Tax talk sends the Sturgeometer into overdrive

The Sturgeometer, the most reliable scale of outrage in Scottish politics, was pealing full pitch. 

A growing part of the First Minister’s job involves condemning things that are already deplored and don’t require her opprobrium but which she must be seen to be against all the same. So she summons all her lamentations and informs Parliament sombrely that Bad Things Are Bad. The degree of badness is where the Sturgeometer comes in. A shake of the head might suffice for doing 25 on a Twenty’s Plenty road whereas skelping a traffic warden with a steak bake calls for a head shake plus a sigh.

When she wants to indicate cold fury, the glasses come off with a tilt of the head and one of those Salmond tribute chuckles she deploys from time to time. Yesterday, the Sturgeometer almost exploded in indignation: the head was see-sawing, the sigh a positive huff, and the glasses almost leapt from her nose unaided. Westminster even got a mention. This was off the scale.

The issue was tax avoidance, raised by veteran finger-jabber Christine Grahame, a former teacher and it shows in her no-nonsense scolding of ministers and opponents alike. Her independent-mindedness is a delight in an SNP governed by cyborgic obedience but this time she set up a free hit for Nicola Sturgeon. Miss Grahame sought the First Minister’s censure for those revealed to be avoiding tax in the Paradise Papers leak.

Tax avoidance is an ideal subject for revving up the Sturgeometer in that it’s widely scorned, ethically iffy, but perfectly legal and tailored to the First Minister’s strength of decrying a terrible injustice without doing anything about it. This is where the head-tilting and specs-flipping business came in.

Miss Grahame was particularly peeved about Fiona and Martin Delany and Paddy Houlihan, actors on TV show Mrs Brown’s Boys, ‘who have their wages paid by the BBC and funded by the licence payers, and who are squirreling away some £2m offshore to avoid income tax’. The Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP reckoned they shouldn’t be using the NHS if they aren’t prepared to pay their taxes for it.

This struck me as an ill-thought-out punishment. Surely the harsher penalty would be to require them to use Shona Robison’s health service. The Mrs Brown’s Boys stars should be made to spend four hours in A&E enduring that mix of relentless misery and grinding drudgery interrupted by occasional attempts at pallid humour. If nothing else, they’ll get a taste of what they inflict on the rest of us half an hour a week.

The Sturgeometer chugged away. Tax avoidance was terrible. Shameful—

Up popped Murdo Fraser, with that impish glint that accompanies a mischievous intervention in parliament or an evening of Twitter-baiting the cybernat shut-ins. ‘Does the First Minister regret being part of a government that paid £10m of taxpayers’ money to Amazon, a company that hardly has an excellent record when it comes to paying tax?’

She didn’t like that. ‘If I had had to guess which MSP would leap to their feet today to defend the tax avoiders, I would probably have put Murdo Fraser quite close to the top of the list.’ He hadn’t actually defended them but the Sturgeometer was in full swing and details hardly mattered.

Tax avoidance, Miss Sturgeon continued, was awful because it starved our public services of cash. An opportune moment for Labour’s James Kelly to rise and ask if, given her abhorrence, she would cancel Scottish Government contracts to companies found to have avoided tax.

Ah. That would mean actually doing something. Thankfully, there was a get-out: The powers were reserved to the UK Parliament. So, in time-honoured tradition, the First Minister blamed Westminster and demanded they devolve more powers to Holyrood.

As it is, the Scottish Parliament has enough to get on with. Earlier MSPs had discussed whether there should be memorials erected to honour those prosecuted for witchcraft 420 years ago. Ministers have no plans as yet, a grievous insult to the Wiccan community, especially coming just a week after the trauma of all that Hallowe’en-related cultural appropriation.

Sooner or later, the Sturgeometer will have to be powered up in solidarity with Scotland’s covens. This time she might toss her glasses in the cauldron to show she really means it.

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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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