Playing party games

Scottish money Image copyright PA

I have never warmed to the Hokey Cokey - or its global variants such as the Hokey Pokey and even the Okey Cokey, the title favoured at Holyrood today by Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats.

For one thing, I resolutely dislike being told what to do, even if it merely involves putting one's hand in and then taking it out again.

For another, I find iterative songs and dances immensely tedious. If anyone informs me, with a gleeful grin, that Ten Men went to Mow or even discloses, as an opener, that there is a hole in their bucket, I will quit the site instanter.

But give Mr Rennie his due. He varied the pitch by also referring to Pass the Parcel. The Lib Dem leader was seeking a metaphor to explain what he saw as confusion and disquiet in SNP ranks over the issue of full fiscal autonomy (FFA). He settled upon childish games.

Pass the parcel

In response, John Swinney, deputising (as he does) for the First Minister, played a blinder. (Another childhood game I disliked; blind man's buff.)

Rising scornfully, he reminded Mr Rennie that the Scottish Lib Dems at Westminster would struggle to play Pass the Parcel - since they were now singular. Och, I don't know. Treat it as a challenge, Alistair - alongside all the others you're facing.

And the Okey Cokey, as apparently they call it in Fife? Mr Rennie seemed to think that the policy of FFA had been in, out and even shaken all about in its varied treatment by the SNP.

But what actually has happened? As promised by the First Minister (in an interview with me) and by sundry other senior Nationalists, the SNP have tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill proposing that the powers therein be expanded to encompass full fiscal autonomy (or responsibility.)

However, as also discussed here, they seem rather less than zealous in their immediate pursuit of this policy. Instead of urgency, their approach is one of ingrained gradualism. They are also pursuing interim demands with more evident focus.

Both Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney have said FFA is a medium term objective, taking years to implement. New MP Tommy Sheppard told BBC Radio Four's Westminster Hour it would be important to implement those interim demands first, such as control of the minimum wage. Scrapping the Barnett Formula overnight would be a "silly thing to do".

Oil revenues decline

In Holyrood today, Mr Rennie quoted those words directly to Mr Swinney. The Deputy FM replied that folly resided, in his view, in allowing the UK Chancellor to continue to cut Scotland's budget in year, as he has just done.

Earlier the same topic had been raised by Labour's Kezia Dugdale. She challenged Ministers to produce an updated estimate of North Sea revenues. In the absence of such a document, she brandished her own assessment. To mild, collegiate laughter at such an evident but effective stunt.

Oil, she said, would need to be worth $200 a barrel - instead of the current $65 - for Scotland to be able to afford FFA. As she spoke, the Office of Budget Responsibility predicted a sharp decline in oil revenues over the two decades from 2020.

Mr Swinney declined to indulge in number-swapping with Ms Dugdale. Instead, he opted for a bout of Follow My Leader, deploying Ms Sturgeon's tactic of offering a pseudo-comradely warning to the Labour deputy.

He argued that Ms Dugdale was working with the Tories in talking Scotland down. Dissing Scotland, he said, had been disastrous for Labour during the election and would be so again.

The Scottish economy, he argued more generally, would thrive when Scotland was able to deploy the full armoury of fiscal powers in the interests of her people and business.

The issue will come to a head next week at Westminster when the various amendments are discussed on the floor of House. It will be a source of innocent merriment to watch as some Tory backbench MPs argue that FFA should be conceded immediately.

Watch for the intricate manoeuvres. In and out those dusty bluebells.

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