In a country preoccupied over the past five years by Europe, it would be understandable if June 1975 is best remembered in the UK for the Common Market referendum. In that vote – the first ever referendum held throughout the nation, and the only one to be held on the UK’s relationship with Europe until 2016 – two thirds of voters expressed support for staying in the European Community, which the UK had joined two years previously.
But what was arguably a more significant event occurred later the same month. On 18 June, at what the then energy minister Tony Benn described as the ‘ravaged, desolate, industrial landscape’ of the River Medway estuary in south-east England, the first oil extracted from the UK sector of the North Sea – specifically, the Argyll field off the north-east coast of Scotland – arrived for processing onshore. Benn described not only the local physical landscape but, just as notably, the social congregation the event had elicited: ‘a complete cross-section of the international capitalist and British Tory establishment’.
That the capitalist and right-wing political classes were well represented at the Medway that day was both appropriate and prophetic, for North Sea oil and gas would fundamentally shape the fortunes of both over the coming decades – the ‘bump’ from 1975 in the extractive industries’ share of UK economic output was just one manifestation of a much wider political-economic transformation associated with the rise to prominence in the UK of a hydrocarbon economy. Substantial oil and gas fields had been discovered in the North Sea section of the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) – the region of waters surrounding the UK in which the country has mineral rights – in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The first substantive profits from UK oil and gas extraction came on-stream in 1976, flowing both to UK companies (most notably BP and Shell) and to international, especially US, operators. By 1980, the burgeoning domestic oil-and-gas industry had lifted the extractive sector’s share of total UK GVA from 1.6 per cent to over 6 per cent in the space of just five short years. The natural resource rentier had long been one of the UK’s most successful economic actors overseas; all of a sudden, it had become a major actor locally as well.
To a large extent, of course, these newly minted rentier fortunes were simply fortuitous. The domestic rise of oil and gas, and of natural-resource rents, was in one respect quite unlike the contemporaneous rise of finance and financial rents, inasmuch as it depended wholly upon the identification and harvesting of valuable physical resources, which either were there to be discovered or were not.
Finance is different. As numerous scholars have noted, especially since the financial crisis, the connection between financial assets and any underlying tangible commodity has in many instances become increasingly tenuous. Financial assets can be created out of thin air. This is not true, however, of resource rentiers’ reserves; an underlying substance is required. On the UKCS it materialised, and was harvested in vast volumes from the 1970s onwards. By 1980, the industry had produced approximately 2 billion barrels of oil and the same amount of gas (‘barrels of oil equivalent’); by 1990, cumulative production had reached 10.5 and 4.4 billion barrels, respectively.
But in another crucial respect, the rise of natural-resource rents and rentiers was not so unlike what happened in the finance space; there was much more to it than pure fortuitousness. As we have seen, the UK government owns all UK oil and gas rights. There was therefore nothing inevitable about the discovery of oil and gas on the UKCS benefiting private-sector rentiers in the way it has. For comparison, consider the case of Saudi Arabia, for example, where oil was first discovered much earlier (in the late 1930s), and whose historic oil and gas production volumes have of course been vastly greater than the UK’s.
How much of the revenue from exploitation of Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas resources goes today to the private sector? Almost none. Its oil and gas fields are controlled by Saudi Aramco, 98.5 per cent of the shares in which are owned by the Saudi government. Given that it controlled the relevant mineral rights, there was nothing, in principle, to prevent the UK government from organising the exploration and development of the North Sea fields from the 1960s to the 1980s in such a way that it, too, would monopolise the generation and capture of natural-resource rents. Needless to say, the fact that it did not has nothing to do with fortune. Rather, private-sector rentiers have enjoyed a field-day because government policy enabled them to – just as it has in the financial sector.
