19 August 2021

As the economic facts change, the SNP simply recalibrates the truth


Yesterday was a very special day in Scotland’s political calendar. GERSday comes but once a year but when it does, the air is filled with much excitement – and an equal degree of disappointment. 

Before considering the various political reactions to the Scottish Government’s annual analysis of what’s been spent and raised in Scotland, we should remind ourselves of the importance and legitimacy the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures enjoy in the nationalist community. In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, the SNP produced its definitive argument in favour of a Yes vote. That weighty tome prefaced its own analysis of the GERS data thus: “GERS is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances.”

Ah, but that was then and this is now. When the facts change, nationalists don’t change their minds – they simply recalibrate the truth so that, magically, even when the facts say exactly the opposite of what they wanted them to say, they nevertheless, somehow, strengthen their own case. This is wishful thinking weaponised as political philosophy. 

To summarise, the GERS figures concluded that last year, Scots enjoyed public spending levels that outstripped tax revenue by more than £36 billion. That figure has more than doubled since the previous year’s deficit of £15 billion, largely because of measures to support the economy during the Covid pandemic. 

From a purely economic perspective (and we should remind ourselves that the fight to keep Scotland inside the UK involves many areas other than the economy), this is, of course, terrible news for the SNP and its never-ending campaign to destroy the Union. It presents a very real and immediate challenge to those who would govern Scotland after it became a self-governing nation, free from the influence – and the financial support – of the rest of the UK.

Essentially, this means that a newly independent Scotland would have to take two immediate actions: the first would be to implement colossal, eye-watering cuts to public services, something few independence-supporting Scots would have endorsed in any referendum campaign.

The second would be to immediately abandon, for the foreseeable future, any ambition to join the European Union, given that our structural deficit would not come within sniffing distance of the Union’s limit of three percent as a proportion of GDP. This probably wouldn’t cause many nationalists to lose any sleep; their party’s devotion to the European project was never more than a convenient weapon in the battle for hearts and minds following the EU referendum in 2016. Still, there are a significant number of Remain-voting Scots who would only be persuaded to support independence if it meant joining the EU. The GERS figures kick that prospect into the very far distance.

An early response to the publication of GERS came from well known Scottish political reporter Paul Hutcheon of the Daily Record: “This is a major moment for the independence debate.”

This was swiftly followed by the astute Alex Massie, who said: “Counterpoint: this will have no impact whatsoever.”

Naturally, and not for the first time, Massie was proved correct. A statement from Kate Forbes, the Scottish Government’s Finance Minister, confirmed that no degree of inconvenient facts and reality can blunt the nationalists’ enthusiasm for their cause. The GERS figures, she said, were “not an obstacle to making the case for independence, because deficits across the world have risen exponentially and having the highest deficit in Europe does not seem to be an obstacle to the UK government being independent, and the same argument would apply to us”.

The fact that she was comparing Scotland’s structural deficit in normal times with the UK’s deficit after a year and a half of an unprecedented and devastating pandemic seems not to have occurred to Ms Forbes as something of an own goal. As the Institute of Fiscal Studies put it: “there is a difference between a temporary surge in borrowing like the UK’s – especially at a time when the household sector is massively boosting its saving – and the large structural deficit that an independent Scotland would start life with.”

Not if you’re Kate Forbes, there isn’t.

This, as Massie suggested, was predictable. There are no circumstances, no developments, however cataclysmic or earth-shattering, that could persuade the true believers of the nationalist movement to admit that the Union might be worth preserving. 

But consider this: Forbes and her party insist that a massive structural deficit is merely another argument in favour of independence. Had the GERS figures shown a surplus instead of a deficit, you can be sure that she would have trumpeted the figures as – you guessed it – another argument in favour of independence. 

In other words, nationalism is not a rational political philosophy; it is an emotional conviction adhered to by the faithful. And faith, as we know, is belief without the need for evidence. 

And if all the evidence points in one direction, the faithful will close their eyes and blindly recite the catechism as they have been taught it. Which is why the GERS figures will not change the debate in Scotland. True, waverers uncertain about the economic case for independence and aware that the nationalists are still to provide answers to some crucial questions asked seven or eight years ago, will be further discouraged from supporting the break-up of the Union. 

But on the whole, the arguments remain exactly as they were before. The existence of the Union dividend is denied, just as flat earthers insist that if you travel far enough in one direction you will fall off the end of the planet. Taking one of their number into space to show them the beauty of the globe we live on would do nothing to convince them of the falseness of their case. 

Depressingly, the GERS figures will have precisely the same effect on nationalism’s true believers.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.