What is Holyrood for?

ruthdOne positive to take out of the last few days – and indeed it’s been a deeply disappointing few days, culminating in Ruth Davidson telling women who have had children as a result of rape not only that they don’t deserve dignity, privacy or compassion, but that their suffering is just a political football to her and nothing more – is the penny finally dropping that the Scottish government cannot be expected to mitigate Tory cuts.

This is not the same as to say that the government shouldn’t try to do so where they reasonably can – and indeed the SNP government is already spending £400 million per year mitigating Tory welfare cuts in Scotland. But it is to say that the Scottish government – and whichever party/parties constitute this – cannot be expected to and indeed mustn’t be.

The reason for this is two-fold: firstly having the competence doesn’t equate to having the capability. The cuts the Tories are making to tax credits and disability benefits alone are huge. It would be impossible for the Scottish government – with a fixed block grant and minimal tax raising powers – to raise and move cash to cover our share of the welfare cuts that we’re told are saving the UK treasury £12 billion, without this being hugely detrimental to Scotland.

We are in a situation where the block grant has already been massively cut as a result of UK spending cuts and this in turn is leading to a diminishing budget for Scotland: Since 2010 there has been a real terms cut in funding to the Scottish parliament of £2.9 billion and the Fraser of Allander Institute has said that we are looking at another £800 million to £1.6 billion in real terms cuts by 2020. Add to this that the Scottish government’s tax changes don’t even bring in enough to cover what they are already spending annually on mitigating welfare cuts and we begin to see the issue.

Even Scottish Labour’s plans to increase everyone’s income tax, freeze the higher rate and raise the top rate to 50p, would *at best* raise about £475 million which would cover 50% at the most of the welfare cuts in Scotland, and thus not only wouldn’t cover these cuts but would certainly leave nothing for the cuts already made to our block grant that they said the additional revenue should be used towards remedying. And this is all before we even begin to address our block grant cuts still to come.

In fact we’d need to raise about 10-12 times what these major tax measures would raise in order to address the cuts to our block grant from 2010-2020 and mitigate Tory welfare cuts. The reality is that no party’s combined income and local tax plans, not even the Greens’, comes anywhere close to doing that. We’d still be billions out by 2020. Billions.

So even if we raise taxes in hugely unpopular and harmful ways (Labour’s policy of increasing everyone’s income tax would make the poor even poorer, and the Greens’ local tax plans would increase the bills of many on low incomes in low band-low value housing by as much as 25%) we are still unable to mitigate most Tory cuts.

And even if there was disagreement on this point, and some seriously asserted that it would be possible to raise the billions to mitigate all the cuts in Scotland with the powers we have and without inflicting any further burden on those already struggling (fantasise much?) this still only helps highlight my point here. If we managed to achieve the unbelievable, amazing feat of raising such a massive level of additional revenue via some kind of magical solution that no-one has yet come up with, we would be in a position where the Scottish government is having to use this revenue – money that should be going into increasing devolved areas of spending and on improving the lives of Scots and indeed Scottish success – instead to plug not just cuts on devolved areas, but also in *reserved* areas of spending, areas such as these massive welfare cuts. Indeed reserved areas which are under the competency of the UK government and that the Scottish people *already pay Westminster for* via our taxes.

Thus Tories asserting that the SNP should make Scotland pay for cuts are essentially saying that Scots should pay twice by doing less with our money and then telling us to pay again for the same as we had before. In other words, the Tories are like a landlord coming round each month and taking one of your appliances away, keeping your rent the same, and telling you if you don’t like it then pay more rent and you’ll get it back. There’s a word for that. Actually there’s a few….

And it’s at this point we must ask two questions:

Firstly, what is the purpose of the Scottish parliament? Was it created to offset the fact that we have Tory governments most of the time, or was it created to pass legislation on – and raise revenue for – devolved areas, and function for the benefit and betterment of Scotland? In other words is the parliament meant to improve Scotland via devolution or to use all its resources to make up for Tory cuts? Since we can’t do both surely every Scottish politician agrees it’s meant to be the former (?!). In which case why would any Scottish MSP support thwarting the purpose of the parliament and assert that it’s fairer to ask Scots to pay twice than it is to expect Westminster to continue to pay for the same reserved benefits that our reserved taxes – that they still take – have been paying for? Or indeed that it’s fair to ask Scots to do without in order to make up for cuts to our block grant when neither Scots nor our parliament are benefitting from any savings and certainly didn’t vote for the policies?

