“Is it sensible to spend your way out of debt?” ran the opening question in the last night’s Scottish leaders debate – marking it out, straight away, as something very different from politics-as-usual. It was set in Aberdeen, hence the greater concentration of common sense.
The six-way debate was feisty and refreshing, and of a calibre higher than the seven-way UK leaders’ debate. Scotland has joined Denmark in producing the best political drama, except this is real. Nicola Sturgeon won last week’s UK debate, I’d give Tuesday’s to Tory leader Ruth Davidson. I’m not sure anyone won, or lost, last night – but unlike last week’s melee, we did learn a few things. And Sturgeon had a harder time of it.
The questioners were as sound as you’d expect from an Aberdonian audience. One woman called out the SNP’s quasi-demagogic habit of presenting its views as the voice of the nation: “Nicola says she speaks for Scotland – Scotland does not have a unique political ideology distinct from the rest of the UK”. But here are a few of my highlights:
1. Nicola Sturgeon talks up a second referendum in the event of England voting ‘no’ to the Euro. For the second night in a row, she drew jeers when refusing to rule out a referendum pledge in the 2016 Holyrood referendum. She had said it was now settled for a ‘generation’ but that was before her party experienced its pheonomal post-defeat surge in support.
2. Sturgeon says the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act allows the SNP to torture Ed Miliband’s government without bringing it down. She gives the example of working with Labour rebels to stop renewal of Trident.
3. Jim Murphy pretends that the 50p tax will clear the deficit. “I just want to be open with you,” he said, “we just want to be honest – you cannot fund the NHS and education on current levels of taxation.” Suggesting that the 50p tax is a remedy to this is, of course, wholly dishonest: as the IFS have said it will raise almost nothing.
4. Sturgeon hints that she could not vote for a Labour Budget, as the SNP views “further spending cuts” as a red line issue. No matter who wins the election, significant spending cuts will be inevitable. This matters: the one law a minority government needs to pass every year is its Budget. If the SNP will abstain from any Budget involving cuts, its influence falls – and this makes the outlook a little better for a Tory government.