During both the independence referendum and the general election, the state of the National Health Service in Scotland was a big issue north of the border. This was slightly odd: health is one of the many areas of public policy devolved to Edinburgh and therefore it should be a more a natural subject for debate during elections to the Scottish parliament. What is more, while politicians in the Scottish National party and opposition outfits were speculating about what could or would happen to the NHS under independence/staying in the UK/the Tories/a Labour-SNP coalition (remember that one?), few people stopped to look at what was actually happening.
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
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
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
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
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:
In 2003, Carol Craig published The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence, a book that led to a lot of debate in Scotland. A mix of overgeneralisation and insight, it argued that Scots were mentally ill-equipped for the 21st century. Craig wrote that this was not down to an inhibited Scottish identity but rather from too much Scottishness. An inheritance of Calvinism, socialism and patriotism had bestowed on Scots a narrow perspective on the world and their own potential to shape it. She also criticised an overly masculine culture soaked in whisky, football and that dandy Robert Burns.
As one might expect this provoked quite the reaction, which in many instances supported the points Craig was making. Either way, her aim was a good one: to try to encourage a more vibrant, entrepreneurial, pluralistic and open Scottish society. Read more
They live in a town in the central belt, a few minutes off the M8 motorway that runs between Glasgow and Edinburgh. On the rare occasions when they talk about their national identities, they say they feel both Scottish and British; they cheer for Mo Farah and the Scottish football team. They are instinctively cynical towards politics and pay it scant attention but the referendum coverage has been unavoidable. Traditional Labour voters, they broke with the party in the Scottish elections of 2011, when she opted for the Scottish Nationalists and he stayed at home. She liked what the SNP had to say about childcare while he could not trust any pledge. Like up to one-fifth of Scots, they have yet to make up their minds about independence. Read more
Alex Salmond’s speech on Monday was billed as a response to George Osborne’s rejection last week of a formal monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. But this formed no more than a quarter of the first minister’s speech. Mr Salmond was keener on rejecting what Mr Osborne said in 2010 (announce cuts to public sector spending) and what David Cameron said in 2013 (promise a referendum on UK membership of the EU), than what they said in 2014. 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
The Scottish National party today launched its white paper for an independent Scotland. It takes the form of a 670 page collection of FAQs, which on the face of it is more suggestive of a complicated electrical appliance than a manifesto for a new nation. Nevertheless, this is a historic and important moment in the history of Scotland. Read more
An independent Scotland would have to dramatically cut public spending or raise taxes, according to a report out today from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. As ever in the McPanglossian world of the Scottish referendum, the No side is saying this new evidence is further proof of the need for union, while the Yes camp is arguing that this is precisely why Scotland needs autonomy. Read more
In a departure from spouting errant Social Darwinist nonsense, Ernest Renan said that a nation depends for its survival on a “daily referendum”. The nineteenth century French historian meant that a country is no more and no less than an expression of collective identity. When that idea goes, so does the nation. Read more
On January 1 1993, Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The two new states opted to keep a monetary union. Thirty-three days later that union collapsed. Over the next five years, exports from each country to the other quickly fell as a share of total trade. Economists cite this as a dramatic example of the “border effect”, the lack of trade and capital flows between two areas due to a territorial limit. In a paper released on Tuesday, HM Treasury suggests that it also provides a warning to Scots: they will be poorer if they vote for independence and for a formal border to be established near Hadrian’s Wall. Read more