If the opinion polls are to believed, on May 6 Nicola Sturgeon will be re-elected as First Minister and the most powerful politician in Scotland since … well you choose the appropriate historical figure – Tom Johnston or Henry Dundas?
She will have a commanding majority in the Scottish Parliament, lead a party renowned for its internal discipline and have a range of powers at her disposal greater than any previous holder of the office or Secretary of State. As well as having complete authority over health, education, social work, transport, environment, economic development and a host of other policy areas, she will be able to change income tax rates and bands and introduce new welfare benefits.
Yet here is a paradox: Ms Sturgeon leads a revolutionary party, which aims to overturn the constitution – albeit by democratic means. Yet her next administration, like the one which has just come to an end, is likely to be characterised by caution, bordering on timidity. Although she described the SNP manifesto as “ambitious,” it is devoid of radical new proposals.
It is, however, jam-packed with worthy policies from spending more to improve mental health treatment and cancer diagnosis, to investing extra in the Attainment Fund to reduce the learning gap between rich and poor and “almost doubling” the hours of free early years education.
There are dozens of beneficial ideas, but most are extensions of programmes already in train. The word “continue” is mentioned 116 times in the manifesto, “protect” 63 times and “maintain” 26 times. The most dramatic new spending commitment – to increase the NHS revenue budget by £500 million more than inflation by the end of this parliament – looks very modest when you consider that the NHS will spend £65 billion in that period.
What is missing from the manifesto is instructive. There will be no changes to the rates of income tax and no more than minor tinkering with tax bands. There will be changes to council tax bands, but no abolition or major reform of the system (a commitment in two previous SNP manifestos).
There is a pledge to “build on the Land Reform Act to make land ownership more transparent,” but no commitment to compel offshore companies which own land in Scotland to disclose their beneficial owners. There is a promise to reduce climate emissions in Scotland by more than 50% by 2020 – but as all previous targets have been missed, this can hardly be considered binding.
On independence for Scotland, there is only the undertaking to “start new work with the aim of persuading a clear majority” that it is the best option. There is no commitment to hold a second referendum – and no great dissent from the party at its omission.
‘Middle class politics for the middle class’?
So what explains the difference between the SNP’s revolutionary intentions and its moderate actions?
Part of the reason may be that the additional powers to raise revenue as well as spend it are making the Scottish Government more circumspect. The First Minister cited as her reason for not raising the top rate of income tax in Scotland a prediction by civil servants that doing so could actually lead to a drop in tax receipts rather than an increase. The Scottish Government’s experience so far might encourage caution.
Land and Buildings Transaction Tax, one of the earliest taxes devolved, has fallen short of its revenue target for residential sales, raising £201 million, rather than the £235 million predicted – and well down on the £270 million raised by Stamp Duty, which it replaced.
The shortfall was more than made up by commercial property tax, which overshot its £146 million forecast by £68 million, but the outturn demonstrated difficulty in predicting revenues when behaviour can be changed to avoid the tax – a large proportion of higher value house sales were brought forward to take place before the tax deadline.
Similar avoidance could undermine increasing taxes on higher earners. Some might move out of Scotland to avoid paying more tax, many would not have to – a significant proportion work for at least part of their time outside Scotland and thus could argue that they are not ‘Scottish’ for tax purposes.
A second reason for proceeding incrementally rather than in radical leaps may be independence. If the eventual attainment of the SNP’s ultimate goal depends on achieving a majority, then persuading reluctant voters that an independent Scotland will be little different than the one we have already may be a tactic thought to be worth trying.
This post first appeared at the David Hume Institute and is reproduced with permission