A New Strategy for the North of Scotland

It’s time for the Left beyond the central belt to shift from a national to a regional strategy, writes Neil Mackay.

Over the last century the debate around resources found within Scotland’s national and in some cases nominal boundaries have largely centred on the tensions concerning Scotland and its place in the United Kingdom, with unifying polarities around nationalist or unionist positions. Seventeen years of SNP government and one independence referendum have further cemented this situation.

The privatisation of industry and natural resources in the UK, and not least Scotland, offers a more interesting reality. It’s not Scotland’s oil, it’s Total’s and BP’s oil. Key developers in the offshore wind sector have large national interests, just not Scottish or British. Many on the left laud Nordic models, although Norwegian and Faroes’ ownership of the Scottish aquaculture sector is much less acclaimed.

The left can largely agree that Scotland is struggling to curb extraction from resources found within the country’s borders. This predates devolution and devolution has not helped it. Foreign direct investment and a multinational private sector confuse the ownership of resources in an already bewildered stateless nation.

For those of us living in the perceived periphery, who are proponents of community and regional perspectives, the answer to the question of custody over resources may not feel particularly Scottish or British. As many of the left in Scotland embrace the shift to politics centred on creating a Scottish border, driven by ideas of greater probability of achieving results through an independent Scotland, one solution for those of us living in the hinterland areas is a push to a much more regional approach, one that rejects the formation of resource wealth around a nation which shares many of the same faults as the state it’s trying to break away from.

There is a certain degree of empathy towards Scottish Government aspirations to build a case for independence on quick policy wins in energy, climate, and short-term economic growth. It is currently failing, but even the achievement of meaningful national wealth building would still beg the question of how to deliver just outcomes for resource-rich regions in Scotland beyond the M8.

Just over half of Scotland’s population lives within ten miles of the motorway that connects Edinburgh and Glasgow and acts as the arterial road route for the Central Belt of Scotland. Extend the boundary to 20 miles and the population increases to 65%. Include the rest of Fife, and from Dundee up to Aberdeen, and the area covers 4.2m people, or 77% of Scotland’s population, leaving only the Highlands and Islands, the rural northeast, and the southern extent of the south of Scotland.

Against the backdrop of a nation where population and power are concentrated across a relatively small and resource-poor area, and a history of policy and legislation that works against the resource-rich periphery, the ‘remote and rural’ left could take a leaf out of the Scottish nationalist book and organise around more local and regional structures. The Highlands and Islands is the region where such proposals are developing most depth, not least because of the region’s increasing voice in challenging Edinburgh-based decision making. But many of the same arguments can be made for other largely rural areas or regions, particularly the south of Scotland.

These ideas may cause some concern for those who feel, not without good reason, that solidarity should be international, or at least extending across the UK, and that Glasgow and Manchester share many more similarities than differences. The case that Bangor and Fort William share more similarities with each other than with Cardiff or Edinburgh respectively is interesting to debate.

If the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that a mass left movement built on hope of a better future for a more closely defined geographic area isn’t without its benefits. Regions are not nations and various structures such as distinct legal structures –  Shetland and Orkney Udal law notwithstanding – do not offer the same level of distinctiveness as exists between nations. But many similar lessons can apply.

The Highlands and Islands are home to resources similar to those that make it an attractive proposal for Scotland to become an independent nation. Setting aside the obvious questions about current ownership, should benefits from Orkney’s waves, Caithness’ wind, Speyside’s whisky, Lewis’ peatland, Shetland’s gas, Argyll’s forestry, and Wester Ross’ salmon, sit with the five million majority of a largely ‘remote’ nation, or at the centre of a region of half a million? That the £700 million raised from Scotwind is being used to plug the Scottish budget shortfall, rather than deliver transformational change in coastal communities, should hint towards an answer.

The First Stepping Stone

One route forward is to conduct a strategic retreat from national movements in the near term, recognising that many of the opportunities they sought have now passed. Time is being wasted on issues over which Scotland currently has little control. Immediate firefighting of local social and economic issues can continue unburdened, without wasting human capital where it appears to have little constructive impact. Successful protest at poorly handled national policy proposals, such as the centralisation of Highlands and Islands Enterprise board, island bonds, and Highly Protected Marine Areas, can continue to be resisted with responsive and well-organised campaigns.

