Brian Monteith: Ruth’s the one to hold John Swinney to account

Ruth Davidson is the one to rein in John Swinney. File picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Ruth Davidson is the one to rein in John Swinney. File picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
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WHAT on earth has happened to that nice man John Swinney, the SNP government’s Finance Secretary who is meant to everyone’s caring uncle.? Always soberly dressed, never making grand gestures or outrageous comments like his old boss, Alex.

Nor has he ever appeared as sectarian and partisan as his new boss, Nicola Sturgeon. Nicola is, of course, very popular but she’s also seen as very tough. Nobody would want to mess with her! Uncle John, on the other hand, is like a bank manager that lives in the wardrobe and comes out to give you reassurance when you need it.

You want to spend money on Gaelic signs? “Go ahead it’s a lovely idea,” he might be heard to say. You want to end the bridge tolls that fund the maintenance and repairs? “Why not, what can go wrong?” he probably thought.

With Uncle John there has rarely been a public spending project too munificent, too grand to be worthy of his wrath. Free prescription drugs for those that can afford to pay? “Well of course, what’s the odd £40 million to a cash-strapped NHS?”

Free university tuition fees for everyone, no matter how wealthy their family? “Naturally, it’s not a problem, I can just cut 130,000 college places to pay for it,” he probably mused (because that’s what he did).

Why, nothing’s too much trouble for Uncle John. Free this, free that – the Scottish Government’s willingness to be the bearer of free gifts knows no bounds. Only there’s a hitch. Uncle John doesn’t want to admit that many of these schemes are a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.

How many people speak Gaelic in North Berwick? I don’t know but I doubt it’s more than a handful. Are there any Gaelic speakers in Scotland that do not speak English? No.

Does having free tuition fees make a difference to helping students from poorer families attend university? The evidence suggests not. There are more students from poor backgrounds attending university in other countries with tuition fees, notably England. What matters is providing adequate support for living costs, such as bursaries – but, don’t mention it, Uncle John has cut them. While no bridge tolls meant less money for the Forth Road Bridge repairs.

The point is that Uncle John’s free gifts (paid for with your money) might make him (and his party) seem warm and cuddly but they do not deliver the outcomes that are either expected or promised.

There is another hitch. To balance the books there is a lot of shuffling of money around by Uncle John which confuses what’s happening. It’s a bit like a card shark’s conjuring trick and the suckers being fleeced are our local councils. Our councils are the ones having to axe jobs, cut back on services and leave maintenance unattended. When I walk around the streets of towns and cities these days I am appalled at just how scruffy and dilapidated they are.

I’m not arguing that it’s all Uncle John’s fault – our councils can make their own mistakes, often by setting the wrong priorities – but there can be no doubt that they have been financially squeezed over the last five years or more.

The problem remains that politicians like to spend money they do not have and leave it to others to pick up the pieces or, more accurately, the debt. Spending money buys votes and often the people being bribed are not the ones contributing to the cost. We therefore need checks and balances to hold our politicians to account. We need to put them under the searing scrutiny of open examination so that we can see what is really happening. No card tricks and no card sharks will then be possible.

So when a committee of politicians at Holyrood is asked to consider establishing greater scrutiny of what Uncle John and his army of civil servants are up to it should not surprise us that they rejected the idea. They are all in on it.

This sorry episode shows us why the Scottish Parliament as an institution is flawed. In a single chamber parliament where one party has an overall majority it is able to suppress scrutiny that would reveal the grubby undergrowth where money that no-one has is committed on projects that make no sense.

This is not to say it is all the SNP’s fault. Politicians will be politicians, whatever their party, but let’s not pretend that on this occasion it is anyone’s fault but the SNPs.

The only way to bring some balance into this situation is for a strong opposition to be elected at this year’s Holyrood elections so that the SNP is held to account. The best hope for that must be that the Conservatives under Ruth Davidson become that strong opposition because out of all of them they are the ones most committed to looking after your money.

You can like Uncle John if you wish, but somebody needs to be looking over his shoulder and I can’t think of anyone better than the kick-boxing, bible-bashing, ex-Territorial Army, no-nonsense Tory Ruth Davidson. If the comprehensive-educated lass from Burntisland can’t rein in Uncle John, no-one can. I think she’s the one to do it.