By Campbell Martin
On Wednesday the SNP Scottish Government announced its draft budget for 2014/15 – it's in draft form until it receives the backing of parliament.
Budget-setting must be a hugely frustrating exercise for the Scottish Government: SNP Ministers know what they want to do, and how much policies and initiatives would cost, but are severely constrained by the limitations of devolution.
Under the present constitutional settlement, Scotland contributes all of its revenues to the Tory-Lib Dem-controlled UK Treasury and they give us some of it back. It's the equivalent of you handing your wages to your neighbour and them telling you how much of it they will give you back to spend over the coming year.
For 2014/15 Westminster has slashed the Scottish block grant – the bit of our money they give us back – by almost 27%. The average wage is currently around £27,000 per year: imagine how you would feel if your boss told you that next year he was cutting it by 27%, taking your salary down to £19,710.
Against that reduced income you have to meet the increasing costs of feeding and clothing your family, provide and maintain a home while paying for ongoing commitments, such as transport to work and the myriad things that have us dipping into our pockets on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis. Scale it up to national level – factoring in the costs of health and justice - and that is what Finance Secretary John Swinney and his Cabinet colleagues were faced with as they prepared the SNP Government's budget.
The Scottish Parliament heard Swinney announce an investment of £1.3billion in affordable housing, with a further £8billion for infrastructure projects. In addition, £24million is to be committed for 2015/16 to create a national sports performance centre to support the legacy of next year's Commonwealth Games.
However, most newspaper headlines focussed on what the SNP Government intended to do regarding the Bedroom Tax. In the same week that a United Nations Special Rapporteur condemned the Tory-Lib Dem policy as a breach of human rights – stating she found its impact "shocking" and calling for it to be abolished – the Scottish Government announced it would commit £20million this year to help mitigate the effects of the Bedroom Tax.
In addition, the Scottish Government has set aside £68million in each of the next two years to limit the damage caused by other Westminster cuts to welfare.
Despite supporting Scotland's continued membership of the British Union – the constitutional position that allows the Tories and Liberal Democrats to impose welfare cuts and the Bedroom Tax – Labour's Finance spokesperson in the Scottish Parliament, Iain Gray, attacked the SNP's draft budget for not doing enough to tackle, in particular, the Bedroom Tax. If hypocrisy were a sport in next year's Commonwealth Games, Iain Gray would be a clear frontrunner for a gold medal.
The Bedroom Tax was introduced by the Labour Party while in government in London: the current Tory-Lib Dem administration simply extended the policy from the private housing sector into the public sector. It is also the case that Labour, so far, has failed to give a commitment that it would abolish the tax if it ever again formed the UK Government.
A recent statement by Labour's deputy leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar MP - "If we were in government tomorrow we would scrap the Bedroom Tax" – was not such a commitment. It was, instead, an example of how untrustworthy Labour has become, and also showed Mr Sarwar appears to think the Scottish public are not bright enough to see through his careful use of words. Labour would not be "in government tomorrow" so could not be held to scrapping the Bedroom Tax.
The 'promise' by Anas Sarwar did not apply to any date beyond the day after the one on which he made his statement in a televised debate. On the same night, his Scottish leader, Johann Lamont MSP, appeared on another channel and point-blank refused to give a commitment that a future Labour UK Government would repeal the Bedroom Tax.
During the Scottish Parliament budget debate, Iain Gray demanded that the SNP Government "banish the Bedroom Tax from Scotland", despite the fact the Labour MSP knows full-well that, under devolution, Scottish governments do not have the powers to scrap welfare policies imposed from London. Only the government of an independent Scotland could scrap the Bedroom Tax, but Iain Gray and his party are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories and Liberal Democrats in campaigning to prevent Scottish independence.
The Scottish Parliament debate also saw Conservative Finance spokesperson Gavin Brown MSP say the budget "should have been about the economy", a position supported by Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie who argued that SNP proposals were "an inadequate response to Scotland's economic needs".
Again, both MSPs know the devolved Scottish Parliament (and therefore the current SNP Government) has very limited powers relating to aspects of the economy. Powers over the national economy of Scotland remain at Westminster, which results in Scotland's economic interests playing second-fiddle (if that high) to those of the City of London and the south-east of England.
The finance spokespeople of Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats all condemned the Scottish Government for not implementing policies that require the full powers of independence, yet all three parties oppose an independent Scotland and are working jointly within the British unionist Better Together campaign to stop the Scottish Parliament ever having such powers.
Independence is simply Scotland retaking the status of a normal nation, with a parliament that has the full powers of a sovereign state and a government, directly elected by the people of Scotland, which can implement policies suited to the needs and aspirations of the country. Meanwhile, Scots within British unionist political parties continue to tie themselves in knots as they fight to retain Westminster's power over our lives.