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  1. Politics
  2. Scotland
1 March 2024updated 04 Mar 2024 10:42am

Why the SNP is pleasing no one on the economy

The party’s spending cuts are alienating campaigners, while its tax rises alienate business.

By Chris Deerin

Newspapers may not be the setters of public opinion they once were, but you can still tell something about a government’s condition from the way the front pages treat its set pieces.

The SNP is in trouble. Its budget may have passed its final Holyrood vote this week, but the contents have pleased no one. Spending cuts across the board as well as tax rises have left anti-poverty campaigners complaining that not enough is being done to help those in the greatest need, while business speaks of damage to enterprise and prosperity. Cheerleaders are thin on the ground – professor Stephen Sinclair, who chairs the government’s own Poverty and Inequality Commission, issued a stark warning that the decisions being taken could “move Scotland further from where we need to be to reduce poverty”.

The Daily Record remains a reliable bellwether of mainstream opinion, and has in the past shown some sympathy towards the SNP’s actions to tackle poverty. This week, however, its budget front page, with the headline “Homes Under the Hammer”, zeroed in on a £196m cut to funding for affordable housing as new figures revealed homelessness at record levels. This was accompanied by a highly critical editorial. Other newspapers were equally scathing of what they labelled the “axe and tax” budget.

It’s a long time since the SNP has been granted the benefit of the doubt. The party has been in office too long, and made too many mistakes, for that. Nevertheless, it is impossible to miss a growing scent of decay around the administration. It struggles to identify good news. Its many faults are held against it with increasing levels of anger. And the conveyor belt of damning data – on health, education, the economy, transport, housing, you name it – just keeps on rolling.

Particularly damaging, and an intervention of real seriousness, is the revelation that the Scottish government’s chief financial officer, its director of budget and public spending, and the director generals of the Scottish exchequer and corporate departments sent a letter to First Minister Humza Yousaf and his Finance Secretary Shona Robison on 28 August last year warning of “affordability risks associated with your programme for government”. This crisis was clearly signposted.

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The problem facing nationalists is that theirs has been a spending government. It has never had a clear strategy for the economy or public service reform, choosing instead to make expensive interventions to tackle poverty and creating new universal benefits. Now there is no money to splash, and ministers are being forced to make drastic cuts, it’s hard to see what the point of the SNP administration is beyond desperately attempting to ensure its own survival. Ministers who have spent a decade avoiding hard choices are now being forced to make them anyway and appear anything but sure-footed.

It’s hard to find a better example of this strategic and financial confusion than the approach to Scotland’s colleges. A total of £100m is being cut from already strained further and higher education funding.

Scotland’s 24 colleges provide vocational, career-focused education for school leavers, 26 per cent of whom go into further education, rising to 36 per cent among those from the most deprived areas. One would think this latter statistic would particularly appeal to the SNP, given its ostensible focus on lifting people out of poverty. Colleges also play a central part in the increasingly important upskilling and reskilling of those already in the workforce, as the nature of the jobs market evolves. The care industry, which will only become more crucial as the population ages, had the highest number of college enrolments from industry.

Colleges are also good for the wider economy. A report last year from the Fraser of Allander Institute, an economic think tank, estimated that further education graduates will boost Scotland’s economy by £52bn over their 40-year working lives.

These institutions therefore play a vital role in providing people, particularly those from disadvantaged areas, with the training, qualifications and life skills that can help them to succeed in life and contribute fully to society. They offer purpose, possibility and hope in an era of rising mental health struggles. They are important community hubs, too.

One of the smartest pieces of thinking to emerge from the government in recent years was the Withers Review into the skills network that supports our fast-evolving economy. The review laid great store on the central role colleges should play in training people to fill the workplace gaps that are holding industry back, as well as helping people to boost their chances of promotion or manage a preferred or enforced career change.

And yet the Scottish government isn’t just cutting their funding, it is overseeing what amounts to an existential crisis. College principals are wholly confused by what is being asked of them, and where ministerial priorities lie. They talk of dilapidated and crumbling buildings, of the prospect of compulsory redundancies. Glasgow Kelvin College has said it may need to reduce its workforce by 21 per cent, while Ayrshire College found it may need to lose 70 per cent of its staff over a five-year period, which would inevitably lead to its closure. 

This lack of a clear plan, the now commonplace deployment of rhetoric rather than action, and the inability to follow through on promises made, seem typical of an administration gives the impression of having thoroughly lost its way. Looking at the evidence – which really amounts to a charge sheet – I find it impossible to believe that the SNP’s decline can be turned around. The smell of decay will only grow stronger.


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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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