Steve Bell’s If … © Steve Bell
By Dale Street (of Workers Liberty)
“Neither Nicola Sturgeon nor her deputy (Stewart Hosie) are saying austerity can be avoided. Instead, it’s being re-badged and re-profiled, or spread out for longer. …”
“The defiant refusal to accept more austerity, which won power for Syriza in Greece last month, is not being offered here. Instead, a serious bid for a share of power in Britain requires a message that won’t spook the markets.”
That was the verdict of BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor Douglas Fraser, and it is about right.
The fact that the SNP are saying that more austerity is unavoidable is at odds with the SNP’s message on the doorstep (and in television debates): that the SNP is the only Scottish party with an anti-austerity agenda.
This kind of incoherence — and dishonesty — permeates the SNP general election campaign. In fact the SNP is not running one election campaign but a collection of mutually exclusive campaigns.
SNP leaders says that this election is not about independence for Scotland but about austerity. In fact, as far as the SNP is concerned, everything is about independence, including this election.
Although both Salmond and Sturgeon previously described last September’s referendum as a “once-in-a generation” event, both of them — just seven months later — are now refusing to rule out another referendum after the Holyrood elections of 2016.
SNP election activists are far more honest and describe the general election as “a stepping stone” (sic) to another referendum and independence. (So too do the SNP’s “socialist” bag-carriers. But not even the SNP takes them seriously.)
SNP leaders claim that they want to help Ed Miliband into 10 Downing Street. But they don’t actually want anyone to vote Labour! Instead, Scotland should vote for the SNP, Wales for Plaid Cymru, and England for the Greens.
Again, SNP election activists are more honest and want Scots to vote SNP and the Welsh to vote Plaid Cymru because they cannot conceive of voting on any basis other than national identity, and because there is no such thing as an English National Party, they cannot work out how the English should vote.
Unlike the public face of the SNP, they are also refreshingly honest in declaring that they really don’t care if the Tories win the general election because a Tory victory would be just an additional reason for another referendum and independence.
The SNP makes much of its supposed commitment to ensuring that a (minority) Labour government implements Labour’s so-called “progressive policies” and goes further than its election commitments. But up until only a few weeks ago the SNP were still pushing out the “Labour are Red Tories” line.
On the doorstep SNP activists still punt the “Labour are Red Tories” line with a toxic vengeance, peppered with all manner of accusations of betrayal, treachery and sell-out. (These are people who would have felt at home in the politics of the Weimar Republic.)
Central to the SNP election campaign is the idea that only a vote for the SNP will allow Scotland to “make its voice heard” in Westminster (illustrated by pictures of Tartan benches in the House of Commons).
But independence for Scotland is the SNP’s mission in life. And just seven months ago a majority of Scots rejected that policy in a referendum. Yet undaunted by the fact of having attracted only minority support, the SNP now campaigns as the voice of all of Scotland.
Some SNP activists explain away that contradiction by claiming that most Scots voted for independence but the British state forged (vast amounts of) “No” votes. (This is not the position of the SNP nor that of most of its supporters. But the proportion of the latter who do argue such a conspiracy theory is frighteningly large. Nationalist movements always provide a natural home for conspiracy theorists.)
Salmond and Sturgeon are demanding that Westminster should hand over to Holyrood control over everything apart from defence and foreign policy and that Scotland be given Full Fiscal Autonomy. This is not that far removed from the “independence-lite” which the SNP campaigned for in the referendum campaign. So the “democrats” of the SNP now want Westminster — in SNP parlance, that well-known home of “the establishment” — to impose on Scotland the kind of policies rejected by the Scottish electorate only last autumn.
Meanwhile the SNP gets on with ongoing centralising powers in Holyrood. Under the SNP’s council-tax-freeze policy, a council which increases its council tax to pay for services will have its grant from Holyrood cut by the same amount. This means, in effect, the imposition of a financial straightjacket on councils and the control of council budgets by Holyrood.
The incoherence and dishonesty of the SNP’s election campaign(s) become even more obvious when its promises are compared with its record in power at Holyrood and the policies which it promoted as recently as last year’s referendum campaign.
“We want more millionaires, and any notion that an independent Scotland would be left-wing is delusional nonsense,” said Jim Mather, the SNP’s Enterprise Minister in the 2007-11 SNP government. Hardly the stuff of social democracy.
