Boris Johnson and the NHS

Vince Mills

One of the enduring ironies of the referendum campaign is the extent to which the ‘Yes’ camp has attacked the ‘No’ camp for using negative tactics and scare stories and then used precisely the same tactics themselves. What is worse, is that in the process concerns that we on the left share and would want to analyse are subjugated to the simple Yes/No binary, closing down the space for a serious discussion.

The most important area for consideration here is the NHS, but before we look at that, let us consider the issue of Boris Johnson. Enough has been written about the mop top with prime ministerial ambitions to fill a wilderness of dustbins, but not enough of that has focused on the reactionary core of the man’s politics – his elitist upbringing, neo-liberal instincts and social prejudices.  Politically there is probably little to separate him from Cameron except that he has managed to develop a populist appeal based on what is seen as ‘personal authenticity’ which disguises the awful consequences of the politics he espouses – food banks, a working poor and a trade union free economy, a precondition of the first two evils.

In Scotland the possibility of Johnston’s accession to the prime ministership focused less on the swarm of political plagues that would infest Britain should he succeed and more on what it might mean for further powers for the Scottish Parliament. Here is the Scotsman:

“The London mayor stated his opposition to devolving greater tax responsibilities to Scotland as a poll showed he had opened up a big lead over his rivals as the politician the public would like to see replace Tory Party leader David Cameron.

Nationalists last night seized on the intervention to warn that Mr Johnson’s comments offered a “grim insight” into Scotland’s future devolution prospects in the event of a No vote and a Johnson premiership.”

This of course entirely contradicts the implications of Scotland voting ‘Yes’ that its supporters are wont to promote.  The SNP has offered endless assurances that negotiations over the currency and Trident and the myriad of other matters will be a walk in the park given the desire for agreement on the part of the rUK government they insist will follow the acceptance of a ‘Yes’ vote. If Johnston wins, according to their interpretation, we will have a politician with a popular base who appears to be hostile to concessions, thereby increasing the risks to getting a settlement on issues the SNP consider core, like the currency. Admittedly this is less of an issue for those in the ‘Yes’ camp who support an independent  Scottish currency, but that takes us back to the issue of who is actually calling the shots in the independence campaign and like it or not it is not Jim Sillars and Dennis Canavan

The obfuscation of serious socialist dialogue evident in the Johnston case is magnified when it comes to the question of the NHS. In fact the NHS in Scotland has been a considerable success, certainly in comparison to its travails in England and it therefore demonstrates the effectiveness of devolution in delivering Scottish solutions for the Scottish context. As Dave Watson on Unison noted in June in the openDemocracy site:

“Since devolution, the NHS in Scotland has taken a very different path to that of NHS England. It has embraced co-operation rather than competition. And new figures show that Scots reckon that it delivers for them.”

Not that it has saved the Scottish NHS from PFI/PPP and the left certainly needs to discuss how, for example, additional borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament could help address that issue.

But that is not the discussion we are having at the moment, however.  Instead in language every bit as ‘scary’ as the scaremongering the ‘No’ campaign is accused of, leading ‘Yes’ politicians predict the end of the health service in Scotland as we know it. Here is the BBC website:

“Earlier this year First Minister Alex Salmond warned of a “growing threat” to the Scottish NHS from an agenda of “privatisation and fragmentation” at Westminster.

“Under the Westminster system, cuts to spending in England automatically trigger cuts in Scotland,” he said. “So if private money replaces public funding in England, our budget will also be slashed no matter what we want or need.””

The argument being pursued here is that because the Barnett formula works on increased funding going to Scotland based on an increase in England, then a spending cut in England as a consequence of privatisation will mean less money will go to Scotland.

What is really egregious here is the failure to explain the full horrors of privatisation.  The private sector is not coming into the market to take money and offer care to patients who might otherwise have used public services – that form of privatisation is peripheral.  The point is that services are subcontracted out to the private sector, like hip replacements funded by public money!

Consequently the amount of public money going into the Health Service in England is not falling. It is, according to a report produced by the Charity the King’s Fund which looked at a number of projections, increasing and according to the Treasury’s official Red Book for the 2014 Budget spending on England’s NHS was scheduled to increase from £105.6 billion in 2013/14 to £110.4 billion in 2015/16.

In light of this what are we to make of the Sunday Herald’s Panelbase poll on 17th August on the NHS.  Here is the question that was asked:

“Does the prospect of an increased role of the private sector in the NHS in England having an adverse effect on the Scottish budget which funds NHS Scotland make you likely or unlikely to vote for an independent Scotland?”

If it were true that the increased role of the private sector in the English health service would have such an impact on the Scottish budget then yes, that would be of concern. But as we have seen there is no such reduction. The ‘poll’ therefore was a cheap exercise in propaganda rather than an attempt to help understand attitudes to an area of national importance in both England and Scotland. Despite, or perhaps because of  the questionable wording of the Panelbase poll which the accompanying article claimed showed the NHS was the key to winning women voters, only 42% women said they likely to vote yes on that basis, 38% were unlikely and 20% women were undecided – hardly a ringing endorsement.

