If the Herald is to be believed, the UK decision to move ahead with new, privately-financed nuclear power stations – which will also be fast-tracked through the planning process, thanks to the new Infrastructure Planning Commission – has reopened the debate about the Scottish Government’s rejection of them. The Scottish Government has used its planning powers to block new nuclear generation, even though electricity generation and nuclear energy are reserved matters. This is about the only case I can think of where a devolved administration has successfully exploited the overlap of devolved and non-devolved powers to obstruct a UK Government initiative (there are quite a few where the UK has blocked devolved plans, though). The UK Government reluctantly accepted the Scottish position in the 2008 white paper Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Nuclear Power, though on a political level its response was highly critical. The heat has not gone out of the issue since January 2008, and the Scottish Government’s position of supporting renewable energy instead has been widely criticised for not being adequate. Looking at the new map of planned nuclear installations, it’s telling how many of them cluster near the Scottish border (Braystones, Sellafield and Kirksanton in particular), with an implication that they may help satisfy Scottish demands for electricity from south of the border.
It’s worth remember why the Scottish Government can take this position. It’s very simple: it’s not responsible for energy matters. As they’re reserved, they’re for the UK Government. Those who dislike the SNP’s policy can fulminate all they like, but the limited powers of the Scottish Parliament and Government (and it’s actually the executive powers that are more important here, not the legislative ones) are a licence not to have to deal with the problem. If the devolved institutions are to be held responsible for a policy decision, they need to be directly affected by it in all its implications. The division of powers means that the UK remains responsible for ensuring electricity supplies in Scotland. For the Scottish Government to reject nuclear power, when another government has to ensure electricity supplies, is perfectly logical, since it incurs no direct consequences from doing so. Governments will take ‘responsible’ decisions when they bear all the consequences of their actions. When they don’t, the pressures on them are very different.
Logically, this shouldn’t displease unionists. The benefits and the burdens of generating electricity are shared across the UK, and a devolved Scotland therefore gains twice over (by having enough electricity, and being able to choose its own non-nuclear policy) by virtue of being in the Union. The proposition that Scotland should generate all its own energy or even have the same ‘energy mix’ as the rest of the UK is in fact a nationalist one, rooted in the view that Scotland is not part of a wider union and needs to be autarkic.
It’s ironic that it’s unionists here who have advanced a nationalist argument, and nationalists who’ve benefited from the unionist one. A more sophisticated unionist response would be to take the credit for enabling Scottish devolution to deliver the best of both worlds and point out that this is one of the benefits of the Union, rather than criticise a popular policy choice made by the Scottish Government.