If Scotland is to become a fairer country, the SNP has to stop pretending it already is one.
Many people within and outside Scotland’s borders view the country as a golden beacon of progressivism, standing in stark contrast to dreary Tory England. This is an impression that the SNP government is understandably keen to promote. It’s almost as if when you cross the border at Berwick you are instantly greeted by Queen Nicola, who hands you a free prescription and then ships you off to St Andrews for your fully funded university education. I don’t have to scroll through Facebook for long to find someone sharing an article about the SNP declaring a climate emergency in Scotland (even though they haven’t even technically banned fracking yet) or whatever viral speech Mhairi Black has made this month. However, no one seems to talk about the reality (whisper it softly) that Scotland – after thirteen years of SNP government – really isn’t that progressive. To look at the Scottish Government’s record on education, the environment or health is to find – alongside some signs of progress – a mish-mash of inoffensive centrist policies, mixed in with some centre-right tendencies.
In the higher education sector alone, this is painfully obvious. The free higher education policy is proudly held up as a gotcha against anyone who casts doubt on the SNP’s left-wing credentials. But what has it achieved? According to the UCAS figures for 2018, Scotland had a lower proportion of university students from the poorest backgrounds than any other country in the UK. Somehow the Tories in England were managing to get more poor kids into university. That is quite something. The abolition of student fees has not solved every problem – indeed, the slashing of maintenance grants for poorer students makes university a much less sustainable destination. In some ways, the lack of readily available cash is a more significant deterrent than tuition fees (like those south of the border) which won’t be payable for many years. The SNP have also cut over 140,000 college places since entering office. Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that education is her top priority is welcome but it increasingly feels like this rhetoric is failing to be accompanied by actual results.
The SNP high command too often seems to have embraced one of the worst principles of the Blair years: good coverage is a substitute for good policies. The First Minister was lauded for declaring a climate emergency but no one seemed to question the Scottish Government’s own record on the environment. The positive coverage seemed to excuse the SNP for, only two years previously, voting with the Tories (something they’ve done surprisingly often over their time in office) to cut air passenger duty tax, an environmentally disastrous policy only recently abandoned in the face of mounting pressure. Their support for a third runway at Heathrow and the dynamics of an independent Scotland with an economy aided by North Sea oil have also yet to be publicly squared with the newfound emphasis on climate change. These issues highlight a growing trend within Scottish politics; as long as you talk the talk, people won’t notice if you don’t walk the walk.
If any public policy area could be described as close to the hearts of most voters across the entire UK, it is the NHS. Fear over trade-deal-driven healthcare privatisation was one Labour attack line that managed to cut through in the 2019 election. This is no less the case in Scotland. The SNP’s website proudly states that they “will always keep Scotland’s NHS safe in public hands.” Nicola Sturgeon has even gone so far as to call for an NHS Protection Act to keep the Scottish NHS safe from any UK-US deal. However, according to recently released figures, the number of NHS cases carried out by private hospitals and companies has actually doubled since the SNP came to power – reflecting the extent to which the SNP has bought into one of New Labour’s other blind spots: what seems at times like an uncritical belief that private involvement makes public services more efficient. Indeed, the Scottish Government was recently accused of blocking a progressive policy as SNP select committee members voted with the Tories (see a pattern here?) to block Labour MSP Monica Lennon’s Member’s Bill aimed at eradicating period poverty. Only belatedly did they decide to back it at first reading, after a backlash to overblown government claims which seemed to suggest that people would cross the border from England to stock up on tampons.
So Scotland finds itself with a higher education system partially propped up by the gutting of further education, a climate policy based on good headlines rather than good policies and an NHS that is becoming more and more welcoming to private involvement. All that said, it would be wrong to claim that the SNP government has achieved nothing of note. Free prescriptions and eye tests are genuinely progressive and well-crafted policies worthy of the rhetoric of the party. Along with this, other initiatives such as the baby box show signs of genuine social democratic imagination. To reflexively oppose the SNP at every turn, whether out of die-hard unionism (looking at you, Scottish Tories) or sheer hostility to the party (all too often, this is how Scottish Labour’s approach has come across) only serves to weaken the effectiveness of political opposition. This ‘boy who cried wolf’ approach has allowed the government to deflect merited scrutiny as the valid criticism can be dismissed with the rest as mere ‘SNP bad’ noise. If the government’s opponents on the left (or indeed the right) want to hold the administration to much-needed account and force it to face the scrutiny it badly needs, then they must acknowledge that it sometimes gets things right, in order to be listened to when it gets things wrong.
The SNP have always had a straightforward answer to suggestions that they aren’t doing enough: it’s because we’re not independent. When Scotland throws off the constraints of Westminster we will truly become the progressive country we’re destined to be. This line is certainly widely accepted by committed supporters: when a lecturer recently asked my Scottish Politics course who they would blame if there was a problem with the devolved, Scottish NHS, one girl enthusiastically stuck her hand up and said ‘Westminster’. But if the SNP want to inspire undecided left-leaning voters to take the plunge and vote for independence, they need to use the powers they already possess to prove that Scotland truly can become a progressive state where we can do things differently, rather than blaming any inaction on London. Vulnerable Scots can’t wait for independence: they need progress in the here and now, not just window dressing and spin. The poor Scottish kids failing to get into university need proper investment. The climate emergency needs action, not North Sea oil. Scotland needs a well managed and well funded NHS, not outsourcing and private contracts. If we are really to become a fairer nation, either inside or outside the UK, then the SNP should focus their attention and Holyrood’s considerable powers on working towards that goal, rather than telling us that independence is all we need to fully achieve it.