Holyrood's politicians fail to rise to challenge facing Scottish economy

THERE was only a little heat generated at Holyrood yesterday where MSPs debated the general principles of the Scottish budget bill but, regrettably, there was even less light to accompany the somewhat artificial political combustion.

The SNP minority administration can only get the budget through with the support of some of the other parties, so John Swinney, the finance secretary, was attempting to be consensual, but his party continued their political attack on Labour at Westminster for cutting Scotland's block grant.

Labour, for its part, maintained that there has not been a budget reduction and attacked the SNP for what it described as pursuing vanity projects such as the proposed referendum bill and for canceling infrastructure schemes such as the Glasgow Airport Rail Link.

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But consider this: these glib, formulaic, predictable exchanges came on the day when it was disclosed that Scotland's economy shrank for the fifth successive quarter and the number out of work rose by 9,000 to more than 200,000.

Given this evidence of the nation's continued economic woes one might have expected the central thrust of yesterday's debate would involve political leaders setting out how Scotland might fight its way out of a recession which appears to have a tighter grip north of the Border than south.

Shamefully, there was little by way of thoughtful contributions on this subject from either the governing party or the opposition as politicians of all persuasions sought to position themselves ahead of the forthcoming Westminster elections.

Mr Swinney did agree to look at Liberal Democrat calls for more support for manufacturing and consider Tory demands for independent external analysis of public spending to deal with the looming financial constraints, but beyond that there was little of substance.

The finance secretary maintained that there would be tough choices to be made over the Scottish Government's 29.3 billion budget for 2010/11, while frontline services would be protected.

But this language of "tough choices" and "frontline services", repeated so often, begins to sound cliched on the lips of Holyrood politicians who yesterday failed properly to address the continued recession and the equally vital issue of Scotland's funding from Westminster.

Within the next few months we will have a Labour government Budget or, if they win the UK election, an emergency package of financial measures from the Conservatives.

We know little of the impact that either of these would have on Scotland but it is hard to imagine that they will have anything other than the effect of further constraining Holyrood's budget.

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Although MSPs do not know the details of what lies ahead, yesterday would have been the time to acknowledge that the belt-tightening which has been agreed so far may be as nothing compared to what may be to come.

It is deeply disappointing that both nationalists and unionists yesterday failed to rise to this challenge.