Peter Jones: Shooting down independence statistics

A crack Swat team should be able to blast Better Together's bad maths out of sight. Picture: Getty Images
A crack Swat team should be able to blast Better Together's bad maths out of sight. Picture: Getty Images
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The Better Together campaign may have shot itself in the foot by failing to do its sums properly, writes Peter Jones

Never let it be said that The Scotsman has no influence. No sooner did I write in last week’s column that there was a desperate need for the statistics being used by both sides of the referendum debate to be independently checked and monitored then up popped the UK Statistics Authority offering a referendum statistical bible. Result! But much more needs to be done.

What we need is an SAS troop of elite statisticians and economists prepared to swing into action whenever a suspect package of spurious numbers and unstable facts is detected in the public arena, threatening to poison debate and corrupt impressionable minds.

Blam! Doubtful numbers are blown up. Brrrrap! Dodgy data series are shot away. Kapow! Fictitious facts are felled. And no prisoners will be taken.

The UK Statistics Authority doesn’t quite do that job. But it is to be congratulated on producing a 72-page bulletproof document so swiftly. It certainly provides an extremely useful basic fact-checker, listing all the available facts on which a judgment whether Scottish independence might be good or bad could be made. It also says where there are gaps and recommends that they be filled.

Pleasingly, it provides evidence to support my argument last week that the assertion in the Scottish Government paper on pensions that Scotland’s population is ageing less quickly than the rest of the UK’s people is the opposite of the truth.

In the online comments on that article (none of which sought to deny what I was saying), I was chided (putting it mildly) for not doing a proper demolition job on a paper produced by Better Together, the No campaign. This, circulated to journalists in September, claimed that the SNP had already run up a £32 billion bill that taxpayers would have to meet should Scotland become independent.

Actually, I had looked at it when it came out and thought it was so absurd that nobody would report it, let alone believe it. Sadly, I was wrong, some newspapers did regurgitate it. This newspaper didn’t, except to quote the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson when she quoted it at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last week.

So permit me to slip the safety catch on my Heckler & Koch submachinegun and fling a stun grenade at Ms Davidson: if this is an example of her ability to add up numbers, she should never be allowed to look at a government office, still less get inside it.

The Better Together paper confused annual current spending with one-off spending; it added one-year sums to totals that don’t occur for another 47 years, and it did some asinine double counting. In short, it added two and two and made 44. It is complete nonsense.

It included £13.3 million about to be spent on holding the referendum next year. Not only is this a one-off sum, it will also be spent while Scotland is still part of the UK, not when independent. But this is a mere detail.

There are some numbers which look fair enough: abolishing the so-called bedroom tax (£60m), changing the earnings disregard to give parity to women (£70m), having to drop tuition fees paid by students from the rest of the UK (£150m). All these costings have SNP ministers as their noted source.

But these are cited alongside a costing of the triple-lock state pension guarantee attributed to the Labour Party (hardly a disinterested source) and said to cost £713m by, wait for it, 2050. Such a triple cost will undoubtedly cost money (from which pensioners will benefit), but what the price will be in any given year is not calculable with any precision because nobody knows what inflation or the increase in average earnings (two parts of the triple lock) will be next year, never mind in 2050.

But then there is a really big juicy number: £20 billion. This is the cost in tax reliefs that will have to be given to oil companies to help pay an estimated £37bn bill for decommissioning exhausted oilfields, money that will have to be given away by, wait for it again, 2050. So, Better Together is equating a cumulative bill (for decommissioning) with a peak bill (for pensions).

But even this decommissioning bill is spurious because, like the UK national debt, it is a liability that has yet to materialise in the shape of a demand for payment. And because both are liabilities incurred in the days of the union, then the whole union is liable to pay.

Just as the national debt would have to be apportioned between Scotland and the rest of the UK, so in all probability would the decommissioning bill, making Scotland’s share a bit less than £2bn, to be spent over the next 35 years at, on average, £70m a year.

But that is not the worst part. The worst is that Better Together appears to have forgotten its central case – that Scotland in the union pools resources and risks and derives benefits from that. There is no other explanation for the document’s claim that the £2.5bn the Scottish Government says it will spend on defence is somehow an extra post-independence cost.

In fact, Scotland’s notional public accounts, which say that in 2011-12 a total of £64.5bn was spent by government on Scotland, include a sum for defence spending – of £3.4bn. So the £2.5bn that would allegedly be spent on defence post-independence would represent a saving of £900m, not a cost.

I could go on, but I think that by now readers will get the point – the £32bn “black hole” cited by Ms Davidson does not exist. There may well be a black hole, or there may be the opposite, but right now nobody knows. And the sums that need to be done to find out certainly ain’t these ones.

And that is why we need a Swat squad of highly-trained accountants, statisticians and economists to blast away all the rubbish before it starts festering and polluting the independence debate.

Meantime, Better Together needs to learn two lessons. First, that this nonsense commits a cardinal political sin – insulting the intelligence of the voters. And secondly, that it will pay for that sin. The next time Better Together produces a set of impressively big numbers it should not be surprised if it just gets a big laugh.