Sins of omission in the Nationalist narrative

Sins of omission in the Nationalist narrative

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 29, May, 2017

IT IS NOW a commonplace that Scottish nationalists tell lies. I rehearsed a number of these in a previous Think Scotland article. What is also clear is that Scottish nationalists cannot tell the truth – which is not the same as telling lies. Sins of commission and omission are different. Listen to any nationalist in search of a grievance, and you know that his or her leaders have not told them the truth. Some of them seem not even to know which areas of Scottish governance are devolved and which are not. This is particularly the case with the health service.

We are told that ‘independence’ is the only way to preserve the NHS in Scotland from ‘privatisation’. Yet the NHS in Scotland is entirely devolved and under the control of the Scottish government. That is not something that the SNP is keen to remind its followers about. It is much more convenient to blame ‘Westminster’ for shortcomings in devolved areas such as health, education, policing, justice, transport, farming (subsidies), and so on.

The biggest issue on which the truth cannot be told is the economy and the financial state of Scotland. The GERS tells us that Scotland has a massive 9.5 per cent deficit, and the SNP leadership admits when pressed that Scotland has a deficit. But that leadership does not mention the deficit when addressing either the faithful or the public in general. Accordingly, the faithful, including SNP newspaper letter writers, tell us that Scotland has no deficit and that Scotland could not have a deficit because it does not have control of all its spending and revenue. The GERS is not reliable they say, egged on by mischievous commentators such as Richard Murphy. Yet a whole clutch of SNP leaders – Sturgeon, Salmond, Hosie, Robertson, Yousaf, Swinney, among others – is on record as acknowledging the authoritative nature of the GERS. Sturgeon has grudgingly admitted in the Scottish parliament that the GERS is an accurate picture of Scotland within the UK.

The implication of that is that the GERS tells us little or nothing about what the economy and finances would look like in a separate Scotland. Defenders of the SNP used to tell us, following the party line, that an independent Scottish economy would succeed because it would have a higher rate of growth than the UK economy. They seem now to have cottoned onto the fact that the UK economy has a higher rate of growth than most other countries’ economies have. They perhaps now realise that, if the secret of the much higher growth that an iScotland would require were knowable by Scottish politicians, the chances are that it would have already been knowable by politicians in other countries. The remaining reasons for iScotland allegedly being guaranteed to have a successful economy appear to rest on ‘doing things differently from the UK’ and having control of all ‘the levers’ of economic control after separation.

Mention is also made of Scotland’s many resources and the ‘talent’ of its ‘well-educated’ population. No sniggering, please. Why these features – if one accepts them as accurate – would be more of a conspicuous factor in a separate Scotland than they are now is not vouchsafed to us. Doing things differently from the UK seems mostly to involve ditching Trident – which would save rather small amounts of money – and not becoming involved in ‘illegal wars’. Few nationalists are able to explain what ‘the levers’ are. There is talk of taxing corporations and oil companies more, without any comprehension of the damaging effects that would have. In addition, the effects of having two different tax jurisdictions on one island would be painfully evident in short order, as firms and individuals migrated south.

With oil now bringing in virtually no revenue, and indeed costing the Exchequer money, we hear little of the economic case for separation that the SNP made so much of before the 2014 referendum, at a time when the oil price was around $113 per barrel. Last year, Ms Sturgeon appointed a Growth Commission to examine the economic case for secession. This is led by Andrew Wilson, a former SNP MSP. He has already been quoted as scotching the specious case promoted by Alex Salmond in 2014, that ‘oil is a bonus’, not the essential foundation of our wealth. Mr Wilson has said very clearly that in the 2013 White Paper ‘oil was baked into’ the nationalist case. That is, it was regarded as being essential and not a bonus.

It was said in March 2017 that Mr Wilson’s commission would be reporting ‘soon’. That, however, was before a general election was imminent. The latest news is that Ms Sturgeon has been informed of the report’s findings. I think one can put a modest wager on the general public’s not learning of Mr Wilson’s findings in advance of the election on 8 June. It seems unlikely that Mr Wilson is the bringer of good tidings to Ms Sturgeon, given that Scotland currently raises £53 billion in revenue but spends £68 billion, courtesy of the Barnett formula. This, and its ramifications, is not the kind of information that the SNP government wishes to become part of public discourse in the weeks and days before an election.

Some SNP dignitaries have, perhaps inadvertently, given the game away. George Kerevan, SNP MP, did so in July 2016, saying: ‘Scotland could face five years of “painful” budget cuts if it votes for independence in a post-Brexit referendum’. He was letting his audience down lightly. Nevertheless, Mr Kerevan was then leaned on by SNP central and had to write articles with a contrary message by way of atonement.

Again, Angus Robertson, SNP MP, said in August 2016 that ‘The SNP must acknowledge the potential downsides of independence in order to win over those who voted No in 2014…. I think it is incumbent on politicians of all political persuasions to say that not everything is going to be easy’. Mr Robertson did not, however, spell out what ‘the potential downsides of independence’ might be.

Back in 2012, in a confidential briefing paper that was subsequently leaked, Finance Minister John Swinney, MSP, had opined, on the subject of setting up an ‘independent’ Scotland, that ‘Undoubtedly there will be a cost in setting up and running the necessary institutions and in some cases these are likely to be significant’, estimating that tax collection alone would cost between £575 million and £625 million annually. This was at a time when Alex Salmond claimed that the entire cost of establishing the machinery of the new state would cost between £200 and £250 million.

The reason that the SNP leadership does not tell its followers – or the rest of us – the truth is that its knows that, if it did tell the truth, especially about Scotland’s dire economic performance, its support would melt away. The deficit would not dissipate with a declaration of ‘independence’: Scots would be faced with spending a lot less on themselves than they do now, to a more than eye-watering extent. The diehard nationalists, who would sleep on the heather and eat oat bannocks rather than give up their ‘faith’ and ‘hope’, will accept whatever the SNP says. But those who had expected to arrive at nirvana with ‘independence’ would soon realise that they were supporting a party that was committed to lowering their living standards radically.

The various bonuses that we were told in 2014 would be coming our way with the mere fact of ‘independence’ – £500, £600, even £5,000 each, plus a free iPad – were pie in the sky then and would not be in the least plausible now in the more straitened circumstances of 2017, with no oil revenue to ‘bake into’ an SNP economic case. Scots who are numerate, rational and critical are not taken in, and their numbers are growing.

Jill Stephenson is Emeritus Professor of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh

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