world : How could global turmoil affect the election in Scotland?

Thursday 13 June 2024 02:30 AM

Nafeza 2 world - James Cook

Scotland editor

Image source, Getty Images

It's nearly five years since the United Kingdom last went to the polls in a general election and a lot has happened in that time.

Three events in particular will have their own lengthy entries in the history books.

The global pandemic, the UK's departure from the European Union, and the war in Ukraine have had deep and lasting effects on life and politics in Scotland and further afield.

What impact might they have on the outcome of this election?

Covid-19

covid patientImage source, Getty Images

Scotland's first coronavirus death was confirmed in March 2020. Just 10 months later the UK registered more than 1,500 deaths with Covid-19 in a single day.

Politicians responded to this unprecedented public health emergency by introducing the most extreme restrictions on our liberty ever known in peacetime.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of lockdowns - which were supported by all four big UK parties - the publicly-funded National Health Service is still feeling the effects of that period.

As much routine healthcare was suspended to prioritise tackling the virus, the number of people waiting for treatment, and the length of time they were waiting, soared.

With their treatment delayed, many patients became sicker, with some developing additional conditions.

That piled further pressure on the NHS, which is actually four separate systems, , externalcurrently administered by the Conservatives in England; the Scottish National Party in Scotland; Labour in Wales; and the power-sharing government of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland.

For all four governments, the pandemic highlighted existing problems.

"Critical underlying issues were brutally exposed with too few staff, too few beds, and buildings that were unsuitable for effective infection control," according to doctors' trade union,, external the British Medical Association (BMA).

hospital patientImage source, PA Media
Image caption,

The NHS in Scotland has come under extreme pressure

In Scotland, a recent official audit, external pointed out that waiting times standards were often missed before the pandemic, adding that soaring costs, long waits, and staff shortages were now having "a direct impact on patient safety".

The Audit Scotland report concluded that the NHS and its workforce were "unable to meet the growing demand for health services," and accused the Scottish government of having "no overall vision" for the future delivery of healthcare.

The Scottish government has defended its Covid recovery plan and the new Scottish health secretary, Neil Gray, insists he will take a "pragmatic" approach to repairing the 76-year-old institution.

Because of devolution, the outcome of this election will not directly determine policy on health, education or other devolved areas such as housing or transport.

However, that does not mean such issues are irrelevant, external in this campaign.

Although the Scottish government decides how to allocate its resources (a limited amount of which it raises itself through taxation) the level of most of its budget, known as the block grant, is determined by Westminster.

If the UK government cuts spending on, say, criminal justice in England, then Scotland's overall budget will fall by a related amount., external

Perhaps voters will take that into account when they go to the polls on 4 July, or maybe they will use the occasion to pass judgment on any number of Covid-related matters, from public sector procurement scandals to rows about deleted messages to parties during lockdown.

Some may want to make a much wider point about the overall system within which the NHS is run, whether that is to support Scotland's 317-year-old union with England, or to signal a desire for Scotland to become independent.

In other words, it’s pointless for any commentator to proclaim that the election is about this but not about that. What it is about is a matter for each voter.

Brexit

brexit protestImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,

Scotland voted by a wide margin to stay in the EU

The second big change since the last general election happened an hour before midnight on 31 January 2020.

That was the moment the UK formally left the European Union, 47 years after joining its predecessor trading bloc, the European Economic Community (EEC).

In a 2016 referendum on membership, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by wide margins to remain in the EU while more populous England, along with Wales, voted narrowly to leave, setting the entire UK on a course for exit.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, external, a UK government body which provides independent economic analysis and forecasts, estimates that the UK's departure will, in the long run, cut both imports and exports by 15% and reduce productivity (output per worker) by 4%.

The Scottish government says, external that "equates to £3bn in lost public revenues for Scotland, each and every year."

The Conservative UK government says, external Brexit frees up the country to strike its own trade deals, take back control of its laws, and set its own immigration limits.

Both the Conservatives and Labour say they have no intention of revisiting the result of the referendum.

In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats vow to “fix the UK’s broken relationship with Europe”. That includes a pledge to seek to rejoin the Single Market, with a “longer-term objective” of rejoining the EU.

The SNP say Scotland should rejoin the EU as an independent nation, a proposal which is itself the subject of intense debate.

For now, the topic of immigration is another clear dividing line between, on the one hand the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, who both favour a more liberal approach, and, on the other, Labour and the Tories, who are more restrictive,

On Friday's BBC election debate, the SNP's Westminster leader Stephen Flynn argued that migration was essential for Scottish public services, businesses, and economic growth.

Mr Flynn pointed to last month's release of census data, external which revealed that "without migration, Scotland’s population would have decreased," with fewer workers to support an ageing population.

Critics of the current level of immigration into the UK as too high say it has put intolerable strain on public services, external such as housing, schools and healthcare.

The Conservatives say they will cut immigration, which has risen sharply since the last election, and will press ahead with attempts to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, to try to deter people from making the dangerous crossing of the English Channel in small boats.

Labour says it will reduce the need for immigration by improving the training of British workers.

War in Ukraine

russian strike on ukraineImage source, Getty Images

Russian president Vladimir Putin's decision to order an invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 sent shockwaves through a global economy which was already struggling to cope with a surge in demand for imported products as lockdowns were lifted and trading resumed.

As Western nations imposed sanctions on Russia, oil and gas prices soared, and supplies of wheat, sunflower oil and other products from the region were disrupted.

The global effect was to turbo charge inflation, pushing up the price of energy, food and mortgages, and leading to "a widespread fall in household incomes.”, external

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says 12 million people in the UK are now living in absolute poverty and this parliament "is on course to be the worst on record for growth in average incomes."

At a global level the economic impact was a "catastrophe" for some of the poorest citizens on earth, according to the World Bank.

liz trussImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,

While PM, Liz Truss approved a mini budget which included £45bn of unfunded tax cuts

But even before all three world-shaking events — the war, the pandemic, and Brexit — there were serious concerns about the underlying state of the UK economy.

Productivity had slumped, external following both the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the cuts to public spending, known as austerity, which were Tory chancellor George Osborne's response to it.

The brief tenure of prime minister Liz Truss also contributed to the economic turmoil.

Together, all of these shifts in the political and economic landscape over the past five years or so pose many challenges for the big parties at this election.

The SNP say we are now living in "broken Brexit Britain," with a disastrous combination of entrenched low growth, low productivity and high inequality, from which independence can provide an escape route., external

But if leaving the EU was so damaging, why would leaving the UK not be disruptive too,, external leading to public spending cuts, tax rises, or both, at least in the first decade of a fledging Scottish state?

In any case the power to allow a second referendum on independence lies with Westminster, where both Labour and the Tories continue to insist they will block another vote.

The Conservatives say Rishi Sunak has guided the nation through tough times with a clear plan,, external and the economy is now improving.

But with annual growth still weak in historical terms, government debt still high, and living standards under severe pressure, is that credible?

Labour are promising "change", external which they say means Sir Keir Starmer would stabilise the economy by sticking to Tory spending constraints while keeping “taxes, inflation and mortgages as low as possible."

But could Sir Keir actually deliver meaningful change, given the state of the economy, external and his self-imposed constraints, which include, to the frustration of Scottish Labour, retaining some Tory curbs on welfare benefits?

The Liberal Democrats say they want to see a new industrial strategy and to repair the UK's "broken relationship with Europe.", external

But even if there were the appetite in the UK at large, and among MPs in particular, to restructure the Brexit deal, why would Brussels agree to do so?, external

Politicians of all stripes are scrambling for answers and struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes the world has witnessed since the last general election.

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