Still Together and the Path Forward

  The "Aerial No" in Edinburgh just days before the referendum.

The "Aerial No" in Edinburgh just days before the referendum.

     Today would have been the day that Scotland became an independent country and when the United Kingdom would have been broken up.

     Thankfully, it is not. The people of Scotland saw through the dubious, dodgy, and threadbare claims of the separatist case pushed by the Yes campaign, led by Alex Salmond and the SNP. The people debated and argued throughout a two year long campaign in which all of the issues were discussed at length. During this campaign, there was almost constant media coverage of the campaign and the issues at stake; there were claims and counter-claims – in print, on television and radio, on various online platforms. Indeed, with all the back-and-forth going on between the positions and people on both sides, it’s a wonder that many of us didn’t lose our heads!

     It was an emotionally training and exhaustive campaign – the likes of which many of us had not ever witnessed – and the world watched to wonder if the United Kingdom was on the verge of dissolution. Indeed, as the campaign went into its final month, the Yes campaign caught up and it looked as though they might have had a shot at their prize.

     In the end, after all the speeches, rallies, leaflets, ads, marches, bean counting, pronouncements, and flag-waving, on September 18, 2014, the people voted decisively to maintain the United Kingdom and to preserve over 300 years of history, heritage, and relationships – economic, social, cultural, and political. The people said quite politely and in a fair and legal democratic referendum: “No, Thanks”.

     We should all be thankful for the result, for it spared Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom from unnecessary and untold upheaval on many fronts. A bullet was dodged and one of the greatest countries in the world was saved.

     However, there’s no denying that the SNP – far from being mortally wounded – has gone on to dizzying heights as a political party. Successfully capturing the 45% of Scots who voted Yes and trading on the popularity of their new leader Nicola Sturgeon, they won all but three of the 59 UK parliamentary seats in Scotland at the General Election in May 2015 – becoming the third biggest group in the House of Commons and in terms of its membership, the third biggest political party in the United Kingdom.

     Now, there appears to be little sign of them slackening in the opinion polls, and they are projected to win an unprecedented third term in government with another majority – thereby likely keeping the separation and constitutional issues at the forefront of politics in Scotland. Scores of voters who tended to vote for the three pro-Union parties have bolted to the SNP, and there are no indications that they are coming back soon.

     In the face of this, the SNP’s opposition is divided between those parties – Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats – with Labour and the LibDems at historic lows and the Tories seeing something of a small revival since their 1997 wipeout, but nothing in the way of providing the numbers and political muscle to provide a strong opposition by any single party.

     In the circumstances – especially with most polls still showing a majority or dead-heat on the independence question – some people such as columnist Alex Massie have come to the conclusion that Scotland has too many parties, and that if the vast majority of Yes voters are fueling the SNP’s rise to around 50% in the polls, then it stands that No voters need to have a party of their own – a single “Unionist Party.” They believe that the pro-Union/anti-Union split and a focus on constitutional arraignments are the new norm and that, in Massie’s words, “the great political realignment spawned by the referendum is not over yet”, and in this vein they believe that a Unionist Party must be formed out of a merger of the three main parties and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in order to give a proper voice to those who voted No, mount an effective opposition to the SNP, and “offer a plausible alternative to the SNP’s constitutional vision.” Given that the SNP is effectively (in practice, if not in rhetoric) a centrist party, a Scottish Unionist Party would run largely parallel to them and differ only on the national question. As Massie put it, the SNP and SUP would be “rather like Caledonian versions of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael [in the Republic of Ireland], parties sharing the same part of the political bandwidth, but ferociously opposed to one another.”

     In many ways, I must say that this is an enticing prospect. There is sound logic behind, and in theory, would very much help at providing an effective answer to the SNP. The problem is that theory is just that – theory – and there are three main problems with the creation of a Scottish Unionist Party.

     Firstly, how would it work in terms of political ideology outside of advocating for the Union? It may be easy to say that it would be a centrist party to appeal to most people, but realistically, how would it accommodate those members, activists, and voters from Labour, the Tories, the LibDem's, and UKIP? If you can't get the vast majority of those who voted No to back a Unionist Party because of differences over non-constitutional policies, then where will they go when their parties have been merged into it?

     Secondly, how would it work in relation to the House of Commons? Would the party vote with a whip unto itself or would left-wing MP’s be able to vote with Labour and right-wing MP’s with the Tories?

