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The annual Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) report, laying out the state of Scottish public finances, is regarded as a national balance sheet of sorts. It is heavy on economic analysis and statistical methodology. The latest edition, published yesterday, was different from its predecessors in that it provided a glimpse into the financial mechanics of 2020, the year when Covid-19 arrived and upended many aspects of our lives.
Amidst thickets of tables and percentages, there can be spied the outline of a dramatic campaign, on a scale unseen anywhere since the Great Depression, to prop up the economy and save jobs and businesses from the rough torrents of a ruthless pandemic. We have heard already about the UK Government support schemes for companies and the furlough system that kept almost one million Scots off the dole queue last year. But GERS gives us the first comprehensive survey of the extent of state intervention and prompts us to consider what might have been had Scotland no longer been eligible for cash transfers from the UK Treasury.
Scotland’s public finances are in abysmal shape, a fact established by previous GERS publications, yet 16 months on from the beginning of the pandemic there are encouraging signs on the economic horizon as businesses begin to ring their tills again. In spite of a towering deficit, elevated public expenditure and a global oil price that hasn’t closed north of $100 in almost seven years, Scotland weathered the most unforgiving of storms. It did so all because of a much-maligned but enduring Union that, 314 years on from its formation, has proved itself to be more formidable and more necessary than ever. It is an extraordinary tale told in numbers.