BRIAN WILSON: SUNDAY MORNING IN ORKNEY

I write from Orkney after an overdue visit to EMEC – the European Marine Energy Centre – which I had a hand in establishing in an earlier life.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise promoted the idea of a testing centre for wave and tidal energy. I was UK Energy Minister.  It was not difficult to agree the principle – 50-50 funding from UK Government and HIE.

That is how things can be done by working together for a shared interest; a reflection which made Stromness a useful vantage point from which to view the latest faux indignation about money retrieved from Brussels not being channelled through Edinburgh.

The idea of “working together” has been lost in the constant mission to find points of conflict. The idea something which is good for the UK is also in Scotland’s interests is anathema to those whose raison d’etre is to drive wedges between the two.

Equally, I baulk at talk of “putting a Union Jack” on UK government spending in Scotland. That is not how it should work. Public investment should reflect shared needs and priorities. A battle of flags, however tempting, panders to a false political dichotomy.

“EU money” was never any such thing. It was a fraction of British taxpayers’ money, recycled according to priorities set in Brussels via structural funds and other devices. That was accepted as largely beneficial, particularly for peripheral regions and poorer areas on which “EU money” tended to focus.

It created another route for councils and businesses to pursue aspirations which might not have been shared by Scottish or UK Governments. All wisdom does not reside in any one centre of power – which is the straitjacket the SNP is determined to shoehorn us into, so long as that centre is itself.

Whatever the Internal Market Bill’s other demerits, I am 100 per cent supportive of the UK Government’s right to fund strategic priorities in Scotland directly, rather than hand over every penny for re-branding as Scottish Government largesse.

However annoying it may be to Nationalists, the Scottish economy is reliant on being part of something bigger than Scotland alone – contracts, supply chains, infrastructure, research, markets. Public funding should support UK-wide strategic objectives as well as purely Scottish ones with no need for conflict around that principle.

Orkney has become adept at connecting to diverse funding sources.

Back on Orkney, EMEC has repaid that initial co-investment many times over. It is genuinely “world-leading”, having tested more wave and tidal devices than any other location. Faced with challenges inherent in that sector, it has diversified into other aspects of renewable energy and leads the country in use of hydrogen.

Like any such organisation, it has become adept at connecting to diverse funding sources – for innovation, research and development, pilot projects. That means looking to both Scottish and UK Governments, which have a shared interest in its success.

Better still, an Orkney renewables industry has grown up alongside EMEC, supporting around 300 island jobs and a UK-wide supply chain. That is a success story which demonstrates how initial public investment allied to local initiative can produce best results – and there has never been a more relevant time to recognise that lesson.

The biggest curse of devolution apart from the re-framing of Scottish politics around constitutional division has been contempt for localisation. Devolution comes to a grinding halt once it reaches Edinburgh which, at the same time, sucks powers from local authorities and other agencies. The last thing we need is another centralising step in that direction.

The wave and tidal sector, as it happens, is an example of why we need governments to work together rather than in an atmosphere of flag-waving competition. It needs people of goodwill to sit round a table and agree what steps, and continuity of public policy, are required to take it from technical feasibility (proven) to commercial application (close).

That would be a great result for Scotland and the UK. We really would be world-leaders at something. But to achieve it, there is a need for political will based on shared objectives. That used to happen but must it now be irredeemably lost?

JOHNSON’S TREATY-BREAKING IS STRAIGHT OUT THE TRUMP PLAYBOOK

Belfast City Hall. What will Brexit do to this city? Picture by Bill Heaney

Almost nobody understands the practical implications of Boris Johnson reneging on the European Withdrawal Treaty or motives behind it.

However, everyone understands the declaration by Brandon Lewis, the spiv-like Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that the legislation will break international law “in a specific and limited way”.

That is certainly understood by decent Tories who hold to the belief that Treaties should be taken seriously. As Michael Howard – scarcely an icon of liberal thought – wondered: “How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran … when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” Short answer: We can’t.

Is anyone surprised? If such considerations are understood by Johnson and his acolytes it is only in order to hold them in disdain. The principled departure of senior civil servants is seen as proof of their own cleverness since they, like the law itself, are beneath them.

It should never be forgotten  – but probably will be –  that Johnson was wished upon us by opposition parties, too stupid (Labour), cynical (SNP) or delusional (LibDems) to accept the Theresa May deal, including Northern Ireland backstop, and recognise that Brexit would not be wished away.

We now live with the consequences, including the deranged proposition that a no-deal Brexit may be pressed ahead with in the midst of a pandemic and with half of British business struggling to survive.

Whatever the immediate outcome, the Brandon Lewis Doctrine will live on in ignominy. Treaties are made to be ignored, so long as it is in “a specific and limited way”. Johnson will continue to operate on the same assumption Trump relies on – that only a minority actually care.

 

 

 

 

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