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What was missing from the Scottish Budget

There’s no sign of bold governance from the SNP, says CONRAD LANDIN

DEREK MACKAY pitched last week’s Scottish Budget in “sharp contrast to the chaos and uncertainty of the UK government.”

The chaos and uncertainty in Westminster was on such a scale that even north of the border, the Finance Secretary's announcements were overshadowed.

Few would admit to being grateful for this, but there’ll be smiles all round. For the SNP government, spending plans have not received the normal press scrutiny. And there is far less potential for political opponents to whip up a persistent story around an unpopular measure.

Holyrood’s opposition parties have reason to be cheerful too. Nicola Sturgeon’s party has been denied the opportunity to flaunt its wares.

When a government is so Teflon that a secret accord between NHS Scotland and an international fraternity of vampires would be welcomed as a boost to the economy, a few weeks of irrelevance will always be welcomed by its opponents.

But as is often the case with the SNP, the real story is not so much what was announced but what wasn’t.

The much-vaunted Amazon tax on out-of-town commerce was shelved after pressure from the business lobby. There is still no plan to reform the regressive council tax system, despite Alex Salmond’s pledge to abolish it shortly after he took office in 2007 and recent calls from the Scottish Greens.

There was no sign of a settlement either for the teachers now likely to strike, having been offered, after a decade of real-terms wage decline, a paltry pay rise of 3 per cent.

In fact, the entire public sector will receive a maximum rise of 3 per cent next year, with anyone earning more than £36,500 getting even less.

Meanwhile, Mackay stated that the UN special rapporteur who slated the British benefits system praised Scotland for “mitigating the worst of UK government welfare cuts.”

By his failure to abolish, in spite of heavy pressure, the two-child cap on child benefit and the “rape clause” that comes with it, we can only assume Mackay doesn’t consider this to be among the worst cuts.

It was recently reported in the Times that the DWP in London had had no contact from the SNP about ending the two-child cap, despite Mackay appearing to suggest otherwise in claiming it was implausible to scrap it.

For all the talk of hope and “a Budget for all of Scotland,” this was little more than a succession of promises to tinker.

But like New Labour, which the SNP in government increasingly resembles, Sturgeon’s government seems intensively relaxed, to borrow a phrase from Peter Mandelson, over the managed decline of the welfare state and industry.

There is no industrial strategy, just bailouts for individual businesses under threat. And in the Star’s news pages last week, Labour MP Paul Sweeney warned that something very similar has been exposed by the recent fires in Glasgow.

Without a proactive vision, the government ends up battling the symptoms not the root causes.

Civic identity and a semblance of competence — and a smug sense of satisfaction for those at the top — is apparently a substitute for bold governance, or so the SNP would have us believe.

“This Budget is a comprehensive package of measures designed to protect all that we hold dear,” Mackay said in his statement to Parliament last Wednesday. And that says it all.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star Scotland editor.

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