Brian Wilson: Skittles of assertion falling down

Former prime minister Gordon Brown might well laugh, as the No campaign gathers pace Picture: TSPL
Former prime minister Gordon Brown might well laugh, as the No campaign gathers pace Picture: TSPL
Share this article
Have your say

THE two most recent opinion polls suggest a 20-point lead for opponents of Scottish independence, which pretty much takes us back to where we started. But the underlying figures reported by YouGov may prove to be even more significant.

They suggest that the Nationalists are steadily losing the economic argument with only 17 per cent persuaded that they personally would be better off under independence while 27 per cent expect that Scotland would be. Both figures have declined in recent months.

This is the data that sent St Andrew’s House into a spin with an emergency meeting to which special advisers and civil servants, including the “Head of News” at the Scottish Government, were summoned. They reportedly decided that what the people needed was more information, to the tune of £700,000 which will result in yet another communiqué coming to every home in Scotland.

I think they would be better spending the money on schools and hospitals since it is pretty clear that the louder the Nationalists speak of their honour, the faster the electorate are counting the spoons. In the face of hard, practical evidence, they simply do not believe the unprovable assertions on which the Nationalists’ economic case is founded.

This widening of the credibility gap has less to do with a lack of information than a narrowing of the time focus. Contrary to the wishes of the political village, the great majority of Scots have not spent the past two years worrying about the referendum. But as it draws closer, they are most certainly calculating the consequences and don’t like what they see.

If the Nationalist campaign wishes to reappraise its direction, preferably in the absence of civil servants, it might do well to wonder whether the basic strategy of telling people they would be thousands of pounds better off and that, otherwise, everything would go on as before was as smart as they assumed.

Not one of the assumptions on which these assertions are based can be demonstrated to be true. And the more they have been subjected to scrutiny – on European Union membership, on currency, on oil revenues, on the costs of setting up a separate state – the more inadequate the assertions have appeared. Yet it is on their credibility that jobs, savings and pensions depend.

One of the few advantages of this campaign having dragged on for so long is that there is now a record against which the Nationalist claims can be tested. Projected oil revenues offer an excellent example of this since we have, in black-and-white, the Scottish Government’s projections of what the North Sea would raise year by year.

This is a matter of huge importance since, as finance secretary John Swinney helpfully pointed out in his leaked paper for Scottish Cabinet colleagues, an independent Scotland’s ability to meet its pension and welfare responsibilities is dependent on the proceeds from oil and gas exceeding what would be lost through Barnett Formula consequentials – that is, the additional money that comes to Scotland via UK government spending decisions.

As one would expect, the Scottish Government claimed to know more than anyone else in the world about the forward price of oil and set its projections accordingly. Just about everyone else told them they were wrong. This week it emerged from HMRC statistics that revenues in 2013-14 were £3.7 billion less than the Nationalists predicted – almost equivalent to the entire Scottish schools budget.

This is due not only to falling production but also the fact that higher levels of investment, and tax relief, are now required to get the stuff out of the North Sea – scarcely a state secret but one which confirms why it would be incredibly foolish to base our economic future on an imponderable which would be ten times more significant for Scotland than it currently is for the UK.

Or take this week’s very pertinent ruling by the European Court of Justice which confirms that there is no obligation for an EU member state to subsidise renewable production in another country, even if it is importing the power. The context was an appeal by a Finnish company against the Swedish government’s reluctance to subsidise renewable energy from outside its own borders.

As I have repeatedly pointed out, it is completely irrational to assume that the UK Continuing would subsidise expensive Scottish renewables if we were a separate state, leaving Scottish consumers alone to pick up a tab which is currently spread across the whole UK.

This latest ruling goes a large step further by confirming that there would be absolutely no obligation to do so. Where does that leave the “100 per cent renewables” policy in an independent Scotland?

One by one, the skittles of assertion are knocked down with remarkable ease as it is shown that they have nothing more than bluster to keep them standing. Why is anyone going to stake their economic future on people who are so cynical in failing to distinguish between reality and their own unsubstantiated assumptions about matters which it is not even within their gift to deliver?

The UK government also did its bit to remind Glasgow in particular that things could be an awful lot worse economically under independence. For all their efforts to exploit the city’s social issues for political profit, the Nationalists have a long record of not recognising Glasgow’s needs through the practical matter of funding allocations.

This dates all the way back to the decision in 2007 to cancel the Glasgow Airport Rail Link in order to fund the SNP’s priorities elsewhere in Scotland. It is excellent news for the West of Scotland that this project has been revived through the City Deals fund.

It is also an important political statement that there are some UK-wide programmes which are best funded directly into Scotland for a stated purpose rather than filtered through Holyrood, where the money is simply re-badged and can easily be diverted into other populist priorities without accountability for how it was used.

City Deals is necessary within an economic and geographical context, regardless of the constitution, as a strategy for countering the pull of the south-east, as much in Glasgow as in Leeds or Manchester. It is churlish to talk about this as a referendum bribe when it is purely about including Glasgow in a UK-wide strategy that the city council has fought hard to be included in.

The fact that Glasgow has dealt direct with the UK government to achieve the economic recognition that is not always accorded to it from within Scotland itself is a necessary reminder that two heids are sometimes better than one.