Grangemouth: a defining moment for the union?

When looking at the past, it is often the events that seem the least significant upon which history turns. The shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, received only brief columns in British newspapers.

This week, it has been announced that a petrochemical plant on the Firth of Forth is to close with the potential loss of 800 jobs. To many eyes, this is just another of a long string of job losses encountered by people across Britain in the last five years; part of the country’s continuing economic malaise. If the plant were in England, this would almost certainly be the case: there would be a temporary uproar, a ‘twitterstorm’ and a few petitions launched before everyone lost interest, believing that nothing can really be done. That the plant is in Scotland in 2013 could make it part of a much bigger debate: independence.

Earlier this year, the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign appeared to be running out of steam and victory slipping from its grasp, but the signs are that is now gearing up for a ‘big push’, to win over those pesky floating voters who will decide Scotland’s future next year. For Alex Salmond, Grangemouth presents both a big opportunity if handled well, but a big pitfall if it is bungled.

Salmond has already come flying out the blocks claiming he won’t accept closure and promising to strive for further talks to save the jobs. This is a chance for Salmond to assert his long held claim that only the Scottish Government really cares about the jobs and lives of Scottish people and is willing to work for it. If the SNP are able to save the jobs, it will be a huge propaganda coup. ‘Scottish government saves jobs in Scotland’s most important industry whilst London stands by’, would be his ideal story.

If the three main British parties really care about the Union, they have to realise the importance of this confrontation. The immediate response from London was limp. Energy is one of the areas that Westminster retains much of the power over, yet Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, merely said he was ‘saddened’ to hear of the closure and is ready to help in discussions if necessary. The Grangemouth situation is complex, but regardless of the Union’s actions, there have been no signals that the Government honestly care about these jobs.

If the Westminster Government gets into gear and achieves a mutually beneficial solution, it will do the ‘No’ campaign wonders. It will add substance to the argument that only in the Union can Scotland maintain vital jobs in major industries, but so far, they have not grasped the gravity of the situation.

Everything that happens in Scotland in the next year will be campaign material for one side or the other, yet it seems that only the SNP has truly grasped this. If the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems really care about the Union, they must show it.

If they don’t, future scholars of Scottish independence will point to Grangemouth and other situations when the Scottish Government saved jobs without Westminster’s help, as one of the key points in the road to the Union’s break-up.