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 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.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?