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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left