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Is this what democracy looks like?
The latest in the great Scottish sell off
Last week I managed to spend a few days in the Highlands (forgive the lack of a newsletter). There is, truly, no better place to find perspective.
Listening to the calming sound of the water as it lapped into Cuil Bay left the noise of the building site outside the window where I write in the distance. The air is fresh, meaning you can inhale without navigating exhaust fumes or vape mist. The hills that surround this idyllic setting remind you how short your time here is, but in a way that is grounding rather than foreboding. Here, you don’t need to gaze into the night sky to experience such a thing, for it is all around you. Though when the stars come out, they shine without having to fight through city lights to be seen.
Questions of power and ownership lie within the context of this natural beauty. Philosophical debates too. Who can stake the claim that they should own this land? Who shall own the power generated by the country’s abundant green national assets?
In this edition of Independence Captured we examine aspects of these questions, by taking a look at the new “investors panel” set up by the First Minister to develop the “physical infrastructure required for a just transition.”
Is this what democracy looks like?
In recent weeks, the SNP leadership have sought to reframe independence in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. Now, this is a question of democracy writ large, not just of attaining statehood. As we have noted in previous editions this is a more comfortable setting for the SNP. It means the detail of currency, borders, EU membership and so on is relegated to a standoff with a deeply unpopular Westminster establishment.
Yet pretensions to embody a “movement for democracy” are challenged by the character of SNP governance. By this, I mean something more than the tendency towards centralisation, the failure to advance any significant land reform, or indeed the lack of political will around revamping local democracy. In addition to this is the development of a sub-democratic infrastructure that carves the public out of national policy debates and entrenches vested interests. The quality of Scottish political life is diminished further in that these developments remain obscured by the national question.
We have broken down in some detail the Scottish Government’s obsession with outsourcing and how integrated the corporate lobby is to the function of the Scottish Government. This process has become intertwined with the way in which the SNP leadership have arrived at their incoherent, and neoliberal, prospectus for independence. The Growth Commission was convened by Scotland’s premier corporate lobbyists, Charlotte Street Partners, and its key precepts are retained in the “new” Scottish Government independence White Papers.
Here, the views of trade unions, civic Scotland, welfare groups and so on were not in evidence. But to anyone analysing the nature of the SNP leadership beyond the diet of rhetoric around independence and performative anti-Toryism, it provided a glimpse into the world of the Scottish establishment. Here there is no great enthusiasm for the risks involved in setting up a new state, especially because such a project would serve to disrupt British power on a global stage. In the end, the City and the UK financial institutions, while bruised, remain key arteries in the global economy. Thus, the policy is to relinquish economic sovereignty to them even in the event of independence.
It’s a neat insurance policy that can be bandied around various boardrooms and among the leading civil servants who move seamlessly between Edinburgh and London. And happily, it doesn’t matter that the disastrous Sterlingisation policy won’t be tested, since a referendum is off the agenda. In the meantime, elite interests are organised into special bodies, largely outside of public view, to advance a relatively narrow set of objectives.
The “Advisory Group on Economic Recovery” provides such an example. Ostensibly brought together to chart a course for Scottish post-pandemic rebuilding, it adds to the tapestry which interweaves government and corporate interests, just as we had seen with the Growth Commission. This time it was led by Benny Higgins, formerly Chief Executive of Tesco Bank, and now Chair of Buccleuch Estates, Scotland's largest feudal landowner.
I wrote about this back in 2020 when the group was formed in a column for The Herald:
“…the composition of the ERG is a mirror image of the establishment. It includes Dieter Helm, a leading critic of wind energy who was appointed by Theresa May to lead a review of the financial cost of energy in the UK. Former Chief Executive of Edinburgh, Dame Sue Bruce City Council, who as economist George Kerevan has pointed out, ‘strong-armed the Scottish Government into subsidising the giant US investment and property conglomerate Nuveen to rebuild the St James Centre.’ Robert Smith, chairman of the British Business Bank and property developer Forth Ports, joins them, alongside Glasgow University Rector Anton Muscatelli.
