What would you do with £350 million?
Pay off the mortgage? Go on a world cruise? Buy Greece?
The possibilities are limitless. Unless, of course, you are the SNP. The Nationalists are positively glum about the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget that Scotland will get an extra £350 million from the Treasury. The Barnett Formula, the Union dividend that gives Scotland higher public spending per head than England and Wales, means increases in expenditure at Westminster boost the coffers of the Scottish Government too.
If you reckon that represents a good deal for Scotland, that no reasonable person could turn their nose up at hundreds of millions of pounds, you’ve never met a Scottish Nationalist.
When Philip Hammond revealed Scotland’s windfall to the Commons yesterday, he slyly allowed himself a pause, knowing the tartan grievance junkies across the floor would sooner chew on a thistle than acknowledge a Tory Chancellor doing well by Scotland. Hammond gestured to the Nationalist benches, grinning with cheery malice as the TV cameras followed his stage direction. There sat 54 sullen Nationalists, seething at their good fortune. A prime opportunity for kindling resentment wasted; talking points about wicked Westminster doing Scotland down would have to be shredded.
Twitter, the 21st century steamie where Nats go to girn, was soon fizzing with outrage. ‘The Chancellor there, describing additional Barnett consequentials coming to Scotland like he’s dishing out sweeties to kids,’ huffed Gavin Newlands, MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire North. ‘Barnett consequentials are a drop in the ocean against a decade of austerity with more cuts to come,’ snipped Liz Lloyd, Nicola Sturgeon’s chief of staff. ‘English Tory MPs baying at the SNP that Scotland is getting “our money”. Not sure that is how people in Scotland will see it,’ stirred Angus Robertson, the Nats’ chief rouser of rabbles in SW1.
This, remember, was all because the UK Government wants to hand the Nationalist regime at Holyrood one-third of a billion pounds. Only the SNP could win the lottery and complain about the cost of the phone call to Camelot.
Instead of smouldering over absent oppression, the Nationalists could find something positive to do with this bump to their bottom line. The Scottish Government could use the cash to reverse their cuts to council funding or to invest in education to counteract negative indicators on literacy, numeracy, and the attainment gap.
Or it could wake up to the damage its taxation policies are doing to the Scottish economy and act before it is too late. The Scottish Government’s own budget, set last month, slugged Scots who pay the higher rate of income tax. As part of a deal struck with the Scottish Greens, finance secretary Derek Mackay agreed to freeze the threshold at which the 40p rate comes into effect at £43,000.
The SNP had previously said it would increase the qualifying level by inflation to ease the squeeze on the aspirational. His U-turn meant Mr Mackay got the votes to pass his budget — and Patrick Harvie could pretend to have influence over Nicola Sturgeon’s administration. But it was Scots families who got the sharp end of the deal. Almost 400,000 taxpayers will have their pockets picked of an additional £400, putting £29 million into the piggy bank at St Andrew’s House in the first year.
Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed the UK Government would be raising the threshold to £45,000 south of the Border, making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the country. Mr Mackay could dip into his new £350 million kitty to undo his ill-considered tax grab and close the gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Greens would not like it but let them scowl into their organic yoghurt; Scotland’s prosperity matters more than the hurt feelings of Mr Harvie and his band of economic obscurantists.
By allowing Scotland to become the most taxpayer-unfriendly place to live in the UK, the SNP does great harm to the nation’s economy. They hang a giant ‘Sorry, we’re closed’ sign at Gretna, warning the skilled and the entrepreneurial to stay away unless they want their wallets lightened by a government that has no experience of managing a tax system and no understanding of the daily struggle of families trying to get by.
Whether it’s extra powers or extra money, the SNP always prefers acrimony to action. They demand more autonomy but refuse to do anything with it. How much easier it is to stoke division about the concentration of wealth in London than it is to pursue policies that would grow Scotland’s wealth and build an economy that can compete. Of course, the Nats would be loath to relinquish another pretext for grumbling but, more than that, it would require a ministerial team up to the job. Other than rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing, a rare member of Miss Sturgeon’s ministry with a sound grasp of economics, Scotland’s wealth creators find themselves without a champion in Edinburgh.
For some time now, Derek Mackay has been promoted in Nationalist circles as the prince across the water, the next-in-line for the separatist crown once Miss Sturgeon’s time is up. These predictions carried the plausibility of an impressive record: Mr Mackay had been a forward-thinking leader of Renfrewshire Council and knuckled down to the Holyrood transport brief, surviving the Forth Road Bridge row with a mix of tenacity and luck. But since his promotion to finance secretary he has failed to live up to early promise. His humiliating climbdown over business rates — after insisting he had done everything he could, his mentor Alex Salmond delivered a clip round the ear by publicly backing calls for action — severely damaged his credibility.
But to pile the blame on Mr Mackay is to let his predecessor off the hook. John Swinney performed so many U-turns it’s a wonder the wheels are still on the Scottish economy. Plans to scrap the council tax were dropped and its replacement, a local income tax, was quietly shelved. A 50p tax rate was backed in one election and backtracked in the next. Mr Swinney’s land and buildings transaction tax was sent back to the drawing board after the UK Government made its own changes to stamp duty.
All governments can be incompetent. Incompetence, in small doses, can be forgiven. Cluelessness is a different matter. Cluelessness is inherent and can’t be corrected by changing a policy or adopting a new strategy. A government that is clueless may be in power but it is not fit to govern.
The bold 54 didn’t just sit on their hands yesterday because cheering a Tory Chancellor would have stuck in their craw. They were frozen in stupor because they have no grasp of what Scotland’s economy needs or what it could be. The SNP has spent more than 80 years agitating for Scotland to run its own affairs. Now that it does — to the greatest extent possible without secession from the UK — it is becoming more and more obvious that they have neither the ideas nor the ministerial talent to take Scotland forward. These are nationalists without a vision for the nation; Potemkin patriots who, to borrow from their literary lodestar, ‘canna learn, sae canna move/ But stick for aye to their auld groove.’
What a dismal sight. The party sworn to ‘stand up for Scotland’, so stuck in its auld groove that it greets a bounty as a burden.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.