A former SNP cabinet secretary has suggested higher taxes could be “the price of being Scottish”.
Ex-Edinburgh East MSP Kenny MacAskill said that rather than “running away” from the need for tax rises to help fund benefits Scots enjoy such as free university tuition and free prescriptions, the Scottish Government should “embrace” them.
Powers over income tax are coming to Holyrood in April 2017, but SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already ruled out increasing the basic rate paid by Scots for the period up until 2021.
She has also dismissed calls to increase the top rate - paid by those earning £150,000 a year or more - from 45p to 50p in the first year that MSPs have the power to do so.
Ms Sturgeon made the commitments in the run-up to May’s Scottish Parliament election, but Mr MacAskill said: “The better Scottish society many want comes at a price.”
Writing in the Herald newspaper, Mr MacAskill, who served as justice secretary under both Ms Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond, argued: “Lower taxation has become almost a mantra and inequality has risen as a consequence. It has barely been challenged and is almost accepted as a given. But it should not be.”
With budgets for key areas such as policing and local government “already feeling the pinch” of public spending cuts, he said: “There comes a time when the pot simply has to be made bigger, not just be re-allocated.
“Moreover, the sort of changes sought to alleviate real hardship and make a move towards a better and fairer society require substantial income. That cannot come out of current revenue. It can only come from increasing it and that means taxation.”
He continued: “If a system of universal benefits is desired and a fairer, more equal society is sought, it needs to be funded and that has to be through tax.
“The SNP has so far been reluctant to support an increase in tax for higher earners. There’s a point of principle at stake. If it’s a fairer and more egalitarian society that is sought it requires a re-allocation of resources and a redistribution of income.
“Moreover, benefits - whether free prescriptions, the absence of tuition fees and other entitlements available for all and not means-tested - have benefited middle-income earners probably most.
“Yet there has been no counter balance in increased tax paid. That’s unsustainable. Hence tax will have to rise not just on higher but also on middle earners to sustain the benefits that all receive.”
Mr MacAskill said: “Rather than running away from this, the Scottish Government should embrace it. There’s a better way to run a society: pay in collectively for greater efficiency and availability for all; show the sort of society we could really be. It’s the price of being Scottish.”
His comments were welcomed by Labour, which backs a 1p rise in the basic rate of income tax in Scotland as well as the restoration of the 50p top rate.
The party’s inequalities spokeswoman Monica Lennon said: “As one of the SNP’s longest serving ministers, Kenny MacAskill knows the pressure our public services are under. He also knows that we don’t have to accept more cuts and more austerity as an inevitability. We can do things differently now.”
But she added: “As welcome as this intervention is, it would have been more useful if Kenny MacAskill had the courage to speak out when he was an SNP MSP rather than waiting until he had stood down.
“For a man who sat in the SNP cabinet for years to now acknowledge that Labour has been right all along is breathtaking. How many other SNP ministers knew it was the right thing to do but kept quiet?
“The SNP have chosen to cut hundreds of millions of pounds from schools and local services but they can still change course and invest in our economy instead.
“The SNP now face a choice - they can work with Labour and other progressive parties in the Scottish Parliament to stop the cuts, or they can work with the Tories to force them though.”