“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform, but to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
So tweeted Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion and Russian dissident, in December 2016. Kasparov is a ferociously outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin’s regime which controls Russian society, where media and government work in tandem to further the leader’s aims. A propaganda war is being waged against the West, with dark hints of Russian interference in Western democracies. But Kasparov’s point applies equally to any scenario where misinformation games are being played. And being Scottish, I’m particularly interested in the misinformation game currently being rebooted by SNP activists and politicians.
We’ve been told by Nicola Sturgeon that “… we will set out as I say, our proposition on all the issues the people of Scotland will require to have clarity on…” – these being the First Minister’s words on the 13th March 2017, when she announced in Bute House her intention to press the button for #indyref2. Commentators from Yes and No camps rarely agree on much, but one area where both are aligned is on the importance of economics to the constitutional question. Hints of honesty have been forthcoming from Andrew Wilson, her appointee as head of her Growth Commission, and numerous SNP grandees have been severely critical of the economic prospectus presented to voters by the SNP during #indyref. Former Special Advisor Alex Bell described it as “deluded”, ex Cabinet Secretary and MSP Kenny MacAskill said “It sounded too good to be true.” If Yes is to win, it is a critical part of the debate which cannot be ignored.
What has been notable since the First Minister pushed the #indyref2 button (though with a delay timer) is the determined effort by SNP activists and politicians to do just that. In the absence of the Growth Commission report and with no new information to go on, politicians and activists are trying not just to ignore the economic question, but to erase it completely. Or at the very least, airbrush from history the “deluded” prospectus given in their white paper, Scotland’s Future. The fiscal foundation of this weighty tome was, of course, the Scottish Government’s GERS report. GERS – Government Expenditure & Revenue Scotland – is an emotionless, sober numerical analysis; you don’t need to be an economist to read and understand it, and on its own it’s a reasonably interesting dive into where the country raises and spends its money. It is by no measure a complete assessment of the country’s economic health; more a roadmap of where government extracts value from our economy (through fiscal policy, i.e. taxation) and where it chooses to reinvest that value for what it determines as being for the benefit of our society as a whole.
It was however, widely quoted and referenced during the #indyref campaign by the SNP.
But GERS is now persona non grata. It has informed against the SNP government in the most disloyal fashion. Because the tale of the GERS tape is no longer favourable to the SNP, the knives are out for the former favourite. All it took was a single tweet from chartered accountant Richard Murphy suggesting GERS was unreliable data, and the inevitable snowball of nationalist interest rolled. The debate on the estimates used in GERS (for they are estimates, clearly detailed in the methodology with defined confidence intervals) is covered in most detail by businessman and blogger Kevin Hague here: https://chokkablog.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/richard-murphy-gers-denier.html
Suffice to say, Hague’s argument makes clear sense, but it’s not my intention to debate the veracity of GERS here. The question voters should be asking is why this key resource, which informed the central planks of the SNP’s #indyref economic case, is now being sidelined. If there is any question mark over GERS, it certainly didn’t stop the SNP from using it as the platform for their economic case for independence in 2014. Something that was held up as the gold standard, the definitive account of Scotland’s public finances, is now to be viewed with suspicion and it seems, ideally ignored. Why? A cynic might say that it was because GERS provided the SNP with a loaded musket in 2010-14 which has since been found to be charged with wet powder. But how so?
It’s Scotland’s oil.
The dramatic drop in oil revenue seen in GERS (yes, the bloody oil again) has given the SNP a real problem, in the shape of the dirty ‘D’ word – deficit. Or more precisely, deficit as a percentage of GDP. And this has led to an outbreak of nationalist denial on a quite comical scale.
Denial, eh. Not just the longest river in the world. One can only hope that when (if?) the Growth Commission report is made public, Andrew Wilson hasn’t relied on GERS for his base data. If he has, then one can surely expect a hornet’s nest of GERS denying SNP activists and politicians to descend upon him and his conclusions. Quite how this is intended to help the old Yes campaign make progress is unclear. If their own supporters pour scorn on what is likely to be a key document in setting out the SNP’s new economic position, they can hardly expect No voters to view it with any credibility. Propaganda can come back to bite you.
Kasparov’s tweet continues to resonate with me. It’s impossible to keep up with the swarm of memes created by SNP activists that either tell a half story, or are downright deceitful. The sheer volume of output speaks to a passionate activist base that is quite prepared to do what it takes to misinform, to exhaust those holding competing views. And of late, GERS has become a target. It’s maybe surprising, given GERS so comprehensively debunks 99% of these memes, that it’s taken so long for it to come under fire. But that’s where we stand now: large numbers of activists, led and encouraged by politicians, no longer believe the Scottish Government’s kitemarked, National Statistics approved accounts. What a difference a couple of years makes. What a difference a price war between Saudi oil pumps and American shale rigs makes.
The First Minister is keeping her cards very close to her chest right now. Predictable queries on topics such as currency were met with “All in good time”. Fine, I can wait. But don’t leave it too long eh, First Minister. Your colleagues’ attempts to sideline your original economic argument by trashing GERS aren’t making you look particularly trustworthy right now. And the fact you don’t yet have a credible, definitive currency proposal (still!) only reinforces my belief that you’re focused not on the long term economic health of our country but on the short term goal of you winning a referendum.
All in good time, you say. Well, if you have Mr Wilson’s report on your desk, what’s keeping you?