How Scotland Dodged an Oily Bullet

Funny how time flies. Is it really a whole year since demonstrations in Ukraine turned violent, and gave Putin his flimsy excuse, a couple of months later, to help himself to Crimea as if he was simply accepting an hors-d’oeuvre that had been legitimately offered to Russia, rather than stealing a large chunk of another sovereign states territory. Is it really six months since my trip to Albania, where I watched on a big screen in downtown Tirana how mighty Brazil, hosts of the 2014 Football World Cup, were totally humiliated as they lost 7-1 to the eventual winners of the World Cup Germany. And is it really 4 months since my post about the people of Scotland giving a big fat no to Scottish Independence. Now that really was a bullet dodged, because unlike Russia and Brazil who are now both struggling to stop their economies implode because of their growing reliance on the price of oil, Scotland has the safety-net of still being within the United Kingdom, which has mitigated and absorb the volatility in oil prices so no one in Scotland suffers because of an almost total reliance on oil prices, which was the cornerstone of the nationalists plans if the Yes had won the referendum.

rig fire
Photo by Florida Sea Grant

Lying is a strong word, even when referring to politicians so let’s use the word delusional to describe how the nationalists had massaged and cajoled their figures and projections to show a roaring economy based almost totally on oil, because none of them, not a single nationalist had factored in what would happen to Scotland if the price of oil collapsed as it has done since that referendum. So where would Scotland be in a few years time if they had taken the other road and voted Yes as the Independence at any Price crew of Alex Salmond, his Scottish National Party (SNP) and far too many other outwardly sensible people had been dreaming of?

Bankrupt – Bailout – Unemployment – Austerity – Economic Wilderness
These are all words that could have been used, just a few years down the line, in any news report that included the word Scotland in the headline. Perhaps something like Today the IMF reported that following its most recent bailout Scotland was in danger of slipping below Albania and Greece to the bottom of the European prosperity rankings!

It was only ever about the Oil Throughout its modern history, the case for Scottish nationalism has rested almost completely on oil. When North Sea oil was first discovered in the 70’s, the SNP quickly used the slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ to argue its case for Scottish independence. Since then they have used it to fuel resentment towards the UK government and Oil became the most overused one word answer to most questions about independence. ‘An independent Scotland will have oil.’ the nationalist argument always went, ‘so its prosperity is secure.’ However, they are all strangely quiet now the fundamental weakness of this longstanding pillar of the case for independence has been so totally exposed for five simple reasons:

1 The SNP always overstated the impact of oil. In their white paper on Scottish independence, they calculated that oil would bring in revenues of £6.8bn-£7.9bn in 2016/17. But last year the non-partisan IFS argued that this was far too over optimistic. The think tank argued that that the SNP had overstated the revenues by more than 50% because it had calculated that the oil revenue would be lucky to reach £3.3bn.

2 Relying on oil means accepting a structural dependence on big oil companies. You don’t get small or medium sized enterprises in the oil sector because the costs of drilling and exploration are too high for them. But big companies have more influence on government than small ones. Especially as we rely on them for tax revenue, jobs, and social responsibility. So this also gives them extra leverage over governments because they can always threaten to leave.

3 It was always a bad idea for the SNP to rely on the oil argument because the harder the oil is to reach, the higher the cost of development. Exploration has moved towards fields in deeper water, which means that you cannot expect the cost of development today to be the same in the future because it is likely to become a great deal more expensive.

4 North Sea oil is running out and nobody really knows how much is left. Therefore if this oil is finite there is an automatic shelf life on oil as a pillar of the case for Scottish nationalism, because what happens when the big companies decide there is no economically viable oil left under the North Sea?

5 One of the main reasons that this longstanding argument of the SNP has been crumbling is that people are waking up to the fact that reliance on oil means reliance on forces beyond Scotland’s control. Relying on oil means relying on foreign powers which dictate the price of oil. This would seem a direct contradiction to the claims of any movement that has declared it wants to bringing control and sovereignty closer to the people.

you lie
Photo by Boulanger I.E.

And as the oil price has dropped and dropped, the danger of relying on it have become ever clearer. Today oil is hovering around the $45 a barrel mark, which would have meant much lower tax revenues, and less money for the Scottish government to spend on a better Scotland . An independent Scotland’s public finances would have been totally dependent and exposed to any volatility in oil prices. If as widely expected oil stays cheaper for years to come, an independent Scotland would have faced very deep cuts to its public services, which the UK as a whole is much better placed to moderate.

But low oil prices are not just a problem for tax revenues. It’s also a problem for the oil industry and every Scot it employs. There have already been thousands of redundancies, which can only get worse according to Company Watch, a company which devotes itself to ‘tracking corporate financial health.’ They estimate that as much as 70 per cent of the UK’s publicly listed oil exploration and production companies are not profitable any more, which completely unravels the nationalist case for independence based on oil.

One final observation for the people of Scotland to remember the next time (and there always seems to be a next time) there is an Independence referendum. Just 6 months ago Alex Salmond said that oil would generate £20.2 billion in tax revenues in the first three years of an independent Scotland. However, since the oil price has collapsed, the Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael has estimated that the true figure would be much closer to £4.7 billion – less than a quarter of Salmond’s figure.

So don’t forget this! in 2024 or 2034 or whenever the nationalists try and reanimate that Dead Parrot that is any Scottish Independence based on oil revenue.

I am indebted for some of my statistics to Azeem Ibrahim Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute, an organisation which stands independent of any Governmental or Party politics.


2 thoughts on “How Scotland Dodged an Oily Bullet

  1. I remember thinking at the time of the election, what if it doesn’t work? I never thought the “doesn’t” bit would show itself quite so quickly. My dad’s family are from Scottish stock but even from here, with an Ocean between him and his kin, he told me he thought it would be a big mistake.
    I made dad read your post and although he said little about it, I am quite sure he still believes the Scots dodged an oily bullet.

  2. I enjoyed your cleaver title but not sure about your told you so tone. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Not withstanding you did tell us so last year, I like Scotland and its people and of course its whiskey. Surely they could weather the oil storm with the whiskey industry, which if it fails at least they can drink away their sorrowness.


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