Thursday, 5 December 2019

Dissecting a Deception

Nicola Sturgeon keeps trying to mislead people by repeating a demonstrably false assertion. The truth is that if the SNP's Growth Commission recommendations had been applied to the conditions as they actually were a decade ago, Scotland would have suffered far greater austerity over the last 10 years - and we can prove it


That Ming-bearded mind-bothererTM Derren Brown1 is fond of telling his audiences that he achieves the seemingly impossible via a combination of "suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship".

There's an assertion being repeated so often by Nicola Sturgeon that I'm amazed none of the mainstream fact-checking organisations have bothered to check it. It goes like this:
"if the [SNP] Growth Commission recommendations on spending in an independent Scotland had been applied over the past 10 years, Scotland wouldn't have suffered the austerity cuts to our budget that we have suffered." - Nicola Sturgeon
That quote is lifted directly from her recent interview with Andrew Neil on BBC1 - she made the same asssertion to ITV's Robert Peston2 as well repeating it during the STV leaders' debate3 and, although I didn't listen to her call-in with Nicky Campbell on BBC Radio 5 Live, I'm told she repeated it there as well.

To understand the history of this assertion and how the SNP have tried to defend it is to understand how confident they are that "misdirection and showmanship" can allow them to claim the seemingly impossible.

The first time I heard this claim being made was by SNP MSP Kate Forbes (a member of the Growth Commission) on Question Time back in May 2018:
"Over the last 10 years the Scottish Budget has been cut by 8.5%; in contrast, this report predicts that if we had been an independent country our spending could have increased by 5% over those 10 years. Minus 8 to plus 5." - Kate Forbes
I then discovered that on the same day, during FMQ's in Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon had told the chamber:
"I've got some analysis here which I'm going to share with the chamber, and hopefully it'll be ... it'll be of embarrassment to the Tories, hopefully it'll be of interest to Labour. If the spending recommendations of the Growth Commission had been applied over the past ten years, the £2.6bn real-terms cuts imposed on the budget of the Scottish government by Tory governments at Westminster would have been completely wiped out, it would have eradicated austerity in Scotland. That is the reality." - Nicola Sturgeon
Then the report's author, Andrew Wilson, used his column in the National a few days later to repeat the claim again:
"If the model we have suggested for reducing the deficit was applied to the last 10 years, it would have eliminated the Tory austerity cuts to the Scottish Budget." - Andrew Wilson
I think we can safely say that the SNP have been committed to this line for some time now - and they've decided that this general election campaign is the right time to crank up the volume.

Back in June 2018 I pointed out that those assertions were completely at odds with the Growth Commission's actual recommendations (I blogged on the subject here and here). This matters, because as a direct result we know how the SNP seek to justify themselves on this.

First of all let's be clear about what the Growth Commission actually recommended. I covered this in great detail in a report that was reviewed and endorsed by senior economists at the time [These Islands Growth Commission Response: The Truth About Austerity], but in essence their recommendation is simple (emphasis mine):
"real increases in public spending should be limited to sufficiently less than GDP growth over the business cycle to reduce the deficit to below 3% within 5 to 10 years" - Growth Commission 3.187
This isn't a selective quote - the recommendation is repeated four times4 in the report and every time it's made clear that spending growth must be sufficently less than GDP growth to reduce the deficit to 3% within 10 years5.

Even before we look at how the SNP attempt to justify their "we'd have escaped Tory austerity2"claim, it should already be obvious that their assertion is false: the Commission's recommendation is to get the deficit under control within a 10 year period entirely through spending restraint6  - so if the current deficit is still above 3%, then over the last 10 years their recommendations would have required Scotland to have reduced spending by more than has been the case.

Scotland's deficit in 2018-19 was in fact £12.6bn or 7.0% of GDP7. For that to have been reduced to 3.0% through spending constraint alone over the prior decade, annual spending now would have to be £7.2bn less - that implies a 9.6% reduction to Scotland's current Total Managed Expenditure8.

It's patently obvious that applying the Growth Commission's rules over the past decade would have led to far deeper austerity than "Tory austerity".

So let's see how the SNP try to justify their transparently indefensible claim.

Justification Attempt No. 1

The first justification was offered directly by Kate Forbes herself, who had the good grace to reply to me when I challenged her about what she'd said on BBC's Question Time. She DM'd me the following 9  (remember: she was a member of the Growth Commission):
"its v simplistically based on what the GC recommends in terms of increasing public spending in Scotland over a 10 year period (by 0.5% per year (5.1% compounded))."
The obvious problem here is that the 0.5% figure is arrived at based on two key assumptions
  1. The starting deficit position - to determine by how much less than GDP growth spending would need to grow to get the deficit to 3% within 10 years (let's call it the "spending lag")
  2. Real annual GDP growth - to determine what real spending growth would be if it was suffciently less than GDP growth
To get to the 0.5% figure the Growth Commission assumed
  1. An onshore deficit starting position of 5.9%10 which - as they modelled it11 - meant that spending growth would have to lag GDP growth by 1.0% to get to the 3% target after 10 years.
  2. Real GDP growth at a "long-term trend" rate of 1.5% - so spending lagging this by 1.0% would mean real spending growth of 0.5% pa.
Now it's surely obvious that you can't apply the 0.5% figure to the last 10 years, because the starting position 10 years ago was a worse deficit and GDP growth was of course slower than "long-term trend" - that's why austerity was deemed necessary in the first place.

So Justification Attempt No. 1 is clearly nonsense - and although it's not really our job, for fun let's try and see what happens if we apply the actual figures
  1. 10 years ago, Scotland's onshore defict was 8.8%12. Using a recreated version of the GC's model suggests that spending growth would have to lag GDP growth by 1.5 - 1.9% to get to the 3% deficit target after 10 years13.
  2. Actual real GDP growth for Scotland over that 10 year period was 1.0%14 - so spending lagging this by 1.5 - 1.9% would mean a real spending decline of (0.5) - (0.9)% pa

Depending how you choose to define "the last 10 years", average annual real spending growth (TME8) for Scotland within the UK has been 0.9% (06/07 to 16/17), 0.6% (07/08 to 17/19) or 0.4% (08/09 to 18/19).

So however you cut it, the reality of the last 10 years hasn't been anything like as bad as a 0.5 - 0.9% real annual spending decline. Of course it hasn't - if it had been Scotland's deficit would now already have been reduced to below 3%.

Justification Attempt No. 2

Freedom of Information requests are funny things. I stumbled across this one a while back and it is extremely revealing. It includes emails that were being exchanged with the SNP on the same day that our These Islands response to the Growth Commission was released. The following caught my eye:

It's nice to know that "Special Adviser to the First Minister" Callum McCaig was paying attention (*waves*) - I wonder who the redacted recipient of this email could possibly have been?

But what should interest us most here is what this tells us about the analysis they used (internally) to justify their claim - presumably this is the "I've got some analysis" that Sturgeon referred to in the Chamber.

First of all, we have the familiar SNP trick of playing fast and loose with the concept time.

We've recently (November 2019) seen Ian Blackford referring to "the last 40 years" when he's actually talking about a 32 year period up to 2011-12. Now we discover that in July 2018 when Sturgeon referred to "the last 10 years" she was actually referring to a period that included 2 years into the future!

But the SpAd is right when he says that the starting year makes a difference - what they've done is ignore 3 years of generous spending increases which, needless to say, had they been applying the Growth Commission's recommendations then Scotland wouldn't have seen. Over the three years they conveniently ignore, average real expenditure (TME) increased by 2.4% pa which was an average of 3.4% pa more than GDP growth (because recession)

["bailing out the banks" is a red-herring - GERS only sees a per capita share of the "P&L" impact of the bail-outs (see here) - the impact in 2010 GERS was just £0.7bn or 0.5% of GDP, hardly significant in the context of the numbers we're considering]

What they apparently have now done is applied the 1.0% "spending lag" to the actual GDP growth rates over their "last 7 years plus the next 3 years forecast" definition of the last 10 years (i.e. instead of blindly applying the 0.5% real growth as per Justification Attempt No. 1) .

But there's a huge problem here - they've applied that spending lag of 1.0% which was calculated based on starting deficit of 5.5%. The actual onshore deficit in their chosen base year of 2010/11  - precisely because of those years of spending growth they've conveniently ignored - was 13.2% 14

If you're following what's going on here the issue is obvious: with that starting deficit, to get the deficit down to 3% within a decade (the Growth Commission's First Fiscal Rule) would require a "spending lag" of far greater than 1.0%.

So we've shown that Justification Attempt No. 2 is also nonsense - and again, althought it's not really  our job, for fun we can have a quick go at estimating the "spending lag" required to get from a 13.2% deficit to a 3.0% deficit in 10 years. I have had a go (using the Growth Commission's modelling methodology) and I reckon the figure becomes something like a 3.0% spending lag required.

So even taking the "long-term trend" GDP growth rate of 1.5% pa, I estimate that applying the Growth Commission's model to the 2010/11 starting conditions would imply real terms spending cuts of 1.5% pa for a decade. Even allowing for "through the business cycle" caveats, it's clear that this would have been far more extreme austerity than Scotland has actually suffered.

