As a result of the Budget, the Scottish Government will have an additional £950 million to spend, which, to a significant extent, it did not expect.
In order to regard that as reasonably good news, one is not required to buy into “the end of austerity” or any such rhetoric. Neither is it necessary to share the political philosophy of the Chancellor who announced it.
But, for heaven’s sake, does everything have to be greeted with the same streak of Scottish miserabilsm that we heard in response? Any administration that cannot find something useful and exciting to do with this kind of money is severely lacking in imagination, never mind good grace.
It was the same with the City Deal for Tayside. In a clumsy advance manoeuvre, the Transport Secretary, Michael Matheson, was put up to say that the Chancellor must announce £200 million, in full knowledge he was about to announce £150 million.
Cue cries of outrage and betrayal. A positive story which threatened the dreaded prospect of two governments working together in Scotland’s interest is reduced to a mean-minded wrangle. There are plenty parts of Scotland, excluded from these “deals”, which would love to access a fraction of that money and could make good use of it.
Whatever any UK Government announces, is the Scottish response always to be “send more money”? It is tedious. Meanwhile, the need for transparency around current spending priorities on devolved functions becomes more urgent as the recent Accounts Commission report on the “unsustainable” finances of the NHS in Scotland confirmed.
The same Maclovian response is evident over tax. The gap for middle-earners seems set to expand. Yet, If John McDonnell can understand that higher taxes for people who have a decent income but are far from plutocrats is not, per se, a progressive policy, you might think that concept could gain more currency in Scotland.
It is probably true that few will decamp in order to avoid paying £1,000 more in income tax. Then it is pointed out that those with a base both north and south of the border can simply opt to pay all their income tax in England – and these will tend to be the highest earners. So what is the likely net gain?
Along come the Association of Head Teachers to tell John Swinney that they do not like what they are hearing through “a series of decisions, up to and including the Budget, that are eroding the reward for school leaders”. With morale low and headteachers in short supply, is another tartan tax differential really such a great idea?
Scottish Labour thinking does not seem to extend beyond joining an auction of “progressive” taxes. Yet all common sense cries out for opposition parties at Holyrood to commit only to a fundamental review of public spending before endorsing any assumption that Scottish taxes need to rise or differentials increase.
Independent studies of how the Scottish Government uses its powers to “do things differently” have shown two major winners – Higher Education (ie no tuition fees) and “economic development” which covers a multitude of oblique sub-headings. The Fraser of Allander Institute recently found that there are 20 separate “strategies”, most of which disappear without trace after initial headlines.
The two major losers are local government (ie schools and council services) and the NHS where Barnett consequentials have been skimmed for other purposes. It is by no means apparent that these would be the priorities of the Scottish electorate – and certainly not of Labour voters – if more widely understood.
Simply subscribing to the demand for more money undermines the case for scrutiny and does nothing to encourage creative policy-making. Progressive politics should be about ideas and spending money better – not just more of it – to provide quality services, encourage aspiration and protect the vulnerable.
It is always possible to spend more while achieving nothing in terms of redistribution or the improvement of public services. Looking at the assorted crises in Scotland’s schools, hospitals and council budgets, that is pretty much where we are – and where the political challenge should be focused.