What is that high pitched whining sound? It’s the SNP grievance machine cranking into action. Even thousands of miles away it can be heard on social media if you follow the right/wrong people, who are furious that the substantial new powers for the Scottish Parliament do not, yes, you guessed, go far enough.
Rather than being delighted and explaining what they plan to do in government with the new powers on taxation and much else besides, the SNP’s supporters have adopted their traditional posture of moaning about the need for even more powers. There is also criticism of the way these measures were passed at Westminster. Not enough MPs were in the chamber, apparently, although imagine the SNP’s anger if English Tories had turned up in huge numbers to debate. As well as that, the legislation was going through the Commons too fast, or too slow. One of the two. The vote was also conducted in an old-fashioned manner, rather than electronically by 5pm as is the case in the deeply unimpressive unicameral Scottish parliament, with its restricted speeches and early hometime. One free market Nationalist even complained to me that the new measures do not provide a “single job-creating power.”
Truly, Scotland is in trouble when even the free-market Nationalists believe in the government having magical job-creating powers. What are they? He said it was something to do with lower company taxes and government support for research and development. Corporation tax across the UK is already low. And government support for R&D is merely another way of talking about higher government spending. And these are complaints from a free-market type. Imagine what the left-wing Nationalists want.
There is good news though. The SNP grievance machine, which has hummed along so successfully in the last year since the referendum, is starting to malfunction. Last week, the party was made to look very silly on the question of tax credit cuts. There is a clamour north of the border for the UK changes being introduced by George Osborne to be mitigated. The SNP initially said it did not have the powers to do so. That’s Westminster’s fault, again, apparently. Ah, no, actually it can mitigate the changes, pointed out everyone else. It just has to find the money to do so.
It speaks to a deeper problem for the SNP. It is easy to complain, and in politics it is more fun. Feel the flush of righteous anger. Shake your head at the incompetent antics of the government of the day or an uncaring Westminster elite. Yet, governing – with extensive tax powers, as the Scottish Parliament now has – is much more difficult than opposition. There are choices to be made, all the time. Funds are limited and competing voices demand their share of scarce resources.
Now the SNP is about to discover the realities of taxation policy. Want higher revenues to spend on free stuff for people? Raising taxes, that’ll do it. Hold on, it might not if you get it wrong and sufficient numbers of people take evasive action or change their behaviour or place of residence. As my former colleague and sage, Bill Jamieson, puts it in his weekly newsletter from the heart of Scotland: “Beware taxpayers behaving badly!”
The dawning of reality will almost certainly not be enough to wake up sufficient Scottish voters from their sleep in time for 2016 Holyrood election. The SNP simply has to keep pushing the dream of the “45” (the 45% of Scots who voted for independence) and get that vote out. In contrast, the Unionists are splintered in three parties.
Beyond that, there is hope. The SNP’s broad coalition spans left-wing voters wanting higher taxes, middle class middle-ground voters wanting “free” stuff and core Nationalists obsessed with securing a second referendum. It was easy to hold this lot together, when the complaint of insufficient powers was the focus. It may be more difficult several years down the line, if it becomes apparent to reasonable people that complaining about powers always was cover, created by a party elite obsessed with breaking up the UK. As long as powers were the focus, they did not have to resolve or confront internal contradictions that apply in normal, non-constitutional polities, on questions such as the size and power of the state, or the best levels of taxation and spending. Life is about to become a little more difficult for the SNP.