11 January 2023

Well, oil be damned! The SNP’s dangerous North Sea gambit


Whatever you think about the SNP, they’ve always been pretty good at campaign slogans. Who can forget Alex Salmond’s hubristic ‘Free by ’93’? Or Nicola Sturgeon’s rather more effective ‘Stronger For Scotland’?

Most famous, of course, was the 1970s clarion call to independence supporters: ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’, which was best enunciated in an angry voice with an accompanying clenched first and an obscure reference to ‘The McCrone Report’.

This week, that slogan was updated. The angry voice and clenched fist remain essential parts of the presentation, but the slogan itself has changed to ‘It’s Still Scotland’s Oil But We Don’t Want It Any More’. A bit less punchy than its forebear, admittedly, and a challenge to fit all the letters onto a conference backdrop.

You have to feel for long-term independence supporters. In the last few weeks they have had the prospect of an independence referendum removed by the Supreme Court. And in the last day another article of nationalist faith – Scotland’s oil wealth – has been deemed valueless. And not by the machinations of a cynical Whitehall, but by the First Minister herself.

The latest draft of the Scottish Government’s energy strategy has finally surrendered all ambition for a future independent Scotland to enjoy the unearned wealth bestowed by the North Sea’s oil fields. Pressured by their Green coalition partners, the SNP have decided that rather than exploit this natural resource to the benefit of future generations, the oil industry itself will be wound down at an accelerated pace.

This is bad news indeed for the north east of the country, whose local economy is dependent on the oil boom that sustains Aberdeen. According to Offshore Energies UK, the oil trade body representing 400 firms, Scotland gets 79% of its total energy from oil and gas, and 85% of Britain’s homes are heated by gas boilers. 

Jenny Stanning of Offshore Energies UK said: ‘These plain facts mean we will need gas and oil for decades to come. Additionally, in Scotland alone, the offshore industry supports 90,000 jobs. Across the UK, it’s around 200,000.’

Nervousness in the sector at Nicola Sturgeon’s hopes of a ‘just transition’ to renewable energy and the creation of XXX green jobs (insert whatever figure springs to mind) is understandable. Such promises have been made for generations, whether in relation to ex-mining communities in the north of England or former shipbuilding cities. 

Politically, it is possible that Sturgeon’s announcement represents more than a straightforward u-turn on the SNP’s most effective and well known economic policy. With a unilateral Holyrood-run referendum now officially ruled out and plans to turn the next general election in Scotland into a de facto referendum running into opposition from her own party, it would be understandable if the First Minister were on the look out for an alternative legacy.

With rumours suggesting she is actively considering life after Bute House, Sturgeon will welcome anything that sets her at the forefront of the green revolution, especially if she fancies getting a high-profile international job with the United Nations or similar body. 

The tiny fly in Ms Sturgeon’s ointment is that the licensing of new oil fields in the North Sea isn’t actually down to her or her government; it’s a matter that (like referendums on the constitution) is reserved to the Westminster parliament. So the new draft energy policy – in this area at least – must make do with aspirations rather than hard and fast policies that can actually be enacted.

Nevertheless, the First Minister’s regular briefings and public pronouncements about the future of the oil industry have had the (presumably desired) effect of reducing both confidence in the offshore industry and investment in it. Those alternative green jobs better materialise soon, and they had better be as numerous and well paid as existing ones in the oil industry, otherwise Nicola Sturgeon’s actual legacy will not be one she can place at the top of her dusted-down CV.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.