Brian Wilson: Niggling doubts over a real future

Alex Salmond's remarks at the official opening of the Nigg Skills Academy were ill informed. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Alex Salmond's remarks at the official opening of the Nigg Skills Academy were ill informed. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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The First Minister’s recent attempt to rewrite Scotland’s economic history is no laughing matter, writes Brian Wilson

I wish Alex Salmond well in his much-reported quest for a new speech-writer capable of scripting jokes that will not go down like lead balloons. This imperative, we are told, follows the stony response of his captive audience in Nigg last week.

Judging by yesterday’s effort, which involved some weary Dracula simile, the mission is urgent. Although, the fact that this latest sidesplitter was delivered while he was on the Isle of Man in search of a Scottish currency itself contains modest potential. Tail-less cats and headless chickens spring to mind.

I doubt if anyone who knows much about the history of the Nigg Energy Park, as it now is, would have been any more impressed with the substance of the First Minister’s speech than with the doomed attempt to leaven it with witticisms.

By any rational criterion, what has happened in recent years at Nigg would simply be welcomed as a great success story, rather than used as a platform for heavy-handed political points. The fact that 1,500 people are now employed there by Global Energy is a tribute to the efforts of many people of all persuasions over a long period of time.

The most obvious counter-point to Salmond’s theme of frustrated potential which only independence can resolve is that everything which has happened at the Nigg yard, from its establishment in the 1970s to the recent renaissance, has taken place within the existing constitutional framework for which it is now actually a rather good advert. So why change it?

It was not any work of genius in Edinburgh that brought the Nigg Energy Park back to life. Rather, it has involved an outstanding act of entrepreneurship on the part of a locally-committed individual, Roy MacGregor, and a vast degree of persistence and co-operation at local level by people who never faltered in their belief in the yard’s strategic significance.

That is why, for a decade, they laboured to overcome the enormously complex issues of land ownership and “ransom strips” that acted as barriers to development. That is why Highland Council, the Cromarty Port Authority and Highlands and Islands Enterprise initiated a Nigg Development Masterplan. And ultimately that is why European, UK and Scottish public funding contributed to a great outcome.

It is a partnership approach which should be emulated rather than dismantled. Indeed, it calls into further question the wisdom of the Scottish Government having closed down the Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme which, from the mid-90s until last year, delivered EU funding secured by successive UK governments for the Highlands and Islands. That money has now been brought under centralised control in Edinburgh, disappearing into a larger pot.

Nigg will, we hope, be increasingly involved in work for the renewables industry as well as international oil and gas. But here again, the UK’s strategy over the past decade of encouraging and financing renewables should be proclaimed as a success story and the essential basis of the industry that now exists rather than denigrated as if it was somehow the source of a problem, for no better reason than that it covered the whole of Britain. On the contrary, that is its essential strength.

Salmond said at Nigg: “We have up to a quarter of the EU’s renewable energy potential but no control over the market reform process which has spread such uncertainty over renewables.” But while moaning about the “market reform process”, he ignored completely the identity of the market – 90 per cent of which is in the rest of the UK which he wants to turn into a foreign country (and separate market).

By far the biggest threat to the steady growth of Scottish renewables, as opposed to hyperbolic rhetoric about unlimited potential, lies in Mr Salmond’s own ambition to turn this single energy market into two separate states. The whole approach to renewables, as I can testify at first-hand, was predicated on the creation of a single GB energy market with infrastructure to match, involving massive investment funded by consumers from Land’s End to Unst. That is what it will continue to require.

It is pure fiction to pretend that the Scottish renewables industry, onshore, but particularly offshore, would continue to progress as if nothing had happened, in the event of political separation. There is absolutely no rational or logical reason why consumers in “the rest of the UK” would continue to fund expensive, offshore Scottish renewables when other cheaper options will be available to them.

As for the market reforms, we again see the Nationalist belief in the right to have their cake and eat it. The SNP Government decided to abolish Scotland’s nuclear power industry which has given us reliable baseload for more than 40 years. That is their democratic entitlement under devolution. But they then have absolutely no right to complain when the UK as a whole decides to support all low-carbon technologies, including nuclear – hence the market reforms.

The captive Nigg audience then heard about Scotland’s oil resources being frustrated by “UK tax changes (which) delayed investment in our offshore fields”. Now it is true that Salmond and the oil industry – who do not like paying taxes anywhere in the world – have opposed every tax hike that the Treasury has come up with. But it is also true that investment in the North Sea (and particularly West of Shetland) is flourishing. He should try squaring that circle. Even with the tax rises of which Salmond complains, the headline rate of taxation in the UK North Sea is 62 per cent while the oft-sainted Norway’s is 78 per cent. Which does he prefer? And if the Scottish economy was, through independence, to become several times more dependent on fluctuating oil revenues than the UK’s, which would he require – a question raised in stark form by John Swinney’s leaked paper last year, which voters were never intended to see.

The workers of Nigg might reasonably conclude that all they were being offered by Mr Salmond was a list of grievances which, under even the most casual scrutiny, quickly turn into rhetorical non-sequiturs.

Maybe that is why they declined to laugh. Maybe they would just prefer to keep their jobs and pensions.