Now whether my quick attempts to correct the SNP's assertions are right or not could be open to debate, but that's not really the point - what is clear is that the justifications they've offered (or that we've found out they're using internally) are clearly nonsense.

Nicola Sturgeon is frequently repeating the same false assertion - in the Chamber; on BBC1 and ITV; in interviews and in debates - and she should be held to account.

No amount of suggestion, psychology, misdirection, showmanship (or even bending of the concept of time) should be allowed to distract from this simple fact: Sturgeon's claim that applying the Growth Commission's recommendations on spending over the last decade would have spared Scotland from austerity is as shonky* as hell.

*shonky: dishonest, unreliable, especially in a devious way.



1. I'm a fan - that description is his own from the dust-jacket of "Tricks of the Mind" (which I highly recommend)

2. "If [the Growth Commission's] recommendations had been implemented retrospectively we'd have escaped Tory austerity over the last decade"

3. See exchange with Richard Leonard at 47:20: "In fact if we'd had the Growth Commission's recommendations implemented over the past decade, we wouldn't have had the austerity that we've suffered under the Tories, that's the reality"

4. Directly from the Sustainable Growth Commission report:

page 42
Page 45
Page 92
Page 101

5. The report used the phrase "within 5 to 10 years" which is just the same as saying "within 10 years" (unless anybody is going to suggest that they're implying they wouldn't want to have the deficit below 3% of GDP in less than 5 years?)

6. It's important to note that when modelling deficit reduction over a 10 year period, the Growth Commission simply use "trend GDP growth" (which given the inevitable economic disruption that separating from the UK would cause - leaving the UK single market, leaving the Sterling currency union, losing the fiscal transfer from rUK - is arguably a very optimistic assumption). More importantly: as we see in the two attempts to justify these assertions, at no point do the SNP present a case that suggests they'd have changed historical rates of GDP growth.

7. Source GERS (the same base data the Growth Commission used) for 2018-19

8. The sound-bites offered by the SNP tend to refer to the "Scottish Budget" - of course the Growth Commission's recommendations relate to Scotland's total expenditure ("Total Managed Expenditure" in GERS terminology) which includes rather important costs that are outside Scotland's Budget, not least Social Welfare costs including pensions. It's impossible to read across from the Growth Commission's spending restraint recommendation to specifically what that would mean for only those costs in the Scottish Budget, as the GC make no specific recommendations about Social Welfare spending (for example).

9. I considered sharing a screen cap of the DM but that feels like crossing a line - but if any journalists or fact-checkers want to see confirmation of this I would happily provide

10. This is in itself a hugely optimistic assumption based on some highly questionable analysis - but I don't want to get bogged down in those arguments which were covered in These Islands Growth Commission Response: A Reality Check. Similarly the target of a deficit of 3% of GDP within a decade is insufficiently aggressive on the Growth Commission's own terms, as covered in the These Islands Growth Commission Response: Aiming Too Low, but I'm trying to avoid this blog re-running too much ground that's already been covered

11. There is a wrinkle in their model which (see B12.19) in that they assume "savings of 0.3% GDP associated with investment in best-in-class institutions realised over a three year period from year 5" - that basically makes it easier for them to get to the 3% figure in 10 years. Bar that wrinkle and the impact of assumed debt interest on new debt, the model is incredibly simple: revenue grows with GDP, Spending grows more slowly (by the "spending lag") and hence the deficit must come down.

12. As we'll come on to see, the definition of "10 years ago" will become important. Here I have used 2007/08 as the starting position: this is the year the SNP came to power and - given these initial assertions were being made in May 2018 so we'd just completed year 2017/18 - that seems like 10 years ago to me. The second definitional issue we have is "onshore deficit" at that time (the onshore deficit is the figure the Growth Commission consistently use) - per most recent GERS (so dealing with any historical restatements) the 2007/08 onshore deficit was £12,774m. If we divide that by onshore GDP of £120,929m we get a figure of 10.6%; if we divide it by total GDP of £145,372 we get a figure of 8.8%. To err on the side of caution, I have taken the lower figure.

13. The previous conclusion we drew when modelling this was that a lag of 1.5% would be required - the analytical challenge relates to what one assumes in terms debt costs for the counter-factual historical case. The higher figure comes from simply taking the forward model (as per our recreated Growth Commission model), changing the "legacy deficit" assumption to be as per the historical deficit and then working out what the lag would need to be to get to the deficit to 3% after 10 years - that gives the higher end of the range (basically because we're having to service more incremental debt in the future model because we're no longer sharing our deficit with the rest of the UK)

14. This gets a little tricky as at the time Kate Forbes and Sturgeon first made their assertions, the latest GERS figures available were for 2016-17; since then 2017-18 and 2018-19 figures have been published and of course these will include historical restatements / corrections. Taking the most recent 2018-19 version of the figures, over either of the 10 year periods from 06/07 to 16/17 or 07/08 to 17/18 gives the same answer of 1.0% annual GDP growth [the 10 years to 18/19 would now give us a 1.2% average]

15. Again using the latest (2018-19) GERS report: the onshore deficit in 2010-11 was £19,607, onshore GDP was £124,611m and total GDP was £147,983 - again I'm erring on the side of generosity by using total GDP as my onshore deficit denominator

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

The SNP: Living in the Past

The SNP's Ian Blackford recently made the following statement (presumably to Adam Boulton) on Sky News:
"But the simple fact of the matter, Adam, is that if you look back over the course of the last 40 years, UK Government figures make it absolutely clear that Scotland has subsidised the rest of the UK in most of the last 40 year period.”
This set alarm bells ringing for those who pay attention to this sort thing, because it is a statement dramatically at odds with the Scottish Government's own data.

Following a minor Twitter storm, Channel 4's @FactCheck had a look at it and published a Fact Check which concluded that it was "impossible for us to stand up Mr Blackford’s claim at the moment". Some of us thought that was an extremely generous conclusion and this blog will, I hope, explain why.

An aside on Channel 4's FactCheck: I have spoken with one of their team who took the time to call me and explain why they had written what they have. I appreciate that they have a policy of not doing analysis, but rather following the audit-trail offered to them for any claims made. Whilst I will come on to show why the audit trail they were sent down was perhaps a dodgy path, I want to be clear that this blog is a criticism of Blackford's claim, not of Channel 4's FactCheck. Heaven knows, given the breadth of issues they have to cover, we can't expect them to be as familiar with the intricacies of Scotland's economic data as sad souls like me who have buried ourselves in this topic for more than 5 years now.

What's particularly useful about Channel 4's FactCheck is that they have clearly spoken with the SNP (as of course they should) and been told how they attempt to justify the claim. FactCheck quote an SNP spokesman (*waves*) as saying:
"We have demonstrated to you using official government statistics that Ian Blackford’s comments are correct. The evidence shows that tax revenues per head in Scotland have been considerably higher than the UK – that has unquestionably subsidised UK public spending over the period."
We'll come back to this statement, but first let's clarify what's going on here.

According to FactCheck, the claim is based on a publication in April 2013 which relied on "An Experimental series of historical fiscal balances for Scotland 1980-81 to 2011-12". We'll refer to this data source from here forward as the SNAP data (as it's colloquially known1).

So here's the first point, as rightly made by FactCheck: "The stats only cover 1980/81 to 2011/12 (that’s 32 years), and recent years are missing".

Pause for a moment.

So when Blackford said "the last 40 years" he was actually referring to "the 32 years up to 2011/12"?

That's a 32 year period that ended 7 years ago!

Fun fact: in 2011/12 that SNAP data showed income from North Sea oil for Scotland of £7.9bn. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with what's been happening to tax revenues from the North Sea will immediately see the issue that's coming here - but let's step our way there carefully.

Here's another area where I have sympathy with Channel 4's FactCheck - I've followed enough audit-trails offered by the SNP to be familiar with their shoddy approach to data sources.  In fact those SNAP figures were updated to cover the 33 year period to 2012/13 [here] so from here forwards the most recently available SNAP figures are the ones I'll use. I presume the information FactCheck link to was as given to them by the SNP - and it's perhaps not unreasonable for them to assume they'd been pointed at the most recent data by the people attempting to justify Blackford's claim.

OK, so let's see what that SNAP data shows us (before we come on to the SNP's attempted debt-dodge).

First we need to understand how we can identify when Scotland could be considered to be "subsidising" the rest of the UK.

Scotland is allocated a population share of the UK's debt costs both in the SNAP data and in the more up-to-date and accurate GERS data that we'll come on to consider. This means that Scotland is considered a net contributor to the rest of the UK when it's per capita deficit is lower than the UK's per capita defict (and vice-versa).

A corollary of this is that - assuming Scotland is accruing responsiblity for a population share of the UK's debt -  when Scotland is responsible for less than its population share of growth in that debt, it's net contributing to the rest of the UK2.

