Leaders: Scotland’s budget | All-female shortlists

JOHN Swinney, in the six years he has been in charge of Scotland’s finances, has shown a deft touch in making the most of the money at his disposal. With the amount of cash Scotland gets from the Treasury under unprecedented pressure during his time in office, he has usually managed to distribute the pain in such a way as to disguise – to some extent – the reality of brutal cuts.

John Swinney at Holyrood. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

There comes a point, however, when the jam is spread so thin on the toast that it is only present in a homeopathic sense. Mr Swinney reached that point yesterday when he delivered his Scottish budget.

Of course, the SNP government put its best gloss on it, presenting the budget as the means of defending Scotland from the worst of Westminster’s welfare cuts. Credit where it is due, many of the measures announced yesterday will do exactly that, including a welcome £20 million to ameliorate the effects of the coalition administration’s bedroom tax.

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But while some of the detail was encouraging, there was no disguising the bigger picture. The crunch is about to arrive in Scottish public spending, and not even Mr Swinney’s considerable political skills are going to be sufficient to keep its true scale from the public’s eyes.

Faced with this dilemma, the finance secretary has made the same key judgment he has made in previous years. He has shuffled most of the cuts burden on to Scotland’s local authorities. It is they who will have to do the dirty work in the coming year – closing more schools, shutting more libraries, cutting back on social care services for the elderly and vulnerable, locking the doors on local swimming pools.

The political benefit for the Scottish Government is, of course, that it is councillors rather than ministers who take most of the flak. But it does mean that the burden of public spending cuts is borne by the poorest Scots, who rely most on the kind of front-line services local authorities provide. It also means a real terms cut for a further education sector already reeling from a massive reduction in student places. Scotland’s colleges have long been the Cinderella sector in education, and they have borne the brunt of spending cuts, while the more politically sensitive university sector has – relatively speaking – been protected. The damage done to Scotland’s skills base, and the life opportunities offered to tens of thousands of young Scots, is incalculable.

Mr Swinney could have made a different calculation. He could have looked anew at his council tax freeze, which every year hands the wealthiest Scots a tax break at a time when the poorest Scots are being hit hardest.

He could have looked at how he is structuring payments in the new Scottish replacement for stamp duty, and produced a mansion tax to ensure the wealthiest Scots shouldered their share of the burden of austerity. In doing neither, Mr Swinney undermines the SNP’s egalitarian rhetoric and suggests his motives are more political, looking ahead to trying to win the independence referendum.

Lost opportunity for affirmative action

THE forthcoming Holyrood by-election in Dunfermline will be, it seems, a missed opportunity.

The vacancy caused by the resignation of Bill Walker after his conviction for assaulting three ex-wives and a stepdaughter was a chance to make an important symbolic point about misogyny.

Scotland’s political parties could easily have agreed that a fitting way of drawing a line under the Walker saga would be to ensure that a woman-hater was replaced by a woman.

In this newspaper today, Susan Dalgety and Kate Higgins, two women from opposing sides of Scotland’s constitutional divide, put aside their differences to join together to make a strong argument for this.

Their argument carries weight, and has this newspaper’s backing. It would, of course, be only a symbolic gesture. But symbols are important – and they are capable of carrying both weight and meaning.

Such an outcome would, however, require both the SNP and Scottish Labour – the two front-runners in this by-election – to have all-women shortlists for their candidate selection.

Disappointingly, it looks as if that will not now happen. Instead, the indications are that this by-election will be business as normal, with men and women on both sides fighting it out to represent their party in Dunfermline.

This is, as we say, a missed opportunity. It is a failure of party managers to recognise the unusual circumstances of this by-election, and to acknowledge the damage Bill Walker has done to the reputation of Scottish politics as a whole. If the chance for a redemptive moment has come and gone, that is a terrible shame.