Recent constitutional debates in the UK have had the tendency for wild proclamations of superior outcomes with no practical detail on how said outcomes are to be achieved.
This was most obvious in the recent EU Referendum where, even months after the result, there are still endless questions on what Brexit actually means. This paucity of detail allowed the Leave campaign to attract the widest possible spectrum and get their 52% whereas commitment to just one of the possible destinations on leaving the EU – be that hard, soft or whatever falls in between – was unlikely to garner the same majority. Appealing to the broadest possible spectrum of voters by offering as many potential outcomes as possible is hardly new in politics and it’s one which the Brexit campaign clearly learnt from, and then ‘improved’ upon, the Yes campaign in 2014.
We were told independence would allow Scotland to champion environmental issues and lead the way on clean energy whilst simultaneously abolishing Airline Passenger Duty and draining the North Sea of every last drop of oil. The anti-establishment principles of the Yes movement were never better encapsulated than in its proposed 3% cut to corporation tax… to big business…
Repeated proclamations of the “progressive” nature of independence became accepted mantra without any apparent need to question what that meant or how it would happen. Life would be better with more opportunity, less unequal with more social mobility, better social security, we’d be more affluent… how? Well… Westminster is bad and Tories are worse so as soon as we’re “free” then… well, it’s self evident.
Anyone seeking more concrete clarification had doubts cast upon their “Scottishness” or accusations that they simply lacked the appropriate confidence in their countrymen¹. If only you had unconditional, blind faith without any requirement for evidence or logic, then you’d understand. Stop talking Scotland down…
But at least, and some credit where it’s due, the SNP produced the much-maligned white paper on independence – the humbly titled Scotland’s Future. Amongst the 650 repetitive pages of “we’ll keep the good stuff and everything else will be better” were snippets of detail on what Alex Salmond and co would seek to do as an independent government.
A better, fairer Scotland?
Amongst these were suggested changes to public spending in the first post-separation budget. Using GERS as the starting point, the white paper identified 8 commitments for a “fairer and more successful country”:
- maintain a commitment to protecting free personal care, free prescriptions, free higher education tuition for Scottish students and free concessionary travel;
- abolish the ‘bedroom tax’;
- extend the period of the triple lock for uprating of state pensions;
- reduce energy bills by moving the cost of the Energy Company Obligation and Warm Home Discount Scheme to the Scottish Government;
- provide 600 hours of childcare to around half of two year olds, as part of a longer term plan to deliver a transformational expansion in childcare;
- equalise the earnings disregard between first and second earners for those already in receipt of Universal Credit;
- increase tax allowances, tax credits and benefits in line with inflation;
- meet international commitments to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on international aid.
The obvious first impression is that it is a curiously unambitious list. You’ve been campaigning for 80 years for this?!
1 and 8 are simply continuations of existing policies; 2 is formalising what has already been implemented at Holyrood in all but name; and the childcare plans (5) came into force using existing Scottish Parliament powers in August 2014, a month before the referendum.
Meanwhile the commitment to the pension triple lock (3) is almost identical to that which exists in the UK – guaranteed until the end of the current Parliament, albeit the current UK term ends in 2020 and the first independent Scottish one would have run until the following year.
Of the 8 proposals, 5 of them exist within the UK. And of the remaining 3, the Scottish Government could conceivably use its powers to implement two others (6 and 7).
With discretionary top-up powers devolved under the 2016 Scotland Act, the SNP could, subject to the strength of its political will, implement a system to make these changes a reality.
The only item on the list which I don’t think is possible under the current constitutional arrangement is the public funding of the Energy Company Obligation and Warm Home Discount Scheme (4) – a move the SNP claimed would lead to 5% lower energy bills as producers would pass the resulting savings on to consumers.
Even extending this to look at the white paper’s proposals for the entire first Parliament of independence, we find only a further extension of childcare and a commitment to reduce and then cut Airline Passenger Duty – both currently being legislated for at Holyrood – and a 3% cut in corporation tax to undercut London… which has since been abandoned after dreaded Westminster Tories implemented a 3% cut of their own. All the other suggestions are Brexit-esque “welfare meeting Scottish needs” and “simplified taxation” without any indication of how or when this could be achieved.
What’s so radical?
