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The reaction to the LSE's report on the costs of leaving the UK exposed the SNP's post-truth politics.
Attempting to fill the Covid viewing void I recently re-watched all of Mad Men. The series, as you obviously already know, follows an ad agency through the nineteen-sixties. It opens strongly with a first episode about the agency’s biggest client, Lucky Strike Tobacco. The cigarette company are looking for a strategy to offset the increasing weight of evidence that proves their product is bad for their customers. Pete Campbell, the weaselly protégé of creative lead Don Draper, suggests Lucky Strike’s communications should embrace the inherent risk of smoking. He argues there is a certain kind of macho man who finds the idea of risk attractive.
The idea does not go down well with the client, who don’t like being confronted with the reality of who they are, and Draper has to repair the damage. Looking for an angle, he asks the tobacco executives how their product is made, and seizes on the step in the process where the tobacco is toasted. Don knows they can’t offer alternative evidence for the negative consequences of the product they are selling, so he advises them to redirect the customer and instead to tell them: “Lucky Strike: It’s Toasted.”
I was reminded of that episode over the last couple of days watching the SNP’s reaction to a report from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. The LSE’s report, the latest in a series of highly critical examinations of Brexit, found that the trade costs of exiting the UK are far greater than those of exiting the EU. On top of that, it suggests that joining the European Union won’t fix the damage done to jobs from leaving the UK Union. I have already covered why it is obvious that Scexit is far worse than Brexit, so I won’t rehash that here, but I’d encourage you to take five minutes to read the LSE’s report.
There have been two main responses from SNP to the experts. One follows the Pete Campbell plan and the other is an extreme form the Don Draper redirect to the level of misdirection.
The Pete Campbell Plan
This approach is typified by Peter Wishart’s puffed-up response here.
Note there is zero attempt to offer a counter-analysis. In its place, he offers the machismo of nationalism. He invites us to believe that anyone questioning the wisdom of creating new barriers to trade with our biggest market is really questioning our national virility. Are ‘we’ really going to let ‘them’ tell us we can’t do it? Of course, nobody is saying we can’t do anything, just that we shouldn’t; but he wants you to bristle, to be as brittle to criticism as his confusion of party and nation has made him.
He asks why it is that we are “uniquely” unable to overcome the challenges of the border he would build when, of course, the real point is not that we are inadequate, it is that we don’t possess special powers that allow us to escape the laws of economics that all other trading nations live by. We know that harder borders between nations everywhere make trade more difficult and cost jobs. No amount of pretending that those who accept the economic evidence are belittling Scotland is going to change that.
More astute nationalist thinkers than Wishart (!) understand that implicit in the ‘too wee, too stupid, too poor’ trope is an acknowledgment of the weaknesses of their case. It repeats, albeit in pejorative terms, the legitimate worries voters have, and it asks people to show courage in response to these risks. The problem with this now-instinctive rejoinder is that, true-believing nationalists aside, voters are more likely to be looking for a quiet life than they are to be looking forward to a nationalist adventure. The constituency for taking a risk just to spite the experts is small.
The Don Draper Redirect
The alternative response has been typified by Brexit Minister Mike Russell. Someone reminded me this week that Russell was once described as “a man whose life ambition is to die in his own arms.” Handing him the Don Draper role here risks stimulating his vanity, but he lead the strategy of misdirection and reframing of the issue, saying of the research:
“It assumes, that if Scotland were to become independent, we would not change a single policy, we would not use a single lever on the economy.”
The SNP Government don’t want us to talk about the evidence on trade so they have to change the conversation. They say that the LSE’s report into trade costs is illegitimate because it only looks at trade costs and doesn’t look at other economic impacts. There is an obvious response: complaining that a report looking into the cost of erecting a border only looks into the cost of erecting a border is like complaining that your blender doesn’t boil water. However, it is important not to walk into their trap by helping the nationalists to pull the focus away from trade.
Memories are short in Scottish politics so nobody seems to remember they have tried this trick before.
