Peter Jones: the state of independence debate

Scientists at the Roslin Institute, one of the establishments, benefitting from UK funding. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Scientists at the Roslin Institute, one of the establishments, benefitting from UK funding. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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The debate on independence is desperately in need of more accurate research, conjecture and comment, writes Peter Jones

People, especially the fifth of the electorate who are likely to vote in the independence referendum but are currently undecided, want facts and reliable information to help them come to an opinion. Hopefully, the Scottish government’s independence white paper, a door-stopping 500 pages due out in two weeks, will do that job for the pro-independence side, as some of the material being put out by the Yes campaign is just indescribably bad.

Right now, the whole debate is in a dreadful trough. Whatever material is produced by either side is routinely denounced by the other as a “scare” or a “fantasy” with either no evidence being produced to back up that assertion, or with evidence that is just plain wrong.

Better Together, or the No campaign, has produced some awful stuff, as I wrote in this space a few weeks ago – a column which Alex Salmond was kind enough to refer to in complimentary terms at First Minister’s Questions on 10 October. That doesn’t mean, however that everything being said on the No side is awful.

Yesterday, the UK government came out with 50 pages of well-researched data and analysis on the funding of Scotland’s science and research capabilities. The main point of relevance to the independence debate is that Scotland gets about 10.7 per cent of UK public sector research funds, rather more than might be expected given Scotland’s 8.4 per share of UK population.

If Scotland was only getting a population share of research funds, there would be £60 million less. So the implication is pretty clear – Scotland’s universities and research institutes get a good deal out of the union. That isn’t an act of kindness, it reflects that the UK research councils which allocate the money think that Scotland’s universities and research institutes are top-class.

The implication of independence is also clear. While Scottish researchers will still get the share of Scottish tax revenues that is cycled by the UK research councils, total available funds are liable to drop by £60m on the assumption that the rest of the UK will want to spend its taxes inside the rest of the UK.

This, according to education secretary Mike Russell, is “nonsense”. Because of the Scotland’s research excellence, his spokesman said, “the sector will continue to attract valuable investment, research funding and students from around the globe”.

Well, the UK paper also surveys the available evidence on research projects which are funded by two or more governments. It finds there are precious few and are either small scale, such as a £13m Nordic research fund, or too vast for one government to support, such as the Cern particle physics research centre at Geneva.

One weakness in the paper which Mr Russell failed to pick up is that it says that UK research councils “have instigated various international collaborative arrangements” in which “projects are awarded primarily on the basis of excellence and need to be competitive with national programmes of research”.

The paper does not spell out what these international projects are and how much money is involved. So rather than just swiping at the paper as “nonsense” (which won’t impress any academic) Mr Russell would be better advised to find out about these international collaborations and if they provide a template for future Scotland/rest-of-UK research funding co-operation.

It may be that all will be revealed in the independence white paper. The debate desperately needs it, for its absence has created a vacuum on the Yes side, allowing the No campaign to dominate the media and making it very difficult to produce balanced coverage.

This must be very frustrating for many nationalists, some of whom have been desperately trying to fill the current gap. Unfortunately, a lot of it is nonsense, a prime example being an article by Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, chief executive of the pro-independence Business for Scotland group.

It was picked up by a Sunday newspaper which billed it as by an economist and arguing that being part of the Union has cost Scotland £64 billion over the last 30 years.

Mr MacIntyre-Kemp graduated with a BA in economics and business management in 1991, then worked as a sales and account executive with Proctor & Gamble, Northern Foods, and Scottish Enterprise. Since then, he seems to have become a highly successful social media entrepreneur.

His argument is that Scotland has been duped by an “accounting trick” which has enabled unionists to argue that Scotland is “too small, too poor and too stupid” and that “Scotland’s economy is a basket case”. (Actually, if any reader can furnish some attributable quotes which demonstrate this argument, I’d really like to see them). The “accounting trick” turns out not to be a trick at all, but merely reflects the fact that in Scotland’s national accounts, such as they are, Scotland is accounted as being part of the Union. As such, a Scottish share of spending on servicing UK national debt appears, which is entirely normal practice endorsed by the Scottish Government which publishes the figures.

Aha, says Mr MacIntyre-Kemp, if you add up the geographic shares of oil revenues which Scotland should have received, include them in Scotland’s tax revenues, it turns out that revenues have always been more than is spent by governments in Scotland and therefore if Scotland had become independent in 1980, Scotland would have run up no debt at all.

So, the £64.1bn that Scotland has notionally spent on servicing UK debt since then has in fact, according to Mr MacIntyre-Kemp, been “ripped out” of Scotland’s economy. I haven’t had the time to check the arithmetic, but I would point out that not even the Scottish Government claims that to be the case.

One simple fact demolishes the argument. At whatever time Scotland may become independent, it would, as the Scottish government accepts, inherit a share of existing UK debt on which it would have to pay servicing costs. That would have been the case in 1980.

My hope is that the white paper puts an end to this sort of rubbish and everyone can focus on real facts and arguments. We can all play fantasy history games but they serve little purpose. We are where we are and it’s the choices we make in the future that will determine better or worse outcomes. Please, politicians and campaigners, work to make the choices well-informed.