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'Knives out' for SNP budget

Brian Taylor | 17:36 UK time, Thursday, 17 September 2009

There were cries of "shame". There was persistent loud applause. There was angry gesticulation. There were gory metaphors. There was precious little humour.

This is serious.

The cries of shame greeted the announcement that the Glasgow Airport Rail Link is to be scrapped as part of the search for savings.

Angry Labour MSPs accused the SNP of a bias against Scotland's largest city.

This was - equally angrily - denied by John Swinney, who pointed to the extent of public investment in Glasgow and promised that other transport projects would receive support.

The applause came, of course, from the SNP benches who welcomed Mr Swinney's now familiar chutzpah when delivering financial news, good or bad.

It was another powerful performance.

Justifying hyperbole

The gore dripped from Andy Kerr who depicted Mr Swinney wielding a knife over the corpse of Scottish public spending.

Instead of Swinney, he saw before him Sweeney, the demon barber.

He justified this hyperbole by arguing that it was Mr Swinney's decision to accelerate capital spending which had led to inevitable problems this year.

Steven Purcell, the leader of Glasgow city council, pursued this metaphor by arguing that the cancellation of the airport link was a "dagger in the heart" of his city.

In reply to such attacks, John Swinney is arguing that he has been left with no alternative.

In 2007, when they came to power, SNP ministers said the new spending round, which ends in 2011, was tighter than previously.

That was exacerbated, they argued, by £500m of cuts ordered by the Treasury.

Blame game

It was made still worse by the consequences of that capital acceleration: a change enforced, they argued, by the need to tackle the economic crisis.

Which leaves us where? With, in the short term, a blame game.

Labour says the SNP knew the consequences of bringing forward capital spending.

The SNP says the Treasury should help to spread the pain.

With, in the medium term, an attempt to persuade the Treasury to do just that. In other words, to allow further capital acceleration.

Even if that happens, the Glasgow Airport Rail Link has had it, the most high profile casualty on a day which saw health and police budgets relatively enhanced - while housing and enterprise suffered.

Further, in the medium term, MSPs will set aside the rhetoric, will stifle the anger - and get down to the job of hard bargaining to produce a composite Budget Bill which will pass parliament.

In the longer - but only slightly longer - term, politicians of all parties will face the necessity to process much more substantial cuts in public expenditure as the bills for the banking crisis come in.

When that happens, today's sound and fury will seem like a tame dress rehearsal.

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