7 December 2010

A taxing future for Nationalists?

Amongst the many inhuman and degrading practices I was subjected to during my days at the University of Edinburgh, one of the most bracing was the unavoidable study of taxation. Not, I might add, tax policy or tax rationale - or alternatively, thoughts on how more just systems of payment and contribution might be devised and administered. Rather, along with my fellow legal would-bes, I was induced to invest in vast yellowy toilet-paper tomes and delved rather diffidently into their flutter-paged depths, pursuing the mystifying detail of tapers, relief, life gifts, retention of substantial benefit, how best to minimise inheritance tax payments on the vast estate of some gout-ridden ex-Colonel with a vengeful prostate, an ex-wife, three bastard non-domiciled children and a beloved middle-aged bankrupt hen to whom he intended to leave the residue of his estate - and so on. This litany of terrifying detail was only leavened by the occasional tale of a spivish evader who spent all of his business's cash on gold bars and dished them out to his employees in lieu of payment, to foil the grasping Revenue. As a result, I've been left with something of a toad perspective on taxation. 

Today, I want, very briefly, to vault from my lilypad and pose a question from a different perspective. This week, Holyrood's ad hoc Scotland Bill Committee meets for the first time to scrutinise the proposed Scotland Bill and issues of legislative consent. The good ship devolution reform boasts a jolly crew, with the fragrant Wendy Alexander likely to be lashed to their prow. Bosun Robert Brown, no doubt hoping to make the most of his last days in the Scottish Parliament, is also sitting, along with the SNP's  Able Sea(persons) Brian Adam and Tricia Marwick. From her Labour colleagues, Wendy is joined by the salty Peter Peacock while David McLetchie represents the interest of Toryism. Given his tendency for landing feline scratches, and the difficulty of imagining that he is particularly enthusiastic about this proposal, I invite you to think of Mr McLetchie as Ship's Cat on this particular voyage.

Scottish independence's mantra ought to be better not easier. The same conundrum should be recognised by nationalists thinking about enhanced powers, however problematic, partial, non-optimal, or short of one's commitment to independence they might be. It strikes me that one of the interesting aspects of changes to taxation decision-making about Scotland is precisely the shift of responsibility which it demands of nationalists. It also lends an enhanced relevance to the incoherence which is often articulated as the myth of Scandinavian levels of public spending with Irish levels of taxation. Both of these visions (in more or less detail) find traction among Scottish Nationalists and Scottish nationalists besides. There is disagreement. This shouldn't be a particularly controversial observation. However, it is worth quoting directly from Dennis MacLeod and Michael Russell's Grasping the Thistle, in which they advocated they following  "seven pronged approach to reducing government size and boosting growth rate" (2006, 131).
  • 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 resource
Sound familiar? Lots of issues are bundled up here and I am by no means attempting to untangle them. However, I do wonder if one of the consequences of the ongoing Scotland Bill reforms will be an increasingly open discussion, which might clarify the extent to which there is disagreement in Scottish nationalism's broad coalition of interest about the sort of Scotland we want and the character of the future, independent Scotland we imagine. More than that, I dare say a significant number of folk haven't given these practical issues much thought. I welcome such developments, not least because disagreement is not disloyalty and uncertainty is not foolishness.


  1. Indeed, and as I normally say the Scottish political psyche seems to militate against fundamentally reducing the size of the public sector, while at the same time displaying a reluctance to increase the taxation burden.

    Thus using fiscal autonomy to "grow Scotland's economy", is never really explained, but is presumably predicated on higher debt levels - and thus a less severe contraction of public spending - than the UK as a whole currently looks set upon.

    Which is all very well if in the future economic growth can eventually repay the debt, but as Gordon Brown found out to his cost, the debt can't be increased and rolled over indefinitely, and eventually the whole thing will come tumbling down, a la Ireland.

    Thus Russell and MacLeod's right-leaning vision of a significantly smaller state and thus lower taxation burden seems at odds with the prevailing ethos, but as you say these issues haven't really been addressed hitherto.

    Highly amusing description of the Scotland Bill Committee, by the way, and an equally entertaining account of your taxation studies - sounds like Butterworth's tax handbook or similar!!

  2. Justifying a frozen cooncil tax is another interesting case in point, Stuart. To a degree, it is certainly useful to separate actual policy proposals, their given rationale and different ways they might be justified.