JOHANN LAMONT: Presiding Officer, this week the Institute of Fiscal Studies – a respected independent think tank often quoted by the First Minister – said that because of falling North Sea oil revenues and their(sic) ageing population, an independent Scotland would face significant tax rises or public spending cuts.
Now, I don’t suppose any of us really here (sic) imagine that we’re going to get an answer. But with a cock of the head and an indignant sideways look, could the first Minister tell us why the IFS is scaremongering like this?
This is the Leader of the Opposition, Herald Debater of the Year, in the Scottish Parliament, asking her first question of the First Minister of Scotland. The first part is factual as far as it goes – the IFS report did say this, among many other thing. Johann Lamont reads this directly from notes, with occasional fleeting glances up to try and make it look just a little unscripted.
The next part (highlighted in red by me) doesn’t even pretend to be a genuine question, and indeed the loaded question is preceded by a laboured scripted insult that foreshadows the total lack of respect for the Parliament, the proceedings and the office of First Minister of Scotland that sets the tone for much worse to come.
Despite JL’s pessimistic forecast, those “of us really here” did get an informative response from the FM, although since he had not accused the IFS of “scaremongering”, it was impossible to answer the question as framed.
ALEX SALMOND: Well, I thought we’d do as the IFS report itself indicates – we decrease the Scottish tax base by growing the economy and generating extra revenue.
COMMENT: What the FM is doing is answering the question a responsible Leader of the Opposition should have asked, namely
“Given the two stark alternatives the IFS Report offers, of significant tax rises or public spending cuts to close their forecast fiscal gap, does the FM accept they are the only alternatives, and if he does, which would he choose, and if not, what alternatives does he see? Or does he in fact reject the IFS forecast?”
This would have been a focused and hard-hitting question, allowing the FM no real point of retreat, and it is the question the Parliament and the electorate want an answer to. Alex Salmond recognises this, does not retreat from it and spend the next twelve or so minutes answering it - despite a torrent of abuse and irrelevancy from Johann Lamont - because he recognises his duty to inform the Parliament and the electorate even if Johann Lamont (or her scriptwriter) doesn’t.
ALEX SALMOND: I do not know if Johann Lamont is aware of this, but on the model that the IFS were using – it’s called the R model - it suggests that the United Kingdom will be in deficit for every one of the next 50 years - for the next half century - and then indicates that UK Governments will have to raise taxation or reduce expenditure to meet that sustained position - that’s what the model tells you.
I think, instead of looking at that, what we should be looking in Scotland is how we change the circumstances of this country by using investment to grow the economy, to generate more jobs, more revenue and to give us a sustainable future.
JOHANN LAMONT: The IFS is just asking us to look at the real world. Why would we bother with all that malarkey when we can just make things up as we go along? But presumably, how we’ll deal with an ageing population – we’ll all just get younger under independence. £300,000-worth of Oil of Olay for each man, woman and child.
Because of course, the IFS said that even in their most optimistic of forecasts, income tax would have to go up by 8p or VAT rise to 27 per cent to fill the fiscal black hole.
Now - chuckling at his own jokes, as he likes to do, and selectively quoting lines that suit his argument. Selectively - I’m sure that he is looking for them right now - selectively quoting lines that suit his argument, could the First Minister tell us why the people of Scotland should believe him rather than the evidence of their own eyes?
ALEX SALMOND: Let’s talk about what is agreed in the IFS report. Page 9 – which confirms that Scotland pays more tax per head than the UK at the moment. Or Page 11 – which confirms that currently Scotland is in a stronger fiscal position than the rest of the UK.
I’ll quote you exactly
“the average revenues raised per person in Scotland (£11,079 in 2013–14 prices) were higher than for the UK as a whole (£9,342 ... )”.
So, the IFS has validated an argument which I have brought to the chamber many times, from the “Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland”- the GERS forecast, that Scotland more than pays its way in the United Kingdom at the present moment. And that, if we take the last five years, has amounted to many billions of pounds which could have been invested in Scottish public services, or alternatively could have lowered the rate of borrowing, or a combination of both: and because of our position with the United Kingdom, these resources haven’t been available to the people of Scotland.
Now, our case is a simple one: and that is instead of not having those resources available, why not invest in the economy? Why not grow productivity - grow our exports - make sure we have growth in the economy, which generates more revenue, and then we will not be able to have the dreadful future forecast over the next 50 years for the UK by the IFS’s own forecast, which says that it will be in deficit for the next 50 years?
Now, Johann Lamont says that in an independent Scotland we are going to change the age structure of the country. How would we do that?
Perhaps we could do it by allowing young Scots who want to work in this country to have the opportunity to stay in Scotland - or perhaps we could do it by not kicking out the country, the many skilled young people who come to study at our universities, desperately want to work for a time or permanently in Scotland, but are kicked out by the Borders Agency - wouldn’t help to change the age structure of the population? Of course, these things must be right because they are controlled from London and Johann Lamont backs control of immigration policy from London which of course, would consign us to that prospect.
