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15 September 2023

Will the SNP ever learn to say no?

Humza Yousaf’s strategy too often amounts to little more than handing out money.

By Chris Deerin

Which is the most successful and influential pressure group in Scotland today? It’s no longer the independence movement, which is fractured, disgruntled and watching its hopes of a second independence referendum disappear into the distance as the SNP sinks in the polls. It’s not gender reformers, who no longer hold the sway they did under Nicola Sturgeon. And it’s certainly not business, which continues to feel distanced from and misunderstood by the devolved government, despite occasional warm words from Humza Yousaf.

No, the most impactful group is Scotland’s poverty caucus, a gathering of organisations that now dominate the Scottish political debate as well as the actions of the First Minister. Led by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Poverty Alliance, Oxfam, the Institute for Public Policy Research and a plethora of other charities, campaigns and trusts, this movement appears to have taken up rent-free residence in Yousaf’s head.

The first thing to say is that these are good and well-meaning people, with a strong social conscience and a deep desire to ease the plight of society’s poorest, who are struggling hardest with the cost-of-living crisis. They look at the billions of pounds controlled by the Scottish government, and at the funds that still sit in the private accounts of the nation’s better-off taxpayers, and think more – always more – can and should be done.

Under the SNP, the poverty caucus has had notable success. The Scottish child payment was created by Sturgeon and took effect in February 2021, giving low-income families with children under six £10 per child per week, a figure that was soon raised to £20. Last November, the sum increased further, to £25, covering all eligible children up to the age of 16. Yousaf boasted recently that more than 300,000 children are now receiving the payment, which has cost £249m since it was set up. One of his earliest acts as First Minister was to call the poverty caucus to a summit on tackling poverty.

Income tax levels have repeatedly been raised on better-off Scots to fund this and other measures. Anyone earning above £28,000 north of the border pays higher rates than their equivalent elsewhere in the UK, and Yousaf has made it clear that he intends to increase personal taxes still further. In his Programme for Government earlier this month, he recommitted to tripling the fuel insecurity fund to £30m this year, as well as offering free school meals to all pupils in primaries one to five. 

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[See also: Scottish independence is not going away]

Though Yousaf described his programme as “unapologetically anti-poverty [and] pro-growth”, the emphasis is very much on the former. Economic growth – the pursuit of which is explicitly opposed by his Green coalition partners – seems little more than a vague aspiration, along the lines of “we’ll get to it when we get to it, if we get to it”. The First Minister has borrowed the rhetoric of his defeated leadership challenger Kate Forbes, who campaigned on building economic growth to tackle poverty, without much bothering about the means.

It is, of course, difficult to criticise measures taken to help the poorest. The child payment in particular has been relatively uncontroversial and is broadly supported across society. And it is important in modern Scotland to be loudly, performatively, unpragmatically anti-poverty: Keir Starmer’s refusal to commit to abolishing the two-child benefit limit saw him denounced by the SNP, the caucus and indeed parts of the Scottish Labour Party.

There are those among us, though, who might also class ourselves as anti-poverty while wondering whether the current approach is, in the longer term, an advisable one. Nudging up taxes every time there’s a Scottish budget, both on the genuinely comfortable and on people who by no stretch of the imagination consider themselves well-off, is likely to have diminishing economic and electoral returns. A Labour MSP told me recently of a meeting with a group of left-wing Scots who, when asked if they supported rising taxes, reacted with horror. The response was along the lines of, “Not at the moment! We’re skint!”

It also seems that the government’s strategy amounts to not much more than handing out money. Again, at a difficult economic time such as this that’s a hard thing to gainsay, but there isn’t a balancing focus on measures that might help the poor educate or work their way into a better position: it’s all fish and no fishing rod. Aiding self-improvement is, of course, a harder and longer-term trick to pull off – it includes vinegary tasks such as boosting the quality of schools in less leafy areas, something the SNP seems to find unworthy of it. 

The pressure, therefore, is always for more money to be spent, and immediately. Yousaf, having presented himself as the poverty caucus’s champion, is learning the cost of constantly saying yes and never saying no to its demands. This has understandably left campaigners emboldened and expectant, and following the Programme for Government the enthusiastically redistributive First Minister found himself under attack from his erstwhile allies for not doing more. 

They are now demanding he introduce higher taxes for middle and higher earners, and institute a “local inheritance tax” with a rate of 20 per cent on estates worth between £36,000 and £325,000, among other measures. Up and up we go. Ruth Boyle of the Poverty Alliance said: “We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the Scottish Government can use progressive taxation to put that wealth to good use. People in poverty and struggling on low incomes can no longer wait.”

Yousaf now risks finding himself caught between disillusioned poverty campaigners on the one hand and beaten-down voters who may be less convinced of the efficacy of this approach on the other.

Labour politicians, who are also being targeted by third-sector campaigners as they move closer to regaining power, say they are coming under intense pressure to accede to all sorts of demands. “These people have become habituated to an SNP government that rolls over for them,” one source told me. “But we will take a different approach.” Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, has already set his face against further tax rises in favour of a more disciplined approach to the public finances. If the SNP wants to drift ever further to the left, he seems willing to let them. One leader, at least, seems prepared to say no.

[See also: Labour’s position on Europe is slowly emerging]

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