The Scottish National Party's eight years in power in Scotland show it is not a party of governmentby John McDermott / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Now read this interview with the SNP’s right-wing
Two months before the Scottish National Party won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats at the general election, I watched its leader give a speech at the London School of Economics. Nicola Sturgeon told the audience that policy made by the government of the United Kingdom amounted to “simplistic measures to deal with complex problems.” The Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh has much to teach Westminster, where “short-term posturing can often trump strategic thinking,” added Scotland’s First Minister. Sturgeon called for transparency in writing budgets and for the UK government’s record to be “opened up to proper scrutiny.”
The same should be done for the SNP. The party has been in power in Scotland for eight years, as a minority administration from 2007 to May 2011, and thereafter as a majority government. None of the questions to Sturgeon from the media at LSE, however, concerned her party’s record in Edinburgh. Not for the first time, it was able to take advantage of an imbalance between what Scotland knows about the rest of the UK and what the rest of the UK knows about Scotland. Here was a microcosm of a bigger problem. For contrary to Sturgeon’s claim, it is not policymaking in Westminster that wants for scrutiny; it is that by the SNP government north of the border.
Since the SNP’s Holyrood victory in 2011, constitutional issues have dominated public life in Scotland. The plot-setting negotiations, the drama of the two-year referendum campaign and the astonishing denouement after the No vote in 2014 have diverted attention from the SNP’s main stage: government. Having smashed the Labour Party in Scotland, there is no doubt that the SNP is a phenomenal political force. But ahead of the election to Holyrood next year, it is essential for Scots to ask: what has the SNP actually done for Scotland?
What any government in Edinburgh can do for Scotland is determined by the Scotland Act 1998 and its subsequent amendments, most importantly the Scotland Act 2012. Scotland has far more control over its own affairs than many realise, though Sturgeon is inevitably calling for more. The 1998 legislation established the devolved parliament and laid out the powers that would be reserved for Westminster. In many cases, it built on the autonomy that Scottish institutions already enjoyed within the UK. Today, Scotland makes policy for its health service, nurseries, schools, colleges, universities, police, prisons, courts, councils, cultural institutions and in some areas of economic development.
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Holyrood is a parliament that spends more money than it raises itself. Since devolution, it has been responsible for more than half of public spending in Scotland, but less than one-tenth of tax revenues. The share of taxes raised in the country will rise to 16 per cent from April 2016, when the Scotland Act 2012 is implemented in full. It will increase further still, to about 40 per cent, under the proposals in the new Scotland bill announced in the Queen’s Speech. These will give Scotland a degree of devolution within a sovereign state only bested by Canadian provinces and Swiss cantons.
“John Swinney’s job is by definition not difficult”
The new Scotland bill legislates for the conclusions of the Smith Commission, the cross-party group established after the independence referendum to make real “The Vow” of further devolution by pro-union politicians in the final week of campaigning. Although the SNP signed up to the agreement coordinated by Robert Haldane Smith, it continues to argue that its plans do not go far enough, especially on the control of social security benefits.
An annual block grant from the UK government makes up the balance between what the Scottish government spends and what it raises in taxes. In 1999, the first year of the devolved parliament, public spending per head in Scotland was 12 per cent higher than in the UK overall, a figure that is essentially unchanged 16 years later. This reflects the generosity of the increasingly controversial Barnett formula used to calculate the grant from HM Treasury. “John Swinney’s job is by definition not difficult,” says Alex Bell, former head of policy for Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as SNP leader and First Minister. Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, must by law balance his £37.5bn budget. Referring to Swinney’s task, which has involved having to make relatively few decisions on taxation, Bell says, “he just has to divide up the pie.”
