Today has been a bad day for the indyref debate, with weak arguments from governments in Edinburgh and London, and a shared frame that could have been designed between them to drive down turnout. The offences aren’t the same, mind: from the SNP side we have speculative handwaving designed to appeal to pure selfishness, while on the Coalition side we see downright dishonesty and misrepresentation.

To start with the latter, the UK Government put out information about the “cost of independence”, based on research from the LSE’s Professor Patrick Dunleavy. The data in it was then utterly destroyed by one Professor Patrick Dunleavy, as initially reported in the Financial Times and now belatedly elsewhere. The doomed Danny Alexander claimed the costs would be £2.7bn, then rowed back to £1.5bn, about seven and a half times the upper end of the Professor’s estimates, and ten times the lower end.

Here’s a bit more from the Lib Dems on what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury had to say.

In his speech, Danny pointed out five factors that would affect Scotland’s finances if it were to become independent:

1. New institutions would have to be set up in Scotland, costing the country millions of pounds.
2. Scotland would have to pay higher interest rates to borrow, resulting in around £500 million per year in additional debt interest costs.
3. The Scottish government’s new policies would cost at least £1.6 billion every year.
4. Revenues from oil and gas production would fall by around 95% over the next 20 years due to the decline in North Sea oil production.
5. The shrinking number of working age people would have to pay for Scotland’s growing number of old age pensioners.

Danny mentioned that all of these factors would be worth £1400 per person in Scotland each year for the next 20 years, something that would be easily avoided by staying in the UK.

Let’s look at those all in a little detail.

1. Clearly true, although “millions” is a bit of a further row-back from the billions they were initially claiming. £150m-£200m isn’t a lot of setup costs, to use the Professor’s figures: it’s about an eighth of the money Scottish Ministers are already squandering on a single unnecessary road bridge. No biggie.
2. Unknown and unknowable prior to independence. Just don’t.
3. Depends on what kind of Scottish Government we elect in 2016, and if the Lib Dems still exist then they’ll be free to propose a low-tax war-on-the-poor style system for Scotland akin to the one they’ve helped the Tories deliver in reserved areas. So therefore unknowable.
4. Utter unmitigated bullshit: yes, oil and gas revenues will drop sharply from around 2016, they are already well below the 1999 peak (see graph below), and cannot in any case be a sustainable basis for a future Scottish economy. But aside from the last of those, the issue here is geology, and staying in the Union can’t undo the fact that oil is finite and we’ve already extracted most of it from the North Sea.
5. Again, it depends. Will an independent Scotland stick to the kind of anti-immigrant policies the Tories and Lib Dems are delivering, or will the more positive position shared by the SNP and the Greens win out? Can’t have this both ways, Danny.

The offences on the other side are less glaring, and not blatantly dishonest, but still, in the interests of fairness, they have to be pointed out. Here’s the argument. It relies on speculative better productivity gains in Scotland than in the rest of the UK (the equivalent of the empty politicians’ call for “efficiency savings”), speculative better employment rates than the rest of the UK, and speculative Scottish population increases.

All of these are the same sort of unsubstantiated arguments as Danny’s final point above (much as I hope an independent Scotland will welcome more immigration), and it’s also tactically poor. Confusing independence with some sketchy estimates of outcomes from vague policies won’t persuade people to vote Yes. Independence is about the people of Scotland making our own decisions, not it being set in stone now, even if it could be.

Incidentally, on page 18 of the full document, the Scottish Government uses 2016-17 as the reference year for oil receipts. As per industry research from May 2013, that’s around the post-1999 peak. Their figures on page 26 are, shall we say, bullish.

oil-chartAnyway, the document is full of dubious hypotheticals, and reads like an expert group of civil servants weighing something they can’t see while keeping a thumb firmly on the scales. Sometimes it goes beyond that. Imagine using the word “will” here rather than the word “would”: “Higher productivity growth will boost public sector revenues as increased economic output leads to higher tax receipts” (p36).

Furthermore, people aren’t stupid, or most of them aren’t. They know that chat about whether we’ll be better or worse off, by either side, especially when associated with exciting round numbers, is mere empty speculation. It’s also not what motivates people, from what I understand of the focus groups that have been conducted. Even assuming people want to sound more progressive when being polled, fairness is much more persuasive. Oh, and so too is “decisions will be made in Scotland, by voters in Scotland”: much more attractive than “here’s how it’s all going to be, sod the electorate”.

Conjecture from Yes, downright lies from No: the Scottish public deserves better than this.