This analogy can be taken further. Today, it is clear that the finance sector enjoys beneficial treatment from the UK government partly because it has so much lobbying power. Indeed, finance in the UK, as Tamasin Cave has argued, is more than a mere lobbying force. ‘Finance and the British state’, she wrote, ‘are mutually embedded to the point that it can be hard to tell where one stops and the other starts.’ Well, what is true today of finance has also long been true of oil.
In his landmark history of the North Sea oil-and-gas industry through to the mid 1990s, Christopher Harvie noted that Frederick Errol, who had been minister of power in the 1960s when the first licences were issued, subsequently ‘more or less admitted’ that, in that first licensing round, the big private oil companies ‘had been given unwarranted advantages, because of their own colonization of the ministry . . . “I rushed these through before the general election . . . I was afraid that a socialist government would get in and refuse licences to private enterprise”’.
Big oil’s influence on UK government and government policy ebbed somewhat in the latter half of that decade, and then again in the latter half of the 1970s, which were periods of Labour government; but from 1979, under Margaret Thatcher, it was renewed and redoubled. ‘[Oil] policy in the UK since 1979 has been driven unashamedly by the interests of the UK’s own well-established multinational oil companies, BP and Shell’, who, together with ‘their proxies’, wrote Andrew Cumbers in 2012, ‘have dominated policy discussions and official forums, with other interests being excluded’.
Freezing out the Public Sector
Little wonder, then, that private rentier interests have consistently been privileged and cossetted. Errol’s determination to freeze out the public sector was replicated by most of his successors. What direct state involvement there was in North Sea oil and gas was gradually, but relentlessly, whittled away. BP – which, as Cumbers says, was originally ‘largely a creation of the British state’ – was progressively privatized. Setting out her stall almost immediately upon taking office in 1979, Thatcher sold 5 per cent of the company – taking the government’s equity interest from 51 to 46 per cent; by the end of 1987 the government had liquidated its holding entirely.
Then there was the ill-fated British National Oil Corporation (BNOC). Created by Benn in 1975 explicitly as a means to exert public control over oil and gas development, and to enable direct state participation in the monetary proceeds, BNOC just about managed to ‘annoy the American oil majors and their British partners [but] singularly failed to break their grip’. It was ultimately privatised in 1982, ‘as part of the government’s aim of reducing the role of the state across the entire spectrum of the British economy’. Since then, the upstream component of the UK oil and gas industry – exploration and production – has been ‘fully privatised’.
If the private sector was given an advantage by the squeezing out of the public sector, furthermore, it also benefited from government policies that converted mineral resources into reserves more robustly, expansively and generously than in almost any other country. As we have seen, a rentier’s ability to generate rent depends, among other things, upon the strength and scope of her rights to the rent-generating asset; and in the UK oil and gas sector, the concessionary licensing system has consistently served up rights of the very highest quality. ‘The first huge areas of the sea, of a hundred square miles each’, the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons noted with barely concealed incredulity in 1972, ‘were leased to the companies as generously as though Britain were a gullible Sheikhdom, with concessions running for forty-six years’.
Equally incredulous was the legendary US wildcatter-turned-corporate-oilman T. Boone Pickens, who built the company he founded, Mesa, into one of the world’s largest independent oil companies. Pickens later recalled how, in the late 1960s, when he and Mesa had been focused on the Gulf of Mexico, he had looked with envy at what was happening in the North Sea: ‘I couldn’t help thinking about the great possibilities across the Atlantic, especially when I learned that 50,000-acre tracts were being given free to companies willing to explore them. To oilmen used to paying millions just for the privilege of drilling, that was a real incentive.’
Pickens was not about to pass the incentive up. Mesa grabbed what North Sea tracts it could, and in 1976 it discovered there the largest oil field in its history, the Beatrice Field. Over time, however, the biggest and most significant incentive of all, and the one that more than anything else served to make the North Sea an enduring corporate rentier’s paradise, would be the tax system developed by the UK government to enable the state to participate economically in the country’s natural-resource bounty in the absence of a proprietary state exploration and production enterprise.
