Friday 27 February 2015

Simplify, Exaggerate and Carry on Regardless

The editor of the Economist in the 1950's (Geoffrey Crowther) famously advised young journalists to "simplify, then exaggerate".   It appears politicians in general - and the SNP in particular - have embraced this principle and refined it by adding the coda "... and carry on regardless".

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the example of Alex Salmond's "We'd have been £8bn better off over the last 5 years" trope - repeated ad nauseam long after it had been shown to be complete nonsense.  If you missed it I cover the detail of that calumny here > Alex Salmond's Shameless £8bn Lie.

Another striking example is the SNP's resolute refusal to acknowledge the 2012-13 Government Expenditure & Revenue Scotland (GERS) numbers published in March 2014 (6 months before the Referendum). Those figures didn't fit their chosen narrative and their response was so brazen as to be almost admirable - they just kept quoting the old figures instead. In fact this "carry on regardless" approach served them so well that they still maintain it even now, 11 months after the "new" figures were published.

Allow me to illustrate:

Stewart Stevenson (@zsstevens) is a highly experienced1 SNP MSP who appears particularly wedded to this approach of carrying on regardless of the facts. Stewart has over 4,700 Twitter followers and to his credit he engages with those who disagree with him. Today - after getting awfully confused about the difference between taxation and expenditure - he Tweeted me with the following

Well now: that "per capita deficit lower than UK's" statement is demonstrably false. The table below summarises the only figures you need to know to follow this. They are direct from GERS (published in March 2014) and are completely uncontroversial; if you don't trust me see Footnote 2.

As anybody who's been paying any attention knows, Scotland's deficit per capita (of course including our geographic share of oil revenue) was about £500 worse than the rest of the UK in the most recent year's stats.  In fact it's been worse in three of the last four years.  It's probably also worth mentioning that these figures are of course before the crash in oil price; as I've discussed here there is little doubt that our deficit per capita will have deteriorated even further versus the rest of the UK as a result. That's not an observation I take great pleasure in; it's an unfortunate truth.

Now you might think he's just made a simple mistake; he's a busy man, maybe he missed the fact that GERS figures were updated 11 months ago.  But then I recalled an exchange I'd had with him quite recently where I pointed him towards the up-to-date figures (this is part of a lengthy exchange in which you can see he was actively engaged and very specific about his definitions and source)

So we'd had this exchange; he'd assumed he could bluff his way through and was caught out; the actual data was clearly highlighted for him. And yet today he goes and repeats the same falsehood. It's almost as if he doesn't really care about the facts.

In fact a quick search reveals his consistent willingness to assert facts that are contrary to published data: these two tweets are from August 2014, 5 months after the GERS figures above were published. This was in the heat of the indyref battle when surely all politicians were closely attuned to the figures on our economy?  Do we seriously think he was misrepresenting this data by accident?

I particularly like his use of the phrase "even worst case"; to adopt that authoritative tone when you have such a loose grasp of the data demonstrates remarkable chutzpah - and not in a good way.

You might think he just has an unfortunate habit of making demonstrably false statements and failing to learn from his mistakes; but if that were the case how would he keep getting re-elected?

Of course the truth is more depressing and frankly more sinister than that.  These Tweets are symptomatic of a wider malaise. Mr Stevenson is just one of many politicians (and campaigners like the odious Wings Over Scotland) who have discovered the effectiveness of choosing a few simple lies and sticking with them regardless of the facts.  They've realised you don't have to be burdened by telling the truth; if you, your colleagues and your acolytes repeat a lie often enough it will penetrate the public consciousness, be simply accepted as a matter of fact.

Something needs to change.  If you're not angered and outraged by elected representatives behaving in this way then you should be.  If we've reached the stage where we just blithely shrug and accept that politicians are willing to lie when it suits their purposes then - well - then we get the politicians we deserve.

Incredibly when directed to this post the response from Mr Stevenson MSP was this

So in response to a post clearly highlighting and sourcing figures via GERS an SNP MSP cites the Wee Blue Book (as published by the notorious Cybernat Wings Over Scotland).  Of course the Wee Blue Book uses 2011-12 numbers despite the fact 2012-13 numbers were available 5 months before it was published (and as I show above the two preceding years also show us running a worse deficit).

It would be hard to imagine a more striking demonstration of precisely the behaviour I am highlighting in this post.

