Bruiser Brown saves the peace of the Union, but Cameron and Miliband go to war

SO you though it was all over – Squire Cameron magnanimous in victory and a crestfallen Alex Salmond falling on his sword as First Minister and Nationalists’ clan chieftain, after No voters won by a convincing 10% majority to keep Scotland British.

But, if you imagine business would return to usual, you’d be daydreaming. Because the ‘afters’ of the Scottish referendum are already rumbling. And, what’s more, they’ll only worsen.

Salmond’s departure – he’ll quit in November at the SNP conference, though remain a member of Scotland’s parliament – was entirely predictable, even though he’d always denied defeat would force him to stand down.

However, the wee man was going nowhere until he put the boot into Cameron and Labour leader, Ed Miliband, vowing he’d ‘hold their feet to the fire’ if they didn’t deliver on the ‘staying home’ prezzies they’d promised if the Scots rebuffed independence.

The problem is Cameron immediately let the cat out of his goodie-bag, saying concessions would  be tied to new rights for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, too…one of which would bar Scottish MPs in Westminster voting on English matters – answering the so-called West Lothian Question.

Miliband is understandably furious, because, should he win next May’s general election, what use will his 40 Jocks be in the House of Commons if he can’t legislate for the whole UK?

And there was me thinking the acrimony would be largely confined to north of the border, between the Yea and Nay camps.

NO VOTE STAR: Unionists were in panic until ex-PM Gordon Brown entered the fray

NO VOTE STAR TURN: Unionists were in panic until ex-PM Gordon Brown entered the fray and saved their day

The last fortnight of campaigning strongly suggested that, as the hustings degenerated into the bitterest, nastiest and most vindictive clash in modern, political history.

Many commentators claim the pivotal moment came in the second debate between the cocky, would-be laird of Scots and Better Together leader, Alistair Darling. Broadcast by the BBC, to my mind the audience were so brazenly pro-Yes, they sounded like the Nats’ vision of their promised tartan army.

Having been done up like a stuffed haggis in the earlier TV joust, Salmond turned the rematch into the verbal equivalent of a Saturday night brawl in a Sauchiehall Street boozer, as the quietly articulate Darling was outshouted by the baying mob.

From here on in the opinion polls went haywire – one overturning a No lead of 20-odd points into a Yes edge of plus six – as did many Nats’ nutters, intent on making the streets no-go areas for No proponents.

Melodramatically draped in saltire flags, pride and prejudice – against the despised English – were the home rulers’ battle cries and anyone defying the Braveheart call branded unpatriot.

So pro-No faithful were harried and harassed, their meetings disrupted by gobby hecklers; Union sympathisers were cowed into keeping shtum; Miliband was forced to abandon a walkabout in Edinburgh; and, as threats peppered the air, Respect MP, George Galloway – no cringing violet when vitriol is flying – claimed he was ‘promised a bullet.’

‘This is Salmond’s Scotland,’ said the firebrand defender of Islam. ‘He’s responsible for this hysteria, but we have to keep hatred and violence out of this debate.’

Yet, despite the eyes of the world watching, any condemnation of the ruffians in his ranks was absent from Salmond, a man whose mouth rarely shuts.

YES-TERDAY'S MAN: A dour Alex Salmond concedes his independence pipedream has gone up in smoke

YES-TERDAY’S MAN: A dour Salmond concedes his independence pipedream has gone up in smoke and says he’s quitting as First Minister of Scotland

Truth be told, winning at any cost was all that mattered to his Team Scotland. And, if it meant gloves off and Queensbury Rules be damned, anyone was fair game, especially the BBC’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson.

Allegations of intimidation came thick and fast from those in ‘fear of the consequences’ from the Little Scotlanders of the SNP government.

‘Stuff and nonsense,’ blustered Salmond, continuing, in the best traditions of a snake-oil salesman, to flog a panacea for all Scots’ ills, despite every shred of evidence contradicting his evermore outlandish claims.

Inflated with braggadocio, the First Minister brushed aside petty-fogging details, like the Bank of England vetoing an Anglo-Scottish sterling zone, no automatic entry into the European Union – underscored on Tuesday again by Spain – and his wee army being barred from NATO.

All Tory-orchestrated phooey, insisted Salmond, as billions flooded out of his future Xanadu, financial institutions made plans to scarper over Hadrian’s Wall, while retail bosses warned Scots faced skyrocketing prices in the event of independence.

