ASSUMPTIONS. In politics, as in life itself, if you make the wrong assumptions then you will come a cropper; you will make a mistake, a misjudgement and you will be found out. The best thing to do is to recognise and accept which of your assumptions were wrong, learn from the mistake, move on and make better assumptions.
That is called experience, for experience rarely comes from getting things right, it comes from learning from your mistakes and remembering how not to repeat the in the same or, more importantly, different circumstances.
Politicians regularly make mistakes because they rely upon poor assumptions that are found wanting. People, who are of course individuals and can make their own minds up, do not always behave as politicians predict or expect. People who do not do what politicians expect are often blamed, but it is more likely that a politician’s poor assumptions have not been challenged, because they are in fact wishful thinking.
Examples of mistaken assumptions in politics are always with us, and when politicians do not learn from them they are destined to repeat their errors and eventually that brings a political price – a fall in support to the point that only die-hards remain lashed around those false assumptions and their unjustified beliefs.
Two political groups are having their sanctified assumptions severely tested at the moment; Scottish nationalists of the Sturgeon strain, and devout adherents of the European Union. Being a believer in Scottish independence or a European state (they are mutually exclusive, as they cannot live together) is not the issue, it can be a perfectly reasonable view to hold. The difficulty is when false assumptions are used to justify these notions that their adherents are likely to lose the argument and fail electorally.
In the 2014 independence referendum the SNP offered its now infamous White Paper on how an independent Scotland would work and what it would look like. It soon became apparent to those who studied it, even loosely, that it was riddled with false assumptions. These included an over-optimistic price for oil (upon which corresponding tax revenues would pay for many of the proposed benefits) – to the number of tax-paying Scots who could fund everyone-else’s free child care (which is why it actually relied upon immigration of an additional 100,000 workers). There were many more.
There is no doubt in my mind that strategically the White Paper was a big mistake by the SNP. Based upon assumptions that were often contradictory, mutually exclusive and down right stupid to the point of being deceitful, the White Paper gave Unionists of every colour the opportunity to explode the false nirvana that it offered.
The questioning of assumptions helped create enough doubt in the minds of voters that it was better to stay with the UK, for all its many faults, than risk a paradise that would be lost from day one.
Subsequent events have justified that criticism of that White Paper. The oil price tumbled far below even what the most pessimistic critics had warned, demonstrating just how unreliable an oil-based economy could be and how risky independence relying upon oil was. Now we’ve also had SNP tax increases in Scotland even though the Scottish Government’s funding has improved in both cash and real terms. This begs the question how an independent Scotland would have funded a dramatic fall in revenue once the financial transfers from the UK evaporated – yet more tax increases? Such a cost was never admitted in 2014.
Two years later and we had another referendum, this time on the UK’s membership of the European Union and we saw more false assumptions being rolled out. A particular favourite, especially in Edinburgh, was how our universities would suffer from a drop in EU students, as somehow they would be discouraged to come here.
There was, in fact, no reason that such an outcome would follow, for nobody, including Brexit supporters, was advocating it. Thanks to the uncertainty caused by such hysteria applications from foreign students did indeed drop last year but have this year bounced back to a record level.
More than 100,000 foreign students have applied to enrol at UK universities in the autumn, rising 0.3 per cent to 37.1 per cent of applications. EU applicants rose by 3.9 per cent to 43,510 and other foreign students rose by 11 per cent to 58,450 – exposing as unfounded the assumption that EU students would stop coming to the UK.
It reminds me how, back in the early eighties the Conservative government announced that Overseas Students (as they were then called), would be charged the full cost for studying at UK universities, instead of being subsidised no matter how wealthy they or their governments (who often paid any fees) were. Oh the outrage, oh the demonstrations based upon the assumption that overseas student numbers would fall.
The reverse happened. Overseas student numbers rose from 56,600 in 1982 to 151,000 in 1995. Why? UK universities expanded their places for overseas students as they became a valuable source of income, consequently overseas students applying and attending grew significantly.
Also, now that it had an identifiable rather than obscured subsidised price, UK education became a valued and valuable commodity. This made it more rather than less attractive. To help poorer students or countries new bursary schemes were put in place to help them while wealthy students and countries (like the US) paid the full cost. Soon the fuss was all forgotten, a false assumption had been tested to destruction and left wanting.
What we are now witnessing is the realisation that Brexit does not change the value of a UK university education. As was argued during that referendum, with no EU universities in the World’s top thirty – except for six from the UK, including Edinburgh – the UK should continue to be a magnet for international students. Edinburgh’s foreign student population is not at risk – unless our universities make their own misjudgements that damage the reputation of their teaching.
The campaigners for Scottish independence in 2014 and for remaining in the EU in 2016 both relied upon false assumptions that did not fool the electorate. That is not to say their opponents did not make false assumptions too, they most certainly did, but unless the false assumptions behind Scottish independence and a trans-European state are recognised and dropped, and new, more robust assumptions are found, both will remain unachievable.
As both campaigns decline into cult-following status (with support for independence now falling to only thirty-two per cent) neither is a prospect in the near future, and thank goodness for that.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on 7 February 2018.