Pragmatism, Taxes, and the SNP

     Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that going into the Scottish Parliament election in six weeks, her party would maintain the 45% top rate of income tax for the highest earners in Scotland once Holyrood has full control of tax rates and bands during the course of the next parliament. This marks a reversal by the SNP leader, who had argued for restoring the 50% rate at the UK general election last year in the name of raising additional revenue for public services and education.

     The reasoning for abandoning the policy was that it would not raise much revenue and cause tax competition that could see high earners earner more than £150,000 leave Scotland or relocate their address in the rest of the UK – thereby not paying any income tax in Scotland at all once full devolution comes about.

     If this sounds similar, it is because it the same reasoning that Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne used to reduce the top rate from 50% to 45% throughout the UK in the belief that some investors and entrepreneurs already in the UK would leave for a lower-tax country, and thereby not paying any income in the UK altogether.

     Now, regardless of your views on tax policy and the merits of taxing people according their ability to pay, the reality is that most people don’t like paying taxes and when they do, they would rather not pay more – even if they tell opinion polls that they do, and this applies to Scotland just as everywhere else. This is why the SNP is reluctant to raise taxes on anybody, not least the middle and upper classes who have helped the party rise to prominence in the last decade.

     But for many of the more recent SNP voters – many of them working class former Labour voters in Glasgow, Dundee, Dumbartonshire, and Lanarkshire – they believed that the SNP was supposed to be a more radical, progressive, and bold party than the party they had left. It was not merely that they had been disappointed with the party standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Conservatives to save the Union, but it was the discontented feeling that the party had taken them for granted for some time and were seen as drifting to the right and away from their socialist political principles in the pursuit of power at Westminster.

     New MP’s such as Mhairi Black defeated Labour heavyweights such as Douglas Alexander at the general election last year on the wave of this discontent, and with the message that Labour had left them, not the other way around. They made speeches filled with platitudes about fairer and more progressive taxation, and standing for left-wing principles – and in this regard, Black cited one of Labour’s left wing stalwarts, Tony Benn, as one of her political hero’s.

     However, the problem with Benn was that many of his cherished principles were not widely shared by voters throughout the United Kingdom, at least not at the ballot box, which explains why Labour lost with its infamous “suicide note” in 1983 and found that it had to moderate in order to be in sync with the center ground of British politics. Today, the SNP is doing the same with regard to Scotland in particular, and this means chucking away the 50% top rate in order to stay in power at Holyrood.

     To be clear, this article is not advocating anything on either side of the tax debate, but is merely pointing out that many ex-Labour voters found a new home in a party they believed was chock full of social justice warriors, and would be bold and do things differently than the other parties, like hiking taxes on the well off and getting away from the “austerity agenda” of Westminster. Now alongside dropping the 50% top rate for high earners, these people are watching as the SNP also effectively gives a gift to well-off frequent flyers via the halving of air-passenger duty.

     Now, some people who are politically savvy may say that this is just politics, and that of course you place yourself in the middle ground to win an election. Grow up and smell the coffee, they say. Again, that’s politics.

     Sorry, but so often during the referendum and general election, the SNP/anti-Union rhetoric was how Labour was basically too frit to raise taxes because it would have cost them in marginal constituencies (the UK equivalent to “swing” states or congressional districts in US politics), where only a small swing is needed to flip a constituency from one party to another. Many such marginal constituencies – usually inhabited by middle class voters not keen on tax increases – happen to be to England. Thus, the implication was that Scots are more amenable to paying higher taxes, and that Labour betrayed working class Scottish voters (who wanted tax increases on upper earners) to chase after middle-to-upper income English voters (who didn't want taxes increased), and this was used to argue for separation and voting for the SNP.

     Not only does the SNP admit that the same holds true in Scotland, but Sturgeon herself has said that higher taxation is only possible as part of the same UK tax base to prevent people from shifting money and company headquarters outside of a tax base that benefits Scots and everyone else (and because Scotland has comparatively fewer higher income earners than England). In the face of this, during First Minister’s Question’s last Tuesday, she went so far as to say that increasing the top rate would be “reckless” and “daft.” The First Minister would later say that she would consider the 50% rate during the lifetime of the next parliament, but still cited civil service experts warning her against it - at least initially - during the first year of full income tax devolution.

     Again, this article is not arguing the merits of tax policy for one of the issues here is the SNP selling itself as a radical, left wing, redistributing party that did things differently than everyone else, like raising taxes on those who can – at least in theory – afford them. In fact, it has proven not to be that party, and is every bit as cautious as the others, so as to not "scare the horses" (i.e., the middle classes).