When the GERS public finance statistics showed that exiting the UK meant losing the equivalent of the entire hospital budget, Nicola Sturgeon tried to reframe those figures by holding a special press conference, to argue that tax and spending was only part of the economic story. We should, she suggested be talking about trade instead. To help her make this case she published a report into the costs of erecting borders based on research by…. you guessed it, The Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE! Now that we’re all talking about the trade impacts of Scexit, as established by that same research series at that same Centre, the SNP say we should really be talking about tax and spending instead.
To quote another box set I’ve revisited lately, “time is a flat circle.”
The SNP aren’t enthusiasts for a more expansive economic evidence base, they just don’t want to talk about this evidence, or any evidence of the cost of leaving the UK. They know that if this is where the debate remains the SNP are, well, toasted.
How to Respond
The pretended-offended will screech “McDougall is comparing the SNP to big tobacco!” They don’t really think I’m making that comparison any more than they think I’m comparing Don Draper and Mike Russell. My point is that we know that the SNP are pushing a product they know will be hurt those who buy it.
Those of us who are against the politics of division have to do two things in response to this. The first is on substance: we should refuse to allow the SNP to change the subject away from the impact on real jobs supported by real trade and onto imaginary trade with pretend customers.
Trade means jobs and the experts the SNP have endorsed many times say the cost to jobs of leaving the UK is many times more than the cost of leaving the EU. We are in the worst employment crisis since the 1980s. Trade and jobs aren’t incidental issues, they are the issue of our time. Challenge nationalists to put numbers on what they believe the cost to trade and jobs will be of imposing a new border with our biggest trading partner.
When they pretend that the economic cost of a border is the reason for leaving the UK, rather than an excuse for rerunning a referendum result they never accepted, take them at their word. In their impatience to overturn the 2014 vote they have burdened themselves with a contradictory core argument: a border cost jobs so let’s create a border.
Aside from the substance of their position, there is also a point about the SNP’s style of politics that should be prosecuted. Their leadership may now be engaged in a civil war with some of their worst practitioners of misinformation, but anti-expert propaganda isn’t something that has accidentally grown up around mouth-breathing bloggers, it comes from the top.
Occasionally the SNP tell the truth about their dishonesty. Think of the exam question set by the guy who oversaw marketing for Yes Scotland and the SNP which revealed how deliberate all this is. He asked of official economic statistics:
“How can these be discredited, recalculated or reframed?”
The cynicism that tries to discredit experts and dispel facts has become an easy habit for the SNP because they aren’t held to account for it by their opponents. The LSE research that SNP ministers tried to rubbish this week was paper number seventeen in their series looking at the economics of borders and Brexit. The SNP have based their own case for leaving the UK on paper number two, number three (again and again) number five, and number ten from the same series. I have dozens of occasions where the SNP leadership have endorsed the work of the researchers they now dis, including Mike Russell.
The attack on the integrity of experts is meant to quiet the voices of doubt in people’s heads. However, if the salespeople for leaving the UK don’t believe their product can survive testing by experts, it should set off alarm bells for all of us.
One of the things swing voters find unappealing about the Brexit project is the contempt many of its advocates have shown for experts. There is an ugly post-truth populism that has infected politics around the world, but even Kelly Anne Conway would blush if she had to deliver some of the lines coming from the SNP press office.
The SNP should pay a higher price for practicing this unattractive politics. So when you see it, call it out.
And please share this.
UPDATE: After I Pressed Send on the Email…
Typical! After I pressed send on the email I noticed something important. I’ve set it out in this twitter thread.
The LSE report this article is about was co-written by an academic named Thomas Sampson. He has faced some pretty crappy attacks on his work and character over the last 48 hours from the entire SNP machine. Remember his name.
In 2016 Nicola Sturgeon called a press conference to set out the costs of brexit to Scotland. In it she claimed that the cost could be as high as £1.2 billion and published this Scottish Government analysis to back it. This figure comes from here in the First Minister’s document.
Notice the figure comes from the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE, specifically this paper. Not only it is from the same institution and research series, it has the same author as the report the SNP have been desperately trying to discredit for the last 2 days: Thomas Sampson.
So the SNP are so afraid of the findings of the LSE research that they have spent days trying to discredit the academic who wrote the First Minister’s own Brexit analysis!
Mr Sampson deserves an apology from more than one person in the SNP hierarchy.