The most memorable statement in the debating chamber at Holyrood this afternoon came from the Scottish Conservative’s Finance Spokesperson, Gavin Brown.
Commenting on a two year budget put forward by Finance Secretary John Swinney which was marked by a plethora of detail on a raft of modest give-away measures with no discernible overarching economic development strategy, Mr Brown said that ‘If the budget was a film, it would go straight to DVD’.
This was not Mr Swinney’s finest moment.
You could sympathise with the pressure he was under because this was THE budget for independence, the flotation tank for the vote in a year’s time, September 2014.
That’s a lot of weight on one man’s back.
The main feature of the Finance Secretary’s speech was a repetitive threnody on example after example of the wicked Westminster government – and the imperative to vote for independence to be free of it.
The trouble with this was its lack of discrimination.
Everything was Westminster’s fault. Everything Westmister did was repressive, stupid, unevolved, unfair and discriminatory. Everything Scotland did was better – and everything Scotland wanted to do would be better.
The tedium of the predictability of this mantra undermined the credibility of the relentless assault.
Difficulties in Scotland, small medium and and large, were all down to Westminster. You began to wonder why we were still left with oxygen to breath.
The budget statement was also almost wholly unbalanced. The majority of Mr Swinnney’s airtime was spent in enumerating the modest sums being distributed and retained over a wide spectrum of social costs.
It was feel-good time alongside – to coin a phrase from yesterday’s interrogation of the BBC aye-do-wells – ‘Whack-a mole’ time, whacking Westmister with one hand and tossing lollipops to the masses with the other.
In contrast, the Finance secretary mentioned, in passing, a figure of £8 billion to be invested in Scottish infrastructure over the next two years – but gave no serious detail on what projects this was to be spent on.
Worse, he gave no sense whatsoever that there is an overall economic development plan – and what it is. Within that gaping hole, it is hardly surprising that Mr Swinney could give no picture of an overall infrastructural development plan.
In his brief mention of investment in infrastructure, Mr Swinney skated worryingly swiftly over a reference to the use of NPD [Not for Profit Distribution] borrowing. This is the financial instrument that has ratcheted up government borrowing levels already close to the 5%-of-budget cap they have formally adopted in relation to the implementation of the Scotland Act.
He said, in relation to NPD, that the government would not spend more on borrowing than 5% of budget – without mentioning that they have no current choice on this.
He said that the costs of NPD were currently lower than expected because some projects had come in under anticipated costs and others had not started yet because ‘they were taking longer to plan’. There were some indrawn breaths in the chamber around this part of the budget speech.
But, back to the easy bits that occupied most of the time of the address to the chamber.
The Finance Secretary told us that the Commonwealth Games legacy would get £24 million spent on it in 2015-16; that by 2016 the government would have built 30,000 affordable homes, 20,000 of which would be for social rent; that universal benefits would be maintained – the free bus passes, the free higher education tuition, the free NHS prescriptions and eye tests; and that £20 million would be spent now on mitigating the worst of the impacts of the UK’s genuinely iniquitous ‘bedroom tax’.
Here the lack of an intelligent – and yes, an independent – perspective on the issue took the legs from under the measure Mr Swinney was introducing.
Ask any local authority charged now with implementing the ‘bedroom tax’ and they will tell you that the burden and cost of dealing with it outweighs the savings made.
Mr Swinney has now made things a great deal worse for the councils.
As Labour Finance Spokesperson Iain Gray, pointed out in his immediate response to the budget, £20 million is a very small amount of money spread across the nation. Local authorities, through whom this modest alleviation for a few will be delivered, will now have the additional burden – and staffing costs – of deciding who gets it and who does not – and possibly dealing with appeals against decisions made.
Iain Gray also pointed out that Mr Swinney – who made frequent use elsewhere of specific financial allocations to come in 2015-16 and beyond – had made no mention of any mitigation at all for the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ in 2014-15.
The only response Mr Swinney could make to that was a blushing and empty bluster that no one should imagine that ‘I am going to let the Westminster Government away with that’.
Like far too much of what Mr Swinney was doing today, this was about appearance and not about reality; about political rhetoric and not about fiscal management. He said it was a budget for growth but gave no evidence to show how it was going to support and sustain growth.
He also made knowing use of sleight of hand in bis awards of the goody bags – a matter quickly nailed by Gavin Brown.
Mr Swinney had made much of an ‘increase’ in budget being given to the Scottish colleges to support the education and training they offer to support the employment of young people.
He trumpeted his decision to increase the Scottish Colleges Resource Budget to £256 million in 2015-16.
Gavin Brown drew attention to the fact that there had already been a national row over the previous cutting of the Colleges Resource budget – from £560 million to the £522 million it is presently allocated.
He asked, pertinently and unanswerably – quite how the Finance Secretary could hope to present a budget 0f £526 million, down from £560 million, as an increase. Mr Swinney wriggled on the pin.
Mr Brown also enquired how the Finance Secretary could defend a budgetary decision to give Scottish Water a total of £535 million over the two years. There was no response to this.
He then asked why the focus of the budget was on spending – including the retention without debate of universal benefits, while disguising the fact that businesses were being penalised even more to pay for it.
He reminded the Finance Secretary that on the day it had become known that Scotland had 10,000 more people out of work, it made little sense to cripple the businesses the economy needs to succeed and to lift employment. He pointed to Page 163 of the budget papers the Finance Secretary is raising business rates – taking a minimum of an additional £50 million from that sector.
At no point in this two year budget was there any serious and detailed focus – or any strategic picture given – of an economic development plan. It was all about what would be spent on feel-goods, not on what Scotland could earn.
This was about finding the money for treats and a few goody bags – a declared sales pitch for the vote for the independence referendum
This was not about a shaping of the Scottish economy to meet the future with muscle and verve.
As such it lit no fires. It could hardly have been more disappointing.
And if it went straight to DVD it would be quickly remaindered.