     The other issue is selling this premise that Scots are vastly to the left of the English (and making this a reason for secession), when again, this is false. If this was the case, the SNP would have no problem raising taxes, but like every political party, it wants power, and rarely do parties win power on the promise of raising anybody’s taxes.

     The Labour Party learned this in the 1980’s and 1990’s as it clawed its way back into the British political mainstream and eventually into power in the landslide of 1997, which infamously included the wipeout of all the Scottish Tory MP’s. However, it may be a mistake to conclude that anti-Tory sentiment alone was responsible for this, whether in a Scottish or UK political context. If this had been the case, then Labour should have won the 1992 general election and the Tories should have by all rights been wiped out in Scotland following the Poll Tax debacle of 1989-90.

     Alongside the anti-Tory sentiment, the strategy of becoming “New Labour” and moving rightward to the center ground under Tony Blair allowed Labour to win in places it had never won before, or in a long time, throughout the United Kingdom, including Scotland, where the party had made itself acceptable to the middle classes, just as they had done in England and Wales. This helped it to win in constituencies that had been sending Conservative MP’s for decades, such as Edinburgh Pentlands, Dumfriesshire, and Eastwood – the safest Tory seat in Scotland which fell to Labour’s Jim Murphy in 1997.

     With devolution and the Scottish Parliament, the SNP probably thought they could show up Labour’s progressive and social justice credentials with their “Penny for Scotland” platform to raise the standard rate of income tax by 1% under the power to vary taxes by up to three percent. This was in response to Labour cutting that standard rate by 1% for the UK overall, and SNP looked to cancel this out in Scotland to provide more money for public services. This proved unsuccessful for the SNP’s electoral chances, and the policy was subsequently dropped.

     After that, the SNP worked on building its own moderate, centrist, and middle class credentials by painting itself as a party that would govern with modesty and with an eye on being competent – in short, a safe pair of hands that would not rock the boat. In many ways, they were first attracting the people who would have voted Conservative, but did not, perhaps because of the toxicity of the Conservative label in Scotland.

     From here, the SNP made itself increasingly presentable to the middle classes and were able to dislodge the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition administration from power by winning one seat more than Labour in 2007. Then the SNP went after the Labour and Liberal Democrat vote by painting itself as the true defender of the social democratic order in Scotland, while Labour and the LibDems were in cahoots with the Tories in attempting to dismantle it by following an “austerity agenda” of low taxes and spending cuts. This worked to pave the way for the SNP majority government in the election of 2011, the ability to get 45% of Scots to vote for separation in 2014, and the near sweep of the Scottish seats in the House of Commons last year.

Journalist David Torrance's reaction to those expressing surprise that the SNP is not as left-wing as advertised.

Journalist David Torrance's reaction to those expressing surprise that the SNP is not as left-wing as advertised.

     All the while, the party’s use of left wing rhetoric to help whip up discontent with Labour and drive up the pro-independence vote betrayed its true nature – like all parties – in being cautious with the reins of power, and even willing to pursue policies that don’t fit the typical mold of socialism or social democracy, such as dropping corporate tax by three points in order to attract business and investment and incentivize job creation.

     Such a policy is usually seen as a good thing by economic conservatives, but as an unnecessary giveaway to CEO’s and wealthy shareholders by those who see higher taxation as indicative of a fairer society. That policy was abandoned, but now with Nicola Sturgeon going against a rise in the top rate of income – at least for now – there are questions about her and her party’s credentials as a social democratic party. Writers Iain Macwhirter and Kevin McKenna have written about this phenomenon of the SNP apparently not even willing to use the powers it now has or the huge electoral mandate it is destined to have this May – largely on the back of people who became politically engaged during and following the referendum.

     SNP members and supporters have already taken to social media to express their discontent with the party on taxes and other policies where they believed it would at least try to take risks to create the fairer society the SNP has been talking about. Some have even announced their withdrawal from the party – wondering what point there is in voting for the SNP if it’s just going to be another party of the establishment. Indeed, what is the point of secession when the risks of raising taxes will be just as great if not greater, and if an independent Scotland more-or-less follows the economic policies of the rest of the UK?

