Brian Monteith: Harsh economic realities cut deep

WE HAVE entered a new phase in the devolution settlement – a phase when Scottish politicians are openly talking about spending cuts, budget reductions and the consequent job losses.

It has been a long time coming but it is overdue, for since day one of its own year zero, the Scottish Parliament has lived in an unreal world where spending would always increase and what passed for economic debate was always about how the ever-growing cake was shared, rather than how it would be baked in the first place.

When I joined the parliament in 1999 the then Scottish Office budget that was passed on was 15.6 billion, by the time I left eight years later it had practically doubled to 31bn. It has continually grown above inflation since and is set to rise again next year by 600 million.

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Today's debate about cuts is itself a self-delusional charade – because it's really about a reduction in the increase, not a real reduction in spending.

By the time you are able to read this article John Swinney will have stood up, or even sat down, and his cat will be out of the bag. I have no crystal ball and am not going to speculate on what he might say – or go by what has been trailed in the papers already – these are often false trails laid by government sources so that the reality might look better than it was first thought.

An excellent example of laying false trails occurred this last week when all of the Sunday papers were saying that the Benbecula missile testing site was about to be closed following a lengthy review – only for the Secretary of State for Scotland to fly up there and announce it had been saved.

Quiet typically at this late stage of a recession there are confusing economic signals, some saying that economic growth is returning to some sectors and that confidence is rising, while others suggest that recovery is still a long way off and at the very least the UK will be behind many of its economic competitors.

What is without doubt is that unemployment has now hit 2.47 million and is set to rise, causing real hardship for people, ensuring less money will be spent in the economy as salaries disappear and putting a further strain on the country's welfare budget as well as reducing the tax revenues. These continuing pressures mean that even when we come out of recession we still need to rebuild the nation's finances and repay the debt that messers Blair, Brown Darling and Co have built up on our behalf.

The trimming of budgets in health or in local government are not the solution – they are designed to either pass the tough decision down the line or cause the electorate's anger to be targeted at the Labour government.

The real truth is that the Scottish Government – and indeed the whole parliament – has to ask itself "do we need to be doing all that we are doing, and if we do, is there a better more efficient way to do it?" Some government functions must go, some must be farmed out, but just trimming the edges will not suffice.

The recession started officially a year ago but the Government overspending started from day one in July 1999. Even when the recession was fast approaching, politicians were bartering about what freebies they could dish out to the electorate – knowing they could not be afforded.

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I take pills for my blood pressure. I pay for the prescription and am quite happy with that – but the SNP believes I should get them for nothing. Frankly, with all of the people that are already entitled to free prescriptions through their age, chronic illness, pregnancy of welfare status, there is no need to transfer working people's taxes to the middle classes such as me just so the SNP can say that drugs are free in Scotland. But still, the SNP would rather cut various budgets than give up its promise to phase out the charges for pills.

Until Scottish politicians understand that it is their own commitments that need to be pruned back their spending will never match the reality of our overburdened economy – and cuts will continue to be on the agenda for years to come.

Creative approach

News from Alabama that a schoolboy faked his own kidnapping to avoid taking home a bad report card made me laugh.

The kid might not be good at maths, or whatever, but he showed an inventive mind – maybe he should be put in a creative writing class. One does wonder what type of discipline he feared from his parents though.

Something to cheer

Maybe there is a silver lining to the cloud that was Heineken and Carlsberg devouring Scottish & Newcastle.

Heineken, now owners of real-ale brewers Caledonian Brewery, is keen to build the Deuchars IPA brand with a full-on UK-wide marketing campaign. First, though, I suggest the brewers must explain how to pronounce the name – I'll never forget the time I first heard some ask in a faux French way: "A pint of Do-Shars, please."