Brian Wilson: Thank God we didn’t believe ‘facts’

Alex Salmond plays 'shock-Jock' when he might have been celebrating an independent Scotland. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond plays 'shock-Jock' when he might have been celebrating an independent Scotland. Picture: PA
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THE BOGUS figures that informed the SNP’s pre-indyref White Paper have been exposed, writes Brian Wilson

As the Ides of March approach, it might all have been so different. The bunting would be out in Edinburgh with Saltire manufacturers labouring round the clock to satisfy demand.

Instead of honing credentials as a shock-Jock in London, Alex Salmond would be preparing to welcome princes and potentates to his court. Amidst the monster helpings of bread and circuses, who would have noticed the boring old GERS figures?

Publication may even have been cancelled, lest intimation of a £15 billion black hole inhibit the mood of public rejoicing. Inconveniently, the facts would have remained the same – with the consequences flowing from them brutally inescapable once the hubris subsided.

The Edinburgh ruling class and their hangers-on would be undisturbed. “We only had to win once,” they would snigger, while toasting their own cleverness. Out in the streets, dissidents who spoke of awful economic consequences would be abused with renewed patriotic fervour…

Fortunately, we can speculate harmlessly about what we might now be living through since grim reality was averted on 18 September, 2014. Instead, we are required to suffer the “minimal impacts” of Swinney’s cuts, the narrative of perpetual grievance and the threat of another referendum.

It is scarcely uplifting but compared to what might have been, it’s a stroll in the park. So let us raise a timely glass to a fate avoided, which would certainly not have been paid for by the architects of the great deception. There is an argument against re-fighting battles that have been won and lost. But this must be counted an exception. The run-up to the referendum and the fraudulent case set out in the White Paper is not just history. It is, more importantly, a lesson which should never be lost sight of in the future.

Like all fundamentalist beliefs, nationalism creates zealots who are prone to assuming that their end justifies the means. If the facts do not suit, create new ones. If history does not stand scrutiny, rewrite it. Above all, if the numbers do not stack up, brazen it out and make them up. This will never change.

There are plenty decent nationalists exempt from these charges. Their belief is based on a principle they place above others. If there are negative economic consequences, then so be it – they should be set against other benefits and opportunities. That is a standpoint which can be argued with, honourably and without rancour. It involves neither denial nor falsification.

But that was not the route chosen by Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney. For them, the mission was to concoct an economic case they knew to be thoroughly dishonest but which they hoped would avoid exposure long enough for them to win. They did not give a toss for the ordinary people of Scotland who would now be paying the horrendous price which this week’s figures confirmed, with much worse still to come.

In BBC’s Question Time from Dundee – itself a pretty dismal reflection of the level Scottish politics has descended to – there was one exchange of significance. It came when Willie Rennie tried to quote back to Swinney the warnings he sounded in his briefing to Scottish Cabinet colleagues in 2013. This was a document the public was never meant to see and it proved to be the most revealing one. Swinney became agitated and tried to talk Rennie down with denials but it is critical to recall what Swinney said. Exactly as Rennie sought to point out, he warned colleagues oil price volatility could jeopardise an independent Scotland’s ability to pay pensions and benefits. For years, he wrote, benefits from the Barnett Formula (which were to be lost) had exceeded what additional revenues from oil would have brought in.

The leaking of this paper started the chain of events leading to the scandal of the White Paper. Recognising its seriousness, Salmond produced something grandly entitled “The First Oil and Gas Analytical Bulletin” conjuring up £26bn more from oil revenues than Swinney’s paper had assumed. In 2017-18 alone, according to Salmond’s “bulletin”, Scotland was to receive £11.8bn in oil revenues. This set the pattern for what followed – invent the figures required and then work backwards. In March 2014, I wrote here about a debate in Aberdeen with Fergus Ewing when he quoted a forward price of £110 a barrel as the basis of the SNP’s assumptions. This was a knowledgeable audience and he was ridiculed. “Your numbers are not taken seriously,” one oil man told him. “Your numbers are simply wrong.”

The significant point was that Ewing had nothing to say in response. Like the rest of them, he had been given this absurd number to quote because the whole economic case depended on it. Of course, subsequent reality has been even worse than most were then predicting, but it is absolutely untrue for anyone to claim Salmond and Sturgeon did not know (a) the figures they were using were bogus and (b) the implications for the Scottish people would be extremely serious. Swinney (and many others) had told them so in explicit terms.

It may well be that half the Scottish electorate is happy to have been systematically lied to on a matter of such fundamental importance to the Scottish economy and the well-being of every family in the country. But hope still remains in the fact that the other half is not. That is one reflection of how they have divided Scotland along utterly unproductive lines while still having the gall to talk about another referendum.

Sturgeon’s performance at First Minister’s Question Time this week had guilt written all over it, but not a word of contrition. Just turn up the volume, accuse those who tried to tell the truth of being anti-Scottish and bluster in the manner she learned at the feet of the master.

The lifting of scales from eyes is a protracted business. However, I expect some of those who would now be suffering austerity beyond current contemplation are now having second thoughts.

Meanwhile, those of us who tried to tell them and were denigrated so vigorously for our efforts have the satisfaction of confirmation, from the Scottish Government’s own figures, that we were absolutely, 100 per cent right.