IT WAS all a long time ago, but the music was good. Bowie was top of the charts that first week of November 1975 with Space Oddity. The Tramps were still holding back the night for anyone who wanted to disco. A fresh-faced Glaswegian called Billy Connolly was upstaging everybody with his parody of Dolly Parton’s D.I.V.O.R.C.E. Nobody but a few students noticed a new band performing that Thursday in St Martins College, London. They were called the Sex Pistols. A new age was busy being born.

The true revolutionary event that week was not, however, Johnny Rotten’s debut but another, more traditional sort of gig. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, still in her elegant forties and wearing emerald green for the occasion, was heading north to Dyce, a sleepy medieval village six miles north-west of Aberdeen city centre. There, on Monday, November 3, 1975, she was going to push a golden button.

Presumably, this device was more symbolic than practical. Whatever the case, the royal finger having done its duty, a vast gush of black gold began to flow through the first pipeline connecting the new North Sea oil fields, via landfall at Cruden Bay, to British Petroleum’s Grangemouth refinery on the Forth. The dream of Britain as an oil-rich economy was now – after a decade of prospecting, planning and building – a reality.

The inauguration of the new petroleum age, those 45 years ago, had gathered the great and the good to Dyce. A marquee costing £40,000 had been erected for 1000 guests, mostly from London. The Queen brought Prince Philip and her second son, Prince Andrew, then a mere 15 and attending nearby Gordonstoun. The political heavyweights were there, including Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Foreign Secretary Jim Callaghan. These days pipe-smoking, sage Yorkshire man Wilson seems a much-diminished figure. Yet he was a brilliant scholar, a trained economist and a formidable civil servant before entering Number 10. Harold was also, amazingly, as good a stand-up comedian as Billy Connolly.

North Sea oil was Wilson’s political baby – an unexpected windfall that could end Britain’s long, post-war economic decline at a stroke. Unfortunately, Wilsonian impatience and ego got in the way of long-term thinking. Britain in the 1970s was desperate for foreign currency to pay for its imports of food, energy and consumer goods – the dreaded balance of payments problem. North Sea oil offered Wilson an instant solution, providing something to sell abroad for precious dollars. The trick was to get the oil onshore as fast as possible. Wilson practically gave away the right to exploit the black stuff to the big oil companies, as a bribe. The Labour government even lent British Petroleum £370 million (around £3 billion today) to get online the Forties Field – the first and biggest – and its crude pumped to the BP complex at Grangemouth.

Also attending the royal button-pushing at Dyce on November 3 was Tony Benn, then Secretary of State for Energy and in titular charge of the North Sea project. In his diary, Benn calls the day “a complete waste of time and money”. He noted: “I also felt that this great Scottish occasion was just an opportunity for the London Establishment to come up and lord it over the Scots”. Benn was in a sour mood. Barely six months earlier, Britain had voted to join the European Common Market despite Benn’s campaign against. That referendum had been his idea. Also, Benn’s plans for the Labour government to take a major ownership stake in North Sea oil (as the Norwegians had done) were being sabotaged by the civil service, BP and Harold Wilson.

Tony Benn was not the only sceptic. In the previous two years, there had been four bomb attacks on oil pipelines in Scotland, for which a shadowy organisation called the Tartan Army (TA) claimed responsibility. None of the attacks caused serious damage but the Tartan Army said they had only been “dress rehearsals”. As a result, the November ceremony involved Scotland’s largest ever police operation to date. Remember that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still at their height. The previous month, the Ulster Volunteer Army had launched a wave of bomb attacks which left 12 people dead and 45 injured.

In reality, attacks on oil infrastructure in Scotland proved more of a nuisance value than a serious terrorist threat, and nobody was hurt. At one point the police claimed the TA had 70 active members, but when the core group was arrested in May 1975 it turned out there were only seven people involved. One of the accused, William Anderson, was found guilty of possessing 109 sticks of gelignite explosive and 50 detonators. Occasional small-scale attacks on pipelines continued until September 1975 then petered out. It seemed that the Scottish temperament preferred political action over violence. Or perhaps the bloody carnage in Northern Ireland had convinced local folk that violence was not the way to go.

