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by James Mitchell
14 November 2023
The gulf between what the SNP says and does is increasingly obvious

Humza Yousaf announced the council tax freeze at the SNP conference | Alamy

The gulf between what the SNP says and does is increasingly obvious

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”  Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Humza Yousaf displayed his Humpty Dumpty tendencies in his first conference speech as SNP leader. Referring to building a “fairer society” and wanting to “make Scotland a fairer and more prosperous country”, he claimed that the SNP had used its time in government to “cement our social contract with the people.  A contract that says, yes, those who earn the most should pay the most”.

Then without any embarrassment came the proclamation: “I can announce to the people of Scotland that, next year, your council tax will be frozen”. The superfluous “I can announce” is standard rhetoric signalling a big announcement but usually follows logically from what had just been said.

Only the blindly loyal could fail to see the inconsistency. A council tax freeze will benefit the better off that while requiring cuts in public services. As theatre goes, the speech combined farce with tragedy.

There are many reasons why this announcement was objectionable apart from the unashamed hypocrisy. It ran totally contrary to what Yousaf said only weeks before at the Cosla annual conference.

He was “delighted” to be at that conference, having signed the “important Verity House Agreement” which, he claimed, was “incredibly important for me”. “How do we breathe the principles of the Verity House Agreement?” he asked. “We genuinely believe in that principle that is embedded within the Verity House Agreement, which is local by default, national by agreement”.

Local authorities hoped that Nicola Sturgeon’s replacement might mean a more respectful, constructive relationship. But even those who doubted much would change were shocked at how rapidly and flagrantly the Agreement has been jettisoned.

In any rational policy process, a council tax freeze would have been in an advanced stage of planning, costed, and with implications thoroughly considered by the time the first minister spoke to Cosla to allow him to make the announcement at the SNP conference.

But this was policy making on the hoof. What happened on the SNP leader’s journey from Cosla’s conference to the SNP’s?  

The explanation is found in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. The apparent surge in membership was supposed to give the SNP an unassailable advantage. Labour’s victory created panic. The SNP failed to confront the causes of defeat, instead seeking a more reassuring explanation, one that led to the regressive council tax decision.

The SNP claimed that ‘aspirational’ electors had deserted the party, though how it could know this is unclear given it had not anticipated the scale of defeat. Its understanding of what was happening on the day of the election was obviously flawed, evidenced by SNP spin on election day that Labour needed to win 50 per cent of the vote to claim a real victory – which means the SNP did not expect Labour to come close to half the vote and certainly not close to 60 per cent which Labour actually won.

The narrative of ‘aspirational’ supporters appealed to the SNP leadership.  ‘Aspirational’ is Humpty Dumpty language for middle class voters, those “who earn the most” (and, according to what Yousaf said in his conference speech, those who “should pay the most”).

A more hard-headed analysis might have led to the conclusion that voters are weary of undelivered promises. Voters have heard it all before. The gulf between what the SNP says and does is increasingly obvious.

Humza Yousaf is fond of the word ‘progressive’, using it more than 100 times in his leadership election campaign material to draw a contrast between himself and Kate Forbes. Ironically, it was Forbes, as the finance minister, who ended the cap placed by the Scottish Government on the council tax in 2021, noting that this would reduce inequality. But Yousaf is the ‘progressive’ in the SNP leadership’s topsy-turvy world.

The council tax freeze has no place in a government committed to reducing poverty – one of three “shared priorities” set out in the Verity House Agreement. It was announced without consultation, ignoring the agreement to “consult and collaborate as early as possible in all policy areas” and the maxim “local by default, national by agreement”.

This fits an opposition narrative that is taking hold. It is Lewis Carroll’s story, Through the Looking Glass – a world where everything is reversed and words take on opposite meanings.

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