In that quite way that can sometimes go unnoticed it has been a momentous week in Scottish politics. True, there have been some headlines about the Scottish Government’s legislative programme and a predictable fanfare to accompany the publication of the Smith Commission’s report, but the sum of their impacts will be far greater than the media reporting.
The legislative programme – a great deal of which I would suggest is unnecessary or even dangerous – is good news because it offers the prospect of a return to a more honest “what you see is what you get” style of politics in Scotland. For me the biggest reason that politicians are held in such low esteem is that they blag their way to power and rarely do what they suggested they would do.
I could bore readers with a list of broken promises and the supposedly sincere assertions about this or that policy – including wars, ballooning public debt, tax rises, benefit cuts, regulations and bans – all of which turned out to be bluff, bluster or lies. If politicians of the last 25 years had been more honest about their intentions or why they had to do something they would be held in greater respect.
Sure, all the expenses scandals upset the public but they have only rubbed salt in the open wounds of duplicity that were already hurting. It’s the honesty in policy that is needed and if what Nicola Sturgeon’s government is really saying what it wants to do – and she has a majority for two years to do it – then she will stand or fall by her actions. And that is how it should be.
So when I read of plans to introduce a local income tax and proposals to confiscate legally held property I smile and think “Hell mend them”, for it is only when the true consequences of government actions are felt by the electorate that they can evaluate if they have been conned or that a particular idea was a good one.
I shall write about local income tax in more detail another time but it is just worth mentioning here that the idea first put forward by John Swinney a dozen years ago would have cost every income tax payer a further 5p in the pound. Many people back then would have been worse off compared to paying their council tax.
For one thing there is a council tax benefit that helps the poorest – but no such benefit would be applicable to income tax as it already takes account of earnings.
More importantly, though, a great deal of water has passed under our political bridges in that time that is bound to make local income tax even more expensive.
Firstly the supposedly despicable Tory government (which is in fact a Tory Lib-Dem coalition) has raised the tax allowance thresholds to circa £12,000, taking millions of people out of income tax in the process. That means local income tax in Scotland will apply to fewer people – meaning the rate will have to be higher.
Secondly the SNP’s own policy of freezing council tax has stored up a great deal of trouble for the future. Once councils are again free to raise the money they believe they need to support the services that have been cut back then the pressure will be on them to raise the local tax rate to a level higher than I suspect national politicians expect.
The prospect for the local income tax being a highly unpopular tax borne by the aspiring Scottish middle classes that the SNP has been so careful to nurture should not be underestimated. But let us rejoice, we need more political ideas to be tested to destruction – and if they work they will be forgotten about and accepted. But if they damage our livelihoods, they will incur the wrath of the electorate and the politicians will find out what it’s like to lose.
And so I turn to the Smith Commission’s report, which has just been announced as I type. It will mean not just greater powers for the Scottish parliament, but through those powers greater accountability. This can only be a good thing.
For too long Holyrood has wanted to spend money as if we lived in the Weimar Republic, that all we had to do was print more (or at least demand more from the UK Treasury). But that is not how real life is and the difference will now be felt when our members at Holyrood have to start taxing us to finance all their jolly schemes.
They will no longer have the excuse of blaming Westminster, London, English politicians or David Cameron. The buck will stop with Nicola Sturgeon – be it the NHS, our schools, our roads and all the other government services they are responsible for. And when there are welfare changes in the rest of the UK, Holyrood will be able, in most cases, to make adjustments.
So once these changes are delivered – and there can be no doubt they will – then politicians will once more have to live and die by their words. That’s how it should be.