Nicola Sturgeon's staggering irresponsibility in talking about a referendum - Brian Wilson

It would be unworldly to expect every citizen to familiarise themselves with the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on how the Scottish Government’s funding has changed over the past decade.
The IFS report is 'required reading'The IFS report is 'required reading'
The IFS report is 'required reading'

Yet, away from the political hubris, that was by far the most relevant document to emerge this week. Until at least the basics of what it reveals, from a positon of absolute academic neutrality, are understood a debate on the constitution will not even have begun.

The headline which emerged from the report could have been guessed at and is now laid bare. Large amounts of additional money which has come to Scotland through ‘Barnett consequentials’ arising specifically from Covid-19 have been siphoned off and are now being used as election sweeteners.

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In the language of the IFS, with just a hint of incredulity: “Scottish Government funding per person is over 30 per cent higher than equivalent English funding. But it has still chosen to use temporary Covid funding to pay for some permanent spending commitments”. In other words, we are being bribed with our own money, without regard to future implications.

The inescapable corollary is that money used to fund attractive pre-election offers has not been used for the purposes which brought it into the Scottish Government’s coffers in the first place. What the losers in that deal make of it is for them to say – from hospitality to hospices with many in between. Most stay silent, discretion being the better part of valour in today’s Scotland.

As elsewhere in the UK, “block grant” funding for the Scottish Government dipped during the austerity years up to 2016 but has recovered to the point where – in the current year – it will be three per cent more than a decade ago, even without the additional Covid money. The capital budget will be seven per cent higher.

The money available to spend on services in Scotland is 31 per cent higher than in England and, as the IFS notes, is “driven almost entirely by higher block grant funding from the UK Government”. However much some may hate that home truth, it is the one which gives the Scottish Government the cash to play politics with.

Their own efforts have been conspicuously less successful. Higher tax rates than in the rest of the UK raise £450 million. However, “slower growth in the income tax base is offsetting almost three-quarters of the revenue that is raised from the Scottish Government’s income tax reforms”. In other words, the net benefit from Scotland’s higher taxes is much less than the cost of a couple of ferries.

Additional funding direct to the Scottish Government to counter Covid 19 impacts has amounted to £9.5 billion or £1370 for every man, woman and child in Scotland – again, thanks to Barnett, far higher than the rest of the UK. Furthermore, the Scottish Government has been given more flexibility to carry over unspent money than the Treasury allowed in England, so the funding gap will continue to widen to Scotland’s advantage.

The £9.5 billion does not, of course, include the £7 billion spent in Scotland on furlough and the self-employment support scheme which have gone direct to those in need without giving the Scottish Government any opportunities for processing, re-packaging and top-slicing to emerge months later with a Saltire on every page.

The proposition which the Nationalists are seriously promoting is that within one year (Blackford) or two years (Sturgeon), we would be in the midst of a referendum in which their objective would be to get rid of all this, take on the share of UK debt which has risen massively because of the pandemic and, on top of that, borrow innumerable billions to compensate for the loss of the Barnett formula. All this without knowing what currency we would be using.

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Leaving aside all the other reasons why talking about another referendum while recovering from a pandemic which has killed 10,000 of our fellow citizens is irresponsible beyond reason, the sheer scale of costs involved are staggering – which is why the IFS report is such required reading.



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