IN AN extraordinary public recantation last week, Alex Salmond’s former head of policy, Alex Bell, denounced the SNP case for independence as “morally dubious”. Scotland, on its own, could not support its present levels of public spending, so selling independence as an escape from austerity had been a deliberate deception.
All credit to Bell. Not just for being right, but for breaking his silence. He still supports independence, but could no longer stomach deceiving those who hoped a Yes vote was a route out of poverty, while he and the SNP leadership knew the opposite. That can’t have been easy and praise from the likes of me won’t help.
Bell’s story suggests what happened in the Scottish Government before the referendum. Civil servants put the inexorable fiscal arithmetic before ministers. Scottish spending, at about £1,500 per head over the UK’s, could not in future be afforded from Scottish tax revenues.
Bell wanted the SNP leadership to acknowledge this fiscal reality, and argue instead for greater autonomy – “independence in the UK”, whatever that might be.
Salmond, Swinney and Sturgeon were having none of it. The white paper deliberately obfuscated the tax and spend realities, and the SNP dismissed the facts as UK propaganda. Bell worked for Salmond for years, so he’s well used to rough politics. But this one clearly stuck in his craw. Exit Bell – seething, no doubt, but silent.
These were the actions of a government, not starry-eyed amateurs. Ministers with access to all the data, and civil service advice, chose deliberately to obscure the truth, over the biggest decision in the country’s history. It was in substance a strategy to mislead the poorest in the country into supporting independence as an escape from poverty. Many believed it, and still do. Lies sometimes work. Bell chivalrously hopes maybe the sainted Nicola didn’t understand what was going on. I wish I could believe that.
It’s all history now, you might say: but it tells us about today and tomorrow. Today and tomorrow, sharing resources with the UK remains in Scotland’s interest. But Scottish ministers cannot be trusted with the financial sums. So Scotland badly needs an independent economic forecasting outfit – to tell the government the truth, but make sure the facts are not suppressed.
Bell makes a more important point about tomorrow: the SNP project is no longer independence, but power and control. As a true believer, he regrets that. The rest of us should worry for different reasons. As the intellectual case for separation crumbles, the SNP reaches its zenith of power.
Scotland is becoming a one-party state, but its political institutions cannot cope. A parliament designed for minority or coalition is supine under a disciplined, majoritarian regime. The much-vaunted committee system has been whipped to within an inch of its life. Internal factionalism replaces real political competition.
A party whose only purpose is hanging on to power substitutes populism for policy-making. Populism thrives on demonising the other: so in time of trouble Westminster can always be blamed. Politics becomes a Potemkin village – a façade of self-serving rhetoric. Witness the SNP response to poor Mr Bell – “we must be right because people vote for us”.
What suffers is public policy. The symptoms of that disease are glaring already. The NHS is struggling; educational inequalities are moving in the wrong direction; the wheels are coming off Police Scotland, and more.
So it might seem perverse to welcome more powers for Holyrood. But it’s long past time for it to take real responsibility, making the big choices about tax and spending, about what sort of country Scotland should be. The SNP show every sign of wanting to avoid that challenge. This week’s excuse is that the fiscal framework for the new powers is inadequate: who would trust Scottish ministers on that, given what we now know about their earlier fiscal finagling?
If they want to rise to it, their first step would be to applaud Alex Bell’s honesty.
Jim Gallagher is a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and visiting professor at University of Glasgow