Serious as Cancer

Humans are poor at intuitively assessing risk: leaving us vulnerable to being manipulated into acting against our best interests.

In their book “Merchants of Doubt”, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway outline how, in the mid-20th Century, tobacco companies developed a nine-point public relations playbook to cast doubt on the increased risks of cancer from smoking.

The psychological attack worked devastatingly well, gaslighting generations into smoking and generating billions in profit. These same pseudo-scientific techniques, often by some of the same pseudo-scientists, have since been used by corrupt corporations to counter climate-change concerns.

The damage they have caused us to inflict on ourselves is almost unimaginable. Big tobacco knew from the 1940s that smoking causes cancer. Oil companies knew fossil fuels caused climate change as early as 1977. Yet, in that time, countless new smokers have been recruited and condemned, four decades of delay have accelerated ecological disaster, and we’ve paid the price in more ways than one.

Distorting the Downside

Conway and Oreskes describe tobacco’s nine unethical tactics for distorting the perception of downside risk:

  • Deny the problem
  • Minimise the problem
  • Call for more evidence
  • Shift the blame
  • Cherry-pick the data
  • Shoot the messenger
  • Attack alternatives
  • Hire industry-friendly experts.’
  • Create front groups

As you will see below, these same techniques are being used today in Scotland to downplay the risks of independence.

What are the side-effects of independence?

“The strength of a country’s public finances depends on the balance between public spending, revenues and the stock of government debt.”

Scotland’s Future – ScotGov Whitepaper

In a nutshell – Scottish public revenues do not cover Scottish public expenditure by a significant margin, so with independence, our current level of public expenditure is at considerable risk.

What’s the evidence?

The most recent evidence about the current state of Scotland’s economy is GERS 2022.

This is the Scottish Government’s description of GERS:

Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) is a National Statistics publication. It reports estimates of the revenue raised in Scotland and the cost of public services provided for Scotland to answer three questions:

  • What revenues were raised in Scotland?
  • How much did the country pay for the public services that were consumed?
  • To what extent did the revenues raised cover the costs of these public services?”

GERS does not describe an Independent Scotland’s economy, but it gives us an idea of where an independent Scotland would start. Any vision painted of a future Utopia must start at GERS and map out the suggested path we would take.

The Figures

Scotland’s deficit had more than doubled to £36.3bn in 2020-21; the highest ever figure since devolution. Increased spending, funded by the UK government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, grew Scotland’s notional deficit for 2020-21 from 8.6% of GDP in 2019-20 to 22.4% – much higher than the UK’s 14.2%. 2019-20 was an extraordinary year – an outlier due to the impact of the pandemic. In 2021-22 the deficit dropped significantly to 12.3%. In pre-pandemic years we saw deficits of 8% – the European union defines any debt above 3% of GDP as ‘excessive’.

The Scottish Government does not officially dispute these figures themselves: it is the Scottish Government that produces them.

“I’m not quibbling about the essence and the reliability of these figures.” –

Nicola Sturgeon on GERS in 2017

Seeing the nine points deployed.

Deny the problem

(“Deficit? What deficit?”)

“Here is a fact that everyone should remember: Scotland is a wealthy country that more than pays its way… Scotland’s economy covers every penny of the country’s day-to-day public services such as education, transport and policing …Scotland generates enough tax to cover all devolved spending – despite what opponents of independence would mislead you to believe.”

Kate Forbes, The National, December 2021

When Kate Forbes says Scotland “more than pays its way”, she denies the problem of a deficit – to more than pay our way would mean having a surplus. This positioning follows from her claim 5 months earlier that there is not really a deficit

“Forbes said this was a “notional deficit –

not a real deficit.”

Guardian, August 2021

In one way, she is right: Scotland within the union has a notional deficit. It’s notional because our higher public spending is covered by the fiscal transfer within the UK from the Barnett consequences. It’s only a notional deficit, not a real problem, while we are within the UK.

Where she is deliberately occult is that as soon as Scotland became independent, it would cease to be a notional deficit and become a real structural deficit with genuine implications on the affordability of our public services.

