17 March 2016

Nicola's new appeal to self-interest

I've got out of the habit of watching First Minister's Questions, but I tuned in with interest this afternoon to see how the parties responded to yesterday's budget and the challenges it throws up for Scottish policy. Heckled by Kezia Dugdale, there were encouraging signs from the First Minister that the SNP are up for prosecuting the social democratic case that better services are worth fighting - and paying for - even if that involves maintaining higher levels of income taxation for the 10% to 15% of the population who are higher rate tax payers. 

The right wing press have responded this morning in their usual risible style, bleating about the cruel fate to be endured by "middle class families" in Scotland under this separatist government. If the First Minister's answers today are anything to go by, the richest look unlikely to be receiving Osborne's unnecessary tax bungs from Nicola Sturgeon's treasury next year, as the basic support which is extended to disabled people is ruthlessly hewn away. 

But perhaps the most interesting thing in Sturgeon's #fmqs performance today? For the first time that I can remember - she explicitly linked the idea of levying higher Scottish taxes with the provision of better public services not available in England.  Since 1998, we've existed in a curious kind of policy limbo in this respect. Scottish governments of all stripes have taken spending decisions which distinguish them from the priorities in Whitehall, whether it is the reduction and elimination tuition fees for Scottish domiciled students, or Henry McLeish's funding for personal care for the elderly, or the SNP's decision to roll out universal free prescriptions. 

While Westminster held the purse strings, these distinct spending decisions have not been linked to any argument about whether taxes ought to be higher or lower. One consequence of this output oriented analysis of public spending has been disgruntled Tory politicians south of the border, arguing that Scotland is feather bedded and claims an unfair share of public spending, allowing its politicians to distribute "free stuff" to its people which the harder pressed English representatives simply cannot afford. But we rarely ever talk about the investments Scottish Governments did not and could not make, as a result of prioritising personal care, tuition fees, and access to medicines. Or for that matter, how that surplus was spent in England and Wales. But if Sturgeon's asides this afternoon are anything to go by, all of that is about to change. 

Significantly, the First Minister appealed not only to altruism, or concern for the worst off and the vulnerable today, but also to a kind of enlightened self-interest. Short version? "Tax isn't just a sacrifice, reluctantly made for the good of others. Here's what your higher taxes get you. These things are worth paying for." Her remarks put me immediately in mind of this piece from the Atlantic magazine yesterday on Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic nomination. Written by a Nordic-American journalist, Anu Partanen, the piece neatly echoes the argument Nicola Sturgeon just began making this afternoon and which I suspect we'll hear much, much more of in the coming months and years in Scottish politics. Here's the key passage:

"A Nordic person myself, I left my native Finland seven years ago and moved to the U.S. Although I’m now a U.S. citizen, I hear these kinds of comments from Americans all the time—at cocktail parties and at panel discussions, in town hall meetings and on the opinion pages. Nordic countries are the way they are, I’m told, because they are small, homogeneous “nanny states” where everyone looks alike, thinks alike, and belongs to a big extended family. 
This, in turn, makes Nordic citizens willing to sacrifice their own interests to help their neighbors. Americans don’t feel a similar kinship with other Americans, I’m told, and thus will never sacrifice their own interests for the common good. What this is mostly taken to mean is that Americans will never, ever agree to pay higher taxes to provide universal social services, as the Nordics do. Thus Bernie Sanders, and anyone else in the U.S. who brings up Nordic countries as an example for America, is living in la-la land. 
But this vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble. This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me."

In terms of the tax and spend debate which is coming to Holyrood - perhaps a straw in the wind. 


  1. On your new profile:

    "I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds."

    Working for the Times does that to you...

    1. Always happy to have you about, Conan ;-)

    2. Ach The Times people are mostly fine, but when the bosses want rid of you you are out without ceremony as Simon Barnes (and some others) have learned. The trouble starts when a new fat arse attached to an otherwise lean and hungry Cassius takes over the dept.

      Not sure about the Nordic Northern Fairy Lights scenario Andrew - yes there is a Mr & Mrs 'Be Nice to each Other' vibe but there are also expectations and requirements of the citizen which would raise eyebrows to Spock level in Blighty, eg Norroway -


      As for Finland, if a recent BBC piece on teaching migrants how to fit in is anything to go by, yer man Anu is a long way from home indeed.

    3. I agree with Conan. Man up and write for the Sun.

      "Pwoar, take a look at the constitutional implications on that."

    4. Sorry, I was originally going to comment on this lady from Finland being depraved. You pay tax for the greater good, not because you see yourself as an investor who expects a return.

      I don't personally ever want to enjoy wonderful public services, such as having a limb amputated by the NHS or spending years on the dole.

    5. I’m not sure why this is phrased as an either/or choice. The future is inherently unforeseeable, so it is rational to invest in an insurance policy even if, in the event, you never need it. Much the same applies to investment in public goods. Education is intrinsically valuable; it is also likely to earn you more money if you choose to go down that road; and there are many advantages in living in society where other people are also well-educated.

      In short, there are both self-interested and altruistic reasons for spending money on education, and on many other cultural and environmental goods. At the personal (micro) level self-interest and altruism sometimes conflict but at the public policy (macro) level there are good reasons to see them as complementary and mutually reinforcing. It’s a common fallacy of the media (and self-interested politicians) to confuse micro- and macro-economics, talking as though national budgets worked just the same as household budgets.

    6. Of course, it isn't an either/or, but it's still a question of what is being stressed. I think it devalues the noble ideals of welfare to see it in the main as a personal insurance policy, as the Finnish lady appears to do. You also end up with hospitals which are swarming with malingerers.

    7. Claim to fame: I did one write a short column on football - crivvens - for the Sun once. It included the word "cops" too. Tabloid prose remains one of the toughest things I've ever attempted to write.

    8. Perhaps if you typed in a chirpy mockney modulation?

      And shaved your head?

  2. If studies are to be believed living in a more equal society in and of itself makes for a happier environment. The other way lies gated communities and ghettoes

  3. An interesting view on the future road ahead and one I would agree with in the sense that Holyrood is near enough a trolling (auto corrected from tipping...) point that it will be able to meaningfully differentiate services from WM. Up to this poimt Scotland has always had 'things done unto' and been unable to 'mitigate' in recemt parlance. The interesting point to note IMO is whether this will have any impact re #IndyRef2 outcomes. Consider, Holyrood achieves said 'better services' does Scotland literally buy this version of state operations or do the scales tip away from @thesnp? Battle Royal between 'British Values' aka South East England voting tendencies and @thesnp 'Nordic Model' so well desired here these parts. In any event fiscal divergence is a sure fire way to break the Union, anything will do for me, quicker the better though.

  4. Osborne you got your budget spectacularly wrong this time. Cut the taxes on the 40% earners as well as company tax - and slash the benefits for the disabled. Scotland unite ....

  5. There's nothing ethically wrong with the concept of 'enlightened self-interest'.

    The clue is in the 'enlightened' bit.