Oiling the wheels of power

Mike Phipps reviews Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, by James Marriott and Terry Macalister, published by Pluto.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of oil in determining the direction of modern British history. World War Two is a classic example and a starting point for this wide-ranging book. Shell supplied both sides in the conflict. “The course of the UK in the war would have been different if Shell had dynamited its refineries in the Netherlands and France and destroyed in its oil wells in Romania,” argue the authors. ”The oil companies helped shape the war and this shaped the nation.”

Oil companies may have put their profits above political allegiance, or even morality, but nation states were still willing to do their bidding. In 1953, following strong lobbying from affected oil companies, Iran’s elected government was overthrown with the help of UK and US agents, after it had nationalised oil interests in the country.

But by the 1970s, the balance of forces was shifting. Although oil companies lobbied the UK and US against demands from the Libyan government to give it a bigger share of their profits, western governments were now more worried about enflaming Arab opinion. In 1973 the newly formed Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries announced a 70% increase in the price of oil. The combined effect of this and the second miners’ strike in the UK in three years led to the Heath government’s imposition of a three day week on British industry in 1974.

But the discovery of substantial reserves of oil in the North Sea “changed the fortunes of BP, Shell, north-east Scotland and the British state.” One might add that it also gave a significant boost to Scottish nationalism, when the SNP coined the slogan, “It’s Scotland’s oil.”

Tony Benn was Labour Energy Secretary at the time and fought to ensure a degree of state ownership in the consortium extracting oil, in the teeth of opposition. But when the Labour government was forced to seek a financial bail-out from the International Monetary Fund in 1977, one of the conditions imposed by the Fund was the government selling 17% of its share in BP, a pre-Thatcher privatisation.

Had Benn won and followed the approach adopted by Norway, the UK’s wealth “would underpin a far higher level of social provision than the current government sees fit to support.” For those who misread Thatcherism as a prudent management of the country’s economic resources, it is worth recalling Professor Guy Standing’s assessment: “Her biggest economic decision had been to privatise the North Sea oil operations and splurge the oil taxation revenues on income tax cuts and current spending.”

The arrival of oil in the post-war years had a major effect on industry. It was essential to the manufacture and marketing of pesticides, which had a devastating environmental impact. In Rachel Carson’s pioneering book, Silent Spring, the author quoted a landowner in Norfolk who wrote, “My place is like a battlefield… innumerable corpses, including masses of small birds.”

The environment was further impacted by oil spillages. The 1967 wreck of the SS Torrey Canyon, carrying 120,000 tons of oil, off the coast of Cornwell, was one notorious case. “The nation watched as the ship was broken up by storms, as the RAF bombed the wreck and tried to set light to the oil with napalm, and as the beaches of Cornwall, Devon and even Brittany were covered in black crude. The corpses of tens of thousands of seabirds were washed ashore,” report the authors, adding: “However, the scale of the disaster was never seen, as it could have been, as a consequence of the corporate pursuit of profit through economies of scale that led to the construction of the world’s biggest vessels.”

Meanwhile, a BP chemical plant in South Wales produced “enormous clouds of vile vapours” which made it impossible for people to open the windows of their houses. When the production of plastic PVC was linked to rare cancers in the US, the UK plant’s unions demanded proper monitoring of the air quality in the plant and beyond. Nonetheless, higher than average clusters of cancer were found in the area over the next decades.

The loyalty of the oil companies was vital to Thatcher’s victory in the 1984-5 miners’ strike and the chair of BP was duly rewarded with a knighthood. But with the power of the miners now broken, it was possible for the government to move against other well-organised workforces: five weeks after the end of the strike, it announced the closure of BP’s Llandarcy refinery in South Wales.

It was arguably events elsewhere in the world that really altered public perception of the major oil companies. It had been Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1936 who granted a concession to allow oil exploration anywhere in Nigeria. The result of drilling and spills in the Delta area was widespread contamination which wiped out fish and plants and polluted the air.

The oil companies ignored the peaceful protests that were mounted and when the Nigerian Civil War broke out in 1969, the Labour government’s main concern was “to help Shell-BP and the Federal Nigerian authorities to establish effective protection of our oil investments”, according to an internal document at the time.

Years later, Ken Saro-Wiwa would publish Genocide in Nigeria, which inspired the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which organised mass protests that mobilised an astonishing 50% of the Ogoni population. Nigeria’s military regime responded brutally, razing villages and slaughtering people in their own homes. The commander of this operation, which lasted through much of 1994 and 1995, wrote in a memo: “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken.”

Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow activists were arrested, tried and executed by the Nigerian regime. Shell claimed it was powerless to intervene. Prime Minister John Major called it “judicial murder”.

There was global outrage. Oil companies were becoming pariahs. Broader awareness of irreversible climate change reinforced this. Shell’s own research showed that 44% of global carbon dioxide emissions came from oil. BP also claimed to take climate change seriously, all while its own emissions increased dramatically. Critics understandably described its professed concerns as “greenwash”.

Given its extensive range, I was surprised at how little this book had to say about the central importance of oil to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Blair dismissed this motive as an absurd conspiracy, but a Foreign Office minute of 2002 reads: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there.”

US military figures have been even more open about oil being a key factor in the invasion of Iraq. One retired general commented, “”Of course it’s about oil, we can’t really deny that.”

Iraq’s domestic oil industry was fully nationalised and closed to Western oil companies before the invasion.  Today it is largely privatised and utterly dominated by foreign companies.  The law enabling this was prepared in secret behind the backs of Iraqi parliamentarians and forced through following US threats to withhold financial support from the country that its military had so effectively destroyed. https://labourhub.org.uk/2020/09/01/some-reflections-on-occupied-iraq/

The impact of this western war for oil on public opinion, in the UK especially, was colossal. It fatally undermined the reputation of the Blair government and its professed commitment to ‘humanitarian intervention’. There’s a lot that should be said about this, but bizarrely, a song by the post-punk band the Gang of Four gets more coverage than the Iraq war in this book.

The final third of the book is disappointing too. Its chronological approach lacks any clear direction and could benefit from a good edit. There’s little assessment of the impact on big oil of the rapidly growing environmental movement and what this will mean for the grip on government of the major oil companies in future. These criticisms aside, this ambitious work is worth reading for its rich history of trade union activism in the energy sector.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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