I've got out of the habit of watching First Minister's Questions, but I tuned in with interest this afternoon to see how the parties responded to yesterday's budget and the challenges it throws up for Scottish policy. Heckled by Kezia Dugdale, there were encouraging signs from the First Minister that the SNP are up for prosecuting the social democratic case that better services are worth fighting - and paying for - even if that involves maintaining higher levels of income taxation for the 10% to 15% of the population who are higher rate tax payers.
The right wing press have responded this morning in their usual risible style, bleating about the cruel fate to be endured by "middle class families" in Scotland under this separatist government. If the First Minister's answers today are anything to go by, the richest look unlikely to be receiving Osborne's unnecessary tax bungs from Nicola Sturgeon's treasury next year, as the basic support which is extended to disabled people is ruthlessly hewn away.
But perhaps the most interesting thing in Sturgeon's #fmqs performance today? For the first time that I can remember - she explicitly linked the idea of levying higher Scottish taxes with the provision of better public services not available in England. Since 1998, we've existed in a curious kind of policy limbo in this respect. Scottish governments of all stripes have taken spending decisions which distinguish them from the priorities in Whitehall, whether it is the reduction and elimination tuition fees for Scottish domiciled students, or Henry McLeish's funding for personal care for the elderly, or the SNP's decision to roll out universal free prescriptions.
While Westminster held the purse strings, these distinct spending decisions have not been linked to any argument about whether taxes ought to be higher or lower. One consequence of this output oriented analysis of public spending has been disgruntled Tory politicians south of the border, arguing that Scotland is feather bedded and claims an unfair share of public spending, allowing its politicians to distribute "free stuff" to its people which the harder pressed English representatives simply cannot afford. But we rarely ever talk about the investments Scottish Governments did not and could not make, as a result of prioritising personal care, tuition fees, and access to medicines. Or for that matter, how that surplus was spent in England and Wales. But if Sturgeon's asides this afternoon are anything to go by, all of that is about to change.
Significantly, the First Minister appealed not only to altruism, or concern for the worst off and the vulnerable today, but also to a kind of enlightened self-interest. Short version? "Tax isn't just a sacrifice, reluctantly made for the good of others. Here's what your higher taxes get you. These things are worth paying for." Her remarks put me immediately in mind of this piece from the Atlantic magazine yesterday on Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic nomination. Written by a Nordic-American journalist, Anu Partanen, the piece neatly echoes the argument Nicola Sturgeon just began making this afternoon and which I suspect we'll hear much, much more of in the coming months and years in Scottish politics. Here's the key passage:
"A Nordic person myself, I left my native Finland seven years ago and moved to the U.S. Although I’m now a U.S. citizen, I hear these kinds of comments from Americans all the time—at cocktail parties and at panel discussions, in town hall meetings and on the opinion pages. Nordic countries are the way they are, I’m told, because they are small, homogeneous “nanny states” where everyone looks alike, thinks alike, and belongs to a big extended family.
This, in turn, makes Nordic citizens willing to sacrifice their own interests to help their neighbors. Americans don’t feel a similar kinship with other Americans, I’m told, and thus will never sacrifice their own interests for the common good. What this is mostly taken to mean is that Americans will never, ever agree to pay higher taxes to provide universal social services, as the Nordics do. Thus Bernie Sanders, and anyone else in the U.S. who brings up Nordic countries as an example for America, is living in la-la land.
But this vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble. This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me."
In terms of the tax and spend debate which is coming to Holyrood - perhaps a straw in the wind.