Patrick Harvie: Voters demand a different agenda

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AFTER a run of rather dull years in politics, 2010 brought a new injection of drama. The UK has its first Westminster peacetime coalition since the 1930s.

Lib Dem ministers are enjoying the unexpected trappings of office - perhaps the only chance they will ever have if their slide in the polls continues. As human shields for the Tory-led government, they're helping to push through cuts to spending and public services that will hit the poorest hardest and revive each one of Beveridge's five giant evils. Meanwhile in the streets, protesters burn Nick Clegg and George Osborne in effigy. There's little doubt that 2010 has marked a return to a profoundly ideological politics after the drab managerialism of the Brown/Blair era.

From a Scottish perspective, Westminster has taken centre stage for perhaps the first time since the Iraq war. That's not just because of the unpopularity of the Coalition's agenda; it's also because of the weakness of both the SNP Government and the Labour opposition at Holyrood. May's Scottish election will turn the spotlight on Holyrood again, and I believe that we must revisit the very purpose of devolution. It's time to remember why we voted for a Scottish Parliament in the first place.

I wasn't a politician - I wasn't even a member of a political party - when I voted "Yes Yes" to devolution. One argument supported that vote more clearly than any other. I believed that Scotland had the political will to stand up to any future Tory government at Westminster, and I wanted us to have the power we would need to protect public services and defend our distinctively more progressive social settlement. I wanted an ambitious Parliament that could go further and faster to tackle poverty and to protect our environment.

The dozen years since then have been largely uninspiring. The generous explanation is that a young Parliament had to learn to crawl before it could walk; that confidence would take time. But tinkering at the edges won't be enough now, and manufactured political rows between the larger parties will convince nobody. The sad fact is that aside from the constitution they can't really be distinguished on any of the important issues of the day. When the SNP took over the faces changed and the volume setting changed, but not much else. There have been few real achievements, and it has surprised many to see a supposedly nationalist government display such limited ambition.

Uninspired drift was largely tolerated during the good times, when budgets rose and the only question was what services to make free next. Those days are now gone, and as a result this year coming we will see the first true test of Scottish politics, of the Parliament and its powers, and of the parties represented in it.

The SNP has so far decided simply to hand on the Tories' cuts, adding an additional squeeze of their own through the harsh penalties any council would face if it tried to raise council tax and protect services. They even let the tax-varying power lapse, a power separately endorsed by the people in the referendum. Despite progressive noises about rejecting the Lib Dem/Tory approach on a number of issues, the SNP seems unwilling to follow through. Their ministers make fine speeches - for example, on keeping higher education free to access, paid for by general taxation - but show no willingness to raise that taxation to pay for it.

Labour similarly shy away from a clear redistributive approach to Scotland's finances. It would be a scandal, and an utter failing of devolution, if May's election simply saw Holyrood's five political parties offering Scotland five different versions of the Tory cuts. I believe that many Scottish voters who do remember why they wanted their own Parliament in the first place demand a different agenda which asserts Scotland's own political priorities.

Assertiveness should not be confused with the Labour/SNP chest-pounding tribalism. There's no point opposing the Tory Government's plans if we're not prepared to act differently ourselves. Another term at Holyrood characterised by short-term posturing would do absolutely nothing to tackle the economic and environmental crises we face.

Scottish ministers' limited powers are no excuse for inaction, and we cannot afford to wait four more years for the flawed Calman powers to be brought in. The Scottish Variable Rate must be restored in case it's needed, but the more urgent task is to identify more progressive options, primarily around local taxation.

In 1999 Robin Harper was a lone voice in the Scottish Parliament for a Land Value Tax. Since then we've produced detailed figures showing the potential to generate substantial sums from those with untaxed property wealth and cut the tax bills for those currently in the lower council tax bands. Replacing both the Council Tax and the Uniform Business Rate with LVT would be fairer, and would help spur regeneration and take some of the burden off Scotland's small businesses. Other options exist for raising revenue locally, and fairly, to protect the public services Scotland's communities depend upon.

Right now we have a Scottish Government that seems utterly unwilling to use its existing power to defend against the Tory agenda which Scotland didn't vote for. Instead it keeps on telling the lie which has been told for too long in the UK - that we can have European standards of public services while paying American levels of tax. That lie simply won't do any longer, and it must be exposed if next year's election is to offer any meaningful choice to the Scottish voters. The Scottish Budget offers the first opportunity to do so. I hope John Swinney understands this challenge.

Patrick Harvie MSP is co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party