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The Scottish government’s own figures demolish the economic case for independence

9 March 2016

11:41 AM

9 March 2016

11:41 AM

What does a barrel of schadenfreude cost these days? That’s today’s starter for ten. The answer, according to the latest Scottish government figures, appears to be about £15bn. That’s the difference between spending in Scotland last year and the revenue raised from Scotland. A deficit of 9.7 percent or, for those keeping score, almost twice the UK’s deficit.

And, boom, there will be some Unionists tempted to sneer Well, that was a nice little case you had for independence, wasn’t it? Such a shame something happened to it.  They will have a point, albeit there is something unseemly about appearing to revel in the collapse of an industry – north sea oil – upon which so many Scottish jobs and families depend. Aberdeen has endured tough times before but these present difficulties are tougher than most. Even granite can weep.

Besides, Unionists minded to crow today as the Scottish government publishes figures that are, frankly, ruinous should remember that by doing so they are playing the nationalists at their own game. That is, if inconvenient, even disagreeable, economic news demolishes the argument for independence then it stands to follow that healthier economic figures, such as those projected with such heroic optimism during the referendum campaign, make a strong case for that independence.

It is true that the projections made in Alex Salmond’s White Paper were the economic equivalent of forecasting that Scotland will win the 2018 World Cup: a nice idea albeit one untethered to reality. And it is also true that many people who should have known better did manage to persuade themselves that 20 years of economic growth, labour force expansion, and annual productivity gains could somehow be wished into existence by a new state.

Nevertheless, while the Yes campaign undoubtedly needed a veneer of economic plausibility its strongest arguments never depended on anything so mundane as mere numbers. It was, instead, an argument built on identity and the twin senses of self and place. That argument still stands.


Which is why Unionism needs more than just numbers on its side. It certainly cannot win without those numbers but numbers, not even ones as grim as today’s GERS figures, are not enough. Because what happens if the numbers change or the people decide the game isn’t actually about numbers at all?

Today’s figures, then, are useful for embarrassing the SNP but they are not a long-term solution to the dilemma in which Unionism finds itself. True, last year Scottish revenues amounted to £10,000 per capita while spending was equal to £12,800 and this amounted to what Unionists will be sorely tempted to describe as a ‘Union dividend’ of £1,400 a head. That, just two weeks before Salmond’s notional ‘independence day’, is a sobering thought. A bullet dodged, you might even think.

And it is certainly true that, at least for now, the SNP’s economic argument for independence is sunk. That argument always relied on a partial interpretation of the available economic data, fixed around a handful of years in which Scotland’s per capita revenues were especially strong and those years – alas, perhaps – were not the general rule. The SNP have not yet done any heavy lifting to repair this hole in their case far less the kind of heavy thinking to prevent such holes being punched in the future. The referendum defeat was instead interpreted as just a flesh wound. Tedious, perhaps, but of no great account in the long march to history.

Well, we know better now. The Scottish government’s own figures confirm as much. Sure, everyone runs a deficit but everyone other than cloth-headed SNP MPs and MSPs knows that deficits of ten percent are not sustainable. Scotland would, if Yes had prevailed, be now preparing for an independence budget which would deliver either swingeing cuts in spending or hefty increases in tax or, more probably, a combination of both.

Indeed the official figures likely under-estimate the size of the financial hole that would need to be filled. The 17,000 wealthiest Scots contribute some 15 percent of income tax receipts; it is likely that in the event of independence at least some of them would have chosen to leave. A disagreeable thought, no doubt, but one with inevitable, unavoidable, consequences. Add the new state’s higher cost of borrowing and you begin to appreciate how chilly the winds of freedom would have been.

Not – to be clear for at least the hundredth time – too wee, too poor or too stupid to make a decent fist of independence but, beyond peradventure (as Mr Salmond might put it) poorer than is currently the case within the United Kingdom.

Perhaps it would have been worth it. The march of a nation cannot be reduced to a matter of accountancy. Numbers matter but they are not the only fruit. But this, again, must apply to both sides of the constitutional divide. Britain, and the UK, must be worth something other than £1,400 a year.

People are not, in any case, bloodless calculating machines. They appreciate that these arguments are, in the end and at root, about something more than that. They are about who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we intend to achieve together. They are arguments about where we have been and where we may yet go.

And, from a Unionist perspective, the problem with bad news is that even when it’s good you cannot be seen to embrace it with too much gusto. But if these figures demand Unionists find the right tone, they also compel something rare from the SNP too: a measure of honesty.


