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.