Alex Salmond presents the White Paper on Scottish independence at the Science Museum Glasgow on November 26, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Alex Salmond refuses to commit to reintroducing 50p tax rate in Scotland

The First Minister says Scotland would not put itself "at a tax disadvantage with the rest of the UK" at New Statesman event.

In his New Statesman lecture last night, Alex Salmond emphasised his commitment to social justice and to making an independent Scotland a "beacon of progressive opinion". With this in mind, I asked him in the Q&A that followed whether he would reintroduce the 50p tax rate on earnings over £150,000 (as Labour has pledged to do) following a Yes vote. He replied: 

In terms of the White Paper [on Scottish independence] we said that we don't have proposals for changing taxation, we certainly are not going to put ourselves at a tax disadvantage with the rest of the UK. 

In other words, since the current UK top rate of tax is 45 per cent, an independent Scotland would not reintroduce the 50p rate because, in Salmond's view, this would put it at a "disadvantage". For similar reasons, while Labour would raise corporation tax from 20 per cent to 21 per cent in order to cut business rates for small firms, the SNP would reduce it to at least 3 per cent below the UK level. This, Salmond said last night, would be essential to help Scotland counter the "gravitational pull of London". 

It's possible that his position on income tax would change if a Labour government reintroduced the 50p rate (thus eliminating any possible UK advantage), but the party has responded by accusing Salmond of following George Osborne's lead by "siding with millionaires instead of hard-working Scots". 

The party's shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran said: 

Tonight Alex Salmond made clear whose side he is on. He's with George Osborne - siding with millionaires instead of hard-working Scots. Labour would reintroduce the 50p tax rate because we believe those with the broadest shoulders should bear more of the burden for reducing the deficit.

And just like Alex Salmond won't give a straight answer to ordinary Scots about the currency, he won't tell them which of their schools and hospitals he would cut to give big companies and millionaires lower taxes in a separate Scotland.

Salmond also told me: "In terms of the cause of social justice, I think it's validated by the policies we've pursued in administration. If I had to pick one policy which I think would transform inequality in this country, then you should look very carefully at the policies for transformational childcare, which I think are absolutely fundamental. I've spoken tonight about the benefits to the economy...an equally important argument is the emancipation of people back into the workplace and what that can do for families, and secondly, for child development, which is fundamental to change some of these statistics we're seeing. 

All of this might be true (although Labour is keen to point out that it is also committed to introducing Scandinavian-style childcare) but Salmond's stance on tax does make it harder for him to argue that Scotland would encourage a progressive race to the top, rather than a race to the bottom. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories