Power for the people

The First Minister rounded off her address to the SNP’s Conference in Glasgow on Tuesday with a quote from the late Canon Kenyon Wright: “There is another way. It is marked ‘The Road of Hope’. Hope for a new nation at ease with its past, confident in its present and hopeful for its future.”

Kenyon Wright was one of the driving forces in Scotland’s national journey. In leading the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which laid the groundwork for the creation of a Scottish Parliament, he was a tenacious and charismatic character. He succeeded in taking a radical vision and building consensus around it. Politicians of all parties could do worse than keeping such open minds to progress.

In a fast-changing world we need to put Scotland in the driving seat by pursuing radical policies that equip our country for the next decade and beyond. We need to lead the pack, or else risk lagging behind further down the track.

There was plenty of ambition for Scotland on show at the SNP’s 83rd Annual Conference in Glasgow this week.

Nicola Sturgeon’s speech was brimming with new ideas for a new age, and built on the progressive vision set out just a few weeks ago in our programme for government.

The First Minister announced that an SNP government will establish a publicly-owned, not-for-profit energy company to deliver low-cost energy to Scottish households. It is, at its heart, a simple idea. Energy would be generated here in Scotland, or bought wholesale, and sold to customers as close to cost price as possible.

It makes a staggering amount of common sense.

Scotland is an energy rich country and in recent decades the North East has led the world in this industry. We will never ignore the impact of the oil and gas downturn on jobs and the local economy and seek to nurture the recovery that is now apparent. And we should think long and hard about how to futureproof skills and livelihoods for potential challenges ahead.

Before June’s General Election, the SNP called on the UK government to explore new incentives for energy companies to diversify into renewables. There is huge potential here to get business and government working together on clean energy advancements and protecting jobs for future decades. While we haven’t heard a peep from the Tory government since the election passed, we will be renewing these calls ahead of the Chancellor’s Budget in November.

People sometimes forget that Scotland’s renewables history has a far greater vintage even than oil and gas. It is almost 75 years since the Hydro Electric Development Act of 1943 kick started major development of hydro schemes across Scotland, with the vast majority of power stations still operational to this day.

But the myriad hydroelectric schemes built in the 1940s and 1950s were more than simply means of generating electricity. They also drove social change for rural Scotland.

By 1964, over 90 per cent of homes in the North of Scotland were connected to the grid, up from about 40 per cent in 1944. It was an example of a government – and a tenacious Secretary of State for Scotland in Tom Johnston – recognising what the future held and recognising the need to lead the pack, not slip behind the rest of the world.

Today new renewable technologies open up more opportunities for Scotland than ever before. Next week the world’s largest floating windfarm will be officially opened off the Peterhead coast. There is no doubt that Scotland’s energy future is bright.

But the power of Scotland should not just be there for big business to turn a profit, it should be harnessed for Scotland’s people and a wider public good.

With no shareholders to worry about, or corporate bonuses to consider a publicly-owned, not-for-profit energy company could be – like the hydroelectric development of the mid-20th century – instrumental in delivering power alongside social improvement for our communities.

It would give people, particularly those on low incomes, far greater choice and the option of a supplier whose only focus is treating the consumer fairly.

It is a vision for Scotland’s future that all political parties would do well to consider with open minds.

John Swinney MSP is Deputy First Minister of Scotland and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. This article originally appeared in the Press and Journal.