Friday, 3 December 2010

Budget, Scotland Act and Winter Arrives

John O'Groat Journal Column 3rd December 2010

Last week a new IPSOS MORI poll gave overwhelming backing to key SNP policies set out in the SNP Government’s budget including freezing the council tax, supporting the NHS, abolishing prescription charges and freezing pay for those earning over £21,000 as the party maintained its polling position from before the 2007 election.

The poll conducted immediately after the budget also gave positive approval rating for Alex Salmond, the only leader to reach over 50% is over three times that for Iain Gray and more than double all the opposition leaders combined with Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott receiving a negative rating of -4 as the party continues to do the Tories dirty work in Scotland.

On the back of a tough budget caused by Tory/Lib Dem Westminster cuts, Alex Salmond’s leadership ratings are rising to near record levels, and our core policies of a Council Tax freeze as part of our social contract with the people to sustain measures such as pay restraint, support for front line services and economic recovery receive overwhelming backing.

The SNP is delivering popular measures of substance, while Labour has no coherent stance on either the Council Tax freeze or pay freeze. Three-and-a-half years into office SNP support is at the same high levels as when we won in 2007 – which is a remarkable achievement for any administration. Support rises for governments in the run-up to an election, and as Labour come under increased scrutiny their inexperience and inconsistency will be exposed as they seek to push up taxes for every Scottish household and back LibDem/ Tory tax plans that will slash Scotland’s budget.


On St Andrew’s Day this year the LibDem and Tory Coalition Government published the

Scotland Bill which is set to devolve a few more powers to the Scottish Parliament the most important being greater tax varying powers by 2015. Significantly already we know that the important Aggregates Tax and Airline tax won’t be part of it.

Signatories to a letter from concerned business leaders and economists were also published and it shows a wider Scotland wants greater debate about the bill that will only focus on the recommendations of the Calman Commission. When the bill goes through its stages in Westminster, the Commons and Lords must discuss and agree a greater level of fiscal responsibility for the Scottish Parliament.

The North is well represented on the distinguished list of signatories by Dan Macdonald property developer of Macdonald Estates and mining millionaire Dennis Macleod from Helmsdale.

They argue that the best way forward would be to devolve most current taxes to the Scottish Parliament since this would make politicians more accountable for the financial decisions they take, while giving them both the incentive and the fiscal tools necessary to achieve improved public services and faster economic growth.

Further, it would help to foster a healthy relationship between Westminster and Holyrood.

All of the main Scottish and UK parties agree that the Scottish Parliament should have greater financial powers. The debate is now about which powers should be devolved and when. We hope that the publication of this bill will lead to an open-minded discussion about what is in the best interests of Scotland and the UK as a whole.

The opportunity now exists to fashion a new, sustainable financial settlement to underpin the devolution settlement. We believe that ultimately the Scotland Bill should be measured by the economic levers and responsibility it transfers.

The political scientist Prof John Curtice of Strathclyde University made an important comment on the proposed Scotland bill. On BBC Newsnight Scotland on Monday evening he said, “The truth is – that bill that is published tomorrow – is in fact the true legacy of the Nationalist victory in 2007. The nationalists haven’t been able to get that referendum bill through, but their victory in 2007 forced the Labour Party in particular to re-think its attitude towards devolution, to work together with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to produce this proposal that the Coalition is now putting forward. So, the SNP will undoubtedly put out a lot of criticism about this, but the truth is, they are probably principally responsible for this proposal at least getting as far as the statute book.”

That suggests that unless a strong vote is made by people for the SNP no other party will make any meaningful change in Scotland’s government.


Much more urgently on most minds have been the deep freeze from the polar winds that have paralysed so many communities. My own week began on Monday digging out the car at home in Evanton. My first steps to get to Parliament to get to Inverness station. Train left slightly late and reached Perth on time, however, rail disruption further south left no driver and conductor available. Half an hour went by and a relief crew were ready.

Rob digging out the car on Monday Morning
In Edinburgh I trudged through the slush to the flat with the roller bag as I needed the contents later this week for the Green Energy Awards in Edinburgh on Thursday night. Two committee meetings some questions and a speech followed at Holyrood.

I am returning the favour to Dr Aileen McLeod’s whose adoption meeting takes place in Kirkcudbright on Friday. Aileen came to support me at my adoption as SNP candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross in the middle of last month. On Saturday I’ve to get to Perth for the SNP quarterly national council meeting and then join friends at a table for the Scottish Traditional Music Awards which is also in town that evening.

But above all I have nothing but praise for the train and bus crews that keep us moving and the health workers and social work staff who tend the old and inform in such difficult weather conditions.

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