When a spat is not a split but a good thing

Next year, the First Minister might be inclined to pay personally for John Mason MSP to go on a fact-finding mission.  Preferably for at least eight weeks and to somewhere journalists cannot reach him on the phone.  Ulan Bator might do.

This summer, he has caused the SNP Government not just one little difficulty with his motion on the terms of engagement on same-sex marriage, but now a second one by suggesting that the top rate tax should be raised.  How interesting.

The SNP has been largely silent on the subject of tax, ever since it got battered and bruised in the 1999 Scottish elections over its Penny for Scotland proposal.  Once bitten, twice shy.  So much so, in fact, that it managed to let slip from its – and the Parliament’s – grasp the very ability to vary the basic rate of tax which the Scotland Act had so graciously granted it. The Scottish Government tried hard to keep this quiet too.  Tax would appear to be the issue that dare not speak its name, at least within the SNP’s hearing.

So it is refreshing to see it making a comeback. Especially when rumours abound at Westminster that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is considering cutting the 50p top rate in the forthcoming budget. At the very least, Scotland’s politicians ought to be debating and considering how it might deploy any additional powers it gains over tax in the soon-to-be passed Scotland bill, mark two.

Apparently not.  An SNP backbench MSP suggests one course of action, a Scottish Government spokesman “dismissed the views out of hand”, cue cries of split from the Opposition parties.  But must a spat always be decried as a split?  Aren’t backbench MSPs allowed to have an opinion on anything these days?  Wouldn’t it be more edifying to have opposition politicians address the issue, particularly when it is on something as important as money coming into the coffers?  Sorry, I forget – that would require them to actually have a view or a policy on something this substantive.

Why can’t a difference of opinion be a good thing and be the precursor to a wider debate?  For the SNP it would, admittedly, be more useful for the party and its members to conduct such a debate with a little decorum, through a conference or National Council or some other body which actually has policymaking powers.  But this is what happens when you conduct politics by megaphone through the fourth estate.

When the SNP Government regularly briefs and leaks on key issues – indie-lite, currency options, a single national police force – it sets a poor example to the rest of its parliamentary group.  Indeed, John Mason may have felt that if he wanted his view heard, he had to make it known through a national newspaper. It does not augur well for the cohesion and discipline of the Group of 69 for such behaviour to emerge this early on in the parliamentary session, though I suspect political correspondents and editors are rubbing their hands with glee.

“They started it” is hardly the most mature political response but the Scottish Government might rue the day it did.  If it wants to avoid spending the next four years rebutting various utterings and chunterings from its backbenchers, it needs to create effective communication channels that allow the wider parliamentary group to have more access to government business and thinking. Or the ties that bind might be stretched to breaking point.

Meanwhile, whether you agree with him or not on both issues upon which John Mason has uttered an opinion this summer, there is no denying he is making his mark.  Not only has he managed to flush out others’ instincts on tax – strike one – but he has made himself highly visible – strike two.  He is successfully setting out his stall as an MSP of independent mind, who has something of interest to say, and – whatever you think of his views – he is doing so in an honourable way, by doing it all on record.  Not for him the whispers in corridors under cloak of “senior source” or similar.

He may not appreciate the association, but he is loud and he is proud, and on the tax issue, he is establishing his credentials as being firmly to the left of his Government.  What matters now is how the SNP leadership approach this intervention – handle it and John Mason badly and there is the basis from which an awkward squad might grow.  And John Mason has stolen a march on anyone else with an inkling to lead it, while emboldening others to put their views out there.

This matters for a party that has many left-leaning members, and indeed MSPs, but which has watched its policies and government move to the centre, and even right of centre on economic issues.  It matters because we are about to enter a period of financial constraint with cuts to public sector jobs and services a given: there will be plenty for a leftwing squad within the SNP parliamentary group to get awkward about.

But if John Mason’s intervention also leads to an honest and transparent political debate about the use of the new tax powers provided by the Scotland bill, this little spat will have turned out to have been a very good thing indeed. And you can read my views on the premise – that the top tax rate should be raised – tomorrow.

10 thoughts on “When a spat is not a split but a good thing

  1. Not surprised, as you know all sane human beings think this way when it comes to tax!

    Re press coverage! It must be difficult for any SNP minister to get coverage when El presidente is taking the spot light all the time! Another struggle for media coverage is that the tax payer funded BBC is too busy covering the Labour party, only reaffirming people’s views that the BBC tilts to the left!

  2. I hope John keeps it up, and I hope more follow suit. I also hope that the party allows it, and just dismiss any whispering from the media or opposition parties about internal splits as immature nonsense, which is exactly what it is. This is healthy debate, and let’s not see it being stifled. Let’s see it being encouraged, so that in the future, we can perhaps avoid situations like the recent election, which was roundly criticised for the lack of ideas being debated.

    Westminster became a poorer place when people like Tony Benn retired. Scottish independence depends on strong-minded, individual thinkers taking up the mantle in Holyrood.

  3. Hello, you’ve inspired me to blog on this at my old taxing Scotland blog – http://wp.me/p1ub0r-4L.

    My basic argument is that by introducing a local income tax and essentially using that instead of the 10p powers devolved under the Scotland Bill, we’d have the powers to do what John Mason is (quite rightly in my opinion) calling for. The power is in the Scottish Government’s hands already if they want to use it.

    Cheers!

  4. Pingback: John Masons calls for tax powers Scotland already has « taxing scotland

  5. Definitely agree re splits and spats: it is to the detriment of our political arena that politicians can’t express any view that differs from the party line without media and opponents claiming it shows a divided party. I’d much rather have several diverse parties that share a broad world view but have regular, healthy debates on policy. A group where everyone agrees with everyone else isn’t a political party, it’s a cult.

  6. Cutting the 50p top end of tax would be a good thing to happen during these difficult times. The UK has to have the full support of the private sector if we have any hope of raising ourselves from the ocean bed! I fully look forward to the 50p tax cut, reforming the benefit system and hopefully if we ever see it …the family tax!

    Regarding the SNP government, have they woken up yet? This time in the last parliament we had a lot of action and policies coming out from the Scottish Government. This time it appears El Presidente Salmond is still on cloud nine whilst his party is in termoil over supporting Mason’s comments. Will we have our Scottish Government acting like a government any time soon?

    • Thanks for your view on the top tax rate – why am i not surprised???

      And yes it has been a very different 100 days than last time round. It is a bit odd but hopefully when we get the programme for government there will be plenty to keep everyone busy!

  7. Well, at least he’s showing he’s not Lobby fodder like a lot of the SNP MSPs seem to be. The only thing that puzzles me is that he seemed to have a low profile when an MP at Westminster (which was presumably why he was selected for Holyrood).

    Why the blaze of glory now?

    • I don’t think he had a low profile – think he put a lot of effort into trying to hold the constituency but also it’s harder for MPs to get coverage. Ask your ain lot whom I’m sure grumble about that a lot! Scotland is the media political goldfish bowl these days… Also that experience at Westminster will have allowed him to find his feet more quickly.

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