Oil is a geological event, democracy is a system of governance. One is not dependent on the other, though they are not mutually exclusive. Oil is a fossil fuel, a hugely powerful but finite resource. Oil is an energy source we should be making a rapid transition away from, Democracy is a system we are trying desperately to move towards.
This is just a quick fact-check after the orgy of self-satisfaction, barely subsiding today, from media, commentators and politicians alike after GERS figures revealed that North Sea revenue fell from more than £10.9 billion in 2011-12 to less than £4.8 billion in 2013-14, before dropping to £2.25 billion last year. This is bad news for anyone predicating a case for independence wholly on oil revenue. For others, it’s not so bad. No doubt we will have a few more fervid weeks as the unionist press gleefully wallow in the economic insecurities of Scotland in the Union, and then project that wholesale into an imagine future under independence.
As Robin McAlpine has written: “The problem is not that we are ‘cursed’ with a valuable asset buried deep under our sea territory (as some unionists seemed to believe during the referendum). It’s that, like financial services before it, the case for independence simply relied on it too heavily as a one-stop-shop for economic wellbeing.”
This ‘crisis’ is an opportunity to make and re-make the economic case for independence because our case for living in a democracy isn’t based on a viscous substance under the sea but on principles of self-determination. McAlpine continues: “Like Ireland with housing and Iceland with banking (though massively more financially sustainable than either), we had a strand in the economy which kept delivering tax revenue so we came to rely on it too much. It becomes something like a fairy tale we tell ourselves at night to make ourselves feel safe.”
“Which is why the constraint of falling oil prices can be seen as a positive – it might force us to start telling ourselves a better story. Which in turn is good, because there’s a much better story to be told. Because while the oil industry has been good for tax revenues, it has other weaknesses for Scotland. It does not create all that much employment across the country since many of its workers come from outside Scotland and many of its supply chains are not based in Scotland either.”
That problem of hosting or being reliant on industries that create prosperity for a stream of people from outside Scotland may sound familiar to many, but the real issue here is about the fairy tale of oil and the reality of climate change. Nicola Sturgeon was quite right to reply to her critics at FMQs:
“It is a rather strange argument, I think, for any self-respecting politician to argue that we should stick with the system that created the deficit instead of taking more powers into our hands to do something about it.”
But the real issue is how we as a society move wholesale (and rapidly) to a low-carbon future. That’s the task facing us all and it is likely to redefine how we imagine a Scottish democracy in just the way that oil dominated the thinking for Scottish nationalists in the 1970s and 1980s.
You Don’t Need to be a Weatherman to Know which Way the Wind Blows
As the European renewable sector reports employing over one million people and creating a turnover of around €143.6 billion in 2015, and Amber Rudd takes a hatchet to the industry in Scotland, energy has become an issue that is central to the constitutional question.
Responding at the time to Rudd’s announcement, Neill Stuart CEO of Scottish Renewables stated: ‘“With the promise of future support for gas, nuclear and offshore wind, it is totally unclear if there is any future for investment in onshore wind and solar, despite the fact that these are the cheapest forms of renewable power available. Both have the potential to make a significant contribution to future climate change targets while keeping bills down for consumers, but we will only secure deployment if they too can bid in for the long-term contracts for clean power available to other technologies.”
With George Osborne still (incredibly) toying with the idea of actually proceeding with Hinkley Point (at £24.5 billion… the single most expensive object on earth), our dipping oil revenue is an irrelevance.
The consequences of our declining industry needs to be put in the context of the alternative – a future-facing diverse and sustainable economic base built on life-affirming, job creating, low-carbon projects. It also needs to be put in the context of the British economy, its values and institutions and the risk they present for us. As Greenpeace stated recently, in terms of Britain’s disastrous addiction to nuclear power this could be seismic:
“With all the delays and setbacks, some are starting to wonder if Hinkley could get canned completely. If it doesn’t go to plan, who will pick up the cost? The answer — taxpayers will. The funding mechanism the government put in place means that if Hinkley is abandoned, or doesn’t work when completed, UK citizens could be required to shell out a stonking £17 billion to French and Chinese backers to cover their costs.”
That oil was a squandered resource used to prop up decades of government we didn’t elect, doesn’t make it any easier.
Murdo and the Tank Commander
As the bold Murdo Fraser announced that “Independence was dead” and Ruth Davidson declared that the SNP had “been found out” on the BBC’s Question Time programme, questions have to be asked of these individuals. Fraser is himself a subset of political failure, having failed to get a hold of the (failed) political sect of the Scottish Conservative Party. As for being “found out”, I’m not sure what metric for success Davidson is using as the Tories slump to 13% in the polls against the SNP’s 60%. If the SNP are “found out” what are the Tories?
The unionist politicians are experts in managing decline, and glorying in failure. But what’s really apparent from the last few days is their inability to construct an alternative vision. That doggedly elusive Positive Case for the Union is mirrored here. If oil revenue is failing what is their strategy for economic recovery? Answer: a low-wage economy with a punitive welfare system, ‘Britannia Unchained’ (sic). If Europe is failing what is their strategy for an alternative foreign policy? Answer: retreat to the comfort zone of protectionism and xenophobia. If energy policy is a problem what is their answer? Go nuclear, do fracking. Cumulatively it’s a retreat to the 1950s for a polity unable to face the future. Again and again being part of Britain means we will be hurtling backwards.
Energy is they key to a sustainable future. Energy is the key to a Scottish democracy.
It should be renewable and publicly owned. It should be low-carbon and multi-scaled: state, municipal and community controlled where appropriate.
As McAlpine writes: “So if we are in a tight global economy and public revenue is so important, why are some so utterly committed to making sure that foreign-owned corporations continue to possess our entire energy system? A publicly owned national grid would fill a billion-pound-sized hole in our revenues. And it’s not the only more radical restructuring of the country that could be considered. There is no reason we need to limp into independence looking like ‘little Britain’, dragging its failures behind us like chains.”
When Better Together politicians stop crowing we will hear from them is only silence.
Oil is a geological event, democracy is a system of governance.