For Rob Gibson, politics and the environment have always been intertwined
There is a common thread running through the debate over independence; that of opportunities missed.
It could be the failure to set up an oil fund when reserves were first discovered in the North Sea, or the anger that still smoulders over the original 1979 referendum on devolution which was defeated despite more than half voting Yes.
One opportunity that still concerns Rob Gibson, convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, is the one that could have been taken over greener energy.
Speaking in a debate on energy and climate change this month, he harked back to the 1970s when both the UK and Norway found themselves in similar positions with large hydrocarbon deposits in their territory.
While he said the UK concentrated on an “extractive mentality” the Norwegians “insisted on a big stake for Statoil to balance what was called the greed of the seven sisters of big oil,” he told MSPs. “Norway also insisted on a slower rate of extraction, with tighter environmental and safety laws.”
It is another story of what might have been and what he describes as a period of “great disillusion” in the 1970s and 1980s over what might happen to the environment.
He was a teacher in Easter Ross at the time of the oil boom and beyond, and saw the arrival and closure of the aluminium smelter at Invergordon, shut down by British Aluminium in 1981.
“The industrial environment was destroyed. The smelter was closed after something like a 17-year life.
“It was crazy stuff, it was supposed to be powered by nuclear power that cost nothing to meter from Dounreay, then it wasn’t and it was coming from Huntertson.
“The whole crisis of how you make a sustainable economy was something that was very much in my mind.”
Born in Glasgow, Gibson will forever be associated with the Highlands. He was a teacher in Easter Ross then a Ross and Cromarty district councillor, before entering the Scottish Parliament first as a Highlands list councillor, then representing the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency after 2011.
The link between his concerns over the environment and his support for the SNP have always been interlinked, describing the influence The Politics of Environment, by Malcolm Slesser, the academic and a former SNP candidate for Angus, had on his thinking – particularly the wish to see land reform.
He was a member of the party throughout one of its most transformative and turbulent periods; at university, he helped rebuild the SNP student wing, the Federation of Student Nationalists and later was a member of the ’79 Group that tried to take the party to the left.
While he was not one of those expelled due to not being a committee member, he and Andrew Currie were captured on film in 1982 walking off the stage midway through the chairman’s speech in protest at the attempts to outlaw the group.
As an MSP, Gibson has been suitably decorated for his green credentials; in 2012, he was named Politician of the Year in Scottish Renewables Green Energy Awards. In 2013, he was given the same title – this time by RSPB Scotland.
But he admits his personal commitment to environmental issues was “galvanised” when he met his partner, Eleanor Scott, who he has been in a relationship with since the early 90s.
Scott was one of the seven Green MSPs elected in 2003 and she and Gibson were the first people from the same household to hold elected office representing different parties.
He describes it as “Eleanor representing the national dimension in Green politics and me representing the green element in Nationalist politics.”
But he says: “There’s a lot we agree on but I can never entirely convince a Green Party supporter like Eleanor on what I would call the more pragmatic approaches to some things.”
One area where the SNP has certainly diverged from the Greens in recent times is on the issue of unconventional gas and fracking.
A Green motion in parliament calling for an outright ban on fracking was voted down by the SNP, Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems.
“The transformation of energy to being totally clean does involve the continued running of nuclear power stations until they’ve reached the end of their safe life. You don’t have the complete powers to suddenly turn on the green switch and turn off the dirty.
“With fracking, the issues are interesting because the Government’s modulated approach has been that the regulation which we have – and we don’t control energy policy yet – in planning is pretty tough.
“At the moment, the precautionary principle is being adopted and the Government is taking it step by step.”
INEOS based at Grangemouth has plans to import shale gas from the US and Gibson says it is important to consider the impact this will have on carbon emission targets and extra effort may need to be made to offset them.
He said: “You don’t always start with a clean state, nor with the playing field that you really want to be playing on. Someone else has made the rules, someone else has drawn the lines.
As deputy convener of the Economy, Enterprise and Tourism Committee in the previous parliament and now convener of RACCE, he has a great deal experience of the committee system at the parliament – one that has come under criticism in recent weeks with a claim that the SNP majority was seeing a culture of “obedience and slavishness”.
The Westminster committee system, with a larger base of MPs, sees committee far more likely to overtly question the government of the day.
But Gibson asks: “Do their ideas get accepted? We’re interested in outcomes and getting the Government to do the things we advise is much easier if there’s a big voice that’s united in the parliament.”
He adds: “The concept of criticism for criticism’s sake is, for good intellectual reasons, an interesting part of democracy, but it’s a far more effective part of democracy if you can get governments to actually act.”
However, he maintains that with full powers under independence, committees could become more effective and “not just the front-page story on a Thursday morning that allows the opposition parties to criticise the Government in First Minister’s Questions.”
His more pragmatic approach and party alliance could have been severely tested nearly two years ago when the SNP conference held a controversial vote on ditching its 30-year policy of opposition to defence alliance NATO.
Two of his Highland colleagues, Jean Urquhart and John Finnie, who had voted against the leadership’s new proposals, left the party in protest. Gibson also voted against, but stayed put.
“Parties work on the basis you get decisions made through being disciplined,” he says. “Personal views at times have to be tempered by the collective decision. If in a premeditated way you come into a political party and say, ‘my individual views are more important than our collective views’ then parties don’t thrive.”
He maintains he can understand the leadership’s arguments – although still disagrees – and despite John Finnie previously telling Holyrood it was a “red line issue”, Gibson says: “We’re not in a normal situation. We’ve got incomplete powers.
“Most people accept the outcome of [a] general election, so if there was a majority view we should not be in NATO, that would be the time to have that.
“For me, red lines on a personal basis are rarely likely to happen because by and large, the vast bulk of what the SNP stands for are things I’ve helped to build and I’m fairly comfortable with.”
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