Coll McCail

Coll McCail

Smoke and Mirrors in the Scottish Budget

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In recent months, Stephen Flynn has taken to contrasting “Scotland’s values” with those on show in the British Parliament. Scotland deserves better than what Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak offer, argues the SNP’s Westminster leader. “This place is at again,” he declares, gesturing at the Palace of Westminster, in a series of social media videos. He’s correct. It’s smart rhetoric. But that’s all it is. This week’s Scottish Government budget confirmed Holyrood’s politicians have far more in common with the prevailing economic consensus than Stephen Flynn would ever admit. Politics by shades of gray extends beyond the House of Commons. Westminster’s not the only place that’s “at it”.

On Tuesday, opposition parties received the SNP/Green government’s annual budget just twenty minutes before the document was debated in Holyrood. Fortunately for them, proceedings are so well rehearsed by now that it hardly mattered. The charade to which observers have become accustomed played out for another year: Hamstrung by their own cowardice, the Scottish Government announce swinging cuts to public services, claim their shielding Scots from the worst of Westminster’s austerity and announce headlining grabbing, but inadequate, progressive measures to mitigate the worst effects of their austerity. Opposition parties shake their heads and demand the impossible, lower taxes and simultaneously better services.

Holyrood’s smoke and mirror show is a convenient arrangement for all involved. It’s a team effort which disguises the limits of every political parties’ ambition. Scotland’s politicians conspire to lock radical, transformative political solutions outside of Parliament. MSPs shirk responsibility, passing the buck, and the worst of the cuts, down to councils. Holyrood is transformed into a seat of administration as politics evaporates. The expectations Scots have of their parliament are limited and the job of every Party ultimately made easier. This is why opposition politicians prefer to level allegations of mismanagement or incompetence at the Scottish Government because calling this framework into question may upset the status quo. As the cycle begins for another year, the decision to defer radical action inevitably increases pressure on Scotland’s public sector.

Coupled with Westminster’s hostility to public spending, this absence of political will left the Scottish Government with a £1.5 billion blackhole to plug in this week’s budget. £200 million was slashed from the housing budget mere months after child homelessness in Scotland reached record levels. The Fuel Insecurity Fund, which has provided £9 million in heating grants to those struggling with bills, was axed. Perhaps the best reflection of the Scottish Government’s timidity was an unfunded council tax freeze that will rip more than £350 million from local authority budgets. This, according to COSLA, will leave councils at “breaking point”, depriving them of the opportunity to raise revenue from wealthier households, leaving them with the capacity to provide only statutory services. On the eve of his election as Nicola Sturgeon’s successor, Humza Yousaf described himself as a socialist and committed to investigate the possibility of a wealth and land value tax. Needless to say, these commitments remain unactioned.

The Scottish Government’s budget did, however, introduce a higher rate of income tax for those earning between £75,000 to £125,140. While a welcome step, in many ways, this measure is indicative of the spurious dynamic surrounding the budget, least of all because its effectiveness is immediately reduced by the Council Tax Freeze. 12 months ago, the Scottish Government resisted demands for a higher rate of income tax and in doing so opted instead for cuts to services. This week Yousaf justified the step by very publicly stressing the support of civic Scotland – The STUC, The Poverty Alliance, The Child Poverty Action Group and Oxfam – for the new income tax band.

Rather than exhibit political ambition, the Scottish government chose to sit on their hands, waiting for support to grow as the financial situation grew ever more severe. While such a maneuver cut communities adrift, it shielded the Scottish Parliament from exposure to class confrontation. Politics was kept resolutely class neutral in service to the maintenance of Holyrood’s political consensus. In this sense, Humza Yousaf’s first budget as First Minister bears striking similarities to those of his predecessor. By developing partnerships between the private sector, civil society, and government, Nicola Sturgeon presented a united front. The security of her leadership depended on subordinating the interests of the people of Scotland to the maintenance of this consensus. With confrontation limited by design, Sturgeon’s civic nationalism delivered little for Scotland’s working-class. How could it, when she balanced their interests so carefully with those of capital?

The Scottish Greens were quick to distance themselves from the Council Tax Freeze. It wasn’t a “green choice,” wrote Ross Greer in a Daily Record column, which argued the task of the SNP/Green budget was to “protect people and planet from Downing Street.” Shona Robinson and Humza Yousaf couched their communications in the same context. However, Holyrood is not doomed to manage decline. An alternative which commits to radical action is possible, but it hinges on breaking with consensus so that parliament can ignite, rather than avoid, class confrontation.

Closed libraries and leisure centers, lost jobs and a lower standard of services will follow this budget. Four months after the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, Jimmy Reid wrote a column entitled “We don’t want a gravy train for the well-connected few.” His piece was a warning. The interests of the powerful and wealthy could reduce the ‘promise of devolution’ to ashes if left unchecked. This week’s budget, and the absence of political will across Holyrood, is another step towards that prospect. Of course, the conditions of this reality have in no small part been cultivated by the UK Government. Their trap, however, has not been met with defiance, but meek cowardice by a class of politicians uninterested in building a serious alternative. We allow our politicians to continue in this self-serving malaise at our peril.

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