LRB Blog: Project Fear

Nate Silver told the Scotsman last month that there was ‘virtually no chance’ of a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum: ‘If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definite really where the No side is at 60-65 per cent and the Yes side is about 40 per cent or so.’ The comments were hardly revelatory, but they were seized on by media on both sides of the border as evidence that the independence campaign should pack up and go home. A few days later, Silver told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that he was less than happy about the way his throwaway remarks had been interpreted. ‘Taking a comment based on a thirty-minute interview that becomes front page news is not the precedent I want to set,’ he said.

With a year to go till the vote, both sides seem more interested in quoting wildly divergent opinion polls than discussing policy. One poll at the beginning of September gave the No side a 30 per cent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a Yes vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

One reason for the variation in the polls may be that for most Scots it isn’t a straightforward question of in or out. The week before Silver’s appearance in Edinburgh a Panelbase poll commissioned by the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland found a 2 per cent lead for the No side. More interestingly, it also found a significant hunger for further devolution – and scepticism of unionists’ vague promises of more powers for Holyrood. Sixty per cent of respondents said that welfare benefits should come under the Scottish Parliament’s purview, and more than half said that oil revenues and taxation should be controlled from Holyrood. But few thought any of these powers would be devolved in the event of a No vote in 2014.

The Wings Over Scotland poll received little media attention. (There was a fluff piece in the Scottish Daily Mail about Scots being more scared of a Tory government than space monsters.) More powers for Holyrood – the so-called ‘devo-max’ option that most Scots would prefer to either independence or the status quo – is a conversation few in Scottish politics want to have. Yes Scotland is wary of appearing as defeatist twelve months before a referendum that many have waited a lifetime for; the Better Together campaign encompasses a wide spectrum of unionist opinion, some of it opposed to any devolution at all. ‘The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood’s powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored,’ according to the former Lord Provost of Glasgow Michael Kelly.

Few people would bet on a vote in favour of independence – one Glaswegian punter recently wagered £200,000 on a No in 2014 at odds as short as 1/6 – but unionism is less ascendant than (some) polls suggest. Better Together’s awkward alliance of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties will come under greater pressure as the 2015 general election approaches. Earlier this year, Scottish Labour, anxious to distance itself from the unpopular coalition parties, started a separate campaign for a No vote, United with Labour.

Better Together’s negative campaigning may also backfire. In recent months, they have warned that independence would bring checkpoints at the border, mobile phone roaming charges south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the deportation south of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. Privately the official No campaign is said to refer to itself as ‘Project Fear’. ‘Next they’ll be saying there will be seven years of famine in an independent Scotland and that aliens will land here,’ the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish has said. ‘Scots don’t like to be talked to like idiots and there has been a constant haranguing of Scots by Westminster in terms of the type of campaign being run. This could create a backlash as Scots want to know what vision of Scotland within the Union the Unionists are campaigning for. If there’s another year of this people will start to rebel.’

– See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/09/18/peter-geoghegan/project-fear/#sthash.hJx0DBJy.dpuf

Who Owns Scotland?

Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners in Scotland, recently released a promotional video to tie in with its submission to the Scottish government’s Land Reform Review Group. The ten-minute film opens with a reassurance from Luke Borwick, the group’s chairman, that Scotland’s landowners aren’t all plutocrats: ‘The vast majority of our members are medium and small owner occupiers.’ As he speaks, the film cuts to shots of a couple strolling beside a massive country pile and an inebriated dinner party. This is Roshven House. Set on 50 acres near Fort William, Roshven is available to rent (for £11,000 a week).

Unusually for a PR video, what the various gilet-clad representatives do say is often as interesting as what they don’t. John Glen, the CEO of Buccleuch Estates, says that Scottish Land and Estates’ members ‘manage a considerable amount of natural resources’. He’s right: between them, the 2500 members may own as much as three-quarters of the land in Scotland. (Buccleuch alone controls around 250,000 acres.) In the clip that follows, Glen rails against youth unemployment (‘the biggest challenge facing us today’). A series of job titles flash on the screen: ‘Mechanic’, ‘Shepherd’, ‘Ghillie’ and, in larger letters in the centre of the frame, ‘Finance Assistant’.

Andrew Bradford, of the Kincardine Estate, makes a shaky case for the efficiency of private landowners in meeting the housing needs of Scotland’s rural population. Landowners ‘can integrate the maintenance of housing’ with other operations such as farming and forestry, he says, ‘so that the chap who is just down there mending a house today might be involved in repairing a fence tomorrow’. Around eight minutes in, Borwick urges the viewer to forget the ‘historic events that have happened, particularly up in the Highlands’ (the Clearances, presumably). ‘What matters now is the future of the Scottish rural sector.’

The future of the rural sector is, in part, the focus of the Land Reform Review Group. Alex Salmond announced the creation of the three-member panel to examine land reform last summer after a meeting of the Scottish government cabinet in Skye. Around 500 submissions have been made so far, but the Scottish government won’t make any evidence public until the final report is published next year.

Scotland has ‘a particularly concentrated pattern of land ownership’, according to Andy Wightman, a land reform activist and the author of The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (And How They Got It). ‘Scotland is rather like pre-1880 Ireland.’ The Land Reform Review Group is unlikely to change this greatly. The body includes prominent, longstanding voices in favour of land reform (most notably Highlands historian professor James Hunter) but its report is due to appear next April, when it will probably be reduced to a couple of short-lived, referendum-inflected soundbites.

Towards the end of the film, Borwick adduces ‘independent research’ in support of maintaining the status quo. Conducted in 2010, this research found, among other things, a ‘general lack of awareness and knowledge of estates among the Scottish public’. That much is true: land ownership is rarely mentioned in Scottish public life. There is no significant land reform movement. Nobody from Scottish Land and Estates says it on camera, but they will be hoping it stays that way.

