Brian Wilson: Mind the SNP’s credibility gap

Renationalising Royal Mail and pensions plan based on poorer life expectancy almost belie belief, writes Brian Wilson

Alex Salmond has vowed to renationalise Royal Mail in Scotland  without knowing the cost. Picture: Jane Barlow

PROMISES offered by politicians must have the ring of credibility when matched against past records and reasonable expectations. If nobody believes them, then even the worthiest ideas will not turn into vote winners.

As politics have moved towards the middle ground, options have narrowed particularly for the Left. Nobody now threatens to squeeze the rich until the pips squeak, thereby implying that there will be vast amounts of cash available for transfer to the less well-off.

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The Right is not so reticent, as we see from current welfare cuts. And while in the ascendancy, it is in a position to demand that critics must not only set out different priorities but also explain in some detail how they will be funded – otherwise the credibility test is failed.

In an effort to meet that challenge, Labour has come up with the idea that all its spending plans should be examined in advance of an election by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which would then declare them credible or otherwise.

This can be seen as either a noble innovation or an abdication of a political party’s duty to make its own case and argue for the priorities that underpin it. Either way, it is unlikely to happen. The OBR is a creature of government and I don’t see the Tories allowing their opponents within a mile of it for the purpose of validating an alternative set of policies.

All governments reserve the right to ridicule their opponents’ plans and to label them unaffordable, however unfairly. I doubt if Chancellor George Osborne will be throwing away that weapon in his armoury. Much of the media would also find difficulty in filling its pre-election pages with horror stories if a Labour manifesto had received a prior stamp of approval from the government’s own guardians of economic probity.

Labour will just have to work harder at arguing its own case for abolishing the bedroom tax, building large numbers of houses, providing more childcare, capping energy bills and freezing rates on small businesses – all good, sound policies. The electorate will form its judgment in due course without assistance from the OBR.

We have a variation of the same theme in Scotland, where the Nationalists present themselves as the government present and future. Their budget was pretty feeble, intended to rock no boats and redistribute no wealth. But when it comes to the post-referendum scenario, when all power is to be theirs, there are no limits to their spending plans – and no Office of Budget Responsibility to worry about.

Last week, we had Alex Salmond’s ex-cathedra announcement that he would renationalise the Scottish bit of a privatised Royal Mail without having a clue what it might cost. This sounds like extremely good news for prospective purchasers of the Royal Mail as it would rid them of a large slice of loss-making business and give them back a few hundred million into the bargain.

The most useful aspect of Salmond’s performance was to confirm that the Scottish Mail would be separate from the Royal Mail (continuing). At least we are spared the pretence in this instance that life would continue as normal within the fabled “social union”. A separate Scottish Mail would mean a universal service obligation within Scotland alone, while costs soared due to economies of scale being lost. At least we have been warned.

Then came the pensions spin at the weekend and this was where the credibility test really kicked in. The headlines about Scots being paid their pensions a year earlier if we vote for independence simply sounded ridiculous. (In fairness, the SNP spokesman, Mike Weir, seemed to know as little about it as John Swinney had been told about Royal Mail renationalisation). When the supposed rationale for this latest nonsense was explained, the script became positively offensive. According to the Nationalists, all Scots should get their pensions a year earlier than in England because, on average, we die younger – two years for men and 20 months for women. But the divergence in pensions threshold they are proposing would not kick in until 2026. So it is the working assumption of the SNP that Scots will, on average, still be dying younger a full 13 years from now. As counsels of cynicism and despair go, that ranks pretty high.

“We want to ensure that the pension age suits Scottish circumstances,” declared Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in surely one of the less heroic euphemisms of Nationalism.

By “Scottish circumstances” she means that, on average, people die younger. Instead of pledging to eradicate that unfortunate fact, the pension arrangements 13 years hence are to be predicated upon this immutable Scottish “circumstance”.

Of course, not all Scots die younger. The divisions, as elsewhere in the UK, are closely aligned to social and economic status. A boy born into the poorest 10 per cent of Scottish communities has a life expectancy eight years less than the Scottish average and 14 years below the least deprived areas. For girls, the differences are four and eight years, respectively.

Surely the great political challenge should be to raise the average by improving the prospects of those who are so far below it –but that has almost nothing to do with the constitution. It demands real commitment to using the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament to transform these statistics over the next 13 years – rather than making divisive plans on the basis that, relatively, things are going to remain the same. But that would involve bold and imaginative decisions about how these problems are to be tackled. It might even dictate some transfer of resources in order to come to grips with issues of deprivation that have remained endemic for so long. That should be the crusade beyond all others for the Scottish Government – instead of wasting time on a pensions policy, 13 years hence, which is based on the assumption of its own failure.

Small wonder that pensions experts have laid into every aspect of the policy, not just state but workplace pensions also. The vast amounts of civil service time that are being wasted on trying to paper over the chasms that exist in every aspect of the Nationalists’ post-referendum plans would be better devoted to the crying needs summed up in that simple statistic – a 14-year life expectancy gap within Scotland itself, depending where you live.