Friday, 13 April 2012

A convenient cover story for the Nats

Gosh, who'd have thunk it? The Economist publishes a front cover depicting a map of a country called 'Skintland', with a capital called 'Edinborrow' and cities with names like Donedee, all of which seems to allude to some kind of financial mismanagement. Cue those of a certain political persuasion getting into something of a lather.

What's the big deal? Well the cover is certainly provocative and the humour is a tad puerile, but surely that's the point. It's tongue-in-cheek, and it's hardly the first time the magazine has sported a front cover characterised by satire or parody.

Of course, that doesn't really matter as regards the eminently predictable Nationalist outrage, with the SNP's Angus Robertson leading the charge with the accusation that the Economist is "grossly offensive" and "insulting every community in Scotland". Elsewhere are charges of "racism", "treats Scots like idiots", "too wee, too stupid, too poor", blah, blah.

But the reality is that the related article and leader column are reasonably balanced and compellingly argued. For a start, they acknowledge that in terms of economic output Scotland is one of the best performing parts of the UK. They say we're perhaps over-reliant on the public sector, but agree that an independent Scotland could pay for this with North Sea oil receipts. They also point out that this fact was kept under wraps by the Westminster Establishment when oil bolstered the independence cause in the 1970s.

However, the crux of the Economist's case is based on the future. It points to dwindling oil reserves and that the commodity's price is highly volatile, both important factors for an economy that would be highly dependent on the black stuff. The fact that Edinburgh's financial sector seems unlikely to fully recover from the RBS/HBOS debacle is also highlighted, as are question marks over the future of subsidy-hungry and largely technically unproven renewable energy. Then there's the uncertainty regarding Scotland's position in the EU, not to mention the related issues of the currency, monetary and fiscal policy, and our credit rating. And even while arguing that Scotland's future might be less potentially volatile as part of a much larger and more diverse economic entity, the Economist does acknowledge that: "If Scots really want independence for political or cultural reasons, they should go for it. National pride is impossible to price."

All of which seems perfectly reasonable, but the magazine's front cover has provided the Nationalists with a convenient diversion from discussing the economic substance of the Economist's pieces. As usual it's not clear if the outrage is largely synthetic or born of the chip-on-the-shoulder-the-size-of-the-Cairngorms, but conflating the import of the articles with the levity of the cartoon cover has served its purpose.

Equally, there's a huge dollop of hypocrisy in all of this. The same people who shout about "Westmidden" and that the UK is bankrupt (when it still has a triple-A credit rating) just can't seem to take a bit of questioning and critique in the other direction. Of course, they also think that the Scottish media should exist only to rearrange SNP press releases, and that it should concentrate on criticising the opposition parties rather than Scotland's government, thus seeking a Caledonian Pravda that's as supine as backbench SNP MSPs.

In fact there's little in the Economist's pieces that hasn't been repeated almost ad nauseam elsewhere. The pro-independence reaction is probably due to the fact that the publication carries a bit more weight than the likes of this blog, and is also read by an international audience.

The 'Skintland' jibe has merely provided a useful 'cover' for the Nationalists regarding the substantive economics of separation.


sm753 said...

"They also point out that this fact was kept under wraps by the Westminster Establishment when oil bolstered the independence cause in the 1970s."

No, no, no. Please do not keep giving oxygen to this myth.

The extent of North Sea reserves and potential revenues were discussed and debated extensively in Parliament. It's in Hansard.

Or you can check out the party manifestos for the 1974 elections - it's all over them as well.

There was no secret, no cover-up, no "lies".

rental mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for sharing.

Angus McLellan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angus McLellan said...

I laughed. At the cover and the articles. Poor stuff, unlikely to change much, especially since article-readers will be outnumbered by cover-viewers 10 or 100 to one. It's almost as if all those "what's the big deal?" Unionist commentators never read a single word of the free advice that Canadians had for them over the last year or so. But that'll be because they probably didn't. Parochial doesn't begin to describe your average Unionist pundit.

As for our usual suspect sm753, I'd feel sorry for him if he was failing in a better cause. True or not, everybody "knows" by now that McCrone was covered up and that they - if they are old enough - were lied to in '79. It's as much a waste of his time to try and correct this view as it would be for me to argue about Darien. But he shouldn't let that stop him.

sm753 said...

"True or not, everybody "knows" by now that McCrone was covered up and that they - if they are old enough - were lied to in '79."

The Nattist mindset in action.

"Stuff the truth - we'll tell whatever lies it takes to suit our hellish Purpose."

These people are evil.

Stuart Winton said...

On balance I think you both have a point. It was self-evident back in the 1970s that an independent Scotland would have benefitted from North Sea oil, but on the other hand it does seem true to say that there was an attempt by the Westminster Establishment to gloss over the facts.

Of course, this is very often how governments work at all levels - they simply refuse to say officially what even the dogs in the street know.

And as I alluded it's hardly confined to the Westminster Establishment, as Alex Salmond's more recent attempts to thwart the FOI requests on LIT demonstrate.

And to that extent McCrone is as relevant to how I look at such things as Darien is, ie not very.

Anonymous said...

