SNP's case for independence is starting to look like a con trick
Comment: GERS figures confirm Scotland would have faced tough choices, writes Stephen Daisley.
The SNP's independence White Paper was not a document of half measures.
Scotland's Future, as it was grandly titled, was a comprehensive blueprint for a separate Scotland. It covered everything from tax and welfare to the health service and immigration. There was even a section titled: "Regulation of Outer Space Activity in an Independent Scotland".
Well, the truth is out there now and it's not good news.
On Wednesday, the GERS figures were published. Not the profits and losses of Rangers Football Club but Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland, the annual audit of the national accounts.
What's the damage? Let's just say we might have to pay off the Visa card before we start shopping for a new sofa.
Scotland's budget deficit, the gap between the revenue that comes in and what we spend, sits at £13.7bn, or 9.8% of GDP. When a geographic share of oil and gas receipts is assigned to the coffers, this reduces but only slightly to 7.8%. This stands in contrast to the UK's deficit - just 3.3% of Britain's national output.
Fiscal balance, which factors in capital investment expenditure, makes even more painful reading. By that measure, our deficit is £14.9bn - 9.7% of GDP even with North Sea revenue taken into account. On this basis, Scotland is in the red almost twice as much as the UK as a whole.
So what happened? The oil crisis has taken the Scottish economy out back and given it an almighty kicking. During the independence referendum, the Nationalists told voters to expect an oil price of $113 a barrel and revenues of £7.9bn by 2016/17. Today, Brent Crude pumps in at $40 per unit and 2014/15 recorded North Sea tax receipts totalling £2.3bn.
The bottom line: Scotland's credit card balance is minus £14.9bn. Minus £14.9bn.
These statistics, it should be stressed, do not come from the UK Government or a shadowy Labour think tank in That London. They are numbers compiled, calculated, and published by the SNP-run Scottish Government.
It is this that makes the GERS report all the more damning. These are figures from the same Scottish Government that less than two years ago was promising us untold wealth if only we voted to break away from the UK.
Recall the lofty pledges of the White Paper:
"Scotland has all the wealth it needs to be a fairer country. We are one of the richest nations on the planet and could choose to use that wealth in a different way from Westminster." (page 27)
"Independence will provide the opportunity to safeguard Scotland's financial sustainability more effectively and ensure that our public finances are managed to reflect the needs of Scotland's economy." (page 71)
"As we move to independence, our strong public finances will provide the foundations for policy decisions on taxation, growth and welfare." (page 72)
It would be comedic if the stakes weren't so high. If Scotland had voted Yes in the referendum, we would be 15 days away from formal independence. Instead of a social democratic Shangri-La, it seems we would have been greeted by a choice of swingeing tax hikes or radical cuts to public spending.
After today, it will be harder to indulge the White Paper as the product of ill-placed optimism. Now it looks more like a piece of creative accounting, a 649-page confidence trick.
The SNP has swaggered around the ethical high ground since their defeat in the referendum. They were moral victors, they tell themselves; "cheated not defeated" their supporters declare. Victimhood soothes a guilty conscience and a refusal to confront the flaws in their assumptions and assertions is hardly surprising in a political party. When under attack, head for the bunker. The cogency of the movement trumps the cogency of the argument.
Statistics are usually a dry affair but today's are different. They mark a turning point. To go on holding up the dubious contents of the White Paper, to continue lending the credibility of the First Minister or finance minister to its sunny pretences, is no longer mere politics. It is downright dishonesty.
For true believers, none of this matters. Our Nicola, who art infallible, hallowed be thy unsubstantiated assertions. Independence saves. The SNP redeems. Now and forever, Amen.
For those who want to believe but need some reassurance, The Party has issued a fresh catechism. It contains gems like this: "GERS tells us about the status quo and very little about the opportunities of independence. Scotland is rich in human talent and natural resources. But what we lack are the economic levers to maximise growth in our economy, and invest according to our own priorities."
Paragraphs like that are why self-help books sell so well.
The rest of the country isn't as sap-headed. For the heathens in the reality-based community, facts matter more than flags and the SNP will have to account for the gap between its assertions and the black and white of the GERS figures.
Of course, I would say all this because, like every journalist, I am a shill for the lying Yoon MSM conspiracy. #SNPbad. But my argument is not against independence, which I reckon Scotland could pull off with the right mix of fiscal restraint, innovation, and economic growth. In fact, it is supporters of independence who should be raising their voices and demanding the SNP redo its sums, and show the working this time.
The No campaign's victory in the referendum was not as decisive as it needed to be. The constitutional question remains open and polling shows the nationalists in a slightly stronger position for a second referendum. Should the plebiscite on EU membership result in Brexit against the will of a majority of Scotland-based voters, the Scottish Government would have a strong case for #indyref2.
Nicola Sturgeon doesn't seem particularly enthused about such a scenario, I suspect not simply because her instincts are pro-European. She knows what the GERS report confirms: The economics of independence are challenging for a party which favours low taxes and high spending. No alternative economic arguments have been forthcoming because they would involve hard choices and populist parties do not do hard choices.
And maybe there's another reason.
The SNP thinks tax cuts are the answer for the oil industry, the whisky industry, and the airline industry. Spending cuts are the answer for council budgets and further education.
Scrap the council tax. Freeze the council tax. Keep the council tax.
No to a rise in income tax to protect services but ramp up council tax bands to give more money to schools.
For a welfare cap, then against Tory welfare reform.
Land reform: Radical or modest?
Frack. Don't frack. Let's think about it again in a wee while.
This is a party that does not know what it believes.
It's time they made up their minds. There is a case for independence out there, just waiting for the SNP to make it.
Commentary by Stephen Daisley, STV's digital politics and comment editor. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.