Facile assumptions about politics only help line the bookmakers’ pockets, writes Bill Jamieson
In politics, beware of popular assumption.
Current affairs today is like a betting-shop floor littered with the torn-up detritus of sure-fire betting slips. And we don’t have to look far for the evidence of the treacherous certainty of political “safe bets”.
Let me meekly confess to some of my own of late that would win hero status at the local branch of Joe Coral: that the Conservatives would never come close to winning the general election; that Greece would stay in the euro; and that Jeremy Corbyn would never stand a chance of winning the Labour leadership.
And these may be just a foretaste of more deeply embedded – and deeply flawed – assumptions about Scottish politics due for a shake-up over the next two years.
Take, for example, the rarely challenged assumptions that Scots are more to the political Left than the English; that Scots want taxes and state benefits significantly different to the rest of the UK; and that a “more powers” SNP administration with a super-enlarged majority would boost benefit spending and restore welfare spending cuts.
Support for the SNP has been emboldened by a herd-like conviction that “more powers” would bring, if not an economic and public finance transformation, then certainly a markedly different set of tax and spending policies from the rest of the UK.
But what if that is not true? What happens if it turns out there is little difference across the broad spectrum of Scottish voter preferences on “tax and spend”? What, then, is the point of ever more devolution?
According to research by the authoritative National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) released this week, Scots want greater powers devolved to Holyrood but no “significant deviation from UK policy norms”.
Put in less high-falutin’ language, the research drew on British Attitudes Survey findings that show little difference in political priorities north and south of the Border.
Although we are slightly more likely to agree that more money should be spent on benefits, even if that means higher taxes, the paper said the differences in attitudes across all three criteria were small.
Stirling University economist Professor David Bell and David Eiser, said, “We have not found evidence that there are significant differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK.”
This, they added, raised question marks over why the SNP are pushing for full fiscal autonomy – control of all tax and spend.
“There is relatively limited evidence that the Scottish electorate wants to see radical change to the system of taxation or benefits, supporting the notion that the demand for decentralisation is driven by the desire for local accountability.”
The SNP’s electoral success in Scotland cannot be explained by Scots having different preferences from people in the rest of the UK. Instead the academics say that support for greater devolution is driven by a desire for more local accountability and a belief that decisions made in Scotland are automatically better.
The report, but together by NIESR’s director Angus Armstrong, also supports the argument that the effects of the Smith Commission reforms will make the Scottish Government “one of the most powerful sub-central governments in the OECD, in terms of control over spending and taxation decisions”.
Much of this echoes previous research indicating that support for higher tax in Scotland is not as sure fire as popular assumption suggests and that Scots are more “authoritarian” than the “libertarian” English. Yet for years the Left intelligentsia in Scotland has been in denial of such findings and have proceeded on the assumption that Scots as a whole are more to the Left and favour a high tax state and more being spent on welfare. That assumption has yet to be tested when it comes to seeking electoral approval for a mandate to pursue tax rises.
Going hand in hand with this is the assumption that “somehow” more money would be found, or that the economy would naturally grow in tandem with spending ambitions laid out in the recent election campaign. Indeed, there would be an end to “austerity” or “Draconian cuts” in central and local government spending. And, of course, money would be found for those transformative capital spending and infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, the collapse in the oil price – and the massive scaling down of expected North Sea tax revenues – has barely registered as a constraint on these aspirations.
This notwithstanding, the SNP has continued with a hammer and tongs attack on “Tory austerity” and spending cuts. SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell says the findings “simply highlight the fact the limited powers proposed in the Scotland Bill do not meet the aspirations of people in Scotland. With these key powers in Scotland’s hands, we can take action to grow our economy and support the working poor and vulnerable people”.
Ringing rhetoric this may be. But there is nothing here that suggests a connecting thread between localism and growth; or a desire to devolve powers to local authorities, or for more localism. Indeed it has kept a firm grip on council tax since 2007 and, in one of its most controversial moves, has scrapped the system of locally accountable police forces and introduced one unitary body – Police Scotland.
All this brings searching questions to bear on what exactly an SNP administration would actually do with “more powers”, particularly if, as the NIESR research suggests, that what the Westminster government is doing on areas such as welfare and immigration is largely in tune with what Scottish voters and those across the UK want.
Might it be that when the election dust settles after the Holyrood election next year, the new Scottish administration will set forth with a set of rather familiar rhetoric and priorities: more money to be spent on health, ring fencing of the education budget - these buttressed by a new Commission to update the 2010 spending review by Crawford Beveridge; proposals for “greater efficiencies and productivity improvements” in central and local government, and savings on revenue spending to fund more infrastructure projects to create a “Scottish economic powerhouse”.
Finance Secretary John Swinney will stress the need to build market confidence in Scottish debt instruments and the “regrettable necessity of fiscal restraint” to make good “the decades of neglect by Westminster governments”.
We may cling to assumptions of radical change. But a parliament faced with financial reality and the political cost of higher taxes will see them tested to the limit.