Goldie's hesitancy spoils bold plan ahead of election

THE proposal by the Scottish Conservatives that there should be a blanket pay freeze across the public sector north of the Border for anyone earning in excess of £18,000 a year would, in normal times, be viewed with a mixture of incredulity and alarm. We are not living in normal times.

Those who earn a decent living at the taxpayers' expense and who have not, up to now, been exposed to the harsh realities of the job losses and pay curbs which have become the norm in the slowdown-hit private sector, can no longer avoid shouldering their share of the recessionary burden.

The doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants who will be affected by such a move will, quite naturally, be unhappy at the prospect of having their salaries frozen at a time when inflation appears to be picking up again, but reasonable people in these positions will recognise that they have, for the most part, been insulated from the worst effects of the economic meltdown that has plunged the country deep into the red.

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There is, however, one puzzling aspect to the proposal, which the party's Scottish leader Annabel Goldie is set to spell out tonight in that the demand for the freeze will be used as a powerful bargaining tool by the Tories not in this year's budget process but next year.

By virtue of the Scottish National Party being a minority government, the Conservatives are in a strong position to insist on this measure being part of the financial package which MSPs agree for the coming financial year, when the budget bill begins the first stage of its progress through Holyrood today.

There is no reason why they should not do so and this hesitancy looks like Tory timidity in the face of the impending Westminster election which, despite David Cameron's healthy lead in the polls, is likely to be a tight contest.

Miss Goldie, Bella to her friends, is expected to argue today that the freeze is not about penalising public servants but about saving jobs; that it is better if people are in work with a pay freeze than out of work with no pay at all.

It is a strong argument and one which if explained properly to those concerned – including pointing out that public sector pay is being slashed in recession ravaged Ireland – might not provoke the outrage, anger and strike threats that it once would have done.

However, it is disappointing that the Tories have not been brave enough to echo the calls for a pay freeze to be introduced now which have been made by the experts including the respected Scottish-based think tank, the Centre for Public Policy for Regions (CPPR).

CPPR has warned that if pay freezes are not imposed and ministers, as they have said they will, protect health and education from cutbacks, other departments – covering areas including transport, housing and social care – could face budgets cut of up to 40 per cent.

It is the credit of Miss Goldie and the Tories that they have raised the issue of a pay freeze, but a pity the party has shied away from being more radical in its proposal. Political fortune should favour the brave. Time to be bolder, Bella.