     Thirdly is the concern that a party whose raison d'être is “Unionism” will only entrench the referendum dividing lines and make for – and I say this with no disrespect – a Northern Ireland-type situation in which politics and society are perpetually focused on and organized around the constitutional issues. This “are you pro or anti UK/indy” dynamic plays into the SNP’s hands as elections become less about real policies and what is happening in the world.

     Of course, there once was a Unionist Party operating in Scotland, but that party (which lasted from 1912 to 1965) was basically the Conservative Party in Scotland and took the Conservative whip at Westminster before formally merging with the Conservatives in England and Wales; a new (serious) Unionist Party would have to capture the vast majority of those who voted No from across the political spectrum in the Labour, Tory, and LibDem traditions. However, it is hard to see that happening; it was tough enough keeping the Better Together campaign rolling as a competent operation staffed and fronted by people who were (and still are) opposed to each other on virtually every other issue save for the constitution.

     Now make no mistake: I am a head, heart, and soul supporter of the Union – economically, socially, culturally, and politically, and I dearly wish for the United Kingdom to survive as a country forever. However, I am simply not convinced that the creation of a new Unionist Party is the best way forward.

     Most post-referendum studies have shown that among No voters, only around a third did so primarily out of affection for the United Kingdom and being British; much of the rest did so out primarily out of concern for their personal economic interest and because the case for separation was not convincing, which perhaps explains why some them do not label themselves a “Unionists.” Their support for the Union is not – at least primarily – driven by sentiment and the sense of historical connection to the rest of the UK. As such, they are not the type of people who support the Union come what may and appeals to Britishness and waving the Union Flag may not be helpful among them; they are the people who said that they would have supported separation if they were £500 better off individually, and so their support must not be taken for granted.

     Many of them are primarily concerned about the economy and prospects for themselves and their families, and they were convinced in 2014 that they were better off within the United Kingdom. Who’s to say that at least some of them may not be convinced should another referendum be held – God forbid – within the next few years?

     At the very least, polling ought to be done to find out what kind of support a Scottish Unionist Party would have, and especially if the vast majority of people from all three main parties are willing to join and vote for it. Without that polling however, I am willing to bet that with all of the practical obstacles facing it, an SUP will not likely gain traction as an effective counter-weight to the SNP.

     Going forward, the best option in the long-term will be to support the existing Union parties, who need all the help they can get to recover themselves to respectable positions at all levels in Scotland, especially Holyrood. Indeed, as Holyrood obtains more powers over people’s lives, it will be incumbent upon each party oppose the SNP and offer viable alternatives to the people of Scotland, with a focus on making life better for people on issues such as education, policing, healthcare, welfare, transportation, housing, and – above all – the economy, and moving away from the constitutional issues as much as possible.

     We are already seeing some rumbles of dissatisfaction within the SNP ranks, with the recent announcement on tax policy - keeping the top rate of tax in line with the rest of the UK - being just one area causing some consternation in some sections of the party. To be true, there may not be enough dissatisfaction with the SNP in time for this upcoming election, but it’s there, and Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats need to be ready for those who may become disillusioned and are ready to give at least one of those parties an audience. This, I believe, is bound to happen as the SNP stays in power over a longer period of time with more powers over people’s everyday lives than any previous administration at Holyrood and perhaps find it difficult to please it's broad church of socialists, neo-liberals, progressives, environmentalists, fossil fuel promoters, free-marketers, free traders, social democrats, and hard-core nationalist's.

     However, this is not to say that the Union does not need defenders advocating on its behalf day in and day out, and that’s where campaign groups such as Scotland in Union (SIU) and United Against Separation (UAS) come into play.

     UAS first came about during the referendum and played a major role in it as the “Vote No” page, and like its current name suggests, it is against breaking up the UK and has played more of role in opposing the SNP and pointing out its many contradictions and duplicity on several issues, while SIU came about more out of the aftermath and division caused by the referendum, and is more about promoting a positive message about Scotland and its place as part of the UK, and is not necessarily as much of an “anti-SNP” organization. As such, they are genuinely complementary in various ways – UAS is bigger with more “Likes” on Facebook and has more of an activist edge; SIU has more of a mainstream media presence, and conducts research and polling on Scotland and the Union. Broadly they have the same goal, but with just a slightly different approach.