And let’s be clear, the Tories aren’t making cuts because they have to in order to deal with the UK’s deficit. They are making these cuts because they want to give tax breaks to the wealthiest tax payers (3/4 of whom are men) and have a tax system open to the kind of avoidance that if addressed would more than rule out the need for any of these cuts. So it’ clearly a choice by the Tories to not only introduce the cuts but also to assert that our tax-payers should pay again to reverse them. Which is one thing coming from the UK Tory party, but from any Scottish Tory MSP is utterly contemptuous towards their constituents.

Of course there is another way this could be addressed, which leads to my second question: If the Scottish government is being asked to mitigate Tory benefits cuts, why not devolve welfare so it would be much easier to do so?

It really is a no-brainer. Yes it would be hard to create a far superior welfare system without control over taxes, and thus any transfer of powers should include further taxes to allow for room there. But the main point here is that when the Scottish government is under constant pressure from unionist parties not just to plug cuts to the block grant but to also plug cuts to reserved spending, surely that reserved spending should be devolved?

I trust that it’s clear to anyone of a reasonable mind that in order to address cuts it would be better to have full control of that area of spending in order to maximise the potential of making efficiency savings and minimise the need for additional revenue. Imagine, for example, the savings of putting an end to unnecessary ESA and PiP assessments, which we now know has actually cost the UK government money; this alone could possibly get us to a place where we could provide the same level of pre-cuts support without having to raise revenue/move cash.

So we have to ask any unionist MSP’s who don’t support devolution of the reserved areas they want the Scottish government to not just legislate on but to improve, how they can defend this view when devolution is the best way of making the most of our funding in areas we spend on. What is it that they’re prioritising over this aim?

Because of course the Scottish government will do what it can, as it already is, but there’s no getting around the fact that to even be able to mitigate the maximum – but still very small – proportion of Tory cuts the Scottish government could theoretically find funding for, the government would in so doing be in the position of using all funding it can ever find/raise to mitigate cuts. And depending on how far the government went to raise cash, it could also be creating further financial struggle for many of the poorest. This would not only mean the parliament was prevented from functioning for the purposes it is meant to, but it would mean that Scots were losing out in completely unacceptable and hugely damaging ways as a result.

So even if the unionists calling for the Scottish parliament to put all it has into mitigating all the Tory cuts that we can, actually get what they want, the result will be a much diminished Scotland – a Scotland that can’t improve on anything. Such a Scotland is harmful to no group more than those who desperately need their circumstances to improve. And this is the point; anyone even remotely progressive should not be fighting for this kind of Scotland or indeed this kind of parliament. The fight should be, and needs to be, focused on this most gruesome of UK governments and on doing all we can to stop them from inflicting their awful policies on this country.

So that is where the real fight is; domestically we need focused minds on how best to prioritise spending in order to make the most of the situation we’re in. And within our current circumstances – which look to be lasting for the foreseeable barring independence – Tory cuts will continue coming our way and the task of the Scottish government, as it has now been for so long, is to continue to balance mitigating what it can with focusing investment on the areas needing it most/bringing the best results possible for Scots. And Scottish politicians should be unwavering in their resolve to uphold the remit of the Scottish parliament *to be able to do its best to work to improve the lives of Scots*, which means not only that the parliament needs to be able to prioritise in these ways, but also that it needs to be recognised that every Tory cut mitigated takes something away from Scots. Every cut mitigated is money that can’t then be spent on education, the NHS, apprenticeships, improving benefits – the list is endless.

So anyone smugly saying the SNP should pay for Tory cuts is actually smugly saying to Scots that they should miss out on all sorts of improvements that would have impacted positively on them and their families, in order to pay for the Tory policy of making ordinary tax-payers pay the same for less, just so the wealthy can continue accruing more.

And all progressives, most especially politicians, who want the Scottish government to mitigate some Tory cuts (after all this is all that could ever be possible) need to bear in mind that it is always a balance of considerations and that to fail to acknowledge this is a failure to strive for the best for their constituents.

The parliament needs to do its best to improve people’s lives, and – again – no improvements would be possible if all we did was mitigate cuts; indeed progressives should always be acutely aware of the loss to Scots of having to mitigate cuts. Therefore any progressive politician needs to give careful consideration to where funds should be moved from/the kinds of important policies that couldn’t be funded, in order to address any cuts, and always accept that there is a debate to be had with what is clearly always at stake when managing cuts while trying to improve a country. And that in addition there is always a debate to be had regarding how best to fund the parliament; it’s very telling that opposition tax raising plans weren’t able to ensure that the poorest didn’t pay more. That’s how hard it is to raise substantial funds. And many like myself would argue that these are great examples of how being progressive isn’t enough – we need to make sure our policies wouldn’t take more from those already struggling (which I have to add here, the SNP have made sure of).

