You Can’t Pay Your Rent with a Flag – Scotland Today

By Stephen Low

Nicola Sturgeon had a busy, but revealing afternoon in Parliament at the end of June. In a single statement, she announced a date for an indyref, outlined why it won’t happen and then – the point of the whole exercise – declared that the SNP won’t fight the next election on its record. Then Ms Sturgeon’s SNP, along with her Scottish Green coalition partners (and the Tories) voted down Scottish Labour proposals to write a rent freeze into law.

Seldom has so much of what passes for politics in Scotland been laid out with such clarity in less than a day. The constitutional machinations were not about the Freeee-dom that is the object of Scottish nationalism. They weren’t even about any significant step towards another indyref. Rather they were about keeping the SNP (more narrowly, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP) show on the road. Posturing about independence is used as a substitute for progressive, or often it seems competent, government

The announcement of a supposed date for an indyref is merely, as Billy Connolly used to put it “raw meat for the balcony”. It means very little. The Scottish Government, rightly or wrongly, do not have the power to call a referendum that anyone needs to take seriously – the constitution, like defence and foreign affairs is an issue reserved to Westminster. The 2014 referendum took place as a result of an agreement with the Cameron government allowing a temporary expansion of Holyrood’s powers – a Section 30 order (under the Scotland Act 1998). The First Minister is now asking for a similar order, in the sure and certain knowledge that whoever wins the Tory leadership, the answer will be ‘no’.

Therefore she has asked the Scottish Government’s top legal officer – the Lord Advocate to test with the UK Supreme Court the legality of the situation if ScotGov decided to go it alone. I’m not a lawyer myself, but informed opinion on this seems largely to involve reworking metaphors involving snowballs and hot places into legalese. After, as the First Minister has made it clear she expects, the Supreme Court have dismissed the case: what then?

The not so bold Nicola Sturgeon is clear: the Scottish Government won’t, à la Catalonia, organise its own referendum. “Respect for the rule of law means that a referendum must be lawful. That, for me, is a matter of principle,” she declares. Hence her simultaneous declaration that when this happens – she intends that “my party will fight the UK general election on this single question: should Scotland be an independent country?… the general election will be a de facto referendum.”

After dropping this bombshell, the entire parliamentary wing of the Independence movement joined with the Tories to support landlords get compensation for the cost of living crisis by raising their tenants’ rents. The constitutional charade and the unapologetic prioritising of property over people are more connected than is usually realised. The SNP leadership raise independence only at three points: before elections, before the SNP conference – or to distract from domestic failings.

A few weeks prior to the First Minister’s statement to Parliament, her government’s Finance Minister had announced a four year spending review. This was straight-up austerity, chosen not imposed. It’s now Scottish Government policy to cut 30,000 jobs from the public sector, have a programme of selling off public buildings, hold the overall public sector pay bill at current levels for four years and demand 3% per annum savings from all public bodies. These actions will not just maintain public services but improve them, we are told.

While all this is happening, businesses in Scotland will continue to pay the lowest taxes of anywhere in the UK – a boast of every SNP Finance Minister since they took office 15 years ago. Among other subsidies, the Scottish Government operates a “Small Business Bonus Scheme”: this tax exemption mechanism costs the Scottish public purse £279m a year. A recent academic study of the scheme could find no empirical evidence that the scheme supports “enhanced business outcomes.”

Coming a few months after having bribed the Scottish Greens into Government with a couple of ministerial positions, the Scottish Government sold off – cheaply – the right to exploit Scotland’s massive offshore wind potential to multinationals. The SNP have also dropped their plans for a publicly owned energy company. Incidentally in both these instances the person sent out to explain why these were the right thing to do was a Green party minister. These only scratch the surface of failings which stretch from child literacy, to ferry construction, and proposals for a so called National Care Service that are a marketised attack on local government that would make Margaret Thatcher blush. It’s not difficult to see the appeal of concealing that behind a curtain of saltires and directing people’s ire toward Westminster.    

The SNP have never been left wing. At their most progressive, they did a passable imitation of New Labour in a kilt. Now even that looks like radicalism. Their level of social ambition can be discerned from the debacle over exams during the pandemic. When it was pointed out that their estimated results scheme disadvantaged working class children, the Education Secretary demanded not a change to the scheme, but to how it looked.  They are a party of social stasis – not social progress. In response to difficulties, often of their own making, the answer is to put out more flags – but you can’t feed your weans with a flag. 

 Stephen Low is a member of Glasgow Southside CLP. He is a former member of Labour’s Scottish Executive and part of the Red Paper Collective 

Image: Independent Lion Rampant Scotland Flag. Author:Scotch MistSodacan, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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