     That being said, there is little to suggest that the SNP will do nothing other than win an unprecedented third term in power in May. If it does so ruling out a tax increase or no firm commitment to raise taxes, it will partly be a manifestation of that fact that there are people out there who may like the idea of higher taxes, but when it comes to actually doing the deed of voting for higher taxes (especially when it effects them), they tend to go with the party that either pledges to lower taxes or keep them the same. A Survation poll in February showed that most Scots wanted either a decrease or no change in the basic rate of income tax, and even a combined plurality of 47% wanted a decrease or no change in the top tax, as opposed to 38% who wanted to see an increase.

Survation online poll - February 25th-29th.

Survation online poll - February 25th-29th.

     Labour or the Liberal Democrats may not win this election (or even gain any seats) on a pledge to raise people’s taxes, but this may show that when it comes to paying for higher taxes, Scotland is not different than England, and the SNP will likely act in a pragmatic fashion that may well disappoint its new voters.

     Brian Wilson probably said it best in the Scotsman this past December:

Nobody ever lost money by reassuring the Scots that we are the most caring, altruistic, welcoming people in the world, uniquely blessed with an egalitarian gene which makes us a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns.

Equally, it is some time since anyone won an election through even the most timorous effort to translate that self-image into votes.

New Settlement Unfair, You Say? Stick with the Current One.

The SNP is haggling over a new cash deal from Westminster. Image Credit:  Howard Lake  via  Flickr   cc

The SNP is haggling over a new cash deal from Westminster. Image Credit: Howard Lake via Flickr cc

     Through this week, there have been rumblings that the SNP may reject the “more powers” for which they have been agitating – and unconsciously concede that the United Kingdom has been good for Scotland.

     This has been going for some time, but it really came to the fore last Sunday, when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show at her official residence of Bute House in Edinburgh for an interview which covered a range of topics that will affect the political landscape throughout the year.

     Among the topics discussed was the new “fiscal framework” which must be agreed to by the UK and Scottish governments in light of the powers over income and other taxes and receipts which are set to be devolved to Holyrood in accordance to the Scotland Bill which was passed by the House of Commons last year. Basically, the new powers and the ability of Holyrood to tax within Scotland need to be offset with cuts to the block grant from Westminster which currently funds the Scottish Government, which is determined by the Barnett Formula.

     Technically, the UK Government can bring the bill into force when it passes its final stages at Westminster, where the House of Lords is in the process of scrutinizing it. However, it is an established convention that Holyrood should give consent to such legislation with regard to the devolution settlement and the ability to increase (or decrease) the amount of legislative authority controlled by Holyrood. Thus, the fiscal framework must, at least according to the SNP, be completed by mid-February in time for MSP’s to scrutinize the overall devolution package brought about by the Smith Commission in 2014, so that it can be brought into effect before the Scottish parliamentary election in May.

     In her interview with Andrew Marr however, the First Minister stated that there was “a long distance still to travel” in negotiations over the fiscal framework and warned that the UK Government must show “significantly more movement” on her demands for how the block grant is to be adjusted. Finance Secretary John Swinney has also stated that both sides are still a ways apart from a deal, and Sturgeon said that she will not “sign up to something that is unfair to Scotland” – effectively saying that her MSP’s (the majority at Holyrood) will vote to block the legislation and scupper the arrival of the new powers.

     Now to be fair to the First Minister, there are understandable issues that need to be worked out to the best and fairest extent possible. As The Herald noted on Saturday, although the changes to the block grant “should be straightforward on day one”, it is how the grant is adjusted in the years and decades to come which is “proving hugely complex and contentious.” It continued by saying that “small shifts in the relative economies and populations of Scotland and the UK could result in major changes” which under at least one scenario, could result in Scotland being “hundreds of millions of pounds worse off.” 

     Again, these issues must be given due consideration in the pursuit of a deal that does justice for Scotland, the other parts of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom as a whole. However, this is what the SNP signed up for when they agreed to the Smith Commission recommendations in 2014. Yes, there was a “no detriment” clause to prevent Scotland and the rest of the UK from being better off or worse off as a result of the new constitutional arrangements, but it’s difficult to believe that this meant that Holyrood would continue receiving the same amount of public spending per person per year above the UK average.

     According to The Herald:

“Mr Swinney favours a mechanism known as per capita indexation, which would protect Scotland if, as expected, its population grows more slowly than England’s.”

Leading economists agree the method would be the most advantageous for Scotland, potentially adding hundreds of millions of pounds to Holyrood’s budget within three or four years compared with other systems for adjusting the block grant.”

     However, with the devolution of setting income tax rates and bands (and less money going to the Treasury in London), such a system “would be unfair on the rest of the UK as increasing amounts of income tax raised south of the Border would be used to fund services in Scotland” as opposed to reducing it, which would seem to be the logical thing to do.

