AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN
As she addressed the party faithful at the SNP’s virtual annual conference, Nicola Sturgeon took a moment to offer a fond farewell to Britain’s soon-to-be former EU partners. “You are – and always will be – part of who we are”, she said. Aside from the fact that she had just made the case from splitting with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who surely also make Scotland “who we are”, she may reflect on how the EU has been a mixed blessing for Scotland.
The collapse of the BiFab manufacturing plant in Fife is a case in point. This has not been the SNP’s finest hour. It is bad enough that the government gave back word on an earlier promise of a guarantee to secure a £30m order for the Methil yard on a £2 billion wind far project. Latterly, it has blamed the EU’s state aid rules for preventing it from signing off the guarantee.
The UK government has offered the same “lack of legal routes” excuse for not supporting BiFab and in a rare statement of solidarity, the two sworn enemies issued a joint statement effectively washing their hands of the problem and blaming the eurocrats.
As neither government has provided details of the legal advice or the full process they followed to reach their decision, we can only judge it on what we know.
For the UK government it may have been an undesirable outcome, though blaming state aid rules does suit its case for leaving the EU when such rules will no longer apply and Britain can decide for itself which businesses to back.
It is far more uncomfortable for the Scottish government. First, failure to back a high profile manufacturer of jackets for what will be one of the biggest wind farms in the country blows a big hole in the SNP’s claims, reaffirmed at its conference, to be championing the growth of a world-beating renewables sector. The party’s promises, including its pledges on green jobs, look about as reliable as a turbine built on soft sand.
Secondly, this episode is embarrassing for a party that so desperately wants to be reunited with the EU, the very institution which has just slammed the door on BiFab and the SNP’s clean energy ambitions. The EU making us who we are? Really? Where are your friends when you need them? The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that in spite of rules preventing state interference the company ordering the turbines for the Neart Na Gaoithe wind farm is EDF Renewables, owned by the French state.
The BiFab debacle has exposed wider issues, not least the lack of a coherent industrial policy which fails to match fine words with firm action. The SNP promised us a state-backed energy company, but has quietly left it on the shelf. Instead, it commissions businessmen and academics to produce fat reports on ‘sustainability’ and ‘inclusion’ that mean nothing to those looking for real work.
Aside from politicians from all parties, there are plenty of organisations and business groups pushing the green agenda – and the SCDI has just published another set of clean energy goals. But the enthusiasm and cautious optimism is tainted by the failures of successive governments of various hues to move quickly and effectively enough, including a lack of investment in the BiFab yard’s facilities which are part-owned by the Scottish Government.
At a recent Holyrood committee hearing Scottish Renewables highlighted how Britain had dragged its feet in getting the basics right, allowing the Europeans and now the Asians to get ahead. The result can be seen in the arrival of the administrators in Methil and contracts heading to Indonesia.
‘Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop should stop apologising and wringing her hands and make a start on rectifying this mess by publishing full details of what lay behind her decisions’
One must ask where the private sector is in all this. Renewables is supposed to represent the future. Why isn’t private equity and the rest of the investment community falling over themselves to back businesses like BiFab? Where is the “Edinburgh-based” Green Investment Bank which was set up supposedly to invest in major renewables projects that the private sector felt unable to support independently? It was sold to the Australian firm Macquarie, since when we’ve barely heard from it.
Why are we so incapable of funding our own industries? While we shove our hands down the side of the sofa in search of pennies to keep firms like BiFab in business an investment company in China has found a whopping £800 million to invest in a green energy park planned for Peterhead. There’s also plenty of Asian cash swilling about ready to be poured into new nuclear power stations in the UK.
The Scottish and UK governments say they continue to pursue ways of achieving their clean power targets, but the events of recent weeks are ringing hollow among the dwindling band of workers at BiFab who’ve been badly let down and now face Christmas on the dole.
The Canadians who were supposed to have bought a stake in BiFab are not off the hook and need to explain their timid involvement in finding the required finance. There is said to be – almost inevitably – Chinese interest.
In the meantime, Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop should stop apologising and wringing her hands and make a start on rectifying this mess by publishing full details of what lay behind her decisions so that we can at least begin to understand the problem she faced and how it can be put right.