In the run up to the 1997 General Election, the SNP campaign in Stranraer was visited by Alex Salmond. The day started with some street work in the town centre and activists and members turned out in their finest. But having been out on the stump with the party leader at by-elections, I knew what to expect.
I warned the assembled and excited throng that at best, they could expect a hello or a quick handshake. And so it turned out.
He sailed imperiously down the street, scarcely glancing at the SNP stalwarts, heading straight for the bus queue. For there stood folk whose votes might not yet have been won.
I was reminded of this listening to the First Minister’s speech at Spring Conference today. Its audience was not the assembled mass of Yes voters crammed into the Aberdeen conference centre, but the still to be persuaded out there in their living rooms. In Larkhall, Letham, Lenzie and Leith.
There were, of course, enough hooks and riffs to galvanise the faithful. Several ripostes for the “Westminster establishment” in all its guises. A handful of reminders of the purpose of independence which float the boats of the believers. An end to the iniquitous bedroom tax, to stopping Scotland being ruled by governments it didn’t vote for, and the loudest cheer for the reaffirmation of independence being the route to removing Trident from our shores.
But those expecting big licks might be heading home somewhat puzzled, for there were few in evidence. This was not rambustious, vintage Salmond. But a quieter, more serious Salmond, engaging in a fireside chat with the nation. Alex Salmond was here to have a conversation, so his tone was quite soft, his jokes were actually quite funny and humour was used to make serious points. His pace was measured but also hurried over the big set piece schticks to leave space for new lines and his attention was focused on two key groups of voters. Those who vote Labour and women.
The pitch to Labour supporters was less pronounced than the Depute First Minister’s yesterday and was there for emphasis more than anything else. “Independence will be good for Scottish Labour… It will have the chance to return to core values, many of which we agree with and share.” But the woo is definitely on.
Not before time, is the SNP pitching directly and specifically to Scotland’s women, in whose hands and crosses rest this movement’s fate. There are too many saying they are voting no to be ignored and enough still to make up their minds to make it worth the SNP’s while.
I cannot recall – and I’ve heard a few of his speeches – the First Minister devoting so much of a major speech to women and what are often portrayed as women’s issues. He could have done more, particularly on setting out why the Union has failed Scottish women. Why is it important for an independent Scotland to have powers to enforce the Equal Pay Act? Because women in Scotland are still paid, on average, 12% less than men, consigning more women and by consequence, more children to the misery of low incomes and poverty. And successive UK governments have not made a priority out of using the law to force the pace of change.
But by using his big pre-referendum conference address to bring equality into his Cabinet and to increase women’s representation in that Cabinet to 40% – “the Cabinet is our Board as a country” – he was sending an important message to women all over Scotland. We “practise what we preach”.
He returned too to childcare, setting out “universal childcare and early learning for all of Scotland’s children” as the “independence pledge”. He made the most of the contrast between Scotland and Westminster: “childcare for all families is the priority, not tax breaks for the few”. And to sustained applause, the First Minister crystallised the choice between two futures: “Westminster wants to renew a weapons system which can destroy the world. In an independent Scotland, we want to create a childcare system which will be the envy of the world.”
There was no rousing finish, no tub thumping call to arms. If anything, he got softer still, drawing the listener and viewer in, still wooing, with a warm tribute to Margo and her commitment to “the human community” of Scotland. And appealing, subtly, to our conceit of ourselves, suggesting we might want to keep the eyes of the world on Scotland after 18 September, “to watch in admiration at what we will be building.”
What this conference speech revealed was a hitherto hidden public version of the First Minister. Gone was the purr, the chuckle, the bombast. In its place, an eamest, almost romantic statesman.
And I rather think I like it.
Clearly, the Scottish Labour MPs who trailed the Tories into the lobby to vote for the welfare cap in the House of Commons yesterday didn’t hear the Mental Welfare Commission’s condemnation of the new benefits system, far less take time to read its investigation report. Following the suicide of a woman who failed her work capability assessment – not a scrounger in the parlance but a woman who had worked most of her adult life until becoming ill with significant mental health issues in her fifties – the Commission examined her particular case in the wider context of the welfare reform progamme, surveying psychiatrists to gauge the impact of these assessments on a wider cohort of individuals with mental health issues.
