Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

Independence Supporters Need to Talk About the Policy Failures of the Scottish Government

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Jonathon Shafi argues that the Scottish Government is hiding its dire policy record behind false claims of preparation for independence.

This is an abridged version of an article from Independence Captured.

Recently I have argued that, despite the rhetoric, independence is not a short or medium term practical reality. Yet the cost of living crisis and the post-pandemic (maybe that is an optimistic phrase) challenges faced by millions of Scots mean that we can’t afford not to critically examine the situation in the here and now:

Perhaps that starts, if independence is indeed off the table, with a renewed debate about the successes and failures of the SNP government on devolved policy issues free from our constitutional preferences. Maybe for some that is a provocative thing to say – but in my view it is a healthy discussion for independence supporters to be part of.

Independence supporters must have the capacity to properly assess the domestic performance of the SNP at any time. But this is especially true if the party is also failing to deliver on independence and conditions for the Scottish working class are in a state of deterioration as price hikes hit.

Alongside ongoing analysis of the national question as a whole, Independence Captured is going to take a detailed look at areas where the government is failing to deliver on key areas of importance today.

We will look at everything from education and industrial policy to ferries, child poverty, care, housing and local government. There will be special editions reviewing the impact of the Scottish Greens, and along the way we will uncover the role of the corporate lobby. In addition we will dissect the various policy papers that have been produced, including the National Strategy for Economic Transformation.

The premise is a simple one: there is a permanent dislocation between rhetoric and reality.

Powering down Scotland

This week we focus on energy. Scotland hosts a mammoth national asset that should be deployed to raise the living conditions of its people. Not oil, but wind and renewable energy potential. This should be harnessed to its fullest capacity – delivering for workers and their communities across the country.

Perhaps this is why Nicola Sturgeon announced support for the creation of a Scottish National Energy Company in 2017. At the SNP conference she stated:

“Energy would be bought wholesale or generated here in Scotland – renewable, of course – and sold to customers as close to cost price as possible. No shareholders to worry about. No corporate bonuses to consider. It would give people – particularly those on low incomes – more choice and the option of a supplier whose only job is to secure the lowest price for consumers.”

This was all to be set up for 2021. It sounded ideal then. Now? It could have played a central role in reckoning with the cost of living crisis. Not a mitigation, not a sticking plaster. Instead a solid piece of infrastructure, set up to directly benefit the Scottish people.

Understandably this was extremely popular with SNP members. But fast forward three years – and nothing had happened. The idea had been diluted, and shelved. So at the party conference of September 2021, SNP members took forward a motion in a bid to re-animate the policy. The motion passed by 527 votes to six.

This will be something of a recurring theme. Announcements and headlines, followed by retreat and eschewing members’ wishes. So it follows that despite the pledge made by the First Minster in 2017, and the overwhelming vote of SNP members after three years of inaction, the SNP voted against setting up a National Energy Company in the Scottish parliament in September 2021. They were joined by the Greens, about whom much more in coming newsletters.

Selling Scotland’s national assets

The Scottish Government seem to have adopted an organising principle which structurally favours foreign capital and multinational corporations over public ownership and democratic control. Thus, the SNP launched the “£3 Billion Green investment portfolio” in September 2020. As the then Economy Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, stated:

“We know investors need credible projects that reduce emissions to match their own green ambitions. By assessing these projects before they go to market, the Green Investment Portfolio gives global investors the confidence they need to back projects in Scotland. The range of opportunities within this portfolio will expand over time to include £3 billion of projects ready for green finance investment, covering sectors from environmentally sustainable commercial real estate to low emission transportation and green energy.”

Forget the green-wash. This is the privatisation of Scotland’s energy future. It is a prelude to wealth being extracted from Scotland, and from the Scottish people. This is the precise opposite of a long-term strategy and all about short term profit. Profits that will be siphoned off by private corporations.

In this spirit, Scotland’s off-shore wind potential is in the process of being bought up by private firms too, including by some of the worlds leading oil companies such as Shell and BP. The ScotWind auction was hailed by the First Minister as a “truly historic” moment for Scotland. But it is far from it. Rather it is a colossal missed opportunity and mismanagement of resources.

In reality, Scotland stands to lose between £3.5 billion and £5.5 billion every year since the initial capital investment is not integrated with a long-term process which banks the profits for the Scottish people.

As Dr Craig Dalzell explains:

Had Scotland launched a national energy company capable of owning ScotWind, it would have been well placed to deliver billions in profits to Scotland every year that will now instead be shipped overseas to private shareholders or invested in the public services of those countries who have deployed their own nationalised companies in Scotland. Scotland must build up that capacity now so that it is ready to capture the results of the next energy auction and can position itself to nationalise ScotWind assets when their leases are poised for renewal.”

On these matters – and on many others which I will document in the months ahead – it is evident that there exists no serious industrial strategy for Scotland that could hope to meet the economic challenges that vast swathes of the country face.

The Scottish Government predicts that one in three Scottish households — 824,000 homes — will be living in fuel poverty by the start of April, when a rise in the energy price cap is expected to increase bills by 54 per cent

Headlines are cheap – what we need is action. Instead alternatives are shelved, and natural resources are sold off to the highest bidder. Independence or no independence, this embeds the logic of privatisation into what should be strategically held national assets for the common good.

Are we really going to put up with a re-run of the disastrous Thatcherite approach to energy, with the privatisation of our renewable potential?

Green New Deal on the rocks

The truth is that handing over control of energy to private corporations, without guarantees about supply chain jobs, is a far cry from a “Green New Deal.” Such a process is meant to connect environmental concerns with economic renewal. Not to utilise the climate question as a gateway to new rounds of private capital accumulation.

I don’t think a radical Green New Deal has ever been part of the agenda of the SNP leadership. It was notable that in a speech to the STUC conference in 2019 the First Minster promised a “Scottish Green Deal.” Maybe you could argue I am being pedantic, but the removal of the word “New” in this context does have a bearing.

On the theme of “green jobs” the SNP set a target of having 130,000 jobs in the low carbon economy by 2020. The Office for National Statistics showed the number of jobs was just 20,500 in 2020, and had declined every year since 2016, when it was 24,000.

Seriously – that’s appalling. We are going backwards when there is an urgent need for forward movement and tangible progress. But it shouldn’t be surprising because – again – there has been next to nothing in terms of strategic thinking about Scottish green industrialisation aside from lining up the next big corporate bonanza.

The response to these figures is comically on brand for SNP style public relations. Now, the SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes is considering “redefining” green jobs to massage the statistics. Once again, we have rhetorical flourish and obfuscation in place of strategy and delivery.

Scuppering independence before we get there?

The problem, for independence supporters at any rate, goes further. Because to build up a new state that is truly economically independent and socially transformational requires control over resources in a volatile world. Indeed, projects such as a National Energy Company are in-fact the kind of solid foundations to develop independence from.

My argument is that the permanent stasis around independence acts as cover for privatisation and the myriad of policy failures in Scotland domestically. Imagine, having sold off the nation’s core renewable energy resource, also adopting Sterlinigsation at the same time. Scotland would be at the mercy of yet more privatisation without a central bank since, among other things, borrowing would be set at a premium.

Democratic control and sovereignty will have been sacrificed before we even start. That is also why supporters of independence must raise these kinds of issues with honesty and fearlessness. The challenges of the 21st century demand nothing less – and tribalism for the sake of it won’t do.

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