Earlier this month I wrote about how the Scottish National party’s policy on student financing has let down Scotland’s poorest students. In that post, which drew on the work of Lucy Hunter Blackburn, I tried to explain how the Scottish government has cut means-tested grants while raising the amount available to students in loans. In other words, the SNP’s totemic “no tuition fees” policy is in effect paid for by having students take on more debt to pay for living costs. Because poor students are the ones who receive grants, cuts to bursaries hurt them more than middle-class Scots.

Student financing in Scotland is an estoeric area of public policy. But I think it is important because only by looking at the details of the Scottish government’s policies can one start to have an informed view of the SNP’s record and, by extension, the political culture of Scotland. Remember that the SNP came to power in 2007 promising to wipe out Scottish students’ debt. Quite clearly, this has not happened.

And yet members of the Scottish Government too often say things that are not true. On May 13, the cabinet secretary for education, Angela Constance, was asked in parliament by Michael McMahon, a Labour MSP, about the points made in my post. Read more

In trying to explain the rise of the Scottish National party, one possible explanation is that it was a growing sense of Scottish national identity that led 45 per cent of Scottish voters to vote Yes in the independence referendum and more than half of them to opt for Nicola Sturgeon’s party in the general election earlier this month.

But in an excellent post at the London School of Economics policy blog, Jan Eichhorn, Chancellor’s Fellow (Social Policy) at the University of Edinburgh, argues that data from social attitudes surveys do not support this argument. He uses the chart below to suggest that Scots’ sense of personal identity has not shifted in a more Scottish direction since devolution — if anything, the opposite is true.

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In The Unfinished Revolution, his account of New Labour’s rise to power, Philip Gould wrote that the paradox of 20th century politics in Britain was “that the party of conservatism held power because of ceaseless modernisation” whereas “the party of radical change lost power because of its conservatism”. Far more so than the US Democrats or centre-left parties in north-western Europe, Labour has strong nostalgic tendencies, the pollster argued, stemming from its roots in Fabianism, religion, trade unions, and the cultural conservatism of the English working class.

Such attitudes were fostered by the break with Liberalism, which made more difficult the sort of left-wing coalitions found elsewhere in the rich world. In the century that gave rise to the mass franchise and the welfare state, the Conservative party was in government for two-thirds of the time; the Labour party was in government for less than a quarter of it (23 years). For Gould, this was due to Labour’s resistance to what he called “modernisation” and the embrace of ideological purity over pragmatism. Read more

On Saturday, Jim Murphy announced he will resign as leader of the Scottish Labour party, calling Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite union, the “kiss of death”.

On Sunday, Mr McCluskey said his union would rethink its support (it helps fund the party and many of its members are Labour affiliates) for Labour if it doesn’t show it is the “voice of ordinary working people, that they are the voice of organised labour”. Read more

In the ongoing discussions about the extra powers to be devolved to Scotland there is a complex and technical issue that it is important to understand. It is the principle, or rather principles, of “no detriment”. And inevitably, they are all about money.

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Where now for this weary union? After the general election triumphs of the Scottish National party and the Conservatives, voices in both parties are calling for the UK government to find a new constitutional settlement. But what might this mean?

I think there are four possible – but not equally possible – options for what might happen in the short-term, roughly taken to mean the next year, before the 2016 elections to the Scottish parliament in Holyrood. They are not necessarily exclusive. Read more

Okay, the US vice-president hasn’t directly commented on the Scottish National party. But in any analysis of public policy it is important to keep his words in mind:

“Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

In a piece for FT Weekend, I try to kick the tires (as Joe might put) of the Scottish government. So naturally, I started by asking: how does it spend its money?  Read more

At the 2007 Holyrood elections, the Scottish National party campaigned to “dump the debt” accrued by students at Scottish universities. It promised to service the existing loan debt for Scottish graduates “by meeting their annual loan repayments, re-introduce grants instead of loans and scrap the graduate endowment fee”.

A look at its record shows that most of this didn’t happen. In England, the Liberal Democrats were punished for their broken pledges on tuition fees, but in Scotland, the SNP has been able to use its policies as “evidence” of its progressive credentials.

The reality is, however, very different.  Read more

Beyond the immediate political battles being fought by the Labour party against the Scottish National party, and the Conservatives against both of them, there is a more fundamental tension north of the border. It is between politics and economics.

The pro-independence SNP has the political momentum. Not only is it set to win the vast majority of Scottish Westminster seats, its rise has provoked the sort of reaction among senior Conservatives such as Sir John Major that serves its cause. The more the SNP playing a role in Westminster is seen as somehow illegitimate (a ridiculous notion), the more it fosters the belief that Scotland and England are drifting apart.  Read more

One of the smartest moves Alex Salmond ever made was to swiftly pass on the leadership of the Scottish National party to Nicola Sturgeon after the independence referendum. She personifies the generational shift in the party’s support base from an eclectic group of often conservative nationalists to Scots who would historically be expected to vote Labour. According to opinion polls, she has successfully overseen the transfer of Yes votes in the referendum to likely SNP votes on May 7. At the launch of the SNP manifesto on Monday, Ms Sturgeon’s speech was peppered with cheers from the party’s besotted activists. She appears alone on the manifesto cover.

