John Ferry

Scotland’s post-reality politics

Scotland's post-reality politics
(Photo by JEFF J MITCHELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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When the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) uses the word 'disappointing' in its press release, you know things are getting serious.

This week, the IFS said a 'lack of credibility' unites the policy manifestos of the three biggest Scottish political parties (the SNP, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives) competing for votes in the Holyrood election next week. The IFS's David Phillips also said that, with the exception of the Scottish Conservatives, it was 'disappointing' to see 'no serious attempt by the parties to provide transparent and comprehensive costings for their plans'.

The Tories still got a telling off though, as did the SNP again, for underestimating the true cost of their NHS spending promises. 'It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the SNP and Scottish Conservatives have downplayed likely increases in how much they would need to allocate to the NHS in order to flatter the amount available for their other myriad pledges,' said the IFS.

And Scottish Labour got a rap on the knuckles for not setting out their NHS and other spending plans beyond this year. For all three parties, 'paying for the additional billions of pounds of commitments and ambitions set out would require increases in Scottish taxes or cuts to some other areas of spending – unless there is a substantial increase in UK Government funding.'

As the IFS makes clear, the spending commitments are a fantasy. None of the big parties are talking anywhere about cuts or increases in taxes. The manifestos are completely disconnected from upcoming Scottish budget realities. In this sense they fit perfectly into the groove of contemporary Scottish politics, which exists in a kind of la-la land of unrecognised truths and rehearsed pretences.

But as the parties go through the motions of engaging in their pretend spending promises dance-off, we should at least acknowledge that the system and context they are working with has directly incentivised it. At UK elections, the two big parties know there is a reasonable chance of being elected and thus being held to account for spending promises. But at this Holyrood election, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives readily admit they are competing to be the biggest opposition party rather than the government. Why not then go all-in on pledges?

As for the SNP, they know they can promise the Earth and outsource the blame to Westminster when they later fail to deliver. Any future attempts to pin them down on why they reneged on manifesto spending commitments will be deflected with talk of Westminster-imposed budget restraints or a lack of economic 'levers' at the Scottish level.

At the root of the problem seems to be a prevailing culture of Scotland's parliament being a spending parliament. As the IFS also highlighted, if the hope was that fiscal devolution would improve the financial accountability of Scottish politics then the evidence from this election is one of hope unfulfilled.

But post-reality politics is not just a feature of this campaign's manifestos. On a number of levels it has infected Scottish politics and made it dysfunctional. Take another piece of evidence from this week – the detailed polling on Scotland released by Lord Ashcroft. When voters were asked if Scotland puts in more money to the UK than it gets out, 48% said it did, while 42% said the reverse was true.

By any objective measure, including the Scottish government's own statistics, Scotland gets more money out of the UK than it puts in. The false belief to the contrary could be explained by ignorance, but in a country that has a national newspaper printing articles discrediting official government statistics, one has to conclude that there is more to it than that. And then we have Nicola Sturgeon's recent incredible claim that an independent Scotland could be in the EU without putting in place a hard border with England. Again, fantasy.

Twists and turns on the EU are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Scotland's post-reality politics. And it's not just the SNP. Others across the media and academia have been complicit by indulging in easy talk of an independent Scotland choosing to be in the EU when acceptance of a few basic facts tells us differently.

Chapter 17 of the EU's 'acquis' membership conditions clearly demonstrates that a country not in control of its own national currency (Sturgeon plans 'sterlingisation' post-independence) cannot meet the economic and monetary entry criteria. This straightforward truth simply gets ignored. In its place we get shallow talk of the EU rolling out the red carpet, no questions asked.

Scotland's three big party manifestos are merely another reflection of the country's post-reality politics. The merry dance goes on, and we all pretend it's perfectly normal.

Written byJohn Ferry

John Ferry is a contributing editor for the think tank These Islands and a former financial journalist

Topics in this articleScotland