28 March 2016

Just As Planned

I'm fond of John Dryden's line, that "even victors are by victories undone." It contains a germ of hope for those who find themselves defeated, and it cautions those who appear to have carried away the prizes that a scorpion may lurk somewhere, undetected, in the silverware. Life, and politics, rarely work out just as planned.  

Our recent experience throws up too many examples of the best laid plans going agley fully to relate, but you can detect a few major threads in recent political surprises and disappointments. Measures adopted in the hope of weakening your opponents end up perversely strengthening them in unanticipated ways. You sometimes find short term measures which boost your fortunes lay down the railway tracks which ultimately engulf you in calamity. A swing which brings your opponent onto the punch might give you a welcome opportunity to draw some blood - but it isn't worth it, if the satisfaction of inflicting a little injury leaves you vulnerable to a knock-out blow in response. The art of politics can be deuced tricky. There are some black and white days in politics, some palpable setbacks and some undeniable triumphs. But as Dryden saw, all too often, our victories and defeats are two-edged. Most swords are. 

I approach the Scotland Act 2016, and the Holyrood election debate which it has prompted, with this kind of attitude. There is an intelligent debate to be had about the limits of the current devolution settlement, and the economic wisdom of a new model Scottish Parliament, whose tax analysis and decision-making is focused disproportionately on income. Economics is not my forte, and I'm not your man for that discussion. But let's look at the politics of this. 

Although Holyrood has, for some time, enjoyed a little theoretical wiggle room on taxation, since the SNP's abortive "penny for Scotland" policy in the early days of the parliament, Holyrood's tax raising powers have been posted missing in our election campaigns. Decisions on spending have predominated. Already, as the new Scotland Act powers march slowly towards us, serious questions of income taxation and welfare are colouring and directing the 2016 race. Bracket the economic question of the wisdom or unwisdom of devolving income tax in this way, what are the political consequences of this shift?

One analysis would see this as a cunning Unionist trap, designed to expose the SNP government to the kind of scrutiny it has allegedly long avoided. The argument goes something like this. Look at those cunning Nationalists, claiming credit for their spending decisions, but avoiding responsibility for hiking income taxes to pay for them. They claim credit when devolved Scottish services prosper, and blame Westminster when cuts are imposed.

Now, the new powers ensure Scottish ministers will take their share of potentially unpopular decision-making, which creates obvious winners and losers. Their hands are - finally - being dipped in the blood. Although income tax makes up a smaller percentage of the overall tax take than most folk probably assume, save for your council tax bill, your PAYE deductions are the most visible form of taxation going. 

If Nicola Sturgeon hikes your rate, you'll know about it, and hold her government responsible for its choices. See how long your popularity survives in the rougher winds which will blow then. Devolution might also have opened a window on the right wing for Ruth Davidson to champion lower rates. In the event, she seems to have retreated entirely to an "I agree with George" position on the rights of disabled people and the rates and bands of Scottish income taxation.

And - who knows? - this cynical argument may have something to it. Income tax devolution has already altered the political debate, and exposed the First Minister's government to some awkward choices. On one interpretation, the teeth of the trap are closing.

But for myself? I remember my Dryden, think like a calculating gradualist, and take a slightly different view. Might income tax devolution create headaches for devolved governments? No question. Might it expose the SNP to new and uncomfortable situations, inviting missteps, and making some parts of the population unhappy? For sure. But the creation of Revenue Scotland and a distinct agency to administer devolved benefits for the disabled are classically gradualist nationalist innovations. They help to bridge the chasm between the status quo and a future independence. They shorten the "leap in the dark" it might be seen as representing.

Many of the more critical, post indyref postmortems have focussed on questions of policy. How does the slump in global oil price alter the economic strategy and thinking? Does the currency policy need reappraising, in the light of hard experience and defeat? What about Europe? This is all well and good, and important, but I was to make a dumber, perhaps more obvious, point. For independence supporters, contemplating the situation in which we find ourselves, wanting usefully to bide our time, bridging that chasm isn't just a question of institutions and policy -- it is also a question of political culture and political capital. 