Minimise the problem

(“There’s current spending we can ignore”)

“Even without North Sea receipts, the record revenue generated was sufficient to cover all day-to-day devolved spending as well as all social security spending in Scotland, including the state pension.”

Scottish Government Press Release August 2022

The narrative is clear and uses a similar conceit to deny the problem and to minimise the problem: the impression they want you to take away is that even without oil, the revenue Scotland raises covers the revenue Scotland spends – so even if we were Independent, we could maintain current spending. This is, simply, untrue.

Cooking the books

Financial Statement Manipulation: To exaggerate current period earnings on the income statement by artificially inflating revenue and gains or by deflating current period expenses. This approach makes the financial condition of the company look better than it actually is in order to meet established expectations.” –


That is what the Scottish government press release, and John Swinney in interview, is doing – by leaving large amounts of critical public spending ‘off the balance sheet’ in its narrative.

The Fraser of Allander institute lays it out starkly how over £21 Billion in public spending is being ignored.

“It is true that onshore revenues of £70.3bn are more than devolved current spending of £53.5bn plus social protection spending by the UKG of £16.7bn


What this does not include is any capital investment, of course, including £8bn of devolved capital expenditure.

More significantly, there are a number of reserved functions that are also funded outwith these 2 categories – including reserved economic development spending of £2.2bn , public sector debt interest payments (£4.5bn), reserved transport spending (£988m), public and common services (£1.4bn – including running administrative services such as HMRC), defence (£3.9bn), International services including foreign aid (£659m) etc.”

Fraser of Allander Institute

In fraud schemes, tactics like these are used to make businesses more profitable than they are, so they are overvalued to sellers, who perceive less risk in the investment.

Call for more evidence.

(Wait, we’re STILL researching the positive economic case…)

“SNP Does not know the cost of independence, First Minister admits”

Interview with the Times, 2019

After losing in 2014, the SNP seemed to make no serious analysis of why they lost, but it is clear that economic risk aversion was a significant factor. What was clear is that the proposed modelling – which relied heavily on maintaining a high oil price, had not been convincing.

September 2016 – Nicola Sturgeon Calls for More Evidence

In September 2016 Nicola Sturgeon called for more evidence – forming a growth commission chaired by SNP ex-MSP Andrew Wilson to tackle the deficit problem.

“They will attempt to address one of the major weaknesses of the independence case, Scotland’s £15 billion annual deficit following the oil price collapse. This equates to 9.5 per cent of GDP, which exceeds even Greece’s deficit and is far higher than the three per cent required for EU membership.””

The resulting report achieved the impossible and united many in the Yes and No camps in criticism. The left wing of the Yes movement criticised it as a gateway to austerity. Pro-UK commentators pointed out that cutting public spending as a percentage of GDP meant deeper austerity than anything we’d seen within the UK.

January 2020 – Derek MacKay Calls for More Evidence

Remembering that GERS is a Scottish Government publication meant to be the gold standard for showing Scotland’s economy, it may seem incredible that the Scottish Government planned to simultaneously publish a parallel case for independence that would contradict their figures. Derek Mackay justified it at the time, saying he wanted to say

“OK, here’s the analysis of where people think we are right now as part of this system and here’s an even better picture of what we think we can do.”

Derek MacKay

As it happens, the ‘more evidence’ never appeared. MacKay’s replacement Kate Forbes shelved the plans later that year.

April 2021 – Nicola Sturgeon calls for More evidence.

“Nicola Sturgeon has said a fresh analysis of the economics of an independent Scotland must take place due to the existing figures being “out of date.”

Nicola Sturgeon

This was at least the fourth or fifth time Nicola Sturgeon has called for more evidence. It’s become predictable that when the actual economic risks of independence are made clear, a new and positive economic case is called for even if the report never arrives or is unworkable.

Right on schedule, there are currently 22 civil servants working – not on our education crisis, not on our healthcare crisis, not on our policing crisis, not on our Bin collection crisis, not on the energy crisis, not on the cost of living crisis, not on our transportation crisis – but on ‘new papers’ with ‘new evidence for the elusive a positive economic case for independence.

