Grangemouth is stuck in the middle. Half-way between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the town is nestled in the centre of Scotland. But it is caught in time as well as place. Over the past century, Scotland’s economy has pivoted from manufacturing in the west to finance and oil in the east. Grangemouth, a manufacturer of oil products, has helped the Falkirk area to bridge this historical divide. A labyrinth of pipes 4,000km long atop an area the size of 640 football pitches, it also makes for some bulwark.
As many as 13,000 jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on the spectacular iridescent complex, which is responsible for a sizeable share of Scottish manufacturing output. At night, the lights spark the old comparison made by locals – “Blackpool of the north” – but this never did it justice. It is just too big – and here there are still well paid jobs. At least if negotiators can salvage a deal. Grangemouth is used as a symbol of Scotland’s industrial past but it also matters greatly to the country’s future. Oil and gas remain crucial to the case for independence. And now this industrial holdout is under threat from some familiar forces.
In the 1850s, a few miles from what would later become the Grangemouth refinery, James Paraffin Young figured out how to extract mineral oil from local shale rock. Central Scotland became home to a nascent fuel industry. The country’s first episode of “oil mania” began, with jobs aplenty in this labour-intensive sector. A few years later, however, the discovery of abundant liquid oil in Pennsylvanian wells signalled how Young’s experiment would soon be undercut by America’s cheap black gold.
The spoils of the first world war brought boatloads of middle eastern barrels to British shores. Six of Scotland’s surviving shale companies combined to form Scottish Oils, under the control of Anglo-Persian Oil (later BP). In 1924, it built Grangemouth refinery, producing cheaper fuel alternatives. So began the end of one dream and the start of another one, which became even wilder with the discovery of North Sea oil. Here was a boomtown before North Dakota had ever heard the word “fracking”.
Ninety years on and the spectre of shale again haunts Grangemouth. The world has a glut of more efficient refiners. The speed, rather than the reality, of the North Sea’s decline remains the mystery, according to most analysts. Yesterday, Ineos, the complex’s owner, said the petrochemical plant would be shut. This would also make the interlinked refinery, co-owned with PetroChina, less profitable. The company says it needs to be able to import and process US shale gas if the complex is to survive. Of course, it adds, this would need sacrifices by employees and their union representatives – and guarantees from the UK and Scottish governments.
A stand-off between a politically controversial union and a sporadically Yacht-based boss sounds oh so nineteen-seventies. Television cameras swarm the immediately redundant at the gates. Sub-contractors – or “subbies” – complain that Unite workers will not accept a pay freeze or a pension cut in an age of broader austerity. Tell that to Jim Ratcliffe, comes the reply, in reference to the boss. Ineos notes it is looking at whether the lead union official was playing politics on company time.
And yet these arguments are also about the political present. At first glance, this is a nightmare for Alex Salmond, who is trying to persuade Scots to vote in favour of independence next year. As well as the anger and hardship it would cause, a prolonged dispute (or worse) would allow unionists to argue that Scotland’s economy remains too vulnerable and too volatile to make independence worth the risk.
But when it comes to independence, there is a magical malleability to any issue: it could be a sign of London’s neglect or of the danger of too much power in Edinburgh. For Mr Salmond, an avuncular political alchemist, Westminster’s control over most of Scotland’s energy policy could be a sign of why independence is essential. This month, in his speech to the SNP conference, he effectively goaded Scots to have a go, take a wee risk and embrace a positive, aspirational nationalism. The less careful London is seemed to be with Scottish assets the more Mr Salmond will call union a liability.
Why, he may ask in the coming weeks, was so much money and effort spent on Hinkley Point, while Grangemouth was left to fend for itself? Why did Prime Minister’s questions concentrate on the chronic problem of high energy bills when there is an acute crisis happening north of the border? How can Scotland invest in its low carbon industries when London won’t stick up for the ones we already have?
So far the first minister has struck the right tone and doing the right things. He understands Grangemouth and the Scottish oil industry perhaps better than anyone else. But he will also be calculating the politics. There are fine balances to be struck: between capital and labour; Edinburgh and London; Scotland’s past and its future.
In the middle, lies Grangemouth. Neither firmly closed nor open. Stuck in the middle.