While sections of the independence movement get on with the serious business of self-righteously and noisily condemning other sections of the independence movement for the terrible crime of having a different opinion about certain issues which are not directly related to independence. The Tories are quietly getting on with their far more serious business of hollowing out the devolution settlement from within and undermining the powers of the Scottish Parliament. And while we are on the topic of divisions within the independence movement, make no mistake at all, the Conservatives will leap at the opportunity to use the Salmond-Sturgeon dispute as an excuse to undermine the powers of the Scottish Parliament even further. We stoke the fires of division at our peril.
Today the Conservative government at Westminster has announced plans to spend millions of pounds across Scotland in direct partnership with local authorities, completely by-passing Holyrood. The funding will be allocated by Westminster and will not require the approval of Holyrood. The money is part of the £4 billion set aside by Chancellor Rishi Sunak for “levelling up the country.” This mone had until now been spent only in England, but today’s announcement from the British government confirms that the scheme is to be extended to Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland.
Westminster intends to grant the cash for use on capital projects such as transport and infrastructure, culture and heritage schemes despite the fact that these are competencies which come within the remit of the devolved Parliament. This has been enabled by a provision in the Conservatives’ controversial UK Internal Market Bill and represents confirmation that Gove, Johnson and the Tories intend to use Brexit as an excuse to undermine the devolution settlement and further centralise the already over-centralised British state.
You can be sure that SNP controlled local authorities will be put to the back of the queue and that the Conservatives will target the funding in a nakedly party political way in an attempt to undermine their opponents, which in Scotland means that they will spend it in ways which will by-pass SNP controlled local authorities. This is precisely how the Conservatives have already used the money in England. In Scotland it’s going to be used to weaken the independence movement and to bolster the anti- independence cause. This is a clear example of the Conservatives using public money for nakedly political purposes. Colour us all surprised eh?
In September 2019 the BBC reported that UK govt spending supposedly aimed at “levelling up so called left behind towns in England was disproportionately being spent in Conservative held constituencies and in Labour-Conservative marginals. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-49883367
The English expenditure which was supposed to deliver an increase in school funding in “left-behind” towns was in fact used to boost the electoral prospects of local Conservatives. However an analysis of the expenditure carried out by the Education Policy Institute found that nine out of the top ten beneficiaries in terms of an increase per pupil in cash were in Tory held constituencies. Of the 36 constituencies which received no benefit at all from the scheme all but four were held by Labour despite the fact that they generally had a higher level of base funding due to greater pupil need and greater social deprivation. Quoted by the BBC, Natalie Perera of the Education Policy Institute said that “In this context, [the extra funding] means bringing generally more affluent schools up to the same level of funding as more disadvantaged schools.” She added that “it was “reasonable to say that the latest announcement targets more funding to more affluent and generally more Conservative areas”.
In Scotland there is the additional dimension of devolution and Conservative attempts to weaken and undermine the Scottish parliament and the devolution settlement. As is clear from their behaviour in England, the Conservatives treat this public money, not as a mechanism for improving public services, but rather as a tool for promoting a nakedly party political agenda.
This move comes after the UK governmen cut Scotland’s capital budget at the Spending Review by 5% . In other words the British government has slashed the funding which was under the control of the Scottish government and replaced it with a smaller block of funding which is directly under the control of Johnson and the Tories. This will then be presented to the Scottish public by our anti independence media as Scotland being done a favour by a munificent British state when in fact it represents both a power grab and a cash grab which has an immediate negative impact on Scotland’s ability to determine its own spending priorities. No doubt we can now look forward to a tranche of this British government money being spent on a feasibility study for Boris Johnson’s fantasy proposal for a fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Whatever capital projects it ends up being spent on, you can be quite certain that they will have British flags plastered all over them. This is all really just another exercise in Conservative flag fetishism. Because the real reason that more and more people in Scotland want independence is because we’re not subjected to enough union jackery. Or rather, union jack-offery.
It is the UK Government, and not the Scottish Government, which will decide where this money is to be spent and what it is to be spent on. So despite the fact that Scotland has repeatedly rejected the Conservatives at the ballot box, the Conservatives are still taking it upon themselves to dictate to Scotland how public money is to be spent on devolved competencies. The cash will then be loaded onto the expenditure column in the GERS statistics and will be used as yet more “evidence” that Scotland would be unable to fund itself.
It’s a signal warning that the independence movement must not take its eye off the ball. While we bicker amongst ourselves, the Conservatives are not letting up in their assault on the devolution settlement and on Scottish democracy itself. It is manifestly not the case that, as some supposedly pro-independence campaigners who focus all their attention and energy on attacking Nicola Sturgeon sniffily assert, that “We all know already that the Tories are vile”. We live in a country where the majority of the media continues to excuse and enable the Conservatives, and as the Holyrood elections approach, they are going to double down on their efforts to excuse and enable the Tories. That makes it all the more important that we do not cease in our efforts to talk about and explain the real threat to Scotland. The duplicitous and devious attempts of the Conservatives to grab power for themselves and to remove themselves from the ability of the people of Scotland to hold them to account.
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