ALISTAIR Carmichael, the UK government’s Scottish Secretary, seems determined that the festive season should not be an electioneering-free season. He has blasted out a great wodge of numbers from the UK Treasury modelling how an independent Scotland’s public finances would have been affected by crude oil at $60 per barrel instead of the $110 used by the Scottish Government in its campaigning.
These show, he said, that in the first three years following the planned independence date of March 2016, the oil price slump, if sustained at $60, would have cut the tax revenues available for public spending by about £5 billion a year. Since total Scottish spending, on the last available year’s figures, is about £65bn, the sum is not small beer.
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But why is he trumpeting this? Why is he demanding explanations for the erroneous forecast? Didn’t the referendum result in a decision to stay in the UK, meaning that slumping oil prices do not mean disaster for Scottish public finances?
Of course it did. But there is now a general election a mere 18 weeks away and, on current polling evidence, the SNP might win as many as 45 seats, including several now held by Mr Carmichael’s Liberal Democrat party.
And it this which Mr Carmichael has in mind, his message being that if the SNP cannot be trusted with something as fundamental as Scotland’s constitution, they cannot be trusted as MPs at Westminster.
It is an election theme which is likely to be heard a lot, especially as all three of the main unionist parties, and not just the LibDems, have reason to fear an SNP surge. It rather implies that much of their electioneering will be a re-run of the referendum campaign.
If that is all it is, it is likely to be a mistake. Voters know what the result was and that, while a few nationalist diehards might wish independence to result from the SNP winning a majority of Scottish seats, that isn’t going to happen. Additions to the Smith Commission’s list of extra powers to be devolved are a likelier outcome, and that doesn’t frighten anyone.
What is more likely to impress is a clear picture of what parties intend to do with the tax revenues that will exist rather than arguing about those which will probably not exist.
In this sense, the lesson Mr Carmichael should draw from the referendum is the need, in general election campaigning, for the positive vision of Britain in the future that was largely absent from pro-union rhetoric in the referendum.
Will the UK be a more or less equal society? Will tomorrow’s jobs market offer more or less opportunity? Will there be sustained economic growth in all parts of the country? Will the rewards of that growth be shared amongst the poorer members of society?
The answers to these questions will matter most in May.
Poll tax revelation from last ice age
The Conservative Party’s political opponents have been only too delighted to discover from previously secret government papers, released yesterday, the evidence to support historic claims that Scotland was indeed viewed by Margaret Thatcher’s government as a test-bed for the introduction of the poll tax.
This now apparent fact, denied by senior Tories of the day, seems like old history, but their Scottish opponents will use it mercilessly over the coming months to support claims that the Tories are essentially the party of unfairness, and thus not what Scottish voters want.
But perhaps there is a different message here. This did all happen some 30 years ago and, in terms of Scotland’s governance, 1985 is so far removed from present-day politics as to be practically an ice-age distant. There is now no possibility that the machinations which led up to the introduction of a flat rate tax entirely unrelated to any ability to pay (apart from a discount for people living off welfare benefits) could be introduced in Scotland unless Scottish politicians voted for it.
The devolution of power that has caused that to be so is not perfect. The constitution has changed, is continuing to change, and will evolve further in the future. The lesson from that is that a government in London is capable of recognising Scottish needs and responding to them.
No doubt David Cameron and Ruth Davidson will seek to claim credit for that in the coming weeks too. But whether they will have the brass neck to say that it is thanks to Mrs Thatcher and the poll tax that there is now a Scottish parliament to prevent a future poll tax seems a little unlikely.
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