I took part in a debate this week over the hydro nation concept following the Scottish Government consultation. A number of private sector interests arguing against the idea or at best making the case for a market led solution.
There was much misinformation about an earlier hydro nation concept - the establishment of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board (NOSHEB) and the post-war construction programme that brought affordable electricity to the Highlands. It is the electricity infrastructure that NOSHEB put in place that made it possible for the Highlands to use information technology today to offset the regions remoteness.
The driving force was Tom Johnston (Wingy Tam as the workers called him), firstly as a politician and then as Chair of the Board. He got the development programme going in wartime despite opposition in Parliament, partly by doing a deal with Churchill, who became an unlikely sponsor of a new nationalised industry. Then he faced up to the Highland landowners, the nimby's of their day, who opposed any development that might increase wages and encourage the workforce off the estates. There was no market solution here, just a visionary politician and good old fashioned state planning.
However, the real story of hydro power in the Highlands is of the people. In the context of recent immigration to the Highlands from Eastern Europe it is less well known that much of the labour force for the early hydro schemes were displaced persons. It is Germans, Poles, Latvians and many others that we have to thank for electricity in the Highlands. These were the 'hydro boys' who at the first big scheme at Sloy worked for half-pay to prove their commitment to their new country.
Many workers paid the ultimate price with their lives. There were no safety laws or independent inspections. Workers were encouraged to cut corners and work long hours through the incentive of bonus schemes. This is another current day analogy, with this week's announcement by the Chancellor that our safety laws are to be downgraded and the HSE budget cut back by 35%. Whilst there are some individual monuments to those who died, there is no monument anywhere in the Highlands to commemorate all the men who gave their skills, their strength and their lives to bring power to the Highlands.
As Emma Wood states in the final chapter of her book 'Hydro Boys'; Tom Johnson would no doubt agree with those of us who reject government confidence in the free market. "Whatever businesses may say, their primary responsibility is to their shareholders and not to the natural environment or future generations. It is for these future generations' sake that we must have a proper energy policy now to regulate the activities of energy producers and consumers alike."
That would be a fitting legacy for the hydro boys.