Monday’s UK Cabinet day-trip to Aberdeen, the first occasion in two years when Tory MPs outnumbered pandas in Scotland, was a complicated logistical exercise. Public safety was a huge concern, since most Cabinet members aren’t accustomed to being that far north without being seized by the urge to shoot something. In addition, there was the threat of the Scottish Cabinet unexpectedly appearing on the scene and subjecting Dave and his pals to a hilarious Benny Hill chase sequence.
When, despite Michael Gove’s intensive tutoring, the Cabinet proved to be absolute rubbish at spikkin Doric, it was the last straw. Aides regretfully concluded that the politicians would have to be kept apart from the general public at all times. Alistair Carmichael was instructed to run a decoy operation in Shell HQ car park, blowing aside the media’s fatuous questions with his copious supply of wind. Meanwhile, the remaining Cabinet members were smuggled into the building one by one, concealing themselves where necessary behind lamp-posts, shrubbery or, in the case of Eric Pickles, Pittodrie Stadium.
As Cabinets go, it was something of a ‘B’ Team. William Hague, who’d recently intervened in the debate with all the finesse of a hippopotamus in gumboots, was needed in Parliament for some booming but empty oratory on Ukraine. George Osborne, still commemorated on local dartboards three years after his tax grab brought oil investment to its knees, had sensibly found a G20 meeting to attend on the other side of the planet. But far be it from Westminster to short-change Scotland. The remaining bunch were a perfectly viable embodiment of Tory values, choosing to trumpet their economic achievements in a town full of millionaires in a country whose biggest food bank had just run out of supplies.
Their glorious leader had already recorded his keynote statement aboard an oil rig, with his hard hat giving him a distinct resemblance to Bob the Builder, albeit after he’d inherited a fortune and gone completely off the rails. Anybody with a functioning cerebellum knew that the UK government’s stewardship of North Sea resources had been pants, but, with impressive chutzpah, Dave stood there insisting he could fix it. Bet he used to say that to restaurant owners whose premises the Bullingdon Club had just trashed.
The UK government had “deep pockets”, he told us, which may explain where they hid the McCrone Report for 30 years after it had indicated this oil thing might be quite handy for the Scots. Their “broad shoulders”, possibly the evolutionary result of having to cope with such big heads, may be useful for nudging provincials out of the way and deflecting incoming wealth towards the South East, but they’d be a liability if you were in a tight spot. Wouldn’t they just get stuck? As for “top ten economy”, a phrase difficult to contemplate without Alan Freeman’s Pick Of The Pops theme running through your head, that description’s certainly true at the time of writing, but of scant relevance when said economy is run by chinless chancers you can’t un-elect.
The question isn’t whether a future Scottish government is up to the task of matching Westminster’s track record. It’s how, short of setting fire to the oil as it comes ashore and chucking piles of £20 notes into the flames, the Scottish government could actually do worse. If mankind could invent a truth serum to which Whitehall isn’t immune, what would be the UK government’s honest appraisal?
“Well, initially we used the oil money to pay off creditors because we’d made ourselves bankrupt, then we spent 11 years compensating for the societal carnage caused by the policies of a deranged ideologue, and subsidising the bargain-basement sell-off of our public services to speculators. After that it’s mostly a blur, but recently we’ve blown a fair whack on protection money to the banking community and tax breaks for the fantastically rich. Now we’re flirting with bankruptcy again, but we’ve got a mind-blowingly expensive train set to build and we’ve told flooded Thames Valley residents money’s no object, so we wonder if you could lend us a few quid?”
Given the First Minister’s credentials as a former oil economist, Westminster’s choice of the North Sea as a debating topic was tantamount to picking up the nearest frying pan and challenging Andy Murray to a game of tennis. To make it interesting, Alex and his Cabinet were accidentally-on-purpose also meeting in the area, at Portlethen ten, seven, six or five miles away, depending on which way up the broadcasters were holding their maps. It was no less a stunt than the UK Government’s, although at least the Scottish Cabinet does make a frequent habit of venturing out and about, instead of showing up roughly as often as Halley’s Comet.
Alex’s strategy, gleaned from the “bleedin’ obvious” section of his campaigning handbook, was to anticipate every move his leaden-footed opponents would make and do things differently. So instead of screeching on to the tarmac in “Scare Force One”, his Cabinet turned up in a coach as if on a Sunday School outing. Eschewing a swanky oil company boardroom, they met in a chilly church hall, as the BBC's Nick Robinson ruefully tweeted through chattering teeth. Rather than executive coffee and luxury biscuits from preferred corporate suppliers, they had a whistling tea urn and scrumptious carrot cake courtesy of Mrs MacPherson of the Guild.
The greatest difference was, of course, that after their meeting they held a question-and-answer session with the Portlethen public, inevitably reported by the press as “Salmond gets a grilling”. It would be a foolish dream to expect the same of their UK counterparts, but at least some of them consented to TV interviews, including Mr Cameron himself, who by the time STV's Bernard Ponsonby was finished with him was taking on a lovely shade of pink at the edges. As his eyes bulged, you could see him think, “Oh bugger, is this the man George told me to avoid at all costs?”
As Westminster’s finest headed for a stiff gin on the plane, the broadcasters began a frantic search for anyone with serious connections to the oil industry who gave two hoots about independence. It hadn’t worked with Sir Ian Wood, whose newly-published report on how to do things better was the ostensible reason for the whole day’s circus, and despite increasingly bizarre lines of questioning it didn’t work with anyone else.
Looks like they might have to go back to the old scare about the oil running out soon, with warnings not to spend too long in the loo or you might miss it. It’s not Scotland’s oil, it’s Schrödinger’s: bust if we open the box, and bonanza if the UK does.
- Concern about the Scottish whisky industry, amid reports of dwindling peat stocks and a growing worldwide temperance movement.
- Scottish tourism under threat, as a respected expert announces global warming could turn off the Gulf Stream and insurers predict increased premiums for midge bite risk.
Tablet “could be major cause of diabetes”, says passer-by who looks a bit like a doctor.