26 October 2010

Westminster’s axe hits home

The months leading up to now have been filled with nervous anticipation for people who work in the public sector, or rely upon public services. Everybody has known that cuts have been coming as the chancellor wields his axe with abandon, but until the publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review, nobody has been sure quite how severe they would be.

Unfortunately, it seems our worst fears have come true and Scotland is set to see its budget slashed even more severely than was anticipated. Although initial Treasury soundbites claimed that Scotland had gotten off lightly from the cuts, the devil –as always- is in the detail. Those details revealed that far from the £900m total that the Treasury suggested, Scotland’s budget from this year to the next will reduce by £1.8bn in real terms, a fall of 6.3% in a single year.

As part of that Scotland’s capital budget will reduce by £800m, a reduction of 25% in a single year. Yet capital spending is possibly the biggest driver of economic growth that the Scottish Government can control. Recent figures show that in the last quarter Scotland’s GDP increased by 1.3%, the biggest rise in four years, as a direct result of the SNP Government’s decision to accelerate capital expenditure to support the construction industry. The scale of these cuts to the capital budget alone puts 12,000 jobs at risk and is a deeply worrying development.

Scotland’s revenue budget, meanwhile, will fall by £1bn from this year to the next. This is the money that goes on day to day services and its reduction will be keenly felt across Scotland. These cuts go too far, too fast and smack more of ideological opportunism than sensible policy. Scotland’s future growth will be put in danger by the speed and scale of Westminster’s cuts and we face challenging times ahead as a result.

In the next few weeks, the Scottish Government will publish its budget for next year now that we finally know the level of resources that will be available. There will inevitably be extremely difficult decisions ahead in order to balance the books and we will again be hampered by trying to deal with the effects of the downturn with one hand effectively tied behind our backs.

If Scotland had the full economic powers of a normal independent country, we would not have been left in a position waiting to see how much less of our own money would be returned from Westminster to us. We would have been able to find the correct balance of cuts and investment that is appropriate for the Scottish economy, in order to drive growth and protect services while managing the deficit. Until Scotland has those powers, however, the Scottish Government has no choice but to administer the level of cuts being imposed on us.

There are enormous savings that must be found across departments, but the SNP Government is committed to protecting the front line services which we rely on as much as possible.

Indefensible cuts

Recent days have also seen the publication of another UK Government review which will have a disproportionate impact on Scotland. The Strategic Defence and Security Review has put the future of RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray in extreme jeopardy. Having myself made a submission to this review calling for those bases to be retained, this development is extremely disappointing.

The local economy heavily relies on these bases and will be hit hard should they close. Scotland already sees a geographic underspend of defence funding, and this review will only make this disparity worse.

12 October 2010

Internal democracy

As sure as night follows day, in the political world conference season follows on from the summer months. For each party, their conference is an opportunity for several days of activity and publicity, as party members gather together to discuss the issues facing the country and the solutions they would like to see.

However, while they might seem superficially similar, different parties use their conferences in different ways. Labour used its conference this year to reveal that thanks to their convoluted voting system, Ed Miliband had emerged as leader despite the greater proportion of party members and MPs wanting his brother.

For the SNP, our party conference is an important chance for ordinary members to shape the policies of the party. When delegates of what is now the largest party in Scotland meet in Perth from the 14th of October onwards, we will see four days of debate and discussion. Each decision is made on a democratic basis and has a real impact on the direction of the SNP. For other parties, the idea of such internal democracy in policy making is completely alien.

That is not to say that policy has no place at their conferences, but it is top-down in nature and not nearly as open to debate. The recent announcement that the Tories plan to build high speed railways from London to Manchester and Leeds, but no further north, is one such policy announcement which could have benefitted from greater debate.

All the studies that have been conducted into the benefits of high speed rail have conclusively stated that the maximum return on investment can only come when high speed rail links Scotland to London. To leave Scotland unconnected in its plans for the new network is a betrayal of Scots and a clear sign of where the party’s priorities lie. For residents of Banff & Buchan, who face massive journey times should they wish to travel to London, a high speed rail network which only goes as far as Leeds is next to useless, given that savings in journey times will inevitably be largely negated by the need to change train repeatedly.

For Scotland to be treated as some backward branch line is unacceptable, and is a real snub for people in Scotland. It is also the Tories in Scotland which have provided that other occasional feature of the publicity which accompanies party conferences: the embarrassing gaffe.

This year has seen two in quick succession from Conservative candidates for 2011’s Scottish Parliament election, with one apparently branding Scots as “thick” and another describing carers as “the great unwashed”. Quite what possessed them to make either of these comments is beyond me, but it is perhaps a worrying insight into the minds of people the Conservatives are deeming suitable to be MSPs.

For the SNP when it comes to selecting our MSPs, democracy rules the day again. Both for constituencies and regional lists, candidates are democratically elected by a ballot of all party members in the relevant areas. This commitment to a clear and transparent system of internal democracy is a constitutional hallmark of the SNP. I believe it is something that all members can be proud of and it stands us in good stead when tough decisions have to be made.

The SNP has selected what I believe are a strong team of candidates to fight next year’s important Scottish Parliament election across the length and breadth of Scotland. These are vital elections, but I know that I and my party colleagues are looking forward to the campaign ahead.

Stewart Stevenson
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