In general terms, it would be hard to overstate the significance of the fiscal arrangements that a country implements to structure the distribution of natural-resource rents in situations where rights-holding governments outsource the extraction of those resources in part or in full to private-sector operators. The name given to the system of taxation of mineral-resource production is ‘fiscal regime’. This regime can take numerous different forms, and usually incorporates one or a combination of royalties (ordinarily payable per unit of output), income taxes (with relief often available for capital expenditure), and special mineral taxes (generally levied on a project or field basis, and based on cash flows). The reason it matters so much is that it is typically the main determinant of the proportions in which host governments share the spoils of natural-resource wealth with private-sector rentiers.
Taxation can range from extremely light to highly punitive, with profound consequences for both government receipts and company profits. In this respect, it is telling that when natural resource rentiers like BHP Billiton and Glencore document the main risks to which their businesses (and profits) are exposed, the fiscal regime always appears at the very top of the list – rivalled only by natural disasters and indigenous land claims. Here, again, is BHP’s instructive 2018 annual report:
Our operated assets and non-operated joint ventures are based on material long-term investments that are dependent on long-term fiscal stability, and could be adversely affected by changes in fiscal legislation, changes in interpretation of fiscal legislation, periodic challenges and disagreements with tax authorities and legal proceedings relating to fiscal matters. The natural resources industry continues to be regarded as a source of tax revenue and can also be adversely affected by broader fiscal measures applying to businesses generally.
The report went on to note that BHP was at the time ‘involved in a number of uncertain tax and royalty matters’. So, as we have seen, had Glencore been, in DRC – and it had suffered precisely the types of adverse effects alluded to by BHP.
The UK, by contrast, for the vast majority of the period of extraction of North Sea oil and gas, has offered an altogether more accommodating and business-friendly fiscal regime, redounding forcefully to the advantage of the private sector. As Bernard Mommer has written, ‘the fiscal regime in British oil expanded until 1982, and then began to shrink’. Even when the tax rate was at its most stringent, in the early 1980s, it was only in the region of 50 per cent.
That might sound like a high number, until one compares it with the 70 to 90 per cent typically earned by the governments of the largest oil-producing nations in Africa. In any event, rates of around 50 per cent were only fleeting. From the mid-1980s, royalties came under what Juan Carlos Boué describes as ‘a sustained attack’ by the Thatcher government, and were progressively eliminated. In addition, the government pushed to the extreme allowable relief on capital investment, eventually introducing 100 per cent depreciation in the year of expenditure, thereby ensuring that no project paid tax until payback was secured – ‘a uniquely attractive feature for investors’, as Carole Nakhle later noted.
Thus, by the early 1990s – by which time the tax yield had fallen to only around 10 per cent – what Boué refers to as the Conservative government’s longstanding ‘vision of a low tax hydrocarbons sector’ had well and truly materialised. The North Sea oil fields, Boué remarks, now enjoyed ‘the same fiscal arrangements as a bakery or a bike shop. Or, to put it another way, the British government was content to receive a compensation of precisely zero from the exploitation of certain hydrocarbon resources belonging to the Crown.’
It is worth pausing at this point to consider the wider meaning of the aggressive reduction of UK tax rates on North Sea production from the mid 1980s. Writing with Philip Wright and drawing on Mommer’s work, Boué usefully counterposes ‘proprietorial’ with ‘non-proprietorial’ fiscal regimes for petroleum industries, and argues that during the 1980s the UK effectively shifted from the former to the latter, becoming ‘increasingly non-proprietorial’.
In proprietorial regimes, ‘like a landlord who rents out an apartment to a tenant’, the state requires ‘rent for the use of a country’s hydrocarbon resources’ – quite rightly, one might say, given, after all, that it owns those resources. Under a non-proprietorial regime, by contrast, ‘the state becomes concerned about the relationship between its taxation practices and the prospective production and profitability of the companies producing from its sovereign resources’. This is what seems to have happened under Thatcher’s Tories. From having put the state and its right to rent first, under Labour, the UK government switched to prioritising the private sector and its ‘right’ to rent.
