Alex Salmond speaks during a press conference at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Salmond's NHS claims have been shredded by the IFS

The biggest danger to the Scottish NHS is independence. 

The Scottish Yes campaign has frequently been lauded for its positive, optimistic tone, in contrast to the rather dour No side. But the irony is that it's only by turning negative that the nationalists have prospered. It was Alex Salmond's warning that the survival of the NHS (a Scottish religion as much as an English one) was threatened by Westminster that allowed him to vanquish Alistair Darling in their second debate and to pull Labour voters into the Yes camp. 

The First Minister's claims were, of course, nonsense. Health has been devolved to the Scottish parliament since its creation in 1999, meaning that the only person who could privatise (or cut) the health service is Salmond himself. Earlier today, Gordon Brown raged at his mendacity, threatening to stand for election to Holyrood unless he stopped peddling lies. 

That Salmond is indeed telling lies has been made clear today by the IFS, which has dismantled his claims with typically brutal efficiency. It first notes, as I did, that health is already devolved to the Scottish parliament and that "the Scottish NHS does not have to make more use of private sector providers just because the English NHS is".

Then it points out that while health spending in England has risen since 2009-10, it has fallen in Scotland, noting that "the Scottish government has chosen to protect the NHS in Scotland slightly less than it has been protected in England. Spending on the NHS in Scotland has fallen by 1%." Nor can this be blamed on cuts to Scotland's block grant by Westminster. As the IFS points out, "the vagaries of the Barnett formula" mean that Scotland has had to cut overall public service spending by less than England. In other words, the decision to reduce NHS funding was a matter of choice, not necessity. 

Moreover, while cuts to the block grant will continue as part of the government's deficit reduction programme (whether Conservative or Labour-led), the tax raising powers that Holyrood is due to receive under the 2012 Scotland Act mean that it will be able to shield health from austerity: "If it were to increase the Scottish rate of income tax by 1%, for instance, it would raise around £400 - £450 million a year. This would be enough to boost health spending by around 4%."

By contrast, independence, and all the risks that it would entail (such as higher borrowing rates and capital flight), would make it far harder for Salmond to protect the NHS. The IFS warns that even if the Scottish government's optimistic oil revenue forecasts of £7bn a year (the independent OBR forecasts £3bn a year) are accepted, "its budget position would still be if anything slightly weaker than that forecast for the UK as a whole. If these more optimistic forecasts prove correct an independent Scotland would still need to borrow more or tax more than the rest of the UK if it wanted to increase spending on the NHS while protecting other services."

The final judgement, then, is that the best way for the NHS to be protected is for Scotland to remain in the Union: "It is hard to see how independence could allow Scotland to spend more on the NHS than would be possible within a Union where it will have significant tax raising powers and considerable say over spending priorities."

"Previous IFS work on the longer-term outlook for an independent Scotland’s finances suggests that under a wide range of scenarios, a combination of the eventual fall in oil revenues and an ageing population could make for a tougher fiscal outlook for Scotland than the rest of the UK and hence less room for additional spending on things like the NHS."

It is no exaggeration to say that Salmond's claims lie in abject ruin this afternoon. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad