Like a first-time bingo caller in a provincial community centre, Derek Mackay trilled with an uneasy mix of excitement and nerves.
The prize table looked meagre indeed but the Finance Secretary tried his best to gin everyone up. Economic growth of 0.7%! A new method for calculating inflationary poundage uplift! And who could resist the chance to be dangled by their heels until everything but the lint in their pockets fell out?
Mr Mackay’s voice peaked awkwardly as he read out a full house of bad news for middle income families.
21p — a broken promise.
41p and 46p — double hit.
All the threes, £33,000 — start job-hunting in England.
The volley of figures reverberated around the chamber at dizzying speed but it wasn’t hard to see what the SNP was up to. While Mr Mackay called the numbers, Nicola Sturgeon was in the cloakroom rifling through purses.
This is why it was important we all knew the ‘fiscal context’ Mr Mackay was working in. Whenever a politician starts to intone about context, hide your money under the mattress.
There it was. ‘Tory austerity will mean that the Scottish Government’s fiscal block grant allocation will have been reduced in real terms by £2.6billion,’ Mr Mackay complained.
The SNP spent a decade gurning about Westminster tax policies and demanding more fiscal autonomy. So they got fiscal autonomy and their first act is to gripe about having to use it. Taking powers is easier than taking responsibility.
So, it was the Tories’ fault the Nationalists were mugging Scottish taxpayers. Just 23 days ago, Philip Hammond handed the Scottish Government a £2billion bonus. Now there was no money left and so the Finance Secretary was forced to work wonders to keep the lights on. It was a fitting miracle in the middle of Chanukah. The Maccabees made one night’s oil burn for eight; Derek Mackay couldn’t even make two billion last three weeks.
The Finance Secretary struggles with public speaking, a hinderance in any other government but politely overlooked in this one since the alternative might involve giving Mike Russell a job that actually matters. Yesterday’s performance was more confident than his debut statement as Finance Secretary, the most widely reported primary seven class talk in Scotland.
Still, his sluggish Renfrewshire tones squalled about his spending on ‘new technolugees, manafac’rin’ and unfrustructurr’ and the ‘furm foundashun’ of public services. Paisley is a rough town. Vowels seldom make it out alive.
And as his nerves began to jangle under Tory taunts, the finishing line suddenly seemed more appealing than oxygen.
One sentence was downright heroic: ‘In this budget we are investing in the NHS, increasing social care investment, protecting local services…’ pause for breath ‘…delivering a growth package for business and supporting the low carbon transition, providing real terms increases for our universities and colleges…’ another gulp of air ‘…expanding childcare, directing more resources to headteachers to close the attainment gap, protecting our police and fire services…’ and paramedics, or was he asking someone to call them? ‘…safeguarding culture and the arts, taking action to alleviate poverty…’ I’ve never seen anyone turn that particular shade of blue ‘…lifting the public sector pay cap.’
Hurrah! He made it, albeit gasping like a guppy outside its fishbowl. I didn’t know whether to applaud or begin CPR.
The Nationalist backbenches squealed, then hollered, then thumped their tables. They are first-time players at the income tax game and were blissfully, almost pitifully, unaware that they will spend the next four years defending this cash grab to their constituents. A few elections back, the Salmond and Sturgeon double act campaigned under the grammatically challenged slogan ‘More Nats, Less Cuts’.
A more honest motto for next time would be ‘More Nats, More Tax’.