10 June 2010

The Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility ...

It must have been difficult picking the name. The Solemn League and Covenant (2) - This time its  for Mammon, I understand, was never really in the running. A pity. In the spirit of presentist modernity, they decided on the more workmanlike title of The Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility. Coordinated by Reform Scotland, the campaign insists that it is time for a new fiscal covenant for Scotland and the devolution of most taxation. Any "Independence" implied here should be read "with a small i". Eck's pulpy eminence can only be detected in dappled outline, lurking in the foliage. The responsibility and autonomy the Campaign have in mind is more in the spirit of the rugged liberty of a yeoman farmer and the self-reliance, self-subsistence of Lockean fantasy rather than denoting secessionist political tendencies per se. We'll return to this theme. First a bit of the detail. Opening with a declaration, sympathetic souls can subscribe their names. At the moment of writing, 146 signatures have been collected. Before turning to the queer coalition of opinion which is suggested by those who have already signed, its worth tarrying over the text itself ~

 THE DECLARATION

A Scottish Parliament with far greater responsibility for raising the money it spends would lead to better government in Scotland. It would make politicians more accountable for the financial decisions they take while giving them both the incentive and the fiscal tools necessary to achieve improved public services and faster economic growth - vital in the current economic circumstances. Further, it would help to foster a healthy relationship between Westminster and Holyrood.

All of the main Scottish and UK parties agree that the Scottish Parliament should have greater financial powers. The debate is now about which powers should be devolved and when.

Much has changed in the last year and the opportunity now exists to go further than the limited financial proposals outlined in the Calman Commission report.

Therefore, we are calling for the control of most current taxes to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament as soon as possible.

Implicit themes of the sickliness of dependency and doubts about what these rich fellows mean by better government might well evoke a certain justified discomfort in some of you. You may wonder if you've accidentally strayed into David Cameron's office in Downing Street, while George Osborne whets his razor and whispers sour fiscal nothings into the PM's shell-like. The list of signatories include some familiar faces from the Scots blogosphere - Gerry Hassan, Joan McAlpine - Tartan Tory historian and journalist Michael Fry, professors, economists, directors of various companies - and so on.  The Campaign has received plenty of press coverage, including a series of grim prophecies and Unionist declamations from that black-bearded, brass-throated Old Testament prophet Alan Cochrane ~ 

“The truth is that this is a huge issue on which there is no overall national agreement but Mr Salmond is using the CFR for his own separatist, political ends to claim that there is now a consensus of Scottish opinion in favour of full fiscal freedom. Those who say they support Mr Thomson’s organisation should be aware of this. Unless they are already.”

Like Nationalist opinion of a certain stripe, Cochrane is an inevitablist on independence. Concessions are largely conceded as a mistake, Tory collusion in whipping up such sops invariably the object of critical scorn. It is interesting, however, to see the Campaign in the context of Scottish Tory self-doubt and self-analysis.  At times, the "absence" - or more properly, muted voice - of the centre-right in Scotland is imagined as a sort of pathology among Scotland's many neurotic constitutional tendencies. Incompleteness in the political field can become conceived of as a sort of sickly repression, a fundamental denial of some natural tendency to balanced polity. I'm not sure that I find this sort of reasoning terrifically convincing - but there is no question that it is the way many folk conceive of and talk about our enfeebled and hobbling forces of Conservatism. Among his various cherished theorems, Pater Peat Worrier firmly believes that Scottish Tories or some offshoot of that species will shed their Unionism before the Labour Party. While this Campaign may not be toddling up that merry high road just yet, that it is mapping such terrain and forming a like-minded coalition along those lines seems to me undeniable. Its economic vocabulary and the Campaign's quiet inferences are expanded on in an acute piece by Iain MacWhirter, cautioning us that with full fiscal freedom, we may be given reason to fear most the very thing we desired. Here's the nub of his contention:

“But here’s the twist: the CFR supporters want fiscal federalism, not to get a better financial deal for Scotland, or get their hands on oil revenues, but to “end Scotland’s benefits culture”. Thinking Conservatives now realise fiscal autonomy is not an inherently socialist proposition but is actually quite Thatcherite, in that it implies a reduction in the size and scope of the state in Scotland. Reducing public spending to something nearer what is raised in tax would almost certainly slim down the public sector and would certainly enforce rigid fiscal discipline on the Scottish Parliament. No more giveaways on bridge tolls or prescription charges.”

MacWhirter must be right - up to a point - but it seems to me that the essential point of contestation at stake here is this. Many will, I suspect, be content enough to enter into this odd coalition, sustained by the sense that agreement on setting up new structures is and can be kept distinct from what we do, having secured those powers. Thus, while there may be those in the campaign who wish to devolve taxation powers to dismantle the public sector's gear and tackle and trim - there is no inevitability about this economic agenda pursuing full(ish) fiscal responsibilities for Scottish institutions. It is a skirmish for another today. We cooperate now, content to cross cudgels tomorrow. MacWhirter's point, as I understand him, concedes that Scotland's tax revenues will be lower than the amount presently spent through Westminster administered block grants. Full fiscal responsibility would, therefore, very necessarily result in a pairing back of public spending to some degree. 

That the animating reasoning behind this campaign differs substantially from the "social union" thematic of Calman is worth reflecting on. Although rubber-faced media jobgobbers like Jammy Paxman or Andrew Neil don't always realise what they're doing by appealing to brute equality arguments about spending across the United Kingdom - here meaning all  parts of the country should get the roughly the same amount - they are advancing a very particular theory about what fair spending looks like. Such arguments from equality (denoting "sameness") tend to ignore features like geographic dispersal and indeed the care which might inform other political movers and shakers - assessments of the relative needs of different parts of the country. MacWhirter's point is that such UK-wide "fairness by need" spending goes out the window, once taxation and the application of those revenues is undertaken separately. Just like idea that Unionist equality is the same level of spending displaces more nuanced assessments of what is an equitable distribution. Fiscal responsibility takes this one stage further. Instead of baking a single cake with the diffuse fiscal ingredients yielded up by taxation and distributing it slice by equal slice - suspicious eyes turn to the ingredients and even equal spending becomes problematic, if contributions of eggs and flour don't mirror the equality in distribution. On this logic, each to your own, earn what you spend takes on a deductive inevitability. It is the only taxation version which is not easily assailable on the critical reasoning employed at the very beginning.

None of this need be necessary however. Alternative notions of equality and fairness in spending can certainly be justified, on incompatible premises. However, an idea of justifying spending along the lines of differential need presses against the grain of contemporary metropolitan commentary. We're all used to hearing about we bloated Scotch slurpers, milk dribbling down our flabby chins and pooling in our folds, slimy slug-lips pressed to the wasted teat of English spending. If it is true, such a position could still cogently be defended, but crucially, not from the position of spend what you earn, if we also assume Scotland's tax intake is less than its spending. Interestingly, it may be that the Calmanesque notion of the social union may well furnish a hostile Scottish Labour Party with a cogent basis to criticise and oppose the  innovations of full fiscal responsibility while arguing for the continuing relevance and virtues of the Union. I am not saying I would agree with the argument - indeed as a supporter of independence and enhanced powers for Scottish institutions I'd reject it - but it is undeniably an articulated and reasonable position to adopt.

If any of that appeals to you, you can add your name and make your own solemn fiscal declaration here.

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