This is for the UCL Constitution Unit’s January 2011 edition of ‘The Monitor’:
There has been a number of stories vying for attention in the latter part of 2010, including the US report on Lockerbie (suggesting economic pressure on the UK to free the Lockerbie bomber), the date of the referendum on AV (the Lords process may push it past the Scottish Parliament election date), the resignation of Stewart Stevensson (blamed for motorists being trapped on the M8 overnight during the cold spell), the non-story regarding the lapse of the Scottish Parliament’s powers to modify Scottish income tax (the power would not have been used) and, of course, Tommy Sheridan. However, the biggest issue relates to the economy and the budget. Legislation, based on the Calman report (see previous monitors) is currently going through Westminster to devolve a range of taxes to the Scottish Parliament (despite opposition by the SNP). We are also gearing up for the annual budget bill which has generally proved controversial. There are two added elements this time. First, it is the first budget bill in the new era of austerity, with the Scottish Government faced with finding ways to reduce budgets across the board. This is the context for most coverage of issues with, for example, Scottish Labour linking C difficile related deaths to NHS cost cutting, the Auditor General warning that further cuts in the NHS have to be made, Education Secretary Mike Russell accused of interfering in the schools closure agenda in his constituency and challenging the opposition parties to state their position on charging tuition fees, and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill considering the move to single fire and police services. Second, Alex Salmond’s threats to resign and force an early election may have a bit more bite this time (although SNP support is not that high) because we are within six months of May (meaning that another election would be unnecessary; the new government would operate for over 4 years). Much centres on Finance Secretary John Swinney’s proposal of a ‘supermarket tax’ (or rise in business rates for large businesses) which has been opposed by the three main opposition parties. Swinney has also begun to play hardball with local authorities, linking funding to a commitment to maintain police and teacher numbers and to freeze council tax (or face a reduction in budget settlements).