Although a government statement on the labour market statistics for Scotland doesn’t on the surface sound like the juiciest news release of the day, today’s has proved rather revealing. With unemployment in Scotland down by 15,000 in the period December 2016 to February 2017, the Scottish unemployment rate has fallen to 4.5 per cent — below the rate of 4.7 per cent for the whole of the UK.
You might expect the Scotland Office press release to trumpet this good news but instead it turns its guns on the SNP — pointing to the fact that the Scots employment rate decreased by 0.1 percentage points over the quarter to 73.4 per cent. The rate is below the UK average of 74.6 per cent.
Commenting on the news, David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has issued an unusually politically charged statement — describing the falling employment numbers and rising inactivity statistics as ‘a real cause for concern’. He goes on to praise the work of the UK government in supporting the Scottish economy, before calling on the SNP ‘to act urgently to secure the Scottish economy and help more people into work’:
‘Holyrood has new powers over tax and welfare, with the tools to shape Scotland’s economy. Rather than obsess about the constitution, Scottish ministers need to focus all their efforts on strengthening the economy and backing business to create jobs for people across Scotland.’
The move to say a part of the UK is doing badly and pin the blame on that devolved government is striking. This Prime Minister is clearly a lot more comfortable than David Cameron ever was when it comes to standing up to Holyrood and calling the Scottish Nationalists out on issues they look weak on.
Mundell’s decision to challenge the SNP to actually use their devolved powers (and by doing so question their calls for IndyRef2) is another sign that the UK government is quite happy with the response so far to May’s statement that ‘now is not the time’ for a second referendum. The SNP promised that the Scottish people would not take well to being told what they can or can’t do by Westminster, but so far the ‘outrage’ has been muted at best. Polls continue to show that there is no major appetite for a second referendum and so May’s government continues to turn up its anti-SNP rhetoric.