Scottish politics has come to resemble a never-ending courtroom drama, with Nicola Sturgeon the hostile witness in the dock.
The First Minister was at the heart of the dishonest, two-year campaign for independence, the longest attempted mugging in history. She tried the same confidence trick again after the EU referendum but by then the country was wise to her. We know she did it, she knows she did it, but despite all the evidence she refuses to plead guilty.
The latest round of figures from Gers — Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland — is a reminder of how audacious the Nationalist plot was, and how close Scotland came to being gulled. Cast your mind back to those sun-dappled days of hope and change and you will recall how the promises of fortune flowed freely. A separate Scotland was to be a new land of milk and honey, Canaan on the Clyde.
There would be a chicken in every pot and as many barrels of oil as you could fit into a family saloon. Only it was fiction, a calculated deception by a party that believes in separation at all costs and would happily subsist on boiled thistles and stale shortbread as long as Scotland was independent. Yesterday’s Gers report confirmed that, far from the road to the Promised Land, independence was the path to penury.
The figures, produced by the Scottish Government’s own civil servants, show that being part of the UK brings the average Scot £1,750 more in spending than we contribute in revenue. And the price tag for independence? £13bn — that very unlucky number is where the Scottish deficit stands in 2017.
Left to face that alone, Scotland would have been forced to raise taxes until the pips squeaked — and keep on raising them until they upped and moved to England. The alternative, as Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale put it, would have meant ‘taking a sledgehammer to the welfare state’. Hospital wards would have closed, state pensions would have been slashed, hard-pressed families would have seen their incomes and standards of living dramatically cut. Economic brutalism on an eye-watering scale — all so some angry people with flags could feel better about themselves.
Yesterday, Miss Sturgeon spoke of the need to pay down this £13bn millstone around the necks of future generations. She was unable to spell out in any detail how she planned to do so. It was not the First Minister’s best day but then she has so few now. Perhaps she hopes the country will encounter Gers as a blizzard of statistics and shrug, or will be too busy running households and businesses to notice.
It’s true that Gers would not have been the talk of this morning’s breakfast table — most parents will have been too pre-occupied checking their children’s maths homework to look over the First Minister’s sums. But facts are stubborn little blighters and they aren’t going anywhere, such as the devastating revelation that Scotland would be up to £9 billion worse off than her predecessor Alex Salmond projected in his independence white paper.
The voters may not be excited by the graphs and charts but they know from everyday experience that Scotland’s economy is far from all it could be. And when the Scottish Parliament returns from recess, they expect the First Minister and her government to make a priority of growing the economy, backing business and supporting job creation. What they do not expect — and will not tolerate — is a return to the independence roadshow, that creaking caravan of grievance that has crawled through Scottish politics and brought a halt to the business of government.
Miss Sturgeon is scheduled to relaunch her ministry in September but fresh faces and novel soundbites are pointless without new priorities. That starts at the very top. Instead of touring London TV studios picking fights with UK Government ministers over Brexit, as has become her wont in the past year, the First Minister should find a way to work constructively with Theresa May’s administration.
At a time of acute economic challenge, and with the uncertainties of Brexit ahead, the SNP government retains its antagonistic mindset towards Westminster. Instead, ministers in Edinburgh and ministers in Whitehall should be on the same team — Scotland’s two governments working together in the country’s best interests.
The UK Government has already shown good faith. Last month it unveiled another City Deal, this time for Edinburgh and the south east, complete with a £300m cash injection. The Scottish Government matched the funds but as an insider said at the time it was done ‘through slightly gritted teeth — they resent sharing the credit with the UK Government’.
This is the kind of spiteful, juvenile behaviour that ill serves Scotland. For its part Whitehall hopes the devolution of income tax, which will show up in next year’s Gers, will spur the Nationalists to take more responsibility. A UK Government source says: ‘In future under the fiscal framework, it will become more important to grow the economy and therefore generate more tax income here in order to protect public services here. More devolution of taxes means more accountability.’
It’s a dismal affair that Scotland’s best hope for grown-up government is shaming ministers into doing their jobs.
There are many lessons Nicola Sturgeon should take from yesterday’s Gers figures but Unionists ought to reflect too. That £1,750 difference between what Scotland pays in and what we get back is a case in point. The Tories are chirping that it is a ‘Union dividend’ but it is a Scotland dividend, paid for by those elsewhere in the Union. Many people in England already feel shortchanged by the imbalance in public spending, and not without justification. The Barnett Formula is designed to be unfair to taxpayers down south.
The principle of redistributing wealth to the neediest parts of Glasgow and Dundee is a sound one but there are a great many pockets of deprivation across the Midlands and the north of England. There is no Barnett Formula for them.
Unionists must get out of the habit of treating the Gers report as the ultimate vindication of Scotland’s No vote. The Union is not a grubby transaction where Scots stick with it in exchange for higher public spending and access to the UK single market. It is about unity — a partnership that has stood the test through good and bad times, lean years and years of plenty.
Scots did not spurn separatism with their wallet alone — they did it with their head and their heart. They disavowed a project of division that tried to set us against one another. They repudiated the idea of erecting a border between the peoples who have shared these islands — farmed them, built them, raised families on them, and died defending them — for more than three centuries. It was love, not commerce, that saved the Union.
Gers is an annual reminder that Scotland is better off economically inside the UK — but we are better off in plenty other ways beside.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, remembering to reference the column. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.