And the central forecast of the IFS, which has been taken from the Office of National Statistics, postulates population growth in Scotland of 4% over the next 50 years. The population of Scotland has grown by 5%over the last 10 years but, what the IFS does tell us, if we remain trapped in the policies governed from Westminster, then we’ve got a very poor prospect indeed for Scotland. If we grow the economy and put the investment in, we have a bright and certain future.
JOHANN LAMONT: Another of the First Minister’s tricks is to go on and on answering a question that he wasn’t asked. And only – only the First Minister, when the IFS says that in its most optimistic forecast, income tax would have to go up by 8p or VAT rise to 27 per cent to fill the fiscal black hole, only the First Minister could say that the IFS validates his position. It does not.
Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if convicted Enron executives across the United States were, at the moment, planning appeals, saying, “I know we fiddled the figures, but Alex Salmond has taken it to a whole new level.” With every – with every – with every - with every economic paper the First Minister publishes, Fred Goodwin must feel a day closer to redemption; each prospectus – each prospectus must make Bernie Madoff spit out his prison breakfast in admiration.
So, feeling free – feeling free – feeling free to quote the former Labour chancellor in a falsetto voice, or digging up a blog he was trawling through last night or - some more selective quotes like the last few we got there, can the First Minister just explain to this to us - why is it that the fiscal black hole the IFS exposed actually doesn’t exist and there is nothing to worry about after all?
COMMENT: This is pathetic stuff from the Debater of the Year, especially the part I have highlighted in red. (Had the FM said anything like this to the Leader of the Opposition, the media would have been loud in their condemnation.) Additionally, she ignores the inconvenient fact that the FM has not challenged the IFS figures yet, nor has he said the gap doesn’t potentially exist. In so doing, she walks into the elephant trap set for her. That’s what comes of following a bad script regardless of how a dialogue has actually unfolded – Johann expects the FM to follow her scriptwriter’s prompts. The Vulcan Death Grip duly arrives on cue …
ALEX SALMOND: Can I point out to Johann Lamont that I quoted from the IFS because I do think it very helpful in agreeing the current position. The IFS backs the Scottish Government figures - GERS figures - in showing that Scotland more than pays its way within the United Kingdom—[Interruption.] Well, I hear from the Tory benches that it’s not true. I have quoted one quote already; the quote on page 11 points out that
“Scotland exceeded revenues by £1,550 per person”
Now, that is a direct quote from the IFS, and therefore let’s agree that over the last five years – over that period - Scotland has more than paid its way within the United Kingdom.
I have pointed out to Johann Lamont that I don’t think that the population structure of this country is a given; I think the population structure of this country would be enormously improved if we didn’t refuse young Scots an opportunity to work in their own country and if we allowed other skilled people, many of whom we have educated, to work in Scotland. That, to me, would bring about a substantial, important change in the sort of challenges facing all European economies that the IFS was indicating.
Now, I have got substantial admiration for the Institute of Fiscal Studies, unlike Westminster politicians, including Alistair Darling, who’ve dismissed various reports of the IFS, or the Deputy Prime Minister, for that matter, who accused them of - this is Nick Clegg’s distorted nonsense
“taken the highly unusual step of attacking the ... Institute for Fiscal Studies, describing its methods of measuring the fairness of the coalition's controversial spending review as ‘distorted and a complete nonsense’.”
That’s exactly why I have pointed out that on the basis of the IFS report we can now be reasonably certain that the arguments that we have been putting forward about Scotland being in a stronger fiscal position than the rest of the UK are actually validated over the last five years.
What happens over the next 50 years will depend on the policies that are pursued in this country, and that in turn, will depend as to whether we’ve got control of the policies that pursued in the country. Therefore I say let’s get control of these economic levers, let’s increase productivity, increase our exports, invest in our economy. Let’s grow the Scottish economy and move forward to that better future.
JOHANN LAMONT: The First Minister is not just guilty of selective quoting, he’s guilty of selective thinking. The problem with the First Minister is he says that the IFS is helpful, but only to the extent that it agrees with him. Now we know the back benchers are only helpful to the First Minister when they agree with him: he really ought to look at the whole of the IFS study and take it on board.
Just like when he started his campaign, the First Minister is going to the cinema on Tuesday. What is he going to see—“Historic Day V” or “Honey I Shrunk the Fiscal Gap”? If the First Minister is to be believed, we won’t just be a new country after independence – he’ll invent a new arithmetic, while in every other country in the world, the choice is between tax rises or cuts in spending. Alex Salmond will have you believe we are the only country- the only country where the future is this: how big a tax cut can we give to big business and how much more can we spend on good things? Isn’t the case that at the very heart of next week’s white paper and at the heart of everything this Government does, is this belief - that if the First Minister and his colleagues say something confidently and often enough, no matter how wrong it is, the people of Scotland will be daft enough to believe it?
ALEX SALMOND: Let me try another quote from the IFS. Johann Lamont will say is selective, but this is what they say, which I think actually underlines the points that I’ve been making. They acknowledges that there are
“…factors in the report are inherently uncertain and could also evolve differently if Scotland were independent rather than part of the UK; in addition, they could be substantially affected by the policies chosen by the government of an independent Scotland.”
