The Higher Education budget in Scotland has been balanced on the backs of the poor.

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Much of the debate surrounding the need to tackle inequality in Scotland tends to drift towards the level welfare payments and the minimum wage should be set at. However, any government which wishes to tackle the poverty which is handed down within families from generation to generation must reduce the attainment gap between rich and poor in our education system. It is therefore with real concern that I read the results of the “2014 Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy” today.

This authoritative report shows that, despite the SNP being in control of education at all levels since 2007, attainment in Scottish schools has dropped in recent years. Worse than that, the attainment gap between the least and most deprived students has increased in both relative and absolute terms. This must at least in part be due to the 4,500 teaching jobs which have been lost in Scotland since 2007 to help fund the SNP council tax freeze which disproportionately benefits the wealthy.

As someone who works in a Scottish university and runs one of the UK’s very best engineering degrees, I can see the same folly in Higher Education. The SNP deserve great credit for maintaining free higher education, but Ms Sturgeon’s promotion of this policy as morally just whilst simultaneously cutting the grants for the poorest students to the lowest level in the western EU is misleading at best. Independent research by the University of Edinburgh has found that only those from families earning over £31,000 have benefitted from this policy. The Higher Education budget has been balanced on the backs of the poor.

Those students from deprived areas in Scotland who are able to be admitted to university find that to study they must take on large loans and try to find paid employment to support their studies. The forthcoming university exam board season will see students from deprived backgrounds thrown out of university not due to a lack of ability or ambition, but a failure of the Scottish Government to offer these students a fair opportunity to take advantage of the difference a good university education can make.

David Cameron’s EVEL Plans – Nicola Sturgeon’s Role

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Politicians in Scotland are entirely correct to be cynical about David Cameron’s English Votes For English Laws (EVEL) proposals. His position is entirely designed to maximise the chance that the Conservative Party will hold on to power, and has nothing to do with protecting the interests of the United Kingdom.

Whilst I am cynical about David Cameron’s motives, I am rather bemused by Nicola Sturgeon’s response for three key reasons.

One: Whilst her claim that English spending decisions have an impact on the Scottish block grant is correct, it does overlook one key fact. Up until January this year SNP MPs did not vote on issues not directly relating to Scotland – typically SNP MPs take part in less than half of Westminster votes. Furthermore, despite all the misleading rhetoric from the SNP Government now on the dire consequences for Scotland, when asked they declined to comment on the Bill which paved the way for the creeping privatisation of the NHS in England – they left it to the mercy of Westminster.

Two: Ms Sturgeon claims that David Cameron’s EVEL plans are in contravention of the Smith Commission proposals look rather hypocritical when one considers the fact that the SNP have themselves done everything they can to undermine them. Indeed, John Swinney, despite being part of the Smith Commission, attacked the proposals he signed up to just as soon as they were published. Furthermore, the Full Fiscal Autonomy the SNP propose will end the Smith Commission process and the Barnett Formula with it.

Three: Perhaps most importantly, the reason that David Cameron has been able to make his argument so effectively is largely due to Sturgeon and Salmond. Both have repeatedly asserted that they will be controlling Labour after the General Election. Just a few days ago, Salmond was secretly filmed claiming he would be writing Labour’s budget for them. These SNP arguments, which are being amplified by the Tories and Rupert Murdoch, are designed to drive voters away from Labour north and south of the border.

When considering these three points together, the only conclusion I can draw is that Nicola Sturgeon should look in the mirror if she is genuinely concerned about David Cameron’s EVEL plans.

Edinburgh South SNP Candidate Neil Hay’s Alter Ego isn’t Superman.

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I read the exploits of the SNP candidate for Edinburgh South’s anonymous online alter ego with absolute incredulity. Whilst Ms Sturgeon has been rebranding the SNP as a “progressive” party, Mr Hay has been comparing the majority of his potential constituents to Nazi collaborators simply because they disagree with him. Unbelievable.

Worse than this, however, is his willingness to infer senior citizens who question his views are senile by suggesting some can “barely remember their names”. Mr Hay would do well to remember how much we rely on senior citizens in the workplace, charities and as carers. Without them, our great city would grind to a halt. Furthermore, many of Edinburgh’s senior citizens either contributed directly to the war against Nazism or put their shoulder to the wheel to rebuild Britain after the war. We all, including Mr Hay, owe them a debt of gratitude.

