SNP STRATEGY in the run up to the independence referendum is to close down all the other arguments. Real reform creates enemies, as vested interests are pushed out of their comfort zones. The last thing Alex Salmond wants to do is to alienate voters who might otherwise consider supporting him on the biggest question of all. Why tackle matters as trivial as Scotland’s underperforming economy, its sink schools or its dreadful social problems when the future of the country is at stake?
This explains the SNP’s ‘do nothing – blame the English’ approach to government. It also explains its rather shrill response to Labour leader Johann Lamont’s opening of the debate on universal benefits. She is definitely onto something there.
It also could explain a rather curious appointment in Alex Salmond’s recent surprise reshuffle.
The headlines were taken by Nicola Sturgeon being relieved of the Health portfolio and redeployed full time on constitutional matters (again Lamont made some telling points about the Scottish Government’s priorities).
Less noticed was the appointment of new MSP Paul Wheelhouse as Minister for Environment and Climate Change.
Wheelhouse was elected on the South of Scotland regional list in 2011. An ex-Tory, he is based in Berwickshire, one of the areas worst affected by wind farms. There, the turbines have not only infected the scenic (but sparsely populated) Lammermuirs in the north of the county, but have spread along the A1 trunk route affecting the denser populations of the coastal plain.
Opinion is divided on wind farms. Even in the countryside a silent majority, living in small towns largely unaffected by the blight, is probably mildly in favour of them. But a vociferous minority, growing in numbers and political activism, has taken up arms against the metal monsters that shatter the rural tranquillity they love. They fill the letters pages of local papers such as the Berwickshire News and lobby their local politicians fiercely.
Wheelhouse has trimmed his position accordingly. Careful not to defy the party line directly, he nonetheless exudes a carefully calibrated sympathy for the campaigners. He ‘shares their concerns’, and attended a specially convened debate in the Scottish Parliament on the matter, where he agreed that there has been a ‘Klondyke gold rush’ of on-shore turbines, with ‘community interest an afterthought’.
He does not oppose land based wind farms per se, but says that the Borders has ‘more than done it’s bit’ in hosting them, while reassuring voters that future investment will mainly take place out at sea. He is even a member of the RSPB.
The appointment of Wheelhouse should be put into context. As David Torrance described in his biography of Alex Salmond, renewable energy is the only policy area, apart from independence itself, that the First Minister seems really passionate about. He has been banging the drum for green energy since his political youth.
Salmond is on record as claiming that renewable energy will create 130,000 new jobs, not just rescuing Scotland from the current recession, but providing a cornucopia of wealth for generations to come, more than replacing that from North Sea Oil. His administration has rubbished claims that wind turbines damage tourism or property prices. Nothing makes him crosser than people pointing out that renewable energy subsidies destroy more jobs than they create, or that they will anyway disappear on independence as English consumers wonder why they’re paying such high energy bills to support a foreign producer.
In short, the renewable energy ‘revolution’ is the bedrock of the SNP’s economic and environmental policies, such as they are.
Is Paul Wheelhouse, this Toryish, privately educated, turbine-sceptic bird-lover the man to drive forward this radical transformation of Scotland’s energy base in the teeth of nimbyist opposition? Hardly.
Of course there may be other reasons for his appointment. He could be a closet enthusiast for wind farms, adept at speaking with a forked tongue to his constituents. Or perhaps a potential rebel on the issue, needing to be silenced by the government payroll. Maybe he has been recruited to sell the green revolution to its opponents, on the ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ principle.
But most likely Salmond simply wants to close this argument down. Industry experts agree that the bulk of onshore wind farms are either already built, or else in the pipeline. There will not be many altogether new announcements to set rural blood boiling. That leaves the messy construction process, certainly, and the controversy over on-going planning cases and appeals. But much of the damage has been done.
What’s needed now is emollience. A sympathetic ear, a tut-tutting in mutual disapproval of the more rapacious developments, a claiming of credit for those that are rejected or cut down to size.
With luck, by the time of the referendum two years hence, a few thousand of the more marginally outraged will have forgotten their hostility to wind farms enough to consider the case for independence with minds unclouded by the issue. On such fine margins could 'freedom' be won, or lost. With Mr Wheelhouse at the helm it is not so much a u-turn as a gentle nudge on the tiller.
Read the Tom Mies Blog here