A stag in Braemar, Scotland. Photo: Getty
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John Burnside on nature: the threat to Scotland's wild north

A new threat looms over northern Scotland as Scottish & Southern Electricity seeks to erect a further 47 wind turbines at Strathy South. This will directly imperil golden eagles, hen harriers and the rare wood sandpiper – estimated to number no more than a few breeding pairs in all of Britain.

I remember how, back in the 1980s, the Scottish Flow Country became an object of bemused controversy as rich celebrities and businessmen from south of the border acquired great tracts of this vast wetland in the far north in order to plant non-native conifer plantations that attract hefty tax breaks.

The RSPB describes the region as “one of the last remaining areas of wild land in the UK”. That anyone would even consider ploughing up the wilderness was cause for dismay, but the handing out of generous subsidies to ensure its destruction was so objectionable that the scheme was phased out in 1988. For once, it seemed, Abraham Lincoln’s old saw had been proven right: “. . . public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” And although immense damage had been done, the Flow Country was given a partial reprieve.

Now, a new threat looms over northern Scotland as Scottish & Southern Electricity seeks to erect a further 47 wind turbines at Strathy South, adding to its holdings in the north. This will directly imperil golden eagles, hen harriers and the rare wood sandpiper – estimated to number no more than a few breeding pairs in all of Britain.

The company has chosen land that was badly degraded by those 1980s “investments” – but its vague promises of a “restoration” programme do not arise from any kind of high-mindedness. It is all part of a nationwide circus of smoke and mirrors. And if we add to this the devastation that our subsidy culture has already wreaked in this part of the country – factoring in the Scottish Executive’s hawkish support for an ill-advised 103-turbine Viking Energy windfarm development on Shetland (previously mentioned in this column) – it is hard to avoid the impression that the Scottish National Party-led government cares less about the environment than it would have us believe.

This should not surprise anyone, however: Holyrood’s very active support in the mid-2000s for the now-infamous Trump golf resort at Menie showed a disregard for the environment that, with each “development” it has since pushed through, has become increasingly apparent – and increasingly worrying. Certainly the publication last month of a new map of Scottish wild land areas offered little encouragement to those who want to see Strathy South and Shetland protected from further encroachment.
Neither the Scottish & Southern nor the Viking site appears on the map – despite expert opinions that if these plans were to go ahead nature would suffer.

Of course, definitions of “wild land” vary and are ultimately determined by the people in charge. But surely it is clear that enough damage has been done, and that it’s time not to draw cosmetic maps (which, should commercial interests challenge them down the line, will almost certainly be redrawn) but to change our way of living?

With energy generation, the first step is to insist that all developments be appropriate in scale, cost-effective and judiciously located to reduce the impact on soil profiles and wildlife to the absolute minimum. (Really, it sounds like arrant cynicism when developers speak of “restoration programmes” while inserting hundreds of huge concrete stabilising plugs into sensitive peatland, such as that found in much of northern Scotland).

We must change – and the first change is to stop believing the lies. To do the research and follow the money trail. Most of all, to ask what “renewable” means, and whether a development is renewable when it destroys birdlife, soil structure and what remains of the last wilderness in an increasingly ruined land. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.