Leaders: John Swinney’s cash giveaway buys the SNP some extra approval

John Swinney's Plan MacB will take time to implement . Picture: PA
John Swinney's Plan MacB will take time to implement . Picture: PA
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FINANCE secretary John Swinney’s last-minute distribution of extra spending as the Scottish Parliament moved to final approval of his budget for Scottish Government spending in 2012-13 had the look of pennies being thrown by a departing bride and groom.

Cash was hurled hither and thither, and quite a few beaming faces emerged from the scramble.

This indeed was the whole point of the exercise – to gain popularity for the SNP government, which knows it cannot afford a mid-term slump in its esteem just as the referendum on independence hoves into view. By and large, those who complained loudest about the initial budget proposed last November were those who received something extra.

The additional money, it needs to be said, has come from the UK government. Scottish Secretary Michael Moore announced that for the current financial year, the Scottish Government’s capital spending would increase by £221 million and its allocation for spending on services would rise by £140m. This has consequential increases for next year’s spending, which Mr Swinney swiftly dished out.

Showing no sign of gratitude, and complaining loudly about UK government cuts, he gave money to students, colleges, councillors and for housing projects. The almost total reversal of £40m of cuts in student funding is, we suspect, more a tribute to the voting power of the student body than a recognition of real need. But given the importance of higher and further education to Scotland’s future economic needs, it is welcome nonetheless.

The extra cash for housebuilding similarly serves the dual purpose of sweetening an industry which is under severe pressure and contributing to growth. The same can be said of the additional resources for strengthening broadband infrastructure and for road-building schemes.

This infrastructure spending also drew grudging approval from Scotland’s business lobbies. And to those large retailers protesting about the extra impost on them, allegedly to raise funds for public health purposes, he relented a little by reducing it marginally and promising it would only last for three years.

These moves together give the SNP a plausible-sounding script for telling people that it listens and acts on their concerns – which, coupled with the ritual condemnation of the UK government, is the Nationalists’ ideal agenda in the run-up to the referendum.

Whether this safety first, radicalism last approach is what Scotland needs over the next decade is a different question. There can be little doubt that the Scottish and local government, the NHS and other services will struggle to maintain existing levels of services.

So far, Mr Salmond’s ministers have responded to this with proposals for amalgamations and mergers rather than with real and radical changes that might actually deliver more for less. The opportunity and indeed the necessity for such change is there, but ministers are choosing to ignore it. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are doing so because they don’t want to scare the voters before referendum day dawns.

Danger of secrets giving power to rumours

What do these Cabinet sub-committee papers dating from 1998 on devolution contain that the current Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, considers to be so dangerous to the government that he has vetoed the release of them?

The fact that this is only the third time in the seven years that the Freedom of Information Act has been in force that such a veto has been used will only increase the intrigue and speculation about what unexploded bombshells the papers may contain.

The probability is that they merely contain details of routine crossfire between different ministers in which some, including almost certainly the then Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar, came off worst and lost arguments. These may include powers which he was seeking for the Scottish Parliament, but which he was not granted. He would then have been obliged to support the non-granting of any powers as part of the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility.

This is regrettable. Scottish constitutional debate is currently centred on the possible acquisition of new powers by the Scottish Parliament. To understand more of the issues involved and of the reasons why previous efforts were rejected would help to inform present debate.

The fact that we are not being told of this internal Whitehall politicking means that we are left to speculate. In such circumstances, baseless rumours can turn into accepted facts, leading to public discussion which is not just poorly informed but badly informed.

Sorry Dan, you’re just not good enough

Few would dispute that the performances of Dan Parks excited perhaps more comment after an international game than did the work of other players. Now he has gone and done it again, but this time will be the last for it is his decision to hang up the dark blue shirt and to retire from the Scottish international rugby team that is the talk of the clubhouses.

Did supporters give him too hard a time? Probably. But was that criticism inspired by the fact that he was an Australian whose claim on a Scottish shirt stemmed from having an Ayrshire grannie? Two rugby luminaries – John Beattie and Jim Telfer – think so.

We disagree. Mr Parks occupied one of the four roles that are critical to a team’s success. In the case of his position at stand-off, it is the role that can turn defence into attack and the inventiveness with which the No 10 does that is very often key to try-scoring.

Scottish rugby fans have taken many non-Scots to their hearts – Sean Lineen for example – provided, that is, they contribute to success and there is no outstanding replacement. Mr Parks has not performed well recently, and there are now potentially outstanding replacements. End of story and Dan, thanks mate for all your efforts.