Who will make the big, bold decisions if Nicola won’t?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, March 6th 2016

These are supposedly exciting times in the broad sweep of Scottish history. There’s the epic spectacle of the referendum; a union questioned and nearly broken; and an upsurge of political engagement, activism and hopes.

Yet, sometimes the predominant story of any period belies much of what it is going on. Take the art of government and making decisions as an example.

How local government is paid for might sound arcane and boring, but it is one that politicians have long been wary of tinkering with. The Scottish rates revaluation of the 1980s brought in the poll tax, and the tax’s introduction in England helped seal the fate of Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership.

No one loves the council tax. It was introduced in 1993 to replace the controversial poll tax – being a return to a property-based tax, without calling it domestic rates. It is supposedly easy to understand, easy to collect, and more difficult to avoid than most of the alternatives.

It is not surprising that one of the SNP’s most popular policies, particularly in its early years, has been the council tax freeze, now in its ninth year. It has saved people from the worries of annual increases in their bills, and offered an increasing year-on-year subsidy.

This week Nicola Sturgeon announced council tax reforms for 2017 which will see modest increases in amounts paid for the top four property bands, the abolition of the council tax freeze, and consultation on whether a portion of the new income tax receipts should go to councils. Marco Biagi, local government minister called this, last part, potentially, ‘a fundamental shift’.

There is a pattern here. One of big, loud promises such as ‘abolish the council tax’, then procrastination. First of all blaming forces outwith your control such as being a minority government; then upon winning a majority, delaying any decisions; then instigating a review which, when it reports, is shelved. This is the story of the last nine years of the SNP in office.

Even these measures were too much for some. It represented ‘a war on wealth’ said Merryn Somerset Webb, editor of ‘Moneyweek’, who asked, ‘If you had wealth would you stay/come here?’ The ‘Daily Mail’ dusted down one of its apocryphal headlines, ‘Middle Scotland Punished with Tax Hike.’

This is a repeat of John Swinney’s replacement of Stamp Duty with a Land and Buildings Transaction Tax which saw top end estate agents go ballistic, practically claiming near-Bolshevik revolution was coming with this ‘tax on aspiration’.

Back on Planet Earth the planned changes in council tax do not alter the fact that for nine years local government bills have distributed monies from those on average and below average incomes to the better off.

This has been the consistent story of Labour and SNP under devolution: talk social justice, tell people what you think they want to hear, but mainly act to featherbed those on above average incomes, and hope that no one points out the credibility gap between action and words.

Local government is at breaking point. It has faced years of severe financial constraints, with savage cuts meaning services are restricted, closed or hived off into arms length organisations. Real local democracy hardly exists, and sadly has become little more than a camouflage for central government cuts.

The SNP at its peak should be careful what they wish for as next year they will gain local government seats across the country, and with it control of numerous councils, possibly including Glasgow. Then they will find themselves identified with the cuts and hardships that the SNP Government has presided over.

Nearly all of the big ticket items of the devolution era – free care for the elderly, no tuition fees, even electoral reform for local government – were decided upon in the first years of the Scottish Parliament and, like the council tax freeze, if they had financial consequences, aided the better off.

Scotland has never been as radical or left-wing as it pretends. None of our major political parties have been that bold or imaginative. The SNP are a catch-all national party, the Tories were never even at the height of Thatcherism emboldened (the poll tax being the exception), while Labour were never the ‘Red Clydeside’ idealists of myth. That leaves the Liberals, who admittedly in the late 19th century, had a radical purple patch.

This brings us back to the rhetoric about the times we live in. Despite the indyref, don’t expect any dramatic changes or choices from the mainstream. The visions of Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale are remarkably similar: safety first, incremental, small steps, and not trying to offend any major interest groups.

A Scotland that cannot embark on abolition of the council tax, put local government finance on a sustainable future, and undertake a property revaluation, looks incapable of making big choices. We haven’t had a revaluation since 1991 – that’s two property bubbles and one slump ago – and more than half Scotland’s properties are currently in the wrong band.

If Nicola Sturgeon won’t make bold decisions now, or Kezia Dugdale to visibly try and seize the initiative, who will?