Andrew Wilson: an unequal battle of ideas

Michael Russell called for more councils, greater democracy and local focus. Picture: Craig Borland
Michael Russell called for more councils, greater democracy and local focus. Picture: Craig Borland
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A SUBSTANTIAL lecture was delivered at Glasgow University on Monday night that could fundamentally change the governance of the country.

The next morning a speech about taxation was given in Edinburgh that offered another idea that would make much less impact.

The latter got wall-to-wall coverage, the first got very little.

The battle for attention is not a meritocratic fight of course. The Glasgow lecture was given by the former cabinet secretary, Mike Russell, while the speech was by the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale.

My friend and fellow columnist, Euan McColm, covers the politics of the Labour move very well elsewhere in the paper today. The thought that strikes this columnist though is how the culture of politics in Scotland banishes big thoughts to lecture theatres while concentrating the gaze of the Holyrood bubble on relatively small things.

I respect both speakers a lot. Kezia I haven’t known well or long but I like what I see. Michael I have known for a frightening number of years.

At the tender age of 24 he tempted me out of a perfectly enjoyable and secure civil service career to go and work at the SNP HQ as the party’s economist on a one-year contract. He was then the chief executive of the party and a complete joy to work for.

Superbly clever and broadly read, I learned much from him about everything from politics to poetry. He had a penchant for cigarillos then and the law and mores of the time allowed him to puff away in our office – I can still smell them. Ugly.

I was especially irked when I proudly delivered my first research note which he glanced at and handed back, saying “fine”. I was fuming that he hadn’t bothered to read it, before realising he was one of those irritating characters whose speed of reading matches the pace of the brain.

We got on famously. I enjoyed tickling him with cheekiness which he pretended to hate. When we were both elected to Holyrood in 1999, I spotted a tiny picture of Mike in a newspaper with the description “Russell… Pompous” reflecting some attack on his character from someone. I took enormous pleasure in blowing it up to A4 and sticking it up in the office for him to complain about – almost every day – for four years.

So I must confess that as I read his lecture this week I had my antennae up for the opportunity of a quick line at his expense. I found none. Instead there was a very substantial and long overdue call for the recasting of the government of the country.

He observed that the European average number of electors per local authority is 14,000. In Germany it is 7,000. But in Scotland it is 170,000.

“Almost every elector in Norway is within half an hour of his or her council headquarters. In my area, for example, that applies to a small minority of electors yet most of the services they are required to deliver should be very local indeed; education, community care, refuse disposal and recycling. Scotland has roughly one councillor per 4,000 electors; in Norway it is around 470.”

The point he was arguing is that local government is neither local nor government and that the distance from real life matters. So he wants more councils, greater democracy and local focus. He concluded: “Councils that are much closer to those they serve, working with local people, run by a larger and more representative groups of councillors and with smaller staff complements who all live in and know the area need to be the norm not the exception.”

That’s a big idea that would cut through decades of inaction on a system that isn’t working any more. Well worth our focus and debate whether you agree or not.

The next day Labour proposed a 1p rise on all income tax rates, repeating the Liberals’ call for the same.

Nothing in tax revenues is ever entirely predictable. The Liberals suggested their identical tax move would raise £475 million while Labour reckoned they could get an extra £25m. The suggested rebate to some would cost at least £75m to deliver and anything up to £40m for local authorities to administer.

The Scottish Government’s total budget for next year was announced in December at £37 billion. So taken together on reasonably modest and fair assumptions, the net gain to tax revenues will be less than 1 per cent of that, all other things being equal.

If we are being fair to Labour, at least their tax rise would just about (but not quite) plug the total cut in the Scottish budget by London this year (£406m). But that would mean all pay more tax to just get us back to where the SNP government’s budget closes in March this year. Worth it?

It was politically incendiary but its material impact on public services will be very marginal at best. Elections ought to be about more.

In the battle for publicity Labour won hands down. In the battle of ideas, Michael Russell ought to have.