Brian Wilson: Highlands needs blast from the past

If the political will existed, the impasse over sub-sea cables could be brushed aside and a new era ushered in, says Brian Wilson

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Second Reading of the legislation which created the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board – the boldest and most successful industrial venture ever undertaken in the Highlands and Islands.

It is an anniversary worth commemorating while at least a few of the Hydro Board pioneers and the men who built their great schemes are still around to be recognised. Also, it is a timely reminder of what state enterprise was capable of delivering and why essential utilities should never be at the mercy of market forces.

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The name of Tom Johnston, the war-time secretary of state for Scotland, will forever be linked to the Hydro Board vision. As author in his earlier days of Our Noble Families – an indictment of how Scottish landlordism amounts to no more or less than legitimised theft – he had no illusion about the forces of reaction and greed he was up against.

While there was little political opposition to the new board, and Johnston had the crucial backing of Winston Churchill, the real resistance came from the landowners. Their first tactic was to oppose the Bill and later to bleed dry the fledgling board in compensation for “the injurious affection of property”, ultimately bringing its work to a premature conclusion. To this day, there is unfinished business.

The story is epic on many levels. Not least, it points to the astonishing parallel universes in which the British people then lived. They were engaged in a battle for survival against Nazi tyranny. Yet there were public servants busily engaged in planning for a better future on the assumption of victory – a National Health Service, a Welfare State, a North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board.

When Johnston rose in the House of Commons on 24 February, 1943, to move the Second Reading, the Eighth Army was sweeping across North Africa with Rommel in retreat. Stalingrad’s siege had just ended. Yet somehow, both money and parliamentary time were found to lay the foundations for a better tomorrow, nowhere more necessary than in the impoverished Highlands and Islands.

The needs of households would first be met, with electricity carried to the most distant island and isolated glen. Thereafter, the surplus would be sold to the Central Electricity Board, the profits used for reducing distribution costs in the remoter areas and “in the carrying out of measures for the economic development and social improvement of the North of Scotland district”.

In other words, the Hydro Board was born not only in order to generate electricity but as the agent of economic development throughout the north and west.

And the commitment was honoured. The Hydro Board would serve the people well in both of these roles until privatisation in the 1980s created the very different creatures we pay our bills to today.

The Earl of Airlie was an exception among landowners and Johnston asked him to become first chairman of the board. Airlie lasted two years before he could take the venom of fellow lairds no longer.

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Peter Payne, in his history of The Hydro, wrote: “Many of Lord Airlie’s former friends refused even to speak to him, regarding him as an enemy of his class… When the abuse began to spread to his relatives [his son was blackballed from membership of the Perth Hunt], he felt he had had enough.”

One of the board’s great champions, Malcolm K MacMillan, the Labour MP for the Western Isles, quoted the grinding figures of depopulation, attacked the “sentimental Celtic twilightism” of the bill’s opponents and accused them of being “the unwitting tools of the landlords”. There is much continuing resonance in the perceived conflict between jobs, which ordinary people need in order to stay in these places, and the conservation lobby.

The Rev James Barr, the United Free minister who represented Coatbridge, summed it up: “Our Highland overlords made their glens a wilderness and they called it beauty, and they challenge us to disturb that beauty… There is no beauty in a deserted village. There is no beauty for me in a deer forest.” In that respect, too, it is useful to be reminded of unfinished business.

It is an inspirational story of what can be achieved where the political will exists, even in the most difficult circumstances. Yet, in some parts of the Highlands and Islands, the needs are scarcely less urgent today than they were then. Although the growth of Inverness and its environs creates the headline statistics of a booming Highlands and Islands, the reality around the periphery is very different.

In the Western Isles, for example, out-migration for lack of work remains the order of the day and the demographic trends are little short of catastrophic. Once again, the most likely key to revival and regeneration lies in harnessing natural resources and transporting power to the markets of the south in order to fund “measures of economic development and social improvement”. But there the comparisons end.

Unlike 70 years ago, there is no political leadership or sense of urgency. The power of the state to lead a great national project has been replaced by a mish-mash of commercial and bureaucratic forces, devoid of any social or economic vision. For ten years now, there has been unresolved argy-bargy about the funding of sub-sea cables to link the islands of the north and west to the National Grid.

Yet without these connections, all the talk about “the Saudi Arabia of renewables” is empty rhetoric because, by definition, it is in these most peripheral places that the greatest powers of wind and the sea reside. The Hydro created thousands of jobs in the Highlands and Islands. Today, job creation in renewables equates to issuing the same press release three times and hoping nobody notices how little actually happens.

If the political will existed in both Edinburgh and Whitehall, the impasse over these sub-sea cables could be broken tomorrow. They had better hurry because if there is no longer to be a UK market to sell the electricity into, the case for funding them will have disappeared forever.

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Maybe the key players – governments and regulator – could sit around a table and consider one salient fact: in the midst of war, Lord Cooper’s report proposing the establishment of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board was delivered in December 1942 and Johnston presented his bill in February 1943. If that does not inspire them, perhaps it should at least embarrass them into finding a solution.