A more lasting political impact was achieved by John McGrath’s legendary agitprop play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, first performed at the Aberdeen Arts Centre two years before the Forties pipeline was inaugurated. A TV version was broadcast in June 1974 as part of the BBC’s Play For Today series. This rumbustious play – it mimics a ceilidh in format – traces the impact of the exploitation of the Highland communities, from the Clearances down to the unexpected arrival of the North Sea oil industry. Far from presenting oil as a saviour, McGrath drew parallels with earlier forms of foreign domination. Performed in local venues across Scotland and the Highlands, McGrath’s Cheviot had an electrical impact. It transformed Scottish theatre and made it popular again with working-class audiences. When the oil finally gushed forth on November 3, 1975, many Scots already saw North Sea crude the fulcrum of a bid for independence.

READ MORE: It's Scotland's Oil: How profits that should belong to the nation are in danger

THE slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil!” was launched by the SNP in March 1973. It had been the subject of heated internal debate. The original tag line was: “It’s Scottish Oil!” But savvy media advisor (and later MP) George Reid argued this concept was old fashioned. Oil was not a parochial affair, something to stick a tartan flag on. Oil equalled modernity. No sooner was the new SNP publicity campaign launched than the Seven Day War broke out between Israel and the Arab states. The subsequent Arab oil boycott quadrupled global petroleum prices. An independent Scotland with oil would be rich. At the October 1974 General Election, the SNP won a third of the popular vote, took 11 seats and was second to Labour in another 35. A switch of barely three percentage points of the vote from Labour to SNP would have produced a nationalist majority – something not achieved till 2015.

For Scotland, much now depended on what Labour would do with the flow of oil that Queen Elizabeth turned on that November Monday in 1975. Wilson’s plan was to offer a limited form of devolution. A White Paper was published on November 27, a bare three weeks after the Queen pushed the golden button at Dyce. It promised a Scottish Assembly and a cut of the immense oil revenues going to the new Scottish Development Agency. Immediately, Labour’s Scottish normally somnambulant backbenchers went rogue – fearing for their seats and their influence. Their sabotage would wreck the first Scottish Assembly plan.

Events in Scotland in 1975 did not go unnoticed across the Atlantic. In April, in Seattle, a geek called Bill Gates launched a garage start-up called Microsoft that would lead eventually to a global industry even bigger than Big Oil. Few cared. America was too preoccupied with the fall of Saigon that June, to the communist North Vietnamese. Americans felt humiliated and paranoid. Would an oil-rich independent Scotland be another Cuba? To find out, the State Department appointed a new consul in Edinburgh in 1975, a certain Richard Funkhouser. He had worked as an oil geologist for Shell and Standard Oil, before becoming a career diplomat assigned to Moscow and Iraq. Latterly, he had a senior posting to Vietnam. His arrival in Scotland suggested to many that Mr Funkhouser was more than a low-level bureaucrat sent to look after American tourists.

The biggest beneficiary of the new Forties pipeline was its owner – British Petroleum. At the time, BP was still majority owned by the British government, but the company always acted independently, with Wilson’s connivance. Originally called the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, BP was acquired for the nation in 1914 by the then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to provide a secure source of oil for the Royal Navy. Iran’s vast oil reserves remained the primary source of BP’s profits down to the 1970s. But in 1979, a scant four years after the Forties pipeline was inaugurated, the Shah of Iran was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini expropriated BP’s Persian oil fields. It is no exaggeration to say that the Forties saved the company.

