The Day Devolution Grew Up
The SNP Budget is a short term disaster. Long term it accelerates the demise of a nationalist project that has Scotland locked into a cycle of decline.
Yesterday’s budget has been framed as a result of the chaos and incompetence that has defined Humza Yousaf’s months in office. That is true, but it is also the result of a more fundamental problem that won’t be solved by changing personnel at the top of the SNP.
A generation of promising to be all things to everyone has resulted in everyone being let down. We’re all paying far more for far less. Yesterday was only the start: ahead of us we will see industrial action, job losses, councils in financial crisis, local services cut, homelessness, poverty and waiting lists spiralling out of control.
A pre-election Budget this was not. SNP MPs already looking over their shoulders at Labour challengers won’t have slept any better last night.
The choices they made.
Looking at yesterday’s budget, you wonder what country the SNP believes it is governing.
There is a warm homes crisis in Scotland, with a third of us in fuel poverty. There is a global climate crisis. So the energy efficiency and decarbonisation budgets were cut.
There is a Ferry crisis in Scotland, with the disastrous failure to renew the fleet destroying island economies. So the ferry budget was cut.
There’s a crisis in bus services with two-fifths of bus routes cancelled since 2007. So the bus budget was cut.
There’s a crisis in mental health in Scotland, with a million Scots on antidepressants and one in five referrals for treatment of children refused. So the mental health budget was cut.
There’s a poverty crisis in Scotland, with a quarter of kids living in hardship. So the child poverty budget was cut.
There’s a housing crisis in Scotland with a record number of children in Scotland homeless and our two biggest cities declaring housing emergencies. So the SNP decided to cut the housing budget by £200 million.
It’s a strange reading of the Christmas story to think that this is the time of year to cut support for homeless families, yet that is what the SNP have chosen to do. Buried in Robison’s explanation of this seemed to be an admission that the housing budget was being cut to pay for the ferries fiasco.
The Third Sector finds its voice.
It has long been argued that devolution has led to a supine third sector that is too reliant on government funding to bite the hand that feeds it. That certainly wasn’t true of organisations from the housing sector yesterday. Here are just a few examples:
“The government is totally out of touch with the reality on the street and faces a sharp and dire reckoning…”
"…an absolute hammer blow for tackling homelessness and poverty across Scotland…”
“…threatens Scotland’s social wellbeing by perpetuating housing inequality but also its economic success and the transition to net zero.”
“…Instead of rising to the challenge of ending Scotland’s housing emergency, the Scottish Government has chosen to make it worse.”
Nor did child poverty groups pull their punches in response to Yousaf’s decision to break his promise to give poor kids more money and instead spend it on a Council Tax freeze that benefits the wealthiest most:
“It is bitterly disappointing for struggling families that he has failed to deliver.”
“…having chosen to fund a council tax freeze that financially benefits better off households it is hard to understand why she couldn’t choose to boost the incomes of our hardest up families.”
"Children cannot and must not be the collateral damage of a challenging fiscal environment.”
“Without the promised boost too many children and parents will suffer.”
Beyond the childish non-politics of nationalism.
There is a sense that Scotland’s democracy is maturing. Paul Hutcheon in The Record writes:
“The SNP Government has failed to act in a fiscally disciplined manner for years and their day of reckoning has arrived. Robison’s car crash budget was the moment when sixteen years of shallow populism came crashing to the ground.”
SNP Ministers spent the last few weeks trying to ensure that their populist nationalism survives the harsh economic realities they have created. If you watched Question Time last week there is a sense that the old blame-London excuses aren’t working anymore. Ministers are not seen as representatives of a protest movement anymore, they are understood to be, well, Ministers.
The very fact that they are raising taxes exposes the familiar big lie of SNP ministers: that they are working within a fixed budget. Having demanded more power, the SNP now have more responsibility. They haven’t grown the economy and so now find themselves trying to squeeze more in taxation out of the same-sized pot.
It must be humiliating for them. The final line of defence of failing nationalism is to argue that they wouldn’t have to ask us Scots to pay higher taxes if only the English were more generous. We now have a please-send-a-cheque nationalism that refuses to take responsibility for the mess we’re in.
In the long term, sound budget decisions cannot be made based on an ideology that believes that everyone has a single shared interest. Yes, it is the job of politics to reconcile differences around a shared national journey, but it is also about choosing between different interests within that society.
There is much talk about how Scotland needs a debate about how to grow the economy and create revenues. That is true, and growing the economy is now the obsession of the Labour opposition. However, we also need a debate about who we spend money on. Those abandoned yesterday to poverty deserve it, but it is also the way we move Scotland on from the childish non-politics of nationalism.
Those in the richest and poorest households might both be Scots but they can’t both get the same government funds. If those at the top of the income spectrum get their council tax freeze it means that those at the bottom don’t get their promised Child Payment increase. The Scottishness of the thousands of homeless children spending Christmas in temporary accommodation wasn’t protection from the SNP’s cuts.
Can an SNP whose ideological spectrum stretches from Kate Forbes through to Humza Yousaf ever make the consistent choices between interests that Scotland’s many crises demand? Ultimately it is their common creed rather than what differentiates them from each other that leaves them so ill-equipped to govern well. They are more interested in imaginary external enemies than real internal choices. A post-general election leadership challenge to Yousaf from the right by Forbes is more likely to result in division than in the resolution of their big state/small state debate.
More likely is that other parties, who are better able to make moral choices from opposition, will benefit from the confused mess of this budget. This debate can no longer be avoided. In that respect, yesterday was a big step towards more serious and mature politics in Scotland.