And progressive politicians should always be especially clear on the injustice to Scottish tax-payers (also since we don’t vote for Tory governments) and fight against this injustice unrelentingly as mentioned above. Which of course means being 100% clear on who is responsible for our country having to make these kinds of decisions; decisions which are always lose-lose for Scots.

Indeed I would suggest that Scotland’s progressive politicians follow the lead of Scotland’s rape charities and refuse to be in any way complicit with the pain arising from Tory cuts in Scotland.

This means challenging in every way, and at every opportunity, the narrative that these increasing cuts are the responsibility of the Scottish tax-payer; instead making clear that they are always and completely the sole responsibility of Theresa May and her monstrous party.

The only capitulation and complicity possible for progressives is when we fail on this measure.

Comments (26)

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  1. Richard MacKinnon says:

    ‘What is Holyrood for?’ What a good question. Its a pity the article does not address it.
    The answer to the question; what is Holyrood for? is as simple as the question itself. The answer is, ‘Holyrood is the instrument by which Westminster governs Scotland.’

  2. Steve says:

    This is a poorly timed article. I was proud when the SNP decided to mitigate the bedroom tax in full. That happened because they came under pressure from a wide range of people. I hope that if the UK government can’t be persuaded to reverse the rape clause then the SNP can be persuaded to do this in Scotland. That should be the aim, not trying to pre-emptively let them off the hook.

  3. Clive Scott says:

    Holyrood is the stepping stone to an independent Scotland. At the moment just marking time until the nawbags die off and indyref2, 3, 4 or however many it takes, gets over the line.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Clive,
      Im afraid I dont share your optimism. I cant see a second referendum. Even and inspite of the Brexit referendum result the Scottish unionists are dead against a second independence referendum. How can the SNP government hold a referendum if the unionists dont contest it?

      1. John says:

        Then they have conceded defeat by non participation!

        1. Richard MacKinnon says:

          John,
          That is not how it will play out. If the unionists say ‘we dont recognise a second referendum as legitimate and dont take part, then it doesnt matter what the result is, with only a 50% turnout the result means nothing.

          1. John says:

            Who says there will be a 50% turnout Richard , by the time we get to Indy ref 2 we will know where we stand on Brexit . The way Westminster is handling Brexit at the moment we will be lucky to get any sort of decent deal from Europe , that will bring people to the referendum ballot box in hundreds !

  4. Kay Mathers says:

    Ms Davidson’s message appeared to be that The Scottish Government should foot the bill for unpopular and in this case obscene policies the tories impose on Scotland!

    Who in the tories actually sat down in a room and thought this up?

    Who in the tory party thought this was suitable to implement?

    Who in the tory party approved it for implementation?

    Who in the tory party thinks that despite the public disgust, this is still a policy that needs to be implemented?

    I’d say to everyone, magine if you were a woman in this position now?

    Can’t say any more.

  5. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I agree with Richard MacKinnon, that ‘What is Holyrood for?’ is a good question.

    He has provided one answer and, given the fact of block grant, balancing budgets and, until recently, limited revenue raising powers and borrowing powers, there is, indeed, truth in his answer; that it is ‘the instrument by which Westminster governs Scotland.’

    I disagree with him about the fact that Kimberley Cadden has not answered it. She posited two stark alternatives of which Mr MacKinnon’s answer is one. But it does indicate that there is another answer which is about those of us who live in Scotland taking responsibility for all of our own affairs.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Alasdair,
      I cant find a ‘stark alternative’ in Kimberley’s eassy to my my bleak analysis. She mentions ‘prioritising’ and ‘mitigating’, but it is not convincing. We all know the block grant looks pretty much the same year in year out.
      Every one that voted Yes (and a good few that voted No) thought devolution was a pit stop on the road to independence. I dont agree. I think that our first (and probably our last) referendum has made devolution a trap. It is exactly what the Labour Party intended it to be, a means to govern Scotland and supress nationalism.
      Nobody saw it coming (the SNP majority that gave us the referendum), the referendum campaign, and then the result. Although the No win was predictable no one saw the political repercussions that have followed (Labour wipeout and SNP landslides).
      Likewise Holyrood, no one could have predicted the reality that is Holyrood now. May be we should have. Maybe in our optimism for a new future during the referendum campaign we should have considered what are the consequences were going to be if we voted No. But even if we had stood back and cautioned the euphoria it would not have stopped anything.
      There is a natural unavoidable momentum with this existential constitutional process we are witness to, and I include Brexit in this. If there were a second Scottish referendum I would probably vote Yes again, but I just cannot see it happen. Ever.
      Eventually Holyrood with its SNP government, doing its best to look like its “standing up for Scotland” will be seen for what it is; a nationalist government running austerity in Scotland for Westmintser. I would rather see Holyrood disbanded than carry on in its present set up. How do you go about that? You could hold a referendum.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Mr MacKinnon,

