Brian Monteith: Greater equality not in the SNP’s gift

'Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon decided to tell us why an independent Scotland was so important'. Picture: Jane Barlow

'Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon decided to tell us why an independent Scotland was so important'. Picture: Jane Barlow

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The Nationalists’ deceitful campaign is not making the right case for independence, writes Brian Monteith

THIS is a big week for nationalists in Scotland, for the Yes campaign and more especially the SNP government. These three groups should not, however, be thought of as all the same.

I know some people who will vote for independence but would never consider themselves especially nationalistic and are keeping their counsel to themselves. I know others who are supporting the Yes campaign more openly but would never countenance supporting the SNP at any election (such as Greens), and I know many SNP members who can’t wait for the day of the referendum to come, but are enjoying the journey all the same.

While these three groups often have different reasons for supporting an independent Scotland they need to stay together (irony of ironies) for them to win the referendum so that they might broaden their base and attract sceptics to their cause. If they pull different ways they risk upsetting one group that could otherwise be seduced into taking what might, at the moment, seem a risk.

Being together may seem relatively easy, but we are regularly given reminders by the different groups that it is not and a prime example was presented to us only yesterday when Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon decided to tell us why an independent Scotland was so important. Here are her own words:
“Westminster government has seen the UK evolve in recent decades into one of the most unequal and unfair societies in the whole of the developed world. This is a trend that has accelerated year on year whichever party has been in office in London. Whether Labour, Tory or Lib Dem ministers have been in charge of the economy and welfare, the growing inequalities in the UK and the over-concentration of wealth in and around London have continued apace.”

So there you have it. If you want a fairer more equal Scotland then it has to be independent of the rest of the UK – for only an independent UK can make different choices, decisions that will make Scotland fairer and more equal.

Now this may all sound fine, so fine that it is swallowed whole on a regular basis as a self-evident truth. But it is not true. It is a falsehood, but it suits the SNP government to repeat it over and over again so we might take it in and finally accept it must indeed be true and then some people will vote Yes in the hope and expectation of righting a wrong. That’s called deceit.

If we look at hard evidence rather than accept lazily the self-serving wishful thinking of a politician wishing to break up the United Kingdom we find that the UK is a far more equal country than many others in the developed world.

Looking at reliable and respectable independent research into the relationship between the lowest and highest incomes, including benefits, we can see from the Gini coefficient that the UK is fairer and more equal than Germany, France and the Netherlands. We are even ranked better in the table than Norway, Sweden and Denmark – hardly a damning statistic that we are being told it is.

Likewise, if we look at the Office of National Statistics over recent decades we find that rather than inequality accelerating under either Labour or Conservative-led governments we are returning to a period of greater equality, thanks to policy changes introduced at Westminster such as raising tax thresholds. Income inequality has fallen since 2010 and is now at its narrowest since 1986.

Further still, if we look within the UK we find that Scotland, rather than being destined to greater and great inequality, is in fact at a better position than practically all parts of the UK. The economic regions of greatest wealth are London and then the South East doughnut that surrounds it. Next comes Scotland and after that all the other English regions as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. Is the SNP really saying inequality and fairness is worse in the wealthier Scotland than in the North of England, Wales and Northern Ireland after they have been in power for six years?

Now these inconvenient truths do not fit in with the SNP’s narrative of why Scotland must have independence, but they carry on regardless, repeating them ad nauseam in the hope that we shall believe them. Unfortunately there’s a risk in this approach and it is that it not only drives away sceptics that they need to win, it divides their own campaign, for there are many that know it is all lies and there are some that repudiate the policies that the SNP would have us adopt to bring about a so-called fairer and more equal Scotland.

As if this is not all unfortunate enough there are two other inconvenient truths and these are, firstly, that the SNP or indeed the Yes campaign cannot guarantee that an independent Scotland will be fairer and more equal. They cannot say what future Scottish electorates will choose to support or put up with in public policy and they can bind politicians to behave in a certain way in the future. The promise of greater equality is not in the SNP’s gift.

Secondly, the policies that the SNP has been pursuing for the last six years have actually been making Scotland less equal in a manner they would also never care to admit. Making benefits universally free when before they were targeted at the poorest in society are, in reality, only a free benefit to the middle classes and the rich. Like raising VAT tends to impact less on the wealthiest so conversely giving a free benefit that previously was only enjoyed by the poorest benefits only the wealthy.

It makes no difference to low income families whose sons and daughters were previously eligible for bursaries that others pay no tuition fees, but it saves a great deal of disposable income of wealthier parents who paid the fees previously. The same goes for prescriptions and other targeted benefits the SNP has made free.

As I have said before, there is an honourable case for an independent Scotland but I am not hearing it from the SNP. You cannot build a campaign based on lies – it will divide it and lose it support – delivering the result that in the end it deserves.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org

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