On Thursday over 70% of voters in Scotland will vote for the lower income-tax option offered by the SNP and Tories, and against the higher tax proposals of the other parties.
Commanding the right and centre ground are the Tories and SNP. The latter, expecting over 50% of the vote, including almost or actually all of the constituencies, will follow the UK Tory lead and not increase either the basic rate nor the higher rate of income tax (unless the UK Tory government does). The SNP and Scottish Tory leaders have used identical language about the need ‘to balance fairness with economic efficiency’, although the SNP says its hands are tied by the lack of full fiscal devolution (i.e. independence) and would otherwise increase tax on the highest earners.
On the left Labour promises, very much in theory, to increase the basic rate of tax by 1% – meaning people earning over £20k would pay more – and to introduce a new upper rate of 50% for; “the top 1%, who earn over £150k, and investing that in schools“. Rise, a new party of the further-left, are proposing a new 45% rate of tax for people earning over £50k; the Lib Dems and the Greens have their own variations on the same theme.
Labour is gambling is that Scots earning over a very modest £20k want to pay more tax in return for higher public expenditure. Junior teachers being paid £20k-odd, the party says, are up for paying higher tax in return for a higher spend on schools. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that many of Scotland’s top 1% earns less than half of the £150k implied by Labour’s proposal. So if you’re a skilled worker at Grangemouth’s Ineos oil and chemical complex, and you get the overtime in, you’re knocking on the door of, or actually inside, that top 1%. On the other side of that equation, according to Scottish Labour there are only 16,000 people in Scotland earning over £150k as against the UK’s 260,000. Here, the IFS – using HMRC figures – calculates that after the ‘behaviour change effect’, the higher rate of tax would raise only £100m extra across the UK. That would mean little over £0.06B in Scotland and all of that hypothecated to the education budget of between £2B and £3B. The effect of the higher rate of income tax, in other words, would amount to a rounding error in external assessments of the actual spend on Education.
Labour’s tax plans, designed to place the party firmly on left, mirror the UK ones we might expect to see in 2020, although it’s far from certain that the outcome in Scotland will give the UK leadership confidence that most workers earning over £20k want to pay more tax and that highly skilled ‘working class’ folk fancy knocking on the door of a new top tax bracket. But while the election outcome might provide some insights for Labour in England, the Westminster leadership is aware that the SNP is not in truth a party of the centre-right as its tax policy might suggest. Or even the centre. The SNP is a party of independence and, quite legitimately from that perspective, positions itself wherever the votes are. This is not a cynical act for a nationalist party. SNP supporters and leadership truly believe that an independent Scotland will make everyone better-off in the long run, most certainly including the least well-off. Each latest election is, for them, simply another hurdle to cross en route to that glad day.
This is the lesson those English commentators who insist that the SNP is a left-of-Labour party in Scotland appealing to a more left-of-centre electorate than in England have yet to learn. Scotland’s underlying centrist politics mirrors England’s precisely, but its contemporary political character is defined entirely by the overlay of the independence question. The SNP, through guile and smart operating, is viewed seemingly inextricably in Scotland as the defender of both that centre ground and, of course, the vision of independence.
This week, the BBC kicked off a new programme, From Our Home Correspondent (on IPlayer very soon), with a delightful essay from Edinburgh by the always-insightful Alan Little. In his short piece, which I recommend highly, Little provides the listener with a primer on the notion of civic Scotland. He reminds us that the ideas which are often seen as defining Scottish culture, prudence, public benefit – rights & responsibilities one might even say – arose in a late 19th century where the instinctual conservatism of the presbyterian Scottish burgesses was threatened by the influx of Catholic labour from Ireland. The party-political story of the 20th century is therefore about how the Tories’ ownership of that paternalistic, centre-ground orthodoxy eventually gave way, via the increased power of unionised Labour and not least those very Catholic migrants, to Labour’s own long period of ascendancy. Scots’ tendency to grant a single ‘establishment’ party an all-powerful mandate seems now to have assured the SNP its own lengthy period of hegemony.
The thoroughly decent Scottish finance minister, John Swinney, is now the orthodox voice of Scottish ‘small-c’ civic conservatism. He is promising middle-class and older voters, who actually turn out, Tory tax policies as long as Scotland remains in the UK and beyond. Meanwhile, the impressive Nicola Sturgeon rallies younger and less-well-off voters with the promise that a new, independent Scotland will be theirs alone to shape. The calculation is of course that as they grow into mortgages, younger voters will retain the small-c civic conservatism of their forebears but see it best served by a new and more optimistic independent Scotland. To paraphrase The Black Eyed Peas, the most powerful force in Scotland is now the power of the youth, just as long as you look after their mortgages as they grow up.