One of the advantages of having been around for much longer than many people currently working up a fine froth of indignation about the Conservative-Democratic Ulster Party (DUP) deal is that you’ve seen just about everything politics in a democracy has to offer.
That’s why I find SNP bluster and hyperbole at what I’ll henceforth shorten to ‘the Ulster arrangement’ ironic to say the least. Let’s take their response in descending order of significance.
From Nicola Sturgeon we have:
this grubby, shameless deal … sacrificing the very basics of devolution … The Tories’ excuses are simply empty spin … they once again plan on short-changing Scotland … the worst kind of pork-barrel politics … David Mundell and Ruth Davidson should … order Scottish Tory MPs to use their votes to put a halt to it … This total disregard of the principles of devolution will haunt the Tories for years to come.
Their new Commons leader Ian Blackford chips in with:
SNP MPs will demand Scotland gets its fair share of any funding that is going to Northern Ireland
and in a whimper from the sidelines his equally new deputy Kirsty Blackman declares:
Barnett funding for Scotland must follow.
Crumbs, the world must be coming to an end.
The truth of course is that any party in the situation in which the Conservatives have stupidly got themselves will try to make an arrangement with others so they can stay in government.
Far from grubby and shameless this arrangement seems to be fairly straight-forward: the Northern Ireland assembly (not the DUP) gets another £1 billion over two years for specific areas of investment in return for DUP support to the Conservatives on key votes at Westminster. It’s time limited and at £500 million a year it’s less than one largish Scottish council spends (Aberdeenshire for example has a net annual spend of £534 million) and is about 4% of what all Scottish councils spend in a year, or less than 1.6% of what the Scottish government spends (council figures here, government spend here p.164). For two years only.
There seem to be three nationalist objections to the Ulster arrangement.
First, that charge of grubby and shameless. It’s a moot point what a ‘grubby, shameless’ deal is in politics. Was it grubby and shameless for the SNP to support the Conservatives in the 1979 no confidence motion in Jim Callaghan’s government that led to Margaret Thatcher and eighteen years of Conservative government? Was it grubby and shameless for them to do deals with the Conservatives in Holyrood after 2007 so they could function as a minority administration? The truth is, these sorts of pragmatic arrangements happen all the time in politics and involve all parties.
Second, an objection they omit from their responses quoted above but they have articulated elsewhere – a purported abhorrence of the socially reactionary nature of the DUP themselves, exemplified by the first minister’s promise to consider offering free abortions in Scotland to women from Northern Ireland. As it happens, I agree that much of what the DUP preaches (and for many it is preach) is reactionary. I don’t like it. But the free abortions proposal is itself a ‘total disregard of the principles of devolution’ and of what the people of Northern Ireland have voted for. As for grubby and shameless, the DUP’s generous offer to reveal all the correspondence they’ve had with the SNP on cooperation since 2010 tells you all you need to know. Ironically, and for some amusingly, the whiff of an extra £1 billion seems also to have given Sinn Fein pause for thought in their opposition to re-forming the Northern Ireland executive.
Third, we have the perennial SNP tactic of grievance, what the first minister dresses up as ‘short-changing Scotland’ and what Kirsty Blackman dutifully echoes with her ‘Barnett funding for Scotland must follow,’ either a wilful or genuinely naïve misunderstanding of what additionality under the Barnett formula is about. It’s actually to do with additional money for the devolved administrations when the UK government spends more on a service in England that is devolved elsewhere. It’s not about additional money for everywhere else if one devolved part of the UK receives funding for a specific purpose.
In that respect, whatever the political motivation, the Ulster arrangement is similar to the City Region deals announced jointly between the UK and Scottish government for Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, with more to follow. Those deals have already led to a UK government commitment so far of £600 million extra funding for specific projects (details in an excellent Scottish parliament briefing paper). As far as I know, that £600 million has not led to proportionate sums being allocated to the other parts of the UK.
As well as bluster and hyperbole, a charge of hypocrisy must be added to the SNP’s posturing on this subject. No matter how negatively they paint the Conservative/DUP arrangement, the last thing they want is another general election soon. The general election revealed them weakened on all political fronts, losing seats and votes to the three unionist parties. Whatever happened elsewhere in the UK, another general election would most likely see them lose further seats, with pro-UK voters (including ‘shy unionists’?) emboldened by a roll-back at last of what seemed an SNP juggernaut. Traditional unionists now know that Scotland is not a ‘Tory-free zone,’ those disposed to left-of-centre politics see a more authentically redistributive programme under Corbyn than the SNP would ever deliver, and the Lib Dems provide a home for many of those living in hope that Brexit will either be ultra-soft or not visible at all; in other words, there’s plenty of choice from all three pro-UK parties and they’ve all shown they can win seats in Scotland.
There are many aspects of current UK politics I find unsatisfactory. An indeterminate election result is exactly what it says. I’ve seen them before and doubtless I’ll see them again. But grubby and shameless? I think I’ll reserve that for the SNP’s so far ineffectual attempts to make separatist political capital out of a verdict that the electorate have delivered.
This was drafted before the separate statement by the first minister of the delay in pursuing her aim for another referendum. I may return to that subject.