But, while Salmond’s glib claims that what lay ahead was a Celtic Norway – egalitarian, inclusive, environmentally green, business-friendly and a bastion of peace – resonated with a sometimes volatile, mainly male constituency, women proved more sanguine.

Worried about prices and jobs, the lasses weren’t for reeling blindly into the great unknown and neither were many of the bairns, fresh-faced 16 and 17-year-olds, handed the vote by Salmond on a bet they’d back him.

NO TO YES: Pro-Union fans celebrate their great referendum victory

NO TO SAYING YES: Pro-Better Together fans jubilantly celebrate their great referendum victory

They, too, were fearful, since many saw their futures south of the border, as millions of Scottish migrants had during three centuries of Union.

Salmond’s game was probably up a week ago, but it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact time when canny heads overcame passionate hearts.

That Scotland came so close to secession, however, should be an object lesson to the smug, Westminster elite, who only awoke last month to danger signals flashing red for the two years since Cameron gave Salmond a free hand to call the shots.

Why, for instance, wasn’t the big question ‘Do you want to stay in the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?’ instead of ‘Do you want an independent Scotland?’

As Sky TV pundit, Adam Boulton noted, ‘Saying yes is a lot easier than justifying saying no.’

And why – as many MPs ask – did the Prime Minister give Scotland’s chief mischief-maker so long to get his ducks in order, when a quick plebiscite would have guaranteed the Unionists an easier fight?

A further query exposes yet more Establishment folly: why was Darling, the last Labour Chancellor and a highly cerebral nice guy, tasked with taking on a bumptious tub-thumper like Salmond?

Fortunately for the Three Stooges – Cameron, his Lib-Dem sidekick, Nick Clegg, and geeky Miliband – cometh the moment, cometh the man, even if he was yesterday’s man.

It was only when that old bruiser, Gordon Brown, took a grip on the panicky Yes camp and infused real passion into it that traditional, but wavering Labour voters were hauled back from the brink of putting their Xs in the Yes box.

Britain has much to thank the failed Prime Minister for keeping the Union together and however good a bruiser Salmond is, he’s savvy enough to realise he more than met his match in Brown…and it was time to quit.

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A taxing dilemma: How to squeeze the rich without panicking the rest of the nation…

TO hike tax or not to hike tax, that is the question. And – taking further liberties with The Bard’s Hamlet soliloquy – whether to do so is nobler in the mind, even if it means suffering the slings and arrows of an outraged electorate?

Clearly, in Britain, the Opposition’s big Eds – Miliband and Balls – believe picking the pockets of those with more spending oomph than what’s good for them is a risk worth taking. Besides, the whiffy rich are probably all Conservative voters (not the case, incidentally, as some of Labour’s mega-donors are billionaires).

Importantly, the rationale is the plebs will love it, just as Madame Defarge famously knitted and cackled, as French aristos arrived at the guillotine in Dickens’ Tales of Two Cities, only to exit several inches shorter (hey, whatever else, nobody can deny this column isn’t a minor tour de force in classical literature).

So Shadow Chancellor (Finance Minister) Balls says the top rate of income tax will rise from 45 to 50% for those grossing £150,000-plus come a  government of The People’s Party.

It was meant to have been his boss’s grand proclamation at next autumn’s party conference, as the wind-up to the 2015 General Election steamed nearer boiling point. But improving GDP, lower inflation and higher employment stats dulled the resonance of Miliband’s recent call to arms that the ‘squeezed middle’ and lower paid aren’t benefitting from the UK’s trajectory out of the economic gutter.

So, the tax card has been played now and it’s a clever ploy from the Red Eds. Never mind previous assertions of a ‘one-nation Britain’ – a quote Miliband shamelessly purloined from Benjamin Disraeli, a 19th Tory leader – this is pure divide-and-rule strategy.

The bet is it could woo back into the Labour fold those who deserted to the Liberal Democrats in protest at Tony Blair’s Iraq adventure, only to find they’d backed a bunch of political harlots. And even some lukewarm Tories, hammered by the ruling Coalition removing Child Benefit for families where a parent earns over £50,000, could register their disgruntlement by biting the hand that robbed them.

TAXING TIMES: High earners, grossing more than £150,000 a year, will be hit by Labour's ploy

TAXING TIMES: Earners grossing more than £150,000 a year  will be hit by Labour’s 5% tax-rise ploy that’s more politics than economics

Yet Gordon Brown’s lustre was hardly burnished when he inflicted the 50% rate on high earners, before transmuting from Iron Chancellor to jelly-wobbling Prime Minister, then disappearing into the Sahara of political obscurity, post the 2010 election fiasco.

