Guy Stenhouse: From ferries to universities to public sector strikes, SNP is sowing seeds of decline

·4-min read
The unfinished Glen Sannox Caledonian Macbrayne ferry in the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde.
The unfinished Glen Sannox Caledonian Macbrayne ferry in the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde.

SOMETIMES it’s the little things which matter. The SNP peddle a well refined cocktail of illusions to woo the electorate.

Bad things are the fault of Westminster or the Tories. If Scotland were on its own everything would be lovely. A more vibrant, fairer, greener, successful economy, more money to spend on public services and – this is the crucial bit – no downsides at all. Nobody has to pay any more taxes because a bit (actually a lot) more borrowing and that much loved but elusive beast – faster growth – will pay for it all. No pain, all gain.

In order to preserve this illusion the Scottish Government needs – and has succeeded rather well – in doing three things.

First, keeping a nice succession of goodies flowing our way. Free university tuition, free prescriptions, free bus travel, extra income support payments. The message is clear, these are down payments on what would come later if we were only completely free to do as we want.

The second thing is to make no hard decisions. Nobody must be upset, there must be no losers, hard decisions must be dodged rather than faced. The horses must never be frightened.

This is why, not only because of gross vessel procurement incompetence, our ferry services are such a mess – CalMac got the contract because the Scottish Government caved in to the RMT union and insisted in the rules of the most recent “competition” to provide services that the outdated working and pension arrangements couldn’t be changed by the winning bidder. The inevitable result was there were no competing bidders and CalMac and its ludicrous working practices stayed in place.

Our universities are another example. Scottish students are not charged but the Scottish Government does not provide the income which would replace that revenue. The result is that our universities – of which are excellent – have a disadvantage relative to institutions in England in what they can fund. For a time this disadvantage can be overcome but not forever. The upside of free tuition is trumpeted to the heavens, the downside of long-term damage to our universities is swept under the carpet.

Ever wondered why rail strikes tend to be so much shorter in Scotland than England? It is because the Scottish Government caves in. Instead of facing down the unions it settles on a more generous basis than applies in England and doesn’t push hard for the reforms which are needed.

The final thing the Scottish Government does is obscure the fact Scotland can afford to spend considerably more per head on public services than in England because we receive a generous financial settlement from the UK Treasury through the Barnet formula. Bluntly, we are subsidised. The SNP try to pretend that we are not, even though the GERS figures, which show plainly that we are, are produced by the Scottish and not the UK government.

Two recent developments, not widely reported and not by themselves catastrophic, have occurred which should, for anybody willing to open their mind and look, call into question the illusory brave new world which the SNP Government works so hard to preserve.

The first is that a row has broken out between the UK and Scottish Governments over who should pay for a computer system which is needed to process the social security payments being transferred from UK Government responsibility to the Scottish Government.

Leave aside for the moment that if the UK decided non-Scottish specific benefits should not be processed in Scotland we would be the loser in terms of jobs, and just focus on the systems needed for our own payments.

More computers, more people, extra cost. This is a diseconomy of separation – more cost for no gain. Of course Scotland should pay for it, how could it possibly be reasonable that it doesn’t?

The second little tremor is that in order to fund the cost of increased pay awards in the public sector, the Scottish Government says Scotland may need more money from Westminster. The Great Grievance Machine is being cranked up for when the entirely justified refusal to provide such funding comes.

What is breath-taking is the brass neck of the Scottish Government. They already have considerably more money per head than in England to fund public spending, the reason why they need more money is that they have spinelessly agreed to larger pay awards than in England without insisting on efficiencies to fund them.

Instead of holding out the begging bowl, the Scottish Government has the power to raise taxes to pay for the choices it makes. But we can’t have that because it would allow us to glimpse the truth – that separating Scotland from the UK just makes no sense – and would hurt.