Getting Rid of the BTP at All Costs

British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit:  Gordon Joly  via  Flickr   CC

British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit: Gordon Joly via Flickr CC

     This week in Scotland saw one of the more controversial aspects of the Smith Commission being brought up for discussion: the possible breakup of the British Transport Police, the specialist law enforcement force which is responsible for the policing of Britain’s railways.

     For those not familiar or needing a refresh, the Smith Commission was created in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum which saw the majority of Scots deciding to keep the United Kingdom together. In the closing days of the campaign, the three main pro-Union parties promised in the Daily Record (via the famous/infamous “Vow”) that with a “No” vote to separation, the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood would receive more powers to exercise in Scotland, as opposed to the UK Parliament at Westminster (with Scottish representation as there always has been) exercising those powers in Scotland as part of the overall United Kingdom. With separation rejected, the commission was formed to recommend what should be devolved and among them was the Scottish BTP functions, and this was pushed through as part of the Scotland Act 2016.

    Even before the final passage of the act, the SNP government had made clear its intentions to use this new power to absorb the BTP in Scotland into Police Scotland, the single national police force created by the SNP in 2013 by amalgamating the eight existing regional services. In September, the merger proposal was officially announced as part of the SNP’s program for government, and last Wednesday saw various police representatives in a round-table discussion about the merger plan with MSP’s on the Justice Committee at Holyrood.

    Already, three railway unions and the BTP Federation had stated their opposition to the plan, with the federation expressing anger at the Smith Commission recommendation soon after it was made in 2014, saying that it was “both unjustified and unjustifiable.” Their main concern has been the potential loss of the BTP’s specialism and expertise, which make it unique from a force based in a particular geographic area, as well as the integrity of cross-border travel safety. For this reason, the BTP has offered to continue its services as a separate force in Scotland, but with oversight from Holyrood, rather than Westminster.

     However, the SNP government has continued to press forward with the scheme in the belief that since all other policing in Scotland is under the jurisdiction of Police Scotland, then the Transport Police should be the same way and that integration would “ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland.”

     The more generous remarks given on the subject in favor of the SNP’s position came from Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, who said the merger could work and that his force could police all the railways despite this being “massively complicated” and admitting that there would be “massive transition issues.” His statement broadly echoes that of the Scottish Government saying that specialist skills of the BTP would be maintained and could be achieved “from within our national police service.”  He also gave assurances that staffing levels would be maintained and potentially supplemented by Police Scotland officers.

BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit:  Dave Connor  via  Flickr   CC

BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit: Dave Connor via Flickr CC

     Such assurances were not enough for Nigel Goodband, chairman of the BTP Federation, who said that some of the experienced specialist transport officers would rather quit their jobs than not be BTP officers and that therefore, neither the SNP government nor Police Scotland could promise that the quality of service and expertise would be maintained. Some of this attitude stems from controversies with regard to the formation of Police Scotland and its handling of policing, and in its submission to the Justice Committee, the BTP Federation regarded the force as “still very much in its infancy” and that “no evidence to date has been able to state clearly what, if any, advantage there would be in dismantling the current BTP model of policing in Scotland and integrating it within a geographical routine form of policing.”

     BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock emphasized this point by stating that the BTP exists because its “specialism is so valued by the [rail] industry and passengers” and that railways required different policing from that of general law enforcement, which is specifically why it is difficult to merge into a geographic force (and why the federation is concerned about the possibility of transport officers being used to bolster Police Scotland). He was backed up by Nick Fyfe of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, who pointed to a “distinctive culture and ethos in policing the railways.”

     This culture and ethos is what makes the BST unique and allows it to transcend borders to provide a consistent specialist service, and for that reason, the federation is also concerned about the annual 21 million cross-border passengers and whether there may be interruptions to the “seamless” level of service they have come to expect.

