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Despite No vote in Scotland, fight goes on to keep science funding UK-wide

Battle to protect science research funding continues. YanLev

Alex Salmond’s political de mortuis didn’t last long. His local paper, the Aberdeen Press and Journal, put a big focus on his high standing in Strichen in Aberdeenshire, where he lives. The locals said that he had put it on the map. Its butcher endorsed him. But one of the big problems for him was that Aberdeenshire voted 60% No to independence for Scotland.

Where now? There is much bitterness. Expectations were high. Revolutionary change was perceived to be in sight by far-left socialists, the Greens, LGBT people, anti-nuclear weapon campaigners, and radicals of all kinds. Yes gathered support easily from academics in the arts faculties and from folk singers. Social justice was the agenda.

The dispossessed from the housing schemes were targeted and undoubtedly voted in numbers for independence. But their numbers were too small. Turnouts in the two local authorities with the biggest Yes majorities, Dundee and Glasgow, were well below the average. And in Aberdeen turnout was a lot lower in the less well-off areas of the city than in its richer west end or the suburbs.

Nationalist whips will still quiver

It is certain that the SNP fundamentalists will not go away. The question is what influence will they have in the party. It is too early to tell. Nicola Sturgeon’s coronation is certain. She is unlikely to tolerate dissent, so it is to be expected that troublemakers will not be welcome, and the SNP will continue to have a very strong whips office at Holyrood.

But also remember that Scottish institutions have a glorious tradition of dividing along doctrinal lines. Even before the Disruption that split the Church of Scotland in 1843, there were different factions known as “burghers”, the “anti-burghers”, “new lichts” and “auld lichts”. So far only one SNP MSP, John Wilson, has resigned since the referendum. He was very unhappy about the pro-NATO policy of the party, but stayed until after the vote so as not to rock the boat.

The commitment of the unionist parties to Calman plus –- the devolution of more tax-raising powers, particularly income tax – is very strong. It is to be expected that Lord Smith will be successful in banging heads together to agree on a plan and the timetable for its implementation laid down by former prime minister Gordon Brown. I know; I worked with Smith when he was a governor of the BBC.

Don’t mess with Lord Smith. David Cheskin/PA

The more money that comes to the devolved administrations from raising their own taxes, the less will come from the Barnett formula. This formula has no statutory basis. It is just a device used by the treasury to calculate changes to the block grants to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in order to reflect spending changes in England. For historical reasons its operation benefits Scotland, but not Wales. Northern Ireland doesn’t complain, but is a special case anyway.

Barnett looks bendy

The unionist party leaders have said that Barnett will continue. But it is bound to change. The devil will be in the details of the new devolution arrangements. My life science and medical colleagues were over the moon when No won, but after reflecting for less than 24 hours they became concerned about possible attempts by frustrated Yes supporters to get science funding, particularly Research Council money devolved (it is currently reserved and operates on a UK basis).

A major element of our case for staying in the UK was the outstanding success of the British science system, which has evolved over a century, and that any meddling with it would be bad, particularly for Scotland. This is why my colleagues and I overwhelmingly voted No. But we know that for nationalists the cause is all. A few problems on the way to independence do not concern them. I have debated with some of them and know this from personal experience. We are lobbying already to keep the Research Councils a UK operation.

I think that at this time the West Lothian question, about non-English MPs being able to vote on England-only issues, is a bit of a red herring. I suspect that David Cameron’s announcement about linking new Scottish devolution with English reforms came from a need to placate some of his backbenchers, and make a bit of trouble for Labour.

Cameron seemed to move the goalposts on the morning of September 19. Dominic Lipinski/PA

The NHS and West Lothian

It sounds easy to determine what is an English issue, and then make a rule that only English MPs could vote on it. But it is not simple. Take the NHS. At present the level of NHS funding in England is an English issue. The Scottish NHS is fully devolved. It always has been; it was set up through its own act of parliament, different from the one that set it up for England and Wales. But any NHS funding changes south of the border feed automatically through the Barnett formula to affect the Scottish block grant. So it is not a purely English matter. When Tony Blair massively increased health spending, the Barnett bonus that came to Scotland was so great that not all went to the NHS but was used to fund free personal care for the elderly.

Towards the end of the referendum campaign the NHS became an important issue. It wasn’t discussed at any length in the SNP White Paper. It is reasonable to guess that it was introduced at a late stage because the Yes campaign was still behind in the opinion polls and felt it needed something new. From here the bogey of privatisation in England became a central plank of the campaign, with the assertion that it would reduce health spending, with the Barnett consequential of less money for Scotland.

Opinion polls suggest that this might have helped the Yes campaign, to a degree. While it is doubtful that residents of housing schemes such as Whitfield in Dundee; Drumchapel and Easterhouse in Glasgow; or the Haldane in the Vale of Leven care tuppence about the Barnett formula, they know that the NHS is there for them and many would resist with vigour any prospect that it might be under threat. Their residents turned out for Yes with enthusiasm.

In truth, the problem for both sides in the referendum was fundamentally the same. It is that for the NHS, inflation is constant and significant. The most optimistic view is that the big problem affecting the NHS is the Red Queen syndrome: it has to run hard to stay in the same place. But this is not a realistic prognosis; increases in longevity and new therapeutic advances coupled with ever-increasing public expectations mean that it is likely to go on consuming higher and higher proportions of public expenditure. The only good news is that politicians of all parties feel sufficient pressure from their constituents whether in Dumfries or Durham or Derry or Denbigh to keep the show on the road.

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