     Both of them are doing a good job with what they are doing, and last night, SIU held a special gathering to mark this day when Scotland and the UK as a whole dodged a bullet. Going forward, UAS and SIU need to continue on by promoting and supporting the UK, and the ideas that the UK is better for having Scotland and Scotland is better for being in the UK. Their success will be an end to the dominance of the SNP, as well as the reality that separation and nationalism are not good options for Scotland. The byproduct of this will be more Labour, Tory, and LibDem members in Holyrood and Westminster in a much hoped-for return to non-constitutionally aligned politics.

     At an individual level, more people among us need to get involved with UAS and SIU, and volunteer their time leafleting, manning stalls on the streets, knocking on doors, having conversations with people, hosting/holding events, being active online, and generally doing all they can to help spread the word about the Union and its benefits to Scotland, along with how the UK in general is made stronger with Scotland. Part of this should be to make a social and cultural case for the UK in tandem with the economic case, so that there can be an even stronger case against the SNP – one that talks about the UK as a whole and how Scotland makes it what it is because of its people and many other contributions.

     This is likely going to be a long-term effort which will require a lot of work and sacrifice. None of us wanted the referendum and all that has transpired since, but this is where we are, and we have to take this thing one day at a time. There will be progress and setbacks, but with time, I do believe that all of us can do something to make a difference in helping to keep the United Kingdom together in a positive, bold, and confident manner.

Déjà Vu EU: The SNP's Attempts to Break-Up Britain over Europe

     As I was doing research for my article about the need for formal referendum rules and supermajority requirements, I came across some YouTube videos with the BBC’s coverage of the results from the United Kingdom’s referendum on continued membership in what was then the European Economic Community (also known as the Common Market) in 1975.

     It was the first national referendum in the history of Britain, and its relevance to the article I wrote was that fact that the British people delivered a crushingly decisive majority in favor of the EEC – the forerunner of the European Union – with a vote of 67% Yes for membership and 33% No. Such a majority indicated the clear and unambiguous will of the British people to be part of the Common Market, and even though a supermajority was not required, it was an example of how a popular supermajority could be achieved if people are decisively convinced on a certain proposition, whether it be a future Scottish independence referendum or the upcoming EU referendum.

     With that poll on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union on the political horizon, I decided to watch the BBC results coverage on YouTube to get a gauge on the debate and how the people voted at that time, and perhaps understand how they are connected to the new referendum that is to occur as early as June this year.

     Indeed, many of the issues back then were the same as they are today, including concerns over national sovereignty, the economy, and jobs – with the pro-market voices stressing Britain’s need to be part of the continental trading bloc in order to deliver better economic performance, and the anti-market forces raising the specter of a federal super-state from Brussels superseding British laws and weakening social gains such as worker projections in the name of the free market. Also like the upcoming referendum, this one was held following a renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms.

  for the 1975 EEC Referendum, the British Public voted by a two-thirds majority in favor of what was then the Common Market. Image Credit:  MrPenguin  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

for the 1975 EEC Referendum, the British Public voted by a two-thirds majority in favor of what was then the Common Market. Image Credit: MrPenguin via Wikimedia Commons cc

     The program was presented by David Dimbleby and David Butler, and as the counts came in from the counties and regions across the UK, the Corporation's Robin Day was interviewing numerous featured guests, including former Prime Minister Edward Heath (who took Britain into Europe in 1973), Jo Grimmond, Enoch Powell, and many other politicians and trade union representatives. It was a mix of anti-market and pro-market, but early on, it was clear from the smaller returns – and without the counts from the large metropolitan areas such as London and Glasgow (part of the vast Strathclyde Region) – that Britain was staying in the Common Market by a 2-to-1 margin. Nevertheless, each side continued to have its say on the issues such as they were and offered commentary on the results.

     What really caught my attention was a discussion between Robin Day and pro-Market Labour MP John Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian) on the role of the SNP during this referendum.

     As most observers of British politics knows, the SNP was opposed to the United Kingdom’s membership in the EEC for much the same reason as wanting Scotland to secede from the UK – believing that it impinged on national sovereignty and the meaning of independence. A party pamphlet from October 1974 condemned the EEC as a “dangerous experiment in gross over-centralisation” and further claimed that “Scotland has suffered too much already from centralisation in Britain. Centralisation – Common Market style – could be a death blow to our very existence as a nation.”

