SNP, Austerity and a Democratic Deficit: A Response to Owen Jones

by Colin Alexander Storrier

I’ve always tried to be fair about English politics. I support the self-determination of England with the same vigour as I support it for Scotland. It will come as no surprise to my readers that I don’t support a UK parliament. The contrast between Holyrood and Westminster is stark. Neither is perfect, but Holyrood at least resembles an institution fit for the 21st century.

As recently as 1997 members wishing to raise a point of order during a division at Westminster were required to wear a top hat when speaking. The government and opposition benches remain two swords apart. There is a snuffbox by the front door of the Commons, it has been there for centuries. Even the most basic of tasks seem to involve some form of weird ritual or another. The Chamber for the House of Commons can’t even accommodate the 650 Members of Parliaments. Indeed, it’s an antiquated institution, firmly stuck in the 17th century.

Simply speaking, the UK Parliament doesn’t represent the diversity of the four constituent nations of the UK. This is partly due to simple arithmetic. The majority of the UK population resides within one nation, England. It’s not England’s fault of course that it’s population dwarfs the other constituent nations of the UK; but it does have undesirable consequences for those living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“UK Parliament doesn’t represent
the diversity of the four constituent
nations of the UK”

At the centre of this artificial construct is a gross inequality. In 2010, 2015, 2016 and 2017 the democratic deficit has had disastrous implications for Scotland. In 2010, 2015 and 2017, Scotland’s electorate decisively rejected a Conservative government. Yet – in each of those years the electorate elsewhere in England delivered us David Cameron and Theresa May.

This is not without consequence. Scotland’s budget has been brutally axed since 2010 to the tune of around £3 billion; severely undermining the ability of the Scottish Government to deliver our vital public services. It’s in this context that the SNP should be applauded for its efforts to mitigate the worst of the Conservative government’s heartless agenda. I ask you this, had the SNP not mitigated the Conservative Party’s austerity measures, then would as many people in the South and North East of Scotland voted Tory in June?

“the SNP should be applauded
for their efforts to mitigate the
worst of the Conservative
government’s heartless agenda”

I was interested to read Owen Jones’s blog this morning. I was one of the people disappointed with his decision to retweet a graphic criticising ‘SNP austerity.’ I respect Owen Jones, he is an intellectual guy with a real passion to make a difference. His book The Establishment is a favourite of mine. There’s unlikely to be much we disagree on. However, the myth of ‘SNP austerity’ which he shared with his 617k followers on Twitter (myself included), cannot go unchallenged.

The generally accepted definition for ‘austerity’ is “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.” The economy is a reserved matter and not within the competency of the Scottish Parliament. The debt and deficit are the responsibility of the UK parliament and any measures to reduce them cannot and do not originate from the SNP government in Holyrood. The budget of the Scottish Parliament is also determined elsewhere in the UK.

Owen did attempt to justify his argument. He argued that the SNP’s austerity stems from its refusal to use Holyrood’s limited tax raising powers to reverse Tory cuts. He does however fail to acknowledge the reality of the very limited nature of those powers, particularly in regards to tax evasion.

I happen to be a supporter of raising the top rate of tax. In fact, I argued for this in my previous blog on 19th June 2017.  Owen has a point that the SNP argument sounds like a ‘standard right-wing objection.’ That said, there are challenges with Holyrood’s limited tax raising powers. Corbyn’s own adviser, Richard Murphy, author of The Joy of Tax, acknowledges this issue when he stated that the problem with Holyrood’s tax powers is that they have given Scotland just enough ‘rope to hang itself’. He correctly argues that taxes don’t work independently. A fact that an intelligent man like Owen Jones understands.

“Holyrood’s tax powers…
given Scotland just enough
rope to hang itself”

Yet that’s not the whole story. Owen doesn’t acknowledge that the SNP recently refused to pass on a tax cut to middle income earners in Scotland, because it would undermine our public services. A decision I firmly support. Nor does he acknowledge any of the SNP’s efforts to mitigate austerity; I’ve included their record below for his benefit:

  • More than 80 per cent of Scots are now paid the Living Wage of £8.25 an hour
  • The SNP government was the first in the UK to pay the Living Wage to their staff
  • Poverty is down in Scotland. After housing costs, there were 260,000 fewer people in poverty in 2014, than there were in 2000 (incidentally when Labour were in power)
  • SNP spend £90 million ensuring that no one in Scotland has to pay the Bedroom Tax, protecting up to 72,000 households from the threat of eviction or becoming homeless
  • Over half a million vulnerable households in Scotland – including over 200,000 pensioners and 86,000 single parents – have been protected from UK Government cuts to Council Tax support
  • Almost 3,000 disabled people are being supported through the Independent Living Fund Scotland, which was set up by the SNP after the UK Government scrapped its support

Isn’t the reality that the SNP has done everything it can to protect the Scottish people from Tory austerity? Holyrood has very limited powers, less so than the US states or Canadian provinces. This is rarely acknowledged in the criticisms of the Scottish government. Holyrood is constantly operating with one hand tied firmly behind its back. This was acknowledged by the 45% who voted for independence, to allow Holyrood to govern effectively in the interests of all who choose to live and work here.

“Holyrood is constantly
operating with one hand
tied firmly behind its back”

The truth is that the UK doesn’t work for Scotland. I mentioned the democratic deficit earlier and recent examples of a Conservative government being imposed on us against our will, but there’s also the Brexit vote in 2016. Brexit was strongly rejected by the Scottish electorate. It will damage our economy and we will all be poorer for it. But the democratic deficit has delivered us Brexit nonetheless. There is no fairness or equality in that. It’s an often forgotten fact that Corbyn is also committed to Brexit – he won’t save Scotland from this pending economic catastrophe.

I’ve repeatedly referred to the democratic deficit today. It’s a reminder to voters in Scotland. Corbyn is a principled man, with the right policies to improve the lives of people across these islands. Indeed, many of those policies are already in force, here in Scotland. The issue is not with Corbyn, it’s with the unequal nature of the United Kingdom and the democratic deficit. If Corbyn does triumph at the next general election (which could be before the end of 2017), then what is to stop the electorate in England delivering another Conservative government, which Scotland didn’t vote for, only five short years later? This has been going on for decades. It’s a cycle; Tory, Labour, Tory, Labour, Tory, Labour…

There is only one way to end the cycle – Independence. It’s time to untie Holyrood’s hands and unleash the full powers of an independent country. Only then will we never be subjected to a cruel and callous Conservative government, ever again.

The Butterfly Rebellion
Colin Alexander Storrier
Edinburgh, Scotland