Leading article: A Scottish example to the United Kingdon

Alex Salmond's legislative programme will be carefully watched
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The Independent Online

Nine years of Scottish devolution have certainly succeeded in making life cheaper for those who live north of the border. The main legislative achievements of the Holyrood executive have been in exempting Scottish students from the payment of tuition fees, the delivery of free personal care for the elderly and in scrapping prescription charges.

Whether any of this largesse is sustainable in the long term is another matter. For all of Alex Salmond's tactical brilliance in tweaking the tail of Westminster, one suspects that the Scottish First Minister's fiscal populism will hit the buffers of economic reality at some point. But, that said, some of the legislative proposals unveiled by Mr Salmond yesterday merit some serious attention because, if they prove successful, they could end up exerting influence much further afield.

Mr Salmond's big idea is to replace council tax in Scotland with a local income tax. The idea of charging rate-payers according to their ability to pay, as opposed to a flat-rate charge, has been knocking around Westminster for years. Numerous policy reviews and think-tank reports have recommended it as a solution to the disproportionate burden that council tax imposes on the elderly poor, and other vulnerable social groups. Indeed, a local income tax is potentially a fairer and more efficient way for local authorities to raise money than the council tax. The experience of several countries in northern Europe also suggests that it makes councils more directly accountable to voters and thus pressures them to improve the quality of their services.

But the reform has never been put into action because national politicians have been terrified by the very suggestion of reforming local taxation. The spectre of Margaret Thatcher's ill-fated experiment with the poll tax in 1990 has proved impossible to vanquish. A generation of ministers have been content to let the existing system, along with all its iniquities, fester. Yet now Mr Salmond is grasping the thistle. It is safe to assume that his progress will be keenly watched south of the border, where popular discontent about council tax remains as strong as ever.

The SNP's proposals to ban under-21s from buying alcohol from off-licences will also, doubtless, draw attention beyond Scotland. Not that such a ban is necessarily a good idea. Despite its success in a pair of trials cited by Mr Salmond, it still looks like a rather clumsy way of curbing binge drinking by young people. But it is still interesting because if Scotland can succeed in devising some way of stemming the dreadful anti-social behaviour involved with binge-drinking then it will surely be seized upon by national leaders.

Furthermore, if Mr Salmond can successfully face down the drinks industry with his proposals to outlaw cheap alcohol promotions, Westminster will be much more likely to follow. This was the pattern of the smoking ban. The lack of resistance to the policy when it was put into action by Holyrood was a great encouragement for the Government to implement the ban in England.

The national strains and animosities stoked by devolution have been much commented upon. But the advantages have generally attracted far less attention. One of these is the power of example. Whether due to greater courage or electoral necessity, regional politicians can often be more radical than those in power at a national level. And the success of their policies can sometimes surprise and inspire. Competition tends to be a force that improves performance. That seems to be as true in politics as in any other field of human affairs.

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