“We need a massive programme of retrofitting homes”. Francis Stuart of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) is outlining his understanding of the social project that needs to take place, the transformation of pretty much the entirety of the housing stock of Scotland – and indeed the UK.
Stuart sits behind a long table and gently lays out his description of the transformation that calls to be undertaken. To his left are his fellow panellists Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo of Living Rent and Stuart Graham of the Glasgow Trades Council. Between them sits Emma Saunders who is chairing this session: ‘Airtight: Campaigns for Home Retrofits’.
I’m one of perhaps forty attendees sitting masked and scattered – at Covid-safe distances – around the upper hall of Govan & Linthouse Parish Church. Polished wooden floor, white painted walls and high windows, it could be a church hall almost anywhere in Britain. We are gathered as part of the Just Transition Hub taking place in the midst of the Glasgow COP 26 and coordinated by Friends of the Earth Scotland, Platform, the STUC, the TUC, War on Want and the Just Transition Partnership. Speakers include Roz Foyer, head of STUC, Sean Sweeney of Trades Unions for Energy Democracy, Silvia Ramos Luna, Secretary General, Unión Nacional de Técnicos y Profesionistas Petroleros (México), Eriel Deranger of Indigenous Climate Action and Derek Texeira, Unite rep at Rolls Royce. It is an impressive gathering.
The day long event is being held in several rooms of this maze of building, and through the hours participants flow in and out of its chambers, up and down its stairways. This solid edifice has at its heart the Sanctuary, a horseshoe of pews so neat and sober in dark pine, each row with a brass holder for dripping umbrellas. For generations this room must have sheltered the prayers of shipwrights and engineers’ widows. For Govan was the epicentre of the thundering world that constructed a myriad of vessels, including the oil tankers built for Shell and BP at Fairfield’s yard. There was a saying that in Govan there was nowhere you could be out of the sound of a hammer.
It is entirely fitting that this event should be held in Govan, for this area of Glasgow is synonymous with massive industrial change and workers struggles to wring justice from those changes. Govan was the epicentre of the battles of Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders Work In fifty years ago and long before that Red Clydeside. That latter famed uprising of 1919 was, it is now understood, sparked not so much by workplace strikes, as by the Rent Strike of 1915. Revolt that began in the domestic space as women refused to bow to the extortionate demands of the tenement landlords.
Outside the Govan & Linthouse church stands a recently unveiled statue of Mary Barbour who led the Rent Strike. Somehow it echoes the present challenges. A century ago the struggle for justice took place not only in the workplace – in the shipyards – but also in the home – in the tenements. Now too the struggle for a Just Transition will take place both on the offshore oil rigs and also in the insulation of houses.
Almost imperceptibly a shift in the nature of the battle against fossil fuels has taken place. The ground rules and underlying assumptions have changed over the past decades.
The Just Transition Hub in Govan reminds me of many other such gatherings – speakers behind a table, audience on scattered plastic chairs. But two such events stick out.
The first was The Black & White Oil Conference held from 19th to 21st August 1974 in The Poor House in central Edinburgh. It occurred over a few days during the Edinburgh International Arts Festival and brought together artists such as Joseph Beuys, thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller and politicians such as Dr Gavin Strang, MP for Edinburgh East. (Strang was at the time Under Secretary of State for Energy in the Wilson Government. He served from 7th March to 18th October 1974 under the Minister for Energy Eric Varley, whilst Tony Benn was Minister for Energy). It was all made possible by the remarkable Richard Demarco and Caroline Tisdall.
The ‘Oil Boom’ in the North Sea was well underway. The Forties field had been discovered four years before. The Forties Oil Pipeline from Cruden Bay to Grangemouth was under construction – and subject to several terrorist actions by the Tartan Army. And the SNP was campaigning in the two General Elections of 1974 under the slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ (these events are explored in our book Crude Britannia and discussed in Black Black Oil). It seems that the underlying assumption at the conference was that the oil was being extracted – that was unstoppable – and the debate was focused on what would be done upon the back of this wealth. (I would like to delve into the Demarco Archives deeper, but my suspicion is that climate change was not discussed.)
The second was Crude Operators held from 10th to 11th May 1997 in Hammersmith Unemployed Workers Centre in west London. Organised by Platform in collaboration with Corporate Watch in Oxford and assisted by Project Underground in San Francisco. The two days brought together activist from a wide spectrum of the ecological justice world: ranging from Lazarus Tamana and Ledum Mittee of MOSOP, Nigeria to Jake Molloy and Ronnie Macdonald of OILC, Aberdeen and from Earth First Brighton to Mark Campanale, then working in NPI investment house in The City. The high point of the event was a huge sit down feast within an installation created by John Jordan and Clare Patey.
The event took place only nine days after the 1st May General Election that had swept New Labour to power. During the conference news came that the Chairman of BP, Sir David Simon was to be appointed to be advisor to the Minister of Competitiveness in Europe at the Department of Trade & Industry. This was the zenith of ‘Blair Petroleum’, when John Brown was CEO of BP. The North Sea was booming, soon to reach its ultimate production peak in 2000. The underlying assumption at the event was that the world of oil was with us for a long time, and that our struggle was to defend human rights and resist the impact of oil upon local ecologies. Concern about climate change was well under way as the movement built towards the coming COP 3 at Kyoto in Japan. Platform was in the midst of its 90% Crude project that called for a 90% reduction in CO2 emissions – a laughably ambitious demand at the time.
Both of these events had at their heart a ragged assemblage of speakers behind tables and scattered plastic chairs. They echo the Just Transition Hub. But this year the underlying assumption is different. Now the demise of oil seems inevitable. The oil corporations are on the back foot. How long they last is of course a matter of struggle, but there is a sense that they are dying. Several states have declared themselves signatories to the historic Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance, pledging to cease licensing oil extraction. Likewise the end of North Sea oil is coming. It is twenty years since production peaked. Transition is underway, now the struggle is over how to make it just.
At the heart of Stuart’s declaration that “We need a massive programme of retrofitting homes” lies a new sense that is growing in the climate movement and epitomised by the Just Transition Hub. This is that the drive for climate justice is no longer only focused on ‘Against’ – against drilling, against pipelines, against airports – but it is also focused on ‘For’ – for retrofitting, for assisting workers to retrain, for making communities and food systems more resilient to the mounting impacts of climate chaos.
In this it seems to echo historic movements such as that at Red Clydeside where the battle was both for job security and decent terms, and for housing security and fair rent.
With thanks to Euan Gibbs, Gaby Jeliazkov, Rosemary Harris, Ryan Morrison & Terry Macalister.
 Although exploration at the frontiers of the North Sea was being contested – Greenpeace UK launched its ‘No Fossil Fuels’ report on 12th May 1997 calling on BP to halt drilling on the Atlantic Frontier.