The coverage of the Smith Commission findings in today’s press is woeful pretty much across the board, regardless of where each paper’s allegiances sit. Right-wing Tory papers fume about the poor suffering English (without ever quite pinning down how England would lose out from the proposals) and rage at what they bizarrely interpret as hypocrisy on the part of the SNP for signing off on the report but then criticising it as inadequate.
(If it helps, chaps, picture yourselves as the creditors of a bankrupt business being offered a CVA of 10p in each pound owed. It’s better than nothing and you’d accept the offer, but you’d still be pretty unhappy.)
Meanwhile, the Daily Record continues its blitzkrieg of breathtakingly barefaced bullshit, attempting to simply overwhelm gullible readers with the sheer volume (in both senses of the word) of its spin and flat-out lies.
Thus the extremely sceptical reactions of civic Scotland, trade unions and business alike is portrayed under the headline that the organisations all “welcome recommendations for further devolution to the Scottish Parliament”, with only a weaselly concession later on that in fact they’ve called the proposals inadequate.
Over on the pro-independence side, meanwhile, the coverage is wonkish and dull, with The National devoting plenty of pages to the subject but completely failing to deliver any punch. Readers are faced with many dense walls of text but no snappy graphics or bullet-point lists or solid numbers to aid understanding, and the nadir is an Alan Bissett piece which opens facepalmingly with the admission that the author hasn’t actually read the report. (Maybe we’re just old-fashioned about that sort of thing.)
We’ve already had a go at a concise summary of the key points, which brought our biggest traffic figures since September and reached over 200,000 people on Facebook, but we thought we’d see if we could boil it down even further, and we think we’ve got it to a single sentence.
“The Smith Commission recommendations give Scotland the power to spend money, but no power to create the money in order to spend it.”
Labour’s slow-witted shadow pensions minister Gregg McClymont had a difficult time on last night’s Scotland Tonight understanding the difference between “helping people into jobs” (the supposed aim of the Work Programme, the execution of which would be devolved and “creating jobs”. But it’s not terribly complicated.
In order to help someone get into a job, there first has to BE a job for them to be helped into. There are all sorts of ways you can help an unemployed person take a job, but first someone has to be offering it. The Smith Commission offers no way for the Scottish Government to create jobs, because it reserves all corporate powers.
Reducing personal income tax doesn’t create jobs – because it’s a tax on the employee, not the employer – so you can fiddle with it all you like without creating a single job. Income tax only applies to people who already have jobs, which was why Lord Smith struggled and dodged on the same programme when Bernard Ponsonby tried to nail him down on what actual useful effect his recommendations could have.
And the same principle applies to wealth more generally, because ultimately all wealth is generated from employment. You could have every power on the statute book, but if you’ve only got 25p in the piggybank you can’t actually do anything with them.
So even where the Smith report gives Holyrood theoretically wide-ranging powers, they’re useless in practice. For example, while the income tax personal allowance remains reserved to Westminster, Holyrood could (so far as we can tell) exercise de facto control over it by, say, creating a zero band that covered the difference between the current allowance and the minimum wage for a full-time job.
That would lift anyone on minimum wage out of income tax entirely, and be a step towards wealth redistribution and social justice. The problem is that the equation has two sides, and the money to pay for that move has to come from somewhere. Lacking power over corporate taxation (in either direction), the pursuit of tax evaders or large areas of expenditure like defence, Holyrood would have almost no means to generate the cash needed to finance the policy.
The same applies to the new powers to create new benefits or “top up” existing ones. It’d be all very well saying “You now have the power to create a new Scotland-specific income-support benefit to lift the low-paid up to a living wage”, but once again Smith offers no means to pay for it – the only option for revenue generation is to increase personal income taxes, and as countless people have already pointed out, that’s just not practical in an effectively unitary state where those you’re trying to get the money from can easily move 100 miles down the road and save themselves thousands of pounds a year.
(The counterpoint, of course, is to suggest CUTTING the higher rates of tax to lure wealthy English people north, but then you risk triggering exactly the “race to the bottom” that’s given as the reason for refusing to devolve Corporation Tax, and the political uproar would be ruinous to whichever party tried it, again rendering it impossible in practice.)
The Smith Commission’s recommendations, an attentive observer might therefore conclude, have been specifically designed to create theoretically significant levers of government which can’t actually be pulled. It’s a situation described by the novelist, academic and human-rights activist Ariel Dorfman as:
“Responsibility without power, the fate of the secretary through the ages.”
And “secretary” is a pretty accurate assessment of the role the Smith report bestows on the Scottish Government. It has to manage all the admin, but can make none of the important decisions. It has freedom in the sense that any secretary is free to do a bad job, but only in the knowledge that they’ll soon be fired if they do.
There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary, of course. But Scotland has just been left in no doubt whatsoever as to who the boss is.
Source: Wing Over Scotland