COMMON Weal has called for the reversal of Thatcher-era privatisation of Scottish energy since our inception in 2014 and while we found early allies in parties such as the Scottish Socialists, we also found that we had an uphill battle to be heard by larger parties in the Scottish Parliament. Given the obvious benefits of public energy – now recognised and adopted by the Welsh Government – we thought it would be useful to give context to our campaign by way of a timeline of how we have influenced the debate around the public ownership of Scotland’s energy.

Our campaign had its first success story when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon proudly proclaimed to the 2017 SNP conference that she had heard the call from members and would commit to setting up a National Energy Company (NEC). This was a major moment of celebration for us but when details became public, we noticed that the integrity of the Common Weal vision was lacking in the Scottish Government’s plan. It became evident that the government only intended to set up the retail wing of the energy company – that’s the bit you buy your energy from. They were going to do this either by setting up a bespoke company to buy energy from the market and sell it on the market as other retail-only companies do or they would “white label” the energy sold by an existing company – allowing them to strike a deal to sell “public” energy at a discount while the company behind the label did all the work. The company Our Power was earmarked as the likely partner. In our continued conversations we made it clear that this plan would leave the NEC vulnerable to two major weaknesses in the UK’s energy market. The first being that a retail-only company is extremely vulnerable to price spikes as they can find themselves buying energy more expensively than they are selling it to customers locked into fixed price deals set before the spike. The other being that the UK market is heavily skewed towards larger companies. The way to avoid this is to back the retail company up with an asset-owning wing so that it can generate the energy it sells rather than merely having to buy it.

We continued our work and our lobbying over the next couple of years – leading to us writing Powering Our Ambitions – a blueprint for a public energy company and a strategic energy development agency (SEDA) to coordinate Scotland’s renewables transition. The former would own and run energy assets and deliver energy to customers, the latter would plan where the next set of renewables should be built. We were ready to launch on January 25, 2019 – literally just about to hit the button to publish – when news came in that Our Power had gone bust. Entirely as we predicted, a spike in energy prices and Our Power’s small size in the UK’s oligarchical market killed the company and, with it, the entirety of the Scottish Government’s plan to create a retail NEC. They didn’t even try to buy the company’s assets from the liquidators. They would later blame the halt of their work on an NEC on the pandemic but there was no “Plan B” beyond Our Power. Frankly, the pandemic excuse came to us with what sounded like a sigh of relief.

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In public, both the SNP and Greens remained outwardly committed to the idea. The Greens’s outline for a Scottish Green New Deal in August 2019 officially adopted our energy company plus development agency model and we continued working with both parties throughout this period including presenting our own comprehensive green new deal plan in November of that year. The pandemic did put a halt to a lot of campaigning in 2020 but by 2021, Scotland was in election mode and both parties included a Scottish public energy company in their Holyrood manifestos – with Scottish Labour also adopting the Powering Our Ambitions blueprint in their manifesto. This was an exciting moment for Common Weal as there was now a cross-party and cross-constitutional majority for our plan in the Parliament – a rare thing in post-2014 Scotland. However, the SNP’s commitment to a SEDA had by this time been watered down to a “virtual energy agency” with few details of what that would entail.

In June 2021, the Greens increased their campaigning tempo with new Green MSP and soon-to-be party co-leader Lorna Slater using her first question at FMQs and an op-ed in The National to call for an asset-owning national energy company and to “[N]ot give oil and gas companies more public money to do what they should have been doing decades ago.” We couldn’t have agreed more.

September 2021 was one of those months where years of politics happened. The SNP and Greens signed their formal cooperation agreement but we noted with concern that it did not mention an NEC anywhere in the shared policy platform. Then the SNP announced that the NEC plan had been formally scrapped – just a few days before the SNP conference overwhelmingly voted for the plan to be restarted and launched. The final blow came later that month when, during a net zero debate in Parliament, the SNP and the Greens voted against Labour MSP Monica Lennon’s attempt to have the Parliament and Government formally adopt the Powering Our Ambitions blueprint. Their excuse – that they suddenly now preferred a network of local and community energy companies rather than a single national one – is already explicitly baked into the blueprint of our paper – local companies would own community-scale assets while a national company would handle larger projects like offshore wind. To say we despaired was an understatement.

Hope came shortly and from an unexpected direction. In December 2021, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru signed a cooperation agreement of their own and their shared policy platform committed themselves to a Welsh asset-owning NEC. Contacts within the parties reached out to Common Weal to ask if they could use our ideas – to which we didn’t hesitate to say yes and to take them through the details. The Welsh Government has now formally adopted that plan and is in the process of setting up their NEC focusing on onshore wind – as well as campaigning for the devolution of the Crown Estate in Wales so that they can manage their offshore assets directly.

Then, in January 2022, ScotWind happened. The full story of that can be read in our policy paper published in response but suffice to say, everything that Lorna Slater warned of in June the previous year has been allowed to come to pass. Scotland won’t own any of the largest offshore wind development so far and will receive a pittance in rent and fees from it while oil companies and foreign national energy companies will reap billions in profits every year for decades to come. An NEC wouldn’t have been able to take on the entirety of ScotWind by itself at this time, but it could have bought into as many of the projects as it could and used it to build up our capacity to take on future projects ourselves.

Wales is clearly showing the way forward for Scotland. As said earlier, there is a rare moment of cross-party agreement on the Common Weal plan for energy in Scotland and it’s not too late to recommence work on it. The Welsh Parliament has shown that it’s possible to work on policies like this to benefit the environment and the public despite disagreement elsewhere. We call on the Scottish Government to convene a cross-party working group on energy and to invite non-party groups and groups from Wales to the table to show how it can be done. Scotland has a choice. We can power our ambitions like Wales has or we can repeat Thatcher and ScotWind and simply sell them off again.