As soon as Donald Trump won Michigan in the US presidential race late last year, I had a feeling large parts of north-east Scotland were going to fall to the Tories at the next election. I just didn’t expect ‘the next election’ at which this happened would be seven months later.
For those not familiar with the context, at the UK elections earlier this week, the Conservative party – who for decades had been virtually wiped out in Scotland – took twelve seats off the pro-independence Scottish National Party. Six of those gains were in the north-east, within Aberdeen City, surrounding Aberdeenshire, and also up towards Banffshire and Moray and down to Angus. This left the north-east corner of Scotland as a big blue blob (with a tiny speck of yellow where the SNP held Aberdeen North) among a mixed pattern of red, yellow, darker yellow and other bits of blue in the rest of Scotland. This gave a clear visual indication that something interesting had indeed happened in the region.
What had made me think the north-east was going to so uniformly fall to the Conservatives? Quite simply, it was the presence of a big population, largely dependent on a dying carbon-intensive industry, yet very much marginalised in mainstream debates in the run-up to the election. I saw how successfully Trump had campaigned in automobile- and coal-producing regions, and realised there would be potential to create a very similar narrative in north-east Scotland should one want to. In case you think I’m making that up, I have the screenshots to prove it.
It didn’t happen quite like that, of course. I don’t recall anybody knocking at my door promising to Make Aberdeen Great Again. Nor do I remember seeing any of our British politicians standing in a boiler suit in front of crowds of oil workers promising to open up the rigs. And in some ways, that perhaps made things worse. Because – with a few exceptions I’ll come to later – none of the parties standing for election in the north-east really seemed to be addressing a fundamental issue which is of major concern to the local population. Namely, what can be done to redress the job losses, rising food bank use and decline of our urban environments that are being hastened in Aberdeen and its surroundings by the dwindling productivity of the North Sea and continually low global oil prices.
And, more than that, nobody outside of the north-east really seemed to care either. The decline of the region is quiet and slow. We haven’t had camera crews coming like the ones that used to visit UKIP-leaning marginalised communities in east England. There are as yet no Channel 5 documentaries about life on the wild streets of Rosemount. All of this fits with the sense I’ve been getting when I’ve been doing fieldwork over the last few years – that north-east Scotland has given plenty to the rest of the country over the last fifty years through not only oil, but also fishing, the hosting of defence bases, and more recently renewable energy infrastructure. But now that we need something back, nobody is listening. Science-based fisheries regulations are hard to swallow when your earnings are being squeezed. Climate policy drawn up by someone in Edinburgh on the basis of a report complied in Switzerland is of limited value if it means you get a wind turbine stuck up behind your house.
I know all of this for two reasons. One is that for six years now, I’ve been doing research on what the implications of a maturing North Sea might be for daily living in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and further afield like Angus and Moray. The second is that I too am a citizen of Aberdeen. I joke that every single day is like a big piece of participant observation for me, but in seriousness it does give insight into what’s going on. I see what comes through my door before elections. I notice subtle changes in the city centre. I hear what people are talking about.
What I take away from all of this is that there is a great deal of confusion about just who is responsible for managing the north-east’s relationship with the oil industry and, more pointedly, whose fault it is that things have gone so badly wrong. When we asked citizens in focus groups who should take charge of the North Sea from now on in, without fail the answer we got was always ‘the government.’ No more than that, just ‘the government.’ And yet when it comes to oil and society in Aberdeen, there are many different kinds of government. There’s the local government, whose biggest debate over the last few years has been over what to do with some money a local oil magnate was putting up for redevelopment of the city centre. We have the Scottish government, with their renewable energy and climate change targets. We have the United Kingdom government, responsible for things like drilling licences and taxation. All of these feed into a complex picture that informs how oil and gas activity in the North Sea is undertaken, and how that shapes life back onshore.
To muddy the waters further, these levels mix with each other in ways that are not clear. I got leaflets through the door for the recent council election screaming about how national independence referenda were a distraction. People who were not even standing for election were coming to visit towns and villages and appearing on TV. Noticeable is that in among all this confusion, a perception appeared to emerge that the SNP could have been doing more to safeguard oil and gas jobs in the region. I am very careful to call this a perception, because I’m not sure what the SNP could have done about taxation, licencing, carbon pricing and all the other things that are outwith their control. But the key point is that the view seems to be there that is was somehow the fault of Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon, that the problems of Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and beyond were being ignored by the leaders supposed to represent them. The MPs were doing good work on the ground for sure, but this somehow got a bit lost in the overall message.
Hang on, though. If you want to do something about food bank use, unemployment and workers’ rights, surely the last thing you do is vote Tory? Maybe so, but in all the confusion I talked about above, it’s perhaps not surprising that the people who shout the loudest about how ‘the government’ are doing A Bad Job of Everything will be most likely to win out. And whether through good campaigning or media support or whatever, the Tories were definitely the loudest voice in the north-east. It is telling that – according to the information I got from the BBC news website – Willie Rennie and Nicola Sturgeon came to the north-east once each, and Kezia Dugdale not at all. Ruth Davidson, meanwhile, visited Peterhead, Brechin, Fochabers and Forres. And then, of course, there was Theresa May’s ‘forest’ rally in Deeside. They knew exactly what they were doing. From Aberdeen South, you can’t vote for Saudi Arabia to curb production or the EU to mandate CO2 injection with all oil recovery or BP not to explore new basins, but you can use your vote to kick the people you most closely associate with being ‘in charge’ of mismanaging the North Sea oil industry.
This in many ways is a shame, because the SNP and the Conservatives weren’t the only parties standing. I was very impressed with the attention the Labour candidates had given to more local-level concerns, and was delighted to see my former student Barry Black standing for Labour in Aberdeen West and Kincardineshire (within 10 years he’ll be an elected representative, mark my words). Special mention must also go to Patrick Harvie who, just days before the election, was in the Scottish Parliament pushing the SNP on how their oil recovery goals were incompatible with their climate change targets.
This is not a complete picture. It’s just one angle, based on insights from my own social science research, that might help partially explain why the Tories did so well in the north-east. Here’s a final thought for you. Apparently the people have spoken on a second independence referendum. Getting back to the day job is what Scotland-based politicians now have to do. So as citizens of north-east Scotland, let’s make sure that our Conservative and SNP MPs know that their day job is now to work to deliver a just and equitable transition away from oil and gas for the region. Write to them, get them to ask questions in parliament, hold them to account. After all, it is still at the Westminster level that the decisions about the UK Continental Shelf are made that form the bedrock (sorry) for everything else a just transition requires.