Better Together activists campaign on the doors in the Cowcaddens on March 18, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Better Together vs the truth

Who runs the No campaign and why are they trying to insult me?

Like thousands of other Scots over the weekend, I received an extra dose of referendum propaganda with my Sunday papers. It came in the form of a glossy little booklet containing, apparently, “the facts [I needed]” to fully appreciate both the “benefits of staying in the UK” and the “risks of independence”. Bits of it were pretty convincing. A Yes vote may well put some Scottish defence jobs, particularly those dependent on UK government contracts, at risk. Without radical immigration or pensions reform, an independent Scotland could struggle to cope with burgeoning demographic pressures.

Yet, for some reason, the authors of the booklet - Better Together - decided to swamp sensible arguments such as these under a welter of misinformation. For instance, it’s true that goods in Ireland are more expensive than they are in Britain. But Ireland’s per capita GDP is 16 per cent higher than the UK’s ($45,921 compared to $38,920) and the Irish minimum wage is ten per cent higher than the British (£7 per hour compared to £6.31 per hour). It is also true that 65 per cent of all Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK. But so what? Some 70 per cent of Canada’s exports go to the US, yet Canadians seem to be handling their independence relatively well.

The further into the booklet I went, the more spurious the assertions became. Page eight stated: “This year we saw a collapse in the money coming from the North Sea. Had we been independent, this would have taken £4.4bn from our budget. This is equivalent to what we spend on schools in Scotland.” But fluctuating oil revenues are not news. Oil revenues have always fluctuated. The point is that annual variations in North Sea tax returns tend to even out over a five or ten year stretch, as high revenues one year compensate for low revenues the next. 

This is certainly how things have worked in the past and, if Alex Kemp’s research is anything to go by, it’s how they will continue to work in the future. Three years ago Kemp, a professor of petro-economics at Aberdeen University, said North Sea oil was likely to generate between £5bn and £10bn in tax every year for the next decade. This estimate has proved remarkably accurate so far. In 2010/11 revenues were £8.8bn, in ‘11/‘12 they were £11.3bn, in ‘12/‘13 they were £10bn and in ‘13/’14 they were £5.6bn. That amounts to an annual average, over four years, of £8.9bn, which is at the high end of Kemp’s projections. The fact these revenues didn’t arrive in a perfectly consistent annual stream does not, as Better Together seems to believe, present a devastating challenge to the economics of independence. It just means an independent Scottish government would have to manage Scotland’s oil wealth carefully, saving a bit in the good years to cover shortfalls in the bad. 

But the nonsense didn’t stop there. Page ten provided a list of the world’s “richest” countries according to GDP. The list ranked the UK sixth after France and Scotland 45th - after Pakistan. You don’t need a degree in economics to realise how silly this is. There is no inherent relationship between the size of a country’s economy and the wealth of its citizens. Denmark’s economy is substantially smaller than China’s but Danish people are, on average, substantially richer than Chinese people. This is something I assume - and certainly hope - Better Together is aware of.

The booklet was littered with other little contradictions and omissions. On page five it cited finance as one of the things “we are really good at in Scotland”, but then went on to explain how UK taxpayers had to rescue “Scottish banks like RBS” during the financial crisis. On page three it boasted about the “strength” of the Pound, but then failed to mention how that “strength” had contributed to Britain’s massive trade deficit and helped wreck Scottish manufacturing. On pages six, eight and ten it claimed Scotland gets “£1200 more per person in spending than the UK average”, but then completely ignored the important caveat that, over the last five years, Scotland has generated 9.5 per cent of the UK’s tax and received 9.3 per cent of its expenditure.

By the time I reached the end of the booklet I felt both angry and insulted: who on earth runs Better Together and why do they think so little of me as a voter? Which of them, specifically, thought it would be a good idea to dress up a series of ludicrous half-truths as incontrovertible “facts”? I’d like to know – the future of the Union could depend on it.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.