The fog of uncertainty over Scottish Labour’s attitude to further devolution of tax powers to the Scottish Parliament has begun to lift.
The commission the party assembled to examine the issue has recognised that there is a good case for devolving full control over income tax and two other taxes. But the party’s reaction to this demonstrates that it has a long way to go yet before there is full clarity over its intentions.
There are two political problems that Labour has to address. The first is a matter of principle. It is now generally accepted that a legislature that has considerable spending powers should also have the responsibility of raising a substantial part of the money it has to spend.
This creates a proper degree of accountability of elected politicians to their voters. Without that, MSPs can simply indulge in alibi politics and blame Westminster if their electorate complain about spending or the lack of it. Coupling spending with taxes removes that excuse and focuses minds on the connection between taxes and spending, encouraging more responsible political behaviour.
The second is about strategy. Since there is a nationalist Scottish government which is intent on independence, the onus is on unionist parties to come up with proposals to reshape the union settlement. That is because there appears to be a clear public appetite for Holyrood to have greater tax-raising powers, a demand which does not look to have been satisfied by the greater devolution that will come into force in a couple of years with the Scotland Act.
Labour MSPs appear to understand that. And indeed these arguments, or at least the principle behind them, have also been endorsed by Alistair Darling, a former chancellor and a Scottish Westminster figure of some political weight. But the lukewarm comments from other Labour Westminster back-benchers indicate that they do not get it.
The reason for this division of opinion may just be a self-interested calculation. Labour MSPs know that the party has paid a price at the last two Holyrood elections for timidity of purpose on this issue, and will carry on doing so even if the SNP is defeated over independence.
The SNP, however, because it does less well in elections to Westminster, poses much less of an electoral threat to Labour MPs. So why, they may think, should Labour be conceding things which simply push Scotland further along the road that the nationalists wish to travel.
If this is their rationale, Mr Darling should tell them to get rid of their blinkers and start acting in the national, rather than self-interest. Greater tax devolution is not about quasi-nationalism, but installing proper responsibility and accountability at Holyrood. And when voters see Labour acting in the national interest, it may become more electable at Westminster and Holyrood.
Celebrate Scouts’ success
Scouting, the youth movement which a few years ago appeared to be in terminal decline, is now very much on the up.
There are now 43,000 Scottish Scouts, the highest number since 1999. Good news, but what would Sir Robert Baden-Powell have made of the fact that much of this resurgence is down to the enthusiasm of girls for Scouting?
Sir Robert founded the Scouts more than a century ago because he was worried that the nation’s young men lacked moral fibre and were too soft. Girls, he thought, were unsuited to rugged Scouting pursuits, so he asked his sister to found the Girl Guides. But since 2007, girls have also been able to join the Scouts.
It seems this has been a great success. In Scotland, one in seven Scouts is now a girl, and they account for two-fifths of the movement’s Scottish recruits in the last year. It may not be pushing the point to suggest that girls have saved the Scouts.
Sir Robert probably would not have approved. He was a man of Victorian values, particularly Victorian military values. But he might have recognised, since he was interested in raising national moral standards, that equality between the sexes is now a social norm and that the Scouts need to be part of that national consensus.
We hope so, for youth organisations have an essential role to play in shaping tomorrow’s generation. The success of the Scouts, in whose promise the pledge to help others is still a central tenet, is a rebuke to those who fear today’s young people are only interested in hanging around street corners and playing computer games. More strength to them.