     This leads to something on a more fundamental level, which is that the British Transport Police is a service used and shared by rail travelers throughout Great Britain – a service which is visibly recognizable and the relatively the same wherever anyone goes, whether from Glasgow to London, or Cardiff to Manchester, or Birmingham to Edinburgh, so as to ensure that people get to their destinations safely. It is therefore representative something “British”, not only because of the name, but because of its mandate, jurisdiction, and service it provides throughout the island. The United Kingdom does not have a national police force, so the Transport Police is as close to such a force in the country.

     All of this of course, is anathema for the SNP. Its members, including at senior levels, deny that Britain is a country and seek to characterize it as just a “state” or "invented construct" run from (big, bad) Westminster without a heart or soul, little in connection to people in Scotland, and certainly not doing anything of value or significance for them. It therefore suits the SNP government to fold the Transport Police north of the Border into Police Scotland and to not only extinguish a piece of shared Britishness – the closest thing to a national police force – from the Scottish landscape, but to effectively kill it entirely throughout the whole country and have one less relevant institution linking it together.

     Despite evidence that merging the Scottish BTP into Police Scotland would be very complex (at a time when the national force is still coming to terms with its own formation), may result in the loss of specialist capabilities, and simply is not necessary for effective policing, the SNP seems content with pressing forward for the purpose of simply creating another difference between Scotland and the rest of Britain.

     This is but probably a taste of the “independence at any cost” posture taken by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she claimed that separation “transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.” However, these are important issues which must be considered and cannot be ignored if there is to be another referendum like the one in 2014, just as the complexities and warning with regard to the dismantling of the BTP and merging it into Police Scotland cannot be dismissed. As far as can be told, the BTP works as a specialist force policing the railways of Britain, but the SNP government is pursuing a strategy of making Scotland feel as though it's not part of Britain at any cost.

     During his remarks at the Justice Committee discussion, BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock asked: “If it's not broken, what are we trying to fix?”

     That’s just it; there is nothing to fix.

A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit:  C.S. Imming  via  Wikimedia Commons   CC

A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit: C.S. Imming via Wikimedia Commons CC

Holyrood 2016: A Turning Point?

2016 Holyrood election Map, with detail of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Image Source: BBC

2016 Holyrood election Map, with detail of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Image Source: BBC

     Last Thurday’s Scottish Parliament election was one to remember for the fact that it turned out to be more interesting than projected. The seemingly unassailable SNP did win an unprecedented third term in power, but lost its vaunted majority from 2011 and found itself in the position of being in a minority government once again. Meanwhile, somewhat like Leicester City’s improbable victory of the Premier League championship, it was an evening of the three main pro-Union parties defying the odds and the going against the dire projections in store for them.

     The Liberal Democrats set the tone for the evening by not merely retaining the Orkney Islands, but having Liam McArthur winning it with a vastly increased majority. Here, the SNP vote share went down by 0.8% from 2011, while the LibDem’s managed a massive 31.6% increase to end up with 67.4% of the vote against the SNP’s 24.3% and majority of 4,534 votes. To the north in the Shetland Islands, the party again increased its majority to send former Scottish LibDem leader Tavish Scott back to Holyrood for a fourth term, and though the SNP managed to increase their vote share here, the Liberal Democrats increased it further to take home the same share as they done in Orkney.

     What was significant here is that Orkney and Shetland are represented as a single constituency at the UK Parliament and save for a fifteen year period from 1935 to 1950, have been sending Liberal and Liberal Democrat MP’s continuously since 1837, with the streak since 1950 being the longest run within any British parliamentary constituency and making it the safest seat for the LibDems.

     For Scottish parliamentary purposes, the islands were split into two constituencies which have elected Liberal Democrats since their creation in 1999, and these became the last LibDem bastions in Scotland after the near wipeout of 2011 when they lost all of their mainland constituencies to the SNP, partly in response to their role as coalition partners with the Conservatives at Westminster. At the 2015 UK general election, then-Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael held on to Orkney and Shetland with a reduced majority during the SNP landslide as he became the last Liberal Democrat MP in Scotland.

