by Scott Nicholson
The Scottish National Party (SNP) and Yes campaign cannot stop telling us that Scotland is one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Every year the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development compile data regarding international gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Based on this the Scottish Government in March 2014 published a ranking of the world’s wealthiest countries, placing Scotland as the 14th richest nation, way ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom in 18th place.
The Yes campaign also relishes the fact that the countries placed number one and two in these types of ranking are also geographically small or have small populations. Norway has a population of around 5 million while Luxembourg has a population closer to half a million.
All this self congratulating is fine but do we in Scotland actually have a better standard of living than people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? In the run up to this referendum we have all listened to a lot of quotes from Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz but this one I think is based on common sense: “One of the reasons that most people may perceive themselves as being worse-off even though average GDP is increasing is because they are indeed worse-off”.
GDP is an excellent measure of the size of our economy yet does not tell us about our standard of living and includes wealth that does not stay within Scotland. Gross national income (GNI) is a better measure for this purpose, as where GDP shows the total output of the economy, GNI differentiates between home and internationally owned enterprises.
This is important as the Scottish Government’s corporate statistics show that in the last decade, we have experienced a startling change in ownership of the Scottish economy. The decade has seen the share of large enterprises in overseas ownership rise by around 40 per cent.[2,3]
The SNP appeal for political power but have already lost economic power. In Business Insider’s Top 500 companies in Scotland in January 2014, we see a top 20 dominated by wholly-owned subsidiaries of foreign multinationals and London Stock Exchange quoted corporations. Even the “Scottish-owned” companies are actually joint stock companies, with little stock owned or controlled within Scotland.
My point is that Scottish GDP reflects an arbitrary valuation. Wages, salaries and purchases of goods and services used by these companies are great for Scotland. However, how much of the global sales value of these products and services end up in our pockets and how much they benefit the Scottish economy are vital questions to ask?
I personally think these are questions that Alex Salmond should be asking. This is why GNI is important as it focuses on earnings retained by the residents of Scotland and allows us to make informed decisions regarding, the level of future contributions to an independent Scotland that multinational companies should make through Corporation Tax. I for one believe that if the SNP lower Corporation Tax to 3 per cent below the rest of the United Kingdom, this will only exaggerate this issue.
Perhaps more importantly than that, we all remember the Starbucks and Amazon tax avoidance scandals, so I feel that we really need to think carefully about whether this overseas ownership would actually help an independent Scotland or even Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. It is important to remember that multinational companies are answerable primarily to shareholders, mostly outside Scotland and act to maximise profits, not benefit the people of Scotland. In addition to this, I really dislike the way business investments in Scotland are presented by multinationals as gifts or favours to the people of Scotland and not merely the day-to-day of doing business.
I do not think Scotland is as wealthy as some claim and I would ask people to critically analyse these claims when presented. I also think it would be useful to have a set of Scottish GNI figures to be produced by a neutral, independent body. However, the SNP’s level of debate is notorious and we all know that if we are wealthy, the SNP will claim it as a reason why we need independence and if we are not wealthy, we know that the SNP will claim it as a reason why we need independence.