The Scottish parliament debate on the Tartan Tax was dispiriting to watch. Far from seeking clarification in the interests of the people they serve, the opposition parties all indulged in point scoring about an issue they didn't actually care about. Far from "allowing the Scottish tax powers to lapse", it seems that the SNP in 2007 inherited a system which was inoperable, at least according to what HMRC told them at the time. I think the word used was "mothballed". But rather than address this rather important new fact, the opposition ploughed on with pre-prepared spontaneous hysteria.
It is pretty obvious from John Swinney's statement that there was a long and protracted row between his officials and those at HMRC over the latter's demands that the Scottish government should pay for a portion of the upgrade of the tax authority's IT systems. The convention normally is that when a Whitehall department makes a change that affects devolved administrations, it is the Whitehall department who pays for it. There are important issues here. To concede to HMRC demands would have set a dangerous precedent. For example can HMRC think-of-a-number any time they like in relation to Scotland? What will they charge to implement Calman, which is based on income tax collected in Scotland (not, of course the important stuff like corporation tax, whisky and oil revenue). So the London Treasury continues to rob us blind and then charge us whatever they like. If Scotland moved to full economic powers with taxes still collected by HMRC, would they hold us over a barrel again? The Revenue is clunky, confused and tangled - and will fight to control every twisted tentacle of its operation.
Perhaps the opposition parties believe you do business by gifting your opponent a gun to hold to your head. After all, that's how Labour and Liberal Democrat gave us a parliament building which over-ran its original cost by several hundred million. The contract was open ended. Same goes for the Edinburgh trams, another Labour/ Lib Dem pet project. Nor did Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory have any problem handing public contracts to PFI consortiums who will charge us from here to eternity for schools and hospitals. Good Housekeeping is not their strong point.
The other completely duplicitous aspect of opposition argument today was the accusation that Swinney had somehow conspired to strip the parliament of its miniscule tax power and then stage a cover-up. What on earth would the nationalists have to gain from this? What could their motive possibly be? As the opposition well know there was no ulterior motive. Going public would have been a winner for the SNP politically. But Swinney is not in the business of picking fights and breaching confidential negotiations for political gain. Even when the row culminated in a £7m demand by London this year, Swinney felt it would have been discourteous to speak out on the disagreement, clearly hoping it could be resolved. This says a lot about the man and how he operates. He earned the nickname Honest John for a reason. It's something his opponents today could learn from. Calling him a liar is totally unacceptable and will be seen as such. Swinney's budget statement contained a formal phrase about the SVR. So did the budget statements of Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and the Comprehensive Spending Review of George Osborne. All mentioned the tartan tax as an option. If Swinney was "lying" so were they, as they too knew about the HMRC position. They were all telling the truth because the tax power still exists, it has not lapsed. London is refusing us the machinery to exercise that power (if we wanted, which we don't).
The Scottish Secretary Michael Moore proved himself a far less honourable man than Swinney when he delibrately triggered this row with his "open letter". Ostensibly, his job is to represent Scotland in Westminster - something he has done singularly badly as he is about to present a Scotland Bill that will cut our budget by another £900m a year. But this pretendy part of the job is a figleaf anyway. Moore's raison d'etre is to undermine the Scottish government at every turn, no matter the level of duplicity involved. Moore is trying to distract attention from the cost and flaws of Calman. On several occasions Tavish Scott has tried to spin tartan tax row into an attack on fiscal autonomy eg "the SNP, which bangs on about giving more powers to this parliament, give away the one it already has etc etc..." Given that fiscal autonomy is about taking full control of the economic levers in a way that benefits the people of Scotland, there is no comparison. The tartan tax is so small, that some estimate the cost of implementing it would cancel out any money it raised.
This week the Liberal Democrats had an even more pressing embarrassment than Calman to cope with - the student demonstrations against tuition fees in England. Tavish Scott fulminated away about SVR as students in London were prevented by massed police lines from demonstrating outside the Liberal Democrat head quarters. (Didn't hear much LibDem talk of civil liberties then, eh?)
This was one occasion to be pleased that the BBC national news led with an England-only issue. Nick Clegg's hypocrisy was the big UK story of the day. They even demonstrated on his home turf of Sheffield where at the General Election, students had queued outside polling stations for hours to back him. Then came Reporting Scotland whose viewers must have wondered what on earth was going on in their own parliament. All this sound and fury about nothing more significant than an obsolete, tax...which Labour and The Tories never wanted the Scots to have in the first place.
Any viewer who persevered may have been more struck by Swinney's edited highlight - he didn't want to hand £7m of Scotland's money to HMRC, an organisation whose incompetence had lead to tens of thousands of people paying the wrong amounts of tax. Sounds reasonable to me...and millions of others I imagine.
For a detailed narrative on how the tartan tax story has been distorted day-to-day please go to Moridura
Alan Trench at Devolution Matters has just filed an excellent explanation about how The Treasury deals with devolved governments inadequately. Trench is an academic and politically non aligned. He is incredibly knowledgable about the detail of how government works and this piece is invaluable.