Alex Massie

Nicola Sturgeon: We Must Kill Britain to Save Britain

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It is often said that the case for the United Kingdom needs to be made in a positive fashion. This is reasonable. Less remarked upon is the SNP's cheerful use of negative arguments for independence. Today, for example, there is the sillyness of Joan McAlpine's suggestion Scotland is somehow analagous to some ill-treated wife and, rather more importantly, Nicola Sturgeon's assertion that the Union is a threat to the welfare state. So here's another Scotch Irony: the advocates of change are the fiercest defenders of the status quo.

Speaking last night, the Deputy First Minister promised there would be none of that reforming-the-NHS nonsense in Scotland and, no, there'll be no tinkering with welfare either. Not at all. On the contrary:

“[T]here will be no privatisation of the National Health Service” in an independent Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Unlike its counterpart in England, the NHS in Scotland will remain a public service, paid for by the public and accountable to the public. I say it because I believe that our NHS can and will outperform the privatised experiment south of the Border.”

“In the past, the Union would have been seen as not just the creator but also the guarantor of the values and vision of the post-war welfare state.

“Today, many see that it is the Union, under the Westminser government, that poses the biggest threat to these values and that vision. We have the power to protect our NHS but because benefits and pensions are reserved, we are powerless to protect the disabled from the worst aspects of welfare reforms.

“Independence would give us the power not only to protect Scotland from policies that offend our sense of decency and social cohesion.

What to make of this? In the first place, it is, I think, a slippery mischaracterisation of the coalition's plans for NHS reform in England. But never mind that. It is also, upon closer examination, a startling argument asking us to accept that the SNP, not the British state or Unionism, is now the best guarantor of British "values" and the British "vision" of life and society. This is a gambit that is both audacious and timid.

Audacious because it accepts the British post-war settlement as a defining and worthwhile platform that the SNP pledge to defend; timid because a party notionally based on change is plainly more interested in protecting producers than consumers. Moreover, you can, if Ms Sturgeon is to be taken at her word, add the NHS and the whole welfare state to the ever-lengthening list of activities that will remain just the same in some post-Union Scotland. This is a very Lampedusan attitude to change; it is impeccably small-c conservative.

But then devolution has generally been a small-c conservative thing. Labour was half-heartedly persuaded to endorse Home Rule in the 1970s in order to see off the Nationalists then, like the Nationalists themselves, more fully converted to devolution in the 1980s to "protect" Scotland from the ravages of Thatcherism. Devolution slapped a measure of democratic accountability upon the Scottish Office's existing administrative devolution. Later still, Holyrood would become a defensice bulwark protecting Scotland from Tony Blair's public sector reforms in England. Now it, and apparently the prospect of independence, are needed to defend Scotland from David Cameron.

Thatcher, Blair, Cameron: all have been too much for Scotland. So, in smaller measures, have Forsyth, Milburn, Adonis, Gove and Lansley. Scotland is fine thank you very much and happy to define itself against the English way of doing things. It matters little if the English way of doing things proves better than the Scottish way, maintaining difference and resisting public sector reform trumps all other concerns.

Is the Scottish NHS markedly better than the English NHS? Few people really think so. Is Scottish secondary education markedly better than English secondary education? The days when one could back up this oft-made, super-confident assertion with credible evidence are gone and unlikely to return. I fancy the Academy and Free School revolutions in England will make their mark; Scottish education policy (already independent) remains in thrall to whatever the EIS and other producer interests demand.

Meanwhile, it is galling to hear Ms Sturgeon talk about welfare in such a negative, defensive fashion. It may be that the present government's plans for welfare reform will not work; they are at least an attempt to address a crippling problem. It is the size of the welfare bill that should offend our sense of decency. Not because we do not believe in a safety net but because so many of our citizens presently rely upon it.

Of course Ms Sturgeon would - or could - doubtless say an independent Scotland's econmic preferences would lead to a more prosperous Scotland in which more Scots would work and welfare bills might be lower. (Perhaps she did say this: annoyingly there is, as yet, no transcript of her speech available online.) That would be a positive case for independence deserving attention. Instead there is a Labouresque kneejerk hostility to change. SNP policy, as best it can be discerned, pays only lip-service to the need for change while, conveniently, being opposed to any and all changes proposed and offering precious few alternatives. (Nor is this just a matter of welfare being a reserved power; after all the SNP offer plenty of opinions and options on other reserved issues.)

Again, however, note how the SNP enjoys the intellectual flexibility to argue that all that is good about Britain will endure after independence, including those things that once (allegedly) helped create or define modern Britain. But since health and education (and much else besides) are already protected from London's meddling one wonders if the effect of all this continuity, reassuring as it may be, might not actually be to persuade voters that independence is not actually necessary? In this respect, then, one could almost interpret Ms Sturgeon's quoted remarks as an impeccably, if also regrettably unimaginative, Unionist argument for the status quo. She's not sounding very different from Johann Lamont, you know? There are dinosaurs everywhere.

Still: we must end Britain to save the things that made Britain is quite an audacious argument if also, for reasons explained above, a depressingly timid one.