Mind what you wish for

The real test for Scottish Nationalists is still to come

There is a faint flapping noise over the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. This is not the pigeons, who have taken enthusiastically and messily to the nooks and crannies of Enric Miralles's highly articulated architecture.

It's more the noise of Nationalist chickens flying home to roost. Alex Salmond's administration took power six months ago and has enjoyed a long honeymoon. He has confounded expectations and deftly managed minority politics. But he has been saved awkward choices on priorities by the lack of a budget. That changes on 14 November, when John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, tells his fellow MSPs how he intends to allocate around £30bn over each of the next three years.

Under Wendy Alexander's leadership, Labour has also made some running over the Scottish National Party's manifesto promise of 1,000 more police officers turning into something rather less impressive. Likewise, there was a promise to reduce class sizes to 18 pupils in the youngest years. That pledge looks ropey, too. The shopping list goes on. There is a promise to freeze council tax for three years, a first step on the road to local income tax. The NHS "patient journey" from referral to treatment is to come down to 18 weeks; A&E wards are to be saved.

There are transport promises and a pledge to abolish the £2,000 graduate payment that has been a cheaper alternative to England's tuition fees, along with a promise not to introduce tuition payments. There are to be new prisons, publicly built and run. There was even to be a £2,000 grant for all first-time buyers.

This is what you get from a party with no experience of governing before May, apart from a hand in four small councils. It is learning the populism of opposition does not easily convert to government, and it is doing so as budgets hit a plateau. While the baseline is disputed, the SNP claims next year's Treasury grant is only 0.5 per cent more than the current year.

If the circle cannot be squared within present resources, the SNP will blame London and argue that independence would unleash a much faster growth rate and tax revenues. But Salmond has a problem there. He is popular, but independence has become less so.

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, carried out during the summer, showed Salmond can take much of the credit for the SNP breakthrough last May, but support for independence is at a ten-year low of 23 per cent. Some 55 per cent support devolution the way it is. He runs the risk of having been so good at devolved governing that he has undermined his independence cause. Anyone watching the London-based press in recent weeks will know why Scots should be happy with devolution. The Daily Telegraph claimed feather-bedding for Scotland is akin to "apartheid". The Independent suggested Scotland's commitment to public services beats England's "10-nil". Kelvin MacKenzie (in English editions only of the Sun) weighed in with an attack on "tartan tossers".

All this was wide of the mark, claiming the SNP has delivered promises that remain aspirations, including free NHS prescriptions and school meals. The notion of a spending bias to Scotland is also undermined by data that shows Northern Ireland and London do better per capita, other parts of England benefit more from welfare, Wales already has free prescriptions and Scotland's tax take, if you include North Sea oil, ensures it pays its way.

English nationalists may attack perceived Scottish bias as a short-term tactic against Gordon Brown, but the long-term effect of English grievance will do more than Salmond to drive a wedge between the two countries.

Douglas Fraser is Scottish political editor of The Herald

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet