Leaders clash over North Sea industry in TV debate

Scottish political leaders have gone head to head over the future of the North Sea oil and gas industry in the first debate of the general election.

First minister and SNP leader John Swinney warned a failure to deliver a "just transition" could create an "industrial wasteland" in north east Scotland - but refused to say if he supported a presumption against new licences.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said his party would help create 69,000 new jobs, while for the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross said neither the SNP nor Labour would protect the industry.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the Scottish and UK governments had failed to make progress on a fair transition away from fossil fuels.

First Minister John Swinney
First Minister John Swinney criticised Labour's energy plans [Getty Images]

The party leaders were questioned on a wide range during an STV election debate in Glasgow.

In an exchange where he criticised the Labour position on oil and gas, Mr Swinney said there had to be a managed transition to net zero, likening a failure to do so to the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

"What Mrs Thatcher did when she was in power was she created an industrial wasteland in central Scotland and we're still picking up the pieces," he said.

The first minister warned Mr Sarwar that his party would "do exactly the same to the north east of Scotland".

Pressed on whether he would support the granting of new licences for oil and gas developments in the North Sea, Mr Swinney refused to give either a yes or no answer.

Instead he said he wanted a "climate compatibility test on every single decision we take in relation to the oil and gas sector".

'Broken promises'

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross interjected, saying: "That's a no, John Swinney and the SNP are against new oil and gas licences."

He also accused Labour of having "dangerous plans" for the industry.

The Scottish Tory leader, who is standing down as an MP at the election, referenced a report from the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce.

It criticised SNP and Conservative energy policies but said Labour could make the situation "even worse” by extending the Tories’ windfall tax on oil and gas profits and removing some tax breaks for investment.

Mr Sarwar said his party’s energy strategy would create 69,000 jobs in Scotland, including 53,000 roles supported by GB Energy – a publicly-owned energy generation company he said would be headquartered in Scotland.

“This is good for Aberdeen, good for the North East, good for Scotland and good for the UK,” he said.

He accused both the SNP and Tory government of “broken promises” on energy.

north sea oil rig
The future of the oil and gas industry was debated by party leaders [Getty Images]

The Scottish Labour leader also pledged his party would "step and put our money where our mouth is" at Grangemouth, where the oil refinery is to be scheduled to be closed, by creating an energy transition hub at the site.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said the SNP and Conservative governments had been in power for “far too long”.

“These parties have been bereft of ideas, they’ve not driven down reliance on fossil fuels and they’ve not taken the steps to bring about that just transition,” he said.

The Scottish government's draft energy strategy includes a presumption against new drilling. The publication of the already delayed final document has been pushed back due to the general election.

During the debate, Mr Swinney predicted Labour was "going to walk it in England" in the general election, adding that the Tories were "finished".

However he said Sir Keir Starmer and Labour would maintain the same "fiscal stranglehold" on the public purse, claiming that would be "disastrous for public services".

Mr Sarwar said removing the Conservatives from Downing Street was an "opportunity Scotland cannot afford to miss".

He added: "This election is about getting rid of this Tory government and it can only be replaced by a Labour government with Scottish Labour MPs at its heart delivering for the Scottish people."

Douglas Ross
Douglas Ross says the UK government is improving the economy [PA Media]

Under questioning, Mr Ross said he was wrong to support Liz Truss’s ill-fated mini-budget – a package including £45bn of unfunded tax cuts.

During an exchange with Mr Swinney, he said he had "assumed" the proposals had "gone through the normal processes with the Treasury" to ensure they were "deliverable".

"That hadn't been done," the Scottish Tory leader said. "And I hold my hands up, I assumed that had been done."

He said it "had an impact on household incomes" but that the UK government was "taking decisions to improve the economy".

BBC Scotland will host an election debate on 11 June. The Debate Night special will feature the same four parties as the STV debate, as well as the Scottish Greens.

Correspondent box

The first debate is over, and my inbox is already full of emails from the parties assuring me their leader won.

I’m not convinced there was any clear winner or loser – and it didn’t feel like this was an event that fundamentally shifted the electoral dial.

Winners aside, there were entertaining exchanges. Perhaps more heat than light at points.

It was a debate covered a lot of ground. From fishermen, to partygate, to austerity, to oil and gas.

Many of the key exchanges involved John Swinney and Anas Sarwar. A reminder that the key fight in Scotland at this election will be between the SNP and Labour.

Both of those leaders stand to benefit greatly from any misstep the other makes. And that Labour/SNP rivalry will continue into all the debates yet to come.