Saturday, 14 April 2012


A few thoughts on The Economist front cover which has sent many Scottish nationalists crackers over the last few days. Nicola Sturgeon thought that the front cover was offensive to all Scots and not just Scottish Nationalists. Alex Salmond, who normally doesn't put a foot wrong when dealing with the press, said that The Economist would ''rue the day'' that it published the front cover. No one knows what it means. Perhaps we will see a boycott of The Economist? One wonders, given the political thinking in this northern land, if they would even notice.

The cover was not a particularly strong joke but those of you who read The Economist (NB: A magazine founded by a Scot in Scotland, just for interest) will know that this is what The Economist does. Whilst it is not Private Eye, it does - notoriously - have a sense of humour and does poke fun. Indeed, one of the reasons the joke at Scotland's expense was so weak was because it was similar to a joke the magazine told only last year (see above). In recent months there have been jocular front covers about Greece (Acropolis Now) and Berlusconi (The Man Who Srewed An Entire Country). You'll notice that Americans didn't get annoyed about this. Barack Obama didn't promise us that The Economist would rue the day. Neither did Berlusconi. Neither did Papandreou. Maybe this is the political equivalent of First World Problems?

A couple of thoughts:

(a) It is perhaps worrying that when The Economist treats Scotland like an independent nation (indeed, treats the country exactly like it treats America...) the response from our politicians (particularly those who are in favour of secession) is to behave like spoilt children. It seems to me a case of wanting one's toast and wanting it buttered with jam. If we do not treat Scotland like a grown up country, part of the community of nations, we are guilty of some gross slander. If we do treat it like all the other countries - which includes poking fun at it - we will rue the day.

(b) That said, as ever, the SNP have played a PR blinder. Some of the outrage from those on the Twittersphere was no doubt genuine but much of it was faux outrage (and I wonder if it was co-ordinated?). It wasn't a particularly bright cover but because the Nationalists could focus on the cover - rather than article within which asked more difficult questions of the Nationalists - it meant that they have side-stepped the tricky part whilst also managing to get some PR attention. Plenty of Scots up and down the country who will not read The Economist (and that particular article) will have seen the kerfuffle, seen their government ministers getting awfully annoyed and think this is the ''typical English attitude''.
Gerry Hassan, the respected writer, has been good enough to take the article inside The Economist on. Good on him. Barely anyone else did.

As I have said previously on this blog: Firstly, Scots - and, for the purposes of the debate, I am one - enjoy the right to self-determination and should, given the electoral choices made at the last election, exercise this right at a referendum in due course. Secondly, patently, Scotland *could* work as an independent nation.

I won't take Mr. Hassan on at every point. In some areas, he is correct. In others, well, as you'll see, I don't have the space.

But, firstly, Mr Hassan attacks The Economist's view on the EU and currency.

The Economist:
Though Mr. Salmond claims Scotland would enjoy automatic EU membership, European Commission lawyers are doubtful. A candidate Scotland would have to negotiate entry terms - and commit to join the Euro one day''.

Mr Hassan disagrees with this analysis as is his right. He accuses The Economist of being mischievous and says that as Scotland and England created the union that was the UK thus Scottish independence leaves not one new state, but two new states: Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK).

I would contend that it is Mr. Hassan that is being mischevious. This is not, purely, based on a contentious Constitution Unit research of a decade ago. Professor Nicholas Tsagourias, a Professor of International Law at the University of Glasgow, wrote an excellent piece on this matter only two months ago. My knowledge of international law could cover a postage stamp but I think Tsagrouias's take on these matters is fundamentally sensible.

Even if you do not agree with the good professor's analysis, I think it is more than a little disingenuous of Mr. Hassan to pretend that opinion doesn't exist. It is not quite the ''either/or'' he paints. And I would wager that he knows it. (Especially as that article was published in a newspaper that Mr. Hassan writes for).

He is equally disingenuous when discussing Scotland's financial sector. It would be difficult to argue that the financial sector in Edinburgh is booming - given that the biggest banks only exist because of state support and, only on Friday, we heard there may be further redundancies at SWIP after thousands of redundancies at RBS in December (across the group but affecting Scotland). Indeed, the only really good news financially recently seems to be the creation of a Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh by the United Kingdom government! There are good news stories, admittedly, but booming is a stretch.

Talking of financial services, Alex Salmond MSP
, only last week, was claiming a fair share of the United Kingdom's assets after independence. Who could possibly disagree? If we are to agree that Scotland should get its fair share of the UK debt (which I think may well be disproportionately large for a nation of its size) then it should also get an equitbale division of assets. The magic number is 8.4%, apparently. That said, would that mean that the RBS would become majority owned by the rUK? And if so, why would it need to stay in an independent Scotland?

He is correct to note that Scotland is the largest offshore renewable market in the EU. Even though that is true I think this is an evasion of the point - nobody is denying that the offshore renewable market in Scotland is large. What, I think, people are saying is that it is not significantly large (nor is it likely to be so any time soon) to hang one's hat on.

