Ewan Crawford: Echoes of indyref in Labour attacks

Jim Murphy joined his counterparts to re-run lines from last year's Better Together campaign. Picture: Getty

Jim Murphy joined his counterparts to re-run lines from last year's Better Together campaign. Picture: Getty

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The party is on a loser by trying to portray Scotland as dependent on the south-east of England, writes Ewan Crawford

THIS week, BBC Radio 4 brought together the main protagonists in the Spycatcher case of 30 years ago, when the British government sought to ban a book written by the former intelligence officer Peter Wright.

It was the latest in the excellent series, The Reunion, which focuses on major news events of the past through the reflections of the main players involved.

On Wednesday, the leaders of the Scottish branches of the main Westminster parties used an appearance on BBC Scotland to stage what at times seemed to be an audition for the next episode of the programme.

The Labour leader Jim Murphy joined with his Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts once again to re-run with gusto many of the lines from last year’s Better Together campaign.

I was almost nostalgic when I heard the familiar favourite warnings of “disaster” and “devastation” coming from the mouths of the old campaign allies.

The only difference was that the warnings this time, on the latest leaders’ debate, were about fiscal autonomy and not independence. The issue may have changed, but the language was almost identical.

But in one important respect, Mr Murphy has indeed fundamentally altered the argument.

The Gordon Brown idea of the Union as a partnership where resources are “pooled and shared” has been ditched in favour of a different conception of the UK, where Scotland is depicted, falsely, as a dependent.

In Labour’s new formulation, growth and wealth are to be reserved to one part of the UK – the south-east of England – with Scotland, and other areas presumably, as grateful recipients.

Mr Murphy has been making a great deal of the largesse that will apparently come up the A1 once Labour gets its hands on the tax system.

At times, the former Scottish secretary gives the impression that it is only by taxing the mansion dwelling non-dom millionaire class of London that the imminent collapse of not only the Scottish health service, but our school system and much of the fabric of public life as we know it, can be avoided.

This generosity is contrasted with another Better Together favourite – the “black hole” in Scotland’s finances that would occur if anything as crazy happened as allowing decisions about Scotland’s tax and benefits system to be taken by the people who live here.

For the general election on 7 May, I doubt any of this will have much impact. For a start, the Westminster parties have made it clear they would veto any such proposal if brought forward in the House of Commons.

And claims from Labour, in particular, that short-term deficits must immediately lead to huge spending cuts or tax rises sits uneasily both with its current rhetoric against the Conservatives at Westminster and its record in government.

In 2009-10, when Alistair Darling was chancellor, Labour ran up a deficit of £159 billion, which by Mr Murphy’s new logic would have demanded instant spending cuts of the same magnitude the following year.

I suspect most voters are also rather tired of the dire warnings and that many Labour supporters in particular are in despair at the resurrection of their alliance with the Conservatives on this issue.

But in the longer term, the significance of these arguments is that they are giving form to the two stories of Scotland’s future that are gradually emerging after last September’s referendum.

Much of the SNP’s recent success has been built on a sense of possibility and optimism about the future.

During the independence campaign, those of us on the Yes side used the shorthand of “can, should, must” to frame many of the arguments.

The idea of “can” was the bedrock – stressing time and time again the financial and economic strength of Scotland.

We sought to raise confidence by pointing to our world-class food and drink industry, advanced engineering successes, the world-leading life sciences industry, our great tourism sector, our creative industries, the fact that per head of population we have more top universities than almost any other country in the world and much more.

In terms of the taxes we generate and our GDP per head, then even without oil, there is little that separates Scotland from the rest of the UK.

With oil, we raise more tax and have higher per capita national income. In fact, for every one of the past 34 years Scotland has raised more tax per head than the UK as a whole.

The aim for every party surely should be to set out how to build on the potential of these great strengths to create a more secure future where opportunities are much more widely shared.

It is for these reasons that the SNP will always argue for more tax, employment and economic powers for Scotland and why it believes in independence.

The Labour story that is emerging is somewhat different. It is a future where the money available for public services in Scotland is dependent on the goodwill of a Westminster system that seems, in this election at any rate, to be rather lacking in that quality.

It assumes, maybe heroically, that MPs will never seek to cut Scotland’s share of UK funding and that the engine of growth will always be located elsewhere.

Rather than a serious proposition for Scotland’s future it is designed with one aim in mind: to avoid electoral disaster on 7 May, whatever the long-term consequences.

Sadly for Labour, even on that score, it seems there is much for them to do.

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