Sturgeon’s honesty on oil marks a seismic shift in SNP thinking

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Scottish Parliament

Commentary by Alex Bell

Alex Bell
Alex Bell

The headline from First Minister’s Questions has been about the repulsive homophobic attack on Ruth Davidson. Important as it is to stamp out the nutters, it pales beside what is happening at the very core of our politics. The FM has just stabbed the very heart of her predeccessor’s case for independence.

Since the referendum there has been much fun and games in politics, but little serious reflection on the core arguments used in the campaign, or where the case for Devo Max or Independence stands now. Sturgeon’s honesty allows us to finally explore the intellectual standing of ‘more powers’ without feeling like a curmudgeonly party-pooper.

I understand Nicola was having doubts about the economic case for independence as the referendum campaign ran on. Her predecessor’s combination of massive confidence and ability to dazzle with economic detail was not enough to obscure some basic truths.

It was true that in even in a particularly good year for Scottish revenue, there was nothing spare to pay for a vote-winning policy in the White Paper. Indeed, the build up to that document was cursed by the cold fact that there was no economic cash prize come independence.

Sturgeon: seismic change in economic thinking
Sturgeon: seismic change in economic thinking

That is not an argument against self-government – indeed it is an argument in favour of autonomy because the existing system signally fails to grow the Scottish economy – but it is fact the old SNP regime could not bring itself to admit. There is no circumstance, short of striking oil all over again, whereby Scotland’s transition to greater fiscal responsibility will not create a bump in public revenue and spending. It’s just a fact.

We can debate the size of that bump, and how long it may last, but to deny there will be an economic jolt is simply delusional. Officially the SNP and Government will deny they are signalling any such thing, but take this announcement today as the point when Sturgeon’s SNP chose to get real. It is wholly welcome and by far the most important single statement since the referendum.

We are on the brink of an election which is all about economic bumps, whether it is the £30bn cut of the Tories (£12bn from welfare alone) or the slightly delayed cuts of Labour et al. We already know, because the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said so, that a £30 bn cut over the next cycle would in effect mean re-inventing the UK state.

We also know that Nicola, and most of Scotland it would seem, want to reinvent the existing system. What has not been admitted to this day, but which is the core question at the heart of Scotland’s bid for more powers, is that Scotland can only afford to stand alone if it dramatically re-invents what the Scottish state pays for and taxes. On this day, the post-referendum argument got serious again.

Alex Bell is a journalist, commentator and former special adviser to the Scottish Government