A few people have asked what my reaction is to this speech. I normally try and avoid listening to political speeches, because I find it difficult to put my critical faculties to one side in doing so - and on nearly every occasion you have to do so. To give just one example (which applies to many Labour speeches as well as this one), it is odd to criticise the policy of fiscal austerity, and at the same time complain that the government has failed to meet its own 2010 fiscal target. It would be more logical to praise the government for abandoning its 2010 target. But politicians cannot resist criticising a missed target.
But putting that kind of thing to one side, it was of course really refreshing to hear a mainstream UK politician criticising the policy of austerity. In reality what Sturgeon was proposing was still deficit and debt reduction, but just not at the pace currently proposed by Labour. [Postscript - see Resolution Foundation for details.] (As I noted in this post, there is a lot of space between Labour’s plans and the policy of keeping the debt to GDP ratio constant.) Of course this is in practice very similar to the ‘too far, too fast’ approach initially adopted by Labour after 2010. The big difference here is the rhetoric. Whether the current contrast between Labour and the SNP on austerity points to Labour’s conversion to the dark side, their cowardice, or the fact that Sturgeon answers to a Scottish rather than English media I leave to your discretion.
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.
However let me finish on a more positive note. I read a blog post recently that suggested this was an election Labour would be better off losing. The argument was that a Labour government would still be forced to impose austerity, and that it would as a result lose support to UKIP in the North. 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.
That is possible. 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. So what Sturgeon’s speech may represent is a setting out of terms, and on this basis there is plenty of scope for agreement on the fiscal side at least. And if that agreement leads to less immediate austerity, I for one will be happy.