Still, how that pie is divided reveals something of the government’s priorities. In 1999, Scotland spent a higher share of its budget on health and education than England. But since the SNP took office this share has fallen below that south of the border. Spending on schools in Scotland was cut by 5 per cent in real terms from 2010/11 to 2012/13, according to Audit Scotland, an independent public spending watchdog, while remaining flat in England. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that health spending in England will increase by 6 per cent in real terms from 2009/10 to 2015/16; but in Scotland it will rise by only 1 per cent over the six-year period. In the second half of that period, from 2013/14 to 2015/16, health spending will actually fall in Scotland in real terms, according to Audit Scotland.
All this despite Scotland having to implement less austerity than England, due to the nature of the Barnett formula. Overall, Scotland cut spending on devolved public services by about 7-8 per cent between 2009/10 and 2015/16. In the same period, the UK government cut equivalent spending in England by about 12-13 per cent, according to the IFS.
How does Scotland use the relative flexibility afforded by its fiscal settlement? In 2013/14 it spent about 6.5 per cent more on health per person than the UK average, down from 16.5 per cent in 1998/1999. While allowing the extra amount it spends on health—and on education—to fall, the Scottish government has dramatically increased spending in other areas. For example, Scotland spends more than twice as much per person on “enterprise and economic development” and agriculture than the UK average, three-quarters more per person on transport and approximately one-half more on “recreation, culture and religion.”
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One might expect the Scottish government to reduce the extra amount it spends on core public services if Scotland’s health service, education system and police force were noticeably better than those in England. But there is little evidence that this is the case.
Over the past decade, the nature of the Scottish NHS has diverged from the health service in England. In 2004, the Labour-led government in Edinburgh abolished what remained of the internal market. The SNP has followed that lead. In Scotland, choice and competition among providers are largely absent. Personal care for the elderly and prescriptions are free. The Scottish system, with 14 regional health boards under the close command of government, more closely resembles the NHS in England before 1991 than today, according to Nick Timmins, senior fellow at the King’s Fund, a think tank focusing on health policy.
The SNP has kept the structure it inherited from Labour, while adding three elements that are characteristic of its approach to government. First, it tightly controls the institutions that deliver policy, in this case health boards. Any decision to use private sector treatment or to embark on major building at hospitals must be signed off by ministers. Second, the SNP has tried to legislate to achieve specific outcomes. The Patient Rights Act 2011 legally “guarantees” that patients will wait no more than 12 weeks between being told about and receiving their treatment. Third, the SNP has been reluctant to publish open, comprehensive and granular data.
Patients in Scotland are seen sooner than they were before devolution. But under the SNP, especially in the past few years, there is growing evidence that the NHS is going backwards. Released in May, the latest official data show rising waiting times. In the quarter to the end of March 2015, 47,390 outpatients waited more than 12 weeks before being seen; 21,987 waited more than 16 weeks. In the three months to March 2013, the figures were 21,524 and 5,014. As for outpatients still waiting after 12 weeks, the past three quarters have seen the highest numbers since the current measurement system was introduced in 2008. Also under the SNP, the share of A&E patients seen within four hours—another key target—has trended downwards since 2011.
The Scottish government’s ostensibly legally binding “treatment time guarantee” for inpatients is not being met. Since its introduction in late 2012, more and more patients have had to wait longer than 12 weeks for treatment. The target was missed only five times in the final quarter of 2012, but 4,499 times in the first quarter of 2015. The median wait for inpatient treatment has increased from 35 days to 41 days over the past two years.
Health boards are facing greater financial pressures. The most recent report on the NHS by the watchdog Audit Scotland concluded that “there are signs that NHS boards are facing increasing difficulty meeting their financial targets, and some are doing this in unsustainable ways”. Of the 14 health boards, four needed extra financing from the Scottish government to break even in 2013/14 and another five only did so by making one-off savings. NHS Tayside, for example, relied on selling property to repay its extra funding from Edinburgh. “There are increasing signs of pressure on NHS boards’ ability to meet demanding performance targets,” Audit Scotland summarised.
