Brian Monteith: There is nothing evil about EVEL

The flags were out at the SNP's conference in Aberdeen ' and the party's scare tactics over Westminster show no signs of flagging. Picture: PA
The flags were out at the SNP's conference in Aberdeen ' and the party's scare tactics over Westminster show no signs of flagging. Picture: PA
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THE SNP is simply trying to create yet another ‘bogey-man’ scare over the UK government, writes Brian Monteith

One of the smart tactics that the SNP has employed in its rise to popularity has been to sound eminently reasonable even when it is being utterly unreasonable in blaming Westminster for all of Scotland’s ills. Until now.

Westminster is a big parliament with 650 elected members and a further 814 anachronistic unelected lords, with a very big government pumping out a huge amount of decisions, statutory instruments, regulations and laws. Departments release a never-ending stream of consultations, green papers and white papers while their ministers deliver keynote speeches to trail possible police changes and issue press releases to amplify their decisions.

There will never be a week when some announcement is made, some political initiative is taken and some political kite is flown – or a combination of all three – that fails to provide fuel for the SNP to fry their red herrings.

The possibility that responsibility may rest elsewhere (such as EU policies that drive up energy costs or prevent UK intervention to save the steel industry) is studiously ignored so that Westminster is castigated for being unconcerned, uncaring and unwilling to help. So long as the complaint sounds reasonable, the Scottish public will give the SNP a hearing. Mention the Poll Tax Guinea Pig Myth and most Scots – including those who were not even born at the time – can be relied upon to suspect Westminster politicians are at the very least being insensitive “again” towards Scottish interests.

One of the prime examples of the SNP sounding reasonable in their condemnation of all things Westminster (sometimes interchangeable with London, as in “London Labour”) has been the party’s principled stand that its elected Members of Parliament would not vote on legislation that affected only England. Given that Scotland has had responsibility for education, health, transport, justice, housing and more passed to the Scottish Parliament, it made sense to say that Scottish MPs at Westminster should not vote on legislation that governed those issues in the rest of the UK. This position actually reflects the view of the Scottish public which, when polled, has consistently said the English should decide their own laws in the areas where we now decide ours.

Now, having 56 of Scotland’s 59 MPs in a parliament that has a Tory majority of 11, the SNP has decided it should vote on English matters by using the justification that English, or English and Welsh, legislation can influence the amount of funding passed to the Scottish Government through the block grant and adjusted by the Barnett formula. This is another attempt to remain sounding reasonable, but it is nothing of the sort; it is sheer opportunism.

For a start, the new SNP approach gives its 56 MPs a role – for without them embroiling themselves in the intricacies of English schools, hospitals, houses and roads, they will struggle to keep themselves occupied or have anything to show for their Westminster salaries, expenses and pensions. There is just not enough Scottish business at Westminster any more and few SNP MPs are interested in the UK’s international relations, given they want nothing to do with the UK in the first place.

More importantly, deciding to participate in English legislation ensures the SNP MPs can spend their time trying to discover all sorts of threats to Scotland – real or imaginary – emanating from Westminster, and so make the spectre of the bogey-man even bigger than ever before.

The argument is made that, for example, the SNP must vote to prevent the NHS being privatised in England, as this would reduce the amount of funding coming to Scotland that can be spent on the NHS. This is a great deceit on two fronts. Firstly, it presupposes the SNP would spend any extra funding that Westminster agrees for England on Scotland’s NHS when the evidence reveals that, while spending on the English NHS has risen under the Conservatives – and a matching proportion has been passed on to John Swinney – the SNP has increased NHS spending by a smaller amount and used the difference for other priorities.

Even were it true that the SNP has matched Conservative health spending, the privatisation scare is a red herring. The delivery of NHS services by private contractors has existed since its founding in 1948. General practitioners are private contractors, but nobody alleges the NHS is in private hands because they are not public servants. The NHS GP budgets are wholly part of the NHS expenditure that feeds into the Barnett formula calculation; awarding new contracts to private hospital contractors or clinics does not alter the total spend of the NHS in England. When savings are made in England’s NHS through “privatisation”, they are recycled back into the system to provide additional services and the total budget does not reduce. Indeed, it is programmed to increase by £8 billion over the course of the parliament.

So there is no need for the SNP to ride to the rescue of the English NHS. It is the business of English MPs to determine what is right for England’s NHS.

That the Conservative government has responded to the SNP’s involvement in English-only matters by introducing a procedural change that will give only English MPs an additional stage to consider bills that the Speaker decides are English-only is of no consequence. It is a trial for a year that is expected to affect no more than half a dozen pieces of legislation and it does not stop SNP MPs voting in the final stages of those bills. Their sound and fury is just another example of playing the victim to imaginary Westminster bullying.

We are told the introduction of the new procedure has created two classes of MPs and that Scottish members are now less important. Typically, the reverse is true. There have been two classes of MPs ever since devolution was introduced in 1999, for it was from that point onwards that Scottish MPs could vote to determine English university tuition fees (and did) but English MPs could not vote to determine Scottish tuition fees. It remains to be seen if the new procedure will actually make any difference to such injustices – and if it fails to do so, the West Lothian question will remain unresolved.

The honourable and reasonable stance would be for SNP members to do what they did before. Anything else is about generating imaginary grievances – and that’s as unreasonable as can be.

• Brian Monteith is director of ThinkScotland.org