Sketch: Theatre, amnesia and the Scottish budget debate

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 8 February 2019 in Comment

The Scottish budget debate sees Derek Mackay and Patrick Harvie treated as the two halves of some sort of inept pantomime horse

Image credit: Iain Green

It’s starting to feel like whoever’s writing the plot for Scottish politics these days is getting lazy. The storylines are stale. Tired. Repetitive. We’ve been through them all before.

The SNP comes forward with a budget, everyone screams for a bit, and then, just when all looks lost, the Greens agree to back them in exchange for a bit more money for councils. Didn’t we do this one in the last season? In fact, like any good soap opera, the most sophisticated analysis of the underlying strategies driving negotiations over the 2019/20 Scottish budget relied heavily on mass amnesia.

The other parties have backed SNP budgets before, after all. That’s the whole point of a system set up for minority governments. So what’s changed? Well, that’s where the amnesia comes in, with most of the opposition operating with the same stoicism of someone stubbornly denying a serious blow to the head.

In fact, the Greens were really the only option this time round. Or, as a Scottish Government spokesperson chose to put it, “given the refusal of other parties to engage in budget discussions, the Scottish Government had no choice but to agree to work with the Greens”, which was probably true, even if the phrase ‘no choice but to work with the Greens’ suggested it was a form of cruel or unusual punishment. Like spending a few hours in a room with Patrick Harvie was the equivalent to a particularly humiliating challenge from a Japanese game show.

For a few of the opposition parties, it seemed, the key stumbling point was concern over a second independence referendum. Would the SNP drop its overarching reason for existence in order to impress Willie Rennie? No. Turns out Scottish independence is something the party is pretty attached to. Who knew? Admittedly, plans for a second referendum were in the SNP manifesto, meaning acquiescing to the Lib Dems would require pulling a massive U-turn on the party’s voters. But maybe that’s what attracted Rennie to the idea in the first place.

So yes, it did feel as though the Lib Dems were taking a harder approach to negotiations than they had during the 2010 UK coalition, but it’s good to dream big, and you’ve got to respect them for that. But what about the parties that weren’t acting like they were on crack?

The truth is they weren’t easy to spot, anywhere. The debate itself was weird, even by Scottish parliamentary standards. Around 40 per cent of the opening speeches were on Doctor Who, for example – regular observers will know that represents an increase on last year – but to be honest, most of it was theatre. Not good theatre, obviously. More like some unrehearsed, acid-fuelled pantomime, where no one on stage seemed aware they had an audience, and with Derek Mackay and Patrick Harvie treated as the two halves of some sort of inept pantomime horse.

Which is just a complicated way of saying the debate played out exactly as you’d think, basically.

Tom Arthur continued to act like the barrister from a badly researched Channel Five courtroom drama. He wheeled around. He pointed. He bellowed. He shouted gibberish.

Recurring character Neil Findlay accidentally sent out a mass email to the wrong people – as he always does – in this instance, accidentally emailing his entire speech to every Scottish minister beforehand. Derek Mackay had it printed out, allowing him to fact-check it in real time.

James Kelly, also representing Labour, was the same as ever – speaking with the solemn air of a man telling a funeral party to keep the noise down. Sombre, flat, grave – it was unclear whether the speech was more painful to make or to watch.

Stewart Stevenson, meanwhile, didn’t speak at all, which was more unusual, though reassuringly, he continued to look like a man who had been raised on human meat.

Patrick Harvie, in contrast, only eats bamboo, and a lot of people don’t know that. For his part, the Scottish Green co-convener used his appearance to assert, “I will not claim that this budget is perfection” – which was disappointing – before defending his part in propping up the SNP and warning, “the budget process that we have at the moment is not what it should be”.

Murdo Fraser seemed to agree with that last bit, at least in the sense Harvie had been involved in it. As he put it, despairingly, “I feel sorry for Andy Wightman.”

Well, fair enough. But why, specifically? “Famously,” he explained, “Andy Wightman wrote a book called Who Owns Scotland.”

His plan at that point had been to add, “The question is: who owns Andy Wightman?” but unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get that far, because the second he asked, ‘Who owns Scotland?’ everyone in the chamber just started pointing at the Tory benches, under the apparent belief that the party’s register of interests reads like an Ordnance Survey of the Highlands. Roseanna Cunningham found that bit so amusing she fell off her chair.

And that was really that. The shouting went on and the budget passed stage one. Stay tuned for next year.

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