Like most unionists, I have long been in favour of Scotland receiving more than its fair share of public spending. If this was the price of keeping the United Kingdom in one piece, we should pay it.
But is it possible that these transfers of money under the so-called Barnett formula are having the opposite effect — and that, far from cementing the Union, they are giving a boost to the Scottish Nationalists, who want to dismember it?
The question arises following a report by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies(IFS). It finds that public spending per person in Scotland is almost 30 per cent higher than in England.
That’s right. For every £1 received by John Brown from the public purse south of the border, north of Hadrian’s Wall Hamish McTavish is getting nearly £1.30. The discrepancy is apparently wider than ever.
Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon
You may say that this unfairness has been going on for a very long time, and there is no reason suddenly to get particularly hot under the collar about it. But there is.
According to the IFS, the Scottish government — which is of course led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP — has pocketed an additional £9.5 billion from the UK government for coronavirus-related funding.
The IFS says not all this extra money is being spent on Covid measures. Some of it is being used by the crafty Ms Sturgeon to expand free school meals and bus travel.
Scottish parliamentary elections take place on May 6, and the SNP is dipping into Covid funds supplied by Westminster to bribe the electorate. Free bus travel is being extended to Scots aged under 22, and all primary school pupils are being offered free school meals.
It doesn’t end there. The SNP has offered health workers in Scotland a 4 per cent increase whereas nurses in England have been offered just 1 per cent. Ms Sturgeon can only be so generous because of extra resources funnelled her way by the Tory Government in London.
Isn’t this all very odd? The Scots Nats say if they win an overall majority in May they will demand another referendum on independence, which they believe they would win.
And so in order to improve their electoral prospects, and get a step closer to breaking up the Union, they are splashing money about which Westminster has obligingly contributed.
By the way, although a little extra income is raised by the Scottish government by tweaking income tax rates, this is minimal, and does not begin to cover much higher public expenditure north of the border.
I wonder how many Scots are fully aware of what is going on. At the best of times the Barnett formula looks complex. Meanwhile, the SNP has been adept at muddying the waters over the years.
From the 1970s onwards its cry was that the bulk of North Sea oil belonged to Scotland, and so the enormous revenues flowing into the Treasury easily outweighed any transfers of cash from London.
Always a dishonest argument — it’s British, not Scottish, oil — it has become increasingly threadbare as the oil price has dropped, and less and less of the stuff is being extracted from the North Sea. For many environmentally aware SNP politicians, oil has also become a dirty word.
Even so, it is all but impossible to get them to admit the Scottish government receives huge subsidies from south of the border. They would scream like billy-o if the payments dried up, but as things stand they treat them as though they are a natural right.
Pictured (left to right): Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, presenter Sarah Smith, Scottish Green Party co-leader Lorna Slater and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross during a Scottish party leaders’ debate ahead of the Scottish Parliamentary election
The fact remains that, as a result of significantly greater public expenditure in Scotland, our fellow British citizens north of the border get a much better deal than the rest of us.
Scottish students do not pay university tuition fees — a spectacular advantage over their English counterparts, who are burdened with tens of thousands of pounds of debt that can take half a lifetime to pay off. There are no prescription charges in Scotland.
As I say, for as long as it could reasonably be argued that subsidies helped keep the Scots sweet, and the Union together, it seemed to be sensible to go on paying them, even though gratitude was in short supply.
But the spectacle of Nicola Sturgeon using Westminster money to bolster her chances in the forthcoming elections is more than your columnist, passionate unionist though he is, can stomach.
Isn’t it time someone spoke a few home truths to the Scottish people, some of whom seem to exist in a kind of make-believe world fabricated by the manipulative Ms Sturgeon?
It’s not only the existence of massive subsidies — which would disappear in the event of independence — that voters tempted by the false allure of SNP should confront.
Despite what Ms Sturgeon implies, the European Union wouldn’t admit Scotland as a member state for many years, Spain might oppose it for fear of giving encouragement to separatists in Catalonia.
Even if Scotland did manage to clamber into the clammy embrace of Brussels, it would jepordise by far its biggest market. Scotland’s exports to the rest of the UK are more than three times those to the EU.
Membership of the EU would inevitably entail a hard border between England and Scotland, with much form-filling and probable visa restrictions. Do most Scots want that?
Joining Brussels would, almost certainly, mean adopting the euro. Scotland would be a tiny and insignificant member of a vast currency union, whereas at present it is part of a sovereign state that controls its own currency.
During the election campaign, it would be wonderful if the unionist opposition parties in Scotland, and the Tories in particular, were prepared to point out some of these home truths.
But will they? Just as many Scottish voters don’t seem fully aware that they are lucky beneficiaries of the Barnett formula, so there is an apparent lack of recognition of the stark consequences of independence.
With a combination of deceit and guile, Nicola Sturgeon has pulled the wool over many credulous eyes. The Scottish Tories, much weaker after the resignation of the gifted Ruth Davidson, seem incapable of exposing her conjuring tricks.
Many Scots believe Ms Sturgeon has had a magnificent Covid campaign, though the high death rates in Scottish care homes tell a different story. Moreover, I doubt an independent Scotland would have enjoyed such a stunningly successful vaccination programme.
Meanwhile, many English people look northwards with increasing resentment as they bankroll public expenditure for their fellow Britons on a scale they can only dream of.
The lesson of all this is that unionists should stop treating the Scots as spoiled children who must be protected from reality. We want them to stay part of the Union, but cosseting them won’t achieve that.
In truth, throwing money at Scotland has done nothing to curb the Scots Nats. Quite the opposite. The SNP takes the credit for Westminster’s subsidies. The more the English fund the Scots, then the greater the clamour for independence.