He Shoots, He Scores
Firstly, an apology to those of you who were looking for the article when eating your porridge this morning. I’ve delayed it by a few hours for a couple of reasons. Namely, that I effectively ran two articles last week on the Irish border debate and its ramifications, and I also wanted a proper look at yesterday’s Scottish budget before putting pen to paper.
I’m not an economist (well, I know the basics) but you don’t need to understand micro-economic policy to know that Finance Secretary Derek Mackay had just played a blinder. You just need to turn on your radio. When you hear Tory nonentities like Annie Wells calling yesterday a “tax on aspiration” and fellow unionists going apoplectic, then we know for a fact that Derek has just played a blinder, and has scored the fiscal equivalent of a Lionel Messi wondergoal. Unionists calling his budget terrible makes it, by definition, superb. To borrow from countless post-match interviews: the boy done good.
I don’t get angry at unionist froth anymore. It’s just something else that Scotland has to put up with, like rain and midges and people who say “Ah kent his faither”. We’ve had a couple of reminders this week that life is way too short (I’m thinking about you, folks). For people like Ruth Davidson and David Mundell, undermining and belittling Scotland is, after all, their raison d’etre. But I do get angry (although not remotely surprised) when the baker’s dozen of Tory MPs fail to join the rebels, some of whom are in their own party, in voting against the UK Government and forcing a final vote on the Brexit “deal”.
I’m angry when the anti-Scotland party fail to even vote for an amendment that would prevent Westminster from rolling back the devolution settlement post-Brexit on a whim and rapaciously pursuing their endgame of the closing of the Scottish Parliament and the end of Scottish democracy itself.
I’m angry when we live in this Orwellian parallel where the Tories most harmful to Scotland are the ones actually in Scotland, and in which decent, honest and sensible ones like Ken Clarke are tarred as traitors and saboteurs for defending the very parliamentary sovereignty that the Brexiteers themselves said was why we needed to leave the EU.
But when the unionist response, amplified by their in-house PR departments in Sky and the BBC, is uniformly negative and in many cases demonstrably untrue, then I’m not angry. I’m delighted, chuffed to bits. We should embrace the media hysteria over the budget, because it implicitly acknowledges that Scotland is a country, is going its own way, and will very soon be independent.
Make no mistake. Yesterday’s budget gave us a glimpse of the independent Scotland that will soon be here. I forget who said that tax is the price you pay for a civilised society, and that’s never more true than in the age of the paradise papers, an age in which a small minority think their wealth allows them to opt out of the social contract altogether.
One of the tedious criticisms of Holyrood is that it doesn’t use the powers available to it. But yesterday looks to be a progressive and redistributive budget in which most folk pay a wee bit less or about the same and a few folk who can afford it pay a wee bit more. There’s a lot of positive stuff here and I quite like that we’ve got a parliament that doesn’t automatically buy into the myth that any increase in tax, at any level, is politically unpalatable. I’d happily pay a little more if it meant protecting essential services, and there’s a pile of stuff that we don’t have to pay for.
I’ve always been of the view that the more devolved power is used to help the majority & reduce inequality, the stronger the case for independence. The best policies in the budget (chief amongst them the removal of tax loopholes for private schools) strengthens our case.
The Tories naturally disagree, and Sky news reported, erroneously and almost certainly deliberately, that anyone earning over £24,000 would pay more. They won’t. In fact, anyone earning less than £33,000 will in fact pay less tax, and, as the average Scottish income is about £27,000, that means most of us. Even those fortunate enough to earn £75,000 will only be paying an extra £478 per annum, while not paying for tuition fees, senior bus passes or prescriptions. Indeed, as council tax levels are lower here than in other parts of the UK, it’s entirely possible that they could still be paying less tax overall. And with more money now ringfenced for hospitals, schools and the arts, there are tangible benefits for everyone in Scotland.
