By Mark McNaught
The Herald and the Scotsman have just simultaneously published their ‘findings’ of a report issued by the Centre for Public Policy for Regions, which the Herald claims demonstrates that “FALLING oil revenues will leave Scotland worse off than the rest of the UK by the time voters go to the polls in the independence referendum, a report warns today”.
Citing the same report, The Scotsman ominously states that “AN INDEPENDENT Scotland would be worse off financially than the remainder of the UK as projections for oil and gas revenues plummet, a leading think tank has warned”.
Neither article provided a link to the actual study, so we are left with no idea how these conclusions were reached, even less how this constitutes a ‘blow’ to the SNP.
The last few days have also shown us the performance of Scottish Secretary Michael Moore testifying in the House of Lords, who is tasked with representing the interests of Scotland inside the UK Cabinet. He confessed that the coalition government is doing exactly nothing to prepare for the eventuality of Scottish independence, assuming that Scotland would never vote to leave the union.
Does any of this seem even remotely credible or confidence-inspiring?
This highlights the issue of the integrity of the debate over independence, and to what extent Scots will have accurate and precise information upon which to make an informed decision. If this is a harbinger of what to expect from the Unionist side, it is clear that they have no interest in an informed debate. It might demonstrate clearly that Scots will be better off managing their own affairs and setting their own priorities.
In the US, there are thousands of think tanks which litter the political landscape. They are often ideologically driven, funded by interested parties, and cherry-pick data to reach their pre-determined conclusions consistent with their bias and interests. Their ‘studies’ would often not qualify to be published in any peer-reviewed journal, because they frequently do not use a valid and comprehensible methodology.
Barring a radical shift in Unionist strategy towards integrity, over the next two years we can expect a blizzard of these types of studies, from UK government agencies and think tanks, many of which will reinforce the narrative that independence will result in the impoverishing of Scotland, and that a benevolent paternalistic Westminster is the only thing saving Scots from ruin.
Scots wishing an informed debate must demand to see all such studies and reports in their entirety, so that Scots themselves can ascertain their methodological integrity. In the case of this study on oil revenue, and any others which emerge, who commissioned it? Who financed it? What were the operating hypotheses, if any?
Was it peer reviewed, if so by whom? What were the sources of the raw data on oil revenues? If genuine, will this raw data be made available for others to conduct similar studies? Scots and the vigilant press must insist that all this information be provided in order for their studies be considered credible, otherwise they will be rightly dismissed as hackery.
It goes without saying that studies which demonstrate the benefits of independence must also disclose these elements for the same reasons.
Requiring this information will reduce corruption, and similar criteria for the integrity of research could be enshrined in a written constitution to improve the quality of debate and laws in an independent Scotland. In academic articles, all sources must be cited. Why should debate and laws be any different?
Even the House of Lords was lamenting the dearth of credible information from the UK government on the implications of independence, because they know it will have a profound effect on an rUK and Scotland. Their heads buried deep in the sand, the UK government will be utterly unprepared for their changed status.
Some of these think tank studies may be valid and meaningfully contribute to the debate, but Scots must be assured that they are not simply mortar shills, promulgated by a sycophantic press, to cower Scots into staying in the Union. All sides deserve a debate with integrity and credible research to plan for the future with confidence.
Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission, and Associate Professor of US civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France, and teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.