        I certainly would not give up the Scottish Parliament, because it has provided a measure of having the power to make decisions for ourselves. To give it up would mean returning those powers to Westminster and decision making by the majority party of England. It would also open the people of Scotland to ridicule.

        ‘Power devolved is power retained’ is one of these phrases which is frequently quoted as if it were similar to a law of physics. Laws are human constructs and can be and are changed as circumstances change. In addition, laws are open to differing interpretations. If a Scottish Government were to act on an interpretation of particular laws, then Westminster would have to respond … or not. History has many examples of how ‘superior powers’ have responded and the consequences of these.

        Over the years, commentators on Bella and other sites and in other media have proposed various courses of action. Mr Alf Baird, for example, has been one such.

        I would like to see the unionist parties adopt a much more constructive approach to the governance of Scotland. One of the reasons so many people rejected Labour in Scotland was the sheer mediocrity of the majority of its MSPs and its knee jerk oppositionist cavilling. Professor John Curtice considers that Iain Gray was a substantial factor in the SNP majority government.

        The other factor which you have not considered is of England deciding to ‘get shot of those Celtic whingers and scroungers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.’ Mr Farage never won a Westminster seat, but he certainly was able to activate sufficient of ‘the plain people of England’ to terrify Messrs Cameron, Clegg, Brown and Mrs May.

        PS. What has caused you to consider returning to YES in a future referendum (which you don’t think will happen)?

        1. Richard MacKinnon says:

          Alasdair,
          I came to the conclusion shortly after 18.09.14 that my belief in an independent Scotland was an ideal that was not going to happen. That was Scotland’s chance to claim its sovereignty and we failed to seize it. The majority of my fellow countrymen don’t want it. I was not surprised by the result.
          Before the referendum we had lived in union with the English for 300 years. There is no argument that Scotland did well from the union and its empire. I was aware of these facts before the vote and I acknowledged the sincerity of No voters.
          My opinion has not changed. I have always said we cannot keep the constitutional debate going indefinitely. It will lead to resentment. If we have chosen to stay in the union we have a responsibility to make it work. (That is why we should consider the future of Holyrood.)
          You ask why I have changed my mind (vote Yes). Have I? As I say I cant see a second referendum happening, however if in the future I found myself with in a booth with a ballot paper in my hand I cannot see myself putting a cross against No.

          1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            Thank you.

            Aren’t other matters – with Mrs May’s announcement this morning, I think we have an example of Harold MacMillan’s dictum,”Events, dear boy, events.” Politics can be a suddenly changing business.

  6. DR Cameron says:

    I agree with Mr Mackinnon. Power devolved is power retained . Simple

  7. Kimberley Cadden says:

    I would just like to offer a clarification of an error in my article – I said that the Scottish government spend £400 million annually on mitigating Tory welfare cuts in Scotland but this is a mistake. They have spent this figure since 2013, and even though the figure is increasing this is not currently spent annually. I didn’t bother Mike to change this because it doesn’t actually alter any of the points made in the article – but wanted to offer the clarification here for any readers. Ta.

  8. Corrado Mella says:

    There is a simple way to offer Scots that need it the level of protection they deserve.
    The Scottish Government can devolve to Councils the decision how to spend their proportion of funds returned through the Barnett Formula and revenues from SRIT and other taxes.
    With this, the “I’m alright Jack” ProudScotButs that vote for a Unionist Council will get treated accordingly to the policies they vote for: no free higher education, no free prescriptions, yes to bedroom tax, etc.
    Let’s see how they like it.

