Sunday, February 01, 2009

Budget - The Aftermath

Per the post below, there's a poll in today's Sunday Times, which gives the first indications as to how the public at large might be viewing the budgetary shenanigans of last week. However, I thought it might be interesting to take a fresh look at events given the benefit of a day or two to reflect.

There's been some severe criticism of the SNP for not having the support of the Greens in the proverbial 'bag for life' before the budget vote. I've remarked elsewhere on my surprise at this,but it's maybe worth pointing out that in any negotiation, there is, by definition, more than one party involved. If it's not possible to have a deal, then it's not possible to have a deal – simple. With further detail emerging about the pressures on Patrick Harvie from his own side in this Sunday's papers, it's suddenly clear why John Swinney went out of his way to emphasise the common ground between the SNP and the Labour party during the debate.

As things stood, it required Labour abstentions to get the bill through. It wasn't enough. Harvie had his moment in the spotlight and funked it. Labour seemed intent on finding fault with initiatives like apprenticeships and town centre regeneration funding, simply because they wanted to claim a monopoly of ideas across the parliament. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, were still in a self-imposed splendid isolation over their demands for £800m of cuts.

And so, when it came to the vote, the Greens went against, having been unable to take yes for an answer. And Labour and the Lib Dems, who were certain that they could have a painless kick at the SNP by voting against the budget, thanks to the Greens suddenly found themselves where they neither expected nor particularly wanted to be - on the winning side.

That simply wasn't in the script, and for all Ian Grey's bravado in the aftermath about confidence motions, Labour and the Lib Dems found themselves experiencing a sudden and bowel-loosening acquaintance with realpolitik. No budget? No government. No government? 28 days to elect a new First Minister. Would Labour and the Lib Dems combine to elect Grey or Tavish? Not a chance. Which placed rather a lot of power in the hands of Annabel Goldie and the Tories...

Goldie excoriated Labour's tactics at FMQs. When she announced that one Labour government was damaging enough for Scotland and that we certainly didn't need two as a result of a bloodless coup, that really was check mate. Anyone daft enough to think that Grey could be installed as FM was suddenly faced with the prospect of the election they had accused the SNP of being 'arrogant' for pointing towards. And as the phones began to heat up with Labour Council leaders and trade unionists demanding to know what the hell Labour MSPs thought they were playing at by putting jobs and budget plans at risk, the bravery pills overdose wore off pretty quickly.

So, we are where we are, and a new spirit of co-operation appears to be abroad. Labour seem willing to deal on apprentices, while the Lib Dems appear to have put themselves back in the game by dropping their demand for a 2p tax cut. It's also become clear that no-one of any consequence would have criticised Harvie for taking the deal he was offered. Discretionary spending within the £33bn block is actually quite limited, so £33m would have been a remarkable achievement for a party with 2 MSPs. As it is, his principles remain pure, but the pot remains empty.

For my own view, having a unanimous vote in favour of the budget is not essential, but would be highly desirable. As the poll results below show, the public has taken a pretty clear view of who it considers to be the heroes and villains in this affair. The best face-saver for all is for everyone to back a budget which may not deliver all that they want, but which, in these 'difficult times', represents a good deal for Scotland as a whole. That way, everyone can emerge with something and we can all move on.

On a final note, there's been a lot of nonsense written about the supposed 'arrogance' of the SNP this week – frankly, since the party enters every Holyrood vote in the full knowledge that it could lose, it's always been a nonsensical and rather self-serving charge. You'll find no-one in the SNP disputing the responsibilities which come with minority government. However, now might also be a good time to recognise the responsibilities which come with opposition.

As I said after Glenrothes, sometimes a disparate opposition will be able to combine in ways which defeat the largest single minority. In truth, the opposition parties at Holyrood have always had the power to bring proceedings to a juddering halt any time they wanted. That's what happened this time, even if it did come about by dint of a Lib/Lab miscalculation and the idiosynchratic internal politics of the Greens.

Just because the government can be defeated, it doesn't mean that it should be, particularly on issues as important as a budget. The vitriol and venom directed in some quarters towards the SNP this week has not been particularly edifying – maybe this can be a watershed whereby the legitimacy of the government can be recognised, and a recognition also be made of the common ground which actually exists between the parties in the chamber, be that on the economy or even elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

So in summary: the SNP are blameless for this debacle.

Thanks for clearing that up.

Richard Thomson said...

My pleasure, Anonymous. Always happy to help, though a fairer summary might be that rather than apportioning blame, as far as those who won the vote were concerned, it was a case of the law of unintended consequences at work.

If you want to set out where you think the SNP were at fault, I'll be more than happy to debate it with you...

Grassy Knollington said...

Good analysis Richard. I think what stood out for me in all this was the ridiculously easy time given to the opposition MSP's by our media. Iain Gray especially was never really tested over his stance and I said elsewhere that you can only imagine the ruthless interrogation that the SNP would have been subjected to if they brought down a Labour budget (through daft posturing) in the midst of a recession.

I was struck on budget day by a clearly excited Glen Campbell announcing "it was the Green's wot swung it" on BBC Scotland Newsdrive. It seemed to me a term more suited to a victory but I think for a few minutes that was how Labour viewed it.

Reality sunk in fairly quickly I think especially when Annabel Goldie made clear she had no intention of enabling a Labour coup.
Tonight on Reporting Scotland Jackie Bird asked Glen Campbell if anybody had come out of this smelling of roses. He replied "no I don't think so". That's been the Scottish media angle throughout. Spread the blame/ they're all hopeless and as you say their favourite, "SNP arrogance".

I hope it goes through next week although I'm already anticipating the plaudits for Labour if fear of an election stops them from sabotaging it this time. I guess they'll have saved 35000 Scottish jobs and the Parliament's reputation single handedly even if they abstain.
No wonder people are calling the Scottish media Fido, you couldn't get more loyalty from a dog.

Anonymous said...


I'm not debating because (like I say) you've so clearly explained it all.

But it is remarkable nonetheless that a government can fail get its budget passed, yet still be wholly without fault.