The Scottish referendum was supposed to change everything. It was supposed to have created a constitutional crisis that Westminster politicians could not ignore. Well, the Labour and Conservative party conferences have been doing their very best to resurrect a different narrative, with a rapid return to the usual political nonsense. But before long the House of Commons will have to consider further devolution to Scotland, which will bring matters back into focus. It is still worth thinking about the practical issues of devolution. And the biggest issue that needs clearer thinking is tax.
Politics is not just about creating, changing or abolishing laws. It is about balancing revenues and expenditures. In fact, in modern politics, this latter is probably the most important job of politics. How much to tax? Where to spend the money? Unfortunately, the British model of devolution shies away from the taxation side of things. Central government passes on cash grants to the devolved authorities, who have very limited tax-raising powers of their own. Devolution is about spending priorities, not about how much to spend overall. To get more money, a devolved authority has to apply political pressure to the central government, who may or may not grant it. This creates a very unhealthy tension between the various levels of government. Or, to put it another way, if the devolved government finds itself short of funding, it can just blame the central government.
And the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been skilfully exploiting this tension to undermine the union. Scotland does have a rather fudged right to vary the rate of income tax – but is has never used it. Instead, it is blaming the UK government, and hence the union itself, for imposing “neoliberal” policies on Scotland. In the referendum there was a highly mendacious, but effective, claim that the NHS would be safer in an independent Scotland – in spite of the fact that the local NHS is already run by the Scottish government.
But the ability to raise taxes is one of the essential things that defines what a government is. Meaningful devolution, whether to the British nations, regions or local authorities, must involve the freedom to tax. There are many ways in which this is done in the various systems across the world. The most extreme is in the United States, where the states have almost unlimited freedom to tax, and where local taxes are clearly separate from federal taxes. That latter point is very important to achieve democratic accountability. In other countries the freedoms of devolved authorities is much more tightly defined. It is well worth thinking about what sorts of tax it is practical to devolve.
The classic economic answer to this is that the more geographically tied a tax is, the easier it is to devolve. So taxes on property are good to devolve; taxes on financial investments and capital are not. Let’s look at the British tax system in this light.
There are four main types of property tax. Council Tax, Business rates, Stamp Duty and Capital Gains Tax (CGT). The revenue from Council Tax already goes to local authorities, but its structure is set at national level, and powers to vary it are heavily constrained (though the Scottish government has fewer restrictions). Business rates were highly centralised, but this is being released back to local authorities in the typical sort of fudged British way that makes accountability unclear. Stamp Duty and CGT are tangled up with the same taxes on highly mobile assets, and are centralised. It would be quite easy to disentangle Stamp Duty on property transactions and devolve them – but much more difficult for CGT. But we have to be careful; financial engineers can blur the distinction between property and financial investment (the property can be held by an investment trust, for example), so anti-avoidance provisions would need to be designed.
At the other extreme we have capital taxes. These are Income Tax on the income derived, Stamp Duty and CGT again, and Corporation Tax. I will come back to Income Tax. Corporation Tax is the most contentious issue. Both the Scottish and Northern Irish governments want to be able to set their own rates. But this is usually dismissed as being impractical, or leading to tax avoidance in a sort of negative-sum game. Nothing is more mobile than capital, after all, and Corporation Tax is a quintessential tax on capital. This line of argument is overdone. One idea might be to determine profits at a UK level, but allocate using some variation of the “Massachusetts formula” using property, employment and sales as the basis of regional allocation. This works well enough in the USA, and I have long advocated its use internationally too. If all a company has in Scotland is a brass plate on a registered office, the Scottish Government would not be able to tax it.
In between capital and property we have people – or more properly income earned through employment, whether directly or deferred, though pensions. These are taxed through Income Tax and National Insurance. Income Tax is the most politically accountable of all taxes, and so it is quite natural that most debate centres around how this might be delegated. But this is very messy. It is also levied on investment income, and then you have the complexities associated with rate bands and tax free allowances. It would be much better to devolve National Insurance, either just that paid by employers, or including the Employee tax too. It could be renamed “Local Income Tax”. The tax was originally set up to fund social benefits such as pensions and unemployment benefit – but the Treasury has long since broken that link. There is one important issue with it though: it is not levied on pensions. But pensions should be a UK issue that is not devolved. Regions with a high density of pensioners would suffer from a low tax base: but this can be equalised – and I don’t think it is unhealthy for regions and localities to have an incentive to encourage employment, rather than just property ownership.
Two other areas of taxation are important. First is VAT (and theoretically, any sales tax). This could be localised, but there are two difficulties. First is that with the development of online sales, it is increasingly difficult to locate a sales geographically – something that has become a big problem in the US. The second is that VAT is tangled up in European Union treaties and law. It is best left alone. The other area of taxation is natural resources, and especially oil and gas. This can be geographically isolated, though most oil extracted in English waters is landed in Scotland. This is the biggest bone of contention between Scotland and Westminster. But I would be tempted to call the Scots bluff and devolve it. After all most of the issues of infrastructure that go with resource extraction fall on the Scots government.
So what is my straw man for Scotland, or any other devolved region? First, I think a diversity of sources of revenue is a big help. I would create a new Local Income Tax in place of or alongside National Insurance, that would initially be structured in the same way. Next I would allow Corporation Tax to be split according to the Massachusetts formula, with variable rates. I would give devolved authorities more powers over Council Tax and Business Rates. I would devolve oil taxation. I would consider establishing a new property gains tax in place of CGT on property.
A fantasy I am afraid. The UK Treasury remains the most powerful force in British government. It has no intention of conceding any of this – and would feel the state would be fatally undermined if it did. It would rather fudge something around Income Tax – the one tax that I think should be entirely “Federal”.