now be instigating an inquiry into how forecasts which were so plainly untrue (as events are now confirming) could have found their way into a white paper intended to direct the nation’s constitutional future.

Who wrote paragraph 423 and under what instructions? Where did the “industry estimates” on which such extraordinarily wrong forecasts were made come from? This is not past history from which the Nationalists should be allowed to sail merrily on. It was a pack of publicly funded fictions for which the authors should be held accountable. Unfortunately, the Scottish Parliament is geared to shutting down any such exercise.

When the voters of Gordon have finished examining the false claims about oil and gas, they might also turn their attention to the former first minister’s record on the renewables industry. Once again, what they will find is a trail of overblown verbiage and false promises, which have yielded astonishingly little and have left Scotland bereft of an energy policy, other than to become an importer of power.

The “Saudi Arabia of renewables” is now another mirage in the desert. Marine renewables are going to yield nothing for the foreseeable future and the prospects for offshore wind are not much better. The “100 per cent renewables” mantra is based almost entirely on onshore wind farms and pre-existing hydro. None of this should come as a surprise, except to those who mistook bluster for vision.

The renewables industry was always meant to be about employment as much as energy and the environment. We were supposed by now to have a new industry creating tens of thousands of high-quality jobs, with a strong read across to the oil and gas sector. Almost none of this has happened and virtually every wind turbine around us has been imported. Scotland’s renewable resources have created jobs in Spain and Germany, but precious few in Scotland.

Once again, it is a subject ripe for parliamentary scrutiny. How has the promise of so much turned into so little? I hope that there might be a marginally better chance of the Gordon electorate asking these hard questions than MSPs, before they are seduced into Salmond’s next grand scenario that will never happen.

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