Former SNP cabinet secretary laments lack of radicalism at Holyrood

The Herald, by Tom Gordon
07.05.19

A FORMER cabinet secretary has accused the SNP-dominated parliament of not being “nearly as ambitious or radical enough” on taxes, jobs and tackling poverty.

Alex Neil said he had a “deep sense of disappointment” that Holyroodwas “far too timid” on the big issues.

Writing about the 20th anniversary of devolution in the forthcoming issue of the Scottish Left Review, the SNP MSP called for a new cabinet post of Secretary for Full Employment and the rapid abolition of the council tax.

The SNP promised to abolish the tax at the 2007 election, but never did.

Mr Neil said “new urgency” was needed to replace it with an income-based local services tax.

Although he did not name any party, his article was a thinly-veiled rebuke to his own, which has been in power for 12 of the last 20 years.

Mr Neil, the MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, has served in the Scottish Parliament since its foundation, and was a cabinet secretary under both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

He said that, as a believer in social justice and independence, he was “elated” when first elected in 1999.

But, although proud of what the parliament since delivered, and even accounting for “the restrictive nature of devolution”, he was also disappointed by its missed opportunity.

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He said it had failed “to deliver the kind of transformational change in the economic and social circumstances of the Scottish people to which I and my colleagues aspired”.

Besides limited powers and Westminster cuts, he also blamed “our own lack of audacity as a Parliament. We have been far too timid and not nearly as ambitious or radical enough.”

He said levels of poverty were unacceptable and rising.

He wrote: “A quarter of our children are living in poverty. A fifth of our pensioners and most of our disabled community are struggling to make ends meet.

“The blame for this lies very much at Westminster’s door but as a Parliament, we have not been nearly pro-active enough in forcing change.”

On tax, he said: “We still have not abolished the council tax, one of the most unfair taxes ever invented.

“We need to instil new urgency into abolishing the council tax and replacing with a much fairer income-based local services tax.

“We need to introduce a land tax to incentivise new investment in our most abundant, under-used natural resource and thereby help grow the Scottish economy.”

He also said too many jobs were low-paid, low-skilled and temporary, with shortages in IT, construction, social care, oil and gas, the medical profession and teaching.

He said: “These shortages represent a huge opportunity to redeploy people who are in low income, poor quality jobs to obtain enhanced levels of employment and income. We need a Cabinet Secretary for Full Employment to tackle this issue as a matter of urgency.”

He also said not enough was being done to diversify the economy.

Green MSP Alison Johnstone said: “While it’s a pity Alex Neil never made these observations when he had a seat at the Cabinet table, he is right. The Scottish Parliament has been timid for much of the last 20 years.

“In recent years Greens have pushed government and parliament beyond their comfort zone, leading the change on introducing a fairer income tax system, ensuring compassion is at the heart of the devolved social security agency and putting the climate emergency at the top of the agenda.

“If we are to take the necessary action required to avoid climate breakdown we’ll need to see bold, urgent action with a Green New Deal in the next decade, focussing on land use, warm homes and a transition to a renewables backed economy which will deliver hundreds of thousands of high quality new jobs.”

LibDem MSP Mike Rumbles added: “At its beginning the Parliament was a real shared endeavour. It had a lot to be proud of: university tuition fees were abolished, McCrone revolutionised the teaching profession, green energy was prioritised, we saw free personal care for the elderly, free eye and dental checks, and the smoking ban radically improved quality of life.

“We could get back to that if Holyrood’s focus and time wasn’t consumed by constitutional division in the form of both independence and Brexit. We need to make it stop.”

An SNP spokesperson: “Alex Neil is absolutely correct in his observations in that, although devolution has achieved a great deal for Scotland, we could do so much more with the full powers of independence – to grow our economy, tackle poverty, create better jobs and build a fairer Scotland for everyone.”