Including farmers, incidentally. It wasn’t picked up by many of the papers, but it was announced in the Scottish Budget that the 2018 Less Favoured Area Scheme payments will match that of the 2017 Scheme, and so farmers and crofters will now receive 100% of their 2018 LFASS grant rather than a 2018 parachute payment worth 80%, as was previously announced. While unionists drone on about faulty computer software, the Scottish Government has delivered for farmers. Again. The continuing and dogged allegiance of the Scottish farmer to a Conservative party that is by any sensible benchmark detrimental to their interests is more baffling than ever. We need to get over ourselves. We need to wake up.
The Tory chutzpah over the new income tax in particular and this budget in general is astonishing. With shameless hypocrisy, they demand more spending in Scotland for the very areas they cut in England, while rejecting any progressive tax changes which would raise the money that the spending requires.
The budget, in short, is good news – but a note of caution is required. It often occurs to me when listening to Ruth Davidson that for a country that’s wee, poor, stupid, subsidised, overly dependent on oil (such a burden: what will we do when the renewables run out?), and populated by thieves and vandals whose accents must be mocked, we’re surprisingly good with money. Indeed, we have to be – it’s a statutory requirement that we balance the books, come what may. Ruth banging on about deficits and black holes rather makes the point for us – if we don’t control the economy then a deficit, real or invented, is not a demonstration of Scotland’s fecklessness but a searing indictment of a union project run by and for a mendacious British establishment that is rotten to the core and, quite obviously, despises us. And the withdrawal bill, along with the devolution amendment, shows that those who would do us most harm are already in Scotland. The enemy isn’t at the gates. It’s in the castle itself.
Yesterday saw the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution on the very top of his game. But, within the current constitutional framework, even genius has limits when you don’t control your own economy. Even Lionel Messi would struggle to score without the ball.
Take the block grant. It’s a bizarre and slightly demeaning system where we pay most of our taxes to someone else and let them decide how much sweetie money we get and how to spend the rest of on truly important things that we, obviously, can’t be trusted with because those are issues for grown-ups. But that is where we are, and in such an inauspicious set of circumstances it is inconceivable that Derek Mackay or anyone else can square the circle indefinitely, particularly when the block grant has fallen by £2.9bn in real terms in the past decade, and when the DUP bribe has cleared the way for the removal of the Barnet formula that determines the size of the block grant itself.
Raising income taxes in Scotland may only just be enough to balance out a cut to the block grant. So, in other words, Scottish taxpayers may have to pay more income tax just to fill a budget gap left by Westminster. This means that some (although, as we’ve seen, not all) Scottish people could end up paying more income tax just to keep public services exactly as they are now. So the budget, innovative and quietly radical as it is, buys us two years – three at a push. The chancellor’s Autumn statement pledged £2bn, but taking inflation into account is comes to the sum total of zero. Cuts in the grant over the next two years amount to over £500m by 2020. This isn’t a fight we are winning, but this is the context in which we demand our government to continue to grow the economy whilst improving our essential services, whilst also balancing the books year after year after year.
That successive administrations of whatever hue have managed this is nothing short of astonishing, particularly when those governments spend an ever-increasing amount of time mitigating cuts and the damaging effect of policies that we didn’t vote for. But it cannot go on. So I have a suggestion.
Given that we now know all this, and given that it’s inevitable anyway, we need the First Minister to announce the second and final Scottish Independence Referendum early in 2018, with a view to holding the vote certainly within the current parliamentary session (before 2021) but more sensibly by Autumn 2019 at the latest (as that is when the next round of cuts arrives in Derek’s in-tray). There comes a point when intransigence becomes sheer stupidity, and a time when we realise that we can have a modern, socially just, progressive Scottish society or we can have our membership of the United Kingdom: but that we can’t have both.
When the final referendum on Scotland comes – and it will, for a’ that – there will be more compelling arguments for our independence than at any point in our history and we’d better start making them now. Chief amongst these will be our finances. There are many others – we’ll talk more about these in the following weeks – but money matters is where campaigns are won and lost. As Bill Clinton’s manager famously – and, as it turns out, correctly said: “It’s the economy, stupid”.
Enjoy your final Christmas as a UK citizen, good people.
Put your feet up and get some rest.
You’ll need it.
You think 2017 was busy?
We’re just getting started.
You ain’t seen nothing yet.