Show Hide image

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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496