If McAlpine’s column represents an approved party line, it looks an awful lot as if the SNP are trying to avoid an honest debate about the economic challenges an independent Scotland would now face.
It would be like the big tobacco companies who, when faced with solid evidence of the link between smoking and cancer, focused on questioning the science and placing doubt in peoples’ minds. When facts are your enemy, confusion and doubt are your friends.
To be fair, we’ve yet to see the leadership of the SNP suggest that we can’t trust our own government’s figures - but we’ve also yet to see them shut-down those within their own party who, like Joan, seem to be becoming GERS-deniers. Maybe the SNP hierarchy think a bit of doubt and confusion is helpful?
So let’s look at McAlpine’s claims more closely. She incorrectly refers to GERS as “the UK Treasury’s understanding” of Scotland’s economy; she really should know that in fact they represent the Scottish Government’s understanding. So how can she suggest her own Government’s figures are “absurd”?
She relies entirely on the wild-eyed claims of one Professor Richard Murphy. He’s a chartered accountant and the self-proclaimed architect of “Corbynomics” - but let’s not worry about his CV, let’s worry about whether what he said is true.
Those hoping to foster confusion and doubt would be delighted for people like me to fill column inches explaining why Murphy is wrong. That way they stop us talking about what the figures actually tell us. McAlpine’s advice to people being presented with inconvenient truths was hardly subtle: “throw three words at them: Professor Richard Murphy”. Who needs to deal with facts when you’ve been taught the name of a tame professor who gives you permission to ignore them?
For what its worth, Murphy clearly doesn’t understand the GERS figures. He doesn’t realise that the Scottish Government compile our export data, so it isn’t “the UK Government making this up”. He fails to grasp that it’s the Scottish Government’s Chief Economist who decides on the assumptions behind the GERS figures, so nothing is “what the UK Government decides it should be”. I explain more of his mistakes here, but his biggest error is to claim that the figures can’t be trusted simply because estimates are used.
I asked a couple of exceptionally well qualified economics professors to comment on Murphy’s claims and you can see what they had to say below. Put simply: nearly all economic statistics are estimates, but to be qualified as National Statistics (as GERS are) the figures have to be shown to be trustworthy. End of discussion.
“As in practically any statistical exercise the GERS statistics depend on estimates, there is nothing unusual about that […] that is why mainstream economists, statisticians and commentators will continue to use these statistics."
Professor Ronald MacDonald, Research Professor in Macroeconomics and International Finance at the Adam Smith Business School
“All economic statistics involve sampling and estimates. But when the UK Statistics Authority designate figures as ‘National Statistics’ that’s hugely significant. This is a kite-mark showing they meet international statistical standards. Anybody who says these figures are “easily rigged” or “nonsense data” frankly doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.”So let’s focus instead on why some Yes supporters now want to deny the economic reality described in GERS - what are they so desperate to distract you from?
Professor Angus Armstrong, Director of Macroeconomics at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research
Well the figures effectively tell us four things:
- Firstly they tell us how much tax revenue the Scottish economy generates from our current economic activity and the taxes we’re all used to paying: income tax, VAT, council tax and the like.
- Secondly they tell us how much money is spent to deliver the public services we’re all used to receiving. So that’s things like health, education, pensions, social welfare, policing and so on.
- Thirdly they show how much it costs us if we pay our population share of expenses incurred for the benefit of the UK as a whole - mainly defence, debt interest and international affairs.
- Finally they show what happens if you take that revenue and subtract those costs. In the most recent year that shows we’d be in the red by £15bn – that’s the infamous £15bn “Scottish deficit”.
So, for example, we could assume we’d spend £0.6bn less than we’re currently allocated of UK-wide costs (like defence) and we could assume we’ll generate £7.9bn a year of oil revenue. That’s what the SNP’s Independence White Paper did last time round. They based our ability to maintain public spending on a reckless gamble about oil revenues. In fact, oil revenues this year will be approximately zero.
If you understand GERS the implication is clear: to survive as an independent country, Scotland would have to make dramatic spending cuts, cuts far more painful than any “Westminster austerity” we’ve seen to date.
Are the SNP prepared to be honest about the price we’d all pay for independence? If they allow high profile MSPs like Joan McAlpine to publicly rubbish their own figures, it’s surely not a good sign.
In the interest of honest and informed debate, let’s hope the SNP leadership condemn those who pretend we don’t know basic facts about our economy and instead face the difficult truths those facts reveal.