22 January 2015

Barnett consequentials...

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...


  1. The real game's on now and not before time.

  2. The broad shoulders of England should take the burden of the anomaly of the West Lothian question. That's called pooling and sharing. In the last 2000 votes in the Commons, (according to the House of Commons Library) the votes of the 59 Scottish MPs in the 650 strong House affected the outcome 0.06% of the time. With a 99.94% success rate in getting their own way, English MPs have nothing to complain of. We, however, do. As long as we remain fiscally joined at the hip, a sneeze in England is an earthquake in Scotland. The only fair outcome is full fiscal autonomy.

  3. The SNP making decisions about life in England when they have no democratic mandate from England? Outrageous!

    No, it's completely normal. The European Commission has been doing this for years.

    1. Doesn't make it right. If you really believe what you say, and want to improve/extend democracy, change the European Commission. Don't hide behind it.

    2. And of course we are ruled up here by a Tory dominated government despite there famously being twice as many pandas as Tory MP's in Scotland. Having done my bit sweating inside a panda suit during the referendum campaign as half of the embodiment of the democratic deficit I know of what I speak. The Tories are hurting plenty of people here in Scotland despite having no mandate to do so.

      Which is why of course so many of us not only voted Yes but actively campaigned for it. Hopefully the next Labour government will have no mandate over Scotland ever after May.

      Of course other countries and parts of the UK are similarly afflicted. Which should of course engender humility in a governing party with a mandate from only sections of the nation. Instead we got an utterly arrogant government behaving as though it won an outright huge majority from a majority of the popular vote instead of a minority party with a minority of the vote. Also before you bring the LibDem enablers into it, their democratic legitimacy was withdrawn here in Scotland in the 2011 Holyrood vote where they were wiped out on the mainland. A similar fate awaits them in May.

  4. smithcommision delivered home rule,London