Nadhim Zahawi is MP for Stratford on Avon.
Since their defeat in the referendum last year, the surge by the Scottish Nationalist Party has turned Scotland into a democratic one party state. Fortunately, it’s the Conservatives who are best positioned to challenge the Nationalists’ hegemony in the long-term. We’ve stolen a march on the other unionist alternatives since 2011, have an absolutely fantastic leader in Ruth Davidson and time is on our side.
This is because fiscal autonomy will be a Pyrrhic victory for the SNP. If Holyrood wants to be responsible for spending more money, then it ought to be responsible for raising it.
The SNP has been getting away with focusing on constitutional issues and blaming all of Scotland’s problems on Westminster for too long. Receiving more powers and responsibility will remove this easy option. It will bring up questions and force compromises and trade-offs that government by grant doesn’t. The SNP’s hasn’t got the answers. Conservatives do.
However, the weakness of the Conservatives in Scotland goes beyond the old tropes. It is linked to the fact that the SNP’s walk is nowhere near as redistributive or left-wing as their talk. In reality, in many cases, such as over tuition fees and student grants, they’ve protected the better off at the expense of the poor, who’ve had their grants cut to pay for ‘free’ education. When they’ve pursued myopic ideological agenda they loudly espouse, they’ve made public services worse.
For example, they followed the Scottish Labour government in completing the abolition of the internal market in the NHS that has boosted the quality of care in England. To show this, if you compare two demographically comparable regions; the North East of England and Scotland, the improvement in care quality has been far slower in Scotland. The rate of deaths that could have been prevented with better care halved between 1990 and 2010 across the United Kingdom, but remained 20 per cent higher in Scotland than England.
Similarly to their idealistic railing against profit in healthcare, the SNP makes a lot of noise about how virtuous they are for making in home care for the elderly free. But in reality this has crippled the budgets of councils and leaves 1,600 on waiting lists without care.
The situation would be far worse under the SNP if it weren’t for the Barnett Formula. A block grant, calculated under the formula, gives Scotland a disproportionate amount of central government money and makes up the balance. Spending per person is 12 per cent higher in Scotland than in the UK overall. It’s embarrassing for the SNP that this is the case, given that they advocate a split from England.
Because of this, the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood spends more money than it raises itself. After devolution, the government in Scotland managed half the spending in Scotland while raising below 10 per cent of the revenue itself. When the recommendations of the Smith Commission are implemented the percentage of revenue raised will be 40 per cent.
As the challenges of fiscal autonomy force the Scottish government to mature, the Conservatives’ strengths will matter more. This is where having a strong leader there helps.
People in England will have become somewhat familiar with Ruth Davidson since her taking the lead in the general election campaign in Scotland. She’s a former journalist, radio presenter and army reservist, who won the Scottish Conservatives leadership contest in 2011. Now, four years later, she’s on the front line of the drive to prove that the Conservatives are the alternative to the SNP in Scotland.
She has a big job on her hands, but I firmly believe that the tide is on our side. The Scottish Nationalist Party have destroyed the Labour Party in Scotland, but the way in which they have governed has opened the space for Conservative arguments.
It is extremely easy to argue for higher taxes for someone else. It is extremely easy to argue for endless borrowing when you are largely not responsible for its repayment. The Barnett Formula allows the SNP to ignore basic arithmetic. If you want higher spending on social services, you have to pay higher taxes and have a smaller productive economy. You have to accept all the knock on effects this involves. Responsibility will see the SNP forced to raise taxes or cut services. Their broad electoral coalition would not hold together if the taps were turned off or taxes raised to pay for more expensive public services north of the border.
At the moment, the SNP assure people that they are more generous and left-wing than the rest of the UK. They see the ‘results’ of this via the social democrat rhetoric laid on thick by the SNP and the higher spending they receive. They enjoy all this without having to pay the higher rates of tax that this would require in the rest of the UK.
Soon, the Scottish government will start having to make proper decisions. When Scots start to become impatient with higher taxes or see the fallout from anti-business rhetoric and policy, they will know who to blame. The more proportional electoral system in Scotland can reward the Conservatives in a way the Scottish electorate never could in a General Election. If the choices are clear in the election then the Conservatives can do well and become the real opposition. By 2020, Scotland will not be a Conservative desert anymore.