Richard Murphy is Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City, University of London
LESS than a month ago, I admit I had not heard of the political commentator Kevin Hague, or of his obsession with the GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) data. Then I wrote a blog explaining why, in my opinion, that data was unsuitable for decision-making in Scotland.
He responded and yesterday we debated the issue on John Beattie’s programme on BBC Scotland.
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The debate was a curious experience. I sought to make three points. The first was that the data in GERS is fine if you’re sitting in London and think Scotland is just another region of the UK that has no control over its economy or taxes but you wish to know, quite approximately, what its overall share of UK Government income and spending might be. As I said on air, such an attitude was commonplace a decade ago, even (perhaps) in the Scottish administration, and so GERS fulfilled a useful role at that time. But times have changed.
And now Scotland is anything but “just a part of the UK”.
Secondly, with that in mind, I made the point that politicians of all parties who want to govern Scotland, whether it is in or out of the UK, need better data to do so: GERS is now well past its use-by date for anyone who wants to make the types of decision Scotland now needs to make. And thirdly, I made clear that alternative data is not just possible, but in the last couple of weeks the UK Office for National Statistics has said data of the sort I have suggested, based on real tax income, should now be used for UK-wide decision-making. So why should that not be the case in Scotland as well, I argued.
I would have thought anyone who values good government would agree with what I said. What I offered was my professional opinion as a chartered accountant and professor of political economy (which is a pretty rare combination) on what might make for the best decision-making for the benefit of the people of Scotland. The result may show a deficit, or not. That was not my point. That point was we need to know using the best data available and we need to know what can best be done about it – GERS does not permit that.
Kevin Hague was having none of it. As he reminded me (as apparently I didn’t know), Scotland is in the UK. He clearly thinks it should be treated as such and know its place.
I don’t agree.
He then reeled off a list of people who agreed with him and claimed my opinion was that of a “flat Earther” and “outlier”. I have no idea what the flat Earth comment was about. The outlier one was, I realise, meant to question my judgement. But, as I stressed, I’m qualified to offer opinion on this issue, and have not been frightened to challenge vested interests on data issues over the last 15 years or so.
Time and again I have been told by establishment figures (and their friends) that I am wrong, until such time as I have won the argument, as has often been the case.
So I happen to think being an outlier is a virtue, not a failing.
If only Kevin Hague realised that all change for the better is dependent upon someone, somewhere sticking their head above the parapet and saying that things aren’t good enough and could be improved, he’d have something much more useful to say. I’m happy to play that role of the person seeking change in this case, and I do so for good reason. The people and politicians of Scotland can have, and deserve, better data to inform the decisions they have to make. Kevin Hague must have his own good reasons for wishing to deny them that data. I’m not bothered as to what they are and why he says what he does.
All I am interested in is getting that information so life in Scotland is better for everyone. I hope all politicians who are committed to the future of the country share that view and demand better data now.