Too Cautious to Govern?

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Allan Faulds

When the SNP entered government in 2007, one of their first acts was to rebrand the “Scottish Executive” as the “Scottish Government”. This was a statement of intent from a party determined to make Scotland look just like any other country. An Executive is a dull, uninspiring thing. It doesn’t sound important. They wanted their administration, their Government, to be seen as a serious body, making the big decisions that affect the people of Scotland.

Nine years on, it’s become doubtful the SNP actually have it in them to be a serious party of government. That’ll seem like a surprising statement when you consider the current political landscape. After nine years of government, rather than wilting before a third term, they have become one of the most popular parties in the democratic world. Labour is in complete disarray. The Tories are still too hated to even dream of government. Greens are too wee and untested. The Lib Dems are just too useless. There is no credible alternative government. But being the only credible option, albeit an immensely popular one, doesn’t make them a good government.

What the SNP have been doing so far is a clever combination of two things. Firstly, they’ve proven quite adept at administering a fixed budget whilst keeping everyone happy – or at least, most people aren’t unhappy. Secondly, where unhappiness does exist, they are masters are deflecting it towards the UK government. Any unpopular action (or inaction) is because the UK Government has cut the budget or the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have enough powers.

That served them well for their first two terms as the former was the reality of devolution and the latter was, by and large, true. For the next term this will no longer suffice. The Scottish Parliament has a large suite of tax powers either recently granted or coming its way, powers that give it for the very first time the ability to substantially impact the amount of money it has to spend. The SNP have been at the forefront in arguing for these powers. And what, exactly, are they intending on doing with them? Practically nothing.

The sum and total of the SNP’s income tax policy, as far as I can make out, is to copy Osborne’s, except they’ll ditch the significant increase to the threshold at which the 40% rate kicks in and to add another grand or so to the personal allowance by means of a 0% tax band. Neither of these will reverse the deep cuts our public services have suffered.

Contrary to their claims, not hiking the 40% threshold won’t “raise” revenue. What they are proposing is to not make a cut, which is the right policy, but it just means they have as much money as before. The latter will reduce revenues. It’s always problematic increasing the personal allowance to deliver a tax cut to low earners – although it’s positive to ensure those on low incomes keep more, it does nothing to help those already below the threshold (who are also more reliant on public services), and it indiscriminately gives that cut to plenty of others who don’t need it.

Their justifications for not taking stronger action are frankly pathetic. When the Scottish Rate of Income Tax was devolved, they refused to make use of it as urged by Labour because it was too blunt an instrument, requiring the 1p increase on all rates – it would be unfair to raise taxes on lower earners when it should be the wealthiest contributing more, they said, just wait until we have wider powers on tax. Yet now that those are coming, we’re told they can’t use those either.

They’ve shied away from raising the highest rate for fear that the very richest will flee screaming, despite that being the absolute worst case scenario offered by advisors. They won’t touch the others because – here they default to the second part of their governing strategy – the cuts are the fault of the Tories pursuing austerity, and it shouldn’t be up to the Scottish Government to offset. The mind boggles. If half the point of having a Scottish Parliament is to do things differently when the UK has a horrible government, where do we stand when that parliament fails to do so?

Most bizarrely of all, after years positioning themselves as left of Labour, Sturgeon is now quite happily remarking that if she’s in between Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson on tax, she’s probably in the right place. “Right” being the operative term here, since if you’re in between a definite right wing party and one you’ve been claiming has become right wing, you must be right wing. Who on earth thought that was a clever line? In one soundbite, the SNP’s claim to social democracy is blown away.

We keep hearing from SNP supporters that those of us who support independence have to take care. We need to be cautious now, so we can be radical later. Independence first, glorious Fully Automated Luxury Communism after. We’ve seen plenty in response to that notion recently, not least from Loki and our own Familiar, so I’ll largely avoid rehashing any of that except to say that what good is independence if the road there has shattered our society?

This just isn’t good enough, and it is showing they aren’t particularly suited to the task of actually governing the country. Given the chance to affect meaningful change, to redistribute wealth, to preserve and improve essential public services like healthcare, social care, education and transport, the SNP look set to the let it pass by, petrified as they are that changing tax will be unpopular – see also their refusal to do much with local taxation either.

Timidity of this kind is exactly why we need more Green MSPs, not just simply to push our more radical tax policies, but to shift public debate away from the individualist view of taxation as a personal burden and towards a more communal understanding that by funding high quality public services it enables a healthy, happy and more equal society.

If the SNP can’t, in the parlance of governments the world over, “take difficult decisions” like this then they aren’t much of a government. The SNP have an ever increasing range of powers at their fingertips, yet they won’t use them. If they insist on just doing as they always have, managing a fixed budget and sniping at the UK government, then perhaps it might be time for the Scottish Executive to return – a title more befitting our glorified bean counters.

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