Why talk of Scotland being 'subsidised' by the UK is wrong – Brian Wilson

One reason for higher levels of spending per head of population in Scotland is that it is home to eight per cent of the UK population but covers 32 per cent of its landmass

The latest GERS figures attracted a more muted response than is ritually expected. They show Scotland with a £19.1 billion gap (9 per cent of GDP) between tax revenues and public expenditure. This is less than last year which might normally have been pounced upon but since the source of that reduction is oil and gas, it was not much use to the SNP which is committed to closing down the North Sea at the earliest opportunity.

Also, it was a war dividend since the Ukraine conflict forced up the oil and gas prices while also leading to a windfall tax on the companies. So scarcely a set of circumstances to be fêted by anyone in order to make a political point.

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While the nationalists did not have much to say, their opponents had a reduced per capita “subsidy” figure to proclaim. This was a welcome relief since I dislike the reduction of this subject, like so many others, to a competition between Scotland and the UK.

Rarely can any government have put so much effort into discrediting its own statisticians instead of acknowledging realities which should be defended rather than denied. I would be happy to join them in that mission.

While denying the GERS figures’ integrity is ridiculous, there is nothing to like about the alternative message of Scotland as a subsidy-dependent basket case. That interpretation has only arisen in recent years, since the constitution became the false dichotomy in Scottish politics.

Since time immemorial, we had higher levels of public expenditure for perfectly good reasons. The principal one is that we have eight per cent of UK population and 32 per cent of landmass. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that this makes it more costly, per capita, to provide services and infrastructure.

Divergence arose through social conditions in the post-war years. Most of what the Scottish Government now spends money on was administratively devolved so there were separate health, education and housing budgets, secured by an influential Scottish Office. Eventually, this differential was formalised by the Barnett Formula to create a fixed share of spending in these devolved areas. That arrangement has served Scotland well and it’s idiotic to claim otherwise.

It also meant Scottish expenditure was easily identifiable. However, Scotland (obviously) is far from alone in benefiting from per capita public expenditure above the UK average. As the Fraser of Allander Institute pointed out this week: “Figures for all regions and nations of the UK have shown consistently… that outside of London and surrounding areas, most parts of the UK are estimated to raise less revenue than is spent on their behalf”.

In that context, Wales and Northern Ireland show substantial deficits; if the English regions had their equivalent of GERS, then most of them would too. Nowhere else, however, is this fervently translated into a political argument about “subsidy”. Personally, I don’t feel the least bit subsidised but I do feel short-changed by the way much of that additional money is spent and offended by the tedious argument that every problem can be attributed to Whitehall’s parsimony.

The economic case for independence is threadbare. In 2014, it depended on a ludicrous oil price projection, not reached on a single day until the Ukraine War. It’s fair enough to hypothesise about what might be in a separate Scotland but with minimal evidence to back it up, most Scots will judge accordingly.

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However, that does not relieve those of us who do not want to create a separate state from the need to put forward arguments that are not solely about the economy, but also the ties which bind us within a small island. Every corner of the UK needs a government with different priorities and values. That applies within the sound of Bow Bells as much as in Glasgow or Liverpool. Until we get back to that kind of political division, arguing one way or another about GERS is a diversion best avoided.

Who will defend free speech at Fringe?

One of many golden cameos from Father Ted involved the eponymous hero outside Craggy Island cinema with a poster proclaiming “Down with this kind of thing” in protest against a film in which, said Ted darkly, “nothing is left to the imagination”. Father Dougal’s poster warned “Careful now” as eager parishioners hurried into the cinema. Apart from being very funny, it wasn’t a bad metaphor. People who didn’t like something had the right to protest and those who thought otherwise had the right to ignore them.

It is ironic that Edinburgh’s latest victim was the co-creator of Father Ted, which helped change society through the weapon of humour by subjecting the Catholic priesthood to irreverence. It’s not long since Ireland’s censors were chopping lumps out of mainstream films for “this kind of thing”.

Graham Linehan’s offence, which has cost him dear in personal and professional terms, is to oppose “trans activists”, a polite description of those who target and harass anyone in public life who dares to challenge their core contentions. While Linehan has paid the price for becoming enmeshed in that debate, others see the danger signs and take the path of least resistance.

How demeaning is it for a theatrical figure of David Greig’s standing to issue a grovelling apology for “liking” a couple of tweets, one of which referred to “the gender madness”. Once accused by one Rosie Aspinall Priest, described as “an artist and researcher”, of “openly liking transphobic tweets”, what was the alternative for Mr Greig? To be hounded and boycotted for the rest of his professional life? Better to play safe and close the Twitter account.

Those who should be condemning these attacks on freedom of thought and expression on the Edinburgh Fringe of all places are conspicuous only by their silence, daring not even to plead “Down with this kind of thing”, lest they’re next in line. It’s not a great look for the home of the Enlightenment.



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