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Distance travelled: the north east since devolution

Distance travelled: the north east since devolution

Devolution and the unique political character of the north east of Scotland

Politically speaking, at times, the North East of Scotland has seemed at odds with the rest of the country. 

When the Conservative party had its Scottish resurgence in the 2017 general election, it sent a blue wave sweeping along the coast north of Dundee, claiming all but one seat on the way up to Moray, knocking out SNP heavyweights and sealing the notion of a ‘Tory fightback’ in Scotland.

Some commentators heralded the blossoming of a latent Scottish conservatism, others pointed towards an indyref backlash and clever Tory campaigning. 

But looking back over 20 years of devolution, and the unique relationship the North East has with both the Scottish Parliament and international forces, it seems that the political character of the region isn’t quite so easily explained.

Geographically, it is vast and largely undeveloped, comprised mainly of small towns that hug the coastline between the two major cities of Dundee and Aberdeen and onwards round the north-east coast through the fishing capitals of Peterhead and Fraserburgh. 

In addition to fishing, the industry most associated with the region is North Sea oil and gas, which transformed Aberdeen in the early 1970s. 

Approximately 850,000 people live in the region, more than half of whom are in small towns and rural areas.

“Generally, people from the North East feel quite detached from what’s going on in the central belt. The Edinburgh government seems quite far away,” says Dr Craig McAngus, a lecturer in politics at the University of the West of Scotland, formerly at the University of Aberdeen and the Centre on Constitutional Change.

McAngus grew up in Banff, a town 25-miles west of the fishing capital of Fraserburgh.

This sense of distance may have led to an initial scepticism toward devolution; in the 1979 referendum, the Tayside and Grampian regions that now make up the North East actually voted against a Scottish parliament. 

Of course, by 1997, the mood that swept the nation was in favour of devolution, and the North East was no different.

For the first three parliaments, the North East appeared to be a Liberal Democrat stronghold, like the Northern Isles, which shares the industrial cultures of oil and fishing.

“These seats had always been contests between Conservatives and Liberals, and in the second half of the 20th century, between the SNP and the Conservatives,” McAngus says.

“It just doesn’t have that connection with the Labour party that other parts of Scotland do.

“And I suppose that’s pretty understandable because there’s been very little heavy industry up there. If you're talking about occupations, traditionally, you're talking about farming and fishing.”

This historic antipathy towards Labour, McAngus says, is at the root of the political differences between central and western Scotland and the North East, which he describes as having a slight “libertarian slant”.

Stewart Stevenson, an SNP MSP who has represented the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency since the first Scottish Parliament of 1999, acknowledges the initial scepticism towards Edinburgh rule. 

Reflecting on the years leading up to devolution, he said: “There was certainly a concern that in cultural terms, Edinburgh was probably as distant as London, I think. 

“But nonetheless, it's pretty clear that people have valued being able to talk to the legislators, being able to get to the kind of response that they simply couldn't before when they were a tiny fragment of a very large institution of Westminster.”

Over the 20 years since, Stevenson says prosperity has grown.

“Life has changed, in the sense that the economy of the North East has dramatically improved in that period of time. 

“Now, oil and gas of course started way back, between 1970 to 75. But in the last 20 years, the period of devolution, we've continued to see unemployment fall in the area. 

But Stevenson does note that the oil and gas boom hasn’t “magically fixed” everything. 

Fraserburgh, in Stevenson’s constituency, was found by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) of 2016 to harbour one of Scotland's most deprived communities, despite being one of Europe’s largest shellfish landing ports.

The nearby city of Aberdeen, by contrast, has a significantly higher than average number of people earning £40,000 and above, while residents of Aberdeenshire Council have the highest life expectancy in Scotland, at 79.9 years. 

The volatile but lucrative oil and gas industry has shaped Aberdeen and surrounding area for over 40 years, generating huge economic activity in the region and leading to exports of £4.5bn a year. 

Because of this, Aberdeen has the highest proportion of overseas migrants in Scotland and is also one of the country’s youngest cities, with a median age of 37.

Oil and gas was shaping the city long before the re-establishment of the parliament and as the crash in oil price to $26.75 a barrel in 2014 demonstrated, there is very little the Scottish Government can do to influence what is a global market.

Russell Borthwick, chief executive, Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, described the 2014 crash as “a glimpse of what the future might be like without our black gold”. 

He told Holyrood of the collective failure of government and business to think beyond oil: 

“We failed to plan ahead, provide oxygen to our other sectors, invest in infrastructure and create a place to satisfy a growing population (to ensure) we attract and retain the skilled people needed to fuel our economy,” he said.

Attempts to diversify the economy of Aberdeen and the broader North East have centred on encouraging tourism, which Stevenson admits has been “poorly marketed” on the East Coast, and by directing skills towards renewables rather than oil.

“Our regional economic strategy and city region deal are delivering strongly,” Borthwick said, referring to the 2016 joint investment of over £250m from UK and Scottish Governments. 

As well as the opening of the Oil and Gas Technology Centre, the new investment drive in Aberdeen has also included the Event Complex Aberdeen, opened in September 2019, which the council hopes will bring in revenue from concerts and conferences – the first major event being the SNP’s autumn conference.

Borthwick says he hopes that “in future, the success of the area is no longer measured by the dollar price of a barrel of oil.”

