Joyce McMillan: Big questions remain unanswered

Nicola Sturgeon faced party leaders in an extended First Minister's Questions yesterday. Picture: Scottish Parliamentary Corporate
Nicola Sturgeon faced party leaders in an extended First Minister's Questions yesterday. Picture: Scottish Parliamentary Corporate
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JOYCE McMillan asks whether even a longer FMQs gives enough time to consider fracking and Scotland’s energy future

At Holyrood, they have marked the election of this new Scottish Parliament – the fifth since 1999 – by extending the weekly First Minister’s Questions session, held each Thursday at noon, from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. On the whole, it seems like a positive move: there’s more time for backbench MSPs to make themselves heard, and a slightly less rushed and shouty atmosphere in the exchange among party leaders.

Despite the efforts of backbenchers to introduce a wider range of subjects, though, this week’s FMQs seemed like a lunchtime show with only one major theme: the idea that for Scotland’s SNP government, after nine years in power, it’s now make-your-mind-up time, on a range of vital issues. This week, once again, Scotland’s unimpressive educational performance was at the top of the agenda. “We need to know,” said Kezia Dugdale for Labour, most pointedly, “whether the government is going to work with parties on the left to provide the support our education system needs, or side with the right, and go down the route of testing and cuts.”

Then Patrick Harvie of the Greens opened an equally sharp line of attack, wondering why a First Minister who always shared the view that the council tax is “unfit for purpose” as a way of financing local government now seems satisfied with proposed changes which amount only to some tinkering with the higher council tax rates. He pointed out that the government’s own poverty adviser had recommended radical reform of local government in Scotland as an essential step in tackling deprivation, and that the government had said it would implement her report in full – but radical answer came there none.

And although the subject went unmentioned at FMQs, every MSP in the room must have been aware of what is perhaps the biggest make-your-mind-up issue of them all, for Scotland’s long-term future: the SNP’s continuing ambivalence over fracking, which led on Wednesday to this parliament’s first victory for opposition parties, when Labour combined with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to support a successful motion for an outright ban on fracking, while the Tories voted against and the SNP abstained.

The SNP’s official line, of course, is that they are still awaiting a definitive report on whether fracking in central Scotland would cause significant environmental damage. There is something about this argument over the local impact of fracking, though, that seems to me to obscure the far more important issue of long-term policy that lies behind the debate; and that is the question of where Scotland really stands on the transition to a low-carbon economy.

At the COP 21 climate conference in Paris last year, Nicola Sturgeon succeeded in portraying Scotland as a country with exceptionally ambitious targets for the reduction of carbon emissions, and every chance of achieving them – the Scottish Government claims to be on track for a 42 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, from a 1990 baseline, by 2020.

Beyond that, it is obvious to anyone who looks at a map that Scotland – with almost a third of the UK’s landmass, half of its coastline, less than 10 per cent of its population, and a key location on Europe’s stormy north-western edge – has huge potential in the development and export of renewable energy, which is already overtaking every other kind of energy in global rates of investment.

And given these twin factors, it seems strategically obvious that with or without help from Westminster, Scotland should be making its development as a world leader in renewables an absolute priority. We should, for example, be designing, making, refining and exporting our own wind turbines; taking the lead in developing wave and tidal technologies; exploring the massive untapped potential of domestic solar power, and pioneering whole new systems of economic measurement which actually value, and incorporate into GDP, positive measures which reduce carbon emissions and help to slow climate change – even if, like the encouragement of cycling rather than driving, or the reduction of home energy consumption through good construction and insulation, they have a headline negative effect on outdated conventional measures of economic activity and “growth”.

Yet faced with the chance to propel Scotland into a new phase of economic development with an almost unlimited future, and a huge capacity to create sustainable jobs, the Scottish Government seems strangely ambivalent, still wedded to the idea of the North Sea oil boom that has played such a key role in the SNP’s recent history, and still tempted by the fracking companies. Scotland’s economy is in the doldrums, after all; and a nice quick-fix fracking boom would both re-employ some former oil workers, and make the next decade’s economic figures look a lot livelier.

It would also, though, divide the new, expanded SNP from top to bottom, and leave the party looking at best confused about its energy priorities, and at worst like a throwback to the Tony Blair and Bill Clinton years of nominally centre-left governments that never really say “no” to big business. For if there’s one thing the SNP should have learned – during all the long years when it watched Scotland’s valuable oil resources being used to prop up Westminster governments, and finance their policies – it’s that any government needs a strong energy base to support all its other priorities: in Scotland’s case, not only a productive and innovative economy, but also the tax revenue to sustain a decent social-democratic society, including a successful 21st century education system.

And given the choice to frack or not to frack, there can surely be no doubt which option offers the more inspiring long-term vision: a plan for the 21st century from which everyone in Scotland has something to gain, and around which our society could find a real measure of common purpose. Without making any final decision on whether fracking is locally “safe”, in other words, the Scottish Government can make the judgment, right now, that this industry has nothing to do with a sustainable low carbon future; and it can decide to focus its effort and resources elsewhere, on the energy industries born of this new century that will – if anything can – carry us safely through to the next century, and beyond.