Hollywood had Fred and Ginger; Holyrood, Kate and Murdo. Politically, they are polar opposites but when the Finance Secretary and the Tory finance spokesman meet on the debating chamber floor, they waltz off with the whole show.
Once Forbes had outlined her budget proposals, Fraser began his reply on a non-political note: ‘Can I take the opportunity, on behalf of these benches, to congratulate her on the recent happy news of her engagement.’
Awww. A little round of applause rung out, before an insouciant Fraser added: ‘It’s good, Presiding Officer, to see her recognising the benefits of being in a union.’ Forbes chuckled and rolled her eyes.
Her statement was the putting of an elegant face on an inelegant situation: the economy is in the toilet and one more flush away from the septic tank.
So she tacked Left with more spending on health and education and a lowering of the threshold for land and buildings transaction tax back down to its pre-pandemic level. Then she nudged Right by leaving income tax rates untouched and raising the threshold for most taxpayers — alongside a £268 million cut to social housing.
One of the keys to the SNP’s electoral success is that they don’t believe in anything and can pose as Bevanites one day and Thatcherites the other. It must be difficult trying to remember which day is Tax Cuts for Independence and which is Nationalisation for the Nation.
Actually, that is the one thing they believe in, independence, and the kitty for Government Business and Constitutional Relations Policy — the Separatism Squad — got chucked an additional £4 million, taking its annual pot to just under £15 million.
Forbes was practically baiting Fraser at this point.
The Tory volunteered himself for the hook with glee: ‘We need a budget that focuses 100 per cent on managing the pandemic and our economic recovery thereafter… We will reject any plans to waste precious resources — money or time — on campaigning for another divisive independence referendum. We need a budget that is about building up, not breaking up.’
Forbes gave as good as she got: ‘Talking about wasting time, I’m standing here delivering a budget investing £1.1 billion in skills, £6 billion in capital infrastructure and £3.5 billion for social security and welfare payments. Meanwhile, of course, his leader is breaking the spirit of the rules on essential travel — to do what? Make the case apparently for the Union, because he’s running scared after poll after poll shows support for independence.’
It’s a delight to watch the two of them tango.
But when the music stops, the tricky questions about Forbes’ spending priorities will come. My eye was rather drawn to the bumped-up budget for the grandly titled External Affairs department. This coming year, the Scottish government will be spending £26.5 million on ‘International and European Relations’, which is jolly generous of them considering international and European relations are reserved to Westminster.
Not invited to the ball, like a carbon-neutral Cinderella, was Patrick Harvie, who vented his frustrations over Forbes’ insufficient alertness to the climate crisis.
He harrumphed: ‘Once again, we’re hearing commitments on a green agenda while the motorways and trunk roads budget goes up, as it has relentlessly. There’s no sign of the promised increase in the energy efficiency budget and the main new measure on public transport is the one the Greens secured a year ago and which the Scottish government hasn’t implemented yet.’
If only there was a way for Harvie to express his disapproval of Scottish government budgets. Perhaps through a vote of some kind. At least the SNP gets power in exchange for its protean principles. The Greens just get the occasional pat on the head.
When it comes down to it, they’ll do what is expected of them because the only sustainability their leader is interested in is sustaining the SNP in government. Under Harvie, the Greens’ sole function is to say whatever the SNP just said in a more middle-class accent.
Students who chain themselves to trees and sabotage Japanese whalers are eco-warriors. This lot are echo-warriors.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.