4 February 2022

Sturgeon’s claim about Scottish pensions is utter nonsense – and she knows it


I doubt Nicola Sturgeon wakes up in the middle of the night desperately missing the guidance of her former friend/mentor/nemesis, Alex Salmond.

Nevertheless, there must be times when she wishes she, or the people around her, had the same effortless ability possessed by the former First Minister to control the media agenda, or at least to manipulate it in his favour. Deep down, the current SNP leader must surely be thinking: Alex wouldn’t have fallen into this trap.

How on earth did she end up having to defend a claim that, after Scotland gains independence, state pensions will continue to be paid by the state from which Scotland has just broken free?

It’s a bold proposition, it has to be admitted. But is it really the kind of public argument she wants to have, just as she’s gearing up for her latest attempt to persuade the UK government to allow her another referendum?

Sturgeon was in typically belligerent mood this week at First Minister’s Questions, dismissing, in her familiar faux-amused fashion, the suggestion from Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser that the nationalists may not be on terribly solid ground. ‘Is it really now the SNP position that pensions in an independent Scotland will be paid by tax-payers in England?’, Fraser asked, not unreasonably.

It’s a central part of the SNP narrative these days that any opinion held by their opponents, especially the hated Tories, is too ludicrous to take seriously. They are, after all, not members of her party and therefore do not deserve to be taken seriously.

Sturgeon responded: “The Tories [pronounced “Toaries!”, including the exclamation mark] are really, really nervous about this argument – you can feel the discomfort coming from them.” A bit of displacement strategy there, perhaps.

She then went on to claim that comments by the former Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Webb, during the independence campaign in 2014, justified both her and Murdo Fraser’s conclusion. There was indeed some excitement around the ambiguity of Webb’s remarks at the time and he later issued a clarification in evidence to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, stating explicitly that:

‘People in the rest of the UK would not be expecting to guarantee or underwrite the pensions of those living in what would then have become a separate country. The security and sustainability of pensions being paid to people in Scotland would, therefore, depend on the ability of Scottish taxpayers to fund them.’

Which seems pretty straightforward, not to mention politically realistic: can you really imagine a scenario in which UK negotiators emerged from post-referendum talks with triumphant nationalists to tell English, Welsh and Northern Irish voters they would have to keep on paying for pensions in a foreign country?

Sturgeon is oddly keen to take the word of a Liberal Democrat minister, even as she dismisses and denigrates the opinion of anyone who’s ever been polite to the Conservatives, let alone sat around the same Cabinet table with them. I guess it’s the Dominic Cummings effect: everything he says must be dismissed, right up to the point where you can make some political capital out of it.

And if she hasn’t been made aware of Webb’s subsequent (and to the SNP, unhelpful) clarification on the point, what are her advisers and researchers even doing with their time? 

Let’s be clear: the argument that the UK will pay for pensions in an independent Scotland, whatever the perilous basis on which the assertion has been made, is political nonsense. Worse, it is easily recognised as such. If nationalist canvassers were to tell older voters on their doorsteps that this was a central plank of their party’s platform for separation, they would do their own cause far more harm than good.

Simply put, it fails the smell test. In 2014 the Yes campaign’s weakest point was the economic case for independence, made all the worse by the total absence of such a case. Scots simply weren’t convinced the numbers added up and suspected Salmond and Sturgeon of relying too heavily on wishful thinking as a substitute for facts. Claiming something – that the UK will pay for Scottish pensions after independence – that no one believes will ever happen will not be judged, in years to come, as a fool-proof method for winning converts to the cause.

And because it is so widely disbelieved, it casts a pall of doubt over the wider SNP argument for independence. If our pensions aren’t safe (and they wouldn’t be), should we believe the nationalists about the currency? Or our borders? Or our trade with England? Or anything else?

Where Salmond’s confident grip is missing is in the very fact that this debate is happening at all right now. To secure a winning majority for Leave, the SNP need to excite people about rather more vague aspirations, like nationhood, flags and bagpipes. A detailed analysis of the many technical and difficult issues threatening to derail the independence prospectus even before a new referendum has been legislated for should be wholly unwelcome to the SNP. Those details need to be kicked into the long grass for as long as possible, perhaps only being raised after the imaginary votes in the hypothetical referendum have been counted.

The source of all this nonsense, many of you will be unsurprised to discover, is the SNP’s Westminster leader, the people’s foghorn, Ian Blackford, who repeated his assertion that the UK will pay Scots’ pensions even after independence. Blackford appeared entirely unconcerned when it was pointed out that this was the precise opposite of the policy contained in the SNP’s white paper, on which they fought the independence referendum campaign last time.

But this new policy is far more than a media handling cock-up; it’s much worse for the nationalist movement, because it is the first indication they have given that an independent Scottish Government will either refuse to fund pensions for their own citizens, or will at the very least find it difficult to do so (otherwise why insist that someone else do it?).

Given the nature of the SNP beast, anything said by the First Minister is quickly accepted as holy writ; even those nationalist activists who know something about finance policy, or about politics, will now repeat Blackford’s and Sturgeon’s claim as if it were always true, as if it had always been policy. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. 

Anyone who questions it will be mocked and abused. Until, that is, it is changed again and everyone pretends that it hasn’t been.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.