     After holding on to his seat, Carmichael faced an attempt to have him removed from office by four constituents in Orkney over the “Frenchgate” memo controversy during the general election when he stated that as Scottish Secretary in the coalition government of David Cameron, he knew nothing of a leaked memo which said that Nicola Sturgeon told the French ambassador that she actually preferred Cameron as prime minister as opposed to then-Labour leader Ed Miliband. When it turned out that Carmichael was involved in the leak and he admitted to it, the “Orkney four” lodged a petition for his removal and force a by-election. Carmichael was eventually found not to have committed an “illegal act” and he kept his seat, but there seemed to have been untold damage to his reputation and the electoral chances of his party in Orkney and Shetland.

     At least one of the constituencies (typically Orkney) had been projected as among those vulnerable to the SNP, but it seemed that the voters may have been turned off by what many people believed was a political witch-hunt to force out the last Scottish LibDem MP. In addition, there were no independent candidates in the running as there were in 2011 in both seats, and so the party romped home victories to keep them in the fold.

     However, if those victories could have been written off as Orkney and Shetland being Orkney and Shetland – voting for LibDems no matter what, the same could not be exactly said about the two big surprises for the party down south. In North East Fife, it pulled off an upset by electing Scottish party leader Willie Rennie with a majority of 3,465 – gaining it from the SNP and effectively turning around last year’s result at the UK general election where a similar seat long-held by former UK LibDem leader Sir Menzies Campbell was picked off by the advancing Nationalists.

     Further down in Edinburgh Western, the party regained this seat from the SNP with a majority of 2,960 votes under Alex Cole-Hamilton,  and this again was a reversal of last year’s result when the seat roughly contiguous to it at Westminster (Edinburgh West) fell to the SNP in the form of the now independent (and troubled) MP Michelle Thomson , who was suspended from the SNP last summer over dubious real estate and property dealings.

     In the end, the Liberal Democrats ended up with five seats in total with the inclusion of one regional list MSP from the North East, and so they have the same number of MSP’s from 2011, but keeping Orkney and Shetland, as well as gaining North East Fife and Edinburgh Western – fulfilling the pledge made by Rennie that he’d win seats from the SNP – was a victory and morale booster for a party that had been all but written off in Scotland.

     As for the Tories, they exceeded virtually everyone’s expectations in a big way. Sure, they had been rising in the polls and some projections showed them retaining their existing seats and perhaps gaining Eastwood, Dumfriesshire, and Edinburgh Pentlands. But it was still inconceivable that the Conservative Party – so often labeled as “toxic” in Scotland since being wiped out in 1997 – would make anything but modest gains and come in second place.

     Indeed, at the beginning of election day, the Tories themselves – at least privately and confidentially – were tamping down expectations and braced for the possibility of actually losing seats to the SNP. Then as the night progressed and the results flowed in, it became clear that the Tories were doing not just doing well, but very well, especially in areas where they had been the dominant party as recently as two decades ago and still have pockets of support at the local level.

     Their first victory of the night came in Eastwood, just to the southwest of Glasgow. This result was significant because Eastwood was once the safest Tory seat in Scotland at Westminster until Labour’s Jim Murphy won it in 1997 and Ken MacIntosh had held the seat at Holyrood for Labour since the first devolved election in 1999. Last year, Murphy lost the UK parliamentary seat – now known as East Renfrewshire – to the SNP and the Scottish parliamentary seat became a three-way marginal between Labour, the SNP, and the Conservatives. As such, it was one of the most-watched races this year, and in the end, Eastwood reverted back to Tories under longtime regional MSP Jackson Carlaw with a majority of 1,611.

The changes in support for the Conservatives from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Almost all Constituencies had an increase in Tory Support, especially in the Northeast and Tayside against the SNP. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for the Conservatives from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Almost all Constituencies had an increase in Tory Support, especially in the Northeast and Tayside against the SNP. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     Then the Tories managed to hold on to Ayr along the west coast under John Scott with a reduced majority of 750 between him the SNP candidate. To the southeast along the border with England, they won another three-way contest by capturing Dumfriesshire from Labour’s Elaine Murray, who had been the constituency MSP since first standing for it in 1999. This area forms part of the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale constituency at Westminster which is represented by Conservative Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who had previously contested the Holyrood seat, and his son Oliver was the victor here with a majority of 1,230 to edge out the SNP’s Joan McAlpine.

