For those interested enough to look beyond the media headlines, the demonstrators’ slogans and the politicians’ sound-bites, the last couple of weeks have reminded us that while stating an argument often enough might have it believed, it does not make it true.
On Grangemouth we were told repeatedly by the Unite trade union that the owner was bluffing, that the plant was not loss-making and that another owner could be found by the politicians. Their bluff was called in dramatic fashion and the cold reality of over-capacity of petrochemical production in far too expensive Europe suddenly could not be denied. Who would take on the risk, who would buy that plant? The unions knew overnight that they had to offer unconditional surrender and hope the media would move on to another issue.
On Scotland’s shipyards we have been told repeatedly by the SNP that orders for Royal Navy battleships would still come the way of our nation were we to choose independence and that the Secretary of State for Defence is scaremongering to say otherwise. Even after the MoD and Secretary of State for Scotland repeated the point that the order for the first thirteen Type 26 frigates would not be issued until after next year’s referendum and that complex battleships will not be built outside the United Kingdom, Nicola Sturgeon still claimed an independent Clydeside would get the work.
Unfortunately for Sturgeon the shipyard union is more in touch with reality and has said it fully expects Portsmouth’s closure to be reversed and the order go to them in the event of a Yes vote. They remember all too clearly how Rosyth lost out on refitting nuclear submarines after a promise had been given.
On tobacco, the SNP’s public health minister, Michael Matheson, displayed signs of having attended the same seances as Sturgeon when he announced on Friday the Scottish Government would press ahead with its plans to remove all branding from cigarette packaging. This came in the same week that a KPMG study had demonstrated with real statistical detail that such a measure had thus far shown no improvements in smoking cessation but had led to a significant climb in counterfeit and contraband sales.
Mr Matheson went so far to say: “I am very encouraged by the early findings coming out of Australia… These add to, and support, the wealth of existing evidence which consistently shows that plain packaging would reduce the appeal of tobacco products to consumers.”
But the early findings are, like the “existing evidence”, nothing other than surveys of opinion. What people might think and what people might do are not necessarily the same and do not constitute “evidence” to anybody other than politicians.
The first hard evidence of what actually has happened, conducted in the same manner as research into illegal sales of tobacco were conducted in Australia before its ban on brand packaging – so that lemons could be compared with lemons – repudiates the SNP’s version of reality. But don’t expect any change in approach this side of the 2016 Holyrood elections. Public health prohibitions have been turned into a patriotic issue, one which the SNP wishes to make us a world leader. It is a false reality that the SNP cannot easily give up its addiction to.
For the SNP to prosper it believes it has to promote the idea that we Scots are different, indeed superior; that we are not the same as the English, the rest of the UK, or even the rest of Europe. This is not made as some claim for racial supremacy but as an altogether more subtle claim that our civic society is more socially just, that in Scotland we do things differently, that we have a kinder, more caring approach to one another.
Well thus far, all I’m seeing is a superiority in self-deception, a group looking at issues through the prism of national boundaries rather than how individuals, families, or small groups such as local communities, villages and towns might think. There is as much difference within Scotland as there is between Scotland and England and no amount of repetition of bald assertions will disguise that.
Nevertheless, as we approach the referendum we will continue to hear the argument repeated that Scotland is significantly different and yet attitude surveys continue to show that where any difference does exist it is usually small and often within the margins of statistical error.
Last week, the Department of Work and Pensions released a survey conducted by Ipsos Mori on British public attitudes towards the reform of welfare benefits in general and the removal of the spare room subsidy in particular – what Labour hypocritically called the “bedroom tax”. Ed Miliband no doubt thought this was a good label as it played up to his stereotype that Tory toffs will cut taxes for the rich but raise them for the poor. It was slavishly adopted by the rest of the political left but all conveniently forgetting that Labour had introduced the same measure on housing benefits to tenants living in private accommodation without shouting “bedroom tax”.
Unfortunately for Mr Miliband and the SNP, the public actually supports the measure by a convincing 49 per cent to 33 per cent and welfare reform by a greater degree of three to one. This punctures the reality that the opponents of welfare reform – in Scotland and England – like to live in and seek to present as the norm.
Although the SNP makes great play of Scotland being different from the rest of the UK on this matter and is willing to spend at least £20 million of taxpayers’ money alleviating rental distress to demonstrate its own commitment to social justice, there is no reason to believe that the Scottish public takes a different view from the rest of the UK. Whatever the merits of the reform, do not be surprised to find that in the coming months the SNP’s case for independence based on the repeated assertion that Scots will wish to be more generous with welfare benefits is similarly confronted by reality. Labour would do well to ponder this probability.