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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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.