The cost to local authorities of providing “free” personal care for the elderly in their own homes has risen from £158m in 2004/5 to £364m in 2013/14. Another £130m is spent via nursing homes, up from £93m. However, with council tax having been frozen since 2007, councils have struggled to cope, as they are severely limited in their response to financial strains. (The SNP supports devolution to the Scottish parliament but no further; it eschews localism.) Data available only through freedom of information requests reveal that more than 1,600 pensioners are on council waiting lists for personal care; the figures, reported by the Sunday Post, exclude Glasgow, so the real length of the list will be much longer.
In 2014, the Health Foundation think tank and the Nuffield Trust compared the performance of the NHS in the four nations of the UK. They found that all countries’ “amenable mortality” (deaths that could have been prevented through better care) halved between 1990 and 2010, but the rate remained 20 per cent higher in Scotland than in England. The report also found that the northeast of England—which has demographics akin to those north of the border—had improved faster than Scotland. In 1990, mortality rates were similar. But by 2012/13, after high spending growth in Scotland but even greater increases in the north east, mortality rates in Scotland were up to 19 per cent higher.
Scotland’s health problems are deep-rooted. They cannot be considered apart from poverty and the country’s historic relationship with alcohol, poor diet and tobacco. (In one episode of the hit TV show, Rab C Nesbitt noted: “Some place Govan eh? Where else can you get a fish supper at 9am?”) However, these factors are well known, and present in the northeast of England, too. The SNP government has presided over—and arguably failed to fund properly—an unreformed health system that is increasingly struggling to cope.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of the SNP’s neglect is in education. Scotland is rightfully proud of its history of state schooling. Stirred by the philosophy of the “democratic intellect”—the idea that all pupils, no matter their background, should have access to a common pool of knowledge—Scotland led the UK, if not Europe, in educating the children of the industrial working class in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That legacy is fraying. Despite the SNP’s loud rhetorical commitment to “progressive” ends, it runs an education system that fails far too many of Scotland’s children, especially the poorest. “There is a lot of talk of social justice but not a lot of policies that achieve it,” said Sheila Riddell, Director of the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Edinburgh.
The SNP’s totemic policy is the abolition of tuition fees. In 2001, the Labour-led government in Edinburgh removed “up-front” fees for Scottish students, introducing a “graduate endowment fee” of £2,000 to be paid after graduation. This fee was abolished by the SNP minority administration in 2008. In England, meanwhile, the higher education reforms of the previous coalition government ensured that annual fees can now reach £9,000 per year.
The cost of Scotland’s fees policy keeps rising. Partly as a result, in 2013, the Scottish government cut bursaries for poorer students, while increasing the amount of debt students can incur. Grants have been cut by half in real terms since 2007; Scotland now has the lowest rate of bursaries in western Europe. As research by Lucy Hunter Blackburn, a former senior civil servant responsible for higher education, has shown, young students from families earning less than about £30,000 have lost out under the SNP: grant cuts since 2007 have more than outweighed any benefit from the abolition of the graduate endowment.
“The end of tuition fees has had no impact on the number of poorer Scots going to university”
At the LSE, Sturgeon spoke of how student debt would have stopped her from going to university; but because the SNP government has prioritised funding universal free tuition over targeted grants, Scotland is the only nation in the UK where poorer students will borrow more than richer students. The student grant system is the only welfare policy that the Scottish government directly controls, so one might also consider it indicative of where the party’s true priorities lie when it comes to choosing between helping poor Scots or appealing to the middle classes. Tellingly, when challenged about these effects, the party has been evasive or even denied them, appearing unable to recognise, much less admit, when its decisions will be damaging to the less affluent.
At the same time, the end of tuition fees has had no impact on the number of poorer Scots going to university, according to Riddell. Students from the poorest fifth of backgrounds made up only 8 per cent of entrants to Scotland’s ancient universities in 2008/9; in 2012/13, the share was also 8 per cent. The same pattern is clear among entrants to newer universities: 11 per cent came from the most deprived fifth in 2008/9 and 2012/13.