     But as this working paper from the Sussex European Institute by Valeria Tarditi reveals, the SNP did have caveats in its otherwise strident position on Europe. Its 1974 party manifesto stated:

“The SNP opposed British entry, basically on political grounds of opposition to the centralist thinking inherent in the Treaty of Rome, and in the belief that, within the Common Market, not only Scotland, but the United Kingdom, would find its quality and standards of life deteriorating. The United Kingdom being in the EEC, the SNP will support moves for British withdrawal while continuing to demand Scottish representation in the organizations of the Common Market.”

     So while it slated the EEC as a whole, it also wanted to achieve agreements on parts of the Common Market it found desirable – proposing a “free trade agreement on the Norwegian model, negotiated between a sovereign Scotland and the Common Market.”

     However, when it came to the referendum of 1975, the SNP was unambiguous in its opposition to the UK’s membership of the EEC, and this was the first test of their political influence since coming off of their most successful general election performance up to that point – having won 30% of the vote and eleven of Scotland’s 71 seats in the House of Commons during the October 1974 election.

     So as the results trickled in, the BBC had John Mackintosh on for an interview, during which the following exchange occurred starting at 3:52 (although the overall conversation started at 2:07) during part five of the broadcast videos:

     Robin Day:

“Do you think the figures [in Scotland] so far give any true indication of the real strength of the Scottish National Party – because people were saying that Scottish nationalism would make a No vote in Scotland and lead to the break-up of the UK, weren’t they?”

     John Mackintosh MP (Labour – Berwick and East Lothian):

“Yes, but I don’t think so. I think that the Scottish National Party miscalculated very badly in thinking that people would do tactical voting. Their last appeal was [to] make a tactical No, because quite a lot of the Scottish National Party – I think about 25% – were in fact, in favor of Europe, and I think this was a miscalculation because on a big issue like this, people are concerned about the issue itself, and not using it to gain some other means, and I think they miscalculated…it would have been far better for the SNP to admit that like every other party, they were divided and let their [pro-market members] go pro and their [anti-market members] the other way.”

     So the SNP were seeking to use the EEC referendum as a means to achieve the break-up of the United Kingdom. For them according to Tarditi, the poll was more about proving the “illegitimacy of the British government and its policies in Scotland”, and they hoped “that the opinions expressed by the Scottish people would be totally different from the rest of the UK and, above all, that in Scotland there would be a clear majority that opposed EC membership.” By Mackintosh’s account, they promoted tactical voting in order to achieve this result as to further their top-line agenda.

     As it turned out, of those areas that elected an SNP MP in October 1974, only the Western Isles voted No and the party could not convert its electoral strength into a result against the EEC. During part one of these results videos, there was a particular focus on the old Central Scotland Region (containing the former administrative counties of Stirlingshire, Clackmannanshire, and parts of West Lothian and Perthshire) which – according to one of the commentators – had elected three anti-market MP’s (one SNP and two Labour) but voted 60% in favor of EEC membership. That the Nationalists in particular had some strength in this area made the result particularly surprising, and indicated that the voters had rejected the advice of their elected representatives in Parliament. It was especially surprising that it had a slightly higher Yes majority than John Mackintosh’s Lothian Region, where Conservative-dominated Edinburgh was thought to help put it higher in the Yes column than Central Scotland.

     In total, Scotland voted 58.4% to 41.6% in favor of Britain’s EU membership. It was a nearly two-to-one majority, with the Western Isles and Shetland being the only counting areas in the whole UK to vote No, and the SNP failed in their hopes of driving a wedge against the rest of the UK to peddle their grievances and agitate for separation.

     However, if any of this sounds familiar, it is. Today’s SNP is once again attempting to use the European issue to as a means to break-up Britain, and they are being quite vocal about it.

     The main difference today is that the SNP has become – at least on the surface – a party strongly in favor of the modern-day EU. During the 1980’s, they adopted the “Independence in Europe” slogan and saw Scottish membership of the EU as a desirable way to get around the argument that with independence, Scotland would be cast out alone. Even without independence, the party has gone out of its way to show how Scotland benefits from the UK being a member (just as other parts of the country do as well), and throughout the last independence campaign, it tried to convince voters that separating from the UK would not mean that Scotland would be out of the EU. On the contrary, it would likely become a member in its own right automatically, and if that was not the case, it would surely become a member in short order with its share of the UK’s opt-outs, such as the Thatcher rebate and not having to adopt the euro.

