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Why UK’s squandered oil cash backs the case for independence

Scottish Independence would have seen a "fiscal gap" of £2,000 per person
Scottish Independence would have seen a "fiscal gap" of £2,000 per person

There is an old adage that ‘you can choose your friends but not your family’. The same is true about nationality. You can’t choose where you are born but you can choose where you live.

I am Welsh and after travelling the world and living in several different countries, I have chosen to settle and raise my family in the North East of Scotland. Consequently, my Yes vote is not driven by simple nationalism; it’s a conscious, considered decision based on what I think is best for my family, myself and for the future of the country.

I am a geologist and have worked in senior management in an independent oil company in Norway. I have also been an academic working in close collaboration with the industry for the past 22 years, in both the UK and in Norway. I look back at the parallel histories of North Sea oil development in those two countries and rue what might have been.

One of those nations took control of its assets, managed them carefully and in doing so propelled itself from the one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest on the planet with a standard of living that repeatedly places it in the top five best places to live. The citizens of that country sit on a national wealth fund that controls 1% of the global equity market and is worth a million krone for every member of the population.

The other country went on a feeding freezing at the trough, gave massive tax breaks to large international corporations, sold off its national oil industry and blew the remaining profits on a series of misguided adventures such as the Poll Tax, unwanted wars in Asia and a bank bail-out that cost half a trillion pounds.

The comparative wealth of the Norwegians is commonly attributed to contrasting population size of the two countries, with the UK having 10 times the population of its Scandinavian neighbour, but the different outcomes are due to far more than the numbers of people. The differences stem from the way the resource was considered as a “gift to all the people” and then managed accordingly.

In Norway the government took control of the assets and created a large national oil Company (Statoil) to lead the exploration and production.

While it is easy to dwell on the past, lost opportunities for better stewardship and what might have been, this discussion is extremely relevant to Scottish Independence and the future of the North Sea. Production has peaked and is declining but with upwards of 35 billion barrels equivalent remaining in the North Sea and surrounding waters and an annual production of 600 million, there is at least 40 years of production, with significant yet-to-find resources which may be added.

So the question of how to manage the resource for the benefit of the population becomes more current. Do we continue as we have been, allowing the money to be squandered on tax breaks for the wealthy, bail-outs for a morally bankrupt financial institutions and wars that massage the twilight ego of a once mighty empire, or do we use it build a better future for the whole population?
As a non-native of these parts, I would be happy if I thought there was a possibility of the UK government changing track, but as it stands I think there is no chance of that.

I will vote Yes because it think it’s the best opportunity for my children to grow up in a fair and equitable society.

Professor John Howell is chair in geology and petroleum geology at Aberdeen University.

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