In England, the Office for Fair Access, established via 2004 legislation, is an independent regulator which encourages poorer students to attend universities. Scotland’s Commission on Widening Access met for the first time only in April. “Scotland came late to the game because it was assumed the no fees policy would automatically lead to more working-class students,” according to Riddell. The dogma of tuition fees has blinded the government to the broader picture. Riddell added that the removal of the cap on student numbers attending university in England should increase access to higher education among poorer students in that country. In Scotland, meanwhile, places in higher education remain tightly capped.
The failings at university level are closely related to the profound problems with Scotland’s schools. On several measures education is in a worse state than when the SNP took office in 2007. The most recent national numeracy and literacy statistics show declining shares of pupils assessed as performing “well” or “very well”. The issue is particularly acute for the least affluent Scots: nearly one-third (32 per cent) of second year high school pupils from the most deprived areas are not reading “well” or “very well” and the gap between them and their richer peers is widening, according to the 2014 Scottish Survey of Literacy.
In PISA, the influential international education tests, “Scotland’s performance was significantly worse in 2012 than it had been in 2000,” noted Keir Bloomer, an education expert and one of the authors of the country’s curriculum. The previous government shares responsibility for these results, but it was the SNP who withdrew Scotland from two other important cross-country tests: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS). Bloomer added: “It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Scotland has chosen to make itself less accountable by ceasing to take part in the surveys in which it tended to do less well.”
Bloomer also says that contrary to the SNP’s claims, the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils has widened. Referring to PISA results, Bloomer said that reading and maths scores declined by more among poorer pupils, and the only reason equity increased in science results is because those of richer students fell further than those of poor pupils. Referring to Scottish data, Bloomer added that “there is no evidence that the gap has narrowed.”
“The attainment gap [between rich and poor pupils] in England is slightly lower than in Scotland,” Riddell said. There has been no equivalent of the extraordinary improvement in London schools over the past decade. (This was of course influenced by demographic trends such as immigration that are less pronounced in Scotland.) Scottish cities fare far less well. In 2012, the Guardian found that only 2.5 per cent, or 220 children, from the poorest fifth of households in Scotland gained three A-grades at Higher, its main school qualification. In Dundee, only five achieved three As; in Edinburgh there were seven. In no state school did a majority of pupils graduate with five Highers, the typical requirement for top universities. In 2011, 46 of the 118 sixth-year pupils at Fettes College—the private school in Edinburgh attended by Tony Blair—earned the grades to compete for places at Oxbridge, roughly the same number as among all of the 8,842 pupils from the most deprived fifth of Scottish postcodes.
Ironically, there is a Scotsman who has recently overhauled state education, and drawn on the tradition of the democratic intellect, but Michael Gove has done so in England. The major reform to Scotland’s schools over the past decade has been the Curriculum for Excellence, introduced by Labour and implemented by the SNP. It is the antithesis of Gove’s emphasis on knowledge; here the focus is on “context-specific, whole-school approaches.” Bloomer supports the curriculum’s aims. Riddell, however, worried that: “If educators proceed on the assumption that children from different social backgrounds need access to different types of knowledge… access to high status academic knowledge [will] remain the preserve of those from more affluent backgrounds, particularly those in the private school sector.”
In Scotland, there have been no structural reforms akin to the introduction of academies and free schools in England. And unlike in England, where the pupil premium ensures poor students receive higher funding, there is little link between deprivation and resources. Audit Scotland has found that the number of teachers has fallen since 2010/11. The pupil-teacher ratio has increased. Teach First, a charity which sends top graduates to teach in schools in poor areas, has been rebuffed by the government in its efforts to set up in Scotland. The SNP says it is because Scotland does not face a problem of trying to attract graduates from the best universities into teaching. But it also reflects how the Scottish government has coddled vested interests such as teachers’ unions.
