Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 2) Dr Phil Larkin

In the second part of guest poster Phil Larkin's piece on the SNP, he looks at the party's record in government and the current case for independence.

The SNP: Government and Opposition
It is easy to forget that the SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007, since they have perfected the art of being in power while simultaneously acting as if they are also the opposition (sometimes to their own decisions). It is also instructive to look at some of the decisions they have made, and measure these against the Party’s self-professed radical left image. The central basis on which the SNP is founded, namely, the theory that “home rule” is better rule, should be relatively easy to test, since it only requires an examination of their record in government. At present, the Teflon quality of the Party seems to make it immune from the reality that their record in government in Scotland has been far from exemplary in many respects.

To begin, the abolition of tuition fees by the SNP in Scotland has served mainly to assist higher income families, rather than ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can enter higher education. This is demonstrated by the fact that this September more than one in five English students from poor backgrounds will go university, twice the number of poor Scots. A former leading civil servant, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, who assisted in a university study of higher education policy in Scotland concluded that the abolition of fees not only tends to help rich families, but it also reinforces inherited inequalities in wealth. This would not matter quite so much had the SNP Government in Scotland been devoting exponentially more attention and resources to technical education, further education, and apprenticeships, but this is not the case. In fact, since 2007, there are now 30,000 fewer places in further education in Scotland. This stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Westminster Government (and that of the previous Coalition) with its emphasis on creating apprenticeships in technical areas, and its sponsorship of university technical colleges to train new generations of young people skilled in engineering and design. While it is true that there is much work to be done in terms of technical education in England, at least a start has been made. This cannot be said about Scotland, which is an absolute disgrace when one considers that the country was once famous for its great engineers, technicians and inventors. Many Scottish schools, once renowned for their rigour and quality of education are underperforming, and the SNP does not appear to have any strategy to deal with this. Essentially, the Nationalists’ education policy not only favours better off families, but it also means that many educated Scots will opt not to remain in Scotland, but rather move south where there are more opportunities for the bright and ambitious.

The SNP’s policing experiment, which consisted of merging eight discrete constabularies to form one unwieldy force, has become a veritable case study in mismanagement. Not only did the anticipated savings from this venture fail to materialise, but also the huge force has struggled with basic communication and has come under fire for slipshod responses to emergencies. This is epitomised by a notorious incident in July when a man was found dead inside his car near Bannockburn three days after the crash was first reported. His girlfriend, who was found alive, but unconscious, next to him, later died. Had the report been acted on earlier, it is possible that her life could have been spared. Can anyone imagine a UK Home Secretary surviving in office had one of their showpiece reforms produced such a result? The performance of NHS hospitals north of the border have also been below par.

The SNP’s penchant for grand populist measures in the field of land reform has run into difficulties when it comes to detail. The measure referred to here is the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, which has as its basic aim to allow SNP ministers to force the sale of land to local communities if the owner is deemed to be a barrier to “sustainable development”, and failure to push true such a transaction would be “likely to result in significant harm to that community.” The target of this proposed reform are clearly the great Scottish estates, some owned by aristocrats, and others owned by large land companies and used for purposes such as grouse shooting and deer stalking. While not going into the merits of this aim, Dr Jill Robbie, lecturer in private law at Glasgow University, has stated that the Bill is so vague that it undermines a centuries-old principle of property ownership, and that it is absolutely unclear as to when estates, and whose estates, are to be compulsorily sold to local communities. This attempt at populism has backfired badly.