So let's graph that SNAP data and see what's going on - this is the difference between Scotland's SNAP deficit per capita and the UK's deficit per capita (from the same source):

[note: "1980" = 1980/81 (and so on) and all figures are deflated using the UK GDP deflator]

When that line is above the axis, Scotland was a net contributor to the rest of the UK, when it's below it was a net beneficiary.

So immediately we can see a profile which will be familiar to regular visitors to Chokkablog: Scotland was a massive net contributor to the UK when oil boomed in the 1980's but - according to the experimental data as presented by the Scottish Government in 2014 - from 1998 onwards we pretty much just paid our way.

So far so good. If we accept setting the clock running just as we strike oil and if we accept that Scotland gets to "keep" oil revenues from oil fields in Scottish waters (which is what these figures assume) then the SNAP data shows Scotland being a material net contributor to the UK over the 32 years between 1980 and 2012.

In fact if we accept these assumptions and add the annual numbers together, it works out at a cumulative net contribution from Scotland of nearly £16,000 per person. It's Grievo-Max time and perhaps one can see why Ian Blackford wishes that's where we still were.

But let's remind ourselves what Blackford actually said: "UK Government figures make it absolutely clear that Scotland has subsidised the rest of the UK in most of the last 40 year period."

Well it's only "absolutely clear" that Scotland "subsidised" the rest of the UK when that line is above the axis  - and you'll find that's the case in just 15 of the 33 years shown. So even using this extremely out-of-date data (that conveniently stops just when oil revenues crashed) the statement "in most of the last 40 year period" is not supported.

But more importantly, we're not still in 2012.

Time doesn't stand still, oil reserves are finite and we have both more recent figures and a better handle on the figures for some of the years covered by SNAP - we have GERS.

GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] figures are compiled by Scottish Government economists in St Andrew's House and - unlike the experimental SNAP data - they qualify for the National Statistics Kitemark. Thankfully we don't need to re-run the tired old arguments put forward by GERS-deniers to be able to agree that GERS is better data than SNAP - that point at least should be beyond dispute.

Now FactCheck baulked when they realised that the GERS data only goes back as far as 1998/99. I guess that's fair enough; they wouldn't necessarily know how or if GERS figures reconcile with SNAP figures  - and you'd need to be familiar with the reporting history to understand how to explain the apparent inconsistencies.

But fortunately we can deal with those issues because we've been down this road (so many times) before.

It's easy to plot the two sets of data and see how they overlap:

So immediately we can see that where the data overlaps the more recent and more accurate GERS figures show a (slightly) worse picture for Scotland than the SNAP data.

The simple explanation is that revisions made by the Scottish Government's own economists to the historical figures reduced the amount of North Sea oil revenue that they believe should be attributed to Scotland. The most dramatic adjustments were made in the 2016-17 GERS figures - I highlighted this at the time. To avoid getting bogged down in the detail of that here, see note 3 below.

Of course even more significant than the correction downwards in the overlapping years is the dramatic shift to Scotland becoming a large net beneficiary of the UK in the last 7 years (as North Sea oil revenues have declined).

So if we use the best available data (GERS after 1998, SNAP before) we can create a full time series against which we can fairly judge Ian Blackford's claim:

Remember: when that line is above the axis, Scotland is a net contributor to the UK, when it's below Scotland is a net beneficiary.

You can see why Ian Blackford wishes the world had stood still in 2013 (and that he could ignore Scottish Government data corrections), but I don't think that makes it acceptable that he makes assertions assuming that were the case.

The more eagle-eyed among you will have spotted this is in fact a 39 year time period, but that's by-the-by (it's closer to 40 than 32 is!). Now let's check Blackford's statement against this best available data:
"UK Government figures make it absolutely clear that Scotland has subsidised the rest of the UK in most of the last 40 year period"
In fact these figures (which come from the Scottish Government, albeit they include UK Government figures) show that - to adopt Blackford's own terminology - Scotland has subsidised the rest of the UK in only 12 of the last 39 years.

So not "in most of" them then - that's simply wrong.

But more importantly, unless we believe a time-machine is going to be an option in any future referendum4, we really should look at the more recent run-rate. That shows us that in every one of the last 10 years Scotland has been a net beneficiary of UK-wide pooling and sharing, in recent years to the order of £2,000 a year for every man woman and child in Scotland.

That figure shouldn't suprise anybody paying attention: £2,000 x a population of 5.4m = £10.8bn - that is the effective fiscal transfer that people like me have been banging on about ever since 2014/155, when we could see that this would be the result of oil revenues falling away.

What about that cumulative figure that showed Scotland having net contributed £16,000 per person between 1980 and 2012 (per the SNAP data)?  Well that figure now (using the best available an dmost up-to-date data) works out to now be just £2,000 per person as of 2018.

Given we're well into 2019/20 and we can be confident that the fiscal transfer (I don't like "subsidy") this year is going to be similar to the last few years, as we sit here today it's fair to say that, in real terms, Scotland has got back from pooling and sharing as much as it has paid in since 1980.

Isn't that great? Pooling and sharing since 1980 has worked out to be pretty much neutral for Scotland and - as long as Scotland remains in the UK - the fact that going forwards Scotland looks set to continue to be a net beneficiary is nothing to be embarrassed about: what goes around comes around.

It's not a "subsidy" - its UK-wide pooling and sharing in action.

But wait: remember I said all this was before the SNP's debt-dodge?

Well this is based on an extremely dubious interpretation of a thought-experiment that Prof Brian Ashcroft proposed way back in 2013. At that time he hypothesised that (again: if the clock had started in 1980, if Scotland could have kept it's geographic share of oil revenue) then Scotland could have been debt free - so what if Scotland didn't pay for a population share of the UK's debt?

Apart from the obvious point I've already made (we don't have a time-machine option) the flip-side of that assumption is that now Scotland is contributing far more than it's population share to the UK's debt, you'd need to be allocating more than a population share of the interest costs of that incremental debt. I'm sorry but this really does start to get a bit silly.

But you know what?  Let's see what the figures would  have looked like if Scotland paid nothing towards the UK's debt costs over that time (i.e. this is a debt-free Scotland vs a debt-burdened UK):

So even with this frankly outrageous assumption [i.e. that we're running a massive deficit and paying no debt costs because we've somehow jumped in a time machine and created an oil fund instead of pooling and sharing with the rest of the UK] we'd still be in a situation where Scotland is now a significant beneficiary from UK-wide pooling and sharing, even if we pay nothing towards the UK's debt costs.

Now of course you could start arguing that in the time-machine scenario Scotland would have invested in an oil fund which by now would ..... ahhgggghhhhhh make it stop!

We can't change the past: decisions we make now should be based on where we are now and reflect what we can see is happening to revenues going forwards not looking backwards.

But let's finish where we started: with Ian Blackford's claim and the statement made by the SNP spokesman:

"We have demonstrated to you using official government statistics that Ian Blackford’s comments are correct."
Well given this was by reference to 32 years of SNAP data that stopped in 2011-12 and did include a population share of UK debt costs ... no you haven't.

"The evidence shows that tax revenues per head in Scotland have been considerably higher than the UK ..."
For what it's worth that is true, but only "considerably higher" because of oil revenues (which is why it hasn't been true for the last 5 years) ...

[note: green = onshore revenue only, black = inc geographic share of oil revenues; for SNAP/GERS overlap see note 6.]

... and of course that observation fails to consider the impact of higher per capita spending levels in Scotland, which have "been considerably higher than UK" for every one of the last 39 years (and that gap in spending is actually growing significantly - thank you Joel Barnett)

[note: for SNAP/GERS overlap see note 6.]

"... that has unquestionably subsidised UK public spending over the period."
Well I'm sorry, but if anybody has read all of the above and believes that statement is an accurate representation of reality ... well I give up.



1. Among people who are sad enough to need colloquial short-hands for different Scottish Government data sources - in this case it refers to the Scottish National Accounts Project

2. This is not a controversial assumption and is consistent with base approach taken by Prof Brian Ashcroft whose analysis from 2013 is cited by FactCheck (I presume having been pointed in that direction by the SNP's spokesman).  It's perhaps only fair to point out that Prof Ashcroft has reviewed and approved my analysis in this area before (see here).

3. Extracts from GERS 2016-17: there are of course other adjustments every year, but this North Sea revenue adjsutment was the one that had the most dramatic impact on the historical view of Scotland's deficit

4. It isnt - at least not one that allows people to travel back in time, otherwise they'd be here now telling us about it

5. Readers of this blog will have seen this graph in April 2015 - it shows how the "onshore deficit gap" (the difference between the blue line of relative onshore per capita revenue generation and the red line of relative per capita spending ) was fairly constant at around £9bn pa ... and that this gap was sometimes "washed away"by North Sea oil revenues  (the black line adds oil revenue per capita difference to onshore revenue)

We can bring this right up-to-date now (with GERS data that now corrects the historical over-statement of oil revenues) and we can see that even including current oil revenue the deficit gap has grown to over £11bn (because of the widening gap between per capita spending in Scotland and rUK).

