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Gaffes are No Laughing Matter
We all have a good laugh when a politician puts their foot in it, but we should take the First Minister's recent gaffes more seriously.
One of my pet hates is the misuse of the word gaffe.
The word has come to be used for any embarrassing moment from the political blooper reel. Awkwardness like Ed Miliband losing his fight with a bacon sandwich, weirdness like Howard Dean’s ‘I have a scream’ speech or stupidity like Sarah Palin’s ‘I can see Russia from my house’ interview all get labelled, incorrectly, as gaffes.
The real meaning of the term, as coined by US political commentator Michael Kinsley, is:
“when a politician tells the truth--or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.”
So a gaffe is the opposite of a deliberate lie. It is an accidentally told truth. We had two of these malfunctions from the normally well-programmed Nicola Sturgeon this week.
Gaffe One: Referendum Before Recovery
The first gaffe was during her interview with the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme. So far in the Holyrood campaign, the First Minister has struggled to reconcile party interest with the public interest. Every day she has to try to squeeze into a one-minute media clip reassurance that her absolute priority is recovering from the pandemic and an explanation of why she wants an urgent referendum on exiting the UK. This tension was especially evident when the First Minister was trying to explain that the recovery was more important to her than a referendum in front of a billboard poster she had just launched arguing for that urgent referendum.
The SNP know that an urgent referendum is unpopular but their party is so deeply split and won’t tolerate deferring their nationalist gratification. That’s why their Independence Bill published on the final day before the election committed to holding a referendum in the next two years. On the same radio programme earlier in the week, the SNP Deputy Leader Keith Brown was pressed on whether they planned to hold their Scexit referendum in the next two years or once the crisis has passed. Given an either-or question, he answered: both.
When Sturgeon herself was on the programme she faced the same line of questioning and this is when she accidentally told the truth. She let slip that her referendum would take place “in the recovery phase”. So not after the crisis but while we are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic.
It is really important to remember here that the SNP Government have published nothing, literally nothing, on how a separate Scottish state would work. Let’s assume the proposed Scexit referendum would be held on 14th September 2023, probably the last viable date for a vote before the end of the First Minister’s deadline. That would mean the campaign’s regulated period would begin in May 2023. The White Paper on leaving the UK, summarising the SNP Government’s proposals, would be published in November next year, in just a year and a half.
That means over the next year, the whole efforts of the Scottish Government will be devoted to answering the fundamental economic questions that the SNP cannot fight a referendum without addressing.
To take just a few examples, that means they have only a year to work out a new currency policy: how to operate without a lender of last resort, how to ensure money supply without control of a currency, and then how a central bank would work, how exchange rates would be set, how currency reserves would be generated… It means the SNP have given themselves a year to work out how to fund the NHS and our kids’ schools when we give up our share of the money redistributed around the UK from London: how to make up an overnight loss equivalent to one pound in every seven spent by the public sector in Scotland. And it means just a year to work out how a new hard border with England would impact trade and jobs.
It’s a tight deadline. Planning the institutions and finances of a new state is probably best not approached like a RedBull-chugging student pulling an all-nighter and banging-out out the last few thousand words of their dissertation. Nobody credibly believes that a government that has presided over delivery fiascos in every area of policy they oversee has the bandwidth to do both referendum and recovery.
This is the truth Sturgeon accidentally told, this is a true gaffe: She admitted that when she should be focussing on the recovery she would be concentrating on a referendum.
The thing with gaffes in a campaign is that the response to them is too often tactical. Opponents savour the momentary discomfort experienced by their competitors instead of seizing on the strategic opportunity of the truth the gaffe reveals. In a month’s time, the SNP’s opponents should still be repeating Nicola Sturgeon’s admission that she would put a referendum before the recovery.
Gaffe 2: Gaming the System
The second gaffe was less noticed, even though it was one she made over and over again. And this one will only be exploited by the First Minister’s opponents after the election.
