Are we supposed to take this seriously?

Sometimes the SNP are laughable, at other times they should be taken literally. When they talk about cutting public spending we should take them at their word.

In a past edition, I wrote about how the ridiculous positions taken by nationalists deserve to be ridiculed.

Just look at the last few days in Scottish nationalism.

According to this SNP frontbencher, the islanders complaining about the crisis in Scotland’s lifeline ferry network should stop moaning about the overbudget, overdue ships the SNP seems incapable of delivering, and instead worry about space ships.

According to one prominent nationalist commentator, a flag on a box of eggs is a reason to dissolve an economic, monetary and fiscal union.

And, best of all, the nationalists daily newspaper reported on a BBC plot to mark down the home of someone involved in Business for Scotland. Such is the power of the pro-Union conspiracy that it reached as far as ensuring the home of this random SNP supporter came in third place rather than second place in a regional heat of a home decor programme.

Sometimes only humour and mockery can bring into relief exactly how warped the priorities of nationalism really are. Other times we should take the SNP more seriously than they take themselves.

This is Not Funny

It is frustrating arguing with nationalists. One minute they’re basing their case on the economic growth of the low-corporate tax model of Ireland. By the time you have pointed out that they don’t have an NHS, they’ve flown over to Denmark and are promising Scandanavian welfare spending. You start to say that we could raise income taxes to their level today and that the SNP have argued against it in successive elections, but they’re already off in New Zealand and are arguing that economic growth shouldn’t be the goal at all.

In this sense, the offer of the campaign to leave the UK is not so much a blank canvass as it is an Etch A Sketch. Whenever the picture drawn is longer of interest, it is erased and they start again.

Those of us who oppose nationalism need to be better at nailing them down before they drift onto the next argument. That means taking them both seriously and literally on the occasions when they tell us what it is they are offering.

Take the amiable public affairs executive who leads on economic policy development for the SNP, Andrew Wilson. On an appearance on the BBC’s Debate Night on Wednesday evening he had a go at selling us on the austerity his plan for leaving the UK requires. It’s worth deconstructing his contribution because what Wilson says is then parrotted by SNP Ministers, including the First Minister herself.

He starts with a familiar way of framing Scotland’s public finances:

“Scotland’s taxation that it raises itself is enough to pay for all of the Scottish Government’s policy responsibilities, plus all of social security, and all of pensions, absent covid in a normal year.”

He isn’t setting out our finances this way by accident. He knows that the currency policy he supports for a separate Scotland - using the Pound outside of a currency union - means we have to run a surplus. Other nationalists pretend that isn’t the policy, and talk about immediately setting up a separate currency. That too would require us to run a surplus as we build up reserves to defend that new, unproven currency from international speculators. Either way, the currency policy limits the fiscal policy.

A surplus means would have to pay for what we spend from taxes rather than borrowing. That is why he’s listing the things that our taxes currently pay for. But let’s be clear what it wouldn’t pay for under the formulation used by both Wilson and the First Minister.

Spending not on Wilson’s list of what we could pay for includes our entire overseas aid budget; our entire defence budget; our entire budget for embassies and a diplomatic service; the budget for our national rail network; hundreds of millions of pounds of R&D investment; the wages of all civil servants working on tax and benefits; and all debt repayments for the borrowing that paid for, for example, the bank bailout given to RBS when Wilson worked there, or the furlough cash given to pay the wages of employees of many of his clients today.

On one hand, we could point out that it is dishonest to pretend that we won’t have to pay for all the things not on their list if we exit the UK. But I think we should take them literally and seriously. They are saying this expenditure is, well, expendable. Make them own this. If they deny it then they must get honest about the cuts to the NHS and other vital public services that would come with leaving the UK.

Wilson’s next lines have got the most attention, and for good reason:

“The alternative is carrying on as we are now. If you believe the critics, we are subsidised. Is living off handouts a life? Is that the summit of our ambitions as a country? No it isn’t.”

Andrew is a really nice guy, but this is a really right-wing worldview.

The last time a political project criticised public spending as “living off handouts” and sold shrinking the state as “ambition” I was playing Donkey Kong in the corner while my dad was shouting at whichever of Thatcher’s Ministers was on our Radio Rentals telly.

Wilson isn’t done there. Having criticised our higher public spending as a “hand out” he’s now reaching for another Thatcherite trope by arguing that sacrificing our public sector is really about self-reliance:

“The UK model prioritises economic growth in the South East and transfers cash, the argument goes, to the regions and nations. That’s why Boris Johnson says we’ve got to level up. The best way to level up is to give people the power to look after themselves and make choices for themselves.”

With massive cuts to services and benefits, people would be left to look after themselves, that’s for sure.

The choice being offered here is pretty explicit. On one side is the collective sharing of resources, based on our responsibilities to, and bonds with, each other. On the other side, we are invited to dissolve our relationship to each other within the UK, and cut ourselves off from shared resources, in the painful pursuit of a supposedly character-building self-reliance.

I’ve written before about how nationalism ultimately exists only to support itself, it is never truly utilitarian. This is the perfect example of that. Wilson’s argument is that the extra money for public services is bad because it is not ‘ours’ - but that is only true if you accept the more narrow, nationalist definition of who we are. The money is ours for as long as we remain in the UK. The unsustainable deficit only becomes real if we choose to leave.

Like nationalists the world over, they are spending all their time trying to work out how to solve problems that are caused only by their nationalism.

Presenter Stephen Jardine follows up by highlighting that our deficit is many times the limit set by the EU for new members to join (our borrowing should be no more than 3% of the size of our economy). This is, after all, the excuse given for re-running a referendum result they never accepted. Wilson argues that you don’t have to do all the austerity before you join, but admits we do have to commit to it:

“You can join without having hurdled the 3% you refer to, many countries have. You have to be on a glide path to putting it right.”

The metaphor chosen in response is telling: Gliding. No power. Plummeting to Earth.

When he talks about putting it ‘right’ here, it’s important to be clear about what he is saying is ‘wrong’. Long before pandemic spending kicked in, our deficit was far higher than the UK’s, not because we pay far lower tax than the UK average, but because we get far higher spending. So the problem being ‘put right’ here is higher spending.

The SNP can only ask to be taken seriously if we are allowed to take what they say literally. We should assume they mean what they say when they say these things.

When someone tells you who they are, believe them.

Their argument is that higher public spending is a problem that needs fixing. That higher public spending is a handout. That redistribution from wealthy areas is a problem. That cutting public spending will encourage self-reliance. That austerity is really ambition.

Whatever else this might be, it isn’t an argument for a fairer, more equal society.

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