The right warms to property taxes

Tory MPs and others on the right are beginning to recognise the case for greater taxation of propert

I recently noted that Tim Montgomerie, the influential editor of ConservativeHome, had declared his support for greater taxation of property (including a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax"), a cause the New Statesman has long championed. Since then, others on the right have joined him. In a piece on ConservativeHome today, Tory MP Mark Reckless, rightly noting that we tax property less than almost anywhere else in the world, calls for a range of new property taxes to replace the 50p rate. He calls for the coalition to ensure the rich pay stamp duty (many avoid it by putting properties into shell companies), to levy capital gains tax on non-UK residents and to introduce a mansion tax, although with the threshold set at £5m rather than £1m or £2m. In return, he says, the coalition should reduce the 50p rate to 45p and the 40p rate to 38p.

Elsewhere, the Spectator's James Forsyth writes about the growth of the "undeserving rich", those who have acquired huge wealth through illegitimate means. Forsyth cites the example of bankers and oligarchs but, to my mind, this category should also encompass those who have benefited immensely, through little effort of their own, from the dramatic rise in house prices over the last decade. As NS editor Jason Cowley argued in a October 2010 cover story ("The coming battle over land and property"), there is a strong meritocratic argument for heavier taxation of unearned wealth (inheritance, property and land) and lighter taxation of earned income. Property taxes are also harder to avoid than those on income (you can't move a mansion to Geneva) and reduce the distorting effect that property speculation has on the economy. For the psephologically minded, it's worth noting that high-end property taxes are popular. Last week's Sunday Times/YouGov poll found that 63 per cent of the public (including 56 per cent of Tories) support a mansion tax, with just 27 per cent opposed (38 per cent of Tories).

Yet most on the right remain instinctively hostile to Vince Cable's call for greater taxation of land and property. They should realise that they are missing a trick. In an age of austerity, the Tories cannot afford to be seen as the party of the wealthy. Replacing the 50p rate with a range of new property taxes would change the terms of debate and send Labour back to the drawing board (the 50p rate may not raise as much revenue as Ed Miliband and Ed Balls hope). Simply abolishing the top rate is neither morally, nor politically, nor fiscally credible. The right should not miss an opportunity to demonstrate that it can think imaginatively about wealth, property and opportunity.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.