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The professor, the think-tank & the black black oil

There’s a sizeable article in today’s Scotsman questioning (yet again) Scotland’s ability to be independent of Mothership London.  This time the talkdown goes under the headline “Scotland can’t afford oil fund without major cuts” .

The article is interesting as it illustrates the way think-tanks can be useful assets in sourcing loaded information without the political bias being obvious.

The publishers of the report – Glasgow University’s Centre of Public Policy and the Regions (CPPR) – question the viability of future sovereign oil fund and are described in the first paragraph as “a major independent think-tank”.

At no point do The Scotsman flag up the fact that the author of the report, Jo Armstrong (above), was a former advisor to Jack McConnell and a champion of privatisation and PFI/PPP.  Strange.

Bella would like to take this opportunity to republish an excellent piece of investigative journalism from last year by Joan McAlpine into the political background of Jo Armstrong and the CPPR.  It’s well worth a second read.




The Centre for Public Policy for the Regions gets a lot of attention in the Scottish media. Its tousle haired economist John McLaren is almost as familiar to viewers of Newsnight Scotland as Gordon Brewer himself. This weekend its report on the Scottish government’s spending priorities in the budget got considerable attention.

The report suggested that the SNP was wrong to ring-fence health spending – just after the party launched its 2011 camapign with this very pledge. It also cast doubt on the SNP government’s ability to fund big infrastructural projects using the non-profit mechanism they have created to replace PFI/PPP. This also echoed the attacks of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

So is this report a dispassionate piece of analysis by lofty academics who are above the dirty business of politics? Or should we should look again at the CPPR and ask how non-aligned some of its people really are. John McLaren, for example, was once an adviser to the Labour First Minister Donald Dewar – not something that is flagged up on television.

But it is the background of Jo Armstrong, McLaren’s co-author of the weekend paper on Scottish public spending, that concerns me much more. Ms Armstrong was an adviser to another Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell. She is also a controversial figure with what many believe are strong ideological views in favour of liberalising public services. She has advocated the privatisation of Scottish Water. She has associations with those who have most to gain from a return to PFI/PPP – the cost of which has multiplied and delivered huge profits to banks and business consultants. She was involved in the establishment of the Glasgow Housing Association, an  organisation backed by the banks, who were given the city’s entire housing stock but had the debt for that stock completely written off.

I am indebted to an online directory called Powerbase, which attempts to chart the connections between lobbying/academia/consultancy/think tankery and politics.

Here is part of their fascinating entry on Jo Armstrong:

“Jo Armstrong has also involved herself in other areas of concern to the Scottish people. For instance the area of Public Private Partnerships (PPP’S) is one that she has written on. She appears to be a proponent of PPP despite evidence that they are a bad deal for the people of Scotland see refs below [15] [16] [17] [18] [19].

She herself says that she has had,

‘Key roles:
  • advising on the development of partnerships and projects
  • ensuring financial viability & acceptability to the private sector
  • assuring value for money & public sector affordability’.

This advice has been given to both the Scottish Executive and the Royal Bank of Scotland; one of the main beneficiaries of PPP’s. Her relationship with the Royal Bank of Scotland encompassed,

‘The provision of analysis and advice in support of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Structured Finance deals covering
  • PFI/PPPs for UK hospitals, roads, prisons and housing
  • gas and coal-fired power projects worldwide
  • oil, mineral and petrochemical installations world-wide
  • leisure and hotel projects in the US and the UK’ [20].

Despite this business relationship with the Royal Bank she also took on an, ‘an initial review of the Scottish Executive’s experience of, and role in Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in Scotland reporting to the Scottish Cabinet through the Minister for Finance’ [21]. ”

Jo Armstrong, has also worked for the Fraser of Allander Institute, another academic organisation that appears to employ a disproportionate number of folk of a Scottish Labour persuasion…Now I am not saying that Ms Armstrong has done anything wrong. But I do believe that anyone presented with her work has a right to view it in the wider context of her career.

There is considerable personnel cross over between the Fraser of Allander, the CPPR, and the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution which was set up by the unionist parties to block moves to give Scotland more control of her own resources and economic decision making. The Calman Commission report forms the basis of the Scotland Bill, currently going through Westminster which the Scottish Government says would have resulted in Scotland losing £8bn in the first ten years of devolution.

