This week’s shameless spin from Better Together about supermarket prices didn’t last long, but there’s bound to be another scare along shortly.
It’s still not clear whether the journalists from the Financial Times decided to approach certain supermarket executives entirely off their own bat, or because someone suggested to them that there might be a story in it for them if they did. But it’s probably a safe bet that the journalists didn’t just call the supermarkets at random, like they were conducting a telephone poll on whether your preferred brand of mayonnaise made you more or less likely to vote for independence.
Whatever precise chain of cause and effect took place, the execs obliged the journos with some quotes about hypothetical situations, and we were into the magic kingdom of the conditional. The government of an independent Scotland could raise fuel duty by 10 billion percent and outlaw the use of barcodes – this would make it much more expensive for supermarkets to operate in Scotland causing prices to rise. Another scare story for Project Fear to add to its shopping trolley.
The only surprise is that the Record didn’t headline it “Salmond-Hell a threat to supermarkets”. They really are losing their touch, as well as their readership.
It’s all could and would. It’s possible, but not at all probable. It cannot be denied that the government of any independent state does have the legal powers to raise fuel duty by 10 billion percent and to outlaw barcodes, and an independent Scottish government could go collectively insane and do it. That doesn’t mean it’s ever going to happen, it’s ridiculously improbable. But it’s still theoretically possible.
Of course a 10 billion percent rise in fuel duty and legislation against the barcode menace could also happen if we vote no. The Westminster Parliament could also go collectively insane, and there’s many who believe it already has. The difference is that if we have an insane Scottish government we can vote it out. We’re lumbered with the one in Westminster.
Spin finds its natural home between possibility and probability. The truth is that just about anything you can imagine is possible. It is possible that after Scottish independence the atoms making up Wullie Rennie could spontaneously rearrange themselves into a blancmange. It’s just possible that people would notice.
There’s even a theory beloved of those who are too stoned to make it to the all night shop for munchies that there is an infinite number of universes. And if that were the case then logically anything you can imagine has actually occurred in one of them. Which means that in at least one universe Wullie Rennie really has turned into a blancmange. But I still don’t think there’s any universe anywhere where anyone would notice.
However in this universe, the one where there’s a Scottish independence campaign, it would mean that scientists are profoundly wrong about the basic properties of matter. That’s vanishingly unlikely, but it’s still possible. Even if it were the case, the probability of Wullie Rennie turning into an actual as opposed to a metaphorical blancmange would be one in some number several orders of magnitude greater than the number of atoms in the universe. It’s theoretically possible, even though to all practical intents and purposes it’s impossible.
So I can say that Scottish independence will cause Wullie Rennie to mutate into a blancmange, and people wouldn’t notice. And it’s possible it’s not a lie.
But it’s not possibility which is important. It’s probability. I know that it’s highly improbable that Wullie Rennie will turn into a blancmange. Trying to make out that a highly improbable possibility is actually quite likely to happen is what makes the statement a lie.
The ability to assess probability in any set of circumstances depends upon the amount and quality of the information you possess. When there’s a shortage of information, you can’t assess probability. That means there is no way of telling whether a possibility is probable or not. Project Fear’s campaign relies above all on raising possibilities in the knowledge that most people don’t have enough information to tell how probable they are.
It irritates me greatly that almost 2 years after the Spanish Foreign Minister stated baldly that Spain has no intention of vetoing Scottish membership of the EU that the Scottish media continues to suggest that Spain would do just that. They continue to do it even after the Spanish Prime Minister refused three times in a row to say yes, Spain would veto Scotland.
This rant of a blog post was inspired by the fact that today, I was again asked by a Scottish person what I thought about “Spain’s threat to veto an independent Scotland”. The threat Spanish politicians have never made, the threat which the Spanish foreign minister has explicitly said Spain would not make.
Project Fear’s Spanish scare story dominates the Scottish media, unfortunately few in Scotland know enough about Spanish politics to put Better Together’s scare story into perspective. Scots cannot judge the probability of the scare, so Unionist politicians and the Scottish media continue to repeat it. They know they are not giving enough information to enable the public to reach a considered opinion. That’s what makes them liars.
The only reason ever put forward for this possible Spanish veto is that Spain wants to discourage the Catalans from seeking independence. However if you accept the point of view of the Spanish government that constitutionally and legally Scotland and Catalonia cannot be compared, then the question of Spain vetoing Scottish membership of the EU becomes nonsensical. They have no reason to do so, vetoing Scotland does nothing to assist their case against Catalonia.
Spain vetoing Scotland would in fact damage the argument of the Spanish government against Catalan independence. If there is a yes vote in September, Scotland will achieve independence via a legal and constitutional route. Independence will be negotiated and agreed with Westminster. Westminster will pass an Act recognising Scottish independence.
The Spanish government argues (wrongly in my opinion) that Catalonia does not have a right to independence. The Spanish government claims that independence can only be recognised internationally if it is achieved legally and constitutionally, and is recognised by the state whose former territory achieves independence. Spain can then argue that its position vis a vis Catalonia is legitimate and legal.
Spain can argue that it is not merely being intransigent, as it does recognise situations in which independence can be legitimately achieved. If Spain were to veto Scotland on the grounds of our audacity to vote for independence, it destroys its own argument against Catalonia. Far from discouraging Catalan aspirations to independence, it would in fact give the Catalans evidence that Spain merely refuses to recognise the right to self-determination, and therefore is in breach of the UN Charter and who knows how many other international laws and treaties.
I enjoy discussing politics, because I’m weird that way. One of the things I liked about living in Spain was that people were quite happy to talk politics with you once they got to know you. Naturally the topic of Scottish independence came up frequently.
I used to live in a Partido Popular stronghold. In the more than 15 years I lived there, I never once encountered a single Spanish person who suggested that Spain might veto Scottish membership of the EU if we became independent – not even Partido Popular supporters. Not a single Spanish person ever raised the possibility, they only discussed the subject with me when I had raised it with them after reading about it in the UK media. The usual response was a puzzled look. It had never occurred to them that Spain might have any reason to veto Scotland.
In fact the PP supporters I knew had no problems at all with Scottish independence. They were in fact quite keen on it. They regard Scotland as the example that – in their eyes – “proves” that Catalonia can’t become independent. Scotland was once a state, they say, Catalonia never was. They recognise that Scotland is a nation, and claim Scotland is a nation because it was once a state.
The constant and repeated theme is that Scotland and Catalonia are not comparable cases. This is precisely the line taken by the Partido Popular government of Rajoy.
The idea that Spain might veto Scotland does not come from Spain. It originates much closer to home, from Better Together and the Westminster political parties. They know Scottish people have little or no information about the intricacies of Iberian politics, and they rely upon that lack of knowledge to raise possibilities that are not probable at all.
They know their scares are highly improbable. That’s what makes them liars. And that’s what I told the person who asked me about Spain’s non-existent “EU veto threat”.