Like Pulling Teeth
Nicola Sturgeon's recent interviews expose gaps in the nationalist argument that have left her opponents speechless. That's a problem.
In similar campaign photos, last week both Nicola Sturgeon (pretend dentist) and Anas Sarwar (genuine dentist) appeared with dental tools in hand. Both party leaders were pledging their support to the NHS (again: Sturgeon pretend, Sarwar genuine). I’m always looking for a pop culture theme to build these newsletters around, so the movie Marathon Man came to mind.
In the film’s most famous scene, Dustin Hoffman is tortured by Laurence Olivier's war-criminal dentist. Hoffman is repeatedly asked a question he can’t answer because he doesn’t know the answer. It is painful to watch. The sound of it goes right through you.
You can’t answer a question you don’t know the answer to.
In the last few days, Nicola Sturgeon has been interviewed by the two TV journalists who, for my money, are the best at interrogating politicians: Peter A Smith of ITV and Ciaran Jenkins of Channel Four. I’m not comparing them to Olivier’s character, by the way, I think their talent for questioning enhances our democracy.
I wouldn’t like to play chess against the ITV journalist. Smith thinks three moves ahead with each question. In the clip below he begins by asking a question that seems to be trying to get the First Minister to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: that the spending commitments made in the SNP manifesto are actually funded through our share of the taxes redistributed around the UK (and the pandemic borrowing underwritten by the UK’s central bank).
Sturgeon responds with a commitment that she cannot possibly make: that all this spending would be protected if we left the UK. She does this knowing that the detail behind her answer is too complex to deconstruct in an interview (a point Kevin Hague makes well here).
She says that taxes paid by us in Scotland cover all devolved and social security spending - a position that implies cutting our entire aid budget; our entire defence budget; our entire budget for embassies and a diplomatic service; our entire national rail network budget; hundreds of millions of pounds of R&D investment; the wages of all civil servants working on tax and benefits; and all national debt repayments. But by the time you’ve explained all that viewers at home will have switched off, both metaphorically and literally.
Having given her answer, the FM thinks she is now safely hidden in the weeds of complicated public finances. However, Smith wasn’t really interested in engaging in an argument about loss of money from the rest of the UK, he was simply trying to get the FM to commit to maintaining current spending levels so he could spring this trap:
Peter A Smith: “If you’ve got this massive deficit and you’re continuing to spend at those rates, how do you generate the reserves in order to set up a currency? And until you set up a currency you can’t join the EU.”
Nicola Sturgeon: “When we’re asking people to vote in an independence referendum, just as we did in 2014, we’ll set all of that out in a prospectus and people will make their judgement.”
Smith has asked the question she can’t answer. The First Minister has been caught in one of the fundamental contradictions of Scexit. Her spending policy means higher borrowing as a share of our economy than any country in Europe. Her currency policy means Scotland would have to run a surplus.
There is no answer that reconciles these two incompatible policies, so she obliquely acknowledges that she doesn’t have an answer by promising to answer at some point in the future.
With Ciaran Jenkins, it’s not chess that I want to avoid but poker. He doesn’t flinch as he makes the First Minister squirm. In his Channel 4 interview, the SNP leader gave the same answer as she did to STV, almost word-for-word, but this time in response to an even more basic question:
Ciaran Jenkins: “Have you conducted an economic analysis of the consequences of independence?”
Nicola Sturgeon: “When we put the choice of independence before the Scottish people in a referendum we will do what we did in 2014: we will set out a prospectus. We will do the analysis at that point and we will let the people of Scotland decide.”
How can it be that the first word out of the First Minister’s mouth, in response to this most basic of questions, is anything other than “Yes”?
Sturgeon goes on to criticise the LSE analysis as “very very narrowly based”. The problem for her here is, as I’ve written before, the very same academic produced the analysis of the impact of leaving the EU which the First Minister herself launched.
Jenkins is deadpan but he’s clearly enjoying himself as he asked whether Sturgeon hasn’t met people who might want an analysis of the economic impact of leaving the UK. She looks like she’d rather be at the dentist. The discomfort leads her to disown the Growth Commission, the only economic analysis carried on leaving the UK in her entire time as First Minister, as “completely out of date.”
In the space of a minute, the FM has revealed she has no government-commissioned economic analysis of leaving the UK and then junked her party-commissioned economic analysis. She’s left with nothing.
It isn’t just that she doesn’t know the answer to the question. She isn’t even interested in asking the questions.
These two lines of questioning get to the heart of the problem with Scottish nationalism: it is a matter of faith rather than a product of reason. The conclusion that we would be better off outside the UK has been arrived at literally without any interest in the evidence. All claims that leaving the UK is the way to deliver a better economy don’t rest on any analysis. And when an analysis is finally offered, as the FM admits, it will have been commissioned in support of a conclusion already made, not in search of the best outcome.
A lazy response to the vacuous position of the SNP is to attack the media for not doing more. But here we have two excellent journalists doing their jobs superbly. Similarly, you often see people bemoaning supposedly “brainwashed” voters. But twice, in 2014 and 2016 Scottish voters refused to drink the KoolAid of populist nationalism and went for the more sober option. And in any event, insulting voters isn’t a great way to persuade them.
The SNP have given us an open goal, and instead of blootering the ball into the back of the net, we complain about the referees or moan that the crowd isn’t cheering louder for our side.
The problem isn’t with the press or the people. It is with all of us who oppose nationalism. We watch incredulously as a First Minister admits that she has no answers on the big economic issues because she hasn’t even thought to ask the questions. The bigger the gap in the SNP’s argument, the easier the counter-argument, the more dumbfounded we become. Instead of being exasperated, realise that you are in control of public opinion.
Simply tell people: Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t even asked how much it would cost to leave the UK. The failure to do any planning turns something undecided voters like about the SNP (an optimism about Scotland) into a doubt they also hold (a feeling that they allow their enthusiasm to blind them to economic risk).
Sometimes arguing with nationalists is like pulling teeth. On this occasion, she is making it easy for us.
In Case You Missed It…
As predicted the SNP, having received permission to put a referendum mandate on the ballot paper, decided not to use it. Likewise, the SNP’s election addresses fail to mention an independence referendum anywhere. Meanwhile, the Waitrose Wing of the SNP (copyright Susan Dalgetty) could not be clearer that the Green manifesto “isn’t a manifesto for independence". Of course, like every election, all this will change the day after the vote, but it’s worth noting.
One of the exciting things about this election is the prospect of my friend Michael Marra entering parliament. His appearance on Debate Night shows the thoughtful approach to politics he’ll bring. I can’t wait to see him in action in Holyrood.
A feature of this election has been pro-Union campaigners starting to show more humour in their online content. Another funny video from this account makes a serious point about Nicola Sturgeon’s “we took our eye off the ball” comment in last week’s debate.
This short article from a young parliamentary candidate who voted Yes in 2014 is a helpful reminder that so many who backed leaving the UK then really just wanted change and should not be dismissed today as unthinking nationalists.
This week Alex Salmond said we shouldn’t keep the pound (why would any sensible person want that?) and that we shouldn’t join the EU (an act of madness?) By the way, well done Iain Dale for asking these questions of Alex Salmond.
And finally, I enjoyed talking to Chris Deerin on the first episode of his New Statesman podcast about the SNP’s hegemony and how a more nimble, insurgent pro-UK campaign is needed in the months ahead. Think of the episode as an audiobook version of this newsletter.
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