Joyce McMillan: The sorry story of Grangemouth

The sorry tale of Grangemouth simply marks the logical progression of an economy welded to market forces, writes Joyce McMillan

Grangemouth oil and petrochemical refinery. Picture: Ian Rutherford

FIRST, let’s get one thing clear about this week’s painful events in Grangemouth. As the sole owner of the Grangemouth oil refinery and petrochemical plant, Jim Ratcliffe’s privately-owned multinational company Ineos has an absolute legal right to close the plant, if it believes that the operation is no longer profitable or viable.

“How can it be,” voices kept asking, on yesterday morning’s BBC Radio Scotland Call Kaye programme, “that 800 people’s jobs, the future of a town, and a whole strategic slice of the Scottish economy, can be vulnerable to the decision – the whim, even – of just one man?”

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Yet in truth, the kind of situation that now exists at Grangemouth is nothing more than an unavoidable aspect of the global economic system which we have all – actively or passively – allowed to develop over the past 40 years. There was a time, of course, when Grangemouth was a BP refinery, and when 51 per cent of BP was owned by the British government, which felt it had a legitimate interest in such an important strategic resource.

Since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, though, that has not been the British way. Our way, it seems, is to trust the “invisible hand of the market” to take care of all our interests.

And it is, therefore, worth asking where those who ask the Grangemouth question have been, these 34 years, if they did not understand that the whole thrust of economic policy, over that time, has been to give to the Jim Ratcliffes of this world the huge economic power that they now hold, and to remove, as much as possible, any organised economic influence that ordinary workers and their families might once have had, either through their trade unions, or through elected governments.

The fact that Ratcliffe’s power is a predictable consequence of recent policy, though, does not make it right. In fact, like all extreme free-market phenomena, it jars against most people’s ideas of common sense and decency, simply because it fails to take into account all those aspects of human life which cannot be measured in cash – such as the fate of the community around Grangemouth, or, for that matter, the national energy security of Scotland and the UK.

And although it may be naïve, in 2013, to ask why Jim Ratcliffe has so much power, it is still essential to keep asking whether we really have to tolerate this chronic lack of economic democracy for ever; or whether the British and/or Scottish public might now be able to reclaim a significant stake in industries which are so vital to our future security and wellbeing.

The French government, for example, still holds an 84 per cent stake in the French energy giant EDF; and it speaks volumes for the extreme free-market bias in contemporary British public debate that any talk of an element of public ownership at Grangemouth is regarded as radical far-left stuff, when in fact, in international terms, it represents a normal solution to recurrent problems of energy security and supply.

To raise the possibility of a public stake in Grangemouth, though, is to challenge the uncritical free-market consensus that has dominated UK politics since the early 1990s, and to suggest the need for a new 21st-century form of social democracy.

And it’s here that the row over Grangemouth reaches a deeply troubling intersection with Scotland’s independence referendum debate, which is fast taking on the character of a fierce Left-Right ideological battle between those who hope for, and dream of, a new social-democratic Scotland after independence, and those who think we in Scotland had better just put up and shut up, because UK-style mercantile capitalism is now the only game in town.

It should not be like this, of course. If UK politics was functioning properly, and had not drifted so far to the Right, then we would have a whole range of possible UKs to choose from, in the event of a No vote; including a social-democratic one that would honour the social legacy bequeathed to all of us, across the UK, by the generation of 1945. The fact is, though, that there is no mainstream UK party really stepping up to defend that legacy, and to extend it into this new millennium.

And in this skewed political climate, those who speak up for the Union find themselves forced towards the right of the political spectrum, whatever their own original position; essentially telling us that the hopes of a different kind of country articulated by Yes campaigners are foolish and mendacious, because there is no real alternative to the orgy of raging inequality, blatant fiscal lies, compulsive economic sado-masochism, and near-hysterical worship of wealth, celebrity and royalty, that constitutes British public life today.

And this, I think, is the choice that now faces us, as we approach next year’s decision; either we still believe that we have a right to hope and work for a better, fairer society, or we knuckle under the rampant social inequality imposed by an out-of-control economic system posing as the only possible version of reality.

There are, of course, living examples of how things can be done differently, just a few hundred miles away across the North Sea; but my guess is that tired, anxious and frightened Scottish voters will buy the lie that there is no alternative, certainly not for Scotland.

And after that, then what, for a nation that has always wanted social democracy, but has crucially lacked the courage to seize a once-in-a-lifetime chance to try to build it, in our time? The long haul, I suppose, to try to re-create a UK-wide political party with the kind of built-in resistance to market fundamentalism Labour should have had, but has utterly failed to demonstrate, over the past two decades.

And in the meantime? I would guess nothing but many more pictures like those we have seen from Grangemouth this week: of people humiliated and broken by an economic system that cares nothing for them, and that cannot abide resistance; in a state that has long since lost either the will or the ability to stand up for the people, and to insist on the sane and steady redistribution of wealth and power, for the benefit of us all.