DAVID CAMPBELL BANNERMAN: How to save the British Union

DAVID CAMPBELL BANNERMAN is a former Conservative MEP, current chairman of the Freedom Association, and a leading Brexit campaigner. He tweets regularly at @DCBMEP.

The Scottish Parliamentary elections on 6th May are the most important for the future of the British Union for years; its implications are likely to spiral all around the rest of the UK, Europe and further afield, one way or another.

As a proud Anglo Scot and Edinburgh University graduate, who supports Scotland at rugby – even if it takes 38 years between wins at Twickenham – I am strongly pro-Union and intensely interested in the Scottish Conservatives doing far better than expected, as the only credible alternative to the SNP. Ideally, I’d like to see us form a pro-Union Government.

My relative, one of Scotland’s great reforming Prime Ministers Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, was a devotee of ‘Home Rule – All Round’ (4 Parliaments including England, and Ireland) and was Prime Minister on the 200th Anniversary of the Union in 1907. He was right to call the Union “a mighty construct” that does not “de-Scottify” the proud Scot.

Lord do we need change. What is happening just now in Scotland would disgrace a tin pot dictatorship. The latest scandal of the Crown Office interfering and telling the Scottish Parliament what it can or cannot publish, allegedly due to the pressure of the SNP administration, and the redaction of the parts of Alex Salmond’s evidence that allege his protégé – the woman he ‘made’ as he put it – lied and misled Parliament, are utterly shameful. The SNP Administration, the husband and wife partnership at the top of the SNP, are acting as if they are beyond the law. Officers and whole institutions are being compromised and trashed.

Conservative MSPs such as Murdo Fraser are doing brilliant work holding Sturgeon to account for her dubious claims and supposed fading memory of events; and the other parties forming a majority in the Scottish Parliament have frequently voted for censure motions. Yet these are ignored. SNP power is absolute.

So how do we save our precious Union? I was sorry to see Oliver Lewis leave Number 10, having done so well backing Lord Frost on robust negotiations with the EU, as I think he was right to advocate similarly robust handling of the SNP rather than a policy of appeasement and giveaways. As a proud and bright Scot, Michael Gove has a key role in the struggle too. In Scotland, Douglass Ross has made a strong and active start as Leader, following the remarkable transformation Ruth Davidson brought to the cause. Current policy ideas on getting rid of ‘Not Proven’ as a unique Scottish legal judgement, tougher sentences for those attacking emergency workers, and reopening some Beeching rail lines are good and well-argued policies, but I feel we need something far more radical in addition. For the reality is the SNP is riding high and still on course for a majority in the Scottish Parliament, despite all the scandal – something that the New Labour architects of devolution always said was impossible.

I think we should go front foot on maximising the opportunities of Brexit – it is happening, and we all have a duty to make the best out of it. Let’s not unthinkingly write Scotland off as totally pro-Remain; it has substantial Brexit support. Remember, more people voted for Leave in Scotland in 2016 than voted for SNP MPs in 2017, and even one third of SNP supporters for heaven’s sake are pro-Brexit, including their former Deputy Jim Sillars. A UKIP MEP was elected in 2014.

There wasn’t any serious campaign for Leave in 2016 – that is the truth – and voters were far more worried about stopping a second Independence Referendum than with the EU. We need to start advocating the substantial benefits of Brexit in Scotland, particularly as a major exporter. The proposed £100 billion trade deal with India (I was Standing Reporter for the EU-India trade deal) can strip out 150% tariffs on whisky; and that alone could require double the production.

But the reality is we need a policy game changer in Scotland, and very soon. What is happening in Scotland – and I have been a Westminster candidate there and campaigned far and wide in the 2016 Scottish Referendum – is that Scottish voters see no threat in supporting the SNP at this ‘local’ level. They see it – rather like UKIP in the European elections, which I was Deputy Leader and Chairman of – as a gesture of national pride on one hand, and a handy stick with which to beat the Westminster Government on the other – to obtain more support, and more cash.

I believe it is time to change that. Not to threaten the Scots in any way – the Scot in me bridles at any such notion: no threats! But to take up the invitation from the SNP themselves, because the SNP do not want Barnett payments – the additional (temporary) funding provided for public services at the suggestion of Lord Barnett – and naturally won’t have them if independent.

So, I propose Rishi Sunak initiates a fast review by an independent economist of the Barnett Formula. Not to get rid of it – that is in no way a Conservative policy – but to understand how valuable, indeed essential, these British Union support payments are to Scottish healthcare: 25% of the NHS budget, Scottish schools – a similar figure, Scottish local government and transport, and to UK pensions paid in Scotland. This is not widely known; and this doesn’t even include the extra £10 billion or more Rishi Sunak has graciously sent Scotland in addition to this for additional Covid support.