     Sturgeon says that she wants the new powers in the Scotland Bill, but the disagreement over the fiscal framework has the appearance of not wanting any of the consequences of having those new powers, as I wrote back during the tax credits debate at Holyrood last year.

     Indeed, the Daily Record’s editorial that week is apt for today’s circumstances:

"Moan, moan, bitch, bitch, whinge, whinge. Their response has been as negative as it was predictable. A cynic might argue that the SNP don’t actually want those new powers because it makes them more accountable to the people of Scotland."

     Therefore, one may wonder if this is an effort to stall the new powers from taking effect by setting out a negotiation that dooms the talks over the fiscal framework to failure. This thereby blunts the debate on the use of the new powers during the election campaign. Instead, the powers themselves and the fallout from the failure of an agreed framework will take up much of the campaign oxygen, which the SNP believes will benefit them and allow them to continue blaming Westminster and getting around the issues concerning their nine year record in government, which is not entirely sunny, to say the least.

     Like fracking and other issues, the government appears to be putting off final decisions on them until after the election, lest they cause splits in the SNP’s broad church of socialists, neo-liberals, progressives, environmentalists, fossil fuel promoters, free-marketers, social democrats, small “c” conservatives, and hard-core nationalists.

     Indeed, this has the hallmarks of former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill when he explained why he blocked the extension of voting rights to prisoners in 2014, despite supporting the idea. It was he said, “the wrong thing done, albeit for the right reasons”, and for MacAskill, the right reasons were to “avoid any needless distractions in the run-up to the [independence] referendum, to deny the right-wing press lurid headlines that could tarnish the bigger picture.”

     This time, the bigger picture is the election in May, and it may well be that the deal falls through now, but then the SNP suddenly signs up to it over the summer (after winning a second outright majority and unprecedented third term in Holyrood), with Sturgeon, Swinney, or another senior member solemnly stating – as they always do on these matters – that it doesn’t go far enough, but they’ll make do.

     If this happens, they will have tested the delicate constitutional and fiscal system to destruction, but to what end?

     When the First Minister said she would “not sign up to something that is unfair to Scotland”, her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell tweeted this statement on Twitter, and this was followed by my fellow blogger Kevin Hague (@kevverage), who said: “you relentlessly claim we’re being hard done by the UK, but now you’re desperate to preserve the benefits of union?”

     From this question by Kevin, I chimed in with a question of my own: “By implication, are they saying that the UK has indeed been fair for Scotland all this time?” Kevin responded in a retweet that it was “quite hard to avoid this conclusion.” 

     Logically speaking after all, if this new settlement is deemed unfair, what does it say about the current one?

     Under the current system, the Barnett Formula automatically dictates the amount of public spending in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland based on adjustments to spending in England, so that when spending on health or education are changed in England, this changes the amount of public spending (known as “Barnett consequentials”) for the devolved governments of the UK.

     It was created in the 1970’s as a temporary measure, but has all but become a permanent part of the UK constitution. With regard to Scotland as Brian Wilson noted in The Scotsman last week, it came about in the era of administrative devolution when responsibility for Scottish matters were primarily in the hands of the Scottish Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland in the UK Cabinet. With legislative devolution, the formula is the primary means by which the Scottish Government is funded – a “valuable legacy which Holyrood inherited”, says Wilson.

     The formula has been heavily criticized for that fact that it typically results in more spending per head in Scotland than the UK average (and higher than all parts of the UK except Northern Ireland), but Wilson argues this is defensible “on grounds of geography, historic needs and indeed past distribution in the other direction.” On the last point, he refers to the three out of past 15 years when Scotland (on the back of high oil prices and revenues) paid more into the UK Treasury than got out, but adds that that in the course of time, the net flows of cash can go both ways so that it balances out in the grand scheme of pooling and sharing throughout the United Kingdom.

     In the current circumstances, Wilson refers to Barnett as “a safety net which benefits Scotland” – this year to the tune of around £10 billion more than Scotland’s contribution to the Treasury. Despite the dramatic collapse in oil prices and revenue (only a small fraction of overall UK revenues), whatever is spent in the UK overall, Scotland gets a fixed share that (again) is higher than the UK average per person which explains the “bigger public sector” and therefore, “higher average wage rates.”