Yes, income and most welfare devolution will expose Nicola Sturgeon's government to sometimes harsh and unforgiving headwinds. But much more importantly, it will gradually acclimatise our political culture to talking about tax and spend decisions much more seriously, on a peculiarly Scottish economic scale. Comparisons with England and Wales are likely to continue. But given sufficient time to percolate and mature -- this has the potentially radically to revise the status quo, building greater fiscal capacity in our politicians, and among the wider public of electors. This may also build skepticism towards the Scottish Government from some quarters, but collectively, it has the capacity to build confidence too. And as a calculating, gradualist Nationalist, this seems to me a fine and useful thing.

One aspect of the devolution settlement which long concerned me was the limits it imposed on our politicians' policy visions and their industry. MSPs and ministers have an incentive to focus on questions within their competence, and to give only scanty and superficial thought to issues falling outside them.  The SNP were, for the greater part of the last two decades, uniquely exposed to this tendency, as first-past-the-post Westminster elections ensured that only a very limited cohort of Nationalist politicians were in place in the palace, scrutinising and thinking about reserved matters day to day. 

2015 represented a radical break with this modest representation. You can't expect six souls with limited support and funds at their command to engage in a comprehensive and thoroughgoing operation on critical reserved questions of taxation and welfare, foreign policy and defence. This observation is intended as no criticism of the folk composing the SNP's Westminster delegation in earlier years. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many briefings a small cadre of advisers can assemble. 

Being the minor opposition, grounds can always be found to oppose the government of the day. But this kind of deconstructive, oppositional mode of thinking about reserved matters is not conducive to state building and advancing a considered and positive programme of your own. If the extent of your public scrutiny of government policy is a single question at PMQs, you're not going to try to present your own comprehensive plan. You'll look for the more focused, stinging, laugh line. Meanwhile, in Holyrood, as an MSP, you have no real incentive either to pick up the slack, and ponder the detail of social security or tax policy. It is a reserved matter, and your party will never be in power in Whitehall. Why bother? 

But this kind of dynamic should strike serious minded independence supporters as potentially pernicious. If the principal party of independence neglects to build its thinking beyond opposition to particular measures, and the formulation of superficial but superficially winning soundbites about Westminster perfidy, you're goosed. From this kind of material, winning campaigns for Scottish independence are not made.  

But I'd argue these two recent developments offer a route out of these understandable historical cul de sacs and leave the SNP simultaneously more politically exposed, and ultimately strengthened. In contrast with the handful of representatives whose minds are set to the analysis of reserved matters, the SNP now benefits from a massive Westminster delegation whose resources it must deploy with cold-eyed intelligence. Some of the new parliamentarians are plodders. Others stars. But aided by its short money war-chest, the party's serried ranks of MPs, and the little elves and sprites which surround them, are gradually intensifying their understanding of reserved matters, and the depth and complexity of many of the issues involved. This is unprecedented.

But I wonder if the Scotland Act "trap" might not make its own significant contribution to sharpening Nationalist thinking, focussing minds, and forcing Scottish voters to think about tax and spend - and greater independence - in a more comprehensive and programmatic way.  As you cackle as Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues are put on the spot - think on that. And remember Dryden. And wonder if it is all, really, going just as planned.


  1. Ha, you remind me of my own favourite Dryden line, last here -

    'This Mournful Empire is the Loser's Lot:
    In Liquid Burnings or on Dry to dwell,
    Is all the sad Variety of Hell.'

    (Best bit from his rhymer's onslaught on Paradise Lost)

    Comus is also perhaps to the point -

    'All, all of a piece throughout;
    Thy chase had a beast in view;
    Thy wars brought nothing about;
    Thy lovers were all untrue.
    'Tis well an old age is out,
    And time to begin a new.'

