From oil-rigs to foodbanks: what life in Aberdeen says about why we must vote Yes

A visit to Britain's oil capital reveals grinding poverty amidst a sea of wealth.

Stuart Rodger
1 September 2014

Over the past two and a half years of Yes-campaigning, much mention has been made of the figure calculated by Professor Danny Dorling – now Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford – that Britain is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world. What less mention is made of is what this statistic means in practice. To see, I decided to visit Aberdeen, Scotland and Britain's oil capital, to speak to people experiencing life at the bottom and the top of the income scale in Britain today.

My first stop is the biggest food-bank in Aberdeen, Somebody Cares, on Sunnyhill Road in the west of the city. There, I meet lead organiser Jenny Taylor, who sits me down for a cup of tea and a chat about her work. She tells me how they got started up: back in 2002 through some fellow Christian missionaries from the United States. She explains that they have always had a need for the food-bank, but that they experienced a massive spike in demand around 18 months ago (which just happens to be roughly when the bedroom tax came into force). Demand for the foodbank's services is now so high there is a month-long waiting list.

As we chat more, she tells me about the sort of people who need their help. There are a lot of people who are victims of predatory pay-day loan companies: no doubt the victim of Britain's low wage economy. There are many women who have fled domestic violence, and are struggling to set themselves back up again. Inevitably many with dependency problems. And perhaps most of all: victims of Britain's harsh welfare system. She explains that many have jobs, and need assistance until they get their first pay cheque. Jenny's foodbank provides food bags to five families per day, on average, helping to provide nappies and baby food. Jenny begins to cry as she tells me one moving story of a little girl, who, as their family were on their way out, looked up at her mum to say 'Mummy, will we eat tonight?'.

We chat about the oil wealth of Aberdeen, and I ask if she thinks the wealth has trickled down. ''Definitely not'', she explains. ''There is a sort of them and us'' culture in Aberdeen. In the distance, she says, from Nigg Lighthouse, you can sometimes see the floating oil-rigs, the very machinery which helps extract the 'black gold'. Some industry businessmen occasionally end up working for the charity. They have received some hours of Community Payback for a speeding charge, say, or for a drunken brawl. She says that they are shocked by the poverty they encounter. It's not that they're bad people: they just don't know it exists. As we chat we realise that Aberdeen is surrounded by symbols of affluence: oil-rigs on the east, golf courses on the west, with ordinary Aberdonians stuck in the middle, left with little share of the wealth all around them.

I then head off to the south west in search of affluence. As you travel down North Deeside Road, you notice that the houses get bigger and bigger – from flats to detached houses which clearly have four bedroooms or more. But more than that – you start to see fewer Yes Scotland window signs and more No Thanks signs. Was that a coincidence? Or does it indicate the Yes movement is one for ordinary people, while the No camp is dominated by the comfortably off upper-middle classes?

I hop off at the International School of Aberdeen. As I walk up into the campus through the leafy boulevard, I arrive in a car park full of BMWs, Volvos and Mercedes Benz. A group of boys are playing football on the plush grounds. I wander into the reception and see their impressively stocked three-level library. The fees for this school are up to £20,420 per year. I travel further down North Deeside Road and visit the Kippie Lodge, part of Aberdeen Petroleum Club – the hang out for the well-to-do of Aberdeen. Over a drink I flick through the pages of the Press and Journal to see one story about Prof. Donald McKay claiming that Westminster are widly underestimating the extent of North Sea oil deposits, and another about record profits for a foreign-owned Scotch whisky company. The contrast with the foodbank could barely be starker.

Back in town, I meet with a worker from the oil and gas industry – a manager in one of the many servicing companies based in Aberdeen. He prefers to stay anonymous. I ask him about the salary levels for workers. He tells me that workers for the onshore servicing companies can expect between 60 – 80K. Offshore contract workers, meanwhile (the people who work on the rigs themselves), can expect hundreds of pounds per day, leading to low three-figure sums over the course of a year. He points out these figures are 'conservative' as they do not include bonuses and perks. I ask him if the workers like to flash the cash, and he says ''Mercs and BMWs are just as common as Fords around town.... Recession? What recession?!''.

