Robin McAlpine – 30th September 2022
Only two things in life are certain; death and rich people complaining about taxes.
It is a rule of public life in Britain that when steps are taken which are viewed as being negative for the lives of wealth people then wealthy people individually get all over the media, and when steps are taken which are clearly detrimental to the poor, middle class professionals who are brought on to analyse the issue are all over the media.
This is how a small group of wealthy Scots can command significant media space because they object to contributing a couple of grand from their quarter of a million pound salaries to the public good at a time of national crisis where one out of every 800 kids is being hospitalised because of starvation.
It is really important to understand that, despite their attempts to claim that this is somehow ‘about economics’, it is no such thing.
Let’s start with ‘if we cut six per cent from an earner’s higher rate tax burden, will he become six per cent more productive?’. That would be an economic case for a tax cut, but it seems unlikely to me that the individual has been idling around of late and that the real key to getting him to stop shirking his work and knuckle down is a gift of a few thousand pounds.
Or if people want to talk public accounting (a different thing from economics), is this high earner bringing a lot of wealth into Scotland which wouldn’t otherwise be coming to Scotland? Are his clients only spending on services in Scotland because of him/her, or would they just appoint a different supplier? I don’t really believe s/he is generating GDP no-one else would step in and generate.
But what about the sheer cynicism of ‘I can have all the benefits of Scotland but not contribute?’. Let’s just go over the fact that if our higher rate tax payer falls out of a tree while gardening in his South of the Border garden and needs emergency medical care, he’s going to be reliant on England’s collapsing health service. Scotland’s health service is in crisis, but we’re about two years behind England collapse-wise.
I don’t know if our higher rate tax payer has children but if they fancy going to university and he supports them by paying their fees, most of a decade’s-worth of his tax savings disappear right there. There are benefits of being in a society with a fair tax system.
Or what about the pure cynicism – I can live across the border but still work in Scotland and use all its services as my own? Which brings us to the wider challenge Scotland now faces – we need to choose soon whether we’re welding ourselves to Westminster or not, and if not, what instead?
This pressure is now impossible to avoid for two reasons. The first is that every version of Britain is going off in directions which are distinctly unhelpful for the Scottish economy. You have variations of Tory madness, but when everyone finally realises that Boris Johnstone was by far the least extreme, most progressive option, it paints a stark picture.
And the alternative is New Labour on steroids – an even stronger Blair-like belief that rapid financial growth in London is the key to success married to a kind of 1950s-type hyper British Nationalism, flags, monarchy, bowing, armies and Keir Starmer positively shitting Corgis.
For Scotland these directions are not as different as all that. They both assume that the role of Scotland is to be subsidised and the role of London is to grow despite the costs of growth. They’re both basically low-tax, deregulated futures. Both will cause even more wealth to be sucked towards London. Both will continue to pick away at the Scottish economy.
Which means that right now Scotland is stuck in a very worrying position indeed. We are being inundated with calls to just ‘be Tories’, do Tory things, on the basis that if we don’t do Tory things we’ll be left behind by those who actually are doing Tory things.
We’ve been told that if we don’t embrace Freeports, someone else will take the jobs. If we don’t embrace a deregulation free-for-all someone else will take our industry. If we don’t privatise all of our stuff, it won’t get done. If we don’t cut our taxes, the rich people will leave.
Every time we are presented with these ultimatums we’re fed a little fake contrition from the commentator, business figure or politician involved. They’ll say things like ‘look, I’m appalled by this Freeport nonsense just like you are, but if we don’t do it anyway…’ or ‘I support strong public services but while cutting tax will harm them, an exodus of the rich will be worse…’
Here’s the thing; if you keep compromising to a Tory (regretfully or gleefully), you’re a Tory – whether you admit it or not. What we privatise is privatised. A 25-year contract is a 25-year contract. The dreadful PFI decisions made by Gordon Brown 25 years ago are a major factor in the massive pressures on the health service today. Dear god it is Thatcher’s internal market reforms in the NHS from about 35 years ago which are the primary cause of today’s collapse.
It is concerning that the Scottish Government has been quite so quick to compromise, the embrace of Freeports, the privatisation of the nation’s offshore wind, the way the ‘National Care Service’ is being built around and in the interests of private equity-owned care home corporations.
Scotland has now reached a point where we need to make a decisions. Either we need to just give up and accept that the role of devolution is to translate Westminster rule for Scotland, taking their policies and, oh I don’t know, sticking the word ‘Green’ on the front to make them more acceptable in Scotland.
Or we need to set out a different, long-term vision. We can simply let the rich leave. A large proportion of Scotland’s higher rate tax payers are public employees and I’m not convinced they’re all that great. Bringing through a more innovative younger generation is a good plan anyway.
There really aren’t all that many major businesses left in Scotland whose senior staff are a flight risk. Is our higher rate tax payer really going to hang out in Hexham or Morpeth in his evenings and commute an hour and a half into Edinburgh in the mornings? We need to hold firm to principles and call some bluffs.
We can create a national industrial strategy which is not based on low tax and low regulation but on high quality and effective exploitation of national resources. If we had proper integrated government policy we’d be racing to develop public energy generation off our east coast and be enticing energy-intensive businesses to come here because of inexpensive clean electricity.
We can build manufacturing businesses based on our wide range of natural resources, pioneering in bioplastics, new organic fabrics, wood-based construction materials. We can pursue ‘import substitution’ and produce much more of the food we consume. We can create engineering strategies to rebuild green-based engineering capacity in Scotland. We can do many things.
But we can’t straddle both paths. We have to choose. If we choose Freeports we choose to undermine the rest of the economy. If we choose tax cuts we transfer great wealth from the poor to the already rich. If we choose deregulation our water and air and soil and urban areas will deteriorate, more people will die at work, health will decline, poverty will increase.
So we need to choose. We have let the debate be driven by narrow-focussed cynicism. It’s the ‘well since everyone else is stealing this old woman’s money, we might as well give her a kick and take her TV’. It’s the ‘I don’t like taking away this child’s only toy but I kind of want it so I will’.
If you take the shitshow which is British policy, break it down into its tiny, mental components and say, each one one at a time, ‘here, it is this or it is nothing’, we build a trap from which our children won’t escape never mind us.
It is our failure, the failure of those of us who oppose this awfulness, to provide an alternative, an alternative which is about more than just soundbites and adjectives and personal approval ratings. It is about a vision for Scotland which challenges and takes on Trussonomics or Union Jack Starmer. That is exactly what Common Weal is feverishly working on right now.
I don’t want higher rate tax payers to leave Scotland. I want them to stay because we’ve persuaded them that there is more to life than tax cuts, that the society we are building is good for everyone, that they will live a life which is generous and enriching and fulfilling not despite the fact that they are contributing to the public good but because they are contributing to the public good.
I want them to see that, working together, putting all of us first, we can build a Scotland which is beautiful, not ugly, kind, not selfish, together, not fragmented and broken, innovative, not reductive, peaceful, not at permanent war with itself and everyone else.
It is easy to be angry at the rich. They never seem to accept that they have enough power, enough money, enough of a quality of life to be content with. But we live in a democracy, and it is not (as we have seen) the responsibility of the rich to make it a good democracy and a good society.
It is all of us. It is time for Scotland to stop pointing the finger at others and point it at ourselves. Do we want to continue on this path or not? If not, where are we going to go?
And when are we going to start?