I know people get confused by the difference between the deficit, the deficit gap and the effective fiscal transfer, so here's a simple summary:

6. For completeness, these graphs show the overlapping SNAP and GERS data, so you can see how the SNAP data compares when more accurate GERS figures are available.

On the revenue figures it's clear that the big correction is the (Scottish Government economists') downwards revision in assumptions about oil revenues attributable to Scotland - it would be interesting to see the same corrections applied back to 1980, but I suspect there isn't much political will to get that done

On the cost figures (note the left-hand scale is much smaller than on the revenue graph) the effect of the SNAP/GERS revisions are fairly marginal

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Andrew Wilson on Andrew Neil's Sturgeon Interview

Andrew Wilson has written an article in which he accuses Andrew Neil of getting things wrong, making points that were inaccurate and of pursuing a confused line of attack. In the ensuing article, not only does Andrew Wilson fail to justify his claims, he goes on to get things wrong, be inaccurate and to pursuse a confused line of attack.

“Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being in the right."
- George Orwell

I hestitate to write this blog - but the reason I hesitate is also the reason I write it.

Andrew Wilson is author of the SNP's Sustainable Growth Commission (SGC) report. He has an unwavering commitment to Scottish Independence and is, as a partner at "Strategic Communications Company" Charlotte Street Partners, very well-connected, an accomplished networker and widely liked.

When I politely, but with unforgiving analytical rigour, wrote a critique of his SGC report - taking the time to have it reviewed by the These Islands Advisory Council and endorsed by senior economists  - some of Andrew's friends really didn't like it.

More than once I was offered friendly-hand-on-the-shoulder words of advice along the lines of: "you've been a bit harsh on him old-boy, was that really necessary?" Needless to say at no point did any of these friendly hands (or less friendly cybernats) drawn my attention to anything I'd written that was actually wrong.

Here's the thing: I have every reason to believe that Andrew is a lovely guy, a good human being and - despite his frostiness to me personally on the few occasions our paths have crossed - excellent company. But if he uses his platform to try and mislead people into sharing his belief in a cause that aims to break up the UK, I think it not unreasonable that I use my (admittedly far smaller) platform to counter his attempts to mislead or misinform. That I'll be invited to a few less dinner parties as a result really isn't such a high price to pay.

Which brings me to the piece he has published today in the National1 , the paper that unashamedly thumps the tub for independence on a daily basis. It relates to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's recent interview with Andrew Neil as part of his series of BBC1 leaders' interviews ahead of the forthcoming General Election.

I believe what follows to be a fair summary of the substantive points he attempts to make.


After he's expressed his general admiration for Neil's forensic journalistic skills, he suggests:
However, he can also get things wrong. And in this week's testing of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon he did just that, whether by accident or design. She handled him with an impressive command of the facts and realities.
The article that follows fails to show that Neil "gets things wrong" and, as we'll see, the argument that Sturgeon handled the interview well because she had "an impressive command of the facts and realities" is not substantiated at all.

In his piece he goes on to say:
He made a few specific points that were inaccurate pertaining to the report of the Sustainable Growth Commission (SGC) and on the economics of public finances, currency and accession to the European Union. It is worth rehearsing those points here briefly, however the most important point for independence campaigners is to learn about these lines of scrutiny and attack.
So he's promising to back up his assertion that Neil was guilty of inaccurate claims and also to offer the troops his insight into how to deal with these lines of attack. Exciting isn't it?

After some warm words about the need for pragmatism, the importance of telling the truth and having a rigorous plan etc. he moves on to specifics:
Taking the Neil points quickly in turn: Firstly he said that the SGC report argued that it would take five to 10 years to re-join the EU. It didn't. We argued that Scotland should seek to get back in as soon as practicable. What the timescale quoted referred to was the period required to put the public finances on a sustainable footing while growing public spending ahead of inflation and not assuming huge windfalls from growth. 
The problem for Wilson here is that some of us have read his SGC report in all of its painfully repetitive detail, so when he makes assertions about what it says we know whether they're true or not.

Frstly, the SGC report doesn't actually "argue that Scotland should seek to get back in as soon as practicable" - one of the striking things about the 354 page report is how little is said about the prospect of EU membership for an independent Scotland.

There are a couple of statements about "if" Scotland joins and Scotland's "aspiration" to join the EU2, but there is no recommendation or statement of any kind about the urgency of so doing. I invite anybody to point me to where in the lengthy report it argues that "Scotland should seek to get back in as soon as practicable." It simply doesn't3, I'm afraid Wilson appears to have just made that up.

What the report does say multiple times is that "frictionless borders with the rest of the UK and EU should be a top strategic priority"4. At no point does it grapple with the possibility that in a post-Brexit world an independent Scotland wishing to join the EU would need to choose between having frictionless borders with either the rest of the UK or the EU. Presumably it doesn't grapple with this problem because, given 60% of Scotland's exports go to rUK and ony 18% go to the EU, it's pretty obvious which border friction would create most economic damage.

But what about "the timescale quoted"?

Well here's the direct quote from the SGC: " [...] aiming to achieve a sustainable fiscal position within 10 years. This timeline is necessary to ensure consistency with EU fiscal rules".

Now, I suppose you could argue that Scotland could join the EU before having complied with the EU fiscal rules, but I think - given no other timescale for rejoining is given anywhere else in the report - it's pretty reasonable for Neil to have interpreted the report as suggesting it would take "5 to 10" years to rejoin the EU. Frankly, one could argue that the low end of that range is generous given the only analysis included in the SGC report shows Scotland taking fully 10 years to get the deficit under control (and places no timescale on resolving the currency question).

Which brings us to "while growing public spending ahead of inflation". This is a particularly mendacious misrepresentation of the SGC recommendations. In fact, the explicit recommendation was for a Deficit Reduction Policy "with a target of delivering the initial deficit target of under 3 per cent of GDP within 5 to 10 years. Public spending increases in transition should be limited to sufficiently less than money GDP growth to deliver this.”

Only by making a series of spectacularly optimistic assumptions about painless public spending savings an iScotland could make, ignoring the downsides of any economic shocks (or trade friction) caused by independence and then assuming average GDP growth of 1.5% pa (roughly twice the average rate of the last 10 years) is the SGC able to translate that into 0.5% pa real spending growth.

Using more realistic assumptions - or if we apply the SGC's recommendations retrospectively (see below) - their stated Deficit Reduction Policy looks like a recipe for greater austerity than Scotland has suffered within the UK.   This issue was covered in detail in These Islands' formal response to the SGC report [in the chapter "The Truth About Austerity"] and was the conclusion drawn by the IFS among others.

He goes on:
Scotland would begin the independence transition with a higher deficit than the other EU member states but with a lower debt position than almost all
The "lower debt position" is a huge assumption based on the outcome of uncertain negotiations with rest of the UK. The 2014 White Paper assumed Scotland would inherit a “negotiated and agreed” apportionment of UK debt, but the SGC makes the more optimistic assumption that – by negotiating a debt servicing cost and calling it part of a ‘solidarity payment’ – an independent Scotland would be considered as starting ‘debt free’ from a market (and EU) perspective. It is far from clear that this attempt to move the debt ‘off balance-sheet’ would work as the SGC hopes.

He continues:
The deficit is not as bad as it might first appear and can be dealt with purposefully. It is also a function of the unsustainable UK model. But we can’t deny we want to reform it. I can see no constraint from this line of attack from Neil at all. 
It's hard to know where to start with this: an iScotland's deficit would be "not as bad as it might appear [..] can be dealt with purposefully [..] we can't deny we want to reform it [..] I can see no constraint"?

I presume these statements are an oblique reference to the SGC's attempt to argue for a series of cost savings to arrive at a starting "legacy deficit" for an iScotland of 5.5%. This compares with 2018-19 deficit figures of 7.0% for Scotland and only 1.1% for the whole of the UK (the UK's deficit being the one that Scotland actually carries the cost of, assuming Scotland remains within the UK).

That these assumptions were not only hugely optimistic but involved a combination of rounding-up, double-counting and a basic misunderstanding of how the base GERS figures work was also covered in the These Islands response to the SGC report [in the chapter "A Reality Check"].

As for the defict being "a function of the unsustainable UK model" - this assertion of unsustainabilty is a tired trope that really needs to be quashed.

That level of deficit would be unsustainable were Scotland to be independent, but the fact that Scotland has prospered5 while this notional deficit exists and hasn't had to endure any "excessive deficit procedure" is empirical proof that within the UK the position is sustainable. The truth is that the "GERS deficit" only becomes unsustainable if Scottish independence makes it real - and it only exists at all because the totality of the UK supports far higher public spending per head in Scotland than the UK average. This point is also covered in detail by the These Islands response paper [in the chapter Making the Case for Union].

He continues:
And indeed, by re-joining the EU it is likely that our pace of improvement will be greater because of the attendant benefits.
This blithe assertion blatantly ignores the obvious downsides for Scotland from losing the benefits of being part of the UK: being in the UK single market and Sterling currency union, enjoying the benefits of UK-wide fiscal pooling & sharing.

