The one thing that worries me about the SNP Government and, by extension, a Yes result in 2014, is a barb that James regularly levels their way – they want Scandinavian-style services on a conservative low-tax base.
Alex Salmond has been the master of being all things to all people and it is into this world of smoke and mirrors that Johann Lamont has rather cack-handedly stepped, ending up only choked and spooked as a result. The Labour leader took another step into this quagmire at Labour Conference today and, in her battle against universal provision, it seems the lady is not for turning.
Ian Bell and Iain Macwhirter quite rightly (and quite spectacularly) derided Lamont for her poor delivery and poverty of ambition in the Sunday Herald this week so there is no need to labour the point by pointing for too long at Labour. After all, to be fair to Johann, the media pundits and SNP personalities may merely be making hay while they still can. Holyrood budgets are yet to attract double digit percentage decreases over the next few years and I don’t see many fatty sides of the budgets put forward of late. Maybe being unpopular now is worth being right in a couple of years.
It wasn’t so long ago that the SNP was pushing for a rise in income tax, a tartan penny that would fund Scottish services. That was back in the good old days, when the sun was shining and we were blissfully ignorant of the roof’s brokenness. So why isn’t it a good idea in these bad days? The SNP would argue that higher taxes would strangle growth (just as Boris Johnson would, incidentally) but the party must also be mentally scarred by the bruising defeat that they received when they asked Scottish turkeys to vote for Christmas with a tax-increasing manifesto. Once bitten, twice shy.
This institutional Nationalist nervousness around tax-raising might explain the white knuckle resistance to letting go of the Council Tax freeze and also the private-cum-public smackdown levelled out to John Mason by the First Minister for merely suggesting that an independent Scotland might increase the top level rate of tax.
The SNP party memo is clear, we don’t do tax rises this side of the referendum. End of. END OF!
For me, this is unfortunate. I make a poor turkey as I have voted for the party most likely to raise taxes in each election I’ve taken part in this century. There is undoubtedly a lot of wastage in the system that would ideally be addressed before the taxpayer is shaken down for more cash. For example, an in-house public sector recruitment team would save a fortune as contractors can double the cost of temporary personnel through agency fees while a sharper, leaner feedback and appraisal system would reduce instances of staff turning up to work in body but not in spirit. (Yes, it happens in the private sector too, but that’s far less the taxpayer’s problem). However, such wastage can easily be self-indulgently exaggerated in a Daily Mail manner. From John Swinney’s toothcomb downwards, it is difficult to imagine that value from every last penny isn’t being squeezed as far as humanly possible. Even the trams are on track to be finished early. Well, when I say ‘early’, you know…
The key is jobs though, there is surely few greater miseries in life than wanting to work and not having the opportunity to do so and, as comfortable as any one of us think we currently are, your livelihood can be whisked away from you as quick as it takes to print out a P45.
Unemployment in Scotland is running at 8.2%, more or less in line with the UK’s 8.1%. (Norway, incidentally, has an unemployment rate of 3%, a clear sign of what well spent oil revenues could do). Scotland’s rate is nestled snugly the right side of a European average of 11.4%, which would be considerably lower with the PIIGS stripped out. The SNP can’t rest on its laurels though with a light touch approach to jobs until independence may or may not come along with its oil-fuelled riches (sic). It will win more votes from pro-active progress within the confines of devolution than it ever would from the tempting grudge and grievance but ultimately inert anti-London rhetoric.
Facts and figures are important so from the Scottish Government website:
The employment rate in Scotland, using the European age definition (15-64), in 2011 was 69.5% which is 0.3 percentage points lower than the previous year. When compared against 35 OECD countries, Scotland was ranked 13th highest in terms of employment rates. Between 2010 and 2011 the gap in employment rates between Scotland and the country with the 5th highest rate (Denmark in 2010 and now Sweden in 2011) increased from 3.7 percentage points in 2010 to 4.6 percentage points in 2011.
13th out of 35 is good, very good, but the employment rate of Sweden (higher income taxes than Scotland) is now further away than Scotland’s by a whole percentage point in the space of a year. We’re lagging behind the countries that are doing the very best. Sitting above and below Sweden in this table are Norway (top rate of tax 54.3%), Netherlands (top rate of tax 52%), Iceland (income tax rate 37%-46%) and Denmark (top rate of tax 55.4%). Progress on jobs comes at a cost to those that have them. It’s not rocket science, and Lamont’s on course to get there before Salmond is.
If, and it is a big if, 2015/16 (or earlier) is the correct time to raise taxes to ensure that those who can afford to pay a little bit more do pay more, then we all have to play our part. Political parties have to have the courage of their convictions to pledge to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing of offering the moon on a stick, but the electorate has to be braver still and vote for them.
The SNP was thumped in 1999 on a revenue raising manifesto, just as the Scottish Greens were in 2011. Whoever is brave enough to step into the public’s firing line next, maybe we should give them more credit, and our vote.