For any serious student of Scottish politics, Douglas Fraser’s interview with Dr Gavin McCrone on BBC Radio Scotland last weekend should be essential listening.
It has been McCrone’s unusual distinction to have his views heroically misrepresented while he is still around to respond. His perspective recalls an age when big politicians backed by big civil servants made big – and generally positive – interventions on Scotland’s behalf.
As he delicately put it, the Scottish Government makes “much more noise” while “we were doing it off the record” – and, he might have added, considerably more effectively. Scotland is now blessed with 31 Ministers and a dearth of strategic vision or industrial policy.
It’s unfortunate that time has to be spent on challenging false history but, when it is used as the basis for ongoing grievance-seeking, correctives are required in the interests of the present and future, as well as understanding the past.
Gavin McCrone is a reluctant icon of Nationalism because of something they call the McCrone Report. As he has pointed out ad nauseam, there was no McCrone Report. The fabled document was a memo for incoming Ministers written prior to the first 1974 General Election.
The next myth is that it was suppressed and ignored. Dr McCrone lays that one to rest also. The main thrust was to point out nothing had been done to secure tax revenues from the impending arrival of oil. “Mercifully,” he recalled, “the Labour government set about securing the revenues” by creating Petroleum Revenue Tax.
In a later paper, McCrone pressed the case for an Oil Fund. In the late 1970s, that was at the centre of lively debate within the Cabinet with the Treasury resisting amidst the economic woes of the period. Then Labour lost the 1979 election which is really the event on which all this hinges.
Critically, an Oil Fund was hypothetical at that point. As Denis Healey, Chancellor until 1979, reflected: “We didn’t see the rewards from oil in my period of office ... and, really, Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional five per cent on GDP from oil. Incredible good luck she had.”
For “good luck” read “the 1979 election and those who facilitated it”. Thereafter, there was no more talk of an Oil Fund and the money was used to pay, with uncanny symmetry, for the additional costs of unemployment. Our myth-makers won’t need reminding that the SNP voted with Mrs Thatcher to secure this outcome.
Another myth is that Norway did everything right while the UK did everything wrong. In 1972, Norway created Statoil which to this day is a huge global player and holds a 60 per stake in domestic fields. This is the real source of Norway’s wealth and, incidentally, they only started paying into an oil fund in 1996.
In 1975, the Labour Government created the British National Oil Corporation, headquartered in Glasgow – our own Statoil. Mrs Thatcher had become Tory leader and her Shadow Energy Secretary, Patrick Jenkin, condemned it as “the ugly, unacceptable face of Socialism”. So it was hardly a surprise when BNOC was flogged off as soon as the ink was dry on the 1979 result.
The Offshore Supplies Office was another success story which raised UK industrial participation in the North Sea to 70 per cent. That is why there is still such a strong North Sea supply chain, exporting around the world. One can only compare and contrast with the ongoing failure to secure economic benefits from offshore wind.
I suspect the re-writers of history are going to be particularly active over the next few weeks so it is as well to give notice that revisionism will not go unchallenged. Gavin McCrone is a key witness on oil, economics and much else.
He made clear he is no supporter of Scottish independence because of the economic arguments. Asked if the Brexit fiasco did not make him reconsider, he replied: “A bit.” Pressed further, he laughed and added: “I suppose quite a bit.”
As always, Gavin McCrone’s words demand a concentration of sensible minds.