From here on in Labour north of the border would be a “Scotland first” party committed to “total devolution” and the creation of a “permanent and powerful Scottish Parliament”. To emphasise the change he denied he had ever been a unionist and promised to use Scotland’s share of the proceeds of a mansion tax levied mainly on English homeowners to pay for a 1000 more nurses in the Scottish NHS.
There followed a veritable blitzkrieg of further announcements all designed to paint Labour as the only party with the ideas and policies to exploit the new Smith Commission powers and to deliver the genuine home rule that the majority of Scottish voters wanted.
A new publicly owned “people’s railway” would take over the Scotrail franchise. There would be a ban on fracking. Limits would be placed on the number of fixed odd betting terminals in bookmakers’ shops to protect low income families from the jaws of greedy gambling conglomerates.
As one Scottish academic noted, Murphy’s strategy was clearly to highlight the range of powers available under the Smith proposals and to create the impression that the vow had been fulfilled and extensive devolution really delivered by the Westminster parties.
Moreover, his tactics echo the New Labour post 1997 spin offensive aimed at dictating and dominating the press and broadcast media agenda. An offensive that, like Murphy’s approach, is far more about spin than substance.
The re-write of the constitution is more a re-ordering of existing clauses than the “re-founding and rebirth” of Scottish Labour that Murphy claimed. It also falls well short of an Independent Scottish labour Party genuinely freed from Westminster control that many party activists are calling for.
Murphy’s party will be autonomous only over those areas of policy allowed by Westminster. Westminster sovereignty over the Scottish Parliament and Scotland remains unscathed. His “people’s railway” is no more than the outside possibility-of a limited publicly-owned franchise operating under a permanently privatised UK railway network. Both Murphy and UK Labour have ruled out re-nationalisation of that network.
The limits on betting terminals would not apply to those that already exist and that already exploit the financially disadvantaged. Spending English taxes on Scottish nurses is part and parcel of the existing Barnett formula.
On the really important issues Murphy remains the British unionist he has always been. He remains committed to weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde. The £100 billion cost of Trident renewal would pay, not for 1000 Scottish nurses, but for 150,000 new nurses and teachers every year for the next 30 years. For Murphy the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is a far higher priority than Scottish hospitals or schools.
His late conversion to the devolution of setting income tax rates to the Scottish Parliament was spun as being driven by what was in Scotland’s interests. In reality, it is intended as a unionist Trojan horse. Successive Tory and Labour Governments in Westminster viewed income tax as “toxic” because most voters hate paying it.
Tory and Labour governments have consistently cut the basic rate from a high of 35 per cent in 1976 to the present 20 per cent. In nearly 40 years no Westminster government has dared raise it.
In similar vein, the devolution of the right to vary the top rate of income tax is bogus. Any attempt to raise it within one part of the United Kingdom without raising it across the UK would easily be avoided by top earners moving themselves and/or their businesses to those areas of the UK where the top rate would not apply.
To make matters worse Scotland’s income tax base is shrinking due to an ageing population. Westminster has devolved new tax problems not new tax powers to Scotland. Murphy’s predecessor, Johann Lamont, had resigned as leader partly because Westminster Labour had appointed senior party officers over her head.
Jim has had no such problems as he has willingly populated the Scottish party at senior levels with Westminster’s finest fixers and spinners. His new chief of staff, John McTernan, was Blair’s director of political operations and the man who infamously described Scotland as “narrow”, “Presbyterian” and “racist”.
His new policy director is Blair McDougall the author of Project Fear and a former Westminster insider who ran the Blairite David Miliband’s unsuccessful leadership campaign. His new Director of Communications is a one-time Labour councillor, opponent of universal benefits and someone who described her nationalist opponents as “oddballs, extremists and out-and-out racists”.
The so-called “Scotland-first” party remains under tight Westminster control and direction. No one is fooled. The latest polls show the SNP on course to win in excess of 50 Westminster seats and Scottish Labour facing near electoral annihilation. As they sow so shall they reap.