Mike Russell's Audacious Dishonesty
The new head of the independence campaign plans to make protecting the NHS a key issue...but he thinks it should be privatised.
Earlier in the summer former Cabinet Minister, Mike Russell was appointed to head up the SNP’s independence campaign. Russell (pictured above with the mobile centre for independence that bears his name) took the post after the last appointee resigned after a few months saying it was the worst job he’d ever had.
The new head of the Scexit campaign published a document that sets out what he views as the core argument for leaving the UK. It reheats arguments from 2014 but it centres around two new arguments: first that leaving the UK is necessary because new border arrangements are hurting Scottish trade, and second that we need to leave the UK to prevent the NHS from being privatised.
The first claim is hypocritical, the second is audaciously dishonest.
“It will be that same relationship.”
In the first edition of NoN I wrote about how creating a hard border with England isn’t the alternative to the cost of a hard border with the EU, rather it means additional costs and job losses. I’ll not go over that argument again, but it rests on an inescapable fact: the same rules that apply for £16 billion of Scottish trade across the border with the EU today would, after leaving the UK, apply to the £52 billion of Scottish trade with the UK.
Don’t take my word for it. The new head of the Scexit campaign said so in his recent interview with The National newspaper:
“we will be in the EU and they will not, so whatever their relationship is with the rest of the EU it will be that same relationship.”
Russell has been clear what this relationship with England would erect barriers, leave us worse off, create more paperwork and bureaucracy, and make borders harder to cross. Don’t take my word for it, read what Mike Russell has to say again and again and again about the relationship he wants with our single biggest trading partner.
They know that swapping one border for a more painful one is too big a contradiction to sustain so, just as the SNP spend their time trying to reframe our higher public spending as a negative, they are now painting the huge amount we trade with England as a dangerous dependency. Those of us who don’t want to raise borders need to recognise when they are doing this. The counterargument is so simple and obvious that we forget to make it: frictionless trade with the rest of the UK supports Scottish jobs and that is a good thing.
Russell’s hypocrisy on trade is nothing, however, compared to the chutzpa of positioning himself as the saviour of a publicly funded NHS.
“When people show you who they are, believe them”.
Poet Maya Angelou offered the above advice. Russell told us who he is at length in a lengthy manifesto for an independent Scotland published shortly before he joined the SNP Cabinet in 2007.
Written with the late mining tycoon Dennis Macleod, Grasping the Thistle is a call for the dramatic shrinking of the size of the Scottish state, through wholesale privatisation of the NHS and other public services, in order to pay for massive tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals. That last sentence may sound like an exaggerated and biased precis, so I’ll quote his book at length.
In a book peppered with praise of economic theories lifted directly from the US Republican right, and with criticism of Scotland’s social democratic mainstream, Russell’s political philosophy is clear:
“Everything in this book is predicated on the need to reduce government to a size and scope which is affordable and which no longer constricts citizens in their daily live whilst limiting their potential.”
He offers the following maxim for the role of government in an independent Scotland:
“let government be the customer and let every job and task of government, however lowly or however complex - wherever possible - be carried out in some form of competition by the private sector.”
This is not an abstract idea. He is very specific about what this means for our public services. For example, his argument on privatising the NHS is worth quoting at length:
“We would encourage the private sector to compete with established NHS hospitals, clinics and other services. We would encourage NHS management and staff to buy out existing NHS facilities and services under favourable financial terms and join the private sector we would require NHS facilities that remained in government ownership to be run at a profit however modest. Those that failed to maintain profitability over a reasonable time period would be privatised.”
He goes on to suggest that this could be part of a move that “required those in employment to accept responsibility for their own health costs always funded by compulsory subscription to competitive national medical insurance schemes.” The state would act simply as an “insurer of last resort.”
In education, direct funding of schools, colleges and universities would be replaced by a voucher system where “the consumer” would “be able to force new provision onto the market by means of their purchasing power.” A key benefit of this would be that parents "may find that the choice of private education easier to afford.”
The scale of the cuts suggested by Russell were enormous - rolling cuts of 8% a year until government spending falls to 33% of GDP. To put that into context, pre-pandemic spending was 46% of GDP. These cuts would be permanent, with “a legislative requirement that government does not rise above a certain size, except by prior authorisation by the voters.”
To be clear, Russell is not suggesting these cuts as a reluctant necessity, he is arguing they are a positive project because Scotland’s higher public spending is holding back our economy:
“Barnett, far from starving Scotland to death as is often asserted, is actually fattening us to the point of dangerous obesity.”
These huge cuts would enable Russell to pursue a radical tax-cutting agenda. The aim: “not just to cut corporation tax, as has already been correctly suggested by the SNP, but to go further by eliminating it entirely.” Inheritance tax and capital gains tax are also to be abolished and income tax for everyone to be cut by a quarter, just for starters.
The price of nationalists asking us to take them seriously is that we also get to take them literally. The new head of the independence campaign has shown us who he is, we should believe him.
So, when Russell oversees a strategy to dismiss the concerns about the enormous cuts to public services that come from leaving the UK, he isn’t like other nationalists who view it as a price worth paying. For Russell shrinking the state and privatising services won’t be an accidental aftereffect, it is his deliberate aim.
Just imagine for a second how the SNP would exploit it if the head of the Better Together campaign, for example, supported ending the NHS and privatising education in order to pay for making private schools more affordable, eliminate taxes on corporations and abolish tax on inherited wealth.
The new head of the SNP’s campaign for independence argued that the NHS should be privatised.
Often the problem with the anti-Scexit side of the debate is that we don’t use the piles of ammunition left for us by nationalists, so share this.
In case you missed it…
Kevin Hague’s writing on our public finances, and the unhinged reaction to it, is now such a regular feature of Scottish political debate that we risk taking it for granted. His latest piece of analysis really is worth ten minutes of your time. The standout fact in his latest number-crunching is that the fiscal transfer to Scotland, our share of the funds distributed around the UK has been worth more than £10bn a year in each of the last six years. To continue on our NHS theme, that’s equivalent to our entire hospital budget.
Stephen Daisley, over on his substack, also took a look at the GERS numbers and concludes that:
“They say that, at a moment of abject crisis, the UK Treasury had Scotland’s back at least as much as it did the rest of the country. It didn’t matter whether you lived in Cambridge, Cambuslang, Caernarfon or Coleraine, resources were pooled and shared in an overwhelming effort of solidarity, cooperation and determination that comes far closer to capturing what the UK is really about than any separatist myth-making.”
The Economist takes a look at Nicola Sturgeon’s reluctance to distance herself from fossil fuels and the distance that puts between her and progressive voters:
“Ms Sturgeon thus finds herself straddling two political constituencies, and two visions of independence: one green, the other black. She has happily opposed fracking and nuclear energy in Scotland, despite both strictly sitting under the control of the government in Westminster. On the Cambo oilfield, she is content for Mr Johnson to make the call. Once the snp declared: “It’s Scotland’s oil.” These days it’s London’s problem.”
Finally, Bernard Ponsonby’s interview with the SNP leader of Glasgow City Council makes for painful viewing. The SNP’s leaders in local government have accepted massive cuts to local communities without any complaint. The result is moments like this where they cannot even bring themselves to acknowledge there is a problem.