Bill Jamieson: What happened to the canny Scot?

Nicola Sturgeon has hyped up expectations, leaving her party between a rock and a hard place, say some. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nicola Sturgeon has hyped up expectations, leaving her party between a rock and a hard place, say some. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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A FRIEND’S dilemma about whether to move country poses searching questions about our national character, says Bill Jamieson

A business contact e-mailed me at the weekend to say he is thinking of quitting Scotland. He’s in business services and unnerved – to put it mildly – at the prospect of a Labour-SNP “arrangement” coupled with tax changes under “more powers” after the Holyrood election next year.

Whatever happened to the rational, sceptical Scotland in which I was born and bred?

He’s not a political activist or wannabe. He’s never asked the government for anything. And even if he wanted to, he’s never had the time. His life is his business, one that’s taken him years to build. Yet he feels the political rhetoric in Scotland has become distinctly unfriendly to him – indeed, quite intimidating now. Aggression and abuse are commonplace on social media.

He cites the prospect of higher rates of personal income tax, higher business rates, higher property taxes on his family home, no let-up in inheritance tax, and, because his business is cross-Border, two HMRC offices to which he’ll have to report. These worries are also affecting clients who have expressed similar fears.

He doesn’t want to move, but fears his income and his business would suffer if he stays.

What guidance and advice could I offer by way of reply? I’ve been pondering this for days. And believe me, I’m floundering.

What worries me more than the difficulty of reply is that there may be hundreds more in business Scotland who share the same apprehensions. There is nothing – nothing whatever – that is giving much reassurance as to what the future holds for them.

This is not just an independence campaign re-run but one marked by a sharp turn to the politics of the hard Left. This may crowd-please many. But it is the politics of fierce, punitive division. Little wonder there is apprehension – and that many are fearful of expressing it.

Now there are several attempts we might make at reassurance. We might say that the worst never comes to pass – that election rhetoric is almost always tempered later by the realities of power.

But that is comfort only up to a point. There is every likelihood that taxes would be raised and business and capital flight before the damaging consequences are noticed and reality kicks in.

Are the misgivings of my business contact really worth all the effort and expense of moving? He’ll have to rebuild his business. There’s no guarantee that clients will follow him. And there would be broader loss, of employment, revenue, custom – and confidence.

We could say that he’s got little to complain about. He’s had it good. He’s one of those “with the broader shoulders who must bear the greater burden”. Now he has to give something back. Just man up.

But he has spent years “manning up” – in building his business. There were years of thin pickings, through recessions and financial crises. Just to survive to this point has been an achievement.

He says he’s a loyal Scot and doesn’t want to move. And to be fair most nationalists would not wish him to move. Some may well wish to drive this Mr Negative to the airport and help wheel his trolley on to the plane.

But, hey, aren’t they going to want to keep at home all those “with the broader shoulders to bear the greater burden”? Who else is going to bear it other than those with not-so-broad shoulders?

Last month a Scottish Government statistical release beat us about the head about income inequality. But the figures omitted all public sector pensions. And they treated the pension savings of the middle-aged, not as sensible provision for a retirement that may stretch 30 years or more but as evidence of a wealth-soaked elite. Fed with such questionable figures, the battle against “income inequality” could turn into a war against all saving.

Well, there’s always the good sense of the party moderates – John Swinney, Fergus Ewing and the like. But how are they going to talk down the sky-high expectations that this election campaign has raised?

Nicola Sturgeon has already let slip that “full fiscal responsibility” will take “a number of years” – a phrase with all the qualities of an elastic band that’s going to be stretched to the limit. And we can well hear John Swinney lecturing a braying conference of supporters on the “regrettable necessities” of fiscal autonomy – of “the need to make good the mess that Westminster left behind” or “replenishing the coffers after decades of London rule”.

But how will the troops take it? Having loyally followed the leaders to the top of the mountain, how will they react when their leadership then points to the thunderclouds?

What clouds? At a deficit of £7-8 billion a year, Scotland would soon rack up £50bn of debt, requiring an interest yield of perhaps a 1.5 percentage points over UK debt to fund. Would the reality of a Scottish debt interest apportionment already forecast to rise to £3.6bn annually by 2019-20 be sobering enough? And if the debt interest bill wasn’t paid, what then? Who would ever lend to us?

Despite this, Ms Sturgeon has been determined to outflank Labour on “anti-austerity” spending commitments and an ever bigger state. How can any thinking person take these pledges seriously? Indeed, it is hard to recall an election in Scotland so detached from reality as this one. It is scarcely credible so many spending commitments have been stacked one upon another on an already sunken fiscal base.

Whatever happened to the rational, sceptical Scotland in which I was born and bred, one that promoted saving, solvency and endeavour? The country once respected the world over for its prudence and its canniness with money? How is it we have been seduced and reduced to the politics of “spend, spend, spend”? We once knew well that business and enterprise was key to our survival. That recognition is now in peril.

This is what scares my business contact. It’s not just that there’s nothing in the hard Left programme for middle Scotland. It is this sense of not being wanted, that what lies ahead for him and his family is punishment and retribution for having built a business ripe for plucking.

And if that’s the outlook, why should we be surprised if the more mobile ponder the option to walk? When a country is gripped by a fever of delusion, there’s little credible advice to offer until the fever passes.