     In Edinburgh Central, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson pulled off a huge upset by picking off the seat from the SNP with a very slim majority of 610. Another surprise was in store up north in Aberdeenshire West, where they flipped another seat from the SNP – with candidate Alexander Burnett surging ahead with a majority of 900. Back in the southwest, Galloway and West Dumfries was held by the party under Finlay Carson with a majority of 1,514 following the retirement of the sitting MSP Alex Fergusson. Following this, the Tories completed a sweep of the border constituencies by holding on to Ettrick, Roxborough, and Berwickshire under John Lamont with an increased majority of 7,736 and 55% of the vote. Altogether, it was their best constituency result in Scotland since 1992 (when they had eleven) and even the map from that year looks similar in terms of Tory blue on it.

     Throughout Scotland, the Tories made significant gains which failed to produce more constituencies MSP’s, but having increased their vote in almost every constituency, they were rewarded with a boat load of new parliamentarian’s courtesy of the regional list vote – 24 in all, and they came out on top in five of the eight electoral regions. This made for a combined total of 31 Conservative MSP’s, which is their highest-ever haul at Holyrood and placed them in second place – becoming the new “Official Opposition”.

     Meanwhile for the Labour Party, which had not only been the Official Opposition, but had been in power from 1999-2007, the results were very unfortunate, to say the least.

     Early in the night, by became all but clear that the party would lose its remaining Glasgow seats at Holyrood – having lost all of them at Westminster last year – to the SNP. Eventually, many of the other Labour seats fell to the SNP, with Eastwood being the exception, to the Tories. For that matter, the Tories came second in former Labour heartlands such as Clydesdale, and the party dropped to third place in these areas where they once could expect solid and predictable victories in any given year. The scale of the defeat resulted in the loss of several good Labour MSP’s whose experience and contributions will be missed.

     In the face of this however, there were some bright spots for the party. In East Lothian, former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray looked to be unseated as he defended a 151 vote majority against the SNP in a seat whose UK parliamentary equivalent had gone to the SNP last year. However, he managed to not only hang on, but actually grew his majority to 1,127 votes in the face of a Tory surge which may have come at the expense of the SNP and aided Gray along the way.

The changes in support for Labour from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Only Labour's win in Edinburgh Southern produced a solid increase. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for Labour from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Only Labour's win in Edinburgh Southern produced a solid increase. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     In contrast, Jackie Baillie barely held on to her Dumbarton constituency on the western side of the county with a greatly reduced majority of only 109, which may well have been aided Baillie’s defense of the workers at the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine base at Faslane (in her constituency). At the very least, this highlights the need to vote, for every vote counts.

     Meanwhile, Labour’s Daniel Johnson was able to gain Edinburgh Southern from the SNP with a majority of 1,123 and a good swing to Labour. It's perhaps fitting that Labour did well here given that it was the people of the UK parliamentary equivalent of this area (Edinburgh South) which had re-elected Ian Murray, the only remaining Labour MP in Scotland.

     With only these three constituencies, Labour (including its leader, Kezia Dugdale, who failed to gain the Edinburgh Eastern constituency from the SNP) depended on the regional list vote to give them a decent amount of MSP’s at Holyrood – 24 in all, which represents their smallest representation since the advent of devolution, and the third place finish was their worst electoral performance in Scotland since 1910.

