Prof Mark Blyth Square

Blyth Spirit: home truths about Scottish secession

RECENTLY, there was an event in Dundee organised by a group called ‘Scotonomics’, whose self-proclaimed task is ‘Demystifying our economy’. To this end they enlisted a genuine expert, Professor of international economics Mark Blyth, a well-known separatist supporter who preaches secession from his fastness in Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. A place of safety, one might call it. With unerring nationalist incompetence, ‘Scotonomics’ trashed any credibility they might have had, and any hope of ‘fostering [the] economic literacy and critical discourse’ to which they aspire, by including in their event speakers from the bonkers tendency in the nationalist camp.

There was Dave Doogan, SNP MP for Angus and, for heaven’s sake, SNP Energy Security and Net Zero Spokesperson: “I’m going to say this, and I probably shouldn’t. I haven’t checked but it’s really good….” He had seen on social media (sigh) “that the island of Islay has a higher economic outturn than the city of Birmingham. Clearly on the basis of whisky excise. I don’t know if that’s true. I’d like it very much to be true”. Of course it isn’t. He also thinks that most of the UK’s offshore wind is in Scotland, when an annex to a letter of 19 September 2023, from the office of the then SNP economy minister, Neil Gray, to Edward Mountain, MSP, convener of Holyrood’s net zero, energy and transport committee, states: “For offshore wind specifically, capacity in Scotland is over 2GW. This is 16 percent of UK installed offshore wind capacity, and approximately 7 percent of European and 3 percent of world total installed offshore wind capacity. How can anyone take the SNP seriously, let alone vote for them, when it has elected officers asserting utter nonsense in public?

This impression was cemented by a contribution at ‘Scotonomics’ from Councillor John Alexander, leader of Dundee City Council. He made an incoherent and completely false claim about the Scottish population (8.1 percent of the UK) being charged 15 per cent of the UK’s debt interest payments. Almost immediately, after being challenged on X (formerly Twitter) about this fake news claim, Cllr Alexander deleted his X account. No wonder the journalist Bernard Ponsonby felt moved to say recently that the quality of politicians in senior roles in Scotland is very poor.

It was therefore surprising that an expert with an international reputation, such as Mark Blyth, chose to associate himself with this rag, tag and bobtail outfit, but his videolink appearance demonstrated that the mistake had been that of ‘Scotonomics’ in inviting him. In response to questions from two amiable but clearly clueless interviewers, he became increasingly tetchy, telling them that,

“at the end of the day you are a small, open economy, you need to have things you can sell to everybody else to get the stuff that you don’t make. And Scotland doesn’t make very much. Cars, phones, drugs, MRI scanners – all that shit’s going to have to be bought with other stuff that you sell. So the notion that it’s all right; we’ll just basically default. You said it’s legal, but I’m pretty sure the investor community would be rather pissed, right? And then we’ll just print some money. What could possibly go wrong with that? Well, why would I want to hold your money? You’ve got zero credibility. I insist on payment in dollars or I insist on payment in pounds because you’re a bunch of clowns. So how’s that going to work?”

Blyth demonstrated the clear faith-based ignorance of the ‘Scotonomics’ hosts by shredding their questions. “So you wouldn’t be saying we have to improve our energy security and sovereignty and our food security and sovereignty?” asked the male host, to which Blyth replied,

“You don’t own any of that. Stop! STOP! You don’t own any of that. How do you improve the thing that you don’t own and you don’t control?… And you don’t have the capacity to buy it. That’s what I mean. I don’t do fantasy economics. I’m too old for this.”

Blyth also destroyed the Scottish currency myth, with a swipe at the MMT apostles, including, by implication, Professor Richard Murphy,

“If I lived in Scotland, I’d have a bank account in Carlisle, because people have to know what their money was worth. These things take time…. The entirety of currency is about confidence. Confidence is not given by nationalist fear.” He added that “You have to have a credible thing that makes people like me go ‘This is a project worth investing in. They know what they’re doing.’”

And at that point the hosts cut him off, the male one saying, “There’s a lot of this I disagree with”. As a faith-based believer, of course he does, but he has the typical separatist arrogance that leads him to imagine he knows better than an expert.

Blyth dismissed nationalist wishful thinking in other areas, notably the mirage of Scotland leaving the UK and instantaneously becoming like a Nordic country,

“Nationalist circles like to say that Scotland is a small, open economy like the Nordic economies. That’s a bit like saying ‘I am a supermodel simply because I have legs’. It’s simply not true when you really think about it.”

His coup de grâce was,

“I fully understand the desire to be separate, but, you know, the idea that it isn’t going to hurt…ooft! You can’t really say that Brexit is the worst thing ever and then commit the biggest Brexit of all time, which is literally what this is.”

Whether he meant it to be so or not, Blyth had just given the most excoriating critique of the cluelessness of Scottish separatists, including the SNP with all its SPADs and finance for research and planning that has produced nothing of value.

None of this was surprising: Blyth has said most of this before in other interviews. What happened next was not entirely surprising, either. When extracts from his interview were aired on social media, he became very grumpy and accused commentators of quoting his comments ‘selectively’ and ‘weaponising’ them by taking them out of context.

