Anatomy of an Interview
Dissecting in detail the First Minister's appearance on Marr helps get to the guts of what's wrong with her nationalism.
Watching Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show yesterday, it was noticeable how many familiar tropes the First Minister deployed as she struggled to make a coherent economic argument for exiting the UK. I thought it might be interesting to dissect the entire interview in detail to try to get to the guts of what is wrong with her nationalism.
The interview covered three themes which I’ve analysed in turn: the costs of a new border with England, the costs to the income of Scots, and the costs to Scotland’s public services. For each of the First Minister’s arguments, I’ve also suggested simple responses.
Costs of a New Border With England
Andrew Marr’s questioning begins by exploring an inescapable weakness of the SNP case: leaving the UK to enter the EU means erecting a border to trade with England. The fantasy that you can have an open border between a country inside the EU and one outside that Union has been dramatically debunked in recent months, but it seems that the SNP want to keep on believing it.
Her first response on the cost of a new border is to try to devalue the importance of trade with the rest of the UK Union compared to trade with the European Union:
“I want us to be part of the world’s biggest single market. It’s seven times the size of the UK market.”
This is the same trick that Brexiteers used to pull when they were challenged with the fact that the EU is the UK’s most important market. They would cite the number of potential customers in China or India in order to devalue the number of actual customers we have in the EU. The official export statistics published by Nicola Sturgeon’s own government show that 60% of Scottish exports are to customers in the rest of the UK, with 19% going to the EU. She is asking us to erect a border to £51 billion of trade so we can remove a border to £16 billion of trade. To swap real customers for imagined customers.
Key point: Scexit would cost far more jobs than Brexit because Scotland sells three times more to the UK than to the EU.
The SNP leader goes on to complain that the debate about this new border only arises because of Brexit:
“It’s not the SNP that raises the issue of borders. This issue only transpires because of the UK government’s Brexit obsession”
There is no border to trade between Scotland and England now. It is her choice to create that new border and so the lost jobs and increased costs from that border are her responsibility. The costs of Brexit are the fault of the Tories who argued for it but the costs of Scexit would be hers.
Key point: Nicola Sturgeon can’t blame England for a border she is choosing to create.
Most significantly in this section of the interview, is the First Minister’s repeated admission that there will be a border between Scotland and England. Three times Marr confronts her with the costs, regulation and barriers to trade that her new border would create. “I'm not denying it,” she replies and goes on to talk about how she’d try to mitigate the problems her nationalism would create:
“Of course we want to keep trade flowing across the England-Scotland border”
“…we will need to work to make sure that that can be secured”
“I want Scotland to be able to trade freely across that and, yes, to do the work that takes away the practical difficulties for trade across the England-Scotland border.”
The First Minister is so used to avoiding responsibility by blaming England that she seems to thinks she can blame them for the border she would build between us. The casual way she repeatedly talked about “the England-Scotland border” felt like the start of a significant new debate in Scottish politics. I’m not so sure that Scots will be quite as relaxed about replacing a border at Dover with a border at Gretna.
Key point: Nicola Sturgeon admits she would create a new border with England. That means fewer jobs in Scotland and higher costs for everyone.
Cost to Incomes
Last week Nicola Sturgeon was forced to admit in another interview that she had done no analysis of the economic consequences of exiting the UK. Marr asked her an even more specific question:
Andrew Marr: “Has the SNP modelled the impact of indepenence on people’s incomes?”
Nicola Sturgeon: “Eh, not yet…”
It’s another admission that she has come to the conclusion that leaving the UK is the right policy choice without any interest in the economic evidence. Of course, when it comes, her analysis won’t be commissioned to examine the evidence and decide whether leaving the UK is a good idea, it will be commissioned with the purpose of explaining away all the expert evidence that leaving the UK will leave us worse off.
Key point: Nicola Sturgeon is asking us to vote on leaving the UK but she hasn’t even asked what it would mean for people’s incomes.
In a previous edition, I wrote about how the SNP ended up trashing the LSE economist who Nicola Sturgeon used to assess the costs of Brexit after he concluded that the costs of leaving the UK were far greater than the costs of leaving the EU. Marr returns to this issue in his next questions:
Andrew Marr: “You say [this research is] narrowly based Nicola Sturgeon but it’s exactly the same model that you were quoting after Brexit. And then you said that ‘this analysis demonstrates that leaving the EU will have a profound and long lasting impact on the public finances and the wider economic and societal well being of Scotland’. It’s the same economist, the same model, the same analysis.”
Nicola Sturgeon: “Well, you know what you’re quoting. I don’t know for sure what you’re quoting because I don’t have it in front of me…”
This is an odd response given she has been asked repeatedly about this report over many weeks. Leaving aside the amnesia, you can tell she is on shaky ground here as she responds with this:
“The point you’re putting to me Andrew is asking people to lead a conclusion which says that somehow uniquely Scotland is incapable of being a successful, prosperous independent country.”
Whenever the expert analysis points unequivocally to the conclusion that Scotland would be worse off outside the UK the SNP always pretend that those of us who care about such facts and figures are somehow insulting Scotland. She reframes the question of whether we should leave the UK into whether Scotland could leave the UK. It’s the familiar nationalist reverse psychology: trying to get voters to do something they’re sceptical about by telling them that an imaginary foe is taunting them and saying they can’t do it.
Key point: It’s not that we can’t choose to make ourselves poorer, it’s that we shouldn’t.
Costs to Public Services
In every interview now, Nicola Sturgeon falls back on the argument that she is right not to have analysed the impact of exiting the UK because she’ll get round to that when it comes to a referendum. Here she blames the pandemic for not planning. Covid ate her homework:
“if we had done this over a year ago before the Covid pandemic struck then obviously that modelling would be out of date.”
