IT WAS – apart from a tiresome interjection from former First Minister Alex Salmond – an example of the sort of grown-up politics we’ve missed in Scotland in recent years.
An agreement between the UK and Scottish governments on a new fiscal framework to underpin the funding of services north of the Border, after the transfer of new tax powers to Edinburgh, put an end to what was becoming a fractious argument.
Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney has, quite rightly, been praised for striking a good deal on behalf of Scotland. But Tory Chancellor George Osborne deserves credit, too, for reaching an agreement that should – in theory, at least – put an end to a fair amount of the grievance that’s replaced political action in Scotland in recent years.
Salmond, of course, couldn’t help himself and greeted news of the agreement with the claim that Swinney had sent Treasury officials home “tae think again”. The former First Minister’s predictable need to throw a punch, regardless of circumstances, was at odds with the tone of the agreement.
Salmond’s successor as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told MSPs that the agreement was in the best interests of both Scotland and the UK.
Osborne said the deal created a stronger Scotland in a stronger UK. The vow – the tabloid front page promise of powers that became a stick with which nationalist politicians could beat their unionist opponents – had been delivered, he added.
The finer details of the agreement will soon be published and scrutinised by MSPs. That process, given Sturgeon’s support for the deal struck, will be a straightforward matter of routine.
The optimist in me – and he’s still there, despite life’s endless attempts to kick him insensible in a car park – believes the decision is excellent news for all of us, regardless of our positions on the constitutional debate.
The SNP has won a reputation for competence in government that isn’t always borne out in practice. The independence referendum, necessarily, took ministers’ eyes off the domestic agenda.
And nationalist dominance of opinion polls continues despite legitimate concerns on issues as diverse as health, education, and the national police force.
Now that the loose ends of post-referendum discussions between Westminster and Holyrood have been tied up, there is no reason whatsoever for SNP ministers not to refocus their attention on matters other than the constitution.
More than that, it should – it certainly could – usher in a new era of co-operation between the two governments.
Despite Salmond’s characterisation of the agreement as a Scottish victory over the UK, it came about because both parties wanted to see it happen. Away from the public eye, politicians put down their weapons and sought compromise. Just imagine what the Scottish Government and the Scotland Office could achieve in other areas if both chose to continue to act co-operatively.
But the agreement on a new fiscal framework doesn’t only open up opportunities for further joint enterprises by politicians at Westminster and Holyrood, it also tells us something about Sturgeon’s view on a second independence referendum.
A smart Labour MSP has been telling me for months that they believed the SNP would scupper a deal on the framework. This politician’s take – and I must admit I found it persuasive – was that such a move would work to the nationalists’ advantage. Had talks broken down, not only would the SNP have been able to dodge the potentially tricky business of making Scotland’s new tax powers work but it would have been easy to spin this as a case of Westminster wrecking. We wanted a deal in the best interests of Scotland, Sturgeon would have said, but the Tory government wanted to rip us off. There are plenty among us in Scotland who’d have bought that story in an instant.
In the aftermath of the fiscal framework agreement being struck, a veteran nationalist campaigner told me that his colleagues should hear a message, loud and clear, from Sturgeon: there is no second independence referendum on the horizon. I agree wholeheartedly with that analysis.
In reaching agreement (standing shoulder to shoulder with) the Tories on the fiscal framework, Sturgeon has signalled her intention to move the focus away from the constitution and get on with the business of government.
The First Minister has, for now, set grievance aside. Sturgeon will, without question, win her own personal mandate in May’s Holyrood election. After that, she should feel free to tackle issues that, for political expedience, the SNP has ignored. The First Minister could look again at education – moving away from the nonsense that all is well in our schools – and take risks in bringing forward reform. She could think again about the farce of waiting-time guarantees in the NHS which simply cannot be met. She could look once more at local government funding, rather than maintaining the pretence that the ongoing council tax freeze has no effect on the quality of services we receive.
All of these things would require the recognition that things are not currently perfect. What’s more, with tax-raising powers in place, the First Minister would be unable – to the same degree, at least – to blame Westminster when things go wrong.
I hope Sturgeon, radical in instinct but cautious in practice, makes the most of this opportunity. She has political capital to spare and, if she wishes her legacy to be one of a better Scotland, she should start spending it.
The UK government has bent over backwards to see a deal struck, going so far as to guarantee that Scotland’s financial settlement won’t drop, despite new funding arrangements.
The SNP has gained substantial new powers which it can use without any risks. That seems to me to be an example of the UK government acting in Scotland’s interests.
So let’s see the SNP move away from tedious whingeing (I’m looking at you, Salmond) and in to a new phase, where the focus is on public services rather than when or if another referendum might take place. «