The SNP and Plaid Cymru have launched a joint platform of their demands if there should be a hung parliament. News reports from BBC News can be found here and the Scotsman here, and coverage of yesterday’s final Commons speech by Alex Salmond (trailing some of these themes) is here.
The parties agree not to participate in any coalition, but to make a number of joint demands to other parties as conditions for their support. The key agreed demands are:
1. Fair funding for Wales and Scotland
2. Protecting local services and the most vulnerable
3. Action to help the green economy
4. Support for business growth
All these make perfect sense for nationalist parties keen to maximise both their profile in the short term and their Parliamentary leverage in the longer term. But there’s a distinct air of unreality about them. For one thing, although these are the key joint demands, Plaid are throwing in another group of policies like scrapping ID cards and Trident (see the report from Wales Online here) , and applying the savings to front-line services, and high-speed rail between Swansea and London. Second, ‘fair funding’ is hugely difficult. It really means ‘no cuts’; but the effect of that is very different in each nation. Wales is, so far as we can tell, slightly under-funded compared with England; Scotland, significantly over-funded. We know that severe cuts in public spending are coming, and that these will be focussed on a range of services but not (if we are to believe what both Labour and the Conservatives say) health and aspects of education. As I argued HERE, the effect of that is already to advantage the devolved governments compared with England, given the importance health and education spending play in determining consequential changes under the Barnett formula. Protecting devolved spending generally (an offer already made for 2010-11 by George Osborne; see stories from the Western Mail here and BBC News here), while spending on England-only functions and reserved/non-devolved ones shrinks, may put Wales slightly closer to where relative need says it should be, but will also increase the existing gap between spending and relative need in Scotland. Scotland already does well, relatively; this is a demand for it to do yet better.
In many ways, it’s fair enough for nationalist parties to seek such advantages for their nations. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. But this is not ‘fair’ funding, if what you mean is ‘fair to all people in the UK, regardless of where they live’. In the likely climate for public spending, calling for ‘no cuts’ is not very realistic either. Earlier SNP statements, such as Alex Salmond’s speech to the SNP party conference last October (available here), that they would use their position in a hung Parliament to secure financial advantages for Scotland, were actually quite reasonable – what they were seeking were things that Scotland should have received had the finance system in fact worked properly. These demands aren’t like that.
Plaid’s position is bad politics too. First, by setting out an additional set of demands, they open the door to being picked off from the SNP by being offered some of their ‘B list’ demands but not ones on the agreed list. Second, by hoisting themselves simply to the flag of a ‘fairer’ grant as the key they implicitly reject the idea of some sort of partial fiscal autonomy for Wales. But that’s what the Holtham Commission is presently working on, so this approach means Plaid has chosen to prejudge the work of the Commission, although it was Plaid that pushed to set it up in the first place.
What all this might actually mean depends, obviously, on the general election result. But the SNP/Plaid wish-list doesn’t actually look like a realistic basis for negotiations if the Westminster arithmetic is tight, however good it may sound on the campaign trail.