     Furthermore, says Wilson, there is the matter of “dollops of additional money in the course of a year” which result from Whitehall spending increases for special projects and emergency needs. Here, he refers to the recent flooding that has taken place throughout the UK, so that when additional money was allocated for flood relief and recovery in England, Scotland automatically received an additional nine million pounds. Even more crucially, he pointed out that Holyrood stands to receive an extra £1.5 billion in Barnett consquentials resulting from the proposed HS2 project in England. Still further, if a third runway at Heathrow is constructed, even more cash will get sent to Holyrood, and just this week came the signing of the £500 million City Deal for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, which will be jointly funded by the UK and Scottish government’s (which is similar to some joint federal and state initiatives in the United States, such as the harbor deepening project in my hometown of Savannah, GA).

     Once Barnett cash (funded by taxpayers throughout the UK, including Scotland) arrives at Holyrood, it is entirely up to Holyrood to decide how it is spent. So for example, if spending on education goes up in England, there is no obligation on Holyrood to spend an additional proportionate amount on education in Scotland; how Barnett consequentials are spent is at the discretion of Holyrood. As Wilson states:

“The decision to give £500m less to local authorities while Scotland’s block grant increased by £250m (with an underspend of £350m from last year) was taken entirely in Scotland. The decisions to allocate Barnett consequentials so that NHS expenditure in Scotland has risen by less than in Tory England are taken entirely in Scotland.”

     It is therefore disingenuous to claim that the root of all of Scotland’s problems lay with Westminster and the “austerity agenda”, for it is the Scottish Government led by the SNP that has the money and tools (with more to come) at its disposal to help improve people’s lives and prospects in Scotland. What matters is how it uses those tools.

     On this point, Naomi Eisenstadt, its own independent adviser on poverty and inequality has reported that two of its landmark policies – the council tax freeze and free universal services – are not helpful for those in poverty and hardship. On the former, she said that it at a cost to councils and “with disagreements about the equality and poverty impacts of the freeze” – noting that “those on low incomes at or above the poverty threshold…may not be covered by [the] full council tax reduction.” On the latter, she warned that free universal services may lead to “spreading a limited budget too thinly to help those who need the service the most.”

     In other words, these are Holyrood (not Westminster) policies that disproportionately benefit the well-off while those in poverty suffer from cutbacks either resulting from the provisioning of free services to people who can afford to pay or cash-strapped councils trying to adhere to the council tax freeze (under the pain of a financial penalty from the Scottish Government). She suggested shifting away from universalism to targeted provision of services that can be “delivered without stigma” and said that the government “should consider ending the council tax freeze from 2017/18 onwards.”

     This assessment was not surprising to many people – particularly in the Labour Party like Wilson – who have been making these points for some time as a means to bring the SNP to task for the claims that it is progressive party standing for social justice, when its actions in government are at the least more centrist than its rhetoric.

     For that matter, when it comes to government, choices have to be made. The SNP has chosen to fund the council tax freeze over allowing rates to rise on the better-off, and it has chosen to fund universal services (such as tuition-free universities) as opposed to spending money on those who need it most. When it comes to spending priorities with precious resources, the SNP has made its budgetary priorities known.

     The problem according to Wilson, is not one of persecution, as it is one of distribution and priorities, and that Holyrood only needs to engage in “modest tweaking” to reduce inequality, such as raising taxes a bit and revamping government toward helping those who are disadvantaged. This is bolstered by a report from Scotland in Union, which surveyed economic experts and think tanks from across Europe who concluded that with its current powers and powers yet to come, Holyrood “now holds most of the powers it needs to promote economic growth, jobs and prosperity in Scotland.”

     Instead, the SNP relies on the pitiful narrative about Scotland being the helpless, defenseless victim of the Union - always being flogged senseless and mercilessly by Westminster and belonging to a hopeless constitutional structure that does not work for Scotland and the Scottish people.

     But again, if the SNP is all about refusing to accept a new fiscal settlement on the grounds that it is unfair, then what does it say about the current one? It reveals that – far from being hard-up – Scotland does well as part of the United Kingdom under the current system. With smart decisions, it can do even better under the new arraignments, as opposed to the constant complaints over perceived and hyped-up grievances and the well-worn Nationalist adage that “only with independence…” can Scotland fulfill its potential.

     Even people who support separation acknowledge that going forward – having failed to break up the UK in 2014 – the goal is for a better Scotland. This was expressed by David Carr on Common Space when he asked: “Should we not simply be making Scotland a better place - for the hell of it?” To this end, he further said that “not everything…has to be about indy” and that Holyrood ought to use the powers it currently has (and is anticipated to have), because after all, not everyone supports separation – including many SNP voters.

