It says much about his grinding predictability and reliably tin ear that when Ian Blackford rose to speak in the Afghanistan debate this week I wondered how he was going to shoehorn in a mention of Scottish independence. I wouldn’t have been alone.
Instead, the SNP’s leader in the Commons for once stuck to the matter at hand, although he still devoted a fair amount of time to preening about Scotland’s record on refugees. One can only presume, given the soporific length and baggy imprecision of his contribution, that he simply forgot to utter the I-word. It won’t happen again.
Blackford is the worst parliamentary offender in a competitive field for this one-eyed focus on his party’s prime purpose. He sprawls on the front bench like a set of dropped bagpipes until his turn arrives, at which point the familiar drone strikes up. The other 649 MPs – his own colleagues not excluded – tired of him long ago, and there are audible groans when he is called. “He wound me up,” Blackford complained of the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Wednesday (18 August 2021) – Peter Bottomley, the father of the House, said he wished someone had wound Blackford down instead.
[see also: Will Dominic Raab be forced to resign?]
It may seem harsh, or even pointless, to criticise the SNP for obsessing about its obsession, but my lord it can be draining, even for those of us who just about make a living from the constitutional ding-dong. And sometimes it grates especially hard.
Such as now. With each passing week it becomes clearer that there won’t be a second referendum in the next few years. There is no political pathway and not enough public demand. And yet the Nats bludgeon on as if one were inevitable. The renowned confidence coach Claire Howell worked with the party over years to tune up its positive thinking (I can confirm she is super-effective, having taught me always to expect a parking space right by the supermarket entrance – it works) and appears to have done her job rather too well.
This year’s Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures were published yesterday (18 August). After a year of Covid-related extreme borrowing and spending the stats were as cartoonish as expected – Scotland’s deficit is estimated to have soared from £16bn to £36bn, from 8.8 per cent of GDP to 22.4 per cent. This is more than the entire Block Grant sent north from Westminster, and compares to a sizeable but comparatively manageable UK deficit of 14.2 per cent of GDP. Scotland’s public sector revenues were equivalent to £11,496 per person, £382 less than the UK average. Public spending was £18,144 per person, £1,828 higher than the UK average.
As the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) put it in a withering analysis of the data, outside the UK “a structural deficit of the scale of Scotland’s would not be sustainable on an ongoing basis. It would need to be tackled by some combination of spending cuts and/or tax rises, in the absence of much stronger economic performance, which is unlikely.”
The IFS also points out that the surge in UK borrowing is temporary, while an independent Scotland would start out with a huge structural deficit. The fiscal measures required to bring this under control would be savage, and no amount of wishful Nat thinking can magic that fact away.
Were an independent Scotland to stick with sterling informally for a decade after it left the UK it would not receive the kind of generous terms the UK gets from the markets. On the other hand, a separate Scottish currency would struggle just as much due to concerns about the state of the national finances. The truth is that there are currently no good options for funding independence.
Anyone expecting humility from the SNP – if anyone ever would – was left hanging. Kate Forbes, the normally level-headed Finance Secretary, insisted the figures were “not an obstacle to making the case for independence, because deficits across the world have risen exponentially and having the highest deficit in Europe does not seem to be an obstacle to the UK government being independent. And the same argument would apply to us.”
There is a severe danger that the already strained credibility of the SNP’s economic analysis is being stretched to breaking point. The real-world figures are eye-watering and every credible, neutral economist would back a version of the IFS’s findings. The possibility that a majority of Scots might buy the kind of sophistry and wilful blindness being adopted by Forbes and her colleagues is, surely, vanishingly small.
What it all adds up to is that this is no time for a second referendum, and nor is it time for independence. The Scottish government does the nation a disservice by arguing otherwise and with its plan to rekindle the campaign to secure another vote. The SNP is being reduced to the desperate boasts, bullshit and manipulations of the fanatic rather than the measured, constructive engagement of the stateswoman.
The damage goes deeper, too. Scotland is not Afghanistan, but neither does it currently lack for problems that urgently require the full attention of a fully focused devolved government. The slow emergence from Covid has left society woozily uncertain, with a quarter of adults yet to be fully vaccinated. There is a drug problem of cosmic proportions: the highest number of annual deaths per capita in Europe, more than three-and-a-half times larger than in England and Wales. Our high streets are being stripped of shops and jobs. The education system is in need of a fundamental rethink. Our population is ageing, putting great strain on the public purse. A National Care Service must be designed and funded – a major policy and fiscal task – and a promised recovery plan for the rest of the NHS is overdue. Cop26 hits Glasgow in November, with all the preparation that entails.
Meanwhile, the First Minister is busy trying to stitch up a governing arrangement with the Scottish Greens that is neither necessary nor wise, other than as a cheap way to bolster a fellow independence-supporting party. As yet, it is still not clear what the point of this fourth consecutive SNP administration is. As one senior party figure told me: “The Programme for Government better be outstanding or this is a government without gas.”
The SNP is often accused of proposing independence as the solution to everything and anything. In time, it may indeed be the route Scotland chooses to go down. But that time is not and cannot be now. What is needed instead is a responsible, relentless and gargantuan effort to deal with the many immediate crises the nation faces. As Ian Blackford did on Wednesday, it should forget the I-word.