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Tiptoeing around budget talks

Brian Taylor | 07:32 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010

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"Back soon" is the notice pinned, metaphorically, to the Holyrood doors. But here's the thing - the problems are exactly the same as prior to the recess.

The big issue? It was and is public spending. In October, we get the outcome of the UK government's comprehensive spending review or CSR.

Thereafter - and it will be thereafter, despite Labour prompting - we get the statement from Finance Secretary John Swinney as to how he plans to balance the books in Scotland.

Cuts there will be - but think here of the politics, the partisan aspect. Think of Mr Swinney's dilemma in, for example, dealing with some of the options presented in the Independent Budget Review, the Beveridge Report.

Imagine the speech if he bought all of Beveridge, without caveat. "I'm John Swinney. I want to scrap universal free personal care for Scotland's frail elderly. I'll be having your bus pass too, depending on income. Free prescriptions? Forget it. You work in the public sector? You'll have had your pay rise, then. By the way, vote SNP."

Not easy, is it? But next think of the politics for the opposition parties in Scotland. There's the blame game, of course. Labour's recession, Salmond slump, Tory cuts, LibDem helpers.

But that doesn't take us too far. In particular, it doesn't take us far when the various leaders in Scotland's multi-party democracy have to sit down and confront the need to fashion a budget for 2011/12 and the succeeding years.

Tricky business

Sit down, they will. Today, actually, when the sundry parties get together to generate a comprehensive, agreed response to the Beveridge report. Or rather not.

For, just as John Swinney faces a huge challenge, so the opposition party leaders are notably reluctant to outline what they would do if they were in charge of the budget.

Cast your minds back to 2009 when the Scottish budget was initially defeated in Parliament - only to arise in triumph after a brief period of mental concentration.

One of the concessions to the LibDems then was that opposition parties would be given a greater role in scrutinising and formulating the budget. Sounding fine and dandy, it helped to allow the package to pass.

In practice, little came of it. The opposition leaders duly met, tiptoed round the topic of spending plans - but generated little in terms of practical progress.

As one opposition figure put it to me, it's tricky enough negotiating one-to-one with John Swinney; it's asking too much to expect you to show your hand to all your opponents simultaneously.

I think the same applies to today's meeting. There will be bold talk of the need to be bold. Anyone fancy going first with that boldness? "After you, Claude. No, after you, Cecil."

Boldly going?

The Tories have offered one or two ideas in the past. For example, they opposed the progressive reductions in prescription charges. But that is, literally, a declining asset.

The much-reduced charge now levies so little that the time is coming when the Tories might have to suggest increasing prescription levies to be offering a credible saving.
So will they be bold?

Eventually, I believe they will if only to provide a narrative that is concomitant with the austerity on offer from David Cameron. But will they ride point on cuts when they are unlikely to form part of the Scottish Government next year? Not easy.

The LibDems have offered some intriguing thoughts on public sector pay - where they have called for restraint at the top. Expect more of that. Plus they have been notably sharp on spending by the quangocracy such as Scottish Enterprise.

I believe that they are coming close to thinking and saying radical things about the present quango structure. Certainly challenging said organisations to justify their role. Perhaps suggesting that, in certain instances, that role might have expired.

Showing their hands

But, right now, right away, I think they will be more inclined to challenge the finance secretary to produce his thinking - on the grounds that governments govern and oppositions oppose.

Labour? If anything, their dilemma is more acute - and the path of oppositionalism most attractive.

They are out of government in both Westminster and Holyrood. The narrative of warning about "Tory cuts" seemed to serve them well in the UK General Election in Scotland.

The temptation, then, must be simply to repeat that formula, substituting SNP for Tory.
There are one or two voices in Labour ranks arguing that it would be more governmental to set out detailed options, to provide a shadow proposition.

There are other voices that say there is nothing, electorally, to be gained from proposing cuts and everything to be gained from attacking J Swinney.

Eventually, next spring, there will be Holyrood votes in which parties will have to show their hands (or press their voting consoles.) For now, stasis.

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