NICOLA Sturgeon might not have directly accused the Prime Minister of bribery, but the implication was clear. When David Cameron announced on Thursday that Glasgow was to benefit from £500 million of extra investment, the Deputy First Minister said it showed the referendum had made the UK government sit up and take notice of Scotland.
If Sturgeon’s response was a barely concealed allegation that the Prime Minister was attempting to buy votes in September’s independence referendum, what she said next showed the Scottish Government was not above identical tactics. Not only would she and her colleagues in Edinburgh match the UK government’s funding, but they would guarantee the money should Scotland vote Yes.
All this naked corruption is nothing but good news for Scotland’s largest city. Investment from both governments, along with borrowing by the city council and adjacent local authorities, will mean a pot of £1.13 billion to spend on infrastructure projects and programmes aimed at helping people into work.
If Glasgow was used as a political football, then it has been handsomely rewarded for being exploited. The money pledged will be used for, among other things, the creation of a rail link between the city centre and Glasgow Airport, and improvements to the M8 and M77 motorways.
But though the suggestion of cynical politicking might seem plausible, things are not quite so straightforward.
The Scottish Government announced on 21 March, 2013, that the independence referendum was to be held on 18 September of this year. Discussions about a “City Deal” between Glasgow and the UK government began the previous year.
Well, yes, you might say, but First Minister Alex Salmond had previously said the referendum would be held in the second half of this current parliament, so planning this investment announcement for 2014 was always a safe bet for the PM.
It suits the SNP, of course, to paint Cameron as a calculating Tory, sweeping into Scotland and buying off the locals with a few baubles before returning again to London, power-base of the metropolitan elite, of whom we are always to be wary. But, in the Prime Minister’s defence, “City Deals” are not new. There have been a number of similar deals in England.
In each case, a city has received multi-million-pound investment from the UK government in return for a commitment to demonstrate that it is achieving something of benefit. In Manchester, for example, councillors were expected to see through improvements to the transport system. In Glasgow – and its neighbouring authorities – councillors will be expected to show progress in helping the unemployed back to work, and that they’re on track to create 28,000 new jobs with the help of the investment and the projects it funds.
The SNP’s rapid “it’s-a-bribe-but-we’ll-match-it” response to the UK government’s announcement was fascinating.
Back in 2009, the Scottish Government decided not to proceed with the Glasgow Airport rail link (GARL) project on the basis that it was too expensive. This was a controversial decision, with those in favour insisting that it was essential to boosting tourism and business travel. Why should it be, they asked, that it is possible to get a train directly from Glasgow Central Station to Manchester Airport but not to Glasgow Airport?
Having announced the decision not to proceed with GARL, the Scottish Government quickly sold off the land it had acquired in order to build the new railway line (cynics might say they did this with indecent haste in order to prevent the project’s resurrection). Yet, if GARL was unaffordable and the land acquired to build it had to be sold off at a loss, where has the Scottish Government’s £500m of match-funding for the City Deal come from?
It would seem that the cash didn’t even exist a few days ago. Glasgow city councillors learned only on Monday that there might be money forthcoming.
Perhaps it was not so much that the Scottish Government didn’t have the cash for GARL but that the project didn’t suit the SNP’s agenda.
The UK government has a track record of investing in cities and of handing more responsibility to those who run them. The Scottish Government? That’s a different story.
The White Paper on Scottish independence talks a great deal about the potential benefits to rural and island communities that might stem from the break-up of the UK but there is nothing there about how Scotland’s cities might excel.
But, then, the Scottish nationalist story doesn’t have space for big, bold cities, other than to fulfil, as London now does, the villain’s role. The SNP vision is of a Scotland united, where rural and urban blur into one, where all have the same opportunities, regardless of geography. You can’t have a bellowing big-city Glasgow getting even more cocksure if that tale is to ring true.
Cities – and their huge potential – remain a blind spot for the SNP administration in Edinburgh. If we allow ourselves to step beyond the distracting accusations of referendum bribery, we see a picture of a Westminster government acting in a more progressive, dynamic way than its Edinburgh counterpart when it comes to realising the benefits of investing in cities.
Of course, Cameron will hope that his visit to Scotland and announcement of funding has an impact on the referendum vote (politicians will insist on doing things which they hope will be popular) but to dismiss it as nothing more than bribery is to ignore the PM’s track record.
In fact, it is the Scottish Government that looks unfocused and uncertain. The sudden announcement of match-funding was a costly face-saving measure after the Scottish Government was outflanked by the Westminster coalition.
Nicola Sturgeon wanted us to dismiss David Cameron as a day-tripping toff, flashing his cash. Maybe some people will buy that and be distracted from the truth that, on this occasion, bad old Westminster looks a damned sight more in control of the issues than Holyrood. «