Since becoming First Minister, Sturgeon has spoken out against the attainment gap and pledged to learn from London’s success. However, the main proposal being considered as part of the draft education bill currently going through Holyrood is for a legal duty on local authorities to reduce inequality. “The wording is such that the aim could be met by reducing the success of those at the top,” worried Alison Payne, research director at Reform Scotland, a think tank. Lindsay Paterson, a professor of education at the University of Edinburgh, added: “You can no more outlaw inequality as ban bad weather.”
The SNP’s statist tendency is evident beyond its policies in health and education. In 2014, the Scottish government passed legislation to introduce a “state guardian” for every child. The “named persons” provision in the Children and Young People Act will from 2016 appoint a public sector worker to monitor a child’s “wellbeing.” Its opponents argue that this policy is a gross invasion into the privacy of family life.
Since Sturgeon became First Minister in September 2014, arguably her most high-profile policy ideas concern land reform. Proponents cite the concentration of rural land in private hands. But opponents worry about the government’s “sustainable development test,” under which landowners could be required to release or sell land if they were acting as “potential barriers to sustainable local economic and social development.”
Another bill going through Holyrood would reduce the autonomy of Scotland’s university leaders and place them under greater government scrutiny. The higher education governance bill proposes a new definition of “academic freedom” and elected chairs for university boards, which might be required to have representatives appointed by trade unions. “There but for the grace of God go other countries,” said Steve Chapman, who departed as Principal of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh earlier this year. Another Principal said universities are worried about criticising the SNP for fear of losing government funding.
But the clearest example of the government’s centralisation has been in policing. In 2013, in an effort to save money, eight regional forces were merged to form Police Scotland. Although criminologists such as Nicholas Fyfe at the University of Dundee say it is too early to judge the results of the reforms, one effect has been “Strathclydisation,” as forces adopt the practices associated with those used in and around Glasgow. The new force has seen the increased use of armed officers in areas not used to such displays, said Payne.
It was Strathclyde Police which led the use of stop and search practices currently subject to an independent review. The use of the tactic is four times higher than in England and Wales after peaking at seven times in 2013, when according to some methodologies, the rate in Scotland was also nine times higher than in New York City. The research into this area by Kath Murray of the University of Edinburgh was consistently hampered by a reluctance of the government to cooperate and to disclose data on the practice.
Sturgeon is a more natural leftwinger than her predecessor. “She is as fired up by socialist idealism as she is by the idea of national freedom,” Paterson argued, “and that is quite different from Salmond.” Michael Keating, professor of Scottish politics at the University of Aberdeen, said: “She is more clearly a social democrat.” But whatever her ideological instincts, it is less clear she brings to the role any greater depth of thought than Salmond about how the machinery of government can be used effectively, nor the sort of deeper analysis required to carry off any sustained challenge to vested interests.
The Scottish government, as we have seen, prefers to be radical by diktat, legislating for outcomes without tackling deeper issues. But when it has to make tough decisions about how to distribute finite resources, the party is often far from “progressive.” According to Bell: “I absolutely get that’s what they sound like—but there is almost no evidence that they are progressive in what they do.” The Scottish government is not only less competent than often assumed but, when it comes to issues of redistribution, less left wing, too.
Indeed, for a long time, the SNP’s only redistributionist policy was towards companies—it pledged to reduce Scotland’s corporation tax, if it ever had the power. (Sturgeon dropped the policy earlier this year.) Bell noted that the SNP could have increased income tax, frozen council tax only at lower bands or introduced a land tax. It could also have introduced the local income tax it pledged at the 2007 election.
