Cameron leads battle for Scotland’s North Sea treasure

Scots have yet to be convinced their oil industry would benefit from independence

British prime minister David Cameron on a BP oil platform 160km east of Aberdeen. He held a cabinet meeting in the city yesterday. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/Reuters

British prime minister David Cameron on a BP oil platform 160km east of Aberdeen. He held a cabinet meeting in the city yesterday. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/Reuters


David Cameron brought the British cabinet to Aberdeen yesterday, only the second occasion in 90 years that ministers have travelled north of the border. For Cameron, it was proof of his belief in the union. For Scotland’s Alex Salmond, it was proof of London’s neglect.

Salmond brought his own ministers to Aberdeen, meeting in Portlethen, just five miles away from Cameron’s team – though this is but one of half a dozen yearly meetings outside Edinburgh for them, each finishing with a town-hall meeting with locals.

The choice of Aberdeen by both men was not accidental, since it is the centre of Scotland’s oil and gas industry – the mother lode of riches at the heart of Salmond’s arguments that Scotland can thrive if it votes Yes to independence next September.

Opinion poll
If a little nervous about his trip beforehand, Cameron had grounds for satisfaction on arrival on foot of an opinion poll published by the Aberdeen Press and Journal , which showed that a paltry 17 per cent of locals favour independence.

Two-thirds actively wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Just 18 per cent say they are still undecided. For Salmond, who represents a local constituency in the Scottish parliament, it is news he would have preferred not to hear.

The energy industry and those working for it have been left unpersuaded by much of Salmond’s arguments, it seems – even if London’s erratic and fickle policies down the decades have infuriated.

However, brass is brass. For now, doubts about taxes, welfare, pensions and more have struck home in a region that pays the most per head in taxes of any in Scotland and has near full employment.

The warning from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in London that an independent Scotland will not be able to use sterling has pushed some into thinking about voting against independence.

Equally, the mounting evidence that Scotland would find it hard to negotiate EU membership – even if the evidence stops far short of proving that Scotland could not get into the club – is making others cautious.

If anything, however, the warning seems to be a useful tool for the Scottish National Party to play on old enmities, telling voters it is but another example of Sassenach bullying – though the pro-union campaign believes the warnings will seep through, in time.

British ministers yesterday came to Aberdeen bearing gifts. A new blueprint will clear the way for £200 billion worth of investment in oil and gas exploration over the next 20 years, said energy secretary Ed Davey.

Rival energy companies will be brought together to co-operate on getting at hard-to-reach reserves – a measure that could lead to the discovery of four billion more barrels of oil, he said.

Bullishly, Salmond insisted that the oil and gas sector – a dollar-denominated industry, for the most part – would do better in an independent Scotland.

Tax changes
Some of the investment now being trumpeted by Davey is but money delayed after chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne blindsided the industry two years ago with unexpected tax changes, he argued.

North Sea oil and gas is a declining resource, having reached its peak in 1999, even if no one can predict how long the “tail” will last. However, the Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that tax revenues will fall by nearly 40 per cent in just four years’ time.

Describing London politicians as “thieves” – not the first time language has been coarsened in an increasingly rancourous debate – Salmond pointed out, not unreasonably, that the North Sea’s riches were wasted.

In the Thatcher years and later, they were used to fund current spending. By contrast, the Norwegians built a €450 billion savings fund. Scotland would do the same, promises Salmond. However, he will also need its abundance to pay today’s bills.