Everytime I see John Swinney stalking down a corridor or striding to a podium – which isn’t often these days – this song enters my head. Purposeful, earnest, and taking no prisoners. Big, bad John.
Oh I know he’s one of the nicest men in politics but underneath there is a hard core. You cross him at his peril – as the Greens found out to their cost during the 2009 budget debacle. His command of his brief – all of it – is impressive. Nothing seems to daunt him, not even the worst financial settlement in devolution’s history.
So he occupied centre stage in the Scottish Parliament chamber on Wednesday to present the Spending Review, which details Scotland’s spending plans between now and March 2015. And did so magisterially. Afterwards, he positively glowered at his serried Opposition numbers, daring them to challenge his announcements and decisions. When Gavin Brown did, he did not let it pass. Corrected him, demanded an apology and sat down to glower again. Big Bad John.
He reduced Richard Baker to vacuous phrases and pitiful cliches. Brown tried to out-detail him on the detail – big mistake. By the time it was his turn, Willie Rennie’s voice appeared to have risen an octave or two. Who’d want to take on the Cabinet Secretary for Finance in the budget arena? Not the burd that’s for sure. “You don’t give no lip to Big John.”
Which is not to say he found today easy. But better another pay freeze than job losses. Better a removal of revenue to kickstart investment in infrastructure than to accept Westminster’s capital settlement and allow the economy to slip into reverse. Better an Opportunity for All than a lost generation facing a bleak future. Better a tax on the wealthy than to allow the population to stay unhealthy.
And actually some good news. Not a single manifesto commitment broken, though it remains to be seen how long that can be sustained. Public sector reform begins in earnest and still more efficiencies to be found, with the Scottish Government offloading some its property assets to free up hard cash.
Best of all, some real investment in the next three years in the holy grail of preventative spending to start the process that everybody’s been talking about for some years now. We spend now and save later, with innovation and partnership working to be rewarded with real investment to develop ideas and evidence on what works. One of the ways to encourage people to reform how they plan, design and deliver services is to reward them for doing so. The prospect of funding will focus minds and barriers that have existed for years will melt away as people overcome obstacles and discover a can-do attitude.
There is no doubt that some of the decisions announced today will cause pain – no one likes a pay freeze after all, especially when inflation is rocketing but even RPI at 5% does not seem to reflect the real price increases for groceries, energy and fuel. Couple that with increased pension contributions and a lot of people working in the public sector are going to find it tough. Really tough.
But then they, like the rest of us, benefit from some of the freebies and freezes. It’s crumbs of comfort but we are all in this together. And a side benefit – perhaps – is that rather than increased funding for the NHS disappearing into doctors’ and consultants’ salaries – who can afford a pay freeze better than most – it should be invested in maintaining frontline services. We’ll see.
Everything that Big Bad John delivered today was focused on keeping people in work, both in the public and private sectors. Hence, the switch of revenue funding into capital to invest in house building, public transport improvements and yes, road upgrades too, but also new hospitals and schools, so that people can still see bang for their bucks all around them. Proving that Scotland can still grow despite the limitations placed on her capacity. It’s that competence thing again, and hinting at what Scotland could be, that runs like a thread through everything that this SNP Government says and does.
Local government will have it hardest, having to deliver more and better with less, but they should be up for the challenge. They knew it was coming, there has been plenty of time to prepare, and enough of the skirting around reform. It is not good enough for local authorities to greet poor-mooth about funding when all 32 of them reserve the right to have separate backroom office functions like payroll, HR, finance and property and all 32 of them continue to pay for in-house functions like communications, archtitecture, legal services and printing which could be done just as well, and perhaps more competitively delivered by other sectors, particularly in the central belt.
Councils must focus all their energy and resources on statutory functions and even then, create a hierarchy of need – a school cleaner or a flowerbed; Christmas lights or child protection; grass cutting or library books; weekly bin collections or daily meals on wheels. Tough times require tough decisions. And Scotland will get to decide if its current crop of councillors is up to the job.
So, could this Spending Review spell the end of the line for Big John? Definitely not. Like a giant oak tree, he stands alone, the weight of the nation’s finances borne on his shoulders. The strain could bury him but it won’t. The Cabinet Secretary is made of sterner stuff, and he has positively thrived under the pressure of delivering in government. There is no one to challenge him on the opposition benches and few on his own side who could realistically take his place.
Year after year, his reputation and stature grows. Our very own Big Bad John.