     Of course, the SNP was still on top and remains in government for a third term, but without a majority as in 2011. This makes for a parliament that is more colorful, diverse, and representative of Scotland, as was intended when the voting system was put in place to prevent outright majorities of any party, so the SNP will be the largest of five minority parties at Holyrood. Even with the Greens at six seats to provide a nominal pro-secession majority with the SNP, there is no guarantee that the Greens will become lapdogs for the SNP, certainly not on all issues, and so there is every chance that the SNP may have to make deals with the (wicked) Tories – especially on taxes, where the two parties offered similar polices in their respective manifestos. Indeed, it would appear that the SNP’s broad church will be put to the test more than ever before, and combined with the new Conservative dynamic, we may also find out whether Scotland really is so vastly to the left of England that it necessitates the break-up of Britain, or if it is something which has a grain of truth, but is more likely a debating tactic used to manufacture grievances and advance the secessionist cause.

     Furthermore, in the face of the sheer numbers of the SNP, there were significant swings against them in several of the constituencies that have been won by them in recent years, as well as the ones that have been their heartlands since the 1980’s and 1990’s. Some of these places were once reliably Tory before the SNP displaced them, and the Tories have since tended to come in second place in most Westminster and Holyrood elections. They were also the places with tended to vote overwhelmingly against the SNP’s landmark policy of separation. At this election, there were huge swings to the Tories from the SNP in Perthshire, Banffshire, Angus, Morayshire, and Aberdeenshire.

The changes in support for the SNP from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. The biggest decreases came from the northeast and Tayside. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for the SNP from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. The biggest decreases came from the northeast and Tayside. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     In Perthshire South and Kinross-shire, the seat held by SNP Cabinet minister Roseanna Cunningham, there was 9.5% swing from her party to the Conservatives; nearby in Angus South, the SNP’s Graeme Dey was re-elected with a reduced majority of 4,304 against a 12% Tory swing; up in Moray, the swing from the SNP to the Tories was a whopping 15% as Richard Lochhead, another Cabinet minister, hung on with a reduced majority of 2,875. Most significantly, though Deputy First Minister John Swinney was re-elected as well, he experienced a 12% swing to the Conservatives in his Perthshire North constituency, which left him with a majority that had been reduced from 10,353 to 3,336 against Murdo Fraser.

     Similar swings to the Tories were seen in other areas, such as Banffshire and Buchan Coast, Angus North and Mearns, Aberdeenshire East, and in the case of the aforementioned Aberdeenshire West, the Tory swing was big enough to wrest the seat from the SNP. Meanwhile there were swings to the Liberal Democrats in former strong areas such as Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, as well as Argyll and Bute.

     Some of this may have been the result of former Tories and Liberal Democrats returning to their old parties from the SNP, but other vote changes may also have been due to tactical voting, as Alex Massie observed when he noted how the LibDem vote fell in the Borders and Aberdeenshire, only to have it rise substantially elsewhere, such as in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western. Indeed, if some places had a stronger swing against the SNP or more voters switched tactically, the SNP would have lost several more seats, including Swinney’s and Cunningham’s.

     Overall, it was a decent result – possibly the best one in the circumstances – for those who support keeping the UK together.  In terms of total votes, the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, and Labour collectively received 52.4% of the popular constituency vote compared to the SNP’s 46.5%, or 1,194,343 votes against 1,059,9897 for the SNP. The three parties also out-polled the SNP on the regional list vote 47.2% to 41.7% (1,082,425>953,587), though with the Greens factored in, the pro-separation percentage rose to 48.3% and 1,104,103 votes. Even so, with the loss of six SNP seats (and the one belonging to the late Margo MacDonald as an independent), the number of pro-separation MSP’s fell from 72 to 69 – the same number of seats the SNP won five years ago – whilst the number pro-Union MSP’s rose from 57 to 60.

     It must be remembered going into this election, it had been thought to be a foregone conclusion that the SNP would not only keep its majority, but also extend it to greater proportions than what had been achieved in 2011. In terms of constituencies alone, some projections had Labour losing all of its seats and indeed, the SNP vote appeared so strong as to threaten a wipe-out everyone but themselves in all 73 constituencies – leaving the other parties clamoring for all regional list seats. If it were that bad, the only seats given the best chance of surviving such an SNP tsunami would have been Shetland for the LibDems and Ettrick, Roxborough, and Berwickshire for the Tories.

