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THE TARTAN TAX AND THE SCOTTISH CONSUMER

Scottish Nationalists have quite often tried to campaign for the furtherance of political objectives by developing policies in relation to consumer choice. Wendy Wood told her audiences not to buy from certain English chain stores. Roland Muirhead and the Scottish National Congress encouraged small-scale and individual "direct action". They listed goods made in Scotland and companies based in Scotland so that consumer choice could be based on national origins.

However, that was some time ago. The consumer society has moved on and the economic system has changed. Many consumer goods now give no details of where they were produced. Many products are now multi-national. The 1986 Single European Act means that there is considerable freedom of movement and freedom from import and export duties within the E.U. for capital, goods, services and labour.

The 1707 Treaty of Union can be seen as part of a system towards freedom of movement of capital, goods, service and labour. Many clauses in the Treaty deal with consumer items and seem to point towards a single market philosophy. However, there is also provision for protecting the vested interests of producers, allowing time to unify taxes and ease transition. If the free market ideas were in fact dominant in the Treaty negotiations, they would appear to have been unsuccessful: Scottish producers were in a poor state for long after the Union and the main beneficiaries were those who gained on the closed market of bribes and self-interest. This debate is for historians to pursue. Our debate concerns the here and now.

To get to the heart of the matter... how is the nationalist aim of a politically independent Scotland connected to its economic interest? Here we are concerned with the period leading up to Independence. Scotland is part of several supposedly free-market situations. Supposedly, because vested interests are regularly protected. For example, the Common Agricultural Policy protects farmers and therefore to some extent guarantees supplies to consumers. However, the rules and regulations required to try to ensure a level playing field for producers mean that prices become, in effect, decided by bureaucrats. That is not in the consumer's interests as it might be in a real free market situation. The temptation for politicians is to protect special interest groups such as farmers. The bureaucrats who serve the politicians have an inbuilt tendency to create more rules to further enforce the level playing field and hence perpetuate more bureaucrats. There is a single market, but it is not a free market. The Union of 1707 may have ensured a single free market for some commodities such as cattle, but the jobs of Scots lawyers were protected by the maintenance of our separate legal system.

People tend to vote according to their special interests rather than to vote for their general interests. Everybody wants protection for themselves as workers and a free market as consumers.

Let us assume a free market in photocopiers. The nationalist Scot can buy a photocopier either from an Englishman at £400 or from a Scot at £500. There can be no guarantee that buying from the Scot will mean that he also will spend his money with a fellow Scot. The ethnic factor in the economic choice may not be continued further down the line. Because of the free market situation between Scotland and England in photocopiers (which are probably multinational products from various worldwide locations), there is no guarantee that a choice dictated by a protectionist attitude will be maintained.

Nationalists have to look further: will the choice of buying from fellow Scots rather than from Englishmen contribute to the drive for Scottish independence ? The answer must be: only if the nationalist Scot who chooses the product is the beneficiary. It is not enough to allow a non-nationalist Scottish producer or seller to benefit. To benefit financially, however, the nationalist Scot must buy from the Englishman. To further nationalism, the financial benefits of dealing with the Englishman must be spent on activities which further the Nationalist cause. They cannot simply be given to someone who is an ethnic Scot but who is not a practising nationalist.

Making a Scottish nationalist buyer poorer to make an Englishman poorer and a Scot richer, is to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The sobering moral of this tale is that political nationalism is best pursued by economic individualism. Buy the Englishman's photocopier for £400 and spend the £100 saved by printing nationalist leaflets.

The Scottish photocopier salesman will have to compete more effectively with his English counterpart to stay in business. If he were to recieve an extra £100 charitable donation from the nationalist Scot, then that would only weaken the nationalist Scot.

The tax-varying powers given to the devolved Scottish Parliament may deter the English from coming to live in Scotland. But they may also discourage Scots from remaining in Scotland. The pattern of cross-border migration seems to be that there is a tendency for the English who come to Scotland to already have fairly high wealth and status. They are not seeking low-paid jobs, they are seeking to add to what they have already. They come in at a high level on the socio-economic scale. On the other hand, a much larger migration of Scots from Scotland to England is characterised by lower-income groups seeking to get relatively low-paid employment.

Tax studies show that low-paid workers pay a comparitively high proportion of their income in taxes, whereas highly-paid workers are in a position to adjust investments and take advantage of tax breaks in order to "evade" tax. While income tax rises mean that those who earn more, pay more, there is almost certain to be a rise in tax payments for lower-income groups. Within the prevailing economic system, it is likely that devices such as the so-called "tartan tax" and the E.U. minimum wage will put pressure on many lower-income Scots to leave, while discouraging only a small number of English people from coming to Scotland.

Those nationalists who support the minimum wage and the "tartan tax" may be indulging in the luxury of harming English interests while also harming those of fellow Scots. A sobering thought. While the Union, both European and Anglo-Scottish, remains in place and while there is a single largely-free market for goods, services etc., it is difficult to see how economic devices could bring about the collapse of Scotland's position as a nation within these Unions.

After Scottish Independence, Scotland will be free to choose whether to participate in a largely free-market system or a largely protectionist system. The weakness of individual economic action will be replaced by the strength of democratically agreed policy or perhaps the shifting complexities of endless compromises with special interest groups. These choices cannot be put into practice until Independence, and discussion of them seems premature.


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