BP first discovered gas in the North Sea in 1964, but not until 1970 did the company reveal that its semi-submersible drilling rig Sea Quest had found hydrocarbons more than 3000 metres below the seabed, a mere 110 miles from Aberdeen. Ever secretive, BP initially forecast the Forties Field would produce 400,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Production peaked at 520,000 bpd in 1978. By the time BP sold the Forties to the Houston-based Apache company in 2003, the field had yielded more than two billion barrels of oil.

The amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by a barrel of oil very much depends on its quality and what kinds of products (diesel, plastics, petrol etc) it is refined into. The petroleum from the Forties is classified as a light, “sweet” crude because of its low density and sulphur content – so a lot would be burned. Roughly speaking, BP’s two billion barrels of oil from the Forties, if burned in your car, would send somewhere between 800,000 and 900,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. However you calculate it, that’s a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.

Were we more innocent back in 1975? Did no-one see the danger in burning so much petroleum? By the early 1960s there was adequate scientific evidence to show that manmade CO2 emissions were rising exponentially and that the eventual impact would be disastrous. However, that prospect still seemed remote to most people. In fact, the early 1970s saw the media preoccupied by a scare over a possible new Ice Age caused by sun-blocking aerosols.

Yet just as HRM was about to push that golden button in Dyce – in January 1975 to be precise – two American scientists named Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald published a seminal article in the Journal Of The Atmospheric Sciences. It was entitled “The Effects of Doubling the CO2 Concentration on the Climate”. This was the first ever practical attempt to model how greenhouse gas emissions would impact on atmospheric climate change. Manabe and Wetherald’s paper predicted an imminent two degrees centigrade global temperature rise – an astonishingly accurate forecast. As the emerald green glove hovered over that golden button, we already knew what the result would be for humanity.

BP sold off the Forties Field to Apache for $800m. By then output had fallen to a tenth of its peak and BP wanted to invest in more profitable (and more polluting) tar sands in Canada. Apache is a specialist in squeezing out extra crude from marginal fields and with a little reinvestment upped Forties production by a third. Despite talk of the company selling out and concentrating on US-based fracking, Apache is still there.

Meanwhile canny BP kept ownership of the pipeline running from the Forties oil fields to Grangemouth. There is nothing like a distribution monopoly for adding to profits. Besides, in the 1990s BP had replaced the original 32-inch pipeline opened by the Queen in 1975 with a bigger, 36-inch system and it wanted a return on its investment. In 2017, a cash-strapped BP – it was paying for the Gulf of Mexico spill – eventually sold the pipeline to privately owned Ineos for £100m plus a share of future revenues. Ineos is owned by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe who immediately tried to double the charges to Apache for using the pipeline. Apache is in litigation.

IT is now 45 years since that November day the Queen initiated Britain’s oil revolution. Most of the great and good who attended the ceremony at Dyce are no longer alive, including Harold Wilson, Tony Benn and Sir David Steel (not the politician) who was the then BP boss. A former tank commander in the Second World War, Steel has disappeared from memory, but he was an important figure in British capitalism. It was Steel who thwarted Benn’s plans to create a nationalised oil industry using BP as its core. Steel also masterminded BP’s move back to private ownership, starting in 1977 – the cash from the share sale went to pay off Britain’s debt to the International Monetary Fund. As a reward, Steel was given a knighthood by Jim Callaghan.

What would the world be like if Britain had followed the Norwegian model and developed its oil industry in the public sector? We’ll never know. Four years after crude from the Forties field came gushing out of the pipeline at Grangemouth, Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister. She used the massive revenues from the North Sea to slash income tax and start Britain on the road to a de-industrialised, consumer economy. Today Britain is back where it started: not exporting enough to pay for our foreign imports. Once again, we depend on borrowing or selling off assets to gain foreign currency.

The surprise hit movie in the summer of 1975 was by a little-known director called Steven Spielberg. It was about a big fish that ate unsuspecting swimmers. As Queen Elizabeth pushes the golden button and her entourage applauds, you can just imagine hearing John Williams’s threatening score from Jaws.