Belfast Telegraph

Marauding Scots put paid to Northern Ireland's hopes of extra cash

By Liam Clarke

Tony Blair realised Labour was likely to confound the pollsters and lose the general election at a precise moment. It came when a man cleaning his Ford Mondeo told him he intended voting Tory for the first time.

That was in Sedgefield in 1992, Labour's fourth defeat in a row, and the same principles apply today.

"His dad voted Labour, he said. He used to vote Labour, too. But he'd bought his own house now. He'd set up his own business. He was doing very nicely. 'So I've become a Tory,' he said. In that moment, he crystallised for me the basis of our failure... his instincts were to get on in life. And he thought our instincts were to stop him," the former Prime Minister told his 1996 party conference.

People have a strong sense of fairness, that implies a safety net and looking after people who fall on hard times, but it also includes aspiration. Mondeo man wanted to work his way up, not depend on safety nets and allowances unless he needed to.

Last week the Mondeo men and women of England behaved like ancient Britons when they gave the Tories a working majority against all predictions.

The last-minute change of heart - and one or two polls did pick one up - seems to have flowed from fear of marauding Scots carrying away the resources of the sunny south.

The majority served roughly the same purpose as building Hadrian's Wall nearly two millennia ago. The SNP finished Labour in Scotland and this injected the last-minute fear and caution into English voters which gave the Tories a victory.

The Scots were enraged by what they saw as years of unfair neglect by supercilious Westminster types.

The former Labour leader Gordon Brown likes to tell the story of how, as a rookie MP, he asked a senior party member what they thought of the Scots. "We don't think of you very much at all," came the reply.

The SNP pledged to use its clout to change that and it intended propping up a Labour administration to extract more money for Holyrood to spend.

The SNP got 50% of the votes in Scotland on this platform, but the first-past-the-post system gave it 95% of the seats, 56 MPs in all. The polls did pick this up in Scotland and that played into the debate.

Anyone looking at the pollsters' predictions could see that the only way Labour could take power would be with SNP support and the price was likely to be a major transfer of powers and funding.

An English sense that they would be treated unfairly - that savings would be raided and property taxed to maintain better standards in Scotland - was evident. That may explain the "shy Tories" who didn't declare their intentions to pollsters in advance.

The SNP's success is not good news for us. It means that some concession we might have hoped for from Westminster will also have to go to Scotland, nearly trebling the cost under Barnett.

This knocks out any last, faint hope of getting more money for welfare reform.

We are better arguing from a position of fairness. That means making demands proportional, reciprocal and tailored to our particular needs.

We may, for instance, be able to make a case for more funds to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, or to bring our air passenger duty into line with the rate applied to the Scottish islands.

We may also have a better case if we seek infrastructural investment; it may strike people in Westminster as fairer given that we still lag behind.

And for fair you can read an area where twice as much doesn't have to be given to Scotland under the Barnett Formula.

Fairness is also something that may come into politics here in the future. Equality dominates our discourse just now, but fairness is slightly different.

It encompasses the idea of helping people improve their lives - not just catching them when they fall.

Belfast Telegraph


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