The SNP have made it clear they do not want the Barnett Formula support from Westminster. Their former MSP Andrew Wilson, an economist, set it out very clearly in his Sustainable Growth Commission report 2016, which the SNP Finance Spokesperson Kate Forbes sat on as an adviser. They regard ‘intra-regional transfers’ – Barnett formula adjustments to you and I – as humiliating it seems, and unnecessary. For example, they said: “some effectively argue that lower growth within the limited large country model of the UK system is a price worth paying for the security and ‘certainty’ of the funding of the fiscal deficit [read Barnett payments]. We disagree, fundamentally.” Andrew Wilson concluded: “the UK is not working…fiscal transfers locks in structural inequality, & ensures that poorer parts stay poorer”, whilst Kate Forbes added, by tweet: “Because the UK growth model is unsustainable and Scotland can do better than simply subsist on inter-regional transfers.”

Barnett payments will clearly not be paid to an independent Scotland if it leaves the UK, so this is the reality of ‘Independence Economics’ – a huge hole in public finances. Wilson and Forbes have called for austerity and a separate budget for defence in independent Scotland, which means in reality exchanging British aircraft carriers and submarines for fishing boats, having an army the size of neutral Ireland, and no RAF bases left to keep the Russians at bay.

So, let’s be clear, SNP policy is to turn its noses up at the nearly £2,000 per head (£1,941 – GERS figure, after falling oil revenues) currently being provided by the Westminster Government under the Lord Barnett Formula – around £15 billion. This in addition to the SNP’s crazed policy of seeking a 3% government deficit, when the current Scottish government deficit is at 3 times plus that – 9.7% – in order to meet the conditions to join the Euro, which is just about where Greece was when it chose to join and which ended in tragedy and depression in their economy, with seven new taxes announced on one day. This could be after 10 years of following the pound, with investors fleeing and the value of properties and pensions slashed, whilst still being run by the Bank of England. OK it was founded by a Scot, but that is hardly an argument.

It is fine to ‘love bomb’ the Scots, as some advocate, and ‘hearts and minds’ is very important certainly, but the Scots are no fools and very canny. If they think that a vote for the SNP risks jobs and the economy by backing ‘Independence Economics’, especially as we are recovering from Covid, they will sit up and take notice. Just as they did in the 2014 Independence Referendum, where in the end the sensible Scottish head won over the emotionally swayed heart. I witnessed this directly door after door on a Perth council state where Labour leaning voters watching the TV news of job losses and financial services hits were turned off Yes in large numbers. It is time again for such a Reality message.

So please Rishi Sunak, Steve Barclay and all those at the Treasury, stand up on 3rd March Budget or immediately afterwards, and announce a fast review of the Barnett Formula. Not to get rid of it – we Conservatives believe in the Union and the strengths and backing it brings – but to show in hard and fast terms the disaster the SNP is offering the Scottish people.

What they are offering is a second Darien Scheme – the SNP’s Darien 2. The first Darien Scheme was a pre-Union Scottish scheme to develop a bit of Panama as ‘New Caledonia’, which half the then population of Scotland – from the very richest to the very poorest – lost their money on, 20% of all Scottish money in circulation. The colony was founded on a bit of land that is still regarded as being one of the most diseased swamps in Latin America. Its catastrophic failure and abandonment in 1700 created the economic conditions for political union 7 years later. Scots family and friends face a similar fate to Darien settlers under modern day SNP plans.

Do this, and you will guarantee weeks of public introspection on the true dodgy and dangerous nature of SNP Independence Economics.

They might then take a much closer look at the Venezuelan-style record of the Scottish Government, which also had a lot of oil and similar hard left policies. For example, Scotland now has the worst drug deaths in Europe on the SNP’s watch. There is £1 billion of UK money unspent; seemingly held back for campaigning on a second Referendum. There are failures over schools – they were elected back in 2007 on the promise of cutting class sizes. Over hospitals too – a new Sick Children’s Hospital has been postponed again, after a decade of delays. The shocking Orwellian Hate Crime Bill from ‘Big Brother’ Yousaf that will persecute free speech and free expression. Ferries that are over late and oversized. The uncloseable Queensferry Bridge closed several times. The shambles over Covid; with the British Army having to come to the rescue to help Scotland catch up with the rest of the UK on vaccines, and the poor record in care homes.

All of this by rights should see the SNP Government on the ropes…. But without a reality check on Barnett and SNP economics, what incentive is there? People need to know how valuable the Union is to Scotland and how dangerous it is to flirt with the SNP. That would also help stop in its tracks the divisive nonsense of yet another Independence Referendum this year.

This is an election for the future of the most precious and successful political Union in the world, that predates the original US Union by 69 years. I believe this kind of approach could be its saviour. God Bless the Union that counts – the British Union!