The problem is – as the august Institute of Fiscal Studies pointed out – the five-percent hike isn’t likely to grab that much cash. And, with a bodyguard of lawyers and creative accountants to protect their assets, the really seriously affluent won’t bat an eyelid, because their lucre is parked in trusts or offshore tax shelters.

So, there’s no disguising what this gambit is all about – politics, not economics

Yes, there’s an incontrovertible moral case for the well-shod to shoulder their fair share of the nation’s burden. But most already do, with the top 1% of earners annually coughing up nearly £50-billion to the Treasury, which accounts for over 20% of the overall take.

Tax, though, is rather like taking a friend to the dentist to have his root canal filled, minus anaesthetic; it’s an unpleasant experience, but mitigated if someone else’s suffering is all the more painful.

Yet none of us escape its clutches, either directly via income tax or pernicious ‘sales’ duties, like those levied across the European Union under different acronyms – in Spain it’s IVA, in France TVA, in Scandinavia the cuddly-sounding but detested Moms and Britain has Value Added Tax/VAT, though where the ‘value added’ is remains shrouded in mystery.

To me, income tax always seemed the fairest imposition, because it’s based on earnings and graduated. In contrast, whatever their quirky handles, catch-all ‘sales’ taxes aren’t, since they don’t discriminate between rich and poor, and impact harder on the have-nots than the haves.

However, the key to making tax work is setting a rate that’s equitable. Because, illogical though it may seem, the higher it is, the less the state’s overall gain.

EDS YOU WIN? Miliband and Balls have played the tax-hike card, but whether it brings them victory in the 2015 election is another matter

EDS YOU WIN? Miliband and Balls have played the tax-hike card in a bid for victory in the 2015 UK General Election

For instance, in the 1920s, under President Calvin Coolidge,  the top rate of US income tax was cut from 73 to 25% – yet the amount of cash flowing to the Treasury went up, the economy boomed, GDP soared by an average of 4.7% and unemployment fell to just 3.2%.

And a pet anecdote of mine further underscores this apparent contradiction: On assignment in Sicily some years back, I was imbibing a few flaming Sambucas with a clutch of local scribes and we got around to discussing which of our nations squeezed us most.

I thought it was Britain, until one of the Italians piped up, insisting, ‘No, is-a Italia. ‘Ere is 80% – dat’s-a why nobody pay-a tax!’

When he’s not playing musical beds, President Francois Hollande is discovering a similar scenario erupting in France, after raising top-level taxation to a swingeing 75%, only to find the country’s coffers fell 2.7-billion euros short of expectations.

‘Ill-thought-out taxes, from sales tax to heavier social fees, push people toward the informal economy,’ explained economist Samuel-Frederic Serviere.

So, not only are fewer French paying – some fled the country, actor Gerard Depardieu even decamping to Russia – the ‘black’ economy is booming, last year up by 10.2%.

Ditto Spain, where taxation impacting on the self-employed is so punitive there’s no incentive for wannabe entrepreneurs to open small businesses. Instead, as in France, the illegal sector expands, in Spain’s case to 19%.

So the question remains of how best tax can be used to pump-prime a declining economy and foster enterprise – which creates more jobs, thus more tax-payers, and reduces benefit dependency – even if the post-tax, take-home pay of some CEOs is panned as obscene by hard-pressed workers.

By playing the tax card, Labour is pandering to that naked popularism and we’ll see if it charms the voters in the General Election of May next year.

The People’s Party track record, however, isn’t inspiring, especially with Balls still remembered as Brown’s chief bully boy, who helped tax and spend Britain into the sick bed of Europe.

Another downside for the Red Eds is the general public’s edginess at any mention of tax hikes, even if Britain’s rich are due to be first in line for the squeeze.

Who, perhaps they might wonder, is next in the queue to get clobbered, especially from a party where raising taxes is ingrained in its DNA?

 

The credit crisis has changed our lives and – in some ways – for the better

It’s over…the credit crisis, that is. Happy days are here again – and don’t forget you read it here first.

At the risk of sounding off prematurely, apparently green shoots are positively sprouting everywhere, certainly some through the rustic slabs of my patio.

So, surely like you, I’m over the moon after six years of being as sick as a parrot, to borrow the lingo of soccer stars, most of whom never felt the pinch (unless they attracted a nibble from Liverpool’s Luis Suarez).