For Example:

Jim Gallagher, the former civil servant who is believed to have written the Calman report and who has been appointed as expert adviser to the Holyrood Scotland Bill Committe is listed as an associate with the CPPR.

Wendy Alexander, who had the idea for the Calman Commission while Labour’s leader in Holyrood and who now chairs The Scotland Bill committee has worked for the Fraser of Allander. As a minister in a previous Labour administration she pushed through the establishment  Glasgow Housing Association that Jo Armstrong worked on too

Brian Ashcroft, Wendy Alexander’s husband, is a member of the CPPR and Fraser of Allander.

Julia Darby and Peter McGregor of the CPPR were two of six economists who signed a letter in The Scotsman yesterday claiming fiscal autonomy would not help the Scottish economy.

Julia Darby was also on the Calman expert group.

Of other letter signers Anton Muscatelli, Clemens Fuest and David Ulph were also members of the hand-picked expert group.

David Ulph is also an expert adviser to the Scotland Bill committee at Holyrood. Does he not believe that a conflict of interest might arise? How can he offer supposedly impartial advice on Scotland’s fiscal future when his colours are nailed so firmly to the mast? A look at Ulph’s CV also reveals that he was employed by HMRC until 2006. The Treasury and HMRC are among the strongest opponents of any move that decentralises power away from them.

I am sure there are many other academics whose impartiality is not perhaps as straightforward as is presented to the wider public. I am not saying that academics should not have political views – that would clearly be absurd. But we should at least know their background and their associates when listening to their contributions. (Just as we should know the backgrounds of journalists – I recently became an SNP candidate).  So Professors Andrew Hughes Hallett and Drew Scott were recently attacked by Wendy Alexander’s committee because their research had been used by the SNP government to support the case for fiscal power. Contrast the way they were treated with this report in The Telegraph on evidence given at the same time by Iain McLean, of Oxford University, to the same committee. Professor McLean, another member of the Calman expert group, is not an economist but was allowed to talk at length on how the SNP’s plans (not part of the committee’s remit) would “substantially increase the risk of a financial black hole appearing”. For good measure he defended the Scotland Bill plans not to include corporation tax and national insurance and dismissed oil revenues as “too volatile.”

Nowhere in the report does it explain that Professor McLean is a very good friend to Labour and was a councillor in Oxford and Tyneside. (Though Professor McLean is himself open about this on his CV) Nor does any report on Prof McLean’s evidence to the committee explain that Jim Gallagher (its expert adviser remember) has recently joined Prof McLean at Nuffield College.  I’m a told Gallagher found a welcome there after leaving the civil service shortly after the change of government last May.

Lastly, looking at the CVs of the economists on the CPPR, it is clear that “regional economics” is a bulging academic area. Many have moved from the regions of England, where they have developed their expertise. I don’t think of Scotland as a region…but perhaps it suits others very well for it to be treated as such.

(First published on 1st Feb 2011)


Comments (13)

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  1. Michael says:

    This is my response to today’s Scotsman story.

    In a shocking new report, one of Scotland’s leading independent think tanks, the Centre for Stating the Bleeding Obvious, has made the extraordinary claim that oil is ‘worth something’. The claim which has already been widely dismissed as, ‘an Alice in Wonderland fantasy’ by leading independent expert on everything to do with things being worth stuff, Prof Arthur Sixpence, has challenged international opinion on the value of ‘black dirt’ as oil is often called because it is so hard to get rid of.

    In its report entitled, ‘There’s enough money in oil to buy everyone in Scotland at least one bag of crisps’, author, Dr Whitney Isle, claims, ‘there is enough oil to buy lots of crisps for Scotland. We’ve looked at the figures and it turns out that some people actually want to buy oil and use it to make ‘stuff’. At first we were sceptical as this clearly runs contrary to most academic opinion but it does look like selling oil might even be profitable.’

    Scotland like most countries with oil has been desperate to give it away and luckily its nearest neighbour, England, has been happy to take on the job of disposing of it, even agreeing to do so at a modest charge. If the authors of the report are correct it could turn out that Scots have been forgoing the chance to eat more crisps for the last four decades.

