“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others” (Groucho Marx)
In an extremely rare and predictably excruciating moment during the recent election campaign, interim Prime Minister Theresa May went off-message and met a real voter, a nurse who asked her, quite reasonably, what she could do to help her given that she was struggling to make ends meet and hadn’t had a pay rise in eight years, a real term decrease of 14%.
This wasn’t one of those planted Question Time questions you read about. This was a living, breathing, fully paid-up-member of the “just about managing” that the Prime Minister claimed she would stand up for. The response could scarcely have been more insulting if it had been accompanied by a middle-finger gesture. “There isn’t a magic money tree” she said.
This week confirmed that there isn’t just one magic tree, but a whole forest of them. Give any one of them a shake and money falls out. £230 billion for trident. A £40 billion increase in the Sovereign Grant by 2019. The trees will provide seven billion pounds for the 70,000 tonnes of hubris that is the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, even though it doesn’t have any aircraft to carry. The trees will pay for the bombing of Syria, but not for the refugees that end up, desperate and broke, upon our shores. The trees will pay for illegal wars. But if you want the dignity of a decent pay rise or cladding on your home that won’t see you burned alive? Sorry, you’ll have had your magic trees.
The trees will also provide one billion pounds to buy, for now, the votes of the ten DUP MPs needed to prop up an ailing Conservative government. Some people said they were surprised at this. I’m not. I’m clean out of surprise, maxed out on shock, at the limit of my outrage. I feel tired, I feel old. If you’re taken aback then I’d suggest that you haven’t been paying attention.
If the British government can unilaterally and arbitrarily declare any spending to be ‘outside’ Barnett then the arrangement is meaningless. Barnett is one of many agreements and conventions that have been shaken by the Brexit earthquake. A British government will always support Scotland. Until it doesn’t.
The house always wins.
The myth that we are part of an equal and respectful union is crumbling. In the last three months we were told we would be consulted over the triggering of Article 50. We weren’t. Westminster said they’d read and consider the Scotgov compromise proposals on Brexit. They didn’t. The Supreme Court – helpfully, as we now know where we stand – rendered the Sewel Convention redundant. You’ll have had your legislative consent. Now eat your porridge.
I thought about this when following events from the Royal Highland Show last week, when the farming industry launched a “farming post-Brexit” document. I thought: good God, they’re just about to effectively scrap Barnett and destroy the Good Friday Agreement – and you think they’ll read this? So I’m not surprised.
This is a government that, less than two years after employing continuing membership of the EU as the central pillar of the No campaign, now rejects each and every Scottish request to participate meaningfully in the Brexit talks that might yet see us stay in the Single Market. Which brings us to this.
Last week, with rumours that a £1.5 billion deal was being arranged between the Conservatives and the DUP, Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, said the following:
“I’m not going to agree to anything that could be construed as back-door funding to Northern Ireland. “There are rules. The Barnett Formula is to Scotland’s advantage. I’m not going to do anything to prejudice it. “Any funding that goes to Northern Ireland, then Barnett rules will ensure the appropriate funding comes to Scotland.”
On Monday, the deal between the Conservatives and the DUP was signed. One £billion extra funding to Northern Ireland. Not a penny for anywhere else. This matters because under Barnett, Scotland would have received £2.9 billion in extra funding – replacing at a stroke the monies lost through real term Westminster cuts to the Scottish budget over the last ten years, cuts that Holyrood has done a great job in mitigating against. Whether this is, however, the best use of a parliament’s skills and energies is a matter for another day.
The situation may be summed up thus: in Scotland, we have an ailing government we didn’t vote for, kept alive by a party we can’t vote for, taking us to a Brexit we don’t want. Today, David Mundell is nowhere to be found. Ruth Davidson seems unusually quiet, too. Sure, some Tories have been wheeled out and have argued that the deal is akin to that brokered for certain cities and regions, but those were half-funded by Holyrood and didn’t include areas like health and education.
Make no mistake, yesterday the UK Government used taxpayers’ money to bribe fundamentalists to push through a Brexit that will impoverish us all. So we no longer have a hung parliament but a bung parliament.
Here are the questions that I think it raises.
- Given David Mundell’s statement last week and silence today, he was either misleading us or was being kept out of the loop by his Westminster bosses. Which was it?
- If the British government can unilaterally and arbitrarily declare any spending to be ‘outside’ funding agreements then the arrangement is meaningless. Is Barnett now finished?
- Will the Scottish Tory MPs ensure that the Secretary of State is good to his word and that Scotland receives its funding as Barnett demands?
- With 13 Tory MPs now elected, they are in a strong position to influence a government with a wafer-thin majority in a way that would benefit Scotland. Will Mr Mundell and his colleagues defy the whip on Westminster votes until Scotland gets the deal it is owed? If not, what are you for? If ten DUP politicians can do it, why not thirteen Scottish Tories? If you can’t stand up for us now, then when?
Think what this country could do with 2.9 billion pounds. Think what Orkney could do with its rightful share.
So yesterday’s deal asks a very fundamental question of the Scottish Conservatives. Will they stand up for Scotland, or will they forever do the bidding of their London bosses, even to the impoverishment of their own constituents?
There was a time when this imperfect union worked for Scotland. Secretaries of State knew when to intervene. Scottish MPs of all parties would, at times of crisis, reach consensus for the good of the nation. The newly elected Tory politicians have the opportunity to put the prosperity of their constituents over the hubris of their party bosses. I hope they take it. But I doubt it.
In the aftermath of Nicola Sturgeon’s reaffirmation that a second independence referendum should take place as the results of the Brexit negotiations become clearer, the last few weeks and months have, far from making Independence less desirable, have made any suggestion of abandoning a second plebiscite on self-determination morally wrong and democratically indefensible.
This week shows exactly the people we’re dealing with – ruthless and unprincipled with no care for Scotland or its farmers. We can choose to argue about the minutiae of the Barnett consequentials we cannot influence or we can build an industry and a country that serves us all. And the good news is we won’t need a magic money tree to get there. We just need the will to do it.
For all of our sakes, let’s get this done.
Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News
Editor’s Comment: On Wednesday the Conservative Government deal with the DUP bore its first fruits when they voted against lifting the pay cap on firefighters, nurses and police. I think back to those risking their lives to rescue victims in the Grenfell Tower disaster and PC Keith Palmer killed in the line of duty protecting those same MPs.