1 September 2021

The SNP’s four-day week gimmick is just the latest attempt to create a tartan utopia

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Here’s some breaking news that will shock absolutely no one: an overwhelming number of Scottish workers support cutting the number of days a week that they have to work, with no loss of pay.

Also: a large majority of voters are in favour of winning the lottery. We’ll bring you more as it develops.

The Scottish Government (naturally) is set to endear itself to voters by trialling a four-day week, and it could not possibly have come at a worse time. Like every other part of the country, Scotland is trying to recover from the biggest body blow it has ever been dealt, with GDP falling to medieval levels, thanks to three Covid-induced lockdowns. What is required now – as an urgent, non-negotiable prerequisite to economic recovery – is a mammoth national effort to restore growth and prosperity.

What is not required, what would be absolute poison to any notion of that recovery, is to allow ourselves to indulge the delusion that such a change to a four-day working week can be brought about (a) at this time, and (b) purely at the behest of any national government or political party.

Such populist initiatives have been undertaken before by the SNP, and the fact that they have directly benefited electorally as a result may go some way (all the way?) to explaining their latest attempt to create a tartan utopia. Free prescriptions and university tuition fees overwhelmingly benefited wealthier middle class families and individuals and were regressive in nature, but the word ‘free’ did all the heavy lifting necessary, and voters duly showed Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor, mentor and close personal friend, Alex Salmond, their appreciation.

There are many questions that have to be answered regarding the four-day week, especially if it is to be achieved without loss of earnings to workers who benefit. We must assume, first of all, that the main beneficiaries will be those who work in the public sector – a large proportion of workers in Scotland but by no means a majority. Nevertheless, these are the individuals whose conditions and salaries are most easily impacted by ministerial diktats.

Is the policy affordable? Put another way, can we suffer yet another – this time self-inflicted – drop in productivity and still generate the tax revenues necessary to pay to keep all those lucky workers at home for an extra day a week? There is no reason to suppose this would be remotely possible: every similar advance in workers’ conditions has been achieved through automation or higher productivity, giving employers all the necessary flexibility and financial buffer such changes – usually incrementally imposed – would mean.

Not that the facts of economic life mean a great deal to the SNP. They will receive all the love they expect from the great majority of (publicly subsidised) Scottish civic society, including the trades unions, for their courageous and progressive political vision. 

Instead, as with every policy that has ever been approved around Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘cabinet’ table, the only thing that interests ministers will be its impact on support for independence.

Ironically, because of the funding mechanisms in place thanks to the generosity of the UK taxpayer, a four-day week is the sort of thing the Scottish Government can consider without having to worry too much about the financial consequences. Tax revenue might fall but the Bank of Rishi Sunak will still be open all hours to ameliorate the worst consequences of nationalist largesse. Perhaps that’s the SNP plan – to expose the devolution settlement to such ridicule that even unionists will demand independence in order to force the SNP to behave themselves.

The four-day week was, of course, proposed by Labour in the recent past, and was soundly rejected along with the rest of its Alice in Wonderland manifesto in December 2019. But in that contest, there was at least a feasible alternative in the shape of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

In Scotland, where political accountability is just so last century, the SNP can get its own way with a flick of a ministerial signature and an imperious nod to the chamber of the Scottish Parliament, the most expensive rubber stamping machine in history.

But that’s how Scots like it. We love free stuff – who doesn’t? The fact this is exactly the kind of initiative that will not just slow down our recovery but put it into full reverse is hardly a reason to approach with caution. 

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.