23rd March 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Remarkable feat of local politicians recalled

, by , in Features

JONATHAN WILLS was Labour’s parliamentary candidate at both the 1974 general elections. Here he assesses the meaning of the memos and reports that flew between civil servants.

Recent research by the Scottish writer and broadcaster George Rosie, for the BBC and the Scottish Review of Books, reveals how close Shetland came to failure in the 1970s when local politicians had the cheek to ask for some local control over the oil industry – and for a miniscule slice of its spectacular profits.

I first met George Rosie when he visited Unst in 1975 to write a piece about the Muckle Flugga for The Sunday Times, in which he described me as “a burly man with the makings of a spectacular gut”. He was the first to notice this tendency and we’ve been friends ever since. I occasionally retaliate by reminding him that he now looks like one of Rembrandt’s later self-portraits.

At the time I was nursing the political bruises from being Labour candidate for Orkney and Shetland at both the 1974 General Elections, losing my deposit in the second. In that role I’d played a minor part from 1972 onwards in trying to persuade senior Labour politicians of the merits of the Zetland County Council Bill, then going through a bruising parliamentary select com­mittee hearing against determined Tory opposition.

On one occasion Kay Carmichael, one of Harold Wilson’s political researchers, asked me to write a position paper on the council’s private parliamentary bill and its implications. In my innocence I wrote that the government should consider giving similar powers to every council in Scotland. That sort of local devolution, I argued, was the way to “Dish the Nats”. I received no reply or acknowledge­ment. It now turns out that I was seriously “off message”: senior figures in the Labour Party were just as determined as Ted Heath and his local acolytes to stamp on Shetland’s impertinent attempt to open a small crack in the armour plated partner­ship between Big Government and Big Oil.

Now, 34 years later, I understand why Tam Dalyell objected when the ZCC Bill came before Parliament. His lone “Nay” sent the bill into a select committee and held it up for almost two years. Tam, a ferocious and consistent opponent of devolu­tion, regarded it as a “hybrid” bill, meaning it trod on the toes of national policy. He was constitu­tionally correct, of course, but that doesn’t make him politically right.

The material George Rosie has discovered in the National Archives in Edinburgh and London shows that Labour ministers were using civil servants for party political pur­poses in their increasingly desperate (and ultimately successful) attempts to turn the tide of Scottish National­ism epitomised by the SNP slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil”.

The late Jo Grimond, Liberal MP for the Northern Isles, had been taunting the SNP from the start that it wasn’t Scotland’s oil but Orkney’s and Shetland’s. It was a good debating point, despite the fact that both counties had, for better or worse, legally been part of Scotland since the early 17th century. The idea engendered fantasies among local home-rulers (including me for a while, I’m sorry to recall) of a new Nordic Commonwealth in which an oil-fuelled Shetland micro-state would take its rightful place at the top table of nations. This eventually produced the Shetland Movement and, many years later, Captain Calamity’s delusions of insular grandeur.

To Graham Kear, a senior servant in the newly-created Department of Energy, Jo Grimond’s clever remark sparked the ingenious idea that Shetland and Orkney, in whose “territorial waters” most of the oil and gas did indeed lie, might be split off from Scotland, to remain as a detached part of what would be left of the United Kingdom of Great Britain if Scotland went it alone. It is hard to believe that this crackpot notion was ever entertained at the highest levels of government but it was, and a letter from energy secre­tary Anthony Wedgwood Benn (yes, that Tony Benn) explained why on 30th September 1975.

Writing to Edward Short, Lab­our’s minister for constitutional affairs, Benn revealed his fears about additional payments by the oil companies to local government. This possibility was “in the case of Shetland already the reality” and Benn warned that “if taken further by a Scottish Assembly such changes could actually distort the economics of offshore exploitation, to the extent of influencing development decisions on particular fields with consequences for oil production”.

It was also important to “retain appropriate mechanisms for the UK Government to call in planning applications” for such developments as the port of Sullom Voe, Benn added. Above all, a forthcoming White Paper “should not commit us to detailed policies which would conflict with our decision to reserve the formulation and execution of energy policy to the UK Government”.

Correspondence between civil servants reveals strongly political views (not to say wild imaginings) about the threat posed to national unity and corporate comfort by Shetland’s bold little private Act of Parliament and our paltry levies on the oil companies (which over three decades would only amount to the value of a handful of the thousands of oil tanker cargoes shipped from Sullom Voe).

In February 1975 a memo from Jack Fleming in the Cabinet Office to his colleague Gavin McCrone (yes, that Gavin McCrone) in St Andrew’s House shows the extent of official indignation about what Shetland was doing to Labour’s new friends in the oil industry: “It should perhaps be made clear that the ZCC Act itself did not give the County Council a power to levy charges. What it did was give them wide powers of control which then enabled them to blackmail devel­opers into making payments.” [National Archives of Scotland SEP1/2732.] Blackmail? At the time we all thought the “goodwill” payments were voluntary.

The following year Fleming wrote to Graham Kear at Benn’s Department of Energy, referring to their recent telephone conversation: “We also discussed the payments being made by the oil companies to Orkney and Shetland and I pointed out that the Government had never approved of these payments and indeed had taken steps to ensure that they were moderated. I think it is important that we should avoid any suggestion that they were approved of by the Government still less that the Government encouraged com­panies to pay them.” [National Archives, Kew, POWE63/1259.] But not all Labour politicians were against the ZCC Act, as it became after Labour returned to power in February 1974. Dr Gavin Strang MP had backed it from the start, and not just because his wife had Bressay connections.

The late Eric Varley MP, as an energy minister, eventually rescued a scaled down version of the ZCC Act in a compromise to get the planning permissions for Sullom Voe moving and the terminal built, in the vain hope that the oil revenues would rescue the Labour government from economic crisis and electoral defeat. In fact the oil revenues financed the mass unemployment and sado-monetarism of the Thatcher years, encouraging the corporate arrogance that in its turn fuelled the financial bubble currently collapsing around us.

In the light of what George Rosie’s researches have revealed, the achievements of Shetland’s then county clerk, Ian R Clark, and a determined band of local politicians seem all the more remarkable. Councillors such as A I Tulloch, Edward Thomason, Alex Morrison, George W Blance and John Butler, who put community interests before party loyalties, are no longer with us, alas, although Ian Clark is enjoying retirement in the Mull of Kintyre.

It is not hard to imagine what the fathers of the ZCC Act and the Sullom Voe Association agreement would say if they could see the present value of the reserve fund and the charitable trust. This is nothing to do with the latest financial crisis: what happened is that their successors have failed to maintain the capital value of either fund. It was never the intention that the capital should be nibbled away for pet projects, as it has been over the past 10 years and more. It was the interest and dividends on the capital that were supposed to be our nest egg for a rainy day.

Every time we patch a hole in some capital or revenue budget with another million from the reserve fund or the trust, we deny the people of Shetland the £50,000 to £80,000 a year that capital sum would have earned them – for ever. In other words, we betray their trust. Shet­land’s hard-won inherit­ance is being squandered. How delighted those 1970s Cabinet Office man­darins and Big Oil’s Labour lickspittles would be at our folly. It would show how right they were.