When Scottish independence was no more than the aspiration of a small minority, few, if any, questioned the nationalist claim ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’, made in the fervour of the 1970s. This was fuelled by the significant cultural impact of the tour of Scotland by the agitprop 7:84 theatre company, with Liverpudlian playwright, John McGrath’s play – The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil.
The company name, ’7:84′ was, of course, born from the revelation in The Economist in 1966 that 7% of the population of the UK owned 84% of its wealth.
These were times when theatre had teeth and when folk from a Liberal background were radical thinkers. The SDLP/Liberal Alliance was then almost a decade away and the merger of the two to form today’s Liberal Democrats was some fifteen years into the future.
However, in 2011, with the Scottish Nationalists already in their second successive administration of a devolved Scotland – and with every prospect of at least a third one should the present political arrangements still obtain – serious attention has begun to be paid to which nation really owns what.
As in most relationships, as soon as divorce is on the horizon, even as a possibility, minds turn to the issue of division of assets.
The English Democrats are now claiming that, depending on which territorial convention is applied, either half or a quarter of the North Sea coastal sea bed, with its oil and gas reserves, belongs to England.
They say that the geological test – the same as is applied to try to determine who owns what in the pillaging battleground to come in the Arctic – would see England own one half; where the national land boundary test would give it one quarter.
Based on a 2010 study by two academics at the University of Aberdeen – Kemp and Stephen – Scottish Government economic projections assume that Scotland owns 97% of these North Sea reserves.
With over half of these reserves still to be extracted, they represent an asset base of £1 trillion, according to Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney.
Mr Swinney’s figures show North Sea revenues adding up to £54 billion between 2011-12 and 2016-17.
There is no doubt that the potential loss of 25% to 50% of projected oil and gas revenues would make the financing of the independence proposition look quite different.
Expect a spirited fight back from the SNP administration.
Interestingly, while this has already begun, the tone of it is less certain than one might have expected, which tends to lend credence to the challenge issued by the English Democrats.
Mr Swinney is quoted as saying: ‘Unlike the English Democrats, the people of England are fair minded folk and will see the justice of Scotland having access to our own resources’.
There are several oddities and contradictions in this statement.
- The English Democrats exist to achieve for England – rightly – what the SNP already has in Scotland. It seems odd then to denigrate those with whom one should have sympathy and political affinity. A generic reason for such denigration is to try to undermine the potential justice of a cause by representing its exponents as unreasonable extremists – a tactic long deployed against the SNP themselves.
- If the people of England are seen by the SNP as ‘fair minded folk’, why the haste to sever the union in which the fair minded English are the major players?
- And ‘the justice of Scotland having access to our own resources’ is a curiously tentative and indirect expression to come from a committed SNP source. Does this mean that the SNP recognise that a query on ownership might have legs? Or does it mean that the SNP hierarchy has no serious intention of prising the illegitimate grasp of the Crown Estate Commissioners off Scotland’s sea bed?
This last phrase of Mr Swinney’s alone raises issues that need to be explained.
The logical explanation is that it does indeed signal a compromise the SNP is willing to contemplate on the status of the Crown Estate Commission.
And how will that play in the benefits said to be coming down the pipeline for an independent Scotland from the (very modest) Yukon of licence fees from the offshore renewables sector?
The English Democrats are a federalist party that is not seeking English independence but is committed to working for the establishment of a devolved English Parliament with no less than the powers of the Scottish parliament. Their motto is ‘Not left, not right, just English’.
We have long drawn attention to the indefensible discrimination against England and the English in the political situation of the UK following devolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have also noted that it would have graced the SNP had they chosen to make the case for England as much as for Scotland.
This remains the case in the issue now raised by the English Democrats over the specifics of North Sea sea bed territorial boundaries.
With Scotland’s visceral complaint of having been robbed of the revenue from substantial North Sea assets, it cannot morally dismiss what may be a legitimate claim from England, addressing potential future asset seizures. Two wrongs…
The English Democrats are calling for an ‘independent and impartial tribunal’ to come to ‘a binding determination’.
In the interests of blind justice, this would be the right address to this situation and, whatver its outcome, it would carry unquestionable legitimacy into the future.
Professor Alex Kemp and Linda Stephen of Aberdeen University, authors of the study on which the Scottish Government rely, clearly have a strong case to present to such a tribunal. However, as petroleum economists, their expertise in the legal determination of territorial rights and assets cannot fairly be expected to be unchallengeable.
It is obviously important that a final determination on this matter must be arrived at before a date is set for the independence referendum.
Should the determination concur with the view of the English Democrats, it would necessitate a revision of the independence proposition on which the nreferendum would be held.