There aren’t many advisers who make an obviously visible mark on the ministers and government they’re paid to help. For good or ill, depending on your starting point, Dominic Cummings would be one, Alastair Campbell another.
Kevin Pringle, who was the SNP’s director of communications from 2012-15 (and senior special adviser to Alex Salmond from 2007-12), looks to be one of those rare flowers. Since Pringle became Humza Yousaf’s official spokesman and strategic adviser in June, the First Minister has sharpened up his act, refocused his administration, and begun, as David Cameron once almost put it, to get rid of the crap.
I’ve known Pringle for nearly three decades, and though he has always been passionately committed to the independence cause and is a bit of a leftie himself, he is more pragmatic and hard-headed than most of those working in the government. Before returning to the SNP fold he spent nearly ten years working in the private sector for a public affairs firm, where he was often exposed to the challenges facing businesses across various sectors.
It is easy to detect the impact that Pringle has had since his arrival. Yousaf initially promised to be the continuity candidate following Nicola Sturgeon’s departure. This suggested he would pursue a social justice agenda, spend lavishly on government programmes and avoid falling out with any vested interest whose support might be needed in the event of another independence referendum, regardless of whether the public would be better served by confrontation.
But in recent months there has been little talk of, say, the gender recognition reform that was driven so hard by Sturgeon and previously supported passionately by her successor. The UK government’s decision to veto the Holyrood legislation is currently in front of the Court of Session, but Yousaf has been noticeably quiet about an issue that has divided his party and the country.
He has said explicitly that it is time to move on from the seemingly endless debates about independence and instead concentrate on those issues that most concern voters: the cost-of-living crisis, economic growth and public service reform. These are not the only signs of political movement.
During my recent interview with Yousaf, we shared a few interesting exchanges (I thought it telling that Pringle was the only adviser in the room with us). Some of the lines that struck me at the time still seem significant a couple of weeks on. On success and failure in government: “Let’s not beat around the bush, people are genuinely asking questions around our credibility on delivery.” On gender reform and broader debates about identity: “We have to accept that far too many people believe us to be a party of identity politics as opposed to delivering on the issues that matter to them.”
[See also: The New Statesman’s left power list]
And in relation to his well-briefed plans to raise income tax rates, which are already higher for many Scots than those in the rest of the UK (with a top rate of 47p and a higher rate of 42p): “You’ve obviously got to be mindful about the behavioural impacts, and we are, and we’ve got to be mindful of what the UK government does – that could have an impact on what we do here. And you have to grow the economy, so we have greater tax revenue and great investment in our public services.”
He talked about a police officer who had visited his Dundee constituency office, “married to a nurse, really struggling, four-bedroom house, got a mortgage to pay, heating bills gone up, and despite their combined salaries, they are struggling. We’re really conscious of that when it comes to looking at taxation.”
When I raised the governing coalition with the left-wing Scottish Green Party, which many blame for some of the SNP’s current problems and which a sizeable group of nationalists would like to see junked, Yousaf made the point that, while he was currently content with the arrangement, the agreement between the two “will be under regular review”. “The Greens and us have our differences – on oil and gas, for example. If I ever thought it wasn’t in the party’s best interests then we’d take that decision to end the co-operation agreement.”
The words coming from Yousaf’s mouth were, I thought, pure Pringle. Continuity was (largely) out, and the new man had a fresh agenda. Not before time, one might say.
The Scottish Budget falls on 19 December and we’ll see then whether the hints I felt I was picking up about a rethink on future tax rises amount to anything. However, an early – if controversial – sign of intent came in the First Minister’s party conference speech in Aberdeen last week, when he announced a freeze on council tax. This amounts, in its way, to a notional tax cut, if one that will be borne by local authorities that are already struggling to fund their services after years of heavy-handed intervention by the devolved government. It’s easy to sit in Bute House and tell others to rein in their spending, while you continue to splash the cash and take the glory.
However, what appeared to be a carefully briefed story in the Sunday Times at the weekend suggested Yousaf could be about to go further and abandon his planned income tax rise “in an attempt to win back aspirational voters”. “If we can get to a position where we are not raising income tax then everyone would welcome that. I think that would be everyone’s aspiration,” a senior source told the newspaper.
It’s hardly insightful to point out that households in middle Scotland, like that of Yousaf’s police officer, are under intense financial pressure, but it is true nevertheless. There have been growing signs of public disgruntlement at a constantly rising tax burden on anyone earning above £28,000 a year, even if the money is being spent on anti-poverty programmes.
We’ll see what unfolds. And it will also be interesting to watch the response from Scotland’s powerful poverty caucus, which has continually lobbied for and supported the efforts of Sturgeon and now Yousaf to boost the incomes of the poorest. Much of the energy behind the SNP’s dominance over the past decade or so has come from the political left. How will it react to this change of emphasis?
If we are seeing a significant shift in tone and focus, what will replace the old agenda? Growing the economy is something everyone (apart from the Greens) understands to be in Scotland’s interests, but it is not easily achieved and there are deep-rooted cultural and policy problems that must be overcome if demonstrable progress is to be made. Similarly, saying you’re going to turn your attention to boosting mainstream public services is great, but again there’s no easy route to such an outcome. Unions and professional groups must at times be faced down, some brave innovations will be needed, and (even greater) public unpopularity risked, until any benefits can be seen.
So far, I’ve been pretty impressed by some of the rhetoric coming from Yousaf. I’d like to believe he will live up to it, but action is always harder than words. Pringle will just have to keep pushing.