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Sunday View: 10 ideas for the new First Minister

  • The impossible dream: eradicating poverty
  • Why cutting taxes is no easy solution
  • 10 ideas to change the nation

The scene is set, the curtain is up and the spotlight is ready to shine on Scotland’s latest Holyrood production. As Nicola Sturgeon prepares to step on stage as Scotland’s first female First Minister popular expectation is that she will be “her own woman” and self-styled “leader for all Scots”.

These are worthy, if rather glib objectives. Just what sort of a performance can we really expect from the country’s leader-designate? Will she be the Fairy Godmother, who taps her wand and makes all our wishes come true? Or maybe she’ll cast herself as the first female Robin Hood and rob the rich to pay the poor.

The wish-lists will be pouring in from every constituency MSP, business lobby group, voluntary sector and trade union official. And that’s before she has even begun her recently-unveiled tour of the country to meet the voters face to face.

This journey around Scotland is her first statement of intent and much will rest on whether it turns out to be a tour de force or a ridiculous pantomime. Given her ability to manage public events in a manner not dissimilar to Lady Thatcher’s famously controlled persona then it must be assumed that Ms Sturgeon’s meet-and-greet will be received with some enthusiasm.

It may also help in her rising to the position she is due to inherit. It is one thing to be a hard-working, conscientious and dedicated representative of the people, quite another to achieve and exhibit the sort of statesmanlike (or stateswomanlike) qualities that attach to great leaders. If she truly believes Scotland “will one day be independent” then a great deal rests on her shoulders and how she goes about elevating the role and integrity of the parliament and her own position at its helm.

However, all this nationhood stuff will have to wait for another day. It is important in the first instance that Ms Sturgeon accepts that her party lost the referendum vote. There may be a noisy ’45’ movement lobbying for another crack at independence, but she must acknowledge the silent ’55’ who said No. They were the ones who spoke for the future. It puts Ms Sturgeon in a somewhat difficult position and, in one a sense, Scotland has still not got the government that the majority voted for. Her job, as a true representative of the people, is to make the union work.

In some people’s eyes this means she has been offered not so much a privileged opportunity as Scotland’s premier politician, but a poisoned chalice, one filled 45% with the bitter taste of disappointment, sweetened with 55% of promises of more power. While Ms Sturgeon states a determination to ensure these extra powers are delivered by Westminster, she and her hardline supporters know that their failure to do so would be a gift in persuading No voters to change their minds and back the nationalists.

Ms Sturgeon has already declared that she wants Devo Max at its most maximum. That means  control over most taxation including VAT and corporation tax. This is effectively squaring the circle with the devolutionists. For Devo Max read Independence Lite. They’re much the same thing.  Big issues like defence and foreign policy stay with Westminster under either plan. Scotland gets the rest. In the end, both sides are arguing for much the same thing.

In the meantime, the new First Minister has to deal with the immediate and more practical agenda, one which is laden with fanciful wishes (stamping out poverty) and some crazy ideas about what is holding Scotland back (the Tories, of course). As we could only expect, Ms Sturgeon put jobs first among her priorities along with protecting public services. How does she achieve either aim?

The country already echoes with calls for tax cuts for the low paid and higher taxes for the rich. The myth of the equal society has taken grip without anyone really thinking through how it can be achieved without unintended and unwanted consequences.

Talk of making Scotland a lower tax regime is fraught with difficulties. Start with corporation tax. Creating differential rates for VAT and corporation tax has huge cost and bureaucratic implications for companies but may also encourage them to relocate taxable profits, shift registered headquarters, and so on. It may create border raids by consumers looking for cheaper deals. Apart from that, Apple and the Irish Government have recently been admonished by the EU over low tax agreements, so any idea of Scotland becoming a “tax haven” is a non-starter.

Cutting income tax – surely a temptation for a Scottish government close to an election – threatens to destabilise the public finances and add pressure for more austerity measures to make up any shortfall for the exchequer. Higher taxes on the other hand will force companies and employees to consider whether they want to stay in Scotland or come here in the first place.

Equality is a wonderful thing, but it has never been achieved anywhere because somebody has to create wealth in the first place. Ms Sturgeon talks worthily about creating a meritocratic society where everyone is given an equal chance to fulfil their talents and ambitions. That is a goal worth aiming for, but it fails miserably when the process of achieving it actually discourages the ambitious with punitive taxes. Ms Sturgeon’s task is to find a balanced tax regime that can alleviate poverty while not penalising success.

So, how about some practical suggestions? Here are 10 for starters:

1. Scrap the universal free prescriptions policy. Those who can pay, should pay. Furthermore, by and large, they are willing to pay.

2. There is no need for food banks in a country that throws away tonnes of food every day. Introduce legislation that forces supermarkets and restaurants to offer “waste” food for sale at a discount, even food beyond sell-by dates. Supermarkets should be given a guarantee of no liability. Consumers would get cheaper food and less of it would be destined for land fill.

3. Unemployed people should be expected to work for their benefits. There are plenty of jobs that can be done: cleaning up litter, graffiti, tidying up public spaces.  They would be better off in work of some kind that instils routine, discipline and self-esteem than sitting at home watching daytime television.

4. Enforce all house builders to include all-weather and indoor sports and leisure facilities in their plans. This would provide teenagers with somewhere to go, encourage families to do things together, reduce crime, improve health and fitness and maybe give the sporting stars of the future a chance to shine. It would also help make up for the loss of school playing fields, the sale of which should be halted.

5. Revise the policy on minimum pricing of alcohol to encourage drinkers to drink in pubs where consumption is controlled and measured. At present too many young people get drunk at home on cheap supermarket alcohol before they go out. This is the real cause of binge drinking. This change of policy would also help slowdown the closure of pubs.

6. Before revisiting the independence question, have a rethink about the economic case built around oil. The recent collapse in the price should make Ms Sturgeon and her supporters look at a different economic model.

7. Reduce the number of local authorities in Scotland. The country is over-governed and 32 local authorities only adds up to narrow-minded thinking. In an age of commuting and cross-country trade it is a nonsense to think and plan on a parochial scale.

8. Create a government-backed bond that would underwrite the cost of bidding for major manufacturing contracts. Other countries have an advantage over UK firms that have difficulty raising finance.

9. Re-introduce grants to help start-up businesses.

10. Privatise Scottish Water, or at least sell a minority stake, and reinvest the proceeds in improving national infrastructure.

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