– See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/04/02/peter-geoghegan/who-owns-scotland/#sthash.u6gu9fwa.dpuf

What’s Mined is Theirs — Ireland’s Oil and Gas

Earlier this month, Providence Resources announced that an oil field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280 million barrels. The company’s CEO, Tony O’Reilly Jr, the son of the media mogul, told the Today programme that this was ‘very good news for Providence shareholders and the Irish economy’. The first part of his statement is undoubtedly true: Providence’s share price rose sharply on the back of the Barryroe news. That Ireland’s economy will benefit is much less likely.

According to the World Bank, Ireland offers ‘very favourable’ fiscal terms for oil and gas companies. At 25 per cent, Ireland’s government take is among the lowest in the world. Norway’s, by comparison, is 78 per cent; Yemen’s is 95 per cent. Ireland also boasts some of the most generous tax-write offs in the industry: companies can offset all costs before they declare profits, including any ‘incurred in the 25-year-period prior to commencement of field production’, from such activities as drilling unsuccessful wells in Irish waters.

When a company finds oil or gas in Irish territory, ownership and control of the resource is transferred in full to the company; no royalties are paid to the state; the company can choose to export the oil or gas; they do not have to land the resources in Ireland or use Irish services or personnel.

In the late 1950s, the minister of industry and commerce (and future taoiseach) Seán Lemass sold the first exclusive exploration drilling rights in Ireland for £500 to Madonna Oil, a shell company owned by three American representatives of the Messman-Rinehart Oil  Company of Wichita and the Ambassador Oil Corporation of Forth Worth. In 1961, a two-thirds share in the rights was sold to Continental Oil and Ohio Oil International for $450,000.

In 1971, Marathon Oil (as Ohio Oil International had become) discovered gas off Kinsale, Co. Cork. The terms of the government deal under which the gas was extracted were so favourable to the company that it became an issue in the 1973 general election. Influenced by Norway’s creation of a state oil company, the new minister for industry and commerce, Labour’s Justin Keating, set about recalibrating Ireland’s relationship with oil and gas companies: the state would have a stake in any commercial find; corporation tax on oil and gas revenue was set at 50 per cent; production royalties would be levied.

Keating’s amendments did not last long. In 1987, the energy minister Ray Burke – who in 2005 was jailed in relation to corrupt payments received in office – abolished royalty payments and state participation in oil and gas development. In 1992, the finance minister (and another taoiseach in waiting) Bertie Ahern cut corporation tax for the industry from 50 per cent to 25 per cent, where it broadly remains, despite some alterations to the new licensing terms made by the Green party minister Eamon Ryan in 2007.

Ireland’s oil and gas regime reflects the dominant logic of Irish economic policy: low taxes will make Ireland attractive to foreign companies, even if they are simply harvesting the country’s natural resources and creating little in the way of jobs or tax revenue. That speculative Irish licence holders get rich in the process is no cause for concern.

A year ago, the minister for communications, energy and natural resources, Pat Rabbitte, announced that 13 new offshore exploration licences had been awarded. ‘Ireland must continue to communicate the message to international exploration companies that Ireland is open for business,’ he said.

In 1973, the Union of Students of Ireland published a pamphlet entitledWhat’s Mined is Ours! The Case for the Retention and Development of Irish Minerals under Public Ownership. According to the foreword, ‘those with a vested interest in the development of Irish mineral resources appear to have access to unlimited finance for public relations purposes.’ One of the text’s three signatories was the USI president, Pat Rabbitte.

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Between the Lines

In 1971, a parliamentary Working Group criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being put up to separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. The ‘peace lines’, constructed mainly by the British army, were creating an ‘atmosphere of abnormality’, the Peace Walls Working Group warned. But they did ‘not expect any insurmountable difficulty in bringing together well-meaning people from both sides’, and believed that before long, the barricades would come down; ‘normality’ would return.

Gates in a 'peace line', Lanark Way, West Belfast. © Laurence Cooley 2005

Dismantling the ‘peace lines’ wasn’t a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement. Between 2000 and 2007, seven new barriers were put up and 16 old ones rebuilt or extended. Their history long predates the Troubles, too. In the mid 19th century, the route of the Dublin-Belfast railway was planned deliberately to separate Catholic Pound Loney from Protestant Sandy Row. In 1935, after weeks of sporadic violence in Belfast’s Docklands, with Loyalist snipers firing into nearby Catholic areas, the military built a large fence across Nelson Street.

The corrugated iron fence that bisects Alexandra Park in North Belfast is 120 metres long and 3.5 metres high. Its foundations were laid on 1 September 1994, the day after the army council of the Provisional IRA had announced a ‘complete cessation of military operations’. Seven months ago, a ‘peace gate’ was opened in the fence. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can walk from the Loyalist Shore Road end of the park to Republican Antrim Road without having to take a half-hour detour. The North Belfast Interface Network, a community group that spent three years canvassing local residents before the gate was opened, reports no incidents of violence in the park since September.

For civic boosters, however, this modest achievement can’t begin to compete with the centenary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage (the ship was built in Belfast). Sixty million pounds of public money was plunged into Eric Kuhne’s shimmering Titanic Belfast ‘experience’, with millions more in PFIs for the Titanic Quarter redevelopment project. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s community sector is reeling from a succession of cuts. The North Belfast Interface Network, which employs five staff in a poky office near Solitude, the home of Cliftonville FC, is struggling to stay afloat. Last year it received £165,000 in funding. For 2012, it has so far secured only £62,000.

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.