Taxing Times for Alex Salmond

By Milne, Kirsty | New Statesman (1996), April 2, 1999 | Go to article overview

Taxing Times for Alex Salmond


Milne, Kirsty, New Statesman (1996)


The SNP is now staking its election chances on Scots' generous instincts.

If you turn off the microphones, lock the doors and guarantee eternal anonymity, some of Scottish Labour's brightest hopes will confess a guilty secret. They sympathise with the SNP.

Not that they want an independent Scotland: that remains a heresy. But when the cameras are gone and the curtains are drawn, Labour's younger modernisers swap their ritualised "Nat-bashing" for something more measured and forward-looking. They might acknowledge that there are "very committed social democrats" in the SNP. They might mention the virtues of "non-secessionist nationalism". They might even contemplate working with named Nationalists in a never-never land called "realignment".

These cloistered meditations raise interesting questions about the SNP. After ten years of leading his party, how deep is Alex Salmond's desire for independence? Would SNP supporters settle for less? Could we see the Nationalists governing a devolved Scotland, alone or in coalition?

Such futuristic subtleties have been hijacked by a blast from the past. Tax looks likely to dominate the Holyrood election campaign, which kicks off after Easter. Salmond has pledged to reverse Gordon Brown's 1p Budget tax cut and spend the money on schools, hospitals and housing. The SNP says voters can choose between "a penny bribe, or a penny for Scotland".

It was an unexpected decision for a party leader who has spent months remodelling himself in the new Labour image. Salmond has lunched in Edinburgh boardrooms and rhapsodised about cutting corporation tax. He competed with the Chancellor for the favours of Prudence. It looked increasingly likely that the party would renounce anything so profligate as the "tartan tax" powers.

But on the Friday after the Budget, the SNP stripped off the Clark Kent suit-and-spectacles to reveal itself as Scotland's Superman. Salmond pledged that, if elected, he would use 1p of the tartan tax to wipe out Brown's Budget "bribe" from April 2000, releasing [pounds]690 million for the Holyrood parliament to spend over three years.

Electoral suicide? The SNP is gambling on the hypothesis - much advanced but rarely tested - that Scots are an altruistic breed who care more about their fellow man than do the egocentric English. But SNP strategists, huddled in their Edinburgh eyrie over a bad pastel portrait of Scan Connery, harbour a less noble aim. They hope to discomfort Labour voters already unhappy with their government's support for tuition fees and the Private Finance Initiative.

Labour Party staff at Delta House in Glasgow are frankly overjoyed - a joy almost matched this week when Salmond became the first party leader to condemn the bombing of Serbia. They promptly put out a new set of posters proclaiming: "The SNP divorce means more tax. …

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