SNP parking tax is a political car crash

You can be sure of two things in life, death and taxes, and of one thing in political life: death by taxes.

No matter how pure your intentions, no matter how worthily you propose to spend the cash raised, taxes almost always do for you.

Injudicious rates cost George III a colony, the Poll Tax helped prise the keys to Number 10 from Margaret Thatcher’s hand, and Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p rate proved toxic with Labour’s core constituency.

Even the humble pasty has been the subject of a revenue revolt. In his 2012 Budget, George Osborne, with the confidence with which all public schoolboys are blessed, announced a 20% VAT rate on hot snacks and thought that was the end of the matter. In fact, this fiscal strike against the working man’s lunch was met with such ferocious opposition the Chancellor soon had to back down.

The British are not a rash people but when they feel imposed upon, even and especially in a petty fashion, they are liable to take to the barricades. Offend their sense of natural justice at your peril.

The SNP is the latest government to learn this lesson the hard way. The backlash against their workplace parking tax has been swift and harsh. The measure was announced last week by Finance Secretary Derek Mackay and will see local authorities given the power to levy a charge on parking facilities provided by employers. It is based on a pilot scheme carried out in Nottingham and bosses may meet the tax themselves or pass it on to their employees.

The parking levy barely got out of the garage before the engine fell out of it. The notion of a tax on going to work struck many as manifestly unfair, if not downright perverse. The Scottish Government was already planning to take more out of their pay packet every month; now they were rifling around in the glovebox for spare change.

As with all taxes, though, the most pressing question is who pays. Employers are not obliged to pass on the cost to their workers but a car park tax is a costly overhead and, where profit margins are tight, some companies will decide they have no other choice.

Their decision may be made easier by Adam McVey, leader of SNP-run Edinburgh City Council, who says it would represent a ‘lost opportunity’ if employers failed to pass on the costs to workers. McVey is at least upfront on the motivations behind the levy: it is a sin tax and the sin is getting out of bed and going to work every morning. Would that the world had more sinners.

The Scottish Government promises exemptions for NHS staff but, rather than ameliorating critics, this concession has proved another bump in road. If NHS workers get a pass, why not teachers? The Nottingham experiment has led to teachers paying hundreds of pounds a year simply to park at their school. The government is already mired in fractious pay negotiations with the teachers’ unions and may feel it necessary to add them to the whitelist.

However, that would almost certainly be followed by another profession demanding equal treatment. The SNP has come up with the only tax that becomes more unpopular as fewer people have to pay it.

The coalition against the levy crosses traditional lines of left and right and even hardened positions on the constitution. Opposition to the measure has brought together the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems, business, teachers, the Scottish Daily Mail and even some Nationalists. The SNP gets called divisive but, credit where it’s due, they’ve finally managed to unite the country.

The policy originated with the Greens, as Scottish ministers are at pains to emphasise, and was only conceded in exchange for votes to get the Budget passed. They want the public to think of this as a Green tax, not an SNP one.

For the Greens, this poses a paradox: is it possible that they could both win and lose on this measure? On the face of it, they have scored a landmark victory by convincing the government to implement one of their more radical policies. What happens, however, when councils begin introducing these levies, when the policy rubber hits the public opinion road?

Part of the Greens’ electoral appeal rests on their function as a salve to the conscience. If you are concerned about the planet, don’t do enough recycling or feel guilty for being affluent, a vote for the Greens makes it easier to rest your head on your non-allergenic pillow at night. It is a way of being socially conscious without consequences.

The parking levy is most certainly a consequence, attaching a price tag to your good intentions. Will voters with left-wing sentiments and a few quid to spare congratulate themselves on their virtue in discouraging car use and reducing emissions, or will they turn against the Greens now that supporting them finally comes at a personal cost?

Patrick Harvie’s party stands far outside the Scottish political mainstream but has prospered thanks to virtue-signalling and a proportional electoral system. Now voters will get to experience the reality of the party’s policies and will discover that Harvie’s outfit isn’t green so much as red.

Come the next election, the Greens may well have to defend what they really believe out in the open, admitting that their worldview is driven by antipathy towards liberty, enterprise and human progress.

The preponderance of the blame, however, will fall on the Nationalists. They are the government and one increasingly defined by an attachment to higher and more punitive taxes. The parking levy is especially toxic because it hurts not just Middle Scotland but the poor and vulnerable too. It is not ‘progressive’, that favourite blandishment of the SNP, but thoroughly regressive.

For middle-earners, it is yet another tax on aspiration; for the low-paid, it could price them out of motoring altogether. That might prompt cheers from those (justly) concerned about carbon emissions and climate change but, once again, they are failing to take practicalities into account.

