The economy loomed large during the Scottish election campaign – but mainly as the subject of competing party pledges that met with a sceptical reaction from the business community and political observers.
The Scottish National party and Labour, the two leading political parties fighting for control of Holyrood, said encouraging economic growth was their top goal. However, many of their promises – such as rejecting university tuition fees, continuing to freeze council tax and ringfencing the NHS – involved maintaining or increasing existing levels of spending.
After a decade of devolution eased by rising expenditure, the Scottish government is facing an unprecedented financial squeeze, with its budget of £29bn this year set to be cut by £631m in cash terms by 2015 – equivalent to an inflation-adjusted cut of £3.5bn, or 12 per cent.
But academics at Glasgow University’s Centre for Public Policy for Regions said the manifestos of the four main parties – Labour, the SNP, the Tories and Liberal Democrats – contained “a plethora of seeming commitments and pledges, often with no [increased] funding attached to them”. Pat Watters, the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said the campaign promises being offered were “the political equivalent of junk food”.
Iain Gray, Scottish Labour leader, sought to appeal to his party’s core vote by promising to abolish youth unemployment by the end of the next parliament and create 250,000 jobs by the end of the decade. Alex Salmond, first minister and SNP leader, said he wanted to generate 100 per cent of the electricity Scotland consumes from renewables by 2020, ensuring 130,000 jobs in the low-carbon economy.
Last year the minority SNP government declined to act on an independent budget review that urged it to reconsider policies such as free personal care for the elderly, abolition of university tuition fees and a council tax freeze that it said appeared unsustainable.
The Centre for Public Policy for Regions said voters were entitled to be sceptical of whether what they were being offered in the manifestos would happen.
“At present, it looks like whoever forms the next Scottish government will be passing on much of the accountability and responsibility for making these decisions to other bodies,” it said. “This would appear to be in the hope that, by avoiding taking the lead in such unpleasant deeds, national politicians will also avoid taking the blame.”