An independent Scotland would have to implement a more stringent form of “austerity” than the vision outlined in the SNP’s Growth Commission because of the pandemic, according to a leading economist.

David Phillips, associate director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), warned that the country would be left “with a relatively high budget deficit, substantially higher than the rest of the UK” in the event of a “yes” vote.

Those with long memories will recall previous SNP pledges to abolish council tax, reduce class sizes in primary school to no more than 18, and introduce a cash grant for first-time house buyers – none of which have been delivered in 14 long years of SNP government in Scotland, despite a parliamentary majority at one point which would have enabled them to do just that.

A similarly cynical view might be taken to last week’s launch of the SNP manifesto for this coming election, offering a range of ambitious – and expensive – policy commitments. There are pledges to explore a four-day working week, to pilot a universal basic income for all citizens, new funding for the NHS, free dental care, a free bicycle for every child, and so the list goes on. There is, it seems, something for everyone.

But how, exactly, will all this be paid for? Analysis carried out by the Scottish Conservatives shows that the Scottish budget would need to at least double for the SNP to implement their manifesto in full, given their spending commitments total some £95 billion in a single year.

All this at a time when they are saying that rates of taxation in Scotland would not require to rise (although, of course, they made the same promise back in 2016, and swiftly broke it).

But do not just rely on Conservative criticism of the SNP’s figures. The independent and widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies states: “The manifesto does not provide information on how much these various pledges will cost altogether… but the list of policies included clearly has significant net cost. Paying for this in the context of what will likely be a tight fiscal environment in the coming Parliament would require tricky trade-offs, and potentially either (as yet unspoken) tax rises, or cuts to at least some areas of public spending.”

The same IFS has already pointed out that the SNP are utilising one-off Covid money coming in cash grants from the British Treasury to fund ongoing policy commitments. This diversion of vital resources infuriates business owners desperate for support funds, particularly when they see similar enterprises south of the Border able to reopen when they are still closed. Moreover, it is simply not sustainable in the long run, and will require – as the IFS fairly point out – either future tax rises, cuts elsewhere, or a mixture of both.

There isn’t much I agree with in the SNP’s manifesto for the Holyrood elections, so it seems peevish to cavil about the policies to which I am generally sympathetic. These are: a national care service, 100,000 new houses, abolition of dental charges, free school meals, investment in closing the attainment gap and more money for skills and training. I might quibble with the universalism of some measures because I would rather see resources redistributed from those with means to those without them. Even so, the Nationalists are making some of the right noises, if purely for their own electoral benefit rather than any late conversion to social democracy.

The obvious question, then: How do they intend to pay for it? The Scottish Conservatives estimate it would cost £95bn to fund every pledge in the manifesto for a single year. The Scottish Government budget unveiled in January outlines spending for this fiscal year of £45bn. My best guess is that they don’t intend to implement all of it. That kind of shonky salesmanship is to be expected from a government up for re-election but even if they only delivered half the policies put forward, it would mean a hefty bill.

That will be of only marginal concern to the SNP. It is already using temporary Covid-19 money from the Treasury to fund long-term, unconnected policies such as free bus passes and additional funding for councils. The Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that ‘from 2022-23, the money for these policies will likely have to be found from within the Scottish Government’s “core” funding’.

Any other government would be wary of giving voters goodies it could not afford, not least while promising them a five-year income tax freeze. However, devolution shields the SNP from the consequences faced by other governments. It can live beyond its means thanks to the Union it wishes to dismantle and, when the money runs out, blame that same Union for robbing Scots of their shiny new services and programmes. Not everyone who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Westminster will take a hit in the pocketbook now and a hit in the polls later.

When Scotland rejected independence in 2014, I thought ‘devo max’ — maximal devolution of tax, spending and borrowing powers — would satisfy those who had voted Yes because they wanted more autonomy and those who voted No while wishing to see a more powerful Holyrood. I was not alone, many were the fools of further-devolution, and we were convinced that ever-weaker Union would in fact enhance the Union. It’s hard to explain such naiveté, except to protest that all the alternative options seemed worse.

Those who believe the United Kingdom should continue to exist now have the worst of all possible worlds in Scotland. A nationalist party 14 years into government and still able to count on half the vote in any election and polls routinely showing a majority for secession. A devolved parliament being used as a trojan horse to bring about an independent Scotland and a government apparatus being quietly built into a proto-state to run it.