I ask him more about how Scotland itself has benefited from North Sea oil, and we discuss the nationalities of the workers themselves, many of whom are not from Scotland. He explains there is a ''sheer lack of solid talent in Aberdeen'', and that ''many of the local Universities are trying to plug the skills gap with Oil & Gas focussed engineering and management courses however the current crop of students wont be ready for us for quite a while yet''. As for those of us who didn't want to move to Aberdeen to go in to engineering, the British government have ''failed to put any of the tax and wholesale revenue to good use. Just look at Norway....[who possess a £460 billion Wealth Fund] That could have been us!''.

So how did it come to this? That a country – and a city – with such vast resources has a need for foodbanks with one-month long waiting lists? It is a direct result of the UK's fiscal structure. As Pete Ramand and James Foley explain in their book 'Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence': ''The miuse of British North Seal Oil revenues was one of the worst economic wastes in history... Under current rules, we receive just 30% of profits from the extraction and sale of oil, while 70% is taken by multinational corporations. According to Ralph Blake, an analyst in the Scottish financial industry... we could triple our revenues if we nationalise North Sea oil.''

Let's name and shame some of these corporations. My source in the O&G industry explained that the the key operators in the North Sea are Nexen, Apache, and BP. The American-owned Apache corporation pulled in net global profits of $2.188 billion in profits in 2013. British Petroleum raked in $13.4 billion, while its CEO Bob ''Britain is great'' Dudley took home over £5.2 million in salary and bonuses. Nexen (owned by the Chinese National Oil Corporation) raked in $333 million. A good chunk of all this should have been Scotland's – all of Scotland's.

Recently, ever since David Cameron's furtive visit to Shetland, social media has been ablaze with rumours about the epic Clair oilfield and the riches it could untap. People are claiming this is McCrone II, a re-enactment of the time No10 hid the extent of North Sea oil for fear it would bolster the nationalist cause. And the facts are there: BP say flat out on their website the Clair oil-field is going to provide income for decades. There will be plenty of money to be made.

But we have a problem. And it's called climate change. And I make no apology for bringing this up, because we're not talking about a 'few more sunny days' as some would have us believe. We are talking about rendering life on earth unliveable. The World Bank – nobody's idea of a bunch of hippy eco-warriors – say we are on course for 4 degrees warming by this century. That would create a planet we don't recognise and cannot live on. There will be a conversation to be had about how much of the oil we leave in the ground. (And far from leaving us pauperised, Scotland's GDP excluding the entirety of North Sea oil is $34,754 per person – putting us precisely between Italy and Japan.)

But climate change isn't just a threat – it also constitutes a historic opportunity for progressives to build the type of economy we want to see. As Naomi Klein is set to argue in her forthcoming book, 'This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate', climate change underscores everything the Left want to do with the economy anyway, and supercharges the need to do it with existential urgency. It underscores the need to radically redistribute the wealth we already have – landed as well as financial. It underscores the need to bring key industries – like transport and energy – into public ownership. It underscores the need for massive job creation programmes. In short, it demands we break every rule in the market fundamentalist's play book. Paradoxically, in avoiding a nightmare we can create the economy we dream of.

We must therefore ensure the same corporate takeover does not happen with Scotland's enormous renewable energy potential. On this, the Common Weal's paper ''Repossessing the Future: a Common Weal Strategy for Community and Democratic Ownership of Scotland's Energy Resources'' is essential reading. They point out the lion's share of everything from rental payments to procurement contracts is – yet again - going to elites: rental payments for wind farms go to some of the biggest landowners in Scotland, while state subsidies go to foreign companies. The paper encourages Scotland to embrace the Nordic model of public ownership – not through outdated state ownership – but through community co-operatives and municipal control.

A Yes vote on the 18th of September is the beginning, not the end. After that, the real battle begins: to reclaim our resources too long held in the hands of an elite under Westminster, and use them for the good of us all. Then, Scotland really will be able to call itself a ''progressive beacon''. Let's not waste this chance.


  • Radical Independence will be holding a ''Welfare Week of Action'' beginning next Monday 25th. Contact your local RIC branch for details of stalls/events in your area.

  • Danny Dorling will be giving the third in RIC's 'Independence Lectures' series on the 2nd of September, 6.30pm, Scottish Youth Theatre, 105 Brunswick Street, Glasgow.

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