Brian Monteith: Positive political delight in negative accusations

'Another Orwellian twist in the current debate is the Borgen Delusion'. Picture: PA
'Another Orwellian twist in the current debate is the Borgen Delusion'. Picture: PA
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THERE’S a great deal of negativity in Britain’s politics today. Currently any politicians who dare ask difficult questions, ones that might need some hard facts to back up the answers, will have a 16-ton Monty Python weight land on them from above, with a dull crushing thud!

“You’re being negative,” comes the retort, and that’s that. You are marginalised for asking or saying the unthinkable – that a positive idea might actually be unworkable, disastrous even – so if you dare ask a difficult question the reprimand replaces any answer. You are thus left none the wiser, and are castigated for being so uncharitable, so lacking in positivity.

Asking how Clydeside shipyards would win orders to build ships for the Royal Navy when Scotland becomes a foreign country is a fair question, but is decried as negativity. Real negativity would be the loss of thousands of well-paid jobs in Scotland. Positivity is having the opportunity to keep those jobs by remaining in the UK.

Sometimes this lingual bullying involves an Orwellian perversion of our language so that positivity becomes negativity. Recently the withdrawal of a benefit paid to a small minority receiving welfare payments to subsidise the renting of an extra bedroom has been branded a bedroom tax. Twisting the knife further, it is alleged it is the latest Tory Poll tax, and that only an independent Scotland could avoid this new Tory tax we never voted for.

It is not a tax. It is a subsidy that is being withdrawn. Nor is it anything like a poll tax; for those who were around in the late 1980s will remember the whole point of that tax was to ensure that everyone made some sort of contribution to the costs of local council services. It was a universal tax on everyone and although it provided discounts of up to 80 per cent for those on benefits, everyone had to pay something.

The spare bedroom benefit is limited to a minority within a minority. It is not a tax and it is not universal, but any attempt to reduce the burden of the cost of welfare on the working public – a positive – is turned into a grotesque negative so that it can be condemned.

One is left wondering if there is any benefit change that seeks restraint on spending that would not be opposed by Labour or the SNP? Indeed, one is given the impression that the previous practice of increasing welfare benefits at rates above earnings growth (and thus tax revenues) should continue – without any regard to it meaning they obviously could not be funded.

Still, to point this out would be negative – and here comes that 16 tons from the sky again.

The British and Scottish state both live beyond their means. To pay for our unaffordable welfare system we have to borrow on the promise of the wealth yet to be created by our children and grandchildren. When rising health costs and rising numbers of older people collide with occasional dips in economic growth, as now, there is a price to pay.

As the demographics and health costs inexorably worsen, so each collision gets progressively worse. It is reckoned that by 2030 our national debt caused by our public sector and the servicing of it will be impossible for the workforce of the time to finance. That we have managed to do so thus far has partly been due to the fact that we pay benefits from current income and partly to the economic productivity of immigrants who came to Britain over the last ten years.

Even though we are told we live in a time of austerity, and despite falling unemployment claims, our current welfare budget is actually increasing, unlike say, defence or police budgets. The removal of the spare bedroom subsidy, whether justified or not (and in restraining our unaffordable welfare system there will always be examples of unfortunate losers) is, we are told, just one example of how an independent Scotland could remove this Tory negativity from our lives.

Claiming the basic laws of economics can be removed from Scotland, be we in the Union or an independent state, denies all reason – but the SNP is playing with hearts, not heads.

Another Orwellian twist in the current debate is the Borgen Delusion, the idea promoted by the SNP and its followers that if only Scotland were independent could we adopt the social justice nostrums of the fictional Danish government of Birgitte Nyborg in the television drama Borgen.

Strangely, nobody seems to have noticed that the UK’s family benefits measured against GDP (3.6 per cent) are already greater than Denmark’s or the Scandinavian average (both 3.3 per cent) and social spending is around the same too. But with our taxes far lower, the question of how Scotland could sustain high levels of spending without similar Tory benefit cuts deserves to be answered – even if it is condemned as a negative question. At least Danish politicians have the honesty to slap higher taxes on their people to pay for such generosity with VAT at 25 per cent (including food) and standard income taxes at about 30 per cent.

Only last week John Swinney was telling us personal and business taxes would not rise in an independent Scotland. Really? Did he mean then that VAT could rise to Danish levels?

The Borgen Delusion of wishing Scotland could be Scandinavian is revealing, because it simply cherry-picks what Scottish socialists like and ignores or denies other aspects of Scandinavian life that are inconvenient.

I do not see Nicola Sturgeon calling for the Danish education vouchers that have seen the independent school sector grow from about 8 per cent in 1982 to over 13 per cent in 2008. Nor does Sturgeon holler for Sweden’s free school system that is credited with improving standards.

Actually it is Michael Gove, Tory Education Secretary in England, ironically a Scot, who has copied the Swedes and yet has been castigated by socialists north and south of the border as a result. Typically, Gove’s positive reforms are portrayed as a negative.

It would seem even using Scandinavia as an example is no defence against that 16-ton weight.