The economic downsides of leaving the UK are such a glaring omission in all of Andrew Wilson's arguments and analyses, one can only assume that he hopes he can avoid getting trampled by this particular elephant-in-the-room by stubbornly insisting it isn't there.

It is with a heavy heart, dear reader, that I have to inform you that we're only now getting to Wilson's second attempt to justify his claim that Andrew Neil "gets things wrong" - the good news is that this is his final attempt:
Neil’s second line of attack was confusing and confused. He was probing the requirement to build reserves of foreign currency before launching a Scottish pound so that its value may be defended and stabilised by the Scottish Central Bank. [..] The point of this test and the other five are to ensure that Scotland keeps the pound throughout the independence transition and only creates its own currency when it is in our own interests. And not before. 
The problem with this position is that, because of Scotland's fiscal and current account deficits, Sterlingisation would be unsustainable for any significant period of time - a point clearly explained in the These Islands paper: Choose Your Poison: The SNP's Currency Headache.

But let's see if Wilson answers the actual question of how and over what time period Scotland could build those reserves:
But he spent a great deal of time arguing that Scotland had a deficit in the public finances and the balance of payments (our international balances) and so could not run up any reserves. He is right that the UK has the second worst balance of payments in the world and again a price of the UK model would be our starting point. The most sustainable way to fix that and increase reserves would be to grow export earnings in all of their forms which is a core recommendation and focus of the report of the SGC. But there are other tools available also.
Can you see what he did there?

After asserting that Neil's line of attack was "confusing and confused", he tacitly accepts that the issue exists and that he hasn't shown over what time period it could realistically be addressed.

He says "the most sustainable way to fix that [...] would be to grow export earnings" - but that's precisely the point Neil was pushing at: how much would export earnings need to increase to reverse Scotland's current account position? How would this be achieved at the same time as creating trade friction between Scotland and rUK, where 60% of Scotland's exports currently go? How long would it take to then build up sufficient reserves?

These are questions that neither Wilson or Sturgeon can answer, so he attempts to distract by throwing in an observation about the UK's balance of payments - but the last time I checked the UK wasn't proposing to launch a new currency from scratch.
However, Neil might also like to have observed that in preparation for a no deal Brexit the UK government has grown its foreign exchange reserves very substantially at the same time as running both a public finance deficit and one of the worst balance of payments positions there is. They rose by $23 billion in the fourth quarter of last year alone.
This is another classic attempt at misdirection: not only was this very much an exceptional quarter, but the UK is in a position to be able to borrow to build foreign exchange reserves.

This is perhaps why Wilson offers only the gnomic "there are other tools available also" - it would be hard for him to argue that a newly independent Scotland should borrow to build currency reserves when he himself has (quite rightly) ruled that option out.

In Andrew Wilson's own words: "We could borrow to build [currency reserves] up [..] but borrowing such vast sums, with added currency risk on top of deficit funding we would inherit from the UK, before we had properly established ourselves, would be very expensive indeed. This would cost taxpayers and public services now and saddle future generations with the most expensive interest we will ever have to pay."

Remind me again: who's arguments are he calling confusing and confused?

Anyway, we're nearly home - his last flailing attempt is as follows:
On currency itself the Succession Acquis is less clear and certainly does not require Scotland to immediately set up its own currency and then plan to join a third currency (the Euro) shortly after. This would be in neither Scotland nor the EU’s interests. But we cannot deny that our transition to both independence and EU membership would provide a unique circumstance for the EU and all the more positive for it.
I've read that paragraph several times now and I still can't find any sense in it. What on earth does "But we cannot deny that our transition to both independence and EU membership would provide a unique circumstance for the EU and all the more positive for it" mean?

Is he suggesting that Scotland would be able to join the EU while retaining Sterling? I don't think he is, and he'd be right not to because that would clearly breach Chapter 17 of the Acquis Communautaire.  It's worth taking a moment to read what chapter 17 requires:
"The acquis in the area of economic and monetary policy contains specific rules requiring the independence of central banks in Member States, prohibiting direct financing of the public sector by the central banks and prohibiting privileged access of the public sector to financial institutions. Member States are expected to co-ordinate their economic policies and are subject to the Stability and Growth Pact on fiscal surveillance. New Member States are also committed to complying with the criteria laid down in the Treaty in order to be able to adopt the euro in due course after accession. Until then, they will participate in the Economic and Monetary Union as a Member State with a derogation from the use of the euro and shall treat their exchange rates as a matter of common concern."
Having a central bank implies having your own currency. As Kirsty Hughes, Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations (she's one of those pesky experts, and not obviously a fan of the Union) has so pithily expressed on Twitter:
"An accession country must have an independent central bank & a currency. It must have policies directed at price stability, make exchange rates a matter of common concern & an intention to join the euro. So using the £, Scotland can’t do this." - May 28 2018
"The point remains you can't join EU and meet treaty requirements if you don't control your own monetary policy. There's nothing to negotiate, you just have to show you conform to treaty." - Nov 25 2019
And that's basically it.

Remember Wilson started with the claim that Andrew Neil had "got things wrong" and "made a few specific points that were inaccurate". I've looked closely and if anybody thinks I've missed anything in that piece where he actually justifies that claim, let me know by posting a comment below - but I'm confident I have covered all of his substantive point here and I can't see that he has in any way justified those claims.

Wilson's concluding paragraph includes this sentence:
But I believe that our case has never been more considered, more honest and set out more clearly.
I guess technically that is a relative statement: it depends how ill-considered, dishonest and poorly set out their case has been before.

Suffice to say that all he has done with this article is confirm that Andrew Neil was well-informed and right to push on the points he did. Nicola Sturgeon may be a polished performer, but she got through that interview by skating over the issues, not by having "an impressive command of the facts and realities" as Wilson claims.


A parting observation on one of the more tetchy exchanges that came at about 18 minutes in to the interview:

First Sturgeon asserted that the Growth Commission "recommended spending increases above the rate of inflation". We've already seen that's a very dodgy interpretation of what they actually recommended which was that "Public spending increases in transition should be limited to sufficiently less than money GDP growth to deliver [a defiict of 3 per cent of GDP within 5 to 10 years].

Then she asserted that "if the Growth Commission recommendations on spending in an independent Scotland had been applied over the past 10 years, Scotland wouldn't have suffered the austerity cuts to our budget that we have suffered".

Andrew Neil challenged this and asked her to cite the economic model that justified that assertion - she was flustered and said "I've had that figure done by the Scottish [pause] Government ...".

Funnily enough Andrew Wilson didn't choose to take the opportunity in his article to clarify this point -  a point which needless to say the SGC report itself did not attempt to make.

Apart from the fact that it would be weird for the Scottish Government to be doing analysis on the impacts of something the SNP's Growth Commission were proposing for a putative independent Scotland, we know how she arrives at that assertion because it's come up before.

When this claim first surfaced, Growth Commission member and now SNP minister Kate Forbes was kind enough to tell me that the assertion was "based on what the GC recommends in terms of increased public spending in Scotland over a 10 year period (by 0.5% per year)".

So it's based on ignoring what the actual starting deficit position was 10 years ago and what actual levels of GDP growth were and instead relies on just blindly applying the rate of spending growth that was modelled by the SGC for the future assuming a 5.5% starting deficit (10 years ago it was actually 8.7%9) and assuming GDP growth of 1.5% (the last decade average was actually 0.8%).

In our These Islands paper we modelled the implications of applying the SGC rule as actually stated to the actual starting conditions 10 years ago i.e. public spending growth "sufficiently less than GDP growth" to deliver a 3% deficit over 10 years. Needless to say applying the rule in this way would of course have led to significantly less public spending in Scotland than we have seen - by our analysis the spending reduction (vs "Westminster austerity") would have been around £60bn over those 10 years6.


Addendum 1.
There was so much nonsense to deal with here I realise I missed a significant point. In an attempt to respond to the "currency & EU membership" question Andrew Wilson writes "On currency itself the Succession Acquis is less clear and certainly does not require Scotland to immediately set up its own currency and then plan to join a third currency (the Euro) shortly after."

We'll brush over the fact that he says "Succession" when he means "Accession" - it would be childish to score points over that kind of slip-up - but instead I want to pick up on the words I've highlighted

This is another feeble attempt at misdirection. At no point did Andrew Neil suggest "Scotland would have to immediately set up its own currency and then plan to join the Euro shortly after". He asked a direct question ("How long before Scotland could rejoin the EU?") and in the ensuing debate he challenged on the point that trying to join the EU while using a currency over which you have no monetary policy control would breach EU rules.  Instead of answering the question - despite having 24 hours to come up with something - the best Wilson can offer is a denial of something nobody's suggested.

Addendum 2.
Having rewatched the inteview to check for Addendum 1, I'm struck by something else in Sturgeon's answers. She boasts that Scotland's 7.0% deficit in 18-19 is lower than the SGC projected for 20-21. Well that is - just - true: the SGC projected a 2020-21 deficit of 7.1%.

