Nicola Sturgeon's cuts to councils are like Margaret Thatcher's in the 1980s. Where is the righteous anger? – Brian Wilson

Imagine we are back in the 1980s and the cruel heel of Thatcherism has descended upon Scottish local authorities.

Margaret Thatcher would have faced uproar over funding cuts to councils like those made by Nicola Sturgeon's government (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Margaret Thatcher would have faced uproar over funding cuts to councils like those made by Nicola Sturgeon's government (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Every council in Scotland – including those run by the Tories – has united to say “enough is enough”. The president of Cosla has branded it “the worst settlement ever”.

Now ask yourself: would that story have dominated the Scottish news agenda for days? Would it have led every BBC and STV news bulletin and been the stuff of indignant editorials?

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Would there have been a barrage of public outrage and demands for parliamentary debates with the SNP declaring that the treatment of Scottish local authorities was proof positive of Westminster’s contempt etc, etc?

Would the STUC have announced a demonstration so the workers could shout “out, out, out”? Would there have been banners caricaturing the architect of cuts which deprived councils of the means to deliver services on which the poor depend?

Now let us return to reality. For the 1980s read 2021. For Thatcher read Sturgeon. For Tories read SNP. Otherwise, the scenario I have asked you to imagine has just unfolded and hardly anyone noticed while our spoon-fed broadcasters yawned with disinterest.

So let me recap. In her Scottish Budget statement, the Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, omitted to mention local government at all, which told its own story. It was left to Cosla to dissect a highly misleading press release and reach its own rather different conclusions.

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Even docile SNP council leaders – yes, even Glasgow – were shocked by what they found. Hailed as heroes of the pandemic for keeping services going, they discovered their reward was a massive cut in core funding for the services they exist to provide.

All 32 leaders took part in a virtual meeting. Alison Evison, the president of Cosla, declared: “Many described this settlement as the worst they had seen. Council leaders were clear that we could not sit back and simply accept this and there was a real strength of feeling that enough is enough.

“Not only do leaders consider that we have been given a real-terms cut of £371 million, the settlement makes no provision for pay inflation or increased demand for services, nor for the increased burden of National Insurance contributions.”

That sounds to me like a pretty big story to which every council leader in Scotland, of all parties and none, signed up. So where does it leave Ms Sturgeon, Ms Forbes and the integrity of what they tried to spin?

As I have occasionally pointed out in this column, the treatment of local government by the SNP over a prolonged period has been incomprehensibly brutal. As repeatedly confirmed by the Scottish Parliament’s research unit, the cuts imposed have been out of all proportion to fluctuations in the Scottish government’s own budget.

Yet, because cuts are cumulative rather than instantaneous and do not principally affect the chattering classes, it has been a grossly under-reported story, managed to the margins of political debate by the SNP’s undoubted talent for media manipulation.

Let’s take one example of what “cuts” means in human terms and thank goodness for Freedom of Information law which is, despite the Scottish government’s best efforts, occasionally capable of striking gold.

A Labour request for information about the number of librarians employed by Scottish councils yielded a startling statistic. Since 2015, the number is down by a third.

There might be more dramatic examples of how council cuts drain communities but this one has a particular piquancy. Ms Sturgeon has cultivated a hinterland as a person interested in books. We even have the Nicola Sturgeon Reading Challenge “to inspire as many young people as possible to discover a joy of reading”.

Perhaps Ms Sturgeon could be called on to explain how cutting the number of librarians by a third during her tenure as First Minister assists towards that objective? And perhaps the wider scandal of how local government is treated under her regime will finally be given the profile it deserves in 2022.

Perhaps. Or is that capacity for righteous anger now irredeemably lost in the tartan mist?

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