The problem with political debate in Scotland is not that people aren’t well informed, it’s that the SNP ensure they’re very well misinformed.
It’s not a sophisticated strategy, but it seems to be an effective one. By using Twitter, official party representatives can basically get away with saying whatever they like by avoiding having to deal with pesky journalists who tend to like to check facts before they report them. On social media, complete lies can be read by tens of thousands of people before they’re exposed and debunked, by which time it’s too late. People seeking to give themselves permission to ignore awkward facts have been satisfied and the tweeter’s mission is accomplished.
Take the example of the Scottish Government’s own GERS figures. When these showed Scotland’s economy being a positive contributor to the UK, they were rightly quoted by the SNP as authoritative statistics. Since the figures started showing Scotland effectively receiving cash from the rest of the UK (roughly £1,700 for every man woman and child in Scotland last year1) the figures have instead been cynically and systematically undermined.
The SNP and their social media mouth-pieces have been so successful with their campaign of misinformation that, whenever GERS figures are debated now, the following points have to be endlessly repeated: there’s no missing whisky duty, there’s no missing export income, the figures aren’t affected by corporate head-office locations, London infrastructure costs aren’t allocated to Scotland and the figures are not guesswork compiled by HM Treasury, they’re qualified National Statistics compiled and published by the Scottish Government2.
The problem, of course, is that those who want the comfort of not facing economic reality simply choose not to listen to those who patiently debunk the myths. In a world where many proudly proclaim themselves to be climate change deniers, in Scotland we now have a growing army of GERS deniers.
But this strategy of spreading misinformation through social media isn’t limited to falsely undermining the GERS figures.
Last week many of SNP MP Paul Monaghan’s 15,600 twitter followers were eagerly retweeting this message of his: “Interesting UK Gov reply today on question of proportion of Scottish exports to RUK [rest of the UK] destined for EU. They don't know. My figures suggest 75%.”
He went on to make clear that he was referring to exports “passing through rUK on route to EU. The implication is our exports are not attributed to Scotland.”
Now anybody with even a passing understanding of Scotland’s economy or the way our export statistics are calculated will know he’s making an extremely cack-handed attempt to mislead people here.
Export statistics are gathered based on the customer’s location3, so goods exported to the EU through an English port or freight-forwarder will correctly be recorded as EU exports (not rUK exports as Monaghan implies).
It’s also worth pointing out that no competent Scottish business would sell goods to an English customer for that customer to simply sell on to the EU without adding value. Factor in the knowledge that 56% of Scottish exports to the rest of the UK are services not physical goods4 and it’s clear that Monaghan’s 75% figure is complete balderdash5.
Of course it’s obvious why an SNP MP would want to falsely suggest that Scottish export figures to the UK are over-stated and those to the EU under-stated. One of the gaping holes in the SNP’s argument for Brexit as an independence trigger is the fact that Scotland sells more than four times as much to the rest of the UK as we do to the EU3. This means - if Brexit does turn out to mean UK/EU trade barriers exist - Scotland would risk damaging four times as much trade by ending up on the EU rather than the UK side of any such barriers.
So faced with a clear logical flaw in their argument, this SNP MP resorts to the tried and tested strategy of misrepresenting the facts and spreading misunderstanding. Unfortunately for Mr Monaghan, in doing so he exposes an embarrassing level of ignorance for all to see. Apart from showing that he doesn’t understand how export trade statistics work, he also shows he hasn’t even managed to read his own Government’s publication on the topic.
On Twitter he went on to say “the UK Gov told me today just 44% of Scottish manufacturing exports are to the rest of the UK”.
Well yes, they would have told him that by looking at the Scottish Government’s own “Export Statistics 2014” report where that information is found. If Monaghan had bothered to read this himself he would also have known that “just 44%” of Scotland’s manufacturing exports going to rUK is still 1.7 times more than go to the EU4.
You have to wonder: if independence is really such a good idea for Scotland’s economy, why do its supporters so consistently try to mislead us about the facts?
1. for the simplest explanation of this, see The £9bn Fiscal Transfer
2. if anybody still doubts any of these facts, please see this blog post > GERS Deniers
3. see official Scottish Government website here which explains "Export Statistics Scotland (ESS) is based on the Global Connections Survey". I have filled in these forms so I know, but see actual form here and note wording of question 6;
4. These two simple tables provide an audit-trail between the figures in specified tables in the Export Statistics Scotland 2014 publication and the percentages and relative figures used in this blog (highlighted). The minor inconsistency in the tables included in the pdf were not significant enough to send me to the supporting excel tables.