    Or maybe Belloc shoud have the last word on our tangled nat/yoon web -

    'Then tell me, Dives, which will look the ass
    You, or myself? Or Charon? Who can tell?
    They order things so damnably in Hell.'

    Damn it, I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.

  2. I have been thinking for a long time that what we need are long term facts on the ground that make Scottish self governance more real. So Sharing and choosing income tax is one such thing. Other ideas that have been rattling about my head is a scheme for a Scotland Additional pension scheme to help pensioners out of poverty. Another is some form of unemployment insurance. For example , here in Finland, for 1 % of your gross monthly salary , you pay into a scheme that allows you to draw 60 of slary when unemployed for 500 days. This would take the sting out of economic shocks (such as oil downturns) and ensure people don't fall into the abyss upon becoming unemployed. Other things might be the levying of fines based on income.

    But on the point of unintended consequences, Whatever the the unionists have devised over the last 30 years, to kill nationalism stone dead, have had the opposite effect and they seem to be no where near having any sense to change this pattern. So I am quite happy for them to keep digging the hole for themselves and their beloved union- they are quite oblvious to the fact that they cannae see o'or the tap anymore to observe reality

    1. We did have a system called related earnings when you became unemployed,which gave a good percentage of your previous wage.This was part subsidised by the Selective Employment Tax,or was supposed to be partly covered.It gave us related earnings for 6 months.As usual the government never ever used the money for what it was intended.

  3. I predict it will be the Labour Party that removes the Barnett Formula

    1. How? When do you predict they will be in power?

  4. Good article. I've long been thinking this obsession with using more devolved and tax powers to "set a trap for the SNP" is folly of the highest order. In doing so, all three unionist parties are conflating "the SNP" with "the Scottish government", an institution they presumably still have some ambitions to hold again. Even if they're unlikely to achieve that next term, meaning the SNP have any problems (and indeed opportunities) it brings, they still have to form a credible opposition, and the Scottish electorate is looking for decent governance, not just sniping and glorying in difficulties they can make for it - that's probably why the SNP won so big in 2011.

    But just the fact they're conflating Scottish government with SNP is, in itself, a huge mis-step. It has the feel of the end of unionism.

  5. @Fergie
    I agree. It is also a recognition I think that, unless you are the SNP you can only ever hope to occupy the Government benches as part of a coalition. Which means messy compromise and if you are a Tory perhaps eternal opposition (A grand unionist coalition? 2007 they ducked that).

    You might think that studying continental politics where such things are the norm might have changed their tactics but they are scared/dismissive of the voters thinking they will either not understand or will demean them for talking that way.

    Of course our media are also not competent enough to discuss such things properly. The first party to do so will be accused of defeatism instead of realism or realpolitik. Even after a coalition government in Westminster such thinking has not taken hold (an aberration is the idea).

    Not until 2011 did one party capture a majority at Holyrood. By pretending to be able to achieve that the other parties are taking the voters to be mugs. Who will you go into coalition with Kezia? Ruth? Willie? Patrick? at some point a Green leader will have to hold their nose and join a government. In NZ they only ever offered confidence and supply, trying to stay above the grubby compromises. All the sniping, none of the responsibility. Those of us who vote for them just hope that a governing party/coalition might keep stealing their policies. Environment is devolved, do no Greens want to operate that portfolio? In what sort of coalition?

    The media need to ask these questions. Pretending Kezia, Ruth, Willie and Patrick might stand alone is just plain silly and getting sillier all the time.

    This realisation is I think behind all the 'One Party State' crap. That is a great psychic cry that their prospect of that is long, long gone.

    Meanwhile the SNP are so dominant that they will never be asked that question. IF the Greens get 9 seats and you fall just short Nicola, what will you do? Pick up the phone to Patrick? When not ask it? Kezia will you and Ruth share the first ministership?

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