Brian Wilson: Calling the SNP’s bluff on austerity

Greece voted in an 'anti-austerity' party and is now paying the price as posturing turned to pleading. Picture: Getty
Greece voted in an 'anti-austerity' party and is now paying the price as posturing turned to pleading. Picture: Getty
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As the Greeks found to their cost, falling for the rhetoric is quickly followed by a hard dose of reality, writes Brian Wilson

CALL me a senile quisling if you like – pause for the entire Clan MacSheepie to concur – but I am puzzled about why anyone would take seriously the SNP’s new manifestation as the “anti-austerity” party.

Even before the IFS report, you could spit peas through this ‘anti-austerity’ guff

It must be the first time in recorded history that the “anti-austerity” party is proposing longer, deeper cuts than the “pro-austerity” parties, as demonstrated by the detailed analysis of manifestos published this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

In the measured words of the IFS: “While the SNP’s plans imply a slower pace of austerity than those of the other three parties, they also imply a longer period… There is a considerable disconnect between this rhetoric and their stated plans for total spending, which imply a lower level of spending by 2019-20 than Labour”.

If we lived in rational times, this would be a key quote of Scotland’s election, blowing a torpedo through the false claims and denigration, particularly of Labour, on which the Nationalist campaign is founded. As it is, one can only hope the “considerable disconnect” is spotted by anyone open to reason and with an interest in public services.

Even before the IFS report, you could spit peas through this “anti-austerity” guff. Surely one of the best measures of “austerity” is how vital services are affected by cuts in spending. If we faced brutal austerity measures, then these would be reflected in the hospitals and classrooms of the land – and any “anti-austerity” government would strain every sinew to counter them.

But here we find something very odd. Scotland has 18 per cent higher levels of public spending per capita than the UK as a whole and this is continuously protected by the Barnett formula. Whatever money is spent in England, the Scottish Government gets a proportionate cheque which is not tied to the specific area of spending which generated it. So it has been up to our “anti-austerity” government at Holyrood to make its own choices.

What has happened? Remarkably, real-terms spending on the NHS in England and Wales has risen by 4 per cent since 2009 but fallen by 1 per cent in Scotland. The gap is even wider on the schools budget. In other words, the “pro-austerity” UK government has shown more commitment to schools and hospitals than the “anti-austerity” Scottish Government. Work that one out.

I was handed an SNP leaflet with their five key “pledges”. One was “additional investment in the NHS”. How do they reconcile that with an existing failure to invest even the money that should have been earmarked for that purpose? Another was “world-class childcare” when they have actually relegated Scotland’s position within the UK league table, never mind the world’s. The “considerable disconnect” between rhetoric and reality is never far away.

The question which should be asked in Scotland is: “Where has the money gone?” If schools and hospitals were not the spending priorities of the “anti-austerity” Scottish Government, what was? There is certainly no evidence of measures which redistributed wealth and advantage away from those who have most of both these commodities towards the many Scots who have little of either.

I saw John Swinney being interviewed by Andrew Neil, looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights when asked to name a single measure which was redistributive towards the less well-off in Scotland. It was as if he had never previously contemplated the question, far less come up with an answer. Any redistribution by the “anti-austerity” Scottish government has been to the disadvantage of those who are suffering most from… austerity.

The “anti-austerity” card is being played by populist outfits in other countries, ostensibly offering an alternative from the left of traditional social democratic parties and always with the intention of destroying them. The most conspicuous example is Greece, which has suffered austerity on a scale far beyond anything inflicted in the UK and where desperation for respite was understandable.

Nicola Sturgeon was one of many who latched on to vicarious association with the “anti-austerity” alternative which Syriza offered in Greece and which duly swept them into power, virtually wiping out the socialist party, PASOK, along the way. It has not taken very long for that particular bubble to burst as the Greek version of “substantial disconnect” has manifested itself.

The imminent prospect of being unable to pay wages or pensions has concentrated minds wonderfully. The funds of municipalities are being raided by central government. In Riga yesterday, the same ministers who had rock-star ratings in February were pleading for concessions, money and time – just like their despised predecessors a few months ago. President Vladimir Putin is their new best pal.

It is a great irony that – unlike Syriza – the Scottish Nationalists will not have to face up to the implications of their own rhetoric, no matter how many seats they win, precisely because they are part of the UK. Just as the scale and strength of that economy saved Scotland from the folly of its banks, so there will be no day of reckoning for an “anti-austerity” party which cannot form a government. Thus, posturing looks like a free ride.

The one way to change that would be by offering the SNP what they are ostensibly asking for – the end of the Barnett formula and the retention of Scottish tax revenues in Scotland, also known as Full Fiscal Autonomy. That demand is now so absurd, given the collapse of oil revenues on top of the pre-existing deficit, that the Nationalists have taken to saying that they want it “phased in”.

Their new chant could be: “What do we want? Full Fiscal Autonomy. When do we want it? Not any time soon.” So the state they are trying to break up will be expected to keep paying the 18 per cent higher level of public spending in order to facilitate the timing its own intended destruction. At some point, that is a bluff which deserves to be called. They can have the neverendum or Barnett – but not both.

In truth, there are no pro-austerity parties. It’s all a matter of degree and priorities. The question about self-styled “anti-austerity” parties is less about the alternative they offer than how long it takes for them to be found out. Less than two weeks to go!