Euan McColm: Swinney’s missing figures conundrum

John Swinney is yet to reveal what the cost of establishing an independent state might be. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
John Swinney is yet to reveal what the cost of establishing an independent state might be. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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THE SNP is not always as light on the detail of independence as its opponents like to suggest. While unionist politicians would have us believe that each and every assertion made by Scottish Nationalists is based on fantasy, the truth is different.

Take, for example, the matter of the armed forces in an independent Scotland. Do you want detail? Well it’s there, and so is the cost.

The Scottish Government’s White Paper, published last year, proposes that a Scottish Defence Force (SDF) would have 20,000 personnel, 16 Typhoon jet fighters and four frigates. There is a description of how army, navy and air forces would be structured, and a proposal that the entire military ­machine would take three years to create.

And, crucially, the White Paper tells us that the SDF would cost £2.5 billion a year to maintain.

Of course, opponents say the detail is wrong, that there are too many questions unanswered, but this is a thorough piece of work, certainly detailed enough for the SNP to claim it credible. This makes the gaping hole in the SNP’s financial plans for independence which have emerged this week all the more surprising.

First Minister Alex Salmond is either unable or unwilling to tell us his Government’s estimate of the cost of establishing an independent Scotland. Thus, while he has suggested a cost for a defence force, he has not explained what the bill might be for setting up and maintaining a new Scottish ministry of defence.

Nor has Salmond made public his own costings for other new Government departments and institutions that would be required in an independent Scotland.

This is, as one prominent nationalist thinker told me, baffling.

In a great many cases, the SNP (and the broader Yes campaign) has problems when it comes to the costs and claimed benefits of its proposals. They may predict economic growth or fairer taxation and any number of agreeable sounding things, but until independence becomes a reality, if it ever does, then we will never know for sure whether that which is now asserted bears any resemblance to the truth.

So it is strange that the Scottish Government has not provided figures in this instance when there can be little doubt, surely, about what the needs might be.

It’s not credible that the Scottish Government can’t place a price on setting up new departments. They must by now know what sort of staffing levels they would require. It is not a leap, then, for a total cost to be calculated.

Here’s where the plot thickens. Back in June of 2012, Finance Secretary John Swinney briefed that work was under way to provide what he described as a “comprehensive” overview of the institutions, the staff numbers, and the costs required to run a separate state.

If this was happening – and who would doubt Swinney’s word? – then why is the First Minister unable, two years on, to show us the figures?

According to a spokesman for Salmond, civil servants have never been asked to produce a set-up cost for an independent Scotland. The work to which Swinney referred back in 2012 had been built into the White Paper, said the spinner. The White Paper, however, doesn’t contain a line about the cost of a new state.

The usually sure-footed Swinney participated in something of a car crash of a radio interview on the issue last week, failing 13 times to reveal what the cost of establishing an independent state might be.

Salmond later threw out an estimate of £250m which is around £180m less than the cost of the Scottish Parliament building and, therefore, might be considered optimistic. Salmond’s back of a fag packet response was downgraded, a day later, to £200m, or a Euromillions win and change.

The Scottish Government’s failure to publish costings collided messily with what should have been a great week for the Yes campaign.

Last Monday, the Treasury claimed that the cost of setting up an independent Scotland would be a far from inconsiderable £2.7bn. Opponents might dismiss this sort of thing as scaremongering, but that’s a scary ­figure.

What justified glee, then, among Nationalists when the academic on whose work this claim was based described the use of his research as ludicrous. Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics dismissed the Treasury’s claims as crude misinformation, pointing out that the figure of £2.7bn had been created using research into the cost of reorganising existing Whitehall departures. This was painful stuff for the Better Together campaign which had no good answer to the professor’s charge that the Treasury was talking rubbish.

The UK government’s shocking ineptitude on this issue might have given Yes campaigners a lift, but it does not remove from the SNP the responsibility to provide its own answers. “The No campaign’s figures are rubbish – but we don’t have any figures of our own” is hardly an inspiring message.

There have already been claims of a cover-up from Salmond’s opponents. They want to plant the idea that, in fact, the cost of Scotland standing alone has been calculated and that it is so terrifying that the First Minister dare not release it.

The fact is that this is one of only two possible scenarios. The other is that the costings simply were not done. This would leave a question over what Swinney meant in 2012. And it would take us back to the biggest question: why on Earth weren’t these costs calculated?

We can try to read some more positive strategy into it, but nothing logical presents itself.

The failure of the Scottish Government to provide some solid figures on the price of independence is just odd. It makes no sense.

The SNP is already fighting attacks on a number of fronts, on issues of currency, EU membership and credit ratings. The cost of an independent Scotland is a new battleground, one on which the Yes campaign is poorly armed.

That is the fault of the SNP, whose reasons for allowing this to happen currently remain a mystery. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm