Dire warnings from Chancellor George Osborne of financial Armageddon: an economy six per cent smaller by 2030 and a country”permanently poorer” … but in Scotland, free baby cots stuffed with clothes, nappies and toys.
From the IMF, grim prognostications of “severe regional and global damage” for the UK … but from Scottish Labour pledges of £40 million a year in after-school sports clubs and funding worth an average of over £100,000 per secondary school.
From the CBI, warnings of “serious economic shock” and “negative echoes” lasting many years… but from the Liberal Democrats, promises to give schools thousands of pounds of additional funding, a huge expansion in free nursery provision and protection of council education budgets.
Welcome to the UK, 2016: you could call it a parallel universe – if only the lines were not running in totally opposing directions.
UK news is dominated by the EU referendum while in Scotland competing pledges in the Holyrood election battle make the headlines: two simultaneous battles raging for the hearts and minds of voters.
Looking at the media coverage you would think that the EU referendum did not apply to Scotland.
It’s Nicola’s cardboard box baby cot stuffed with free goodies that’s stealing the show. The boxes, designed to be converted into a cot for new-borns, and, The Guardian breathlessly reported, are “chiefly part of a wider policy to tackle infant deprivation, support poorer mothers and improve Scotland’s relatively bad rates of under-attainment in deprived areas”.
It’s a brilliant coup by the SNP. And it could be said to serve at least one useful purpose: cutting the coverage of Chancellor George Osborne’s latest demonic forebodings of a BREXIT vote to the lesser prominence they deserve.
But tackling inequality? Improving health outcomes? Whether in the Holyrood election or the EU referendum, voters need to be wary of political claims – and not least those citing statistics from the Treasury.
Osborne went into battle yesterday with a Treasury analysis claiming that an EU exit could see the UK economy six per cent smaller than it would otherwise be by 2030, equivalent, he said, to £4,300 per household.
“It would be the poorest”, he added, “who would be most affected by an EU exit”, citing people whose jobs “depend” on the car plants and steel making factories”.
Now no-one should deny that a BREXIT vote involves risks. Or that it would cause uncertainty for business, investors and households.
But that does not mean we should suspend our disbelief when forecasts and projections are cited as if they were hard facts.
Take the claim that the economy would be six per cent smaller by 2030. There’s not a thinking person in the land who would not greet this other than with scepticism.
Forecasts of the state of the economy just one year out are prone to error, never mind 14 years – last December’s Autumn Statement being a case in point.
Now imagine how reliable such forecasts would be over 14 years. A financial salesman selling you something on the basis that your family would be £4,300 better off would be up in front of the Financial Conduct Authority before you could say “mis-selling”.
What we have is a Treasury best guess – similar to all those made in Budget Red Books over the years showing how the budget deficit would shrink and in many cases disappear at the end of five years. Yet we are still wrestling to reduce it.
Neither the Treasury nor the IMF forecast the global financial crisis and the sharp recession that followed – one of the worst in Britain for 70 years.
So distrustful had the public become over such forecasts that responsibility for them was removed from the Treasury and given to the independent Office of Budget Responsibility. But even this could not guarantee infallibility.
Now add to this the way in which politicians have become adept at using statistics which prove to be based on sleight of hand – presenting, for example, a cumulative change over five years as if it was a single immediate benefit – or in this case, loss.
In the Financial Times magazine last weekend, ’How politicians Poisoned Statistics’, economist Tim Harford cites examples of how politicians in the 2015 election asserted three totally conflicting sets of figures about the tax take on households: all were narrowly correct but broadly misleading, using, for example, different definitions of tax .
He takes the BREXIT camp to task for citing our gross EU contributions, not the net figure after EU grants and regional aid. Another example he cites is the assertion that “three million jobs depend on the EU”.
“What makes this claim bullshit”, writes Harford, “is that it could easily be true, or utterly false, and it all hangs on the definition of “depend”. Even if “up to” (always a ‘red alert’ device) 3.2 million jobs depend on trade with the EU, that does not mean they depend on EU membership. “Nobody proposes — or expects — that trade with the EU will just stop”.
The SNP’s “free” (sic) baby cot pledge does not play fast and loose with figures – in fact, no firm figures are given on cost – though cost it will be to the taxpayer – but still involves a rhetorical sleight of hand.
Are they to be provided to all Scottish mums? If so, it cannot be said to reduce health or income inequality. Where is the proven evidence of need or parental desire? Many mums regard the choosing of baby clothes, blankets and the cot itself as matters of keen personal choice in which they take pride.
It’s always nice to get a ‘goodie bag’. But how long before parents substitute this with their own cot and clothes preferences?
Beware of politicians bearing gifts – but particularly those bearing statistics on how better or worse off we will be 14 years from now.
One fact alone is certain here: George Osborne will not be chancellor.