Violence apart (see box), the British election campaign focused on all the tried and trusted issues—the cost of living, the unions, state ownership. But as Margaret Thatcher’s Tories led the field into the final countdown to Thursday ’s voting one factor, paradoxically seldom cited, dominated all others.
From the air they look like four fragile candles flickering in the middle of the threatening North Sea. But as the small jet swoops over the Forties—the rich oil field halfway between Scotland and Norway—the candles suddenly turn into fierce 100-foot gas flares, the candlesticks into 60,000-ton platforms grasping the seabed 420 feet below. British Petroleum shelled out $2.4 billion to put them there and already they have been rewarded with $4.8 billion of oil. The workhorses of the United Kingdom’s 19 North Sea oil fields, the Forties pump out 27 per cent of the country’s needs.
To be out there in the wind-blown field, to see the little helicopters buzzing around the platforms like insignificant gnats, is the only way to give substance to the staggering statistics. As one BP public relations man, Peter 2 Fitch, puts it: “London still finds it dif“ ficult to believe this is real.” But as | Britons choose between fatherly Jim « Callaghan and fighting maid Margaret £ Thatcher, it is nonetheless the powerful § light from those candles which throws °
into sharp relief the “good doctrinal split” at the heart of this election.
It’s true that Britain is far from being an oil culture, and the much analysed symptoms of the British disease still
dominate campaign rhetoric. In Harrod’s the imports twinkle with a sinister and growing abundance as inflation nudges the double-digit mark once again. Across the country there are the ongoing economic irritants—shipyard closures, with more to come, the doubtful future of British Leyland. As well, the British are livid to find they are paying most to the European Community, even though they are one of its poorest members.
But behind the usual litany of complaints and worries lies North Sea oil— the great unspoken issue of the campaign. Put quite simply, the winner of this “watershed election,” as Callaghan has dubbed it, will preside over a jump in oil and gas revenues from a modest $547 million in 1977 to an estimated $10.8 billion in 1985. By next year Britain will become the only industrial Western country that is self-sufficient in energy.
The differences between the main parties about how they will spend the money are at the heart of the neverending debate about what should be done to reverse the country’s long-term industrial decline. Callaghan’s Labor party wants to subsidize the overmanned, under-invested industry back to life (already about 400,000 jobs depend on such help at a yearly cost of $7.2 billion) and build a few extra roads and hospitals with the leftovers.
In other words, he would continue the middle-road politics of his three-year tenure which, Thatcher says, is reducing Britain to a “nation on the sidelines.” Her Tories instead want to pull the government out of the marketplace, sell off nationalized industries like shipbuilding and aerospace, sweeten the threatened curbs on union power by cutting taxes for all and then wait confidently for the old work incentive to return to the British worker. That, according to Callaghan, will simply result in a “free market free-for-all” and add another million to the unemployed. But the very fact that Britain has any manoeuvrability at all is entirely due to what the Governor of the Bank of England, Gordon Richardson, calls “a stroke of good fortune.”
Since the disastrous year of 1976, when the pound took a dive, inflation ran at about 15 per cent and the balance-of-payments deficit reached a horrendous $2.6 billion, oil has been slowly fuelling a cautious recovery. Now the pound is extremely popular (closing last week at $2.35 Canadian) and oil has contributed about $14.6 billion to the balance of payments (which last year recorded a $610-million surplus compared to Canada’s $5.3-billion deficit).
But so far oil has not brought with it the last-chance, now-or-never determination to correct Britain’s underlying ills that many have hoped for. Instead of confidence there is a curious ambivalence about the benefit of oil. “Things are not getting much better, as people thought,” says a leading London economist, F.T. Blackaby. “All it’s doing is getting less worse.”
Lord Frank Kearton, the feisty head of the British National Oil Corporation, echoes the concern of a rapidly growing number of businessmen when he says: “The potential oil and gas gave us is a chance to come out really on top. The chance is there. But by being there, it takes away the feeling that it is now or never.” Already there are persistent mutterings that the oil money—like the $4.8 billion a year worth of gas—will merely “disappear into the system without a trace,” as Kearton puts it.
Certainly, a strengthened pound and the first real increase in disposable income last year merely resulted in a spending spree on Italian refrigerators and German gadgets. Car sales, for instance, rose 20 per cent while home car production rose a measly seven per cent. As Michael Parker of the National Coal Board puts it, “Oil allows us to ride out our wicked ways with impunity.”
