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The crisis of Grangemouth and what it says about Scotland and Britain

The Grangemouth crisis doesn't just remind us of the problems of the capitalist class, but of the political class and trades unions too.

Gerry Hassan
1 November 2013

The Grangemouth story has been a modern parable - of the state of industrial relations, the interests of the media, and the condition of Scottish and UK politics – their motivations, silences and prejudices.

There has been much comment and political activity north of the border (not all of it, as we will see below, constructive). In the Westminster bubble which so dominates and distorts English politics, there have been either ideologically offensive and ignorant comments, or more widely, near-complete political inactivity, disinterest and the crashing sounds of silence.

First though, let’s try and dismiss the notion that Grangemouth can be simply seen through the prism of capital/labour relations, tempting though it is. Robin McAlpine’s persuasive piece last week explored part of this, but didn’t touch upon the wider canvas (1). We don’t gain anything thirty years into neo-liberalism’s onslaught by returning to the old left comfort blankets of creating pantomime villains of a big bad boss class, and failing to recognise the inadequacies of other actors – trade unions, Labour and the Westminster political classes.

The Many Dimensions of Grangemouth and Beyond

With the plant now saved for the time being and its long-term future hopefully secure, it is possible to identify a number of different interpretations of Grangemouth at a Scottish and UK level which were at play.

First, there was the agenda of Ineos and owner Jim Ratcliffe; run as a private equity company transferred to Switzerland after he failed to get his way with the UK Government and to defer a huge VAT payment worth millions. Ratcliffe and Ineos in the eyes of some played the role of the capitalist villain.

This was enough for part of Scotland to relight the anti-capitalist rhetoric which has historically and understandably informed much of Scottish public life. This is often an impotent rage against the modern world, and in place of any kind of left interventions about complex issues of ownership, corporation structure, corporate governance and finance. There is in mainstream British political, policy and media discussions, an inability to think about power, voice and the structures in work and business; and a complete silence in industrial democracy. And much of this left anger plays into this, or is a substitute for serious thought.

Second was the role of Unite, the trade union at Grangemouth. They have not exactly been constructive or helpful, instead playing straight into Ineos’s hands from their involvement in the Falkirk internal Labour selection onward. According to Labour’s internal still unpublished report on this stramash, Unite had done nothing illegal, but they had acted unethically and counter-productively with regard to the interests of workers and people locally.

After the summer ‘battle of Falkirk’, Unite were then prepared to go on strike over the alleged victimisation of union official Stephen Deans who was running his local Labour activities significantly in work time. When the employers took action against Deans, the workforce voted for strike action, and Ineos responded with a lock-out and threatened the closure of the petrochemical plant. This then produced a volte-face by the union, and as more information appeared after the complex was saved, Deans resigned from his job.

Many left-wingers don’t want to talk about the role and responsibility of Unite in this, and the lack of political intelligence and acumen of the British trade union leadership. This increasingly holds back and damages the cause of progressive trade unionism, and is directly related to the retreat of union membership into the public sector and certain parts of the private sector formerly in the public sector (railways, Royal Mail, Grangemouth).

If the Scottish self-government debate is to go beyond constitutionalism and have a wider impact about the kind of society people want to live in, then one thing that will have to change is the sectional, conservative, insular world of trade unionism. What a progressive Scottish trade unionism would entail is a wider social and citizen’s agenda which borrows on the best of STUC history, the traditions of trade councils, and the memory of the contribution of the Communist Party to both. But that won’t come from some ‘radical nostalgia’ (2) about the past, but recognising the impasse and ghetto people have been forced into.

Third, the whole saga began in the words of ‘The Scotsman’s’ Eddie Barnes with ‘the butterfly effect’ of Falkirk MP Eric Joyce hitting three Tory MPs in the House of Commons, and being expelled from the Labour Party (3). Thus began the local Labour selection and Unite over-reaching themselves. Joyce, once an uber-Blairite and ex-Army Major, has at points been the most expensive MP in the entire UK costing in 2007-8 £187,334 expenses. A general provocateur in life, Joyce jumped on Grangemouth to settle some old scores, oblivious to the high stakes at work. He publically aligned himself with Ineos, saying any criticism of the company and of Ratcliffe was suspicious and uncomprehending of wealth creation, and ‘personally motivated’.

