No longer the poor relation

Just how bad is it for Scotland's young people, as the UK total of young people seeking work accelerates through the one million mark?

Once again, the figures are less than clear, and not all that reliable.

The best estimate from the Office of National Statistics is of 100,000 Scots aged between 16 and 24 looking for work, but that's based on a sample with quite a wide range of error.

Professor David Bell of Stirling University has been looking in depth, and written his own blog on the subject.

By the standards of most economics professors, it's unusually comprehensible, and you can read it for yourself here.

The easy bit to understand is the claimant count, as that's computerised and can be measured to the nearest individual claimant.

It's so accurate, you can break it down to local council areas. But as those under 18 aren't eligible, they aren't counted.

Mind the gap

What that breakdown tells you is that those with the highest unemployment aren't necessarily the ones with the highest youth unemployment.

Glasgow, for instance, has high unemployment, but it's doing better at keeping young people off the dole than Clackmannanshire, North and East Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire.

That may be partly council policy, though it's also probably because a city generates a wide range of job opportunities in a way that smaller towns do not.

What the professor concludes is that Scotland's had a higher youth claimant count through the past decade than the rest of the UK.

But as the UK reached the peak of the boom years, the gap closed, with UK and Scotland on 3.3%.

Scotland is again ahead of the UK at the elevated level since May 2009, but not by all that much.

The problem is that the claimant count is only part of the story for young people.

The Labour Market Survey is a more reliable indicator of what's going on in the economy, including full-time students who want part-time work.

They account for more than quarter of the million-plus young people seeking work in July to September.

But the methodology and sample size are such that you can't be too sure of the Scottish figure.

So David Bell's conclusion is that the margin of error puts the UK experience of youth unemployment in the same range as the Scottish one.

And demonstrated graphically, they look near inseparable.

Northeast-southeast divide

And that's an important lesson to be learned also from unemployment more widely, and other economic statistics - including economic growth, where Scotland has closely shadowed UK figures in recent years.

Of all the parts of the UK - the nations and the English regions - you could argue that none of them has performed closer to the UK average than Scotland.

If you look at those seeking work, according to today's figures, there's a wide range between 6.3% of the south-east English workforce, and 11.6% of those in north-east England.

The UK average is 8.3%, and Scotland's just below it, at 8%.

The flipside of that coin is those in employment.

In south-east England, it's 74% of the workforce, north-east England is again worst off with 65%, while the UK average is 70%, and Scotland's again doing slightly better at 71%.

That belies the perception of Scotland - both inside Scotland and from other parts of the UK - that it's an outlier and an exception to most UK rules.

It's much more like the UK average than London, for instance.

And that's a challenge to Scots' time-honoured sense of themselves, as the poor economic cousins.

The stories told, with strong political resonance, are either that Scotland would be too economically weak on its own, or that it's disadvantaged, held back and in need of special help.

Maybe neither story is true any more, and a new narrative is required.