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nicola sturgeon, politics, SNP.

Will Nicola Sturgeon be the first FM to raise taxes?



We had the Iron Lady, now we have the Irn Bru Lady, said a speaker on BBC’s Morning Call.

I’m not sure which is worse, being compared to Margaret Thatcher or Scotland’s other national drink. But Nicola Sturgeon should get used to it. Women leaders are still a novelty in British politics.

These are truly extraordinary times in Holyrood however. Three women – the Tory leader Ruth Davidson, the interim Labour leader, Jackie Baillie and the new First Minister -dominating the chamber and promising to promote 50/50 gender equality (though not presumably at First Minister’s Question Time).

It’s a great achievement of the Scottish Parliament that it has so comprehensively shattered the political glass ceiling. Gender shouldn’t matter any more, but inevitably it will. This is a good and a bad thing for the new First Minister.

Good: cartoonists and commentators have to be more careful when presenting her in a grotesque light as they will risk being accused of being “obsessed with what she looks like instead of what she says”.

Bad: many voters will still judge her on what she looks like rather than on what she says. And that includes women voters, whose support for the new First Minister is assumed but not guaranteed. The Daily Mail is read by many women and it will portray Ms Sturgeon as a childless, leftist harridan with a phoney smile who wants to press-gang mothers into the work place instead of letting them look after their families.

Having women in opposition does not guarantee an easy ride in the chamber either. Forget sisterhood; this is politics. Ms Davidson and Kezia Dugdale, the front runner to take over for Labour at FMQs, won’t be inhibited, as some men might be about going below the belt.

The Labour Tory tag team will try to lure Ms Sturgeon into rows – like the famous stairheid dialectic between her and Johann Lamont on STV last year – because they think this will damage her more than them. She is more shout-down-able than Alex Salmond.

Ms Sturgeon also has an unfortunate habit of actually trying to answer questions, unlike Mr Salmond who just gave prepared lectures – and this could open up interesting possibilities for an aggressive opposition against a background of spending cuts.

As for Westminster, unionist politicians will applaud her for being a woman – jolly good show – and then try to put her firmly in her place. Messrs Cameron and Miliband realise nationalism is still a threat to the Union – just look at Labour’s dismal poll ratings.

They will be at one in looking for an early opportunity to knock Ms Sturgeon about a bit. They will ram the Smith Commission down her throat and try to take an axe to Barnett and Scottish representation in Westminster. See how she likes that!

UK debt is still rising and the Financial Times forecasts the Chancellor is going to have to make cuts of not just £25billion, but £48bn next year – 33 per cent in non-ring fenced departments. It is almost inconceivable the Barnett Formula which gives Scotland a premium of around £1,400 per head above the UK average, will remain untouched in the post-2015 spending round.

And Ms Sturgeon is a spending First Minister in a way Mr Salmond wasn’t – despite all the talk of “give-aways”. She has promised above-inflation rises in NHS spending and her policy on extending free child care will punch a £400 million a year hole in the other budgets with a £600m start-up cost.

The Westminster parties will tell her that if she wants to spend then fine: she can start raising income taxes in Scotland to pay for her social democratic schemes. But they will of course cut the Barnett subsidies at the same time – tee hee. This will force her to shrink Scottish spending, and consequently the state, which means council job losses.

Labour local authorities will pile in with their usual demands to dump the “free stuff”: measures like free personal care, free prescriptions and free bus passes, and which Labour politicians believe benefit the wealthy.

Kezia Dugdale said yesterday: “The SNP have quite a record on redistributing wealth – from the poor to the rich.” Her solution is to lift the freeze on council tax to redistribute wealth instead to Scottish councils. Mind you, if she does that Labour will attack her for increasing bills for hard-pressed families.

There has been speculation Ms Sturgeon will revive the SNP’s scheme to replace the council tax with a local income tax. But she could find that almost as damaging as raising the cap on council spending. Voters dislike new taxes almost as much as increased ones. But council costs are going up and up, what with all this equality pay, living wage and child care. How will Ms Sturgeon respond when all those women council workers start going on strike?

She can’t abandon measures like free university tuition because her predecessor said “rocks would melt in the sun” before that happened.

Could it be Ms Sturgeon will become the first First Minister actually to use Holyrood’s powers to raise taxes? A double whammy of council tax increases and higher income tax for Scots. It’s some way off, but I wouldn’t rule it out after 2016.

That will certainly test the unity of her party and the much-vaunted social democratic ethos of Scottish voters.

Labour will celebrate by accusing her of being a Tartan Tory in a red dress who also puts up taxes.

Ms Sturgeon will, of course, blame Westminster and the Union for all this. And by implication those Scots who voted No. Didn’t the Yes Campaign forecast Barnett would be scrapped and Scotland would lose its influence in London? But she can’t go on saying that indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Mr Salmond’s influence in Westminster could be growing by the day. Assuming he returns to Westminster as MP for Gordon (and it’s really time he made clear his intentions). Seeing him sitting in Holyrood while the women congratulated each other, just didn’t look right. He’s not a natural backbencher.

In Westminster the former First Minister will enjoy what is supposedly the prerogative of the harlot: power without responsibility. He’s certainly having all the fun, poking his oar into debates about English voting, perhaps deciding the shape of the next UK government, getting on Have I Got News For You.

Will he be able to stand idly by while his golden inheritance is squandered in Scotland? The SNP’s current popularity can’t go anywhere but down. The first hint of tax rises and the press will round on Ms Sturgeon.

Everything they say about the new First Minister is true. She is capable, intelligent and very trough. However, that isn’t enough. Nor is it enough to just be the first woman First Minister. Now the glass is shattered everyone can start blaming her for everything that goes wrong.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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