Trying to understand this in a context bigger than one individual, highlights the deeper question of what Scots, and in particular, Scots Labour MPs (of which Joyce was one until March 2012), actually do in the House of Commons. Post-devolution, a recent ‘Public Whip’ study showed that they are some of the most inactive parliamentarians in the entire House (4). This can only continue and accelerate as Scottish and UK politics develop in different directions.

Fourth, there is the unalloyed glee of right-wing opinion jumping all over this story. On the day Ineos announced the closure of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, ‘Spectator Coffee House’, the online version of the magazine, summoned its resources and published four articles on the controversy. Three of these by Fraser Nelson, the editor, John O’Neill and Euan McColm, each parroted without any qualification the Ineos PR campaign line that the plant was ‘losing £10m a month’ (5). They were thus content publicly to buy into a corporate propaganda aiding industrial vandalism, when the slightest checking of facts would have told them those figures were a product of Ineos’s strange world of accounting (counting investment as losses).

Fifth, there is what all of this says about the mindset of the UK media and politics. Grangemouth, a huge strategic site and asset for the Scottish and UK economy, just did not matter to the ideological hothouse of ‘Daily Telegraph’/’DailyMail’ land. Such concerns to them are about the past, whereas they believe in the bright slick Southern future selling multi-million pound houses to foreigners, and clearing central London of the disposed and welfare classes.

Then there were the silences of that supposedly left-wing institution, the BBC. On last week’s ‘Question Time’ despite a twenty-minute discussion on energy prices (and the Westminster parlour game of which party was most responsible for putting them up), and the presence of left-wing commentator Owen Jones on the panel, not one word was said about Grangemouth.

The following day on Radio Four’s ‘Any Questions’ with the plant saved, Grangemouth suddenly emerged from the shadows as top item. This was a hilarious, if it wasn’t so seriously misinformed, discussion. Matthew Hancock, a Tory junior minister, and anchor Jonathan Dimbleby agreed that Grangemouth was 10% of the Scottish economy (it is about 1%). They were then bettered by that sane voice of UKIP Diane James (of Eastleigh by-election fame) who claimed it was 10% of the British economy and who was pulled up. The entire British political classes seem to know nothing about economics, industry or the world of work, but yet are happy to lecture the rest of us on the realities of competition, globalisation and in the Cameron Conservative lexicon, the pressures of ‘the global race’.

The Differing Worldviews of the Scottish and UK Governments

Finally, there us what this says about the Scottish and UK Governments. The UK Government did absolutely nothing pro-actively on Grangemouth beyond Alastair Carmichael, recently appointed Lib Dem Secretary of State of Scotland, making a few phone calls to Lib Dem colleagues such as Vince Cable. In contrast, the Scottish Government, from First Minister Alex Salmond downwards to senior civil servants, were heavily involved in trying to save Grangemouth and the workers’ jobs: getting the parties in negotiation, identifying alternative owners, and making contingency plans.

Scotland’s Government looked and acted like a modern government with a developmental state which cares and bothers about things like the economy, skills and security of oil supplies. The UK Government looked the other way in silence and disinterest, influenced by ideological dogma.

The repercussions of the above are significant for how industry, employment, strategic national interests, and importantly, political economy are spoken about (or not as the case might be). Grangemouth was owned by BP until 2004, and BP was majority state owned until the staged privatisations between 1979 and 1987. Yet even though that last date is only 26 years ago and one political generation back, it now seems like a lost world: to today’s Conservative political discourse, one where a energy price freeze harks back to 1970s East Germany, and such an intervention is the sum of Labour ambition. Where is the debate about ownership and the limits of ‘Open Britain’ where no strategic national interest cannot be foreign owned and controlled? (including parts of the GCHQ-NSA run database state).

