Thatcher and North Sea oil – a failure to invest in Britain’s future

Had Thatcher been a truly visionary politician, she would have established a wealth fund for the oil windfall, not squandered it on tax cuts and current spending.

Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly a transformative prime minister. The only peacetime premiers who might be said to have had a similar lasting impact on British politics are the Victorian titans Gladstone and Disraeli, and Attlee, who led the great post-war Labour government

But whatever else might be said of Thatcher’s record one thing seems undeniable. She was not an investment prime minister. She may be credited by David Cameron for having made Britain great again following the malaise of the 1970s but she failed – and spectacularly so – to invest in Britain’s post-Thatcherite future. As capital spending plummeted, our national infrastructure was left to rot. Public services in particular were starved of resources. Most seriously her governments did little to help find future employment for those industries deemed beyond the pale of the Thatcher revolution. 

But nothing better illustrates her failure to invest in Britain’s long term future than her mishandling of the giant windfall she was gifted on entering Number 10 from booming North Sea oil revenues.

There is no doub that oil played a big part in bankrolling Thatcher’s agenda and in allowing Britain to address a chronic balance of payments problem that had besieged post-war government (Tony Blair said in 1987 that North Sea oil was "utterly essential to Mrs Thatcher’s electoral success"). But history should also record that Thatcher missed a trick in not diverting some of the proceeds of oil revenue into an oil fund, like Norway and others did. Instead she used the lot to support current spending, including covering the costs of large-scale industrial restructuring and funding expensive tax cuts to woo middle England.

And what a lot it was. The table below shows government tax receipts from the UK Continental Shelf since 1980 where the numbers have been rebased to show receipts in real terms, expressed in 2011 pounds. In the years between 1980-81 and 1989-90, the Thatcher governments received a staggering windfall of £166bn. 

Total North Sea Revenue: UK 1980-81 to 2010-11 in real terms (£2011)

 

Source: Scotland's Choices McLean, Gallagher and Lodge 2013

Oil revenues were significant in the 1980s for two reasons. One was that the price of oil was at a real-terms historic high, after two political shocks in 1973-4 (caused by the Arab-Israeli war) and 1978-9 (caused by the Iranian revolution). In 1979 the marker oil price reached a peak of US $93 per barrel at today’s prices. This price has only been exceeded twice in history: once at the dawn of extraction in the 1860s, and once in 2007. The other was that North Sea production came on stream rapidly, with the easiest fields, of course, being exploited first.

Now, no one is suggesting that all oil revenue should have been put away for a rainy day just that some of it should have. To think through what might have been, the Scottish government published a report in 2009 which considered "how much a hypothetical UK Oil Fund would have been worth had the UK Government invested a proportion of oil tax revenue over the past three decades". The answers, on three different assumptions about the annual investment, and three different assumptions about the nominal rate of return, are shown below:

Value of a hypothetical Oil Fund for UK (2008-09), on assumption that given percentages of North Sea revenues had been allocated to it since 1980.

Building up an endowment is something politicians would often agree is a good idea. But they almost never do it (we don’t for instance have a real National Insurance fund but rather a pay-as-you-go system). The reason is very simple. A politician in a democracy must be re-elected in, at latest, five years’ time. An endowment must be built up, unspent, for much longer than that if it is to yield anything worth having.

Undoubtedly there would have been fiscal consequences had Thatcher opted for an oil fund: after all, you can’t spend and save at the same time. Nevertheless, as these figures show, if just 10 per cent of UK tax receipts from the North Sea had been put into an oil fund starting in 1980 and continuing until 2008, and if the nominal return had been 3 per cent, the value of the fund would be £24bn per annum. Twenty per cent of oil revenues on a return of 5 per cent would have created a pot of £66bn per annum. The failure to create such a fund is brought home when you consider what it could have been spent on. To give one example, hundreds of thousands of new houses could be built to replace the housing stock Thatcher ran down through her iconic policy of selling council houses. We might not face the housing shortage crisis we do today.

The decision to treat tax receipts as a windfall to set against current expenditure was a major policy mistake. Oil and gas in the North Sea are part of the nation’s capital stock. To tax this stock and spend the money in a flow of current expenditure is to deplete the stock. The lesson from history is that tax proceeds on capital receipts should be reserved in some form for major investment projects, something that might be borne in mind should shale gas generate significant revenues.

Had Thatcher been a truly visionary politician, she would have done more to use the the riches from North Sea oil to not only rescue Britain from her troubled past, but also help her be great in the future too. 

Guy Lodge is associate director at IPPR. He is co-author with Iain McLean and Jim Gallagher of Scotland's Choices: the referendum and what happens afterwards published on April 18th by Edinburgh University Press.

 

A picture taken on 11 June 1984 shows a tanker taking on oil from a loading bay at the Statfjord A-platform in the North Sea. Photograph: Getty Images.

Guy Lodge is associate director at IPPR. He is co-author with Iain McLean and Jim Gallagher of Scotland’s Choices: the referendum and what happens afterwards and with Anthony Seldon of Brown at Ten.

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle