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The strategic blunder by the SNP on pensions teaches us that they aren't as smart as they think they are.
Famously Denis Healey’s first rule of holes was: when you are in one, stop digging. His second, sometimes forgotten rule is just as important: when you finally stop digging, you’re still in a hole.
After nearly two weeks where, on the issue of pensions, the SNP simply could not be persuaded to drop their shovels, it is worth peering in to see how deep a hole they have made for themselves.
Here are the last two issues in one paragraph. Ian Blackford told a podcast that the costs of state pensions in a separate Scottish state would be met by the taxpayers of what would then be a foreign state: the UK. This policy was then endorsed by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and the SNP. The idea began life as a way to respond to GERS figures, which suggest that leaving the UK means losing upwards of £10 billion a year in funding. It’s so obviously a ruse - ‘let’s balance the books by removing the single most expensive line item’ - but somehow it has become SNP policy.
Glenn Campbell of the BBC finally managed to get the First Minister on camera to ask her whether it was *really* her position that English taxpayers would pay for Scotland’s pensions but Scottish taxpayers wouldn’t. In the interview Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly reassured us that her position wasn’t any different than when she fought the referendum:
“the 2014 White Paper set out the position of the Scottish government and what I’m saying to you is that that position hasn’t changed.”
She said it has always been her policy that only pension contributions made after leaving the UK would be the responsibility of a separate Scottish state. She told the BBC that, from the point of independence:
“it will be for the Scottish government to fund Scottish pensions. But in terms of how we take account of historic assets and liabilities that will be a matter of negotiation.”
Sturgeon encourages us to look back at what she said in 2014. The problem is when you do, we see that she unequivocally guarantees that an independent Scotland, not the UK, will pay for the rights that have accrued:
“We would guarantee all of the accrued pension rights for people in Scotland. One of the obvious points to make, that I think is often lost in this debate, is that we currently pay for state pensions. There’s no money fairy that’s in Westminster who provides us all these things for nothing. Our taxes, our national insurance contributions fund these things already and that will be the case in an independent Scotland. We’d just cut out the middleman. We wouldn’t send the money to London first for it to come back. So we have given a guarantee that we would pay all of the accrued rights and honour all of the accrued rights.”
No fair-minded person could conclude that an absolute guarantee to take responsibility for what has been accrued is the same as negotiating who is responsible for those rights. Promising to pay a sum of money isn’t the same as haggling over the cost. Nicola Sturgeon has dropped the promise she made to pensioners and everyone who pays National Insurance.
Sturgeon’s comments to the BBC were confirmed by her official spokesperson. Reacting to the questions raised after Ian Blackford’s interview with ITV, the First Minister’s spokesperson said that cost of pensions:
“will partly be met by historic contributions made by people into the UK pensions pot, pre-independence.”
Then, with strong “I’m helping!” energy, along comes Ian Blackford again:
“I have never argued that those receiving a state pension build up a pot, there is no such pot”
The SNP position now is that a guarantee is the same as a negotiation and that the money to pay our pensions will come from the pension pot which does not exist.
This is the hole they now stand in.
In 2013 Nicola Sturgeon, pictured smiling with a cup of tea in a retirement home, made a pledge to guarantee the pensions of retirees and Scots who paid National Insurance. In the place of that simple guarantee of security, we are now offered an uncertain outcome after a messy negotiation. The big, still unanswered question is why has she dropped her pensions promise?
UPDATE: Video Evidence
This video summarises a much longer twitter thread and shows, beyond any reasonable doubt that the SNP have dropped their pensions promise. You can share it on Twitter here, on Facebook here and on youtube by clicking the video below.
And we haven’t even got to the difficult issues yet…
In the months ahead the SNP will have to grapple with much more difficult issues than whether Scotland will have to fund our own welfare state. This week saw many of them coming to the surface:
How can you promise a social democratic future when you are giving up upwards of £10 billion a year out a budget of about £80 billion? An issue ably explored in this Economic Observatory commentary published this week.
How do you make the case for the decade-long experiment of operating as the only advanced economy not to have a real central bank or currency of our own? The Observatory also covered that issue this week.
How do you reassure people on currency when ministers in your own government aren’t just proposing an alternative currency plan but agree with your opponents that the SNP proposal is downright dangerous?
How do you credibly use Brexit to rally to your cause when the expert you quoted for your own analysis of the cost of the new border with the EU said this week that “the impact of lost trade following independence would be two to three times more costly for the Scottish economy than Brexit”?
The pensions confusion is a reminder of how the SNP are a shadow of the campaigning organisation they used to be. There is far too much mythology around the SNP when they are absolutely beatable.
A party possessed of the irrational faith of nationalism carries a huge disadvantage. When you believe that change happens through the magic of nationhood you aren’t interested enough in the real work of policy to answer the sort of questions listed above. When you can’t resist any opportunity for conflict with the outsiders, you undermine your own efforts to reassure sceptics. When fidelity to the cause requires you to defend any idea, however ridiculous, you sacrifice credibility on everything.
Just look at the last few days. The SNP should have refused to be bounced into announcing a new pension policy. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon committed herself to a politically toxic policy in an ill-tempered pool clip for TV. They couldn’t resist reaching for the frame of the rapacious English stealing from Scotland again. As usual, populism trumped policy. But by choosing to turn this into a fight they mobilized their angry online tribe to take to social media to amplify the message that, yes pensions are no longer guaranteed.
With enemies like that, who needs friends?