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‘Crude Britannia’: A Big Oil painting of the lies that wrecked the planet





Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, co-authored by James Marriott and Cambridge-based Terry Macalister, has more bangs for its buck than most Hollywood movies.

Terry Macalister, co-author of ‘Crude Britannia’ with James Marriott
Terry Macalister, co-author of ‘Crude Britannia’ with James Marriott

Written at a relentlessly frantic pace, Crude Britannia reads like a detective novel as the authors – Terry Macalister is a former energy editor of The Guardian – visit locations and key players around the UK to study the effects of big oil on the UK economy.

They interview site managers, investors, executives, former executives, film makers, politicians, security guards, oil riggers, traders, lab workers, musicians and academics. They travel by train, air, car and helicopter from the North Sea to Aberdeen to the Mersey estuary, the Severn estuary, the Thames estuary – the places where oil was found and the places it was moved around.

Much as they try to present a rounded picture of how the industry operates, they can’t quite disguise the fact that oil companies are venal. For instance, as the authors explain, during the Second World War, Shell ended up backing both horses.

“Shell decided to effectively divide itself into an Allied corporation and an Axis corporation,” we read. Shell adopted Nazi ideology on mainland Europe and enforced anti-Semitic policies at every level of its organisation. Shell traded profitably from both fascism and democracy throughout the war. The Nazi flag flew at Shell’s HQ in The Hague. Certainly, some of the Messerschmitt 109s and the Spitfires that duelled over English skies during the Battle of Britain were powered by Shell.

A panoramic image of Grangemouth petrochemical plant in central Scotland
A panoramic image of Grangemouth petrochemical plant in central Scotland

After the post-war settlement Shell became more socially aware. BP was largely state-owned and therefore inclined to lean in towards building communities and the trust that goes with that. Alongside the refineries came housing and other social infrastructure.

This paternalistic role saw big oil acting largely in the interests of the British state where required. But in the 1980s UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher developed a mania for privatisation and, when oil was discovered in the North Sea, the UK’s oil fields became a showcase for Thatcher’s preferred way of doing things.

We hear how the oil barons became the new colonialists, ditching accountability to aggressively pursue new oil fields from Alaska to Nigeria – and, as the authors describe, nowhere was this more obvious than in Shell’s behaviour towards the Ogoni in Nigeria.

In 1993 50 per cent of the Ogoni people protested against the oil extraction process and the laying of pipelines through their communities. The then-military ruler, General Sani Abacha, sent in the army and military police. Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists were hanged by the state in 1995. Despite a raft of evidence linking Shell with the government’s actions, no company executive has ever been answerable for its involvement. The taint of African colonialism, with pressures that also resulted in 2m people dying in the Biafra-Nigeria war in 1967 – played out against a background of lucrative oil production in the Niger Delta – couldn’t quite be eradicated. And, on the back of oppression and exploitation, business was good, say the authors.

BP’s logo history: the greenwashed version in use today was a stroke of genius on the part of former chief executive John Browne
BP’s logo history: the greenwashed version in use today was a stroke of genius on the part of former chief executive John Browne

Over at BP – which had settled on the UK side after WW2 started in 1939 – the company had been privatised by 1987. The John Browne era started in the late 1980s. Coolly, Crude Britannia describes how Browne unleashed one of the most successful rebrands of all time: the BP logo changed in 2000 from the rather patrician shield it had been for 50 years to a depiction of the Helios, the sun king. BP went ‘Beyond Petroleum’. It was greenwashing, of course, but at a stroke BP earned itself a reprieve for which it is still thankful because, by adopting the language of sustainability and renewable energy, it got itself off the hook.

It was just the latest ruse in a long line of rearguard actions. The business model for fossil fuels started really falling apart in the 1980s: evidence that burning fossil fuels resulted in harmful particulates being expelled into the air had first been published in the 1960s, and thereafter the alarm bells were ringing ever louder. To protect itself against the damning scientific evidence, big oil invested in launching a counter-scientific viewpoint, including vigorous lobbying – the start of a reframing of an industry which poured toxins into the atmosphere so effectively that it created the most significant warming the Earth has seen for around 56 million years (early Ecocene).

So successful has the rearguard action been that it has not only prolonged the fossil fuel business model for four decades and counting, but has also contributed to the distrust of science itself, a distrust which manifests today as conspiracy theories believed by millions, and the shredding of the democratic, rules-based, order.

Musician and actor Wilko Johnson, a scion of Canvey Island, at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Picture: Terry Macalister
Musician and actor Wilko Johnson, a scion of Canvey Island, at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Picture: Terry Macalister

A full analysis of the horrific legacy of spills, accidents, colonial legacies and aspirations, and Macchiavellan behaviour is on display in Crude Brittania. Events which allowed the public to see the real-world costs of digging up fossil fuels and deliberately burning it in the atmosphere – Deepwater Horizon, the Alaska pipeline, the North Sea oil boom, the rise of Russia as a key oil player – are all assessed.

These vast narratives are not, however, the prime focus of this richly rewarding book, which puts the human perspective first. The authors are not condemnatory, they are curious. There are many lighter moments, including the use of song lyrics and an unlikely-but-thrilling interview with Wilko Johnson (there was an oil refinery on Canvey Island). It’s glorious stuff, but it still begs a question – why? Why are these appalling crimes against our life support system still continuing? Why do the chief architects of our doom remain free – and respected – men (and it is, invariably, men)? Why does our society continue to condone them, and reward them with riches beyond avarice?

You’re left to fend for yourself when it comes to these riddles. But perhaps there will be a sequel – Cruder Brittania? In which case I’d be keen to read that one too.

‘Crude Britannia’ is published on May 20
‘Crude Britannia’ is published on May 20

Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation (Pluto Press, hardback £20) is published on May 20, 2021.



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