This week, the SNP launched its ‘summer of independence’ campaign. June’s Brexit vote saw Scotland vote by 62-38 majority for Remain, but the euroscepticism of English and Welsh voters swung the overall result in Leave’s favour. In the view of the SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s will has been overridden by the anti-progressive forces ascendant in the rest of the UK: thus, a second independence referendum is justifiable. However, the SNP’s language obscures the gap between rhetoric and reality insofar as progressivism is concerned. If unionist opponents scrutinise this more closely than has hitherto been the case, the SNP’s argument for independence can be sunk for the foreseeable future.
The SNP also appear in a strong position vis-à-vis the achievement of independence because of the nature of devolution, which makes governing relatively easy. The failure of two successive Scotland Acts to address the imbalance in the Scottish Parliament’s spending and revenue-raising powers mean that Holyrood spends more money than it raises itself. Since 1999, Holyrood has raised less than one-tenth of taxation, but has been responsible for over half of the decisions ascertaining to public spending in Scotland. Much of the money spent is from an annual block grant provided by Westminster – some £37.5 billion for the SNP’s Finance Minister to balance. Crucially though, Derek Mackay does not have to make decisions regarding taxation – that is still Westminster’s role. All Mackay has to do is decide where that £37.5 billion goes, which gives the SNP the political space to focus on constitutional issues.
However, the SNP’s use of these Westminster block grants does not show a radical divergence from policy norms south of the border. In 1999, spending on health and education as a percentage of the Scottish Government’s budget was greater than England’s. During the SNP’s time in office, this share has fallen to a level below that of England. From 2010/11 to 2012/13, schools spending in Scotland was cut by 5% in real terms. Significantly, such a statistic points to the SNP engaging in cutting back public spending, something that undermines their claim to be custodians of anti-austerity politics.
Aside from their repudiation of austerity (at least, rhetorically), the SNP also claims to be ‘progressive’ in its anti-tuition fees stance. Yet the outcomes arising from this are anything but. The continuance of free university education has actually been to the detriment of poorer Scottish students. In 2013, the SNP cut their bursary funding. Equally as damning is the fact that Scotland has the lowest rate of bursaries in Western Europe – a consequence of the 50% real-terms cut to targeted grants made by the SNP since 2007. Their emphasis on free university education over targeted grants has ensured that Scotland is the only UK nation where poorer students borrow more than their wealthier peers. Furthermore, this emphasis has not even increased the number of students from poor backgrounds going to university. In 2008/9, 8% of students attending the ancient Scottish universities came from the poorest fifth of backgrounds, a figure that has remained static for the last six years.
Elsewhere, the SNP are in denial as to the regressive implications of its healthcare policies. The share of A&E patients seen within four hours has been steadily decreasing since 2011. However, rather than address the cause of the problem – the SNP’s insistence on centralised healthcare structures, it merely introduced a “treatment time guarantee”. This guarantee does not, though, tackle the structural problems of the Scottish NHS. These stem from the tight control exerted over health boards by Holyrood and the SNP’s aversion to the involvement of the private sector, which has resulted in a centralised healthcare structure that is simply not flexible enough to successfully meet demand for treatment as and where it arises. From 2013 to 2015, the wait for inpatient treatment rose by six days. The SNP’s response was to tell senior Scottish NHS statisticians to refrain from speaking to journalists about the scale of the problems faced by their A&E departments – an action indicative of a government refusing to properly acknowledge or engage with problems that were largely of its own making.
The SNP were similarly disingenuous when talking about which parties they would deal with in the event of a hung parliament at the 2015 general election. In its manifesto, they promised to “lock the Tories out of Downing Street” if there was the possibility of assembling a ‘progressive majority’ in the House of Commons. Yet, as ever with the SNP, the reality is slightly more complicated than its rhetoric would have one believe. During the 2007-11 Scottish Parliament, the SNP minority government worked with the Scottish Conservatives to pass its budgets. Furthermore, between 2012-14 the region of Dumfries and Galloway was administered by a Conservative-SNP council.
Any analysis of the SNP must remember that, first and foremost, it is a party of nationalism. Its constitution commits the party to striving for an independent Scotland – grandly framed as “the full restoration of full powers to the Scottish Parliament”. Such nationalism is undeniably civic, in the sense that the SNP’s conception of what it means to be “Scottish” is not based around racial ideas of descent. However, what few politicians inside and outside Scotland have chosen to comment on is that SNP ‘Scottishness’ vilifies those that do not subscribe to its aim of independence. During the 2014 independence referendum, the then Shadow Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy, had to abandon a speaking tour because of the threats made to his safety that emanated predominantly from SNP activists; their progressivism a front for the divisive politics of separation.
While the SNP talk a progressive game, the reality points to the party as one which primarily appeals to the self-interest of middle-class Scots. For them, the SNP governing in Holyrood and having a 54 seat-strong presence in Westminster is a win-win situation. They are repeatedly told that the SNP holds ostensibly kinder, more egalitarian values, yet they have not been asked to forgo any privileges. In Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland, their children’s’ university education is still free, while their council tax has remained frozen. It is unsurprising that the SNP’s claims to be the premier progressive political party in Scotland are not questioned more by a contented middle-class. Ergo, it is imperative that the other parties in Holyrood and Westminster set about challenging the powerful, but ultimately false myth of ‘progressivism’ that surrounds the SNP. The future of the United Kingdom will most likely depend on how well they do so.