Sunday’s edition of The Herald, 22nd September, carried a piece by Iain Macwhirter which, given Macwhirter’s insider position as an SNP supporter, is revelatory.
The journalist finds himself in a predicament.
He is unable to reject the very recent economic analysis of the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies – he calls it ‘the gold standard of financial accounting’ – which found that Scotland’s public services spending is, at £7,932, 17% per head higher than England’s – and would be unaffordable in an independent Scotland without either or both cutting spending or hiking taxes.
His intellectual integrity prevents him from re-transmitting unevidenced SNP propagandist claims, so he gently undermines them, rather than interrogating them.
With his acceptance of the IFS analysis, Macwhirter cannot quite swallow the Deputy First Minister’s response to the recent ICM poll which suggested that 47% of Scots would vote for independence if they were to be £500 better off but only 18% would support if they were to lose some money.
He quotes Nicola Sturgeon as welcoming this poll and insisting that ‘on the basis of the current Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report, Scotland’s finances are stronger than the UK’s as a whole to the tune of £4.4 billion – which equates to £824 per person’.
He then has to say something about so patently deceptive a swerve and remarks: ‘Whether this fiscal arithmetic is right or not, I find it rather demeaning for the question of Scotland’s national renewal to be reduced to the cost of a mini-break in Benidorm.’
Macwhirter neglects to note that it was the SNP Government who first put Special Offer tickets on independence and who continue to do so.
Being a ‘Young Scot’ meant getting a discount card.
Nicola Sturgeon, asked on Newsnight Scotland – shortly after an earlier poll first came up with the £500 votecatcher – how much Scots would be better off under independence, pretended to run over some figures in her head and, straightfaced, said ‘Oh… about £500 a head.’
A couple of days ago First Minister, Alex Salmond, suddenly – and uncosted – announced that he would bring the Royal Mail back into public ownership in an independent Scotland. This would be a substantial additional spend on top of the amount the IFS has already said we could not afford without either cutting services or raising taxes.
Today, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney, jointly announced yet another uncosted promise: that in an independent Scotland, state pensions would be the same or better than in the continuing UK; and that all pensions would be paid in time and in full.
They said that this commitment would hold good for the first term of the first Scottish government – indicating the intention that we have long warned about. This is about getting a Yes vote by whatever reckless promises of more spending is deemed necessary – and then spending whatever it takes to create a feel-good bubble for a few years after Independence Day, before we hit a wall – hard.
They also said that an independent Scotland would commission an enquiry about an appropriate age at which Scots would qualify to draw their state pension – which does not mean that such an enquiry would necessarily deliver an earlier age than the UK now feels is affordable.
All of these promises will cost a great deal more than ‘a mini-break in Benidorm’.
Macwhirter , as he wrestles with himself, then tries to escape from the snares of hard-headed economics – which is a politically inconvenient area just now but is still the one thing without which there is nothing.
A sustainable economy is the foundation upon which you build a nation. It is not an expendable luxury.
Where Macwhirter descends to what can only be consciously dishonest is when he tries to dismiss what he had already admitted is the trustworthy analysis of the Institute of Fiscal Studies by saying: ‘Scottish independence is in danger of turning into a bean-counter convention, where people are arguing over the small change in the national accounts instead of creating a vision of a better society.’
What the journalist tried to slight as ‘the small change in the national accounts’ was the IFS calculation that Scotland’s current spending would see a black hole in its accounts, estimating a need to cut back by £5.9 billion in the first two years of independence, either by cutting services or by raising taxes by up to 15%. This is no ‘;small change in the national accounts’.
Having skated over this black hole, Macwhirter remarks in respectful awe that Alex Salmond no longer bothers to engage in the minutiae of cost and affordability, talking of his ‘almost Zen-like calm in the face of what looks like a hurricane of bad news last week’.
Charitably – or desperately, he does not consider that rather than detailed answers being rendered unnecessary by the new mind of Zen, there may be no answers to give.
At this point, the revelatory insights in the article start to come.
Asking whether the First Minister’s ineffable serenity means that he knows something the rest of us don’t - Macwhirter says of this: ‘Is the White Paper going to promise to pay each voting Scot £500 a year in perpetuity of they vote yes?
He answers himself with: ‘Hardly’; and then – ‘Salmond’s equanimity in the face of apparent defeat is, I think, because he realises that he and his party are not going down after the referendum, whatever the result’.
He says that the First Minister’s continuing popularity with voters ‘tells us something important about the Scottish voters. They may not be persuaded of the case for independence but they do not criticise the SNP for advocating it.’
McWhirter ends by saying: ‘Now, I’m not saying that Alex Salmond has given up on winning the referendum. He is still absolutely confident that there will be a Yes vote. Nevertheless it is very significant I think that his body language is saying something slightly different: that he and his administration are in no mind to to go down with the ship if he fails to persuade Scots to vote Yes.’
He follows this immediately by saying: ‘Indeed, in the very long game that the Nationalists are playing, how they conduct themselves in adversity and even in defeat, could lay the groundwork for a successful independence referendum some years hence. It isn’t over till it’s over, and the independence struggle never is.’
Interesting, isn’t it?
Mr Macwhirter’s colleague on The Herald, Ian Bell, had a very reflective piece published a week or so ago.
In it, he was questioning his own certainty that Scotland would vote Yes next year – not on the grounds of any reason he had to doubt that conviction but out of an honest searching for its source.
He said that almost everyone he knows shares his own views, that most of the politicians he talks to also share them. He had begun to wonder how secure his certainty was; and how much of it just might be coming from keeping company with those who form a community reflecting back to each other what they all want to see.
This is a question we have all to consider, whatever our personal standpoint.
From our point of view, being largely rationalist and concerned to find and test evidence, Ian Bell’s openness brought self-examination.
We asked ourselves how far our own sense – that the independence prospectus has been the wrong one and has failed – comes from being members of an extended community whose values prioritise reason and evidence?
Watching the Scotland Decides televised debate last week one had to recognise, with a degree of shock, that the majority are uninterested in evidence and apparently unable to understand it. Ian Bell’s thesis held up there.
Just as Bell came to the conclusion that be could not answer his own question, so did we – because none of us can know what we do not know.
What the Bell ‘thought piece’ did though, was to encourage honesty and self-examination by example; and to open up the realisation that no one really knows what will have happened by this time next year.
The polarising impact of this process has perhaps left most of us seeking out like minds and increasingly distanced from ‘the other’. Most of us are diminished by our tendency to invest in a position first and then prefer not to interrogate its soundness – in case the evidence leads us somewhere we don’t want to be.
There is a real dread at the prospect of the inevitable, tedious and deforming politicising of next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Where normally it would be unencumbered joy, in 2014 it is going to be groaning under a weight of leaden footed political opportunism.
The end of this cannot come soon enough – but we have a year to go. It is a divisive and not a unifying exercise.