First written on the 20th November 2014…
It’s done. No to Independence. Alex Salmond is gone. It would seem, judging from The Telegraph’s bitter send-off, that Christmas has come early for many pundits. It seems odd then, that the SNP has never had it so good. Membership is double that of the entirety of the Lib Dems, and at current polling levels they will defeat Labour in the general election.
But is it any wonder? 45% of Scotland felt the need to abandon Westminster, and even amongst the “Noes” there was a desperate appetite for change. University students are no exception, and in many ways it is our needs that are failing to be met by the status quo, and stand to be affected the most by future change. As a Scottish Student studying in England, I feel I can offer a valuable perspective on what should happen next.
Salmond’s protégé, the formidable Nicola Sturgeon, has a fight on her hands to claw The Vow out of Westminster’s non-committal hands, and everyone waits with bated breath on the Smith Commission’s report on what powers should be devolved. Because there is plenty that Westminster and the Smith Commission could do to blast open the independence question again before it’s barely closed. And that’s not really what anybody wants.
Let me help you look at Britain through many students’ eyes. I see a Tory Party whose pro-business rhetoric harks back to that old Thatcherite sermon, “If a man does not work, he shall not eat.” The current insufferable emphasis on immigration is beginning to harm our communities: the examples of Steve Forman, the music teacher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland who is being deported because the Home Office deems his salary too low, and the 51% slump in Indian students seen because of draconian work restrictions and caps illustrate this all too well.
But what good alternatives are there? I see a Labour Party with a completely unelectable leader who has forgotten what it stands for and I see a Liberal Democrat Party on its knees, having betrayed students with its U-turn over tuition fees. Worst of all, I see the rising popularity of UKIP – a party completely at odds with my own beliefs. I see not one party that can turn my mainstream, left-of-centre views into a political reality, and many students feel the same.
Part of this may be due to the voting system; FPTP causes an inherent competition for centrist, swing votes at the expense of parties’ core votes>. Or it may be due to our politicians, who have the lowest approval and trust ratings in the modern era. Owen Jones and Russell Brand, modern critics of the political class, are experiencing a surge in popularity for this very reason – the Westminster system is completely failing at its job to represent its citizens. Young people, especially students, are bearing the brunt of the system’s blindness.
The difference with Scotland is that we might still have the opportunity to get out of this mess thanks to our system of governance. Despite the plausible claims that Scotland’s people are not really more progressive than their English counterparts, the devolved parliament has always pursued a more collectivist agenda. Holyrood is more representative and its committees have more power to hold the government to account. The common sense of consensus politics dominates rather than sweeping top-down reorganisations, except of course when that’s what the electorate votes for. Land Reform, free prescriptions and abolishing tuition fees aren’t token progressive policies, they are the reflection of successive Scottish administrations that have listened to their people. Investing power in this institution can only lead to better and fairer democracy.
But we must be cautious, and this is what needs to be said: half-baked devolution will cause more friction. In some cases, it already has: any English student studying in Scotland can tell you about the unfairness of the tuition fees arrangement, the result of a Holyrood policy designed to stop the Scottish Parliament losing money it couldn’t regain through tax. Another side to this story you might not have heard involves the Scottish students displaced to England by the use of English students as “cash cows.” The Telegraph reported that Edinburgh University’s intake of English students doubled in 2012, creating a dishevelled huddle of Scottish students forced to make the choice between paying tuition fees and giving up higher education. They could have had the same degree in Scotland for free.
More ill-informed devolution like the previously proposed income tax powers will lead to more complexity and more injustices such as this. With the nightmarish Barnett formula linked to government spending, any devolved administration without full control of the pursestrings will be forced into following the austerity budget, even if that is not what people want. The EU initiative of TTIP, being voted on in Westminster this Friday, will allow legal challenges to be mounted against NHS Scotland and England if they refuse to allow private companies to compete. This is another example of how current devolution, is not real devolution.
The path forward is simple – give Holyrood full fiscal autonomy. With taxes being raised in Scotland kept in Scotland, with a block grant being paid to Westminster to cover reserved spending will stop the tedious nationalistic whinging on both sides of the border that springs out of having a complex system of distribution that nobody really understands properly. Both from the SNP, and the English Votes for English Laws / UKIP crowds. More to the point, it’s what the recent Panelbase poll of over 1,000 Scots from across the political spectrum found that people wanted.
The SNP are not dumb, and they are loud, and I fear they will be able to point out if a devo-max parliament has been set up with its new shoelaces tied together. Couple this with a possible UKIP/Tory coalition, and public calls for a new referendum will become torrential.