SNP power grab is the curse of devolution – Brian Wilson

Governments, local, Scottish or UK, should work together for the greater good, but that doesn’t suit the SNP’s agenda, writes Brian Wilson

Saturday, 12th September 2020, 7:30 am
For the SNP's leaders, the devolution of power seems to stop in Edinburgh (Picture: pool photo/Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail)

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.

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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.

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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.

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 reframing 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 to commercial application.

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?

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