Sunday, 17 November 2019

When Grasping Thistles, be careful of the pricks....

There is a commonly held belief that the SNP are left-wing, after all, they frequently tell us they are; lots of progressive virtue signalling as they decry the big bad Tories with their nasty privatisation and free market agenda, 'ready to the flog the NHS to the highest bidder'.
And yet there is evidence past and present that the SNP's socialist credentials are more of a thin veneer on some of their members than any deeply held key values.
The SNP were once known as ‘the Tartan Tories’ ( a phrase coined by Willie Ross, Harold Wilsons Secretary of State for Scotland) but they have worked hard to expunge that meme essentially by stealing Scottish Labour’s cloak of mild mannered socialism as it was hanging on the peg during Blair and Browns sojourn at number 10. Although the process started forty years ago with the ’79 Group’ agitating within the party for a more left-wing approach to policy (to the objections of some more established members), something that then developed through the late 80's and continued when Salmond took control in the 90’s, although Salmond then veered off rightwards, but without really giving up claim to the progressive left label.

Many who have looked at SNP policies and practice have pondered just how left wing they really are, and if this claimed progressive left position is really a carefully considered sham designed to poach all those old labour voters to the cause. The fact is that the SNP contain a wide group of people of quite differing views but who all share a desire to see an independent Scotland and are prepared to a greater or lesser extent to hide their true political leanings to present a united front. While this is to some extent true of most parties I believe the degree to which it accurately describes the SNP is much greater. Jim Sillars and Fegus Ewing are a paired example of the dichotomy of the SNP, one of the socialist left and the other considerable further right, both pretending to be in the middle, (although Sillars rarely plays ball these days) with only a shared goal of independence binding their like together.

It matters a lot because this united front is unlikely to survive much beyond any success in a future referendum, once their shared goal is achivied then all bets are off on policies for a new nation. Within a couple of elections, if not a lot sooner, I would expect to see a significant split perhaps with far left SNP coming together with some from Labour, SSP and perhaps Greens, the right wing of the party would have more in common with Tories, and the middle ground of the party with the Lib Dems. The question is really how many in each loose group. Voters should consider this if they are tempted to vote for independence on the basis of being promised some sort of cuddly socialist utopia, the differences are so great they may not withstand the opportunity to shape the policies of a new state, and there is a significant chance that what emerges is a party of the right that is able to dominate a slightly smaller centrre party and a a slightly smaller again party of the left.

In the past when I’ve expounded this idea that there are right-wingers hiding out within the SNP I’ve been told I’m talking mince and that there is no evidence.  Thus I present exhibit one in the case that exponents of right right-wing conservative politics are lurking within the SNP biding their time and biting their tongues, just waiting to enact their vision of Scotland:

Michael Russell is a major figure in the SNP, he was chief exec of the party for the latter half of the 1990’s and was first elected to Holyrood in 1999, losing his seat at the subsequent election before reappearing in 2007. Since then he has held a variety of ministerial roles under both Salmond and Sturgeon and since 2016 has been the Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Affairs, which means we see him on the telly whining about Brexit a lot. In times gone by some even saw him as a possible future leader of the nationalists, I suspect his time has passed, but make no mistake, as one of the party’s ‘elder statesmen’ he still has a fair amount of influence and support within.

It’s time we examined what Michael Russell’s vision for a future independent Scotland is, as set out in his 2006 book, co-authored with the Late Dennis MacLeod (that's mining millionaire Dennis Macleod). Let’s see if it matches up to the vision that so many in the ‘YeSNP’ movement say sets them apart from the Conservatives and their evil Tory ways.

The book is called Grasping the Thistle: (2006 ISBN 1902831861) just in case you fancy getting a copy, although you’ll be lucky, I got mine when it was withdrawn from library circulation after only three people borrowed it in well over five years!

For simplicity I’m just dealing with topics as they crop up in the book, but rather conveniently given Russell’s current position it’s the topic of the EU that first raises its ugly head.