Its investigation found that “the decision [relating to the woman's benefits] was made on the basis of an assessment that contained insufficient information about her mental health” and that more generally, “the work capability assessment needs to be more sensitive to mental health issues“. Effectively, how she was treated and communicated with, contributed to her taking her own life.
We can expect more tragic stories like this, following the application of a welfare cap as part of the UK budget – or Charter for Budget Responsibility as it is properly called. This puts a ceiling on overall expenditure on benefits. It excludes state pensions, council tax benefit (now devolved) and job seekers’ allowance but includes all the benefits paid to people due to disability or ill-health such as disability living allowance, carers’ allowance and incapacity benefits. It will also affect families with children as it includes child benefit and pensioners will not escape its potential impact either, for it includes winter fuel payments and attendance allowance. It is not just aimed at those out of work but will cap the amount of benefits paid to those in work as well, especially those with children, encompassing tax credits and also housing benefit (which is relied on by many in work-related poverty to meet housing costs).
The details clearly do not appear to have bothered most of Scotland’s MPs. Only the SNP’s five and two hardy Labour souls with a conscience – Katy Clark and Michael Connarty - voted against it. Apparently, this is because Labour had to avoid the “political bear trap” set for it by the Tories. Presumably this means that had it abstained or voted against, the Conservatives aided and abetted by the right wing press would have attacked Labour for being soft on benefit scroungers.
Some left-leaning lobby journalists – yes, that’s you Kevin Schofield and Torcuil Crichton – tried to conflate this cap on overall welfare spending with the cap on individual household benefits. All the better to try and embarrass the Nats you see, thanks to a line in an interview by the First Minister which suggested there might be a place for limiting the amount of benefits any one household could claim. Apparently, this made the SNP hypocrites and this was the real story from yesterday for some Laboury types.
Which just goes to show how far some will travel in their efforts to protect the Labour party. For having voted for it yesterday, presumably this means Labour will continue to apply the cap, if it wins the 2015 General Election. And while a cap might be superficially popular because no one understands it – because no one beyond the policy wonks has tried to understand and explain it – that won’t last once it starts to bite.
In practical terms, if expenditure on welfare looks set to breach the cap, cuts must be made to prevent that happening. The biggest area of expenditure is on tax credits – the money the government pays to help people work, either through childcare tax credits or because their wages are at such low levels, the state has to augment their income to make work pay. The second biggest is on housing benefit – and we are already seeing the damage being done by the dread bedroom tax. Labour if voted in in 2015 proposes to ditch the spare room subsidy but hasn’t quite got round to telling us what it might do instead, which is now a rather urgent issue, having supported this ceiling.
Next up is the bill for supporting disabled people – many of whom rely on DLA (as it was) to provide care and travel support to enable them to work incidentally – and that too will need to be kept under control. Expect more humiliating work capacity assessments then and potentially, more destitute disabled people. And more suicides.
This political gimmick has the potential to hurt hundreds of thousands of people across these islands, because little attention has been paid to current demographic trends. First, we are experiencing a baby boom – more people having babies means more statutory maternity pay and child benefit being paid and more demand for child and childcare tax credits. Which should be a good thing but according to the Tories, Lib Dems and now Labour, now isn’t.
Second, we may be in economic recovery but the data also shows that many are having to work part-time and that wages have been largely frozen, thus meaning potentially more qualifying for working tax credits. Third, we are also an ageing population: more of us survive well into old age for longer, meaning more will have to be spent on things like winter fuel payments and attendance allowance.
Finally, as this excellent analysis points out, in times of economic instability, forecasting the amount a government needs to spend on welfare and benefits is difficult. Plucking figures out of the air for now will only work if the rest of the economic forecasts are accurate – and we know how good the Tory-Lib Dem government has been at this.
Still, I’m sure this is exactly the kind of homework all those Labour MPs did before they responded to the crack of the party whip. Now all we need is a plan from the Eds not just to avoid adverse headlines but also which will prevent ordinary people – hard working families! squeezed middle! those hardest hit by the cost of living crisis! – bearing the brunt of unfair and unjustified cuts to their benefits and household incomes.
