Leaders: Mr Swinney must err on the side of caution over oil | Same sentence as Huhne unjust to Pryce

John Swinney. Picture: PA
John Swinney. Picture: PA
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IT’S Scotland’s oil. A simple but highly effective slogan, first coined by the Scottish National Party in the 1970s, it has always been controversial.

Unionists argue it’s the UK’s oil, actually, and its benefits, particularly in terms of tax, should be spread across the whole of Britain, not selfishly hoarded north of the Border. Nationalists argue that as the hydrocarbons are mostly off our shores it is Scots, and Scots alone, who should reap the benefits of the black gold.

Neither side is ever likely to convince the other, but there is one fact which is now pretty much accepted: were Scotland to become an independent nation, the oil – and the jobs and revenue that come with it – would be Scotland’s, with a potentially profound effect on the economy of the nascent state. The question is what that effect will be.

According to the SNP government, the figures it published yesterday show there are “boom years ahead”. Based on “recent trends in investment and prices” the industry will generate between £41 and £57 billion in tax revenue between 2012-13 and 2017-18, with a the average being approximately £48 billion.

Not so, say the Better Together campaign, pointing to a private paper from finance secretary John Swinney, leaked last week, which said oil revenue might fall with a subsequent “deterioration” in Scotland’s finances.

So where does the truth lie? With apologies to those who like their politics in black and white, both sides have a case. Better Together pointed out the oil revenue prediction made in the Swinney paper was based on figures from the UK government’s independent Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR). Most experts agree that the OBR is being very cautious. However they also agree that yesterday’s SNP figures are overly optimistic.

So what are the known knowns? It is a fact that oil production rises and falls, and oil revenues do the same. Even if the SNP implements its promise to cut corporation tax below the current UK rate and introduces a more benign tax regime for the North Sea there is no absolute guarantee tax revenues – which will finance the social democratic programmes the nationalists aspire to – will rise. There is a chance they might, a good chance even, but we cannot be sure.

Voters are not stupid. They have experienced too many promises of new dawns and brave new worlds to be taken in by unrealistic claims made by anyone. For that reason, the finance secretary would be wise not to overstate his case.

As someone who has made his name as a solid minister, not prone to hyperbole, Mr Swinney would be well advised to make his plans based on conservative estimates of the impact of oil on Scotland in the hope expectations would be exceeded rather than exposed as wishful pre-referendum nationalist thinking.

The fact is that no-one can reliably foretell the future, so caution is the sensible approach.

Same sentence as Huhne unjust to Pryce

Perverting the course of justice is not some minor felony. It is a serious offence in the eyes of the law. So it was no surprise that former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne and his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, were jailed after she conspired with him to take his driving licence points when it was he who had been speeding in 2003.

Many will argue that both parties got their just deserts. As the drama of the case emerged in the courtroom, it became clear both had lied about the speeding ticket incident which, had it been admitted at the time, would have been embarrassing to Mr Huhne, but not ended his political career, as his admission of guilt did.

In his sentencing, the judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, was unforgiving, saying that any element of tragedy in the case – a reference to Ms Pryce’s attempt to get revenge on her husband for walking out on her by ensuring his conviction while keeping out of the spotlight herself – was entirely their fault.

While there can be no excuse for breaking the law in this way, we question whether in this case the punishment fits the crime. If anyone deserved to go to jail it is Mr Huhne, not Ms Pryce. He committed the offence, denied it for years and finally changed his plea to guilty. She was reluctant to accept the points at first. But she did.

So offences were committed and the offenders deserve to be punished. But the judge has got it seriously wrong by sentencing them both to the same amount of jail time. Huhne’s was by far the greater crime, he was the instigator, and him getting less time in jail because, at the very last moment, he pleaded guilty, is not justice. Ms Pryce can rightly consider herself hard done to.