The politics of statistics

  • 14 November 2012
  • From the section Scotland
Job centre Image copyright PA
Image caption The number of people without a job in Scotland has increased for the third time in a row

Trite it may be to say so, but there is an obvious human dimension to the unemployment statistics published today. These are not just numbers - these are people; people without jobs; people who want to work; jobseekers.

Equally, there is an economic dimension to the figures. They tell us about the limited nature of growth. Study the detail - for example, the balance between full-time and part-time employment - and they may tell us more about the condition of the wider economy.

But there is also a partisan political dimension, not least in Scotland where the figures have got worse - rather than matching the overall UK trend for marginal improvement.

To be explicit, this puts further political pressure upon the SNP Scottish government. Their sustaining narrative has been that - within the constraints of spending cuts, within the limits of devolution - they can cope better with the recession, for example through a diversion into capital investment, and thus are entitled to seek enhanced powers in the independence referendum.

Further, Alex Salmond has long believed that Scots will opt for independence when they feel confident. Not in flight from London or fear of the consequences of UK rule but motivated by a sense of self-assurance.

Such a narrative requires the Scottish government to build and retain popular support - thus inviting voters to infer that independence would be sensible, a construction built upon solid existing foundations.

That narrative is potentially open to questions, open to challenge, if it can be suggested that Mr Salmond's government is falling short on delivering within the ambit of existing devolved powers.

Self-evidently, the blame cannot be laid entirely at the door of a devolved administration. It is, indeed, Mr Salmond's core point that his government currently lacks the economic powers available to an autonomous nation.

Responding to the figures today, he specifically urges the Chancellor, George Osborne, to use his forthcoming autumn statement - which will, in practice, be delivered at the onset of deepest winter - to amend economic policy in order to provide a stimulus to growth.

Blip or persistent?

But Mr Salmond's opponents are disinclined to leave it there - which, from their partisan point of view, is understandable. Even here, though, there are varied arguments.

Supporters of the UK coalition tend to stress the need for cross-border collaboration - a fairly obvious code for "this is not the moment to take the risk of independence".

By contrast, Labour tends to attack the UK government's measures as inadequate while simultaneously arguing that the Scottish government has "run out of excuses."

Again to be trite, we must hold off to discern whether there is a blip here or a persistent trend. But unemployment matters to folk - and so it has a lasting political impact.

More on this story