THE economic crisis is opening up a new front – perhaps a decisive front – in the battle over the constitutional future of Scotland.

It’s a rather straightforward game that’s unfolding. Ahead of Thursday’s austerity budget and amid mounting strikes and crippling domestic bills, the SNP is putting all the economic blame on England’s Conservatives. Nicola Sturgeon’s Government is effectively saying: “Look at what being part of the UK has done. Here’s the Union dividend. This is your fault, Tories. You made this mess, so give us the money to fix it.”

In turn, Scottish Tories put all the blame on Edinburgh, effectively saying: “You wanted the powers, SNP. You run the NHS and schools. It’s your responsibility.”

Both sides, therefore, put devolution in the crosshairs: the SNP case implies that devolution as it stands just isn’t good enough; and the Tory position implies that devolution, as currently operated in Scotland by the SNP, isn’t working.

There’s a hell of a lot to pick apart in both arguments. As usual in life, truth lies somewhere in the middle.

First, it’s impossible not to blame Conservatives for Britain’s economic mess. Yes, other western nations are suffering through Covid’s legacy and Putin’s criminal war, but not as badly as Britain. Britain is the only G7 country with a smaller economy today than before Covid. Between the end of 2019 and the middle of this year, Britain’s economy shrank by 0.2%. By contrast, America’s economy grew by 2.6%, Canada 1.7%, Italy 1.1%, France 0.9%, Japan 0.6%, while Germany’s economy remained unchanged. Nobody needs an economics degree to see that Brexit and the insane Trussonomics experiment are squarely to blame.

So the SNP has every right to point the finger at Conservatives. In fact, it would be folly not to exploit the failings of your adversary and use them as both shield and deflection. Once again, the calamitous mistakes of Conservatives remain not only the best recruiting sergeant for Scottish nationalism, but the barrier that the SNP uses to protect itself from almost any and all criticism. That’s great for Nicola Sturgeon, not so great for Scotland and good and competent governance.

Yet while Conservatives carry most of the blame, it’s a mirage to believe that the SNP is guilt-free. The party has run Scotland for almost a generation. It cannot have it both ways. Power requires responsibility.

The SNP is as financially illiterate as the Tories –as is clear from the scandal around ferries and the woefully inadequate ScotWind deal, which flogged off the nation’s seabed in little more than a fire sale. Nor has the SNP made full use of the powers it demanded, especially around taxation. With Conservatives set to hike taxes for all, there will inevitably be pressure on Ms Sturgeon to pull some of the levers she clamoured for but clearly doesn’t want to use for fear of scaring the middle class.

Evidently, the SNP can point to Thursday’s Budget, saying “Tories trashed the economy, now they’re coming for your money”, but it’s hard for a putatively progressive party to complain about taxation – unless of course Rishi Sunak hammers the poor and cossets the rich, which seems unlikely. It looks like energy corporations will take a substantial hit.

So essentially, the battle – or blame game – in Scotland centres on who can frame their opponents for our economic woes. Will Ms Sturgeon’s Government be able to saddle Mr Sunak with all the responsibility, and thereby strengthen the case for independence; or will he convince folk he’s doing the best he can and thereby cast the SNP as a bunch of grievance-mongers asleep at the wheel?

If the truth is to be found somewhere in the middle then it seems to be along these lines: is the SNP bad? Yes. Are the Tories worse? Definitely. Do the Tories give the SNP somewhere to hide, and through their shambolic performance prop up Nicola Sturgeon and help strengthen independence? Yes, yes and yes.

The Tories’ chaotic uselessness – and the cult that thrives around Brexit – create an impermeable force field that the SNP can constantly use to protect itself. Yet the SNP is nowhere near as dysfunctional as the Tories, to say otherwise is just daft.

The criticism that’s often, understandably, put out – that the SNP can’t hide behind the Tories forever – is wrong. As long as Conservatives are in power, that’s precisely what the SNP can do; in fact, the laws of politics demand it does precisely that: why wouldn’t the SNP take the handy protection that the Tories offer them almost daily?

Who’d be stupid enough not to pick up a Get out of Jail Free card? Who’d pass on the chance to cover their own behind by pointing to the big bare buttocks of their political opponent?

In terms of the independence debate, it’s likely that what’s coming down the line for us all in Thursday’s Budget will play into the Yes movement’s hands – which is fabulous if you support independence, but not so fabulous if you simply want the best outcome for the highest number of people in Scotland in the midst of a terrifying economic crisis.

Evidently, if Conservatives play this wrong – and experience points to that conclusion – then the SNP prospers. The more Conservatives trash the economy – and austerity will trash the economy – the more independence support grows. Many undecideds may start thinking “what’s the point of the Union?” if it’s as risky inside the UK as outside. Europe can be dangled as a safe economic haven.

So here we are again. Governance in Scotland limps on, weak and ineffectual; governance in Britain staggers on, deranged and dangerous. Both sides prop each other up: the SNP draws strength from Tory misrule; Tories use handy Scottish enemies to strengthen their base.

Even a child can see what’s needed: an economic summit, where problems are discussed rationally, between all four of Britain’s governments. Although obviously, the Northern Ireland government isn’t even functioning, which says everything really when it comes to the state of UK politics.

When nurses go to food banks, though, it’s time for political games – particularly blame games – to end. Nobody is served but politicians: the very people who got us in this mess.

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