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Well, shut my mouth and paint me red!

22/11/2010

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.”

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From → Politics

4 Comments
  1. Will,

    I certainly hope your concerns are unfounded – and, indeed, knowing both James and Jeff, can categorically say that is not the case. I also disagree with your premise to an extent – he’s not attacking the SNP, or indeed SNP bloggers. He’s simply voicing an opinion that SNP bloggers have been quick to post when other parties screw up and are fairly quiet when the perception is that the SNP have. But I do give you the fact that you have been vocal on the occasions when you disagree with the party (I’m not sure what James was basing that on).

    I disagree with them both on the issue at hand – I don’t think the 3p tax power is a big deal – but I was happy for them to raise it and write about it. The fact I haven’t written a counter isn’t because I’m a puppet or because I haven’t had time – its simply because I don’t think its a worthwhile topic.

    • I hope they are, Malc, and as I say, I’m confident of your and Jeff’s good faith – but if a great big Nationalist superblog were launched with Kevin Pringle as a part of it, I reckon there’d be a wary reaction to his contributions. Similarly, we recall Labour spin doctors’ online escapades but we tend to view James as a Green blogger when we forget that he’s on the payroll and he’s their PR guru. That in and of itself isn’t a criticism but it does mean that it’s worth occasionally querying the prism through which we view him.

      That said, I do perceive an attack on the SNP, its leaders, their decision, and the party’s supporters who haven’t discussed it. I certainly agree with James Kelly’s belief that singling out bloggers was ill advised: it did personalise the attack (for example this post wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t think there was a specific need for me to respond) and Better Nation is not a suitable platform for a flamewar. I know that when Terry Kelly was the focus of so much attention that criticism of him was reported on the Roundup. He then responded by attacking the Roundup itself, and both Duncan and I felt that if we were to reply, the Roundup wasn’t the place to do it, and went so far as to post the responses on our own blogs, leaving just a link in the Comments section explaining why – it put us in the position similar to the Lord Chancellor before Blair’s reforms: acting as a moderator and a participant in the debate at the same time.

      In terms of the point about SNP bloggers being quiet, that’s true, and I recall making a similar point three years ago comparing how SNP bloggers were stepping up to the plate on Trumpgate while the Labour blogosphere (such as it was) was keeping schtum over Wendygate. That said, the SNP blogosphere is in a different state to what it was then, and out of the bloggers in James’s Rogues’ Gallery, I’ve only mustered six posts in three weeks (three of which were Whips), but in so doing, mustered six more than Calum has, while this doesn’t strike me as in LPW’s usual field of commentary, or Subrosa’s for that matter. To my embarrassment, I didn’t even realise Rob Gibson had a blog (which shows how semi-detached I am at this time) and Mark is not exactly in hock to the SNP Leadership these days. However, I agree with you: it’s far too esoteric and process-oriented, and while that usually gets me going, it wasn’t drawing me to my keyboard. I can see why James is angry – he wants the SVR to be used, after all – but the actual row is based in hypotheticals which are one step removed from the real issue, and it doesn’t really do anything to shift the power/personality dynamics either. As I said, I didn’t even think it was worth a post – I’m baffled that someone else thinks it’s worth a row.

  2. Hi Will,
    It’d be a shame to fall out, especially given that I do genuinely think that you are one of Scotland’s proper blogging stars, someone who consistently raises the tone of debate. You know my views on your analysis from many comments to that effect on Twitter. When you stopped being Macnumpty I had a brief moment of angst about the loss not just of the Whip but your other considered contributions, and I was delighted to see the Notebook take over.

    And yes, that was an intemperate post, but it was not some kind of confected anger because my day job is to work for the Green MSPs. I’ve been a party member and activist for twelve years, and I wanted to do this job because it fitted with my own politics and interests.

    I’m not anonymous, and I explain what I do for a living, and I’m absolutely happy for people to look at my scribblings through that prism. Criticism of me on that basis is therefore entirely fair game, and I don’t mind it. But the blog isn’t designed to promote my employers – in fact, the post in question didn’t mention them. The only thing I’ve done which could be seen as direct party promotion, which again came properly flagged as such, was the post about the announcement of the top Green candidates.

    I am just genuinely angry in my own right about the decisions made by Ministers over the SVR, and bemused by the limited response to this story from the Nat bloggers. It’s not synthetic in the least. I wasn’t singling anyone out, though. I just went through my RSS feed to see if I’d missed any of the SNP-backing crowd writing about it, and linked to those that did. An attempt, misguided perhaps, to take the temperature of the Nat blogosphere.

    The story is about the powers of Parliament, so it struck me as core business. The relative silence struck me as consistent with the attitude taken by the ultra-loyal SNP backbenches, where there hasn’t been a single rebellion worth writing about. Noteworthy, I thought, especially in comparison to the dissent other parties’ bloggers show when something previously regarded as core has gone awry. But I accept, though, that busy people writing intermittent blogs shouldn’t be expected to cover everything. It was the general picture I was trying to draw, not something specific to you or to Calum or the others on my list.

    I accept entirely that I should probably have devoted some space to the history of dissent you mention, although it would have probably been followed by a comment that that track record made silence an even more unexpected reaction by so many SNP bloggers.

