There was a time a few decades ago when this would have been a commonplace occurrence, but more recently two factors have conspired to make it a rarity. The first was the New Labour paranoia about appearing to Middle Britain – and that included Middle Scotland as well as Middle England – to be the socialist tax-and-spend party of old. The second was the limited range of taxation powers available to Holyrood politicians, coupled with the sometimes puzzling consensus in Scottish politics that the Tartan Tax – a power won in the 1997 devolution referendum – was fine in theory, but not really workable in practice, for reasons of administrative cost as much as political risk.
Both these factors are now changing. Tomorrow Anas Sarwar, deputy leader of Scottish Labour, will make a call for his party to embrace redistribution and present themselves to the Scottish voters as the party on the side of poor, characterising the SNP as a party that panders to the wealthy and privileged. Putting aside, for one moment, the contentious accusation about his political opponents, Sarwar’s speech is a landmark one. It is all the more interesting when taken alongside a paper prepared by Arthur Midwinter, the economist who is heading up Scottish Labour’s commission on public services, which is critical of the SNP Government for demanding new tax powers while being unwilling to use the Tartan Tax. This falls some way short of a move by Labour to use this power itself, but it does bring the concept into play. With Holyrood’s control over income tax set to be extended in two years time under agreed revisions to the Scotland Act, the scope for fiscal action is certainly becoming wider.
These developments are welcome in the debate about how Scotland manages to afford the level of public services that voters have come to expect as their entitlement. In particular, the new discussion about taxation is an essential and long overdue companion to the debate already raging in Scotland about which public services should be universally free to all at point of use. Few subjects in Scottish politics – the constitution aside – have caused as much rancour as this. The SNP, backing universal benefits such as free university tuition fees, have accused Labour of being “Tory poster boys”, while Labour has accused the SNP of giving the wealthiest Scots an easy ride while the poorest Scots suffer.
An honest conversation about taxation is essential in this debate because the reality is that any service can be free at point of use, if you are prepared to pay for it through additional taxation. The question then becomes where that burden of extra taxation falls – with Sarwar plainly eyeing up the wealthy who have benefited the most from Scotland’s council tax freeze, while also enjoying free services which in England would cost them money. For the SNP, of course, there is always the get-out that extra taxation should not be necessary – all Scotland needs is independence whereupon the bounty from North Sea oil and the cash saved from not sustaining a nuclear deterrent would be available for extra public spending. If, and when, Scotland votes Yes to independence, that will be an argument worth having. In the meantime, the SNP has a country to run within the UK, with the powers available to it now and those in the pipeline. And taxation must be part of that conversation.
A worthwhile lesson
The good news is that the overall figures for exclusions from Scottish schools are on a downward curve. The bad news is that, at more than 26,000 a year, they are still too high and the total conceals huge discrepancies between local education authority areas. So, as we report today, some local authorities have taken the step of setting up what are being called “inclusion units,” which aim to keep even the most unruly pupils within the school environment but, at least, removing them from the classroom where they have the potential to disrupt the education of everyone around them.
Albeit expensive, this is a good compromise that retains children within the school system and exposes them to programmes in which their behaviour is directly addressed. Some commentators will argue that this allows those children to continue to mix with their peers – getting the social benefits of being at school – while missing lessons; what many of them were intending in the first place. There is also no place here for parental input or responsibility for the children’s behaviour. However, research shows that children simply excluded from lessons to punish their behaviour and left to their own devices are more likely to commit offences and set out on a pattern of behaviour that ends behind bars. It is an idea that should be rolled out across Scotland.