In politics, the case rarely changes, only the basis for its justification.
The economics of the union, for example, is made and re-made based on whatever policy the UK state happens to be pursuing at any given time. The ‘age of austerity’? Then focus on an independent Scotland’s prospective budget deficit, and suggest that a higher deficit would make austerity inevitable. That’s been the go-to argument of unionists since the oil price collapsed in 2014, leaving Scotland’s ‘GERS’ figures showing a substantial budget deficit vis-a-vis the rest of UK.
“It’s time for Nicola Sturgeon to admit that her independence plans would mean unprecedented cuts for Scotland’s schools and hospitals,” Richard Leonard said following last year’s GERS figures in August, showing an independent Scotland would have a prospective budget deficit of 4.4 per cent of GDP.
Now, the UK budget deficit is set to be nearly four times as high as that figure for 2020 at over 15 per cent of GDP, according to the Treasury. But funnily enough, Leonard nor any other unionist believes that automatically means enormous cuts. The deficit is no longer such an intractable problem.
No, the weapon picked out of the tool-kit today in defence of the union is the ‘broad shoulders’ the UK can provide in a crisis.
“The UK Government furlough scheme has protected over 628,000 jobs.” Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw said last week. “As the Chancellor said at the start of this crisis, we are all in this together, and these figures prove this unprecedented support from the UK Government has saved so many jobs.”
John McTernan, former staffer to Tony Blair, described the furlough scheme as “the biggest ever union dividend” on Friday.
Are you keeping up? Before the pandemic, the case for the union was that Scotland is part of a UK state that didn’t need to have a big budget deficit, which Scotland would have, and which would inevitably mean cuts. Now, the case for the union is that Scotland is part of a UK state that can run a big budget deficit, which means enhanced spending. Heads we win, tails you lose. Wherever the mood of the Tories goes with regards to fiscal policy, the case for the union follows.
What unites the pre and post pandemic cases is that Scotland must always be reliant on the UK state, one way or another. The more regionally unequal the UK is, the greater need there is for fiscal transfers across regions, and therefore the stronger the case for the union. The argument presumes the limits of state intervention into the economy is to smooth over inequalities, rather than to change the structure of the economy itself so that it doesn’t produce such harsh inequalities in the first place.
When Chancellor Rishi Sunak pulls the plug on the furlough scheme in October, and the “hardship” he predicted on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday sets in with sharply rising unemployment and poverty, the unionist economic case will again adapt to the Tories’ latest whim. But it will have even less appeal than it does now, which is not very much.
What people will begin to realise is that when it comes to the policy of Chancellor’s – whether it is Rishi Sunak or George Osborne a decade ago – the decisions they make on whether and what to spend on are not set in stone; they are choices. The inconsistency of Tory fiscal policy over its 10 years in power proves that to be true. And just as they can make choices, so could an independent Scottish Government.
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