Edinburgh tattoo: a pro-independence rally, September 2013. Photo: Getty
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The polls are narrowing, the nationalists are on the march and Scotland is divided

Even younger SNP activists possess an evangelicalism that simply cannot be matched by Labour and the No camp.

When does a political conference cease to be one and instead become a rally? The SNP’s spring conference in Aberdeen was one such occasion. David Attenborough ought to have been there to do his time-lapse camera thing for the benefit of anthropologists everywhere.

The conference denouement was provided by Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, a man who requires little help in heating the blood of his followers. However, on this occasion a support act was provided by a preview of a play by the Scots playwright Alan Bissett entitled The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant. Bissett is a gifted writer but his interpretation of recent Scottish history seems built on the theory that Scotland has been living under English occupation and that the press are the quisling wormtongues of the oppressor. By the time Salmond made his entry, the hall was in a right old lather.

The First Minister’s 40-minute address was accompanied by a constant beat of foot-stamping and a steady thrum of “ahas” and “mhmms”, in the manner of Pentecostalists at a revival meeting. There was spontaneous hugging and tears. Fortunately, with five months to go until the referendum, Salmond resisted the urge to yell “We’re allll riiiiight”, like another political leader, 22 years ago, who thought his time had come.

 

Victim support

The Scottish nationalists must snap out of their victim complex over a perceived anti-Yes bias in the UK and Scottish press. Certainly, the pattern of press ownership in Scotland suggests an inherent pro-Union sentiment, but a study of each of Scotland’s national newspapers shows that the Yes camp has little to complain about. In the comment sections of these papers, I have already counted nine columnists who, by degrees, could be considered sympathetic to the nationalist cause.

The Scottish edition of the Sun, meanwhile, has backed the SNP at the last two Holyrood elections and I understand that a lively debate is being conducted at the paper’s Glasgow HQ as to which side it will support come September. Rupert Murdoch, we are told, likes to back winners but the extent to which he felt he was betrayed by David Cameron and the Westminster establishment over phone-hacking and the abortive takeover of BSkyB in 2011 may also come into play.

The press seats were firmly in the eye of the storm for the First Minister’s speech. At the end of it I stood up to look around at the cheering delegates and noticed that my newspaper colleagues and I were being treated to what could only be described as “aggressive clapping”. The perpetrators, in this instance a row of senior citizens, fixed you with a determined stare and began to clap at you with enthusiastic disapprobation. “Why aren’t you clapping, too?” they seemed to be asking.

 

Make it to the promised land

Opinion polls in recent months have suggested a significant narrowing of the gap between Yes and No. What once seemed insurmountable for the nationalists now doesn’t seem to be so at all.

The numbers currently indicate that support for Yes is now creeping towards 40 per cent, meaning a single-digit swing come September would result in independence. This has been accompanied by increasing claims from some in the No camp that Yes campaigning is breaching the nebulous bounds of what is considered to be decent and acceptable in politics (can there be such a thing?).

Yet what some may consider intimidating, others may deem merely passion and fervour. In the audience at the spring conference were many elderly people who have been campaigning for independence for their entire adult lives. The Promised Land is within touching distance. Even younger activists possess an evangelicalism that simply cannot be matched by those Labour supporters who will bear the burden of unionist campaigning in the weeks leading up to 18 September.

As such, there has been a revival of 1950s and 1960s town-hall politics with debates and gatherings occurring almost every night of the week, the length and breadth of Scotland. The No camp is being trounced at these, and this has probably been reflected in the recent polls. In the final two weeks of the campaign the SNP will command a huge army of committed volunteers. The extent to which the No campaign can match this nationalist footfall may yet determine the final outcome.

 

No turning back

In the light of all this sound and fury some have expressed disquiet at what may happen if Scotland votes No. Will the campaign wounds be so deep that a prolonged period of healing and reconciliation may be required? And how painful would that be? The stakes are much, much higher than for any Westminster plebiscite, which can be reversed every five years or so. This one is irreversible and emotions, naturally, are running high. The increasingly impressive Nicola Sturgeon, deputy leader of the SNP, seems to have sensed the need for calm in the days following 18 September. In a recent address to foreign media she said that, no matter the outcome, we must all return to being brother and sister Scots again, and move on together.

It may not be that simple. My straw poll of nationalists last weekend found almost universal support for a second referendum if the result of this one is a narrow defeat. This flies in the face of national polls, which suggest little appetite in the country for such. Scotland is a divided nation and may remain so for quite some time.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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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.