  • The EU (page 13): Russell makes a rather telling comment in the introduction that hints at his own view of the EU, and it appears somewhat at odds with the SNP’s current perceived position: “ We have as a country, to put it simply, traded away far, far too much of our own sovereignty first to the UK and then to the EU”, does that sound like a man who will quickly be looking to cheer Scotland back into the EU on a similar basis to the UK, but with fewer opt-outs and veto powers plus a compulsion to join the Euro? Now that doesn’t mean he’s a Eurosceptic, because he isn’t, but it shows that his thinking may not be so far from that of many UK citizens (and over one third of Scots) who voted to leave the EU, they weren't all racists, some just thought they were taking back sovereignty!
And now the rest
  • Currency (page 99+):  On the issue of currency “A country without its own currency is a country not only without a steering wheel, but also without brakes and an accelerator” a statement that should make it quite clear where Russell stands on keeping the pound or joining the Euro. The indication from the book is that a Scottish currency initially pegged to the pound is desirable. There is even talk later of deliberately devaluing a new Sottish currency against the pound, although a footnote states that this is the suggestion of MacLeod and that Russell ‘as an SNP candidate asserts the SNP view that devaluation wouldn’t be required’. This is interesting on two points, firstly the wording suggests that Russell might actually agree with MacLeod, but secondly as an SNP candidate he better cover his back in case he gets a leathering from Salmond for saying embarrassing stuff…. Which makes it all the more surprising that most of the other suggestions in the book don’t come with such a disclaimer so we can assume MR is in full agreement with them, or indeed they are his opinions, and also that they are less likely to upset the SNP high heid yins!
  • Deficit (page 131) They discuss Scotland’s deficit, (even back then we were spending way more than we took in, and to a greater degree than UK), after adding some oil income and massaging the figures by deducting Scotland's share of UK debt repayments MR admits the figure is still too high So comes up with a number of solutions on the following page, here are the most interesting four :
  1. Freezing and cutting government expenditures including freezing of recruitment by government and quangos”: Known to most people as ‘austerity’ and something the SNP have shouted the loudest against when practiced by UK government since 2010.
  2. Boosting growth by reducing corporate and personal taxes” : Sounds like they just mugged a tory and stole a policy
  3. "Improving government efficiency by exposure to the market economy": yeah the book really does suggest this, even some Tories might baulk at this!
  4. Building the number of economically active citizens by facilitating the transfer of civil servants to the private sector as well as boosting immigration”: Last bit is fine, the first bit is a hilarious euphemism for ‘privatising parts of government’, something the SNP have continually slammed UK governments for or have fear-mongered about Tories doing.
  • Defence (page 135): As the book struggles to work out how to balance the finances it proposes reducing defence spending from the current (at the time of the book’s writing) 2.7% down to 1%. No word about how that might sit with NATO.
  • Subsidies (agriculture, fishing etc) (page 135): There is some discussion of removing all subsidies to these sectors, although another footnote states that MR supports the SNP policy of retaining them but that an ongoing debate is essential. Given Russell’s constituency he clearly didn’t want to frighten the sheep, or the voters… Interestingly there is no discussion of how such a policy would sit within the EU framework, but then there isn’t much discussion of the EU and one is left with the impression that MR an DM might have assumed that the newly independent Scotland ain’t in it.
  • Corporation tax (Page 137): The book discusses the taxation of capital and states: “One means to address this problem is not just to cut corporation tax, as has already been correctly suggested by the SNP, but to go further by eliminating it entirely”.  Hallelujah say all the big businesses, Tories nod enthusiastically in agreement.
  • Inheritance tax (Page 139): Russell clearly buys into the old chestnut that (as he puts it): “Inheritance tax is a tax on monies that have already been taxed” (pretty much every tax is, because as money circulates it is constantly taxed). But they don’t like it at all as this indicates “ It is a tax aimed at preventing the build-up of wealth in the hands of the people…”. Er most people in Scotland don’t actually have enough assets in their estate to pay one penny of income tax, so one assumes that the “people” that Russell and MacLeod are concerned about are other moderately wealth and very wealthy top 10%ers like themselves. So what do they propose to do with inheritance tax? They clearly state “It should have no place in a country like Scotland”, jolly good that’s their personal wealth protected then.
  • Capital Gains and other taxes (Page 139): Inheritance tax isn’t the only tax they aren’t keen on, the same page details their distain for aggregates tax, capital gains tax, air passenger duty and agricultural levies. And they say “elimination of such taxes is also necessary as a step towards an ultimately simpler tax system”. Simpler in that wealthy individuals like Michael Russell and Dennis MacLeod would have to contribute less you’ll note, for the rest of us probably just a few quid saved on a holiday abroad once a year. Oh and the appearance of aggregates tax first in that list was the authors order, I’ll remind you that DM made his money in digging stuff out of the ground so clearly he’d of been really keen on scrapping that one, for the good of the country of course….
