Monday , May 10 2021

The price of free gifts

In recent days the SNP has decided to offer free school meals to all primary school children and to offer £500 to all NHS and social care workers. There is little doubt that free things are popular in Scotland. Who doesn’t like a bargain especially just before Christmas? But there is something intellectually incoherent about such gifts.

If providing benefits in kind (free food, free prescriptions etc) were the answer to poverty, why do we give poor people money at all? If it is necessary to feed primary school children, it must be still more necessary to feed secondary school children because they eat more. Adults eat even more. But food is not the only necessity. We also need clothes and shelter. Why not provide the whole population with free housing, food, clothes, medicine, education and everything else that they might need or desire?

If universal benefits in kind are necessary to solve the problem of child hunger, then logically they are necessary to solve the problem of adult hunger too. But once the Government has provided all that anyone can reasonably desire, there is clearly no need for money, because the Government will have given benefits in kind for everything we could possibly want.

This is the problem with a footballer worth £65 million demanding that Government provides benefits in kind. The logic of this position is that eventually he is worth zero pounds and has the same benefits in kind as the rest of us. Each of us will then live in Government planned housing go to Government canteens for our food and be allocated two weeks a year at a Government holiday resort. This is pretty much how things worked in the Soviet Union.

The SNP would of course solve its problem of which currency to adopt if Scotland chose to become independent by abolishing money, but the price of doing so would be to abolish property. This is the endpoint of offering people free gifts. The price you pay is not owning anything.

The incoherence is not merely this. The SNP is offering free money to NHS workers because Scotland is part of the United Kingdom and receives more from the British Government than we pay in through taxation. There is nothing wrong with this. Most of the UK including most of England receives more than it pays in. But for NHS workers to reward the SNP by voting for them in gratitude for their free £500 pounds is logically to vote not to receive it. The condition for the possibility of SNP generosity not merely about free prescriptions, free university places and free money for NHS workers is that we remain in the UK so that we get our free money from the Treasury. To vote for the SNP and implicitly for independence in gratitude for the free SNP gifts is to vote not to receive them in the future.

Nicola Sturgeon thinks she can build a fairer Scotland post Covid by us voting for independence, but it is self-evident at least in the short term that an independent Scotland would be poorer than at present. How could giving up free money from the Treasury make us richer unless independence would immediately provide Scotland with an economic surplus? If you believe that Scotland is running an economic surplus now, why did we receive money from the Treasury this year? Why didn’t we say to Mr Sunak we don’t need your furlough we have enough to pay keep our own businesses going without your help?

Nicola Sturgeon complains about Tory austerity in a year when public spending has increased to record levels. Does she understand the word austerity means cutting spending? But in order to come close to balancing the books and in order to come close to having an economy that met EU entry requirements, the SNP post-independence would have to cut public spending and raise taxes (if we still had money) far more than the UK Government intends.

Sturgeon thinks that she is an internationalist, which is the equivalent of her thinking she is a round square. An internationalist nationalist is a contradiction. If you cannot bear to be in the same country as English people, how will you be able to bear being in a European Union with people who don’t even speak English? The United Kingdom is the result of an international project to see if various people living on a small island can bear to live together. If it turns out that they can’t, then what hope is there for any other internationalist project?

The idea that the relationship between the parts of the UK would be improved and strengthened by Scottish independence is to suppose that the relations between the parts of William Wallace were improved by him being quartered.

There is already growing resentment in England about Scottish nationalism. The Welsh are beginning to imitate like younger brothers and goodness alone knows what consequences Scottish independence would have for Northern Ireland. If it set off a border poll and either side lost by 1% do you really think the other would accept the result peacefully?

Too many Scots think that they can accept the SNP’s free gifts without consequence and that a vote for the SNP just keeps Sturgeon on the TV. But what if Boris Johnson decided that he would give the SNP their wish. What if he said if you give the SNP a majority in May, I won’t give you a referendum on independence I will instead give you independence immediately?

What would happen? The former UK Government would immediately cut all funding to Scotland. It would remove everything British from Scotland. It might decide that Scots had to choose whether to be British citizens or Scottish citizens. Scotland would have no trade agreement with the former UK and Scottish citizens would have no right to live work or visit the former UK without a visa. There would be negotiations about the future relationship, trade and how to divide debts and assets. Scottish pensioners would have to get their state pension from the Scottish Government if it could afford it and Scotland would have to decide if it wanted to begin negotiations with the EU. Scotland would no doubt use Sterling unofficially, but if a Scottish bank or business or pension fund went bust, Scots would lose all their money unless the Scottish Government could bail them out. Good luck doing that without your own currency.

The only thing that prevents this scenario is that Nicola Sturgeon and her more radical colleagues know that Boris Johnson will politely say No. But what if he didn’t? What if Scottish voters who choose the SNP got the full consequences of their vote. What if the British Government played the hardest of hard balls by actually giving the SNP radicals what they wanted with bells and whistles on it?

Doctors earning more than £100,000 pounds a year will get an extra £500 and their children will get free school meals. Some of them will reward the SNP by voting for them safe in the knowledge that money will still flow from south of the border to fund their pension pot and their free prescriptions. But it is a dangerous game to play. There would be very little that was free in an independent Scotland. Instead all of us would pay.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2020/12/the-price-of-free-gifts.html 

About Effie Deans

Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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