The oil flowed south, Scots went on the dole … no-one cared

Iain Mcwhirter asks where the anger has gone in the independence debate

As the economy pulls out of recession into a largely jobless recovery, with wages nearly one-tenth down in real terms on their pre-2008 peak, the strange thing is how little response there has been on the streets. We have been through a longer recession than in the 1930s, and earnings have fallen faster than at any time since the 1870s. Or so economists tell us. Yet, there have been no marches, demos, barricades. Even the Occupy movement, which appeared in city centres two years ago, seems to have vacated the scene.

Whither Scotland?

In a series of articles this week we throw the spotlight on the Scottish independence referendum, to be held on 18 September 2018:

  • Tomorrow: Joyce McMillan explains why artists and writers at the Edinburgh Festival are not obsessing with the referendum question.
  • On Wednesday: Kenneth Roy criticises James Naughtie’s 
foreign assignment
north of the border.
  • On Thursday: Adam Ramsay finds the ignorance of the media about the constituency’s electoral history shows how out of touch the London bubble can be.
  • On Friday: John Kay unpicks the economic arguments around independence but says these are not the main reasons to vote Yes or No.
  • On Saturday: Andy Bevan asks what lessons we can learn from the experiences of Ireland and other Commonwealth countries.

The absence of war has posed problems for Scottish Nationalists trying to persuade Scots that they deserve a better deal over oil, welfare benefits, and jobs. Scots must be aware that their living standards are being squeezed, and those on benefits are barely surviving. There are hundreds of thousands on housing waiting lists, and many families are living in one-bedroom flats because of the prohibitive cost of buying and renting. But they don’t seem to be drawing the conclusion that oil-rich independence would make them much better off.

The Yes Campaign is having a desperate time. There is a case to be made that Scots would be better off as a small, independent country like Denmark or Finland, rather than being a provincial backwater of Londonshire. But it’s not getting across. The former SNP candidate, George Kerevan, has even penned an open letter in The Scotsman to Alex Salmond, lamenting his failure to offer a convincing vision. What he is really lamenting is the lack of grievance among Scots about their position in the UK.

There is cause for Scotland to feel a sense of justified grievance at the loss of oil revenues, which were running at up to an astonishing £28 billion a year in the 1980s. Even tiny Shetland, with 22,000 souls, secured an oil fund of £1 billion. The rest of Scotland got nothing – at least not directly.

Today, much of the Scottish press presents this valuable asset as a burden. ‘Declining North Sea Oil and gas revenue forecasts could ruin SNP’s economic case for independence’, as the Daily Record put it a few weeks ago. The oil may be running out, but there is still a lot of it around – £1.5 trillion, according to industry estimates. Denmark and Finland don’t have any oil at all, and they seem to do all right.

The left in Scotland has it that Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the miners and industry was financed by Scottish oil, and there is something in that. The UK balance of payments depended crucially on the oil wealth as industry collapsed in the last quarter of the 20th Century. Much oil revenue went to meet the social cost in unemployment and sickness benefits that came with mass joblessness in the 1980s. Without it, Britain might have been even more bankrupt and the pound would certainly have collapsed in value. Mind you, it collapsed by 25 per cent after 2008 and that is now seen as a good thing.

But the SNP’s attempt to ignite oil as a Nationalist issue (“It’s Scotland’s Oil”) 30 years ago was an almost complete failure. Throughout the era of peak oil revenues in the 1980s, as hundreds of billions were being sucked out of the North Sea, the Scottish National Party was politically becalmed; blamed somewhat unfairly for forcing the election that brought Mrs Thatcher to power in 1979 (it was surely Jim Callaghan’s fault for not going ahead with the October 1978 election). The crude appeal to self-interest did not appeal to Scottish voters, who like to think that they are motivated by a higher moral purpose.

And so the oil flowed south and Scotland went on the dole. One-fifth of Scottish industry disappeared in the early 1980s alone, and though new jobs came with the foreign electronics plants of Silicon Glen, they were not like the old jobs. Scotland had been a centre of the industrial revolution in the 19th Century, and had been the most advanced technological civilisation after England during the Victorian age. That may sound inflated, but it is a statement of historical fact.

James Watt’s steam engine, James Young’s distillation of oil, Naysmith’s steam-hammer, Napier’s logarithms, MacAdam’s tarmac, Dunlop’s rubber tyres, Dickson’s motion picture camera, Bell’s telephone and Baird’s TV. Not all of these were developed in Scotland, and industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and David Buick, the car manufacturer, had to go to America to make their fortunes. But many who remained here created extraordinary industries. Take James Lithgow, who turned a legacy of £1000 into the biggest shipbuilding company in the world in the 1950s.

We tend to scorn those who celebrate Scotland’s industrial and scientific achievements – but they were real enough. And it wasn’t, of course, Margaret Thatcher alone who destroyed them. Scottish industry had been in decline long before she came to power. What she did was to take on and defeat organised Labour in Scotland – the miners, in particular. Some blame the trades unions for contributing to Scotland’s industrial decline in the 1950s and 1960s by obstructing new and efficient methods of production, and it is true that demarcation disputes were a constant problem in Clydeside.

But the point is that you will hardly ever hear Scottish voters complaining about this loss of industrial leadership, just as they never complain about the loss of oil revenues. Many Scots, indeed, seem unaware that Scotland has ever been anything other than a threadbare region of the UK that happened to get lucky with oil. That may be as much the fault of the Scottish education system as voter amnesia. But the Scots are probably unique among the regions of Europe in being almost completely lacking a sense of economic grievance.

I am never quite sure whether to praise or blame Scots for taking their historic defeats so well. There is something rather noble, certainly, in not restoring to the politics of self-interest. Yet there is also something rather sad about a country that does not take itself seriously enough to fight for a better deal.

Perhaps the current economic ‘recovery’ will alter perceptions. It is almost completely driven by the UK Government’s attempt to boost the housing market – using public money to subsidise the mortgages of people wealthy enough to buy £600,000 houses. Maybe that will ignite some anger. But Scots don’t seem to have much confidence that collective action, political action, is capable of improving things. The habit of dissent seems to have been lost – at least for the time being.

And no – before you ask – I don’t think people should go out on the streets and cause riots. However, the tradition of protest is a very long and venerable one in Britain, and historians will find it remarkable that this period of economic turbulence has passed with so little trace of public passion. The 1980 recession – much shallower than this one – saw a succession of strikes, demonstrations, campaigns. We saw the growth of alternative comedy, political pop songs from the likes of Billy Bragg and the Proclaimers, radical theatre groups such as 7:84 and Wildcat. Not this time. It’s all quiet on the constitutional front.

Iain Macwhirter is a columnist with the Sunday Herald where this article first appeared.

2 thoughts on “The oil flowed south, Scots went on the dole … no-one cared

  1. Ian makes some salient points about the links between energy revenue and scope for independence. Even outside the independence debate, Wales needs to learn some clear lessons from the leakage of energy revenues to fund politically motivated UK initiatives.
    At present we are repeating the mistakes of history; allowing valuable energy resources (in this case wind and tide) to be harvested and exported by outside investors, leaving us with modest rents and community funds, where developers are enlightened enough to provide them.
    We have a great model for social ownership of utilities in Glas Cymru. It is time this was extended to the renewables sector, to build economic resilience without the need for independence.
    All the statistics show that we can only fall further behind SE England and other regions on our current economic model. We need to do something different and the best opportunity since coal was first extracted is staring us in the face.

  2. Surely the logic of this argument is that the oil rich Shetlands should become a British dependent territory along the lines of Jersey, Guernsey and the isle of Man and stop the oil revenue moving south

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