BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian
« Previous | Main | Next »

Turning the tide

Brian Taylor | 13:20 UK time, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Poor King Cnut (or Canute, if you will.)

There he was, the astute Viking ruler of England, setting out to prove the limits of kingly power on earth.

To do this, he plunked himself down on the beach and commanded the tide to hold back, to cease its repeated colonisation of the sands.

Result? Wet, monarchical tootsies.

This apocryphal tale was designed to demonstrate how smart was Cnut.

He knew and appreciated the limitations of human power. See, he was saying, how paltry is man in the face of nature and God.

And what is the outcome? One millennium on, he is constantly traduced as a vain autocrat, buoyed by his own boastful arrogance - in addition to the buoyancy provided by the creeping onset of the irresistible waters.

Cash defecit

Annabel Goldie was at it again today, comparing Alex Salmond to the one-time King.

Like Cnut, she averred, the FM was blithely ignoring the tide of coming cutbacks in public spending prompted by the need to tackle the overall deficit.

Pausing only briefly to correct Miss Goldie on English history (she won't have liked that), Mr Salmond then went on to insist that he was only too well aware of what was coming down the line.

Consensus was restored between the two to some extent in that both happily blamed Labour for the recession.

Viking lore apart, what does this tell us? That the Tories are taking a decidedly different tack in this public spending round with the first vote on the Scottish Budget due next week.

Usually, opposition parties arrive in ministerial offices with a shopping list of demands.

In recent years, for example, the Tories have extracted extra cash for police recruitment and for city centre renewal.

Spending cuts

Those programmes continue in the current year, allowing the Conservatives to claim such expenditure as part of their contribution.

But the times are anything but usual.

The next Comprehensive Spending Review period, due to start in 2011, will herald a prolonged round of spending cuts, whoever wins the UK General Election.

That is because the overall deficit is unsustainable, not least to protect Britain's global credit rating.

With an eye onnext week's vote, the Scottish Tories are now saying that they expect the Finance Secretary John Swinney to prepare what would amount to stand-by plans in the event that there have to be emergency cuts: not from next year, but in the current fiscal year, 2010/11.

It is always a bold strategy, electorally, to call for cuts, rather then enhanced spending.

But, for the Scots Tories, this ticks two boxes.

Health spending

It confronts the reality of spending plans in Scotland. And it matches the UK-wide party message, currently brandished on billboards, that the Tories will set out to cut the deficit, if elected.

Those billboard messages go on to say that NHS spending will be protected.

One might point out, gently, that the Tories are in no position to make any promises whatsoever about health spending in Scotland because that is devolved.

But, for now, let us shelve that issue.

Let us consider the Scottish Budget.

Do I think John Swinney is aware of the constraints facing him and his successors over the next decade or so? Yes, fully.

Do I think that Scotland, collectively, is facing up to the decisions which will be required?

No, not yet - although I understand that an exercise is under way within the Scottish civil service to ensure that senior officials are alert to the need to prepare, intellectually, for the worst possible scenario envisaged by economic forecasters.

Budget votes

To get the mindset right, if you like.

The issue is not whether there will be cuts. Cuts, there will be. The issue is whether Scotland can, collectively, determine genuine priorities and ensure that spending is tailored to meet those priorities.

For example, instead of shaving a few per cent off each programme, regardless of utility, that might mean central and local government withdrawing from some projects altogether.

Re the Budget votes, which will take place over the next three weeks, I expect negotiations between the parties to be as serious and detailed as ever.

Right now, Labour looks like voting agin the budget, at least at stage one, on the grounds that it does not do enough to rebuild the economy.

Labour will cite, as example, the cancellation of the Glasgow Airport rail link.

Mr Swinney seems unmoved on that one, arguing that there can be other transport improvements in Glasgow and that it would be wrong to spend money on preparing the ground for GARL when the spending settlement is guaranteed to get tighter still, making the project less affordable, not more.

The Liberal Democrats are looking for promises to curb top salaries in the public sector to fund support for manufacturing.

(Hence Tavish Scott on the topic of textiles investment today.) Within the limits of his discretion, I believe Mr Swinney will seek to move in their direction.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.