Six years ago this month boom turned to bust, contradicting spendthrift Gordon Brown’s silly forecast, and a decade of economic prosperity exploded in our smug, naïve faces.

On August 9, 2007, French bank, BNP Paribas, stopped investors withdrawing their money, then Lehman Brothers went belly up and queues of distraught account-holders formed outside Northern Rock in the first ‘bank run’ in Britain for 150 years.

To spare you from post-traumatic shock, I won’t reprise all the grisly details in the aftermath of ‘the day the world changed’ – as one economist dubbed that Meltdown Thursday – except to say businesses collapsed, currencies plummeted, interests were slashed and jobless stats rocketed, especially across the Eurozone.

SOMETHING TO SMILE ABOUT: Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank

SOMETHING TO SMILE ABOUT: Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank

But, with dynamic, new Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, imported from Canada to wave a financial magic wand over the GB£ and a Mona Lisa smile creasing the stony countenance of Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank chief, at last the runes seem optimistic.

Still, as the economic data improves, how come I don’t hear bubbly bottles being popped, see bunting festooning streets or listen to the lilt of relieved banter in my local hostelry?

Save the well-shod few, the harsh fact is it still may take years for the ‘trickle-down’ effect to impact on most of us and some of the hardest hit will be doomed to live in penury for decades to come.

And even when (and if) The Crisis eventually fades, life will never be the same, because we’ve learned the lessons of whooping it up in a false utopia and only mugs will make those mistakes again.

We’ve become cannier now, cynical and less believing of our political leaders, not least the banking masters of the universe (a.k.a. robber barons). Most of all we’ve adjusted our lifestyles to cope with the realities of austerity and actually take no small measure of pride in how we well have adapted.

So how have we achieved that?

A snapshot survey of opinions in my neighbourhood is telling…

The weekly shop is done with greater price awareness, luxuries we once lavished on ourselves are rarer and the supermarkets we now patronise aren’t the upmarket emporiums they once were, but rather discount outlets (evidence: see Aldi’s stock-market price and its phenomenal turnover of cheap, quality vinos).

Motor trips, too, are under regular scrutiny – an echo of the old, wartime dictum: ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’ – which signals double delight for the Greens, as fewer noxious gases are emitted and bicycling has flourished.

In other, diverse sectors vacations have morphed into ‘staycations’ and the divorce rate has dropped (by 23% in the UK), because separation is too expensive, thus proving the point that if loves doesn’t conquer all, a financial reality check can.

Plus, there have been some intriguing, if bizarre unintended consequences, as cash-strapped folk invent ways of saving.

A boom in home cooking has seen an upsurge of more exotic fare being tried – when we do eat out, incidentally, puddings are generally off the menu – and sales of racy lingerie are rising (work that one out for yourself, except to hint that man cannot live by telly alone).

Tupperware is now an office-worker’s must-have, since sarnies have replaced the executive lunch, while fruit-platters in boardrooms and free biscuits in meetings have bitten the dust, as have expensive potted plants and leased artwork.

Moving house went out of fashion, DIY came in – even my son (the one who once couldn’t replace a blown fuse in a plug) has installed himself a new shower to minimise the cost of power and the water it takes to soak in a hot bath.

FALLEN ON HARD TIMES: Even hookers are having to cut their charges

HARD TIMES: Even hookers have had to cut their charges

And pity the hard-up ‘ladies of the night’, who’ve had to pare their tariffs by as much as 50% to lure a punter into their boudoirs, according to a report by London’s Westminster Council, which reflects a Europe-wide trend.

So certainly a degree of Puritanism has entered our mindset, if not for religious motives.

However, there are the inevitable downsides…dental hygiene has suffered, because patients fear being landed with astronomic bills, though that’s partially offset by us eschewing the delights of the dessert trolley.

And we can’t get rid of our offspring. Property prices are still ridiculously high compared to earnings, so it’s not unusual for a 35-year-old to still be domiciled with disgruntled parents, who now query the wisdom of having kids in the first place.

In contrast, there is ‘housing consolidation’ – the terminology for converting the loft into a granny pad, flogging their bungalow to offset rising living costs and forestalling the distinct probability it will only get frittered away on expensive care-home fees at some future date.

Pets, too, are feeling the credit crunch, with some owners letting the cat out of the flap, then nailing it up or taking Fido on a one-way trip to the middle of nowhere. Britain’s RSPCA, for example, reports a 65% increase in the number of moggies and pooches being dumped since 2007.