Of course, and rarely mentioned by independence supporters, ‘we are doomed’ if Cameron and the right can win the next election. The UK polling site puts labour ahead in the polls by 36% to 33% which translates, using their methods, into a 32 seat majority for Labour.

I hope that if, as the polls suggest, there is a ‘No’ vote the Left can devote its energies to exposing the damage and the danger that Cameron, Johnson and their ilk pose and discuss radical alternatives including what additional powers a Scottish parliament will need to underpin successes like the NHS.

The Great Moving Right Show

Vince Mills 

One of the interesting, though perhaps more bizarre aspects of the current independence debate in Scotland is how some sections of the Scottish Left have been shifting to the right and even slipping into the nationalist camp, apparently without noticing it; others have adopted a strategy which hints at radical change but in their effort to achieve this, promote its ideological antithesis.

 This latter position is most clearly articulated by the SWP and a range of other groups and individuals in the Radical Independence Campaign. Their argument that they support independence and not nationalism is premised on the belief that there will be a disintegration of the British state following a Yes vote.

The former is most closely associated with the remnants of the Scottish Socialist Party and others, like the Labour for Independence group (origins and purpose contested) who previously might have voted for, or even have been members of the Labour Party; it is a straightforward recognition that fundamental change is not on the agenda and some form of limited social democracy is the best we can hope for.  Of the two it is position that carries more weight. 

It may be difficult to believe that socialists in Scotland, many of whom were loud in their condemnation, and correctly so, of Labour’s seduction by right wing ideas under Blair, can support a nationalist agenda, but here is how Colin Fox, the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, received the launch of the SNP’s economically right wing White Paper:

“The white paper sets out a vision of independence that represents a significant advance for Scotland in my view – affording us the right to self-determination and the chance to build the type of nation we want.”

To be fair to Colin he highlights its weaknesses as well as what he sees as its strengths,  but it is the political shift of a Party that once presented itself as an advocate of radical socialism that is important here. As spokesperson of the SSP, Colin is acknowledging that in itself the White Paper marks an advance (despite its neo-liberal economic assumptions) but that, more importantly it offers the ‘chance’ to build the kind of nation we want thereby signalling that the SSP will accept independence even if it does not lead in a left direction. In other words, by accepting independence as an objective in itself, he is thereby re-defining the SSP as a nationalist party. And if that is not enough, despite attacking the limitations of the White Paper, Colin signs up the left to work for independence among working class voters despite any guarantees of a better Scotland:

“Left-wing organisations that support independence such as the Scottish Socialist Party have a crucial role to play in persuading working-class voters who are justly sceptical of the sort of change Alex Salmond and the SNP have in mind that they would still be better off with independence.”

Why they would be any better off if the SNP’s pro NATO, pro EU Pro monarchy,  pro low business tax  Scotland, as it almost certainly would be, is based on two unstated assumptions.  The first is that a vote for independence is not a vote for the SNP and the second is that the politics of an independent Scotland will indeed be more progressive. 

These are both unfounded. It is indeed the SNP’s white paper we are voting on, a party which had the highest share of the popular vote in the recent European election and the last Scottish Parliament elections and has the greatest number of councillors. It is by any measure the dominant political force in Scotland and is not about to disappear any time soon. 

Meanwhile the myths bubbling up around Scottish ‘exceptionalism’ are surely bursting. In May in the run up to the European elections, where UKIP managed to win a seat in Scotland the  Glasgow Herald had already reported: “UKIP policies to curb immigration, cut overseas aid and crack down on benefits claimants are backed by a majority of Scots, a surprise new poll suggests…”

This poses a significant political and largely ignored challenge (by the SNP) to its desire to increase productivity by growing Scotland’s population through increased immigration. 

To the left of the SSP’s analysis we have the SWP and other Radical Independence supporters who argue that a Scottish secession will somehow or another lead to the break-up of the British state. This assumes of course that the British state can neither be reformed or transformed though existing democratic institutions but, as the old light bulb joke would have it, can only be smashed. Leaving  aside the debate on the nature of the British state and whether in Keir Hardie’s view it is a ‘useful donkey’ or in Marx’s that ‘it is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’, the question that needs to be answered by its Left advocates is how a Scottish secession fundamentally weakens it, in either an independent Scotland or in rUK.

Bear in mind that the state that will most likely emerge in Scotland will be deeply tied to that of the rUK through our integrated economy, (perhaps through a currency pact). In rUK, the power of finance capital, umbilically linked to the brokers of political power, will remain untouched in the City of Westminster where it will still control the flows of capital in and out of Scotland. 

