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30 May 2023

Will Keir Starmer’s green energy plan threaten Labour’s Scottish recovery?

The Labour leader’s planned ban on North Sea oil and gas licences could alienate more voters than it attracts.

By Chris Deerin

In view of the political turmoil that has roiled Scotland in recent decades, its ongoing identity crisis and its democratic restlessness, there has been a puzzling absence of “state of the nation” literary fiction. The novelist Richard T Kelly may be no Scot – he grew up in Northern Ireland and lives in London – but he is about to help redress that.

The Black Eden, which will be published by Faber in early July, explores the tumultuous effect that the discovery of North Sea oil and gas in the late 1960s and 1970s had on Scotland’s communities, economy and politics. The find brought with it a rush of capitalist modernity, of the kind that would later be triggered by the Thatcher government and lead to a profound breach between the Conservatives and voters north of the border. There were well-paid but punishing jobs on the rigs, and extraordinary rewards for financiers and oil companies as sleepy coastal towns and villages, with traditional ways stretching back centuries, suddenly found themselves centres of frenzied development. There was a debate over ownership, too: the SNP adopted the slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil” and began to accumulate votes and credibility.

Kelly’s novel is a carefully researched and historically informed work that, although it ends in the early 1980s, maps many of the trends that have reached their denouement in today’s constitutional stand-off. One character, Mark, a Scotsman journalist turned SNP MP, makes his maiden speech in 1973, telling the Commons: “Mr Speaker, for a time Scotland has maybe seemed to be on the periphery of the United Kingdom. But now the United Kingdom is on the periphery of Europe. And by any just measure Scotland should become one of the richest industrial areas in all of Western Europe. Whether that is as part of the United Kingdom or as a sovereign state – the SNP believes the Scottish people should decide.” Words that, 50 years on, could come from Humza Yousaf, the First Minister.

The book couldn’t be better timed. For good or ill, North Sea hydrocarbons have defined Scotland’s relationship with the UK ever since their discovery. They have underwritten Scotland’s economic usefulness, typically producing billions in revenues each year to fund Westminster’s public spending, and have strengthened Britain’s authority as a global player, while also driving rising demands for Scottish independence. They have raised existential questions about cross-border rights, fairness and solidarity, questions that arise in slightly different forms today, but that nevertheless remain unresolved.

The energy market may be changing rapidly, but its future, like Keir Starmer’s route to Downing Street, still runs through Scotland. North Britain’s wind-tossed climate and its ragged, tumultuous coast demand a central place in any green economy. The long expertise of Aberdeen and its environs, the presence of oil majors and entrepreneurs who are quickly moving into renewable energy, is key to making much of the developing technology work – from onshore and offshore wind and wave power to battery storage and carbon capture. As the world reaches for net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the UK’s political parties are competing to offer the most convincing vision for the future. As the oil fields begin to wind down, a new future is winding up.

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[See also: The right’s obsession with “the blob” shows it is losing]

For politicians, there are both opportunities and dangers here. If, on renewable energy, the UK attempts to run before it can walk, it risks falling over. Wind power especially is a growing presence in our energy mix, but is somewhat unpredictable, and we all remain heavily reliant on oil and gas, whether in the home or in business and industry. Renewables are not yet capable of bearing the whole burden, however desperately we might wish they were. Then there are those companies, including in the fossil fuel industry’s supply chain, that currently provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and that find their future under threat. Further, the transition to renewables promises to be expensive at a deeply inconvenient economic moment.

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Of course, we have little choice but to face the challenge, given the increasingly imminent nightmare of climate change. But there is a balance to be struck, difficult judgements on timing, investment and public opinion to be made. This is (or is supposed to be) the politician’s art. The polls suggest Starmer will be prime minister, probably by next autumn, and so many of these judgements will probably fall to him. The Labour leader must consider the pace of climate change, but also the pace of progress on renewables and the need to keep the lights on.

The future of the UK also comes into the discussion, as it always does when Scotland is involved. On 28 May the Sunday Times reported that Starmer will pledge that no new North Sea oil and gas licences will be granted when he launches his net zero “national mission” in Scotland next month. Labour’s plan is to double onshore wind power generation, more than quadruple its offshore equivalent, and triple solar power. The party will promise to establish a publicly owned energy company with the aim of achieving a zero-carbon power system by 2030.

This deliberately places Labour ahead in the green debate. The SNP, which shares power with the Scottish Greens, has long sought to portray Scotland as the UK frontrunner in such matters. The reality – a confusing and sometimes contradictory mix of targets, many of which are unlikely to be met – has been drowned out by the rhetoric. The SNP’s own plan for a national energy company has been abandoned.

One can see Starmer’s political logic: he needs Scotland to return to Labour if he is to win the next general election with a decent majority. The seats most likely to turn from SNP yellow back to red are those in the central belt – from Glasgow in the west to Fife in the east – where urban and suburban voters have recently tended towards the Nationalist-Green worldview. Given the Labour leader’s rather conservative positions on immigration and Brexit, which will be unattractive to these voters, his pitch on oil and gas is a fairly transparent attempt to woo them.

Labour is briefing that its energy plan will create up to half a million jobs, with at least 50,000 in Scotland, but I’m not convinced voters believe these numbers: every party is making projections of one sort or another. The 2030 target similarly feels like a somewhat cynical attempt to outbid the rest: retail politics rather than realisable policy.

The ban on oil licences could also have the effect of pushing voters in the north-east of Scotland towards the Tories, who are opposed to such a blanket position. Scottish Labour isn’t entirely happy with Starmer’s announcement. “We need to be a national party to win back Holyrood. Frankly we could have done with something a little softer,” a source tells me.

For as long as Scotland debates its place in the UK, energy will be central to the argument. It needs to be treated seriously. As modern political history shows us, announcements designed to thwart the SNP have a habit of backfiring.

[See also: Will Labour’s green energy plans last much longer?]

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