Nicola Sturgeon

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

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

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

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

Some supporters of Scottish independence believe in the conspiracy theory that MI5 was working against a Yes vote. Others have so much optimism bias about the economics of independence that I worry there is dopamine* in their Irn-Bru.

And let’s not mention the secret oil fields.

In the aftermath of the referendum Scotland feels beset by an asymmetric tribalism. Crudely, No voters, almost by definition, do not want the general election to be about independence. Yes voters, almost by definition, believe it’s still the defining issue.

The coverage of the SNP’s high poll ratings and what the party might do if it held the balance of power in Westminster often gives the impression that a madness has taken over Scotland and kilted Jacobites are set to invade from north of the border.

But in a very important sense, Scottish voters are behaving entirely rationally.  Read more

The general election in May is one of the most difficult to predict in British history. The result will undermine old certitudes. An incumbent’s share of the vote typically dwindles from one election to the next. An opposition has never won with Milibandite ratings on both the economy and the strength of its leader. Two-party politics, injured in 2010, could be confirmed dead in 2015. Six parties could have a critical role in deciding the allocation of seats. The 650 constituency races each have their own dynamic; it doesn’t make much sense to think of this as a single election.

Scotland is a case in point. Since the independence referendum on September 18, the Scottish National party has taken a big opinion poll lead over the Labour party:

 Read more

In a lecture last year, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, HM Treasury permanent secretary and perhaps the most powerful old Etonian in Britain, explained the “Origins of Treasury control”. Sir Nicholas said that Treasury’s power came from three sources: conflict, links to Parliament and being able to outwit the rest of officialdom. All three were in evidence this morning, as George Osborne cited his top official’s advice and told Scots they can have independence or the pound – but not both. Read more