Would Scottish Independence Save the NHS and Keep Education Free?

Published: 19 August 2014
Author: Paul Cairney

In a post originally published at his personal blog, Paul Cairney addresses the assertions made by the Yes campaign that independence is required to protect the NHS and keep compulsory education free.

There have been two quite-surprising messages from the Yes campaign recently: independence is the only way to protect the Scottish NHS, and independence is the only way to keep Scottish compulsory education free. I say ‘surprising’ because both areas have been devolved since 1999 and the Scottish Government has developed or maintained distinctive policies without much interference from the UK Government. It is tempting to conclude that these arguments represent little more than the hype that campaigners feel they have to generate to get attention – and No campaigners have generally been dismissive of these claims. Beyond the hype, what is the argument in each case?

In health, there are two arguments. First, the UK Government is cutting (or will cut) NHS spending in England, which has a knock-on effect for the Scottish budget. The Scottish Government would either have to cut Scottish NHS spending or find the money from another service (as in higher education, if UK spending falls when it charges fees). Second, the UK Government is pursuing a ‘privatisation’ agenda, which is anathema in Scotland. Yet, so far, this relates largely to the use of the private sector to deliver services. The NHS remains tax funded and, in most cases, free at the point of delivery.

In education, the argument from Teachers for Yes seems to be: if you vote Yes, you can stop funding nuclear weapons and give education greater priority in the budget. This can be used to fund education directly – teachers, buildings, equipment – and indirectly, by reducing poverty and, therefore, reducing inequalities in education outcomes (or, for example, spending more on childcare and pre-school services). Independence would also give the opportunity to enshrine a right to education in a written constitution. The press release contrasts this vision with a UK future of austerity, with reduced spending on education in England having a knock-on effect on Scotland.

There is a more sophisticated case that could be made by the Yes campaign, which could go something like this:

  • our priority is to reduce inequality
  • at the heart of health and education inequality is income inequality
  • only independence gives us the levers to introduce a more progressive tax and benefits system and reduce income inequality.
  • This might be boosted by the desire of many to reduce spending on areas such as defence and, for some, to increase taxation.

Or, it could simply argue that everything is connected; that a tax and benefits system underpins all efforts to ‘join up’ the delivery and funding of public services. Some of that argument is in the Scottish Government’s White Paper.

However, I don’t think that the Yes campaign is making that sophisticated case. Or, at least, I haven’t yet seen it. Instead, the focus is on the idea that staying in the UK means sticking with the austerity agenda – and less money for public services such as health and education. What it doesn’t address is that the austerity agenda would be faced by an independent Scottish Government as much as a devolved one. What it doesn’t address is that, under devolution, the Scottish Government has been responsible for using a devolved budget that has generally been very large and has only now begun to shrink – and that, if UK austerity really does start to ‘bite’, a devolved Scottish Government will have some scope to borrow and tax to offset the effect (although I qualify that statement here). Consequently, it is too easy to dismiss. While it might have an effect on some voters inclined to vote Yes, it is also vulnerable to ridicule and could easily backfire.

See also: a discussion of the Barnett formula, which underpins a lot of this debate

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