Commuters who can no longer afford to take the car will be thrown on the mercy of a substandard public transport system. It will be harder to get to work, put more people at risk of losing their job through late-coming, and place a further strain on ScotRail and bus companies. Derek Mackay says he has not done economic analysis on the proposal. You can see why.

How different this attitude is from the one the SNP came to power with. It is scarcely remembered now but Alex Salmond led his party to victory on a manifesto pledging tax cuts and freezes. The SNP’s central policy was anathema to Middle Scotland and so Mr Salmond resolved to court the country via their pocketbooks. It was canny doorstep politics of the sort Mr Salmond has always excelled at.

The SNP as champions of the hard-pressed taxpayer barely lasted Mr Salmond’s tenure but was buried as soon as he was bundled out he back door. Soon the talk was about being ‘progressive’ — that empty slogan again — and that meant getting cold feet on corporation tax cuts and losing the stomach for total abolition of air passenger duty.

The council tax freeze thawed and the SNP became the first party to use Holyrood’s fiscal powers and did so to make Scotland the highest taxed region of the UK. The Nationalists have gone from safe pair of hands to serial pickpocket in a few short years.

Their reputation for economic moderation was hard won by Mr Salmond and his predecessor John Swinney but has been tossed aside blithely by Nicola Sturgeon. She learned many things from her mentor but an instinct for how the average voter thinks is something that can’t be taught. For all his faults, he had a certain fibre to him; Ms Sturgeon is made of flimsier material.

Having cut the deal with the Greens that slung this millstone around her government’s neck, the First Minister hopped on the first flight to the United States to play her carefully crafted role as international stateswoman. For the SNP, this is a means of projecting Scotland as a de facto independent country in the minds of Scots and foreign governments. It is also a reminder that even anti-establishment parties become enchanted by the trappings of power eventually.

But this week it has simply looked derelict. There is no greater sin in politics that being out of touch. Lie to the public, cheat your expenses, take the country to war in dubious circumstances and you still stand in good stead to hobble over the finish line at the next election.

Give the impression of detachment — in Ms Sturgeon’s case, aloofness — and the voters will be far less forgiving. Being told you have to pay to park at your office is one thing. Being told it by a woman who gets chauffeur-driven to the office at your expense is another matter entirely.

For those who do not like the First Minister, this only confirms their prejudices. Roughly half the country is in this position. If Ms Sturgeon brought Lazarus back from the dead, they would say she was just adding to A&E waiting times.

This is a source of consternation to ardent nationalists and the commentariat, the former because most still see her as the woman to lead them to independence and the latter because they have not taken Brexit well and convince themselves of principle in the First Minister’s protean tactics.

Out there, though, among the hairdressers and taxi drivers and pensioners, among the people without newspaper perches or 15 Saltire badges crammed onto the one lapel, she feels far removed from the concerns of everyday life. The parking levy is just the latest symptom of the condition.

This may be unfair; there may even be a hint of sexism at work. Is state-schooled Sturgeon really more out of touch with the punters than privately-educated socialist Richard Leonard? But the voters are like Mr Leonard’s fellow Yorkshiremen: they know what they like and they like what they know. A growing number of them do not like Ms Sturgeon and want her to know it.

The workplace parking tax may be a policy miscalculation but it is an error of a grander order too. This is, eventually, how governments fall. It’s rarely the big blunders; the public expects those. It’s the small things, the seemingly trivial missteps that come to define an administration and set the terms for its demise. One of the more frustrating aspects of democracy is that the voters get to decide what they care about.

Ministers might wish they cared about this or that major investment. Lobby groups long for them to become agitated about their pet cause. Political journalists want them to focus on the stories that grip them. It doesn’t work like that. Politics is not perfect reason but gut instinct. In their guts, the voters hate the parking levy and are beginning to feel well and truly scunnered with the government that is paving the way for it.

After an implausibly long honeymoon, the country is going cold on the SNP. ‘Going’, not gone. There is still some ways to go. But decline has set in, weakening the government’s political muscle, slowing their once-brisk step.

Dips in the polls will follow and, if Ruth Davidson is able to knock her benches into shape, the unfathomable prospect of a Scottish Tory government will only enhance the already palpable sense of alarm among the Nationalists.

Next comes the bunker and yet more separation from the lives of the voters, to be followed by infighting, backbiting, sedition and power struggles. Finally comes the fall, still off in the distance but no longer unimaginable, and that odd-sounding phrase we will have to get used to: the post-Sturgeon era.

It is not upon us yet but its early stages are playing out all around us.


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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at Feature image by the Scottish Government via CC BY-NC 2.0.

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