Beginning in the mid 1980s, the guiding principle of the UK’s fiscal regime was not to secure a fair share of rent for the state, and thus the taxpayer, so much as not to jeopardise the private sector’s enthusiasm for exploring and drilling. That this transformation fundamentally diminished the tax regime itself, turning it into a mere ‘adjustment variable, to be fiddled with in order to secure the profitability of sub-marginal investment projects’, was, as Boué says, the very least of the implications. As he points out, ‘saying that fostering investment is the role of a fiscal regime is tantamount to turning on its head the political relationship between resource owners, on the one hand, and the companies exploiting such resources, on the other’.
No longer the steward of a valuable, publicly owned natural resource arbitrating private-sector access on its own, take-it-or-leave-it terms, the state becomes the oil industry’s lapdog, promising to do whatever it takes fiscally to safeguard both investment and profitability. Boosted, among other relatively marginal measures, by the introduction in 2002 of a supplementary charge to corporation tax to reflect the recovery of oil prices from the mid 1990s, the UK government’s tax take on oil and gas production did recover somewhat from its early-1990s nadir; but it has never again exceeded 33 per cent.
Notably, low upstream oil-and-gas taxation combines in the UK with high downstream taxation: UK petrol prices have for decades been among the highest in Europe. The ratio of downstream-to-upstream hydrocarbon taxes peaked at approximately twelve-to-one in 1999, when the £2.5 billion in upstream taxes levied on producers compared with £30 billion in downstream taxes levied on consumers, primarily in the form of value-added tax and petrol duty paid by road users.
Taxation and the Oil Lobby
A number of interlocking factors account for the UK’s exceptionally obliging oil-and-gas fiscal regime since the early 1980s. Partly, of course, the explanation is ideological: that is, the neoliberal state’s longstanding commitment to low taxation of capital, whatever the industry sector. Then there is the influence of lobbying, as we have seen. Mommer, for example, notes that the Conservatives’ move to shrink the fiscal regime from the mid 1980s coincided with the government’s ‘[falling] prey to the permanent lobbying of the industry to bring down taxation levels’.
Indeed, UK petroleum tax policy is arguably the preeminent arena within which lobbying by the UK fossil-fuel sector has been most consistently practised, and most reliably efficacious – at least until climate change began to enter the conversation. As Wright and Boué have observed, the oil-and-gas ‘company lobby’ was utterly successful in shaping the contours of public debate on the fiscal regime in the 1980s, riding roughshod over the Labour Party’s vocal opposition to the Tories’ reduction of the tax take. As Greg Muttitt and his colleagues have pointed out much more recently, the types of practices through which the UK’s fiscal regime has historically been made and remade have left it singularly open to corporate capture. Policy is made ‘in close coordination with the oil companies and their tax advisers, and with almost no consultation with other stakeholders’. Meanwhile, periodically constituted ‘expert groups’ are also ‘made up entirely of oil companies and their associations and tax advisers’.
The UK’s denuded fiscal regime for oil and gas can also be explained in terms of the historic geopolitical context. In the 1970s and 1980s, the government was in a singular hurry for the North Sea’s oil and gas to be extracted as quickly as possible, largely because of a desire to undercut Opec, whose influence over global energy supplies and prices had been substantially heightened by the 1973 oil shock. One way to expedite rapid extraction was through stimulatory tax policy – and, as Mommer would later write, there is ‘no doubt that the lower level of taxation had a positive impact on production’.
Last but not least, the performative dimension of reserve estimation has also played a significant role. As it became ever clearer, through the 1970s and 1980s, that the North Sea harboured vast amounts of oil and gas, the industry went out of its way to underplay the real extent of these resource riches lest the government ramp up the tax burden. I suggested earlier that natural-resource rentiers make great play of their reserves wealth – but this can be a double-edged sword: if it can increase companies’ attractiveness in the eyes of investors, it can also increase their perceived value as sources of potential tax income in the eyes of governments.
