The discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea in the late 1960s and early ‘70s had a transformative effect on Scottish political debate. Where previously the SNP had been expected to demonstrate that Scotland’s economy could function independently of the United Kingdom, suddenly unionists faced pressure to explain why it couldn’t thrive under Scottish control.
In his introduction to The Red Paper on Scotland, published in 1975, Gordon Brown - then student rector of Edinburgh University - acknowledged how radically developments in the North Sea had altered the Scottish political landscape: "Modern Scottish nationalism is less an assertion of Scotland’s permanence as a nation than a response to Scotland’s uneven development - in particular to the gap between people’s experiences as part of an increasingly demoralised Great Britain and their (oil-fired) expectations at a Scottish-level."
By the time he had become Chancellor of the Exchequer two decades later, Brown’s analysis of nationalism had reversed. In a pamphlet, New Scotland, New Britain, written ahead of the first Scottish parliamentary elections, he dismissed "the cause of separation" as little more than a "misguided retreat from … modern forces of change".
Nonetheless, oil remained central to the SNP’s argument that Scotland could be a richer, fairer and more dynamic society outside the UK. But to what extent are Scottish expectations still "oil-fired"? Certainly, strategists on both sides of the independence referendum continue to view the issue as pivotal.
The most recent clash centred on an OBR report, seized on by Better Together, that predicted oil revenues would fall sharply from 2017, leaving Scotland with a larger fiscal deficit than the UK as a whole. Nationalists responded by highlighting the industry’s optimism over future rates of production and citing the work of Alex Kemp, professor of petro-economics at Aberdeen University, which estimates oil could generate between £50bn and £100bn in tax over the next 10 years alone.
When the debate becomes counterfactual, the unionist case weakens. Opponents of independence insist that, as a separate state, any benefit Scotland might have secured from control of the oil would have been offset by large fluctuations in annual revenues. Yet, between 1976 and 2011, total North Sea royalty and tax receipts amounted to £285bn (at 2009/10 prices), of which Scotland’s share - according to a median line division of North Sea territory - was £257bn. The focus on annual revenue flows is deceptive for the obvious reason that low revenues one year can be (and have been) compensated by high revenues the next.
Against these numbers, Scotsman columnist and former Labour MP Brian Wilson claims an independent Scotland run by the SNP would simply have mismanaged the oil industry. Again, the evidence suggests otherwise. As Chris Harvie explains in his book Fools Gold: the story of North Sea oil, SNP oil policy in the ‘70s and ‘80s drew heavily on the Norwegian model, with commitments to hold the oil as the property of the Scottish state, limit output to between 70 and 100 million tons per year and establish a Scottish state oil company with a 50 per cent stake in as yet undeveloped fields.
Few deny that Norway’s stewardship of its oil resources has been vastly superior to that of Britain’s. Norway’s oil fund, established in 1990, is currently worth more than £450bn, while the country’s GDP, once 9 per cent lower than that of the UK’s, is now 71 per cent higher. By contrast, throughout the 1980s, successive Conservative administrations at Westminster wasted record oil tax returns on rising welfare and unemployment bills caused by Mrs Thatcher’s monetarist experiments. Moreover, Thatcher used her oil tax windfall to disguise the growing deficit in the UK’s trade in general goods and services - a deficit compounded by her deliberate erosion of Britain’s manufacturing base.
It is difficult to believe that an oil-rich, independent Scotland would have allowed its industrial sector to decline as rapidly and as relentlessly as it has under the direction of UK policy-makers. More likely, Scotland would have pursued a programme of long-term industrial restructuring, with the possible benefit of avoiding the growth in unfettered financial capitalism that has proved so damaging to the British and Scottish economiesof late.
However, legitimate historical grievances notwithstanding, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of political capital to be made from agonising over London’s failure, so far at least, to grasp the developmental opportunities presented by North Sea oil. Scots are not engaged, as they were in the 1970s, in a public conversation about how best to utilise Scottish oil assets in Scotland’s interests, nor do they seem particularly animated by the SNP’s talk of another boom in oil investment over the coming years.
It’s possible this sense of disengagement is symptomatic of the broader lack of public enthusiasm for the referendum campaign routinely noted by commentators. But perhaps its roots lie in a deeper collective memory of how cruelly the hopes raised by Scotland’s first oil boom were dashed, first by the defeat of devolution in 1979 and then by the decade of economic and political stagnation that followed. It would be a frustrating irony for nationalists if the defensive habits Scottish voters developed during the Thatcher era proved the undoing of the independence project.