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Sturgeon vs Murphy vs Davidson is the best show in British politics

9 April 2015

6:09 PM

9 April 2015

6:09 PM

Right now, you know, Nicola Sturgeon vs Jim Murphy vs Ruth Davidson is the best show in British politics. It really is. Better, for sure, than David Cameron vs Ed Miliband vs Nick Clegg.

The three Scottish leaders are each substantial – and likeable – figures in their own right but it also helps that the question of Scotland is a large and important issue upon which there is mighty disagreement. That makes for a heftier, more passionate, kind of politics. The future matters and is, depending upon our choices, very different. It is more than just a managerial process.

This week’s two Scottish debates confirmed all this. They were, as Fraser says, proper politics. There is a thirst for argument up here and a welcome for the rough-and-tumble too. The future of the country really is at stake and so too, for that matter, the kind of country we wish to be.

All three leaders have reason to be happy with their work this week. Ruth Davidson’s blue-collar Conservatism is the party’s best look (it is hard to imagine Ruth instinctively pandering to non-doms, for instance) and she gave a fine account of herself this week. I thought she “won” Tuesday’s debate.

Jim Murphy also had a good week. He was, on balance, the most impressive performer last night. Sure, his manner and persona annoys some people and he occasionally has the look of a manic pterodactyl but, at this stage of Operation Salvage Something, everything and anything is fair game for Labour. This is no time to be worried about delicacies; it is time to get stuck in. That necessarily means making some outlandish claims but Labour desperately need what the SNP once spent years craving: attention and relevance. Murphy achieved something on both fronts this week.

As for Nicola Sturgeon, well, the only way was down following her triumphant appearance at the UK leaders’ debate in Manchester. That was a turkey shoot; this week she was the hunted, not the hunter. Even so and even though I don’t think she “won” either contest it’s not as though she was badly beaten either. She retains first mover advantage. She is still the alternative to a “Westminster system” with which many voters are thoroughly scunnered.

Nevertheless, Labour have reason to be grateful this morning that Ms Sturgeon pledged last night that her MPs would press for “full fiscal autonomy” in the next parliament. At last, you see, Labour have an issue they believe can cut through with voters. An issue that means more than flags and identity and everything else.

In one sense Sturgeon’s remarks were hardly a surprising revelation. Full fiscal autonomy is, after all, the SNP’s preferred policy. ‘Politician confirms policy’ is not a shocking development.

And yet FFA is also a ticklish problem for the SNP. It shifts the Scottish debate away from identity and aspiration to cold, hard, economics. It moves the argument, therefore, from an area of SNP strength to an area of relative weakness. It was, more than anything else, doubts about numbers and, consequently, fear of ‘uncertainty’ that dashed Yes hopes last September.

It is true that, as the SNP suggests, moving to FFA would take some years (though how, in that case, they thought the UK could be unraveled in a mere 18 months is, well, something else). But it’s also true that it hands Labour their best opportunity yet.

Not because Scotland is too poor to manage its affairs or because FFA is self-evidently daft but because, in the short-to-medium term, FFA must at some point require considerable tax increases, large spending cuts or, most probably, some combination of the two.

At present, you see and as the Institute of Fiscal Studies has helpfully clarified, Scotland receives around £7.6bn a year more in UK spending than she contributes in UK revenue. She is, as the SNP always argue, a larger than average contributor but also, as they generally neglect to point out, a larger than average recipient of UK spending. (London is also in this situation though London contributes more per capita than she receives.)

No matter how you slice and dice this and no matter what kind of timetable you put on it this is a gap that is more than just technical. (A reminder for slow learners: £1200 is a larger number than £400.) It would have to be closed at some point.

Now you can argue that lower public spending in Scotland would be no bad thing. I have no ideological objection to that. But this is not, it must be said, a popular position in the present political climate. Nor is there any great Caledonian thirst for higher taxes.

Perhaps this would change though, frankly, I doubt it. Independence within the UK – which is more or less what FFA amounts to – comes with certain disagreeable costs. About seven billion of them, at the moment. (Recovering oil prices would help offset this difficulty but they can only take you so far.)

So this is why Labour are in a moderately chipper humour today. They believe the SNP have committed themselves to £7bn of spending cuts or tax increases or both. That’s a number we will now hear every day from every Scottish Labour politician. Never mind Tory austerity; think about SNP austerity.

That’s a message they think will cut through on the fabled doorsteps of ordinary working families all across Scotland. And perhaps it will. It’s certainly the best piece of news Labour have had in a long, long time.

And while it remains the case that Labour are the underpuppy in this fight even a modest advance in the polls might produce a significant improvement in their final result. 35 percent of the vote gives Labour an even-money chance of being the largest Scottish party after the election. (True, this would still be a disastrous result but, hey, it’s better than annihilation.)

Labour believes FFA is one of those notions that polls better in the abstract than it does when the detail is explained to voters. It is true that surveys routinely report Scots want control of taxation and welfare; it is also true that those same surveys generally report that Scots want taxation and welfare to be uniform across the United Kingdom.

In which circumstances, it may be that the only thing worse than frustrating the aspirations of the Scottish people is giving them what they want.

Then again, the only people who can give the SNP what they say they want – full fiscal autonomy – are the Conservatives and the SNP say they would never do any kind of deal with the Tories. Even if the Tories were to offer the SNP what they say they want. (They might not make any such offer. That’s not the point.) And as you savour that, remember that the nationalists will do a deal – albeit an unofficial, on the QT, kind of arrangement – with the party that will offer them nothing.

The game is complex and sometimes it makes no sense but, my, it’s a braw game nonetheless. All this skirmishing, mind you, is still only the first part of the first-half. The final whistle won’t sound until May 2016 after next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections…

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