A year on from the referendum on Scottish independence, the future of the United Kingdom remains uncertain. Support for the Scottish National Party, whose annual conference began in Aberdeen on 15 October, has surged since Scotland voted No on 18 September 2014: it won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the general election, and is poised to increase its governing majority in the Holyrood elections next May.
Predictions that defeat in the referendum would undermine the nationalist movement were as ill-judged as the Labour MP George Robertson’s assertion two decades ago that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”. Today, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her immediate predecessor, Alex Salmond, insist that a second referendum on Scottish independence is “inevitable”.
We agree that our present constitutional settlement is flawed but our preference is for a reconfigured Union and full fiscal autonomy for Scotland in a federal or neo-federal United Kingdom in a system that also recognises the need for greater devolution in England. England remains the largest nation in Europe without its own political institutions.
The Scotland Bill (which should become law by March next year) would grant the Scottish government new tax-raising powers as well as greater control over welfare, but the Conservative government should go further.
The existing devolution settlement is botched. It allows SNP politicians to claim all successes as their own while blaming failures on the nefarious government in Westminster. Both Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon have proved adept at exploiting the ambiguities and anomalies of devolution, allowing the SNP to cover up its internal tensions and ideological contradictions, as David Torrance reports.
While SNP politicians obsess about independence – which they like to say is a process, not an event – the party’s record in government is far from distinguished. Education, which is devolved, has been a particular weakness. In 2007 the SNP pledged to reduce average class sizes in primary schools to 18, yet the average has since risen to 23.3. Spending on Scottish schools fell by 5 per cent in real terms between 2010/11 and 2012/13, even as it rose south of the River Tweed. Between 2012 and 2014, standards of literacy fell in Scottish primary and secondary schools. The attainment gap between the poorest and the wealthiest students is higher in Scotland than in England.
The SNP’s record is little better when it comes to higher education. It has trumpeted the abolition of tuition fees (which, in effect, favour the middle classes at the expense of those who do not go to university) as evidence of its progressive credentials. The policy, however, has been funded largely by a real-terms reduction in student grants. Many poorer students have struggled to get the support they need at university: spending on income-related grants in Scotland has almost halved in real terms since 2007. Today, disadvantaged students in Scotland are significantly less likely to study at university than those in England – and the gap has widened since the SNP first won power at Holyrood eight years ago.
Moreover, the number of Scottish children living in absolute poverty rose by 30,000 between 2013 and 2014. Pockets of intergenerational deprivation remain; life expectancy in Glasgow is a year lower than in any other part of the UK.
Since 1998, the Scottish Parliament has been in control of the health service. Yet NHS Scotland is in crisis. Targets for waiting times for hospital admission have been missed repeatedly, including the Scottish government’s “guarantee” of a 12-week maximum wait for planned treatment for inpatients. Spending on health will decrease between 2013/14 and 2015/16. Scotland has grave health inequalities: the hospital admissions rate for heart attacks is three times higher in its most deprived than in its least deprived areas.
These are critical failings, and they point to the urgent need for the SNP to improve its performance rather than bring every conversation back to independence. Granting full fiscal autonomy would both recognise the wishes of the Scottish people for greater control over their own affairs and compel the SNP to take full responsibility for Scotland’s socio-economic problems. The party could then be held properly to account.
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy