JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 23.9.11
AS GOVERNMENT spending announcements go, John Swinney’s Scottish budget – rolled out at Holyrood on Wednesday – was hardly the stuff of radical politics. There was, of course, the ritual nod to the construction-heavy form of renewable energy policy that is one of the Scottish Government’s flagship commitments.
Otherwise, though, the model of economic “recovery” embraced by Scotland’s Finance Secretary was a wholly conventional one, based on the idea of a rapid return to continuing material growth. The infrastructure projects on which new money is to be spent consist mainly of road-building, rather than investment in – say – public transport, or proper home insulation; the Scottish Government’s already tiny walking and cycling budget has actually been slashed, by a swingeing 25%. And John Swinney has also accepted the Westminster government’s decrees on the reduction of what are, in most cases, already modest public sector pensions; there was no contribution, in his speech, to any global debate on how to escape from a failed economic model which, in steadily destroying the real puchasing-power of millions of ordinary citizens, effectively undermines its own chances of future recovery with every ill-conceived “austerity” package it imposes.
Was all of this small-c conservatism enough, though, to delight the business lobby, and win for Mr. Swinney the approval of “the markets”? Not a bit of it; for somewhere amid this litany of orthodox measures, there bloomed a single tiny flower of rebellion, in the shape of the Scottish Government’s decision to revive the idea of a “Tesco Tax”. This tax, if it ever materialises, would be a special levy imposed on large retailers who sell cigarettes and alcohol; the idea would be to use the money to help deal with the health problems caused by Scotland’s unusually heavy addiction to both. And if you want a snapshot of how little room for manoeuvre modern governments are allowed, before the princes and potentates of the corporate world bring them to heel, then you could do worse than contemplate for a moment the yelps of rage provoked by this modest suggestion.
For there is no doubt that Britain’s major supermarket retailers could all afford at least a few million pounds a year in extra tax, earmarked for such a good cause. It is no secret that the supermarkets have been raking in revenue, in recent years, partly by selling cut-price alcohol for home consumption, sometimes even as a loss leader. In a time of serious recession, when pubs have been closing by the dozen, supermarket drink sales have boomed, and supermarket profits with them. In April 2011, Tesco’s reported record group annual profits of £3.8 billion, and Sainsbury’s registered a 12.8% year-on-year increase in pre-tax profits to more than £800 million; only this month, Morrison’s reported a record half-yearly figure of more than £440 million.
Now of course, it is perfectly reasonable, within the logic of commerce, for supermarket companies to do everything the law allows to attract customers and enhance profits; and Scotland’s Parliament notoriously failed to pass legislation fixing a minimum price for alcohol. But for retailers’ representatives to pretend that they cannot now afford to pay a small Scottish tax levy on their booming profits, without slashing investment and cutting jobs, is graceless and bullying, as well as implausible; and it’s to be hoped that John Swinney will not be deterred by their noisy shroud-waving, or by the shameless pro-industry whingeing of the Labour opposition.
Long after the matter of the Tesco Tax has been resolved, though, the deeper issues raised by the presence of major supermarkets, and of other huge commercial institutions like them, will continue to trouble and torment our increasingly weak and ineffectual political class. Modern consumers love their supermarkets, of course, and with some reason. At the most basic level, it’s the complex chain of supply run by our major food retailers that feeds our cities, and keeps us that crucial three or four days away from the brutal moment when the veneer of civilisation cracks, and we start fighting in the local corner-shop over the last available can of beans. And in terms of long-term policy, supermarket companies often put governments to shame with their growing interest in local sourcing of produce, and in encouraging the development of high quality organic and slow-food products.
There’s no doubt, though, that the huge influence of the supermarkets raises questions that elected government should, in theory, be powerful and confident enough to address. Their power over farmers, producers, and the whole pattern of land-use, sometimes seriously abused in the past, has to be scrutinised and held to account. Their impact on the quality of life of communities needs constant monitoring, as they suck revenue and vitality from smaller High Street shops; the extent to which they encourage the use of cars for shopping trips has created a whole car-based retail culture, around the edges of our cities, that has profound environmental implications.
Yet despite the obvious massive public interest in the intelligent regulation of this vital sector of the economy, it seems that governments no longer have the economic power or the moral authority to meet them, or any other major corporate interests, as equal partners. The current Scottish Government, for all its flaws, is about as good as it gets in the western world at the moment, outside the wealthy Nordic countries; it has a sound majority, social democratic principles, and a healthy scepticism – at least in theory – about the arguments for the Westminster government’s glaringly unjust “austerity” programme.
Yet even Alex Salmond and his crew can be seen far too often bowing the knee to big corporate interests, and kow-towing to economic powers from which – as assessors, regulators, and representatives of the public interest – they should be keeping a proper and independent distance. Which is why this modest Tesco Tax proposal is finally a little more significant than it seems: as a symbol of a government which, on occasions, will still resist the might of corporate lobbying; and which, on a clear day, can still distinguish the public interest from the demands of short-term economic growth, and set its policy accordingly.