THE prize for this week’s least surprising news story goes to the reaction to the publication of the annual GERS report. Every year the figures provide the supporters of the Union with a stick with which to beat the independence movement and this week proved no exception.

This happens regardless of whether the figures – which are supposed to show how much money is raised by taxes in Scotland compared to how much money is spent by and on behalf of Scotland – are up or down. The argument is always the same.

The pro-Union camp revel in claiming that GERS proves an independent Scotland could not stand on its own feet because we spend more money than we raise.

Those in favour of independence quite reasonably counter that argument by pointing out that:

a) GERS shows the situation as it is under devolution and that figures under an independent Scotland would be entirely different and entirely better.

b) Most countries run a deficit quite happily and an independent Scotland would be no less able to do so than them.

The trouble is that all these arguments are so well rehearsed that it’s impossible to imagine them convincing anyone to change their minds on the constitutional issue.

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Those bitterly opposed to independence will continue to rant about the dangers posed by a so-called “deficit”. Those who want to end the Union will continue to make the case that GERS tells us nothing useful about how an independent Scotland’s economy would perform. And in any case, the Scottish Parliament is not legally able to run up a deficit.

Those vital voters stuck in the middle who have not yet made up their minds on independence are pretty much bewildered about what message they can take from GERS. If they haven’t been convinced by any of the arguments so far, what is ever likely to convince them?

Kate Forbes tried valiantly in these very pages to put forward the coherent and convincing case that the GERS report, far from undermining the case for independence, actually makes the economic case stronger.

That might well be true but that’s not a new argument and it has so far failed to cut through the barrage of doom-mongering headlines which every year predict an economic catastrophe if we end the Union.

This year’s GERS report is actually less gloomy than previous years, and almost giddy with happiness compared to last year’s dark picture. In 2022-23, Scotland’s “fiscal balance” (reported virtually everywhere as a “deficit”) fell from 12.8% of GDP the previous year to 9%. That was hugely better than the 23.4% recorded at the height of the pandemic in 2020-21.

The National: During the leadership contest Kate Forbes advocated creating an alternative to GERSDuring the leadership contest Kate Forbes advocated creating an alternative to GERS (Image: PA)

So, good news, right? Well, that depends on who is reporting it. The Daily Express was as usual keen to kill any feelgood factor in the most recent improvement with its website headline: “Union worth £1500 to EVERY Scot as Scottish Government spending outstrips revenue by huge £19bn”.

And the Daily Mail online headline was even worse: “Scots received a £1521 per person ‘UK dividend’ last year as public spending outstripped revenues”. So, no celebrations here then.

The Conservative Party, of course, could hardly wait to seize any credit that was going.

Tory Scottish Secretary Alister Jack was quick off the mark, saying: “The Scottish Government’s own figures show yet again how people in Scotland benefit hugely from being part of a strong United Kingdom. People in Scotland benefit to the tune of £1521 per person thanks to higher levels of public spending.

“As we face cost of living pressures and unprecedented global challenges, it is clear Scotland is better off as part of a strong United Kingdom.”

Of course, the Tories would never see GERS as anything other than proof that independence should never, under any circumstances, be seen in a positive light. The figures are either so bad that they suggest an independent Scotland would be too small and too stupid to succeed, or they are so good that we’d have to be crazy to walk away from such a successful arrangement.

We in the independence movement will not be fooled by such a skewed take on the figures. We have armed ourselves with the proper facts. We know the arguments, particularly those so eloquently argued in Believe in Scotland’s excellent Scotland the Brief book. We can dismiss the skewed arguments of the pro-Union lobby as the nonsense they are.

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The Scottish Government’s Wellbeing Secretary Neil Gray did his best to do exactly that in his response to this week’s GERS when he argued that “GERS reflects the current constitutional position, with 41% of public expenditure and 64% of tax revenue the responsibility of the UK Government”.

He added: “An independent Scotland would have the powers to make different choices, with different budgetary results, to best serve Scotland’s interests’’.

The trouble is that this exact argument is made every year when the latest GERS figures are wheeled out. If it has not landed with the public by this time, will it ever?

Particularly when even Gray says he is “pleased” with the figures in the report. GERS is either a seriously flawed accounting method or something to be taken seriously and welcomed when the picture it paints is a good one. It cannot be both at the same time.

Economic arguments can be difficult to decipher, awash as they are with claims and counterclaims. This is particularly true when you’re trying to convince the public of the truth behind GERS statistics.

The Scottish Government can insist it relies on on estimates which are based on … well, guesswork, really. Then the Fraser of Allander Institute admits to some reliance on estimates in GERS but adds that is commonplace in economics and no reason to “dismiss the figures as ‘made up’”.

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The truth is that the GERS figures in their current form can ONLY provide ammunition for those opposed to independence. They can’t possibly predict how the economy of an independent Scotland would fare and yet every year they are reported in our media as doing just that.

Every year Scottish ministers are on the back foot trying to explain the inadequacies of GERS as a measurement of the real Scottish economy. Every year we hand the enemies of independence ammunition to shoot down our case with figures purporting to show the opposite of what they actually do measure.

So, who compiles the report which is an annual headache for wanting to discover the true state of the Scottish economy? The Scottish Government itself, that’s who. Or at least statisticians and economists employed by it.

Why? That’s a very good question, especially since GERS was introduced in 1992 by Tory ministers under PM John Major who saw them as undermining the case for a Scottish Parliament.

Former Scottish finance secretary Derek Mackay became convinced that the GERS publication needed serious reform. His solution, announced in January 2020, was to announce plans to publish an alternative report to GERS making the economic case for independence.

He did not actually do so and his successor Forbes threw her weight behind the plan in August 2021 and promised to publish it after the pandemic had passed. The project was ditched, which was once again proved to have been a terrible idea when the same old arguments were once again being peddled after the publication of GERS23 on Wednesday.

The suggestion of an alternative report to GERS needs to be pulled out of whatever cupboard in which it currently languishes, particularly in light of this week’s poll showing support for independence on the rise again.

A trustworthy and realistic economic argument could only help to build the momentum we are starting to see around us.

But that’s not all. Why not scrap GERS altogether? The involvement of Scottish Government civil servants lends it a legitimacy it does not deserve. If Westminster decided to press ahead without the involvement of Scotland, that would say nothing good about the strength of their argument.

Any action which stops the farce we’ve seen this week would surely be a major step forward for the independence movement.