Ian Swanson: Independence debate common ground

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POLITICIANS currently exchanging extravagant claims over the pros and cons of independence may want to pay a visit to Edinburgh’s newest institution.

The bluntly-named Library of Mistakes, which opened this week in Wemyss Place Mews in the New Town, has more than 2000 volumes charting centuries-worth of examples of economic mismanagement.

The shelves may well contain some salutary warnings for campaigners on both sides of the referendum debate arguing over Scotland’s future.

The economy is naturally one of the key battlegrounds – the Yes side needs to convince voters that Scotland would be at least as prosperous as an independent country as it is as part of the UK, while the No supporters have to persuade them of the opposite.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander spoke to business people in Edinburgh yesterday to “debunk” what he described as “dangerous economic myths” propagated by pro-independence campaigners.

These included the £1.5 trillion figure for the value of remaining North Sea oil and gas reserves – £1tn of which Mr Alexander said would be needed to extract it.

He also claimed the Yes side’s forecast for oil revenues were out by £3 billion a year. Mr Alexander complained: “There is more evidence for the Loch Ness monster than there is for many of the claims put forward by the Nationalists to support their case for separation.”

But the SNP was, of course, quick to hit back with its own version of the picture. “Investment in the North Sea is at record levels and the industry has a great future for many decades to come,” said Finance Secretary John Swinney.

The White Paper setting out the Scottish Government’s case for independence says even without North Sea oil and gas, Scotland’s national economic output per head is virtually identical to that of the UK as a whole – and with oil, it is one-fifth bigger.

So what is the voter to believe?

It may be tempting to conclude that if there are lies, damned lies and statistics, then statistics used by the two sides in the independence debate deserve a special category of their own. But politicians are not unwise enough just to make figures up. They all come from somewhere and must have some claim to legitimacy.

It comes down to which ones to focus on, how they should be interpreted and what they really mean.

Experts who can explain and analyse the numbers thrown around by politicians offer some help.

But the pro- and anti-independence campaigns would do everyone a service if they were able to put aside their differences just long enough to acknowledge the common ground – however little it is – that exists between them.

From an early stage in the debate the No camp has insisted it was not claiming that Scotland could not become independent, merely that it should not – so there must be some shared territory.

In Scots law, the prosecution and defence can agree particular facts in advance of a trial, which are set out in a “minute of agreement” laid before the court. It saves time, lets everyone know what common ground exists and provides a starting point for the two sides to argue from.

So could Yes Scotland and Better Together tell everyone which facts about Scotland’s economy they agree on? It might go against the grain in such a high-stakes debate, but it would give voters more confidence in trying to reach their decision.