Fear and lies work. Over many decades (and really for centuries) the Unionist parties and the media have succeeded in persuading a large percentage of Scots that they’re beggars, scroungers, vagrants and “subsidy junkies” dependent on the ever-generous charity of England to keep them from starvation.
And in terms of the facts, that hasn’t always been an easy sell.
At times, hiding the truth about Scotland’s wealth from its people has been a task requiring subterfuge and secrecy at the highest levels.
And when faced with expert calculations proving that since the discovery of North Sea oil Scotland has subsidised the rest of the UK to the tune of tens of billions of pounds, and would in fact have been in significant surplus over the total period – even including the last couple of years of supposed £15bn “black holes” – that inconvenient data was quietly ignored.
According to 2013 figures from Fraser Of Allander Institute economist Brian Ashcroft – husband of former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander and a committed Unionist – an independent Scotland would have more than balanced its books from 1980 until the present day and currently be sitting on an oil fund of tens of billions of pounds to cushion the blow of current low revenues.
And it wasn’t for want of asking – SNP politicians had been agitating for control over oil revenues and the creation of an oil fund since the mid-1970s.
So strong was the clamour, in fact, that the Conservative election manifesto in October 1974 actually promised to create such a fund, called the Scottish Development Fund:
But Labour won the election, suppressed the McCrone Report, and insisted that the oil would run out in a few years anyway so it didn’t matter.
Norway, meanwhile, having also discovered oil in the North Sea, used it to create a sovereign wealth fund in 1990 which is now worth approximately £658 billion.
Now, we knew all this already and to a large degree it’s spilt milk. Oil revenues are low now, and the fact that Scotland has been left impoverished by its oil riches because successive Labour and Tory governments at Westminster squandered the money on huge tax cuts and bribes for the rich in (primarily) the south-east of England is a matter of historical record about which little can be done.
But this week, after an(other) bombardment of newspaper hype about how abysmally bankrupt Scotland was after the latest GERS figures, we learned something strange.
Despite the collapse in the oil price, Norway – which produced roughly twice as much oil as Scotland last year (around 1.64m barrels a day vs around 860,000) – somehow still managed to make 218bn Krone from it.
That’s just short of £20bn at current exchange rates.
Yet according to GERS, Scottish revenue from around half that much oil wasn’t £10bn, but just £60m. In other words, Norway made more than 170 times as much money per barrel from its oil as Scotland did at the exact same time from oil selling at the exact same price.
The primary reason for this is the incredible mess successive UK governments have made of the economy – chiefly for ideological reasons, but also through incompetence – and the enormous tax breaks they have to give the oil industry when times are bad.
The Thatcher government of the mid-1980s privatised the national oil company (Britoil, formerly the British National Oil Corporation), whereas Norway kept its industry mainly in state hands.
BP, which took over Britoil in 1986, pays very little tax on its North Sea profits.
The upshot of the combination of privatisation, tax breaks and tax avoidance is that the UK is in effect paying multinational companies to take our oil away.
The ostensible justification for this is that it enables the “broad shoulders” of the UK to protect jobs in the industry. But there’s little evidence of that plan working.
We appreciate that we’ve just given you quite a lot of information to take in in a small amount of time. So allow us to summarise:
1. According to figures from a respected pro-Union economist, if Scotland had been independent since 1980 it would currently have a substantial surplus, even after the last two extremely bad years for oil revenue.
The Scottish Exchequer would have zero debt and tens of billions of pounds in the bank to protect it from a sustained oil downturn, even if it had exactly matched reckless and wasteful UK government spending over the entire period.
2. Furthermore, it is beyond question that the rUK, not Scotland, has been the recipient of cross-border subsidies over the past 40 years or so. Prof. Ashcroft calculates that even factoring in considerably higher levels of public spending, Scotland has only had £95 back for every £100 it sent to Westminster.
3. Despite the current low price, Norway made a very healthy profit on oil in 2015-16. In fact, even allowing for the fact that Scotland has considerably less oil, it would have been almost enough to completely wipe out Scotland’s “deficit”.
4. The fact that Scotland’s income from oil was only 0.6% of Norway’s (per barrel) – an astonishing figure – is a direct result of decades of UK government mismanagement, and the selling off of an incredibly valuable public resource to a private sector that avoids paying tax on its profits.
5. It therefore follows that under different management, and a different political ideology, an independent Scotland could still be extracting a huge amount of money from the North Sea.
(One possible way would be to renationalise the industry. This would be a huge and controversial step, and EU law would require market-price compensation to be paid. But there’s no better time to be paying market price for oil-industry assets, as we’re told they’re currently literally worthless.)
And yet despite all this, a YouGov poll in the Times today finds that half of Scots still believe the lie that Scotland benefits financially from being in the UK, with less than a quarter believing the truth.
Scotland, in short, has Stockholm Syndrome. Endless years of being relentlessly told that the nation and its abundances of natural wealth are a terrible affliction borne by the heroic UK have seeped into the national consciousness.
The battle to persuade voters of the reality is the greatest challenge facing the Yes movement. It’s not easy to shift misconceptions that have been battered into people by the combined might of the state, the press and a self-serving political elite for their entire lifetime. But it’s a battle that simply must be won, and the starting point is to arm ourselves not with grievance and conspiracy but with the cold, hard facts.
Scotland, let there be no dispute about it, has been heinously robbed on an epic scale for generations (which can be partly redressed in any future debt negotiations), but far more important is the future, and the truth about Scotland’s future is that it can still be a rosy one as one of the world’s most naturally fortunate nations.
The only way that will ever happen, though, is if we stop being grateful to thieves for relieving us of the burden of our treasures.