Scottish budget: Is this the time for the SNP to leave its financial comfort zone?

Scotland’s finances are shot. There’s no money left, inflation has bitten a huge chunk out of existing cash, and public services face a “dismal” medium-term outlook.

That’s the view of John Swinney, the interim finance secretary, following the autumn statement by Jeremy Hunt in Westminster. While much of the immediate impact to the Scottish budget can be explained away by the Ukraine war and the financial mismanagement of the Liz Truss government, it is true other policy approaches outwith the orthodoxy could be followed.

The SNP have long called for more powers, ostensibly to do more while devolution trundles along to what the party believe is its ultimate destination – independence. But they seem remarkably reluctant to use them.

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Council tax, for example, has long been accepted as being both woefully out of date and deeply regressive. Reform has been demanded, promised and left on the platform multiple times.

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Richard Leonard, speaking at FMQs, raised the possibility for Holyrood to pursue a wealth tax or a land value tax. This, he said, would reduce Scotland’s “extreme inequalities” and “fund our public services properly”.

In the face of the impending financial apocalypse for public services, this sort of innovation and potential additional revenue-raising levers could do wonders.

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It would see the SNP step out of its comfort zone and pursue genuinely imaginative ways of clawing back money through taxation. It would be a risky, very un-Sturgeon thing to do. But in the face of the worst cost-of-living crisis in living memory, if not now, when?

Instead, budget day next month is likely to have a narrative constructed around the flaws of Westminster, of the constraints imposed on the SNP who so desperately want to do more, but just can’t, and of a country stuck in the embrace of a monstrous entity intent on squeezing every last penny to pay for its own mistakes.

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Deputy First Minister John Swinney is facing a tough budget day in December

It will also be the first time Scots get a comprehensive understanding of the financial impact of Thursday’s announcement from Hunt. The focus will be on whether the SNP follows the UK Government on threshold freezes and cuts, and the SNP is fundamentally a party lacking imagination on policy.

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The option to do otherwise, however, is there. It’s up to the SNP whether Scotland chooses a different path.

Want to hear more from The Scotsman's politics team? Check out the latest episode of our political podcast, The Steamie.

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