Scotland doesn’t benefit from British economic 'strength'

But the SNP’s lack of radicalism makes it difficult for the Yes campaign to capitalise.

Against expectations, the Chancellor’s visit to Glasgow last week was a success. Speaking to a gathering of Scottish business leaders, and armed with a hefty new Treasury report, George Osborne set-out a detailed critique of SNP plans for Scotland to retain the pound after independence, a key feature of the nationalists’ 2014 prospectus. But framing his specific warnings about the pitfalls of a "Eurozone-style" monetary union was a broader attack on the economics of separation: the size and scale of the UK’s economy shields Scots from the "rapids of globalisation" – leave it and Scotland could be exposed to ameltdown of Irish, Greek or Cypriot proportions. This is a powerful line, repeated with brutal efficiency by unionist campaigners. The problem, however, is that it simply doesn’t stack up. In fact, Scotland’s vulnerability to global economic shocks is amplified by its continued membership of the UK.

Two recent reports – The Mismanagement of Britain by the Jimmy Reid Foundation and The British Growth Crisis by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) - shatter the notion of British economic strength. The former, written by Scottish economist Jim Cuthbert, out-lines the long-term decline in the competitiveness of the UK economy. Cuthbert argues that the growing deficit in the UK’s trade in general goods and services from the 1970s onwards was disguised first, in the ‘80s, by high North Sea oil tax receipts and then, during the ‘90s, by revenues from an increasingly dominant financial services sector. The underlying deficit became more pronounced as successive Westminster governments, Conservative and Labour, allowed Britain’s manufacturing base to erode. Ultimately, this made the British economy over-reliant on a handful of large financial institutions operating at the heart of the international financial system.

In The British Growth Crisis, Professor Colin Hay explains how Britain, as one of a group of deregulated economies including the United States and Ireland, felt the effects of the 2008 crash earlier and more powerfully than other Western states with smaller and less globally integrated banking sectors. As the crisis developed, spreading out from its Anglo-American epicentre, international trade went into free-fall. This tightened the squeeze on British manufacturing, which by now was in no condition to prop-up the UK’s public finances as they grappled with recession. The subsequent loss of taxable economic activity, as well as the huge cost of the bank bail-outs, sent the economy into a prolonged slump and precipitated an explosion of British debt.

Coupled with Osborne’s austerity strategy, the structural imbalances in the British economic model described by Cuthbert and Hay account for the severity of Britain’s downturn (the worst since the 1930s) and the weakness of its recovery (the slowest on record). While growth is beginning to return to France, Germany and even the US, the UK remains more or less stagnant. None of this happened by accident. It was the result of decisions taken by two or three generations of British political leaders which viewed state intervention in the market as a barrier to prosperity. The consequences for Scotland, which has one of the worst social records in the developed world, have been profound. Scots might be entitled to feel doubly aggrieved given the origins of the current crisis lie, to some extent at least, in the liberalising policies of the Thatcher governments they repeatedly rejected. That Scotland’s oil wealth was used to fund the implementation of a number of those policies only adds insult to Scottish injury.

Yet, despite the efforts of the pro-independence left, the threat to Scotland’s economic security posed by British financial instability does not feature as heavily in the constitutional debate as it might. This is because the SNP, for both political and ideological reasons, accepts much of the neo-liberal settlement which has dominated British public life for more than three decades. The clearest illustration of this can be found in the party’s support for the current UK-wide system of financial regulation (described by SNP finance secretary John Swinney as a "solid framework") to remain untouched following the break-up of the Union – a position which reflects the closeness of Alex Salmond to Scottish finance capitalism over recent years. The SNP’s controversial commitment to cut corporation tax provides further evidence of its free-market tendencies.

The political significance of the nationalists’ economic conservatism was laid bare last week, widely (and correctly) perceived as a particularly bad one for the Yes campaign. The economic case for independence should be among the SNP’s strongest cards: the British laissez-faire experiment has proved a spectacular failure, leaving ordinary Scots facinga futureof falling living standards and deteriorating working conditions. Moreover, what remains of the Scottish welfare state - protected from the most radical of New Labour’s reforms by devolution – has come under sustained assault by an unpopular Tory-led government determined to turn a crisis of neo-liberalism into one of social democracy. But, in its current state, the SNP can’t make any of this work to its advantage.It may require some awkward policy U-turns and a degree of ideological repositioning, but Salmond has to start explaining just how serious a hazard the UK represents to Scotland’s economic health.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond gestures during a press conference in St Andrews House in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.