The story goes that in 1787, as Russian Empress Catherine the Great travelled in the Crimea, her minister Grigory Potemkin erected fake portable villages along her route as a façade to hide deep-seated poverty in the region.
The Potemkin Villages, as they became known, were the means by which the gilded monarch was persuaded that all was right with the country under her gaze even though the truth was the opposite.
More than two centuries later in Scotland, former SNP MSP and businessman Andrew Wilson flatters to deceive by doing something of a ‘reverse Potemkin’ on anyone in the business community who cares to listen, on behalf of his pro-independence pals.
Writing in the Financial Times last weekend, Mr Wilson, a former RBS economist under the tenure of Fred Goodwin and later chair of the Scottish Government’s Sustainable Growth Commission, aimed to show why separation between Scotland and the rest of the UK made economic sense.
In the article, Brexit is described as “a populist campaign without any prospectus or detail on what would happen next”, before we hear in beguilingly optimistic terms what might happen if the SNP’s own populist campaign succeeds.
In doing so we are required to forget what we know about robust economic decision-making in favour of a ‘cut and run’ approach to the UK that many business leaders here in Scotland find frankly stomach-churning.
In fact, the economic vision proposed is far more poorly focused than the FT’s readers would be led to believe.
The Commission chaired by Mr Wilson was disbanded several years ago, its findings ignored by business and rejected by many on the left of the party. As an attempt by Nicola Sturgeon to subcontract thinking on economic policy to an ‘independent’ body though, it was a useful exercise in trying to show her party was at last grappling with the task of creating some sort of coherent economic case for separation.
Put simply, Ms Sturgeon’s government is renowned by business leaders in Scotland for its cluelessness in understanding what makes them tick.
So this arms-length approach was useful because its authors, including Mr Wilson, lent the exercise a veneer of authenticity. A useful PR exercise then; an elaborate Potemkin Village erected to impress voters turned off by the confusion of the Yes campaign’s economic case in 2014. Little more though.
What we’re now being asked to believe is that the SNP is being refreshingly honest because it admits that there will be “trade-offs and challenges” on a range of economic issues.
Yet on everything from the need for a new currency to borders, deficit reduction plans and the path of future alignment with the EU, those challenges are glided over. In truth Mr Wilson’s Potemkin vision of a post-separation economy shorn of rough edges at the behest of an arrogant political leadership was always a cynical tool. From the perspective of Scottish businesses coping with pandemic it is utterly valueless.
This ‘cut and run’ strategy ruthlessly exploits ill-feeling in Scotland about Brexit on one hand and the pandemic on the other to pursue a referendum at the worst possible time for our shared economic future.
Scotland’s business owners are acutely aware that it is HM Treasury payments that are supporting payroll and other operating costs while keeping devolved coffers topped up to the tune of £8.6bn in additional revenue since the start of the pandemic. Yet worryingly, most voters aren’t.
According to a recent YouGov poll, 30 per cent of Scots believe the money spent in Scotland on Covid support for businesses and employees comes from the Scottish government, while only 21 per cent believe that it originates in Westminster.
It is clear that there is deep and growing confusion about the role of the UK in improving the lives of people in Scotland, which risks feeding into an unquestioning acceptance of the case put forward by the Scottish government in the event of any future referendum.
It will never admit it but the SNP thrives on such confusion. In turn, the need to set the record straight places a duty and responsibility on politicians, business leaders and other supporters of Scotland’s place in the UK to ensure that the facts are known.
This is a point in our history when the UK’s role has rarely been more visible and relevant in the collective task we face of sustaining the economy and giving businesses the capacity to gather strength for future recovery.
Nothing about the SNP’s Potemkin prospectus for separation makes sense by contrast.
Robert Kilgour is Chairman and Founder of Scottish Business UK, and CEO of Dow Investments
This article was orginally published in City A.M.