This November the eyes of the world will turn to Glasgow. “Cop26 meeting is last chance, says Alok Sharma as he backs UK’s plan for new oil and gas fields,” the Observer reported in an interview with the Tory minister in charge. The contradiction in this sentence is all the proof you need of the central themes of Crude Britannia: that Britain’s economic prosperity is inextricably linked to oil, and that breaking this link appears a more distant prospect than human extinction.
Journeying through landscapes of rigs and refineries, from the Thames estuary to north-east Scotland, campaigner James Marriott and former Guardian energy editor Terry Macalister interweave history and psychogeography. This is refreshing if not seamless: as the narrative style shifts from reportage to the rhythms of speech and prayer you would find in a David Peace novel, it is easy to mistake stylised prose for casual errors and incomplete sentences – of which, unfortunately, there are several.
One theme is how oil made pop music. Some examples seem contrived, but not “Stanlow”, released in 1980 by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The song opens with a recording of a diesel pump at the Merseyside refinery of the same name, accompanied by the words: “We set you down / To care for us / Stanlow”. After reading Marriott and Macalister’s soul-stirring interviews with former refinery workers and OMD’s Andy McCluskey, whose father worked there, it becomes impossible to see the name Stanlow without hearing echoes of the band’s “intriguingly melancholic” melody.
As the authors say, it’s “a premonition” – of the industrial decline and missed opportunities that followed the song’s release, when Margaret Thatcher used tax revenues from oil to cushion rising unemployment while placing the North Sea in the hands of international capital. It’s a story that is told too rarely, and Marriott and Macalister should be commended for giving it such vivacity.
Crude Britannia can also be a harrowing read. The authors shine a spotlight on the framing and execution of the “Ogoni Nine” – including writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa – who had protested against Shell pipelines in Nigeria. Shell continues to deny involvement, but in 2009 the company paid out £9.7m in compensation to the activists’ families as part of a “process of reconciliation”.
Marriott and Macalister also document the revolving door between British governance and Shell and BP, which continues even after these companies have largely vacated their British sites. While climate campaigners are forging new cultural identities around renewable energy, governments have failed to secure jobs in Britain as fabrication contracts go overseas. With oil defying past expectations of scarcity, perhaps it’s no wonder we can’t let go.
• Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation is published by Pluto (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.