More intellectual rigour and less virtue signalling needed by the SNP government

More intellectual rigour and less virtue signalling needed by the SNP government

by Jim Sillars
article from Tuesday 15, May, 2018

ELSEWHERE on this website, Murdo Fraser argued about Fracking in the manner an opposition spokesman usually does, legitimately, when a government is in a mess.  My view, however, is a reflection of a deeper anxiety about the SNP government’s rejection of expert opinion and science, not only on the issue of fracking but of GM use in agriculture; and the other glaring contradiction of its attitude to poverty.

I have been concerned about the lack of intellectual rigour within the SNP.  The cry for an early referendum on independence immediately following the EU result is a case in point. Another is in the contest for the party’s deputy leader, where a bidding battle for a referendum date is underway: despite (a) there has been no examination of why we lost; (b) as a consequence there have been no new policy positions upon which to campaign; (c) the central organisation essential to a successful campaign does not exist; (d) there are no funds; and, (e) Yes has not moved from its polls’ position of 46 per cent. These factors would demand caution, and suggest a move towards a second independence referendum only be made when they are attended to.  

The lack of intellectual vigour can be traced to the ‘Strong Leader’ syndrome that emerged during Alex Salmond’s time at the top, and continues under Nicola Sturgeon.  After the 1993 SNP annual conference, Peter Jones and Joanne Robertson wrote, “A jubilant Alex Salmond stamped his personal authority on the Scottish National Party yesterday by publicly ordering party dissidents to shut up.”  By 1998 the headline after the Inverness conference was, “Cult of personality means Salmond is the only show in town”, followed by Iain McWhirter writing, “The SNP conference is about three things: Alex Salmond, Alex Salmond, and Alex Salmond.” That kind of mindless admiration is bad for a party, but worse for the target of the hero worship.  

I think every political party should make, as compulsory reading for each member, the book “The Myth of the strong leader” by Archie Brown. 

The result of the uncritical praise of a leader has brought about what everyone in the Holyrood SNP parliamentary party, and the group at Westminster, knows but will not say in public – that the SNP Government is a one-person show in which the First Minister calls not only the tune, but writes the verses, with ‘discussion’ and ‘debate’ words not in her lexicon. 

This inevitable but sorry state of affairs is what has brought us the ban on GM crops and the ban, and not the ban, on fracking.  The GM crop ban has nothing to do with the science, but rests according to the Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, on ‘presentational’ concerns about Scotland, its environment and products.  I have yet to hear of Scottish Ministers, or Scottish tourists, avoiding visiting the United because of its ‘presentational’ problems with GM crops and chlorinated chicken.  

The rest of the world, where there are now 185.1 million hectares of GM crops, seems unconcerned about ‘presentational’ problems in selling into world markets where the science is accepted as proven. In the USA 94 per cent of soybeans and 93 per cent of corn are GM. The US exports 4.3 billion bushels of soybean, and rakes in £10.3bn in corn exports.  Maybe, to be consistent in seeking to save us Scots from the dangers of GM, the Scottish government should ban us from travelling to the US, China and a host of other countries where they use and consume the GM products.  Perhaps in the next survey of tourism, we can ask for evidence of people coming here because we ban GM. 

The damage of Scotland’s repudiation  of GM  in the international science community, and the damage to our science development potential,  is difficult for a lay person to quantify because we cannot see it to measure it. But that is not the case with fracking for gas and oil. Fracking is a method of extracting energy, and in the case of fracked gas, as exemplified by the facts in the United States and Canada, of considerable economic and social benefit.   

Since 2005 137,000 fracking wells, in 20 states, have been drilled in the USA.  In Canada the number of wells drilled and now in production, according to the Canadian Parliament research information, is 1,503. No doubt when the people with expertise were asked by the Scottish government to look at the issue, they were able to draw upon the experience of the extensive operations in the USA and Canada, before reaching their conclusion that with proper regulation fracking is safe. 

I once had a discussion with a Green supporter in the course of which I drove him into admitting that he would shut down the North Sea oil fields because its product is no different from the fracked gas that would emerge under our soil.  There in a nutshell is the government contradiction, because BP and others continue to explore and frack for both gas and oil in our waters, without a word of protest from Bute House or Mr. Wheelhouse. 

But the real crime is a social one. As William Loneskie from Lauder pointed out in a letter to The Scotsman, there are 649,000 households in fuel poverty, including 40 per cent in rural households. It must have been pretty grim for those families in the recent very cold winter.

I am not sure, as they shivered and children tried to do their homework in freezing conditions, they took comfort from knowing they were making a significant contribution to lowering carbon emissions, and were at one with the First Minister in her determination to “Lead by example” on climate change. They are, of course, likely to be aware of the significance of Scotland’s expensive climate change measures, because there is a constant drum beat of boasting and very little critical examination of the reality against the claims.  

The reality?  China, with 900,000MW capacity from coal burning, with another 200,000 MW under construction, snuffs out anything we do; not to mention India planning 455 new coal fired plants; and we must not mention Germany.

There is a clamant need in Scotland for cheap energy, to give poor families the ability to live comfortably through any winter conditions in their homes.  Yet, if test drilling proves that we  have that energy on tap, but refuse to use it on the spurious, laughable  grounds that our small nation can provide a decisive counter-balance to the Chinese/Indian CO2 output, then all the talk about fighting poverty is hogwash. 

War has been declared on poverty for years now, but when we get one critical resource that can make a real contribution to its defeat, our government wants to spurn it.  

The social case for fracking is there.  So is the economic case. A small nation like Scotland does not have the advantage of scale, so it must look for other ways to make our companies more competitive in the international markets, and provide an economic base for companies to grow to serve the domestic markets.  Energy is a big cost to companies.  Fracking would bring down the cost, with all round benefits.

The wonder is that Labour has joined the SNP in seeking to ban fracking. The GMB union, led by Gary Smith, is one of the few sane voices on the left. By the very nature of his job in representing workers at a large plant in Grangemouth – which takes in US fracked gas – he knows the subject from A-Z.  Why is he and his union almost alone in the labour movement when fracking presents the opportunity of a new onshore industry?

Is it because Ineos wants to frack and we don’t like the guy who owns it?  A ban through the dislike of an individual is not a luxury our economy can afford. But in any event that dislike can be tempered by some innovative thinking. We are, I believe, to have a public-owned low cost energy company, and it would seem logical that it should tap into Ineos technical capability in a joint-owned company from which the public would not only get the benefits of taxation, but part of the profits from fracking. A new kind of public-private funded enterprise in which there is no cost to the public, for a change. 

But we are in a period when our society is subject to levels of hysteria, with our political elite seemingly captured by a combination of Green scaremongering and the desire for virtue signalling, eliminating rational discussion and debate. We must hope that the malady is not permanent. 

Photo: The Sweet Potato – the original genetically modified food everyone eats without complaint.

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