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Showing posts with label Scotland's economy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scotland's economy. Show all posts

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The IFS FMQs – Lamont and Salmond deconstructed – and a transcription question.

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.


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.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

The BBC, the Sunday papers and Professor John Kay


BBC News at 1.00 p.m. led with the FIFA story, moved briefly to the deaths of two young marines in Afghanistan, the deaths of two Afghan civilians and twelve children in a Coalition strike, then moved swiftly back to what really mattered - football and the FIFA story.

The burden of the four minute Afghan story was the usual quick, token skate over the deaths of two young marines, cut down in the flower of their youth, and a report on the deaths of twelve innocent children in a Coalition strike, the burden of which was that, well, these things happen, to be regretted, etc. but don’t forget that the Taleban are as bad, or worse!

This is the UK, client state of US foreign policy - the junior partner - and the BRITISH  Broadcasting Company at its callous, jingoistic worse, serving the propaganda of war as the operating principle of the state.

I am often a defender of the BBC on this blog and on YouTube - on balance, I think it is an effective and reasonably balanced public service broadcaster, especially in Scotland, perhaps the best in the world, but when it occasionally becomes the tool of the British Establishment and the formidable American and British Zionist lobby, it is something to be deeply ashamed of, and is a threat to democracy and world peace.


Scotland on Sunday leads with that old independence thing again - SNP expert says split will hit economy.

Here we have our old friend, bias by headline - an editorial device that has become familiar in both the Herald and SoS in the last few years. Professor John Kay is a member of the Council of Economic Advisers to the Government of Scotland, and has been since 2007, that is, he is a government adviser.

He was chosen, together with others, because he is a distinguished academic, and has been a director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. What he says - most of it, anyway (see below) - should be listened to with respect, and weighed in the context of what other advisers and relevant bodies have to say about Scotland’s economy.

But in the hands of Scotland on Sunday, he is transformed into an SNP expert and a member of Alex Salmond’s council of economic advisers - a not too subtle shift, the sub-text of which could be taken to be that he was selected to serve a party line on independence, and has now broken ranks. (The picture of Professor Kay carries the caption John Kay: hired by Salmond.) That contrives to be an insult to both Professor Kay and to the First Minister, one that deserves the contempt which I offer, and I hope others.

Are you editing a tabloid newspaper, Kenny Farquarson, or one of Scotland’s two quality newspapers?

I read Professor Kay’s piece, Fate of independence, carefully. I am not an economist, and therefore qualified to comment only as a lay voter who wants Scotland to be independent. But it is voters like me  who will determine in the referendum whether or not Scotland gains its independence, and they will cast their votes at the ballot box based on a complex mix of reasons and emotions. Some will have listened to the economic arguments and weighed them carefully: some will ignore the economic arguments because their minds are already made up, for other reasons.

Before commenting on John Kay’s views - the views of one informed man, one expert - let me say that my mind is already made up, and here’s why -

Firstly, I want my nation - which I define as Scotland - to be free to determine its own priorities, its own future and its own destiny. That transcends any economic consequences that may initially result from escaping from the dead, stultifying effects of a moribund Union that was entered into under the pressures of bribery and intimidation from a larger, more powerful neighbouring country over 300 years ago.

Secondly, I want to be free of a political entity, the UK, that is now wholly committed to war as the operating principal of the state and the economy, is committed to a subservient client relationship with the United States of America’s foreign policy, a nation also committed to war and the military/industrial complex as the operating principal of the state, and is committed to the pernicious doctrine of the nuclear deterrent and to the possession and use if required of weapons of mass destruction. That second reason also transcends, for me, any economic penalties or benefits that might result from independence.

The above two freedom alone are sufficient to make me vote for Scotland’s independence. But I also believe that, free from the war and weapons obsessions of the UK, free from the obsession with the principle of defence-as-a-job creation scheme, free from the delusion (or the self-serving excuse) that the US and the UK are the world’s policemen and the guarantors of the spread and dominance of their particular militaristic, exploitative capitalistic version of democracy, that Scotland will be economically, culturally and morally transformed.