At First Minister’s Questions Ms Sturgeon defended Mr Hay’s right to stand as an SNP candidate, but was clear that Edinburgh South would have the final say at the ballot box on his suitability as an MP. I agree with her on both points – I will be voting for a candidate who is committed to helping everyone in Edinburgh South, not one who denigrates the people in our society who deserve our respect most.

IFS Hammer the SNP on their FFA Blackhole AGAIN!

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In March we learned from the IFS that the SNP’s plans for Full Fiscal Autonomy would cost Scotland £7.6b. The SNP dismissed this by claiming that the IFS analysis offered only a snapshot of Scotland’s position as it was based on one year of data. Not daunted by this, the IFS have now extended their analysis to 2020 (report, 22-04-15). This analysis demonstrated that the shortfall will grow from £7.6b to £10b – a total of £42.9b over 5 years.

To put this blackhole in context, the Tories plan £30b of cuts across the whole of the UK over the same 5 year period – £2.8b of which will fall in Scotland. The IFS say Labour need to cut UK spending by £6b if it chooses to balance the budget within three years, and that no cuts may be required in Scotland if it aims for 5 years.

It is therefore clear that the plan offered by the SNP is by far the greatest risk to public services in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon’s response to this is to label the IFS report as “scaremongering” and to point out that Scotland could grow its way out of the blackhole. Unfortunately for Nicola Sturgeon, the IFS had anticipated that response – their analysis shows that 5% growth per year would be needed for the SNP to balance the books. This is double the UK growth rate and 4 times the EU growth rate.

The Nationalists are rather coy about how this level of growth can be achieved. However, if achieving 5% growth year-on-year was so easy, I am sure other countries would be doing it.

Trident in Edinburgh South – A Principled Position.

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As one of Ian Murray’s constituents in Edinburgh South, I welcome his principled contribution to the debate regarding the renewal of the Trident system. As someone who is undecided about the need to renew Trident, it is heartening to see an opinion which goes beyond the opportunistic use of empty party political slogans such as “bairns not bombs”.

Leading the campaign against Trident in Scotland we now have the SNP who estimate that Scotland contributed £100m to the system last year and that cancelling it will fund everything from nursery places to bus passes. The reality is that £100m is not significant compared to the Scottish Government’s underspend last year (£444m), Scotland’s deficit (£9.8b) or even the SNP’s Full Fiscal Autonomy blackhole (£7.6b). Furthermore, it is entirely likely that any savings associated with canceling the Trident renewal (£200m-£300m per year) will largely be recycled within the defence budget.

Other anti-Trident arguments focus around the morality of the weapon and the environmental risk it poses. However, one could argue that no weapon is “moral” and that the environmental risk posed by the SNP Government “sweating” Scotland’s ageing nuclear plants well beyond their design lives poses a far greater risk.

Futhermore, the notion that we Scots can take a moral stance on Trident by moving it elsewhere in the UK and remaing in NATO is nonsense on stilts.

The arguments for retaining Trident are equally unconvincing and focus on the uncertain future the world faces over the lifetime of the system (up to 2080). However, it is inconceivable that the UK would consider the use of the deterrent outside a wider NATO action – what difference would we make? The second argument for retaining Trident is that it is a net benefit to the Scottish economy. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, is this really a good thing?

It is within this uncertain context that I welcome Ian Murray’s comments. In my contacts with him I have always found him to be frank and industrious, so I therefore look forward, if he is re-elected, to hearing his contributions to future Trident debates in the House of Commons.

Nicola Sturgeon’s change of mind on FFA?

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Nicola Sturgeon’s policy on Full Fiscal Autonomy was always a bit of ideologically driven bravado. It orgininated from imprudent comments Alex Salmond made on the 8th of January, and it looked at the time as if Nicola Sturgeon had no choice but to back him.

Since then, the policy has been questioned as it would mean the end of the of the Barnett formula. This is key as over the past 10 years Scotland has benefitted substantially from Barnett as our deficit has, on average, been higher than the rest of the UK and will continue to worsen as the oil price collapse is fully accounted for.

Nationalist started to get nervous about Full Fiscal Autonomy when Jim Murphy highlighted the IFS study which has shown Scotland would lose £7.6b if Nicola Sturgeon had her way. On Monday we learned that Alex Salmond was getting cold feet and on Wednesday Nicola Sturgeon followed suit.

This run of events raises two questions. Firstly, does Nicola Sturgeon think Scotland is too wee, poor or stupid for full fiscal autonomy? If she does, exactly the same arguments apply to her position on independence.

