Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Myth of Scotland's Oil (1973)

 From the August 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

If the victory of the Dundee by-election was regarded as a triumph by the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party must also have been elated by the large number of votes secured by their candidate who ran a close second. This would suggest that the Nats are making a comeback after a period in the doldrums following the party’s zenith in 1968, after Winifred Ewing’s election at Hamilton, when membership was claimed to be in excess of 90,000 with some 500 branches. At present members total some 60,000, with branches around 440.

Why the revival? Undoubtedly the rejuvenating shot in the arm came in the form of North Sea oil. The recent successes of the oil consortiums couldn’t have happened at a better time for the SNP, for two reasons. First—and this is the kernel of the Nationalist argument — the SNP have always asserted that the problems confronting Scotland resulted from the channelling of Scottish revenue directly into the coffers of the “English government’’ thereby preventing the Scottish worker from deriving any benefit from it (despite the obvious fact that his English counterpart doesn’t do too well either!). The advent of the Nats’ new sacred cow, oil, greatly strengthens this argument and has the added bonus of promising such offshoot titbits as rig-building, construction and service industries.

Second, the Nats had previously conceded (surprisingly) that in the early days of home-rule the standard of living would actually be lowered. The wealth they claim oil would bring to an independent Scotland allows them to discard this vote-loser, and the result is that many workers who were previously sceptical of home-rule are now expressing concern over “Scottish Oil” which goes, according to the SNP poster, “To London with Love”.

Who owns North Sea Oil ?
The territorial control of the world’s continental shelf areas was settled by the United Nations Continental Shelf Convention of 1958 when, by an agreement binding after 1969, countries bordering any particular section of continental shelf were given sovereign rights to explore and exploit the natural resources of the shelf. The North Sea continental shelf has since been divided up between Norway, Germany, Denmark, Holland and Britain. The first British round of licences for oil exploration was granted in 1964, several more having been made since, the latest in March 1972. By the end of 1972 at least six commercial-sized oil fields had been discovered in the Scottish sector together with other recent strikes (whose potential is still being assessed). They are:
  • Forties Field which was the first and one of the biggest. Discovered by British Petroleum about a hundred miles east of Aberdeen. Eventual peak production will be in excess of 400,000 barrels per day (20 million tons per year).
  • Montrose Field discovered about 30 miles south-east of the Forties Field by Amoco and thought to be capable of producing 100,000 barrels per day.
  • Auk Field being brought by Shell into production at a rate of 40,000 barrels/day.
  • Argyll Field is reckoned by Hamilton’s to be possibly in the 200,000 barrels/day range.
  • Brent Field has Shell/Esso anticipating an eventual rate of over 300,000 barrels/day.
  • Beryl Field Mobil are looking for a possible 300,000 barrels/day here.
The Face of Prosperity
Under London rule, argue the Nationalists in a new pamphlet The Reality of Scotland’s Oil by Nicholas Dekker, only 9 per cent of the taxes and royalties from this oil will go to Scotland. Under home-rule, however, the Nats claim that by 1980 (assuming that it will take five years to develop an oilfield in the North Sea) new fields discovered during 1973, 1974 and 1975 could bring production up to 150 million tons per year with an estimated gross value of £2,250 million, of which something like £1,400 million or over per annum could tumble into a Scottish exchequer. Coupled with an assumed 50 per cent of “Scottish participation” (investment of capital) in production and of 40 per cent or 60 per cent in ancillary costs (based on above figures), total potential worth to a Scottish economy would be 85 per cent or 90 per cent of gross value—£1,900 million to £2,000 [million] per annum.

This money can, insist the SNP, “be used to secure for all time, prosperity, security, and a satisfying life style for all the people of Scotland”. Among the many promises (play it again, Sam!) would be vastly improved provision for the old, the sick and needy, and the wiping out of the chronic housing problem. Thus armed, the SNP are preparing to contest every Scottish scat at the next General Election.

. . . and its Reverse
Socialists constantly expose the fallacy of home-rule, pointing as examples to other self-governed countries such as Libya, Venezuela, Russia, and even America, where workers derive little if any benefit from oil produced locally. Indeed the opposite can result as is the case in Aberdeen where the oil boom has resulted in a property price-spiral far surpassing anything in Scotland (in fact reaching parity with English property prices) with such bizarre examples as the two-apartment tenement flat which fetched a price of over £4,000!

Equally unsound is the argument that the oil industry must inevitably produce an increase in the number of jobs available. For it could also mean a drop in the demand for other fuels, notably coal, with redundancies in those industries and their offshoots. Not only that, but many of the “new” jobs will, if the SNP have their way, simply have been taken from workers already doing them in England, so it’s a case of robbing Peter to pay Jock, a situation which in no way benefits the workers as a class.

Who Benefits ?
Perhaps the biggest fallacy of all is the Nats’ vision of the anticipated wealth from oil being used exclusively to provide a heaven on earth for Scottish workers. Of course, as the Nats themselves admit, the oil companies will have to have it made worth their while if they are to put up the “vast sums of risk capital to finance search and exploration” and so will the “private and semi-private Scottish capital” they talk about. Also, the cost of government, including the armies of civil servants which any modern capitalist nation must have to administer its affairs, will have to be paid for, and obviously no government can afford to neglect to defend such a valuable property as its oil fields so it will have to provide for defence either independently or through NATO. So, one way and another, there can be little left with which to fulfil the grandiose promises being made. We can confidently assert that the benefit of oil in Scotland will go, as elsewhere in the world, to the owners and the most that Scottish workers can expect from the oil boom is . . . work and wages!

Finally, it’s worth considering that if the North Sea does produce a supply of oil of any significance in relation to world fuel supplies, and bearing in mind the recent panic measures taken by President Nixon, the scramble for oil could become intensified (rapidly expanding Japan, already using 50,000 million gallons a year, estimates treble consumption by the 1980’s). And as trade war sometimes develops into armed war, the tragic result could be that workers living in Scotland could well find themselves, like those in Iceland, being called upon to take up arms to defend “their” oil.
A. McNeill

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