The levels of ideological blinkeredness mixed with incompetence in the Grangemouth saga are frightening, nearly shutting the whole plant which would have resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. The UK Government remained a bit player in this entire episode, deliberately marginalising itself. Right wing hawks circled the plant like vultures braying at the prospect of using it to confirm their anti-union, deregulated dystopia. Journalists like Fraser Nelson should consider checking a few facts before articulating their prejudices and swallowing corporate spin.

Then there was the role of the Unite union: playing a rather unsubtle game of politicking and the very Scottish Labour blurring of party-union boundaries, which in Jack Straw’s words put ‘internal union politics before jobs’ (6). When the Scottish Government’s herculean efforts turned things round at the end of last week, not one Unite official privately or publicly had the decency to thank them for saving over 1,800 highly skilled, well paid, unionised jobs and the countless thousands in related local services.

Some on the right now openly seem to take pleasure in workers losing jobs forcing them to face the harsh winds of competition. But some on the left were equally furious at the successful intervention of the Scottish Government, perceiving it as forcing the union to cave into the employers. Both wish to see a simplistic world of ‘them’ and ‘us’ stand-offs: one supporting a hire and fire employment culture redolent of Dickensian times, and the other, annoyed that the big boss class caricature of their rhetoric, has been denied another chance to come fully into public view.

There are also the limits in today’s world of the ‘Whose Side Are You On? mentality which is self-righteous and never really posed as an attractive invite and more as an accusation. It is the logic of betrayal, ‘class traitors’, ‘scabs’ and worse, and has been given an extended life by the ‘Bliar’ opposition to Tony Blair, and the widespread anger (and impotence) in the face of neo-liberalism. This is associated with the blinkered politics of a left versus right, but it infuses wider politics when they are traduced by advocates to a simple binary choice. An example of this is Scotland’s independence debate being reduced by passionate supporters on both sides to whether you are ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (7).

The Grangemouth story tells much about the state of modern Britain in the early decades of the 21st century. It is impossible in Westminster circles and the Londoncentric media to have a grown-up conversation about the economy, industrial relations and work. But that then is true of parts of the trade union movement, the left and Labour Party in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK. We cannot get into the escapism of just blaming the free market vandals of the Cameron government and the crony capitalist fantasists of the right; there is a deep conservatism of the right very different from old, and an increasingly old-fashioned conservatism of the left which ill-serves it or the times we live in.

Robin McAlpine was right when he concluded that Britain is not ‘a normal country’, but that prognosis affects all the public institutions of the country: business, political parties, media and unions, and across the political spectrum, left, centre and right. Grangemouth managed to not become a victim of those times and players, but it poses uncomfortable questions for the direction of British politics. Can the Scottish Government challenge the conservative orthodoxies of left and right, and begin to flesh out a different industrial policy and approach to political economy? In the last week, an important step has been made in the right direction against the market myopias of recent times.

Notes

1. Robin McAlpine, ‘What’s really happening at Grangemouth and what it really tells us’, Open Democracy, October 23rd 2013, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/robin-mcalpine/whats-really-happening-at-grangemouth-and-what-it-tells-us

2. Alastair Bonnett, Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia, Continuum 2010.

3. Eddie Barnes, ‘Grangemouth: How downfall began with a bar-room brawl’, The Scotsman, October 25th 2013, http://www.scotsman.com/news/grangemouth-how-downfall-began-with-bar-room-brawl-1-3153945

4. ‘Costa Scotia’, The Economist, October 26th 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21588380-westminsters-scottish-mafia-has-it-good-will-not-last-cosa-scotia

5. Fraser Nelson, ‘Unions v. Grangemouth’, Spectator Coffee House, October 23rd 2013, http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/10/unions-vs-grangemouth/

6. The Daily Politics, October 29th 2013.

7. Gerry Hassan and James Mitchell (eds), After Independence, Luath Press 2013, http://www.amazon.co.uk/After-Independence-Gerry-Hassan-ed/dp/1908373954/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383050590&sr=1-1

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