    But a number of voices have already been raised in criticism of the report. Prof Arthur Sixpence said yesterday, ‘Of course oil is worth nothing, actually it’s worse than that, it costs money to dispose of it. If we keep extracting it at the current rate we will have to pay more taxes to Westminster to get rid of it. Alex Salmond is the Queen of Hearts of these Alice in Wonderland figures and it’s about time someone told him, ‘Off with your head!’

    Recent reports suggest that Norway’s foreign minister tried desperately during the 1970s ‘oil boom’ to persuade Sweden to take on the job of getting rid of their ‘black dirt’. Papers which were only made public recently revealed that secret meetings took place during the 1970s and early 1980s as Norway fought tooth and nail to get their neighbours to help with the disposal problem. Jan Bjorn Jesterde, who was Sweden’s Nordic Affairs Minister at the time has lent his voice to the report’s critics, ‘I’d say whoever wrote this report has been very selective with their figures. Over and over again Norway tried to dump the problem of oil disposal on us. We did the calculations and there was no way we could take on this job – it would have ruined the Swedish economy. Norway even offered to give us the royalties from the sale of records of chart-topping boyband, Aha, as a way of paying for disposal costs but we drew a line in the sand at that. In the Nordic countries we’ve always struggled to understand how Scotland has managed to get this job done so cheaply. ’

    Elsewhere in the report it is claimed that evidence shows that the process of ‘oil disposal’ has allowed some middle eastern countries to generate sufficient income to provide one or two extra falafels a year to a privileged section of their populations. These claims were dismissed by the London based International Convention for the Disposal of Oil which issued the following statement yesterday, ‘Middle eastern dictatorships have repeatedly claimed that disposing of oil has given local populations access to more falafels. Our on the ground monitors can find no evidence of increased falafel eating and we would challenge anyone making the claim to produce the evidence. Scotland benefits from the extra resources which Westminster has allocated to oil disposal, it is highly unlikely that a separate Scotland facing a massive and unmanageable deficit could ever manage to dispose of oil in the way that has been achieved by the UK working together.’

    1. Soixante-neuf says:

      [Soixante-neuf giggles rather a lot.]

  2. douglas clark says:

    Bravo to Michael!

    It is now almost a given that any think tank has an agenda. Usually a ‘follow the money’ approach works in analysing them. However there is also much to be said for looking at a ‘follow the ideology’ approach too.

    If anyone is out there who is morally bankrupt and stuck for a career option, think tanks are a fertile plain and the money…………

  3. michael iv found some black dirt out ma back door , wit will i do !! can westmonster help me get rid o it … or will i have to spend all the profits on my own ?? 😉

  4. Longshanker says:

    Excellent piece. Refreshingly absent of diatribe. Any chance of a follow up on the CEBR? While I appreciate their findings, it wasn’t so long ago they referred to Scotland as a third world country.

  5. muckletoon says:

    Good to see you guys step beyond the usual braveheart idioms and expose the covert idiological power base which rules the UK. Features on Common Purpose and false flag terror like 9/11 and 7/7 need to be included if you want Scotland to be truly free from the hegemony of ‘Westminster’ and the corrupt war criminals they protect and promote to the highest positions of authority.

  6. Michael Gardiner says:

    Yes, I get you and mostly agree, and think that the outing-the-Establishment research is important – but two caveats, one general and one specific. Firstly, it’s easy to lose track of what is said by assuming that the backgrounds of the authors explain who they are (like the undergraduate who says, ‘but in an interview Kelman said this so his novel must mean – ‘); secondly, I don’t know him so have no personal stake here, but Iain McLean has opened up a Neil MacCormick-type line of anti-Diceyan scepticism over the constitution (see his 2009 book) – which is potentially very useful in getting out of this UK thing, so I’d find it hard to be too blame-filled on this one. I’m not saying that the outing of the Political Class isn’t useful – it is – but looking at overlaps in CVs is only a small part of it.

  7. CW says:

    Centre for Public Policy for the Regions – the very name of the institution sort of indicates that it isn’t exactly going to be favourable to the SNP.

    1. Indeed, the Centre is ideologically thirled to the idea that Scotland is a region. It’s time is drawing to a close.

  8. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such great information being shared freely out there.
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