Tuesday, August 31, 2021

James Marriott & Terry Macalister - Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation

James Marriott and Terry Macalister's new book Crude Britannia could be described as the post-war history of the relationship between the British state and BP and Shell. It is, at times, a strikingly close relationship. The authors quote James Bamberg who wrote in his history of British Petroleum [BP] that during World War Two, British government control of the company expanded so far that "the seam between the company [BP], other oil firms and the government seemed scarcely to exist at all".  

But to just describe Crude Britannia as a history of Britain and oil is inadequate. It is much more than this. The book traces the changing relationship between companies like BP and Shell and the British state, through a discussion of the rise and fall of the oil industry on the British isle in the post-war period. It does this through a unique combination of travelogue and interviews - an exploration of the physical remnants of Britain's oil infrastructure and a discussion with the men and women who worked in it, governed it and the minority who enjoyed the benefits of its immense profits.

In the post-war period the UK went from a "coal state to oil state". The authors argue that "without cheap coal there would have been no modern London" but after World War Two the capital was transformed into an oil city. Wartime pipelines were expanded and extended to fuel the needs of Heathrow and Gatwick, New Towns were built "focused on motorways". The close relationship between oil multinationals and country was exposed again in this period - "Basildon was part financed by Mobil and Shell" for instance. Britain's infrastructure was restructured in the interests of oil company profits and this primarily meant the car. As the authors comment, "London was emulating the interstate highways of the US and the autobahns of Nazi Germany where mass ownership of cars was seen as the road to national advance."

Roads are the most visible legacy of this period. But less obviously the oil companies constructed enormous oil infrastructure that is out of sight of the majority of the population. Refineries, terminals and pipelines were needed to take crude oil deliveries, transform it to fuel, plastic and other commodities, and transport it around the country. Such building work was not just about the infrastructure that could maximise profit, is was also a response to wider global political instability.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which became BP, responded to Iranian nationalisation of oil infrastructure in the 1950s, by choosing to site a new refinery on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary instead of Iran. It was an explicit decision to ensure the company could "ride out any future loss of overseas refining capacity it made it possible for the company to demand, and enforce, an embargo on Iranian crude and refined products and thus put immense pressure on the Iranian state. Grain [Island] was a weapon in the economic war which underpinned the covert war and helped fell the democratic government of the largest state in the Middle East". Not for the first or last time did oil interests, mix with UK government foreign policy in ways that undermined democracy and maximised profits as well as "income to the Exchequer in London".

The oil terminals, refineries and other infrastructure had to be staffed by workers. The authors travel around the UK exploring old sites and abandoned buildings, while interviewing former and current members of staff. Occasionally these are harrowing stories of communities which have lost their main employer and now face economic stagnation and unemployed. More often they are interviews with older men who remember with great fondness working for companies like BP and Shell, and the benefits it had on their lives.

Less positive is the record of these companies outside of the UK. Several chapters look at what happened in places were the oil was extracted, in particularly the appalling experiences of the Ogoni people whose land in the Niger Delta was devastated through the extraction of oil and who saw many of their activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, killed or tortured for their protests against the oil company responsible. 

The authors ties these stories closely together with the way oil companies used their base in the UK to further their interests. But they also address the way those companies tried to also to shape government policy. Central to this story is North Sea oil. The authors explain how North Sea oil provided a "laboratory" for Thatcherism, but also how the oil companies fought the British government over how the oil should be extracted. As the authors say:

It was Britain's misfortune to find oil at a time when the UK's oil companies, losing control of sovereign states in the Arab World and imbibing a corporate philosophy from America, were determined to fight hard to ensure that North Sea oil should be extracted by private capital and that the companies should be evermore independent from the state. There's a tendency to blame successive UK governments for the failure to spend the treasure of oil wisely, such as by setting up a sovereign wealth fund, but this story ignores the fact that the corporations fought a determined war against such measures by the state.

The complex relationship between state and private company is brought out time and again through the book. Thatcher's government finally broke the formal link between the UK government and BP by selling off their shares. BP, Shell and others might also try to move beyond their national base as well, but they aren't able to do this entirely, and they still rely on the UK government at various times. One example of this is the way that BP leant on the British government to lobby the US government for them in the aftermath of the massive Gulf oil spill.

Today the story of Britain and oil is particularly important today because of climate change. The authors discuss the way that big-oil tried to undermine action on climate change. But they also show how BP's much vaunted attempts to move "Beyond Petroleum" ground into the dust. Fundamentally this was because the company could not maintain the level of profits that its share-holders wanted. 

The authors report a conversation with Simon Henry, Shell's chief financial officer, after the company's 2013 AGM. Henry tells them, and an indigenous environmental campaigner, that "the world's population is growing and energy demand will grow with it, we have to help meet that demand and that is why we need to explore for resources in the Arctic". The authors describe the "fundamentally contrasting views of the world" of the oil executive and the environmental campaigner. Its a contrast that does not bode well for the future.

Later, while discussing these issues with the CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden, he raises the "energy transition" and how Shell needs "certainty" of government policy. The authors comment:

We have a flash of understanding of a future conflict between democracy and tackling climate change. And remember that in its century-long history Shell has worked in hundreds of countries and political systems, many of which were effectively one-party states. The company's task is always the same, return on capital, the nature of the state it works in comes second.

For those of us who don't put profits before people, it's a worrying reality. Despite van Beurden's promises to the authors about energy transitions and putting Shell's money where its mouth is, they say:

It seems the company is hedging its bets or heading in two different directs at once. Building a future around the core means of generating profit through carbon, plus a small amount of renewables investment on the side.

They go on to note that Shell's zero carbon target is "far below" the demands of many other institutions and organisations of 2030 as a target for zero carbon.

What becomes clear by the end of the book is that since World War Two the oil companies have gone through a series of changes. While the UK no longer has the huge infrastructure that the corporations like Shell and BP built in the 1950s, they do retain a lasting importance and centrality to the British economy. Attempts to move away from their core source of profits have proved limited and the behaviour of the oil companies over the last 70 years has demonstrated that their have always adapted and changed in order to maximise their profits from their core industry - fossil fuels.

I picked up Crude Britannia expecting it to be a lengthy polemic about oil and climate change. I was surprised to find that it is much more than this - a deeply human story of how oil companies have shaped and continue to shape our lives under British capitalism. For those of us committed for fighting for a sustainable future the book shows the tasks we face. Excellently written, accessible and full of interesting anecdote, interview and commentary (as well as some superb maps of oil infrastructure) I highly recommend socialists, trade unionists and environmental activists in the UK read it.

Related Reviews

Marriott & Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London
Hughes & James Marriott - All that Glitters: Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan
Nikiforuk - The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
Klare - Blood and Oil: How America's Thirst for Petrol is Killing Us
Huber - Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom & the Force of Capital
Heinberg - Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future
Malm - Fossil Capital
St. Clair & Frank - The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink
Commoner - The Poverty of Power: Energy & the economic crisis

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