By Brian Wilson
It takes a peculiar talent to visit a windfarm in the North Sea and turn it into a PR disaster by talking about the closure of coal mines in the 1980s.
Apart from being politically foolish, it was historical nonsense. Closing Britain’s coal mines did not lead to reduced reliance on coal over the next couple of decades. It just led to reliance on imported coal.
The growth in renewables since the turn of the century has helped kill off coal as a generator of electricity – absolutely nothing to do with the Thatcher legacy. But the wider issue of fossil fuel dependency remains, with imported gas now our staple of choice. Is that acceptable?
If Mr Johnson wanted to offend anyone, he might have pointed his verbal dexterity in the direction of his hosts. Lovely windfarm, he could have said, but also an outstanding example of what must never happen again – i.e. the fact that virtually every bit of it has been imported from around the globe.
That would have been a good, forward-looking message because it is one on which tens of thousands of future “green jobs” depend. As history teaches us, rhetoric guarantees absolutely nothing.
In Scottish waters, the licences are being handed out by Crown Estate Scotland. They will pull in huge amounts of money, with 75 per cent of the profits going to the Scottish Government and 25 per cent to the Crown, so there are strong vested interests.
I find the continuing involvement of the Crown Estate extremely odd. There may well be a conflict between maximisation of revenue from these licences and the wider social and economic interest. The Crown Estate should have no role in determining that balance.
The formula adopted is equally unsatisfactory. This time round there are to be declarations sought from licence applicants about their intentions in relation to supply chain and local content. If they are granted the licence and fail to meet what they promised, there will be some unspecified sanctions.
However – and it is a very big however – the bit in the middle is missing. The commitments made will play no part in determining who wins the licences. Money will undoubtedly be the prime determinant of that – and so consortia with zero obligation to provide jobs in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK may well end up as successful bidders.
Mr Johnson could have used his visit to say that he will make it his business to ensure (with the Scottish Government presumably agreeing) that no consortium of oil giants, energy behemoths or other current supplicants, will get a licence without bankable commitments to UK industry. That would really have been worth saying, even if his hosts shuffled uncomfortably.
He would also have been entitled to point out that little of this is actually going to happen until near the end of the decade. Two lessons could be drawn. First, the intervening period must be used to put in place the infrastructure that will be required , particularly around ports, to maximise the benefits from these vast projects. What better use for the new structural funds, across the UK?
Then he could have disputed the fashionable folly of turning the North Sea oil and gas industry into some kind of ogre which should not be mentioned in polite company until it can be got rid of altogether. How times change! The fact is that at least 200,000 jobs depend on it and until there is certainty about what is to be put in their place, ca’ canny about destroying other people’s livelihoods.
A quite rapid energy transition is taking place and should be encouraged but virtue signalling at the expense of what is still an extremely important employment sector is an act of self-harm. The run-down of oil exploration and extraction can only sensibly be managed on an international basis and unilateral actions are pointless.
There are a lot of useful things Boris Johnson could have said on his visit to an offshore windfarm but I don’t suppose they would ever even have occurred to him. So say something daft instead.
SCOTLAND TOO CAN BENEFIT FROM MARCUS RASHFORD’S WISE WORDS
Marcus Rashford has been closely identified with campaigning for children from poor backgrounds, like the one he grew up in and has not forgotten.
This week, he wrote to the British Medical Journal asking health professionals to promote Healthy Start which provides good food and other support to families on benefit with children under four, and during pregnancy.
“I would very much appreciate it,” wrote Mr Rashford, “if you would consider collaborating with us on communicating and educating people about the scheme. A true difference can only be made via a grassroots approach.” Forty per cent of those eligible do not apply.
The poor will always be with us. They haven’t gone away, says Marcus Rashford.
I found his next sentence striking: “The majority of these parents can be found in communities just like mine, where I grew up – no internet, no high street, no word of mouth”. How often is that category considered in campaigns to inform the public about anything?
Healthy Start applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland while there is a different scheme in Scotland, paying the same food benefits, called Best Start. I suppose we have to be different though unified messaging would do no harm. We too need Marcus Rashford.
Uptake is a huge, wider issue with £20 billion in means-tested benefits unclaimed each year, suggesting up to £2 billion in Scotland. Here as much as anywhere, we should respect Marcus Rashford’s wise advice …. “a grassroots approach” aimed at people with “no internet, no high street, no word of mouth”.
This is surely an area in which we could do better and really make a difference for those who need it most – simply by delivering their entitlement.