THE BIG STORY
– PUFFERY AND PROMISE
Campaigners have long argued that a transition to renewable energy could provide a jobs bonanza. Now politicians are talking that talk – but many workers in the fossil-fuel industry believe it’s a con. Conrad Landin picks through the rhetoric with offshore workers in Scotland.
If anyone can be relied upon to turn a crowd-pleasing photo opportunity into a row about Britain’s industrial demise, it is surely Boris Johnson. Visiting a wind farm off Scotland’s east coast in August, on a promotional jaunt for his plan to upgrade ports and factories, build a wave of new wind turbines and support the creation of 60,000 jobs in the process, the UK’s prime minister called for a ‘smooth and sensible’ transition from oil and gas to green energy. ‘Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start,’ he added.
Johnson’s throwaway comment prompted a furious backlash, including from within his own party. Tory MPs representing so-called ‘red wall’
constituencies (traditionally held by Labour incumbents) in England’s former industrial heartlands immediately recognized the offence he had caused, with one saying the PM was ‘spitting in the face of communities that still haven’t recovered’.1
Ewan Gibbs, a historian at Glasgow University, pointedly noted that ‘Thatcher’s government cut funding for an innovative renewables research programme in the late 1980s’.2
In Aberdeen, Johnson’s comments sparked not only painful memories, but fears for a fast-approaching future. Jake Molloy, a veteran offshore oil worker and organizer for the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport) trade union, believes the northeast of Scotland is on the cusp of suffering the same fate as Britain’s coalfields, as the government reacts to growing public opinion that something needs to be done about climate change. ‘The more this continues, this absence of a clear, defined strategy or plan… the more likely you’re going to get some kind of knee-jerk reaction to appease the population. And bang, they’re going to shut the whole lot down. We’ll be left with one almighty mess to clear up – and it’s going to cost us dearly.’
Hot air Ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Johnson was far from being the only Western leader to put ‘green jobs’ at the heart of their rhetoric. Joe Biden has said that tackling climate change offers the chance to create ‘millions of good