His performance on BBC Radio 5 live's Pienaar's Politics this morning is a case in point. When asked to explain away the problem of Scotland's £15bn deficit (per the most recent Scottish Government GERS figures) he referred to a "£30 - 35 billion" saving we could make from central UK spend attributed to Scotland.
This is clearly bunkum of the highest order. The true figure (comparable with the £15bn annual deficit in question and related to the spend categories he cites) is in fact less than £0.5bn. He clearly does have nothing but contempt for the intelligence of listening voters.
Before we unpick his assertion and explain why it's so ludicrous, it's worth taking a quick skip through the rest of his scoffing and chuckling performance. You can listen to it all here [starts at 08:00]
He starts by dancing around the subject of opinion polls, presumably hoping his bluster will disguise the fact that none of the post-Brexit polls have shown majority support for Scottish independence.
It's been pointed out to me that at least one poll here did show a lead for independence immediately following the Brexit vote
When Pienaar suggests that the demand from Sturgeon that "Scotland somehow retains access to the free open market of Europe, even though that may be lost to rest of the UK [...] seems to be a constitutional, political and practical impossibility" he repeatedly ducks the question.
Instead of explaining how his might be possible, he talks about the downside of the UK's exit from the single market-place by saying "we know that the expectation within Her Majesty's Treasury is that an exit from the single marketplace will cost 20% of trade and investment".
Whilst this is broadly true1, Salmond shows his customary brass-neck to quote these figures when he previously rubbished similar HM Treasury analysis which suggested independence would cost Scotland around £1,400 per person per year2. This is of course classic Salmond: dismiss credible sources if you don't like what they say, quote them as gospel if they support your case. For what it's worth I applaud his volte-face and new-found respect for the Treasury's economic analysis. Surely only a deeply cynical and duplicitous politician would be prepared to then change his position again if and when the Treasury next reveals unhelpful truths about the economic implications of Scottish independence.
At the time he contended instead that independence would in fact give each person in Scotland a £1,000 "bonus of independence". Salmond's dismissal of the Treasury claim and his own party's ludicrous assertion have since been shown to be simply and unequivocally wrong. The truth is that the actual decline in oil revenues has been even worse than HM Treasury predicted, so the "£1,400 worse off" analysis was in fact optimistic.
He then offers some nonsense around negotiation tactics, asserting that he's "never heard of a negotiation which tries and keeps your objectives a secret" - as if publicly stating your negotiating position is the only option. In fact later in the interview he undermines his own argument by suggesting that Theresa May should put her specific objectives before the House of Commons before entering negotiation because "how will you win afterwards when you inevitably won't have achieved all of your objectives?" The flaw in this argument is obvious: what's the point in publicising and seeking approval for something you "inevitably" won't achieve?
Pienaar tries to return to the core question, pointing out that for Scotland to remain in the EU market if the UK exits "you'd have to have a hard border between Scotland and England". Salmond doesn't explain how that could be avoided, instead asking "how is the government stating that there's not going to be a hard border between RoI and NI?" I would suggest that that too is a good question, but it's certainly not an answer (particularly when it comes to the customs controls which are required between EEA and EU members).
So far so normal for a political interview: bluster, obfuscation and logical inconsistency. But things get more interesting when the subject switches to the wider question of Scotland's economic performance.
Unfortunately, John Pienaar wasn't well briefed. He starts by wrongly stating that "Scottish output has shrunk, has contracted" since the Brexit vote. Salmond is rightly able to rebut that claim, but - because it's undeniable - concedes the fact that growth in the Scottish economy has slowed both in absolute terms3 and relative to the UK4.
When explaining the relative economic slow-down, Salmon (correctly in my opinion) is very clear on the main cause, suggesting it's "as a result, incidently, of the onshore effects of oil & gas" and referring to "perhaps 30,000 job losses affected by the down-turn in North Sea activity". Nothing to do with evil Westminster then.
It's worth noting that the GDP measure used for the growth statistics Salmond quotes exclude oil & gas extraction5. Scotland's GDP (including the Sottish Government's preferred geographic allocation of oil revenue) did decline from £157.5bn to £156.8bn in 2015-166, a 0.5% contraction.
Whether the relative slow-down is purely due to the knock-on onshore effects of the problems in the oil & gas industry, fears of further uncertainty around a second independence referendum or other factors is a subject for another day.
The fact that Salmond attributes the slow-down to Oil & Gas will come as a terrible shock to the Nationalist's very own self-styled hate-preacher, the "Reverend" Stuart Campbell, (custodian of the risible "Wings Over Scotland") who recently asserted "the lower oil price will actually benefit the Scottish economy overall, with the positive effects driving growth and outweighing the downside of lower corporation tax receipts."
Salmond goes on to note that Scottish unemployment is returning to lower than the UK average and employment is now higher. Given that he and Nicola Sturgeon have consistently argued that devolution doesn't give the Scottish Government "job creating powers", it's surprising that he didn't add that this shows how well Westminster is succeeding in supporting employment growth in Scotland.
Studio guest Kevin Schofield then asks "why if leaving the EU is such a bad thing for Scotland, how come leaving the UK isn't?". Salmond's answer betrays the cognitive dissonance at the heart the SNP's current position: "I don't accept Scotland becoming independent means needing to put trade barriers between Scotland and England [...] England is Scotland's first export market."
There's a mind-boggling obvious contradiction here: if Scotland needs to leave a post-Brexit UK and join the EU to defend its EU trade, it's because there's a belief that EU/UK trade barriers will exist. To then dismiss the inevitable corollary (that Scotland in the EU would then face trade barriers with England) is just plain daft.