The second question regards the SNP – who is leading the party? It appears that Alex Salmond has been guilty of making policy up on the hoof and the whole party, including Nicola Sturgeon, follows. I can think of no other political party in my lifetime where a politician who is not the leader has so much power over the party.

Jim Murphy and the Polls

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Whilst at UK level Labour must be content with it’s performance in the polls, it is perhaps correct to conclude that the situation in Scotland is less positive for the party. However, one must view the polls closely before writing off Scottish Labour.

The most recent Scotland-wide poll  (TNS, 13th April) puts support for the SNP at an impressive 52%. However, this number excludes undecided voters. Once they are included, the SNP vote share is only 29% – considerably less than the 37% of the electorate which voted Yes, but more than the 23% of the electorate that voted for the SNP in 2011.

Within this context, one can conclude undecided votes will decide the outcome of the General Election in Scotland. Indeed, TNS estimate 29% of Scots are undecided, with the proportion rising to 39% in Glasgow.

A proportion of these undecided voters will no doubt be scunnered with politics after the referendum. However, one can not doubt more still are simply waiting for information upon which they can base a tactical voting decision.

Perhaps the largest group of undecided voters will be left-leaning working class voters who are weighing up Labour’s progressive platform against the SNP’s rhetoric. They will be comparing Labour’s costed plan to reduce the deficit with the SNP’s pain free anti-austerity nirvana. They will be choosing between a Labour party which will help the vulnerable  by investing in education with the SNP Government which has cut teaching jobs and the grant for the poorest Scots.

Nobody can really predict how Scotland’s undecided electorate will vote, but I am sure they will vote and decide the outcome of the UK General Election. One thing is certain, Scotland will get the government it votes for.

Cameron’s Plan: The Tories win, and Scotland loses.

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I was no fan of Michael Forsyth when he was Scottish Secretary, but I do find myself agreeing with him now (Scotsman, 21/04/15). The Conservative Party’s claim that the SNP will have control over a Labour Government in a manner which will only benefit Scotland is disingenuous. It is designed to simultaneously drive undecided voters to the Tories in England and reinforce the SNP’s core message in Scotland. The former point has been willingly reinforced by Salmond and Sturgeon during recent trips to England.

Furthermore, in my constituency of Edinburgh the Conservative candidate has been telling working class Scots that only SNP or the Tories can win. Given that Labour is in fact neck-and-neck with the SNP, and the Tories are a distant third, this tactic can only be designed to drive voters to the SNP.

Whilst this synergy between the SNP and the Conservatives may appear unlikely, on closer inspection it is not. The General Election looks too close to call and David Cameron is desperate to remain in Downing Street. His government, perhaps in partnership with UKIP, will drive down public spending based on an ideologically driven agenda, so why would he not do a deal with the SNP to reduce UK public spending by £7.6b by offering then the Full Fiscal Autonomy they seek in return for their support? Even if offered by Cameron, the SNP could not turn it down. The result would be that Cameron will remain in Downing Street and Scotland would have a massive blackhole to deal with. The Tories win, and Scotland loses.

Full Fiscal Autonomy and Bust

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Ed Miliband is correct, the SNP’s proposals for Full Fiscal Autonomy are a huge threat to public services and pensions in Scotland. Over the past 10 years Scotland has spent more than it has earned and the extent of that deficit, on average, has been greater than the rest of the UK. Furthermore, future projections by independent experts suggest that this situation will worsen in the coming years.

It is due to this context that the independent IFS have determined that the SNP plan to replace the Barnett Formula with Full Fiscal Autonomy will cost Scotland £7.6b per year. To put that in context, that is over 50 times what Scotland spent on Trident last year or around £1,200 per Scot. This is a policy driven by ideology, not Scotland’s interests.

Nationalists suggest that if the oil price recovers, the deficit will reduce. However, it must be remembered that the oil price collapse has not yet been accounted for in the Scottish Government’s deficit estimates. Furthermore, due to increased costs and subsidies, oil revenues are unlikely to ever fully recover even if the oil price does.

A second argument is that, due to the damage it would cause to public services, Full Fiscal Autonomy would never be supported in an unlikely Labour-SNP coalition. This is correct, but it also highlights how little influence the SNP will have over Labour.

There is one other scenario. The coming election looks too close to call and David Cameron is very keen to remain in Downing Street. His government, perhaps in partnership with UKIP, will drive down public spending based on an ideologically driven agenda, so why would he not do a deal with the SNP to reduce UK public spending by £7.6b by offering Full Fiscal Autonomy? Why wouldn’t Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond not accept that offer?