Nick de Bois is the former member of Parliament for Enfield North.
Last September the people of Scotland firmly rejected the idea of leaving the United Kingdom. The separatist threat, it was thought at the time, had been banished for a generation. Just eight months later and the SNP’s stunning rout of Scottish Labour has put the Union’s future in serious doubt once again.
Perhaps we should not be too surprised given the electoral arithmetic. When a ballot paper presents just two choices, gaining 45 per cent will result in a convincing defeat. When a ballot paper presents six or seven options, 45 per cent translates into a landslide.
Central to the SNP’s success has been Alex Salmond, one of the shrewdest operators in British politics. He more than anyone has sought to cultivate a sense of victimhood for Scotland. It’s been a key part of the SNP’s rationale for statehood; that Scotland is oppressed by a remote Westminster and must break free to create a fairer society.
It’s complete nonsense. It’s negative and destructive too. But above all it is incredibly powerful.
It’s no wonder both Labour and the Conservatives have sought to adapt to this by making tactical concessions to prevent Salmond playing this trump card. Hence the reason, for example, for allowing 16-year-olds to vote in the referendum or, more significantly, pledging not to reform the Barnett Formula.
The Barnett Formula has been used since 1978 to decide how much public funding to dish out from the UK pot between its four constituent parts. The crucial point is that the basis for this calculation is not the relative need of each country but the relative population sizes. The outcome of this is that for the past 37 years, public spending per head has been lower in England than in Scotland.
Recent Treasury figures show that the gap sizeable. Spending per head in real terms is an unjustifiable £1,651 higher in Scotland than England – that’s almost 20 per cent higher. The gap has actually increased by £76 per head between 2009 and 2013.
The crude “head count” approach to allocating public funding means we’re not able to get resources to where they’re needed most. In short, the poorest in society suffer because we’re not willing to reconsider how best to distribute public funding in the UK. We go along with this for fear of handing the nationalists a victim card they will cynically play in pursuit of their goals.
Despite London being the engine that drives the UK economy, it’s actually our great capital that is hardest hit by the injustice of the Barnett Formula. Spending per head has reduced across all parts of the UK since 2009 but London has seen the sharpest reduction of 4.8 per cent – way out of line with the UK national average of just 0.9 per cent. Scotland has seen a reduction in spending per head in real terms of 0.2 per cent.
London would surely have a strong case for gaining a fairer share of the UK’s resources. Ranking all 326 local authorities in England by deprivation, London has 13 councils in the top ten per cent. Next is the North West of England with nine. After that, the other seven regions of England combined don’t even match London’s contribution to the top of the deprivation table (11 councils).
I have seen for myself the reality of such inequality. In the London Borough of Enfield, the life expectancy of someone living in the east of the borough can be as much as 12 years less than someone living just three miles to the west. To put it more bleakly, that is the difference between a child knowing their grandparents, or not.
Similar instances of such inequality can be found across all parts of the UK. The point is, a fairer funding settlement will benefit the poorest throughout the entire United Kingdom.
What stands in the way of securing a better deal for the poorest in society is not just the politicking of the SNP, but a failure to take it head on in pursuit of doing the right thing. Just think about it – we could secure more resources for our most deprived communities without a single extra penny of public spending by simply ensuring a fairer funding settlement from the outset.
The remarkable Conservative victory earlier this month owed a great deal to people not wanting a weak Ed Miliband administration being held to ransom by the SNP. If anyone has a mandate for standing up to the SNP, it’s the Conservatives. The question we have to ask ourselves is what’s worse – standing up to Alex Salmond or failing to stand up for those who need our help the most?
And for a future Conservative Mayor who chooses to prioritise his or her responsibility to reduce the level of health inequalities in London, they would do well to champion revisions to the Barnett Formula as a means to achieve this. The case for a fairer deal in London in particular is overwhelming.