We’ve been so busy with the Wee Blue Book for the past week or so that we only just got round to listening to last Tuesday’s interview with Alistair Darling on Good Morning Scotland in time, before it vanished from the iPlayer. The former Chancellor gets a quite uncomfortable ride from presenter Gary Robertson, and flaps angrily for much of the ten-and-a-half minutes trying to turn every question into one on currency.
Mr Darling also makes some startlingly and empirically false statements throughout the interview, and we thought it’d be worth noting a few of them and seeing if they crop up on tonight’s BBC1 debate with the First Minister.
DARLING: “Scotland’s budget is increasing and has increased.”
ROBERTSON:“The block grant hasn’t.”
DARLING:“The amount of money that the Scottish Government is getting to spend has been going up all the time.”
This is a lie. While it’s surprisingly hard to pin down, we know the size of the Scottish Government’s block grant from a Freedom of Information response issued by the UK government in May 2012 and a September 2013 report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (table 8, page 52).
The IFS notes that that’s a 6.9% decrease from 2011 to 2016. In cash terms it’s a cut of £1.72 billion from the 2011 level, which is no small beer. It’s enough, for example, to pay for free university tuition (£590m), free prescriptions (£60m), free bus passes for pensioners (£180m) and free personal care for the elderly (£200m), with £685m (almost enough for the Edinburgh trams) left over.
DARLING: “The health budget has increased right through the 13 years of the Labour government, it is carrying on increasing and is increasing again.”
This is a lie. In 2012, the Labour shadow health secretary Andy Burnham lodged a complaint with the UK Statistics Authority about Conservative claims that spending on the NHS (in England) had increased. The complaint was upheld.
‘David Cameron famously promised he would cut the deficit, not the NHS,’ Mr Burnham said. ‘We now have it in black and white: he has cut the NHS, not the deficit. The Prime Minister must come to the House of Commons at the earliest opportunity and correct the record.’”
DARLING: “[Salmond is] hinting yesterday that he’d have the Panama solution, you know, using the pound, the one thing that his panel of experts – you know, that he keeps saying, with the two Nobel laureates on it – ruled out, the one thing they ruled out, and no wonder, because you’ve got no backup.”
This is a lie. The Fiscal Commission Working Group’s report on currency alternatives DID NOT “rule out” the so-called “sterlingisation” option. In fact they very explicitly ruled it in, but only as a short-term transitional option.
That much is blindingly obvious. Sterlingisation would be an unsatisfactory long-term option for an independent Scotland because of the lack of monetary control, and would only be used for a period while the country established a credit history before moving to its own currency. Nevertheless, during that period it would be perfectly feasible (many economists actually consider it preferable to a currency union), and the FCWG absolutely did not rule it out for that purpose.
DARLING: “[with sterlingisation] you have to run a surplus, that’s what they do in Panama.”
This is a lie. According to the CIA World Factbook, Panama runs a deficit of 2.6% of GDP, only slightly lower than the same source’s figure for the UK (3.6%).
DARLING: “I know from my own experience as Chancellor, the Bank of England doesn’t actually have that much money.”
We can’t actually say what Alistair Darling considers to be a lot of money, of course. But according to its last annual report the BoE has reserves of £403 billion, which seems like quite a useful wedge to us.
By a different measure, again from the CIA World Factbook, the UK’s central bank reserves are the fifth-highest in the EU. And measured per head of population they come to $1,389 per person, almost three times as high as the USA’s $479.
DARLING: “It’s not just [tax powers], there’s also additional devolution of powers in relation to welfare [in the event of a No vote], of Housing Benefit.”
As the question Robertson had asked was “What new powers can you guarantee will follow” a No vote, this is a lie. Darling absolutely cannot “guarantee” devolution of Housing Benefit, and not just because he’s a powerless backbencher with no authority to promise anyone anything.
(Darling hasn’t even committed himself to stand as an MP in 2015.)
Labour hasn’t the faintest idea how it would go about extricating housing benefits from Universal Credit – its devolution document makes only a vague aspiration towards the notion, while noting the many difficulties that would arise. The Conservatives’ effort, the Strathclyde Commission report, is even more woolly on the “how” and even more explicit on the problems:
It is likely to be administratively highly complex (and expensive) to disentangle the housing benefit element of UC for Scottish recipients in order to devolve responsibility for that one component of UC to the Scottish Parliament. None the less, if it can be done there is a case for devolving housing benefit.” (page 17)
Our emphases. And the Liberal Democrat “more powers” mini-pamphlet doesn’t mention housing benefit at all (or very much of anything). So Darling’s “guarantee” of housing benefit powers amounts to two heavily-disclaimered “maybe”s and a nothing.
It’s not bad going for 10 minutes. Let’s see how many we can spot tonight.