Manifesto Check: the SNP’s top policies

Nicola Sturgeon seems pleased with SNP policies - but do they hold up under scrutiny? Scottish Government Images/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Welcome to The Conversation’s Manifesto Check, where academics subject each party’s election manifesto to unbiased, expert scrutiny. Here is what our experts had to say about the Scottish National Party’s top policies. Follow the links for further analysis.

Economy

David Bell, Professor of Economics at University of Stirling

The publication of the SNP’s 2015 general election manifesto marked a huge change for the party. This manifesto – unlike its predecessors – sets its sights beyond the Scottish border. It seeks to promote “positive change for the benefit of ordinary people, not just in Scotland, but across the UK”. It makes the case for more “progressive politics”, and positions the SNP to the left of the Labour Party.

Specifically, the manifesto argues for an end to austerity: the SNP proposal is for a 0.5% annual increase in public spending over the course of the next parliament, rather than the reductions in spending which George Osborne laid out in his March 2015 budget.

The SNP claims that increased spending would still lead to a reduction in the deficit as a share of GDP, based on a Treasury costing of the policy, which was proposed by the Scottish government in March 2015. Under the SNP strategy, the deficit would be 2% of GDP by 2019-20. This stands in contrast to the latest UK government forecast, which predicts of a surplus of 0.3% of GDP by the same time based on the current approach.

Some economists, among them Simon Wren Lewis, Jonathan Portes and Paul Krugman, argue that the coalition government’s focus on deficit reduction is unhealthy in the long term for the UK economy. So the SNP can reasonably claim that its proposal to end austerity has significant intellectual support.

On the other hand, the SNP case is based on forecasts made by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), whose record has been, at best, mixed. The International Monetary Fund suggests that the OBR’s deficit forecast for the end of the next parliament is too optimistic. And the UK is in the middle of a retirement boom, which will undoubtedly add to the pressures on public finances.

Read more here.

EU relations

Michael Keating, Chair in Scottish Politics at University of Aberdeen

Until the 1980s, the SNP was opposed to membership of the European Community/Union, although there was a small pro-European element within the party.

In the late 1980s – at the same time as the Labour Party – it turned towards Europe. Since then, the EU has become a key supporting framework for the independence project.

The SNP manifesto devotes little space to Europe. It does commit the SNP unequivocally to Europe, and to opposing withdrawal. Unlike the Labour Party, it does not explicitly oppose having an EU referendum, but insists on a double-majority provision, so that withdrawal from the EU would have to be supported by all four home nations. This would suggest that, should England vote to leave, it could be prevented by Scotland, which seems politically difficult, as England could claim that it too has its national rights, and English Conservatives would be outraged.

More likely, an English vote to leave and a Scottish vote to stay would provoke another referendum, since Scotland could only stay in by becoming a separate member state and rejoining. Presumably, in that scenario, we would be spared the warnings from people like former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso that Scotland could be left in the cold.

But the SNP does not go down this road in its manifesto, no doubt because it does not want to talk about another referendum just now. Opinion polls have shown that a vote in England to withdraw from the EU while Scotland votes to stay in is not probable, but is definitely possible.

Read more here.

Health

Karen Bloor, Professor of Health Economics and Policy at University of York

The Scottish National Party’s manifesto makes relatively few pledges on health. This is, of course, because policy on health care and the NHS in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish parliament, and are essentially none of Westminster’s business. The UK parliament can affect the overall budget for the NHS, and could amend the formula used to distribute funds to the four constituent governments, but they cannot influence how NHS money is spent in Scotland.

There are major differences between the NHS in Scotland and England. In Scotland the purchaser-provider split has been abolished, and health boards are responsible for planning and delivering services. Prescriptions are free, personal care is free for over-65s, and guidelines on new treatments are provided by SIGN, not NICE.

These differences should create opportunities for well-designed evaluation and policy analysis. But in practice, efforts to undertake such studies have been “plagued with difficulty” due to data collection differences and political reluctance. Perhaps, as so often in relation to political reaction to policy evaluation, there is “safety under the cloak of ignorance”.

Read more here.

Immigration

David McCollum, Lecturer in Geography at University of St Andrews

The SNP’s 2015 manifesto does not contain any surprises in terms of immigration policy – or many immigration policies at all. What it does do is acknowledge the contribution that migrants make to Scotland (“Diversity is one of Scotland’s great strengths”) and specifically, it calls for the reintroduction of the Post-Study Work (PSW) visa.

This deserves a cautious welcome. For some time, the higher education sector has protested that the UK’s approach to immigration is harming British universities and also the country in general. This is particularly pressing in Scotland, where the higher education sector makes a sizeable contribution to the economy and international students constitute a larger share of the student body than in the UK as a whole.

In addition, the importance of international students in Scotland’s higher education sector is set to grow: Scotland’s ageing population means we can expect a decline in the number of young people, and therefore potential students, growing up there.

A re-introduction of the PSW visa, which was abolished by the UK government in 2012, would have echoes of the 2004-2008 Fresh Talent Initiative, which allowed international students to remain in Scotland for a period of up to two years after graduating. A re-introduced PSW would serve the interests of Scotland’s higher education sector and economy more broadly. Offering international students the chance to work after graduation could give Scottish universities at a competitive advantage over their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

Read more here.

Welfare

Craig McAngus, Research Fellow at University of Stirling

The SNP’s 2015 manifesto devotes significant space to welfare. The future of the welfare state was a very important issue in the Scottish referendum campaign, with the Yes campaign arguing the only solution to fixing it was for an independent Scotland to taking full control over social security and the wider welfare state.

Continuing that theme, the 2015 manifesto’s welfare pledges revolve around explaining how the SNP would exert its influence on this policy area if involved in supporting a minority Labour government.

The manifesto outlines changes to a number of aspects of the current social security system, largely centred around changes put in place by Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms, that the party would want to see scrapped or reformed. It argues that welfare payments ought to be increased at least in line with the cost of living, that the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance should be reversed, the roll out of Universal Credit halted, and the conditionality and sanctions schemes reviewed.

Read more here.

Energy and environment

Hugh Compston, Professor of Climate Politics at Cardiff and Ian Bailey, Professor of Environmental Politics at Plymouth University

In government at Holyrood, the Scottish National Party has set ambitious targets for renewable energy, and the spectacular expansion of onshore and offshore wind in Scotland since the SNP came to power in 2007 certainly supports the party’s capacity to deliver. In 2014, renewables achieved a 49.6% share of Scottish gross electricity production, just 0.4% short of the SNP’s 2015 target of 50%.

But the SNP’s manifesto goes a crucial step further, promising that the party will use its influence at Westminster “to ensure the UK matches, and supports, Scotland’s ambitious commitments to carbon reduction”, namely 30% of energy from renewables by 2020, and 100% of electricity. And the SNP isn’t shy about the policy reforms it would seek:

  • Changes to the UK’s Contracts for Difference price mechanism for renewables so that it prioritises Scottish projects and encourages the manufacturing of renewables, as well as the generation of renewable energy.

  • Reform of transmission arrangements to prevent remote Scottish communities and renewables from being penalised by their distance from UK energy markets.

Read more here.