A real challenge to the power of capital in an independent Scotland would require in the words of James Stafford in Renewal a “chaviste economic strategy of nationalisation, investment and redistribution …” it would also mean “…capital and exchange controls, as well as the swift abandonment of EU membership. This is a recipe unlikely to meet with either success or popularity in a small, open, wealthy and European economy like Scotland’s; even less so during the brief initial period when the framing conditions for Scottish independence would be decided …”

As Stafford suggets above, such a strategy would at the very least require an honest dialogue with and compelling narrative offered to  Scottish working people and their institutions about the difficult and dangerous political terrain they were about to move onto. Not only has  such dialogue not been entered into, while sections of the ultra-left massage each other’s delusions about the possibility of radical change following the referendum, the main Yes campaign of which they are part sets out quite a different future.

In the Yes Campaign’s  ‘Your Choice’ pamphlet, in a section headed “WELCOME TO SCOTLAND 2020” it cites the example of Barbara “Today: Up to her eyes in paperwork, Barbara wishes she had more time to focus on what she does best – running the most popular pub in town. 2020 A hardworking businesswoman, Barbara has always had what it takes. Now freed up from high business taxes and red tape, she has a thriving pub on her hands and her employees are happy and productive thanks to the new guarantee to raise the minimum wage at least in line with inflation.”

So, on the one hand a section of the Scottish Left espouses national independence for its own sake in the hope that it provides a chance for a better future, while another pretends to promote revolutionary change through support for independence, while in effect supporting a campaign for a Scotland of entrepreneurial aspiration.

Whatever the result of the referendum, both these left factions will be marginalised, but all the more marginalised if it is a No vote. This is not because they have not tried to have strategic engagement with the working class.  They have tried very hard to engage, to the extent of abandoning their own objectives in favour some quite toxic to the left. The problem is that they do not have a credible strategy for serious social change. That is not an area where the Labour Left can feel an excess of confidence either which is why, as soon as the vote in September is over, the Scottish Labour left needs to meet and discuss our strategy and programme for fundamental change. A No vote must also mean another country.

 

Differing assumptions on iScotland’s public finances

We have two weighty reports today on Scotland’s public finances post independence, one from the Scottish Government and the other from the Treasury. The numbers are some way apart and that’s due to their respective assumptions, not a dodgy calculator.

The BBC has done a good job of summarising the claims in both reports with some nice info graphics. So I will focus on two key areas – start up costs and public finance projections, both key concerns for UNISON members.

The Treasury has published a projection for the costs of creating government departments for an independent Scotland. Based on LSE estimates that it costs around £15m to set up an individual department, this means a £2.7bn bill to replicate the work of the 180 government departments and agencies in Scotland. They have previously estimated that a new benefit system could cost £400m, while setting up a new tax system could cost as much as £562m.

In my view this calculation is mince and I note that one of the LSE researchers has also said as much. Only four wholly-new departments are needed – defence, foreign, HMRC and a Scottish Department for Work and Pensions. Crude calculations like this do nothing for the UK government’s credibility in this debate and undermine much better papers in the Scotland analysis series. They can of course, with some justification, point to the absence of costings from the Scottish Government on this issue. John Swinney’s argument that we are saving on the putative Revenue Scotland, is a bit thin.

The Scottish Government is on much stronger ground when it brings Scotland’s share of the UK’s £1.3 trillion public sector assets into the debate. The Treasury’s Whole of Government Accounts for 2011/12, shows a total public sector estate in the UK worth £745bn and financial assets worth £288bn. Although much of Scotland’s share will already be domiciled here, less the bits we don’t want like Trident!

Let’s move onto the more substantial part of both papers, the assessment of public finances.

Here the Scottish Government outlines a much more optimistic medium term picture for Scotland than the IFS and others. The Scottish Government’s paper claims that total spending in Scotland in 2016-17 would exceed revenues by 2.8% of national income – more optimistic than the Treasury paper and the 5.2% deficit forecast for Scotland by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

The main reason for the difference is varying forecasts for revenues from North Sea oil and gas. The Treasury and IFS used the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projections. The Scottish Government report uses their own, higher forecasts. Their figures assume that Scotland will receive £6.9bn (or 4.1% of Scottish GDP) in tax revenues from offshore oil and gas production in 2016–17, rather than the £2.9bn (1.7% of GDP) forecast by the OBR. David Bell from Stirling University puts this in perspective by explaining that the difference exceeds the annual revenue from council tax and non-domestic rates combined.

David Bell has explained these forecasts in some detail and is worth a read. However, the bottom line is that oil revenues are both volatile and notoriously difficult to forecast.

There is another problem with the Scottish Government’s position that IFS has previously highlighted. In the longer term, Scotland’s ageing population will place greater strains on public finances and revenues will decline as oil and gas reserves are depleted. The Scottish Government claims that this can be addressed in their scenarios for increasing productivity, employment and population growth through immigration. These may happen, but again they are optimistic scenarios, not for the cautious or faint hearted. In addition, public service spending per person usually increases in line with productivity growth, so unless relative public spending was to decline, it is difficult to see how these scenarios make that much difference.

As is often the case with the referendum debate, these points depend on assumptions and forecasts that don’t have a strong track record for accuracy. You certainly wouldn’t bet the Friday night pub kitty on them, let alone your mortgage. The UK public finances don’t look good, but it also requires a leap of faith to accept the Scottish Government’s alternatives.