Reading political party manifestos is, it must be said, a duty rather than a pleasure. So much verbiage, so little prospect of the vast majority of it ever being fulfilled.
Yet it is currently a necessary chore in order to get some insight into how Scotland will look over the next five years. From an energy perspective, the common theme is that we are awash with promises of “just transitions”. Everyone is in favour of them. All we need to know is what they mean.
It is a vacuous phrase which usually sits alongside “green recovery”. Who can be against just transitions or green recoveries? It is the self-satisfaction with which the words are uttered that I find off-putting – as if saying them ensures that anything very much is going to happen.
My responses are particularly prickly when the words act as cover for an assault on other people’s jobs. It is, let’s face it, glib nonsense to talk about employment being maintained through a “just transition” from oil and gas to renewable energy without a very clear account of how this is going to be achieved.
This fabled transition has been talked about for two decades yet the report card shows that far too little has happened in practice. The idea that there is some seamless transition available from working on oil platforms or in the North Sea supply chain to green energy employment in and around Scotland is very far from reality.
This may be changing and will, I hope, accelerate over the next few years. In the meantime, however, no politician in secure employment should casually write off existing jobs because there is supposedly a “just transition” or “green recovery” just around the corner.
A useful first step would be to ensure that the promised alternative jobs are actually located in Scotland or the wider UK – another conspicuous policy failure to date. Before casually denigrating what exists, maybe our green transitioners could tell us how they are going to sort that one out.
A lot of this meaningless chatter is devoted to the future of North Sea oil and gas. Apart from the Tories, nobody is very keen to talk about it in a positive way – which seems extraordinary given that it is still Scotland’s most successful industrial sector, employing more people than any other.
While other parties skirt round the subject and rabbit on about ‘just transitions’, the Greens are more forthright and need to be taken at their word. According to their manifesto: “We will support the progressive phase out of North Sea oil and gas production based on the principles of a Just Transition”. You can’t get much blunter than that.
They continue: “This is essential to protect the livelihoods and economic well-being of workers and communities, preventing a deferred collapse”. If they can provide an explanation of the internal logic of that sentence, I will be interested to hear it.
The Greens want the UK Government to stop issuing new licenses for oil and gas exploration and development, to revoke undeveloped licences and to end anything they can define as “subsidies or tax breaks” for the oil and gas industry.
They also want the Scottish Government to end all support for research and development in the sector. In other words, they want to kill off the whole North Sea industry as quickly as possible without the slightest evidence that any significant proportion of the 300,000 jobs that depend upon it are lined up for a Just Transition.
Why should we bother about the Greens? It is impossible to predict the outcome of this week’s elections but one of the likelier scenarios is that the SNP will continue in office with Green dependency for a majority. The polls suggest that Green support is rising, less because of greenery and more due to this being the second pro-independence vote of choice. So it would be prudent for anyone who values the prosperity of the north-east to check on what to expect.
There has been a foretaste. The Greens, one suspects, already scored a hit via SNP ministers’ recent decision to end support for oil and gas related trade missions. That in itself was a kick in the teeth for companies which travel constantly to create jobs in Scotland. How much more of that should we expect to follow?
On the substance of the anti-North Sea policy, I think it is simply wrong and irrational. Of course the world needs to be less dependent on fossil fuels but the only way that is going to happen is through international action.
To kill off a well-regulated industry like the North Sea while exploration and development continues elsewhere, including whole new areas of activity in Africa and Latin America, contributes absolutely nothing to global environmental objectives. It is posturing at the expense of other people’s jobs and prosperity. Every Scottish political party should have the courage to say so.
Two other points from the manifestos. First, Labour at least sounds serious about turning vast renewable energy projects into jobs for Scottish workers with a commitment to set up a Scottish Energy Development Agency and “only approve new developments when a plan for supply chain manufacturing is in place” with job creation in Scotland. Again, this is one every party should sign up to.
And the Tories are absolutely right to stress the importance of working “with rather than against the UK Government”. In every area of energy policy and regulation, that makes complete sense regardless of one’s views on the constitution. It simply does not happen at present with repeated negative consequences.
Brian Wilson is a former UK energy minister