“Little wonder then that beyond buzzwords there is nothing about changing the approach to procurement. Or that prominence is given to supporting the private sector, rather than to the Scottish Government building up its own capacities. The ‘business-led’ jobs guarantee scheme comes with no assurances that young Scots will be offered a two-year contract. Despite the cack-handed use of the word resilience, there are no proposals for domestic supply chains, and of course, there is nothing around developing a public model for developing national infrastructure.”
Such things should be a matter of public knowledge. But more than that, there should be a far greater democratic impulse involved in the generation of public policy. Covid recovery is one such instance, in which there could and should have been a very broad citizen engagement. But this isn’t the way the Scottish Government approach politics. Ironically, consultation is often deployed as a means to delay, or even to prevent, something from happening.
The “Advisory Group on Economic Recovery” would come to be replaced by the “National Strategy for Economic Transformation” in a conveyor belt of misnamed bodies whose work amounted, quite literally, to business as usual. Interestingly, Sir Nick Macpherson, Treasury permanent secretary during the 2014 referendum, was a member of the council of advisors working on the 10-year “transformation” plan. He played a key role in publically advising George Osborne to oppose the idea of a currency union. This would prove fatal to the independence cause.
It is difficult to find anything beyond a word salad report of any note that came out of the strategy for economic transformation. Perhaps the one initiative that did hit the headlines was the invention of a new government post known as Scotland’s “Chief Entrepreneur,” to be paid a salary of £192,000 for working 8 days a month.
As the Scottish Government report:
“A key commitment in the National Strategy for Economic Transformation has been achieved with the appointment of Mark Logan as the Chief Entrepreneur. The new role will ensure entrepreneurship is embedded in the economy, and that partnerships with industry and investors are prioritised and strengthened.”
Unsurprisingly, Mark Logan was a member of the group working on the strategy, alongside Nick Macpherson. It is a small world. But it is in this world that key decisions are made, without much in the way of accountability or scrutiny, while independence is busily held aloft as a progressive alternative.
In short, this is the game of bread and circuses in which the Scottish governing class are engaged.
Standing up for Scotland?
If the rhetoric deployed around independence offers a cloak to the inner workings of how Scotland is governed, the language of parts of the environmental movement has also come to provide new and fertile opportunities for the corporate sector.
ScotWind is a good example. In this case, Scottish wind energy was sold off to foreign capital, and to the big fossil fuel companies, at cheap rates and without the guarantee of supply chain jobs. The Scottish Greens not only acquiesced to such a plan but actively celebrated it:
This is the kind of marketing BP and Shell could not hope to buy. Yet the reality is far from “progressive,” and the deal for the Scottish people is derisory. As Dr Craig Dalzell explains:
“Had Scotland launched a national energy company capable of owning ScotWind, it would have been well placed to deliver billions in profits to Scotland every year that will now instead be shipped overseas to private shareholders or invested in the public services of those countries who have deployed their own nationalised companies in Scotland. Scotland must build up that capacity now so that it is ready to capture the results of the next energy auction and can position itself to nationalise ScotWind assets when their leases are poised for renewal.”
The marketisation of Scottish green assets won’t stop here, either. Adding to the £3 Billion portfolio already packaged up and in the process of being sold off, a new body has been established to “secure Scotland's role as a major hub for green and ethical finance.”
Known as the “First Ministers Investment Panel,” the aim is to provide “market intelligence” in “green investment opportunities.” The Scottish Government make the following claim:
“The expert panel of investors and asset managers will advise on how Scotland can create the right conditions to attract global capital investment to develop the physical infrastructure required for a just transition. Its remit includes areas such as offshore wind, hydrogen and the decarbonisation of transport.”