The key aim is that time can be used instead to better build alternative locally based and regionally sensitive policy, from the ground up. Competent local administration and innovative social initiatives – such as in Eigg, for example – can showcase best in class. Operating within the dearth of public sector finance and a lack of meaningful policy progress on issues like housing and land, this may sound like a pipedream, but it’s already being done, at prospective scale under the auspices of community landowners and organisations like the Community Housing Trust. The key is to increase competency across the region. Many Highlands and Islands areas also have some tools they can use against public sector finance cuts through private sector community benefit schemes.

There is an entirely compelling case that local communities and the wider region lose out because of prosperity being extracted from the privatisation of natural capital and foreign direct investment. That case has not yet been won, and the immediate effects are becoming clear. There is scope only for some reprieve through capturing community benefits from energy developments and the nascent natural capital sector.

This may sound defeatist, especially for areas denied the day-to-day income that comes from these schemes. But there are opportunities to deliver legitimate and meaningful community wealth building initiatives underpinned by the community benefit funding being received by small communities. Soirbheas in the communities of Glen Urquhart and Strathglass, or the Shetland Charitable trust, are two of many examples.

Many existing community benefit schemes need radically overhauled. The scale of community benefit being extracted from private profit must greatly increase. But on any scale, these forms of finance offer building blocks and firefighting equipment where national policy is failing. It may not be socialism, but the second tenet of Community Wealth Building is ‘making financial power work for local places’ and this is the first stepping stone.

Creating a Competent Movement

Shifting onto slightly longer-term timescales, there is scope for initiatives such as the leveraging of small amounts of the multi-billion pound Highland Pension Fund, whose bodies also includes island organisations, into an investment vehicle for local communities. Profit extracted by the pension fund itself will largely remain in the region, in the pensions of the civil servants who are regionally based, the majority of whom will retire in the region.

Competency, transformational community initiatives, and a shift to regional investment, would lay a good foundation for the future devolvement of power and finance. A short-term retreat into local and regional initiatives should enable a regrouping ahead of a gradual re-engagement with national debates on devolution and decentralisation.

There should not however be a total abandonment of engagement on national issues. Strategic exceptions should be made where the results will be both materially beneficial and a means of empowerment. Obvious examples will involve engaging with legislation on crofting reform and pushing the implementation of recommendations from the Shucksmith report into crofting. Communities with increased financial control could invest community wealth into existing national organisations with sector-specific knowledge. Small percentages of community wealth funds could also be invested into paying full time officers, embedded in national organisations like Living Rent, focused on specific localities.

Financial capital is scarce. Human capital is growing scarcer, particularly because of the skilled working-age demographics. Alongside a core focus on building strong local and regional competency in community wealth building initiatives there must be a plan to develop the people and resources required to do so. In addition to funding being spent on embedding officers in key national organisations, there should be a regionally driven skills programme for training community development managers.

The University of the Highlands and Islands already offer undergraduate and postgraduate programmes which have helped retain talented individuals in many communities across the region. Community wealth funds should be used to ensure that pay remains at adequate levels to keep these individuals in their demanding roles and grow numbers in more communities. Succession planning is also vital, with a strong pipeline of new people coming through. There is a wealth of younger professionals operating across private but particularly public sector organisations in the region, with a strong sense of public service to the region engrained in their working motivations. More should be made of these people through informal networks, sharing best practice, and showcasing the region as an attractive place to live and work, particularly for peers looking to move or return to the region.

Any push from a younger generation to deliver 21st century solutions to what in many cases are 19th and 20th century problems which still prevail, should recognise the phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. Murmurings of a space to debate regional policy from within should be pursued to enable an intergenerational acceleration of policy development. Initiatives like the Community Landownership Academic Network should be welcomed. Paraphrasing Jo Grimond, policy decisions should not be dictated by Glasgow trade unionists and Edinburgh lawyers. However, there is some mileage in decisions being made by Highland trade unionists and island lawyers.

These key proposals – disengagement with centralised national movements, building competence at a community level from the ground up, and development of resourceful people – should be the first steps in a developing strategy to promote progressive regional perspectives instead of extractive economics. Wealth extraction leans heavily in favour of private and foreign interests. Yet any shift to nationalised industries will see that extraction shift from private ownership to a public heavily centred around the M8 corridor.

Proponents of progressive local, community, and regional development in the north should pay no heed to inevitable criticism from peers in the south. There is an alternative route that shifts from an existing extractive private economy and a prospective extractive nationalised economy, to one that builds a strong, coherent and competent movement that delivers for the people and place of the resource-rich north.

Neil Mackay is a native of Sutherland who has lived and worked across the Highlands and Islands.