We’ve spoken a number of times before on this site about the “gish gallop” or “swarm of wasps” debating technique, in which a person attempts to bury their opponent under such an overwhelming tsunami of false, misleading or nonsensical claims in a short space of time that they can’t possibly debunk it all.
The Urban Dictionary gives an example of the form:
Faced with such a rushing torrent of drivel, it’s almost impossible for an opponent to know where to start in order to begin to even scratch the surface (if you can scratch a torrent). And that brings us directly to Severin Carrell’s article in today’s Guardian.
A near-incomprehensible rag-bag of random semi-facts, the piece paints a terrifying picture of a mammoth financial black hole caused by an SNP “spending spree”.
“Public sector debt in Scotland has mushroomed to record levels after an SNP government spending spree funded by billions of pounds’ worth of borrowing from pension funds, international banks and the Treasury.
An investigation by the Guardian has found that total borrowing to build schools, roads, railway stations, colleges and hospitals under the devolved government could reach £50bn by the end of the decade, putting a heavy strain on the public finances.
The scale of the debt, which dwarfs Holyrood’s annual budget of £30bn, has never been set out by ministers or investigated by the Scottish parliament. It has led to calls by Scotland’s auditor general, Caroline Gardner, and opposition parties for greater openness over public finances.”
The news may have come as something of a surprise to people who were under the impression that the Scottish Government currently has almost no borrowing powers. The Scotland Act 2012 only empowered it to borrow up to £2.2bn – in total, not per year, and even that only came into force this April.
(There’s also a £0.5bn contingency for emergencies, but only £200m in one year.)
As far as we know the increased borrowing powers set to be provided by the Scotland Bill 2015 haven’t even been determined yet, and are still being haggled over as part of the discussions around the so-called “fiscal framework”.
You have to pick your way through the article and piece together isolated fragments of information to try to arrive at Carrell’s figure. As best we can make out it comprises:
£22bn – inherited PFI debts
£15bn – council debts
£9bn – Scottish Futures Trust projects
£4.9bn – proposed rail network upgrades
That total does indeed come to £50.9bn, but almost three-quarters of it (72.7%) is PFI projects passed on mainly by previous Labour governments and debt run up by local councils, almost none of which are SNP-run. (Just two of Scotland’s 32 councils have SNP majorities, with seven others run in coalition or as minorities.)
It seems extremely harsh to hold “Holyrood” responsible for a debt that’s still in significant part only a future projection, and which – even if the figure became true – Holyrood would have run up, at most, about a quarter of. And it’s also not clear why the sum should be regarded as so horrendous anyway.
If true, a debt of £51bn would represent around 32% of Scotland’s current GDP of £159bn. That compares extremely favourably with the UK’s current debt of between 82% and 90% of GDP, (depending how you calculate it). George Osborne’s most optimistic target is to reduce that to 72% by 2020 – still over twice Scotland’s level.
(The UK also has an extra £2 trillion in pension liabilites – which we think Carrell is including in the Scottish council debt figures, and would therefore make the relative Scottish figures even better, but the article is so vaguely written it’s hard to be sure.)
The rest of the barrage of scattered chaff that pads out the rest of the Guardian piece appears to only be there to obscure the weakness of the central case, and as such we’re not going to waste any more time on it.
The simple fact is that until eight months ago, Holyrood had a fixed budget. It had no borrowing powers whatsoever – the Scottish Government could only spend what it had. Nobody yet knows how much it’ll be able to borrow in future, but whatever limit is set will represent only a tiny increase on the debt burden Scotland has already been left with by previous Labour governments and councils.
Pretty much every country on Earth will at some point face a reckoning over its debt, and Scotland is no different, whether devolved or independent. But blaming that on “an SNP government spending spree” is some way beyond misleading or misinterpreted, and well into the realms of flat-out lies.