Source Direct: As Free as a Green Port

SNP trade minister Ivan McKee evocatively called them a “shiny squirrel” while Nicola Sturgeon noted they were widely associated with “low-cost, low-wage, low-value opportunities”. Fortunately, the Scottish Government aren’t proposing “freeports” but “green ports”…

IN A PREVIOUS Source Direct, I examined the controversy surrounding freeports, a Conservative proposal for special tax-exempt, low regulation enterprise zones. The SNP conference passed a resolution against them. SNP trade minister Ivan McKee evocatively called them a “shiny squirrel” while Nicola Sturgeon noted they were widely associated with “low-cost, low-wage, low-value opportunities”. George Kerevan spoke of Thatcherism on steroids. 

So, to be clear, the Scottish Government are not proposing freeports. Instead, they propose “green ports”. The details, so far, are fuzzy, particularly on the mechanisms for upholding environmental standards, so I hesitate to advance a definitive view: for now, the jury cannot rule conclusively on “green ports”. But everything about Trade Minister Ivan McKee’s presentation has the feel of a fast-talking PR campaign, with late twentieth century economics dressed up as twenty-first century pearl-clutching pieties.

Scottish Green critics call it “green washing”, the practice of presenting sharp corporate practice as environmental sanctimony, in this case covering up “sanctioned tax dodging, linked to deregulation and race-to-the-bottom free market extremism”. McKee’s rhetoric also suggested the new concept of Tartan washing: “we propose to take the freeport model and apply Scotland’s priorities to it.” Not freeports, but green ports; not Brexit freeports, but Scottish freeports. Finally, for critics pointing to a “race to the bottom”, McKee had a prepared zinger: our freeports would offer a “climb to the top”.

McKee’s chief gripe with freeports, and, it appears, the main SNP critique, is that they will not stop the economic damage of Brexit. His statement noted, as we did previously, that 80 freeports already exist in the EU, partly because the latter itself evolved in a Thatcherite direction (no surprise, since the “Father of the Single Market” was Thatcher agent Lock Cockfield). In any case, this all appears designed to evade the real complaints about freeports by shifting ground onto Scottish alienation from Brexit.

Green ports may well blunt the rougher edges of Conservative policy. Some caveats of substance were noted. In rough order of specificity, corporate beneficiaries will be forced to pay the real living wage; will sign the Scottish Business Pledge; and will commit (in largely unspecified ways) to sustainable growth and the transition to net zero carbon.

But since freeports have their origins and ultimate purpose in slashing costs and regulation, ironies remain. The Scottish Greens were quick to observe that Forth Ports included in their proposal a new gas fired power station in Grangemouth: “Clearly, this could hardly be described as ‘green’.”

And, at the risk of tiresome repetition, Scottish Government pledges to create a “Saudi Arabia of renewables” have never been backed up in practice. An STUC report found that employment in Scotland’s low carbon sector flatlined after Nicola Sturgeon assumed control of Government. Despite promises of 130,000 jobs by 2020, actual numbers were 23,100 in 2018, down from 23,400 in 2014.

Green ports will be presented as an answer to this problem, but there is every impression here of woke neoliberalism, superficial piety disguising crude market solutions. In all likelihood, companies with “green” operations will simply shift operations to cheaper areas to save cash. Unless the commitment to low carbon is strict, other firms will simply make minor shifts in presentation to meet minimal guidelines.

A Government truly committed to green jobs would need to rip up the old consensus. This would start with defying the absurd and hypocritical state aid rules that destroyed the future of Burntisland Fabrications (Bi-Fab), which could have been a crucial player in the Scottish renewables supply chain. A little backbone on that issue would have sent a clear signal, that, in pursuing Scotland’s national interests and environmental principles, our Government bows to nobody. No such luck.

Regular readers will now I’m fully behind independence. But one reason to pursue independence is to end the hypocrisy that ensues from judging ourselves by Westminster’s low standards. “Green ports” will probably be one increment better than freeports. For some, that’s enough. For me, the scale of our challenges demands more than simply being that little bit better than Boris.