As such, the rentiers in question always walk a fine line: ‘Oil companies [like] the idea of increases in reserves’, observed Harvie. ‘But not huge increases; that might mean governments being a lot more choosy about policy.’ The insistence that North Sea stocks were not, in fact, abundant, but actually quite marginal, was designed to keep the government’s hands off the taxation trigger; increase taxes, the industry was effectively saying, and production might become unviable.
Experts who attempted to publicise the true extent of the companies’ reserves therefore made themselves deeply unpopular – none more so than a certain Peter Odell: ‘Odell claimed that there might be as much as 78 billion barrels in reserve, perhaps as much as 100 billion (10.5 to 13 billion tons). This did not meet with oil company approval. At all. Odell would become a close runner-up to Tony Benn as licensed offshore bogeyman.’ In any case, the government did not listen to Odell; taxes would remain minimal, and thus industry profits maximal.
‘The British North Sea’, Mommer wrote at the turn of the millennium, ‘is nowadays by far the lowest-taxed and most profitable oil province of the world’. The UK government had committed to ‘a radical liberal fiscal regime’, becoming ‘the textbook example and the model pupil of liberal governance in oil’. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that, from the early 1980s, the UK oil-and-gas sector was not only a model of radical liberal governance specifically in hydrocarbons and, as such, a prototypical example of a privatised natural-resources rentier regime, but also a model of and for (neo)liberal rentierism much more generally, both in the UK economy and further afield: it was the domain in which this model was first fully developed and perfected.
This development was never just about low taxes and the serving up by the government of robust and expansive private property rights – although these were unarguably its key mechanisms. It was also characterised by two crucial phenomena that tend to accompany rentierism in view of the rentier’s inherent monopoly power. One is weakened labour; the other is a throttling of innovation. Both have been persistent features of the UK oil-and-gas industry, and integral elements of its status as liberal rentier archetype. Insofar as monopoly power is inherent to the exclusive North Sea concessions granted to oil companies, competition in oil and gas production is by nature restricted, just as it is in all cases of rentierism.
There have nonetheless been sporadic attempts to introduce elements of competition to the sector, if only at the margins. In the early 1980s, for example, Thatcher’s first energy minister, David Howell, tried to encourage smaller companies onto the Continental Shelf, to break the stranglehold of the BPs and Shells of the world. But Howell made no progress, discovering that ‘his Conservative colleagues’, Thatcher included, ‘saw privatisation and competition as two quite different things’. (Howell, in other words, actually believed the Tories’ public-facing profession that privatisation would lead to increased competition, which in reality has always been based more on ideology than fact).
Putting the Unions in their Place
Thus the ‘oil regime’ that materialised in the North Sea in the 1970s and 1980s was, in Harvie’s words, ‘frankly oligopolistic’; and anti-labour practices were stitched into this oligopoly model. The major oil companies were ‘aggressively anti-union’ from the outset. Workers experienced ‘disempowerment, blacklisting and victimisation whenever they posed a challenge to the non-union structure of industrial relations’. ‘In no other sector of British industry’, Harvie wrote, were the unions ‘put so firmly in their place’.
It is true that some industry workers, in key specialist and management roles, are well remunerated; but it is also true that the deeply and inherently unequal rentier wage model that I outline – very high incomes for those who create or capture assets; precarious and low-paid employment for those who sweat them – very much persists. Employee turnover rates have always been high. In recent years, moreover, a number of significant workplace protections and conditions have been eroded. Zero-hours contracts have proliferated, pension provision has been reduced – and the fact that UK employment law only applies within twelve miles of the shoreline means that those working further from shore can be, and sometimes are, paid less than the national minimum wage.
