BY EFFIE DEANS
When the clocks change each year in Scotland each spring, I am able to see more of it. The weather may vary, but the daylight doesn’t and by June we have so much light that it is possible to go almost anywhere and get back in the same day. I take my own coffee and buy sandwiches in a supermarket so the only significant cost is the petrol. This year it is more expensive.
The political issue that matters most to each of us is having a job and how much of our wages go on necessities and entertainment. Gaining or losing a job changes our lives far more than anything a political party can do. The cost of living changes what we can and cannot do more than any political manifesto.
What really matters is disposable income. If we have to spend so much on heating, fuel, and groceries that we have little left at the end of each month then it becomes ever harder to do the things we like whether that is driving to the Highlands or flying away on holiday. But there is minimal serious debate about these issues. Instead, we debate trivia such as whether Keir Starmer drank beer and ate curry or Boris Johnson attended a party during lockdown.
The cost of living is higher now because of Covid and the war in Ukraine. The Conservative Government is not responsible for either, but it is responsible for some of the choices that it made.
We are now living quite well with Covid. I don’t wear a mask and indeed I don’t think about Covid at all. There is a risk of catching it, but I no more think about it than I think about catching any other contagious illness. We could have learned to live with it sooner.
When we chose to respond to the pandemic with lockdown and restrictions on working and education it was not clearly explained that this would have an economic cost. We are paying that cost now. You cannot stay at home for two years not working with the Government paying your wages and expect this to change nothing any more than if you were made unemployed.
The debate we needed to have in 2020 was about risk and reward. Were you willing to risk your standard of living and perhaps your job in order to protect society from a relatively small risk of dying for each of us and a rather larger one for the elderly? Public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of restrictions, but I think this is because it thought staying home and doing nothing would be cost free in the same way that it thinks that the NHS is free.
The cost of energy is partly due to war, but it is also because successive governments have failed to develop our own oil and gas including from fracking. We have not built reliable alternatives to fossil fuels such as nuclear reactors. It means that we are overly reliant on renewable energy which given our climate is intermittent, forcing us to buy oil and gas from abroad which is now expensive.
It is sensible to become less reliant on fossil fuels. They frequently come from unpleasant parts of the world and the price has often been very high in the past. But we all need cheap energy to maintain our lifestyles and it is folly not to do all we can to make Britain self-sufficient in energy.
I would be happy to drive an electric car, but at the moment they are too expensive and it would simply be impossible to drive to the Highlands and back in a day. There is no point for a government to pursue Net Zero if it will turn huge numbers of British people into paupers. We won’t vote for it.
The response to the cost of living crisis must be to explain to the British people that your lifestyle depends on British prosperity and that the only way to achieve this is to cut public spending, cut taxes and pursue free market economic strategies to the fullest extent possible.
I voted for Brexit because I believe in free trade. Leaving the EU gave us the chance to develop free trade with the rest of the world, because the EU applies the Common External Tariff on everyone it doesn’t have a trade deal with. Leaving also gave us the chance to undercut the EU by binning EU rules and regulations that were costly and unnecessary. We could make it easier for the rest of the world to trade with us and we could become more efficient and productive.
But the Government has increased taxes, it has failed dismally to reform public services like the NHS, because voters refuse to allow it. Public spending has increased massively including paying people to do nothing and there is no movement at all towards lowering public spending or making it provide better value for money. No wonder we are poorer. The paradox of free money is that it makes you poorer.
If you get free paracetamol on your free prescription it will cost you more in taxes (if you pay them) than it would to buy the packet from the supermarket for forty pence. The same goes for all other free goods and services.
The Conservative Government has moved so far towards the Left that it might as well be led by Tony Blair. But the Tories are still treated as being as much wicked right-wingers as if they actually had right wing policies so where is the political benefit? But while social democracy might work a little better than socialism in a society like Britain it will make us poorer in the short term and much poorer in the long term. It will be popular because the instincts of British voters are mostly in favour of free things and not working, but they will punish you eventually for making them all poorer.
Capitalism is unpopular. We like the Nanny State. We are delighted to be locked up at home watching TV and would be happy to be there forever so long as we got free ready meals and alcohol. It may seem clever for the Conservative Party to try to attract centrist and left-wing voters by adopting the policies of New Labour, but it is actually rather thick if those same policies impoverish Britain. It also means that the Government is wasting its 80 seat majority and failing to make the changes that would make it still more popular.
The only way to increase the prosperity of most of us is do what Margaret Thatcher did in part in the 1980s. She made Britain more efficient. She made us work harder and she got rid of industry that was unprofitable. The result was a massive increase in our standard of living. She was hated for it.
Boris Johnson must begin to do something similar or else he will deserve to be kicked out. The response to an increase in the cost of living must be to make work more efficient, goods and services more profitable. Our wealth depends on our productivity and our trading as freely as possible with as many other countries as possible. Tax and spend makes us poorer.
The Conservative Government must dig up as much oil and gas here as we can while at the same time increasing renewable energy and nuclear power. It must reduce taxes on oil gas and petrol and lower duties on flights while investing in the next generation of power development so that we can all heat our homes without thinking about it and drive our cars wherever we please.
But none of this will have any point if we are all either blown to bits by nuclear weapons or if the world climate becomes so unpleasant that it is no longer worth visiting. I want the Scottish scenery I love to remain as it is. I don’t want it to be polluted or spoiled.
The only response to Russia’s continual and lurid threats is to take them seriously. We must work towards defeating Russia to such an extent that it never again will be able to threaten either its neighbours or us. There is a chance to do this now. It is the best chance for one hundred years and may not come again for another. If Ukraine can defeat Russia in the field and better still recapture the territory that it has lost, it may just be possible to negotiate a peace settlement with a future Russian leader that leaves Russia as unable and unwilling to threaten its neighbours as Germany and Japan in 1945. “Carthaginian Peace” could then be known as “Russian Peace.”
The price of peace with Russia and the normalisation of relations must be the territorial integrity of Ukraine including Crimea plus the repudiation of the idea that Russia can continue to behave like the Soviet Union in its attitude to the rest of the world. If that is not acceptable to Russia then we must continue sanctions indefinitely and treat every Russian citizen as a pariah. Don’t give them visas, don’t let them visit, don’t sell them anything. Let them eat Kasha, until they change their own regime.
But if Ukraine has the right to defend its territorial integrity so too obviously does the United Kingdom. The British Government should no more accept trade barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland than Ukraine should accept trade barriers between Crimea, the Donbas and the other parts of Ukraine.
The problem with Northern Ireland is not the Protocol. The Protocol is a symptom of the UK’s long-term failure to assert that Northern Ireland is UK territory and will remain so until and unless it is captured by war. The same obviously applies to Scotland.
Just as Ukraine does not allow separatists in Crimea or the Donbas to threaten the legitimacy of its territorial integrity nor should we. Just as there is no democratic right to leave Ukraine, so there must be no democratic right to break up the United Kingdom.
We are very good at defending other countries, but rather poorer at defending our own. We allowed the Republic of Ireland to so interpret the Belfast Agreement that it made the Protocol inevitable. We encouraged the IRA to believe that what it could not win with bombs it could win with votes.
It is as if we Ukraine made a peace treaty with Russia that said whichever bits of Ukraine you want you can have so long as you win a border poll.
The UK must assert its territorial integrity as a principle that transcends all other agreements and treaties, if necessary, in a constitution. There is little point in developing policies that increase the prosperity of a country if it can be voted out of existence. This is what Ukraine is fighting for. We should fight for no less.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.