Since the Spending Review was announced last week, we have had the usual suspects and interest groups jockeying for position and headlines, generally crying foul.
COSLA pronounced in capital letters, no less, that it was “VERY DISAPPOINTED WITH LEVEL OF SPIN PUT ON FIGURES”. It calculated that over the next three years, it was going to be down by 15% when cuts and new demand for services was taken into account. “That can only mean one thing”, the local government body’s press release said in sonorous tones, “a significant reduction in local services and local spend”. To hammer home its view, it put up Cllr Jim McCabe from North Lanarkshire council for the discussion panel on Newsnight Scotland on Wednesday night. So armed was he with statistics that he not only managed to bamboozle the audience but flummox himself. Fulminating against the council tax freeze, he was asked what he would put it up to. He wouldn’t, he said, not in an election year. Which gave the game away – it isn’t about economics, it’s about politics. In fact, it’s not even that lofty: it’s simply about getting elected.
We’ve also had business chipping in. CBI Scotland considered it “alarming that the Scottish Government is proposing two business tax rises…”, referring to the public health levy and the review on empty property relief. It also accused the SNP Government of being “in denial with regard to the dire state of the UK public finances.” It then goes on to make a point in this regard which made little sense to me, so I won’t trouble you with it here. The Federation of Small Business in Scotland was much more considered in its response, but even it felt compelled to warn that “public sector bodies must not use their local business communities as a pot from which to draw additional income”.
Then came the unions. The PCS representative on Newsnight Scotland’s panel seemed to indicate that job losses would be fine but that a pay freeze would not. Uh huh. The union denounced the ongoing pay freeze as “an attack on Scottish workers”. Apparently, the extension of the pay freeze “by our own government and employer will provoke anger as never seen before” and just to emphasise the point, “Scottish public servants will be very angry that they are facing this double whammy from Westminster and Holyrood”. Perhaps we should point out to the PCS that their pay will only be frozen once not twice?
The STUC, meanwhile, tried to criticise nicely, but ingrained habits die-hard, and occasional slips allowed the rhetoric to ratchet up. Thus, “transferring existing revenue spend to capital is less welcome – a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ exercise which will not add to aggregate demand and will further impact on public service provision” and “having praised public service workers yesterday for achieving £2.2 billion in ‘efficiency savings’, he has today imposed a similar requirement for the coming period but offered nothing in return”. I would have thought a wage, albeit a frozen one, and a job for the foreseeable future might have been reward enough in the current climate?
Finally, the third sector got in on the act. On the whole, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) was highly positive about the Review and in particular, the shift to preventative spending but it warned that “Scotland cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity of doing things differently by allowing the funds to be hijacked by acute services or local government structural reform.”
So pardon me for asking folks, but if not you, who? If the Scottish Government is guilty of loading the impact of reduced money to spend on you, who is it you think should bear the pain? For if not business, big and small, nor councils, nor workers, nor voluntary organisations, should it be pensioners, disabled people, low-income families or unemployed young people?
Oh I know you will all say that by hurting you, the Scottish Government is hurting them. But a little less rhetoric and a little more reality. Please.
For in her hour of need, Scotland and her people need a who. Sectors, agencies and bodies who will accept that we are where we are. And actually, it is not quite the meltdown that is being portrayed.
No one wants to see budgets going backwards. But the overall decline in expenditure – in real terms – between this year and next? 1.5%. The following year, it is 1% – that is a cumulative 2.5%. Tough but hardly Armageddon.
Moreover, even though the amount of money we have to spend is less next year than this, it is still more than we had to spend five years ago (£28.67 billion) and much more than ten years ago (£20.08 billion). We managed then, so what has changed now?
Sadly, we are all too Scottish for our own good. This is a country where the glass is definitely half empty, where Rev I M Jolly embodied our outlook on life, where we never pass up an opportunity for a girn. We are wedded to a deficit approach to life. Yet, in these tough times, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear from sectors, agencies and bodies about what they are going to do to get by, how they will use the money they are getting to make a difference? Instead of focusing on the money being lost, couldn’t everyone focus on the money we have? And what we might do with it?
There is no doubting we are heading for choppy waters. But it could be worse. And what Scotland needs right now is a Who. People, leaders and organisations who will focus on what we have. Who will accept the challenge ahead and put their shoulder to the wheel. Who will find the ways to do better with less. Who will vow to work together for the common weal.