     With overwhelming evidence against them on this point, the voters rejected the SNP’s claims and elected to stay part of the UK, but since then, the Nationalists have been claiming that it is the upcoming EU referendum that represents the greatest threat to Scotland’s participation in the EU. As such, they have talked up the possibility of another independence referendum if Scotland “gets dragged out of the EU against its will”. Should this happen, they and many people in the media believe they stand a chance of winning that referendum because (assuming the polls are correct) Scots favor the EU much more than their fellow British citizens other parts of the UK – England in particular – and will vote accordingly whenever the referendum comes.

     Indeed, as in 1975, there are some elements within the party what would like to see tactical voting used so as to ensure a result in which the majority of Scots vote to retain EU membership and the UK as a whole votes differently to withdraw from the EU. Even among those SNP voters who do not want EU membership, some may vote against their natural desires in a tactical maneuver they believe will undermine the UK government’s legitimacy in Scotland and drive independence forward.

     This is somewhat questionable and it is likely that the leadership of the party does not hold these views on tactical voting, especially given the party’s political strength today which vastly outstrips the success they had in the 1970’s. If for some unforeseen reason however, the vote gets tight in Scotland and perhaps even a majority of Scots vote to terminate the UK's membership, it may well be the SNP that ends up with egg on its face if the rest of the UK votes to stay in and delivers on the party position of the SNP - effectively bailing it out.

     Nevertheless, their saber-rattling over the EU issue and potentially using it as an excuse to call another referendum shows how they – despite promising the 2014 referendum would be “once in a generation” – are always trying to stoke up division and drive wedges, as well as find grievances to peddle and ways to keep the independence issue alive with the aim of hi-jacking other issues to get what they want (and Tarditi writes that to some extent, the SNP forms its position on Europe to simply to put itself at odds with the UK government). On the surface, they may campaign for the UK to stay in, but there may well be a part of them that relishes in the prospect of the overall UK voting to leave and Scotland voting to stay in.

     Hopefully, as the late John Mackintosh said in 1975 when the SNP tried this trick, most people – not just in Scotland, but throughout Britain – will focus on the main issue of EU membership. They need to think about the vote and the implications for themselves, their families, and the country in which they live – the United Kingdom – and go forward together with the decision made together.

New Settlement Unfair, You Say? Stick with the Current One.

  The SNP is haggling over a new cash deal from Westminster. Image Credit:  Howard Lake  via  Flickr   cc

The SNP is haggling over a new cash deal from Westminster. Image Credit: Howard Lake via Flickr cc

     Through this week, there have been rumblings that the SNP may reject the “more powers” for which they have been agitating – and unconsciously concede that the United Kingdom has been good for Scotland.

     This has been going for some time, but it really came to the fore last Sunday, when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show at her official residence of Bute House in Edinburgh for an interview which covered a range of topics that will affect the political landscape throughout the year.

     Among the topics discussed was the new “fiscal framework” which must be agreed to by the UK and Scottish governments in light of the powers over income and other taxes and receipts which are set to be devolved to Holyrood in accordance to the Scotland Bill which was passed by the House of Commons last year. Basically, the new powers and the ability of Holyrood to tax within Scotland need to be offset with cuts to the block grant from Westminster which currently funds the Scottish Government, which is determined by the Barnett Formula.

     Technically, the UK Government can bring the bill into force when it passes its final stages at Westminster, where the House of Lords is in the process of scrutinizing it. However, it is an established convention that Holyrood should give consent to such legislation with regard to the devolution settlement and the ability to increase (or decrease) the amount of legislative authority controlled by Holyrood. Thus, the fiscal framework must, at least according to the SNP, be completed by mid-February in time for MSP’s to scrutinize the overall devolution package brought about by the Smith Commission in 2014, so that it can be brought into effect before the Scottish parliamentary election in May.

     In her interview with Andrew Marr however, the First Minister stated that there was “a long distance still to travel” in negotiations over the fiscal framework and warned that the UK Government must show “significantly more movement” on her demands for how the block grant is to be adjusted. Finance Secretary John Swinney has also stated that both sides are still a ways apart from a deal, and Sturgeon said that she will not “sign up to something that is unfair to Scotland” – effectively saying that her MSP’s (the majority at Holyrood) will vote to block the legislation and scupper the arrival of the new powers.