  • NHS (Page 155): This particular snippet has had a bit of exposure via Twitter as it reveals Michael Russell as holding beliefs pretty much diametrically opposite of those the SNP claim for themselves, how many other SNP’s MSP, MP’s and party apparatchiks concur with him is impossible to say, but he’s definitely not alone. Here’s what his book has to say on NHS provision: “We would encourage the private sector to compete with established NHS hospitals, clinics and other services. We would encourage NHS management and staff to buy out existing NHS facilities and services under favourable financial terms and join the private sector”. Sounds like the sort of thing Sturgeon constantly fear-mongers that the big bad tories will do if you don’t vote for independence NOW, and yet here’s one of the most senior members of the SNP and Scottish Government proposing it (and the book has no caveat footnote with this either!). But Russell goes further he then says: “We would require NHS facilities that remained in government ownership to be run at a profit however modest”, yes you read that right, and maybe you’re wondering ‘what happens if they aren’t profitable?’, well Russell has a solution for that: “Those that failed to maintain profitability over a reasonable period of time would be privatised”, He goes on but you get the idea. If vouchers for paying for your health treatment at competing private clinics sounds like something you fancy, Mike Russell’s yer man.
  • Schools (page 161): Having accepted the case for universality in education the book says: “Nonetheless some competition is essential to get the best out of our tax revenues”. It then brings up education vouchers saying: “These would provide the full cost of education on an annual basis for all those who eligible [sic], at every educational level. The consumer - the child along with his or her parents, the student seeking to go to college or university and the mature student, seeking to improve his or her qualifications - would be able to force new provision onto the market by means of their purchasing power, provided by the state”. So there you have it, Mike Russell see students as ‘consumers’, education as a ‘market’ and wants the state to provide ‘purchasing power’ Not exactly the usual language of the SNP when pontificating about education is it? But wait for it, MR goes further, on the subject of private education where currently parents pay for both that, and via taxes, for state education that they don’t use, he says: “These vouchers would be issued to all, indeed to do so is only fair. Parents who wish to continue to use their own resources to fund private schooling might also have them, and will therefore no longer be paying for the cost of education twice”. So there he is, suggesting saving the wealthy the cost of private education, again maybe not a policy that most SNP voters are thinking of when casting their ballot
  • Universality (page 164): Having accepted that universality is a good thing in education (after all it’ll save wealthy people like Mike and Dennis a packet if they want to send kids to private school), as a general principle Russell’s book frowns upon it: “Put bluntly universality - one size not only fits all, but will be given to all - now drags down both quality of service that can be provided to those most in need, and the ability of government to provide such services. However our political parties do not have the courage to address the issue for fear of losing votes”. At this point the needle on my ironyometer is springing into the red zone! Given the SNP’s predilection for handing out/promising free stuff. On the next page after suggesting a universal basic income Russell and MacLeod say: “…we should say clearly that we want means testing as at present to be abolished” Thus ensuring any handouts are available to even the wealthiest!
  • Infrastructure and private funding (page 167): by now it will come as no surprise that Russell is a fan of private companies and the market. On funding, building and operating infrastructure such as roads the book says “…we would wish to see a much increased role for pension funds and other such investment vehicles and particularly our proposed National Pension Fund. By such means our citizens would have access to long-term stable investments, indeed they would be a large part of the ‘private’ in what would be in essence PPP projects, but with a much wider economic base and a much wider sharing of profits”. Hmmm PPP, (Public Private Partnership), well the SNP have had plenty of criticism of that when it was practiced by Westminster governments, although truth is they’ve overseen a fair bit themselves ( SNP Hypocrisy ). You’ll note that Russell doesn’t say what benefits accrue to pension funds if the project or service isn’t profitable, a problem a number of ‘Private’ components of existing deals have encountered. Also if you think having a National Pension Fund pumping its cash into such infrastructure projects is a great idea then you may want to consider the dangers of ‘Dutch disease’ and the additional risk of future politicians using it or pressuring it to fund projects that other more savvy providers wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
  • Coal gasification (page 175 to 176): Given the background of Russell’s co-author in mining it’s no surprise that they’ve got lots of plans for exploiting holes in the ground. They are particularly keen on Scotland’s “vast reserves” of coal, especially underground gasification.  A process, which while not quite ‘fracking’ does have similar environmental question marks: essentially drill into a coal seam, set it on fire underground, then pump out the gas that is produced. Here’s what they say: “Underground coal gasification is particularly suited for Scotland’s offshore deposits where redundant oil and gas facilities could be converted to drilling and igniting underground coal and piping the gas to shore for electricity generation and hydrogen production”. Anyone who obtains their water supply from underground aquifers may be rightly concerned, although to be honest Russell and MacLeod ‘ignited’ this proposal while energy prices were high, they are possibly not so viable now, lucky we didn’t spend a fortune developing it perhaps?

That’s just a selection of the proposals in Michael Russell’s book, he may when questioned claim he’s changed his mind on some or all of those topics since it was published. However you may wish to ponder if it's more likely that he's realised it’s expedient to keep his trap shut for now in the hope that if a united SNP front can achieve independence by pretending to be a left of centre progressive party then all bets are off and he and others of similar mind can push for their right-wing market led vision of Scotland the moment the mask is whipped off.

For a more general essay on the SNPs left/right split personality I suggest: Heart on the left, head on the right by David Torrance: SNP left and right

I don't disagree with all of Russell's proposals, I do disagree with some, but what I really want to draw attention to is what may lie beneath the SNP's left of centre facade, if people are considering voting to support their claimed vision in a referendum on the basis of getting a progressive socialist utopia. Remember there's no money back guarantee with votes, even when they promised you money back....

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