As a civil servant in London in the 1960s, and being part of the establishment, I always accepted the general view that an independent Scotland would not be able to survive on its own without financial help from the London Exchequer.
However, when in 1968 I was able to closely examine the UK’s “books” for myself in an official capacity, I was shocked to find that the position was exactly the opposite: that Scotland contributed far more to the UK economy than its other partners. And this, of course, was all before the oil boom.
I realised that the Treasury would wish to keep this a secret, as it might feed the then-fledgling nationalistic tendencies north of the border. I decided to keep an eye on the situation to see how long it would take for the true facts to emerge, which I felt would only be a short time. However, the machinery of Westminster, aided and abetted by the media, did an excellent job of keeping the myth about “subsidised” Scotland alive.
In fact it took another 30 years before the first chink in their armour appeared.
This came unexpectedly on 13 January 1997 when, in reply to a series of questions put by Alex Salmond (then an MP) to the Tory government of the day, Treasury minister William Waldegrave admitted that Scotland had paid a massive £27 billion more to the Exchequer than it had received since the Tories came to power in 1979, or around £5,400 for every Scot – a statistic which received barely any media coverage.
A year later, with a Labour government now in power, came a further bombshell. Following further promptings by the SNP, on 21 August 1998 Mr Salmond received a letter from the House of Commons Library (ref. 98/8/56 EP/rjt) which gave a table showing that based on Scotland’s GDP per capita, Scotland would occupy 7th place in the OECD wealth league. A second table showed that the UK was in 16th place.
The UK government now refuses to release the first table to the public.
Looking closely at the figures a few years later and taking the year 2006 as a benchmark, I found that Scotland had an annual relative surplus of £2.8 billion, which works out at £560 a year for every man, woman and child. In contrast the UK had a deficit of £34.8 billion. The prophecies of the 1975 McCrone Report, which successive Labour and Tory governments had desperately suppressed for three decades, had been borne out.
The alternative future Scotland had been robbed of over the years is illustrated in the UN’s “Human Development Index”. The closest thing to a league table of the world’s best countries, in ranks nations on such factors as generous welfare payments, education, high income and a long life expectancy. In 2013, for the 10th time in the last 12 years, oil-rich Norway topped the list.
A country the size of Scotland with broadly comparable oil resources, Norway had of course wisely created an “oil fund” in 1995, which just five years later had reached a total of £250 billion – enabling the Norwegians to sail through the credit crunch despite having delayed the starting of the fund for 20 years. Since 2000 the value of that fund has more than doubled to £0.51 trillion.
With the oil boom, Scotland’s economy should have been transformed. Scottish oil has to date funded the Treasury with the lion’s share of £300 billion, which would have pushed Scotland up from a notional 7th place in world wealth rankings (had it been in control of its own resources), to 3rd place.
Current industry estimates suggest that there are at least 40-50 years (and perhaps twice that) of significant North Sea production remaining, with a total value in excess of £1 trillion and possibly as high as £4 trillion according to independent experts.
(For the North Sea alone – that figure excludes the new fields being brought into production in deeper waters west of Shetland, and any that might be discovered off the west coast of the mainland.)
It’s not all about oil. It is no longer disputed that Scotland exports more per capita than the rest of the UK. In 1968 when I first discovered that Scotland was in surplus in relation to the rest of the UK, its exports could be broken down into whisky, meat, timber, fish, and of course tourism. Whisky exports alone, which even in 1968 were one of Scotland’s top assets, have risen at a phenomenal rate. For example, sales of the spirit to China rocketed in just eight years between 2001 and 2009 from £1 million to £80 million.
But Scotland’s real riches do lie in energy. The country exports 24% of its surplus electricity south of the border, with much of the back-up provided by hydro power unused. And even without nuclear, the future looks bright. The Glen Doe hydro station on Loch Ness which was opened by the Queen in 2009 but almost immediately closed again by a massive construction flaw, reopened last year and can produce enough electricity for 240,000 homes – the whole of Glasgow – by itself.
Further projects down the Loch are planned to eventually increase this to over 1,000,000 homes – enough for almost half of Scotland. Wind and wave energy will also contribute significantly in the future, as Scotland takes hold of a renewable-energy bonanza which will dwarf the proceeds of North Sea oil, and never run out.
There is, of course, a reason that the Unionist parties and media focus on the latter, finite, resource rather than the endless former one. The No campaign is, in more ways than one, a massive confidence trick.
John Jappy was a senior civil servant in the Treasury, and is currently Vice President of Scottish CND. A version of this article first appeared on his blog.