And so it begins. We knew this crisis had to be paid for, but you might think Boris Johnson’s government would wait until we had turned the corner before cutting back. Sadly not. Even before the vaccines roll out, cuts are being announced.
And who’s going to pay? Remember “we’re all in this together”? That’s gone. Six months ago, the Tories stood on doorsteps applauding public service workers. Now they’re cutting their pay. The very people we have relied on most over this long, painful year are now in the firing line.
The spurious justification for this is that private sector wages have fallen, so in some perverted notion of fairness, public sector workers must take a cut in their real incomes too. Why might wages in the private sector have fallen? Might it be that millions of self-employed people and small firms have been unable to work during the pandemic? Might it be because nearly half of them were refused any help under the various government schemes?
Proposals to freeze public sector pay are part of the chancellor’s spending review announced last week. We ought to have had a proper budget by now, but the UK’s finances are so precarious, and things yet so uncertain that no-one is confident enough to publish a detailed set of figures. Instead, we have a range of new policies unveiled. And all without debate or votes in the elected parliament.
It’s not just a squeeze on the public sector, in perhaps the most cruel and immoral announcement ever, the government’s intention is to savage the aid budget by a third. This assault on the poorest people in the world will no doubt please grassroots Tories, but it will do major damage to the UK’s international reputation. As the US is preparing to come back to the world, the UK turns its back on it.
The government has borrowed a lot of money to deal with Covid. The UK’s debt has never been higher. Can it keep spending and borrowing more? Absolutely. Cutting back now is like ending a medical treatment before it has run its course. The good news is it’s never been cheaper to borrow. The debt may be 30% higher than it was two years ago, but the interest payments are half what they were.
Now is the time to spend even more on rebuilding our economy in a sustainable green direction. But because Scotland is not an independent country, we're dragged along for the ride. The best the Scottish government can do with limited powers and money is mitigate the actions of Westminster. Even then, the contrast in approach and attitude could not be more dramatic.
Rishi Sunak plans to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week in April; the Scottish government is giving the poorest families a £100 winter bonus and bringing in the new child payment. Frontline health and care staff in Scotland will get a £500 Covid thank-you bonus. Wages will not be frozen. Free school meals will be extended to all primary school pupils if the SNP win in May.
All this being achieved by a Scottish government with one hand tied behind its back. How much more could be done if we had the powers of an independent country.
Written for Edinburgh Evening News - 3rd December 2020