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Enough of the Scottish subsidy myth - Scotland pays its way in the Union

Scotland pays its way in the Union - it's time the London commentariat acknowledged that.

The notion that Scottish public services are subsidised by English taxpayers has become so commonplace in UK politics that not even David Dimbleby, the supposedly neutral presenter of BBC Question Time, thinks twice about repeating it. During an exchange on a recent show with Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson about her decision to vote as a Scottish MP to impose tuition fees on English students, Dimbleby said, "You voted for England to have fees, whereas Scotland, as we know, with the amount of money that comes from England, doesn't need to have them."
 
This view is based on the discrepancy between levels of public spending per head of the population in Scotland and England. According to the Treasury's latest Public Expenditure Statistics, Scots gets an average of £10,212 spent on them every year by the UK government, compared with around £8,588 -- £1,624 less -- for people in England.

In line with narrative of the Scottish welfare subsidy, the extra cash allows Scotland to provide its students with free higher education, its elderly with free personal care and concessionary travel, and its sick with free prescription medication, while their English equivalents are forced to go without.
 
This so-called "Union dividend" is also used by many London-based journalists and politicians -- many of whom would describe themselves as social democrats -- who argue that current levels of public expenditure in Scotland would be unsustainable were it to break away and become an independent country.
 
Yet, if the London commentariat took the time to examine the figures a little more closely, they would discover what a large number people north of the border already know: not only does Scotland more than pay its way in the Union, but its overall fiscal position would actually be stronger as a fully sovereign nation.
 
Let's tackle the subsidy charge first. Scots represent 8.4 per cent of the UK's total population, but they generate 9.4 per cent of its annual revenues in tax -- equivalent to £1,000 extra per person. The remaining £624 is easily accounted for by decades of UK government under-spending in Scotland on defence and on other items which are not routinely broken down by region, such as foreign office services.
 
Second, there's the claim that Scotland's "bloated" welfare state could not be sustained outside the Union. This is nonsense. Including its per capita share of revenues from North Sea oil and gas production, Scotland's public expenditure probably does not exceed the OECD average and is almost certainly lower than that of the Scandinavian social democracies. The fact that the Treasury cynically refuses to class those revenues as part of Scotland's overall annual economic output inflates the level of public sector expenditure as a proportion of GDP relative to that of the private sector.
 
Finally, one of the most common -- and least well-considered -- claims made by supporters of the Union is that the 2008 global financial meltdown shattered the economic case for independence. How, they argue, would the economy of tiny, independent Scotland have been able to cope with the burden of debt needed to rescue its financial sector from collapse? It wouldn't, of course, but according to George Walker, professor of financial regulation and policy at the University of Glasgow, Scotland would only have had to take on a proportion of the total cost of the bail-out based on the subsidiaries and business operations of HBOS and RBS in Scotland. This would probably amount to no more than 5 per cent.
 
For the sake of argument, nationalists might also wish to note that Scotland's 2009 - 2010 deficit was, at 6.8 per cent of GDP, a full 3 per cent lower than England's, and that the likely defence expenditure of an independent Scotland would, at around $1.8bn per year in line with Nordic average, be roughly £1bn less than what the UK currently spends on its behalf.
 
But why should Unionists let the economic facts ruin the image they have built up of Scotland as a nation of selfish, indulged welfare "mendicants"?The subsidy myth is too politically useful to be simply abandoned. Of course, if they ever do come to terms with the reality that Scotland could survive on its own - and even prosper - it will probably be too late anyway.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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