By Stephen Low, Labour Party Member
It is in ‘the national interest’ that Grangemouth remain open say the Scottish Government, refusing to countenance closure. They are however seemingly content with the idea that this be accomplished by the Ineos workforce sacrificing wages and pensions and redundancy terms and shift allowance. The national interest is being defined as the continuation of production at the plant and the refinery across the road, and only this. It’s an illustration of who counts as ‘the nation’ and gives us an idea of whose interests count as national priorities.
Reactions to what’s been going on in Grangemouth brought to mind this observation by Neil Davidson, it comes from a (decidedly lukewarm) review of a book by Gregor Gall
First, Gregor regards the strength of Scottish national identity as an advantage people in, say, Yorkshire do not possess. But the opposite is true. One of the greatest problems which faces the left in Scotland is precisely the way in which virtually every issue is viewed through the distorting lens of the ‘national question’, even when that has nothing to do with it.
(The full review is here)
Regrettably this has been much in evidence in relation to the situation in Grangemouth, were this happening in say Millford Haven or Ellesmere Port it would be being discussed as a naked act of class aggression. Instead we have, as the merest glance at #Grangemouth or #ineos on twitter show, the situation being viewed, as through a glass (labeled referendum) darkly. Airing constitutional grievances takes precedence over condemning the naked greed and social criminality of Jim Ratcliffe and his management team.
(Of course if this were happening in Ellesmere Port or Millford Haven some of the loudest commentators on this outrage would have little to say – but that is a separate matter)
Alex Salmond, is at time of writing saying he hopes to find another buyer – but even if one cannot be found the plant is too important to close. This is to be welcomed – not least because it seems to not rule out nationalisation. Obviously the key lesson in all this is that significant elements of national infrastructure should be in the hands of public and not private interests, however the First Minister has been an enthusiast for the business community for some time so let’s not get too ambitious. For the moment this is the best we are likely to get.
Welcome though Salmond’s comments of Wednesday are, he was significantly less than even handed last week. It’s not being parti pris to suggest that then it was Johann Lamont who was on the side of the workers, she said that Ineos should withdraw the new contracts and then negotiate. Salmond meanwhile was saying that the plant should reopen and Unite should honour their no strike offer whilst talks took place. The withdrawal of the, desperately unfavourable new contracts wasn’t mentioned. Whilst this gives the appearance of even handedness it would have made Unite’s negotiating position untenable (conceivably of course it might have delayed the unlovable Mr Ratfink’s decision to put the plant into liquidation.)
It’s extremely unlikely Alex Salmond has no care for the workforce in Grangemouth (he’s not a monster whatever Better Together say). That said, proletarian solidarity isn’t his guiding principle either. The concern of Mr S is the national interest. It is how this is defined that should be the point of interest for socialists.
The wages, shift allowances, redundancy payments and pensions of the workforce who carry out that production are not matters on which the First Minister (or anyone in the UK Government) has seen fit to comment. “Which is as it should be” it will be argued. These are matters of between employer and employee – not for a government to determine. Save that the Government has expressed its concern (via John Swinney on Newsnight Scotland) for the 800 workers directly employed in the Ineos chemical plant as well as for the industrial future of Scotland. The maintenance of decency in employment is surely a legitimate component of both these concerns.
A buyer may be found, and as I write the media are talking of a ‘last ditch offer’ from Unite to Ineos accepting many of the conditions the company has proposed. Perhaps this will keep the petrochemical plant open. Ineos meanwhile will certainly pursue a union busting attack on terms and conditions on the workforce at the refinery across the street. Will such a settlement really be in the interests of the nation?
The real national interest surely would be served by Government enforcing a situation that preserves not merely the jobs, but the living standards of Stevie Deans and Mark Lyon and the thousands of other ordinary men and women who work along the Bo’ness Road. Any truly national interest would put the interests citizens above shareholders – and it is to the extent that politicians do this over the days and weeks ahead that they should be judged.