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Don't frighten the voters!

Brian Taylor | 16:38 UK time, Saturday, 16 October 2010

There has been much talk, rightly, of which options in the Beveridge report on public spending might ultimately find favour with the Scottish government.

Amend or cancel free personal care? No. Curb the scope of free bus passes, top in the BBC Scotland poll? No.

How about halting or reversing the steady reduction in prescriptions charges, then?

That's a no, too, as confirmed this afternoon here at the SNP conference in Perth by Nicola Sturgeon.

However, in a webcast interview with me, John Swinney has eagerly endorsed one proposal from Beveridge: the notion of curbing salaries in the public sector.

Mr Swinney stressed, with notable vigour, that this would indeed form a substantial part of his drive to find the savings which will be required post the Chancellor's statement next Wednesday.

I believe there to be two reasons for this: one numerical, one electoral. Firstly, the sums. John Swinney reminded me that pay accounts for 60 per cent of public sector costs.

Curbing pay, potentially, releases real money.

Coalition government

But then there is the electoral calculation. George Osborne, making his statement on Monday, is facing an election in four years or more.

John Swinney faces the electorate in May.

Mr Osborne and the coalition government are attempting to tailor their programme to fit both what the UK can afford and what the populace will tolerate.

How much more pressing is that latter demand upon Swinney, J.

Public sector pay has the advantage of being both a source of substantial savings - and also a slightly nebulous target. Savings can be made in three ways - all of them short of making an actual, instant cut in take-home pay for individuals.

One, you can freeze or slow recruitment, taking on fewer staff, declining to replace. Two, you can attempt, where possible, to constrain career and salary progression.

And, three, you can freeze the pay awards due to be made annually.

Serious money

In her speech, Nicola Sturgeon announced - alongside that move to scrap prescription charges - that she wants to reduce senior management numbers in the NHS by 25 over the next four years.

This could be serious money: £25m a year, £100m when added to other non-clinical efficiency savings.

But, again, it's long-term, it's nebulous. It does not get people out on the streets - or divert voters to rival parties.

Handled carefully - and it will be - the strategy is to find savings which generate cash but don't frighten the voters or inspire populist campaigns of protest.

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