John Swinney’s launch of the Scottish budget went down like a damp squib as the Nationalist government attempts to balance its way between the cuts from Westminster and the increasingly unpopular administration’s electoral prospects in May. The Finance Minister announced a raft of cuts, “efficiency savings” and real wage cuts.
Scottish public sector workers are facing wage restraint across the board, first it was local government workers facing an imposed 0.65% pay “increase” over the next 12 months and now John Swinney’s Scottish budget has generalised the pay freeze to all workers earning over £21,000. At a time when the Retail Price Index is at 4.5% this means that the purchasing power of workers in the public sector is being slashed.
Alongside this were cuts to areas including local government, prisons and education. £28m is going to be lost in higher education funding. Swinney has pledged he will not introduce either fees or a cut in places, the only outcome therefore is falling standards as facilities and staff numbers fall. Already the University of Glasgow is facing a £34m shortfall in 3 years whilst the University and Colleges Union is preparing for a national strike at the beginning of 2011 in the face of compulsory redundancies amongst academic staff at Dundee University.
These pledges in higher education are matched by similar promises elsewhere, councils will be encouraged to keep council tax frozen in return for higher funding from central government, the over 65s will continue to receive free bus travel whilst NHS spending will continue to rise. Yet in the long term there is no explanation as to how this can continue whilst other areas of the public sector are already facing cuts.
Whilst this budget represents the first absolute year on year fall in the 11 year history of the Scottish Parliament, a fall of 3.9% where a 5% rise has been the norm, it is relatively well cushioned compared to what is to come. Playing real politik the SNP Scottish government agreed with the Tories that unlike the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations the Scottish government wouldn’t face central government budget cuts this year and instead would opt to take a double whammy next year. What sounds like a recipe for introducing economic shocks into a part of the country where unemployment is still rising starts to make sense when we take into account the fact that May 2011 sees the Scottish Parliamentary elections.
The SNP are down in the polls and the last thing they need to compound their unpopularity is implementing cuts in an election year. Beyond this if they are to lose the election then they can force an incumbent Labour government to take the blame for the cuts! Andy Kerr, the Scottish Labour finance spokesman quite correctly slammed Swinney, stating that, “he is not running a country - he is running an election campaign.” (BBC News 17/11/2010)
Swinney and Salmond are blaming the Tories for cuts being imposed on them from London. Yet reality is that an independent Scotland would be doing no different in this situation. Salmond’s infamous speech highlighting the potential of a Scottish slice of the “Nordic arc of prosperity” pie now stands as complete folly. As this is being written Ireland is bartering its national sovereignty in return for a bail out from the EU and is talking about cuts of up to 15 billion Euros, on top of 14 billion that have already been cut over the last 2 years.
If the SNP was serious it would look for methods by which to set a defiance budget. The Scottish government doesn’t have the borrowing measures that councils had in the 1980s but the administration is also making no effort to resist the cuts in any such manner. It’s not looking to use referendums to build a public campaign based around mobilising public sector workers and service users as Strathclyde Regional Council did in the 1994 when faced with the privatisation of water services.
Scottish workers are increasingly looking to their own mass organisations to defend them against the cuts. The Scottish Labour vote increased at the general election. In October the STUC “There is a Better Way” demonstration saw 20,000 march through the streets of Edinburgh against cuts whilst over 2,000 students went down to the NUS demonstration in London to protest against cuts which aren’t even affected Scotland yet.
The Labour leadership needs to offer a serious alternative to Tory cuts. Although Ian Gray has rightly criticised the SNP leadership for its cowardice this he’s thus far not offered any meaningful alternative to the cuts. Labour needs to be willing to defy them and set budgets which don’t implement these cuts and instead mobilise the ranks of the unions, particularly those in the public sector, alongside service users and youth who are seeing their future placed on the bonfire to pay for a crisis that was not of their making. This also has to be tied to a wider political vision which can tie these struggles together, that is the struggle for a society ran in the interests of social need and not profit, that is the struggle for socialism. A fighting socialist government in Scotland that was willing to draw a line in the sand and refuse to implement austerity measures could lay the basis for a widespread appeal to the workers in England and Wales and across Europe who are facing the same cuts resulting from the same crisis.