Thursday, 22 October 2015

Glimpses of another country

My Daily Record column
Wandering on the Aberdeen esplanade during the SNP conference I glimpsed another country.
Inside the black box conference hall, Scotland was ordered – coming blinking out on to the seafront was to see economic reality.
On the eastern horizon, rig supply boats were lined up far as the eye could see.
These ships are not waiting for a berth in a busy port. With their skeleton crews, they are going nowhere.
The idle fleet is a symbol of the impact the dramatic fall in oil prices has had on the fortunes of Aberdeen and the North Sea industry.
It was like having the central flaw of the independence White Paper writ large.
For each one of its 670 pages of oil-borne promises, 100 North Sea jobs and more are gone.
The jobs pain is spread evenly across the UK but a switch to three-week shifts offshore has effectively cut a third out of the onshore economy that services the turnarounds.
Real jobs, real livelihoods and mortgages hang on the fickle graph of oil barrels across dollars determined far from wellheads and safe harbours.
It has taken a year for senior SNP figures to publicly acknowledge the economics of independence let them down so badly in the referendum.
Whatever the excuses, voters didn’t accept the case. Internally the party has accepted the lesson, as the passionate conference debate on fracking demonstrated.
In their hearts, delegates wanted to ban the industry but Ineos boss Jim Radcliffe’s timely warning about fracking being Scotland’s best chance (last chance?) of “economic independence” rang true for them.
Independence remains the prize, it is just that with diminishing oil resources the price might be getting higher.
On Friday, the gathering storm over the Tata closures in Dalzell and Clydebridge, the outside world interrupted proceedings again.
Nicola Sturgeon promised to do what a Government can to bind the wounds, but for some the grasp on economic reality was slim.
One MSP claimed if Scotland had been independent then the Ravenscraig steel works would have been saved.
Possibly, but unlikely, though that sentiment captures both the strength and weakness of independence economics
Most Scots don’t believe independence could provide any better insulation against the rigours of global markets. That makes independence a hard sell.
Yet the very feeling of powerlessness and fury we feel about rampant globalisation is what makes many people look for alternative economic accounts, for other way of looking at reality.
The corporate muscle that stretches and bends our lives has had its own strong backdraught.
It has driven many voters to turn angrily away from conventional solutions to our problems, to a place where the price of oil will not matter to jobs and the long line of supply boats would not exist.
I dare say that anger over Chinese dumping of steel on the global market provided a distraction as Tata dispensed of what remains of the Scottish steel industry without too much scrutiny.
It is not entirely the fault of the Chinese that steel coming from Scunthorpe to Dalzell cost £325 a slab, wheras the same material could be purchased on the world market for half the price.
We cannot demand Chinese steel workers take redundancy to save ours.
It is one of the contradictions of this complex world that if Scottish steelmaking is to be revived it will likely be rescued by the very people now being scapegoated for its demise, our new friends in the Chinese Communist Party.
Maybe with the honour guard for President Jinping, the demise of steel in Scotland and these lines of boats off Aberdeen during the biggest ever SNP gathering, we all glimpsed another country this week – the one formerly known as Great Britain.

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