Robin McAlpine: Let’s not revisit the oil con

When Gordon Brown proposed a modest tax increase on oil, the oil companies threatened sabotage. Picture: Hamish Campbell

When Gordon Brown proposed a modest tax increase on oil, the oil companies threatened sabotage. Picture: Hamish Campbell

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Nationalising Scotland’s oil is not a priority – stopping multinationals and their pals in the Treasury fleecing us again in the renewables field as they did in oil is, writes Robin McAlpine

Sitting in a pile of newspapers in the office here is a Financial Times from 13 April of this year. I kept it because of its front page headline, which reads “Investment Bonanza for North Sea Oil”. It has avoided the recycling, not because of my joy at the massive corporate profits it heralds but because Saturday, 13 April, was the end of another week of front page stories in Scottish newspapers warning us that oil production in Scotland is going into terminal decline.

This has been the story of North Sea oil; one story for financiers, another for the Scottish population. It is a reflection of just how far the British Establishment has been willing to go to ensure corporate and Treasury control of this national asset. And it is why Alex Salmond has little choice but to capitulate to the oil barons.

Because where the SNP’s misjudgments on corporation tax and devotion to sterling were optional, yesterday’s announcement on oil tax in an independent Scotland was virtually compulsory.

In the early years of an independent Scotland, it would be almost impossible to take on the power of the oil corporations. In a global industry with easy capacity to increase and decrease supply from different regions of the world, oil corporates have massive control over production rates and so the public finances of any host nation can be sabotaged virtually at will.

A few years ago, when Gordon Brown proposed a modest tax increase on oil, this is exactly what the oil companies threatened. Westminster backed down almost immediately. We have handed a monopoly right to exploit a British national asset to a big oil cartel. That cartel only pokes the gun into our back from time to time; but we know it is there. An independent Scotland would be particularly vulnerable to blackmail and sabotage by oil barons.

I have virtually no patience with the argument that Scotland’s relationship with Britain is a colonial one, primarily because it isn’t true. Oil is one of a small number of exceptions. There is now clear documentation and personal confirmation from senior people involved that Scotland was subjected to a black propaganda campaign on oil from the 1970s onwards. That there has not been a greater degree of outrage among Scots that Westminster knowingly and intentionally lied to them is a function of a news agenda that didn’t take it seriously enough.

But long-term misinformation designed to make Scots believe oil wasn’t an asset isn’t even the worst of it. What makes oil function like a colonial trade is that the profits of oil were used by the London elite to inflict harm on Scotland and much of the rest of the UK.

It is a question seldom properly discussed: what did we do with our oil reserves? People often believe that it was used to keep tax low. This isn’t really true. In the 1980s, the Thatcher government wanted to deindustrialise Britain for ideological reasons. Her problem was that in greatly reducing industrial production, she was also losing large amounts of tax revenue and had to fund the mass unemployment it caused. Oil was her saviour. It provided her with the fast cash needed to survive the devastation of the UK’s industrial base.

As of 2013, little has changed. Oil exports give Britain a false sense of competence. If it wasn’t for the oil, our balance of trade would be a source of national anxiety. Along with uncontrolled casino banking, it has let Britain off the hook of having a productive economy and propped up a low-pay economy.

And in Scotland it has been used to treat us like idiots. We have think-tanks which seem to exist solely for the purpose of talking down the value of Scottish oil and which are not challenged on consistent underestimation. We have people talking about the risk of relying on volatile industry sectors in a UK economy which is almost wholly reliant on the trade in complex financial derivatives to stay afloat. The nationalist case on oil is dispiriting; the unionist case is an insult to our intelligence.

This is a case study of where Common Weal – the mutual development of shared assets for collective benefit – is at its strongest. In Norway, 80 per cent of the petroleum production is in public hands and 85 per cent of the revenue from production goes to the nation. You really do need to be some kind of ideological zealot not to wish that Britain had developed oil as a nationalised industry like Norway did. We handed 80 per cent of the value of our oil to global corporations out of the kindness of our hearts while fretting about our public finances.

While nationalisation of oil in an independent Scotland should not be dismissed entirely, I doubt it should be our priority. Oil production genuinely is declining and it would be a mistake to see our future closely tied to hydrocarbons. Plus the money could be better used.

But we must bring to an end an era when the profits generated from large-scale national resources are taken from the wider population by a corrupt international financial hierarchy. Unaccountable financial interests should never be able to use assets belonging to the citizens of a nation to control and bully those citizens. Natural monopolies must not be used to extort profits from ordinary people. The development of energy production and distribution should be based on long-term planning of national need, not short-term punts on what will produce the fastest profits.

The Reid Foundation will soon publish a major report outlining how Scotland can develop its future energy supplies in such a way that energy generation will return into collective ownership, though in a radically decentralised form quite different from old centralised state enterprises. It will explain how we can return to the nationally-planned energy supply system which bequeathed us the remarkable National Grid.

These are realistic and achievable targets. Common Weal exploitation of other shared assets such as land and water should also be our priority.

Scotland needs to avoid playing the victim here – we were particularly targeted for lies and black propaganda but the deindustrialisation oil funded killed hope in great swathes of England and Wales as much as in Scotland. And the positive potential for the use of oil income was snatched from the grasp of ordinary people throughout Britain, too.

This, for me, is the irony of oil and independence. The strongest oil-related case for independence is not that Scotland has great oil wealth ahead, but that it has much less than it should. Scotland would have made different decisions than Thatcher. The development of the next generation of energy supply in collective ownership is a realistic proposition in Scotland. It is very hard to say the same at a UK level.

So, we have two futures. In one of them we repeat this whole sorry story again with foreign multinationals picking Scotland clean of its renewables wealth. In the other we share the wealth for national benefit. I have no doubt which would be the democratic will of citizens.

And so, on the pristine white walls of the Scottish Parliament, scrawled in the glistening black of North Sea crude, should be a simple message to those with the capacity to make the decisions about which of these futures we choose: we were defeated by the oil barons and their UK Treasury side-kicks. It must never happen again.

• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation

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