Oil Be Damned: Part One
Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation

By James Marriott & Terry Macalister
Published by Pluto, 2021

Review by Tim Barton

The borough I went to school in, Castle Point in Essex, voted a shade over 72% for Brexit. This result features in Crude Britannia, as the authors ask themselves how much the deindustrialisation of our refineries and manufacturing base, and its impact on local employment, influenced this result. Castle Point is on the North of the Thames ‘Gateway’, and down the shore from Benfleet are Corringham and Coryton. These hamlets hosted vast oil refineries for decades. By 2010 they were almost all gone. The same story is repeated in many areas with a high ‘out’ vote. 

Regardless of the objective factors in this decline, the perception has been that ‘Eastern Europeans stole our jobs’ – there is some ‘truth’ to that, albeit only by ignoring other contexts such as globalised capital, Thatcherism and various economic issues that both led to, and were caused by, the late 1970s IMF bail-out. The authors forego a similar narrative around closures at Ford plants throughout the area, I guess that’s a different book, but they too were entangled with the refineries. 

The authors bookend their excellent review of the role of oil in allowing our nation an economic (and population) boom over the last century with anecdotes from workers at Coryton. I used to go fishing at the company ponds, as a neighbour’s son worked there. I saw the workers club, the fuming chimneys, and, like many kids round my way, speculated about how big an explosion could occur there (and at the LNG terminals on Canvey, not to mention the SS Richard Montgomery). Humanising the political and economic history of the oil industry in Britain with these narrative stories makes the book extremely readable, no matter how ‘heavy’ the subject matter.

The book is gifted with very clear maps of the various ports and pipelines around the nation. From Churchill’s 1919 involvement in choosing refinery sites, through the vacillations of trade and ownership in big oil companies such as ‘British’ Petroleum, to the big sell-off of low-price oil under Thatcher and the subsequent decline of our oil industry, the book ranges from interviews with ex-workers, to captains of industry and government insiders. Especially interesting is the detail of the impact of OPEC, and of the failure of the Labour government to pay heed to the, as-ever prescient, ‘radical’ Tony Benn. The authors are particularly good on the less savoury aspects of the conduct of the British government, BP and Shell – for example their dealings with the Nazi regime and over the Iranian nationalisation of AIOC. In the authors’ words, “their loyalty is always, first and foremost, to return on capital”.

A focus on the black stuff from extraction to refinery helps us see its place in the political and economic wealth of Britain in the twentieth-century. A global perspective is not the authors’ intent, although they cover as much as necessary for their chosen focus. But, this wider history of oil and its role in agriculture’s so-called ‘green’ revolution of the 1950s needs analysis – the future of a majority of our population is in clear and present danger from the consequences of the Era of Black Gold and its inevitable bitter collapse.

In ‘Oil Be Damned’ Part Two, I will look at the effect of unequal wealth and its collapse on future populations.

Read the other reviews in this series here

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