     Now to be fair to the First Minister, there are understandable issues that need to be worked out to the best and fairest extent possible. As The Herald noted on Saturday, although the changes to the block grant “should be straightforward on day one”, it is how the grant is adjusted in the years and decades to come which is “proving hugely complex and contentious.” It continued by saying that “small shifts in the relative economies and populations of Scotland and the UK could result in major changes” which under at least one scenario, could result in Scotland being “hundreds of millions of pounds worse off.” 

     Again, these issues must be given due consideration in the pursuit of a deal that does justice for Scotland, the other parts of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom as a whole. However, this is what the SNP signed up for when they agreed to the Smith Commission recommendations in 2014. Yes, there was a “no detriment” clause to prevent Scotland and the rest of the UK from being better off or worse off as a result of the new constitutional arrangements, but it’s difficult to believe that this meant that Holyrood would continue receiving the same amount of public spending per person per year above the UK average.

     According to The Herald:

“Mr Swinney favours a mechanism known as per capita indexation, which would protect Scotland if, as expected, its population grows more slowly than England’s.”

Leading economists agree the method would be the most advantageous for Scotland, potentially adding hundreds of millions of pounds to Holyrood’s budget within three or four years compared with other systems for adjusting the block grant.”

     However, with the devolution of setting income tax rates and bands (and less money going to the Treasury in London), such a system “would be unfair on the rest of the UK as increasing amounts of income tax raised south of the Border would be used to fund services in Scotland” as opposed to reducing it, which would seem to be the logical thing to do.

     Sturgeon says that she wants the new powers in the Scotland Bill, but the disagreement over the fiscal framework has the appearance of not wanting any of the consequences of having those new powers, as I wrote back during the tax credits debate at Holyrood last year.

     Indeed, the Daily Record’s editorial that week is apt for today’s circumstances:

"Moan, moan, bitch, bitch, whinge, whinge. Their response has been as negative as it was predictable. A cynic might argue that the SNP don’t actually want those new powers because it makes them more accountable to the people of Scotland."

     Therefore, one may wonder if this is an effort to stall the new powers from taking effect by setting out a negotiation that dooms the talks over the fiscal framework to failure. This thereby blunts the debate on the use of the new powers during the election campaign. Instead, the powers themselves and the fallout from the failure of an agreed framework will take up much of the campaign oxygen, which the SNP believes will benefit them and allow them to continue blaming Westminster and getting around the issues concerning their nine year record in government, which is not entirely sunny, to say the least.

     Like fracking and other issues, the government appears to be putting off final decisions on them until after the election, lest they cause splits in the SNP’s broad church of socialists, neo-liberals, progressives, environmentalists, fossil fuel promoters, free-marketers, social democrats, small “c” conservatives, and hard-core nationalists.

     Indeed, this has the hallmarks of former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill when he explained why he blocked the extension of voting rights to prisoners in 2014, despite supporting the idea. It was he said, “the wrong thing done, albeit for the right reasons”, and for MacAskill, the right reasons were to “avoid any needless distractions in the run-up to the [independence] referendum, to deny the right-wing press lurid headlines that could tarnish the bigger picture.”

     This time, the bigger picture is the election in May, and it may well be that the deal falls through now, but then the SNP suddenly signs up to it over the summer (after winning a second outright majority and unprecedented third term in Holyrood), with Sturgeon, Swinney, or another senior member solemnly stating – as they always do on these matters – that it doesn’t go far enough, but they’ll make do.

     If this happens, they will have tested the delicate constitutional and fiscal system to destruction, but to what end?

     When the First Minister said she would “not sign up to something that is unfair to Scotland”, her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell tweeted this statement on Twitter, and this was followed by my fellow blogger Kevin Hague (@kevverage), who said: “you relentlessly claim we’re being hard done by the UK, but now you’re desperate to preserve the benefits of union?”

     From this question by Kevin, I chimed in with a question of my own: “By implication, are they saying that the UK has indeed been fair for Scotland all this time?” Kevin responded in a retweet that it was “quite hard to avoid this conclusion.” 

