THE secrecy around the McCrone Report formed part of a “conspiracy” to keep the public from knowing the extent of the oil riches in the North Sea, Scotland’s pre-eminent historian has claimed.

Professor Sir Tom Devine said there was “certainly a plan” to downplay the longevity of the energy reserves in Scotland’s waters in order not to put wind in the nationalists’ sails.

He said the UK Government perceived a danger that a Scotland with control of its oil might pivot towards the larger European market, which was in its ascendancy at the time the report was written. Devine called the document a “political piece of dynamite” that would have served as a weapon of “considerable help to the nationalist cause”.

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He said people reading the 18-page report – which The National has published in full – would see it came across “almost as a serious warning to the UK Government that [the discovery of oil in the North Sea] had prospective danger, considerable danger, not only for galvanising the independence movement in Scotland, but for the chances of Britain losing the holy grail of oil”.

Devine went on: “Apart from the secrecy, the other aspect which is important to remember is that there was almost a conspiracy, certainly a plan, to, in the public domain, play down the extent of the resources in the North Sea, and to emphasise that the gains from that resource would essentially be short term.

“The danger was that if the extent of the reserves came out and the extent of the number of years that they could be retrieved came into the public domain, then there was the danger of nationalism, and potentially Scottish independence, being spurred.”

Devine, a professor emeritus at Edinburgh University and author of works including The Scottish Nation, pointed to a quote from Denis Healey, who served as Labour’s chancellor of the exchequer from 1974-9. Speaking to Holyrood magazine in 2013, Healey said: “I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism.”

Devine said it was important to remember Healey was speaking in 2013, one year before the first independence referendum, and pointed to a second part of the quote in which Healey said: “I think Westminster politicians are concerned about Scotland taking the oil. I think they’re worried stiff about it.”


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THE SNP’s policy now is for an independent Scotland to seek to join the European Union as soon as possible, moving away from a reliance on the wider UK economy.

Devine said similar concerns would also have been on the minds of UK ministers in the 1970s. He said: “If the riches – which according to one source were going to convert Scotland into the ‘Kuwait of the North’ – if the riches were on that scale there was also a danger that Scotland, moving towards a position as an independent nation, might have decided to pivot towards the European Economic Community, which in terms of market was much greater than the UK’s. The stakes were very high in that period.”

The McCrone Report was compiled and written in late 1973 and early 1974, the latter being the year which saw two General Elections after the first resulted in a hung parliament. In the second election, the SNP surged to 30.4% of the vote in Scotland, at the time the party’s best ever result.

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Devine said that if the McCrone Report had come out earlier, it wouldn’t necessarily have had a “miraculous” impact on SNP fortunes then – but might have in the longer run. “It was written by a professional, high-level civil servant and not in any sense for public consumption,” he said. “So I think it would have been taken, if it had come into the public domain by whatever means, as an authoritative report. It was a report of a friend of the UK Government rather than any outside element. That would have given it very significant credibility.

“It wouldn’t have radically changed the situation in the early 1970s. The SNP were still in their relative infancy as a political force … but if that information had come out in say the 1980s, when the SNP were in a much stronger position politically, then I think it could have had a galvanic effect on the national question and the Union.”


The National: FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. . October 1985:  British prime minister Margaret Thatcher looking pensive

DEVINE said the 1980s was a crucial period when the publication of the McCrone Report could have made a difference. By then “the Tories were in power and the opposition to the Conservatives in Scotland was massive, in a way which it wasn’t to the Labour Party in the early 1970s”.

Margaret Thatcher’s Tories’ restructuring of the economy was “really the death of the old Scottish economy, based on the old industries”, Devine said. “They all vanished during that decade like snow off a dyke on a spring day.”

The restructure led to massive opposition in Scotland and, Devine said, by the late 1980s voters north of the Border had a “great desire … rightly or wrongly, to exact revenge on the Conservative government”.

The top historian drew parallels between Labour today and Labour then. He said the party was seen as the “only way to get rid of the Conservatives”, adding that it is also “the card that the Labour Party are today playing in Scotland”.

By the 1990s the economy of Scotland was forming around science and technology, tourism, and high quality food and drink exports and the oil in the North Sea was less significant, Devine added.