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    First Minister in missing records riddle over Hollie Greig abuse allegationsShare on facebookShare on twitterShare on emailShare on pinterest_shareMore Sharing Services12The Scottish Government is refusing to disclose whether it has lost or destroyed communications records relating to the Hollie Greig case which may indicate when the First Minister Alex Salmond became aware of allegations of sexual abuse, which Ms Greig claims was carried out against her over many years whilst resident in the Aberdeen area. Last month the Scottish Ministers were compelled by the Information Commissioner to address a series of questions put to the First Minister in correspondence in relation to the case in January this year, the first of which was: “When did you first become aware of the allegations made by Hollie Greig about her being abused by members of a high-ranking paedophile ring in Scotland?”The commissioner required the Scottish Ministers to respond by today’s date or risk being held in contempt of court. It was reported in April 2009 that Greig received a payout of £13,500 from the criminal injuries compensation authority, and was described by Detective Inspector Iain Allen of Grampian Police as “a truthful witness to the best of her ability and an entirely innocent victim.” Two Grampian Police Officers interviewed Greig in September 2009. No charges have been brought against anyone in connection with sexual abuse. The Scottish Ministers’ response to the question, issued by the First Minister’s Private Secretary Terry Kowal stated: “Following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established we do not have a record of when the First Minister became aware of these allegations. Therefore, the information you require is not held by the Scottish Government.” However, The Firm has seen correspondence from the Crown Office dated 23 July 2009 addressed to the Greig family’s lay representative Robert Green, which suggests that correspondence addressed to the First Minister outlining the allegations was received over two years ago. “Thank you for your email of 20 June 2009 to the First Minister in which you raise concerns about the handling of the case involving allegations of abuse perpetrated against Hollie Greig,” the letter says. The letter then says that Green’s inquiry was passed to the Crown Office for response, given the nature of the subject matter. When pressed by The Firm to explain the apparent contradiction between the two positions, the First Minister’s office told The Firm today only that “we do not have a record of when the First Minister first became aware of these allegations”. The First Minister’s office have acknowledged receipt of The Firm’s subsequent query asking whether the records had been destroyed, but have offered no direct response, despite repeated requests. Russell Fallis of the Scottish Government communications team issued a statement to The Firm that said the First Minister’s office “receives a large volume of correspondence on a wide range of subjects, which is answered by that office or by relevant officials” , and added that the Government does not have “any indication that this information was recorded.” Pressed to confirm whether the correspondence was destroyed or lost, the First Minister’s office has provided no response. The correspondence questioning the First Minister was sent on 28 January and had received no response, despite a series of reminder letters. The Information Commissioner later ruled that the Scottish Ministers had failed to comply with their obligations under Sections 10(1) and 21(1) of the Freedom of Information Act.This afternoon the Information Commissioner confirmed he is now considering whether “further action is required” against the Scottish Government in respect of their handling of the original correspondence containing the six queries. In May, Andrew George MP wrote to Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland asking him to outline the options available to “those many people who remain concerned” about the “unsafe” investigations into the Hollie Greig case. “There appears to be a lot of evidence and allegations which point in one direction and indicates that this whole case deserves a through review,” George wrote in constituency correspondence. He adds that “many of the professionals with whom she came into contact…have allegedly failed in their duties or even covered up important facts.” George was the second Westminster MP to raise concerns about the case, following David Ruffely MP’s intervention earlier this year.


    oil cheaper than milk

    Anyway google Hollie greig

  • Sunset66

    Now I know t
    this is a happy time for you unionists you can gloat and insult Scottish people but really you should heed some aspects of the article
    The failure of unionists to provide an alternative to the SNP will kill the union.

    You need to change your attitude to Scotland if you want the union to remain
    People in Scotland know two things . One that oil money gushed into the treasury for decades, and that the Scottish govt only controls local govt, health and education

    Westminster holds the levers of the economy

    Outright hostility to the SNP is a hopeless policy
    Maybe you could explain why the UK govt wouldn’t be keen to devolve as much as possible
    Maybe you could explain why a UK govt wouldn’t seek to harness the Scottish desire to run its own affairs within the UK

    • Calzo

      Well indeed. I think the SNP need to do more to meet half way as well. I still believe that most people in Scotland are essentially inclined to devo-max. The difficulty for the SNP is that they are the party of independence so they can’t be seen to be for anything other than the full whack. A better tack from them post indyref would be to temporarily become the party of devo-max, until such a time that another referendum is likely and/or winnable.

      The only way to win over the doubters is to prove yourself in a govt that has significant powers.

      • Sunset66

        That is the plan

    • rjbh

      ‘Gloat and Insult’ anything that shoves us apart is good…the Scottish population should be prepared to take plenty more….Better together…I think not.

  • ChuckieStane

    “demolish the economic case for independence” shouts the headline yet Massie himself states independence cannot be reduced to a matter of accountancy.

    A positive economic case alone would not be sufficient grounds for independence – there is much more to nationhood. The fact that support for independence is holding up in such difficult times for the world economy in general and the oil sector in particular demolishes the case of those who maintain the independence movement is based on oil.