  9. John says:

    “What is Holyrood for ” , excellent question , I have asked myself this on many occasions when I see that what the people of Scotland vote for and what they get are two completely different things . I have now come to the conclusion that it is an interim place . When independence is secured in the coming years , as surely it must , Holyrood will be on the tourist trail as the building where the political parties for independence were overwhelmingly in the majority , reflecting the will of the Scottish people . After a referendum that secured an 80% Yes vote , Independence was declared . A new Scottish designed building now houses the Parliament Of Scotland .

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      John,
      When you say, “When independence is secured in the coming years , as surely it must “. What makes you so sure?

      1. John says:

        Have you been watching the trend Richard , SNP onwards and upwards , Unionists , downward spiral . For an Independence promoting government that has been in power for ten years to still be riding high in the opinion polls , and a leader that is the most trusted in Scotland , it’s a great reason to say “surely it must ” !

  10. Alf Baird says:

    Holyrood (and the Scottish ‘Government’) demonstrates similarities to a puppet government. Although ostensibly an ‘independent’ body, its powers are limited by the ‘outside puppeteer using strings’. Scotland’s key public institutions are predominantly led and controlled by an ‘army’ of ‘UK Home’ civil servants and other unionist elites. The result is that Holyrood offers an image of power and decision making in the sense of ‘the outward symbols of authority’, but ultimately, as with any puppet government’, ‘its movements are dictated by another foreign power’, as are its key public institutions.

  11. w.b.robertson says:

    What is Holyrood for? Answer – whatever our elected representatives make it. (so far it seems to me like a wee timid beastie!)

  12. arthur thomson says:

    Perhaps we should go back to the happy clappy days before Holyrood.

    Perhaps we should stick pins in our eyes.

    Since the SNP has been able to exercise a degree of influence through Holyrood, it has been able to mitigate, to a small degree, some of the worst excesses of the radical imperial socialists and their imperial Tory chums in the Brit establishment. Simultaneously, it has promoted and will continue to promote the option for Scotland of democratically pursuing a return to self-government.

    Not the stuff that magic beans are made of I do admit. But compared to the death and despair -literally -achieved by the Brit socialists and conservatives in the middle east and good ol Blighty, well what can I say?

    I can say that there is a limit to how far the Scottish Government can mitigate the awful policies of the tories and their socialist chums. Ultimately the Scottish electorate are going to be faced with the choice of independence or sucking it up like they used to. That will be indyref2.

  13. Graeme McCormick says:

    Holyrood’s answer to this is the creation of a public revenue system which replaces all taxes imposed at U.K. Scottish and local government level.

    That means our public revenue is then totally under our control. While still part of the UK Holyrood would simply pay back to Scottish taxpayers the amounts collected centrally by HMRC .

    Annual Ground Rent based on a square metre rate on land and floorspace occupied according to land types would provide more than sufficient public revenue.

    Holyrood has the power to do this now.

  14. Mach1 says:

    Ms Cadden’s argument is clear and persuasive, and serves to highlight the hypocrisy of the Scottish Tories under chief naysayer Ruth Davidson. A bit more attention needs to be paid to Ms Davidson’s penchant for making the Scottish Government responsible for her party’s austerity programme. Like a slug under a slab, she sticks to the now-exiting May government line, while at the same time claiming the moral high ground. Slimy stuff. Now Theresa May, facing a divided Tory party and a weakling Labour opposition has called a snap election… so where will the Scottish Tories stand on membership of the single market, custom union and Brexit itself? Methinks it is time that Scotland was rid of Scottish Tory doublethink on Europe. Time to say goodbye to David Mundell. Time too to say au revoir to Ian Murray, who represents Labour in one of the most pro-European seats in the country. And let’s not be fooled again by the Lib Dems, their principles can be bought for a few geegaws, a sprinkling of ministerial portfolios or a place in the Lords. They are still the party of Nick Clegg.
    As for the SNP, more powers must equate to a push for full independence… with or without a referendum. June 8 could afford an opportunity, on a pro-European platform, to ask voters north of the Border if they want to mandate Scotland’s MPs for independence… Why ever not?
    Whatever happens, one thing is sure… Theresa May’s premiership is toast, and if the Tories win, it will be the party’s right-wing, probably under Brexit Bill Davis, who will be the real victors.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Whatever else is in the SNP Manifesto for 8, June, it should include a specific statement that in the event of a majority of Scottish MPs being supporters of independence, then, the SNP will enter discussions on Scotland becoming an independent country.

      1. Alf Baird says:

        Absolutely agree, SNP must campaign for independence on 8th June, and declare it on 9th June. Negotiations can then take place.

        The Scots will not forgive the SNP if they settle into Westminster a second time.

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