The Scottish Budget and the creation of national mythology

On the ninth of October 2014, John Swinney walked into the Scottish Parliament and delivered the first budget in over 300 years that had set national tax rates within Scotland. This day of fiscal note was placed into Scotland’s wider economic history through allusion to Scotland’s great father of economic thought, Adam Smith. The new taxes on property, claimed Swinney, would in fact follow in the spirit of Smith by offering ‘certainty, and convenience; that collection should be efficient; and that taxes should be proportionate to the ability to pay.’

The choice of Smith, while obvious, was interesting. On a visit to Kirkaldy to deliver the Adam Smith lecture in 2006, Mervyn King, the then Governor of the Bank of England, chose to emphasise the rather more famous Smithian maxim: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. While undoubtedly conjuring up the spirit of Smith provided the maiden budget some much needed economic credibility, it is worth remembering that the think tank that bears Smith’s name was, in part, behind the poll tax and that Thatcher was reputed to carry a copy of the Wealth of Nations in her hand bag.

This competition for ownership of the important figures and events of a nation’s past is hardly new, especially in Scotland. The earliest sources of what we may broadly call “Scottish History”, are full of genealogical skulduggery aimed at providing the current ruling faction with the political and ancestral legitimacy required to explain their role at the top of the social hierarchy. Indeed, recently Dr James Fraser of Edinburgh University has recently made the rather compelling case for the earliest known version of the Pictish origin myth to have been penned in order provide the ascent of the certain Pictish kings through their mother’s royal blood some historical precedent. This goes beyond mere propaganda. This is about projecting a world view into the past and finding or creating a historical narrative that explains or legitimises the present.

The claims of Swinney claims be putting forth a fundamentally ‘Scottish approach to taxation’ serve a similar legitimising purpose. This statement creates the impression of an unchanging attitude to taxation that has survived through three hundred years of social and economic upheaval.

It is hardly the first time that the timelessness of Scottish values (more accurately nationalist values) has been asserted. In the First Minister’s introduction to the independence white paper he begins:

“ Scotland is an ancient nation, renowned for the ingenuity and creativity of our people, the breathtaking beauty of our land and the brilliance of our scholars. “

Fairly uncontroversial stuff, in the circumstances some national ego stroking can hardly be begrudged and indeed the triumphs of the Scottish enlightenment should be celebrated. However, he continues:

“Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education, and a passion and curiosity for invention that has helped shaped the world around us. “

Again we find the projection of modern sensibilities and priorities into the past. The First Minister makes the claim that a concern for equality has been an important driver in Scotland’s history. Were one to look at recent electoral history, with the rejection of Thatcher and the disappearance of neo-libeal conservatism, it is not a statement without some merit.

However, it is not a characterisation the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment would necessary have recognised. William Robertson, historian of the Scottish Enlightenment whose name still graces the building that hosts Edinburgh University’s history faculty, stated that ‘there can be no society where there is no subordination’. More generally Sir Tom Devine, doyen of modern Scottish History and noted Yes supporter, has observed: ‘These men [of the enlightenment] were essentially political conservatives who accepted the inequality of ranks as fundamental to the functioning of the social system and the unique right of a propertied elite to govern the country.’

Even over more recent years, the centrality of income inequality to Scottish discourse is not always clear-cut. Whist the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey does show that Scots tend to be slightly more likely to agree that income inequality is too high than Brits as a whole, both stand normally at around 80%. More strikingly, both the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey and the British variant appear to show a small decline in concern during the first decade of the twenty-first century at a time when inequality was rising across both Scotland and the UK as a whole.

Should we care? Probably not. While projecting may be frustrating and at times alarming to scholars and opponents alike, the political implications are not normally. Turning to your favourite SNP activist and explaining the attitudes of William Robertson to social hierarchy is unlikely to turn them into an ardent unionist. Nor should it. But it is worth bearing in mind that when it comes to policy, and the values we ought to live by, our only reference point is the human experience. When we obfuscate and misrepresent the past we stymie our ability to both understand and learn from that what has gone before.

‘The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.’ – Winston S. Churchill