The question of course is why does Scotland appear to be two years ahead of the SGC's deficit reduction projections? A quick glance at the SGC methodology shows they relied heavily on an IFS projection which in turn relied on the OBR forecasts that existed at the time.

The IFS assumed "onshore tax revenues per person in Scotland are projected to be 95.3% of the average for the UK as a whole". As it turns out (per GERS) the actual figure was indeed 95.3% in 2018-197.

The IFS also assumed "government spending in Scotland remains the same proportion (9.3%) of UK-wide government spending as in 2017–18". And again, as it turns out (per GERS) the actual figure was indeed 9.3%8 

So put simply, the reason why Scotland's deficit has reduced (slightly) faster than what the SGC (via the IFS, via the OBR) projected is that the UK as a whole has performed (slightly) better than the OBR projection. And indeed we can easily see that is the case: the OBR projections that underpinned this analysis were at the time for a 1.3% defict and the actual out-turn for 2018-19 was 1.1%.

So, when cast through the nationalists' distorting prism, the fact that the UK is performing better than expected becomes an argument in favour of Scotland breaking away.

A corollary of this is that, as "Tory austerity" succeeds in reducing the deficit for both the UK and Scotland within the UK, nationalists will both complain about austerity and argue that the positive results of those austerity measures in terms of deficit reduction somehow strengthen their arguments. You don't have to agree with the way austerity has been implemented in the UK to spot the blatant hypocrisy here.


1. Despite notionally being behind a pay-wall, it's really not very difficult to read the text if you're familiar with "ctrl-U" on a Chrome browser

2. Aspiration for EU Membership
"If Scotland became an EU member in the future" 
"First, the debt limit in the EU’s Fiscal Compact (60% of GDP) is a useful starting point. Ensuring that Scotland holds to meeting this minimum standard has several advantages. It is an understandable target (for the public and by markets), it is consistent with Scotland’s aspiration for EU membership"
"Independence and membership of the EU Single Market would create new opportunities for businesses in Scotland"
"to enjoy the best access to both markets Scotland must be positioned in the EU single market."  - this is a highly dubious assertion in a post-Brexit world, and note the reference is to being in the EU single market rather than necessarily being an EU member (i.e. it encompasses possible EFTA membership)
3. If you want to know how repetitive the SGC report is, try a ctrl-f on "eu" and see how often the same phrases are repeated

4. References to the importance of frictionless trade with the EU are always placed within a context that (correctly) places frictionless trade with the UK as the first priority
"Securing frictionless borders with the rest of the UK and EU should be a top strategic priority of the Scottish Government."
"maximising frictionless trade and market access with the rest of the UK and with Europe is of critical importance to the performance of the Scottish economy in the short and long term."
"Scotland’s economic interests will be best served maximising frictionless trade and ensuring access to UK, EU and wider global markets."
"Priorities include the nature of on-going market access from Scotland to the UK and the EU"
5. Scotland has prospered within the UK: the SGC points out that Scotland as part of the United Kingdom is “without question a rich and successful nation” with “economic performance […]
amongst the best performing decile in the world” and that “Scotland’s economic output per head is the best of the UK nations and regions, outside of London and the South East”.

6. Our analysis is already demonstrably more sophisicated than the SNP's "just say we grow spending by 0.5% pa in real terms and ignore what the deficit and GDP growth levels actually were." approach.  It would be possible to be more sophisticated still and make assumptions about how a few years of not cutting spending might have affected longer-term GDP growth (there's a valid case for this) but the question becomes what level of GDP growth do we then assume? What's clear is that neither the SNP nor the SGC has done such an analysis or you can be sure by now they'd have shared it.

7. There is some volatility in these figures because past numbers are continually revised as more accurate data becomes available (or due to changes in methodolgy). This really just highlights that it would be foolish to draw any conclusions based on 0.1% of GDP one way or another. When the IFS projections were made based on 2017-18 data, the figures available at that time suggested Scotland's onshore revenue per head was 95.3% of the UK (the IFS just projected off OBR UK forecasts on that basis) - that 2017-18 figure has subsequently been revised down to 94.5%. The reason for this adjustment is primarily a reduction down in attributed Scottish income tax receipts; the introduction of a higher tax rate in Scotland has focused greater attention on the accuracy of these figures (see GERS 2018-19 pages 15 & 55).

Once you've got all of that out of the way, the graph below should help understand how the IFS forecast can have turned out to be right, but the SNP can also say that onshore tax revenues in Scotland are gowing faster than the UK average. Needless to say a little bit of historical context shows how marginal the "faster onshore revenue growth" observation is

8. Scotland's share of UK spending is pretty stable (and if anything increasing)

9. That is using the most generously interprested deficit figure using the SGC's "onshore deficit" definition = [onshore deficit] / [onshore GDP]

Monday, 28 January 2019

Robert Burns: An Immortal Memory

It was my privilege to deliver the Immortal Memory at the Gifford Village Burns' supper on Saturday and some people enjoyed it enough (or were at least polite enough) to ask me to share a written version. So here goes.

The hugely talented Aileen Watson and her brother Neil provided musical contributions / interludes and - so as not to test the patience of the audience - I broke my contribution into three distinct sections with the aim of providing a narrative structure to the evening.

There is much fun that can be had with Burns' bawdier works - I chose not to given the rather genteel audience I was addressing.

A final note on delivery: personally I never read from a script - I prefer the natural and more engaging cadence that comes from speaking from the briefest of notes - so the prose that follows is a perhaps awkward hybrid of prose and script [complete with asides] and can only represent an approximation of what I might actually have said!

🎵 Song: 'Rantin, Rovin Robin (There Was a Lad)' 🎵
"He’ll be  a credit to us a'
e’ll a’ be proud o Robin!"
And proud of him we are!

My task tonight is to remind us why we're here to celebrate the life and works of this extraordinary man, why he was indeed a 'credit to us a'.

And to do that I think it's helpful to provde some context, to help understand why this meal itself is so significant and why the haggis we’re about to welcome deserves such an impressive ceremony.

So I want you to come with me on a journey - come back 260 years [and one day] to the night of the 25th January 1759. We’re by the banks of the river Doon in Alloway, and a wild storm is blowing. And there's a small, mud-walled, thatch-roofed cottage  - an ‘auld clay biggin’ - inside which a child is being born. That child is, of course, our hero: Robert Burns.

Legend has it that the wind was so fierce that night that the gable-end wall of the cottage started to collapse, and the baby Burns had to be carried though the tempest to somewhere more secure1.

So he was born in a storm - and born into a world very different to that we know today: the world of the agricultural poor in 18th century Scotland.

What did that mean in practice?

Well the home that Burns grew up in we today wouldn't consider to be fit for human habitation. That two room cottage would have had no proper flooring - certainly no floorboards or carpet - no running water, no sanitation, no bathroom – and the living area was probably shared with chickens.

When Burns studied at night - and he did study; encouraged by his father he studied English grammar, French, Latin and later mathematics and the classics - he would have been working by the dim flicker of tallow lamps.

Picture him: studying and later writing his poetry while his feet scuffed against an earthen floor, with hens maybe clucking around him, the light dim and the air thick with the smell of rendered animal fat burning in those lamps.

Not to put too fine a point on it: life for the agricultural poor back than was pretty miserable. Disease was rampant and infant mortality was shockingly high.

In fact, let me do a little test with you all here tonight [get all to put their hands up, then lower them if older than 50, 40, 35 - at least for this supper all were over 35, most were over 50]

OK - so the average life expectancy in Scotland when Burns was born was just 32 years2.

Now averages are funny things [infant mortality brings down the average a lot3] but still - 32 - it's a sobering thought, is it not?

Well if that’s a sobering thought, maybe we should turn our attention to drink!

When Burns wrote of 'reaming swats, that drank divinely'4, he was of course referring to the foaming, creamy ale that was drunk not just in taverns but with every meal - drunk because it was purer, safer than the water.

So if you choose to indulge in 'guid auld Scotch drink'5 tonight [or even New Zealand sauvignon blanc or Chilean cabernet sauvignon] you can take comfort from the fact that what you are doing is something that, in 18th century Scotland, would have been considered simply healthy best practice!

[so you can drink guilt free tonight]

But what about the meal, what food would Burns have been used to?

His diet would have consisted primarily of oatmeal-porridge, barley-broth, potatoes [introduced to Scotland just 20 years before his birth6] and milk - maybe some kale, peas or beans. But meat was just an occasional luxury ... and hunger, famine even, was a reality for many.

[We’re not talking about Tesco’s running out of avocados here]

Towards the end of his life, while staying in Dumfries, he wrote to one friend:
“Here, we have actual famine, & that too in the midst of plenty – many days my family & hundreds of other families, are absolutely without one grain of meal; as money cannot purchase it”
 - from letter to France Anna Dunlop, Jan 1796
Later that same year he wrote:
“if I die not of disease, I must perish with Hunger"
– from letter to Alexander Cunningham, July 1796
So as we tuck into our haggis this evening, we should appreciate that for the man we’re here to celebrate, this meal really would have been a special treat - particularly because haggis features that most precious commodity of the time: meat.

