No one can argue with the SNP’s astonishing success, sweeping Scotland with big swings and winning 56 of the nation’s 59 seats – up from just six at the previous general election.
The challenge is how to respond to the SNP, with the Union at great risk again. At the very least, surely it is time to start challenging its leader Nicola Sturgeon, rather than allow her to strike her phoney pose as anti-austerity warrior and victim of English cruelty? She may be charismatic, eloquent and a fine campaigner, but she should be examined as closely as any other politician – and when she is, her confident stance looks rather less convincing.
Yesterday, for instance, she insisted again that her starting point was for Scotland to stop being ignored. Yet this is palpable nonsense. The country provided the previous two prime ministers, along with many key Labour ministers and several leading lights in the Coalition. It has been given extensive devolution, then a second referendum on independence, as well as retaining long past its sell-by date a highly favourable spending settlement through the Barnett formula.
Yes, the demands of Scottish voters must be met and there should be further devolution of powers in Britain’s strange, stuttering drift towards federalism. This should include full fiscal autonomy, which Sturgeon says she wants and would ensure Scots appreciate the costs of their better-resourced public services. But the flip side of this deal is to review the Barnett formula, intended as a short-term fix four decades ago for a sparsely populated nation and since disavowed even by its own inventor.
Without this there will be lingering resentment from English taxpayers helping pay for free Scottish prescriptions, tuition fees and social care. Why should Scots get 15 per cent more spent on them per person when despite pockets of grinding poverty much of their nation is prosperous – and when the South-west, for example, gets almost £2,000 less per head of population despite having among the country’s lowest wages in Cornwall?
Such generosity enables Sturgeon’s posturing as doughty defender of the public sector while her party presides over budget reductions for schools and hospitals. There are many more doctors and nurses in Scotland so the SNP could quietly reduce spending on the NHS over the course of the Coalition, while perversely it was protected south of the border by a government preaching austerity. This continued a historical trend. “Governments in Holyrood have placed less priority on funding the NHS in Scotland... than governments in Westminster have for England,” says the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
For all Sturgeon’s passion over NHS privatisation, her party saw state spending on private healthcare hit record levels under its watch. But since the SNP’s aim is independence, its actions are geared towards nation-building. So its leaders claim Scotland to be more left-wing and liberal than the rest of the country, yet surveys show Scots largely share the same beliefs as other Britons.