Tuesday 26 March 2013


Better Together leaflet.
Click to enlarge.
Observers of the ongoing debate leading up to Scotland's independence referendum will surely have observed that the arguments offered by Better Together, the Tory-led anti-independence campaign, tend to be riddled with perplexing inconsistencies and contradictions. For example, there is the fact that Alistair Darling and his Tory paymasters glibly insist that in the UK we have "the best of both worlds". Yet whenever the SNP suggest that something might be the same, or broadly similar, after independence the British parties insist, with equally bilious fervour, that this is totally unacceptable. 

More of this in a later article. Right now I want to focus on what I think may be the explanation for the inconsistency and contradiction that pervades Better Together's propaganda. It seems that they are completely unable to recognise inconsistency and contradiction. They don't know what these thing are.

I came to this conclusion as I looked at a recent ill-thought publication from the Better Together campaign (left). The leaflet purports to show contradictions and inconsistencies in statements by Finance Secretary, John Swinney. It seeks to do this by comparing quotes from Swinney's speech to the recent SNP Conference in Inverness with selected extracts from a discussion paper he presented to the Scottish cabinet more than a year ago.

I hear the sound of brows furrowing already as people of normal intelligence immediately wonder how it might be possible to draw meaningful comparisons between two texts so widely separated in time and purpose. But this glaringly obvious concern seems not to have occurred to the people hand-cranking the propaganda machine over at the Better Together gang hut. (What a bunch of hand-crankers, eh!)

Let's look at a couple of the items held up as damning indictments of the SNP and "proof" of the British parties' contention that Scotland is uniquely disqualified from enjoying the normal constitutional status of a nation because economics is not a precise science.

Conference Speech: We are better off than the rest of the UK.

Cabinet Paper: Both Scotland and the UK are expected to run a net fiscal deficit...Scotland would have a marginally larger net fiscal deficit than the UK.

There is only a contradiction here if one is foolish enough to imagine net fiscal deficit to be an absolute and definitive measure of how well off a nation is. The reality, of course, is that the economic health of a nation cannot be judged by looking at one metric in isolation. Many factors must be taken into account. And even looking solely at fiscal deficit we observe that, as in other aspect of life, it is not size that matters but sustainability.

Conference Speech: Oil prices are higher than the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts.

Cabinet Paper: The OBR forecasts...have not been seriously challenged by the industry or by independent commentators.

Again, we are left wondering where the supposed contradiction is. The statement that oil prices are higher than the OBR's notoriously unreliable estimates is no more than a statement of fact. If they were not challenged by "independent commentators" then this would suggest that it is they who have been found wanting in their analytical abilities. Or, perhaps, their independence.

And it is simply untrue to say that OBR pronouncements have not been challenged by the industry. In March 2013 Oil & Gas UK chief executive Malcolm Webb wrote to Robert Chote, the chairman of the OBR, pointing out the discrepancies between the OBR figures and Oil & Gas UK’s own 2013 Activity Survey, which draws on data supplied direct from operators.

In short, John Swinney's conference speech does not in any way contradict what he said over a year ago in an entirely different context. It merely acknowledges the situation as it is now. Something which Better Together appears unable to do.

One more. And we stay with the oil revenues which Alistair Darling and his Tory allies are determined to convince us are an onerous burden that will be the ruination of Scotland.

Conference Speech: We are on the cusp of another great boom in the oil industry.

Cabinet Paper: There is a high degree of uncertainty around future North Sea revenues, reflecting considerable volatility in production and oil prices.

The claim that there is some contradiction or inconsistency here actually tells us more about the thinking in Better Together than it tells us about John Swinney. Because there is only a contradiction if one assumes that terms like "uncertainty" and "volatility" are synonymous with negative outcomes. The fact that volatility implies the possibility of increase just as much as decrease simply doesn't seem to enter into the thinking of those who toil in Better Together's mills of doom. According to them, only bad things happen in Scotland. And the fates must inevitably be even more cruel to that benighted land should she presume to challenge the righteous might of the British state.

So unfurrow those brows, folks! You may abandon the frustrating and futile search for those elusive inconsistencies and contradictions. Blair McDougal and his little gang of grim-grinders either don't know how to recognise such things, or they are so desperate to find them that they see them where they don't exist.
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  1. "little gang of grim-grinders" .... how appropriate.
    Nice piece, thank you.

    1. Thanks, Hazel. Just getting myself back into some kind of blogging routine after a long lay-off. It's all starting to come back to me.

  2. Excellent stuff Peter. And we need more rebuttal of this sort! We need to get it through people's letter boxes !

  3. great read Peter this material deserves a wider audience. thank you

  4. We seem to be on a magic-roundabout of 'he said, she said', when what's needed are solid facts; even if it's pessimistic warts-an-all, it's better than this spin and candy floss.

    Will the coming White Paper get things moving, or do I expect too much? Will it be sensible campaigning, or will the risible Bain Principle rubbish anything that even borders on the sensible?

    Good to see you back to blogging Peter.

    1. I am wary of the mantra of "solid facts". The reality is that because we are talking about the future much, perhaps most, of the debate will revolve around forecasts, projections and estimates. The real debate is arguably less about facts than it is about analysis and interpretation.

      The no campaign bangs on endlessly about "certainty" precisely because they recognise that it is impossible to be certain of anything. It is not just commodities like oil that are "volatile". The future is too.

      Which is not to say that we should ignore factual evidence altogether. Only that we should recognise the debate is not like a card game where there are precise and undisputed face values. We have to argue the worth and ranking and even the meaning of every piece of information.

      Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of who has the best arguments. Not who has the most facts.

      Good to be back on the blog again. Even if it means fewer comments on the newspaper websites.