22 June 2010

Budget: Grasping the Cardoon

Its like having a head full of melting treacle. As the odorous plants and flowers open petal and leaf to the burnishing English sun, they've also taken it upon themselves to let fly with all of their malicious pollen, reducing an unfortunate few of us to wheezing, mucus-leaking, red-eyed wrecks. Kindly old ladies hobble up to you bearing condolences, taking you for a sobbing soul, overcome with some private grief, despite the sunny atmosphere. Perhaps I should take up meditation or pump myself full of kindly stupefying substances to regain some composure.

As you'll all no doubt know, today is the sobering day of the Con-Dem coalition's "emergency" budget. My leftie friends have all gone bonkers. The liberals I've encountered have adopted the air of gold-panners, sifting through a mire of dank and rotted and matted muck, desperately trying to winkle out justifying glistering specks and motes, however diminutive. The crouched position and close-sighted peering seems to be giving them a crick in their collective neck. I don't propose to add much to the discussion at present, of the potential effects of Osborne's measures. I'm not well-positioned or well-informed enough to contribute much independent reflection worth reading. That said, however, I do want to connect the tenor of the budget, its rhetoric, to a book I've had in hand the past few days. 

The book in question is Dennis MacLeod & Michael Russell's (2006) Grasping the Thistle, which heretofore I've never set my eyes a-roving over. I was aware that Gerry Hassan once described as "filled with the most fundamental free-market proposals", however, the exact extent and ferocity of their argument had hardly disclosed itself. Whether enthusing or appalling, it is worth reading, since it highlights how little we are willing to discuss these questions in Scotland. Indeed, it is amazing, and rather heartening, that anyone who wrote such a book can find a place in our panicked politics, where the press love nothing more than disciplining party disagreement. I'm fiercely in favour of a politics of ideas, of discourse and discussion. Treat people like idiots, they have every reason to become idiots. Leave brains totally disengaged, and how could they but atrophy and shift their attenuated idling attention onto flashing lights, pretty colours and more vivifying distractions. However, given politics' short memory, and since you won't all dash out and buy copies, I wanted to mention one or two of the more striking sections in the book which it may be of wider interest for us to reflect on. Particularly with Osborne's budget, echoing in our ears.

Joint-authorship is a curious phenomenon, one that rather cuts against our inherited conception of the eccentrically individualistic qualities of creative reflection. Certainly, in parts of life and in presenting some forms of knowledge, writing in common is not only familiar, but the done thing. Multiple authorship performs a tidy task of presentation, purporting to excise subjectivity. That may work when what is being reported is the collective labour of a laboratory. In this book, given the political status of Russell, few people could be wholesale taken in by the death of the authors - or the creation of the Author - which the single argument running through Grasping the Thistle suggests. The only nods to the two-headed author are the numerous asides generally noting that Russell did not, in his capacity as an SNP candidate in the 2007 Holyrood election, share completely in some argument adduced.

Even with these concessions to the political atmosphere of its publication, MacLeod & Russell's case is rollockingly critical in a number of particulars. Although the first section - advocating radical political reform - is potentially scandalous - that is nothing compared to the second, on the Challenge of Economics. One germane suggestion - which should appeal to all intellectual snobs out there - is that it is a nonsense to select the government from our elected tribunes. They suggest that it is pure daftness to limit the selection of the chap or chappess who is to be high heid yin of complex national organisations to the tiny clutch of souls, with sufficient low animal cunning or talent for party toadying to get elected. This is chalked up to the unconscious, long shadow of Westminster-style "gentlemen amateurs". In contrast, the authors suggest Scotland should elect its Chief Puddin' and Deputy Chief Puddin' who should then select, in the manner of many American Federal positions, their Cabinet from among the smart, civic and savvy souls in the country who may be up to the task. 

This advocacy of "modernisation", competitive and meritocratic expedients and whatnot is carried on into the economic section. They call for a substantial reduction in the size of the state and the extent of taxation, including the abolition of inheritance tax, the elimination of corporation tax , the reduction of personal taxation by 25% across the board and the end of fuel duties. Scotland joining the euro is sharply opposed, an independent Scottish currency is suggested. They criticise the 2.7% of GDP Scotland spends on defence (compared to Ireland's quoted 0.7%), describe the Barnett formula spending as resulting in a bloated Scots state - 

"... far from starving Scotland to death as is often asserted, [Barnett] is actually fattening us to the point of dangerous obesity. Bizarre as the thought may be, could the UK actually be killing us by kindness?" (MacLeod & Russell 2006, 116)

They advocate a "seven pronged approach to reducing government size and boosting growth rate" (2006, 131) which, both in its tenor and its substance, some may find rather surprising...
  • freezing and cutting government expenditures including the freezing of recruitment by government and quangos
  • boosting business growth by reducing corporate and personal taxes
  • countering the negative Union factor 
  • improving government efficiency by exposure to the free market economy
  • building the number of economically active citizens by facilitating the transfer of civil servants (and potential civil servants) to the private sector as well as boosting immigration
  • increasing investment in research and development and education
  • development of our neglected natural resources
Which reminds me, Iain MacWhirter has a gloriously long article, entitled The Left's Mistake, inviting us to be thinking creatures rather than the more fatuous of fatuous knee-jerk statists (for which read the Scottish Labour Party) on public employment in Scotland. Somewhere near by, I'm sure I can hear the sound of a yum-yum-clogged Labour party artery burbling fitfully...

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