I found myself one Saturday evening recently arguing the toss on Twitter with Billy Bragg about the Scottish independence referendum. This is the upside of social media – discussion with people whom you otherwise would not get to meet. Does this make me friend to the stars? No, because I disagreed with him and his position that independence would be a good thing, as the constitutional shock of Scotland leaving the UK could lead to devolution for the English regions.
Since then, a further need has arisen for a corrective to the rUK (remainder UK – keep up at the back) perceptions of what is going on in Scotland, which was prompted by the New Statesman Lecture given by Alex Salmond on 4th March this year. In the Q & A session afterwards he was asked by the NS’s George Eaton whether the SNP would follow the lead of Labour and re-introduce the 50p rate of Income Tax.
His answer was of course no. This is the other misapprehension non-Scots need to address when viewing Scottish politics: they should know that the SNP is a centre-right party, and it has not superseded Scottish Labour as the voice of the left in Scotland.
In 2002, the SNP stood on a manifesto to the left of Labour, and lost heavily. Its response was two-fold: first it recalled Alex Salmond to its leadership – despite his vow a few weeks previously that “if nominated I’ll decline; if drafted I’ll defer; and if elected I’ll resign” thus setting the bar high for duplicity early on.
The second response was to move right and to exploit Salmond’s undoubted charisma to front what was essentially a Scottish Labour tribute act. By playing our greatest hits better than we could, the SNP took advantage of the electorate’s understandable urge to reject perpetual one-party rule and became the minority government in 2007. This was followed by 2011, when Labour’s failure in opposition and its lack of electoral competence, plus the near total defection of the LibDem vote, led to the overall majority which the SNP now enjoys.
As a result, the SNP’s support now includes its greatest ever number of middle-class (mainly ex-LibDem) voters, whom the Scottish Government needs to keep sweet to maintain its political grip on Holyrood. The result is that policies that most favour their interests have been fetishised by the Scottish Government: for example “free” university tuition, “free” elderly care, and freezing the Council Tax.
The latter is of course recognisable in England as the flagship local government policy of that well-known leftist, Eric Pickles. And neither are the other examples all that they seem. Free university tuition is paid for by raiding the funding for Scotland’s FE colleges, which have lost tens of thousands of places – in other words, vocational courses and those most useful to returners are axed to pay so that rich kids can go to St Andrews free. Free elderly care was introduced by an earlier Labour/LibDem coalition, and at the time attracted scepticism from the left as it committed increasing amounts of public expenditure which would have the unintended effect of protecting unearned inherited wealth. This has indeed happened, while doing no good whatsoever for those with no assets.
What the SNP has achieved in government has been mainly a conservative and regressive package of middle-class perks. In contrast, a socially progressive party would have delivered the SNP’s own transformational “Scandinavian-style” childcare provision by now instead of using it as a bribe for a Yes vote in September; and it might also have taken steps towards ending the religious segregation of Scotland’s schoolchildren.
And a truly left-wing party might have used its tax powers to redistribute wealth within Scotland; or redirected economic policy away from ‘backing winners’ to job creation in areas of high unemployment; or introduced a progressive alternative to the Council Tax which allowed local government the freedom to set, collect and keep its taxes to meet local needs. The SNP has done none of these things, and shows no sign of moving in a progressive direction.
Incidentally, nor should anyone doubt that the industrial policy of an independent Scotland, based on undercutting Corporation Tax by 3%, will be anything other than disastrous for employment in the cities and regions of north of England. Which bring us back to Billy Bragg and the idea that Scottish independence would be a good thing for the English regions.
There are two things for him to take into account. The first is that all of the polling evidence indicates that the people of Scotland will vote No, possibly by a margin of 60-40. The second is that it took some 25 years of hard political struggle to develop a position whereby devolution which accepted as the settled will of the Scottish people, and there is no sign of a counterpart movement taking hold in England.
So we can come to three conclusions which the rUK left should understand.
The first is that no-one should believe that the SNP Scottish Government is a beacon of progressive politics in the North.
The second is that Billy Bragg’s proposal is that Scotland should have independence (which its people do not want), so that English regions can have devolution (which they in turn do not want either).
And the third is that the downside of social media is that it takes more than Twitter’s 140 characters to explain it all.