This Thursday, the people of Scotland vote in a crucial referendum. They will decide whether or not they want their country to separate from the rest of the UK and become independent again, dissolving the union forged with England 307 years ago.
Yes campaigners claim that a kind of nirvana beckons. They argue that the Scots will each be at least $1600 better off if they secede. The country will be wealthy enough to afford all its existing state-funded benefits like free university tuition and free social care for the elderly and much more besides.
But this rosy scenario is partly based on a key assumption: The separatists take it for granted that an independent Scotland would inherit the vast bulk of the oil and natural gas that lies off the Scottish coast in the North Sea. Is this a safe assumption?
“Absolutely not,” claims Oxford University economist Professor Sir Paul Collier. “This is a greedy resource grab. The Scots have every right to secede but they cannot run off with all the oil. They have to share it.” Collier points out that when oil was discovered in the North Sea in the 1960’s, the British parliament passed an Act establishing that the resource belonged equally to every part of the UK.
“The Scots represent about 8% of the UK population,” says Collier. “Therefore they should only be entitled to about 8% of the oil.”
The pro-independence campaigners are banking on more like 90%; they’ve dismissed Collier’s claim. Scottish entrepreneur Ivan McKee maintains that an independent Scotland will own everything that lies in its territorial waters regardless of any British Act of parliament.
“After independence, whatever laws were passed by the Westminster Parliament won’t actually be in effect in Scotland any more than a law that was passed in Westminster would have any jurisdiction in the USA,” McKee says.
But the Yes campaign’s reliance on North Sea oil is shaky for another reason: production has sharply declined. There’s still plenty of fossil fuel there, but it’s in deeper and rougher waters than before; costs are rising; and a number of studies and forecasts indicate that tax revenues from North Sea oil are likely to shrink in the years ahead.
“That’s bad news for the separatists” says retired executive Anthony Rush, who lives in Scotland and campaigns against independence. “This puts this idea that we’re going to have free healthcare, free education, free this that and the other, funded by oil. That puts that in severe doubt.”