NICOLA Sturgeon’s Government is “managing decline” and failing to tackle Scotland’s root problems, according to one of the country’s top academics and a leading authority on the SNP.

Professor James Mitchell said that “bold” action was needed to grow the economy and address inequalities, and warned not to do so would generate more acute challenges.

He said the circumstances the Government operated in were likely to get worse in the light of Brexit, the Covid pandemic, and the decline of the oil and gas sector.

Mr Mitchell said there was a need to reform council tax and end a “centralisation agenda” from the Scottish Government to help redistribute wealth.

Reforming council tax was promised by the SNP back in 2007 when the party first came to power but to date has not taken place. In March, ministers revealed they have no plans to bring forward the 15-year-old commitment until at least 2026.

READ MORE: Scottish independence: Nicola Sturgeon to ramp up push for new vote

A report published by think-tank the IPPR Scotland last year said the council tax is unfair as low to middle-income families pay the most as a proportion of income while people living in higher-value properties pay the least as a proportion of value.

The Herald:

Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University

His intervention – ahead of a lecture to the Royal Society of Edinburgh this week on the separate theme of “How Radical is Scotland?” – comes after an appeal by a trade union chief to ministers to stop a Holyrood “power grab” on councils.

Mr Mitchell suggested the Scottish Government had not yet implemented council tax reform as it was concerned the move could weaken support for the SNP among middle-class voters in higher-value properties who would face increased levies.

Support of the middle classes

THE party would need continued support from this group of voters to win a second independence referendum, he added. But he warned that if ministers continued not to address core problems, the challenges would intensify and the SNP could end up losing support among voters for independence anyway.

“The Sturgeon Government has been remarkably small ‘c’ conservative,” he told The Herald on Sunday.

"There is no doubt she has been radical on gender issues - the trans issues have been really difficult for her - but before that appointing women as half of her cabinet - that was not insignificant.

"But in terms of what we would traditionally see as left/right issues she's not been particularly radical.

“It has really not redistributed wealth in a way it could have done under devolved powers. One way it could have acted was to review local government finance. [Council tax] is a highly regressive system. [Reform] is difficult to do and it would be painful and there would be winners and losers – and the losers would be the middle classes – but she has never taken that on.”

He added: “The more you tackle inequality the less you have to pay out [in benefits and services]. People are working, paying taxes and are healthier. We should be aiming for a virtuous circle, but we are not.”

In light of the latest economic challenges faced as a result of the pandemic, Brexit, fuel price rises, and the decline of the North Sea energy industry, he said circumstances in the coming years were not going to improve, putting pressure on Government to do more to tackle the root problems.

“For a progressive government these changes mean that they will have to be much more bold,” he said.

“They have a range of tools and could shift resources. They could stop the process of centralisation and give much more autonomy to local government. This process of centralisation is really damaging. Give them more resources, reform local government finance.

“And if we are serious in terms of improving public health we need to make changes in that direction as well. We can’t simply throw money at the National Health Service.

“We are building up problems for the future. Things like the state of the economy, fuel price rises, Brexit, a growing elderly population, the decline of the oil industry.

“The oil industry employs a very sizeable number of people who are paid well and if their jobs aren’t there, they’re not getting paid and they then won’t be contributing money to Government through taxes.

"So carrying on plodding onwards is not going to be enough. It’s managing decline.

"And that's what the Scottish Government is doing. We could maybe carry on doing that - it's a very conservative option. But that's where we are."

Police numbers

ASKED what would happen if the Government continued on the same path, he said public services would suffer significantly. He pointed to figures from the Government published last week which revealed that police numbers had fallen below 17,000 for the first time since 2008.

The quarterly strength statistics published on Tuesday found there were 

16,805 full-time equivalent police officers in Scotland on March 31, 2022, down by 312 since December 31, 2021.

“Public services will be run down. The National Health Service budget is already much larger of total expenditure than it was at the start of devolution. It’s about a third. We are already in trouble,” he said.

He added that if NHS spending rose to 40 per cent or 50% of expenditure, every other public service would suffer.

“Because of our new fiscal arrangements, Scotland is now much more dependent on the Scottish economy. The Scottish economy is our tax base to an extent it wasn’t previously, and if the Scottish economy is not prospering, we won’t have the tax income from that. We are worse off now with the tax powers – considering the money the Government has got to spend – than we were without them,” he said.

“And that’s because our economy is not prospering. That’s a major worry. This is an area of major concern. I don’t understand what is going on in the Scottish Government – it doesn’t make sense at all.”

‘It’s not easy’

PRESSED on whether politicians should have more of a leadership role in shaping public opinion to enable challenging redistributive reforms to be carried out, he said: “They should be, but it’s not easy. If you are too far ahead of the public you lose support. So you’ve got to take the public with you.

“That has been the modus operandi of the SNP, especially since 2014. And part of the reason for that is the referendum hanging over us.

“It harms the SNP long term. By failing to address some of these problems and issues, it becomes more difficult to make the case for independence.”

Figures released by the Scottish Government in February showed a growing divide between the richest and poorest people in Scotland with the former more than 200 times wealthier than the poorest 10%.

The median wealth held by the richest rose to £1,651,700 between 2018 and 2020 – 32% since 2006/08. In contrast, median wealth for the poorest 10% was just £7,600 – a difference of 217 times.

Mr Mitchell, who is professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, will give the inaugural annual lecture on the Scottish Election Study on Wednesday.

By analysing the result of most elections in Scotland dating back to 1974, he has come to the conclusion that Scots are a nation of small “c” conservatives. He has looked at why these opinions have not translated in more widespread backing for the Conservative Party.

He told The Herald on Sunday that part of the reason may be that the Scottish Conservatives failed to capitalise on the support they won from pro-Union voters in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum.

“I think it’s poor leadership on their part. They had an opportunity post-2014. They mobilised the Unionist vote to overtake the Labour party [in the 2016 Holyrood election] but what they have never done since is to really convince those who voted for them as a Unionist party that they should also be Conservatives,” he said.

Thatcher reaction

MR Mitchell also went on to say that part of the push for devolution in the 1990s was a reaction against Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms, privatisation agenda, and attempts to dismantle the welfare state.

“I would argue that the reason why we have a Scottish Parliament in the first place is that it was an anti-Thatcher, anti-Conservative institution,” he said.

“Our data shows that very clearly. People were voting in the referendum in 1997 not necessarily to get something that was radical and bold – it was more to keep Thatcherism at the Border.”

A spokesperson for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The reality is that the SNP Government has introduced a raft of popular policies, with the fairest taxation in the UK, including lower average council tax bills than those in England and Wales. 

“We are also taking all the action we can with our current powers to tackle the Tory-made cost-of-living crisis, while Labour support the extra powers needed remaining at Westminster.

“Independence will give us the opportunity to do so much more but, in the meantime, the SNP will continue to show we understand people’s concerns and are on their side – and results in election after election suggest the people of Scotland overwhelmingly agree.”