Scottish Labour tries to start an honest conversation about public spending

September 26, 2012

Scottish Labour’s new leader Johann Lamont deserves credit for trying to start a realistic conversation about public spending in Scotland.

In a speech to party members in Edinburgh she said it was time to end a “something for nothing” culture. She also questioned universal benefits which mean rich people receive university tuition and prescriptions for free.

Citing Alex Salmond’s desire for Scotland to be a “progressive beacon”, she asked:

“What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?

“What is progressive about judges and lawyers earning more than 100,000 a year, not paying tuition fees for their child to follow in their footsteps at university, while one in four unemployed young people in Scotland can’t get a job or a place at college?”

So what, you might say. None of the things Lamont said would be particularly bold stuff in England, or in many other European countries. But in Scotland it’s a real shock to the system. For years, Scottish politicians have been trying to tell voters that they can have their cake and eat it. And that if it wasn’t for Westminster, or Mrs T, they wouldn’t have to make any difficult choices at all.

I was north of the border again last week, and once again struck by how unbelievably different the political conversation in Scotland is.

You can get some sense of quite how different it is by comparing Labour’s party political broadcasts from the last election.

On 12 April 2010 voters in England were treated to “the road ahead”, an upbeat, glossy video about how Gordon Brown had saved the world economy. It was pretty unexceptional.

But that broadcast wasn’t shown in Scotland. Instead, the next day, voters in Scotland were treated to a different video, “Remember the Tories in Scotland.”

It’s rather different. Open on Mrs Thatcher. Footage of the poll tax protests. Closed steelworks. Voiceover: “The Tories, the party that gave us the poll tax, the Thatcher years, haven’t changed. They closed our mines, they closed our steelworks, and closed our factories.”

And from there on in, things actually get much less subtle.

English Election Broadcast:

Scottish Election Broadcast:

Given this political context, a Scottish Labour leader trying to imply that there might be some difficult choices to make about public spending is seriously brave: the equivalent of the Pope confessing to some niggling doubts about Catholicism. It’s a big change of direction, having told voters for decades that all their woes are the fault of someone else (normally Mrs Thatcher, who continues to dominate Scottish politics, 22 years after her retirement).

I’m sure that the cybernats will go bonkers at me for saying this, but it is odd that Scotland’s political conversation is so different to the rest of the country when it comes to economic issues. And it’s the result of the strategy of the political parties, rather than economic reality.

I’m not talking about the debates on devolution, independence or Scottish identity. On that front Scotland really is different.

But when it comes to economic issues, Scotland is basically quite a typical part of the UK. As the first graph below shows, GDP per head is very close to the UK average. Unlike the north of England or Wales, Scotland has been catching up, not falling behind the national average. And for all the heated arguments, Scotland basically does get to keep its oil revenues, via the Barnett Formula.

Some in the media would have you believe that Scottish voters are addicted to public spending. In fact polls show that support for higher public spending isn’t that different in Scotland to the rest of the UK. It’s a little higher than the UK average, but not wildly so, given decades of anti-cuts invective from Scottish politicians. In fact support for higher spending is much lower than it was a decade or two ago.

So Scotland is not a poor part of the UK. Nor is it hard done by, nor are Scots unusually addicted to public spending. In fact – whisper it – Scotland just isn’t that exceptional.

Maybe now politicians are catching up with reality. Scotland faces the same difficult choices about public spending as the rest of the country, and Lamont deserves credit for trying to start levelling with the voters about that.

GVA per capita by region / nation

Support for higher public spending (from British Social Attitudes)

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website

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