Disinclined on principle to regulate the sector meaningfully, on matters of health and safety as much as labour relations, successive Tory administrations have in fact engaged in a series of deregulatory initiatives, inspired by the growing discourse of globalisation and the associated common-sense that imposing regulatory ‘burdens’ would precipitate capital flight.
Furthermore, when the industry was required to regroup in the early 1990s in the aftermath of the Piper Alpha tragedy, which killed 167 people, its Cost Reduction Initiative for the New Era was a quintessentially ‘oligopolistic response’ that further attenuated competition – ‘generating barriers to entry; ensuring the dominance of large, existent companies; encouraging bureaucratic inefficiency, stifling innovation; and creating the conditions for possible price-fixing and cartelisation’. Here, in short, was a paradigmatic example of neoliberal-era rentierism: an offshore prototype of a monopolistic, asset-based, profit-maximizing economic model that, in due course, would also become the norm onshore.
Had it levied the kinds of taxes that represent the norm for oil-and-gas fiscal regimes outside of the UK, the government clearly could have earned considerably more from the private-sector-led exploitation of the North Sea Continental Shelf than it has done – even if the pace of remuneration might have been slower. When oil prices surged after 2000, the differential between the amount the government earned each year in petroleum taxes and the amount it would have earned with tax rates comparable to those levied by other producing nations in the North Sea, assuming no change in production volumes, reached what Juan Boué calls ‘astonishing proportions’. He estimates that, had the UK’s effective tax rate been the same as Norway’s between 2002 and 2012, its oil-and-gas tax receipts would have been some £111 billion higher.
That said, however, it would be wrong to think that the overall UK tax take from the North Sea has been trifling. It could have been much higher, but it has nonetheless been substantial – approaching a cumulative £200 billion to date. Comfortably the biggest tax haul in real terms was achieved in the 1980s, when the government received a total of £65 billion. In the peak years of the early-to-mid 1980s, easily the largest component of government revenue from oil-and-gas production was the Petroleum Revenue Tax. This tax, which was based on the accumulated cash flow arising from individual fields and became payable once the latter turned positive, was introduced by the Labour government in 1975; but it declined in importance from the mid 1980s as the applicable taxation rate was progressively reduced, and because fields given development consent after March 1993 were exempted.
In the period since what we might call ‘peak oil taxation’ – that is, the early-to-mid 1980s, when effective tax rates stood at around 50 per cent – a powerful narrative has coalesced concerning the government’s use, and perceived abuse, of those peak tax receipts. Strikingly, it is a narrative rehearsed by commentators on both the left and the right. This narrative is essentially one of failure and waste, and those who rehearse it typically contrast the UK government’s alleged wasting of oil-and-gas tax revenue with the Norwegian government’s much more prudent and productive utilisation of its own equivalent hydrocarbon tax proceeds.
Indeed, the argument has been sufficiently stylised to become somewhat clichéd. It runs approximately as follows. The situation facing the UK and Norwegian governments from the late 1970s, it is said, was comparable to the one that had faced the Netherlands several years earlier, when it, too, discovered oil; and the challenge was precisely to avoid what had happened there, because the Dutch experience was sufficiently deleterious to prompt the coining of a new economic term: the ‘Dutch disease’. ‘As oil exports boomed’, Doug Sanders has written of the Netherlands, ‘the flood of money into the domestic economy inflated the currency, provoked price increases and destroyed exports, leading to a decade of joblessness and rising inequality’.
But while Norway, by all accounts, did successfully evade the Dutch disease, the UK did not. According to Sanders, and countless others, ‘the same thing happened, on an even larger scale, in Britain in the 1980s. After North Sea oil was discovered, the British industrial economy was virtually obliterated, leaving four million people jobless.’ During Thatcher’s first two years in office, the UK economy actually contracted by 2.5 per cent, while its – largely oil-less – peers were roaring ahead.