Extra powers and extra money from Westminster, intended to ‘strengthen the Union’, deployed instead to coax more voters into rejecting Westminster altogether. Public services, new and expanded programmes, and election-eve inducements paid for by the Barnett formula, Covid support transfers and domestic revenue reliant on full and unfettered access to the UK single market — all without popular debate of any prominence or substance about how such spending would be sustained after cutting ourselves off from that formula, those transfers and that market. Worst of all, a UK Government with a majority of 80 too cowardly to confront these problems but poorly advised enough to create entirely new problems on top of them.

There should be a political equivalent of the penitential act found in the Catholic liturgy. During the celebration of Holy Mass, the faithful admit: ‘I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words’, before beating their breast and acknowledging that said transgressions came about ‘through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’. The hope is that, by expressing ardent contrition, the Virgin Mary will intercede on your behalf and square things with the Big Man upstairs. I greatly sinned, through my most grievous fault, in once believing that devolving further powers, especially tax and welfare powers, would a) make Holyrood a more serious, responsible parliament and b) underline the case for solidarity rather than assist those who practise the politics of resentment and division.

It’s probably a good thing for commentators to reflect on their wrong calls but it should be essential for ministers, the people who advise them and the MPs who vote aye or no on their policy proposals. Labour cannot bring itself to admit that devolution as structured and implemented was a mistake because it was, after all, their mistake. Confronting it would involve apportioning much blame to Donald Dewar, the primary architect and a secular saint since his untimely death in 2000. The Tories have even more reason to keep schtum. In opposition, they warned devolution would break up Britain then, in government, handed the SNP more powerful tools to get the job done.

Downing Street hoped the Salmond-Sturgeon scandal would drop a roadblock in the middle of the march to separation. Sir Keir Starmer is being told that what the Scots really yearn for is a federal constitution with an elected upper chamber of the nations and regions. They speak of little else in the Gorbals. The Scottish Labour hierarchy and even the party’s best thinkers maintain that all would be well with devolution if they could get back in charge of it, a psychological buoy they cling to like Kate Winslet to that raft at the end of Titanic, even as everyone around them struggles to keep their head above water. It’s one thing to invent a system of government that only works if the same party wins every election; it’s another thing to brag about it.

The government, the opposition, the pro-Union parties at Holyrood, the policy wonks, the commentariat — none can bring themselves to admit the scale and urgency of the threat to the Union because the remedies they propose (and those they brief off-the-record) are plainly inadequate. Fourteen years on, they are still dumbfounded that the devolution system all the clever people said would bury separatism has in fact made it the immovable force of Scottish politics and too paralysed by fear to do anything about it.

Holyrood either has to be reformed or it must be accepted that it will always be, or have the capacity to be, the headquarters and primary instrument of the Scottish independence movement. Make devolution work to the Union’s ends or it will end the Union.

The Alba Party released its first party political advertisement this week. And it was as enjoyable as you would have expected. For in it Alex Salmond’s new party showed its desire to go forward into the 21st century by going back to the 14th. The whole advert focused on Robert the Bruce. Indeed, to a background of pipe-music and soaring images of the Scottish mountain-scape, it pretended that the broadcast was actually delivered by Robert the Bruce, who has been summoned back from the dead to do voice-over work….

‘Scotland has fallen victim to the nationalist playbook, divide and conquer. Our traditional left-right politics of arguing how best to improve opportunity and make good the lives of those who struggle has been replaced by a tawdry battle of Yes and No.’

Eyes on the prize. Sadly such is the state of our politics at present that the prize is not addressing our shattered economy or putting our education system back on its feet. It is simply preventing an outright nationalist Government in the next Scottish Parliament. Scotland has fallen victim to the nationalist playbook, divide and conquer. Our traditional left-right politics of arguing how best to improve opportunity and make good the lives of those who struggle has been replaced by a tawdry battle of Yes and No.

The Scotland we are fighting over was ironically created by the Union, pulled together from the clans that had fought each other at the Battle of Shirts and later at Culloden along with competing lowland interests.

Our Scotland which thrived under the Union and punched way above our weight in the global successes and politics of the centuries.

We speak of the Union dividend as not one simply of money but of culture, of family, of shared interest.

The nationalists recognise none of this, they snarl with anger and contempt at the idea of pooled resource. They send angry missives about stolen oil as they drive down the roads and cross the bridges that it built.

They pronounce themselves kinder, more respectful and more civic as they renounce Scots Tories as scum, brand Labour as Red Tories and demand the English leave Scotland – and nowhere are those voices of bitter contempt louder than in the First Minister’s city of Glasgow, where the SNP has delivered austerity and deprivation.

