Setting the record straight on Sturgeon’s fiscal policy

The Resolution Foundation's predictions for government spending, based on the different parties' declared plans.

The Resolution Foundation’s predictions for government spending, based on the different parties’ declared plans.

Vox Political’s article on Nicola Sturgeon’s London speech provoked a disgruntled response from Jonathan Portes. The NIESR boss sent a message stating that the article’s fiscal arguments were out of whack.

He didn’t ask for this blog to straighten them out, but the information he sent, coupled with some other pieces he suggested – by Professor Simon Wren-Lewis and the Resolution Foundation – make it inevitable that another stab is required. If you support the SNP, you’re still not going to like it.

The first comment from Mr Portes is as follows: “1. SNP plan is slower deficit reduction than Lab/LDs, which in turn slower than Cons. All consistent with falling debt/GDP ratio. So all are sustainable.  Haven’t looked at detail, but Simon WL & I both think Lab too cautious – so SNP not obviously crazy.”

Simon Wren-Lewis’s article states:  “In reality what Sturgeon was proposing was still deficit and debt reduction, but just not at the pace currently proposed by Labour.”

And the Resolution Foundation adds: “The SNP would commit to delivering existing 2015-16 plans, as each of the Westminster parties have, before changing course.”

There’s a major point to make here, which all three of the sources above have missed. It’s that the SNP and its adherents have been cursing Labour from High Heaven to Low Hell for committing to Tory austerity policies because Ed Balls promised a Labour government would stick to Coalition spending – note that word, spending – limits for the first year after the general election.

Why have SNP adherents been slating Labour when the SNP has committed itself to the exact same Conservative spending limits, for the exact same period of time? Doesn’t this also make the SNP a party of austerity?

This leads us neatly to a point made by the Resolution Foundation. Ms Sturgeon wants to put a lot of space between SNP plans and those of Labour by claiming that Labour is committed to eliminating the UK’s structural deficit by 2017-18. They say Labour signed up to that when it voted to support the Charter for Budget Responsibility. You may recall there was another big fuss about Labour supporting Tory austerity, being just the same as the Tories, and there being only 17 MPs who oppose austerity (the number who voted against the CBR). Bunkum, according to the Resolution Foundation.

“The ‘Charter for Budget Responsibility’ is highly elastic: it’s not based on a firm commitment to reach balance in 2017-18,” states the Resolution Foundation article. “Instead it represents a rolling ‘aim’ of planning to reach current balance three years down the road.” The article adds: “Most economists are sceptical about how much difference it (the charter) will make.

“So what if Labour targets a current balance in 2019-20 instead? Based on current OBR assumptions this could be achieved with as little as £7 billion of fiscal consolidation in the four years to 2019-20 (including the cost of extra debt interest).”

Labour has made it clear that it plans to make only £7 billion of cuts. As this coincides exactly with the Resolution Foundation’s figures for a 2019-20 budget balance, logic suggests that this is most likely to be what Ed Balls is planning.

So SNP (and Green) adherents who crowed about Labour austerity being as bad as that of the Tories need to apologise – sharpish.

Now that these points are cleared up, let’s look at the substantive issue. Here’s the Resolution Foundation again: “The first minister’s headline was that she favours £180 billion of extra spending in the next parliament relative to current coalition plans… an increase in ‘departmental spending’ of 0.5 per cent a year in real terms over four years [we’ve established that the first year’s spending would adhere to Coalition-planned spending levels]. Our estimates suggest that raising departmental spending by 0.5 per cent in each of the four years after 2015-16 would indeed yield a cumulative increase in spending of around £180 billion (in 2019-20 prices, £160bn in today’s) compared to existing coalition plans. So that seems to fit.

“Another, more conventional, way of putting this is that in the final year of the next parliament, departmental spending would be around £60 billion higher in the SNP scenario than it would be under the coalition’s outline plans. This means that departmental spending would end up in roughly the same place in 2019-20 (in real terms) as it is now. We’d see £8 billion or so of departmental cuts in 2015-16 broadly cancelled out by a rise of around £7 billion across the following four years. It also means that, all else equal, there would still be a (small) UK-wide current deficit come the 2020 election.”

As you can see from the graph, the scenario that suggests a Labour balance in 2017-18 would imply a big difference with the SNP, particularly in the first half of the next Parliament – but, come 2019-20, “there would still be a £48 billion gap between Labour and the coalition plans; not that far short of the £60 billion gap that would exist between the SNP and the coalition”.

The scenario in which Labour balances its budget by 2019-20 “would in theory be consistent with spending roughly £140 billion more than coalition plans.

“The SNP proposal implies increases in total departmental spending of £1-2 billion per year over four years whereas Labour’s 2019-20 scenario implies cuts of £1-2 billion per year over the same period. This is against total departmental spending of around £350 billion. By 2019-20 this difference adds up to roughly a £14 billion gap between the two parties. Now, that’s a real difference but given the scale of the numbers involved, (and the fact that some of Labour’s consolidation may come from tax increases rather than spending cuts), it’s also a relatively modest one.”

It’s more or less the same amount the Coalition Government borrows every month, in fact.

Now let’s throw a spanner in the SNP’s works. The Resolution Foundation points out: “Fiscal discussions of this type tend to suffer from a severe case of false precision. None of the party leaders knows any better than you or I what will happen to productivity next year, never mind in 2020… Any difference between, say, the Labour and SNP spending plans would be dwarfed by the fiscal implications of even modest boosts (or dips) in productivity. Indeed, even the very large difference between the SNP (or Labour) and the coalition’s plans could be overshadowed by a significant shift in productivity trends. And, to Sturgeon’s credit, her remarks this week emphasised productivity.”

