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Could Brexit revive the SNP’s fortunes?

25 July 2018

7:30 AM

25 July 2018

7:30 AM

It is my sombre duty to inform you that Scotland is talking about independence again. It probably seems like we never stopped. Your continued patience is appreciated. This time, it’s the economic case — or lack thereof — for going it alone. In May, the SNP’s Growth Commission produced its long-awaited (not long enough, perhaps) report into the finances of a separate Scotland. The gist? Scotland would be in for an extra decade of austerity but we’d be all right in the end by emulating the growth of similarly situated small nations. All in all, it sounded more plausible than the 2013 White Paper. They had to cut down a lot of magic money trees to print that. 

Now, another report has come along and taken the tackety boots to the new draft. The research hails from These Islands, a sunlit uplands sort of think tank that would have been more fitting in the pooling-and-sharing, ‘Scotland, stay with us’ days before Brexit. Still, they are admirably committed to solidarity, cooperation and evidence. Kevin Hague, the think tank’s founder, concludes that the Growth Commission ‘cherry-picks a set of better performing small advanced economies’ and includes in its calculations nations whose low-tax models it rejects elsewhere. A bit of creative accounting is fair enough but Hague claims to have uncovered more. He writes:

‘Assumptions are made about debt allocation and savings from shared UK costs that are objectively more optimistic than those made in the 2013 White Paper. Net savings assumed then were £0.6bn pa; the Commission now assumes ‘day one’ savings of £2.6bn. This figure is arrived at by a combination of sweeping assertion, ‘rounding-up’, double-counting and – most worryingly of all – an obvious error in the way the underlying GERS data is interpreted.’

Moreover, while the Commission talked up the economic risks of the UK leaving the EU, Hague accuses it of neglecting to consider the far greater damage that would be incurred by Scotland quitting the UK: Brexit bad, Jockxit good. 

Across the report’s 70 pages, it becomes clear that Hague reckons the SNP is trying to do for Scotland what Nick Leeson did for Barings. He resolves that what is sensible among the Commission’s findings could more readily be achieved with Scotland part of the UK, so there’s no need for all this silly independence business. The Nationalists, as you might imagine, are none too keen to hear this and have directed much abuse towards their graph-wielding nemesis. 

The attacks are nothing new for Hague. He is an unlikely enemy of the state; a mild-mannered businessman, he became politicised during the independence referendum. Not to the sunny superiorism preached by the SNP and amened by their legion converts. Rather, all that religion made him a sceptic and he began blogging with a single question in mind: What if the SNP isn’t telling the truth? 

It’s a daring proposition in a country whose size renders its political establishment intimate and acutely co-dependent. In Scotland, the party in power at Holyrood commands not only the machinery of government but the loyalty of an outer state of third sector organisations largely or wholly contingent on Scottish Government funding. Beyond that, there is a business sector too reliant on public procurement and favourable planning decisions to voice all but the most tepid dissent. Academia, though not universally on-side, is hardly wanting for adherents to The Cause and the nation’s independent think tanks struggle to remain in the plural. 

The economics of this arrangement creates certain incentives and disincentives and most organisations act accordingly. When one party exercises such control over the distribution of financial and political capital – a party hotly allergic to dissent – few can be consistent critics (or even occasional doubters) and prosper. Every polity has its courtiers and courtesans but what makes Scotland different is that so many believe: that the government, whatever its flaws, is fundamentally good and noble; that civil society and ministers are on the same side; and that ‘Nicola’ has our best interests at heart. Scotland’s geography makes it small but it took nationalism to make us wee

Hague, therefore, is a bit of a Cassandra. She was intense and none too popular either. His fate has been less sanguinary; he is just blocked on Twitter by SNP politicians. His Chokkablog is a chart-laden chore that about five people fully understand but that is not the point. He has deprived the SNP of one of its most reliable longswords: the blithe assertion. Their original White Paper was full of them, many of them howling nonsense, but reported in the statutorily-engendered ‘he said, she said’ false dichotomy that has got the BBC into bother over Brexit. Hague made it infinitely harder to pull that trick a second time and the more sober tone of the Growth Commission report reflects that. More important than his latest analysis is the fact there is someone asking these awkward questions at all.  

Where Hague and These Islands hit their limitation is in the very area they accuse the Growth Commission of downplaying: Brexit. Hague’s analysis overlooks the political fall-out from the UK seceding from Brussels, especially if it departs without a deal. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a paper on economics to factor this in but the politics of Brexit is paramount. This is a course of action voters in Scotland overwhelmingly rejected and its significance goes to something far more personal than numbers: identity. 

Will Scots still feel British if British means Brexit, Boris and borders (or, for that matter, Jezza, Jew-hatred and joblessness)? Or will they figure they’ve given Britain enough chances and are ready to fashion a new country around a (slightly) more open and forward-looking Scottish identity? Are they willing to pay a price to get away from that horrendous shower at Westminster? The public always votes with its pocketbook, we used to say. Then Vote Leave disproved that. Could the SNP do the same?


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