Leaders: Nicola Sturgeon at the top of her game

Nicola Sturgeon Speech at SNP Party Conference at SECC Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
Nicola Sturgeon Speech at SNP Party Conference at SECC Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
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NICOLA Sturgeon is currently the most impressive political leader in the United Kingdom. Last week, in TV interviews with Jeremy Paxman, David Cameron looked stiff and out of touch; Ed Miliband looked callow and desperate. Yesterday in Glasgow, giving her keynote speech to the SNP spring conference, Sturgeon was poised, confident, resolute and authoritative.

There was none of the touchy-feely conversational style such occasions often demand. Her speech was delivered at the brisk canter of a woman who means business and doesn’t have a moment to waste. This was a politician at the top of her game, with a party membership 100,000-strong, the support of almost half the Scottish electorate, a majority at Holyrood and a sense she is only just getting into her stride. She is a force in the land, whether you regard that land as Scotland or the UK.

Is the Trident issue just a red herring, simply used to position the SNP in voters’ minds?

Each successive opinion poll is scrutinised for signs that the SNP grip on voting intentions is beginning to weaken. So far that hasn’t happened – although there was yesterday a rare moment of expectation-lowering when Sturgeon said that anything over the SNP’s previous record of 11 seats, from the 1974-1979 Westminster parliament, would be a huge victory.

So the SNP dominates, not just in Scotland but UK-wide. For a party that usually fights for relevance in a UK general election, this is quite a turnaround.

And yet there is a strong sense the SNP’s extraordinary position in the polls is the product of the seismic shifts the referendum has wrought on Scottish politics, rather than the result of SNP strategic genius in the past three months.

The rules of election campaigning are not rocket science. Decide on a simple message. Find a pithy way of saying it. Say it. And keep on saying it until everyone knows it off by heart. Then say it again. This is how elections are won. The SNP message, in contrast, has looked like a work in progress since before Christmas.

Sturgeon first set out three SNP red lines as the price of her party’s support in forming a UK government in a hung parliament. These were cancelling the renewal of Trident; home rule for Scotland (helpfully defined by Alex Salmond as everything apart from defence and foreign affairs); and “the end of austerity”.

Some nationalists murmured privately that these had not been fully “wargamed” – tested in a paper exercise against the likely counters from the other parties and the likely dynamic of the campaign. Sure enough, it soon became apparent these were not red lines at all. The SNP’s leverage was not as great as it had first assumed, because a refusal to do a deal with the Tories deprived it of bargaining power. They weren’t red lines, they were just campaign lines. They were simply what the SNP thought voters wanted to hear at that particular time. They weren’t meant to be taken seriously, heavens no.

The problem with this is it leaves the voters confused. Especially voters who might be tending towards SNP but who have not yet fully made up their minds. Can they not take the SNP at face value?

Take Trident as an example. Is Trident a red line or not? Will Sturgeon help Labour into power without a deal on scrapping Trident? Or is she just saying that the SNP, once a Labour government is in place, will vote against Trident renewal when that vote comes along – which will in no way impede the renewal? Is the whole Trident issue a red herring in this election, simply used to position the SNP in voters’ minds rather than commit the party to anything?

One commentator yesterday summed up Sturgeon’s speech as: “We defy Ed Miliband to refuse our unconditional support for a Labour government.” There is some truth in that. The SNP’s work in progress still needs work.

Financial tricks are ‘an offence to fairness’

Whenever a politician creates a tax, an accountant will point out a way to avoid it. So it is with the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) created by Cabinet Secretary for Finance John Swinney to replace stamp duty, which was devolved from Westminster to Holyrood last year.

As we explain in our news story today, loopholes are already being identified to allow some rural properties to save many thousands of pounds by claiming to be a farm.

Clearly, many large rural properties with a bit of land tend to put that land to use in some way. This does make them farms.

This is not to say the LBTT is unusually flawed – it is a sensible reform of property sales tax with many improvements on its predecessor. It is simply that any new piece of tax legislation will always be scrutinised by financial advisers for ways to save their clients money. It is what they do. Bears and woods come to mind. But that does not mean we should stand idly by and let that happen.

The bottom line here is that this is tax avoidance. Successfully using this loophole would allow relatively wealthy people to pay less in tax – money that would have to be made up by less wealthy people who do not try to avoid paying tax. It is an offence to fairness.

There is a risk demonstrated here that all in Scottish politics would be wise to acknowledge. Big changes to the way we conduct our finances mean many more opportunities for tax avoidance.

As more powers are devolved to Scotland and new Scottish taxes devised or adapted, many more opportunities of this kind will arise. That is inevitable.

This is not an argument for doing nothing. Far from it. The powers coming to Holyrood provide the opportunity for far more accountable and effective ways of running the Scottish economy than are currently available to Scottish ministers.

But Swinney needs to acknowledge the danger and explain what he is planning to do to counter it.

Scotland needs a crack team of loophole-closing experts who can ensure that more power for Scotland does not mean more opportunities for tax avoiders.

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