What is Holyrood for?
One 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.