Hopefully that has helped get us all into an 18th century frame of mind – and perhaps help us appreciate why he wrote the paean of praise to the humble haggis that we'll be hearing very soon.

['Address to the Haggis']

['Selkirk Grace']


So while we wait for our main-course to arrive, I want to talk very briefly about Burns the farmer. In later years he was also an exciseman (a tax collector for the British state no less!)  but he was born a farmer's son and farmed nearly all of his adult life. In his own words:
"I was bred to the plough, and am independent”
- from Address to the Caledonian Hunt, 178728
[Independent of mind, of course - we'll come on to discuss that.]

Well bred to the plough he may have been, but in truth he was not a great farmer. How could he be when his mind was continually distracted by higher things?

As a 19th century biographer wrote7:
“to him the stubble-field was musing-ground, and the walk behind the plough, a twilight saunter on Parnassus”  
[Parnassus of course being the home of the “muses” in Greek mythology]

So as he ploughed, he mused - and luckily for us, he let his mind wander and committed his thoughts to rhyme.

When his plough turned down a mountain daisy, he would grieve for it - and apologise to it:
“Wee, modest, crimson-tippèd flow'r,
Thou's met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure
Thy slender stem:
To spare thee now is past my pow'r,
Thou bonie gem”
- from 'To a Mountain Daisy'
The words of a great poet - but surely not concerns a good farmer would find time for.

And perhaps most famously of all – when his ploughshare [the “coulter”] disturbed a field-mouse’s nest, he took time to ponder the moral questions this raised. In the process he reflected not just on the similarities between him and his 'fellow mortal', but also - towards the end of the poem - I'd suggest his real insight is to pin-point the fundamental difference between man and mouse.

[This is the only poem I'm going to recite in full this evening - it's not too long but it's worth highlighting a phrase which can trip some people up; 'A daimen-icker in a thrave' refers to the occasional ear of corn (the daimen-icker) out of a bundle of 24 ears of corn (the thrave).]

'To A Mouse (On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough)'
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ requet;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
Its silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuing,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee bit heap o’ leaves and stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear!

Main course & pudding 

 🎵 Song: 'Ae Fond Kiss' 🎵
"Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, and then forever!"
The pain of lost love - the agony of saying goodbye to a loved one, never to see them again. But I'd suggest the genius of Burns lies in recognising that the sadness of separation is the ticket-price price you pay for the joy of  love:
"But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love forever.
Had we never lov'd sae kindly,
Had we never lov'd sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted—
We had ne'er been broken-hearted."
The broken heart is the price you pay for the joy of the love that comes before.

The words of this song were written by Burns as a parting gift, sent in a letter to a women with whom he had become infatuated – in his letters he referred to her as his “Clarinda”, her real name was Nancy8 - and that letter was his farewell to her as she sailed to Jamaica and he expected never to see her again.

We’ll come back to Nancy – but first we have to tackle that most difficult of subjects: Burns and women.

It was a woman - a girl really - working beside him during the harvest who first inspired Burns, an infatuated 15 year-old boy to, in his own words, 'commit the sin of rhyme'9.

And in that first poem, 'Handsome Nell', I think we can see the first flickers of the genius that was to come in these lines:
“She dresses aye sae clean and neat,
 Baith decent and genteel,
And then there's something in her gait
Gars* ony dress look weel"
*makes, compels

[15 years old: can you imagine any 15 year-old you've know expressing emotion like that?]

And so began a long history of loving women – and of being loved by them.

He grew to be a relatively tall, good-looking man with dark, bright eyes – and with women in particular he he was witty, eloquent ... and persuasive.

But his talents didn't end there. As one of his conquests said:
“an hour with him in the dark was worth a lifetime of light with any other body”10
[that's not a bad review, is it?]

And Nancy – the woman he wrote 'Ae Fond Kiss' for? They never did meet again, but she certainly never forgot him. Some 40 years later, an 86 year-old Nancy wrote in her journal, under the date 6th December 183111:
 'This day I can never forget. Parted with Burns, in the year 1791, never more to meet in this world. Oh, may we meet in Heaven!'
He certainly left his mark with mark with women - not least in that he got at least 6 different women pregnant and fathered 12 children that we’re sure of [some say 14]12.

One of those women, by the way, was the maid of that same Nancy to whom he wrote 'Ae Fond Kiss'. She was their go between, she carried the letters between them13 - and somehow in the process Burns got her pregnant!

He clearly had "issues".

But to characterise Burns as a lothario - a selfish womaniser - is, I'd suggest, to do him a disservice. If you read his letters it seems clear to me that he genuinely loved them all. In his own words:
“my heart was completely tinder, and was eternally lighted up by some goddess or other”
– from letter to Dr John Moore
He was a weak-hearted lover – [weak-hearted: plot point!] – and he couldn't help but fall in love. In fact heartbreak was the catalyst for his most creatively productive period.

His heart was broken when - in his mid-twenties - he met, wooed, got pregnant [of course he did] and decided to marry the woman who would eventually bear nine of his children: Jean Armour, his 'Bonnie Jean'.

But his reputation preceded him – he already had one illegitimate child by this time (who now was being raised by his mother14) and he didn't hide his disdain for religion – so Jean's father forbade the marriage and forced Jean to renounce him.

Burns was distraught - and this triggered a period of manic poetic productivity. It was said that:
“He persevered in song & sought solace in verse, when all other solace was denied him”15
Let's sample some of it:
“Ye jovial boys who love the joys
The blissful joys of lovers;
Yet dare avow with dauntless brow,
when th’ bony lass discovers*;
I pray draw near and lend an ear,
And welcome in a Frater
For I’ve lately been on quarantine
A proven fornicator"

- from 'The Fornicator' 
*shows to be pregnant

He showed nothing but scorn for the pious and holier-than-thou who presumed to judge him - particularly those who wore religion as a shield:
“God knows, I’m no the thing I should be,
Nor am I even the thing I could be,
But twenty times I rather would be
An atheist clean
Than under gospel colors hid be
just for a screen”
- from 'Epistle to the Rev John McMath' 
Or perhaps even more scathingly:
“O ye, wha are sae guid yoursel’
Sae pious and sae holy
Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neebours fauts and folly!”

-  from 'Address to the Unco Guid'
So shunned by the pious and renouced by Jean, he 'went all but mad', he 'roamed, moody and idle about the land'16 -  fortunately for us, writing frenetically as he did.

He still found time to fall in love again [of course he did].

He became betrothed to Mary Campbell (his 'Highland Mary') and planned to sail with her to Jamaica to start a new life - but decided to publish his poems first to help finance their new life.

Tragically, Mary died while waiting for him at the port [probably in premature child-birth].

His trunk was literally packed and on its way to the dock when his works were published to immediate and wide acclaimed. So he changed his plans and headed to Edinburgh – there for his feet to touch carpet for the first time – and he enjoyed two years of being lauded and favoured by the great and the good.

And there he met Nancy – his “Clarinda”, to whom he would write 'Ae Fond Kiss' - and we have come full circle.

Shortly after Nancy sailed to Jamaica he finally married his Bonnie Jean;
“On peace an rest my mind was bent,
And, fool I was! I married"
- from 'O, Ay My Wife She Dang Me'
A few years later, Jean was to take in Robert’s latest illegitimate child and bring her up as her own– you can just imagine the weary resignation with which she uttered those immortal words:
“'Our Robbie should have had twa wives”17

So why do we celebrate this man?

He had a reputation as drunkard, he was certainly a womaniser, unfaithful to his wife, a 'proven fornicator'. We can can I'm sure agree that he was no saint - but I hope we can also agree that he was a genius.

Walter Scott may have been responsible for the shortbread-tin view of Scotland so beloved of tourists - but Burns managed to capture the true essence of 'Scottishness' in a way that Scots today still relate to.

His first published works were titled: 'Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect' – and that dialect is critical, because he wrote using the language of the fireside, he captured the way that common people actually spoke.

It was said that 'the auld doric to him was what an ancient harp might be to a minstrel'18

[Scottish dialect was the instrument on which he played - and If you think of other famous 18th century poets - Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Wordsworth – beautiful writers all, but none of them wrote with the voice of the common man19]

And he described characters with such deft observational skill that they still live today – think of the drunken reveller Tam O’ Shanter or his shrew-like wife Kate, waiting at home 'gathering her brows like gathering storm, nursing her wrath to keep it warm'20.

[I see some flickers of recognition in the audience!]

But his canvas was so much broader than just Scotland and Scottishness.

He was capable of biting satire - fearless when denouncing the hypocritical and the entitled. But he also - with compassion, humour and wit – was understanding and forgiving of the moral frailty of the common man.

He observed the human condition and articulated fundamental truths about it and - above all - he championed the goodness that he believed exists in us all.
“Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.”
- from 'A Man's a Man For a' That'21
Or as in 'To A Louse'
“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us”
[Somehow those words seem more appropriate now than ever - words witten 260 years ago that still resonate today]

In fact, whether you’ve noticed it or not, his words have echoed through the ages.