     Logically speaking after all, if this new settlement is deemed unfair, what does it say about the current one?

     Under the current system, the Barnett Formula automatically dictates the amount of public spending in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland based on adjustments to spending in England, so that when spending on health or education are changed in England, this changes the amount of public spending (known as “Barnett consequentials”) for the devolved governments of the UK.

     It was created in the 1970’s as a temporary measure, but has all but become a permanent part of the UK constitution. With regard to Scotland as Brian Wilson noted in The Scotsman last week, it came about in the era of administrative devolution when responsibility for Scottish matters were primarily in the hands of the Scottish Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland in the UK Cabinet. With legislative devolution, the formula is the primary means by which the Scottish Government is funded – a “valuable legacy which Holyrood inherited”, says Wilson.

     The formula has been heavily criticized for that fact that it typically results in more spending per head in Scotland than the UK average (and higher than all parts of the UK except Northern Ireland), but Wilson argues this is defensible “on grounds of geography, historic needs and indeed past distribution in the other direction.” On the last point, he refers to the three out of past 15 years when Scotland (on the back of high oil prices and revenues) paid more into the UK Treasury than got out, but adds that that in the course of time, the net flows of cash can go both ways so that it balances out in the grand scheme of pooling and sharing throughout the United Kingdom.

     In the current circumstances, Wilson refers to Barnett as “a safety net which benefits Scotland” – this year to the tune of around £10 billion more than Scotland’s contribution to the Treasury. Despite the dramatic collapse in oil prices and revenue (only a small fraction of overall UK revenues), whatever is spent in the UK overall, Scotland gets a fixed share that (again) is higher than the UK average per person which explains the “bigger public sector” and therefore, “higher average wage rates.”

     Furthermore, says Wilson, there is the matter of “dollops of additional money in the course of a year” which result from Whitehall spending increases for special projects and emergency needs. Here, he refers to the recent flooding that has taken place throughout the UK, so that when additional money was allocated for flood relief and recovery in England, Scotland automatically received an additional nine million pounds. Even more crucially, he pointed out that Holyrood stands to receive an extra £1.5 billion in Barnett consquentials resulting from the proposed HS2 project in England. Still further, if a third runway at Heathrow is constructed, even more cash will get sent to Holyrood, and just this week came the signing of the £500 million City Deal for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, which will be jointly funded by the UK and Scottish government’s (which is similar to some joint federal and state initiatives in the United States, such as the harbor deepening project in my hometown of Savannah, GA).

     Once Barnett cash (funded by taxpayers throughout the UK, including Scotland) arrives at Holyrood, it is entirely up to Holyrood to decide how it is spent. So for example, if spending on education goes up in England, there is no obligation on Holyrood to spend an additional proportionate amount on education in Scotland; how Barnett consequentials are spent is at the discretion of Holyrood. As Wilson states:

“The decision to give £500m less to local authorities while Scotland’s block grant increased by £250m (with an underspend of £350m from last year) was taken entirely in Scotland. The decisions to allocate Barnett consequentials so that NHS expenditure in Scotland has risen by less than in Tory England are taken entirely in Scotland.”

     It is therefore disingenuous to claim that the root of all of Scotland’s problems lay with Westminster and the “austerity agenda”, for it is the Scottish Government led by the SNP that has the money and tools (with more to come) at its disposal to help improve people’s lives and prospects in Scotland. What matters is how it uses those tools.

     On this point, Naomi Eisenstadt, its own independent adviser on poverty and inequality has reported that two of its landmark policies – the council tax freeze and free universal services – are not helpful for those in poverty and hardship. On the former, she said that it at a cost to councils and “with disagreements about the equality and poverty impacts of the freeze” – noting that “those on low incomes at or above the poverty threshold…may not be covered by [the] full council tax reduction.” On the latter, she warned that free universal services may lead to “spreading a limited budget too thinly to help those who need the service the most.”

     In other words, these are Holyrood (not Westminster) policies that disproportionately benefit the well-off while those in poverty suffer from cutbacks either resulting from the provisioning of free services to people who can afford to pay or cash-strapped councils trying to adhere to the council tax freeze (under the pain of a financial penalty from the Scottish Government). She suggested shifting away from universalism to targeted provision of services that can be “delivered without stigma” and said that the government “should consider ending the council tax freeze from 2017/18 onwards.”