These are quibbles that Mr. Hassan and I are likely to have (assuming a writer as talented as he reads this little blog which, admittedly, is a large assumption) over virtual pints for many a long year. You either buy the oil argument or you don't. You either think Scotland can adequately survive on oil, whisky, banking and wind or you don't. Where he is most interesting however is when he discusses The Economist vision of the United Kingdom as a ''Global Kingdom''.

I'm not sure that they do want Britain to become a ''camelot'' of deregulation. Indeed, the previous issue of The Economist actually called for more and not less regulation of formation agents (particuarly in the tax havens that Hassan thinks are integral to the vision of a Global Kingdom ). I cannot, deny, of course that The Economist is generally in favour of a smaller state, greater individual responsibility and free markets but the caricature that he paints of its view of a future Britain is as ridiculous as many portraits of an independent Scotland we see in the popular press.

When one starts an argument on a fallacy, I have shown a recent examples where the magazine wants greater regulation (of Crown Dependencies, to boot), it can only really be sustained by more of them. London as a playground of oligarchs? That may well be the case right now but does The Economist want such a thing? It would be odd for a magazine that has been consistently in favour of libel law in England and Wales to be so (HereHere, and here). If it wants oligarchs in London a really bad way of keeping them is to campaign for Libel Reform for 9 long years. 

To then say that ''this is an economy and culture where the importance of English football Premiership league tells us a lot. A majority of its clubs are foreign owned and have offshore financial arrangements, while a majority of all European football club debt is within the twenty clubs of the Premiership. It is not just a metaphor but a direct example of the grotesque distortions of ''Fantasy Island Britain'' is odd.

It is particularly odd given the parlous state of Heart of Midlothian and, more obviously, Rangers. No club in the English Premier League (foreign-owned or otherwise - I don't see the relevance. Who cares?) is as perilously perched as Rangers who seem to be the bumblebee of economics. No one knows how, exactly, they are still flying but they are.

If there is an unsustainable football league in Britain today it isn't the English Premier League but the Scottish Premier League. Perhaps, when clumsily grasping for a metaphor that is the one we must grasp: that the SPL, on its own, separate from England, has survived for a while and had some high points but just can't cope in its current form.

Finally, he goes on to criticise The Economist's ''Megachange: The World in 2050''. There is a lack of facts (which I concede). He claims that ''Megachange'' states that the best tomorrow we can hope for is a bigger version of today.

Which would be fine, of course, if that wasn't precisely we get from the Scottish nationalists at every turn! We cannot get long-term answers about any number of things (sorry if you've heard this before)

  • Should Scotland keep the Queen as head of state? (NB: I've heard both but the admirable David Torrance has noted that the SNP has never formally renounced its policy on this matter. Salmond bats away such questions.)
  • Should Scotland keep the pound, establish its own currency or join the Euro?
  • Is it acceptable, if we keep the pound, to have a monetary union controlled by our largest neighbour? 
  • Should we join the EU or ''do a Norway''?
  • Should we have a joint-armed force with the UK or separate armed forces? 
  • Should we have a second chamber in the Scottish Parliament? If so, should it be a House of Lairds or democratically elected?
  • Will we be a big-state/high tax or small-state/low tax?
  • How will healthcare be administered?
  • How is social care determined?
  • How will foreign policy work? Would we have our own Diplomatic and Espionage services?
A cruel wag would say that the nationalists are now saying ''keep the Queen, keep the pound, keep a version of the NHS, welfare spending will be pretty much the same and we'll still be in the EU... but we'll be independent''.

I don't want to get into it in much depth. I know I'll get platitudes and bromides like ''An independent Scotland is in favour of justice, tolerance and respect''. Which is fine but I'm sure Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua and Wales all same the same. Moreover, I'm painfully aware that a fine response is ''it is up to the Scottish people to decide''. I agree. But no one, right now, is giving us detail. Why Mr. Hassan isn't consistently turning his intellect on asking the First Minister ''what is your vision for Scotland?'' I don't know. We can all dream but, well, we have to wake up.

To then go on to claim that The Economist ''for all its pretentions of evidence-based policy is actually founded on blind faith, dogma and a narrow, inflexible economic determinism'' is  astonishing given that all this links back to Scottish independence.

Salmond is known to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants politician, is known to wing it on policy matters and, as we get no detail, and we are getting more and more appeals to a sense of Scottishness and identity/ I think, if nothing else, both sides here are as guilty of blind faith and dogma. Someone call the police, we've got a racial incident involving a pot and a kettle. (I've talked about identity before)

To go on to say that this is an ''over-earnest, humourless and constantly predictable in its one-dimensional, very masculine take on the world'' is almost too juicy for words. This media storm in a pint glass has been the definition of po-faced. Earnest Scots getting antsy on TV and social media over a fairly harmless front cover!