And just in case they haven’t quite got round to that yet, here’s one Scotland prepared earlier: independence.
It is remarkable that tax hasn’t featured more in the referendum debate.
Last week saw its first real incursion into the headlines, initially through the First Minister’s response to a question at his New Statesman speech and then by Johann Lamont asking about it at First Minister’s Questions.
But it was hardly a full exploration of all the tax issues, focusing as it did on whether or not the top tax rate in independent Scotland would be raised to 50p.
The First Minister advised that he has no wish to set independent Scotland at a tax disadvantage to the rest of the UK. Less reported was his reference to the White Paper commitment to not make any tax changes immediately after independence. The reason for this is that tax is a policy issue upon which parties should set out their plans in election manifestoes. Which is as it should be.
UK Labour has already pledged to reinstate the top tax rate, so Scottish Labour saw an apparent opening and seized it. Conveniently forgetting in the process that its conversion to taxing rich people more has been more of an oppositionalist exercise than one it practised while in government. Yes, it did raise the rate but only at the fag end of thirteen years in power. It was in force for precisely 36 days before they lost the 2010 UK election.
And while this was clearly comfortable territory for Lamont, her inability to switch from the script of calling out the SNP as Tartan Tories was telling. The fact that the First Minister joined her in condemning the Tory-Lib Dem cut and aligned himself with comments made by Ed Balls on its inappropriateness in the current climate rather diluted her point.
But we are dancing on a pinhead here. Only a relatively small number of people, particularly in Scotland, pay the higher rate of tax. Surely of much wider concern and interest to most voters is what will happen to the tax they all pay.
Given its all-pervasive influence on our lives and how the types and levels of tax permeate nearly everything we do, it is curious that so little attention has been paid to this vital issue in the debate to date.
Perhaps that’s because the proposals in Scotland’s Future are plausible, workable and sensible. And even likely to encourage more to vote yes.
Labour is wont to seize upon the commitment to lower corporation tax as proof of the SNP being a neo-liberal, big business loving entity which wants to reinforce unfairness in the tax system. That lazy analysis ignores all that is said on pages 117 to 123 of the White Paper.
The section on tax makes plain a commitment to provide independent Scotland with a more efficient tax system predicated on key principles of simplicity, neutrality, stability and flexibility.
These point to a quite different future on tax. One which sweeps away the complexities and inefficiencies that successive UK Governments have enabled through decades and indeed, centuries of layering and applying without removing and reforming.
Even with Gordon Brown’s attempts to simplify income tax when he was Chancellor, legislation on UK tax runs to over 10,000 pages with over 1,000 exemptions. These, in particular, allow for tax avoidance and a whole industry employed in finding them and maximising them for a select few rich enough to employ their services.
So which would have the bigger impact on our country’s collective tax take and the perception of paying dues – removing myriad opportunities to avoid tax or paying slightly more on declared and visible income?
As Alex Massie kindly pointed out to me on twitter, both Alex Salmond and John Swinney have made speeches and given interviews in which they emphasise the no tax rises in independent Scotland position. But that safety first approach is only part of the story. The White Paper makes clear that in the longer term, independent Scotland will do different on tax than the UK: independence provides the opportunity to “design a Scottish tax system based on specific Scottish circumstances and preferences”.
That’s the bit of the narrative Scottish Labour chooses to ignore, the bit that Better Together would rather Scottish voters didn’t know and the bit that the Scottish and indeed, UK media, both left and right leaning, keeps hidden from view.
And that’s because many in Scotland, including undecided voters, are appalled that the gap between haves and have-nots continues to grow. Indeed, austerity has shifted a considerable number of haves into having far less, making them acutely aware of the inherent inconsistencies and unfairnesses in our tax system and elsewhere in our economy. The failure of any UK party to offer anything which punishes the financial institutions for the mess we are in nor attempts to reign in the worst behaviour of buccaneers adds grist to their mill.
If they knew of the existence of a fairer future on tax with independence, it might encourage more to move to yes. It’s exactly the kind of issue the Scottish Government and Yes Scotland should be encouraging all their grassroots supporters to be having conversations with their friends, family and neighbours about.