You're for real? Personally, I find it deeply offensive to see my hometown mocked like that, as most people who give a damn about their community would. The cover and article are typical of the London Establishment mockery and drivel Scots have endured for decades.

For a take on unionist scaremongering and insults:

Stuart Winton said...

Suggest a sense of humour transplant and chip-on-the-shoulder-ectomy then.

And perhaps you should tell Salmond et al to stop insulting your home the UK?

I think the problem is that the SNP aka Mr Salmond are all over the place policy-wise, so it suits them to use this kind of stuff to deflect attention from the substantive arguments.

And of course the constant insult and denegration of the UK helps stir things up, as does the corollary of this faux victimhood in relation to a bit of satire.

Allan said...

Two points about Oil.

The McCrone was not made available to the General Public (or if you prefer, covered up), the impact of Oil might have been debated in Parliament but this report that sets out various scenarios was kept from the public.

What is as interesting though is the part oil played in the past 30 years of British history. When oil was discovered, the deal was that the oil companies would receive 5 years money before excise and other taxes would come to the treasury, which made the 1980/81 tax year the first year that would receive oil money. Were it not for the failed referendum, Labour's confusion about what to do and the SNP's rapidly disappearing patience with the labour government, they might have made it to a point that they could have called an election that they could have won - Callaghan apparently wanted to go for June 7th. Instead Calaghan's governemt was forced into a General Election, which they chose to have on May 3rd 1979.

The point is that Thatcher was the beneficiary of the Oil billions, which she used to fund her Moneterist experiment. Yet as Andrew Marr points out in "The History of Modern Britain", hardly a word is said about the source of our wealth, there was hardly a word said about oil in her Biography. Yet it is extremely doubtful that Thatcherism would have got off first base without the Oil billions.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks, Allan. Indeed it does seem that Westminster tried to gloss over the facts, but on the other hand the 'It's Scotland's oil' schtick demonstrated that everyone knew the basic argument about how oil revenues would make an independent Scotland more wealthy, in the short term at least. Of course, for various reasons not everyone agreed that that was a good idea, but the basic premise was self-evident. I was about ten at the time, but it wasn't difficult to work out, McCrone etc or not.

To be fair to Mrs Thatcher however - and I'm a lot fairer to her now than 30 years ago! - in the context of the UK with 60 million people the oil revenues didsn't benefit her nearly so much as they would have benefitted an independent Scotland with 5 million.

sm753 said...

As you can see, PRT actually started bringing in revenues in 1978/79.

As for "glossing things over":

The February 1974 Tory manifesto said:

"The first oil from the British sector of the North Sea is due to be landed this year and by 1980 the North Sea should be supplying the greater part of our national needs."

Now anyone could have, and did, do the math. If you took that much oil and kept it for 5 million rather than 55 million, then things would look different, wouldn't they?

This was exactly the argument which took place in 1974, the Nats got some traction but were ultimately rejected.

The only things kept "secret" were the qualitative opinions of this then-junior civil servant called McCrone. Not forecasts, models or analyses, just opinions. I'm sure lots of others have been kept "secret" too. Who cares?

None of this is relevant today. Oil production is more than 40% off its peak and dropping like a stone. The Treasury is forecasting falling revenues for the next five years.

Renewables DO NOT MAKE THIS COUNTRY MONEY - only the owners benefit, the rest of us subsidise them! And in case, the "targets" for building renewables are laughably off track.

The one good thing about the referendum delay is that much more of this stuff is going to become apparent. They may yet regret their choice of date.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks, SM. Indeed the reaction to the Economist's article is self-evidently to deflect attention from the substance of the articles, but as you say as time goes by the holes in the SNP case will become more apparent.

Of course, on the other hand they're clearly also depending on increasing Westminster unpopularity vis-a-vis the Tories, so who knows how it will balance out?

I certainly can't see the Tories improving in popularity, but whether that's enough to swing things is another matter.

But if I was a betting man and the odds were good then I'd maybe put a wee bit of money on there being no referendum at all!

Barbarian of the North said...

Very balanced article.

The Economist's article is very relevant, a well as being satirical. The opponents of nationalism (not all are unionists) are now targetting the policies of independence, rather than the personalities.

But what on earth does Salmond mean by the comment "would rue the day"? Salmond has returned to his old "not - acceptable - to - the - Scottish - people" style of ranting. Making veiled threats to some sectors of the media is playing a dangerous game. Perhaps a certain new MSP is coaching him.

Allan said...

Hi Stuart.

Not sure that the oil revenues benefited her less than they would have benefited 5 million Scots. She had several pieces of good luck in her first administration. Labour imploding, The Falklands and the Oil revenue's. had she not had the oil revenue's, her monertist policies would have hit the wall very sharpish.

BTW, i think there will be a referendum - all the parties are now geared up to it to the exclusion of many much more important things. Just don't ask me if it will be the Westminster sponsered one or the Holyrood sponsered one.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks Barbarian, and an admirably balanced response from yourself ;0)

Yes, you'd think Alex Salmond would have learned from the spat with the Supreme Court judges etc not to go over the top.

Thanks again Allan, I suspect you're right that there'll be a referendum of sorts, but whether the i-word will actually figure is another matter ;0)