Freeports – everything that is wrong with Scotland

by | 20 Jan 2023

A hard-right policy no-one voted for and which benefits only Scotland's elites but manages to block the political space for a proper industrial strategy - it is the Scottish Government in a nutshell

Already this year Scotland has got one new big development which is opposed by almost everyone except Scotland’s monied elites and people who like hard-right economics – Freeports are with us. This is a dreadful wrong turn for Scotland, yet another sign there is something wrong with Scotland’s democracy and yet another example of doing the wrong thing when there is a right thing.

Freeports are appalling. I explained this last year in a newsletter article. They are inextricably linked to slavery, appalling working conditions, elite profiteering, undermining domestic economies, organised crime and secrecy. And now we’re getting two.

Sadly what we are not getting is what we really ought to be getting, which is a proper industrial strategy and a proper economic development plan for Scotland’s coastal and island economies. Far from helping the development of those economies, Freeports are likely to damage them.

There are some straightforward realities you should get your head round first. I bet you have a picture in your mind of what a Freeport might look like. I bet there is sea in the background, a harbour, and an industrial estate around it, or something like that. You’d be wrong.

I woke up this morning to the frosty, snow-covered vista of South Lanarkshire’s rolling hills without a seagull in sight. But I’m in a Freeport (the Forth Freeport, and that’s not Forth the Lanarkshire town but Forth as in Firth of Forth, as in Forth Road Bridge). In fact I can make the following journey without leaving the Freeport:

I can make the lengthy trip to North Berwick for morning coffee, pop into Haddinton for a newspaper, head off via Edinburgh, Forth Crossing and another lengthy trip to Cupar in Fife for lunch, continue on to Scone for a visit to the Palace, head down through Auchteradrer and Gleneagles for an afternoon tea in Dunblane, catch some creatures at the Blair Drummond Safari Park, head down through Stirling, Bannockburn, Cumbernauld and Coatbridge, get some messages in Carluke, divert over to Borders town Peebles for tea and then head home.

That’s all without leaving the Forth Freeport.

These are not manufacturing hubs linked to a coastal development that enables exporting, these are giant, deregulated regions of Scotland. How deregulated? Well you’re going to find out, aren’t you? But it’s all for export isn’t it? Well is it? Neither Forth Ports nor anything up around Cromarty (the other ‘winner’) are substantial export hubs. They just happen to be beside the sea.

If you’re expecting rigorous Scottish Government efforts to ensure this isn’t a free-for-all for the worst businesses and that it doesn’t undermine other parts of the economy, my guess is you’ll be disappointed. Local economic development experts around Scotland are breathing a sigh of relief if they are not in a Freeport zone.

The Scottish Government has been fast to shout about ‘contempt for democracy’ of late, but if you really want to look at when the spirit of democracy is being treated with contempt it is when the elite make policy without the consent of anyone and directly against the wishes of people who have a vote

This is a far-right economic policy, well to the right of anything the Thatcher government did, in the territory of the kind of thing only a right-wing libertarian like Ron De Santis supports. Of course the business elite will grasp at anything that deregulates and reduces the level of their expected contribution to a good society.

But that isn’t how our democracy is supposed to work. People are supposed to vote for this kind of politics and in Scotland they didn’t. Political parties are supposed to be driven by their members and the SNP voted overwhelmingly against Freeports. Its leadership just shrugs.

The Scottish Government has been fast to shout about ‘contempt for democracy’ of late, but if you really want to look at when the spirit of democracy is being treated with contempt it is when the elite make policy without the consent of anyone and directly against the wishes of people who have a vote.

That is what has happened here and it is becoming horribly familiar in Scotland. Certainly in the last decade Scottish economic policy has become the plaything of the very powerful and the Scottish Government has facilitated it every step of the way (with the truly shameful support of the Scottish Greens).

So yes, this is a terrible policy that has no place in a modern, developed economy like Scotland – and particularly not in one where the public consistently votes to the left of centre. In any other period of recent Scottish history that I can think of there would be mass protests at this outcome.

But if this was not bad enough, it is all wasting the enormous potential of Scotland’s coastline. We have neglected this resource in a pretty shameful way and it is a long time since Scotland showed any genuine, meaningful vision for its coast. 

The last example was in the 1970s when the Scottish Council for Development and Industry developed the ‘Oceaspan’ concept. This would have involved the development of a major exporting port on the east coast, another on the west coast, and a superfast rail link between them, making Scotland a transit hub between continental Europe and the American continent (among other things).

It didn’t see the light of day, but it shows the kind of level of vision and ambition which now seems extinct in Scotland. If we had that vision we would be developing an exciting plan for Scotland’s coastal communities and its islands, and would use that to drive economic development across Scotland.

I can’t decide which marks the low point for me, the SNP’s Freeports or the comparative lack of protest they have faced – one speaks of a broken democracy, the other of an emaciated civic life

It would start by developing proper exporting ports (and in the case of Cairnryan, the transport links to get there in the first place). That would be linked to a very major marine energy strategy which saw Scotland as a nation with its own economy and not just another licensing stop-off for the world’s energy corporations (the way ScotWind treats the nation).

The reason energy is so important to this strategy is what it makes possible. Personally I do not favour putting too much emphasis on the interconnector idea (exporting the electricity directly over wires) because that basically cuts out Scotland’s economy, taking our energy and sending it abroad without anyone in Scotland really making any gain from it other than by taxing its owner.

There are at least two other better options. One is to use it to create a hydrogen industry. That can’t just be fired straight out of the country through copper wires and so has the potential to drive manufacturing and actual industrial development. The other is to offer this bountiful energy cheaply to energy-intensive industry to get them to set up or locate on Scotland’s coast.

(Remember, all of Scotland’s enormous but currently untapped subsea energy potential is way surplus to Scotland’s needs, generates electricity constantly 24 hours a day and like wind power is inexpensive to produce once the infrastructure is in place.)

A number of big energy-intensive industries would themselves attract other support industries, supply chain businesses, local services and everything else that comes with a well-designed industrial strategy. That mix of hydrogen jobs, other energy jobs, top-up for any domestic electricity requirement if the wind isn’t blowing and exporting anything left over through interconnectors is an appealing package.

We could reform Scotland’s dodgy, monopolised fishing industry to spread the jobs (and particularly the secondary processing jobs) up and down the coast. That can bring gastro-tourism, and lots of other tourist opportunities as well. And we should also co-locate other forms of aquaculture (like enclosed fish farms which don’t pollute) close to this processing.

The cost is a great location for those who are homeworking so offers significant housing development possibilities. We can offset harmful aviation emissions and create more jobs by increasing ferry routes to the continent. And so far I’ve not even left the mainland, considered the potential in the islands or looked at place-specific opportunities.

Better transport links and a proper plan could unlock all of this – but there is no-one advocating for it. Big business in Scotland has no real vision. It just takes. Instead of the opportunities above we get Freeports, cheap deregulation for existing business. My guess is that this will bring jobs like Scotland’s renewable potential brought jobs. Which is to say just about as few as it is possible to bring, as Scotland is treated like what it’s becoming, a fat opportunity for multinational corporations to feast on – with the Scottish Government holding the bib.

I can’t decide which marks the low point for me, the SNP’s Freeports or the comparative lack of protest they have faced. One speaks of a broken democracy, the other of an emaciated civic life. It seems there isn’t much which can be done about this unravelling of the social contract in Scotland.

Unless you raise your voice, say this is wrong, against everything Scotland as a nation stands for and is a massive missed opportunity – and hold the SNP leadership to account for it.

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