The new Scotland bill, currently being debated in Westminster, will legislate for the Smith Commission’s proposals, and will give Edinburgh nearly full control over income tax bands and rates. But the Scotland Act 2012 had already promised a lot of control over income tax and in its draft budget this autumn, for the first time, the SNP will have to say what it will do with these powers. In its 2015 manifesto, the SNP, aping Labour, pledged to reintroduce the 50 per cent rate of tax for income over £150,000. But Sturgeon has always emphasised that the policy applied “to the UK.” The SNP is divided about what to say about the top rate in Scotland. There are 18,000 additional rate taxpayers in Scotland. It would only take about 1,000 of them to move tax jurisdiction before a 50p rate raised no money whatsoever. So far, Edinburgh’s financial sector, shielded from the policies of the Scottish government since tax and regulation have been reserved to Westminster, has grumbled only in private about the SNP. This might change if they were clearly set to lose out from Sturgeon’s government.
Scotland’s powers over taxes on property sales, acquired via the Scotland Act 2012 and implemented this year, offer a guide to what it will do on income tax, party insiders suggest. Scotland’s equivalent of stamp duty starts at a higher rate than in England and has a higher marginal rate for more expensive properties; for example, 10 per cent over £325,000 rather than £925,000. This suggests that when it comes to income tax, the SNP will look to increase taxes on the richest but, as one SNP figure said, “we don’t want to squeeze them until the pips squeak.” The party is therefore likely to disappoint its most radical supporters.
Ahead of the 2016 election, Sturgeon will have to balance keeping the ardent support of activists with the need to present a more moderate tone to centrist Scotland. Although she has so far managed this well, there are grumblings. A few trade unionists, whom the SNP has courted assiduously, feel they have been let down by the government’s “business pledge.” They claim that Sturgeon has gone back on her central promise: that no Scottish business would receive government funding if it did not sign up to the pledge’s criteria, such as paying a living wage. Instead the certification is entirely voluntary. “It’s such a fabulously gimmicky policy”, said one senior trade unionist. But, he continued, “as usual, the announcement passed off without any searching questions whatsoever.”
So why haven’t there been more searching questions asked of the SNP’s record? The standard answer is that it is down to the SNP’s “competence.” Keating, for example, said the SNP has been “generally competent” and that “the scandals have been endearingly trivial.”
Paterson agreed that the SNP has presented itself as competent, helped by more genuinely “first rate” politicians than in the opposition ranks. But he is careful to add that they “have appeared competent even when they haven’t been very competent.” Bell agreed. “To govern is to cock-up,” the former head of policy said. “They have managed to avoid looking incompetent. And we have come to associate competence with discipline.”
There is a subtle but crucial distinction to be made between political competence and governing competence. The SNP is an extraordinary political machine. But that does not necessarily make it an effective party of government.
The febrile mood in Scotland works against sound policy-making. By claiming to “speak for Scotland”, the SNP can portray opposition as unpatriotic. SNP supporters are particularly sensitive to criticism. The British Election Survey found that half of SNP voters agree with the statement: “When people criticise my party it feels like a personal insult.” For the other three main parties the share is about one-quarter. This adds to a pervasive confirmation bias; many newer SNP supporters in particular find it hard to accept evidence that contradicts their beliefs. In the country of David Hume and Adam Smith, empiricism is in a rut.
Opposition is weak. This goes beyond the problems of the Labour Party, searching for a new leader in Scotland and for the UK party. There is a broader failure of civic Scotland.
The Scottish parliament is ill-equipped for majority government. Committees are dominated by the SNP and unlike in Westminster, parliamentary aides of ministers can sit on them (and can tip off bosses about questions). The SNP gets the lion’s share of support from parliamentary researchers. The Scottish government—like, it should be said, the UK Treasury—was criticised for not standing up to politicians during the referendum, notably in the publication of Scotland’s Future, the 670-page independence manifesto.
The Scottish media, meanwhile, has struggled to keep up. Although there are many excellent Scottish journalists, there are too few of them. After the opening of the Scottish parliament, Scotland needed more press scrutiny. Instead, the commensurate rise of digital media meant that titles such as the Herald and the Scotsman have struggled, while London-based newspapers have cut full-time staff. The National, a new pro-independence newspaper adept at photoshopped splashes, only encourages hysteria. There are thousands of Scots tweeting away,…