That said, I'm not sure why free markets are masculine or, for that matter, why a smaller state is but, by-the-by, given that a fairly jokey front page managed to provoke nationwide wrath and handwringing and, also, a thought-provoking and well-written (but, let's face it, fairly humourless) response from Mr. Hassan then, well, again, the charge of over-earnest and humourlessness could be charged against leading members of the nationalist cause. I'm too polite to say whether they are constantly predictable but I predicted this response when I saw The Economist front page. A friend says the Nationalists are ''offended by everything but ashamed of nothing''. That is harsh and unfair but this debacle does point in that direction.

He is on much firmer ground when quoting the irrepressible John Kay. There are, of course, risks attached to staying in the Union and going it alone. I'm not sure, however, that many credible unionists are painting armageddon scenarios. I am not - as you'll have seen above. Kay is right that the gain in sovereignty (what gain, we'll likely end up back in the EU and have the influence of other small nations. Ask Ireland how they managed to keep their corporation tax in the discussions late last year) would be mitigated by globalisation. The argument that we'll be listened to by the European Union as some form of key player is, bluntly, utterly laughable. (That, I should note, is hardly a winning argument against independence. It might be a winning argument for an independent Scotland reconsidering EU membership).

Given that Scotland can gain lots of sovereignty via devo max and given that with such a system we are likely to be able to harness (and mitigate) globalisation it seems to me that there is an option which delivers most things to most people.

Finally, I promise, the charge of Pravda against The Economist is bizarre. Does Mr. Hassan *really* think that we are living in some form of libertarian paradise where The Economist is the mouth-piece? If so, I'd love to know how big the state would need to be before it was too big? I'd love to know what powers the state lacks right now that it desperately needs?

Far from being Pravda, The Economist might offer us some salvation! This dark land, rife with socialism, and burdened with a heavy public sector, could learn something.

Scotland is the home to many things. It is full of wise people. Scotland is the home of The Economist. It is also the home of well-meaning free-market capitalism (with generous provision for the poorest). Let us have some more of this and a little less jumping on high horses.



  1. Does Mr. Hassan *really* think that we are living in some form of libertarian paradise where The Economist is the mouth-piece?

    If only, if only.

  2. Independence provides choices for the people and government of Scotland. These include in/out of EU/NATO/Euro etc. Includes how much to spend on NHS/Education/Defence etc.

    Alternative is the current situation such that Scotland has no say on its future but awaits a decision from Westminster. Almost no government in London has come to power on Scottish votes (including Labour) and Westminster pays little or no attention to the 8.4% of the people who call Scotland home.

  3. "Alex Salmond, who normally doesn't put a foot wrong when dealing with the press, said that The Economist would ''rue the day'' that it published the front cover. No one knows what it means."

    Why would it mean anything other than that The Economist would come to regret the damage done to its reputation? Does that really need to be spelled out?

  4. Many thanks, all, for your comments.

    (a) Anonymous - you fall into the trap I describe. Of course, it is true that these things will be decided by the Scottish public. It is not unreasonable to ask of Salmond, Sturgeon and co what they *would like* to see in an independent Scotland? I've got a vision for the future of my country and I am a humble blogger. Is it really too much to ask of our First Minister? Whenever we do ask we hear ''but that would be for the people to decide''?

    (b) Anonymous - all areas of the country feel that the government in Westminster doesn't listen to it. That is just as true of London as it is of Aberdeen. We'll see that in an independent Scotland. We'll no doubt hear that Glasgow is neglected or that Aberdeen is a net contributor.

    Do you think an independent Scotland, with a pound, would have more or less say in monetary policy than it does at present?

    (c) Yes, Peter A Bell, a fair point. My point was more that I think that this wasn't the normal (or correct) response from Salmond. I would have laughed it off and said the Scottish people are wise enough to see through this sort of thing. Do you think that The Economist cares? There sales will have gone up because of the outrage. Anyone who reads the magazine will say for all its bias that it is leagues ahead of most of the press either in Scotland or the wider UK.

    Thanks for popping by - really great to see people engaging.


  5. RCM,

    I am not entirely convinced that everything has to be settled before we decide whether or not to go for independence. What I am coming around to is some spelling out of the constitutional framework of an independent Scotland. This is somewhat different from worrying about £ -v- Euro, in / out of the EU, or keeping the Queen, etc.

    What I would like is some determination of the mechanisms we will use to decide these issues. An agreement on what would be subject to a referendum and what would not would be a good starting point. It would also be useful to know whether they would be subject to, say a generational veto on a future referendum on the same, or substantively the same, issue. On a 'personal bee in the bonnet' at the moment, I am of the view that constituencies should be able to exercise a recall by-election in the event that the elected politician (at any level) is deemed a failure by either the justice system or a significant proportion of their electorate.

    If we had some ground rules in place on these issues it would be far easier to gainsay your arguement. Without them it does indeed become political. Whilst I have every faith in the Scottish electorate it is important to learn from the experiences of other nations.

    I trust that this is the sort of discussion we will be having up to 2014 and beyond.