    I don’t speak for the team at Better Nation, and as Malc has pointed out, he takes a different view. I do take issue with the idea that the post is inconsistent with my understanding of our raison d’être, though.

    I believe in more powers for the Scottish Parliament, and I believe we should hang on to the ones we’ve got. In fact, I believe in independence, and don’t believe we’ll get there by casually discarding hard-won and popularly-endorsed powers. I don’t think the decision to let the powers lapse for up to three years is one even Parliament
    could have rightly made, given that popular vote, any more than the SNP would accept a decision by Westminster to ignore a vote in favour of independence. I believe in parliamentary democracy, although it’s not the be-all and end-all, and believe we would live in a better nation if Ministers didn’t mislead Parliament.

    I don’t care particularly whether other people back the actual use of the tax-varying powers. That’s absolutely proper political debate. I would rather see those in work, including myself, contribute more and so limit the cuts, but I see where you’re coming from. I understand why people have different political priorities, and parties aiming to
    come top in the poll are typically more cautious about being slammed as tax-raisers. I just think this would be a better nation if the people were allowed to decide these issues in public through the ballot box, not Ministers in private, a point it seems you accept.

    Finally, I am not driven by a desire to “lay a glove” on anyone. If you look back at the other stuff I’ve written recently, either at Better Nation or before that at Two Doctors, I just don’t think you could say I had a bias for or against any other party. The SNP have come in for some criticism over transport and the environment, but if anyone should feel “blogged against” it’s probably our friends in the Westminster coalition. I just tell it how I see it, and sometimes that’s in favour of what others are doing, sometimes against.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, and I’m sorry if you felt got at. It really was not my aim to pick out anyone in particular.

    Cheers
    James

  3. Thanks for the conciliatory words, James… as rows go, this is comparatively low-level today anyway! And certainly I don’t feel ‘got at’ as such… your post just activated my old debaters’ instincts, which say that a point stands until it’s rebutted.

    As I said, I can see why Greens are angry – they wanted the SVR to be used, so on that basis, it would be worth paying for. On balance, I disagree on the first point, so think it only logical to disagree on the second. I think it’s the other three parties who complain about waste of money X, or demand spending commitment Y, and don’t want to use the SVR but want the Government to pay for it anyway that are out on a logical limb here.

    What I think has caused the post to jar so significantly was the fact that you were looking at three distinct issues: the actual policy, the online reaction and the behaviour of MSPs, and the result was that everything got conflated.

    In terms of the first one, I just don’t agree in terms of the significance but again, that’s understandable when you want the power to be used, whereas I don’t, but more importantly (and I think we do agree here) realise that the likelihood of it being used is very slim indeed. What that means is the whole row surrounds a hypothetical decision that might or might not be made at some as yet undetermined point, so the only direct consequence the decision would have is on the pot available to the Government as a whole. The SVR cost is different from cavity wall insulation: you pay the money, people get warmer homes; it’s different from apprenticeships: you pay the money, businesses can afford to recruit and train young people; it’s not like a capital project such the Bridge: you pay the money, a bridge gets built. In this case, you pay the money, and then at some unknown point under circumstances that I just can’t foresee, a future Finance Secretary might decide it necessary to put a line about Income Tax into a Budget Bill. It’s one step removed from the actual issues. While it might well have an impact on the constitutional aspect of politics, again, it seems strange to look at a power that it’s being used and isn’t going to be used for some time, and then say that because it’s like a constitutional equivalent of Radio 4 – we don’t listen to it but it’s nice to know it’s there – it’s less legitimate to talk about the powers that could be used effectively if they existed. This is why I just can’t get excited about the topic.

    As to the second issue, the bloggers, again, I don’t agree: if it were a case that the SNP blogosphere was constantly churning out posts on issues like the SVR, then suddenly swerving this or going quiet, then you’d have a point. Perhaps if blogs like North to Leith and Tartan Hero were still going, it would be different and you’d have seen more activity. But the SNP online presence is in a different place to 2007 and so when you looked for the response, yes, it was missing, but not because everyone’s suddenly done a runner.

    Finally on the third one, I suspect the minority Government situation is the key to this, perhaps a sense that MSPs need to hang together in Government or they’ll hang separately in Opposition? Certainly I’d be reluctant to describe a Parliamentary Group containing Christine Grahame and Christopher Harvie to name but two as lacking in independent thought, even if it isn’t reflected at Decision Time!

    I accept that the principles and ideas underpinning the post were totally in keeping with what BN is all about, but because the three issues were mashed together as they were, I do think that the presentation really did depart from what it seems to say on the tin. I’m sure it’s very consistent with your understanding of what BN is for as the writer – or else you wouldn’t have posted it – but my understanding as a reader was different: I read the post, clicked on the raison d’etre link, read what was there and couldn’t really square the two. Just as I know you wouldn’t have written what you wrote if you did see an issue there, I wouldn’t have written what I wrote if I didn’t. I guess it’s all about the eye of the beholder.

    But then, having been involved with TerryWatch – whose goals admittedly were nowhere near as lofty – I’m wary of team blogs: the risk is that they’re either sclerotic as everyone has to get everyone else’s OK to do something, or everyone goes haring off in different directions… until, as happened with TerryWatch, someone goes too far in the wrong direction.

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