Leaders: Prestwick deal comes with baggage

Prestwick Airport, thanks to its role, now lost in history, as Scotland’s trans­atlantic gateway – and, incidentally, as the only known point of physical contact between Elvis Presley and Scotland – has a special place in Scottish affections.

Picture: PA

That fact may have played a role in the Scottish Government’s decision to nationalise the airport. Certainly it seems as logical as any explanation that emerged yesterday. The government surely had its eyes firmly fixed on the number of jobs that were at risk, both at the airport and at the aviation businesses that surround it, if the airport’s owners, Infratil, had been unable to find a buyer and had closed it.

But many big companies have closed plants before, with greater losses of jobs at the core plant than Prestwick’s 300, and with significant impacts on industry and supply chains. Losing jobs is of course traumatic and regrettable – but what is so special in Prestwick’s case that the government actually buys it?

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Usually when governments support businesses in competitive industries they restrict themselves to tax breaks or rates breaks. And there are laws about such government support.

Infratil’s revenue depended on Prestwick’s offer to the budget operators of being a cheaper alternative than Edinburgh or Glasgow. This was relatively easy to do when they were jointly, and non-competitively owned by BAA, but became impossible when the BAA central Scotland monopoly was broken. Separate ownership of Edinburgh and Glasgow meant they started competing with each other, and also with Prestwick.

Since then, Infratil has been fighting an uphill battle. The simple fact is that as far as passenger traffic is concerned, Prestwick is too far away from the main centres of population to be an effective competitor, despite the rail station that makes it more easily and more cheaply accessible for non-car drivers than Glasgow.

But state ownership of Prestwick is a controversial step for the Scottish Government. The admission by Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister, that the government has no business plan for the airport beyond vague and hopeful statements of returning it to profitability and to private ownership is indicative of a move made more out of political panic than economic logic.

The Scottish taxpayer has a right to know why, if the professional aviation company that ran the business could not make it work – and no other professional aviation company could be persuaded to take it on – the Scottish Government believes it can do so? Taxpayers also have the right to ask the more fundamental question: what business is it of government to own and operate major airports in competition with others?

At the very least, there needs to be an explanation as to what the benefit to the general taxpayer is of this extraordinary move. Public ownership of industry is a remarkable signal for the SNP to put out.

Everything comes to those who wait

Today’s ephemeral world loves a celebrity who makes the news for some fleeting idiosyncrasy that may charm or appal but, at the end of the day, makes no difference to understanding why or how we are here. Professor Peter Higgs is not the stuff of which identikit celebrity is made, but is as far above such ludicrous concepts as the average person is a giant to an ant.

There is nothing to do but to join in the standing applause for the award to Prof Higgs of the Nobel prize for physics for his discovery – originally made (mark this) in theory only – that there is a particular particle that gives the property of mass or ­substance to the atoms that make up our physical world.

It took nearly half a century, and billions of pounds spent on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland for experimental ability to catch up with and validate his thinking. Extraordinarily, despite this huge effort and investment, we cannot touch, see, taste, hear, smell or weigh the Higgs boson particle. But we now know it is there and fundamental to our existence.

In this tale of scientific search and discovery, Scotland and Edinburgh in particular have played a part. The arts are often disparaged as mere fripperies in comparison to such fundamentals as particle physics, but it was the Edinburgh festivals and Scotland’s landscape that attracted a youthful Prof Higgs to the city and persuaded him to stay and seek physics’ equivalent of King Solomon’s mines.

So we rejoice in the Nobel committee’s accolade for Prof Higgs. We may be arguing about the constitutional future of Scotland, but whatever the outcome, it has to be one that welcomes and nurtures tomorrow’s Peter Higgs.

The Scotsman Conferences is hosting a series of events capturing the many facets of the Scottish independence debate. 3 December sees a formidable line up of expert speakers tackle “The Independence White Paper: A Business Plan for Scotland?” For more details on this and other great events please visit www.scotsmanconferences.com