Tom Peterkin: SNP must play numbers game to win

Nicola Sturgeon at the recent SNP conference, where the BBC was accused of peddling half-truths. Picture: Getty
Nicola Sturgeon at the recent SNP conference, where the BBC was accused of peddling half-truths. Picture: Getty
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Less griping about the BBC and more economics would serve the party well, writes Tom Peterkin

In her opening speech to the SNP conference, Nicola Sturgeon listed some formidable statistics. Putting some numbers on the sheer scale of the gathering, the First Minister noted that 3,500 delegates would pass through the Aberdeen Exhibition and ­Conference Centre over the three-day event.

The unprecedented interest in the rise of the SNP meant that 1,000 observers, exhibitors and journalists were also there, adding to the sense of occasion last week. With party membership standing at more then 114,000, the number of new people the SNP has attracted to its cause is truly impressive. As is the enthusiasm, drive and commitment of those who have rallied to the SNP’s standard.

Less impressive, however, was some of the gurning in the conference hall and during the fringe events, where many were clearly struggling to get over last year’s ­referendum defeat.

To no-one’s surprise the public enemy number one was the BBC. The incessant gripes about supposed bias in its referendum coverage were impossible to escape. Seeking a scapegoat for the No vote, delegates parroted from a familiar script, penned by Alex Salmond, about how the independence cause was thwarted by the BBC.

The SNP’s frustrations with the Corporation were articulated at an extraordinary fringe meeting attended by Ewan Angus, the commissioning editor for television at BBC Scotland.

An ill-tempered session was marred by angry heckling and a walkout. It also saw one SNP councillor claiming the BBC had peddled “half truths” that were worse than those created by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda ­minister.

Back in the real world, most would acknowledge that the BBC’s judgment was not always spot-on during the referendum.

But the fact that those on both sides of the referendum were exasperated by its coverage during a long and heated debate suggests misjudments were not down to an anti-independence conspiracy, but were more to do with the challenges of covering a complex and fast-moving campaign.

Somewhat more surprising was that the sense of grievance permeating through Aberdeen was so overarching that it went far beyond the BBC, the mainstream media and all the other usual suspects.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) – the independent research group set up to inform public debate on economics – also got it in the neck when their director spoke at a fringe meeting on taxation. One delegate stood up and said “so-called impartial institutions” like the civil service, the diplomatic service and the BBC were “propaganda agents” for a No vote.

“I got the same impression with the IFS. It was almost like a political party... the tone of it was all against independence,” the delegate claimed.

This contribution rankled with IFS director Paul Johnson who said he resented the accusation and “entirely rejected” it.

“We are genuinely a wholly independent foundation and we provide our advice and analysis objectively,” Johnson said. “We said and I said Scotland is a rich nation perfectly capable of being independent economically on its own. It is a rich nation.

“But spending in Scotland is about 20 per cent per head higher than the rest of the UK and tax revenues are about the same per head. The consequence, therefore, must be that independence must require either higher taxes or lower spending. That’s not economics, that’s arithmetic.”

In a nutshell, Johnson summed up a challenge that the SNP would be far better addressing than moaning about the BBC or the IFS.

Whether it is economics or arithmetic, it was the failure of the Yes campaign to convince voters that independence made financial sense which cost it dear last September.

As if to underline the point, the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson made little reference to the economic implications of independence when he was asked to analyse where the Yes case had faltered in another conference session.

Robertson made much of the idea that independence supporters had failed to win over the elderly and English voters based in Scotland while skirting around the issue of tax hikes or public services cuts.

But perhaps the most graphic illustration of the SNP’s failure to take account of the economic case for independence came when the party’s deputy leader Stewart Hosie was interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC (where else?).

On the Daily Politics, Neil had the temerity to ask Hosie some difficult questions about the economic viability of an independent Scotland, given the catastrophic drop in the price of oil.

Neil pointed out that the SNP White Paper had made its calculations for independence based on an oil price in excess of $100 per barrel.

Now that the price had plummeted to less than £50 per barrel, Neil wanted to know how an independent Scotland would have coped.

With the sort of grasp of detail that so infuriates the SNP hard core, Neil pointed out the disparity between the White Paper’s estimate that oil revenues would be £8 billion in 2016-17 and the current estimates for the same year.

Informed that the latest predictions were for just £500 million from the North Sea in 2016-17, Hosie could do no better than attempt to dismiss Neil for making a “hypothetical” point before taking solace from the fact that his side had lost the referendum.

Doubtless, there are some who think the BBC were guilty of gross impertinence by daring to challenge SNP orthodoxy and suggesting the party had brought Scotland to an independence referendum on a “false prospectus”.

There are others (perhaps even some within the SNP itself), who believe more work must be done to make the economic argument for independence.