Gotta hand it to the SNP. After a brilliant campaign, years in the making, the Nationalists are headed for a stupendous general election result, one I never thought possible. And yet, not only is it based on a gross hypocrisy, implementation of the SNP’s manifesto would lead to the biggest betrayal of the electorate in political history. It would make Nick Clegg’s abandonment of the Liberal Democrats’ student tuition fee abolition pledge look as insignificant as a broken New Year promise.
Their problem lies in the Scottish public finance numbers. The facts are that, either with independence or full fiscal autonomy inside the UK, Scottish tax revenues are a long way short of public spending, a deficit that cannot be made up with borrowing and which will necessitate much worse austerity than now.
These are facts, chiels that winna ding. And yet they don’t seem to matter. Some opinion polls have suggested that the SNP could win all of Scotland’s 59 seats. That won’t happen, but 40-plus seats is entirely realistic. Why? How has the SNP managed to defy economic gravity?
There are several reasons. One, the peculiarities of this election have loaded TV coverage in Nicola Sturgeon’s favour. She has been portrayed as the equal of David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and more than held her own when up against them. And in one-to-one interviews, she has not been asked the hard questions in the facts outlined above.
Two, most of the questioning has focused on what might happen after the election, not on exposing the deficiencies of the SNP manifesto.
Three, the SNP have a command of social media that is streets ahead of the other parties and which they use to spur the committed and reassure waverers.
Four, and most importantly, this election campaign is being decided by emotion and gut feelings rather than rational analysis.
For there is another set of facts – five years of austerity – ringing louder in many voters’ ears. Real incomes have fallen and benefits for the workless have been cut. These facts weigh more heavily than the take-home pay increase for low earners caused by raising the tax-free allowance.
They do so because most people believe, quite rightly, that they were not responsible for the financial crisis which racked up the national debt and caused a public spending deficit that now needs to be reversed by austerity.
So why should they pay?
The injustice of this looks all the more grievous because the people who caused this disaster are still earning their lotto win-type incomes and they have had a tax cut to boot. The fact that the 50p supplementary income tax cut did next to nothing to improve government revenues, which was why it was pared back to 45p, doesn’t really matter. The seeming injustice, however, does.
Because of that, any party promising more austerity was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. That is especially true in Scotland where for years the SNP has been telling folk that Westminster gives them a raw deal. The austerity background to this election gives that message an intensity it hasn’t really had before.
That may explain why the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are in for a drubbing, but why is Labour hurting even more?
Some of the factors listed above matter – the TV coverage, for example, has given Ms Sturgeon a “national statesman” image, which Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, cannot match.
The departure of big beasts Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling from the fray has also left Scottish Labour looking a bit short of capability and leadership talent. The referendum, and Labour’s failure to be unapologetically upfront about why it allied with the Tories to defeat the Yes campaign, left a nasty aftertaste, which quite a few normal Labour supporters don’t like.
More damagingly, it has allowed the SNP to paint Labour as anti-Scottish, a wholly undeserved tag but which nonetheless seems to be sticking.
This also positions the SNP as leading the anti-austerity campaign, allowing it to brand Labour as pro-austerity, even though independent analysis of both parties’ tax-and-spend plans reveals them to be pretty much identical.
The gross hypocrisy of the SNP’s anti-austerity stance is that it can only be delivered if Scotland stays in the Union and with limited tax powers.
That doesn’t matter either because there is the gut-feeling question of who people trust. Ed Miliband may well be a perfectly capable man but, unfortunately for him, he looks, sounds, and acts like an alien simulacrum of a human being who hasn’t quite mastered the art of being human.
Ms Sturgeon and her ministers, however, not only sound like intelligent Scots, they don’t even have to make an effort to persuade folk that they understand the average Scot’s problems. Despite some manifest policy failures in Scottish government – abolition of student tuition fees has done nothing to improve working-class access to university – the SNP have earned trust. Now they are going to harvest it in a bumper crop.
Although I have voted SNP in the past, I won’t this time. Their plans to control all taxes and welfare spending while still paying the Treasury for defence, debt and other UK services, while they could work in certain circumstances, are insane in current conditions of Scotland’s huge deficit, which is twice as bad as the UK deficit.
And while, in theory, being able to use tax powers could improve revenues and reduce welfare spending, those powers cannot deal with the deficit problem at the point of handover. Scotland would have to start a fully fiscally responsible life with a shortfall of spending over taxation of between 8 and 10 per cent of GDP, or between £12 billion and £15bn.
Borrowing cannot fill that gap, only spending cuts could. Changed economic policies might eventually close it, though I am immensely sceptical of that. Even if they did, there would still be years of much worse austerity than in the UK as it is.
Scotland does not deserve that. So I won’t just not vote SNP, I’ll vote for whatever party has the best chance of beating the SNP. I’d advise intelligent readers to do the same, even if that means holding their nose and voting for a unionist party they don’t like.