Sketch: The mystery of the Scottish Parliament sofa
Like most superstitions, it’s unclear when the Scottish Parliament’s belief in ‘The Sofa’ first emerged.
Its origins lie shrouded in mystery. Some say it dates to parliament’s first days. Some claim it is more recent. But what is it? What does it have to do with public spending? And why do MSPs talk about it so much? It was time for answers. It was time for someone to blow this whole thing wide open.
The budget seemed the ideal place to find out. And while it may have been Donald Cameron’s first appearance as shadow finance secretary, he was obviously keen to observe the traditional Tory approach to the budget, by questioning ministerial decision-making, highlighting weaknesses in spending plans, and then, regardless of what they said, launching a series of baffling and surreal attacks on Patrick Harvie.
This is the way it has always been done, and fiscal scrutiny in the parliament is incredibly robust. For example, in previous years, the Scottish Greens co-leader has been labelled a “patsy” for the SNP, as well as a “lentil-munching, sandal-wearing watermelon”. So, what did Cameron have up his sleeve this year?
Well, at first it was much as you’d expect, with the Highland MSP running through his concerns over cuts to council budgets and the state of Scotland’s roads. “It was going to be the Greens’ big year,” he lamented. “No more Patrick the poodle.” Continuing, with an air of disappointment, he explained: “Patrick Harvie has been played like a fiddle – and not for the first time.”
Parliament had become dangerously distracted by soft furnishing
A poodle played like a fiddle. So how would that work? And wouldn’t it sound terrible? It made no sense at all, and the rest of the Tories were visibly impressed. And while you really do have to wonder why the other parties keep relying on the Greens to introduce their own policies for them, a bigger question remained. Where did the extra money, leveraged by the Greens, come from?
The answer was clear. It was The Sofa. Cameron said: “Yet again, we were told that there was no more money. However, it turns out that Kate Forbes has an even bigger sofa than Derek Mackay. She knows the respect that I have for her, but it makes a mockery of the budget process to insist that there is no more money, but then to produce it at whim.”
Kate Forbes looked slightly thrown by this. She was sitting on a spinny chair, not a sofa.
But while the speech may have been confusing, there’s obviously a total lack of transparency around this ‘Sofa’. Where was it? And how much money is in it? They all seemed to know about it, yet the specific details remained hazy. For perspective, most normal countries use a central bank as a mechanism for fiscal policy. Not seating.
No wonder no one will say where it is, it would only take one rogue upholsterer and the economy would collapse. Looking back, it’s funny to think we spent half the referendum campaign debating what currency an independent Scotland would use, but no one asked what kind of furniture it would be stored in.
So fortunately, Bruce Crawford, convener of the finance committee, was at hand. Before the Greens had reached a deal with the Scottish Government, he explained, he had expected that “the opposition would claim that there was money stuffed down the sofa”. Well, they did reach a deal, Bruce, and the opposition were doing it anyway.
But of course, that’s just Crawford’s view – not everyone genuinely believes there’s money stuffed down the inside of a sofa, which is used to pay for additional spending pledges. I mean, stop and think about it. It doesn’t make any sense. So it was lucky that Scottish Labour MSP Sarah Boyack was at hand to move the debate away from the belief money is stored inside a sofa, to clarify how public finances actually work. “The additional £95 million for local government was found behind the sofa for today’s debate,” she theorised.
The money was behind the sofa, not inside it. Rhoda Grant then did her best to corroborate Boyack’s theory, claiming that if she was finance secretary, “I would delve behind the big sofa again and find some more money”.
She’d delve behind the big sofa and find money. It was an excellent model for tax and spend.
Or so you would think. But things took a more controversial turn with Boyack’s colleague, Colin Smyth, who appeared to directly challenge the views of his party’s shadow cabinet secretary for local government.
“I am sorry, but money appears to have been conveniently hidden down the back of the magic money sofa.”
Wow. Down the back of the sofa. No wonder people talk about splits in the Labour Party. They can’t even agree on basic questions of economics. At this point, it really looked like things were getting out of hand. Parliament had become dangerously distracted by soft furnishings.
Someone had to do something. Someone had to restore order. Someone had to heal the Scottish Labour Party.
Sadly, though, that didn’t happen. What happened was the opposite of diplomacy. What happened was Neil Findlay, who took the opportunity to start bellowing about “magic beans”.
“Is it not ludicrous,” he asked, “that parliament is told that there is no more money because it has all been allocated, only for magic beans to be found down the back of someone’s couch?”
Wait, what? Magic beans? Are they devolved now? Lord Smith really has a lot to answer for. But what did beans have to do with it? This was meant to be a debate about sofas.
Members around the chamber looked at Findlay sadly. It was like he understood nothing of economics. Even Cameron looked confused, and that man believes you can play a poodle like a fiddle.