The Current Case for Scottish Independence
It is a commonplace that the “Yes” campaign failed mainly because they could not construct a credible economic case for independence, and this Achilles heel was, predictably, capitalised upon by the unionist parties. Recent opinion polls have suggested have suggested that support for independence has climbed to over 50 per cent of the electorate. These polls should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. The reason for this assertion is that the legal, economic, and financial picture which prevailed at the time of the time of the referendum has not changed one iota, and looks set to continue well into the future. Prior to the 2014 Referendum, Alex Salmond claimed that he had received legal advice from the government’s law officers that an independent Scotland would automatically inherit the UK’s EU membership and opt-outs, including the opt-out from the single currency. He and his ministers then spent £20,000 of taxpayers’ money resisting a Freedom of Information request to disclose the exact nature of that advice. After losing this prolonged game of cat and mouse, Salmond had to admit that no such legal advice had ever been given. Neither is it likely that the EU will be any more amenable to allowing Scotland automatic inheritance at the time of any future independence referendum. For a start, such a proposal would receive fierce opposition from Spain, which has fought its own battles with Basque and Catalan nationalists over independence for those regions. Since Catalonia and the Basque Country reach into French territory, Scotland may expect opposition from France also. Italy too, with its German speaking population in South Tyrol, would be likely to look askance at any development towards the breakup of the UK. Even if it were desirable for an independent Scotland to enter the Eurozone, it was made clear that this would not be granted automatically either: Scotland would have to go through the normal application process, and then effectively be obliged to join the euro. In any event, given the stagnant rates of growth in the Eurozone, Scottish electors have become cold about the idea of adopting the euro, so it quietly faded from view on the SNP agenda, as did the much vaunted “arc of prosperity” from Norway to Iceland which the Party hierarchy had crowed that an independent Scotland would join, before the onset of the recession.

With the euro having become distasteful to Scottish voters, it speaks volumes for Salmond’s chutzpah that he was able to claim with a straight face before the referendum that in the event of independence, Scotland would then successfully negotiate a currency union with the remainder of the UK, a development which the main unionist parties in Westminster would simply accept without demur, and which would make the Bank of England lender of last resort for Scottish banks. No-one but a politician with a neck of purest brass could make such a claim. On so many levels it is utterly unrealistic to think that such a currency union would be forthcoming, not least because in the event of successful referendum for the SNP, Westminster would simply not be inclined to be magnanimous, and would probably refuse such a suggestion out of hand. If any such currency bargain was struck, one can be sure that it would be a harsh one, favouring Westminster (which would be fighting viciously to guard the interests of the rest of the UK) and ensuring that Scotland would pay its share of the debt to the rest of the UK down to the last penny, and perhaps even more. It is unlikely that an independent Scotland would sign up to such a harsh deal, and would be obliged therefore to adopt the euro.

One hobby horse ridden mercilessly over the years by Scottish nationalists has been that Scotland has never received its fair share of North Sea oil revenue, and in effect was being fleeced by London. However, the fact that Scotland receives considerably more spending per head of population than England under the Barnett Formula became abundantly clear to the English electorate during the pre-Referendum period, exploding one long-standing myth. Remaining with the theme of oil revenue, the SNP hierarchy attempted to play down the absolute centrality of these funds to any independent Scotland, with Salmond declaring that they would be simply a “bonus” to Scottish prosperity. Developments in the international oil market have not played out in favour of the cause of Scottish independence. With the slowdown in the Chinese economy, amongst other factors, cheap oil is presently abundant in the world, selling at $48 per barrel at the time of writing, and this may dip even further if Iranian oil comes on the world markets in significant quantities in the future. For an independent Scotland just to break even, the revenues gained from oil sales would have to rise by several thousand per cent. Goldman Sachs has suggested that this present era of cheap oil could last for the next five years. It is true that oil prices, like any other commodity, can go up as well as down, but to attempt to make a case for independence based on the present situation is surely a political kamikaze mission. On the figures cited above, it has been estimated that an independent Scotland, after paying its share of UK debts, would be some £8 billion worse off annually on secession. So how is this shortfall to me made up? Working on the assumption that an independent Scotland would have to join the Eurozone, it is probable that before long the fledgling nation would have to go on a cap-in-hand mission to the troika (the European Commission, ECB, and IMF) in order to negotiate a substantial loan. In return for this, swingeing cuts in public expenditure would be demanded, making the current austerity policy pursued by Westminster pale into insignificance by comparison. The first policy that would have to be scrapped would be free University tuition. This would be an ironic situation for the SNP to find itself in, given the amount of railing it has done against UK-wide austerity. Furthermore, Scottish voters have already seen this situation play out over this summer on their TV screens in relation to Greece. How likely is it that they will want to see a similar scenario replicated in Scotland?

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