SINGLE POLLS SHOULD always be greeted with a dose of scepticism, particularly when they are funded by lobby groups, and, yes, even where they present laudable conclusions. Nonetheless, a new survey on public attitudes to North Sea oil poses questions for both UK and Scottish Governments.
According to the poll, conducted for environmental group Uplift, there are sizeable majorities for shifting support from oil to renewable energy. This includes 65 percent of Scottish people saying the government should draw up a plan for winding down North Sea extraction, and over half backing a concrete end date for all oil-based activity.
Sceptics might point to a rival poll, published two months ago, apparently demonstrating the opposite finding. That survey, carried out by Survation for the Sunday Post, showed less than a quarter (22%) backing proposals to scrap support for oil extraction in the North Sea.
The contrast between the two demonstrates the malleability of “public opinion”. Polling is a murky industry where he who pays wins. Much depends on how questions are framed, and the order in which they are asked (using this mechanism, audiences can be “primed” to give “correct” answers). Contradictory evidence is usually ignored.
Still, if public opinion is malleable, a truly progressive government has room to display genuine leadership. The Uplift poll demonstrates, if nothing else, that it’s theoretically possible to win massive public majorities for a post-oil economic agenda. So, what’s stopping us?
Quite apart from the constitutional questions, there are three barriers to address. Firstly, the range of corporate interests still invested in oil. After the bonanza of earlier decades, the North Sea has faced a major crunch in profitability; nonetheless, investors are nature’s conservatives and are unlikely to welcome any prospect of further regulation far less of mothballing the whole industry. As a rule, this SNP leadership has avoided conflict with corporate power wherever possible.
Secondly, the workers and the people of Grampian have every reason to distrust government rhetoric. Promises of a Scottish green jobs boom came to nothing, and the sad story of BiFab lingers in the background. Looking at once prosperous manufacturing and mining areas, it’s clear that deindustrialisation can impose massive social costs ranging from structural unemployment to drug abuse and crime. All the worst-afflicted areas were promised a post-industrial “renaissance” that never arrived. Thatcherism taught Scotland the costs of unplanned economic change – and, in our own time, does anyone really have a plan?
Thirdly, this requires leadership pitched at a generational level. Nobody in London or Edinburgh looks capable of that. Boris Johnson’s flaws as a crisis manager were aptly illustrated by Dominic Cummings. Meanwhile, the SNP has thrived by being the reassuring voice of the status quo, by ducking conflicts and hard decisions, by enabling hypocrisies under a progressive banner.
All of that aside, it’s foolish to ignore the stark contrast between “climate emergency” rhetoric and oil extraction realities, particularly with COP26 coming up fast. Postponing hard questions always makes sense on the day-to-day level of politics, but history may well prove a harsher judge of Scotland’s progressive pretensions, regardless of whether those pretensions are unionist or nationalist.