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.