Silk Commission, Sammy Wilson and the DUP’s impromptu dismissal of tax varying powers…

Newton Emerson today usefully points at Wales and the recent work of the Silk Commission on the devolution of further powers to raise and lower taxes. It’s worth looking more closely at Wales. For a country that only just squeaked devolution (there was about 7k votes majority in favour in a voting electorate of just over a million), the levels of trust in the Senedd seem remarkably high:

  • 62% of the respondents would like to see increased powers for the NafW (including the 9% in favour of independence), with 24% in favour of the status quo;
  • Eight in ten people trusted the NafW to act in Wales’s best interests;
  • A majority believed that the existence of the NafW had given Wales a stronger voice in the United Kingdom;
  • The Welsh public were as likely to believe that the NafW had the most influence over Wales as they were the UK Parliament;
  • There is a relatively high awareness of whether current powers lie at UK Parliament or National Assembly level; and
  • Among those desiring further powers, a majority (around two-thirds) want this within the next 5 years or beyond rather than in the next year or so.

And, it seems, the UK government has not been slow in responding to the recommendation from Paul Silk that more powers be devolved:

  •  to the Welsh Ministers current ability to borrow money to invest in Wales;
  • Landfill Tax and Stamp Duty Land Tax to ensure the Welsh Government has an independent funding stream to pay back the money it borrows:
  • and provides for a referendum to take place so that people in Wales can decide whether some of their income tax should be devolved, in the same way as it is in Scotland.

This is a unionist initiative, not a Welsh nationalist one. And yet, as Newton points out, one of the main road blockers was not Sinn Fein, but the DUP’s late Finance Minister Sammy Wilson:

…he complained that devolving a tax replaces a fixed sum from London with locally collected revenue, which varies up and down making Stormont’s budget harder to predict. The poverty of ambition this reveals is remarkable. Stormont has enough borrowing and carry over powers, plus enough regular underspending to manage a significantly varying budget.

But it seems Wilson preferred to be a glorified club treasurer than a finance minister in any meaningful sense. Wilson often told the Assembly that tax devolution undermined the union. Perhaps he was also concerned about it undermining his own ability to spend other people’s money.

Dessie Boal’s famous description of the party at the time launched back in 1971, that it would be “right wing in the sense of being strong on the Constitution, but to the left on social policies.” In contravention to the trend in the republic where people tend to talk centre left but vote for right of centre economics.

Of course tax is a toxic issue far beyond the bounds of Northern Ireland.

Such lack of ambition also lies elsewhere in the executive, even with powers they do possess. John O’Dowd’s Robin Hood raid on school budgets may be laudable in terms of its professed aims, but without serious reform and resources additional to those currently available, they’re likely to have little impact.

All very frustrating when the party in charge of the Department of Finance and Personnel could hold the key. Newton again:

…neither can he see that stamp duty has huge potential, along with Stormont’s planning and rates powers, to radically affect the housing market and address the specific problems of speculation, land-hoarding and reckless lending that squandered northern Ireland’s one true period of growth and full employment.

A case of Augustine’s cautiously conservative desire for moral virtue? “Lord make me pure, but not yet.”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty