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Cat Boyd: Scotland’s oil was squandered for the sake of corporate profits

Cat Boyd -

‘IT’S Scotland’s oil,” the SNP announced in the 1970s, but the slogan was always more of an aspiration than a reality. North Sea oil never really belonged to Scotland. It never really benefited Britain either: even when oil revenues were massive, they simply paid for the extra unemployment caused by Thatcher’s brutal experiment in free-market economics. In the grander scheme of things, a great gift of nature has been squandered for the sake of corporate profits.

It’s fair to say the North Sea era did bring growth and well-paid jobs to north-east Scotland – for a while. Given the damage done to all other areas of Scottish manufacturing, that’s been a lifeline. Along with financial services, it’s been one of a few sectors to provide consistently decent pay in Scotland.

I used to work as a union organiser in the oil industry, and I’ve seen the contradictions. Managers have spent decades trying to keep the unions off the platforms, and grassroots workers’ organisation has been all but banned, so you had to get up and hang about in a car park at 4am in Dyce to try to catch people as they waited to catch the helicopter offshore.

These helicopter rides into the nightmarish abyss of high winds and lethal waves are notoriously deadly. Since Britain allowed companies to treat the sector as a colony, there’s very little regulation for such potentially lethal work. Instead, there’s a sort of macho, cowboy management style imported straight from Texas.

Inevitably, there’s pressure on workers to “man up”. But no amount of manly muscle is going to save you from bad health and safety in the North Sea, an alien, off-world experiment in the free market. Faced with boarding the chopper, I’ve seen the toughest men in Aberdeen cry like babies.

However, they keep on boarding, because where else in Scotland can you get decent pay for manual work? Despite a hellish record of accidents and disasters offshore, North Sea jobs remained popular. From the outside, when you know the profits the companies are making, it’s sheer exploitation, but for many workers these jobs represent an aspirational lifestyle. A certain nihilism comes with the easy cash and high risk of death. Do it for a few years, live the life, then get the hell out.

Recently, though, changes in technology and markets have conspired against the north-east’s industries. Having plundered the North Sea for decades, multinationals are looking elsewhere, particularly at low-cost oil solutions such as fracking.

Since the slump in oil prices, around 120,000 workers have lost their jobs. This fact has been approached with all the British state’s characteristic lack of sentiment. These oil workers, remember, did god-awful work that undoubtedly kept the British economy afloat in the 1980s and paid for tax cuts for Thatcher’s wealthy supporters. Now, they’ve simply been decommissioned, declared redundant. They’re expendable because the market has found easier ways to mine a profit from oil.

Now, it seems former oil workers are facing a double burden. Evidence suggests companies and recruiting agencies in the non-oil economy are deliberately discriminating against them.

Aberdeenshire East MSP Gillian Martin has written to UK Employment Minister Damian Hinds. She says she has seen “documentary evidence” of some level of discrimination against former oil and gas workers and wants an investigation into how widespread this is. She wrote: “Many people who have lost their jobs in the oil and gas sector have been trying to find employment in other sectors of the economy.

“Examples suggest that companies are discriminating against these workers, regardless of their skills, based only on their past involvement in the oil and gas industry.”

The North Sea industries were created in a blitz of short-term decision making, shadowy deal-making and managerial mess-making. Britain made a succession of costly errors here. They decided, first, that Scotland and regional economies should get no defined benefit from oil. They decided to pump the oil out of the sea as quickly as possible. They decided to give oil companies an easy ride on tax. They decided to exclude the unions. They decided to spend the money on careless tax cuts and compensation for millions of unemployed people in areas like Scotland.

It’s a sorry story of short-term thinking that culminated in rapid de-industrialisation and the Piper Alpha tragedy. One day soon, it might end in the complete collapse of the British state. After all, in a hypothetical history where Britain used the oil money to invest in the future, would we be contemplating Scottish independence as the only road out of a British economic disaster?

Although oil and gas remains in the ground, the sector is being gradually starved of investment. The future of north-east Scotland and the workers who saved the British economy is up in the air.

Throughout the Scottish oil industry’s history, the companies acted like colonial overlords. They banned unions, bullied staff and blacklisted any worker or member of the community who they regarded as a nuisance. And, naturally, successive British governments connived in it all, happy to let companies bleed the sea dry in exchange for easy money.

Given the climate crisis, I understand why some people are suspicious of the oil industry and are happy to ignore it. But, looked at critically, the oil industry proves precisely why unplanned growth left to corporations makes sustainable development impossible. Oil money could have benefited all workers in Scotland. Instead, it only “benefited” the small section who gained employment offshore.

Even for them, oil came with significant costs: a high risk of deadly injury; alienation; and a backbreaking schedule that few manage to sustain as a long-term profession.

Now this last group is being cut adrift and left to fend for themselves with zero legal protections, and, worse, they face active discrimination when they look for work elsewhere. It’s a modern tragedy. The British state, and the millionaires who got rich on Thatcher’s economics, owe these communities so much more. Sadly, Scotland’s oil became corporate oil, and evil men plundered our future while politicians looked the other way.


Posted Date: 
16 February 2017