'A SNP MSP has claimed an independent Scotland could guarantee a couple with children a minimum income of more than £37,000 a year,' the Daily Record reported breathlessly this week, as it covered the SNP's latest plans for an independent Scotland.
Then came the clincher: 'Neil Gray admits the plans have not been costed.'
Neil Gray is an SNP MSP and deputy convenor of the party's Social Justice and Fairness Commission, which has published its final report: A Route Map to a Fair Independent Scotland.
One of the report's key recommendations is for a pilot of a minimum income guarantee. Gray, referencing work done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggests that an independent Scotland could effectively guarantee a minimum income of £18,700 per person per year for a couple with children, and £19,200 for a single person, via a combination of minimum wage, tax allowances, benefits and pension.
The report assumes that Scotland leaving the UK is the key to achieving a number of positive outcomes, including the eradication of poverty. It favours the scrapping of council tax and the introduction of a land value tax. It views a wealth tax as 'worthy of investigation, as part of a wider review of tax'. It also wants to see a higher state pension.
With no attempt to consider whether an independent Scotland would have the means to pay for the report's recommendations, it is difficult to take it seriously. James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, correctly points out
that it is 'a campaign tool designed to win support for independence as much as anything else'.
Another problem with the report is that many of its proposals could be implemented now. The SNP's 2007 manifesto for Holyrood elections promised to 'scrap the unfair council tax'. Since then, the can has been continuously kicked down the road with no sign of the tax being scrapped – although, to be fair, the SNP did freeze council tax for several years as a bung to the middle classes.
As Professor Mitchell says: 'Strip away the promises of a better tomorrow and all the warm words, and we see an immodest party making grandiose claims and promises after years of poor performance.'
Then there is the issue of how this fits in with the SNP's 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission which, despite the progressive-sounding title, was in several respects a right-leaning route-map to separation. It advocated a decade of spending restraint to bring Scotland's deficit down to manageable levels. Although the SNP has been loathe to admit this amounts to an austerity agenda, it clearly does, as pointed out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies at the time.
The new report is anti-austerity. 'It would be a catastrophic error, both economically and socially, to enter a renewed era of austerity in response to the economic cost of the pandemic,' it says.
What is the SNP's plan then: Growth Commission austerity or Social Justice and Fairness Commission anti-austerity? It cannot be both.
The reality, as the two reports demonstrate, is that the SNP will try to be all things to all voters to get independence over the line. Worrying about the real-life consequences of the policy can come later.
Dispassionate analysis of secession suggests it would most likely create a crisis situation in which the societal ills discussed by the Social Justice and Fairness Commission would become more acute. There is every possibility of the new state ending up in a position where it is unable to cover its costs via taxation or borrowing, leading to a public sector payments crisis. What then for those who rely on the state to pay their pensions, welfare or wages?
Poverty would rise, not fall. The road to independence would be the road to social injustice. Never mind lofty talk of a minimum income guarantee or eradicating poverty, managing to keep hospitals and schools open would come to be the benchmark of success.
The irony is that the pursuit of separation at any cost is what presents the real danger to the welfare of Scots. Whatever your dream, the SNP will give you a glimpse of it and promise it is within touching distance if only you believe and don't ask too many difficult questions.
That is the purpose of the final report of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission; a dream of fairness to disguise the cruel reality of separation. A project fantasy document for a project fantasy party.