Get ready for another 12 months of disappointment, Scotland

This time next year we’ll know which campaign Scots disliked the least.

With a year to go until the referendum, it’s safe to say most Scots remain disengaged from the debate about their constitutional future. And who could blame them? Neither the nationalists nor the unionists have produced a campaign capable of capturing the public’s attention.

The SNP, given the opportunity to permanently alter the terms and conditions of Scottish politics, has chosen instead to try and triangulate its way to victory. Its manoeuvres on NATO, the currency, the monarchy, the regulation of financial services and corporation tax reveal a party (or rather a party leadership) lacking in ideological ambition. How much of the UK’s dysfunctional political model do Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon want to impose on an independent Scotland?

When it launched last summer, Yes Scotland had the chance to build a grassroots movement based on the idea that far-reaching constitutional change was a necessary first step towards far-reaching social change. So far, however, it has simply followed the SNP’s lead. At its most radical, Yes Scotland sells independence as a way of mitigating the worst effects of the Westminster consensus, not of actually breaking with it.

The task of building an alternative vision of independence has fallen to smaller, left-leaning organisations such as the Jimmy Reid Foundation – with its hugely successful Common Weal initiative – the Radical Independence Convention and National Collective. Without these groups, the Yes campaign would lack vitality. Their contributions will be pivotal over the coming months.

Better Together, meanwhile, has done exactly what it set out to do - and with great efficiency. Furiously exaggerating the economic pitfalls of independence, undermining trust in the Scottish government, flooding the debate with distracting and trivial arguments – the No camp has adopted a scorched earth approach to the referendum, laying waste to everything in its path, including its own intellectual credibility.

Three scare stories in particular stand out. The first is the late Lord Carmyllie’s suggestion, back in March 2012, that England would be forced to bomb the airports of an independent Scotland if it ever came under attack. The second is the claim that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be guaranteed a triple-A credit rating – something Britain itself was stripped of in January. And the third (a hands-down winner) is the MoD’s warning that Faslane nuclear base might remain “sovereign UK territory” after independence.  

During the early stages of the campaign, the relentless questioning of the SNP by Alistair Darling and others worked to expose the weakness of the nationalists’ case. Now it serves only to remind people of how empty the unionist one is. Better Together’s rampant, unsophisticated unionism needs to be balanced by a compelling account of how Scotland will benefit, socially and economically, from continued membership of the UK. It remains to be seen whether any such account exists.

The polls have been pretty consistent. According to the latest survey, the Yes campaign is trailing by 17 points and support for independence is struggling to edge above the 35 per cent mark. However, nationalists can take comfort from the fact that a large number of voters – as much as 45 per cent of the electorate, in fact – remain undecided. What’s more, the desire for a more powerful Scottish Parliament could translate into support for secession if the unionists fail to produce a coherent blueprint for the next phase of devolution.

We should, at any rate, expect the polls to narrow as the referendum approaches. The SNP is a formidable, well-resourced campaigning machine, while the energy and enthusiasm of the activists on the Yes side far outstrips that of their unionist counterparts. Moreover, it has happened before. Contrary to Nate Silver’s recent assertion, it was the Canadian federalists, not the Quebecois separatists, who squandered a double-digit advantage during the closing weeks of the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s independence from Canada. It’s not hard to imagine a similar scenario emerging in Scotland next year.

On the other hand, things could go badly wrong for the SNP if its White Paper, due out in November, doesn’t live up to the hype. Salmond has said he wants it to “resonate down through the ages”, so the pressure is on. Better Together is gearing up for a massive assault on the document, which it hopes will fatally undermine the nationalist campaign as it heads into 2014. The media’s response will be important. If journalists feel the White Paper has succeeded in answering some of the more problematic questions surrounding independence, people will think it has passed the test. If not, the SNP will find it difficult to recover.

The last 12 months have not been very edifying. The SNP and Yes Scotland have pursued their continuity narrative promising that a future independent Scotland will replicate the current unionist one in almost every way. Better Together and the pro-UK parties have pursued their wrecking ball strategy aimed at demolishing the idea that independence will be seamless and pain free. This time next year we’ll know which of the two campaigns Scots disliked the least.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a visit to the North Edinburgh Childcare Centre to mark one year to go until the Scottish independence referendum. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

GETTY
Show Hide image

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.