     As it was, this did not happen, and all three of the main pro-Union parties exceeded expectations through a mixture of SNP support perhaps peaking and cooling off, the rise of the Greens to take votes from the SNP, some tactical voting, and a great effort at old-fashioned dogged campaigning on the part of the Conservatives, Labour, the LibDems, and by pro-Union campaign organizations, who have all taken a beating over the last nine years of SNP dominance. Indeed, perhaps the best outcome of this election was the not only the break with absolute SNP domination, but that it also, as Brian Wilson observed, broke the “spell of Nationalist invincibility” and ought to take a second referendum “off the agenda since there is no plausible mandate for one.” Indeed, it may have been the thought of a second referendum which caused many voters to turn out against the SNP in the final weeks of the campaign.

The new constituency map is vastly more colorful than most projections had shown going into election day on May 5th. Image Source: BBC

The new constituency map is vastly more colorful than most projections had shown going into election day on May 5th. Image Source: BBC

     If over the term of this new “rainbow” parliament, the political battles can be shifted away from the constitution, there will be opportunities for the three parties to grasp for better results down the line. For Labour, it was down, but not out, and Wilson pointed to the Dumbarton result as showing the way forward with a “strong candidate and a good story to tell” on issues that matter to people, like jobs, public services, health, and education. For the LibDems, they can hold their heads high winning two constituencies against the odds and look forward to developing their own narrative for the future. As for the Tories, they have been perhaps detoxified at last, but should be careful to not get ahead of themselves. Much of their resurgence came at the expense of Labour, and if they intend on holding this support and gaining more in the future, they need to offer something to the voters beyond defense of the Union. As Wilson observed, they’ve already started with their stance on not raising income taxes when they are devolved in full to Holyrood next year, and this he believes, was their biggest selling point, “more even than the constitution.” As the SNP possibly finds it more difficult to ride the low tax and anti-austerity horses, and more generally, being all things to all Scots, there will be openings for all three parties to take as different factions of the SNP may become dissatisfied with the party as a whole. (No wonder they want to get on with their summer secessionist initiative.)  

     This election may have been a turning point, and in short, all three parties need to build on the current results, consolidate them, and work on unseating the SNP in other areas next time around, so that Scotland and the United Kingdom overall can move forward.

Who's "Anti-Scottish", Now?

SNP advertisement from the 2007 election.

SNP advertisement from the 2007 election.

     This week, the SNP unveiled its plans for local government taxation should it win the Scottish parliamentary election in May.

     Under the proposed changes, households within the four highest Council Tax bands will have to pay more for the funding of councils; specifically, those living in the average home at the lowest of these bands (Band E) will pay an extra £105 per year, while those living in the highest band (Band H) will be paying extra £517 per year. For everyone else in Scotland – those who live in homes within the lowest bands of A through D – there will be no changes to how much they pay.

     The biggest revelation by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was that the package included the end of the Council Tax freeze in 2017 – ten years after the SNP implemented it when it came to power for the first time. The freeze was conducted under the pretense of helping all taxpayers by providing tax relief and it has been funded by the Scottish Government, which provided the money on the condition that the local councils did not change Council Tax rates (i.e., the “freeze”). However, the initiative has been criticized – including by the SNP government’s own poverty “czar” – for disproportionately benefiting those on higher incomes and living in larger homes at the expense of funding for public services.

     Sturgeon has claimed that the move to make those in the higher property bands pay more will raise £100 million for education initiatives, whilst the end of the Council Tax freeze and giving councils the ability to vary it by 3% per year will allow them to raise another £70 million for public services.

     In addition, those who are asset-rich but cash-poor – living in higher band homes on low incomes, such as pensioners – will be entitled to an exemption, and there will be relief across all property bands – particularly families with children. The First Minister further claimed that the charges for those in all bands will still be lower than of the freeze were not in place, average rates will remain lower than those in England, and that there were no plans for revaluation of properties, which are still taxed based on valuation from 1994.

