The Public and Commercial Services Union in Scotland has branded Scottish finance secretary John Swinney as being “George Osborne with a kilt” following his announcement yesterday of a budget he dubbed as one for “jobs and growth”.
Publishing the Scottish government’s draft proposals for 2013/14, Swinney’s principal emphasis was to shift the limited funds available towards capital spending, investing in the “shovel ready projects” ministers at Holyrood have long been going on about.
What followed was the announcement of £180 million to be spent over two years as part of a construction, skills, employment and green economic stimulus package.
£40 million will be invested in affordable homes, a new Energy Skills Academy will be established, ministers will more quickly deliver the £80 million Schools for the Future programme, a new employer recruitment initiative for young people will support the creation of new job opportunities, and a commitment was made to the establishment of a living wage.
Meanwhile, whilst maintaining the government’s commitments to a council tax freeze, police numbers, no tuition fees, free prescriptions and concessionary travel - with protection for the NHS budget – the finance secretary signalled the end to the ongoing public sector pay freeze by confirming a modest 1% increase for most government and NHS employees.
“In difficult economic times,” Swinney told MSPs:
“…this government is doing everything within its limited power to stimulate Scotland’s economy, to invest in our young people, protect households, and support front line services.”
Predictably, though, he went on to add:
“Only with the full levers of independence can Scotland properly capture economic opportunity and tackle inequality and poverty and we can do so more efficiently and effectively than currently happens in the UK.”
In the face of such declarations, however, the response has been one of cautious welcome at best and hostility at worst, an indication of the difficult line ministers in Scotland now have to tread.
Scottish TUC General Secretary Grahame Smith, whilst appreciating the finance secretary had sought to do all he could to stimulate Scotland PLC in the face of Whitehall’s “dangerously irresponsible economic strategy”, said:
“It is disappointing that Mr Swinney has followed George Osborne’s public sector pay policy almost to the letter. A third year of significant real terms wage cuts for hundreds of thousands of workers puts Mr Swinney’s attempts at stimulus into perspective.”
Overall, however, what has come through clearly from many responses is a sense of a missed opportunity; for example, David Watts, executive director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland, concluded:
“Overall, I am not quite sure he [John Swinney] is doing all he can to assist businesses in Scotland during economically difficult times.”
For the SNP’s political opponents, meanwhile, the budget was dubbed “another pass the buck budget” by Labour’s finance spokesman Ken McIntosh; attacked by the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, as a “timid budget proposed by a government more focussed on independence than economic growth”; and one which, in the words of Scottish Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown, “failed miserably to kick start the economy”.
Assessing what proved to be combative exchanges in the Parliamentary chamber, BBC Scotland Political Editor, Brian Taylor, observed:
John Swinney’s demeanour is customarily modest and restrained. Mostly, he presented his spending plans for 2013/14 in that fashion – reflecting, no doubt, the wider, grim economic environment.
But there is fire there too, real fire. And it flashed into flame when he turned upon Labour’s Ken Macintosh who had accused the finance secretary of a “pass the buck” budget.
He treated the comment with withering contempt and derision, arguing that the roots of the current economic crisis lay during Labour’s period in office and that they were allied with the Tories in seeking to hold Scotland back (from the objective of independence).
In sum, Labour accused Mr Swinney of slashing jobs. The minister asked, in effect: “Just what would you do?”
At The Scotsman, declaring low expectations had been met by the budget proposals, the paper’s leader this morning argued:
“In presenting a tough budget yesterday, finance minister John Swinney could consider himself fortunate in at least one respect: expectations were low and few in Scotland anticipated there would be anything by way of a giveaway.
“After three years of austerity, the public is now well versed in the realities of budget deficits and debt. This severe constraint not only coloured the presentation yesterday, but it is also set to do so for the foreseeable future, whichever constitutional path Scotland chooses to take.”
For the Herald, meanwhile, picking up on the theme developed by Willie Rennie of it having been a timid package of measures, its editorial concludes:
“What this budget demonstrated above all was the lack of room for manoeuvre, but boldness would have required a full-scale revision of the most cherished policies. That is not a job a finance secretary wants to have, but eventually the SNP will have to grasp the prickly policy problem of balancing a shrinking public purse with relatively generous social policies.
“For the next year, Mr Swinney must trust that the economy will pick up sufficiently to allow his tweaking to realise its full potential. But he will be under pressure to take a more radical approach next year, and display more imagination in loosening Westminster’s constraints if, with all eyes on the economy, he is to demonstrate convincingly that full control of the economic levers in Edinburgh will deliver the benefits he claims.
“Mr Swinney has set out his stall for the last full financial year before the referendum. Much hinges on how it is viewed. The economy will, after all, be a vital factor in the debate in 2014.”
When John Swinney next presents a draft budget in this way it will be one that covers the period to include the actual vote on independence. One wonders what tricks he might have up his sleeves then.