It was manufacturing that was hit hardest: between 1979 and 1986, the value of manufacturing as a share of UK GDP collapsed from over 25 per cent to under 20 per cent. The principal proximate cause of this decline in the nation’s manufacturing base, and of the rising unemployment that resulted, was a diversion of investment into the North Sea. Between the mid 1970s and mid 1990s, the Continental Shelf consistently absorbed an extraordinary 10 to 20 per cent of all the UK industrial investment. But the underlying cause of the UK’s travails, historians of the era suggest, was policy failure specifically in relation to North Sea oil and gas – failure of two main kinds.
First, the Tories’ monetary policy exacerbated the oil-induced currency inflation that the UK experienced, like the Netherlands before it: ‘Between 1979 and 1981 [Thatcher] took a petro-pound which was already overvalued . . . and forced it further up by policies dogmatically directed at curbing the money supply . . . [This] throttled industrial investment, and decimated exports.’ Second, the Tories failed to use their oil-and-gas tax revenues judiciously. Unlike the Norwegians – widely applauded for incorporating the lion’s share of their oil-and-gas tax receipts into a long-term investment fund, not to mention applying a much higher tax rate to hydrocarbon production in the first place – the UK government treated these revenues as a windfall to offset current expenditure.
One major item of such expenditure was meeting the costs of economic restructuring, most notably in the form of unemployment benefit. In a sense, this particular expenditure item was unavoidable; but others were not – not least, as Guy Lodge has noted, the ‘expensive tax cuts to woo middle England’ on which much of the oil ‘windfall’ was squandered. The key point that Lodge and others make is that, had the UK government used its oil-and-gas tax receipts more productively – investing for example in infrastructure (which, Lodge says, was ‘left to rot’), public services (‘starved of resources’) or, most pertinently, in ‘find[ing] future employment for those industries deemed beyond the pale of the Thatcher revolution’ – then the substantial spending on social security payments might in fact have been avoided, just as it was in Norway.
But the Tories failed: ‘Exploiting the oil to benefit the British manufacturing economy required organisation of a “war socialism” sort: centralised, specialised, committed to long-term planning and the integration of the trade unions into the decision-making process. This sort of planning was patent in Norway. But it was ruled out in Britain’, Harvie says, because the political compass had ‘moved sharply away from planning and towards a free market’.
While there is much to agree with in this standard narrative, it suffers from two key, linked problems, which are more to do with perspective than substance. The first is the emphasis on destruction; the second, the imputation of intent, or rather lack of intent. In this conventional narrative, the Tories essentially screwed up. Voted into office in 1979 in the midst of a North Sea oil-and-gas boom that served up abundant tax revenues on a platter, Thatcher’s Conservatives mishandled the former and misused the latter, and thereby inadvertently eviscerated Britain’s industrial economy, putting 4 million workers on the dole. The narrative is largely a lament for what had been lost – destroyed – in the frittering-away of the nation’s natural-resource wealth.
But what had been produced? This has become somewhat lost in the mists – which is a pity, because what the oil-and-gas-induced transformation of the UK’s political economy produced was nothing less than the fundamental ingredients of the version of capitalism we now habitually refer to as ‘neoliberalism’. At this point, it is instructive to turn to the work of the political theorist Timothy Mitchell on what he terms ‘carbon democracy’. Mitchell’s general argument is that, in order to understand structural political outcomes in a society, it is necessary to pay close attention to the way in which, literally, that society is powered – in other words, to its main sources of fuel and the manner in which they are owned, controlled and exploited.
It is not that fuel regimes dictate political regimes deterministically; but, for Mitchell, they do indelibly shape the terrain of the possible. Political possibilities, he says, are ‘opened up or closed down by different ways of organising the flow and concentration of energy’. There is, he claims, a particularly intimate historical relationship between hydrocarbon-based energy systems, on the one hand, and democratic political systems, on the other. ‘Fossil fuels’, he writes, ‘helped create both the possibility of modern democracy and its limits’. Hence: ‘carbon democracy’.
