Brian Wilson: Swinney delivers classic Tory budget

SWINNEY feared upsetting the middle classes with a tax rise, leaving councils to pay the price, writes Brian Wilson

Finance secretary John Swinney MSP when he was SNP party leader. Picture: TSPL

Nobody ever lost money by reassuring the Scots that we are the most caring, altruistic, welcoming people in the world, uniquely blessed with an egalitarian gene which makes us a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns.

Equally, it is some time since anyone won an election through even the most timorous effort to translate that self-image into votes. Nobody is better placed to appreciate that dichotomy than John Swinney, who this week delivered a classic Tory budget for Scotland.

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Pre-2001, Swinney was leader of the SNP and stuck his toe in the waters of redistribution. Labour had cut the standard rate of income tax by 1p and he seized the chance to invite Scotland to cancel that out in order to spend more on health, education and other desirable outcomes.

The electorate declined without thanks, the policy was ditched and the leader with it. This is crucial history in explaining why Mr “Penny-for-Scotland” of 2001 is now the “Not-a-Penny-for-Scotland” toast of Tory tabloid headlines – and who can blame them for revelling in the irony? If this is Scotland’s “anti-austerity” government, then austerity’s future is assured.

In the mid-90s, there was routine indignation when Tony Blair introduced a second referendum question about tax-raising powers. This was portrayed as some Machiavellian scheme to derail devolution when actually it was a doomed effort to underpin Holyrood with fiscal options and forestall future grievance. Fat chance there ever was of the right to grievance being surrendered so easily.

Scotland cheerfully endorsed the right to vary the standard rate by 3p. Chastened by Swinney’s experience, no Scottish Government touched it with a barge pole. It was easier to tell Westminster: “Send a bigger cheque” which they continued to do until recently with remarkable generosity. Edinburgh had more money than it knew what to do with.

So the SNP’s reason for sticking to Tory tax rates is understandable – doing otherwise would cost them votes, perhaps even absolute power. So far, so pragmatic but certainly not “anti-austerity”. Swinney’s claim that a penny on the standard rate would hit the poor is disingenuous because it ignores the threshold before tax is paid and also the cost of service cuts for the less well-off.

It is not the poor who are protected by following the Osborne line but the middle-class electoral base on which the SNP depends and at whom all its flagship policies and hand-outs are directed. So no ­surprises there.

The really offensive part of Swinney’s budget is how he passed the burden of pain to local authorities, the traditional Tory whipping-boys. It takes a second to talk about a £500 million or 3.5 per cent cut. But this is brutal stuff which the weakest will live with daily. These numbers translate into home helps, day centres, special needs schools, classroom assistants, public libraries, sports centres… all the services which councils provide for those who need them to achieve a reasonable standard of life.

Sometimes, smaller numbers are better understood than big ones. I live in the Western Isles whose council has seen its revenue budget cut from £120m to £100m over five years. Three quarters goes on education and social care. It has just held an extensive consultation on how to implement the last round of cuts. Those which were dropped due to public protest will now have to be revived.

They cannot cut education further (and on matters like pre-school provision already have no chance of meeting supposed national “guarantees”). To satisfy Swinney’s new draconia, the only substantial area for saving is social care – and this in islands with ageing populations and all that entails. Yet my local authority admits its plight is manageable compared to that of bigger ones. For the Scottish Government, it is all about out of sight, out of mind – and blame.

Is this Swinney’s idea of a progressive Scotland? The Nationalist answer is that such a Valhalla can only be achieved through independence. Thanks to the oil price collapse, that is an even more dubious assertion now than in September 2014. But leaving that aside, it is simply not on the short-term agenda – so choices have to be made and fundamentally they are between protecting the strong or the weak; the classic divide of politics.

Every difficult issue has been ducked with the council-tax freeze a prime example. It hurts the poor, because of service cuts, while those who save most – and depend least on public services – love it. So whose interests take priority? Osborne allowed councils to raise extra cash predicated for social care. Would even that have been too radical for Swinney?

Over the longer term, the council tax is a classic example of how devolution has been betrayed by the constant argument about powers rather than a smidgen of progressive thinking around the ones that exist. Funding local government should long since have been a challenge to be welcomed in order to find a truly radical solution. Nobody was stopping us.

The council tax was a cobbled-together replacement for the poll tax which limited, but did not remove, the basic flaw of not linking bills to ability to pay. Holyrood has had 16 years and the SNP eight to devise something better. Meanwhile, advantage to the better-off has steadily risen and is now very difficult to get rid of because of the dramatic impacts involved. We are back to where the Tories were 30 years ago when panic over revaluation led them into the folly of the poll tax. Plus ça change…

So ignore the fine words. On the basis of Swinney’s budget, there will be no redistribution. No enhancement of public services. No closing of attainment gaps. The only bravura radicalism from the Scottish Government will continue to be reserved for matters over which it has no responsibility, thereby sustaining “Left” credentials among the gullible, wilful and otherwise.

For those who have revived the Tartan Tory label, the mistake is to think the SNP’s success has been in spite rather than largely because of what it reflects. The substantial, penny-counting element within the Scottish electorate has always been able to distinguish between what the Nationalists say and what they do. It is a lesson which others might learn at leisure.