Christopher Silver argues that the failure to reform the tax system means that ‘ironically the youngest and the poorest, those who voted for constitutional change in the greatest numbers, will bear the brunt of this refusal to innovate’.
The decline of local government in Scotland is a long and depressing saga. “The cooncil” has long been a byword for corruption, incompetence and political stagnation. Familiar stories of small scale alienation, ineptitude and a process of relentless, unprecedented, centralisation in the 1980s have made our town halls places of disappointment — the sites of political failure, where most politicians of any ability are transient creatures. The SNP, now looking down from the comfortable heights of Holyrood and Westminster, has calculated (correctly no doubt) that there is little immediate gain to be had from overhauling a rickety set of institutions in which voters rarely take an active interest and which they love to moan about.
Yet, as is so often the case in our awkward nation, there is an alternative picture. The era of Victorian civic pride, which historians claim offered de facto autonomy from Westminster, is foremost among them. There are also the monumental, if flawed, achievements of post-war council house building and urban regeneration. But the more poignant still is the question of how local government is funded. The revulsion felt by so many Scots at the iniquities of the Community Charge launched a process through which so much of modern Scotland’s political self-image took form.
Of course, myths about the poll tax and its defeat are so well known that they don’t require debunking here. But of all the moments that led to a concerted revival of nationalism in contemporary Scotland, it has a particularly visceral resonance. More than any other single issue it helped turn the lukewarm concept of Home Rule into a burning political necessity. In the words of Tom Devine, “…the poll tax drove home the message to many Scots that they were being ruled by an alien government.”
Back in the dark days of direct Tory rule the injustice of right wing policy imposed on Scotland was a doubly whammy of ideological blindness and political foreignness. The vociferous anti-poll tax agenda of the SNP, which outmanoeuvred Labour on the issue at the time, played a significant role in increasing the party’s vote share by 50% in the 1992 general election. The symbolic value of those events for the independence cause has scarcely diminished. As the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson remarked on the passing of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, “We will never forget and we will never forgive the poll tax being imposed on Scots a year before the rest of the UK.”
This is why the SNP’s refusal to scrap the Council Tax could represent something more than just trimming the sails in devolved Scotland’s strange voyage towards the nation of social justice its leaders claim to seek. It is a move that has the potential to create a deeper fissure that could impact on the wider constitutional debate, because it opens up a bigger question, hitherto carefully avoided. If a policy is regressive, iniquitous and self-evidently unfair, does it make any difference whether such a policy is imposed by a Scottish government, rather than a UK one?
This is the first Holyrood election since 2003 when the SNP will not stand on a platform to “replace the unfair and spiralling Council Tax with a fairer system based on ability to pay.” As U-turns go, other mainstream parties are reluctant to call it out and it has not caused the media pack to scent blood — it’s a system that middle Scotland is destined to be quietly in favour of. Who could refuse winning rhetoric about fair shares to help out pensioners and education while quietly pocketing the benefits? As a nationalist party, concerned with winning over all classes and interest groups: risking the introduction of controversial, but fairer alternatives (such as a local income or land value tax) makes very little sense. Behind that risk aversion is the sad logic of a nominally progressive government with a majority — people vote for us because they like things as they are.
It is worth considering what has changed since the 1990s. An explosion in property prices, devolution and rises in indirect taxation, have all made the question of Council Tax reform far more fraught than it might once have been. There is however an unavoidable truth: it is a Tory tax, a fudged regression to an old system and an admission of failure. It may not be the monstrous flat tax that Scotia expelled with the demonic lady who saw no alternative, but with only a four per cent difference between the lowest and the highest bands (after these new changes) it may as well be.
The Council Tax is an attack on the young, asset poor, worker. It is an attack on ‘generation rent’ — premised on the ludicrous notion that a tax based on a landlord’s (often rapidly appreciating) asset must be borne by the tenant. There are 330,000 private tenants in Scotland, already paying a greater share of their income for a roof over their heads than ever before, while there are one million Scots living in absolute poverty after housing costs. It is also a tax that is one the sharpest teeth of the benefits trap, while the administration of Council Tax Reduction is cumbersome and opaque. It is a tax on voter registration: many stay off the register to avoid the arrival of bills they will surely struggle to pay. Most bizarrely of all, it is a tax based on property valuations that are decades and two housing booms out of date. 56 per cent of properties are in the wrong band. Only a political mainstream reconciled to mediocrity could consider such a tax to be reformable.
As a 2014 study by the Equality Trust noted, there is a massive misconception about who shoulders most of the tax burden in this society: few people realise that the have-nots pay the greatest share. Any government that seeks to pursue social justice must first grapple with this issue. There is a twisted logic here: in a world of payday loans, monopolies, and all the other morbid symptoms of rentier capitalism, the poor pay a surcharge for their own misfortune. Yet the bleating of the landlord, often propped up generously by the state, is far more likely to make the headlines. What gets drowned out is the struggle of those less fortunate, who will continue to be penalised for lacking property and wealth. Ironically, the youngest and the poorest, those who voted for constitutional change in the greatest numbers, will bear the brunt of this refusal to innovate. Those content to see a generation have the life and opportunity rented out of it ought to consider one basic political fact — they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
The deadweight of ‘aye-been’, which many young voters felt they were shrugging off by voting for independence, has returned. If such a scandal were to be visited on any other group within Scotland the outcry would be deafening. Foisted upon the shoulders of those who can bear it the least, the Council Tax will be tinkered with, but no mainstream party will get stuck into the business of making local government taxation progressive, or even take the most basic step of revaluation. Of course, if local government is to work, finance is just one part of what ought to be a major reform agenda. Scotland needs genuinely local government to be restored — a move advocated by a range of bodies and experts. Our councils are the largest in Europe and democracy is distant and dispiriting as a result. Raising only a fraction of its own revenue, local government is where Scottish political capital goes to die. That is not an inevitability, it is an indictment.
That the SNP will make canny political calculations to boost their already magnificent electoral chances is perhaps a dreary reality of power and the business of keeping hold of it. That it would cast off its principles on an issue with so much historic resonance in a country still marred by systemic inequality is far more worrying. In doing so it takes a step backward from the idea that Scotland could be different, that it could move on from its notoriously unjust past and chart its own distinct course. It also forgets that this country deserves, more than anything else, to see the promise of systematic change delivered.