Final fling: Struan Stevenson
By his own admission, Struan Stevenson has been a bit of a ‘maverick’ within his own party.
As a supporter of devolution and a member of the original Yes campaign in the 1970s, he suffered the wrath of his party’s leader and future Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for being what she described as ‘defeatist’, when he dared to challenge her decision to scrap support for a Scottish Assembly.
Since being elected as an MEP for the Tories in 1999 he has voiced fiercely-held views, whether they are on Middle-East regimes or the proliferation of “useless” wind turbines across Scotland.
Next May, as European elections are held just four months before Scotland decides on its constitutional future, he will stand aside after his 15 years in Brussels.
Often sidelined ahead of domestic politics, those elections are likely to grab more of the limelight, both in Scotland and the UK as a whole, as commentators look for an insight into people’s voting intentions regarding the Scottish independence referendum in September – or a potential poll in 2017 on whether Britain should leave the EU.
Stevenson says the issue of Europe will be weighing on people’s minds as they go to both polls next year, and thinks the issues raised over legal advice and whether an independent Scotland would have to reapply for membership has damaged the SNP Government’s credibility: “I think all of that has undermined the general public view of the SNP and has highlighted the uncertainties about independence, because these used to be transmitted by the SNP as absolute certainties, but when we start scratching the surface and investigating what this actually means, it’s astonishing to find a so-called competent political party has never done due diligence on these key questions.”
Stevenson says he has been insisting to the party in Westminster that they run “two entirely different campaigns” for next year’s European elections with different manifestos: “From my party’s perspective, it will be more a UKIP/Conservative confrontation south of the border, whereas up here, it will be all about the independence referendum.”
Born into a farming family in Ballantrae, he entered politics via council seats – and despite attempts in the 1980s and 1990s to represent the Conservatives at a more central government level, it was not until 1999 that that ambition could be realised, when Europe beckoned.
Since becoming an MEP, Stevenson has had a strong environmental focus, serving currently as president of the European Parliament’s Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development Intergroup, as well as being a permanent fixture on the fisheries committee that has had to battle the issues of Common Fisheries Policy reform and banning discards.
That industry, still so vital to many communities in Scotland, has suffered the turmoil of declining fish stocks and tough catch restrictions, but this year a deal was finally agreed that will end the practice of dead fish being thrown back into the sea and encourage the industry to thrive once more.
“For the first time in 14 years as an MEP, I feel there is a good future for the industry,” he says. “Young people looking for a future in fisheries can be confident they will have a safe and profitable career.” He praises the UK fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, for being a key negotiator in the process but also says Benyon and his Scottish counterpart, the SNP’s Richard Lochhead, have worked together well to help deliver the reforms.
“We’ve had a hell of a battle for the past four years to realise these ambitious targets but we’ve done it,” he says. “We’ve got first reading agreement on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, which gives meaningful regionalisation, devolving day-to-day management back to the member states – and in Britain, that will mean to Scotland and the Scottish Government and will involve producer organisations in the ports themselves, like the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.
“It also means we’re ending the discards disaster and already we’ve got scientists telling us that cod stocks, haddock stocks are recovering big time.” During his time on the committee, by 2009, 80 per cent of fish stocks in European waters were either over-exploited or nearing collapse but he says this is now under 30 per cent – mostly in the Mediterranean and even that is being retrieved.
He adds: “I wouldn’t have liked to have walked away with an absolute disaster in my wake.
“I’m certainly not going to walk away taking all the credit for this, but I think I will be looking from my retirement home with some satisfaction that things have at least been set on the right course.”
One of Stevenson’s main bugbears over the last decade has been the proliferation of wind turbines. With the current Scottish Government policy firmly in favour of wind and renewables as the energy provider of the future, his objections show no sign of cooling.
While he agrees harmful CO2 emissions need to be cut, his opposition to wind energy is not just that turbines are sited in the wrong places.
He launched a book earlier this year, So Much Wind: The Myth of Green Energy, in which he describes wind energy as wasteful, inefficient and destroying Scotland’s landscape.
“It is becoming more, sadly, about an urban/ rural split,” he says. “People living in urban Scotland see wind turbines as an icon of environmental friendliness. They’re encouraged to this philosophy by people like Alex Salmond, who make statements such as “wind is free”.
Most of the protests against wind energy, he says, come from the starting point that turbines are destroying the landscape and says that this could lead to accusations of ‘Nimbyism’ but he adds: “I don’t mind that because the whole of Scotland is my back yard – I represent the whole of Scotland as an MEP.”
However, he says he has quickly realised that arguing turbines damage the landscape will not win over his opponents and instead pours scorn on claims that wind energy produces jobs and cleaner electricity.
Figures from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change released in 2013 showed that renewable energy was second only to nuclear power in terms of electricity generation, having risen from 19.2 per cent in 2010 to 26.8 per cent, but Stevenson says the 5,000 turbines installed across the UK which, in theory, should have a full capacity of thousands of megawatts, are falling far short.
