UK Chancellor George Osborne told Andrew Marr on BBC One this morning that, while the government is making headway in paying down the country’s deficit – now down b y 25% - economic conditions will make it a longer process than expected.
The Office for National Statistics [ONS] has shown that the UK’s public sector net borrowing was higher in October 2012 than in October 2011. Nevertheless, a week ago the ONS showed the UK economy still grew by 1% in the third quarter of 2012, following a nine month recession.
Mr Osborne said this morning that although the rate of paydown was not what had been planned, it was necessary to stick with this approach to recovery.
This is, of course, the matter at most dispute with the Labour Shadow Chancellor and others, including Scotland’s Finance Secretary, John Swinney.
Labour’s Ed Balls, sticking to the position he adopted in the early days of the coalition government’s inheritance of the financial disaster bequeathed by the series of Labour administrations, continues to advocate spending our way out of trouble.
This is not as irresponsible as it might seem. If this spending were restricted to major infrastructural projects – for which our borrowing would have to rise further rather than fall – it is arguable that the economic stimulus it would provide to businesses and workers might accelerate economic growth and enable faster paydown of the debt burden.
On the other hand, it is also arguable that this hypothetical growth would not be at a rate that could support the paydown of both the current and the extended debt.
John Swinney has consistently argued along the same lines as Mr Balls and, in a of transparent political opportunism with the independence referendum due in October 2014, has confronted Mr Osborne with a list of the tediously named ‘shovel ready’ projects Scotland wants him to fund in his Autumn Budget statement in the coming week.
Of course this is not going to happen and of course Westminster can yet again be portrayed as wilfully keeping Scotland back.
However, information of concern emerged this week, casting doubt on the meaning and readiness of ‘shovel ready’.
The Institute of Civil Engineers – who should know – warned that many of Scotland’s infrastructural plans – s0me part of the Scottish Government’s 20 year development plan, would be unable to go ahead for lack of qualified engineers. They noted that the dualling of the A9 and the building of the high speed rail link between Glasgow and Edinburgh could not proceed without more trained engineers.
The issue here relates to our national education policy, where we note that the release earlier this week of the detail of the Post-16 Education [Scotland] Bill betrayed a fundamental intellectual and strategic weakness.
This Bill lumps in one piece of proposed legislation all post-16 education [via universities and colleges] as a single issue matter while, for today’s world, its demands and challenges and the most serious problem we face – youth unemployment, it is necessary to conceive of very distinctive sectors of education and training leading from, if not before, the post-16 watershed.
The single issue that this evidences and that gives greatest concern about the current Scottish Government is its failing competence.
What the country is seeing is what was in any case a very small and shallow pool of talent reaching its limitations, while the very few with adequate ability, including the First Minister, are exhausted with the effort of constant covering to keep the show on the road and are manifestly starting to lose focus and direction.
Education is the key to so much of what lames us – but it will take strategic vision, radicalism, courage and grasp of detail and consequence at a level that is not manifest anywhere in the Scottish Government, including in the First Minster – or elsewhere in the Scottish Parliament.