Good luck with this one, folks:
All clear now?
The deficit is £11.9bn, or 7.8% of GDP, or “nearly 10%” of GDP if you arbitrarily remove one source of income from it (Why oil? Why not exclude tourism, or whisky, or sales of shortbread and Jimmy hats?), or it’s £14.9bn, or £16.9bn, or 10.3% of GDP by “one measure” (which one?) if you include a corrected mistake that the Guardian – for it is they – may or may not have been including in the first paragraph.
We’re not even sure where the £14.9bn comes from. The first paragraph of the report talks of expenditure of £68.4bn versus income of £53.4bn, which is a gap (already measured to one decimal place) of exactly £15bn.
We can’t tell where an extra £100m has vanished to, but it’s quite a lot of money to misplace as a rounding error – it’s the sum the SNP say the new Council Tax charges will produce, or what Labour say they’ll get from hiking the top rate of income tax, but Severin Carrell has just lost it down the back of a calculator.
(Are the £14.9bn and the £15bn even referring to the same thing, or does one include capital spending but exclude oil and Andy Stewart records? We don’t know.)
By this point we’ve also been told that Scotland’s tax receipts are 8.2% of the UK’s (so what?), and that spending is £12,800 per head. So in the space of a couple of hundred words we’ve measured stuff in pounds, percentages of GDP (with and without capital spending, and with and without oil), percentages of a different country’s spending, pounds per head and multiples of another country’s deficit.
Later we get public spending (but not income) measured as a percentage of GDP and compared to the UK’s for some reason, and we get told that oil, once $110 a barrel, “has since” fallen to $30.
That’s technically true but unmistakeably implies that $30 is the current price, when in fact it’s currently $40 – a whopping 33% higher.
It’s rather like saying “Partick Thistle led against Aberdeen on Monday night but then Aberdeen equalised”. That isn’t a lie, it did happen, but it omits the fairly crucial piece of data that Aberdeen went on to score another goal and win the match.
All of the figures in the Guardian’s GERS report are facts (we think). The paper has unleashed a veritable torrent of what is, strictly speaking, information. But it’s such an unbelievable mess of confusing, conflicting comparisons of apples with oranges and bananas and helicopters and giraffes that anyone trying to make sense of any of it will recoil in bewildered horror and come away knowing less than they did at the start.
The kindest explanation is that it’s spectacularly appalling writing. The more cynical one is that it’s a deliberate attempt to confuse and mislead. We’ll leave you to make your own minds up as to which applies.