     He didn’t exactly say it, but he seemed to imply that if this is possible within the Union (which I believe has been the case), then so be it.

     Meanwhile, The National stated in an editorial this week that the “SNP have always pushed for more devolution at all costs and have never shied away from that position” in the pursuit of independence, but now say that “Swinney and the government will have to ask if the powers promised in the Scotland Bill are worth whatever cost there may might be.”

     This is quite an extraordinary statement from some of the same people who could not credibly answer the currency and other economic/financial issues two years ago, and appeared determined to go for separation at any cost. This cost will become more stark in a few months than it was then with the release of the latest Government Expenditures and Revenues Scotland (GERS), which are expected to reveal the impact of oil prices well below what the SNP’s White Paper projected for an independent Scotland (which would have become a reality in March this year had there been a vote for separation).

     If the Nationalists cannot accept the cost of the promised powers – including the ability to set income tax and bands, keeping half of VAT revenues generated in Scotland, borrowing abilities, and new welfare powers – then how does this bode for accepting the cost of full fiscal autonomy or complete independence?

     At this point, with all of the effort that has gone into the Scotland Bill and the negotiating the framework, it would be a shame to see it collapse at this juncture. Indeed, it is especially a shame considering that Swinney previously endorsed a method known as “indexed deduction”, which he hailed as “the most robust mechanism” for recalculating the block grant, and which has already been agreed to with regard to Holyrood’s existing income tax powers.

     Either he got his figures wrong with “indexed deduction”, or he knows that with “per capita indexation”, he is offering an arrangement that the UK government cannot possibly sell the other nations of the UK and the UK as a whole. Their position has been that the Smith Agreement “was clear that Scotland should hold Scotland-specific risks, while the UK should hold UK-wide risks.”

     If the SNP thinks that the “Scotland-specific risks” are too great, then perhaps they should admit it, and instead propose a UK-wide convention or a Royal commission to work out a new governmental and constitutional framework for the country and its constituent parts, so that all corners of the realm down the council level can have their say on what should happen going forward and come to an agreement that is fair to all.

     Either that, or just keep Barnett the way it is. If anything, Swinney’s effort to “protect Scotland” financially shows how important the Union is to Scotland and that even the SNP is effectively conceding this reality.

Fit for Government or Grievance?

NIcola Sturgeon has gotten by on sheer personal popularity and shaking her fist at Westminster, but How Long Can That LAST? Image Credit:  Ninian Reid  via  Flickr   cc

NIcola Sturgeon has gotten by on sheer personal popularity and shaking her fist at Westminster, but How Long Can That LAST? Image Credit: Ninian Reid via Flickr cc

     Throughout much of its history, the SNP has made much use of grievance politics – claiming that Scotland is held back by being in the UK, and in particular, by the UK Parliament at Westminster. Even after devolution and being in government, the party has continued down this path of blaming big, bad Westminster for Scotland’s problems, and using this as a reason for Scotland to secede from the UK.

     Trumped-up and manufactured grievances were a big part of their campaign to break up Britain last year, and though they failed, they have continued to use this tactic to stoke resentment against the Union and the political parties that support it. This resulted in their electoral landslide at the UK general election, and without fail, they intend on doing it again going into the election next year for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, where they are expected to win another outright majority and an unprecedented third term.

     However, grievances take can take you only but so far in anything, let alone politics, and especially when responsibilities lay at your feet and people demand to know what you are going to do, with an expectation that real action will be taken.

     For the SNP, this has become increasingly true as Holyrood gets beefed up with extensive new powers under the Scotland Bill going through its final legislative stages at Westminster, and in the course of this week, the party – having been in government for eight years – showed signs of being a bit off message with regard to tax credits.

     The main issue at hand was whether the new devolved powers contained within the Scotland Bill would allow Holyood to top-up tax credits in Scotland following them being cut throughout the UK under proposals by Chancellor George Osborne, which ran into a stumbling block last week in the House of Lords.

     Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale announced at her party’s conference last weekend that if elected into government, she would use new Holyrood powers over taxation to retain the current rates paid by top earners (and not going along with planned tax cuts by the Conservatives at Westminster), as well as keep (soon-to-be devolved) air passenger duty as is and not going along with SNP proposals to cut and eventually abolish it in Scotland. Together, these proposals are expected to free up £355 million to restore the tax credits.

     But the SNP’s Social Justice Secretary Alex Neil claimed that Holyrood would not be able to restore the tax credits    and on that basis, the SNP MSP’s voted to reject a Labour motion to have them restored, and instead pushed through a motion that claimed that Holyrood would not have the power to reverse the tax credits unless they were devolved.

