17 November 2007

On Money and Time

Well, the Budget announcement has been and gone - for me, the high point was the announcement of a freeze on Council Tax; the low came with the lack of action on student debt. This, however, is the situation we all find ourselves in: we came to expect that the election would be on a knife-edge, but that a stable Coalition would emerge. We expected that the Comprehensive Spending Review would be far leaner than in previous years, but nothing too drastic.

Instead, we got a minority government and a meagre 0.5% increase in the available cash. So John Swinney now finds that getting a Budget, any Budget, through Parliament is going to be far harder for him than it was for his predecessors Jack McConnell, Angus MacKay, Andy Kerr and Tom McCabe who all had a Coalition and so a majority to rely on, and that if and when he does, there's less money available in it to dish out. Ordinarily, I'd argue that an attempt to get policy through, even if it ends in failure, is better than nothing as it demonstrates the willingness of a minority government to carry out things that were promised. A Budget, however, can't end in failure. It is simply too important for that. Things - like trams - have to be added, and other things - like student debt - have to be dropped for the time being. Even if the money saved by not adding the former would pay for the latter for well over a decade. Last week, in Sri Lanka, we saw the upside of the new politics, this week came the downside.

Opposition politicians are, predictably, claiming that the SNP would never have intended to deliver on promises made, that the manifesto was more an exercise in winning votes than in explaining what you could reasonably expect from an SNP Government. This conveniently ignores the fact that the SNP, like the other parties, had, and took, the chance to talk with the Civil Service before the election about the workability of their proposals. So either the Civil Service thought that what the SNP wanted could be delivered, or the Party simply didn't care. The former is more likely, for one simple reason: Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney et al. are many things, but they are not naive. They are surely aware that promising things they knew they couldn't keep in 2007 would cost them dear in 2011.

(And on the manifesto, remember that it has to last four years: when the Government is criticised for not doing X yet, ask yourself what they would do for the remaining three and a half years of the Parliament, if they had done everything in that manifesto by now.)

However, there is another variable in play. The CSR at Westminster has detailed spending for 2008-09 to 2010-11. A CSR will therefore be due in late 2010 to detail spending from 2011-12 onwards, and as the financial year runs from April to April, one of the last things discussed in Session 3 of the Scottish Parliament will be the Budget for 2011-12, which will take effect just as Parliament is dissolved.

Given that, if - and it's a big if, as there will most likely be a Westminster Election before the next CSR - Labour are still in office at Westminster in three years time, expect a bonanza to land in the Scottish Government's coffers: Labour will want every advantage they can get, and Wendy Alexander will be able to go around the country talking about Labour's generosity to Scotland. And the extra money will be described as the "Union Dividend".

On that basis, if - and again, it's a big if, as the SNP Government is in a minority so the support of the Parliament can never be taken for granted - the SNP are still in office at Holyrood then, expect the Government to be very liberal with that increased pot: the SNP will be the ones who allocated the money once it arrives. That means the Party will be free to go to the country following that Budget, talking about the extra investment being ploughed into Scotland's public services.

So I'm not unduly perturbed - at least, not yet - by any conspicuous absences in the Budget. There are three more Budgets and one Comprehensive Spending Review to come during the lifetime of this Scottish Parliament. Absences may be conspicuous to many, and no doubt disappointing to some, but I doubt that they will be permanent.


Randy Higham said...

Must be wonderful, Will, to have a home grown parliament administering you.

Will said...

Well, I would prefer it if said Parliament were responsible for administering many more matters.

For example, all of them.

The Westminster Comprehensive Spending Review would then have slightly less meaning, which might not be altogether a bad thing.

ASwaS said...

I hadn't thought of the Civil Service aspect of the preparation before it. I really hope these accusations of lies are backfiring on Labour and their image of being in a sulk, but it's always hard to tell. I really wish we had opinion polls in Scotland more often. Or, y'know, ever.

Don't forget Barnett consequentials. As I understand it, if the UK government magics new money from somewhere we get some of it up here. That should be helpful for keeping the University principals quiet if the cap on top-up fees gets lifted.

Will said...

Yes, an opinion poll would be nice. I don't ask for much, just a decent job and house, and a very steamy love affair with Kris Boyd, so I think an occasional poll isn't too much to expect out of life. It's true about Barnett, though. I'm sure a few extra million might wend their way into the Scottish public purse after the UK Budget in, oh, let's say... 2008.

And I think Labour have managed to seize the news agenda after their gobshite spin doctor's drunken outburst at the Politician of the Year awards the other night. Of course, that's not why they wanted to seize it, and it won't do them any favours, but it's publicity, isn't it?

Still, it pales in comparison to Mike Watson's shenanigans. Never mind the heather, they can't even set the curtains alight these days.