He refers regularly to a UK Energywatch app on his mobile phone which shows a minute-by-minute breakdown of what is being generated. He consults it during the interview with Holyrood to show that while 41,000MW of electricity was currently being generated, 757MW of it was from wind.
Official estimates are that more than 11,000 people are directly employed in renewables jobs in Scotland, but he remains dismissive of claims it will bring widespread employment, arguing it is “beginning to nudge the bank scandal” in terms of its size: “It will become Alex Salmond’s Darien Scheme,” he says, after the failed 17th century attempt to establish a Scottish colony in Panama that led to financial ruin at home, “because it is financially not viable and has driven up household energy prices to untenable levels that has already driven a third of Scottish households into fuel poverty.”
Stevenson, who helped author his party’s policy on a new energy policy for Scotland that supports more exploration of nuclear power and a moratorium on wind turbines, claims that rather than contributing to reducing greenhouse gases, they are “actually causing CO2 emissions to expand rather than diminish.”
But if green energy – Stevenson is no fan of wave and tidal either – is not the solution to still providing energy while reducing carbon emissions, then what is?
Despite environmental protests, such as those in West Sussex, over ‘fracking’ oil, Stevenson says shale gas should not be written off.
“We have massive reserves and in America, the exploitation of shale gas has cut prices by 50 per cent and rendered coal redundant. Because of that they have reduced their CO2 emissions now in America by 450 million tonnes in the last six years.
“Because of shale gas, per-capita emissions in America is now less per head of population than it was in 1964. Meanwhile with us in Europe pursuing so-called green policies, our CO2 emissions are going up. In Scotland, we failed to hit our emissions targets for the past two years.”
Nuclear power is restricted in Scotland, with a government policy of no new developments but he says that the money that has been spent on wind farms could fund a new 1,500MW Hunterston C, using Thorium not Uranium.
This summer, at an event for European Parliament interpreters held in Edinburgh, he debated green energy with Niall Stuart, chief executive of Scottish Renewables, the industry body and renewables lobby group, whose opening gag was that Stevenson’s latest book is the best work of fiction since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but Stevenson often relishes this sort of confrontation.
His combative nature was also shown when the topic of the Middle East was discussed in the European Parliament. Outraged at human rights abuses in Iraq, where he says the country is spiralling towards civil war, with a Prime Minister who is a “puppet of the Mullahs in Iran”, he saw a delegate not only barred from the parliament, but arrested.
He also tells the story of door-stepping the Iranian Foreign Minister Mannouchehr Mottaki, before he addressed a foreign affairs committee, accusing him of being a murderer - a reference to a student who had been shot dead during a protest in Iran in 2009.
Later he shared an uncomfortable lift journey with the country’s ambassador. Stevenson says: “He said, ‘You were a bit harsh on my minister. You called him a murderer.’
“I said, ‘He is a murderer’. The rest of the lift journey carried on in silence.”
Now he has taken the decision to stand down, won’t he miss this sort of sparring? Stevenson thinks not: “I have used so much adrenaline. I really have to retire.” And anyway, he says his likely replacement, Ian Duncan, who tops the Tories list of candidates, will be “a brilliant MEP”.
Though the Conservatives have had an uncomfortable relationship with the concept of devolution, the party under Ruth Davidson in Scotland backs further the transfer of powers from Westminster.
In the leadership contest in 2011, Stevenson backed Davidson’s rival, Murdo Fraser, who supported an even more radical plan to separate the party in Scotland from the main UK party.
But while he is wholeheartedly against plans for independence, he says he was always in favour of devolution, believing that not to do so risked having somebody else’s version of it forced upon Scotland, a warning that he said was borne out.
He recalls a visit from Margaret Thatcher to a party conference in Perth as the new leader, and her first act was to assemble the members on the party’s Scottish Assembly list to tell them she was tearing up the pledge to support an assembly. Stevenson told her this would be a “gift to the Nationalists”.
“I remember Denis Thatcher leaning forward to start answering me,” he says, “and she actually put her hand over his mouth and shouted at me, ‘I will not have defeatism in the ranks of my candidates’.”
He describes himself as a ‘Eurorealist’, hating the red-tape and bureaucracy but is frustrated at the “wrong-headed approach” of some of the more euro-sceptic Tories at Westminster.
So with a willingness to speak his mind and not always shy away from confrontation, has the party made effective use of him? He says he believes there was an opportunity missed early in his political career.
As the only Tory on the original Yes campaign, he had a prominent role in it, describing it as “barnstorming around Scotland”, but he had the chance to stand for the parliamentary seat of Galloway which was being vacated by John Brewis, who had a large majority.
Advised to stand, and seconded by Malcolm Rifkind and George Younger, he would have had a fair chance of winning the seat and entering Westminster but on the advice of Jim Sillars, he said he tore up his application in the belief that the Yes campaign would win and he would be better placed in a devolved Scotland.
The seat was won by Ian Lang – now Lord Lang of Monkton, who went on to be a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher, then Secretary of State for Scotland and President of the Board of Trade.
“It was a big missed opportunity,” says Stevenson “I could have been, instead of being a ‘defeatist’, I could have been in the Cabinet.”