Read this: “And it is only by investing in environmental technology that we can end the dictatorship of oil, and it is only by tackling climate change that we create the millions of new green jobs we need”.
That is an extract from the speech Gordon Brown gave to the US Senate at the beginning of March. When I heard it, my immediate reaction was one of complete disbelief that this man could say something that, in the UK context, was a piece of blatant Westminster spin and gobbledygook.
I say this for a number of reasons, not least of which is that, without the oil industry in the UK, this Government in particular would have been severely restrained in terms of what it could have spent on social policies and, indeed, on its military exploits.
This apparent lack of gratitude shown by Gordon Brown for the efforts of the UK oil&gas sector tells one a great deal about his lack of understanding of the huge contribution this industry has made and calls into question his judgment with respect to energy issues generally.
As to investing in “environmental technology” as part of the general economic stimulus, it is worth noting that a recent analysis showed that the UK was third from the bottom of a list of 11 countries with only 7% of the total UK economic stimulus package aimed at “green” projects, and most of it going into areas such as improving insulation, not developing new technologies and building a new industry.
So the reality of the situation would seem to be a lot different to the political rhetoric.
That said, one politician who recently seems to have been saying and promoting a lot of what I would call the right things has been Lord Mandelson.
In a speech full of surprises that he gave at the beginning of March at the Trade and Investment Dinner at the Mansion House, in London, he talked about the importance of re-balancing the economy and the need to grow our hi-tech manufacturing industries. His speech included references to developing low-carbon businesses and a low-carbon industrial strategy.
He also brought in reference to the issue of how to fund new start-ups and early-stage companies and talked about the possibility of developing new ways of doing this. This shows at least that he recognises how important this problem is.
Suggesting that we must also try to make sure that UK companies benefit from public procurement projects, I really began to think that, at long last, these people had got it.
Then I noticed that he didn’t actually say UK companies, but “UK-based companies” – which, of course, means it could be any nationality.
I suppose it was all too good to be true, but then, according to a lively article in the media a few days ago, a senior economic adviser to Gordon Brown said the City of London was all-important to the Government, and “the rest of the country can be turned over to tourism”.
Apparently this character also said, “Defence, aerospace, manufacturing and engineering have no real value to us. Only high-quality professional services, financial services and the City of London have any real value and they should be supported at all costs”.
Personally, I’d have taken him outside and beaten him to a pulp with a baseball bat with nails in it, but evidently he is still in a job.
Of course, he could have just been pulling our legs; maybe he possesses a slightly eccentric sense of humour. Indeed, having a sense of humour in this country is absolutely essential and, like most people, I do love a good jape.
For example, I laughed out loud when I first read the outline “Energetica” project proposal for Scotland’s north-east corner.
Actually, I’m not sure if it’s a proposal, a real project or just someone’s dream, but the broad idea would seem to be to create a corridor of high value-adding energy-technology companies between Bridge of Don and Peterhead.
To sell us the idea, we are told about the success of the Research Triangle Park in the US; Sophia Antipolis in France; The Woodlands in the US, and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.
It’s true. These have all been extremely successful and, although Masdar City is behind schedule because of the fall in the oil price, it will still be successful.
The reason, of course, is that the companies which have set up on these parks had received proper levels of investment. Being primarily French or American, this is to be expected. These countries invest properly in their industries, and the Americans, in particular, are investing very heavily in new energy technologies.
Even on our doorstep we find that the Norwegians do things so much better than us. While a certain amount of excitement was created here by the news that an Edinburgh-based angel investment group was making available some £3million to invest in new renewable-technology companies, the Norwegians have recently announced that the solar company, NorSun, has raised 129million euros (about £121million) in venture funding.
Sad to say, in comparison with even our relatively small neighbours, we still don’t do investment properly – although we do seem to have become real experts at wishful thinking.
Of course, we would be quite content if all the companies that set up within the Energetica corridor were foreign ones. What seems to matter most here is that the buildings get filled so the developers makes their money back, and if public money is involved then all the right boxes can be ticked.
Strategically, this is just plain barmy, so we really must think up new ways of trying to increase the levels of investment in indigenous companies. The banks are still basket cases, so they are out of the picture completely.
Our few angel investment groups do a sterling job but, realistically, can’t raise enough cash to make a huge difference when it comes to the higher-growth companies.
Certainly, raising 129million euros a la NorSun would probably be beyond them, but it is also probably beyond the Scottish VCs as well. Actually, are there any Scottish VCs left? I haven’t even heard much of Scottish Equity Partners recently.
So here’s a thought. Remember the Nova fund that was set up by Shell, BP and a few other oil companies in the wake of the late-1990s oil slump?
Well, let’s do it again. Let’s, in fact, persuade Government to allow oil companies to offset a contribution to a new Nova fund against their other taxes so that it doesn’t cost them anything but the money goes towards what Government says it wants to do, which is investing in new environmental technologies.
Answers on a postcard, please, as to what you think the answer would be.