Brian Wilson: In search of cleaner investment cash

Neil Findlays persistance in using FoI requests has revealed information about ministers dealings with Qatar. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Neil Findlays persistance in using FoI requests has revealed information about ministers dealings with Qatar. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THERE ARE better ways to raise funds for Scots projects than doing deals with China and Qatar, writes Brian Wilson

Serious journalists should always test themselves against the great maxim: “News is what someone doesn’t want you to print. All the rest is publicity.”

The Scottish Government are great believers in publicity and equally firm resisters of news. To a depressing extent, they get away with it. That is what made the £10 billion Chinese deal, first alluded to outside China in this column last week, so curious.

The first response to subsequent questions was to sneer that inquirers should put in a Freedom of Information request, which they would then spend months, maybe years, obstructing. It was only when this led to critical headlines that the document was published.

All the big questions remain unanswered. Nicola Sturgeon’s explanation of why no announcement was made is risible – that it was a Memorandum of Understanding without firm commitments. A specialism of the Nationalists has been to make huge “good news” announcements in advance of elections, which duly proved to be works of fiction. By comparison, this was real.

Who should forget the double-act between Alex Salmond and his crony at Iberdrola, chairman and chief executive Ignacio Galan, who prior to the 2011 Scottish elections announced £2.7bn of investment – “within two years” no less. We are still waiting. Then there was Dundee, promised a 1,000-job renewables hub by Salmond and SSE – still a mirage, not that the duped Dundee electorate seems to care.

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So lack of substance is not a deterrent to joyous announcements if there are accomplices with a vested interest in endorsing them. Which takes us on to the mysterious role of Sir Brian Souter, arch-exploiter of Thatcherite privatisation and SNP money­bags, who blessed the Bute House signing as “a very positive step for Scotland”. Let’s leave others to be the judges of that, Sir Brian.

Alas, Souter has been unavailable for illumination as he is “travelling abroad” – presumably beyond reach of modern communications – while the SNP and Scottish Government certainly aren’t saying. Meanwhile, it has emerged that their Chinese pals have been black-balled by the sainted Norwegian Oil Fund which believes them to be “grossly corrupt”.

So what was the Chinese money intended for? Their interest, we are told, is in “major infrastructure projects”. That leads on to the central fact that attracting foreign money, without regard to other considerations, is now seen as the preferred way of funding public sector projects in Scotland – not just major, but also quite minor.

Since selective amnesia is a national characteristic, many will have forgotten the sustained abuse that previous governments were subjected to for involving private investment in funding infrastructure. In the case of Labour, PPP was a necessity to catch up on decades of under-investment in schools and hospitals, and many Scottish communities now enjoy excellent facilities because of it.

This did nothing to staunch the assault on all forms of PFI/PPP as if they were the devil incarnate. How times change. We have not yet seen the shopping list offered to the Chinese but we do know quite a bit (thanks to the persistence of Neil Findlay MSP and his researcher, Tommy Kane) about the obsessive campaign by SNP ministers to involve Qatar in funding Scotland’s public sector – with, it must be said, a satisfactory lack of success.

Findlay and Kane have helped, through unrelenting use of FoI requests, to obtain some flavour of Scotland’s repeated supplications to a gas-rich dictatorship which bans trade unions and political parties, operates, according to Amnesty International, “entrenched discrimination against women” and treats its 1.6 million migrant workers, who make up 90 per cent of the workforce, as bonded labour.

According to briefing for ministerial meetings, Qatar offers “great potential to help Scotland meet its aims and purpose”. I kid you not. The SNP can speak for itself, but personally I can think of few places on the face of the Earth which are less akin to the “aims and purpose” I wish to set for my children or my country.

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The Scottish Government is “keen to deepen economic, cultural and governmental ties” with Qatar for one reason only: the pot of gold in the desert. They don’t seem to have had much luck, but why on Earth is there such a sustained campaign to mortgage Scotland’s public infrastructure to ethically dubious sources of riches when there is absolutely no need to do so?

Our kilted version of PFI/PPP is run by an outfit called the Scottish Futures Trust which boasts about “one of the biggest PPP programmes in Europe”. Its largest project is the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route at almost£500 million. Funding was assembled from the usual collection of international banks and UK pension funds – in other words, a conventional PPP scheme which will give investors a return and Scotland a long-awaited road sooner than might otherwise have been possible.

After you get over the hypocrisy of what has gone before, that is all positive and straightforward. If similar projects need additional investment in the same way, there is no indication there will be difficulty in raising it. So where is the need to put ourselves in hock to the Chinese for £10bn or fervently pursue some sort of bizarre special relationship with the sub-Emirs of Qatar?

In one unwelcome respect, the kow-towing to Qatar has yielded results. The briefing for a Salmond visit included an “International Narrative” which promoted the Scottish Highlands as “Europe’s Wilderness” with “just nine people per square kilometre”. Qatari ears must have pricked up, since they have recently become very active in buying Highland property, including Cluny Estate near Laggan and Eilean Aigas, by Beauly. So much for land reform.

In former times, “inward investment” policy for Scotland was about bringing in companies which made things, provided services and created jobs. That honourable approach to attracting foreign investment now seems to have virtually disappeared. Instead, seeking “investment” has become the surrogate for a highly dubious foreign policy which allows Scottish ministers to grandstand in random places.

I fear the deluded souls of the Scottish “Left” who cheer-lead for this lot will just have to swallow the script – don’t mention human rights, but place your trust in Souter’s connections and flog off the Highlands as “Europe’s Wilderness”. Pass me a Saltire and a sick-bag.