‘Government needs to be kept honest’

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Is Scotland an economic and social nirvana in a world full of bust currencies, to say nothing of so-called “Broken Britain”? Or is its claim to be the best place to live in the UK just a myth?

This increasingly-polarising debate came to a head this week as the SNP government laid out its plans for the next three years.

And the bad news for those who have found the arguments vacuous so far is that they are likely to be repeated over and over again in the long years before the independence referendum.

At its core, the problem is that the debate has become ridiculously over-simplified.

On one side we have the SNP painting a picture of independence, or even “Indy-Lite”, delivering a land of milk and honey. (The propaganda seems to be working already – this week one English commentator painted a picture of Scotland as a riot-free place of growing employment and affordable homes, where everyone has a smile on their face.)

On the other side of the debate are Unionist parties which are too quick to deploy scare tactics about how poor and vulnerable a sovereign Scotland would be.

You might have thought Labour would have learned its lesson last May, but it is particularly guilty of this.

This would all just be political knockabout were it not for the fact that these default positions on both sides are getting in the way of proper debate and analysis.

That’s why it took Glasgow University academics to discover that, despite the SNP’s pro-business claims, John Swinney’s spending plans masked enormous rises in business rates – a point which was missed by MSPs.

Any hope that the quality of opposition might rise when Labour and the Tories finally elect their new leaders seems in vain, given the uninspiring candidates on offer to both parties.

And that is fundamentally alarming, because it offers little hope of any real improvement in the crucial debate on independence.

What’s more, it is clear from the obfuscation in Mr Swinney’s spending plans that the Scottish Government right now is in dire need of sharper opposition to keep it honest.