Brian Wilson: No illusions over ‘minimal impact’ on councils

Protesters march over the cuts local  councils are having to impose in the wake of SNP budget cuts. Picture: Jane Barlow
Protesters march over the cuts local councils are having to impose in the wake of SNP budget cuts. Picture: Jane Barlow
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JOHN Swinney’s insistence that everything’s OK, is meeting a chorus of protest, writes Brian Wilson

More Scots support a penny on income tax to protect public services than oppose it, while twice as many don’t want another independence referendum in the next ten years as desire one.

Since these two findings accord strongly with my own views, I might briefly be allowed the self-delusion that I am actually in step with the Scottish political majority. Then I wake up and read another poll.

It tells me that more than half of Scottish voters will endorse the party which poses the permanent threat of another referendum and attacks, in the most extravagant terms, the idea of a tiny tax hike to defend public services.

All this depends on believing polls and even then there is plenty room for complexity within the numbers. Having allowed for such caveats, there is still a bit of an enigma in these findings and any party which can crack it might yet prosper.

True, the chameleon-like nature of nationalism makes that difficult. There is a large Scottish market for a government which talks left (the feel-good factor) while acting right (the wallet factor). Nobody ever lost money by telling “radical Scotland” how uniquely caring it is, while ensuring it is not asked to pay for the status.

That dichotomy is now out in the open and creates the best chance likely to present itself for Labour and others to establish the critical dividing line between themselves and the Nationalists which has become obscured of late. Kezia Dugdale has done well so far but must keep hammering away, no matter the cat-calls and diversions.

Nicola Sturgeon hides behind percentages to claim that the penny would “shift the burden of Tory austerity onto the shoulders of the low paid”.

That is a prime example of mendacity by sound-bite at which she is very skilled. But this one is so flagrantly untrue that it can be seen through by anyone with an interest in doing so.

All over Scotland, the impact of avoidable cuts is being felt and discussed. Anguished councillors who came into local government to make a difference for their communities are faced with invidious choices because of the strategic decision by the Scottish Government to cut council budgets by proportionately far more than its own.

For their trouble, they are haughtily informed by John Swinney that the pain and cuts they are forced to impose “should have minimal impact on jobs or services”. And that is that. Does Swinney have no appreciation of how wildly out of sync that precis is with the reality of what he has forced councils to do?

• READ MORE: John Swinney in ‘denial’ over scale of council cuts

If a Tory wearing a blue rosette used the term “minimal impact”, then he would have been the lead story in every news bulletin and on the front page of every Scottish newspaper, being denounced as the minister so out of touch with no idea of the consequences of his own actions.

Prominent in making such allegations would, in former times, have been the Scottish Nationalists who cheerfully blackguarded decent ministers for much, much less. For a long time to come, Swinney should become Mr Minimal Impacts as the consequences gradually manifest themselves.

The SNP high command have an understandable confidence in their ability to deflect every such attack, using the time-honoured device of blaming someone else. This time, it just might not be so easy. It was not George Osborne who used the term “minimal impacts”. It was John Swinney.

But a great deal depends on who is prepared to join in the chorus of protest. Again, there are a few promising signs. At least some of the unions seem to have wakened up to the fact that it is the actions of governments that matter, more than the lip-service they pay.

Willie McGonigle of Unite pointed out that 40,000 local government jobs have gone since 2010 with another 15,000 in this round.

He added: “To suggest the budget cuts will have ‘minimal impact’ on jobs or services is frankly astounding.” Richard Leonard of the GMB called Swinney’s comment “insulting to every local government worker and every local community in Scotland”.

Indeed. But when, one wonders, will “civic Scotland” join in? Most of it prostrated itself to the Nationalists during the referendum campaign in return for patronage and largesse (or the threat of its withdrawal). Is there any point at which this publicly-funded phalanx will start speaking for its clients rather than for perceived self-interest?

If we had listened to those on the “left” who discovered in 2014 they had really been Nationalists all along, the least well-off would now be facing the cataclysmic economic consequences of their conversion. Far from being a Scandinavian-style Valhalla of social democracy, we would be starting life as an independent basket case.

I have no idea how they now square their consciences with their intellects or if, quite simply, nationalism has become their prevailing political creed, the end justifying the interim means. However, for those who have not completed that journey, there is a much more imminent test of where their politics lie and it is on this issue of taxation versus cuts.

Do they agree with Swinney that the impacts will be “minimal”? If not, please say so.

From the perspective of someone who cares a lot more about saving special needs schools and protecting home help services than a few quid one way or another in tax, I harbour just a little hope that this may indeed be the moment to call the chameleon’s bluff – and in so doing force every “left Nationalist” to make a choice.

And what of the churches, never previously averse to denouncing the cruelty of government policies? It is great to hear the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland speaking up to condemn Sturgeon and Swinney for “subsidising the rich” and “degrading local democracy”. Will others follow – or are they too in the minimalist camp?

Those who oppose the cuts and think there is an alternative to which the better-off should be asked to contribute modestly must make that case with all the power they can muster. That way, nobody who votes SNP on 6 May should have any illusion about the “minimal” ethical standard of politics they are endorsing.