  However, the Scottish Parliament's own information service (SPICE) states that with devolution through the Scotland Bill, the Scottish Government will be able to "provide a permanent top-up to a reserved benefit" such as Working Tax Credits. This means that even though tax credits are a reserved policy with the UK Government, the Scottish Government can use devolved powers to restore any tax credits lost to Scottish residents if they are cut by UK Government.

     This had already been confirmed by Scottish Secretary David Mundell, and after repeated statements by the Scottish Government that it could not top up credits - including a press release by Alex Neil just hours earlier to that effect and demanding that credits be devolved - Neil admitted that the government could indeed do so during a rancorous debate at Holyrood.

     In a further sign of the SNP's confusion on the issue, this was the same rancorous debate at which SNP MSP's rejected Labour's motion to restore the credits and claimed that the Scottish Government could do nothing about the issue.

     Speaking on this rather embarrassing U-turn, Labour's public services spokesperson Jackie Ballie lambasted Neil for putting on a "pantomime dame performance" in his defense of the SNP's opposition to Labour's motion, as well as for his apparent waffling and/or incoherence on the issue. She also accused the SNP government of putting "grudge and grievance" above action to help those affected by tax credit cuts, and devastatingly turned a common SNP talking point against it by asking: "Why can't the SNP just embrace the new powers instead of always talking Scotland down? "

     Neil responded by claiming that Labour had "no credibility" on opposing Conservative welfare reforms, and that the SNP would continue to seek a full reversal of the proposed tax credit changes at Westminster. To this end, he further stated that the Scottish Government would wait for the announcement of the final tax credit proposals and George Osborne's autumn statement before considering what "corrective action needs to be taken on tax credits, when such action should be taken, how it shall be funded, and how it will be administered."

     Sure enough, at First Minister's Questions the next day, Nicola Sturgeon said that her government would present "credible, deliverable and affordable plans to protect low-income households" from the cuts and dismissed Labour's plan as "back of a fag packet proposals", though offered nothing in the way of specifics regarding the SNP's plans.

     In his analysis, the BBC's Brian Taylor said that aside from needing to know about the autumn statement and tax credit proposals, Scottish Government ministers - especially Finance Minister John Swinney - were also waiting to understand what kind of fiscal framework they would be working with under the new devolution arrangements (and the full scope of the new powers) before making "costly commitments."

     This is actually a sensible policy, so that public money is spent wisely and effectively. Then again, for a party that claims to be for bold, radical action, and being "stronger for Scotland", this apparent reluctance to set out proposals to deal with the tax credit issue may well represent that whatever else the SNP stands for, their main and overriding objective above all else is secession.

     To this end, almost nothing can be done by the SNP without it being figured into the greater context of advancing the independence cause. Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill admitted as much when he explained why he blocked the extension of voting rights to prisoners last year, despite supporting the idea. It was he said, "the wrong thing done, albeit for the right reasons", and for MacAskill, the right reasons were to "avoid any needless distractions in the run-up to the [independence] referendum, to deny the right-wing press lurid headlines that could tarnish the bigger picture."

     In the context of the tax credits debate, if the SNP were truly a party committed to social justice first and foremost, it would not have turned down a motion to support having the tax credits restored via the powers it will soon have at its disposal. But it did to that and then claimed that they didn't have the power to top-up any credits reduced by the UK Government, before having to admit that it did.

      The reason why it did this of course, was so that it could pick another fight with Westminster over constitutional process and powers, and to continue their narrative about Scotland being the helpless, defenseless victim of the Union - always being flogged senseless and mercilessly by Westminster and belonging to a hopeless constitutional structure that does not work for Scotland and the Scottish people.

     God forbid it if the SNP actually used the powers that are - and soon will be - at its disposal as a party of government to help people, because then it would demonstrate that the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom do work for Scotland. If that were to happen, it would blow a massive hole into their argument for independence, and indeed, I remember reading a Herald (or Sunday Herald) article in 2013 which argued that if anything, the SNP's participation in devolved government may have blunted the case for independence because the party was seen as competent in running Holyrood and standing up for Scotland's interests within the safety and security of the Union.

     So the SNP cannot allow such thinking to marinate in the minds of the people of Scotland. This is why they have to almost continuously pick fights over the constitution and keep the constitutional debates going - stoking up manufactured grievances and resentment - so that the very idea of independence remains in people's minds and continue to blame Westminster for all of Scotland's problems and demand still more powers, because after all in their eyes, it does not go far enough.

