This article by Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp at Business For Scotland annoys me on so many levels.
Firstly, he buries the only substantial fact in a short paragraph in the middle of the piece. According to GERS (Government Expenditure & Revenue in Scotland) in 2012 Scotland contributed 9.9% of UK tax revenue but received only 9.3% of UK spending. This means that the portrayal of Scotland by some newspapers (you know who you are) as a scrounging appendage to a benevolent UK is a heinous calumny. In 2012 Scots were net annual contributors to the UK Treasury to the tune of £824 per head.
Most of the article is taken up with a cack-handed attempt to prove that the south of England is sucking wealth away from Scotland, using coloured maps of the UK to show differences in wealth, GDP and life expectancy.
The first map purports to show a concentration of wealth in the far south of England. What it actually shows is the percentage of households with assets of a monetary value that’s greater than £967,000 is higher in the south of England than in the rest of the UK. The second map shows regional GDP per capita in 2010, clearly indicating that large chunks of Scotland contribute just as much to GDP per person as some of the south of England.
Comparing the first map with the second one, Gordon concludes that much of the wealth produced in Scotland ends up in the south England. Based on the data that he’s presenting us with this analysis doesn’t stack up.
The first map could mean that loads of people in the south of England are rich, or it could mean that there are lots of elderly widows living in poverty on state pensions in houses that they’ve owned for decades which, thanks to the property bubble, have a nominal value of a million pounds. We have no way of telling to which extent either of these interpretations, or any other, is true.
The second map doesn’t tell us anything at all about wealth. GDP (gross domestic product) is an estimate of the value of monetary transactions over a period of time. If I buy a lottery ticket and an avocado pear in the supermarket in Portree the value of these purchases is added to Scotland’s GDP despite the fact that no-one involved in the transaction has produced a single atom of wealth in Scotland. The avocado was grown in Portugal and the lottery ticket is nothing more than a transfer of money from one mug to another.
There is doubtless some wealth produced in Scotland that gets accounted for in the GDP figures, but there’s no way of telling its monetary value, or indeed its real value. In short, the two maps tell us nothing about where wealth is produced and where it is accumulated.
Gordon’s interpretation of the third map, which shows average life expectancy by region, is another egregious abuse of data. He asks us to believe that people in Scotland die younger than people in the south of England because they are less wealthy. Looking at the map and applying random knowledge of the UK we could just as easily say that life expectancy is related to weather, or genetics, or culture.
I understand that enthusiasts for Scottish independence want to make arguments to support their case but articles like this do nothing to help. Using feeble analysis of economic data to demonise the south of England and lionise Scotland is puerile and counterproductive, giving opponents of independence an easy bone on which to chew while diverting attention away from what’s really wrong with our economy and how it might be fixed in an independent Scotland.
Whether we take Scotland or the UK as our political arena the distribution of wealth and opportunity is a lot more complex than the lazy averages of Gordon’s maps. There is plenty of poverty in the Greater London area and plenty of wealth in post-industrial Lanarkshire. The problem has nothing to do with the location of political power.
So much of the rhetoric of the pro-independence movement is about fairness and equality and distribution of wealth but I have yet to hear a single cogent argument from any mainstream independence enthusiast that tells me how poverty will be eliminated post-independence or what will be done to ensure that the Scottish economy is able to flourish.
The established ways of doing economics and politics in the UK are barely functioning, limping along, crying out for reform. Scottish independence presents us with a golden opportunity to make comprehensive changes to our chronically dysfunctional financial and political systems but all we’re getting from our political and economic leaders is the promise of more of the same. They want us to believe that doing it from Edinburgh will somehow be much better than doing it from London.
The demographics of poverty don’t recognise the borders that we draw around our councils and parliaments. In this land of plenty (Scotland or the UK, take your pick) poverty, and the fear of it, is a direct result of the way that we allow our financial systems to operate. Gaining control of the conventional fiscal levers in Edinburgh will do nothing to stop the inexorable growth of debt that holds most of us in its thrall and is the root of all our economic woes.
To Gordon and the team at Business For Scotland, if you’re serious about developing a thriving economy in which people no longer have to live with the fear of poverty then you need to stop wasting time on petty, false arguments with the neighbours and start focusing on what’s actually wrong with our financial systems and what could be done to make them work for the benefit of all of us.
Independence, of itself, is not a solution, it’s merely an opportunity to develop solutions. Please stop wasting that opportunity.