This morning’s papers are already full of reports about the contents of the Strathclyde Commission report, the Conservative counterpart to Labour’s shambolic “Devo Nano” proposals. Embarrassingly for Johann Lamont, it looks as though the Tories are going to “outbid” Labour, the self-proclaimed “party of devolution”, with what are superficially greater powers for the Scottish Parliament on taxation.
And like much of the media’s coverage of the entire independence debate, the reporting to date is an insult to the intelligence of the people of Scotland.
It’s well over a year now since we identified the true nature of the Tories’ vision for a future Holyrood, yet we still haven’t seen a single newspaper or broadcaster spot the staggeringly obvious fact that making Scotland RAISE its own taxes without giving it any more control of where it SPENDS them is a burden, not a power.
It’s even more absurd when you remember that the Scottish Parliament has had the power to alter tax up or down since its formation in 1999 yet has never exercised that power. Extending that unused and now-neglected ability is a bit like upgrading your pet dog’s laptop computer – it doesn’t really matter how much memory or how fast a processor you put in there, because he’s never going to switch it on. He’s a dog.
The simple fact, plainly visible to any eight-year-old child with a command of basic arithmetic and even slightly above-average intelligence, is that you can’t set different tax rates within a unitary state. You can’t have Scotland able to undertake tax competition with (especially) the north of England when the north of England doesn’t have the same ability. It’s ridiculously unfair, it would cause chaos and uproar – perhaps even actual riots – and it makes a mockery of the entire notion of the Union.
The vast majority of the Scottish population lives within 100 miles of the English border. Any meaningful difference in income tax rates between Edinburgh and Newcastle or Glasgow and Carlisle, while Scotland and England were still part of the same country, would wreak utter administrative havoc.
Loopholes for tax avoidance and evasion would multiply a hundredfold. Workers and companies would flit across the border like flocks of starlings to wherever the rates were lowest. If, as is apparently proposed, Housing Benefit is also devolved, the same would apply to the unemployed and low-paid workers.
(We’re still waiting to hear how you actually disentangle Housing Benefit in practice – but only in Scotland – from Universal Credit. Such a move flies in the face of the entire founding principle of Universal Credit, and when Labour were asked how they’d square that circle their answer was, and remains, “Mumble mumble oh look a squirrel.”)
All that “devolving” income tax means in reality is a lot of expensive new administrative infrastructure in order to pointlessly duplicate the functions of HMRC in Scotland. It will, absolutely clearly, take money out of the Scottish Government budget with no way of recouping it other than tax raises – which we’ve just establised are practically and also politically impossible – or cuts to public services.
Cuts to public services it is, then, which is likely to mean that all the hard-won gains of the Scottish Parliament will have to be sacrificed. No more free tuition, no more free prescriptions, no more free personal care, and all the other things that BY AN ASTONISHING COINCIDENCE the UK parties desperately want rid of anyway.
Labour want to eliminate the differences between different parts of the UK in the name of “One Nation”, while the Tories basically just want to end public services full stop, and both of them are desperate to pander to English voters who think the existence of “free” stuff in Scotland means that they’re paying for it.
Until now the threat of independence has stopped the UK parties from cutting Scottish funding, but in the wake of a No vote that threat will vanish for a generation and Scotland can be safely punished for being so damnedably awkward for all these years, with the money diverted to bribes for the handful of English marginal seats which actually determine the outcome of every UK election.
The great lie that devolving tax collection without devolving control of any new spending equates to “more powers”, though, is just one of a whole slew of No-camp arguments that simply falls to pieces over any even remotely competent or diligent scrutiny.
The most obvious, concisely destroyed on this very site by the Unionist MP Eric Joyce, is the idea that an independent Scotland would be allowed to spend a single day outside the EU. It’s possible to construct any number of perfectly plausible technical and legalistic letter-of-the-law arguments for Scotland having to apply and wait years for membership, but think for five seconds about the practical realities and the proposition crumbles to dust.
It takes years to leave the EU even if you WANT to, which Scotland doesn’t. The consequences of a Scottish exit would be incredibly wide-ranging and damaging because of Scotland’s contribution to the European economy in so many areas, like agriculture, fisheries and energy.
The idea that the EU would go through that entire process in order to FORCE Scotland out against its will, only to then immediately go through the whole thing again in reverse to let it back in, is so stupefyingly farcical that for it to be even seriously entertained for a moment by anyone able to tie their own shoelaces is beyond mere everyday idiocy and into the realms of definable clinical madness.
The same applies to NATO membership, as we’ve also detailed at length from very different perspectives. Again, by selectively quoting rules or individual opinions it’s perfectly possible to construct a technical case that Scotland would be frozen out, but in practice and for reasons which are once again mostly blindingly obvious – in this case Scotland’s incredibly important geographical location – to suggest that it would ever happen in reality is irrational to the point of becoming laughable.
One of the things which has surprised us most since we because actively involved in the independence debate is how completely and how brazenly such realpolitik issues have been ignored. It is of course easy to understand why the No campaign would wish to do so, but even cynics such as ourselves have been taken aback by the absolute refusal of journalists from “serious” newspapers and broadcasters to address the most clangingly self-evident issues.
It’s made more striking by the fact that – as with Labour’s repeated proclamation of their intention to divert money out of Scotland and into England after a No vote – the Tories aren’t even trying to keep it a secret. The party talks, and has consistently done ever since Ruth Davidson’s initial U-turn, of its proposals being about bringing more responsibilities and accountability to Holyrood, not more powers.
She said: ‘Every year, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is allocated by MSPs to spend in Scotland. Yet MSPs are responsible for raising only a fraction of that money. Holyrood is, in effect, a giant spending machine: ministers and MSPs the signatories of a vast cheque book.
Yet in the very next sentence, that same Times article blithely asserts that the Tories are promising “more powers”, rather than the reality that they’re proposing to extend the theoretical range of a power which already exists but has never been used, because it CAN never be used.
We anticipate no different around the Strathclyde Commission. We expect acres of airspace and column inches devoted to pointless analysis of the meaningless small print, accompanied by a dogged determination to avoid the elephant in the room.
Remarkably – perhaps even uniquely in modern history – the political parties are actually being unusually candid and open about their intentions, and the media is doing their lying for them.
All that remains to be seen in September is whether, on this and many other issues, the Scottish public choose to ignore their common sense and fall for the deception.