Another week passes and another poll is released, casting doom and gloom upon the unionist parties as the general election gets nearer and nearer.
Observers could be forgiven for thinking that the SNP is playing some marvellous game, coming up with all sorts of attractive policy announcements and arguments that wrong-foot their opponents. In fact, the reverse is true; the SNP is lurching from one political embarrassment to the next – and yet it escapes without so much as a red face, never mind a black eye.
The performance targets for Accident and Emergency are missed, the bill to keep Prestwick airport open just keeps mounting (now reaching £40 million), the future of Longannet Power Station hangs on a thread, the prospects of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant surviving are thrown into doubt, and now there is a real prospect that Scottish ID cards are just around the corner – all these and more are a direct result of Scottish Government policy.
Politically then, these really are strange times, suggesting that for those that voted Yes, the referendum was so polarising and then the grief of losing so great that many have been transformed to see politics in a different way. Independence for many now appears to have become an article of faith, a form of religion, which means anything can be forgiven, anything endured to defend the creed. In other words, voters begin to consider and support independence at any cost. Suddenly, irrational policies that will bring nothing but pain – not just personally but for the whole nation – become acceptable and worth pursuing.
Such behaviour would certainly go a long way to explaining why our SNP government is being forgiven for so much that is wrong with our country. The SNP has been in power since 2007, a year before the recession kicked off, three years before the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition came to power.
In that time, the performance of our education and health services has continued to worsen relative to those in England – even though the SNP has (thanks to the generosity of the UK Treasury’s Barnett formula) been able to spend about 20 per cent more per person, year-on-year. It is no use blaming Westminster: the MPs there have not been able to take decisions about our public services for the past 16 years – and, in the meantime, have been agreeable to increasing the Scottish Government’s budget, now at its second-highest in real terms.
Over that period, the Scottish Government has sought to expand the activity of government (which pushes up the bill) and centralise more of what government does (which reduces local accountability). That combination means this SNP administration is more powerful than any government before it, bar none. When it comes to being responsible for the state of our public services or delivering a more competitive and successful economy within the UK, the buck stops with the First Minster.
It was, therefore, interesting to see Nicola Sturgeon announce this week what was branded as a “refresh” of her government’s economic policies. The result was a strategy document replete with managerial jargon but short on economic logic or basic numeracy. Instead of presenting how regulations would be liberalised and the burden of costs reduced, so as to give Scottish commerce an advantage against competitors, or how entrepreneurs would be set free to create and invent new services, processes and products that would create jobs and spread prosperity, the document focused on delivering a more equitable society. Fine words, but sharing out a pie that has not yet been made will leave everyone starving.
What we are in fact witnessing is a further example of Nicola Sturgeon positioning her party to be more socialist than the rest. This was not a strategy for economic success but a conscious policy shift to be to the left of Labour – which is why Sturgeon has dumped Alex Salmond’s policy of cutting business taxes.
Look deep enough and you will see that she does not want a Labour victory in the general election but hopes for a Conservative government that she and her party can campaign against. And if that doesn’t happen and Labour is in pole position to form a minority or coalition government? Why, the answer is to make the UK ungovernable by holding Ed Miliband to ransom. By raising the bar for cutting a deal, the SNP will outflank Miliband from the left on issues such as replacing Trident or austerity policies needed to turn the deficit into surplus and reduce the national debt.
Much as Nicola Sturgeon wants her party to do well in the general election, her real target is to retain power at Holyrood in 2016. By seeking to remain untainted by association with any Westminster government, Sturgeon believes she will be able to appeal to natural Labour voters who must eventually feel let down by a government that has to take the really hard decisions that are necessary in the real world. Offering seemingly attractive but fantastically unachievable policies are all part of that strategy.
And if, meanwhile, the poor get poorer? So what. Independence at any cost is the goal, not social justice.