Professor Kay wisely confines himself to commenting on the economic implications as he sees them of Scotland’s independence. He is not a professor of international relations, nor a defence expert and he is not a professor of international ethics or moral philosophy.

An economics expert, indeed any kind of expert, however eminent, does not reach conclusions in an intellectual vacuum. They are human beings, with a range of experiences and beliefs that extend far beyond their field, and these beliefs and experiences influence them, consciously and unconsciously, in the conclusions they reach. Perhaps pure scientists - for example in the field of quantum physics - come closest to the kind of objectivity that we might hope from them when they offer their views to us lesser mortals on matters that will profoundly affect our lives. But even this exalted group perceive reality through the prism of their human experiences, hopes, beliefs and prejudices.

So when Professor Kay says “There is very little possible autonomy for Scotland which is not potentially available for it as part of the United Kingdom”, he is referring to economic autonomy, not to defence or foreign policy, or language, or culture, or the most fundamental autonomy of all - to choose, and to accept the consequences of our own choices, something that lies in the heart of every human being.

In the rest of his article, Professor Kay sees only problems, not solutions, other than - by implication, don’t do it, and choose the middle option - devolution max. Throughout the article, I get the feel of a man who doesn’t like the prospect of independence for reasons other than the purely economic.  Since I have no idea where Professor Kay stands - nor have I the right to know - on the monarchy, on defence, on the nuclear deterrent, on foreign policy, or indeed where he is positioned in the great left to right political thought spectrum, I have no basis for knowing whether or not these matters influence his conclusions on economic matters. He is, in this article at least, silent on defence and foreign policy matters and their economic implications.

But one comment of Professor Kay’s may be significant by what it doesn’t say, rather than what it says -

In the long run, the issue is whether independence would promote economic dynamism in Scotland - or lead it into the petty, partisan corruption that, for so long, characterised Scottish politics.”

Here’s what he didn’t say - that the petty, partisan corruption that for so long characterised Scottish politics was a manifestation, since the end of World War Two, of either Labour or Tory dominance in Scottish politics, i.e under the Union and two unionist parties. This petty, partisan corruption has only begun to diminish since the Scottish National Party, committed to Scotland’s independence, took power in 2007.

The egregious corruption that has characterised Westminster politics over the last few years has happened under the Union, and has been anything but petty, including as it did widespread corruption and criminal behaviour in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, leading to criminal prosecution and imprisonment of both elected and non-elected representatives, and the unprecedented forced resignation of the Speaker.

In marked contrast, the Scottish National Party has been entirely free of such corruption, both petty and partisan, and no MSP or Scottish minister has been prosecuted for criminal actions nor been imprisoned. The Scottish National Party is committed to Scotland’s independence, something I’m sure Professor Kay is aware of.

The behaviour of the Ministry of Defence has been characterised at best by utter incompetence, leading to the squandering of huge sums amounts of tax revenue, incompetence that somehow has always managed to result in the enrichment of many former MOD senior official and government ministers through revolving door lucrative appointments, directorships and consultancies. During this period, our armed forces have been placed in harm’s way with inadequate equipment and support, and many have lost their lives.

Professor Kay is silent on all of this because he must regard it as beyond his economic expertise, although it manifestly has a major economic, fiscal and social impact. Why then did he choose to speculate as to whether “independence would … lead it” [Scotland] “to sink into the partisan, petty corruption, that, for so long, characterised Scottish politics.”

What I know, Professor Kay, is that under an independent Scotland, it is highly unlikely that two young servicemen would die in one day in a foreign occupation that has lasted a decade, serving a US President’s need for vengeance following the appalling terrorist crime of 9/11, and that twelve innocent children would be blown apart in one day by a Coalition that includes the UK’s ‘defence’ forces. It is also unlikely that an independent, non-British,  Scottish public service broadcaster would offer such an unfeeling, cynical and unbalanced report on this enormity.

But these matters are properly beyond the scope of an economic adviser, however eminent and well-qualified.