     Well, of course it does not go far enough for them, because they wanted a "devo-max" arraignment which would have been independence in all but name (though still relying on the pooling and sharing mechanisms within the UK). On top of that, their all-consuming goal remains full and complete separation, which the voters rejected last year, though this has not stopped them from complaining about the supposed "inadequacies" of the Scotland Bill. As the Daily Record said in an editorial this week:

"Moan, moan, bitch, bitch, whinge, whinge. Their response [to the Scotland Bill] has been as negative as it was predictable. A cynic might argue that the SNP don’t actually want those new powers because it makes them more accountable to the people of Scotland."

     Herein lies another reason why the SNP would rather argue over process and powers, because with more powers comes more responsibility and accountability, as well as potential pitfalls for the SNP. With regard to tax credits for example, there is the possibility that they may have to raise (soon-to-be-devolved) income taxes on higher earners and/or hike up other taxes and duties usually paid by the more well-off in order to finance top-ups of welfare benefits.

     Throughout the referendum campaign, one of the many refrains from pro-independence campaigners and writers was that Scotland was a more egalitarian society from that in England, and unlike the English, Scots were more amenable to paying more taxes to help the well off. However, almost all polls and surveys have shown that Scots are not much more interested in having their taxes raised than the English, and the SNP knows this. After all, a big part of their success has been to capture "Middle Scotland" with initiatives such as free tuition, free perscriptions, and the council tax freeze - all of which disproportionately benefit the better off - without having to worry about paying for it out of Holyrood.

     Despite the rhetoric of social justice, the SNP knows that in order to win anything, you must win the middle ground of the electorate, and heaven forbid if they decide to take away those gifts to the middle and upper classes or raise their taxes to pay for topping up tax credits (in other words - talk left, walk right). After a while, people may see them as any ordinary political party that needs to be replaced by another at some point in the near future, and worse, the cause of secession will stagnate and fall by the wayside.

     Against this have been the charge that big, bad Westminster is setting up a fiscal "trap" for the SNP by forcing them to raise taxes to pay for the initiatives they want funded. This is nonsense, for the only reason this is a "trap" is because it will force the SNP to make choices that will be politically unpopular and cost it support from one group or another within its broad church of socialists, neo-liberals, progressives, environmentalists, fossil fuel promoters, free-marketers, social democrats, and hard-core nationalists. Perhaps the "wait and see" strategy is at least partly about coming up with a plan that somehow keeps all of these factions onside and keep the secessionist movement going.

     This is why the SNP is not fit for government, for every decision and policy is thought in terms of not what's best for Scotland, but what's best for "The Cause", and if what may be best for Scotland conflicts with what's best for the The Cause, what do you think is going to win out? As MacAskill said, wrong decisions can be made and justified for the sake of independence.

     This is why the tax credits issue and the issues surrounding other devolved powers of a beefed-up Holyrood may become a big issue going into the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. This presents an opportunity for all pro-Union parties to set out their respective stalls and present the SNP as the party that's so obsessed with independence and getting powers, as opposed to actually using them for the benefit of Scotland and its people.

     For the Labour Party in particular, they can use this in an attempt to reclaim the mantle of acting in the interests of social justice and ordinary working families. Kezia Dugdale and her party were given credit by Iain Macwhirter for “reframing” the tax credit debate and forcing the SNP's U-turn, while Jackie Ballie did well in her sparring match against Alex Neil when she said that the "tax credit debate exposed what really matters to the SNP government – constitutional grievance rather than helping working families in Scotland." Kenny Farquharson of The Times said simply in a tweet: "SNP wants to have powers, Labour wants to use powers."

     First Minister Sturgeon sneers at such a prospect - the idea of Scottish Labour being in power, and partly dismissed their tax credit plans on the basis that they came "from a party that knows it has little chance of ever being in a position to implement them."

     If I were advising Scottish Labour, I'd place that quote around party offices and remember it well as motivation going into next year's elections. Right now, it seems very unlikely that the SNP will be dislodged from government, but as we have seen in the last couple of years, anything can happen in politics within even the shortest space of time - especially in the current febrile atmosphere, and Labour - along with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - ought to treat this election as though there is all to play for.

     Indeed however, there is much to play for in the upcoming election. It will decide if Scotland will have a government dedicated first and foremost to using its powers for the benefit of the people (and especially the most vulnerable in society), or if it will continue having a grievance machine that puts constitutional questions before everything else. The people must think hard and choose wisely.