Euan McColm Euan McColm

The SNP’s North Sea hypocrisy

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The Labour party has run into trouble in Scotland. It is planning to both raise and extend the windfall tax on the oil and gas sector, and industry chiefs aren’t happy. It’s an issue that is steadily gathering momentum and could prove damaging to the party’s chances north of the border.

Last week, the Press and Journal depicted Keir Starmer, Anas Sarwar, Ed Miliband and Rachel Reeves as hooded bad guys from the BBC’s Traitors series, with one of its writers commenting that ‘Labour – the party of workers and unions – is happy to cast tens of thousands of hard-working men and women on the scrapheap, and place a world class Scottish industry on death row.’

Labour’s plans were then dragged back into the limelight after the Scottish Labour conference concluded in Glasgow on Sunday. Only hours after Keir Starmer spoke of how the ‘the prosperity oil and gas could have brought’ had been ‘squandered’ by the governing party, industry chiefs raised concerns that tens of thousands of North Sea jobs risked being wiped out as a result of Labour’s tax plans.

First Minister Humza Yousaf has fiercely criticised Labour’s proposals (to increase the windfall tax on oil and gas companies from 75 per cent of excess profits to 78 per cent, and to extend it until 2029). In a speech on Monday in Aberdeen, Mr Yousaf said his party would oppose Starmer’s ‘aggressive tax plans for the sector’, adding that ‘Labour’s plans to increase this to pay for new nuclear power plants in England is plain wrong’. The First Minister has claimed that such a move might cost tens of thousands of jobs and the party’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn has reiterated that position. (For its part, Labour has accused the SNP of ‘siding with the energy giants’.) Yet there is an undeniable stench of hypocrisy in the air: Yousaf also told reporters on Monday that the SNP does ‘support a windfall tax in order to protect people during a cost of living crisis’, and as recently as March 2022, Flynn was calling for a wider windfall tax to tackle the economic woes facing the nation.

The SNP’s position on oil and gas is utterly incoherent.

And this isn’t the only odd take by the SNP on the oil and gas sector in recent years. One might recall that during the independence referendum campaign of 2014, then SNP leader Alex Salmond wildly overestimated the price of a barrel of crude oil at $110. Shortly after the vote had taken place it was to fall to just $50 a barrel. When it became clear that oil was not necessarily the foundation upon which a prosperous independent nation should be built, the nationalists briskly changed their tune. After decades of ‘it’s oor oil’ agitation, the SNP took up the view that whatever profit there was to be made of oil was to be seen as a bonus, however meagre. And, anyway, oil was a thing of the past. Scotland — home to some of the finest quality wind on the planet — would become a world leader in renewables.

Under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP grew increasingly hostile to the oil and gas industry. When the UK government decided to green light development of the Cambo oil field, Sturgeon urged the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reassess the plan. And after it went into government with the Scottish Greens, the SNP remained keen to sell itself as a leader in the transition from fossil fuels. But that noble aspiration has collided firmly with reality to create yet another nationalist position on the oil and gas sector.

The Scottish Conservative MSP Douglas Lumsden has accused Flynn of ‘desperately trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes by posing as a friend of oil and gas workers in the North-East’. There is a stink of truth about this charge. Flynn and Yousaf may currently be cosplaying as champions of the noble North Sea oilman but it’s not so terribly long ago that the SNP adopted a position of presumption against the granting of new North Sea licences. Then there was the party’s reaction, in September last year, to the UK government’s decision to give the go-ahead to the Rosebank oil field. Sturgeon described it as the ‘greatest act of environmental vandalism’ in her lifetime, while Yousaf accused Conservative ministers of ‘climate denial’. And then there was that speech at a climate conference in New York last September, where Yousaf spoke of his desire that Scotland should stop being the ‘oil and gas capital’ and instead become the ‘net zero capital’ of Europe.

The SNP’s position on oil and gas is utterly incoherent. It wishes to be seen as the industry’s greatest champion while all of its policy positions point to a desire to see it wither and die. Industry figures — currently grateful for the party’s opposition to an increased windfall tax — should be aware that Scottish nationalists reserve the right to change their position in the blink of an eye.