Euan McColm: Sturgeon over barrel on oil wealth

FOR decades, oil has dripped through our national debate, leaving its slick on arguments about prosperity and fuelling the righteous indignation of those nationalists driven by the conviction that the English are out to screw Scotland for everything they can.

FOR decades, oil has dripped through our national debate, leaving its slick on arguments about prosperity and fuelling the righteous indignation of those nationalists driven by the conviction that the English are out to screw Scotland for everything they can.

In the beginning, and for quite some time afterwards, matters were entirely binary: the nationalist argument was simply that it was our – or, more accurately, oor – oil. More recently, the SNP’s position has been more nuanced, if no less chippy. No more do we hear the simple claim of ownership of the oil; instead we’re told that Westminster has squandered the billions generated by this natural bounty.

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Not only is it oor oil, but it’s been mismanaged since the first drop was sooked up from beneath the sea.

As the referendum battle raged last year, the Yes campaign decried the recklessness of successive Westminster governments which had failed to set up a dedicated oil fund; if only the profits from oil had been properly invested then we’d all have been a damned sight better off.

But it was not just the Yes campaign that wanted to talk about oil. The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence, its blueprint for a new constitutional settlement, was based on North Sea oil fetching a healthy $110 dollars a barrel and the No campaign was not slow in pointing out that the reality was that prices were plummeting.

As the oil price continued to drop last year, the Scottish Government began playing down its importance. Oil? That stuff that we’ve been screaming about for years? No big deal. It was, said ministers, a bonus rather than the basis for an independent Scotland’s economy.

On Friday, Brent crude closed at $49 dollars a barrel. It is very difficult indeed to escape the conclusion that by voting No Scotland missed having to deal with a multi-billion pound shortfall in the national accounts.

Since the referendum, a great many of those on the Yes side of the argument have continued to accuse their opponents of lies and deception. Alex Salmond’s tantrum about the result and the devious way in which it was achieved shows little sign of abating. But nationalist politicians, not least Salmond’s successor as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, are less enthusiastic about discussing their own – at best reckless – predictions about the price of oil.

And the consequence of that, as the cost per barrel continues to drop, with serious implications for our economy and the jobs of thousands who depend on the industry, is that Sturgeon looks far from in control of the situation.

Even among her closest supporters, there is frustration that she seems incapable of seizing the initiative. As one put it, she will not get through this issue by sticking her fingers in her ears.

An uncharacteristic failure by Sturgeon to appear in charge presented Scottish Labour’s new leader Jim Murphy with a golden political opportunity, and so it was he, rather than the First Minister, who went to Aberdeen on Tuesday to meet industry figures and local politicians to discuss the impact on jobs of the falling oil price.

Weirdly, even Murphy’s cocky commandeering of the issue did not spark Sturgeon into action. Instead, she allowed things to drift so that, come Thursday’s First Minister’s Question Time, Tory leader Ruth Davidson had a clear shot.

She taunted the First Minister, saying Scotland had “dodged a bullet” by voting No. Davidson went on to accuse the SNP – with its ongoing campaign to sever all ties with the UK bar defence and foreign affairs – of being prepared to drag Scotland into a financial black-hole.

Sturgeon’s response was unusually weak. After trotting out the much repeated line about UK governments squandering oil resources, she said she was ready to do everything in her power to support the industry, including – and, if I’m honest, this doesn’t look all that impressive written down – holding a cabinet meeting in Aberdeen next month.

But the First Minister didn’t have only plans for a meeting up her sleeve. She had stern words for the UK Government, which should “get its act together”.

It really was very poor stuff indeed.

We don’t have to think too long and hard about why this is a difficult subject for the First Minister. Not only did the Scottish Government make claims about oil prices that didn’t begin to resemble reality, but ministers were perfectly happy not to correct wild rumours of secret oilfields. This is all very bumpy territory for Sturgeon.

When, finally, the Scottish Government did take some kind of stand on Thursday afternoon, it was energy minister Fergus Ewing who led. He called for “urgent reform of the taxation regime for North Sea oil and gas”.

If Sturgeon’s response in the debating chamber had been poor, this was pitiful.

The issue of tumbling oil prices is not going to go away. Not only are there current – and legitimate – concerns about jobs in the sector but the longer the price stays low, the longer Sturgeon faces hard questions about the claims the SNP made in the White Paper.

Murphy may currently be talking about the impact on jobs but expect him soon to talk more about the integrity of the SNP’s promises about oil funding its independence plans.

Senior SNP figures are fond of claiming that many Scots were conned into voting No on the basis of “the Vow” of more powers. Why, then, wouldn’t Murphy make a counter argument about people being conned into a Yes by oil price predictions that were plucked out of thin air?

Sturgeon was slow off the mark on the issue of oil prices and even now seems unsure of how to deal with the implications and, for as long as she remains cautious and uncertain, her opponents will make the most of the leadership vacuum.

A drop in the value of oil was ­always going to raise difficult questions for Nicola Sturgeon but by running away from them, she’s allowed Jim Murphy to become the champion of a great Scottish industry in 
crisis. That wasn’t meant to happen, surely?