Just about the first thing I saw on Twitter this morning was the Scotsman front page with a lurid headline about Sturgeon’s £5 billion Devo Max Bombshell(add your own exclamations) and instantly felt deja vu creep over me.
Are we still in the campaign, I wondered. Are they still hammering home their relentlessly negative tabloid scary drivel or is the referendum over?
It followed this week’s piece in the same paper from Peter Jones warning that without the Union, Scotland would be facing ruin from falling oil prices as we would lack the equalising impact of the block grant which retains spending levels. He was quoting Brian Wilson who wrote in the same paper the previous day apparently on the same subject.
Odd, isn’t it? My understanding was that Unionists were bleating that Yes was refusing to give up and yet here we are in ‘the national paper’ re-running old arguments after the event and based on the views of one or two campaigners disguised under the pseudonym of Think Tank.
Indeed, on reading the article, it turns out to be none other than former Labour economic adviser John McLaren* who has produced a paper timed to coincide with the Smith Commission talks and dutifully published on the front page of a national newspaper minus scrutiny or analysis in an attempt to derail the SNP’s proposals for extra powers.
If you thought this fight was over, you’re wrong. The Unionists can’t stop themselves from stamping all over Scottish aspirations and killing stone dead anything that smacks of real autonomy. Every single move has a downside that will damage Scotland and they will never tire of telling us. Only craven adherence to London policy – Labour or Tory – will satisfy these Britnats whose contempt for their own country is collective self-loathing on an epic scale.
Whenever there is a Scottish government statement due or a budget, expect Dr McLaren to have prepared a paper contradicting everything they have to say. The so-called think tank, now named Fiscal Affairs Scotland, is spun out of the Centre for Public Policy for Regions (CPPR) which previously provided cover for his Unionist expositions. You may recall three years ago, this story (reported here in Newsnet)
The row over claims that businesses in Scotland face a massive increase to their business rates of £849 million over three years looked set to escalate today after a CPPR source denied the organisation had produced such a figure.
Newsnet Scotland has been told that the press release and report sent out to media organisations on 22nd September made no such claim of an £849 figure.
The £849 million figure has been used by several Scottish newspapers and broadcasters in order to attack the Scottish government’s three year spending plans. The headlines and reports led to Finance Secretary John Swinney writing to a Scottish national newspaper and issuing statements denying the claims.
In a letter to the Herald newspaper Mr Swinney called the figure of £849m “misleading” and went on to explain that the real figure is £493m. Around half of this is due to the annual poundage rate RPI increases that are introduced north and south of the border and which businesses know they have to plan for.
So the actual increase as a consequence of inflation totals £250m over the three-year cycle not the treble plus figure implied in the CPPR report.
That little affair was the direct result of a press briefing given by John McLaren at Glasgow University and which I attended. Contrary to what the CPPR said, he did mention the £849m figure and it was leapt on by Angus Macleod of the Times – with his usual relish – who demanded to know, in an incredulous voice, if the figure was correct. ‘Yes’, confirmed McLaren.
It was broadcast by Douglas Fraser and immediately brought objections and clarifications from the government. The result was the item was pulled from BBC coverage within the hour. McLaren had overshot himself in his haste to a) damage the SNP and b) to gain publicity.
At that time he and his former Labour colleague Jo Armstrong were paid by the taxpayer through the Funding Council and accommodated by the university but it isn’t clear where the funding is coming from for their new vehicle which has a raft of luminaries to provide respectability. Oddly, for a ‘prestigious’ organisation, their website appears not to be functioning.
I don’t believe that Scottish academics – any of them – make up answers or deliberately twist information but I do think that some with strong political affiliations highlight information that serves their political ends. It would be naïve to think otherwise. And if the referendum taught us anything, it is that we have an inter-connected establishment which values the Union above all else. The idea of impartiality and neutrality were torn apart as professors and doctors declared for one side or the other and in the midst of a national debate, that seems an appropriate response from the university sector which is both an iconic contributor to our country’s prestige and an underused resource.
But once that campaign is over, do we expect them still to be politicking at public expense? For example Adam Tomkins first advised the Tories on devolution – a reasonable use of an academic to a project of public interest –but should he now also be representing them in the Smith Commission? Has he not crossed a line from offering expert advice to assuming the mantle of identity of a political party and arguing their corner against other politicians? Should the taxpayer be paying his salary while he turns himself into a political party representative? (Perhaps he has surrendered his salary pro-tem. What do you think?)
At least Tomkins makes no effort to hide his affiliations so you can judge him and his work accordingly. (I know I do). But shouldn’t we expect the same declaration from other academics like John McLaren who, it seems to me, is a committed Unionist and anti-SNP voice but who states he is unaligned? If the think tank is also unaligned, as it claims, perhaps we’ll see some evidence of this soon…
Meantime, I recommend this from Bella for further reading. http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2012/02/23/the-professor-the-think-tank-the-black-black-oil/
The McLaren defence will doubtless be that he produces a balanced report and it’s the media that decides the storyline and the heading. But are we to assume that so media-savvy an individual with hours of television experience and direct media contact had no idea what line a journalist might take? Wasn’t he already preparing to appear on Radio Scotland in the morning? Did it not occur to him that it coincided with the Smith Commission meeting and would therefore sabotage that event and lead journalists to demand answers from the SNP? Put it another way – isn’t this exactly what Labour Party headquarters would want?
And is this what Robert Black and others in Fiscal Affairs Scotland want – to be front men for campaigners bent on disrupting even the low-level devolution process that all of Scotland wants to succeed now that independence is shelved? I suggest that John McLaren knows exactly what he is doing. To me this looks like cynically manipulating the media to present a case that damages the Sturgeon leadership, derails the more powers process and makes a name for John McLaren and his latest think tank. And, of course, it’s another triumph for the Scotsman, surely the most inappropriately-named newspaper in history.
*John McLaren was a civil servant at both H.M. Treasury (1985-1988) and at the Scottish Office (1989-1998). During this period he had no political affiliations.
John worked as a researcher for the Labour Party for a year leading up to the first election (1999) of the new Scottish Parliament, being subsequently appointed as a Special Adviser by Donald Dewar, and then by Henry McLeish, for the period up to 2001. John was a member of the Labour Party from 2000 to 2005. In 2006 John was hired by the Labour Party on a consultancy basis to undertake work leading up to the 2007 election. Since 2002 John has worked as an independent economic consultant and member of CPPR. Since 2005 he has had no political affiliations.