Do you know that old ditty, about the significant consequences which can flow from apparently minor details?
For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
I was put in mind of it last night, as the media reported comments made by Nicola Sturgeon to the BBC's Nick Robinson, indicating that SNP MPs would consider voting on legislation which "has a direct impact" on Scotland's budget. The Times has presented this as ratting on the party's noble self-denying ordinance, to refrain from voting on legislation extending only to England and Wales - another clause added to the charge sheet in the victim-fantasy of an England oppressed. In full-on metropolitan hubristic mode, the Guardian editorial characterise the First Minister's remarks as "playing the English political game" and a (presumably unwelcome) pitch to "acquire unprecedented clout over London." The Scotsman are critical of Nicola's logic too, arguing that:
"In fact, SNP MPs could take an interest in English NHS spending if privatisation was entirely off the table, but budgets were being affected by, say, a drive to cut wasteful bureaucracy, with a consequential cut in Scottish funding. The First Minister may have calculated that this new position will put pressure on Westminster to grant Scotland full fiscal autonomy. After all, if Scotland was in charge of its own finances, and the Barnett formula was scrapped, there would be no reason for the Scots to be interested in levels of English public services."
And the Scotsman must be right. The idea that the SNP should live life in the Commons as if there were no Barnett consequentials might be sustainable -- if the party agreed with the overall direction of public spending. If, however, you are dealing with a government hell-bent on shrinking the state, and doing so across departments dealing with devolved and reserved matters, circumstances change. Resistance to austerity cannot solely be a question of resisting disagreeable budgets and decision-making on reserved matters. Under the Barnett model, any number of "England only" Bills passing through parliament lay the legislative foundations for contracting public budgets.
Another example from outside of the health brief underlines the point. In 2012, the coalition passed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which, amongst other things, helped put legal aid in England and Wales in the fiscal vice. Much of the dirty work is done by subordinate legislation and regulation from the Lord Chancellor's department -- but a core function of the Bill was to hew back the public funds made available to individuals to pursue their disputes in the English courts by excluding great swathes of litigation from the safety-net of legal aid. Superficially, the impact of the 2012 Act is limited to the unlucky folk south of the Tweed, struggling to secure access to justice through law, but the spending cuts it helped set in train quietly erode Scotland's block grant too.
The essential question for the sceptics of the Guardian and the Scotsman is this: why should a self-denying ordinance become a suicide pact for devolved public services? All for the want of a horseshoe nail...