It is their model for a future Scotland.

Eyes on the prize, for the nationalists the prize is the destruction of the Union and thus far they have played that game well. They have changed the devolution settlement from a Scottish Parliament running the country’s once proud public services into an outpost of opposition to the rest of Britain, neglecting our education and welfare while taking ownership of our flag and turning us against ourselves.

They have rewritten history to pit England against Scotland and used Holyrood to deepen division with false claims of assaults on our rights and freedoms by the United Kingdom.

So sophisticated has their campaign of destruction been that truth and lies are now interwoven not only in politics but in our Civil Service and Judiciary.

Such is their success that they hold 59 out of 73 constituency seats in a total of 129 and have used this power base to manipulate their minority support into a sense of overwhelming control.

Eyes on the prize, for unionists there is a sense of growing frustration and anger. Politics is a numbers game and our side has fallen victim to the tactics of division.

We are the majority acting like a minority because we are still divided by our traditional left-right politics. Labour would rather vote with the SNP then support the Conservatives.

Whilst Anas Sarwar talks of healing, he rejects any meaningful options to work with the other parties.

Douglas Ross offers the hand of friendship with the confidence of knowing it will be rejected.

Neither man wants to face asking their candidates to stand aside, and no candidate is willingly offering.

Meanwhile, Willie Rennie urges his supporters to stick with them knowing they will not come anywhere near winning most of the seats but instead ensuring a unionist party doesn’t.

They all urge ‘use both votes for us’ whilst the nationalists titter with glee at the easy pickings. Alex Salmond has joined the fray. But this is merely a distraction because whilst everyone haggles over the list and argues about the vote split the prize is being forgotten.

Eyes on the prize, 73 first past the post constituency seats, 59 of which currently give the nationalists their power base; it’s the reason they control the parliament even as a minority Government. If the unionist parties place all their hopes on mere survival through the 56 list seats, they are playing to lose.

To beat nationalism the major pro-union parties need to take the constituency seats and their focus and worry about the list is simply a taste of their strategic defeat.

It will take more than this election to achieve but they should be making that start now. None of them alone can take on the rise of nationalism, they need each other. Instead egos and self interest have become the order of the day.

So the voters must decide. If their eyes are on the prize, then unionists will look at which unionist party can win their local constituency and vote for them without reservation. You can then vote for whom ever you want on the list vote and maybe, just maybe Holyrood will become what was intended, a coalition of parties whose eyes are on the prize. The prize of a Scotland with local decision making in the interests of the people, with the benefit of the union dividend.

Scottish politics is a small world. Inevitably so, in a nation of 5.5 million. The Scottish National party is also close-knit, once famous for presenting a unified front to outsiders. That is how it grew to become the dominant force, now in its 14th year in government. It also helps explain why the feud between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond has been so bitter and all-consuming as a spectacle. In terms of SNP division, it was a volcanic eruption on what had previously been a largely featureless landscape.

The lava has stopped flowing, but the ground is scorched. The origin of the dispute is allegations of sexual harassment and assault made against Mr Salmond, which he denied. A court acquitted him on all charges last year. A parallel controversy ignited around the Scottish civil service’s handling of the allegations; its own botched inquiry (revealed in a different court case to have been “tainted by apparent bias”); and questions of what Ms Sturgeon had known and when, and what action she had or hadn’t taken.

Mr Salmond alleged a malicious plot. The first minister pleaded memory lapses. Whether she had knowingly breached the ministerial code became the crux question. Earlier this week, an independent inquiry decreed that she had not. A separate report by an investigating committee of MSPs was more critical, but the force of its conclusions was blunted by leaks and conspicuous partisanship. A vote of no confidence against Ms Sturgeon at Holyrood flopped.

THE SNP has described Salmond’s Alba party as “predictable” and questions whether Salmond should return to public office.

In a statement, the party said the announcement this afternoon that Salmond would be launching a new pro-independece Alba party to run for list seats in the upcoming elections as “perhaps the most predictable development in Scottish politics”.

A BATTLE of the billboards is taking place in Greenock as pro-union activists and independence supporters vie to get their message across.

The new Inverclyde ‘YES to the United Kingdom’ and Scotland Matters poster at the junction of Campbell Street and Brougham Street in Greenock focuses on ‘Education not Separation’.

NOW that the local elections in England are going ahead, I think it would be a safe bet to say that the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May will be cancelled just to give Nicola Sturgeon another opportunity to be different from the rest of the UK. David Bone, Girvan, Ayrshire

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