Brian Wilson: No passion in pick’n’mix Nationalism

Jim McColl has chosen to live in the principalty of Monaco. Picture: AFP/Getty
Jim McColl has chosen to live in the principalty of Monaco. Picture: AFP/Getty
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It is easy to see why an idea of a Scotland that undercuts corporation tax appeals to Jim McColl , writes Brian Wilson

It DOESN’T bother me that Jim McColl has chosen to live in Monaco in order to avoid the rigours of the British tax system. He is as entitled as any other man on the Monte Carlo omnibus to his opinions about Scottish independence.

However, having read his Scotsman interview with some astonishment, what does slightly concern me is that this guy is on the Council of Economic Advisers, the band of trusties appointed by the First Minister and, for the time being at least, supposedly promoting Scotland’s interests within the current constitutional framework.

Yet, having cast doubt on whether his own company would remain in Scotland (which has not, hitherto, done too badly by him within the framework of the United Kingdom) in the event of us retaining that constitutional status after the referendum, Mr McColl progressed to a much more serious question.

“Why,” he asked rhetorically, “would I come to Scotland if I can go to London, with its ease of travel and the critical mass there?” If Mr McColl is really unable to answer that question, then one wonders why he is a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, though our inward investment competitors in the south will find his comments useful.

Mr McColl, of course, sets conditions for the kind of Scotland he aspires to in order to woo investors away from the siren calls of London. It is – surprise, surprise – a Scotland in which businesses like his own pay less tax.

And without the “incentives” of 3 per cent lower corporation tax than the Tories set in England, Scotland is doomed to being “a sad place”. Sadder than London, sadder even than Monaco.

The next obvious question is how far this race to the bottom would go. If Scotland set out to undercut corporation tax in what was left of the UK, then it seems likely that our (by then foreign) neighbours would respond. And then another cut? It is easy to see why this scenario appeals to Mr McColl – but who pays? Certainly not residents of Monaco. More likely the same people who are currently paying, throughout the UK, for the same kind of priority.

One of the Nationalists’ favourite complaints is that anyone who disagrees with them is “talking Scotland down”. The charge is usually rubbish. But quite honestly, I cannot recall anyone actually talking Scotland down in the way Mr McColl just has: “Why would I come to Scotland if can go to London…” – unless you change the constitution and the tax system to suit me?

Maybe it was a little unwise for the Nationalists to attach themselves, as Nicola Sturgeon went out of her way to do yesterday, to Mr McColl’s threats and warnings. After all, they may actually want to run the “sad place” beyond September 2014. In which case they will need a better slogan for inward investors than: “Why would I come to Scotland if I can go to London?”

Indeed, some more thoughtful voices in the “yes” or “maybe” camps were distancing themselves. Perhaps it was slowly dawning that Mr McColl’s prescription, and the SNP’s enthusiasm for it, are just a tad incompatible with all these messages about the caring, sharing socialist Valhalla that Scotland could become if freed from the English yoke. The illusions of pick’n’mix nationalism are wearing thin.

The problem with this kind of politics is that in order not to contradict any of the mixed messages about what would happen post-independence, very little is actually being done now. There is no evidence of radicalism or passion about the exercise of the powers which actually exist – in contrast to the boasts about the wonders we would behold if only more powers existed.

Scottish politics is redefined as being solely about the constitution rather than priorities which cry out for action here and now, or the conflicts of interest that are inherent in any society. No boats must be rocked, the middle classes must not be alienated, the pretence must be maintained of there being one united Scottish interest which can be served only through independence.

A good example of this came last week with the interim report of the Land Reform Review Group set up by the Scottish Government after five years of doing absolutely nothing about what used to be known as the Land Question in Scotland.

My own assumption from the outset was that the whole idea was to kick the subject into touch until after the referendum, rather than risk upsetting anyone.

By unanimous consent, the interim report is a pathetic mouse of a document which confirms these low expectations. But the Scottish Government will regard that as a compliment. There is no genuine interest in the subject – only in closing it down as a source of controversy for another 18 months. So we have the pretence of activity but nothing of substance fired by a belief in anything.

The same story applies across the board. I challenge anyone to identify a significant piece of progressive, wealth-transferring social reform which has been put through the Scottish parliament in the past five years. It is easy to talk about social injustice and then try to pin it on forces outside Scotland. But the missing proof of the pudding lies in the failure to do anything about it, using the powers that already exist.

It is pure fantasy – certainly not borne out by the Republic of Ireland’s experience – that pursuing investment through low taxes creates sustainable economic growth. But what it certainly does is remove from government the revenues which fund a welfare state and a National Health Service. Why would we want to follow a model which, so close to home, has delivered near-economic collapse and mass emigration?

If there is any progressive radicalism within this Scottish Government then now is the time to demonstrate it – rather than kidding on that it would suddenly emerge on 19 September, 2014. Too much of the evidence points in the opposite direction and endorsing Mr McColl’s prescription will do nothing to dispel that impression. There are, he should be told firmly, excellent reasons to come to Scotland – regardless of constitutional status. Some of us even like living here.