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.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.