The first of these papers makes this somewhat incredible statement when talking about the Scottish Government’s own GERS analysis.

“The focus tends to be on the estimated fiscal position of Scotland within the United Kingdom (UK). That tells us nothing about how Scotland would perform as an independent country and is, in any case, an argument for change, not against it.”

As Kevin Hague pointed out at the time –

“Amazing line here: our performance today tells us “nothing” about how Scotland would perform as an independent country. Nothing: so on day one, a new economy will be born, old industries will evaporate, public spending will be reset to zero, the tax base will dissolve & reform?”

Kevin Hague

Shift the blame

(“If there were economic challenges, it would be because of [Westminster / Tories / Pandemic/ Ukraine] delete as appropriate.”)

This is often expressed with the sentiment, “If Scotland has a massive deficit within the UK, it must be because the UK so poorly serves the Scottish economy.” To see how ridiculous this argument is, you only have to think of the opposite: If Scottish public spending was far below Scottish revenue, would nationalists say that was an argument against independence?

There are two sides to a border.

Brexit has caused damage to the UK economy and, within that, the Scottish economy – primarily through extra trade friction at a harder border. The London school of economics modelled the damage from Brexit – and the Scottish Government used that analysis in its own Brexit impact papers. However, in that same series of papers, the same analysts went on to model the potential impact of Scottish independence and showed that the impact on trade would be several times worse than that of Brexit alone.

Just as the argument for Brexit has blamed the EU for the border problems at Dover or in Ulster, rather than an inevitable impact of leaving the union, so the argument goes that Border friction at Gretna after independence will be – not an inevitable impact of the independence but simply another grievance being inflicted on Scotland by a vindictive Westminster.

“On the issue of having “physical border posts” on the Border, the First Minister said arrangements would be negotiated so that businesses “do not in a practical sense suffer from any of that”… An SNP Spokesperson said, “It is the Tories with their anti-European obsession who are building borders.” – National Article 18th July 2021

Shifting the Blame on Pensions Risk

There is a significant risk to Scottish Pension payments, even at current levels, after independence. We know this is the case because – much like exposed memos showed that tobacco companies understood the risks of cancer from smoking, a leaked memo from the SNP from John Swinney revealed his concern that pensions would be affordable after independence. In March 2013, a secret cabinet briefing paper authored by John Swinney revealed that an independent Scotland would need to “consider the affordability of state pensions.”

The affordability of pensions in an independent Scotland has not improved – and the SNP is seeking to shift the blame for that risk to the UK government. Ian Blackford, SNP leader at Westminster, tried to shift the blame by claiming that after independence, the UK government would take on the pension liabilities as a legacy.

Yet while in private, the SNP doubt the affordability of State pensions, in public, they spread misinformation that the UK pensions are the lowest in the developed world and make uncosted promises to increase them in an independent Scotland.

“The proposed conference motion on state pension rises is a vague, uncosted pipe-dream, while the party’s existing position on the subject remains a mess. It’s not long since Ian Blackford, and other senior SNP figures made the absurd claim – universally dismissed – that the UK Government would carry on paying Scots’ pensions in the event of independence. The reality is that the SNP, despite its dismal record of financial incompetence in office, is forever trying to dupe people into believing that anything and everything will be affordable after independence.”

Scottish Conservative Finance Spokesperson Liz Smith.

Kate Forbes backed up Ian Blackford’s position – however, Sturgeon later rowed back, saying that the SNPs pension policy “had not changed” from 2014 – that is, the new Scottish state would take on responsibility for Scottish pensions. At least in part, the SNP’s uncosted claim that pensions will double in an independent Scotland seems to be based on the UK continuing to pay pensions and the new Scottish state topping them up. If they fail to double – it will be Westminster’s fault.

The technique has played its part in planting a trope. The concern that pensions are at risk in an independent Scotland has been fudged with the narrative that if that’s the case, part of the blame must lie with the remaining UK for not continuing to pick up the tab.