The other studio guest Kate McCann then asks a question about the problem Scotland would face because of its £15bn deficit.
Salmond's tone switches at this point [24:00] and he moves into full-on mansplaining condescension mode: "it's what called the GERS figures, Kate [...] it was a bit longer ago than that, but nonetheless, never mind [...] I've been looking at this set of figures for 30 years [...] let me give you a quick example which is pretty easy to understand".
He carries on to say: "GERS has us attributed a share of certain central UK expenditures, for example it would have us paying for a share of Trident, of HS2, of Nuclear power stations on the South coast and of renovating the House of Commons and a bill of £6bn ... if you total all that up and divide it by Scotland's share then that'll save you 30 to 35 billion for a start"
You don't need to be an economic mastermind to spot that this number isn't a figure that can honestly be presented in response to a question about Scotland's annual deficit, not least when you observe that our total managed expenditure (devolved and reserved) is just £68.6bn.
So let's unpick those figures.
Full Fact suggests the annual operating costs of Trident are expected to be around £2bn a year. Scotland's population share (as attributed in GERS) of that annual cost would be about £150m a year. This is broadly consistent with Salmond's assertion in 2012 that "Trident is costing Scottish tax payers £163m a year". So the cost figure in that 2015-16 £15bn deficit is less than £0.2bn
The capital cost of replacing Trident is estimated at £30 - 40bn by the MoD. The "overall cost" (included in-service operating costs) is estimated at £167bn by Reuters (according to this Guardian article) and £205bn according to the CND (a figure which includes running costs to 2060). So if we take the largest available figure of £205bn, Scotland's 8.2% population share of that would be £17bn. That's spread over 45 years, so works out at £370m a year.
The SNP's own notoriously optimistic Independence White Paper (page 59) suggested "making different choices from Westminster on nuclear weapons and defence will allow this Scottish Government to save £500 million [a year]" - a figure which assumes more than simply stopping paying for our share of Trident.
So on Trident we can safely say the figure Scotland was allocated in 2015-16 was less than £0.2bn; even looking forwards under the most pessimistic assumptions the figure is less than £0.4bn a year.
HS2 is the single exception in GERS to the general rule that transport spending is allocated on an "in" basis (i.e that we are attributed only spend made in Scotland). As was explained in the GERS methodology for 2013-14 (page 3), Scotland is assigned 2% of total expenditure on HS2, in line with the breakdown of regional economic benefits per the Department of Transport's economic analysis. Total UK expenditure on HS2 in 2015-16 was £360m7, so our 2 % share will have only been about £7m.
His assertion about attributing cost of "Nuclear power stations on the South Coast" is, I must confess, a bit of a mystery to me. I'm aware that in the UK CRA (Country and Regional Analysis), nuclear decommissioning is classified to the region where nuclear facilities are located, but in GERS (per the latest method statement) "nuclear decommissioning and associated expenditure is apportioned on a population basis" which leads to a reduction in Scotland's allocated "nuclear-related" spending of £179m (a benefit of pooling and sharing I guess).
** Update on Nuclear **An informed person who would rather remain anonymous offered me the following insight:
"I suspect he means future contributions via consumer bills to fund the contract for difference for Hinkley. This would only not be paid by Scottish bill payers if we had a separate power system (& in the white paper the SNP asserted a single energy market would inevitably continue between scotland and rest of GB (NI has separate arrangements and is integrated into RoI energy system). They did this because the cost of support for low carbon generation (renewables and new nuclear) is pooled across GB, and generation in Scotland receives around 1/3 of all support on less than 1/10 of billpayers. That gap is likely to grow in future as although new nuclear will be in England and Wales, offshore wind is 50% more expensive again and some of that will be in Scottish waters.
So it is complete bollocks as per most of what he says to suggest because they take a simplistic posturing position to be against Hinkley somehow Scotland would then not pay for support for low carbon power in the future. Either will be part of the single energy system, in which case will contribute as now so no saving (as there is no saving to E&W consumers paying for wind power in Scotland) or if had a separate system then the disparity between number of billpayers and subsidy levels in Scotland then costs to consumers would increase.
And that's before the fact that for part of 1 day in 4 when power is scarce (not enough wind) power flows from England to Scotland to keep system functioning. If we had separate energy system then that would be at a premium price, whereas any extra wind comes when there is an excess of supply and so no real revenue benefit to Scotland in supplying that to England."
** Update Ends **
Finally let's look at that £6bn bill for renovating the House of Commons. I've not dug too deep on this, but from press reports it seems that's a total figure relating to a 32 year period. So an annual bill of £189m, of which Scotland's population share would be £15m pa (and of course was zero in the 2015-16 deficit figure being discussed).
So let's sum all of that up on a worst-case scenario basis
- £205bn for Trident over 45 years = £4.6bn pa x 8.2% = £0.38bn pa to Scotland
- £56bn for HS2 over 16 years = £3.5bn pa x 2.0% = £0.07bn pa to Scotland
- £6bn for House of Commons over 32 years = £0.2bn pa x 8.2% = £0.02bn pa to Scotland
In conclusion: when quoting a figure of "£30 to 35 billion" savings, Salmond is not "putting a gloss" on the figures, he's taking the proverbial.
1. The analysis suggests that if we remain in the EEA (the Norway model, where a customs border exists but no trade tariffs) the effect would be "only" a 10% reduction in trade and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), whereas a negotiated bilateral agreement would lead to a 15-20% decline.
HM Treasury analysis: the long-term economic impact of EU membership and the alternatives (April 2016)
3. Scotland’s Gross Domestic Product, Quarter 2 2016
It's worth noting (per the methodology guide) that "in practical terms" the figures don't include oil & gas extraction