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.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle