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Scotland risks missing out on renewable energy wealth as it did during the North Sea oil

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John Bett and Elizabeth MacLennan in 7:84’s famous touring show, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil (Picture: Denis Straugan)

It’s an iconic chorus, for all those who ever saw 7:84 Scotland’s great 1973 touring show The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, either live on stage, or in John Mackenzie’s superb television version; the moment when the oil man Texas Jim, played by Bill Paterson, sings what the stage direction calls “a souped-up version of Bonnie Dundee”, and the two women in the company – Elizabeth MacLennan, the actress wife of the show’s writer-director John McGrath, and the Lewis-born singing, acting and writing legend Dolina Maclennan – form themselves into a yummy pair of backing singers, providing a soothing refrain to Texas Jim’s vow to make Scotland’s new-found oil wealth his own.

“I’ll refine it in Texas, you’ll get it, you’ll see/ At four times the price that you sold it to me.”

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It’s 50 years, this year, since John McGrath and Elizabeth MacLennan first began to mull over the ideas the would lead, early in 1973, to the setting up of 7:84 Scotland, and the first performances of The Cheviot; and both of them are long gone, although Dolina Maclennan, Bill Paterson and other members of the original cast are still gloriously with us.

Yet there is still something ominously familiar both about that litany of oil-company names, and about the situation conjured up in that key scene from the play.

In the end, the worst fears of John McGrath and 7:84 about the imminent exploitation of North Sea oil were realised. UK governments both Labour and Conservative struck spineless sweetheart deals with the oil and gas multinationals, allowing them to keep a far higher proportion of North Sea revenues than, for example, the neighbouring government of Norway.

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And worse, the billions in oil revenue that did come to the UK government, during the 1980s, were essentially used by Margaret Thatcher’s governments to finance a political project of deindustrialisation and deregulation that not only was not supported by the people of Scotland, but was often profoundly damaging to their interests.

If Scotland has an SNP government today, it is partly because of that long-term trauma, which set in motion a profound shift in Scotland’s political loyalties; and now, there is a similar sense of change afoot, as a similar litany of companies – still including Shell and BP, for example – walk away with the rights to exploit Scotland’s massive offshore wind-power potential, on similarly generous terms.

The political scene has changed over the last five decades, of course. Crown Estates Scotland, which owns Scotland’s seabed rights, is now answerable to the Scottish government at Holyrood, rather than to Westminster; and the £700 million which they netted from Scotland’s latest and largest offshore wind leasing round, last month, will come straight to Scottish government coffers.

Yet given that the leases involved seem likely to generate at least five times that much profit every single year, possibly in perpetuity, £700 million upfront seems – to put it politely – a bit of a bargain; and the estimated future rental income to the Scottish government once the power comes on stream is also less than impressive.

Scotland’s SNP government seems to have convinced itself that given the urgent need for rapid development of offshore wind power to meet global climate targets, this kind of deal of with corporate energy giants was unavoidable; and that it lacks the powers, as a devolved administration, to set up the kind of part-state-owned national energy company – capable of bidding for leases itself – that is common throughout Europe, channelling profits straight back to taxpayers.

The entire recent history of Norway and Shetland, though, shows that the first of these contentions is not true; better deals are possible.

And the second claim would be more convincing, if Scottish governments had not so comprehensively failed to use existing devolved powers to make Scotland the leader in renewable energy development that it could and should have been, leaving us to rely instead on non-binding assurances from multinational companies that some of the coming North Sea wind-power bonanza will be invested in developing Scotland’s renewables supply-chain.

Small wonder that Nicola Sturgeon has looked notably uncomfortable under recent questioning about these deals, and when quizzed about the SNP’s failure to support Labour’s current call at Westminster for a one-off windfall tax on energy companies, to help hard-pressed British consumers pay their soaring energy bills.

And however long it takes for this crisis to register with an electorate exhausted by Covid, and constantly distracted by the antics of Boris Johnson, there can be no doubt that these failures, like the failures of the 1970s, will eventually generate matching political upheavals, certainly in Scotland, and possibly across the UK.

Energy, after all, is fundamental to the structures of any society; and if Scots begin to find the SNP as ineffectual as the old unionist parties, in channelling Scotland’s energy wealth to Scotland’s people and communities, the search for alternatives will begin in earnest.

So perhaps we need a little theatre company to set off again, around Scotland, asking the question, “What Kind Of Scotland?”, that inspired the creation of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil, back in 1973.

“Remember you are a people, and fight for your rights,” sang Doli Maclennan at the end of each performance of the Cheviot, in the words of the great 19th century song-maker and land rights campaigner Mairi MacPherson of Skye.

It was good advice then, and it is good advice now, as we face the risk of another historic loss of Scotland’s full economic potential, along with the absolute moral necessity to find new ways of resisting, and of making the case for more just and respectful times, at last.

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