Inside, the word “independence” appears only once. Instead, the manifesto is full of miscellaneous pledges to spend more money than Labour. If the SNP were to play a role in the next Westminster government, what its manifesto suggests is not that the party would mount a sudden push towards independence, or even “full financial responsibility”, but that it is geared for opportunism and grinding negotiations. This is because for the SNP, independence is a process, not an event. Read more

I highly recommend this post by Carl Gardner, a barrister and former government lawyer, about the legal basis for what happens when there is a hung parliament.

In it, Gardner makes a critical distinction:

“Under our Parliamentary system, the test for whether a Prime Minister can govern or not is whether he (or she) commands a majority in the House of Commons. Once it’s clear to the Prime Minister that he no longer does so, by convention he should resign.” Read more

I want to argue that when it comes to thinking about the SNP and the future of the union, we could all really do with calming down a little bit. It’s hard but here’s why.

It starts with all the talk about what is called “Full Fiscal Autonomy” or FFA. Read more

There is something quite bizarre about Conservative enthusiasm for the Right to Buy policy (to be clear: not the sell-off). Many of the people who may benefit from it aren’t the hard-working families of four of the Tory imagination. Many will be retired. Whisper it: some may be on benefits. Meanwhile, private renters are going to be miffed that they don’t get free money.

On top of this, there is the stance towards housing associations, which seem to me to be following a very Conservative approach to public policy. They are charities – and they are increasingly using the capital markets to provide their essential services.

And now this could be undermined by the new policy. I’m starting to think that (fellow) critics of Right to Buy II, while correct in their analysis have confused something. This is not a policy that represents Thatcherism redux. It’s in fact the opposite. What was once the emblematic Tory policy is now not very Tory at all.  Read more

I was asked if I had any suggestions for reading in Scottish politics. I thought I’d share the following non-exhaustive list of good articles from the last few months.  Read more

Another of the Conservative manifesto proposals to appeal to “hard-working people” concerns the minimum wage. The Tories say they will legislate “so that nobody working 30 hours on the Minimum Wage pays Income Tax on what they earn”.

This sounds like a big deal. Is it?

The main national minimum wage is currently £6.50 per hour. At 30 hours per week, this equates to £10,140 per year. The Conservatives have said they want to see the minimum wage reach £8 per hour by the end of the decade. This would mean £12,480 per year for the worker on 30 hours per week. (£8*30*52 = £12,480.)

It is also a Conservative policy that the personal allowance – the amount one has to earn before paying any income tax – reach £12,500 by the end of the decade.

So, give or take £20, the new law won’t make any tangible difference at this point. Read more

On Tuesday the Conservatives announced what they see one of the most important new policies: extending Right to Buy to tenants in Housing Association properties.

When this idea was floated two months ago I wrote a Since You Asked column which tried to explain how it was emblematic of a 30-year approach to housing: less and less state support for housebuilding and more subsidies for renting and buying. I argued that, to put it kindly, it doesn’t address the problem of housing shortages.

It is hard not to conclude that the fog of nostalgia hangs over Tory policy discussions. Right to Buy is seen as the “aspirational” policy, so, like a faded Hollywood director, the Conservative party has tried again and again to tell the story in sequel form. Read more

I spent a few days in South Thanet last week trying to find out whether Nigel Farage might after all lose his campaign to become MP for the Kent constituency. Polls have the United Kingdom Independence party leader in a three-way tie with his Labour and Conservative opponents, though bookmakers still have him as the favourite.

A common complaint among local opponents of Mr Farage is that he is rarely in the constituency. When he does appear, he is cocooned in celebrity: the Ukip leader is surrounded by members of the media and security guards. When I visited the local Ukip office in Ramsgate on Thursday afternoon, it was shut. Not famed for his reticence, Mr Farage’s low profile might strike many people as surprising. Read more

Labour has announced that it willl drastically restrict non-dom status, writes John McDermott Read more

At the seven-way leaders debate last week, Nicola Sturgeon took full advantage of a simple fact: she knows much more about UK politics and policies than her opponents know about Scotland’s. A skilled and experienced politician, the Scottish National party leader took advantage of these information asymmetries. She made the most of her perceived underdog status; many commentators said that she “won”.

On Tuesday night, as the overdog rather than the underdog, and debating other Scottish party leaders in a mere four-way TV showdown, Ms Sturgeon was always going to be challenged more — on her government’s record and her policies for 2015. She was criticised for Scotland’s rising NHS waiting lists, its unequal access to higher education, her dubious pledge to increase spending while reducing public debts and for her government’s centralising reforms to policing and cuts to further education. And when she refused to rule out another independence referendum in the near future – a wholly sensible and legitimate choice – the audience had a wee heckle.  Read more

The Scottish National party could, after all, wield power in an independent state. It just happens to be the state from which it wants to secede. Less than a year after the referendum in which Scots voted against independence, the SNP is projected to win more than 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats at the British general election. Such a bloc would make it the most formidable nationalist group since Charles Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary party of the 1880s. And since neither the Conservative nor the Labour party is forecast to win an overall majority at the polls on May 7, the new SNP MPs could be the most troublesome Westminster Scots since the Lords who took the then nascent union to within four votes of dissolution in 1713. Read more