It IS an unfortunate fact that the closer a party is to power at Westminster the less it can afford to take a reckless gamble with the public finances. The prospect of power imposes some measure of responsibility. There is less room for heroic optimism. No such chains bind the SNP. They may peddle fantasy and call it fact knowing it is most unlikely they will ever be called to account. It is easy to promise the Earth when you don’t have to write the cheque.
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This hands the SNP a considerable advantage in the run-up to a UK general election. It has the luxury of criticising without having to suggest a serious alternative. Nor is it even expected or asked to set out its own plans. If only, Labour and the Tories sigh, they could be granted the same leeway. It isn’t fair but it is the way the game is played.
David Cameron and Ed Miliband find themselves in the awkward position of having to be reasonably frank with voters. The impact of the 2008 financial crisis continues to be felt. George Osborne has missed his target of halving the deficit and the national debt continues to increase. It is more than 80 per cent of GDP and still climbing. The British Government borrowed £90 billion this financial year and expects to borrow another £75bn next year.
This is the tough reality Labour and the Conservatives face. The SNP, by contrast, can inhabit a fantastical world in which there are no tough choices – indeed no choices at all – because everything can be solved by harvesting the fruits of the magic money tree. “Austerity” they insist, can be avoided at no cost at all. It is, instead, a piece of vindictive ideological warfare. There is an alternative even if, between you and me, we cannot cost that alternative.
So there was jubilation in SNP circles when, earlier this week, Labour agreed with the Conservatives that at some point in the future efforts must be made to balance the budget. A Charter of Budgetary Responsibility is a gimmick but with both parties trying to establish their economic credibility it is a convenient, useful, short-term gimmick.
Nevertheless, this all allows the Nationalists to return to their favourite message: there is no difference between Labour and the Conservatives. A vote for one is just as bad as a vote for the other. Camerband or Miliron, what’s the difference? It is a good line and a winning tactic even if it is also, necessarily, a falsehood.
We have, after all, been here before. During the referendum campaign the choice for Scotland’s future was presented as being between the austerity of an endless Westminster winter and permanent glorious sunshine in the event of independence. A con, of course, but one that served Nationalist interests.
A more honest party might have admitted the early years of independence would have been difficult but that, in the long run, it would have been worth it. Instead the SNP pretended there’d be jam and cake for everyone, not just today but tomorrow and forever, too. If this seemed too good to be true it’s because it was too good to be true.
So the SNP is at it again. The choice this May is between LibLabCon “austerity” and the sunny alternative promised by the Nationalists and their allies in Plaid Cymru and the Green party. There is, the Nationalists say, no functional difference between Labour and the Tories. They each favour continued austerity and it really doesn’t matter which of them wins the election.
If this were true the Nationalists would no more countenance propping up a minority Labour government than they would support a minority Conservative ministry. But it is not true, which is why the SNP can imagine circumstances in which it would support Prime Minister Miliband but none in which it would offer any encouragement – or votes – to Prime Minister Cameron.
Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), argues the two biggest parties’ spending plans offer voters a “pretty stark” choice. Far from being identical, as the SNP claims, the Labour and Conservative plans for future levels of borrowing and public spending are different enough to make this an unusually significant election.
So, who should you believe? The SNP or the IFS? The IFS may, of course, be mistaken but it has no incentive to be wrong. Its analysis is supposed to be dispassionate; the SNP’s, by contrast, is plainly as partial as it is political. The Nationalists have every reason to blur the distinctions between the estimates forecast by Labour and the Tories.
Those distinctions remain real, however. According to the IFS, the Conservatives plans require cutting spending by £33bn after 2015-16 whereas Labour’s plans, at present, envisage cuts of just £7bn. Last time I looked 33 is a rather bigger number than seven. As Mr Johnson put it, “All this points to another big difference. If Labour is spending more – and if it doesn’t raise taxes – it will be borrowing more and, perhaps more important, presiding over a greater burden of debt.”
Regardless of their differences, at least Labour and the Conservatives agree some pruning is necessary. They disagree on the depth and duration of cuts but acknowledge the status quo is unsustainable. The SNP, freed from responsibility, disagrees.
That, of course, is its prerogative. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see the Nationalists put a number on their preferred level of public spending. Interesting too, to ask which taxes they would increase to pay for this spending. Curiously, however, they seem disinclined to answer such questions. Better instead to maintain the fiction there’s no difference between the Tories and Labour.
That in turn allows the SNP to argue only the Nationalists can offer an alternative to austerity. That is can do no such thing matters little since truth is easily sacrificed in an election year. As the SNP knows, politics can be a sadistic business. The time to twist the knife is when you have your opponents squirming. So we will hear much more about these so-called “Red Tories”. It drives Labour mad, which is how you can tell it’s working.
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