Gaining independence from the UK would provide the best chance for Scotland to wean itself off its remaining reserves of black gold, writes Joyce McMillan.
It’s Scotland’s oil. I remember the slogan, and how shallow and brutal it sounded when it first appeared in Scottish public life, in the early Seventies. At that time, after all, Britain still seemed – to most of its Scottish citizens – like a pretty good-going welfare state, a forward-looking country that had just joined the European Economic Community, and, thanks to the social upheaval of the 1960s, started to replace its old aristocratic and imperial values with a modern commitment to social justice and mobility, as well as to the “white heat” of the latest technological revolution.
That was then, though; and if there are powerful insights in every paragraph of Gavin McCrone’s legendary short British Government report on the impact of North Sea oil, written in 1974 and published in full in a Scottish newspaper for the first time this week, it is the sheer prescience of his final paragraph that stands out. “If, in five years time,” he writes, “North Sea oil is contributing massively to the UK budget, while the economic and social condition of West Central Scotland remains in the poor state that it is in today, it would be hard to imagine conditions more favourable to the growth of support for the nationalist movement.”
And the rest, of course, is history. By 1979, the UK was embarking on its long love-affair with Margaret Thatcher, and her new form of laissez-faire Conservatism. Scotland saw the public proceeds from its oil wealth not only entirely absorbed by the Westminster Government, but used to hasten the death of heavy industry, and to finance a neoliberal ideological project – privatising, deregulating, and attacking the public sector – that 70 per cent of Scottish voters rejected from the outset.
By McCrone’s measure, in other words, the UK Government was – consciously or not – doing everything in its power to increase support for Scottish home rule; and indeed it is possible to trace a direct line of causation from the general election of 1979, through the founding of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1987, to the coming of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and, by 2007, to the SNP’s replacement of an increasingly centre-right Labour Party as the party of choice for left-of-centre voters in Scotland. So that today, the McCrone Report’s main function is to confirm the view that Scotland would, indeed, have been one of the wealthiest nations on Earth today, if we had taken control of our own oil wealth 45 years ago; and that the efforts of the British Government to keep the report under wraps – it first came to light only in 2005 – demonstrate how little Britain’s leaders of any party really care for the people of Scotland, or for their right to make their own decisions based on the facts.
Yet for all the power of the report, the truth is that it comes with a sting in the tail for today’s Scottish National Party. It’s true that Scotland has had, and still has in reserve, massive fossil fuel wealth. Yet this new period of opportunity for Scotland’s independence movement coincides with a moment when the world has a tough but essential choice to make, between continuing to burn fossil fuels and watching the end of the stable climatic conditions that have made human life on Earth possible, or simply leaving the remaining gas and oil in the ground.
Now in a sense, for any future independent Scotland, that choice should be easy. We are a nation with a unique and beautiful natural environment, visited by millions of tourists each year. We have exceptional potential in the field of renewable energy – wind, wave, tidal, and even solar – which could easily meet all of our needs, given serious investment. We even have companies which specialise in building and equipping the new renewable industries, although some are struggling because of a weak climate of government support for UK renewables, and intense international competition.
And beyond that, we have – ever since the industrial revolution – an economic history of being lifted up and then discarded by each new wave of non-renewable energy, from coal to petroleum; a history that should motivate us to turn now to a future based on sustainable jobs and communities, created around sustainable local energy sources, that will last as long as tides flow and wind blows.
Whether we can do it, though, remains an open question. If Scotland remains part of the UK, my guess is that – barring a political revolution at Westminster – we will remain both constrained in what we can do to develop our potential in renewables, and under strong pressure from lightly regulated multinational corporations to allow them to exploit our oil and gas in their own short-term interest.
If Scotland chooses independence in the next few years, well then a real and vital political debate opens up, between those who would tend to mimic the current permissive attitude of the UK Government to big global energy corporations, those who want to pump the oil but use the proceeds to invest in a renewable future, and those who believe that an independent Scotland should wean itself off the black gold immediately, and turn its face towards a policy of global responsibility, environmental protection, and a truly inspiring future for the rising generation of Scots.
For myself, I’m inclined to think that this final option represents our best and most practical hope for the next two generations; others will disagree. To discuss these issues, though, is at least to engage with the reality of a 21st century debate about the kind of society we want, instead of wasting boundless energy on the foolish, hate-mongering fantasies of the last half-decade of US and British politics. And for that reason among many others, independence increasingly seems to offer the best available option for a small northern nation so coldly denied the truth about its own possible future 40 years ago; particularly if independence brings a chance, however brief, of basing our politics on the vital, intelligent empiricism of documents like the McCrone Report, and on the words of those who speak truth to power, with some hope that those in power may actually listen.