Cherry-pick the data

(It works 60% of the time – every time )

To manipulate the perception of risk, the Scottish Government are cherry-picking data in their counter analysis in three ways:

  • Where they are looking – the choice of comparator countries.
  • What they are looking at – what metrics they choose and what things they exclude from the analysis.
  • When they are looking – what date ranges they set to show data in the most favourable light for their aims.
Where they are looking – Comparator Countries

A robust case on how Scotland might perform as a small economy would be to look at the Scottish economy, look at a broad and diverse range of models of economies around the same size and use them to model what policy changes could have an impact and what pitfalls to look out for. …The SNP reports do not take that approach.

The sustainable growth commission, when it was released, claimed that –

“its core finding (is) that an independent Scotland can emulate the world’s 12 best performing small advanced economies… The 12 small advanced economies considered by the Commission are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland – with lessons learned from Denmark, Finland and New Zealand in particular.”

Sustainable Growth Commission

Critics spotted the circular logic at once.

“To justify ambitious growth targets, the Commission cherry-picks a set of better performing small advanced economies (SAEs). By the simple expedient of excluding SAEs with materially lower GDP/capita than Scotland, they are then able to make the unsurprising observation that Scotland’s GDP/capita is lower than the median.”

Kevin Hague – These Islands Growth Commission Analysis

The most stinging criticism of this approach came from an independence-supporting economist Mark Blyth.

“The Scots-born academic, professor of international economics at the Watson Institute of Economics at Brown University at Rhode Island, also mocked the SNP’s repeated claim that Scotland would become like Denmark if it were independent. “No, you wouldn’t be Denmark. Denmark took 600 years to become Denmark,” he said, bemoaning the “complete lack of specificity” in planning for the economic upheaval.”

Mark Blyth

This comment predated the latest ‘Scene setting’ paper from the Scottish Government. “Why Not Scotland?” which uses the ‘comparator countries.”

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland.” Claiming they are the best examples because these are ‘relatively small nations in close geographic proximity to Scotland, and they provide relevant examples for an independent Scotland to learn from” – However, they have chosen not to include several other relatively small nations in close geographic proximity to Scotland, such as Portugal, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro or Macedonia – some of which are more comparable models to Scotland.

Why? Because they are using circular logic – Cherry picking the countries to fit the outcome they want, then saying that outcome is inevitable because of what the model shows. Another country conspicuously missing from the most recent analysis is Scotland ourselves. While they compared these countries to the UK as a whole, Scotland’s figures were not included – possibly because we already enjoy much higher spending compared to revenue than the UK average.

One of the pro-independence front groups we look at later, “The Bottom Line”, from former SNP MP and Treasury spokesperson Roger Mullin produced an analysis of growth since the 2008 financial crash had yet another cherry-picked list of countries to fit the result they wanted to show, this time taking out Belgium and the Netherlands and adding in Israel and Singapore saying that Scotland was being underserved by being in the UK saying –

“If the UK had kept pace with Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland, it would have been 7.7% larger…. “Translating the UK underperformance to the Scottish economy, matching the 2007 to 2019 growth performance of the SAEs, would have added an additional £13 billion to the Scottish economy.”

Roger Mullin – The Bottom Line

The ‘findings’ of these reports would be significantly different if they applied the same methodology to a slightly different list of countries and a slightly different period. On that basis, they are not a very robust case to say risks are minimised because they show an outcome.

What they are looking at – Selected Metrics.

You only see what you choose to measure. The comparison from the Scottish Government’s first ‘Building a new Scotland’ series paper looked at“a range of economic and social indicators” – However, they also didn’t look at a range of economic and social indicators. The economic measures included GDP, employment (where the UK performed well), poverty – and other valid measures. However, some things were noticeable absent – like the comparison of the National Health Service or detail on the taxation models. For example – in Ireland, a visit to a GP can cost €60, which is currently free within the UK. this can have a significant impact on the interpretation of the analysis – If in countries, additional health costs need to be paid out of pensions while in the UK they are free. It’s misleading to only compare the pensions in isolation from the health cost liabilities. Once again only showing one side of the books.

When they are looking – At selected Years.

In the 2013 economic case for independence made in the Whitepaper “Scotland’s Future”, the Scottish Government used GERs data – but cherry-picked only specific years. Years with unusually high oil revenues.

