In my previous post, Beware of snippets and soundbites, I linked to BBC Question Time from 15th May:
One particular snippet that caught my ear was at 46:56, when a gentleman in the audience offers this comment, “ One thing I am pretty sure of though, is that if Aberdeen and all of its oil industry were south of the border, we wouldn’t be having this discussion now.” I have to say, that man has a point.
Would Scotland now be attempting to gain its independence from the UK if it did not have North Sea oil and gas revenues to bolster the economic argument? I have to say I rather suspect not. HOWEVER, the flip side to that argument is that if Scotland did not have all these hydrocarbon resources just off our shores, would England be fighting so hard to keep us in the Union? That I am less sure of, though again, I suspect not.
But it is a complete historical inaccuracy to think that the only reason that Scottish people are seeking independence from the UK is because of oil. The history of the British Isles has been the people of what we now call Scotland resisting being part of kingdoms from south of what we now call The Border. If we take it back to 1707 when the Act of Union was signed, there was no popular wish for Scotland to be united with England and since that date many Scots, though not all, have persistently been asking for, campaigning for a return to Scotland being an independent nation. Bringing it into the modern era, the Scottish National Party was formed in 1934 and has had a presence at Westminster since 1967, several years prior to oil being discovered in the North Sea.
It is also historically inaccurate to believe that prior to North Sea oil being discovered that Scotland did not contribute significantly to the UK economy. There are countless pieces of evidence to the contrary but I am going to limit myself to sharing just two at the moment. This article provides details of Scottish revenues and expenditure in relation to the UK between 1900 and 1921, taken from figures supplied by the National Library of Scotland, which shows that Scotland was a major net contributor to the UK economy. This article, written by a former senior civil servant in the UK Treasury, shows that in 1968 (again, before oil was discovered in the North Sea) Scotland was a net contributor to the UK economy. (Incidentally, if you haven’t listened to and watched everything John Jappy has to say or read all his blog posts, you really are not informed about the economic and political issues surrounding this debate. I accept that some may not agree with his conclusions, but I challenge anyone to dispute is facts.)
So, on balance I do rather suspect that the Scottish people of today, even those with an appetite for independence, would be more hesitant about the idea if we did not have North Sea revenues backstopping the idea of independence but that is not the same as saying that Scotland couldn’t make it as an independent nation even without oil money. People, if you only take one thing away from this article please make it this; Scotland’s wealth is not all about oil.
I mean, look at New Zealand which has made a very successful go of independence from the UK basing their economy on agriculture and tourism. We can argue about whether you would be richer living here or living there but let me just say, as someone who grew up there, that while my mother’s earnings were higher in the UK than they were in NZ, the costs of living there were considerably lower in most important ways and I had access to a far better standard of living there than I did when we returned home to Scotland. [That word ‘home’ is the crux of this issue to me; Scotland is where I am at home while NZ is a place I would happily live but is not home in the same way. Likewise, Britain is a ‘house’ I can live in but my home is Scotland and I would like my home to be democratically governed by its people, not our close neighbours.] It is not how much money you earn that matters, it is how much that money can buy and in independent Scotland without oil might well be poorer (in monetary terms) but that doesn’t mean its people would be financially worse off.
As to whether the rest of the UK would fight to keep Scotland without its oil; the economically sensible argument is that it damn well should. Without oil – or even the Scottish inhabitants – the UK benefits from our land and the seas we control because of our coastline. There is agriculture, fishing, mineral resources and electricity generation galore. The people living on this land (whether that are ethnic Scots or immigrants from other parts of the UK or further afield) are a source of industrial labour and intellectual endeavour and, as the links above indicate, Scotland has historically more than paid its way within the Union. And let’s not forget to mention the vast areas of land, coast and sea that make Scotland an ideal place for military bombing and torpedo ranges, nuclear and conventional weapons dumps and homes for submarines equipped with WMDs, all safely far away for where the majority of the UK population (not to mention its politicians) live and work. But the political classes of Westminster have little regard for the Scots and many of the English (I single them out purely on the basis of their numerical superiority within the UK) have little love for the Scots (I suspect what most feel is indifference) and many consider us to be ‘subsidy junkies’ and a drain on the UK public purse (regardless that the facts are a tad different). On that basis, could I see the popular opinion within the UK being to keep the obstreperous Scots if we were clamouring for independence without oil? There is a damn good chance the UK would be happy to see Scotland go the same way as many wish the EU to go, despite the financial costs both decisions would have on the UK economy.
But happily we do have the oil so debating ‘what ifs’ is all a bit pointless, wouldn’t you say?