So after 80 years of existing with the solitary aim of independence, the SNP could conceive of just one concrete spending policy that requires separation to implement. One change – to increase public subsidies to energy companies. Vive la revolution.
So why not do it now? If these are the changes required to make Scotland “fairer and more successful”, what’s stopping the SNP?
Of course, public spending changes can only be implemented with both the ability and the funding to do so. Perhaps the money simply isn’t available to the Scottish Government and so we need independence to release additional cash that is currently denied us within the union.
Well, despite years of anti-austerity rhetoric and endless complaints of “Tory cuts”, it turns out the SNP didn’t want to increase public spending in an independent Scotland by a single penny.
The white paper suggests the changes outlined above would cost £5-600m to implement, money which would be ‘saved’ elsewhere by cutting defence, the married couple’s tax allowance and overseas spending (embassies).
Not sure quite where ‘spending the exact same amount as the Tories’ falls on the anti-austerity scale of grievance-mongering. If the SNP weren’t willing to increase public spending when they were forecasting a deficit as low as 1.6% of GDP and £8bn in oil revenues, what would they have done with the reality of a 9.5% deficit and £0.06bn from the North Sea?
Alas, we didn’t vote for independence so those ‘Tory cuts’ must have reduced the Scottish Government’s available budget, meaning that even with the best of intentions they couldn’t possibly implement the plans within the white paper.
Unless you look at the actual numbers, that is, and realise that the amount available to the SNP has increased by £848m in real terms since the white paper was published². More than enough to cover the white paper’s proposed additional spending without requiring any cuts.
So what are they waiting for?
Of course, some would say that we were voting for independence, not an SNP government, and it wouldn’t necessarily have been Salmond making decisions following separation. Perhaps we’d vote for someone else. Someone who would implement different, more radical changes.
Why not now?
Ok. Like what? Would they transform education to reduce the attainment gap in Scotland and provide disadvantaged children with the same chances as those from more affluent areas? Tailor tertiary education and adult-learning to ensure people seeking work are learning skill-sets that meet uniquely Scottish requirements. Well why not now? Education is completely devolved.
Would they launch a nationwide house-building campaign, providing affordable energy-efficient homes across the country? Well why not now? Housing is completely devolved.
Would they invest in the health service, protect the NHS and increase funding for local GP services? Or nurses? Or mental health? Well why not now? Health is completely devolved.
Would they increase capital investment, driving growth in manufacturing and targeting areas which require investment stimulus? Well why not now? The Scottish Government is responsible for capital investment for all devolved sectors and will see a 20% real terms increase in capital DEL by 2020³.
The simple fact of the matter is that Holyrood is an incredibly powerful Parliament with the ability to make a real positive difference to the lives of people in Scotland. Sadly, it is not in the interests of those who value independence above all else to use these powers to their full effect. The powers they need must always be those they don’t have. It is the only way their constitutional obsession can be achieved.
Some people will share that base nationalist ethos and wish Scotland to be an independent country no matter what. Some will hold the base nationalist ethos that the United Kingdom should remain intact no matter what. The rest of us just want the best outcomes for our families and our communities.
If we thought independence was more likely to offer better outcomes than union, we’d vote for it. That the SNP, after 80 years of single-issue existence, can offer only one specific change that requires separation rather illustrates why we don’t. Holyrood is already responsible for vast swathes of public policy and voters expect their governments to do all they can to improve life in the country.
In the coming weeks, the SNP’s preposterously titled Growth Commission will report its findings. The commission, let’s be honest, has two goals: cobble together an economic case for independence; and make sure it relies on powers the Scottish Government doesn’t already have.
The absolute worst case scenario for a party which exists solely to foster separation is for devolution to be a success. The powers available within the union can never be those they need. It must always be someone else’s fault. Independence must always be the answer. Improving the lives of the people of Scotland will always play second fiddle to the all-encompassing goal of achieving independence.
Whilst the nationalist hardcore will no doubt appreciate such an approach, the rest of us just wish we had a government more interested in acting than agitating.
¹ Splendidly articulate as the Tinkerbell Theory in this New Statesman piece
²Comparing 2013/14 ScotGov budget DEL to 2017/18 ScotGov budget DEL, using HM Treasury deflators
³ Capital DEL in real terms from 2015/16 to 2019/20 per ScotGov 2017/18 budget Table 1.02
First published on the author’s own site