“The Independence White Paper assumed the same average level of North Sea oil income as generated on average between 2009 and 2012, implicitly in perpetuity.”

This graph from Chokkablog shows Scotland’s revenue, including oil against expenditure. – When the black line is above the red line, income is more than expenditure. It should be evident that this is hugely volatile because Scotland’s ‘on shore’ economy is significantly less than expenditure and is occasionally pushed above it by fossil-fuel revenue. The Whitepaper in 2013 looked mainly at the years when the blackline was above the red and used them as the basis for future projections.

If their model had extended a few years into the past – and when it was extended into the future with the collapse of oil price in 2015, the model would collapse, and the hidden risks would come home to roost.

Shoot the messenger

This tactic is fascinating because, concerning the GERS figures on the Scottish economy, the messenger is the Scottish Government. The SNP has been in the Scottish Government since 2007. They control the methodology, assumptions, format and publication of GERS. The work is then carried out by civil servants independently of Ministers, but it is a Scottish Government publication produced under the aegis of the Scottish Government’s chief statistician. That doesn’t stop them, however!

One key part of this narrative is to say that the GERS are a Tory document designed by Tories in the 90s before devolution specifically to make Scotland look poorer. Uddingston and Bellshill MSP Stephanie Callaghan claimed that the Scottish Government’s published GERS figures were “complete nonsense.” with a post on Twitter saying:

“GERS figures are designed to understand Scotland’s income and overstate Scotland’s expenditure” and quoting discredited economist Richard Murphy claiming GERS are “a work of fiction that describes a Tory vision of Scotland.”

SNP MP Stephanie Callaghan

Attack alternatives

(Our way is the only way)

The alternatives to independence are either to maintain the status quo or to reform the status quo, which could range from devo-max to reversal of devolution.

Making Devolution Fail.

Devolution has served the SNP well, giving them prominence, power and pounds. Younger voters might be surprised to know how strongly they resisted devolution, seeing it as a threat to independence. Famously they boycotted the constitutional convention, which led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

A historic SNP strategy has been to attack Labour when it appears they are about to take power from the Tories.

Ahead of Labour ousting the tories in 1997, Alex Salmond downplayed the idea that any reform would come. In one of the many, many times he has made a confident prediction that turned out completely wrong, he said –

“I wouldn’t trust Labour to deliver a pizza, never mind a Scottish Parliament.”

Alex Salmond.

In a similar situation now – with Labour likely to oust the Tories from Power at Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon is following her mentor’s lead to attack the alternative, saying that while she hopes the Tories lose the next election –

“Labour is more a pale imitation than a genuine alternative.” –

Nicola Sturgeon.

The narrative is that the UK is ‘unreformable’ or ‘unsavable’ – so anyone who wants change must accept the risks of independence as the only way.

Yet just a moment’s thought shows that in the past few decades, from the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the abolition of hereditary peerages, and – like it or not – Brexit, that clearly dramatic and significant reform is possible and indeed is an ongoing process. While none of us likely agree with every change – they do show that change is possible and that we can take the agency to shape it for the whole of the UK without the downside risks of independence.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in Scotland is that we have a party in charge of delivering our devolved services that didn’t want devolution in the first place and has a vested interest in making devolution fail.

Hire industry-friendly ‘experts.’

(“Says ‘Top Economist’ in National Exclusive!!”)

The big tobacco industry commissioned research intending to undermine established consensus to create doubt or confusion in the general public about the risks of smoking.

Similarly, the Independence debate in Scotland has seen hitherto unknown ‘experts’ given prominence – such as Map-maker Tim Rideout advising the SNP on currency and MMT to downplay the deficit risks. Note – He is suspended from the SNP following racist comments and threats of violence. All perfectly normal behaviour for economic experts.

SNP mouthpiece ‘the national’ uses “economics expert Richard Murphy” to answer questions live about GERS in this misinformation video, which SNP politicians then retweeted.

To put his expertise to the test, have a look at him being cross-examined and floundering when giving evidence to a Holyrood committee:

So, not all attempts to hire “independence-friendly experts” pay off.

