Sound the trumpets, shout Hosanna from the rooftops. The deal is done. Not the Brexit deal – that little difficulty still has a long way to run – but the widely anticipated deal between the minority Scottish Government and the six Green MSPs to get Derek Mackay’s budget through.
As surely as the sun rises in the morning the Greens kept the SNP’s “progressive” economic programme on the road. No “opposition” party has done so much for the SNP government and its budgets than, well, Annabel Goldie’s dreaded “Toaries” – who backed every John Swinney budget between 2007 and 2011. That’s right, politics is not always how it might seem or is presented by the most bitter of adversaries.
There was never any doubt that Patrick Harvie’s Greens would deliver. It is what gives them relevance, it’s what makes them important out of all proportion to their six out of 56 regional MSPs, elected on a mere 6.6% of the votes cast. Still their presence is what got Nicola Sturgeon over the line, otherwise there could have been some form of loose unionist coalition to ensure the nationalists were not able to govern. (Don’t scoff, in councils up and down the land there are arrangements between local parties that recognise pubic services have to be delivered but nationally swear blind they hate each.)
And they sold themselves cheaply. They broke their promise to deliver “significant reform” of local government finance and settled instead for a review on possible new taxes on tourism and parking.
Worse still, last year, in what looked like a choreographed move with the SNP, they were able to claim they had reduced cuts to local government by half, this time the cuts will be reduced by 28%. Derek Mackay had initially posted local government cuts of £319 million, now it will be “only” £229 million.
But Mackay’s cuts remain real cuts, and councils of all political colours will especially feel the pinch – about £30 million in Edinburgh for instance or, in real terms, 3% in Stirling, or 2.6% in Perth & Kinross, or 2.2% in Fife – reflecting serious budget cuts that must affect service provision all over Scotland.
Yet none of the cuts is necessary. Thanks to the uplift in UK support for the Scottish Budget, announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond late last year, the Scottish Government budget is actually increasing in real terms.
This can only mean that what we are witnessing is SNP austerity. Blaming the “Toaries” just doesn’t cut the mustard. There is enough new money for all parties to come up with ways of improving the lot of ordinary people. Scottish Labour made its suggestions including increasing Child Benefit in Scotland by £5 a week and ending the two-child cap (because “the Vow” given in the last week of the referendum delivered the powers to do both).
The Conservatives called for the growing tax gap with the rest of the UK to be reined in. Either, or a mixture of both, could have been possible, but instead the SNP chose to punish local authorities while looking to increase some budgets that they control directly.
Where is the money going then? Where is the SNP spending the extra funding? One example is international relations – not even a devolved responsibility and yet the SNP government is increasing its international budget by a staggering 52% over two years from £15.7 million to £23.9 million. And yet government politicians tell us they are deeply concerned about homeless people and food banks – while jet-setting around the world virtue-signalling about their compassion for the world’s poor.
The irony that few nationalists will want to acknowledge is that the additional money available to the Scottish Government is due to the higher English economic growth that is pulling the rest of the UK out of its torpor, driving up employment (and hence public revenues) and cutting the deficit. It’s probably fair to say that within the UK England is now in fiscal surplus while Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland undoubtedly nurse significant pubic deficits.
The Conservatives were not slow to point out that ordinary Scots now face, what Murdo Fraser called, in an impressive speech, a “triple tax bombshell” – a higher standard tax rate than promised; higher Council taxes than promised and a new tax on workplace parking.
The SNP had promised in the 2016 election to not increase the standard rate of tax but now those paying over £25,000 will face a higher standard rate than anyone else in the UK. The SNP had promised not to increase the cap on Council Tax increase above 3% but Derek Mackay’s budget now pushes the limit up to 4.79%.
It is hard to see how Mackay’s budget will invigorate Scotland’s economy. With the continued concern over Scottish business rates as well as the growing burden of Scottish personal taxes any economic success will surely be despite what the government is doing – rather than because of it.
Thanks to the additional funds available it could have been so different. Derek Mackay could have wrong-footed the growing Conservative opposition by delivering a budget for business growth, instead he is handing them justifiable grievances that will see many people abandon the SNP when given the chance.