Now, that is basically what I am saying.
Johann Lamont says you have to take the choices between cutting spending and increasing taxation. That would be the choice, if that is the Labour Party’s position, according to the IFS/OBR analysis, with a deficit for every single one of the next 50 years. We know now, if Johann Lamont’s got any influence, what exactly the policy of the next Labour Government’s going to be, on that particular argument.
I don’t think – I don’t think that Johann Lamont is in a particularly good position either to talk about economic advisers or the real world. Fred Goodwin was the economic adviser to Alistair Darling, not to me. The current economic adviser to the Labour Party is the Rev Paul Flowers. I do not think that that’s going to give us a tremendous indication of what the future should hold.
And in terms of the real world at present – what’s happening in the real world at the present moment – is that Labour figure after Labour figure is saying exactly what they think of the Labour Party’s current coalition with the Tories. For example, the Labour Party chairperson, Labour activists “simply can’t stomach” working alongside the Conservatives in the No campaign. In the real world, key Labour figures like Alex Mosson are coming out in favour of the Yes campaign. That’s what’s happening in the real world.
And as the white paper is launched next week, then that campaign will be reinforced. Why? Because this party - this Government has ambition for this country. We think that we can invest in the future, grow our economy and give all our people a decent future.
SUMMARY AND POSTSCRIPT
This interchange at FMQS was a particularly egregious example of the arid style of questioning and interaction used by Labour Party Holyrood opposition leaders throughout the life of both SNP terms, and must be one of the low points intellectually for Scottish Labour. The model adopted by Johann Lamont and her advisers is to seize upon the last statement by any public body or organisation - UK Government or independent – then present a loaded question encapsulating a simplistic summary of that point, framed in such a way that it is impossible to answer rationally without agreeing with a false premise, then accusing the FM of avoiding the question, and going into broken record mode for subsequent exchanges, regardless of facts and information offered.
All of this is larded with contrived bon mots and stilted jokes of such poor quality and wooden delivery that the perpetrator would be jeered off a beginners’ comedy club stage. (Somebody at the Herald thinks otherwise, and considers it debate of a quality warranting an award.)
The outcome however – apart from being game set and match to Alex Salmond – was to offer an invaluable insight into the essentials of what the IFS actually did say, which was in essence that the UK had got its component nations into deep economic shit and massive debt by mismanagement of just about every sector of the British economy, regulation of banks and profligacy over defence and foreign wars and nuclear weapons, and that Scotland, if it remains in the UK, will be in a little more trouble than rUK.
The IFS made it abundantly clear that this scenario did NOT have to unfold if Scotland achieved its independence and did things differently from the failed UK model. For that at least, we are indebted to Johann Lamont for acting as a clumsy feed and prompt to our First Minister.
The above analysis represents what I set out to do in offering the transcription. After I started to laboriously transcribe the FMQs Lamont/Salmond interchange from the FMQs video, I realised belatedly that there might be a Hansard equivalent in Holyrood with the spadework already done, and was pointed by a Twitter follower to the Scottish Government online transcription.
But in comparing the part I had transcribed with the Holyrood online version to my surprise I found that the transcribers had ‘tidied up’ what was actually said, presumably in the interests of grammar, syntax and clarity.
I didn’t like this at all, since I think the essence of politicians lies in exactly how they choose to express themselves, and I see significant potential dangers in such approaches, no matter who is responsible for them, politicians or civil servants.
It is common with minute taken of live meetings to tidy up syntax and correct misleading facts in the context of a subsequently jointly agreed minute, but I hope such an approach is not taken with Hansard or Holyrood. I therefore reluctantly reverted to my hard work, now with the additional burden of checking my version against the Holyrood official transcript. I didn’t like what I found.
By the time I had finished, it was evident that the re-wording of what was said in the Holyrood transcript was quite significantly different at various points from actual words used. I would observe that in most instances, they do not change the sense of what was said, nor do they distort it in any way, and on occasion the changes added to the clarity of what was said, in sequence and emphasis, which one might argue is desirable for an informed electorate. (In many cases. the changes were simply contractions– such as “we’ll” “haven’t” etc. – being expanded to “we will”, “have not” etc. which is the exact reverse of current best practice in writing and speaking, which is to use contractions as closer to real life speech.)
But there were examples that left me uneasy – I won’t itemise them, and if you want to find them, do your own homework!
But that doesn’t alter the fact that the changes represent either what the transcribing civil servant thought the FM or Johann Lamont should have said – or, more worryingly, what the FM or Johann Lamont thought they would have liked to have said – not what was actually said. I think the potential dangers of such an approach to reporting the Parliament are significant for any democrat, regardless of party or affiliation.
Quite simply, I think there are only three possible explanations, given the nature of the changes. The two most likely are either a zealous and well-meaning civil servant or aide, perhaps acting on a standard brief, using their own judgement to re-word - or politicians involved taking the opportunity to tidy up and alter what they actually said to make it read better.
The third possibility is that the transcribers have used in part the politicians’ original notes and scripts prepared before FMQS instead of what they actually delivered on the day.
I think this matters, and someone should look at it.