     This assessment was not surprising to many people – particularly in the Labour Party like Wilson – who have been making these points for some time as a means to bring the SNP to task for the claims that it is progressive party standing for social justice, when its actions in government are at the least more centrist than its rhetoric.

     For that matter, when it comes to government, choices have to be made. The SNP has chosen to fund the council tax freeze over allowing rates to rise on the better-off, and it has chosen to fund universal services (such as tuition-free universities) as opposed to spending money on those who need it most. When it comes to spending priorities with precious resources, the SNP has made its budgetary priorities known.

     The problem according to Wilson, is not one of persecution, as it is one of distribution and priorities, and that Holyrood only needs to engage in “modest tweaking” to reduce inequality, such as raising taxes a bit and revamping government toward helping those who are disadvantaged. This is bolstered by a report from Scotland in Union, which surveyed economic experts and think tanks from across Europe who concluded that with its current powers and powers yet to come, Holyrood “now holds most of the powers it needs to promote economic growth, jobs and prosperity in Scotland.”

     Instead, the SNP relies on the pitiful narrative about Scotland being the helpless, defenseless victim of the Union - always being flogged senseless and mercilessly by Westminster and belonging to a hopeless constitutional structure that does not work for Scotland and the Scottish people.

     But again, if the SNP is all about refusing to accept a new fiscal settlement on the grounds that it is unfair, then what does it say about the current one? It reveals that – far from being hard-up – Scotland does well as part of the United Kingdom under the current system. With smart decisions, it can do even better under the new arraignments, as opposed to the constant complaints over perceived and hyped-up grievances and the well-worn Nationalist adage that “only with independence…” can Scotland fulfill its potential.

     Even people who support separation acknowledge that going forward – having failed to break up the UK in 2014 – the goal is for a better Scotland. This was expressed by David Carr on Common Space when he asked: “Should we not simply be making Scotland a better place - for the hell of it?” To this end, he further said that “not everything…has to be about indy” and that Holyrood ought to use the powers it currently has (and is anticipated to have), because after all, not everyone supports separation – including many SNP voters.

     He didn’t exactly say it, but he seemed to imply that if this is possible within the Union (which I believe has been the case), then so be it.

     Meanwhile, The National stated in an editorial this week that the “SNP have always pushed for more devolution at all costs and have never shied away from that position” in the pursuit of independence, but now say that “Swinney and the government will have to ask if the powers promised in the Scotland Bill are worth whatever cost there may might be.”

     This is quite an extraordinary statement from some of the same people who could not credibly answer the currency and other economic/financial issues two years ago, and appeared determined to go for separation at any cost. This cost will become more stark in a few months than it was then with the release of the latest Government Expenditures and Revenues Scotland (GERS), which are expected to reveal the impact of oil prices well below what the SNP’s White Paper projected for an independent Scotland (which would have become a reality in March this year had there been a vote for separation).

     If the Nationalists cannot accept the cost of the promised powers – including the ability to set income tax and bands, keeping half of VAT revenues generated in Scotland, borrowing abilities, and new welfare powers – then how does this bode for accepting the cost of full fiscal autonomy or complete independence?

     At this point, with all of the effort that has gone into the Scotland Bill and the negotiating the framework, it would be a shame to see it collapse at this juncture. Indeed, it is especially a shame considering that Swinney previously endorsed a method known as “indexed deduction”, which he hailed as “the most robust mechanism” for recalculating the block grant, and which has already been agreed to with regard to Holyrood’s existing income tax powers.

     Either he got his figures wrong with “indexed deduction”, or he knows that with “per capita indexation”, he is offering an arrangement that the UK government cannot possibly sell the other nations of the UK and the UK as a whole. Their position has been that the Smith Agreement “was clear that Scotland should hold Scotland-specific risks, while the UK should hold UK-wide risks.”

     If the SNP thinks that the “Scotland-specific risks” are too great, then perhaps they should admit it, and instead propose a UK-wide convention or a Royal commission to work out a new governmental and constitutional framework for the country and its constituent parts, so that all corners of the realm down the council level can have their say on what should happen going forward and come to an agreement that is fair to all.

     Either that, or just keep Barnett the way it is. If anything, Swinney’s effort to “protect Scotland” financially shows how important the Union is to Scotland and that even the SNP is effectively conceding this reality.