Brian Wilson: Let’s move on from ‘neverendum’

Brent oil prices have plummeted despite Alex Salmond's assurances this was impossible. Picture: Getty

Brent oil prices have plummeted despite Alex Salmond's assurances this was impossible. Picture: Getty

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Falling oil prices prove the financial case for independence was based on false premises, writes Brian Wilson

For anyone with a serious interest in studying the entrails of the referendum, one month on, there is a particular statistic which provides the key to why the Nationalists lost, deserved to lose and have a lot to apologise for.

It is not one you are likely to hear Nicola Sturgeon or Tommy Sheridan shouting about for the simple reason that it belongs in the world of reality, which most Scots are obliged to inhabit. I refer to the price of Brent crude oil which yesterday hovered at around $86 a barrel.

That is a significant statistic in itself, with implications for future North Sea investment and therefore jobs. But as an indicator of the ethical bankruptcy of the Nationalist campaign, it is devastating. Their whole economic case was built on denial of any such figure being possible, far less imminent. To anyone who does not believe everything Alex Salmond tells them, there need be no surprise about the oil price having plummeted by 20 per cent since June and is still more likely to fall than rise. In fact, it is pretty much what credible forecasters predicted – and, for their trouble, were regularly vilified as anti-Scottish liars and conspirators.

Let’s go back to March 2013 following the leak of John Swinney’s briefing to Scottish Cabinet colleagues which warned that falling oil revenues could jeopardise an independent Scotland’s ability to pay pensions and benefits. It was the warning that voters were never meant to hear and thus required instant rebuttal.

Everything had changed, declared Salmond, since the paper was written. Investment would pour into the North Sea and – mark this: “Even with a cautious estimate of oil prices remaining at $113 a barrel, it’s clear that Scottish oil and gas could generate three times more than official estimates”. It was on this “cautious estimate” that the entire edifice of Scotland’s public services, pensions and benefits was to be maintained and all the other promises paid for. Problem solved.

The same Scotsman report of these effusions pointed out that “bodies such as the IMF and the Norwegian Central Bank… have set out scenarios predicting oil prices of below $100 in future years”. When the Office of Budget Responsibility said the same thing, the all-knowing First Minister dismissed its view as politically-motivated “stuff and nonsense”.

Even last month, the inconvenient fact that the oil price was doing exactly as all these organisations predicted was brushed aside. To Salmond, it was “higher than $90 a barrel and likely to rise”. A “think-tank” which turned out to consist of a Nationalist running an online employment agency in Aberdeen, was conjured up to endorse the great man’s conclusions.

All of this (and there is plenty more where that came from) is worth recalling for one reason – to confirm the complete cynicism of the Nationalists’ economic claims.

They were not remotely concerned about the implications of independence for Scotland or Scots, present or future. In order to get their 50 per cent plus one vote, their sole raison d’être, they would tell any lie, ignore all warnings and disparage anyone who got in their road.

It would be convenient for Ms Sturgeon and those around her if all this became “yesterday’s news” now that Salmond is being pensioned off. But it is the sword by which they lived and should continue to be judged.

Not a month should go by without reality being measured against the “cautious estimate” of $113 a barrel – and the devastating implications of the difference translated into pensions, jobs, schools and hospitals.

We have had a month of claptrap from the Nationalists about how the Scottish people were betrayed and misled by the perfidy of everyone who didn’t agree with them. Initially, it was old people who were getting the blame – selfish wretches who had deprived the young of hope and optimism. Then polling showed that a majority of 16 to 24-year-olds also voted No. So who could be scapegoated next?

Since then we have had “the vow”. Never mind the price of oil or all the false claims. Never mind what Scotland would have surrendered in return for Salmond’s “cautious estimate”. Never mind that tens of thousands of jobs would now be migrating from Scotland if the vote had gone the other way. Never mind that we still wouldn’t be any the wiser about our currency or its value.

Instead, let’s all join hands and talk about “the vow” and how – surprise, surprise – everyone is out to betray it apart from those for whom it could never, ever be enough. Actually, I don’t think anyone is out to betray anything. Common sense confirms that something of this importance and complexity needs negotiation – to which the SNP has no intention of contributing anything other than the pre-ordained mantra of betrayal.

In a more rational environment, it would be more important to reach optimum conclusions than be tied to a rigid timetable. As long as the anti-separatist parties are seen to behave constructively through the medium of the Smith Commission that would be acceptable to the great majority of Scottish opinion. At some point, if necessary, Lord Smith should be prepared to say so.

But remember there was more than one “vow” in the closing stages of the campaign. When Salmond said this would be a “once in a generation” event, was that not also a “vow”? Was it not intended to sway votes and persuade business leaders to stay silent on the basis that there would be no “neverendum”? Now he airily says that “circumstances change” and off we go again – if it is allowed to happen.

If the threat of a second referendum based on whatever yardstick the Nationalists find convenient persists, then Scotland will pay a heavy economic price. Let me give you one very real example. This week, Ofgem approved a short-list of interconnector projects to ensure the UK keeps its lights on. Two of them are with France, one each with Norway, Denmark and Ireland. None involves a Scottish landfall. The past two years could have been spent building a Scottish energy industry to supply the rest of the UK. Instead, we argued about whether or not to break up the UK. Others have noticed the opportunity.

Multiply by a factor of, let’s say, 113 and you get an idea of the damage that will be done if we spend the next two or ten years talking about another referendum.

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