THE revelation that Alex Neil, the Scottish Government's Health Secretary, intended to allow higher-earning NHS managers pay rises of up to 4% came just as it emerged that the UK Government has scrapped a 1% pay rise for NHS staff in England.
The timing invites comparison between the approaches of the two governments, almost as if Alex Salmond and his colleagues had some vested interest in drawing people's attention to the differences between spending priorities north and south of the Border.
I'm not entirely convinced that anyone in either country would single out managers earning up to £170,000 a year as the folk who most deserved exemption from pay restraint, but there you are. In the grand scheme of things it's nothing like the kind of signal about different spending priorities - in either symbolic or financial terms - as, for example, long-term care for the elderly, or prescription charges or tuition fees.
Besides, it came after the Scottish NHS managers "expressed unhappiness at their frozen pay". And if there's one thing that nobody's going to be under an SNP administration, it's unhappy. People south of Hadrian's Wall might be forgiven for thinking that Scotland is a land flowing with milk and honey, rather than Tennent's and Mayfair Superkings, if they were to start totting up the areas of public spending not provided in England.
According to the Scottish Government, more generous provision would be even easier after independence - a couple of weeks ago, it was even floating the idea of paying pensions earlier.
Perhaps it might be. Though the official figures from both the UK Treasury and the Scottish Government show higher per capita spending in Scotland than any other part of the UK bar Northern Ireland, the First Minister has an ingenious formulation which claims that it is actually lower. (It involves assumptions about oil taxation revenue, if you're interested.)
It remains purely speculative for the moment, as do many of the arguments about whether Scots would be financially better or worse off if they vote for independence, because so much of it would depend on the exact nature of the settlement. It is, though, the least convincing reason for and, as far as I'm concerned, the least interesting aspect of, the Yes campaign's case. The moral of a parcel of rogues in a nation, after all, wasn't about which way they voted, but the fact that they were unprincipled enough to be convinced by a few quid.
The important question is whether you believe Scotland should operate as an entirely separate country. I don't think one can argue that we couldn't, but nor do I think that whether it's desirable or not is just a matter of pounds, shillings and pence. All the same, the SNP's spending record is interesting, because it provides an indication of the assumptions of those who favour independence.
As it happens, and as I've written before, I think that if you are going to spend public money, you could pick worse priorities than those the Scottish Government has chosen. But one effect of singling out care, tuition and health spending has been to suggest Scotland is, or could be, closer to the high-tax and high-spending social democratic model of Scandinavia than the rest of the UK, and that Glasgow has more in common with Malmö than with Manchester. Since the Nationalists often invite comparisons with those countries, the suspicion arises that this was a conscious decision.
The question which remains unanswered is whether, since Scotland doesn't have the first part of that model - Sweden, for example, has a higher tax rate of 57% and VAT of up to 25% - the current spending levels on those sectors by the Scottish government are sustainable. Like any other government in the run-up to an election, the Nationalists are understandably reluctant to start cutting public spending, or, it turns out, even to stand up to very rich NHS managers over their pay rises. That's no different, of course, from the Coalition Government's batch of bribes, such as free school meals, the marriage tax allowance or the mad Help to Buy scheme. But sooner or later the bill will come in.
Here's the problem for Mr Salmond. If Scotland's more generous public spending provisions can be afforded within current structures, and the different political priorities of the Scottish people be translated into policy, it removes a large part of the argument for the necessity of independence. Of course, it doesn't diminish its desirability for those who are already convinced of it, but nor will it persuade anyone else that formally severing links with the rest of the UK is the only option, or indeed any sort of improvement at all.
If, however, such public spending is not sustainable, then it casts into doubt all the arguments about the future prosperity of an independent Scotland, and indicates that the Nationalist position is altogether too optimistic. Again, that doesn't by itself demolish the case for independence, but it would require the acknowledgement that the Scandinavian model (and all the Scandinavian countries have much higher taxes than Scotland) has costs as well as benefits.
Very well, you may say, bring on the benefits and we'll bear the costs. If a huge bill comes in after the referendum, it will be a price worth paying. That's a perfectly respectable pro-independence stance, but it is not a defensible position for the Scottish Government. The whole rationale of the SNP case has been that it is essential for Scotland to have independence in order to prosper and pursue the policies which distinguish it from the rest of the UK.
But the Scottish Government has not only - by its own estimation - done so within the current arrangements, but done it without once using the powers which it already has to vary income tax.
Whether you want a Scandinavian-style welfare state with higher taxes or, as some people on the right have suggested, an entrepreneurial independent Scotland which would lower taxes, create a Celtic tiger economy (though no one would use those words now) and let the Laffer curve pay for all those welfare provisions, the one thing you can't do is argue that independence is a prerequisite.
Steps in either direction, or any other, could have been taken at any time since 1998, but no-one has invoked the Scottish Variable Rate. That may be understandable from the Unionist parties, but an SNP administration with an absolute majority has no such excuse.
It's an absurdity to say you can't do what you want until you have more powers when you've never tried using the powers you do have. For a party which always chastises its opponents for their timidity, it's a baffling position to have adopted.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.