If there’s one thing that Jeremy Corbyn has been absolutely consistent about in recent years, it’s that the Tories’ spending cuts are not, as the right monotonously insists, economically necessary, but instead form part of a broader ideological project to shrink the public sector and destroy the welfare state.
“Parliament can feel like living in a time warp at the best of times,” the Labour leader wrote in 2015, “but this government is not just replaying 2010, but taking us back to 1979: ideologically committed to rolling back the state, attacking workers’ rights and trade union protection, selling off public assets, and extending the sell off to social housing.”
And Richard Leonard, it seems, fully agrees: “Austerity is a political choice and not an economic one,” he flatly stated last week.
This is, of course, the position you would expect from a leftwing political party. It is also the correct position. No serious economist believes that the Tories’ decision to embrace austerity after the 2008 crash was a good one. In fact, most experts think it was disastrous: Britain is now in the midst of the tightest squeeze on average wages since the 1800s; 30 per cent of British families live on or beneath the poverty line; the UK suffers from chronic rates of low productivity, consistently weak GDP growth, and unmanageably high levels of private debt.
Austerity, in other words, doesn’t work, and anyone still peddling it as a response to an economic downturn is either a bullshitter or a quack. Which begs the question: why does the Labour Party continue to claim that an independent Scotland would be uniquely bound to a regime of massive spending cuts?
“[Independence] would lead to turbo-charged austerity,” Corbyn said earlier this year. “And a glaring hole in the money required to fund essential services, and [it] would not be in the interests of the people of Scotland.”
Corbyn is referring here to the collapse of North Sea oil revenues and the resulting deficit the oil crisis has left in Scotland’s (projected) annual finances. The raw deficit figure is 8.3 per cent. That’s massive – the largest in the EU – and, one way or another, it would represent a serious economic challenge to an independent Scotland. But that’s all it would represent: a challenge, a problem, a hurdle, none of which, as you may of noticed, Scotland currently lacks as part of the UK.
Indeed, following the financial crash and the bank bailouts in 2009/10, Britain’s deficit was substantially higher than Scotland’s is now: more than 10 per cent of GDP, according to the Treasury. And yet, Corbyn didn’t argue then that the shortfall should be tackled with a programme of scorched-earth cuts. Instead, as he very clearly warned in his election literature at the time: “Cuts in spending to health, education, housing, benefits, and the police which the Tories are proposing, will damage us all.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor has been even more emphatic on this point: “Tackling the deficit is important but we are rejecting austerity as the means to do it,” John McDonnell remarked in a conference speech two years ago. “We are setting out an alternative based upon dynamically growing our economy, ending the tax cuts for the rich and addressing the scourge of tax evasion and avoidance.”
This leaves Corbyn’s position on Scottish independence – or at least the nature of his opposition to it – less than totally convincing. On one hand, at the UK level, he thinks austerity has been a terrible, politically-motivated mistake needlessly imposed by a capricious Tory elite. On the other, he argues that an independent Scotland would have no choice but to implement an amplified version of the Tories’ economic strategy in order to eliminate its deficit. That makes no sense. Worse, it actually mirrors the logic used by the right to justify austerity in 2010 – which is a strange look for an anti-establishment leftist.
Corbyn could, at a stretch, argue that Britain’s ‘broad economic shoulders’ are better equipped to deal with sudden gaps in spending than those of tiny, peripheral Scotland. But that implies that there’s an inescapable relationship between a country’s size and its economic success, which there isn’t, unless you consider Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Austria – none of which suffered as badly as the UK as a result of the 2008 crash – at some sort of vague or generic disadvantage in the global market place, which they aren’t.
In reality – and I hesitate to say this because I like the guy, and really, really want him to dislodge Theresa May as PM – Corbyn’s approach to Scotland is just lazy and opportunistic. He has never shown much interest in the specific dynamics of Scottish politics, so I suspect he’s simply reiterating anti-independence attack lines that he heard somewhere else or that have been fed to him by his Scottish advisers.
The problem, however, isn’t just that those attack lines are wrong. It’s that they propagate the myth that large deficits mandate equally large cuts. And that, in turn, actively bolsters the Scottish right, which has long argued that independence would lead to austerity on an unimaginable scale for Scottish workers. This, as we have now established, is nonsense – because austerity is a political choice and not an economic one.