In the age of constant fear facts and figures matter
Scottish Review, March 27th 2016
The Scottish Parliament broke up this week – ending the fourth parliamentary term and marking the start of the election campaign.
These are strange times. Politicians try to reassure us that everything will be alright, while they scare us witless about the threat of terrorism to national security.
Well-practiced lines are filled with contradictions. The UK is the fifth richest economy in the world. Yet, our future fate supposedly hangs on the verdict of the EU referendum, and if voters dare to vote for leaving we would be taking that proverbial ‘leap in the dark’ – the same one invoked in the indyref.
This is an age of contested facts and figures: of hyperbole, hysteria and manufactured fear. Key drivers are the decline of old class and political terms, the attack on the social contract between government and voters across the West, and the never-ending war on terror.
Take the Scottish Parliament. It was meant to herald a new politics. One of consensus and co-operation. It hasn’t. True, it is better to have it than not have it. But has it really transformed and changed the governance of Scotland for the better?
The Scottish Government is widely trusted by the public as the best political body to make decisions about the future of our nation, in comparison to the Westminster Government, by 73% to 23%. But people recognise that Westminster still carries great import and by 42% to 41% see it as more influential than its Scottish counterpart. Looking to the future, 76% think that the Scottish Government should have the greatest influence in how things are run, compared to 14% saying Westminster.
This trend has been clear for years. People trust the Scottish Parliament and Government in comparison with Westminster. But there is too much smugness that we have got things right here. Scottish devolution has accrued power to a new political class, and centralised lots of bodies and decisions, but hasn’t so far shown any interest in dispersing powers within Scotland.
Voters have elected four Parliaments since 1999. Thirty-three MSPs (26%) have been constant across the four: 16 SNP, 12 Labour, 4 Tories, one Lib Dem. On my estimate 23 of those will return (18%).
There used to be in the early Parliaments concern about what I called Labour ‘Bedblockers’ – MSPs in safe enough seats that they were there for life, with all the complacency that entails. Now with the SNP majority in 2011 and likely dominance this year, scrutiny has to shift from Labour to SNP and ask who are the new Nationalist ‘Bedblockers’: politicians who are developing an entitlement attitude that the public are there for the benefit of them?
This week saw Labour and SNP trade insults on tax. It wasn’t edifying. Labour proposed one penny on the basic rate, while the SNP won’t raise upper tax thresholds which will raise millions, but have backtracked on raising the top rate. While both made radical gestures, neither has the gumption to do anything substantive on local government finance.
There was the Independence Day that wasn’t – March 24th 2016 – Alex Salmond’s chosen date with destiny. It passed as UK finances deteriorate, with the national debt at £1.6 trillion – representing £24,710 for every person – while Osborne massages his deficit figures to try to achieve an annual surplus by 2020.
Scotland’s public finances have become one of our familiar non-debates. It is clear that the more jam tomorrow of Salmond’s independence offer of 2014 is over, and that a new Scottish state would have, like most new nations, difficult choices to make. There is a notional structural deficit, estimated at £10.6 billion worse next year than the rest of the UK, which will rise over this UK Parliament.
This deficit poses problems for independence and unionists: for the latter putting it centrestage makes the union about finances and little else. That means when good economic times return and the deficit narrows or disappears, on the unionist rationale today, their own argument bites the dust. These are two self-deluding arguments not worthy of the big choices we have to face.
This confusion can be seen on the world stage. The awful news of the Brussels terrorist attacks has obscured that terrorist attacks are at a historic low in Western Europe compared to the 1970s and 1980s. Then the IRA, Red Brigade in Italy and Baader-Meinhof in Germany carried out much more widespread violence than today. Yet, our politicians panic and talk of ISIS/ISIL as an existential threat to our very way of life, which is what the terrorists want.
The global picture is even more hopeful than portrayed. Despite the tragedies of Syria and Iraq, violence and murder across the globe is at its lowest level internationally for any decade since the end of World War Two. You don’t hear this fundamental fact being broadcast by our politicians do you?
We need facts and figures to influence our debates here and across the world. For that we need both at home and internationally bold, brave political leaders who are prepared to confront us with some difficult truths.