Only in the context of the debate around the Scottish independence referendum is it possible to imagine an economic strategy constructed around twin pillars of slashing tax and splurging spending being treated as anything other than the nonsense it is.
The SNP have long stood accused of attempting to be all things to all people. They are. But Labour, or any other party, shouldn’t just be annoyed by this we should try to understand it a bit more. In 2007 and 2011 all things to all people worked. It didn’t matter that the manifestos didn’t add up or that the promises weren’t delivered. In the context of these elections to the Scottish Parliament, neither of which were considered high stakes for most voters, a combination of the modern SNP’s ruthless cynicism, populism and campaign brilliance were more than enough to elect dozens of unlikely parliamentarians. Just as Labour’s lack of success found seats at Holyrood via the regional lists for people like me.
However, the referendum is a high stakes vote. It requires much more than the SNP have had to achieve up to now and in seeking to respond to the much more difficult questions that the nationalists’ allegedly principal aim creates, they may just find that the answers require them to undo much of their own past work.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the mess Alex Salmond, and Nicola Sturgeon, have created over corporation tax. For whatever reason, it is now clear that Salmond probably actually believes in Laffer curve economics. Which is frightening in itself. However, the bigger problem for his party is that the extreme tax cutting agenda of the likes of Jim McColl, or Brian Souter who made the same points for the Yes campaign on BBC Question Time recently, undoes much of the work of many in the SNP who have spent years trying to shake off the Tartan Tory tag. The SNP, the party who froze the, in their own words, regressive Council Tax, and claimed the result as progressive, are committed to big cuts in company taxes. Corporation Tax to fall by 3% more than the Tories, however far George Osborne cuts, and a possible abolition of Capital Gains Tax – called for by McColl and not ruled out by Alex Salmond at First Minister’s Questions this week.
It’s pretty clearly a Tax Haven Scotland vision.
Yet, although the SNP also say that personal taxation will not rise, they are also committed to more public expenditure. Just yesterday Transport Minister Keith Brown appeared to suggest to the Chamber that an independent Scotland could nationalise the railways, whilst Scotland’s embryonic ‘Foreign Secretary’, Humza Yousaf, has trailed his plans to increase international aid levels beyond the UN’s 0.7% targets on a number of occasions since taking office. Examples abound in every area of public policy but the most glaring is Nicola Sturgeon’s continual overtures that welfare spending is going up, and up, in a separate Scotland. Yes Scotland have made great play that the UK is currently a very unequal country, and that this is a bad thing. Which it is. Reducing inequality should, in my view, be a key aim of government but I still need to read a lot more Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett before I find the bit that says the way to do this is to cut taxes for the rich and simply spend more on benefits for the poor. Even if this made sense as an economic strategy, which it doesn’t, it doesn’t amount to a progressive strategy for helping the poorest – even if the promised increases in benefit actually came. Inequality is bad for everyone and reducing the gap cannot be done by giving the very worst off a little more, taking less from the very rich and hoping to keep those in the middle happy with promises of free things.
The fact that neither the sums nor the politics of any of this adds up to a progressive platform will not be lost on some in the SNP’s coalition for Yes.
For both those on the left of the SNP, and those on the far-left supporting separation; those who appear to believe that throwing all of the cards up in the air and basically hoping that they land in a progressive order after independence; it may well be that their strategy is more thought through than Nicola Sturgeon’s ideas on this. Beyond these people of course is Sturgeon’s new comrades in the so-called Radical Independence Campaign. A collection, of different groups and individuals but we can probably presume their conferences, which take place in Radison hotels, are paid for by the International Socialist Group a splinter of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party which has its own problems about the strategy it wishes to pursue at present.
A left critique of the SNP”s plans which are more Reaganite than Revolutionary is unlikely to come from ‘left’ voices either within or beyond the SNP then.
Progressively minded people also minded towards independence have come to rely on Patrick Harvie of the Greens to lead the opposition when Alex Salmond swings the Yes ship too far to starboard. However, the mess has now become so great that occasional rebukes from the Greens will not be enough to dispel the perception that Tax Haven Scotland is not a vision, but the vision. Just as Nicola Sturgeon’s occasional briefing against the corporation tax cuts ceased to be credible, when she stepped aboard the low tax bus and launched the Scottish Government’s plans in place of John Swinney in Falkirk.
If Yes win in September 2014, Scottish separation will be negotiated primarily by the victors, a negotiating team led by Alex Salmond. There is no chance that Scottish Labour or any of the other parties opposed to independence will set out stalls for post-independence government whilst still arguing to remain in partnership with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It does therefore fall to those who say they plan to support Alex Salmond in September ’14 but oppose him thereafter to demonstrate that they have moved beyond the supply arrangements of the 07-11 Parliament, from which after all, they have very few progressive gains to show for their troubles then either.
Drew Smith is a Member of The Scottish Parliament for Glasgow. You can follow him on Twitter:@DrewSm1th