Are Scotland’s expectations still oil-fired?

Scots are not engaged, as they were in the 1970s, in a debate about how best to utilise North Sea assets.

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. 

A tanker taking on oil from a loading bay at the Statfjord A-platform in the North Sea. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Show Hide image

If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood