Other people’s mansion tax, devolution anoraks and the Westminster of the north

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

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A mansion tax is a wonderful crowd-pleaser – as the reliably opportunist Lib Dems spotted long ago – but no way to run a country. It meets the first requirement of any taxation policy: the majority of voters will think that others are going to pay. Almost nobody thinks they live in a mansion and, outside London and the south-east, few people own houses worth more than Labour’s proposed threshold of £2m. So the policy hits the button of anti-
metropolitan sentiment and, because many London houses are owned by wealthy non-residents as a financial safe haven, also hits the anti-foreigner button.

Those are the only merits. The tax won’t raise £1.2bn for the NHS as Labour thinks, or at least not quickly enough. It is not clear how or by whom houses will be valued but, whatever the details, expect protracted appeals against valuations over £2m and a glut of houses supposedly worth £1.99m.

We need a reform (or replacement by a land value tax) of council tax – a uniquely regressive tax based on outdated property valuations – which has survived for more than 20 years after being improvised to replace the wildly unpopular poll tax. It is extraordinary that, even with all the talk about devolution, nobody thinks to put the main local government tax on a fair and proper basis.

Character assassination

Inevitably, the right’s political correctness brigade is out in force over the publication in the Guardian of Hilary Mantel’s short story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983”. But what went through the minds of Daily Telegraph editors when, presumably on the strength of the title, they originally agreed to buy the story? Did they think Mantel had written a solemn lament for this fictional event and would describe the populace weeping and rending their clothes? Or did they – the writer being female – imagine that some hunky, masculine hero would die gallantly attempting to save the great leader? I think we should be told.

Pact with the devo

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland insists that, in the wake of the referendum campaign, “a movement of the streets” should not turn into “an anoraks’ debate over regional assemblies, voting systems and block grants”. Instead, we should be asked “a profound, even existential question” about “what kind of society” we want to be.

One automatically nods vigorously in agreement. But what exactly is meant? How would Freedland frame his existential inquiry to the English? We can all guess what Nigel Farage’s question would be but I doubt that is what Freedland has in mind. “Do you want to be nice, neighbourly, caring and welcoming?” is a more Guardian-ish sort
of question. But the truth is that, in a moment of panic, the main party leaders committed themselves to further measures of devolution; somebody now has to work out what is devolved and how; the financial settlement between the UK and Scottish governments will have to be looked at afresh; and the outcomes must be fair to the English, Welsh and Northern Irish as well as the Scots, who account for only 8.3 per cent of the UK population.

I fear that this will be an anoraks’ winter – and probably spring and summer, too.

Shifting into reverse

Among the many anoraky proposals for solving the West Lothian question is one from my old friend Michael Leapman. In a letter to the Independent, he suggests abolishing the House of Lords, putting an elected English assembly in its place and making the Commons the new upper house dealing with UK-reserved matters and scrutinising legislation from the four national parliaments. As this solution would use existing buildings and allow a substantial net decrease in the number of parliamentarians, it has the virtues of elegance and efficiency.

But I have a better idea, based on what in the commercial world is sometimes called a “reverse takeover”, whereby a successful small business acquires an ailing larger one. Move the Union government and parliament to Edinburgh, perhaps with Alex Salmond as prime minister, Gordon Brown as chancellor, Nicola Sturgeon as home secretary and Ming Campbell as foreign secretary.

Almost everyone would applaud the instant abolition of Westminster and its discredited ways and the handover to political leaders who seem more respected than those now in position south of the border. The Scots would be bound into the Union for another three centuries. And the English could negotiate with Edinburgh for a devolved assembly, hoping they do not have to wait, as the Scots did, for 292 years.

I told you so

On a more serious note, remember where you read it first. Among those who claim that they correctly predicted the outcome of the referendum are the historian Andrew Roberts, who says he confided his forecast to his wife; and the pollster Deborah Mattinson, who reports that she won the office sweepstake. But my prediction is in black and white in my column here two weeks ago, written nine days before the poll. “Alex Salmond will lose,” I wrote, “perhaps by as much as a 55-45 margin.” The “perhaps” was necessary only because of what we mystic seers call a margin of error.

Don’t set the stage on fire

An enjoyable afternoon at Richard Bean’s wildly funny but unsubtle Great Britain, now at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, ended with a fire alarm as the curtain went down. “Alarm” was the operative word. My first reaction was that it was a coda to the play (another witty comment on the tabloid press, perhaps) but, as my wife recalled, that was what people thought when the ceiling collapsed recently at another West End theatre. Moreover, we could smell smoke and hear cries for help. Before making fire drills more realistic, I hope theatre managements will remember that their audiences are mostly of mature years, with impaired mobility and unreliable hearts. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris