Watching tonight’s BBC 1 ‘debate’, Scotland Decides, in the hope of an interesting and informed debate, turned out to be an unpleasant – and disturbing – experience.
There is usually a degree of managed ‘balance’ in the make up of studio audiences and this will have been the case tonight.
However, the pro-independence members of the audience appeared to be operating on a common ‘drown them out’ strategy, with determinedly heavy clapping – and whooping – at any pro-independence statement; and manifest hostility to questions focused on the very many genuinely difficult issues that do exist and that any responsible voter should understand and consider.
There was no considering here. You often could not hear what either the presenter or the panel members were saying.
This was as close to mob rule as it gets. It was an overt promise of an utterly partisan direction of travel, intolerant of the contrary view, which simply shouts it down.
We should all be concerned about this. We face much more of it between now and September 2013.
Trying to intimidate and overwhelm the expression of reasonable questions is bullying which the BBC made no attempt whatsoever to avoid.
This was not a debate.
It was a gladiatorial event. It was a triumphalist political rally. And we’re not ‘Aw’right’.
This was not helped by Glenn Campbell, whose own stance was by no means impartial.
Campbell challenged Annabel Goldie early on, with bullish muscularity and over very little. At the same time he let John Swinney away with utterly unevidenced assertions of Scotland’s wealth and its ability to afford independence. Swinney gave not one single figure to support his claims, nor, astonishingly, was he asked for any.
Campbell also let Swinney away with serial evasion of a straight question: ‘If the privatisation of the Royal Mail goes ahead and Scotland were independent, would you renationalise the Post Office.’
Worse, at one point, when Goldie – by far the most effective advocate for the Union – was pressing the point about the leaked paper John Swinney had presented to the Scottish cabinet, expressing serious concerns about an independent Scotland’s ability to afford pension commitments, Campbell actually interrupted Goldie in defence of Swinney – who was there to defend himself.
This event showed all of the evidence of an organised claque in the audience whose – successfully delivered – purpose was to disrupt serious investigation and to behave like the most partisan of fans at a local derby football final.
No one with any measured awareness, would vote to live in a place governed by such unreason.
On the pensions issue
If John Swinney believed what he said tonight, then he is far less competent than we have consistently thought him to be – in the context of a Scottish parliament with a very shallow talent pool.
If he did not believe what he said, then he is more deceiving that we had hoped he might have to become.
He gave an unequivocal assurance that both public sector and private sector pensions would be ‘absolutely guaranteed under independence’ in the terms in which they were entered into.
He rested this assurance on the fact that currently, under devolution, ‘Scotland allocates 38% of its social protection budget to pensions where the UK allocates 42%, saying that therefore Scotland had more latitude to afford these costs than did the UK.
He neglected to contextualise this position in the very different financial circumstances of independence from devolution.
An independent Scotland would have very substantial new costs to meet which the current devolved Scotland does not have to cover.
One of these costs is the servicing – from day one – of Scotland’s share of the national debt. This will see the budget available for pensions – and for much else – reduced from present levels.
38% of a lower budget – if 38% were even a sustainable allocation – is hardly convincing of affordability.
On the affordability of independence
A few months ago we showed that an independent Scotland – under the most helpful of positive assumptions, would struggle financially.
We had chosen to assume:
- a £140BN share of the national debt in May 2016;
- interest rates paid today by the UK on the national debt;
- the geographical share out of North Sea oil and gas assets that is the most favourable to Scotland;
- a positive average of UK tax revenues from oil and gas assets;
- current levels of spending on welfare.
When we did the sums under these assumptions, they showed that interest on that £140 BN debt alone would almost wipe out a fairly generous assumption of annual income from oil revenues, leaving Scotland’s high welfare costs to be met from other resources.
A report today from the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research noted that an independent Scotland would start not with £140 BN but with £150 BN of inherited national debt.
It calculated that the inclusion of future liabilities – as with pensions – would take that debt to £183 BN. This is 123% of Scotland’s GDP, where the EU guidance on the maxiumum percentage of debt to GDP is around 60%.
This debt figure did not include any estimate of the set-up costs of an independent Scotland which would be substantial and which we assume would have to be met by borrowing.
Tonight’s ‘debate’ went nowhere near a fact-based picture of both sides of the balance sheet for an independent Scotland.
It made no reference at all to the essential fragility of earnings from the oil and gas assets an independent Scotland would inherit.
Neither the UK now nor an independent Scotland ‘own’ these assets. They are leased under contract to the oil and gas companies.
Scotland therefore would ‘own’, not the oil but only the right to levy tax on the profits from oil and gas production.
First Minister Alex Salmond has committed to lowering corporation tax to encourage business development in an independent Scotland. But it is corporation tax that brings in the revenues from the oil and gas sector – when they are producing, which is profit driven and erratic. So an independent Scotland would already be looking at earning less from this industry than does the UK at present.
Then, a few weeks ago, Mr Salmond was forced to assure the oil and gas sector players, in a visit to Aberdeen, that an independent Scotland would ‘help’ them with decommissioning costs for the over-aged North Sea infrastructure.
The First Minister had no alternative but to make this commitment to reassure the industry. He had to match an unannounced agreement just made with the industry by the UK government – to give it relief on corporation tax as a contribution towards the costs of North Sea decommissioning.
The agreement the First Minister made means that an independent Scotland would see very little revenue from oil and gas for a considerable time; where, as a devolved member of the Union, it will continue regardless to receive its traditional funding allocations.
Set this serious reduction of potential earnings from oil against a debt burden much higher than we had assumed, against a much more reduced ability to pay than we had assumed – and against the promises being regularly made by the SNP to spend even more on welfare and social protection - and the sums obviously do not add up.
Yet tonight no one even asked Mr Swinney for the figures to justify his sweeping assurance that of course Scotland – ‘the ’8th wealthiest country in the world’ – could afford independence.
The lack of awareness of the financial realities amongst almost all members of the audience is of real concern; and the lack of any real interest in having such information is numbing.
We seem to have ‘educated’ a nation, living in the greatest ever plankton of information yet largely incapable of dealing with information.
The fact that the younger members of the audience were much more vigorously pro independence than the more mature – and explicit in saying that they didn’t care about the costs or the challenges, is of real concern.
A Progressive Scottish Opinion poll quoted in this morning’s press, showing 27% supporting independence and 59% supporting the Union, also showed that two thirds of the 18-24 age bracket intended to vote ‘No’.
None of this necessarily offers comfort to those wishing to see Scotland continue as a member of the United Kingdom.
This poll made no mention of the crucial 16-18 band, on whose intentions there has been no substantive recent polling.
When the TV cameras go chasing opinions from this sector, they invariably go to the middle class articulates, where many are at least informed and proud of it – whichever way they intend to vote. The cameras never go into the hard edge sink schools or near those more likely to be uninterested in information and more prone to vote on a battlefield myth.
It is not unlikely that this single sector of brand new voters will take Scotland into an independence whose gravity they have not lived long enough to understand but who, being young and uncommitted, will have the latitude to ship out when it involves tough times.
Tonight was all about the battlefield mentality.