Secret files have revealed how senior government figures were “vigorously opposed” to the landmark relocation of dozens of civil servants to Aberdeen in the 1990s.
Prime Minister John Major’s closest aides were told that “officials hate the idea of anyone moving to Scotland” as they considered breaking their promise to the north-east.
Documents which can be made public today show that Energy Secretary John Wakeham was against the transfer, while Trade and Industry Secretary Michael Heseltine and Energy Minister Tim Eggar attempted to water down the plans.
Business leaders in the north-east had long demanded the relocation of energy officials from London to Aberdeen to cement the city’s status as the operations centre of the oil and gas industry.
Scottish Enterprise predicted at the time that the move would deliver 15,000 jobs to the north-east amid hopes that offshore firms would follow the lead of the government and relocate.
The Conservatives promised the switch as far back as 1974, but it was not until the autumn of 1991 that the UK Government commissioned consultants to assess the proposal.
However, correspondence viewed by The Press and Journal at the National Archives in London has now exposed the deep divisions in Mr Major’s Cabinet before it was eventually decided to proceed with the transfer.
Ian Lang, the Scottish secretary at the time, was often a lone voice among his colleagues in fighting for the move.
He pressed the prime minister to commit to shifting the entire Petroleum Engineering Directorate (PED) to Aberdeen before the consultants’ study had been concluded.
But in a handwritten note to Mr Major in February 1992, Downing Street advisor Barry Potter said: “Prime Minister. You cannot reasonably accede to this.
“The S/S Energy (Mr Wakeham) is vigorously opposed to the move. So is the oil industry. The consultants’ study was created to knock the issue into touch for a few months. Surely better to stick to that.”
Mr Major agreed to wait for the report, but just a few weeks later Mr Lang began to question why the relocation pledge was not in the party’s manifesto for the 1992 election.
The Scottish secretary warned that the omission “will have substantial political downsides for us in Scotland and specifically in the key area of the north-east”.
Mr Major was forced to intervene, proposing that the manifesto should state that “we will move the PED to Aberdeen”, if the transfer was backed by the consultants.
After making the pledge, the Conservatives succeeded in winning the Aberdeen South seat from Labour at the election, but just a few months later senior Cabinet members began trying to dilute the plans.
In October 1992, Energy Minister Tim Eggar wrote to his colleagues proposing that instead of “the original proposal to move the technical staff en bloc”, he planned to announce that a smaller, balanced “group of staff” be relocated.
Mr Lang responded that he was “astonished” and “cannot agree” to the proposal, warning: “This is a significant and politically very sensitive issue.”
An increasingly acrimonious behind-the-scenes row then erupted in an exchange of letters between Mr Lang and Mr Heseltine, it has emerged.
Mr Lang warned that the transfer could “hardly be less than the 70 or so posts within PED”, and said: “I have no doubt that anything that smacks of a minimalist compromise would be little short of disastrous politically.
“The north-east has not forgotten that as far back as 1974 we promised in our manifesto to make the move and we did nothing.”
But Mr Heseltine wrote back proposing that as a “first stage” some 30 to 40 staff should move north.
The exchange promoted Downing Street advisor Alan Rosling to write to the prime minister’s private secretary, Mary Francis, saying that “officials hate the idea of anyone moving to Scotland”.
Mr Heseltine subsequently suggested moving 54 jobs north, but Mr Lang continued to argue it was “but a pale shadow of PED, and although welcome as far as it goes, will be seen to do very little to discharge our manifesto commitment”.
The squabble continued right up until a compromise was reached and it was announced in March 1993 that 60 civil servants would move to Aberdeen.
Last night, Aberdeen University petroleum economics professor Alex Kemp said that Mr Lang’s victory was significant.
“Remember that Aberdeen was the operations centre but the decision-making centre was more in London for the industry,” he said.
“It was argued that if DTI (department of trade and industry) people were located in Aberdeen then more oil companies and oil-related people would be located in Aberdeen.
“I think that has happened to some extent. It has enhanced Aberdeen’s role, absolutely.
“If there hadn’t been all these people sent up here, when the Oil and Gas Authority was announced (in 2016), there might have been more argument about whether it should be based in Aberdeen.”