In the 19th century when a shipping magnate wanted to build the world's fastest Tea Clipper, he named her 'Cutty Sark' in direct reference to Burns' narrative masterpiece 'Tam O'Shanter'22.

In the 21st century when John Steinbeck wrote 'Of Mice and Men' he was, of course, quoting that line from 'To A Mouse': 'the best-laid schemes o' Mice an Men gang aft agley'.

And when 20th century politicians say 'the rocks will melt wi’ the sun'  before they’d change a policy23, we know they're stealing a line from 'My Luv is Like a Red Red Rose':
“Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear
and the rocks will melt wi’ the sun!
And I will Luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry”
And of course, when at  New Year - and on nights like tonight - we sing 'Auld Lang Syne' we are singing something that Burns was responsible for capturing and putting in print24.


But to celebrate the great man’s life, it is our duty to consider the circumstances of his death.

His love of drink – and the pressure put on him to drink - certainly didn’t help
“occasional hard drinking is the devil to me [..] it is the private parties in the family way, among the hard drinking gentlemen of this country that does me the mischief”
- from letter to Frances Anna Dunlop, Dec 1792
[I know how he feels]

But it was that weak heart – that easily broken heart - that did for him. We think now that he suffered from chronic rheumatic heart disease and we know, from his own letters, that he suffered throughout his life. Just one example of many:
“I have only known existence by the pressure of the heavy hand of sickness; and have counted time by the reprecussions of pain! Rheumatism, cold and fever have formed, to me, a terrible Trinity in Unity, which makes me close my eyes in misery, and open them without hope”
- from letter to George Thomson, Apr 1796
[he certainly knew how to feel sorry for himself - but we now know he had just cause]

And sadly, most of his last letters see him begging for money to settle debts, fearful that his wife and children would be left in penury. Burns was:
“a man who had little art in making money, and still less in keeping it”25
But he never lost his wit – or indeed his love of women.

With a fitting symmetry - for than man first inspired to rhyme by a bonny lass – his last work was written for the nurse who tended his death bed;
“Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
The desert were a Paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there"

- from 'O, Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast' (deathbed poem to Jessie Lewars)26
He passed away on 21st July 1796, at just 37 years of age27.

His funeral was attende by 10,000 mourners - and on the day of his funeral his wife Jean gave birth to the last of his children.

Now, before I propose the toast, I’d like to take advantage of the poignancy of this moment to ask Aileen to perform one of Burns' most touching works (and something Aileen sings beautifully): 'Ay Waukin O'.

[The song of a woman who lies awake, unable to sleep for thinking of her lover]

 🎵 Song: 'Ay Waukin O'🎵

So now, ladies and gentlemen, it just remains for me to ask you to raise your glasses and join me in a toast: to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns



Robert Burns, The Complete Poetical Works, edited by James A Mackay [Alloway Publishing]

Life of Robert Burns by Allan Cunningham [published in 1842 - available online here]

The Complete Letters of Robert Burns, edited by James A Mackay [Alloway Publishing]

The Robert Burns Story, John Cairney [via iTunes]

Robert Burns: man o' independent mind, Professor Chris Whatley [These Islands]

Burness Genealogy and Family History: Descendants of Robert Burns

Timeline (cobbled together from the above)

  1. 05/1785 to Elizabeth Paton (servant girl): Elizabeth “Bessy” – lived to 32 yrs
  2. 09/1786 to Jean Armour: Robert – lived to 71 yrs
  3. 09/1786 to Jean Armour: Jean – died an infant [13 mths]
    10/1786 to Margaret (Mary) Campbell – possibly died in premature labour
    05/1787 to May Cameron - became pregnant, outcome unknown
  4. 05/1788 to Jean Armour: twin – died unnamed
  5. 05/1788 to Jean Armour: twin – died unnamed
    [08/1788 marriage to Jean Armour recognised]
  6. 11/1788 to Janet (Jenny) Clow (maid): Robert - unknown
  7. 05/1789 to Jean Armour: Frances Wallace – died aged 13 yrs
  8. 04/1791 to Jean Armour: William Nicol – lived to 80 yrs
  9. 03/1791 To Anna Park (barmaid):Elizabeth “Betty” – lived to 82 yrs
  10. 11/1792 to Jean Armour: Elizabeth R – died an infant [2 yrs]
  11. 08/1794 to Jean Armour: James G – lived to 72 yrs
  12. 07/1796 to Jean Armour: Maxwell – died an infant [2 yrs]


  1.  A little bit of poetic license is being used here - although that legend exists, in truth this incident appears to have occurred some days after his birth 
  2. Mortality in Early Modern Scotland
  3. An interesting illustration of this point can be gleaned from the timeline above. Of the 11 of Burns children for whom we know the outcome their average age was c. 32 - bang on the average for the time. Dig a little deeper and you'll see that 5 died as infants and one other failed to reach adult-hood - but of those that did reach adulthood, 4 of them lived to be over 70 (2 of them to over 80). The point being, if you survived to adulthood you could reasonably expect to live beyond your 50s (which is why Burns can still be considered to have "died young" at 37, despite that being greater than the average life expectancy at the time)
  4. from Tam O'Shanter:
    But to our tale:-- Ae market-night, Tam had got planted unco right; Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely, Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely
  5. from Scotch Drink
    O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink! Whether thro' wimplin worms thou jink, Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink, In glorious faem,Inspire me, till I lisp an' wink, To sing thy name!
  6. "The introduction of the potato to Scotland in 1739 greatly improved the diet of the peasantry"
  7. from Life of Robert Burns by Allan Cunningham [published in 1842]
  8. Agnes "Nancy" Maclehose
  9. In a letter for Dr John Moore, August 1787:
    “... brought to me my sixteenth year; a little before which period I first committed the sin of rhyme - [...] she altogether unwittingly to herself, initiated in me a certain delicious passion, which in spite of acid disappointment, gin-horse prudence and bookworm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys, our dearest blessing here below!”
  10. from Life of Robert Burns by Allan Cunningham [published in 1842]
  11. attributed to multiple sources
  12. See timeline above
  13. She was certainly Nancy's maid and appears to have met Burns delivering one of her letters
  14. See timeline above
  15. from Life of Robert Burns by Allan Cunningham [published in 1842]
  16. from Life of Robert Burns by Allan Cunningham [published in 1842]
  17. "Our Robbie should have had twa wives"
  18. Attributed to Reverend Paterson by Major J. Fraser Morgan  in The William Will Memorial Lecture to the Vernacular Circle of the Burns Club of London: llth January 1982 [via the Burns Chronicle]
  19. OK, full disclosure: I googled a list of 18th century poets and I think my assertion is fair, but I stand ready to be corrected!
  20. Tam O'Shanter, obviously
  21. The following verse is perhaps better known
    For a' that, an' a' that. 
    Our toils obscure an' a' that, 
    The rank is but the guinea's stamp, 
    The Man's the gowd* for a' that.
  22. Shipping magnate John Willis in 1869 - the figurehead famously features the witch Nanny Dee with the tail of Tam's grey mare Meg clasped in her hand
  23. Alex Salmon, about tuition fees. For obvious reasons I decided to not use the following example, but I include it here for completeness:

    In the fevered world of Scottish politics, you’ll regularly hear supporters of independence quoting Burns' line from a poem written in 1791:

    “We're bought and sold for English gold
    Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”

    But others might point out that - as the aftermath of the French Revolution became clearer - in 1795 he wrote:

    “Be Britain still to Britain true,
    Amang ourselves united;”

    I guess you pay’s your money and you takes your choice!

  24. I choose my words carefully here, because the extent to which Burns reworked a traditional ballad is a subject of some debate - the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne' itself is known to have been in print since 1700 [per "Poetical Works of Robert Burns" edited by James A Mackay]
  25. A line attributed to Robert Cox in various sources
  26. In one of those remarkable co-incidences that makes life so interesting, one of the audience members approached me after this speech to introduce themselves as a direct descendent of Jesse Lewars, whose portrait hangs in their house
  27. There is a rather fantastical version of Burns' final moments offered by Allan Cunningham
    "He had laid his head quietly on the pillow awaiting dissolution, when his attendant reminded him of his medicine of his medicine and held a cup to his lips. He started up suddenly, drained the cup at a gulp, threw his hands before him like a man about to swim and sprung from head to foot of the bed – fell with his face down and expired with a groan”
    but I tend to share the view that this a rather over-embellished anecdote
  28. OK, so this note is out of sync: but I think it's worth putting the extract in context:
    "Though much indebted to your goodness, I do not approach you, my Lords and Gentlemen, in the usual stile of dedication, to thank you for past favours; that path is so hackneyed by prostituted Learning , that honest Rusticity is ashamed of it. Nor do I present this "Address" with the venal soul of a servile Author, looking for a continuation of those favors. I was bred to the Plough and am independent.”