Well, shut my mouth and paint me red!
Would you credit it? Today I learned something about myself. Apparently, according to James, I’m a stooge of the SNP Leadership for being “too embarrassed” to write about the loss of the Scottish Variable Rate. That I’ve managed only six posts – of which three were Sunday Whips – at all over the last three weeks (a hint that maybe, just maybe, other matters have been further up my personal agenda) appears not to have been a factor. That I have, in the past, criticised the Leadership’s position and approach on licensing, education, the Budget process, and even the National Conversation, appears not to count. My lack of time to say anything about anything at all is, in fact, part of a conspiracy of silence. It also turns out that James’s part in the Better Nation project falls far short of its published raison d’être:
Our MPs and MSPs all seek to improve Scotland in the way they each best see fit, no matter what colour of party flag they wave or particular leader they serve under. However, for a country of our size, that is a daunting task, so this blog will aim to be, at worst, constructive criticism of their exploits, and, at best, a show of support for our politicians from interested Scots. Most in politics do have a genuine desire to improve how their country runs, and we will try to give a fair wind to their intentions, even when we have to disagree profoundly with their methods.
Instead, the Green spin doctor takes something of a busman’s holiday and opts to reduce his post to a glorified Party Political Broadcast. So if I was caught unawares by the true nature of his blog, it stands to reason that I was caught unawares by my transfiguration not into a busy person, but a craven stooge of the Scottish Government.
Still, let’s take a look at the four income tax options that appeared to be open to the SNP. Let’s look at the first three by assuming that the SVR had not lapsed.
1. Cut income tax, as the LibDems wanted two years ago. Let’s look at this sensibly. Yes, it would leave more money in people’s pockets, and that’s a good thing at a desperate time, but the cold hard fact is that a huge chunk of the Scottish budget is being wiped out anyway, and waving goodbye to another slice would be just plain crazy, especially as it would all but reduce the probability of maintaining the Council Tax Freeze to zero. What the Scottish Government could give with an Income Tax cut, Councils would be forced to take away with a Council Tax hike to fund their services. A cut in the rate of Income Tax would be self-defeating and cancelled out. And as soon as the burden is shifted onto the Council Tax, it’s shifted on to a far more regressive tax. Better to keep the two rates at their current level.
2. Increase income tax, as the Greens argue. Yes, it would fill the black hole in the budget left by the Spending Review. But there’s a problem. Life is tough enough for people already: pay claims have dried up (especially in the public sector), jobs are scarce, businesses are having trouble getting by. Under those circumstances, the very last thing that any government should want to do is produce a measure that will take money out of the wage packets of hard-working men and women who are struggling to make ends meet as it is. Looking at my payslip, factoring in tax allowances and NI, I see that about a fifth of my wage went to HMRC last month. That means that a 3% rise in Income Tax equates, by my reckoning, to a take-home pay cut of about 3.8%. Then factor in the upcoming VAT increase, putting 2.1% on prices. What the Greens are asking for is for ordinary working people to lose almost 6% of their spending power with no improvement to their services and no increase in job security. And I thought the Greens were progressive – what’s progressive about hard-working people getting 5% of their already stretched earnings wiped out? Perhaps James agrees with Lord Young, that the people have “never had it so good”?
3. Keep the rate as it is, but maintain the SVR, because that’s what we voted for, dammit! On paper, this sounds like the best option. But as we’ve explored, it’s not viable to vary the rate, and what no one bothered to mention when the vote was held was that the Scottish block grant would have to shell out for a facility is might, possibly, eventually, maybe use at some stage, if the conditions are right, which they haven’t been yet and don’t look likely to be in the foreseeable future. When budgets are being slashed and every penny counts, isn’t this a waste of valuable public money, bouncing it back to HMRC on the basis of a hypothetical situation?
4. Ditch the SVR, for the time being. Of course it’s unfortunate, and James is correct that it should have been raised properly in Parliament at the time – that’s what Parliament is there for. Indeed, the basic point that the Greens make, that it’s counter-intuitive to demand more powers when the ones that are already there are being handed back, has a logic to it. But so does a point made by Len Goodman on Strictly over the weekend: “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should put it in! I knew a boy at school who could fart God Save The Queen…” Crude as the point is, it stands: it’s not feasible to cut it and slash the Scottish Budget; it’s not feasible to raise it and take money from ordinary people who are already struggling; and it’s not feasible to shell out just to let the rate sit there. So given the nature of the other three options, waving goodbye to the SVR might be frustrating, but it’s the least bad.
And, yes, as James points out, it was the SNP who called for the SVR to be used in 1999 – he neglects to point out that the proposal was soundly rejected at the ballot box, and another James, providing a more sober analysis, brings up what happened after that Election, when the SVR was allowed to lapse.
But back to now, we are where we are. If the SVR can serve no useful purpose at this time, then it should be set aside for now. If reluctantly agreeing with the Leadership after weighing up the available options makes me a stooge, then a stooge I must be. If having to be at other places than in front of my computer, and having to do other things than talk about this makes me a conspirator. I have, it seems, sold myself down the river for precisely no pieces of silver.
But better that than synthetic outrage. Better that than asking “where’s the sober analysis?” one week, only to ask “where’s the rage?” a week later. Better that than lashing out at those on the sidelines because my employers seemingly can’t lay a glove on the SNP.
Independent tax powers – such as they are – have not died, they have merely been put into cold storage, for good, ill, or as I suspect and have argued, neither. Independent though has not died either: I’ve had time to do no more than skim-read the various acts of correspondence on this matter and have only just made the time to ask myself what would be the obvious consequences of action X. And having done so, I have concluded and argued that the consequences of letting the SVR lapse are less negative than actually using the SVR either way, and less perverse than just letting it sit there. And incidentally, had I concluded that absolute loyalty was the way forward, I’d have dropped everything the other night to produce a post hailing the decision as another triumph. Even now, my support is based on the very clear caveat that I like the other options far less.
I hope that I have gone some way to answering James’s questions, though I suspect that the only answer he wants to see is, “Yes, yes, you’re right, Alex Salmond and John Swinney are evil, I serve as their lapdog, and I repent! Yea, I repent! Show me the way, O Bringer of Truth!” If that’s the case, then I’ll still have fallen short, and I’m afraid that I have gone as far as I am willing to go.
Whatever he thinks of my answer, perhaps he’ll deign to answer my question: has he suddenly and unilaterally ditched the high-minded ideals of a project to which other excellent, independently-minded bloggers signed up in good faith, or was it always his intention that Better Nation would be a sock-puppet for his employers in the Scottish Green Party in the run up to the 2011 Election?
As James says, “One-word answers in the negative will be mocked. Let’s have some real answers.”