The Oilholic has patiently waited for the fans and despisers of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to quieten down, in wake of her death on April 8, 2013, before giving his humble take on what her premiership did (or in many cases didn’t) for the UK oil and gas Inc. and what she got in return.
Her influence on the North Sea exploration and production certainly got a mention in passing in all the tributes and brickbats thrown at the Iron Lady, the longest serving (1979-1990) and only female British Prime Minister. The world’s press ranging from The Economist to the local paper in her former parliamentary constituency – The Hendon & Finchley Times (see covers below) – discussed the legacy of the Iron Lady; that legacy is ‘cruder’ than you think.
In the run-up to Thatcher's all-but-in-name state funeral on April 17, the British public was bombarded with flashbacks of her time in the corridors of power. In one of the video runs, yours truly glanced at archived footage of Thatcher at a BP production facility and that said it all. Her impact on the industry and the industry’s impact itself on her premiership were profound to say the least.
Academic Peter R. Odell, noted at the time in his book Oil and World Power (c1986) that, “Countries as diverse as Finland, France, Italy, Austria, Spain, Norway and Britain had all decided to place oil partly, at least, in the public sector.” A later footnote observes, “Britain’s Conservative government, under Mrs. Thatcher, subsequently decided [in 1983] to ‘privatize’ the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) created by an earlier Labour administration.”
The virtue of private free enterprise got instilled into the UK oil and gas industry in general and the North Sea innovators in particular thanks to Thatcher. But to say that the industry somehow owed the Iron Lady a debt of gratitude would be a travesty. Rather, the industry repaid that debt not only in full, but with interest.
Just as Thatcher was coming to power, more and more of the crude stuff was being sucked out of the North Sea with UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) being much richer in those days than it certainly is these days. The UK Treasury, under her hawk-eyed watch, was quite simply raking it in. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, government revenue from the oil and gas industry rose from £565 million in fiscal year 1978-79 to £12.04 billion in 1984-85. That is worth over three times as much in 2012 real-terms value, according to a guesstimate provided by a contact at Barclays Capital.
Throughout the 1980s, the Iron Lady made sure that the revenue from the [often up to] 90% tax on North Sea oil and gas exploration and production was used as a funding source to balance the economy and pay the costs of economic reform. Over three decades on from the crude boom of the 1980s, Brits do wish she had examined, some say even adopted, the Norwegian model.
That she privatised the BNOC does not irk the Oilholic one bit, but that not even a drop of black gold and its proceeds – let alone a full blown Norwegian styled sovereign fund – was put aside for a rainy day is nothing short of short-termism or short-sightedness; quite possibly both. One agrees that both macroeconomic and demographical differences between Norway and the UK complicate the discussion. This humble blogger doubts if the thought of creating a sovereign fund didn’t cross the Iron Lady’s mind.
But unquestionably, as oil and gas revenue was helping in feeding the rising state benefits bill at the time – all Thatcher saw in Brent, Piper and Cormorant fields were Petropounds to balance the books. And, if you thought the ‘crude’ influence ended in the sale of BNOC, privatisation drives or channelling revenue for short-term economic rebalancing, then think again. Crude oil, or rather a distillate called diesel, came to Thatcher’s aid in her biggest battle in domestic politics – the Miners’ Strike of 1984.
Pitting her wits against Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) hardline, stubborn, ultra-left leader at the time, she prevailed. In March 1984, the National Coal Board (NCB) proposed to close 20 of the 174 state-owned mines resulting in the loss of 20,000 jobs. Led by Scargill, two-thirds of the country's miners went on strike and so began the face-off.
But Thatcher, unlike her predecessors, was ready for a prolonged battle having learnt her lesson in an earlier brief confrontation with the miners and knew their union’s clout full well based on past histories. This time around, the government had stockpiled coal to ensure that power plants faced no shortages as was the case with previous confrontations.
Tongue-tied in his vanity, Scargill had not only missed the pulse of the stockpiling drive but also failed to realise that many UK power plants had switched to diesel as a back-up. Adding to the overall idiocy of the man, he decided to launch the strike in the summer of 1984, when power consumption is lower, than in the winter.
Furthermore, he refused to hold a ballot on the strike, after losing three previous ballots on a national strike (in January 1982, October 1982 and March 1983). The strike was declared illegal and Thatcher eventually won as the NUM conceded a year later in March 1985 without any sizable concessions but with its member having borne considerable hardships. The world was moving away from coal, to a different kind of fossil fuel and Thatcher grasped it better than most. That the country was a net producer of crude stuff at the time was a bonanza; the Treasury’s to begin with as she saw it.
The Iron Lady left office with an ‘ism’ in the shape of 'Thatcherism' and bred 'Thatcherites' espousing free market ideas and by default making capitalism the dominant, though recently beleaguered, economic system of our time. Big Bang, the day [October 27, 1986] the London Stock Exchange's rules changed, following deregulation of the financial markets, became the cornerstone of her economic policy.
In this world there are no moral absolutes. So the Oilholic does not accept the rambunctious arguments offered by left wingers that she made ‘greed’ acceptable or that the Big Bang caused the global financial crisis of 2007-08. Weren’t militant British unions who, for their own selfish odds and ends, held the whole country to ransom throughout the 1970s (until Thatcher decimated them), greedy too? If the Big Bang was to blame for a global financial crisis, so was banking deregulation in the UK in 1997 (and elsewhere around that time) when she was not around.
Equally silly, are the fawning accolades handed out by the right wingers; many of whom – and not the British public – were actually instrumental in booting her out of office and some of whom were her colleagues at the time. Let the wider debate about her legacy be where it is, but were it not for the UK oil and gas Inc., there would have been no legacy. Luck played its part, as it so often does in the lives of great leaders. As The Economist noted:
“She was also often outrageously lucky: lucky that the striking miners were led by Arthur Scargill, a hardline Marxist; lucky that the British left fractured and insisted on choosing unelectable leaders; lucky that [Argentine] General Galtieri decided to invade the Falkland Islands when he did; lucky that she was a tough woman in a system dominated by patrician men (the wets never knew how to cope with her); lucky in the flow of North Sea oil; and above all lucky in her timing. The post-war consensus was ripe for destruction, and a host of new forces, from personal computers to private equity, aided her more rumbustious form of capitalism.”
They say that the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez stage-managed 'Chavismo' and bred 'Chavistas' from the proceeds of black gold. The Oilholic says 'Thatcherism' and 'Thatcherites' have a ‘crude’ dimension too. Choose whatever evidence you like – statistical, empirical or anecdotal – crude oil bankrolled Thatcherism in its infancy. That is the unassailable truth and that’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!
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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo 1: Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s funeral cortege with military honours, April 17, 2013 © Gaurav Sharma. Photo 2: Front page of the Hendon & Finchley Times, April 11, 2013. Photo 3: Front cover of the The Economist, April 13, 2013.