Zeroing in on economic realities at the root of the crisis, the Scottish Government did well at Grangemouth, says Peter Jones
Where will Grangemouth stand in Scotland’s industrial and political history? As the site of the last stand and rout of organised labour? As the battlefield where victory was won by uncaring international capitalism? As a triumph for Alex Salmond that helped propel his independence campaign to success? Or as a vivid demonstration of how Scotland is better together in the union? Or even that all governments were just willing dupes in a much bigger power game?
It is too early to give answers to some questions, particularly the third and fourth in the paragraph above as, obviously, those questions involve some history that hasn’t happened yet. Some things are, however, becoming a little clearer.
One is that Grangemouth has allowed a leftist-nationalist historical analysis to make a comeback. This is the concept of “internal colonialism”, developed by sociologists as a paradigm to explain change, particularly change driven by nationalism, in 19th century Europe and the de-colonising 20th century world.
As further developed by Michael Hechter in the 1970s, Scotland could be argued to be an internal (to the UK) colony of England, being exploited for its wealth and discarded when the wealth runs out while the inhabitants are tolerated but kept out of corridors of power.
As you can imagine, this theory appealed strongly to Scottish leftists and nationalists, especially in the last two decades of the last century when, it was argued, a UK government presided over the closures of totemic Scottish industries while encouraging the growth of offshore oil and gas production to the benefit of the UK government but not Scotland.
This analysis, I think, provided an intellectual bridge allowing some leftist thinkers, such as Jim Sillars and George Kerevan, to move from Labour to the SNP even though it was never overtly espoused by nationalist leaders. Nevertheless, it remains current at a populist level, as I was reminded at a recent conference held by the Scottish Studies Centre at the Johannes Gutenburg University, Mainz.
A paper given by Kirsten Sandrock, professor of English literature and cultural studies at the University of Gottingen, noted the appearance of internal colonial language in recent statements by author Alasdair Gray and by an SNP councillor, Dave Berry.
And if you are disposed to this kind of analysis, the Grangemouth closure threat is an ideal fit for it.
Here is a business employing 1,370 people who have managed to extract extremely good wages and conditions but were faced with a closure threat by a secretive Swiss-based multinational majority-owned by a billionaire Englishman. The company accounts are opaque and seemingly confuse investment with spending on running costs to the extent that it enabled some to claim Grangemouth was still profitable and not loss-making. No surprise then, that some politicians and an academic on the left called for the Scottish Government to nationalise it.
Mr Salmond, as far as I could tell, rejected that, preferring plan A – that the trade union, Unite, should capitulate – and if not that, Plan B – that somebody else should buy it. He understood the basic truth, which doesn’t require accounting or petrochemical engineering expertise to uncover – that all of Europe’s petrochemical industry is in dire straits because of cheap shale gas-based American competition.
Surviving against an onslaught that will grow and become absolutely ferocious by 2017 requires some pretty savage cost-cutting. This entails not just building to import the competitor’s cheaper raw material, which Grangemouth almost uniquely in Europe is well-placed to do, but also by cutting labour costs. And if the Scottish Government had been forced back onto Plan B, I am sure that a new owner would have demanded exactly the same things of the workforce.
Nevertheless, since Scots are absolutely brilliant at concocting conspiracy theories, and parties such as the now humiliated Unite have an interest in finding face-saving excuses, I have little doubt that leftist internal colonialism-type theories will be kept going for some time.
They do, however, have several problems to overcome. One is: why would Ineos cut off its allegedly profitable Grangemouth nose just to spite Scots workers just at the time it needs every cent of profit it can make? Unite clearly did not think it was a bluff.
Another is that Jim Ratcliffe, Ineos’ majority-owner, did not exact the price he could have – pay cuts rather than just a pay freeze, and de-recognition of the union instead of just the loss of the company-paid union posts at Grangemouth. Neither is there any evidence to suggest he is inherently anti-union, though this imbroglio might have changed his mind on that.
Nevertheless, the key point is that the Scottish Government, to its credit, accepted that it is operating in a world which has left internal colonialism in history’s dustbin. There may be echoes of such thinking in Mr Salmond’s rhetoric, for example that wind energy will re-industrialise Scotland, but they are just echoes.
As Prof Sandrock pointed out, the SNP have been pretty quick to stamp on blunter examples, such as the outburst by the unfortunate councillor Berry, knowing that at its heart is anti-English sentiment which is the precise opposite of where the party needs to be.
As to the political effect this may have on the referendum, Mr Salmond’s folk have been pretty quick out of the blocks to depict their man as Grangemouth’s saviour, while sympathetic sections of the commentariat have initially portrayed the UK government as somewhat careless on the matter.
The implication, of course, is that an independent Scotland would be quite capable of engineering a satisfactory solution in a major industrial crisis. All I would say to that is that we don’t have all the evidence in to judge that. We do not yet know precisely what the UK government did or did not do.
It is certainly true that Mr Salmond did play an extremely positive part in resolving the Grangemouth crisis. But it is also telling that he felt the need to put away all the usual anti-UK government stuff and to maintain a united front.
What the SNP Government did do was to demonstrate an ability to zero in very quickly on the real modern world problems based on the globalised economy that caused the crisis and to work on those issues rather than to some antique and irrelevant class- and identity-based theory.
And no-one can take that away from Mr Salmond.