9 Jun 2014
Ruth Davidson MSP – Time for Holyrood to remember you: the taxpayer
(a shortened version of this article appeared in the Mail on Sunday)
The word ‘radical’ is an overused term among politicians. But I’d like to think that the Scottish Conservative plans to give more power to the Scottish Parliament, unveiled last week, justified its use for once.
The plans mean that, finally, MSPs would have to think about where Holyrood budgets come from – you, the hard-pressed British taxpayer – rather than simply thinking about how to spend ever-increasing millions.
Firstly, the power to set income tax will be transferred to Holyrood. Under our plan, the Scottish Parliament, not Westminster, will decide how much of your pay packet stays in your wallet and how much goes to the tax man. Secondly, we think that when you buy goods or services in Scotland, a share of that cash should stay in Scotland and make up part of the Scottish Government’s budget. And thirdly, Ministers in Edinburgh shouldn’t be stopped from supplementing welfare payments run by the UK government if they want to, and can find the money to do it.
Before it was published, I held meetings to discuss these reforms with David Cameron and George Osborne. It’s true to say that, within Whitehall, there was some resistance to the idea of allowing one part of the UK to have such different tax rules to another. This would be a genuine first. But while some officials may have been wary, I found I was pushing at an open door with my colleagues. With devolution now bedded in, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor saw the essential logic in the proposals drafted by Lord Strathclyde and his Commission. And we all saw that there was no reason to retain a system where an institution has barely any responsibility for raising the money it spends. We agreed – as Unionists – that this situation was only allowing Nationalists to exploit the politics of grudge and grievance. It created exactly the sort of instability which threatens our United Kingdom – and instability we could address in a single stroke. We agreed – as Conservatives – that responsibility and accountability had to be pushed from Whitehall and to Holyrood. This bold and – yes – radical vision will be in our manifesto, not in spite of our Conservative and Unionist values, but because of them. We see no reason why we should not be able to deliver it early in the next Parliament if the Conservatives win the General election in May.
Tomorrow, we hit another major milestone in the referendum campaign, as we mark 100 days until we vote to decide whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. And with thousands of people are still to make up their minds, it’s my hope that last week’s Conservative vision on devolution will give them the reassurance that the pro-UK parties aren’t just focussed on the next 100 days but also for the next phase of Scotland’s devolution journey. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have also put forward plans for more powers. With the Conservatives now completing the set, it sends out a clear message that No does not equal no change. Far from a No in September being a vote to reject progress, it means something different entirely. A No vote means we get to keep the benefits we already have as part of the most successful union on the planet, as well as a more powerful Scottish Parliament that is directly answerable to you, the Scottish taxpayer. That’s a clear offer. Alex Salmond may be passionate about independence, but the truth is that this passion has blinded him to the hard truths about independence and the problems it will create. On our side, we have matched passion for Scotland with a practical approach to securing Scotland’s future.
And that future is tremendously exciting. My hope is that, with the referendum won, the sour cat-calling of Scotland’s constitutional debate will end. And my hope is that, once we’ve pushed through our plans to boost devolution, we’ll bring real ideological debate back to Scotland. The truth is that, at the Scottish Parliament now, politics is often reduced to a spending competition. The two dominant left-wing parties – the SNP and Labour- have sought to out-bid each other with taxpayer’s money. And so the debate has not been about whether or not politicians should spend money, but how big the cheque should be.
With tax powers at Holyrood, that will change. Ministers and MSPs will be answerable to you, the Scottish taxpayer. And so the debate will move towards a genuine contest between left and right. On the left, they’ll continue to argue for high taxation to keep producer interests happy. On the right, we’ll press the case for low taxes and a reformed, efficient public service that squeezes every last drop out of your money. At the moment, there’s little incentive for Governments at Holyrood to do this. Ministers simply get their annual cheque from Westminster and then find ways to spend it. But with tax powers, that changes. Suddenly Ministers have a much bigger stake in the way they run their business. A centre-right party like my own can reform the way we work, save money, and then give that money back to you in tax breaks.
I know that some people may fear this contest. Isn’t handing tax powers to the Scottish Parliament like putting a child in charge of a sweet shop? Won’t they simply spend our money and ask for more? I don’t think so. Why? It’s because the Scottish public don’t want it. The SNP has tried to propagate a myth during this referendum campaign that Scotland is vastly different to the rest of the UK. They have tried to invent a left-wing Scotland, a fantasy land where we yearn to pay higher taxes if only England wouldn’t stop us. We are Cuba – with drizzle. The narrative is obvious: if only England weren’t there to hold it back, it could become the Socialist Nirvana it has always aspired to be. It is patent nonsense.
A recent finding by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey – the most authoritative temperature test in Scotland – found that only four out of ten Scots want government spending to increase, down from 60% a decade ago. It also found that only a quarter of people in Scotland think our benefits bill is too low, against a half who think it’s too high.
I will press the case for the majority who want to bear down on the cost of government. Just throwing money at our social challenges simply doesn’t work. In Scotland, the education budget has risen by more than 70% since 2003. Yet, shamefully, OECD figures show that in maths and reading we are actually falling behind other European countries. In other nations, innovative reforms are allowing head-teachers to take control of their schools and make more of the money they have. In Scotland, the incentives simply aren’t there for this to happen. A stronger, more powerful Parliament will put these issues front and centre on the agenda.
So I look forward to leading a rejuvenated centre-right voice in Scotland in a more powerful Scottish Parliament that can offer a genuine alternative to our left-wing establishment. This is the exciting future we face after a No vote this September. The political compass will shift. The old constitutional fist-fight will be replaced with the more dynamic, fruitful contest between right and left. And crucially, people don’t have to separate from the United Kingdom to get it. Instead, we can look forward to the best of both worlds: a strong and secure UK, and in our Parliament here in Scotland, a genuine contest of ideas. I can’t wait for it to start.