John Swinney's controversial pre-election Budget has today been approved following lengthy negotiations with opposition parties. Following several days of bargaining, Swinney has felt compelled to offer significant concessions to ensure the Budget will go forward.
The Liberal Democrats have been opposed to Swinney's Budget, largely because it failed to do enough to aid economic growth. The party was particularly critical that there was insufficient within the Budget for either students or for enterprise. However, very late in the day, the Lib Dems have moved away from this position after Swinney pledged to increase college bursaries and offer further concessions on places and modern apprenticeships. Swinney has also accepted the case for increased support for Post Offices.
This is a tremendously welcome development, and is evidence of the hard work undertaken by the Liberal Democrats to ensure the best possible outcome. It is also testament to the negotiating skill of the Lib Dem team in their dealings with John Swinney, who is a canny and capable political operator. Perhaps most significantly, this is proof of the benefits of collaborative approaches to politics; the Lib Dems could easily have maintained "principled" outright opposition but instead preferred - correctly - to influence the outcome of the Budget for the better.
Lib Dem Finance spokesperson Jeremy Purvis MSP explained that the budget must be stronger for students in order to regrow the economy. He said "It looks as if the Government has accepted our case...this is a better budget. It’s better for young people wanting the skills they and we need for the economy. It’s better for colleges that will able to provide more opportunities. And it’s better for businesses that will have more opportunities to take on apprentices. Students now have additional places at college and bursary support. So students gain, the economy gains, employers gain and the country gains. We have also secured funding for additional modern apprentices and funding for a second year of our Post Office Diversification Fund....This is a better budget because of Liberal Democrat involvement."
Indeed it is. Credit should go where it is due. Scott, Purvis and the Lib Dem team have ensured a more responsible Budget. I should also in fairness highlight the Conservative influence - while their aggressive demands for private sector job creation and public sector reform were unlikely to be satisfied in full, they helped ensure an emphasis on economic recovery rather than short-term protection of services. John Swinney, for all the SNP's irresponsible threats of using a nuclear option and resigning from government, also emerges from this with a great deal of credit: without his determination to see his budget through and to resolve conflict rather than create further turmoil little would have been achieved. His consistently pragmatic approach is at odds with Alex Salmond's expressed wish for the SNP front bench to resign en masse if the Budget was rejected - a tactic which would have aimed merely at blaming opposition parties for the Budget's failure rather than putting together the best package for Scottish people. Swinney has proved that reason outflanks petulance and tribal politicking when it comes to delivering positive outcomes.
Liam Burns, President of NUS Scotland (not an organisation that has been too positive about the Lib Dems in recent months) said: "This is great news and testament to the hard work of thousands of college students across Scotland and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Students across colleges and universities have mobilised fantastically well, with over 32,000 letters and emails sent to MSPs on this issue. To win £15 million college bursaries, and £8 million for college places, in a budget which is being cut is a fantastic result. We hope this will now end the yearly ritual of college bursaries running out and end the threat of cuts to 40,000 of our poorest students."
Tavish Scott has done exceptionally well here. He has helped secure a better Budget for Scotland. However, he has also used the issue of student support to set an agenda for the Scottish Lib Dems that is distinct from that of the Westminster coalition. He's shown he's determined to be his own man and work to increase student participation - and he's gained a key concession from Swinney and made student welfare a priority at a time when the party at Westminster is being criticised for supporting the government's rise in tuition fees.
Hopefully Scott can take his distinctive message to the electorate in advance of the Holyrood elections. Certainly, the Lib Dems' principled and pragmatic actions in securing a more positive and responsible Budget should send out a clear message about the party's fitness for government. However, this isn't a victory for Liberal Democrats. It's a victory for what Nick Clegg terms grown-up politics; the politics of negotiation and co-operation.