SOME WILL CALL IT cynical electioneering, given the timing, but the SNP’s decision to offer NHS workers a 4 percent pay rise is good thinking on many levels. We could and should question whether that amount is sufficient after the sacrifices not just of the pandemic but of the last decade of austerity. We may also wonder about other, less heralded frontline staff making do with pitiful raises. But most will understandably contrast this pay offer to the Conservatives’ insulting 1 percent for England’s most “essential” workers.
Recently, Johnson’s Tories have carefully avoided the pitfalls of Cameronite austerity. Rhetorically, at least. Indeed, on economic matters they often appear to be outflanking a hapless Labour Party from the left. The NHS offer, by contrast, was a reversion to the party’s ideological core, and a reminder of the base instincts lurking below the surface.
For decades, Conservatives and their media allies denigrated public sector workers as labour aristocrats lording it with gold-plated pensions and fat pay packets. This was always a misrepresentation, but the stereotypes stuck, and it helped justify a decade of bracing pay freezes. Then, the pandemic exposed the hollowness of a generation of Thatcherite rhetoric. Even the red tops were #lovingtheNHS. Talk of heroism was everywhere. Tories and Farage-ists alike clapped for carers. Captain Tom eclipsed Boudica as a British nationalist folk hero. The public sector was reclaimed as firmly patriotic.
Unbelievable as it seems, all of that happened. Which made the pay offer doubly baffling. Given that the neoliberal spending regime was abandoned anyway, why not offer some meagre compensation for those “NHS heroes” who have suffered a decade of effective pay cuts on your watch? Why not separate yourself from the Cameron legacy? It feels like a blunder born of discredited ideology. A Thatcherite death rattle.
Conversely, the SNP appears comparatively decent and fair with an election fast approaching. Credit where credit is due. Call it electioneering, but they can’t be blamed for taking advantage of Conservative blunders, especially where the results are a net positive for those “core British values”.
As I’ve argued before, the SNP has made meagre policy achievements under Nicola Sturgeon. Seven years is a long time in politics. Indeed, given recent European history, not many governments get that long. If Sturgeon survives another term, it will be an extraordinary feat of endurance given the populist temperature of politics. But what will be the legacy? Without progress towards independence, it will be sketchy indeed, unless there’s a significant change of tack after May.
Symbolically, by comparison to Westminster’s slap in the face, this pay offer appears as a victory for decency. It will doubtless boost the SNP at the ballot box and further eat away at Scottish Conservative credibility. But in substantive terms it barely makes a dent after a decade of austerity, and it can’t be counted a true accomplishment. Next term, we’ve got to start holding our government to higher standards than “one notch better than Westminster”.