The Union in Peril: The British Government and the Scottish Question in the Shadow of the Oil Crisis, c. 1973-1975.

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Robbie Johnston of the University of Edinburgh. On 10 May 2022, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Robbie will be responding to your questions about his paper on Parliament and the Scottish question in the 1970s. Robbie’s full-length paper is available by signing up to his seminar and contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk. Details of how to join the discussion are available here.

In the dark winter months of 1973-1974, the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, told a private audience of the grave implications of the soaring price of oil. ‘The assumption that had underlain the last 25 years,’ he said, ‘that the growth of the developed countries could proceed steadily on the basis of cheap energy, had been shattered almost overnight.’ Its loss, he warned, ‘would breed social instability, and the risk of radical and even violent change.’

The actions of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to quadruple the price of oil between October 1973 and February 1974 had delivered an almighty shock to the industrialised world. The events of that winter have often been pinpointed as the rupture that marked the decisive end to a golden age of stunning economic growth and rising prosperity.

SNP Scotland’s Oil Leaflet, c.1972 © Scottish Political Archive, University of Stirling

The energy crisis that ensued seemingly confirmed beyond doubt that the age of postwar affluence had come to a shuddering halt. ‘The history of the twenty years after 1973’, Eric Hobsbawm wrote in the Age of Extremes, ‘is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis’.

Traditional assumptions unravelled as stagflation ripped through the economies of the industrialised world and beyond. Although by no means the sole cause of the economic turbulence, the implications of the oil crisis were profound. In the words of one of the leading historians of OPEC: ‘It shook the transatlantic, white, liberal, Keynesian civilization that had emerged from WWII to its core.’

In Britain, the immediate fallout of the energy crisis saw the fall of Heath’s Conservative Government. Amid the OPEC shock and the Government’s confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers, Heath had decided to call an early General Election for 28 February 1974. The gamble failed as he was narrowly defeated by Harold Wilson’s Labour.

Significantly, the 1974 election witnessed the remarkable rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP). Claiming Britain’s mounting North Sea oil discoveries for an independent Scotland, the SNP won 22 per cent of the popular vote in February and elected seven MPs. In a second General Election that October, the Nationalists won 30 per cent, displacing the Scottish Conservatives as the second party in the popular vote. Suddenly, the SNP were no longer a joke; the prospect of independence, not so distant.

Margo MacDonald meets Anthony Wedgewood Benn © Scottish Political Archive, University of Stirling

My paper for the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar explores the double-edged effects of the North Sea oil discoveries on the politics of Scottish autonomy in the 1970s. It has two main aims. First, the paper seeks to show how the SNP’s electoral upsurge in 1974 – fired by the slogan, ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil!’ – initially induced panic at Westminster and prompted the Labour Government and, indeed, all the main parties to enter into fresh commitments to introduce a national Scottish assembly after years of inaction.

Second, the paper then highlights how concerns relating to North Sea oil – and the designs of a growing Nationalist movement in Scotland – caused the Government to delay implementing devolution after 1974. Doubts over the wisdom of embarking upon far-reaching constitutional reforms intensified as the sheer magnitude of the North Sea discoveries began to dawn upon leading figures at the heart of the British Government.

Drawing on recently released archival materials, the paper devotes considerable attention to the Government decision of late 1975 to delay moving ahead with the assembly. Devolution’s failure in the 1974-1979 Parliament, of course, can be attributed to a number of different factors: the flawed nature of Labour’s scheme; that the proposition had ‘few principled supporters’ in the parties themselves; the vigorous opposition to the legislation mounted in Parliament; and ebbing enthusiasm among voters at large by the time the 1979 referendum rolled around.

But a close analysis of documents for this period shows how the oil issue assumed a key part in the Government’s internal deliberations. And, over the course of 1975, a number of leading Cabinet Ministers and highly influential civil servants drove a pushback against the original plan of the Leader of the House of Commons, Edward (‘Ted’) Short, to hold assembly elections in 1976-1977. Fearing that an assembly would seek to impinge on Britain’s vital oil interests, the Treasury spearheaded the effort within Government to derail the proposals.

RJ

To find out more, Robbie’s full-length paper is available by signing up to his seminar and contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk. Details of how to join the discussion are available here.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Robbie, please send it to seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s