Whatever else, the upshot is most of us have learned to be leaner and meaner, infinitely more discriminating in how, when and why we spend our moolah.

And that make-do-and-mend mentality isn’t going to change, even if the promise of some measure of economic stability is just around the proverbial corner.

Whether it is or not remains to be seen. But if it does, don’t forget who told you first.

Ed’s talking b**ls if he thinks hitting OAPs is a vote-winner

There are two golden rules in British politics…convinced the public that the National Health Service is always a national treasure and don’t start a punch-up with pensioners.

So far, however star-crossed the UK’s Coalition government is, somehow it has managed to avoid the unpardonable sins of upsetting either apple-cart, despite David Cameron doing more U-turns than a motorist with a demented sat-nav system.

The Prime Minister may be accident-prone and finding Downing Street a morass of quicksand, but he’s doing a fair impression of minimising harm to the money pit that is the NHS and not trying to squeeze the last pips from OAPs.

Low inflation, meagre interest rates on savings and rising utility prices are taxing the elderly enough already, so reducing or axing their universal benefits – winter fuel allowance, non-requisite TV licences for the over-75s and free bus travel – would be electoral suicide.

The brouhaha over Chancellor Osborne’s wheeze to make retirees pay the first £120,000 of care-home costs was quickly rumbled and instantly reduced to £75K. There’s been a similar reversal, too, over private pension drawn-down schemes, which the Inland Revenue skimmed by 20% two years ago, only to reinstate the cut this January.

Besides, as leader of a party whose dwindling membership is mainly composed of over-60s stalwarts, Cameron and Co – the Lib-Dems, too, even if they won’t countenance a reduction in Inheritance Tax – know the value and psyche of the Blue Rinse Brigade.

Come election day, pensioners are more conditioned to vote than any other demographic group and Tory-minded volunteers can be relied on to stuff envelopes full of manifesto bumf, knock on doors and put up posters in their chintz-curtained windows.

In contrast, Labour, which can’t seem to decide whether it’s Old or New, is displaying all the symptoms of a political lemming under geeky Ed Miliband’s stewardship by deliberately targeting the wrinklies and crinklies.

TWO EDS BETTER THAN ONE? Miliband and Balls plot to hit the elderly

TWO EDS BETTER THAN ONE? Miliband and Balls plot to hit the elderly

Red Ed, who says he won’t reverse Coalition cuts to Child Benefit, recently backed his wannabe Chancellor Ed Balls’ plan to exclude rich pensioners from receiving the £200 winter fuel grant and stop their gratis bus-hopping (if, indeed, they ever do so).

Balls said, ‘When we introduced the winter allowance we introduced it universally in a different circumstance. It’s tougher times now. I think it’s fair to say that we shouldn’t pay it to the richest five per cent [but] keep it for everyone else.’

And on free TV licences worth £145, he noted rather ominously, ‘I think you have to be pragmatic about that one to be honest.’

In the cold glare of financial reality, removing the winter fuel subsidy to fatter-cat pensioners would net about £100M, manifestly less by axing the telly grant. Together, they’d hardly make a dent in the country’s debt.

It’s therefore fair to assume that the man who assisted Gordon Brown in the biggest, barmiest government spending spree in history – one that has contributed exponentially to the UK’s dire financial plight – is telling Darby and Joan that Labour has them in its crosshairs.

And once the breach has been made by means-testing universal benefits, rarely can it be reversed. So, if a sliding scale of disentitlement is introduced, who’s to say it won’t slither downwards to trap not just five per cent, but 10, 15 or 20 per cent?

Bizarrely, this might appease a few over-loaded old timers, who can manage very nicely, thank you, by private means without being encumbered with state largesse and they’re insisting on making maximum fuss about not receiving it.

So let me state, unequivocally, that I have no gripe with fatter cats, of whatever vintage, giving away money (though, ironically, those who’ve tried to return their pensions to the Treasury have been told where to stick the moolah, because they can’t do that).

By all means lavish what you don’t need on your favourite kith and kin, charity or bookmaker.

However, these aren’t privileges you’re undermining, but universal benefits all are entitled to receive by law. And, if you’ve been fortunate to be a high earner, you’ve paid your fair share of income tax and national insurance to justify a small return in your dotage.

I know it sounds ridiculous that multi-millionaires, like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Bruce Forsyth, should receive pensions+benefits, but that’s how the system was designed and should remain.

If you don’t like it, vote Labour, because Ed Balls will be delighted to grant your wish.