The Politics of Cambo, Just Transition and Coalitions

A famous frog once sang, “it’s not easy being green”. With COP26 in Glasgow on the horizon, the UK and Scottish Governments must surely agree with Kermit’s lament.

Boris Johnson faces pressure from his backbenchers who fear his green agenda will lose Red Wall seats. Closer to home, Nicola Sturgeon has been pressurised into taking a stance on the Cambo oilfield from environmental campaigners and Scottish Labour. Instead, she has equivocated by challenging the UK Government to “reassess” such developments “against a robust Compatibility Checkpoint that is fully aligned with our climate change targets and obligations.”

For a party that once proclaimed, “It’s Scotland’s Oil”, and made oil revenues a centrepiece of their 2014 independence prospectus, deflecting and deferring to Westminster (or what their press release labelled “collective leadership”) is an interesting development to say the least.

From maximum economic extraction to ‘just transition’

Until recently, the SNP were committed to a policy of “maximum economic extraction”. Scottish Ministers frequently called on the UK Government to ease the tax burden on oil and gas and “remove barriers for exploration”. That was in the previous decade, what some might label a generation ago.

Since then, the Scottish Government have set world leading net-zero targets, have announced a raft of environmental initiatives, and made securing a green recovery one of the priorities of their administration. They even appointed Richard Lochhead as Minister for Just Transition.

However, ‘just transition’ has become one of those ubiquitous buzzwords beloved by pressure groups, just like terms such as ‘sustainability’, but it is difficult to pinpoint what it actually means.

Rhetoric has to match reality

We all know that politicians of all stripes talk a good game on the environment, yet the ambitious rhetoric rarely matches reality. For example, not that long after proclaiming a ‘Climate Emergency’ to SNP Conference, the First Minister opened a new terminal at Edinburgh airport.

The Scottish Council for Development and Industry have highlighted the number of low- carbon jobs in Scotland fell from 23,000 to 21,000 from 2014 to 2019. To place this in context, the Scottish Government’s 2010 paper A Low Carbon Economic Strategy for Scotland claimed that there could be as many as 130,000 green jobs by 2020. With such figures in mind, communities in the north east of Scotland could be forgiven for feeling a little anxious amidst the new focus on a just transition.

How should policymakers explain its ramifications to the 100,000 oil and gas workers based in Scotland? Just transition must mean more than PR speak for limiting job losses and those advocating it need detailed and robust plans, not to mention a timetable.

Towards a Green SNP Scottish Government 

Talks remain ongoing on the New Zealand-style cooperation agreement between the SNP and Scottish Greens which could potentially see some Green MSPs become ministers, while stopping short of a formal coalition. The cynical might say that this would merely formalise the relationship between the two as the Greens have tended to support the SNP in parliament, including their annual budget.

This new arrangement provides threats and opportunities for the SNP. On the one hand, it assists with furnishing their green credentials in the lead up to COP26, provides a bit more stability on key votes at Holyrood, and freshens up an administration that has been in power since 2007. On the other hand, the SNP will be mindful of further alienating the business community and voters in their north east heartlands. More seats could turn blue.

Ultimately, the First Minister will face a tricky balancing act and she will not be able to satisfy every competing interest. To govern is to choose.