Ed Miliband visits Standard Life on November, 11, 2013 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Ed Miliband is Alex Salmond's biggest foe in the fight for Scottish independence

The Scottish First Minister's claim that independence is needed to make Scotland and the rest of the UK more "progressive" is undermined by the prospect of the election of Labour in 2015.

After the UK cabinet's recent foray to Aberdeen, Alex Salmond will enter the belly of the Westminster beast today. The Scottish First Minister will deliver the New Statesman lecture (sold out) on "Scotland's Future in Scotland's Hands" at 6:30pm. In the address, which is trailed in today's papers, he will urge the English centre-left to embrace Scottish independence as a "progressive" cause. As he said when the lecture was announced, he believes an independent Scotland would act as "a progressive beacon and a powerful economic counterweight to the pull of London", helping to "rebalance the social and economic structure across these islands which has seen the UK become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world". In a reversal of the assumption that Scottish independence would consign the rest of the UK to permanent Conservative government, Salmond's pitch is that a more "progressive" Scotland will help to create a more progressive Britain. 

The First Minister is right to downplay the fear that the loss of Scotland would lead to unending Tory rule at Westminster. On no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament (1964 and October 1974). Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1945 (with a majority of 146, down from 143), in 1966 (77, down from 98), in 1997 (139, down from 179), in 2001 (129, down from 167) and in 2005 (43, down from 66). What those who say that Labour cannot win without Scotland are really arguing is that the party will never win a sizeable majority again. History shows that England and Wales are prepared to elect a Labour government when the conditions are right (although the loss of Labour's 41 Scottish seats, compared to the Tories' one, would certainly make the task harder). 

Salmond's wider contention is that his pursuit of progressive policies (such as investment in early years education, higher social security spending, and nuclear disarmament) in an independent Scotland would encourage their adoption in the rest of the UK. But its appeal is diluted by one central fact: there is a better-than-average chance that the next UK general election will result in the formation of a radical Labour government. As leader of the party, Ed Miliband (who will address the Scottish Labour conference on Friday 21 March) has adopted precisely the kind of centre-left policies championed by Salmond. He has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax (which, like the Poll Tax, has become a symbol of Conservative callousness in Scotland), to reverse the privatisation of the NHS, to invest more in early-years education and childcare, to reintroduce the 50p tax rate, to spread the use of the living wage, to rebalance the economy and to increase infrastructure spending. He has condemned the invasion of Iraq (which so alienated progressives in Scotland and elsewhere), prevented a rush to war in Syria and pledged to pursue a foreign policy based on "values, not alliances". Finally, he has denounced the rise in income inequality (which, as Salmond rightly laments, has made the UK one of "the most unequal societies in the developed world"),  and has made its reversal his defining mission. If the UK elects a Labour government next May, it won't need Scotland to serve as a "progressive beacon". Rather, it will become a more progressive country through its own means. 

In other respects, Salmond's claim that Scotland would help pull the rest of UK to the left is risible. While Labour has pledged to increase corporation tax from 20 per cent to 21 per cent in order to fund a reduction in business rates for small firms, the SNP has vowed to reduce it to 3 per cent below the British level. Rather than a progressive race to top, Salmond would fire the starting gun on a race to bottom. The unflattering comparisons do not end here for the First Minister. As James Maxwell, an SNP supporter, has written on The Staggers, "When Miliband challenged Rupert Murdoch's reactionary influence over British media and political life, Salmond remained strangely loyal to the News Corporation chairman. When Miliband attacked corporate tax avoidance, Salmond handed Amazon £10m worth of Scottish government money and encouraged the company to establish distribution centres in Scotland. Where Miliband has pledged to rein in monopolistic energy companies, Salmond opposed George Osborne's windfall tax on North Sea oil profits. Since becoming leader, Miliband has displayed a willingness to confront 'vested interests' generally lacking in the Scottish First Minister."

One of the few factors that could aid Salmond's flagging cause (the latest poll puts support for independence at just 32 per cent with 57 per cent opposed) is a Tory recovery. With just one Conservative MP in, the fear of another five years under the Tory yoke, and a government wedded to permanent austerity, could help to push many towards separation. By the same measure, then, Labour's consistent poll lead (which stands at nine points today), and Miliband's progressive promise, is one of the forces helping to drive them away. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.