     In many ways, this seems all well and good – getting rid of the prolonged freeze to give councils more breathing room and making changes to the overall system to make it “fairer”.

     However, it amounts to an overall tinkering with the present system, which is something they had criticized doing in years past. In fact, heading into the 2007 Holyrood election, Nicola Sturgeon as deputy leader of the SNP had said: “the Council Tax is unfair and cannot be improved by tinkering around the edges.” She had made this statement following the announcement by the Scottish Tories under then-leader Annabel Goldie that if elected, they would retain the Council Tax system with a discount for pensioners.

     To be fair, the Council Tax as been criticized throughout the United Kingdom by people of all persuasions. It was cobbled together by John Major’s government following the disastrous debacle over the Community Charge (aka, Poll Tax) which provoked a campaign of nonpayment, as well as riots and helped to bring down his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Council Tax has not generated such feeling as the Poll Tax, but is still considered unfair and regressive in many quarters as a means of funding local government.

     However, in responding to the Conservatives’ policy on retaining the Council Tax, Nicola Sturgeon went further in her criticism by calling them “anti-Scottish” for wanting to do so. Specifically, she said: “The anti-Scottish Tories have clearly run out of ideas as this is not the first time they have announced this policy.” Her party campaigned in 2006 and 2007 on a pledge to abolish the “unfair Council Tax” in Scotland and replace it with a “fairer local income tax where over half a million pensioners pay nothing and most will pay significantly less.”

     In May 2007, the SNP won the parliamentary election and formed a government for the first time, and they instituted the Council Tax freeze as a precursor to their objective of permanently replacing it.

     Once they got to the nuts and bolts of crafting policy however, they quickly realized that a local income tax was insufficient and undesirable; insufficient – because it could not be enough to bear the weight of funding local government, and undesirable – because it would have to be set by Holyrood and thus erode local accountability.

     Given these concerns, the SNP went into the 2011 election saying it would: “consult with others to produce a fairer system based on ability to pay to replace the council tax and we will put this to the people at the next election, by which time Scotland will have more powers over income tax.” Following that election, the cross-party Commission on Local Tax Reform was created during the current parliament and presented its recommendations in December – calling for the end of the Council Tax.

     In the wake of this, the SNP decided to forgo an all-out replacement of the Council Tax and instead, opted for the position of merely tweaking and reforming the current system.

     As Brian Taylor of the BBC noted, it has been a “long, slow retreat” for the SNP on this issue, and having placated the people with the nine year freeze, they now hope that this modest, moderate plan will be enough to satisfy the voters in thinking that they have kept their promise of producing “a fairer system based on ability to pay”, even if they failed to “replace the council tax.”

     Possibly the greatest irony of this climb-down from abolition is that the policy decided upon by the SNP shares much similarity with the recommendations offered by the tax commission created by the Conservatives. Tartan Tories, indeed.

     However, this may not matter for the election that occurs in two months. Indeed, one of my acquaintances on Twitter, who goes under the name “El Del” (@Del_ivered), believes that the very modesty of the proposed changes only further ensures the SNP’s reelection prospects. Specifically, he notes how the ability of councils to raise tax by 3% may actually be the SNP effectively passing on some of its ability to tax from Holyrood on to those councils, so that councils are left with the decision to raise council taxes for public services, but income taxation in Scotland stays the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

     This is important, because Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been advocating for increase in income taxes in Scotland in the belief that it may be attractive to some voters who believe that people – especially those of a higher income – ought to pay more for the benefit of public services. Not only does Del contend that they fell into a Nationalist trap, but they were “so hellbent on unleashing their tax missile at the SNP, they were blind to the vital bigger picture: Keeping [the] UK a level playing field and Westminster budgets relevant to Scots.”

     In this light, he further asserted that while the SNP does not “care a whit for UK cohesion”, they also did not wish to see talent drain away from Scotland to other parts of the UK due to tax differentials and that “calls for worker solidarity across the UK at the indy referendum were forgotten as [Kezia] Dugdale and [Willie] Rennie were happily prepared to make Scotland the highest-taxed part of Britain.”

