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Playing fair

Playing fair

We are told that in Scotland we now have the most economically literate electorate following a referendum when it was perfectly normal for the man or woman in the street to fire a series of complex financial questions at passing politicians.

And yet, here we are five months on and three months out from a general election and already the sound of numbers being crunched sounds hollow.

Last week, Scotland’s First Minister went to London, not for the first time in the last few weeks, to remind the rest of the UK that in this General Election, Scotland matters. 

She wants an end to austerity. Don’t we all. She says it has failed and that the poor and the most vulnerable are being hit the hardest. That’s true. She says that Scotland has gone through a debate during which a vision of a fairer Scotland emerged and that is where we should all be headed. But how?

Simples. With an austerity plan that has failed to meet even its most basic of objectives in paying off the deficit, and with both Labour and the Tories on the same page in agreeing to yet another £30bn worth of cuts, Sturgeon has seen a gap and she has captured the ethical argument and given it an economic spin.

'When George Osborne is your benchmark, even a timid call to economic arms can become a totem to the left'

She says we need to borrow more money over the next five years to pay off the deficit but at the same time soften the blow for the nation’s most needy. And without offering too much in the way of detail, she has managed to outflank Labour while waving a tantalising £180bn ransom note under the nose of Ed Miliband for the keys to No.10. 

There is no doubting this was a politically astute speech. It was about Sturgeon positioning her financial argument around a ‘Scottish way’, a fairer way, which even gave her the licence to describe a demand for a further £180bn of public sector spending as “modest”.

The tumultuous reaction from the left would have you imagine that Sturgeon had produced some wacko Marxist proposition to tackle the UK’s spending plans. Yet go back a generation and imagine advocating just a 0.5 per cent of GDP cash injection into a zero-inflation, low growth economy and it would have been met more with howls of indignation than rapturous applause.

But then when George Osborne is your benchmark, even a timid call to economic arms can become a totem to the left.

This was Nicola Sturgeon staking out her plot. Apparently, if Scotland wants the fairer nation that was glimpsed in the referendum then the way to do it is to vote for the SNP. Even if just to hold Labour to account. Even if you are Labour.

Meanwhile Labour continues to say vote SNP and get the Tories. Margaret Curran, Labour’s shadow secretary, says her party will balance the books and do it in a fairer way than the Tories. But how?

Integral to Labour’s austerity-lite plans in Scotland is Jim Murphy, who tells us that he’ll raise an additional £250m from raising the top rate of tax from 45p in the £1 to 50p in the pound for the 16,000 Scots he says earn more than £150,000. And he’ll use some of that money prised from those with the broadest shoulders to help iron out inequalities.

But his figures just don’t add up. In summary, these mega buck Scots would have to be earning on average £462,500 for Murphy to even get a sniff at his additional dosh. And frankly, they just don’t exist.

'The former Health Secretary may yet reflect on the consequences of being more focused on targets at Westminster than on NHS targets at home'

And therein lies a problem with income tax as a basis for redistribution.

As George Osborne has discovered to his folly, you can boost employment – he lays claim to helping to create one million private sector jobs in the last five years – but make no difference to the tax take when incomes are low. And in Scotland, redistribution through raising income tax from the very rich is even harder to add up. 

But what Sturgeon has done is ride over such detail or her party’s singular failure to recognise the oil crisis or even to offer a credible economic prospectus during the referendum to win over the wealth-makers.

She has presented a bigger picture. One which, despite all the logic, positions her party in the General Election as the economically literate, fiscally responsible, anti-austerity party. Something Labour has failed to do.

But there was surely a paradox that on the day she was in London lecturing the rest of the UK about fairness, a support team was in the A&E department in Paisley clearing up the inequity of her waiting times. The former Health Secretary may yet reflect on the consequences of being more focused on targets at Westminster than on NHS targets at home.

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