Thursday, 3 February 2011

Give the bairns a credit card?

As I've argued before in several letters published in the press, the Holyrood predilection towards tax and spend (or, at least, when Westminster is doing the taxing) hardly augurs well for the idea of fiscal autonomy. If the UK experience of the last few years is bad enough, what price another Portugal, Ireland, Greece or Spain - the so-called PIGS? (My list isn't wholly accurate, but it's the Planet Politics PIGS, not the more generally accepted definition!)

But to that extent the involvement of the ostensibly right-leaning Ben Thomson in the Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility seems slightly bizarre: in the Holyrood context "fiscal responsibility" seems almost oxymoronic.

Of course, Mr Thomson thinks that making Scotland's politicians more accountable for the money they spend would make them more responsible. But given the experience of the PIGS and indeed the triple-A rated UK, this argument seems more theoretical than one backed up by compelling real world evidence.

Perhaps Mr Thomson simply means that once fiscally incontinent politicians have ballooned public borrowing to crippling levels then they will be trounced out of office by the electorate - à la last year's Westminster poll - thus to that extent accountability works.

On the other hand, it's surely slightly irresponsible in itself to argue for this concept of responsibility, when it seems self-evident that there's a good chance that equally irresponsible politicians would embark on a spending binge fuelled by borrowing powers, and the idea of responsibility would only kick in when the whole creaking edifice of debt came crashing down. However, perhaps the thinking is that a debt-fuelled spending splurge in a fiscally autonomous Scotland would presage a more right-leaning political class at Holyrood - again à la last year's Westminster vote - but the problem with this is that it's perhaps a bit scorched earth-ish, and in any case the political/economic cycle seems based on a left-leaning spending splurge followed by a right-leaning period of austerity to clean up the mess, which in turn makes the left seem more attractive to voters, thus an effectively perpetual swing between the left and right.

Therefore perhaps a bit like letting out of jail a career criminal who's almost certain to reoffend, on the basis that he'll be held responsible when he does the inevitable and is thrown back in jail again.

Anyway, Mr Thomson appeared on yesterday's Newsnicht debate on the ongoing Calman v fiscal autonomy bunfight. He employed an interesting metaphor to rationalise the argument for more fiscal responsibility, saying: "Children who have to earn their money through doing a newsround* tend to spend it much more wisely than if they just get given it as pocket money".

Oops. If Mr Thomon's alignment with the fiscal autonomy cause seems like one of unnatural bedfellows, then this kind of comparison is hardly likely to endear him to the more hardcore Nationalists, who of course would agree with his characterisation of current Scotland receiving pocket money, but would presumably baulk at extending this idea of immaturity to a Scottish nation with more financial powers.

Likewise, it would perhaps be easy to pick holes in his analogy** - politicians don't earn any money at all; they take it in tax from earners and then spend it - but perhaps it would more accurately reflect reality if fiscal autonomy was viewed as giving the bairns access to a credit card. And, of course, any parents providing access to such a card without spending limit might themselves be deemed irresponsible.

Thus giving the drug addict parents the keys to the pharmacy is perhaps worrying enough, but allowing these parents to let the juveniles in as well would surely be the height of irresponsibility!

* Presumably posh Scots for a paper roond!
** No clever Dick remarks about the difference between a metaphor and an analogy, please.

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