28 April 2008

The Unions and the Union at Grangemouth

Over the weekend, I read Cllr Jim Millar's comments on the strike at Grangemouth, and found them to be well worth bringing up.

His analysis of the political machinations at work is fascinating and it's hard to disagree with the general sentiment. Though there are a few points I'd like to put forward:

1. Remember the 2000 fuel protests? For a brief period, the panic and fuel shortages saw Labour fall behind the Tories in UK opinion polls, and System3's Holyrood poll for October 2000 saw the SNP open up a 14-point lead over Labour on the Constituency Vote, and a 13-point lead over them on the Regional Vote. Now at the moment, the effects of what happens at Grangemouth are more than likely to be confined to Scotland, so that limits the political impact: if this were a UK-wide issue then this would be the moment that political historians would point to as the one when David Cameron secured a 150-seat majority. But it's not. And the picture is complicated by the fact that Labour is no longer in charge at both Westminster and Holyrood. In 2000, they were the only possible recipients of a kicking. This time, voters could opt to kick Labour where it hurts for this, and a lot of MPs should be worried about their post-2010 employment. Or this could be marked as the end of the SNP's honeymoon. One side could find themselves damaged severely enough to cause electoral difficulties that last three years or more. But which side? Or could this just blow over, as the 2000 protests did? At this point, it's hard to tell.

2. The one issue I have with Jim's assessment is its presumption of cynicism and the advantages of failure. There are also major benefits to one Government or the other in the event of the matter being settled. The Scottish Government has been the most prominent on this issue, and has tried taking steps to calm things down, despite not having much in the way of actual power on the issue. By being the more visible party, they are in a better position to take the credit for positive developments. So we see Alex Salmond as the statesman, able to settle disputes of this nature. Conversely, the UK Government is the one with the power in this instance, so they too will make an attempt to claim credit for successes, despite the difficulty in discerning just what exactly they are responsible for. So we will see the Brown Government, capable of responding to tough situations, just what we need in time of greater uncertainty. That's what they'll say, anyway.

3. I am most taken with Jim's analysis of the Unionist view, particularly the need to see tankers crossing the border, coming from England to bail out Scotland (circumstances eerily reminiscent of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, incidentally) and his concern that that hasn't happened. But fuel is arriving in Scotland... from mainland Europe! This is manna from heaven for the SNP - the UK failing to sort matters out, the EU stepping to the plate. What a boost for the principle of independence in Europe...

4. But if anything, the sight of tankers crossing the Anglo-Scottish border could put the Union in even greater jeopardy: the English Democrats' stridently anti-Scottish London mayoral campaign has gone completely to pieces, showing that questions of comparative funding between Scotland and London, attempting to stoke up resentment against Scotland, hasn't resonated. But the sight of English petrol heading up to Scotland? That could change things. It might not help the English Democrats, though remember that the Greater London Assembly has a PR system, that 5% would get any party an Assembly Member and something like this could push the EDs in that direction. And in any case, it would stoke up sections of the Tory right wing and the press would have a field day. While they haven't been successful in getting people hooked into esoteric ideas like the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula, the sight of fuel tankers that would have supplied English motorists going North would be political dynamite.

"It's Scotland's Oil" was the rallying cry for the SNP in the 1970s, the Party's electoral high-point (until 2007, of course). How ironic it would be, if the Union were dissolved following cries of "It's England's Petrol".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Commendably in-depth article – seems that almost every angle has been covered. Except for one thing – I completely disagree with the impact you’ve attached to this event!

I remember the 2000 protest and it was actually a major event. I was in London for some of it and, even if you didn’t drive, you couldn’t help but be affected and see the impact it had e.g. long queues for petrol, stations running out of fuel, more people having to use other modes of transport to get around.

In this case though, if it hadn’t been in the news I have to be honest and say I wouldn’t have even noticed it happening. It reminded me of the 1960s anti-war slogan ‘What if they had a war and no-one came’, except in this case it was a strike instead of a war. Although as Jim Millar notes that wasn’t everyone’s experience.

I think governments north and south of the border deserve credit for this – ensuring that efforts were put in place to minimise the impact of it. And because of that I don’t think anyone will really get any credit or criticism, or suffer any negative political consequences.