If anybody doubts that the Wee Blue Book is hopelessly inaccurate I suggest you read this: Wings Over Scotland: An Apology



1. Stewart was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2001.  Between 2007 and 2012 he held the post of Minister for Transport, Infrastructure & Climate Change and - according to Wikipedia - when he was elected as the SNP member for Banffshire and Buchan Coast in 2011 "His 16,812 votes represents the largest share of votes cast in a Scottish Parliament constituency with 67.24%"

2. I've covered the GERS stats (their definition, evolution and interpretation) in painful detail in this blog. If you have the stomach for it you can lose yourself in the numbers here > Scotland's Economy and here > Yes or No: Makes No Difference. Fortunately the figures you need to know to follow this story are very simple indeed and can be sourced from the GERS report here


Anonymous said...

I also find it annoying when pro-independence people quote some snapshot figures on the Scottish economy (like higher GDP per head including oil and gas revenues compared to the UK - and that would have been before oil price slide) without even acknowledging that just possibly those robust figures are testament to the benefits of being part of a frictionless single market of near 65 million people with a single currency!

Steve said...

Please explain why your selective use of facts is any better or worse than anyone else's? You show the last 5 years' figures and yet only quote 3 of the last 4' to make a poin't when it is '3 of the last 5' too. The only figure you quote is £500 less, when this is the worst one available, admittedly the latest. Anyone with a brain or a calculator can add and subtract to see that the total deficit of the rUK is greater than the Scottish deficit over the total 5 year period so where is that in your analysis and the justification associated with it? If you are going to rubbish someone individually, a political party and a significant proportion of the population, at least do it with integrity and honesty.

Kevin Hague said...


1. "You show the last 5 years' figures" - well quite - I show the full period the most recent GERS figures' cover not just selective years. Had I only shown the last 4 in the table you'd have had a point. I didn't; you don't

2. You say the only figure I quote is the £500 - you seem to be ignoring the fact that I put the full data table in there. The data that you are using is put there by me in a nice big clear table and I highlight the full row for you. If you think that is me deviously misrepresenting the data by hiding it in plain sight then I simply despair.

3. You seem to have missed the tense used on Stewart's statements - "run" (present tense) - "would" (conditional future tense). It's hard to argue that doesn't mean the most recent available year for "run" but I guess that's what you are saying. It's even more ridiculous to defend "would, even worse case, be lower" when it's happened in three of the last four (or if you prefer three of the last five) years.

4. To take the most recent year is the least arbitrary option - take the last 5? Or the last 8? or the last 4? My point of quoting the last 4 was to highlight this isn't an exceptional year; it's hardly an outrageously misleading statement given it's a/true and b/ preceded by a table showing the last 5 years so the reader can see for themselves

5. As I mention and have covered elsewhere at length we know the relative deficit will have deteriorated even further since those numbers were published - if you want to make an argument that we haven't subsequently (2013-14 and 2014-15) run an even higher deficit gap to rUK I'd love to hear it. I will bet you a bottle of fine champagne that 2013-14 and 2014-15 GERS will both show Scotland running a higher per capita deficit than rUK

To sum up:

To suggest - based on simply reading out numbers directly from my blog post - that I am lacking integrity and honesty frankly makes you look a bit of a fool.

To suggest Steven's statement that "we run" a lower deficit is defensible when the most recent data show we run a higher deficit makes you look even more foolish.

To suggest the statement "Scotland's would, even worst case, be lower per capita." is in any way defensible when the latest year's data already shows a worse deficit makes you - I'm sorry to say - look a complete fool.

Anonymous said...

as produced by the SNP Government
£54bn Revenue 2013/14... table J
£153bn GDP 2013/14... table X1

PESA 2014

£55bn identified public expenditure Scotland

£148bn un-identified UK public expenditure of which 8.31%
£12bn Scotland's share of un-identified expenditure

UK GDP and deficit 2013/14
£1,773bn GDP UK
£97bn deficit UK (5.6% of GDP)
£84bn deficit England+Wales+N Ireland (5.2% of GDP)

£13bn deficit Scotland (8.51% of GDP)

Ron Sturrock said...

Mr. Anonymous (or "The Answer?)

With reference to the Q'ly bulletin issued this month by SG.

I was looking at the first 2 quarters of the current financial year 2014/15.

Table B - (ESA 95) GDP is £75bn

Table J - Revenues of £26bn of which £966m is geo oil apportioned.
I would expect some softening of the oil revenues for Q3/14 with perhaps a marginal increase for Q1/15. My guess is as good as anyone else's.

I know most of us are aware, but sometimes it needs to be emphasised for a wider audience to ensure comparitors are on a like for like basis, e.g comparing Calendar year stats as against financial year stats. Also noted the caveat comparitor of ESA95 and ESA10.

Anonymous said...

Every time I see your name I see Father Jack from Father Ted shouting 'GERS!!!'

You really need to get a life. Statistics say what you want them to. Maybe you should form a support group or something - The Society for the Blinkered Bean Counters - where you can all shriek GERS at each other. Oh, you already have...