Four years ago the Scottish National party became – by one seat – the largest in the Scottish parliament and formed a minority government. Opinion polls suggest increased SNP representation after Thursday’s election but the party will still be short of an overall majority.
When the election campaign began, the Scottish Labour party was well ahead in the polls. Intentions have changed as voters have been reminded that Alex Salmond, the SNP leader – possibly the most accomplished British politician today – is a credible first minister of Scotland and have realised that his opponent, Labour’s Ian Gray, is not. The debate has not been about issues, and certainly not about the only issue distinguishing the parties – the demand for independence that gives the SNP its raison d’être. But if the principal question is who should be leader of the gang in the school playground of Scottish politics, then the pugnacious Mr Salmond runs well ahead of a decent man who lacks public persona.
But it is time for the politics of a devolved parliament, 12 years old, to move from childhood to adolescence. It has been a slow process and a spoiled infancy must take much of the blame. Public spending on health and education in Scotland has for long been between 10 and 15 per cent more per head than the English level, with little discernible benefit – in parts of western Scotland, morbidity, mortality and long-term youth unemployment are as bad as anywhere in Europe. The effect of Gordon Brown’s spending splurge, translated into an increase in the block grant to the Scottish government, was to increase expenditure by more than 50 per cent in real terms in the first seven years of the restored parliament.
The result is that the policy differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK do not reflect differences in conditions – they simply expend public money for populist purposes such as free university tuition and the abolition of bridge tolls. Edinburgh’s tramway, stands half-completed, a monument to a system that still struggles to budget prudently or spend wisely.
The next few years will have to be different. The economic background is less benign, overshadowed by the collapse of Scotland’s two main banks. The block grant, which provides all resources available to the Scottish government, is squeezed by Westminster austerity. At the same time a new financial regime for determining allocations to Scotland comes into force.
This plan emerged from the Calman Commission, a curious inquiry supported by the (anti-SNP) opposition at Holyrood and the (Labour) government at Westminster. It replaces part of the block grant by an allocation based on a hypothetical calculation of the amount Scotland would have raised from certain taxes. The scheme supersedes the “tartan tax”, the power to vary the level of income tax in Scotland contained in the original devolution settlement. That authority was never intended to be used.
No one can imagine these measures are more than transitional. So does tentative adolescence give way to independent adulthood? The likely SNP victory does not alter the fact there is no majority in Scotland for independence and little chance of one. But greater autonomy with tax-raising capacity and borrowing capability is desirable – such freedom with responsibility is the only answer to the Scots’ capacity to react to frustration with grievance.
With that maximum of economic autonomy, independence for a small country today concerns symbols – flags and embassies, armies that can never act unilaterally – rather than substance. The Battle of Bannockburn was ought over issues that no longer arise. Belgium can function without a national government because so many issues that matter to people are handled either by provincial assemblies or by supranational bodies such as the EU or Nato. Today I can be a Scot and a UK citizen and a European – and expect to remain all these things.
John Kay has been a member of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers since 2007