Covid crisis: Scandinavian unemployment levels suggest Scotland is wise to stick with UK – John McLellan

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his now-infamous comment to Northern English MPs that Scottish devolution has been “a disaster”, it may have escaped his mind that only six days later he would be addressing the delayed Scottish Conservative conference.

After Boris Johnson's devolution 'disaster', John McLellan suggests the Prime Minister should heed some sage advice from his hero (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
After Boris Johnson's devolution 'disaster', John McLellan suggests the Prime Minister should heed some sage advice from his hero (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)

Perhaps it was a devilishly clever plot to guarantee extensive media coverage for today’s speech, which is for wider public consumption and not just a gee-up for the party faithful, but the remarks set a context and Scottish leader Douglas Ross’s instant rebuttal has intensified interest in what he has to say in Perth this afternoon about three hours after Mr Johnson.

Acres of newsprint and hours of airtime have focussed on condemnation or justification of the Prime Minister’s view, but there is unanimity that it was a disaster for him to have said it, or at least ill-judged to say it in a forum unlikely to stay confidential for long. It’s one thing to think it, but another entirely to express it on what was to all intents a public platform.

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It’s an early Christmas gift for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose approval ratings show no sign of dipping despite using force of law to impose baffling travel restrictions without any scientific evidence they will make the slightest difference to Covid infection rates. At least the Scottish Tory rank-and-file will be encouraged by this week’s Clackmannanshire by-election, won with a nine per cent increase in vote share.

Were it not for UK government support, the new retail shutdown in the West of Scotland would see thousands more forced onto the dole and there is Mr Johnson’s conundrum. According to Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) figures published last month, the Scottish government’s guaranteed extra funding from UK government coronavirus measures is now £7.2bn, and that was before Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended furlough and other employment support until the end of March, pumping another £1bn into the Scottish economy.

Latest UK Treasury figures put Scottish public spending per head at £11,566, compared to an English average of £9,604, the regional breakdown showing the average Scot benefits from a staggering £2,647 more than a South-Easterner outside London. As a result of UK government action, Ms Sturgeon now sits on a resource budget of £35bn, an increase of 20 per cent, and the Prime Minister’s reward is approval ratings in Scotland which would make the Pope look popular on an Orange Walk.

Locally, it’s on display at every meeting of Edinburgh Council, with cheap jibes from SNP councillors about lack of UK government money, but not a peep about the starvation of cash for local authorities by the Scottish government. This week it was a complaint about lack of responsiveness to appeals for support for the ruinous tram project, even though suggestions of direct UK investment in Scottish projects are now routinely condemned by nationalists as an affront to devolution.

But the polls don’t lie and even if they don’t understand it, unionists can’t deny the consistent support for independence in recent surveys or the First Minister’s huge approval ratings. It’s hardly surprising Mr Johnson thinks devolution has been a disaster, and if the pandemic has proved anything it’s that no amount of money will be enough to placate nationalists and that popularity can’t be bought.

The recent Scottish social attitudes survey showed trust in the Scottish government to make fair decisions stood at 37 per cent compared to just 11 for the UK government and a clue lies in startling figures from the Office of National Statistics this month showing an astonishing 39 per cent of Scottish jobs are in the public sector, which translates into an awful lot of families reliant on the tax-payer for their household income, and a lot of voters who won’t react well to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s public sector pay freeze, even if they’re unaffected.

Like it or not, the Scottish economy relies on UK private sector taxes, so who can blame English Conservative members, and presumably a majority of English people, for thinking an ungrateful Scotland should take its overdraft elsewhere. And those new Northern Conservative MPs must wonder how transformative it would be if the metaphorical bullion train terminated at Newcastle Central rather than rolling on to Waverley.

Following the Prime Minister’s admission, there has been no shortage of advice about what he should do, much of it the fantasy politics game of constitutional reform and the recreation of Dark Ages kingdoms in a new federation, for which the chattering classes have an endless appetite and English voters regard with justified suspicion.

The German federal system and admittedly better German Covid rates are cited as an example of how a reformed Britain could function, as if the devolved nations don’t have full autonomy over their health services.

When it comes to the economies of small countries, nationalist-Remainers are usually keen to claim how much better small northern states perform compared to the supposedly failing British state, but a comparison of European unemployment levels published this month paints a different picture.

In Scotland, it’s 4.5 per cent (UK 4.4) but, with monetary policy constrained by the Euro, it’s 7.4 in Ireland, 8.4 in Finland and 9 per cent in Sweden, the latter allied with Denmark (6.1) in a bitter row over financing the bail-out of stricken southern EU states. Outside the EU, Norwegian unemployment is now at 5.3 per cent.

Constitutional and bureaucratic upheaval which would cost billions might be great for lawyers and politicians – and public sector employment – but like devolution in 1997 will not make independence go away or make a jot of difference to the way SNP voters regard London. Devolution can’t be undone and the UK cash tap can’t be turned off, but Scottish voters need to accept that’s precisely what independence will mean.

For the Prime Minister, he’ll be aware of Sir Winston Churchill’s advice and he doesn’t have much alternative: keep buggering on.

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