Dundee, the other major city in the region, shares some of Aberdeen’s demographic trends, both being increasingly young cities in the midst of a nation-wide ageing population.

But the prosperity brought to Aberdeen contrasts with Dundee, where 37 per cent of the city’s postcodes are classed as deprived, as per the SIMD. High unemployment and a lower than average life expectancy also stand out. 

In recent years, the city has also become synonymous with the country’s drugs problem, having the highest per capita drugs death rate.

But at the same time, Dundee is in the midst of an investment-driven turnaround, with a £1bn development on the city’s waterfront bringing the widely celebrated V&A museum which is hoped will draw tourism and focus attention on the city’s wider arts industry. 

Overnight visitors contributed £433m to the economies of Angus, Dundee, North-East Fife and Perth & Kinross and the Tay Cities Region Tourism Strategy for 2019-24 hopes to increase that to £550m.

And the city’s SNP representation has pledged to highlight Dundee’s needs at the heart of government. Dundee West’s Joe FitzPatrick, Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, has ensured that the nationwide Drugs Deaths Taskforce will include evidence from Dundonians and the city’s drugs commission. 

Fishing may be one of the iconic industries of the region, where up to 60 per cent of the UK’s fish is landed, but its overall contribution to the economy is tiny, contributing only 0.12 per cent of Scotland’s Gross Value Added (GVA, a measure similar to GDP).

There are approximately 4000 people employed in catching fish and a further 7000 in landing on the east coast.

In rural communities, though, the industry is disproportionately valuable. Marine Scotland estimates that it’s worth £998m in GVA in rural economies, and employs 15 per cent of local people directly or indirectly.

Stevenson says: “Locally, it's very important, but in the big picture, it is far less so. But in the North East, oh yes – everybody will have an opinion on fishing even if they've never set foot on a fishing boat or inside a fish factory.”

Unlike oil, it is an industry over which the Scottish Government has more of a role. 

“For people in the fishing industry, devolution makes a large, tangible difference to their everyday lives,” McAngus says. 

“You now have a Scottish Government directorate, like Marine Scotland, managing the seas around Scotland; interpreting the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and implementing it. In your day-to-day management as a fisherman [the Scottish Government] is very explicit and real.”

But having the Scottish Government in charge of implementing what have proved to be unpopular EU policies has had an effect.

Research conducted by McAngus found that fishermen in Scotland reported far less trust in the Scottish Government than in the UK Government; a reversal of how the broader public feels when polled. 

Stevenson says that much of the negative sentiment towards the Scottish Government often comes from “a misunderstanding” about where powers lie. 

According to data collected after the EU referendum of 2016, by University of East Anglia politics reader Dr Chris Hanretty, Banff and Buchan – Stewart Stevenson’s own constituency – may have voted to leave the EU by 61 per cent, potentially making it the only part of Scotland that favoured Brexit.

Stevenson points to the Aberdeenshire-wide result of 54 per cent remain, in which Banff and Buchan was included.

Unsurprisingly for a large and undeveloped area, transport infrastructure has been a major focus. 

2019 saw the completion of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route – a £1bn, 36-mile city bypass that was first announced by then-First Minister Jack McConnell in 2003. 

While there has been £300m spent on rail improvements, including the dualling of the line between Aberdeen and Inverurie, ScotRail’s performance along the coast has been below target.

And while new bus routes have been launched to connect the Fraserburgh and Banff campuses of the North East college, the constituency of Banff and Buchan is the only constituency in Scotland without rail.

For Lewis Macdonald, the Labour MSP first elected to Aberdeen Central in 1999 before becoming a regional list member in 2016, the “spirit of devolution” has been lost to the centralising tendencies of the SNP Government. 

He said: “In the first period of devolution, the spirit of devolution was reflected not just in government responsibilities going from London to Edinburgh, but in government jobs and departments going from Edinburgh to other parts of Scotland. 

“In particular, Scottish Natural Heritage going to Inverness, but very importantly for Aberdeen was the Food Standards Scotland coming to Aberdeen. 

“But in the last 12 years, we’ve seen the trend moving in the opposite direction.” 

Macdonald criticises the reorganisation of public services, Police Scotland and the Fire Service in particular.

Stevenson rejects suggestions of an over-centralising government mentality outright. 

“Well, that's not true, of course,” he says.

“It's politics, nothing more than that. I don't see it as reflecting the reality on the ground.”

Widely recognised, though, is the North East’s public image problem. 

The region as a whole has the highest level of negative net migration in Scotland, meaning more people are leaving than arriving. Aberdeen’s population has been declining since 2016. Aberdeenshire, Moray and Angus have rapidly ageing populations. 

And Aberdeen made headlines in 2016 when it was voted the “most dismal” city in Scotland. 

While efforts are underway to reverse these trends and reinvigorate the Granite City, research undertaken by ScotPulse revealed that only 16 per cent of people in the region are likely to speak highly of the area unprompted and only 30 per cent think the region is changing for the better.

“We need local people to become our storytellers; to push back on misperceptions and share the real narrative of a place with an exciting present and future,” Borthwick of the Aberdeen Chambers of Commerce said.

“This is already a great place to live, work, study, visit, invest and do business, so please start to say so and challenge those who continue to knock it. 

“Only by getting our own story straight will the right messages begin to reach our external audiences. Creating the region we can be proud of for our children and grandchildren is everyone’s business.”

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