“That’s why I’m done ever talking about Scotland…. It’s toxic. No-one wants any actual discussion of options.”

Anyone who wants to check on whether he is right about his comments being ‘taken out of context’ need only watch the YouTube video of his ‘Scotonomics’ interview:

But Blyth has a point: as a self-styled ‘pragmatic nationalist’, he has freely given his advice about what Scottish separatist leaders need to do to make their ambitions something approaching viable reality. In an interview three years ago, he spelled some of it out,

“How do you unravel 300 years [in the UK] without killing yourself, and get to a better place? But you do have the advantage that it’s really just two cities that live pretty close together, and a handful of other things. So how difficult can it be? The answer is not ‘get your own currency and everything will be fine.’ You think about: what is the underlying business model? What does Scotland actually do in terms of exports? Because it’s going to have to live by its exports. That’s the stuff that we need to think about over the next five to ten years, to make a convincing case that we can get from here to there.”

He went on to bemoan the nationalists’

“Complete lack of specificity as to: here is what the Scottish business model is now; here is where we want to be; this is how we are going to get from here to here by doing this. Instead of which we’ve got ‘Denmark is awesome. We should be like Denmark. If we were independent, we would be Denmark.’ No, you wouldn’t be Denmark. Denmark took 600 years to become Denmark. How do you become your own thing, given where you’re starting? That’s the only thing that really needs to be answered.”

Blyth has also advised the SNP to drop its ideologically unwavering anti-nuclear stance and to plan to lease the areas with nuclear weapons in Scotland to the UK or USA for, he says, £2 billion a year for 50 years. He didn’t address the inconvenient reality that £2 billion a year would go nowhere near compensating for the loss of the extra £19 billion a year from HM Treasury.

Still, Blyth at least has something of a plan – or an appreciation of the kind of plan that is needed – which the SNP and other separatist groups in Scotland manifestly do not. Some of it, admittedly, verges on the alarming: Scotland accepting Chinese loans and investment in infrastructure, even becoming part of the ‘belt and road’ initiative, in return for the Chinese gaining a strategic foothold in this region. Blyth sweetens this artificially by suggesting that the mere threat of doing this could be enough for a separate Scotland to get what it wants, presumably from the UK, even the US, but perhaps also from the EU, with the threat of allowing Huawei to build a 5G infrastructure in Scotland, for example.

“The point is that Scotland has options that people don’t think about. The question is whether they have, if you will, the wherewithal or the desire to follow through on those options.”

He said in the same interview that Scotland “does need a twenty year period of getting from A to B, and that’s going to come with costs if it is to be meaningful.” And that is what the SNP and other separatist groups cannot tell their followers. It is not an attractive prospect, and their voters would melt away like snow off a dyke if they levelled with the public. Instead, they have to go on telling the same old lies and spinning the same old fantasies that Blyth has highlighted.

It can hardly have surprised Blyth that pro-UK commentators have pounced on his comments at ‘Scotonomics’ as evidence of the threadbare to non-existent SNP/separatist ‘case’ for leaving the UK, as demonstrated in the recent SNP clutch of pretty but vacuous ‘independence papers’. His scathing criticism of separatist claims and aspirations without a plan accords with the pro-UK view of Scottish nationalism – on the economy, finance, the EU, and much more. Nevertheless, we should perhaps have expected Blyth to come out fighting, given that he has done it before, complaining about being misrepresented.

In August 2022, he asked, in an email, Scotland’s chief economist, Gary Gillespie, to help him out: “I’ve been a bit stumped” in trying to find a positive economic case for Scottish independence. “I’ve been trying to write something on the subject but keep struggling to find the positive case that I had hoped for” in the form of data on the Scottish government’s website. When the relevant emails came into the public domain, commentators interpreted them as meaning that there was no positive case – something many of us have known for a long time. Blyth shot back, “My email was a request for data. It was not an admission of defeat.” Yet two years later he has still not produced his ‘positive case’ – or presumably he would have unveiled it at ‘Scotonomics’.

One SNP MP has waded into the controversy over Blyth’s comments at last weekend’s ‘Scotonomics’ event. Stewart McDonald (Glasgow South) wrote that,

“I found it astonishing that anti-independence commentators leapt on their distorted interpretation of Mr Blyth’s comments as proof – at last! – that a vote for independence would not transform Scotland into the land of milk and honey overnight. Of course it won’t!

Thank you, Mr McDonald, for conceding more than other SNP politicians have been prepared to do. All we need now is for Stewart McDonald, or Mark Blyth himself, to show us what ‘distorted interpretation’ of Blyth’s own words pro-UK commentators have perpetrated. Once again, readers can draw their own conclusions from the totality of the text of Blyth’s ‘Scotonomics’ interview, as perhaps edited and certainly produced by the ‘Scotonomics’ crowd itself.

But above all, let’s thank Mark Blyth for chastising separatists for not having any discernible plan for a Scottish economy.

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Photo of Professor Mark Blyth by Global Voices for Justice, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=113420995

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