Stop picking our pockets

Bad ideas in politics bubble up from a murky soup of groupthink and received wisdom.

Research lays out the pluses and minuses of a given course of action. Policy wonks focus on the findings they consider most palatable to the government of the day. Senior civil servants anticipate ministerial preferences and trim back recommendations accordingly. Special advisers scour proposals for political and public relations headaches and smooth out the rough edges of originality and nuance.

Ministers in turn surround themselves with advisers who think alike and they seldom hear alternatives except as ‘bold’ or ‘different’ ideas, two adjectives you never want attached to your suggestions if you want them to get out of the policymaking process alive. The final policy is agreed as a formality because everyone who matters has more or less agreed all along.

The latest bad idea is that that Scots need to pay more tax no matter what. The Scottish Government is considering how to use its new revenue powers and options are said to include a 50p rate on income tax and lowering the threshold at which taxpayers go into a higher band. Many in the SNP grassroots and on the backbenches are impatient for tax hikes and few ministers are dissenting in public from such a move. As former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill observes: ‘The party was warmed up to tax rises which is no surprise. They’re inevitable and it’s simply a question of how much and upon whom they will fall.’

Proponents of tax increases say the voters agree with them. It all depends who you ask — and what you ask them. A poll earlier this month quizzed 1,135 Scottish adults on whether they would be willing to pay more in tax to reverse benefit cuts. Fifty four percent said No. But what if the money was spent on improving public service? The same sample broke 53% in favour.

So we’re not quite the red-in-tooth-and-claw socialist outpost as some would have you believe. We are at best equivocal on the matter and if we must pay more, we expect value for money.

Goody-goody moneybags sometimes declare their willingness to be taxed more to fund public services. This is terribly virtuous but misses the point. Tax brackets suck in great swathes of families whose personal circumstances are very different. The wealthiest would barely notice a few grand extra leaving their bank account but for those clinging to the middle rung of the ladder it would be a hammer to the fingers. These righteous souls can be generous with other people’s livelihoods because they are doing so in aid of the NHS and schools. Yet vanishingly few tell us what improvements should be made and how success ought to be measured.

Spending more money is not an end in itself and nor does it automatically lead to better outcomes. For politicians, though, it has the advantage of looking like you’re doing something even when you don’t have the faintest clue what you should be doing. Herein lies the appeal of tax and spend to many in the SNP. After five years of constitutional dream-chasing allowed public services to slide, the Nationalists are eager to regain their reputation for competent government and halt the ongoing decline in their poll numbers. Pulling Scottish education back up off the mat would go some way to achieving this. So would meeting their waiting times targets and addressing the shortages in GP provision.

Their instinct is to spend because spending is activity and activity is something that can be press released. This is hardly a sin committed only by the SNP but it is of a piece with their fixation on input over outcomes, a mindset on display every week at First Minister’s Questions when Nicola Sturgeon is asked why service X isn’t working and she responds with a list of the investments made in service X. This mistakes process for results and explains why the SNP’s first impulse is to tinker with the former rather than interrogate the latter. This approach, government by spreadsheet, may not solve problems but it makes questions about the problems easier to bat away for a time.

Even Mr MacAskill, a tax-and-spender from the party’s Left, warns that revenue increases alone cannot ‘shore up the current services, never mind allow for expansion of new ones’. There might have to be ‘a strategic retreat’ from some spending commitments or ‘savings made through reform’.

The SNP is particularly keen to add a few noughts to the ledger in light of the country’s unlikely flirtation with Leftism in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. This phenomenon is not limited to England and polls hint at a Labour revival north of the border. The Nationalists built their case for independence on the promise of a progressive alternative to the ‘neoliberal’ ways of Westminster. Scotland would be a social democratic nirvana, they told Labour voters, just as soon as it got out from under the Union.

Nicola Sturgeon gambled that holding out the prospect of a fairer, more prosperous country would nudge enough of us over to the Yes column. Had she been cannier, she would have used Holyrood’s new powers to inch us towards her stated social and economic goals, maintaining momentum and furnishing her with a record of progress beyond budget spends and good intentions. Now Corbyn has come along and offers a faster route to what Miss Sturgeon claims are her objectives — all without the messy business of a constitutional break-up.

Bribing voters with their own money only works if they feel they are getting some good from it and many of us feel we are not. If ministers want to pick our pockets, they will have to convince us they have a plan to make schools and hospitals appreciably better. If they can’t do that, they should recognise an aimless revenue grab for the bad idea that it is and introduce a new idea into the mix: Instead of taxing more, they could spend less.

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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at

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