by Brett Arends
Back in the 1970s, when the people of Scotland had a vote on autonomy from England, Scottish campaigners accused the English of were stealing their country’s North Sea oil revenues. “England Needs… Scotland’s Oil,” read the campaign billboards. An independent Scotland, separatists argued, would be far better off and far richer than it would as a small part of a United Kingdom.
The English establishment in Westminster scoffed. The Scottish nationalists were being paranoid, they said. They were being ridiculous. Their estimates of the oil reserves were pure fantasy. Their claims that Scotland was getting short-changed were nonsense.
But guess what? It turns out that the Scottish natinoalists at the time were right. Even more remarkably, it turns out that the English governments at the time knew full well that the Scottish nationalists were right. They had in their hands a secret report which said so, and backed up the nationalists’ charges. So they did what any self-respecting government would do. They lied.
In 1974 the English government had received a secret study conducted by economics professor Gavin McCrone. Nearly all that North Sea oil is Scottish, Professor McCrone wrote. The oil reserves were far bigger than most people realized, he said. An independent Scotland would become one of the most prosperous countries in the world, comparable to Switzerland or Norway, he wrote. Its coffers would overflow. The biggest problem the country might face would be dealing with its massive balance of payments surplus.
Meanwhile, of course, the big loser from independence would be England.
The English government suppressed the report. The McCrone Report was hushed up, and didn’t see the light of day until about ten years ago. We only know about it because the Scottish Nationalist Party, using freedom of information laws, forced the English government to reveal it.
And as the Scots gear up for this week’s referendum on independence, it makes devastating reading. All that talk about England and Scotland being “Better Together”? All that talk about the British “family” and the historic union? All that pompous finger-wagging from Englishmen who think of Scotland as a place to shoot grouse? All those pictures of the royal baby?
Take a gander at the secret report that the English establishment hid from the Scots for thirty years.
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SLIDESHOW: A LOOK Inside Scotland’s Independence Vote (PHOTOS)
“The full significance of North Sea oil… remains in large measure disguised from the Scottish public,” Professor McCrone wrote (He cited ineptitude in Westminster rather than malice; as anyone who has ever lived in England knows, the charge is all too believable). Analysis by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, he added, gave “authoritative support” for the Scottish nationalists’ charge that the government had “giv[en] Scottish oil away to the international companies ridiculously cheap.”
It is worth remembering what was going on in the rest of England at the time. The country was plunged into economic and political crisis. These included a “three day week” and, in 1976, the humiliation of having to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Some English at the time genuinely feared a constitutional crisis.
In the circumstances the country needed every penny it could get to survive. North Sea oil was about the only bright spot in the economy. They were not going to give it up.
Realpolitik is nothing new. The English government was doing its job – protecting the interests of the English. And this is, of course, old history. Much of the oil has now been given away. An independent Scotland would not get the windfall it would have received decades ago. But the story nonetheless remains a shameful one – and one that the pro-union forces would rather not talk about as the Scots prepare, once again, to go to the polls to consider independence.
Brett Arends is a contributor at Forbes where this article was first published. He used to be a management consultant at McKinsey & Co. He is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and MarketWatch. He has appeared on 60 Minutes, the NewsHour on PBS and numerous other radio and TV programs. He has also been Fleet Street tabloid journalist, a research assistant at the London School of Economics, a Chartered Financial Consultant, and an extra on the stage at Covent Garden. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and had written three books. His fourth book will be about the great money advice in the Bible.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.