Bill Jamieson: Promises pale before gritty reality

Tories might trundle out old chestnuts, but everyone must face up to the harsh choices ahead, writes Bill Jamieson

Prescriptions became free for all in Scotland on 1 April 2011. Picture: Julie Howden

October has sashayed in – gently and beautifully under a calm blue sky. In the air is the lingering warmth of summer. Scotland’s raucous referendum already seems a season gone. So much renewal was forecast. Now autumn is setting in, and with it, change of a kind all too familiar.

Two conferences in the past week have found Britain’s two major parties trapped in a time warp. Familiar promises and pledges seem to be played on continuous loop. Have we not heard so much of this before? A mansion tax on the super-rich (check); more money for the NHS (check); vital services protected (check); more apprentices (check); curbs on extremist websites (check); clampdown on offshore tax dodgers (check); deficit reduction (check); taxes to be cut (check). It’s all Back to the Future: pledges first earnestly made years ago and which should be behind us are hung out before us like new bunting.

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Rhetoric that wins applause in conference halls is a long-debased currency, even before the sceptics and the critics have leapt in front of the TV cameras to say why the policies cannot be implemented or would prove ruinous.

But this year it sounds all the more fantastical. It is not just that, while Labour is ahead in the polls, it does not look like a party confident of government, and that the Conservatives, trailing Labour, sound rather more assured of victory.

It is that voters now look set to abandon the two major parties in such numbers – in Scotland to the SNP and in England to Ukip – that a hung parliament looks increasingly likely. Even assuming that a minority government may be formed in May next year, much of what we have heard in the past week will be watered down, qualified or ditched altogether.

Outside the protected areas of health and education, budget constraints will scythe through much of the remainder if any impact is to be made on the deficit and a debt total still spiralling up from today’s £1.4 trillion. The coalition has already signed up to £8.5 billion of cuts in 2015-16 and a further £37bn by 2018. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that, if the NHS and schools are protected, cuts to welfare and local government will be the worst since 1948. Now, from David Cameron yesterday, came a pledge of tax cuts for 30 million on top of this.

Labour has also signed up to a deficit reduction programme though over a longer time period. The noisy spending lobbies may fill the airwaves with protests over inevitable further cuts in non-protected spending. But there is a larger, quieter number who want to protect their income and savings from further tax and recoil at a repeat of the borrowing binge of the Gordon Brown years.

Promises of change, of rebirth, fresh start, new dynamics pale before the all-too-familiar gritty realities of politics: haggling, negotiation, modification and compromise. In the end, all politics is about constraint and of living within means.

In Scotland, we’re assured it’s all different now, that “things will never be the same again”. So we’re told. But exactly the same constraints apply. Gordon Brown unveils a grand declaration of 14 points governing negotiation over more powers for the Scottish Parliament. It is a bulldozer foray into constitutional mechanics. Even on its own terms it avoids the reality of parliamentary life in a democracy: the necessity of progress by support-building, modification and compromise.

Arguably its greater shortcoming is the absence of any clear statement of purpose on the uses to which more powers in Scotland will be put. The country has become spellbound by the “more powers” slogan. But we are altogether less certain on what it is we wish these powers to be or what we wish them to achieve.

And here, too, critically, broader agreement is necessary than that between the many factions and lobbies that now vociferously claim to speak for the “45 per centers”. The interests of the quieter, un-shouty 55 per cent majority need also to be considered. That’s how democracy proceeds. And we should, of course, be mindful of the distinction between mature and responsible government and a self-interested cacophony addicted to voter give-aways.

Already there appears a seizure of imagination and will within the Scottish Parliament to use the powers it already has. Its business has effectively been put on hold pending the outcome of the SNP selection process for its leader and deputy leader. A clear priority when business is resumed is the enormous challenge of forward funding of the health service in Scotland. To put its finances on a more sound footing is almost certainly going to require spending reductions in other areas. This will inevitably involve difficult and painful choices.

Labour set out some sensible suggestions, only for them to be denounced by the SNP as a “cuts commission”. Free prescription charges currently cost at least £50 million. Free bus passes for the over-60s regardless of the income or employment status is another area where savings could be found without hitting the poor. The same could apply in school meals’ provision.

I am grateful to Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson for pointing out that the costs of existing “universal” entitlement are perhaps best expressed not in monetary terms but in provision foregone – fewer cancer treatments, for example, or reduced bus services hitting the poor in rural areas dependent on buses, or, with the graduate endowment scheme, the loss of part-time college places.

Every “free giveaway” has an equal and opposite opportunity cost. And if your declared priority is the health service then the budget must be structured accordingly.

Decades ago Aneurin Bevan, the man who brought the health service into being, declared with eloquent brevity: “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.” Actually, he was too brief: the language of priorities is the religion of all government, Left or Right, Nationalist or Unionist. This is the reality that the changing of the seasons now brings. It is all very well for pundits to hail Scotland’s referendum battle as a re-energising of politics, and of a massive political education. In truth, that education is only now about to start.

The summer of hope, aspiration, promises and pledges warmed our hearts and connected new voters to the articulation of hope. All that is to be applauded and encouraged, especially when trust in the political system has been worn so thin.

But it only takes us half-way to an understanding of what politics is fully about. To deny this is to fuel the very cynicism and mistrust that characterises mainstream politics today and feeds the desire to vote for parties that appear to offer an escape.

Government is, and always will be, about working within limits, of wrestling with constraints, of recognising the political limits of tax-and-spend, of compromise and the tough-choice business of priorities. In time, the summer of warm hope must give way to the cool of autumn. That change of the season is now upon us.