Repeatedly, Ms Forbes and other ministers claimed the devolved budget has been cut by 5.2 per cent and they are bravely seeking to work within this wicked imposition from Whitehall. It’s a claim symptomatic of what we suffer from but is it worth devoting a column to a single dishonest statistic?
I think so because the past few days confirmed that its endless repetition is the sole defence used by SNP ministers to justify the extraordinary failure of financial management which led to Ms Forbes’ statement, for which those who depend most on public services will pay the highest price.
Anyone who wants the truth should simply go to the Scottish Parliament’s own website and find a graph headed “Scottish Government Core Resource and Covid-19 funding to 2024-25, in real terms”. Most of it is in purple but there are two peaks in yellow that indicate the additional Covid funding from the UK Treasury at the height of the pandemic.
The graph tells the truth – that the “core resource block grant” has increased substantially in 2022-23 while the only way in which a “5.2 per cent cut” can be claimed is by pretending that the additional Covid money was ever part of the normal budget. It wasn’t – not in Scotland, not in the rest of the UK, not anywhere in the world.
From Ms Forbes’ point of view, it is a necessary deception because there always has to be someone else to blame. That is fundamental to the nationalist credo. It means that hard choices are inflicted rather than self-imposed and incompetence can always be dressed up as martyrdom.
At First Minister’ Questions, Nicola Sturgeon duly claimed that Ms Forbes’ cuts are “the price that people across Scotland are paying right now for continued Westminster decision-making. As a result of UK Government decisions, our budget this year has been cut by more than 5 per cent in real terms.”
Later, in the exchanges with Douglas Ross, she repeated: “This year, because of Westminster Tory decisions, Scotland’s budget is reduced in real terms by 5.2 per cent.” On a further two occasions in that session alone, she quoted the same, false figure.
Would it be too much to expect, when she and Ms Forbes are next interviewed by our broadcasters, that they are asked if it is their serious contention that a figure which included all the additional pandemic money – to stave off economic disaster in the face of the worst public health crisis in a century – should be used as baseline for subsequent years?
Or will “5.2 per cent” just continue to be parroted without challenge or probably even comprehension on the part of those who should be asking a hard question that involves not only money but also basic political integrity? The answer, I’m afraid, is “probably”.
Just after First Minister’s Questions, the Justice Secretary, Keith Brown, was challenged about the cuts Ms Forbes is proposing for the criminal justice system which is already in paralysis with a backlog of 40,000 cases. Mr Brown had the script ready: “There is no question but that a 5.2 per cent cut in the Government’s budget will have an impact on all services in Scotland…”
And so it will go on unless the basis of their claim is both understood and ridiculed. It is legitimate to complain about not getting enough money to deliver decent public services, however dubious that claim may be.
However, it is fraudulent to ignore the fact that exceptional resources were allocated to meet exceptional circumstances and pretend there were no yellow bits on the graph. They cannot retrospectively be counted as purple.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar turned to the NHS at First Minister’s Questions and the truly appalling statistics of Ms Sturgeon’s time in office. That is one of many reasons why a genuine spending review is long overdue but it will never happen without recognition that falsehood is an inadequate mask for failure.