Blair says SNP has caveman strategy, but next to the Tories it seems progressive

Caveman Fast Food

With characteristic directness, Tony Blair has picked a fight with Nicola Sturgeon, likening the Scottish National party’s political strategy to that of a caveman.

The former Labour leader made the comparison when criticising nationalism, saying: “When they talk about it being new politics, it is the oldest politics in the world. It’s the politics of the first caveman council, when the caveman came out from a council where there were difficult decisions and pointed with his club across the forest and said: ‘They’re the problem, over there, that’s the problem.’ It’s blaming someone else.”

In his speech, made at a Progress event in London, he asserted that there was significant evidence that the SNP’s record in government was far weaker than it pretended.

Scotland had gone backwards on key health and education indicators with the SNP in power, Blair said, citing a detailed critique of the SNP’s performance in government since it won power in 2007 written by FT journalist and former No 10 policy advisor John McDermott in Prospect magazine.

While the SNP fought for a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum by accusing the Tories of NHS cuts, the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that in England, health spending will increase by 6% in 2015-16 under current plans; in Scotland, it will rise just 1%. But Scotland’s health outcomes remain worse, reported McDermott.

He cites a 2014 study by the Health Foundation and Nuffield Trust which showed that “amenable mortality” rates – a measure of preventable deaths – remained 20% higher in Scotland than in England. They had improved in north-east England, which has very similar demographic health problems to Scotland’s.

With the Scottish government repeatedly missing its interim A&E treatment time target – it only met it for the first time in 100 weeks earlier in July – medical bodies and Labour have warned of a major recruitment crisis for family doctors, with 25% of GPs close to retirement.

In Scotland’s schools and universities, key measures are weakening. The rate of poor students getting to university has not improved (as it has in England) while national literacy and numeracy rates show a declining share of pupils doing well or very well.

The SNP’s response is two-fold: first to blame UK governments for cutting its core funding from the Treasury, overlooking the fact that in Alex Salmond’s first years in power it had record funding, and second to point to other policy successes which underpin the SNP’s popularity.

It has diverted more than £100m to refund councils for the bedroom tax cuts and the loss of council tax benefits, abolished by the UK government. Other policies playing well are the abolition of bridge tolls and prescription charges as well as getting rid of Scotland’s graduate endowment tax for students – the Scottish equivalent of tuition fees.

Its continuous freeze in council tax dating back to 2008 has saved every household money – £1,200 for a band D, mid-range, homeowner. Tens of thousands of small businesses have benefited from paying no business rates since then.

And soon after Blair spoke, the SNP announced that the number of young Scots not in education, employment or training (so-called NEETS) was at an all-time low, having fallen by 60% since 2007. It has protected the educational maintenance allowance for 35,000 school pupils and college students – a grant abolished in England.

Scottish councils have been saved from the swingeing cuts endured under the Tories in England, but with the council tax freeze came tens of thousands of public sector job losses, deep service cuts, cost increases and a surge in local debt, now at £15bn – equivalent to £6,166 for every Scottish household, double the rate in England.

John Swinney, Scotland’s finance secretary, has been underspending while services are stretched and fraying. Despite repeatedly complaining his hands are tied by Tory cuts, he failed to spend £444m in 2013-14 and £376m last year.

The challenge for critics of the SNP is that George Osborne’s latest round of cuts will widen the ideological gulf between the two governments, strengthening the SNP’s claim to be champions of the poor while its public profile has surged after getting a record 56 MPs into Westminster.

So while the SNP has comprehensively broken a key manifesto pledge in 2007 to abolish student debt – it has now breached the £500m mark – the chancellor’s decision to phase out all student grants in England suddenly makes the SNP’s worsening grants system look progressive.

Powered by article was written by Severin Carrell, for on Wednesday 22nd July 2015 18.19 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010