Euan McColm: SNP’s Project Hope fills black hole with hot air

Trust the SNP to turn the Union dividend revealed by GERS figures into a case for separation, writes Euan McColm
For the SNP, Brexit is an unmitigated catastrophe, but questioning the financial wisdom of independence is scaremongering. Picture: Duncan McGlynn/GettyFor the SNP, Brexit is an unmitigated catastrophe, but questioning the financial wisdom of independence is scaremongering. Picture: Duncan McGlynn/Getty
For the SNP, Brexit is an unmitigated catastrophe, but questioning the financial wisdom of independence is scaremongering. Picture: Duncan McGlynn/Getty

Three cheers for the hardest working people in Scotland – SNP spin doctors. Their efforts, last week, to turn the state of our national finances into a positive case for independence were positively Herculean. When it comes to arguing black is white, these guys are the masters.

We’ve been here before, of course. Every year, upon publication of the GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) figures, the SNP spin juggernaut rumbles into action and then smashes through inconvenient facts and troublesome analysis.

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The Scottish Government’s own statistics showed us that Scotland spent £12.6 billion more than was raised by taxes in 2018-19. The Scottish deficit is proportionately six times the size of that run by the United Kingdom. Public spending in Scotland was £1,661 per head higher than the UK average.

These facts might appear, even after the most cursory glance, to provide ample evidence that, for all its flaws, the UK is working for Scotland, that there is such a thing as the “Union dividend”.

But to consider this so requires a lack of imagination. According to the SNP, the GERS figures show that Scotland’s economy is in rude health and that our government is “giving taxpayers the best deal of any part of the UK”.

That statement appeared in an SNP press release that also pointed out the Scottish Government is investing £109 more per head than the UK government on health and £215 more on education and training. These claims may be true, but it is also true that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her team are able to do this because of the higher public spending – made possible by the Barnett Formula which ensures Scotland has more than its fair share of investment – that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

Across social media, SNP sympathisers and other supporters of independence spun a story of how the GERS figures actually showed that the UK was holding Scotland back. Sure, our national deficit might be huge but that, you see, is because Scotland doesn’t have the “economic levers” to do things differently. An independent Scotland would look very different indeed. Scottish wisdom would never have allowed such a financial situation to develop in the first place.

The SNP’s deputy leader Keith Brown wrote in the pages of a pro-independence newspaper that his party could halve the country’s financial black hole from seven to three per cent of GDP in the first three years of independence.

This would be achieved, he explained, by reducing spending on matters reserved to Westminster such as defence and debt.

It was all breezy and positive stuff but it ignored the reality of the Scottish Government’s own statistics which – and I’m sorry to bang on about this – showed that spending by the UK government is disproportionately higher in Scotland than it is in England.

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Brown’s suggestion that an independent Scotland could slash the national deficit in just three years would mean either savage cuts to public services or tax hikes that would cripple household budgets. If you thought Tory “austerity” was bleak, just wait until you see the SNP variety.

The SNP can – to some degree – get away with making outlandish claims about the financial health of an independent Scotland for two key reasons. The first is that the future is unknown. We may be able to predict reasonably well how it might look but it is certainly possible, even when it appears unlikely, that things might pan out differently to how we expect. The second reason is that dismissing legitimate warnings about the impact of constitutional upheaval is all the rage these days.

Look at the Brexiteers now merrily dragging the UK towards departure from the EU without even the protective cushion of a deal. All the evidence might show that such a course stands to seriously damage the UK economy, but for No Deal fundamentalists, such analysis is the stuff of “Project Fear”. When facts don’t suit one’s narrative, they cease to become facts and are reincarnated as scaremongering lies.

Thus, even when the Scottish Government’s own figures appear to show that the financial case for independence is a mess, the doughty nationalist may comfortably assert that the truth is that the numbers – in fact – make the case for the break-up of the Union.

The shameless dismissal of uncomfortable truths as part of a “Project Fear” strategy was a great Scottish invention. Back in 2014, when the SNP was in the independence referendum trenches, any volley from the Better Together campaign that raised questions about the financial cost of breaking up the UK was dismissed as scaremongering.

When the likes of, say, former prime minister Gordon Brown suggested that an independent Scotland would be a financial disaster, he was guilty of talking Scotland down.

The echoes of this line can be heard loudly and clearly in the words of Brexiteers now dismissing concerns that the UK’s departure from the EU will usher in a new era of chaos. Of course “Remoaners” would say that, wouldn’t they? After all, they’re only interested in talking Britain down.

A fascinating thing about the “Project Fear” response is that it may be used in the most inconsistent way.

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Five years ago, during the independence referendum campaign, Sturgeon and her predecessor as SNP leader, Alex Salmond, faced serious questions about a range of matters such as the currency of an independent Scotland and the viability of an economy then to be sustained by North Sea oil. When UK political figures made clear that there would be no currency union between Westminster and an independent Scotland, they were bluffing, said the nationalists. And their warnings about the economy were all “Project Fear” bluster.

Now, on the cost of leaving the EU, Nicola Sturgeon agrees with those – such as Gordon Brown – whom she once accused of scaremongering over the cost of leaving the UK.

As its response to GERS reiterated last week, the SNP’s strategy for confronting truths which undermine the case for independence is to argue against their existence.