ALL politicians like, indeed need, to be popular, and Jim Murphy’s need to make himself and his party popular is urgent if Scottish Labour is not to lose seats at May’s general election.
But populist politics in search of votes is not always good politics, as Mr Murphy may find out with his new policy on fracking.
He has announced that if he were to become First Minister, rules on drilling for oil and gas in central Scotland using hydraulic fracturing of shale oil and gas deposits would be tightened under the extra powers which are to be devolved to Scotland so that fracking would not be permitted unless three conditions had been met.
First, there would be a comprehensive review of the baseline conditions to be set for any fracking proposal so there would be a clear understanding of the environmental rules governing the drilling and operation of a fracked well. This sounds sensible; Scotland’s environment, even in crowded and industrialised central Scotland, is a precious asset which needs to be safeguarded.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
Second, the community affected by a proposal must vote for it in a local referendum. This also sounds good, but would be extremely difficult to put into practice. How is the community to be defined? As those close to the wellhead site, or all those living above and up to the furthermost extent of a well? Or as those beyond the outer limit of a well but whose groundwater under their property might be affected?
And should such a plebiscite be governed by customary election rules to prevent, say, opponents being massively outspent by a big oil company? How would the information given to voters be assured as factual and not outright lies? This condition is fraught with problems which could well mean that organising such a poll takes forever.
Third, Mr Murphy believes that Scotland should not permit any fracking until the lessons from similar exploration south of the Border are learned. But how will anyone know when all of the lessons have been learned? No-one can know such a thing, is the answer, for new lessons in every field of human activity are learned every day.
Even if Mr Murphy did succeed in turning these notions into law, what would be his reaction if Ineos, the most likely pursuer of shale gas in central Scotland, decided the conditions were so onerous as to be unmeetable and consequently concluded that its Grangemouth petrochemical works should close because it would not get the gas feedstock it needs to run at a profit?
Mr Murphy will surely be aware of the frantic political battle that took place in 2013 to save the thousands of jobs dependent on Grangemouth. That is the risk of politics based on populism rather than principle – what was popular yesterday can be unpopular tomorrow and to change with the wind just looks desperate.
Trams on slippery slope of success
Edinburgh’s trams have proved to be more popular then ever seemed conceivable, except with one particular group – cyclists. For the non-cycling public, it is not just the obvious hazard of getting narrow bike wheels stuck in the tram tracks that is the problem; it is that when wet (which, surprisingly enough, happens a lot in Edinburgh), the steel tracks might as well be sheet ice.
It means that even when crossing tracks at any angle, wheels can shoot away and the unfortunate cyclist crashes to earth. The bikers have had enough and now some 60 who have suffered broken bones, which can lead to long-term disabilities, are intent on suing Edinburgh City Council for recompense.
Solicitors representing the claimants and who expect a test case to be heard in court this November, reckon that these individuals are only a third of the total number who have slipped and been injured on the tracks. And if claims averaging about £10,000 per injured cyclist are approved by the court, they reckon the total cost to the city could be at least £500,000.
There is a terrible irony in this. The tram was conceived as a much greener form of public transport – no belching of exhaust fumes as from a bus and a much greater carrying capacity. But the bicycle is even greener – no electricity has to be generated and the exercise involved keeps, or should keep, the bike owner fit and healthy. And there is little taxpayers’ subsidy for bikes.
Cycling therefore ought to be encouraged by the city authorities, but right now, the combination of bike and tram is, most ungreenly, burdening hospitals and debilitating the cycling population.