Far from a “Just Transition,” which is meant to centre workers, communities and the environment, this is simply another avenue through which the Scottish Government is prioritising international capital, at the expense of projects like a National Energy Company.
Once again the panel is devoid of wider civic or trade union input. Off-shore wind farm communities are excluded. So too are the various grassroots campaigns around climate change. Academics, independent experts and Scottish universities are also absent. Instead, it is another “who’s who” of the corporate establishment:
Andrew Telfer from the investment management firm Baillie Gifford
Alexandra Basirov, Bank of America managing director
Gavin Templeton, formerly head of sustainable finance at UK Green Investment Group
Shane Corstorphine, former finance chief at Skyscanner
Baroness Margaret Ford, chair of Deloitte UK Audit Governance Board
The panel will be co-chaired by the CEO of Noble and Company, Angus Macpherson, who comes equipped with a biography befitting such a role. Mr Macpherson:
“…held a number of roles in Hong Kong and Singapore at Merrill Lynch & Smith New Court, latterly as Head of all Capital Markets and Financing business in the Asian region. This included managing IPO’s (China Telecom, PTT), Privatisations (PT Telkom, BCA), Convertible Bonds (Korea Telecom, Singapore Telecom) and Bond Issues (HK SAR). Member Global Capital Markets & Financing Executive Committee (c. US$1.4bn), Asian Markets Executive Committee (c. US$1.3bn) and Asian Investment Banking Executive Committee (c. US$250m). He started out at Lazard Brothers in the Corporate Finance division.”
The initiative was launched at TheCityUK Annual Conference, in an arena unknown to the public at large. TheCityUK, which represents the UK’s financial sector, is focused on working to “ensure the UK remains an attractive place to invest and do business, which is essential to the industry’s long-term competitiveness.” What might that look like? The response to the Kwasi Kwarteng “mini-budget” composed by Miles Celic, Chief Executive Officer of TheCityUK, is instructive:
“Today the Chancellor took bold action to create the conditions for economic growth, with positive steps taken on tax to boost jobs and investment, as well as the measures to speed up infrastructure delivery across the country. To achieve growth, the UK must make a compelling and competitive offer which unlocks and attracts capital investment. This budget has taken some big strides, but no magic bullet exists. The UK’s long-term success is also built on a range of other factors such as closing the skills gap, driving innovation, delivering high-quality right-sized regulation, and setting out a clear path to achieving net zero.”
In other words, this is the bulwark of British finance capital. While the First Minister talks of opposing the democracy-denying Tories, adopting a more populist tone, the cogs of the financial establishment are well-oiled as Scottish assets, and indeed the entire infrastructure around the “Just Transition,” is privatised. This process is now in the hands of the market and of individuals and organisations without any real democratic locus. “Net zero” has very quickly become a gateway to new rounds of private profit-making, rather than an opportunity to democratise natural resources that might be held in common. To quote the First Minister:
“Securing capital investment from sources within Scotland, across the UK, and right around the world is fundamental to enabling us to achieve our wider ambitions for the economy. Tackling the climate crisis is both a moral obligation and an economic opportunity. We have the chance to establish Scotland as a major centre for green and ethical finance, while helping Scotland - and perhaps also the wider world - to move to net zero.”
It appears citizens are to be bit-part players, who must turn up to vote in elections but do very little else. Indeed, the report produced by Benny Higgins on post-covid economic recovery alluded to earlier advises the Scottish Government to “build its professional capability to manage ownership stakes in private businesses” by hiring business executives from the private sector. They should operate “independently” of ministers, sacrificing democratic accountability even further.
The sale of Scottish assets taking place now and in the years to come will impact generations to come. There must, at least, be a serious and informed public debate on how the nation's resources are being stewarded and in whose interests. If you support independence, it may be worth noting that far from working towards the realisation of meaningful sovereignty, the precise opposite is taking place in practice.
Talk of “people power” is cheap if the land, the air and the sea are privatised. And cheaper still if the people are unaware this is happening in the first place.
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