The Scottish referendum circus has featured a breathtaking procession of left-wing delusions paraded by the Yes camp. The essence of Alex Salmond’s audacious imposture is the insistence, against all empirical evidence, that not only is there such a thing as a free lunch but that independence will vastly improve the menu and add many more courses to this freeloaders’ feast.
It is an outrageous defiance of every law of fiscal gravity, a fantasy of majestic fatuity. But it is ideologically consistent: it is what we expect from politicians of the far left, it is the philosophy of dependency in which their constituency is rooted. So far, so predictable.
What is more startling is to see this leftist fantasy mirrored by an equally deluded chimera on the right. Yet for some time now, among commentators and think tanks on the right, the dangerous delusion has been peddled that a Scottish government endowed with full fiscal powers would thereby become “accountable”.
This newfound accountability to the Scottish electorate – implemented via Devo Max – would force Holyrood to act with fiscal prudence. Vigilant voters would compel the Scottish government to balance the books, to end prodigal public spending, to lower taxes and to deliver services more efficiently by working with the private sector. This experience, within a short time, would inspire Scots to rediscover their entrepreneurial instincts, to embrace free market capitalism and restore their country’s heritage as the home of Adam Smith. Beyond that prospect, in the limpid eyes of the more deluded libertarian think tankers, lie the green sunlit uplands of a restored capitalist hegemony north of the Tweed, with a statue of Margaret Thatcher in every town square.
Of course, technically, the prescription is correct. Scotland needs to embrace free-market realities if it is ever to prosper again. The problem is that none of these starry-eyed reformers have paused to examine the character of the electorate to which they want to make the Scottish government more accountable. If they had done so, they would have realised that enhanced accountability of a Scottish government to its electorate is a recipe for sclerotic statist, welfare-centred dependency until Hell freezes. Devo Max is so close to the nationalists’ own aspirations that it was a constitutional option in the SNP’s 2007 White Paper. It is time the proponents of Devo Max took a long, hard look at the demographic facts.
There are 4 million voters on the electoral roll in Scotland for general election purposes. Of those, HMRC figures for 2011-12 show that just 2.6 million are taxpayers. On the face of it, that would seem to show a safe majority of voters with sufficient self-interest to ride shotgun on tax hikes. However, of those 2.6 million, in the first quarter of this year 545,000 were in the public sector, representing 21.2 per cent of all Scots in employment. These state employees pay taxes, but they are cushioned against tax increases by the knowledge that their pay will automatically rise to compensate for any hike. These are the people who self-righteously tell pollsters: “I don’t mind paying higher taxes if it helps our schools ‘n’ hospitals.” Adding these ring-fenced state employees to the non-taxpayers reduces the number of voters vulnerable to tax rises to a wafer-thin majority: 2.1 million out of an electorate of 4 million.
In fact it is not a majority at all because among the 2.1 million supposed champions of fiscal responsibility are an unquantifiable, but large, number of ideologically committed individuals who favour tax increases because of peripheral benefits, or who pay very small amounts of tax offset by benefits, or who may take a hit from tax hikes on fairly high incomes but are willing to do so because they have bought into the mythology of Big Government. When all these elements are factored in, there is a permanent, inbuilt majority within the Scottish electorate favourable to a high-tax-and-spend economy. There is simply no majority constituency among Scottish voters for fiscal prudence, tax reductions and public spending cuts.
That is the electorate to which free-market crusaders wish to make the Scottish government accountable. While there are at least one million people within that electorate who long for tax cuts and fiscal responsibility, these are the minority of wealth creators currently carrying the dependency culture on their backs and regarded as a dripping roast by the benefits junkies and their dealers at Holyrood.
Only within the present UK settlement is there any level of protection for these victims of Scottish retro-socialism. Under Devo Max they would be squeezed to death.
Many must be tempted to migrate south, even after a No vote, to escape fiscal thraldom in Salmond’s Scotland. It remains to be seen how much longer the productive sector of the nation can support the aggressively parasitical benefits programme that is the SNP’s agenda. It really is time that aspiring free-market reformers did their homework properly before mouthing platitudes about “accountability” and a pro-market conversion of Scotland that is a pathetic delusion.