People mock Ukip supporters for their supposed ignorance. If anything, those of the SNP have their heads just as deep in the sand.
After the SNP won 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats in May, one would be forgiven for thinking that the political landscape in Scotland had dramatically shifted to the left. Right-wing commentators have told of an apocalyptic future where the breakup of the union is now inevitable – leftie Scotland now seems completely at odds with the conservative village greens of Middle England. Therein lies the problem.
The SNP is not a left wing party. Stances such as their opposition to Trident and their fierce anti-austerity rhetoric during the election campaign only seemed to cement their left-wing credentials in the eyes of those who wanted to see the party as such – those who criticised Scottish Labour as “red Tories”. However, dig a little deeper and you will find that the SNP has pulled off one of the greatest disguising acts of our time.
The SNP has governed Scotland since 2007, yet both north and south of the border, there seems to be little appetite for the party’s record to be scrutinised, something which was all too apparent during the election campaign. In areas such as the NHS, education, housing, policing and government spending, the SNP has been anything but left wing. Let’s look at health. Spending on health in England is forecast to have increased by 6 per cent over the last five years, compared to just 1 per cent north of the border. Yet due to the generosity of the Barnett formula, England has faced much deeper spending cuts – the Scottish government’s budget for devolved public services has been cut by 4 percentage points less than England’s. This tight-fistedness on account of the SNP has meant that the number of preventable earlier deaths in the north east of England has fallen faster over the previous 15 years than in Scotland. Since 2012, more than 1,000 beds in Scottish hospitals have closed. Were these facts given much attention in the pre-election debates?
Look at education. Between 2010 and 2013, the SNP reduced spending on Scottish schools by 5 per cent in real terms, while according to the IFS, English schools received a boost in real terms spending between 2010 and 2015, meaning that now the Scottish government is in a position where it spends a lower share of its budget than England on schools and the NHS combined – but this fact doesn’t matter to SNP supporters. In 2007, the SNP pledged to limit class sizes to 18. Since 2010, class sizes have risen every year. Meanwhile in higher education, although the SNP abolished the graduate endowment fee, the number of part-time college places has been cut by 130,000 and the number of further education colleges has fallen from 37 in 2011/12 to 20 in 2014/15. At the same time, Scottish students start repaying their loans once incomes reach £16,500 compared to £21,000 in England. Progressive? Methinks not.
Finally, look at the SNP’s spending commitments before the election. The SNP’s anti-austerity rhetoric did not match its manifesto, as was inconveniently pointed out by the IFS but quickly brushed aside by Sturgeon et al. While they pledged to increase total public spending marginally in real terms each year, “departmental spending would be broadly frozen between 2014–15 and 2019–20, and departmental spending outside of the NHS and aid could be facing a cut of 4.3 per cent”. The SNP’s planned cuts to all departments between 2010-11 and 2019-20 were, in real terms, 9.1 per cent; that’s compared to the Tories’ 12.1 per cent and Labour’s 4.6 per cent. In unprotected areas (which is everything but the NHS, education and international development), the SNP pledged to cut by 22.2 per cent, compared to the Tories’ 27.6 per cent and Labour’s 13 per cent. Labour would have been outspending the SNP by 2018-19, and, as the IFS said, while the SNP’s plans implied “a slower pace of austerity than those of the other three parties”, they ultimately meant “a longer period” too (see graph). The SNP consistently shrieked that Labour were “Tory-lite” – turns out that that simply wasn’t true.
So, why does nobody hold the SNP to account? Why is it allowed to perpetuate this left wing illusion? The simple reason – entrenched ignorance. Ignorance breeds ignorance and while people may like to laugh at Ukip’s supposedly ignorant and blinded voters, the same can very much be said for the SNP’s. David Starkey’s recent comments that the SNP were strikingly similar to the Nazis received a lot of criticism, but one can understand where he’s coming from; rabid propaganda, populist rhetoric, intimidation of the media, denunciation of contrary opinion, and the identification and vilification of a convenient scapegoat – if you think that these things haven’t happened in Scotland, then you’ve got your head in the sand. The end of the independence referendum did not see the end of the armies of “cybernats” who continue in their efforts to not just shut down, but abuse any opposition and stifle any reasoned debate. Opposition is cast off as “scaremongering” and whenever criticised by non-Scots, the SNP plays the victim, decrying it as English “bluff, bluster and bullying.” And even the Scottish Parliament’s committees are guilty of it too – SNP-dominated committees have vetoed criticism of the government by ignoring evidence deemed to be unfavourable and changing sections of reports to be more favourable to the SNP. As there is no second chamber in the Scottish Parliament, this is a big problem – the limited checks and balances of Holyrood are failing meaning the SNP government can get off scot-free as nothing it does is scrutinised properly.
If this continues, the future of democracy in Scotland looks bleak. By stifling reasoned debate on all sides and corrupting the system of checks and balances, the SNP and its supporters have shut out any attempts to hold it to account, and in doing so have created the very ingredient it needs to be successful once more: ignorance.