According to Salmond: “One of the reasons Scotland didn’t take to Lady Thatcher was because of Scotland’s strong-beating social conscience. It didn’t mind the economic side so much. But we didn’t like the social side at all.” Again, not the stuff of social democracy.
The same applies to Salmond’s hostility to even a regulated (never mind nationalised) banking and finance sector.
“We are pledging a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector with its outstanding reputation for probity, as opposed to one like that in the United Kingdom, which absorbs huge amounts of management time in gold-plated regulation,” said Salmond in 2007.
A year later Salmond lavished praise on Scottish banks: “The Scottish banks are among the most stable financial institutions in the world.” A few months later the Royal Bank of Scotland reported losses of £28 billions and HBOS also teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. The Labour government of the time injected £38 billions to keep them afloat.
Rather than criticise RBS and HBOS bankers for years of speculative lending and predatory unviable acquisitions, Salmond blamed unnamed “spivs and speculators” and (of course) the UK government for bringing down the banks: “This is London’s boom and bust.”
When the banking crisis was raised as an issue in the referendum campaign, the SNP lied, claiming that there would have been no such crisis in an independent Scotland because Scottish banks would supposedly have been better regulated.
The SNP is promising that its Westminster MPs will protect and promote the NHS in England. But this is something that they have failed to do in Scotland, despite health being a devolved power.
In real terms, spending by the SNP Holyrood government on health has fallen during its years in office. Holyrood now spends a lower proportion of its budget on health than the Con-Dem government in England. And the SNP Health Minister who presided over these cuts was Nicola Sturgeon.
Since 2009 4,500 jobs in the NHS in Scotland have been cut, including 2,000 nursing posts. An RCN survey found that 54% of nurses in Scotland work beyond their contractual hours in order to meet demand.
Accident and Emergency waiting times in Scotland are worse than in England. A European-wide survey of healthcare performance placed Scotland in 16th position — lower than England, despite the latter being subject to Con-Dem cuts.
But spending on private health under the SNP has increased by 47% since 2011 and is now running at £100 million a year. Lanarkshire health board alone spent over £6 million in 18 months, referring NHS patients to private health providers in an attempt to meet its Treatment Time Guarantee.
The SNP’s record on education, another devolved power, is no better. When the SNP came to power in 2007 Scotland proportionately spent 15% more on education than did England. By 2011/12 that figure had fallen to 0.4%.
A survey by the EIS teachers union found that teacher numbers had fallen by 4,000 under the SNP. As local councils passed on Holyrood’s cuts, their spending on education fell in real terms by 5% between 2010 and 2013. Under the SNP, the attainment gap between schools in better-off and worse-off areas has increased.
Youth from working-class backgrounds are less likely to attend university in Scotland than they are in England: 28% compared with 31.5%, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
This is because of the SNP’s cuts to Further Education, the main route for working-class youth into Higher Education. It has “merged” colleges, cut courses, axed 3,600 FE teaching posts, and slashed 130,000 places in FE colleges.
The impact of the SNP’s council-tax-freeze policy — a policy which is the property of the Tories in England — has been to benefit the better off.
When the SNP first introduced the freeze in 2007 it was meant to be a temporary measure, pending the replacement of the council tax by a Local Income Tax (LIT), a fairer form of local taxation than the council tax. But SNP proposals for a LIT quickly evaporated.
The unemployed and low paid who pay no council tax do not benefit from the freeze. For the low-paid in Band A properties who do pay council tax, the annual saving as a result of the freeze is 0.3% of their income (£60). For the better-off in Band H properties, the annual saving is 0.8% of their income (£370).
By 2012 owners of Band G and Band H homes had “saved: a total of over £115 million as a result of the freeze. By the time of the next Holyrood elections, this figure will have risen to £300 million.
At the same time, massive cuts in real terms by Holyrood in the funding of local authorities (combined with the failure of local councils to refuse to implement and to campaign against the cuts) have resulted in job losses (over 39,000 since 2007), cuts in services, and increased charges for services.
According to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the councils covering the poorest areas have been hit hardest. Between 2010 and 2013 they cut spending by an average of £90 per head more than councils in more affluent areas.
And the people most dependent on the services which are being scrapped year-on-year, or for which charges are being introduced and increased year-on-year, are the people who benefit the least, if at all, from the council tax freeze.