“It’s Scotland’s oil” was the simple – but effective – three-word slogan which propelled the SNP to breakthrough electoral success when the party won 11 constituencies and over a third of the Scottish popular vote at the October 1974 General Election. The discovery of oil deposits in Scottish waters within the North Sea fundamentally altered the economic case for independence.

Oil helped to secure a popular credibility for independence which it hasn’t lost since. Opponents of independence were now forced to engage far more seriously and thoroughly with nationalist perspectives. During the last five decade, oil has never been far away from the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future.

In recent years, the SNP has appealed to renewables as a replacement for oil, but older nationalist criticisms over the control and ownership of natural resources also apply to Scotland’s burgeoning energy sector. Like the oil rigs that they are replacing, wind turbines in Scottish waters are largely owned by distant multinationals.

The promise of oil wealth anchored pro-independence perspectives within a broadly centre left ethos. During the 1970s and 1980s, anticipated oil revenues, and then gargantuan contributions to the Exchequer, solidified the SNP into a broadly social democratic position based on a petro-welfare state. SNP politicians argued for expanding social spending and investment to renew Scotland’s ailing industrial base using the fiscal proceeds provided by the bounties in the North Sea.

During the first half of the 1980s, these arguments reached their zenith when North Sea oil was responsible for around a twentieth of Britain’s GDP and approaching a tenth of the annual tax take. These figures should be magnified by a factor of 10 to understand their significance in a Scottish context. Oil provided an easy explanation of Scotland’s raw deal from the UK.

Nationalists bitterly lamented British malice and incompetence in the management of North Sea reserves. Scathing criticisms reached the hyperbolic tenor of lamenting Scotland’s colonial relationship with England and the assertion by Gordon Wilson, the party’s leader and MP for Dundee East, that Scotland was the only country to have discovered oil and become poorer.

Those comments do not stand up to statistical scrutiny or international comparison, but they do underline the emotionally charged significance of oil to nationalist economic perspectives. Wilson’s remarks were explicable in the context of the factory and shipyard closures which blighted the lives of his constituents.

It is a cruel historical irony that North Sea oil paid for deindustrialisation. Tax revenues from the North Sea approximately equated with the cost of unemployment benefits payments when both the oil price and joblessness were at their height during the first half of the 1980s.


Oil remained central to arguments for independence over the following decades. Wilson’s successor as SNP leader during 1990, Alex Salmond, was the MP for Banff and Buchan where the industry remains an important source of relatively high paying jobs. Salmond was a former oil economist who had worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland. His long tenure as leader included the professionalisation of the party and the recruitment of researchers who developed a more detailed prospectus for independence.

Petroleum revenues remained integral to envisioning the finances of a newly independent state. Economic arguments between nationalists and unionists over the likely fiscal circumstances of an independent Scotland, have hinged on assessments of oil. SNP aligned economists fought against the allocation of North Sea oil revenues to a North Sea Continental Shelf “region” rather than Scotland in the accounting process for the annual Government Expenditure and Revenues Scotland report. When unionists criticised oil as an unstable basis for an independent country, nationalists looked to Norway’s sovereign wealth fund. Since the 1990s, the fund, which is financed by revenues from oil and gas production, has accrued to a valuation of a trillion dollars. Its investments account for around one and a half per cent of all the world’s listed companies. Norway’s oil will provide benefits generations after drilling ends.

The expectation that there were decades more oil to come was pivotal to the case for independence in 2014. Oil industry representatives and the Scottish Government released a strategy detailing the potential for exploitation to last into the middle of the century. As late as 2017, Nicola Sturgeon put forward a policy for “maximum economic recovery” in a speech to the industry lobby, Oil and Gas UK.

During 2014, the unionist argument that oil was inherently unstable appeared to convince centre-ground voters. These conclusions were magnified when prices plummeted shortly after the referendum, exposing the Scottish Government’s White Paper to criticism given it anticipated prices would remain over $100 a barrel.

Climate change has further encouraged a movement away from oil. The Scottish Government is keen to be viewed as a world leader. Their recent refusal to join Denmark and New Zealand in the international “Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance”, which seeks to end fossil fuel extraction, speaks to the political sensitivities around an industry that sustains around 100,000 Scottish jobs.

Shifts towards a more austere vision for the finances of an independent Scotland reflect these pressures. In 2016-17, the UK government recorded a net negative in oil and gas revenues, and they have been below or just over £1 billion since, around 10 times less than fiscal revenues from oil were in the early years of the last decade.

The Herald:

The Growth Commission economic prospectus for independence which the SNP published in 2018 struck a post-oil tone, explicitly discounting revenues from planning for the annual budget, although it did hold out hopes for a sovereign wealth fund supported by natural resource revenues. Renewables were cited as a current and future prospect by the Commission.

Dominant nationalist understandings of renewables are strongly conditioned by oil. Alex Salmond’s pronouncement that Scotland would be the “Saudi Arabia of renewables” in 2011 summarised his view that divine providence had granted Scotland coal, oil and renewables which held out the opportunity to accrue great wealth.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes reiterated this position during a speech ahead of the SNP’s 2021 annual conference. Forbes sketched out the position of a future “Yes” campaign in a second independence referendum, citing renewables as part of “Scotland’s rich natural resources” which should be used to “feed starving children”.

Yet it is difficult to see renewables playing the same role nationalists once projected for oil as things stand. Scotland exports over a quarter of its electricity production to England. In recent years, this has raised around three quarters of a billion pounds per annum. These are significant earnings but small compared to oil profits at their peak.

Electricity is harder to export than oil, given its reliance on much more intensive infrastructure so there is more limited potential for expansion. Using wind energy to produce hydrogen, a far more portable fuel, does offer greater scope for exports to larger international markets but that remains to be clarified.

Wind turbines are replacing oil rigs as symbols of Scotland’s economic future, and they feature increasingly prominently in projections for independence. Yet despite the importance of renewables to vision of political sovereignty, they are themselves subject to curiously minimised aspirations for economic sovereignty.

Most wind farms on Scottish land and water are owned by foreign multinationals, and in some cases governments. Foreign ownership reinforces dependence upon global supply chains, which have undermined the Scottish Government’s stated objective of using renewables to achieve “reindustrialisation”. Even as renewable energy generation has ramped up to account for close to Scotland’s entire consumption, Scottish employment in low carbon energy has stagnated.

Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged the disappointments with job creation following the Crown Estate Scotland’s wind lease auction in January 2022. The First Minister explained that £1 billion per gigawatt of capacity would be invested in the supply chain, opening up the possibility of thousands or even tens of thousands new jobs in manufacturing,

Nevertheless, the specific details and guarantees remain to be confirmed as do the details on what activities would develop in Scotland. The headline figure of £700 million as a one off windfall payment for the licences and annual rents likely to be worth under £100m per annum are also concerning. Although there are constraints on the Scottish Government’s powers, the reluctance to investigate even a small level of public participation in offshore wind indicates limited, or at best, stifled, ambitions. Once again, Scotland seems set to see paltry earnings from its natural resources.

Whilst the parallels drawn between oil and renewables may have been exaggerated, there are important overlaps in understanding the political economy of energy. Norway demonstrates how important ownership is to ensure the benefits of natural resource exploitation are enjoyed on an egalitarian basis. If renewables are to be at the centre of the economy of an independent Scotland, there ought to be much great consideration of public ownership and controls to assure that the sector delivers employment, industrial benefits and revenue as far as possible.

Dr Ewan Gibbs is a lecturer in Global Inequalities (Economic & Social History) at the University of Glasgow