“Rejoice! Rejoice!” (Does your heart not sink when politicians deliver the “good” news?) The heart-warming tidings are that in 2016-17 the Scottish deficit plummeted from a fearsome £14.5bn to a comfortable £13.3bn. Beyond that, Scottish oil revenue rocketed from last year’s puny £56 million to an eye-watering £208 million. It’s another triumph for separatist icon and international statesperson Nicola Sturgeon, in the face of English oppression and sabotage. Cue dancing in the streets – children to be accompanied, on health and safety grounds, by their Named Person.
The annual GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) figures just published reveal a derisory improvement in public deficit and oil revenue, so microscopic that the real message is Scotland’s continuing stagnation and, in political terms, hopeless non-viability as a sovereign state. If Scottish voters had succumbed to the emotional spasm the SNP tried so hard to provoke at the independence referendum in 2014, this would have been the first year of Scottish independence.
These figures show that, against a backdrop of boarded-up hospitals and schools, the SNP government would have been requesting EU membership with headline credentials of a deficit amounting to 8.3 per cent of GDP, by far the largest in Europe. The EU membership rules require a deficit of not more than 3 per cent of GDP. There is current concern over France’s level of 3.2 per cent; there was discreet fiddling when Greece first joined; but 8.3 per cent – “Montez votre bicyclette, Madame Sturgeon!”
The unpleasant realities conveyed by the GERS figures caused some impertinent hacks to quiz the Mother of the Nation on the issue of her party’s false prospectus at the referendum – a deficit underestimate of at least £10bn. “Nobody,” replied the indignant First Minister, “not myself nor any of the opposition or you guys [journalists] foresaw the decline in the oil price.”
Excuse me? Nobody foresaw the decline? The First Minister may have used the term “price” rather than “revenue” to fog the issue, since the decline in Scottish oil revenue is also due to factors such as the costs of extraction of inaccessible deposits under the sea, but the issue during the referendum campaign was a simple bottom-line figure: how much money would the oil industry contribute to the Scottish economy?
Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that she and the rest of Alex Salmond’s government did not foresee a catastrophic fall in oil revenue – the chief pillar of their claim that independence was economically supportable – is embarrassing in its naïve mendacity. In 2011-12, the SNP’s first year in power as a majority government, oil revenues amounted to nearly £8bn. The following year they slumped by 41.5 per cent. The year after that, 2013-14, on the eve of the independence referendum, revenue was down to £4.2bn, having halved during that three-year period.
Yet “nobody foresaw the decline”. They had no need of foresight: the history of the three years pre-referendum was of a near-50 per cent decline in Scottish oil revenues. It was not crystal-ball territory, it was recorded fact. Every financial journal, every newspaper, every website was agitatedly discussing the problem, but apparently it went unnoticed in Scottish government circles. The Guardian ran several authoritative pieces on the topic in the run-up to the referendum, but Nicola Sturgeon does not appear to have read them; perhaps she finds the Guardian an unacceptably right-wing newspaper.
SNP fiscal policy has always represented a triumph of imagination over reality. The GERS figures, which are about the most accurate and incontestable statistics it is possible to compile, will now be denounced by Cybernats and other beneficiaries of loopholes in the Mental Health (Scotland) Act. They are wasting their time. The reality is that Scotland is dependent on the Union and, as these figures show, likely to remain so indefinitely.