Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP and the Age of Anti-Austerity Politics
Sunday Mail, February 15th 2015
It has been a week filled with economic news and controversies.
There was the imploding crisis of HSBC’s secret Swiss bank accounts and tax avoidance; the on-going Greek-German Governments European stand-off which threatens the future of the entire euro zone; while Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, is getting people ready for a year of flat or even falling prices.
At the same time after years of public spending constraints and cuts, across large parts of Europe there is a widespread movement and force for anti-austerity politics. This can be seen in the rise of Syriza in Greece, the newly created popular Podemos in Spain, and – this week – in Nicola Sturgeon laying out the SNP’s position in a major London speech.
Sturgeon’s speech attracted lots of London media interest. And whether people agreed or not they took her and her agenda seriously. It was a considered and timely intervention, and seen as that by even her opponents.
The backdrop to this is political and economic. A general election is months away. UK Chancellor George Osborne has failed to meet many of the economic targets he set out five years ago. The deficit has not been eliminated over one Parliament. The national debt has not been cut by what he envisaged.
Painful public spending cuts have happened but £55 billion of cuts remain -amounting to over 60% of the pain due if the Tories are re-elected. The Osborne plan is now to reduce public spending to a share of national wealth not seen since 1938. More critically for people, between 2008 and 2014 full time wages have fallen by an unprecedented 8.8 percent.
What realistically can Nicola Sturgeon do to change this and pursue a different agenda? Scotland is after all only a nation of five million people and elects 59 MPs out of 650 to Westminster.
First is the issue of electoral and political positioning which cannot be underestimated. The SNP are intent on situating themselves to the left of Labour north and south of the border. They know this is where the instinct of many Labour members and voters are found; and that this approach, with its allies in Plaid Cymru and the Greens, differentiates the SNP from the mainstream Westminster consensus.
Second, the state of the UK economy and the failures of successive governments have to be highlighted. There have, over the last five years, been some positives such as the creation of over two million private sector jobs, but this aggregate figure disguises widespread insecurity, in work poverty and low pay, and the rising use of zero hour contacts, casualisation and agency work – all of which erode work conditions and rights.
There has been no real rebalancing of the economy towards manufacturing and away from the City of London and finance – one of the mantras of the coalition in the early days.
The regional inequalities of the UK, particularly within England and between London and the South East and the rest, has grown wider and wider. The debt overhang of the UK economy – one of the major faultlines at the time of the crash hasn’t rectified. Personal household debt is now higher than it was pre-crash.
Third, a much deeper set of economic challenges remain for those wishing to take a different path. Namely, how do we do the state, public spending and public services? And how should the economy be supported by government in a way which doesn’t go back to the mistakes of the New Labour or Thatcher eras?
For over thirty years the contours of the political and economic world have pointed in one direction. It said that the state and government were a problem, and vested interests that needed containing. And that the power and innovation of the private sector and entrepreneurs should be unleashed and left untamed.
It is this set of conceits that led to the eulogising of the super-rich, of oligarchs, big banks and big money, and to the appeasement of corporate interests which are very different from most businesses. This was the political and economic orthodoxy which defined Thatcherism, how far New Labour under Blair and Brown thought they could go, and even Alex Salmond’s SNP. All of these believed in light touch regulation, chumming up to the likes of Fred Goodwin and Rupert Murdoch, whilst emphasising minute differences between them.
This is beginning to change. This week Ed Miliband embarked on the high risk strategy of going after HSBC bosses and high profile Tory tax avoiders, while Nicola Sturgeon has set out a different agenda on public spending.
It is not going to be easy to question the austerity agenda. The power and near-tyranny of the markets is hardwired into conventional politics. The potential of runs on the pound or future bank crashes, the power of credit rating agencies and stock markets, and even more of big money and wealthy elites, has been taken as a given for decades.
Something is beginning to change in the political weather not just here, but across the UK and much of the West. Nicola Sturgeon caught that mood, but this is only the start of a debate which will define much of our politics and society way beyond the May election.