John McLellan: Growth Commission report sparks all-mighty ruck

Growth Commission report divides even those who back independence, says John McLellan.

New Zealand, whose capital Wellington is seen here, spends much less on health and welfare than Scotland

The great British Lions captain Willie John McBride had a simple message to his team at the start of what was expected to be a brutal 1974 test series against the Springboks: “Get your retaliation in first.”

No “99” calls are needed to spark a punch-up over the SNP Growth Commission report finally published yesterday, but its chair Andrew Wilson used his skills as a public relations consultant to make sure that, in the ensuing political ruck, the first blow was going to be his. So the initial trails on Wednesday evening which duly appeared in Thursday’s papers were that if an independent Scotland matched the economic performance of other similarly sized countries we would all be £4,100 better off.

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The high-ground duly commanded and the idea of a four grand prize duly planted, the second wave of publicity confirmed what had already been widely leaked, that the Commission was lancing the currency boil that had infected the 2014 campaign by urging the new country to set up its own currency. That one of three sections is devoted to currency shows not only how difficult the establishment of a truly independent economy would be, but also how much work wasn’t done by the SNP last time round.

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But no matter how much detail on currency the report contains, if it scared the horses then, it will do so again and the report hadn’t even been officially launched before the first problems arose, firstly from Glasgow University macroeconomics professor Ronald MacDonald who inconveniently pointed out that £300 billion would be needed to establish a central bank to underpin the new system.

Then on the supposedly sympathetic Common Space website, tax campaigner Professor Richard Murphy of City University London slammed the suggestion that Sterling should be kept for a transition period. The commission, he wrote, has “crushed any chance of a fiscal stimulus by committing Scotland to decades of austerity with the sole purpose of keeping the old oppressor in London happy ... For those who hoped for a bright independent future it offers nothing but despair.”

At least Wilson’s report summary was ahead of the game in admitting “inevitably, much of what we recommend involves further work, analysis and consideration”. That’s one box already ticked.

In fairness to Wilson and his team, the report has many commendable ideas but on even a cursory glance few require the break-up of Britain to deliver. Even the extensive recommendations on encouraging immigration through a “Come to Scotland” programme are not impossible under current arrangements. Similarly, expanding universities and attracting more international post-graduates does not rely on independence. As for “securing a frictionless border with the rest of the UK”? That’s two boxes.

As we all know, the problem with offers that seem too good to be true is they almost always are, and the “£4,100 better off” number glosses over the yawning gap in public expenditure which even by the Commission’s own numbers would cost £27bn over ten years to become manageable. Maybe people really are prepared to pay more tax to cover costs rather than see public services eviscerated? The new shining example Scotland should follow, New Zealand, actually raises only around £38bn through taxation compared to approximately £45bn here and, according to the New Zealand Treasury, it spends a total of about £23bn on health (£8bn) and welfare (£15bn), compared to Scotland’s £35bn (£12bn and £23bn).

Nor do the aggressive population targets the report contains come without consequences, claiming that if growth elsewhere had been matched then Scotland’s population would already be up to 6.1 million, even though authorities like Edinburgh are already struggling to cope.

Of all the unanswered questions in this paper, the biggest one for the person who commissioned it is whether it provides the solid launch-pad for another tilt at independence. It may well have re-opened a debate First Minister Nicola Sturgeon didn’t wanted closed in the first place, but it is also opening up differences within the independence movement. Wilson was certainly on the money when he wrote: “We do not expect universal support from within the party or indeed from anywhere.” Another box ticked.

Complaints backfire

The Scottish Government didn’t get what it expected when the Independent Press Standard Organisation this week threw out its complaint against the Daily Express for alleging that rule changes limiting the flying of the Union Flag on Scottish public buildings was a snub to the Queen. Sometimes even if you are convinced you are right, making a complaint just isn’t worth it, like two other cases just off the IPSO conveyor belt.

A Hamilton man was convicted for assaulting a man in a shop after he himself had been assaulted and the sheriff remarked, “There’s no doubt Mr Burns was the victim of an assault but there is also no doubt what happened 47 kicks later.” The Scottish Sun ran the story under the headline “Boozed-up Hamilton thug John Burns kicked and stamped on shop attack victim 47 times”. After a ruling that there had been a breach because he was not drunk, the paper has to publish the following correction: “We would like to clarify that Mr Burns was in fact sober when he launched his ‘sustained attack’”.

And agitator Katie Hopkins complained about a Mirror story headlined “Katie Hopkins banned from leaving South Africa after taking ketamine”. She had been taking the drug for a shoulder injury and in fact the ban had been for spreading racial hatred. Bet she’s glad the record is straight ... IPSO upheld both complaints, so the moral is if you’ve done the crime, it doesn’t pay to whine.

Different boats

My colleague Cllr Mark Brown took some flak from the PC brigade for asking on Twitter, in best traditional Glesca, if the SNP’s Growth Commission thought we’d come up the Clyde in a banana boat. A white-supremacist, post-colonial, racist slur apparently. There is the 1956 Harry Belafonte song I suppose, but I always thought the phrase referred to the pudding involving a dollop of ice cream with two halves of a banana sliced long-ways on either side. Nevertheless, describing naiveté by coming up the river of your choice on a Jacob’s water biscuit is a safer choice these days...