     Having avoided this and for achieving a “reformed” (i.e., “tinkered”) Council Tax system, Del believes that pointing to broken promises by the SNP on abolishing and replacing it will prove to be ineffective because voters care about the here and now.

     However, pointing out this broken promise on Council Tax replacement is necessary when one realizes the circumstances of the election in 2007. To be sure, there were many things going on which help to explain why Labour lost power to the SNP that year, but this was still an election in which the SNP only beat Labour by one seat to form a minority government in Edinburgh. Given how close this election was in some individual constituencies (not to mention the irregularities and various voting/counting/ballot paper issues – possibly most infamously in Cunninghame North) and in the Scotland-wide result, it is possible that the “abolish and replace” promise was probably enough to help the SNP to power for the first time. Looking back, this election proved consequential, for it eventually led to the referendum, further constitutional upheaval, and nine years of SNP rule (with the last five years as a majority government). Without that promise, it is possible that Labour would have held on to power. At the very least, enough votes against the SNP would probably have kept it from attaining power that year, and all things being equal, prevented the madness of past nine years.

     Another issue is the fact that Sturgeon called the Conservatives “anti-Scottish” for taking the very position that that her party is now promoting: retaining the Council Tax system with some adjustments. Furthermore, during the 2011 election, senior SNP MSP Humza Yousaf tweeted that Scottish Labour was "betraying Scotland" by not lending its support for "scrapping the unfair Council Tax." Well, what does this make the SNP? As Euan McColm said recently in The Scotsman, "there's something troubling about the othering of politicians by opponents. It speaks of a pettiness that's a world away from the talk of consensus and working together that we so often hear."

     For that matter, if certain powers are not to be used because of the resulting disadvantage to Scotland (and the benefit of the rest of the UK), then what is the purpose – the need – for devolution, more powers, the recent struggle over the fiscal framework, or even separation? Indeed, this would seem to take the argument for the Union, as I explained a couple of weeks ago. Again, the SNP may not care about the unity of the UK, but they have paradoxically emerged as a UK unity party.

     Then again, it probably comes down to a simple fact: nobody likes paying taxes, and when they do pay taxes, they’d rather not pay any more. Even when they say they believe in higher taxes to fund public services in surveys and polls, so often, they vote according to their pocket books and not their political or social ideals – in other words, they usually vote according to their own economic self-interest.

     This may prove difficult to understand for people such as Lesley Riddoch, who seem to be wondering why the SNP is timid in its ambitions for local taxation. Why, they ask, is the SNP passing up an opportunity to really shake up the system of local taxation and come up with something new, innovative, and radical? The reason why is that Scotland is not as radical as she thinks or hopes, and the SNP knows this. Like most political parties, they don’t want to “scare the horses” (i.e., the middle classes, who tend to decide elections) so that they can stay in power. Indeed, some of those within Middle Scotland (a close cousin of Middle England) who benefitted from the freeze may well be shocked at having to pay more after nine years of frozen rates.

     In addition, as Brian Taylor pointed out, the SNP knows that any major change in local government taxation will be first such change since the advent of the Poll Tax, and we all know where that went.

     This brings up the important fact that there are no plans for a revaluation of properties, which means that Council Tax bills will be based on valuations from over 20 years ago – and that current property values are not accounted for and some people are effectively paying at a discounted rate. This sounds similar to what happened in the 1980’s when the Tories kept putting off what they knew would be unpopular revaluations and increases in the old domestic rates, until they couldn’t any longer (especially in Scotland) and decided to solve this problem by introducing…the Poll Tax.

     It is perhaps possible that similar conditions are being produced which will eventually force the SNP to move further on local taxation than it has thus far. For the moment however, they seem content with more-or-less adopting the position on local taxation taken by Tories in that consequential election of 2007. Who’s “anti-Scottish”, now?