As we saw with Mark Blyth, he is certainly independence friendly, but emails came to light recently, which showed he had failed to find data to support the positive economic case for independence he had hoped for.

Create front groups

“All these groups are agree with us”

I’ve analysed here how the SNP used front groups during the first referendum.

They funded and directed “Yes Scotland”. Many supposedly ‘grassroots’ organisations – such as Business for Scotland, were shown to be taking SNP influence at the time, and their organisers went on to become SNP MPs in 2015. Perhaps most perniciously was the use of the front group “Labour for Independence” with elected SNP politicians pretending to be Labour, manning stalls and distributing literature.

The National Smokers Alliance was an example of this tactic. It was a group created by and funded by the Philip Morris Tobacco Company, but their involvement was secret; it appeared to be a grassroots organisation for smokers fighting the introduction of smoke-free laws in the 1990s. The idea fits in with the populist strategy to present the position as the ‘voice of ordinary people.”

We have been spoiled with such organisations in Scotland since 2014; many of them were formed by SNP politicians or recent SNP politicians.

Progress Scotland

Progress Scotland is a polling organisation Founded by the former deputy leader of the SNP Angus Robertson and described by Nicola Sturgeon as ‘Brilliant’ Progress Scotland claims to be funded through donations and public subscriptions, though its reserves or the identity of large donors is not known.

“The Bottom Line”

The Bottom Line initiative is a front group launched with the aim of ‘adding to the debate around the economics of an independent Scotland.’ involving Graeme Blackett, who was an economic adviser to the SNP Growth Commission, and former SNP MP and Treasury spokesperson Roger Mullin.

Following the release of GERS 2022 figures, Graeme Blackett of the bottom line was interviewed along with Kevin Hague, chairman of pro-UK Think tank these islands.

The interview is available here: The most telling part of the interview, in the context of a concerted attempt to make people underestimate the economic risks, comes from Graeme’s hopes on how we will consider the economic impact of independence:

“I hope we don’t get bogged down in the numbers debate; I hope the economic debate is about being imaginative”

Graeme Blackett – The Bottom Line

New Smokers, New Voters, New Victims.

The most disturbing aspect of the tobacco firm’s strategy is that they were not just ‘preaching to the choir’ to reassure their existing customer base from the 1960s, whom they didn’t want to lose. They knew they were literally killing their current customers – and they knew that in order to grow, they needed to get more kids hooked than the customers they killed.

There is a body of scientific research suggesting that younger people are more likely to take risks:

“There is a systematic ageing pattern which shows that as people get older, they also tend to be less willing to take risks”

Albert, Steven & Duffy, John. (2012). Differences in Risk Aversion between Young and Older Adults. Neuroscience and neuroeconomics. 2012. 10.2147/NAN.S27184.

If younger people are already willing to take more risks, and the perceptions of downside risk are systematically psychologically downplayed – as the tobacco industry has proven, they can be manipulated into making sub-optimal decisions.

We know as well that the SNP have been specifically targeting younger voters – both with political education officers and by putting nationalist propaganda into schools. And that younger voters are now tending more towards supporting the risky path of independence.

As with cancer and climate change, the risks associated with independence are well-established and well-understood. We can’t say which smoker will definitely get what type of cancer and when. We can’t say exactly how much warmer sea levels will get. We can’t tell exactly what an independent Scotland’s revenue would be – nor what public services would be cut or at what rate additional debt is taken on. But we know the downside risks are there, the downside risks are real, and those with vested interests understand the risks and want you to take them anyway.

If the benefits of smoking outweighed the risks, the tobacco firms would not need to have deployed their PR playbook to convince you otherwise. If independence didn’t carry the serious risks of deep cuts to public services then Nationalists wouldn’t need to use tobacco’s unethical techniques to sell it.

Further Reading and references:

Merchants of Doubt: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Dirty tricks of the tobacco trade:

The connection between Eugenics and Tobacco apologists

Published by Bingo Demagogue

Twitter - @BingoDemagogue

One thought on “Serious as Cancer

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