For those of us who despair of the current focus of political debate in Scotland, Monday, February 24, confirmed our fears and should act as a severe warning for the months and years ahead.
There were two serious events that day – the launch of Sir Ian Wood’s review of how the life of the North Sea can be extended and the endorsement of a carbon capture pilot at Peterhead, however fraught the way ahead may be.
Tens of thousands of jobs for decades to come depend upon the actions that ought to flow from these landmarks of real significance.
Particularly in the north-east, they are of acute concern to whole communities and deserve support from everyone who can help to turn words into deeds.
Yet their significance was submerged in what can only be described as a political circus with the Scottish Government yapping at the heels of the UK Cabinet meeting which was itself a somewhat clumsy linkage of the North Sea to the constitutional debate.
Unpleasant talk of “thieves” gained the headlines. And while Alex Salmond’s references to where David Cameron went to school may be suitable for political playgrounds, they have absolutely no relevance to a serious debate about the future of a crucial Scottish industry.
Even if the two Cabinets felt it necessary to pitch their tents in Aberdeen and its environs in order to trade claim and counter-claim, then surely it was in the interests of both to concentrate on the industry they were supposed to be talking about, rather than the rival political interpretations which they wish to attach to it?
The Press and Journal poll on the day of these meetings suggested that the nearer one gets to the epicentre of the oil and gas industry, the lower support is for Scottish independence. This is surely more than coincidence and it should have served to dampen some of the rhetoric about failure and thieves.
Nobody who observes the booming economy of the area, or the prosperity the North Sea has brought to it, is likely to share the view that its management under successive UK governments has all been a catastrophic failure which can now only be remedied by creating an independent Scottish state, with all the new complexities and uncertainties which this would inevitably entail.
Of course, there is a debate dating back 40 years about whether the North Sea has been managed as it should have been.
Should BNOC have been created? Should it have been abolished?
Should the tax regime have been as high as Norway’s or lower than it recently has been?
Should it have been Scotland’s oil or Britain’s oil?
All no doubt of interest to historians and politicians; but almost totally irrelevant to the world as it exists today and to the future prospects of the North Sea.
As Sir Ian Wood’s report says: “UK offshore oil and gas is a great industry which has made an immeasurable and vastly underestimated contribution to the UK economy over the past five decades”.
It is far too great to be relegated, on its own doorstep, to the level of political football in an argument about something else.
The far more pressing issue is the indisputable fact that the North Sea is in quite serious decline and, unless something is done about it quickly, that process will accelerate in the face of rapidly-changing global conditions and competing opportunities.
Whatever the past history, very few people think that the “something” which is required at this point in time is constitutional upheaval.
Of much more immediate and obvious value are the key recommendations in the Wood report – and none more so than the creation of a new independent Regulator for the industry working closely with the Treasury and other interests inside and outside Government.
From my own experience, I know very well that this is a crucial prerequisite for more intelligent decision-making and the maximisation of the industry’s future potential.
Making decisions about taxation in isolation from independent advice about likely impacts on investment has never made sense, in anything other than the shortest of terms. Yet it undoubtedly happened.
The need for an unremittingly investment-friendly approach is all the more urgent now, with competition from offshore opportunities around the world at an all-time high and the costs of developing in the North Sea rising in inverse proportion to the scale of the opportunities.
It is a scenario which cries out for the kind of joined-up governmental thinking that Wood’s report proposes.
It is, as he suggests, ridiculous that the number of personnel in DECC (as it now is) who deal with North Sea regulation has halved over the past 20 years when the complexity of the challenges the industry faces have been increasing. This inevitably leads to slower decision-making when speed may well be of the essence.
The report also places much of the burden of response on the companies themselves.
One way or another, they need to be dragooned or persuaded into closer co-operation, however counter-cultural that may be. But leadership from the public sector, in the form of a strong and respected Regulator who is seen to be standing up for the industry in other contexts, would send a very good signal.
In the midst of the political point-scoring, everyone was falling over themselves to welcome and accept the Wood Report, lock, stock and barrel. But now the circus has left town, the responses will be judged by actions rather than words and these should be closely monitored.