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Taxpayer should not foot bill for this party manifesto

WILD stallions could not have torn it from my hands!

Beat that, Grisham! Also doubles as a table balancer!

Such comments are not among the Amazon reader reviews for the Scottish Government's White Paper, Scotland's Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland. The real reviews are more mundane, but they do exist. Did you know that this tome of 600-plus pages, the one that almost knocked the dog unconscious when it dropped through the letterbox, was available on Amazon for £12.98 in paperback (down from £15.99) with free delivery?

Before everyone rushes to flog their copies on e-Bay, I am afraid genuine Amazon reviewers have pointed out that the publication is available free from the Scottish Government. And what a lot of people have taken up the offer. It emerged this week that 100,000 copies of Scotland's Future have been ordered so far, at a cost that has now passed the £1 million mark. Some £450,000 was spent on an information campaign around the time of publication, £75,000 on production, £350,000 on printing, and £375,000 on distribution. This is the sort of marketing spend of which only the Michael Connellys and the Barbara Taylor Bradfords of the publishing world can dream. Yet here it is, being splashed on, and by, the Scottish Government.

There are two ways to look at this. Either the demand and supply of Scotland's Future is a demonstration of democratic expression on a par with the Ukrainian Spring, or it is the publishing equivalent of the poll tax, an essentially party political exercise we are all paying for but which none of us agreed to.

No book tokens for guessing which way Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, sees it. She was delighted that Scotland's Future had met with such a huge level of demand, and said this was "testament to the appetite for information that exists around the referendum debate". It was "well worth" the cost of delivering it directly to voters, she added, to ensure the choice they made in September was an informed one.

Scottish Labour and the Tories clamoured to differ, with the latter calling it "one of the biggest ever taxpayer-funded investments for a work of fiction" and Labour wondering what else the money could have been used for, including spending on schools and hospitals.

At this point I should confess to being one of those who have stood in the way of the hiring of a nurse, and denied class 2B a trip to the theatre. On the day of publication, I went to the Scottish Government's website, saw the offer of a download or a free copy through the post, and plumped for the latter. In a way, it was responsible citizenship at work. After all, as we had been told continually, this was a once in a generation choice facing the nation and nothing says weighty decision quite like several pounds of paper. The least we voters could do was a little homework. Plus, it is difficult to write comments in the margins of a download. So off went the request, and in a couple of weeks - delivery delayed due to excessive demand - the padded envelope arrived.

While it is famously unwise to judge a book by its cover, its contents are a different matter. Had Scotland's Future come across as an unbiased assessment of the nation's prospects under independence then it would have been well worth the paper it was written on. But even the most charitable reader would quickly conclude this was not the case. Indeed, Alex Salmond, the First Minister, confirmed it in the Scottish Parliament when he said: "The White Paper sets out the policies of the Scottish National Party that will transform the lot of the poor and low-paid in Scotland."

A civil servant, being as high-minded and dispassionate as the profession is wont to be, might say there is nothing wrong with any of this. The White Paper was the work of the Scottish Government, elected by Scots, and drawn up by civil servants on behalf of said administration. Since it so happens that the SNP currently forms the Scottish Government, naturally the publication reflects this. The same goes for papers issued at Westminster, which mirror the government of the day's priorities and policies.

A non-civil servant, however, might look at these attempts to dance on an administrative pin head and cry, "Oh, do come off it." The Scottish Government's White Paper could and should have been an impartial setting out of the facts and arguments, but it is not. It is deeply party political in the way that manifestos are, and as such it should have been funded by the party. For example, in answer to the question, "What currency will an independent Scotland use?" Scotland's Future proposes that "the pound Sterling will continue to be the currency of an independent Scotland". Any notion that Westminster could - and as we now know would - say no, was not entertained. Whatever doubts there might have been were airbrushed away with the assertion that sharing a currency would also benefit the rest of the UK. The rUK's agreement was taken as read.

If this had been a document funded by the SNP it could have waxed lyrical till the Highland coos came home about the benefits of independence. But the bill was picked up by the taxpayer, who required, and deserved, a publication more worthy of the grand title of White Paper. Ms Sturgeon is right to say there is a huge appetite for information about independence and what it might mean. Where she is wrong is in defending a publication that does not meet that need. True, the No camp are perfectly at liberty to produce their own publications to counter the White Paper, but they will have to pay for this themselves, putting the campaign at a disadvantage. Nor can they call on the services or imprimatur of the civil service.

Unless state funding of political parties has somehow been brought in without anyone noticing, it remains the case that voters and taxpayers do not pay for party manifestos, parties do. While congratulating ourselves on the uptake of the White Paper, we should remember that. It is also reasonable to ask for a breakdown of where these 100,000 requested copies were sent. Did they go to addresses in housing schemes or the leafy suburbs? Male or female, young or old, registered voters or not?

That it should be the SNP administration being flash with taxpayers' cash is no surprise. Courtesy of large donations and a formidable fundraising operation, the Yes campaign in general is hardly scrabbling down the back of the couch for coppers to feed the electioneering meter. Coming soon to a billboard near you is the kind of slick advertising from Yes Scotland that only £2 million can buy. Like a certain Pools winner of old, the Yes camp is out to spend, spend, spend. Perhaps it should start asking what it is getting in return. The polls have barely shifted, despite the White Paper, despite the spending of the Yes campaign. We are reading all about it, certainly, but the notion of independence is still proving to be far from a bestseller.

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