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  1. Politics
  2. Scotland
12 May 2023

The SNP has abandoned rural Scotland – now it risks losing the rest of the country too

A focus on liberal identity politics and left-wing economics is testing the party’s supporters to breaking point.

By Chris Deerin

Skipinnish may not be a household name across the UK, but in Scotland’s traditional music scene they are about as big as it gets. The Highland group, formed in 1999, have in recent years sold out both Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and Glasgow’s Barrowland. Many Nationalist politicians adore them – they are said to be John Swinney’s favourite band.

That affection is not currently being returned. Skipinnish have released a single titled “The Clearances Again” which is an angry protest against the SNP-Green government’s plan to assign 10 per cent of Scotland’s waters as Highly Protected Marine Areas. No fishing would be allowed in these areas, which coastal communities warn will devastate local economies and force people to move in search of work.

Written from the perspective of a fisherman, the song contains the lyrics:

At one with the ocean, with nature,
The world above and below
The harvest of harmony’s circle
But my life and my living must go
For the fashions of urban ideals
Where passions of ignorance play
To the lies of political deals –
No care for the lives in their way.

The fact that the song made the top ten of the iTunes download chart on its release speaks to the strength of feeling on this issue. It reflects a growing sense in the north that the SNP has lost its long and romantic connection to rural communities and their way of life.

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It is certainly true that the Nats are more of an urban political force than they have ever been before. Part of their sustained electoral success is due to having ousted Labour from its industrial heartlands across central Scotland. Both Nicola Sturgeon and her successor Humza Yousaf are Glasgow MSPs, while their coalition partners the Scottish Greens are jointly led by politicians from Glasgow and Lothian.

The agendas of both parties adhere heavily to the kind of left-liberal identity politics you tend to find among city-based activists, perhaps most evident in the devolved government’s ill-fated pursuit of gender recognition reform. The days when the SNP offered a conservative face to rural voters and a social democratic one to the urban have been left behind. With the party struggling to keep the pro-independence movement together, there is a clear risk in this – there are even suggestions that SNP seats in the north will be lost to the Tories in next year’s general election, despite their relative unpopularity in Scotland.

[See also: Scotland needs its own Rishi Sunak]

Yousaf is a wholly urban creature and not the leader to mend, or perhaps even understand, this growing gulf. If anything, he is doubling down on Sturgeon’s social justice agenda, despite only narrowly beating the more change-minded Kate Forbes (who has a Highland constituency) in the leadership election. Another indication of this is the clear signal given by the First Minister that he is going to raise income taxes even further than the SNP already has.

Scots earning above £28,000 already pay more than workers elsewhere in the UK. But in a speech to the Scottish Trades Union Congress annual conference shortly after he became leader, Yousaf said: “On progressive taxation let me say unequivocally that I think there is scope for us to go even further.”

In another speech to a poverty conference last week, he said that public finances are “stretched and strained”, adding “of course we can’t make changes to taxation within year, but what can we do in relation to the next budget?” It has been suggested that he will create a new income tax band of 44 per cent for people earning between £75,000 and £125,140.

This would introduce a sixth band to an income tax system that is growing ever more complex and diverging sharply from the UK model. It is not just that taxes on the better-off are higher – though not everyone earning £75,000, with young children and a large mortgage, will feel particularly rich or altruistic about redistributing their “wealth” – but that there seems to be no ceiling to SNP-Green tax aspirations. The signal being sent is that Scotland is on a journey to being a high-tax society, but without the kind of effective public services that are supposed to accompany that scenario.

There is already a lot of grumbling from wealthy Scots – of whom there are relatively few – about having to pay higher taxes than elsewhere in the UK. At what point will the Nats’ approach force them to take note? There is a growing incentive for this nimble and mobile cohort to rearrange their finances to minimise their tax burden, or simply leave.

I was told recently about a Swiss man who was offered a highly paid job as head of research with a company that has offices in Scotland and the US. He took it, on the condition he didn’t have to move to Scotland, because he disliked the tax regime – and where it seems to be heading – and also the social climate. He’s now based in Bath.

There will probably be more of this, most of it going unnoticed – jobs not taken, investments not made, families not settled, opportunities for economic growth not seized. Incentives matter, as do the messages being sent out by political leaders. The way to increase state revenue is to expand the tax base, attract more people and companies to Scotland, and make the tax system more rather than less competitive.

It feels to me that Yousaf intends – almost unthinkingly – to test the theories of left-wing economics to breaking point. And it’s not as if we can even expect him to put any new money to good purpose: the SNP has proved itself quite extraordinarily profligate and wasteful with the public purse. If the party is already losing rural Scotland, then this seems a good way to lose the rest of the country too.

[See also: Does Labour have a future in Scotland?]

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