Yes – productivity. Does anybody remember that, prior to the referendum, the SNP wanted Scottish voters to believe that any borrowing that might be necessary in an independent Scotland would be offset by increased productivity? What did Simon Wren-Lewis have to say about that? Oh yes: “Governments that try to borrow today in the hope of a more optimistic future are not behaving very responsibly.”

But that is exactly what Ms Sturgeon was proposing for the whole of the UK; borrowing on the assumption of increased productivity.

Here’s a chance to put another SNP myth to bed, from the same writer. In his article about Ms Sturgeon’s speech, Professor Wren-Lewis states: “Of course this is the same person who, with Alex Salmond, was only six months ago proposing a policy that would have put the people of Scotland in a far worse fiscal position than they currently are, an argument that has been reinforced so dramatically by the falling oil price. You could say that it is a little hypocritical to argue against UK austerity on the one hand, and be prepared to impose much greater austerity on your own people with the other.”

The argument he mentions ran as follows: “Scotland’s fiscal position would be worse as a result of leaving the UK for two main reasons. First, demographic trends are less favourable. Second, revenues from the North Sea are expected to decline. This tells us that under current policies Scotland would be getting an increasingly good deal out of being part of the UK [and therefore independence would be detrimental].”

He added that the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which had independently analysed the SNP figures, had made a mistake on interest rates. The IFS analysis, he wrote, “assumes that Scotland would have to pay the same rate of interest on its debt as the rUK. This has to be wrong. Even under the most favourable assumption of a new Scottish currency, Scotland could easily have to pay around one per cent more to borrow than rUK. In their original analysis the IFS look at the implications of that (p35), and the numbers are large.”

The Resolution Foundation notes that “the flipside of higher spending, all else equal, would be higher debt and higher debt interest payments”.

So the SNP plan, as this blog pointed out, could create an interest-payment problem for the next government that bites into the extra money said to be for services.

Mr Portes made two other minor points, as follows: “2. Your stuff about Lab could spend more if economy does better wrong way round. If economy worse, we need higher deficit. Over time, as income goes up, so does/should spending. But short-term macro should be countercyclical.”

When I wrote the material about Labour spending more in a better-performing economy, I was thinking of the Labour government immediately after World War II. The current Labour Party has mentioned this period in recent speeches and releases, and it seems clear that Messrs Miliband, Balls et al consider their task, if elected in May, to be similar to that faced by Mr Attlee and his party – the reconstruction of the UK after a long period of destruction.

Are we to believe the economy is likely to worsen, in which case more borrowing will be needed? It’s certainly possible that major shocks are on the horizon. This writer is in no position to speculate.

“3. Finally, stuff about credit rating agencies/bond markets/Greece is absurd propaganda. I’ve written on this many times.” He’s right; it wouldn’t have been included it if Yr Obdt Srvt had stopped to think about it, but the article was up against a deadline and this writer was throwing in all the cautionary words he could find.

So let us forget about them. Here are a few more. Simon Wren-Lewis, at the end of his article, notes: “I read a blog post recently that suggested this was an election Labour would be better off losing… A Labour government dependent on SNP support would be abandoned by the SNP at the moment of greatest political advantage to the SNP and disadvantage to Labour. However if we assume that the oil price stays low there is no way a rational SNP would want to go for independence again within the next five years. It might be much more to its long term advantage to appear to be representing Scotland in a responsible way as part of a pact with Labour.”

Is the SNP rational? All the evidence available so far suggests it isn’t.

It put forward arguments that were deceptive about an independent Scotland’s economic future.

Its representatives and followers spread lies about Labour economic policy.

All indications suggest the SNP will try to create the conditions required for Scottish independence at the earliest opportunity, and then leave the rest of the UK hanging.

The original article on Ms Sturgeon’s speech ended by saying the SNP would be hard to trust.

After the findings of this one, it is nigh-on impossible to do so.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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  1. shaun127 February 15, 2015 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    Mike, thanks for wading through a complex set of arguments and details to produce such a lucid account of the disaster that would be an SNP victory in Scotland for both the U.K. and Scottish people.

  2. Thomas. February 16, 2015 at 6:24 am - Reply

    Salmond? Sturgeon? There is something fishy about the SNP.

    • Mike Sivier February 16, 2015 at 10:29 am - Reply

      You’re having a whale of a time with that, aren’t you?

  3. cnhay February 16, 2015 at 10:04 am - Reply

    Aye Mike you change your tune as quick as you change your socks, if i remember correctly you your self were calling for a halt to the austerity policies of the conservatives not that long ago are you now advocating for the austerity programs ??

    • Mike Sivier February 16, 2015 at 10:28 am - Reply

      Don’t make me laugh – I’m not for austerity at all and I don’t think Labour is either.
      Instead, Labour is accommodating the wishes of a public that has been influenced by the right-wing press into thinking that the deficit must come down as soon as possible, and has devised a plan in which this can be achieved with a very small amount of cuts (if any at all – see my previous comment).
      Labour has been attacked as the party of ‘Red Tories’ (or whatever insulting term you wish to use) by the SNP, the Greens and their followers for agreeing to follow Conservative spending limits for the first year after a general election, but it seems clear the SNP is planning the same strategy. Doesn’t this make them ‘Tory-lite’ too, then?

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