That oil has not proved an all-saving bonanza is partly due to the fact that, even at peak production, it will account for only five per cent of the GNP (compared to Saudi Arabia’s 70 per cent). Blackaby likens it to having “a large new successful industry whose products you are sure of selling.” But mostly the
possible last chance of oil underlines the imperturbability—some would say complacency—that perpetuates the bad along with the good in Britain.
Victor Rice, the English-born head of Massey-Ferguson who left his country and a 19-room Victorian mansion for Canada four years ago, still fumes: “They’ve chosen second best and they don’t even know they have. They’re go-
ing down the up escalator.” With the Massey-Ferguson tractor factory in Coventry (largest in the western world) at one point working only four days a week because of inefficiency, Rice has no patience with Britons who insist things are not so bad. “If you’re improving every year, why are things getting worse?” he asks.
In order to prove to himself that
there are, indeed, tangible benefits from North Sea oil, the average Briton would have to trek all the way up to Aberdeen on Scotland’s windswept northeastern coast. There, in the once heather-strewn hills surrounding the old port, modern housing projects stretch out for miles. New groceterias like the. Orange Grove display exotic foods the locals have seldom seen before. New internationally flavored restaurants have replaced the old-fashioned tearooms.
Already, the industry has attracted young Scots to the ranks of high-paid wanderers who work the world’s oil rigs. Altogether about 100,000 jobs have been created, most of them in Scotland. But oil’s biggest contribution is that it has brought a once depressed area into contact with a high-return, high-risk industry with a do-it-now, do-it-right mentality that has shaken up entrenched ways. Wages in all businesses are up (as are the prices of every commodity, especially housing) and unionmanagement troubles are unheard of.
Ronnie Ferrari, a big, burly thirdgeneration Italian-Scot, is typical of the people who are making the best of the oil boom. He started an engineering company to service the pipeline five years ago, going into debt for $190,000. He’s now doing $4.8 million of business a year and drives the only Ferrari most locals have ever seen.
There are countless stories as well of marginal businesses that folded because they couldn’t compete with the big-time wages, and many old-timers who resent the “steamroller” imperatives of the oil industry. But confidence is as palpable there as insecurity is in most other parts of the country.
Whether the “last chance” offered by oil will be blown will be largely determined by the party chosen this week to run the country for the next five years. The big question in London these days is: will Britain bite the bullet? Will the system be finally reorganized to deal with that old litany of symptoms: workers who are overtaxed, industry that hasn’t been modernized, management that is underpaid, unions that have become too powerful, dying industries that should be quietly put to rest. Will the price for a more productive society be a less equal one? Will the voters go for a radical change by voting for Thatcher or a much slower-paced, cushioned change under the smooth hand of Callaghan?
In the end, the choice may depend on just how much of a contrast oil has presented between a bright new future and the deteriorating present. To see it, the average Briton should talk to someone like 31-year-old Simon Barnes, an undersea diver who left dairy farming in Devon to risk his life in the depths of
the North Sea where he earns up to $70,000 a year. Apart from taking up clay-pigeon shooting and paying for riding lessons for his daughter, he hasn’t changed his life at all. His wife and children still live on his farm while he commutes to Aberdeen. Had he stayed on the farm he might have earned $9,600 a year as most of his friends do. Even in their wildest estimates, they can never guess how much he earns and, embarrassed by the difference, he is careful not to tell them.
After that, the average Briton could travel to Hackney Road in East London, past the gutted storefronts and boarded-up houses. There, in the reception room of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for children, where the greying walls are peeling, the ashtrays on the floor are overflowing and the only welcoming sign is a bunch of plastic flowers which faded long ago, he would see the frayed dreams of what Callaghan calls the “caring, sharing society.”
This spring, the porters and cleaners went on rotating strikes, much to the public’s horror, leaving the hospital with emergency services only, in an effort to get their basic weekly wage of $96 raised to $144. In the union office, a local of the National Union of Public Employees, a small cupboard in the hospital’s basement stuffed with defeated sofas and plastered with posters, 33year-old John Clark explains how he supports his wife and two children on $96 a week. His rent is subsidized and so are his municipal taxes. His children get free meals at school. They never take holidays. His friend, a 24-year-old porter, Dave Clark, has been trying to get into subsidized housing for well over a year and is now forced to move out of cockney London where he was born, just as his parents and 14 of 16 brothers were. Says Dave: “We’ll never see any of the benefits. It’s supposed to be the lifeblood of England. Well, it hasn’t come down the veins this far yet.”^
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