I’ve written before how Nicola Sturgeon’s policy of using the pound for up to a decade without a central bank and then establishing a new currency, means Scotland would have to run a surplus. To have enough hard cash to pay the bills for a currency we didn’t control, or to gather reserves to defend a new unproven currency, we would need to collect more in taxes than we spend on the NHS, schools, pensions, etc.
A year ago this left Nicola Sturgeon with a £15 billion headache. A £15 billion deficit to plug with tax rises or cuts out of an overall budget of £81 billion.
The First Minister is right that, had she bothered to try to explain how she would solve this problem, her numbers would be out of date by now. However, the problem has not improved with age. A new analysis by the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies to be published this week suggests that the gap between what Scots pay in taxes and what we spend has grown during the pandemic to an eye-watering £40 billion.
Key point: Scotland was able to pay for the NHS, vaccinations and jobs furloughs over the last year because our borrowing is shared with the rest of the UK and backed by a central bank. Nicola Sturgeon wants us to give this up.
The deficit isn’t a problem at the moment. Sharing taxes and borrowing with the rest of the UK means our deficit is 14.5% of what the whole of the UK earns in a year. If we didn’t share with the rest of the UK, the IFS reckons that figure rises to between 22% and 25% of Scotland’s income in a year.
Nicola Sturgeon jumps the gun here and offers a response to the IFS study before Andrew Marr has even asked about it, which is a clue that it was something she worried about being asked:
“If you’re pointing me to studies that are about Scotland’s fiscal position within the United Kingdom then frankly that’s not an argument against independence, that is an argument for Scotland being able to take control of our vast resources…”
This is one of the most perverse arguments made by nationalists.
Scotland’s deficit only becomes unmanageable if we leave the Union and give up on our share of the funds shared around all parts of the UK. Nicola Sturgeon knows our big deficit isn’t caused by us paying less than our share in taxes (we pay 8% of UK taxes, the same as our share of the UK’s population). Rather it is our far higher public spending that creates the big gap between what we tax and what we spend.
By arguing that our deficit is an argument for leaving the UK, she is trying to reframe that higher spending on the NHS and other services as a negative.
Key point: The reason we have a big deficit is that we have higher spending on things like the NHS, but the SNP say this is a problem that has to be solved. The funding we get for the NHS from being part of the UK is a good thing, not a problem to be solved.
Asked how we would close that gap in spending, Sturgeon offers this:
“If you’re projecting forward to when Scotland is independent, and you’re asking me how we deal with a deficit, we’ll deal with a decifict in the same way almost every other country across the world that has a decifict deals with that. You manage your finances through borrowing, through prudent decisions about public spending. Again: Scotland would not be unique as a country with a deficit.”
Here’s the thing: Scotland would be unique. We would be, under Nicola Sturgeon’s plan, unique among developed economies in operating without a central bank for up to a decade before establishing a separate currency. We would not be able to borrow to fill the deficit. We would be unique in erecting a new border with our biggest trading partner in order to open another with a smaller one. Our economy would take a hit meaning less tax take, making the deficit harder to fill. We would be unique in facing the massive costs of creating a new state, which would grow the deficit further. These points are well made in John Ferry’s latest piece of analysis.
Key point: in the last few years in the banking crisis, the oil price crisis and the covid crisis, it has paid for Scotland to have a central bank and the ability to share the costs of thee crises. Giving that up in the middle of the worst crisis yet is reckless.
Overall I was struck watching the interview by how much the economics have turned against the SNP and how little they have renewed their arguments in response. This lack of preparation, either on the policy detail or the political argument, is further proof that, for all the noise about another referendum, the First Minister is dangerously unprepared for a debate she pretends is imminent.
In Case You Missed It…
In contrast to a First Minister who seems to be hating every minute of a joyless campaign, Anas Sarward looks like he is having the time of his life. A Survation poll that has Labour leap-frogging the Conservatives based on rapidly improving personal ratings. Perhaps his campaign focussing on persuading those who don’t yet agree with him is starting to pay off. This video of him spontaneously joining a dance class understandably went viral.
If the Glasgow to Edinburgh train, used by bankers, lawyers, journalists and politicians had broken down while vastly over-budget trains sat rusting in a yard for years due to Ministerial incompetence, it would be the biggest issue of the election campaign. Meanwhile, our island communities are facing a ferry crisis and little is heard about it in the campaign.
Labour’s candidate against Humza Yousaf in Glasgow Pollok is an impressive NHS surgeon Dr Zubir Ahmed. He gives a sober warning about what is coming down the tracks for our NHS:
“What we are looking at is a tsunami of waiting lists. It is no exaggeration to say that, with Covid combined with a government that has taken its eye off the ball and is always looking over its shoulder about how every single thing they do will play in a future independence referendum, we might be back to the situation we were in in the mid-1990s with a Tory government in terms of waiting lists.”
Both Brian Wilson and Alex Massie wrote sharp columns about the politics of jags and the idea suggested by Nicola Sturgeon that Scotland would still have been part of the UK’s vaccination programme after leaving the UK.
Opposition is spreading against the SNP’s closure of libraries in Glasgow. I’m a fan of protests that use the lived experience of those you are mobilising. A read-in protest against a library closure is a great example of that.
And finally, there’s this moment of jaw-dropping sub-Trumpian idiocy from an SNP Parliamentarian. It resulted in the Nicola Sturgeon interview this issue is about. Emma Harper, who previously told us not to worry about the SNP’s currency policy because she used her credit card on holiday in Mexico, now tells us “jobs can be created if a border is created.” I should laugh at this, but this is a parliamentarian who is in charge of my kids future and it terrifies me.