Kenny MacAskill: There really is no gain without pain, whatever politicians say

Nicola Sturgeon's Programme for Government seems to suggest improvement in services can be achieved painlessly
Nicola Sturgeon's Programme for Government seems to suggest improvement in services can be achieved painlessly
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There’s a saying “no pain, no gain” applied in the sporting world. But it actually has a far wider reference across our society. In the former context, it implies that if you don’t put in the effort in training, whether miles, lengths or in the ring, then you’ll never succeed.

However, in the latter it means that if we don’t make the sacrifice whether increased tax or a change in lifestyle then we’ll never achieve the society we seek or avoid the calamities we face. Yet there’s almost a conspiracy of silence from politicians in Scotland and elsewhere as to what needs to done, and an assumption or simply a hope persists that it can all be achieved almost effortlessly and certainly painlessly.

I was minded of that with the SNP’s Programme for Government and the political reaction to it around the chamber. However, I don’t want to be too critical of Holyrood as their position has been largely replicated and dictated by the UK Government south of the Border.

In the Scottish Parliament, a better country was wanted by all and improved services expected by everyone. It was long on aspiration which is a good thing; after all, a government devoid of vision would be uninspiring to say the least, and they deserve credit for that. The investigation into a basic citizens’ income is therefore welcome and other necessary future actions are equally heartening.

But we live in the here and now and governments are judged on current achievements rather than future actions. Moreover, change needs to start now otherwise the pain that will be needed increases. And that’s where the adage has been ignored. It seems not just the administration but almost everyone in the chamber thinks that there can be immediate improvement in services without any pain whether in increased tax, how public services are run or cuts imposed.

For one of the biggest announcements that had been trailed was the lifting of the public sector pay curb. That was required because people have been suffering, as inflation has risen and wages have been constrained. Not doing so was unimaginable and it was understandably given universal support. However, the move comes at a cost. Wages are a huge part of every public services expenditure, representing an estimated 60 per cent of the budget in Scotland. Compounding those internal pressures are the external ones, that public services have never been under a greater strain as population rises, the percentage of elderly increases and medical science delivers wondrous new treatments. All that is to be welcomed, but it has to be paid for.

There was no consequent increase in income for their balance sheet. Now there’s a danger, if not likelihood, that the services provided will simply diminish to meet the cost. The workforce’s gain will be the wider public’s loss.

Of course, structural reform can be made, as in education and policing, to reduce overheads but it’s neither quick nor easy. It should be done but it didn’t seem to be suggested by anyone. Tax rises are to be considered but again, it’s not immediate and many pay rises will be quick in coming. It wasn’t just the SNP but all parties that were culpable. Even the Tories were insisting not just on an improvement of current services, but demanding new ones, all without any increased resourcing. It simply doesn’t add up, more can’t be done for less.

Public service workers are entitled to a decent wage and therefore the lifting of the pay cap was correct. But public services need to be paid for and that has to bring politicians back to telling the public the truth. The sums just don’t add up. We need to pay more or expect less. That’s where politicians are currently continuing to be delusional or deceitful.

There will have to be tax rises whatever mantra is chanted by the Tories in the Holyrood Chamber. It’s a question of which taxes and how much. After all, over recent years Westminster under both Labour and Tory administrations have been hiking tax but by stealth. Insurance premiums, national insurance contributions and myriad other such charges have appeared to try and plug the gap in public finances as direct taxation, especially upon the wealthy has reduced considerably. That has worsened inequality as the burden has transferred on to the shoulders of the poor, whatever slogans or soundbites were made by David Cameron or Theresa May, about all being in it together.

The transferring of the burden hasn’t just been from the rich to the poor but from the old too the young. Generations that benefited from higher taxation and the services they paid for, have expected improved services, yet expected to pay less tax. It’s their successors that now face increased tax to pay for services their elders benefit from and received as of right. Yet, they’re denied those very benefits their elders took for granted from available council housing, student grants or the absence of tuition fees and in many instances even the pension whether final salary or otherwise.

So, tax rises there will be, and not just at Holyrood. It’s one of the few tools in the box for the SNP administration as powers over wealth taxes are, in the main, reserved to Westminster. But its not easy, as many are struggling and tax rises for the rich are not the bounty many think they are. When people can move whether literally or simply the domicile on their tax form, it’s naturally constrained or can even become counterproductive.

But tax rises there must be, and they should be and based on the ability to pay, both at Holyrood and Westminster. The funding of public services requires it and the society we wish to see demands it. It’s unfair to be too hard on politicians, as they reflect what society wants and require to remain popular. But, they need to speak out.

Time is short and the effort needed great. Not just athletes but all of us, need to realise that without pain, there is no gain.