ABERDEEN City Council leader Jenny Laing was once awarded Scottish Labour’s Keir Hardie award for local government. This January, Laing gained a new honour when she was invited to the London Stock Exchange as an example of the urban leadership that financiers want to see. Aberdeen councillors were even invited to open the stock trading floor.

Some cynics will find the tensions in Scottish politics perfectly illustrated in Laing’s dual accolades. Brutally summarised, we are a nation sitting between the decent moralism of Keir Hardie and the Gordon Gecko-style economic world of City of London traders. Of course, borrowing to invest isn’t a bad idea; in fact, it’s precisely what progressives are arguing for. Why? Quite simply, it’s a measure to halt local government’s downward spiral of austerity. Aberdeen’s model of borrowing isn’t normal, though, which is why they gained prestigious honours from the City trading establishment.

Aberdeen’s credit worthiness is assessed by Moody’s, the ratings agency, based on the city’s economic performance. Only four other UK councils follow this model. With their economies drained by cuts, local authorities are embracing all forms of financialisation.

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Uniquely, Aberdeen won’t rely on accountancy and law firms to assess its performance. Instead, they have hired three economists who will be paid £17,000 per year for working one day a month. These include Stephen Boyle of RBS and Douglas Peedle, chief economic advisor to the bankrupted tax haven, Jersey.

Aberdeen’s angle on the general problem of austerity is a sharp one. This is a city that shouldn’t feel a financial squeeze. But, after decades surrounded by extravagant riches, there’s an unmistakable feel of panic in Britain’s oil city. North Sea oil has been a paradigm case in mismanagement from day one. Aberdeen’s era of extreme good fortune is ending, and everyone is starting to wonder what will be left.

I have spent a great deal of my recent working life in Aberdeen, unionising workers on oil platforms in the harshest of North Sea conditions. In Dyce, 20 minutes’ drive north of Aberdeen city centre, I would speak to (mostly) men of different ages but rarely of different class backgrounds. Painter-blasters, riggers and scaffolders come from all over Scotland and the north of England to pull oil from the seabed, to maintain the ageing rigs, serve the crew and make the economy function.

OFFSHORE oil always carries dangers, and regardless of regulation it would be dangerous. However, Britain’s policy of brutally resisting trade unionism and its indifference to blacklisting in the sector has made it among the most treacherous working environments in the western world.

These workers were well paid, by average earnings in their communities. But I’ve seen grown men shake like frightened animals as they step up to a helicopter. The much-maligned SuperPuma is now grounded as a safety precaution after five choppers crashed into the North Sea in as many years. A live fast, die young culture seemed to colour everything. This wasn’t simply a natural product of bravado. It was deliberately imposed by trillion-dollar corporations to make offshore work extra profitable.

Some North Sea tragedies, like Piper Alpha, are part of national folklore. But the culture of cost cutting and laissez-faire attitudes didn’t end in the 1980s. Survivor Paul Sharp, recounting the August 2013 helicopter crash, describes a scene from a disaster movie – an upside down helicopter buffeted by monstrous dark waves; lifeboats that do not inflate; protective suits which let in water. And all the while, oil barons got richer.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of John McGrath’s legendary work, The Cheviot, the Stag and The Black Black Oil. It charts the uneven development of Scotland’s economy, the displacement of its people and the exploitation of its land for greed. The black gold, he predicted, would complete the legacy of the Highland Clearances and leave an empty shell.

Towards the end, a cartoonish character, American oil-man Texas Jim, swaggered on stage. “Pipe those profits home to me!” he grinned. “I’ll go home when I see fit – all I’ll leave is a heap of shit”.

Texas Jim wouldn’t care much for offshore oil these days. Fracking is where you get the big bucks. This leaves Aberdeen exposed to all the elements, and the north-east could become another Scottish rust belt. In response, the council’s innovators are reaching out to global capitalism. Hopefully they’ve learned a few lessons from the Texas Jim era, or Scotland’s richest city will turn very nasty very quickly.