Brian Wilson: The ‘dodgy dossier’ of independence

A respected insider has laid bare the untruths of the White Paper, writes Brian Wilson

Alex Bell's criticism suggests John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon knew the White Paper was flawed. Picture: JP

It is always good to have validation of one’s opinions, however belatedly, when it comes from an authoritative source. Step forward Alex Bell, erstwhile chief policy adviser to the Scottish Government.

Amidst the small army of politically-appointed special advisers who inhabit Holyrood, Mr Bell was the one closest to authorship of the White Paper prior to the independence referendum. So when he writes that “the SNP’s model of independence is broken beyond repair”, he deserves to be listened to.

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Reading what Alex Bell wrote, I was struck by how closely it accorded with what opponents of independence were saying at the time. For our trouble, we were subjected to charges of statistical falsification, general cowardice, treachery and every other component of “talking Scotland down”. In an age of political apologies, perhaps we are now due one.

Let the bells ring out for Alex when he acknowledges that “the SNP’s (economic) case – UK levels of spending, no tax increases, relatively high government borrowing but a stable economy – was more possible within the Union than without. With declining oil revenues and a long period of low growth, that is more true now than in the last couple of decades”. Well, hallelujah!

In such a crowded news week, it is inevitable that Mr Bell’s extremely frank analysis should have received less attention than it deserved. But this is a story with a shelf-life. For everything he admits or alleges will have continuing relevance to the debate on Scotland’s constitutional status and to assessing the integrity of the pro-independence case in future.

In short, he has told us not only that the economic argument in favour of a Yes vote was a con – but that the people fronting it knew perfectly well that it was a con; all of which has been confirmed by subsequent events. That is a dramatically serious charge. They came within five cent of getting away with it and, if they had, we would now be living with the consequences.

This will not trouble hardcore Nationalists who, like all fundamentalists, have a dangerous habit of believing that the end justifies the means. But for a million more who voted out of trust and good faith, it is surely a deeply disturbing allegation from someone who was party to the whole exercise.

With reference to his former employers, Alex Bell wrote that “only fools believe their own propaganda” and since he obviously does not consider either Nicola Sturgeon or John Swinney to be a fool, his point is clear – they knew as well as he did that the White Paper was a load of economic nonsense. As he added: “The idea that you could have a Scotland with high public spending, low taxes, a stable economy and a reasonable government debt was wishful a year ago – now it is deluded.”

He knows it, they know it, everyone should know it. But do they? For it is not only fools who believe propaganda. When the machine is ruthlessly utilised, it is an extremely powerful instrument of persuasion. Many decent, trusting Scots were duped into accepting what is now acknowledged as a grand economic deception. For that, those responsible deserve to be held accountable.

Alex Bell admits that “a significant part of the Yes campaign” – that the Scottish economy could sustain British levels of public spending – was untrue. But the fiction was “obscured by lots of noise, and the SNP is accomplished at shouting”.

Indeed it is. But when the shouting and flag-waving died down, the honest victims would now be counting the cost and paying with their jobs, while those who had exploited their credulity revelled in their own cleverness.

I have disagreement but no quarrel with those who want independence, full stop, without regard to cost or implications and are prepared to make that appeal to fellow Scots. But cobbling up an economic case in the full knowledge that it is largely false, for the short term purpose of deceiving one’s fellow citizens, is another matter altogether which should neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

Another outstanding question is about the role of the civil service. When Alex Bell concedes that all the economic projections in the White Paper were “optimistic” – itself something of an under-statement – he writes as someone whose role was unashamedly political. The fact that the head of the Scottish Civil Service, the unlamented Sir Peter Housden, legitimised it without even that crucial caveat remains as a standing indictment.

The SNP are the dominant force within Scottish politics with no obvious reason to expect this to change any time soon. Since I have long regarded that as the probable consequence of devolution, I am as unsurprised as I am unenthusiastic. It has not led to any intellectual fervour or radical innovation, nor will it. Instead, we have a permanent constitutional wrangle, managerial government and not very good performance indicators in health, education, the economy or anything else.

Expectations of what Scottish politics is capable of delivering continue to be lowered because there is so much focus on “powers” rather than outcomes. Until that agenda changes, the Nationalists will flourish because they will outflank their opponents in terms of what they demand, by shouting loudly and by blaming the lack of these hallowed powers for every deficiency in actual performance.

I fear that we have some distance to go before all of that is seen through and only then if a credible alternative has presented itself. That is the realistic, if not particularly optimistic, prognosis for Scottish politics. But the next big step – independence – is an entirely different proposition. For all the reasons Mr Bell has spelt out, that remains as unlikely a prospect as ever because the case is not just weak but “deluded”.

It is up to the SNP to decide whether to accept his advice and go back to the drawing board, rather than keep repeating the same old gramophone records. Meanwhile, the rest of us can draw attention to Mr Bell’s confessional and point out: “You don’t have to take our word for what we saved you from - just read this!”