It is not only different political possibilities that different forms of energy, and different ways of organising their use, open up or close down. They also open up or close down different political-economic possibilities. The UK in the early 1980s stands as a case in point. What materialised there was not carbon democracy, but rather a carboniferous iteration of that which, on Wendy Brown’s reading, is antithetical to democracy: that is, neoliberalism.
Let us briefly explore this ‘carbon neoliberalism’, as I will call it, and the main lineaments of its historical development. Thatcher’s Tories, it should be recalled, came to power in 1979 against the immediate backdrop of ‘radicalisation of the trade union movement, the cycle of rising expectations in wages and the Leftward shift of the Labour Party’. If David Harvey is right that neoliberalism is chiefly about the restoration of the power of the capitalist class – and the evidence that he is indeed right grows stronger by the year – then the conditions prevailing in late-1970s Britain were about as unfavourable to neoliberalism’s emergence as it is possible to imagine.
Half a decade later, however, the political-economic landscape had been thoroughly transformed, and in a way that was singularly productive for capital and its political sponsors in the Tory party. The working class had been brutalized and immiserated, and was ripe for the type of exploitation that would have been impossible in the 1970s, but which has since become a neoliberal hallmark.
Ordinarily, perhaps, one might have expected immiseration on the scale that occurred in early-1980s Britain to incite widespread social unrest – maybe even revolution; but this did not happen. A significant part of the reason is that the North Sea tax receipts came to Thatcher’s rescue. They allowed the government to meet the substantial rise in social-security costs that resulted from the industrial dislocation that mismanagement of the oil-and-gas boom had itself effected. Between 1980 and 1987 (by which time the nation’s carbon transformation was largely complete, Thatcher had achieved her third consecutive general election victory, and the taps could be safely turned off), the UK state’s benefit expenditure increased strongly, both in real terms and as a proportion of Total Managed Expenditure, though somewhat less strongly as a percentage of GDP.
The North Sea really did bail the Thatcher administration out – proving, in the words of one Tony Blair, ‘utterly essential to Mrs Thatcher’s electoral success’ in 1983 and 1987. As Terry Brotherstone has since noted, the social safety net afforded by oil money enabled Thatcher to ‘ride out the crises generated by the economic policies of her early years’.
There was a neat if tragic symmetry to all this. The North Sea boom was both a cause of and solution to the problem of industrial decline. Needless to say, ‘solution’ is in reality too strong a word for what was actually achieved with the tax income; it was a mere sticking plaster. Indeed, even the metaphor of patching up is itself inadequate. The UK’s body politic had not suffered an injury or succumbed to a disease that might be ameliorated in time.
Rather, it had undergone what Charles Woolfson and his colleagues later described as ‘radical surgery’ of a kind that ‘permanently [changed] the balance of forces’ between capital and labour. Insofar as this surgery would probably have failed in the absence of the oil-tax safety net – the body politic simply would not have tolerated its new configuration – those tax proceeds made the surgery feasible. ‘Oil revenues’, notes Brotherstone, ‘helped make Thatcherite neoliberalism possible’.
There was, of course, an additional, equally tragic symmetry involved. It was not just in manufacturing that large numbers of jobs were lost; hundreds of thousands of coalminers also lost their jobs in the 1980s. As well as helping the UK government to weather the storm of manufacturing industry dislocation, the development of the North Sea oil and gas fields helped it to end the country’s longstanding reliance on domestically-mined coal for electricity generation.
One type of hydrocarbon essentially took the place of another; but the extraction and marketisation of these hydrocarbons were associated with radically different political economies. The UK’s emergent oil and gas sector, as we have seen, was a neoliberal prototype characterised by large, oligopolistic private capital and fragmented, non-unionised labour. The dying coal sector was its diametric opposite – the seedbed of Thatcher’s ‘enemy within’, the once-mighty miners’ union, which was precisely why Thatcher was determined to obliterate it.