Understandably Nicola Sturgeon has spent much of the last week trying to persuade nationalists not to give their second votes to other parties that support leaving the UK. This is probably driven by a desire to avoid the nightmare of having to rely on her old-mentor Alex Salmond to pass legislation as it is by a wish to maximise the SNP vote. But in making this argument, she has repeatedly undermined any future claim to a mandate which is based on tactical voting on the list. Here are just a few of her quotes from the last few days:
She told STV that a nationalist majority delivered through tactical voting raised questions about its legitimacy: “If we give any sense that people are trying to game the system, that can backfire.”
She told the BBC that people had to vote for the SNP and that “anything else is trying to gamble with the system, game the system…anyone who tries to suggest there is a shortcut to that or that we can somehow game or trick our way to independence is frankly misleading people.”
She told The Daily Record that “At the end of the day, we’ve got to win independence fair and square. We can’t game, or cheat, our way to that.”
She told The Scotsman: “if you want that prospect of a different, better future for Scotland, then both votes SNP is the only way to be sure of getting it…The minute you start playing games with the electoral system, that’s when you start to jeopardise it.”
In her eagerness to throw her old mentor onto the midden-heap of history, she has repeatedly sought to delegitimise a non-SNP majority. The truth she accidentally acknowledges here is that a Scexit majority in the Scottish Parliament won by tactical voting on the list would not represent a Scexit majority in the country.
Expect these words to be quoted ad nauseam after May 6th.
Now For Some Hypocrisy
Having just devoted a thousand words to analysing political gaffes, I’m now going to bemoan how serious factual analysis is not more central to our political debate. If you subscribe to this newsletter, I’ve got to hope you’re at least slightly interested in the policy reality behind the political rhetoric. This week there were three expert interventions that deserved more attention than they got.
The first, and most urgent, came from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the think tank that has earned a reputation as the financial referee of UK politics. They released a new report into Scotland’s public finances which is worth reading in full, but which most notably found that the SNP have held back funding from the UK government which was intended to be used for Covid relief. Instead of using this temporary funding to, for example, save businesses and jobs, they are using it to fund election giveaways such as extending free school meals or bus travel. The report warns:
“Paying for such policies may be more difficult in 2022–23 and beyond, when this temporary funding is currently planned to cease, and the money must be found from within core budgets.”
So effectively the SNP are making significant un-costed election promises that have no clear source of funding in two years time. To keep these policies going they will have to cut other public services or raise taxes, or both. Remember that in the 2016 elections Nicola Sturgeon bitterly attacked Labour for being honest enough to say that income tax would have to rise to fund services and then, after winning the election, increased income tax despite saying they wouldn’t. It’s worth casting a forensic eye over the wording of any tax promise in the SNP’s manifesto. Fool me once shame on you…
If the Institute for Fiscal Studies is the referee for finances, the Institute for Government is the umpire when it comes to questions of how government works. Their report this week looking at EU membership and the new border with England which the SNP propose came to some sobering conclusions:
“Scotland’s path back to EU membership could take the best part of a decade.”
“If Scotland joined the EU, a hard border on the island of Great Britain would be the inevitable result.”
“Businesses operating across the Anglo–Scottish border would face new barriers to trade.”
“Scotland exports substantially more to the rest of the UK than to the EU so barriers to trade could be costly to the Scottish economy.”
I’ve written before about how it is important for those who oppose erecting this border across our island to make a direct comparison between Brexit and Scexit. Something that became a little easier this week. This report won’t be the last expert analysis to point out that dismantling Unions between nations is complex, costly and chaotic.
One last thing you might have missed. Respected economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato has become the latest member of Nicola Sturgeon’s Council of Economic Advisers to voice their Scexit scepticism telling the New Statesman:
“It would be a pity if the UK splits up. If you look at where growth would come from in Scotland on its own, it’s not clear whether it would be in a better or worse position”.
If even the First Minister’s own economic advisers are saying this…