John Swinney may be Scotland’s best politician. He displays neither the presence nor the delivery of charismatic leadership but he is, for many, the embodiment of “a safe pair of hands”. He comes across as an old style bank manager, the one you rather balked at seeing because you knew he had the power and the authority to discover/solve whatever peccadilloes were lurking in your account.
And that steady hand on the tiller was apparent again when he made his budget statement to parliament on December 16th. But, though pitched as his “Scottish alternative to austerity”, it seemed nothing of the sort. He pitched a timid clutch of ‘steady-as-she-goes’ policies masquerading as something principled and radical. Given the present popularity of the SNP, the imminence of Holyrood elections and the weakness of any real opposition, taking an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach had its merits.
And so that was the pitch we got: no rise in income tax “because it would hit the poor harder“; same for council tax; the only rises to hit big business and second home owners. But, from the £400m increase overall, £500m more to NHS, £55m to police and parity to further education, to transport. Every part of the statement was positive, as if he had conjoured money and stretched it further than you would think possible.
He made even some losers sound good—a £350m cut to councils being sweetened by £250m in NHS money to go towards better local social care that would ease pressure on NHS places. All in all, the whole was well received by his supporters for its coherent anti-Tory/Westminster theme. As John put it:
“Scotland can accept these Tory cuts or we can rise to the challenge and choose a Scottish alternative to austerity. We choose to rise to the challenge. We choose the Scottish alternative.“
The opposition did not share such enthusiasm. Jackie Baillie served up her ritual moanfest:
“(This budget) doesn’t deliver fairer taxes, a long term plan for Scotland or an anti-austerity alternative. Local services like our schools, roads and care of the elderly will face massive cuts.“
We’re in boy-crying-wolf territory here. Jackie never has a good word to say, even as she fails to offer credible alternatives. But now that she may actually have a point, it will be dismissed as her usual dog-in-a-manger act. Murdo Fraser made a better fist of it, pointing out that John had the option of reversing the cuts about which he complained through the new tax powers, but had refused.
Murdo’s point is hard to deny because John changed almost nothing in terms of income while robbing parts of his allocation to appear generous to others. Councils were hardest hit, losing £350m. Culture drops from £170.2m to £154.1m for 2016/17, with performing companies taking a huge hit of £27.6m (down to to £22.9m in 16/17) and spending on cultural collections dropping from £85.9m to £78.6m.
A 3.5% drop in Justice, a 4.4% drop in Education overall, a 6.3% drop in Social Justice (despite another boost to public pensions) are all serious reductions. None of these were mentioned in the speech, perhaps because these were more easily hidden from public view.
For eight years, this blog has praised John’s obvious competence. But, given the dire state of their opposition, was there any need for a softly-softly budget like this? Yet the ca’-canny cabal at the heart of the SNP has misjudged history and fallen into the same trap that felled Labour: that being in power trumps taking risks once you have it.
Had John displayed the cojones that he undoubtedly once had, he had a unique chance to take up cudgels on several (if not all of) these fronts:
- Used the income tax powers and ring-fenced it to defray any cuts in culture, justice or social programmes
- Released council tax freeze as local government has no room to maneuver and any change next year will be too late to retrieve fiscal balance before the 2017 local elections. Revision of CT has been urgent for years but nothing tangible has been done to fix it.
- Taken the economic quangos to task. The Scottish economy needs to boom for any ambitious spending programme to be plausible. But neither Scottish Enterprise nor Visit Scotland nor Skills Development Scotland have been effective, given what they cost.
- Sacrificed some shibboleths—free prescriptions, concession travel, eye tests, personal care, etc are all very nice. But none are means tested and their soaring burden means they are abused
- Got tough with system abusers in general. Half of ambulance call-outs are alcohol related. Call-outs for ambulance, A&E, fire, police, coastguard, RNLI, mountain rescue, etc deemed spurious and/or culpable could carry automatic fines to cover costs (c.f. emergency cord on trains)
- Stop throwing money at things. Labour’s fault was that it always talked about how much more it was spending but never what had been achieved for that money. John started well with his ‘Parity of Esteem’ with councils and Strategic Outcome Agreements. The former has degenerated to a one-sided joke and the latter to box-ticking exercises that measure nothing.
- Face down the special interests. Scottish charities boast some high executive salaries; many quangos and council SMTs join them in a cosy oligarchy. The same names pop up repeatedly—fine IF they achieve something. But from Arts to Zoos people on six-figure salaries get scant more scrutiny than an annual report.
- Face down unions who claim to represent professionals but who fixate on money and resist quality of service evaluation. This is not just the usual suspects like EIS and BMA/GPC but also low profile ones like the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES)
I know John’s Cabinet colleagues ordained circling the fiscal wagons to keep their jobs past May. But were any jobs under threat? This was a unique chance in dire fiscal circumstances for them to show real mettle and genuinely “rise to the challenge with a Scottish perspective“.
Had they done so, the gulf between their achievements and Labour would have been written into history. As it is, they fluffed it. And if they don’t move soon, the gloss will tarnish, risks proliferate and inertia will lock them into the same sad trajectory toward oblivion as Labour is now on.