This week saw the passage of the Scottish Budget. For the first time, John Swinney had the ability to draw up his figures, tell his overall majority to vote for them and barely involve any other parties in the Scottish Parliament.
He could have done that, but he didn't. He actively sought input from the other parties. It takes two to tango, though and in the event the only other person who wanted to get onto the dance floor (why, oh why, did I start on that line of thinking? I feel sick already) was Willie Rennie.
By doing so, he was able to make the budget better, getting extra funding for colleges which reversed about half of the cuts imposed by the SNP Government and more money directed towards tackling youth unemployment. I go on about housing all the time, so I was pleased that he'd pushed that issue and secured extra investment from the SNP.
I am glad we voted for the Budget. In all honesty, I really don't like abstaining. You're either for something or against it and you just have to make that judgement call. Labour and the Tories sat grimly on the sidelines and achieved nothing. Every single year, the Liberal Democrats have managed to secure more money for our priorities - usually to do with education and the economy.
What was noticeable was the praise John Swinney had for Willie Rennie in his summing up speech, saying that:
The most realistic speech today came from Willie Rennie, who made the fairest contribution to the debate. He gave an account of the financial pressures that the Government is under and acknowledged that they arise out of the settlements that have been decided at Westminster. He marshalled the issues about which he had been concerned and had made representations to me during the budget process. He was dealt with in the budget process in exactly the same way as every other party was dealt with, so, on the basis of what he said, none of them can have any complaint about the process.
Mr Rennie's speech was the type of contribution that Parliament should expect from an Opposition politician, because he did not turn up, moan about the reductions in public expenditure, and demand funding for a bottomless pit of commitments, which is what the Labour Party and the Conservatives have done today.I'm sorry, but I really can't resist mentioning that the turning up and moaning approach is exactly what Swinney's colleagues do in Westminster, and the SNP in opposition in the first eight years of the Holyrood parliament pretty much opposed everything, noisily.
Another important issue raised by Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur was that of the Air Discount Scheme for the islands and northern Scotland. With my experience of living in Caithness, I know exactly how important that is. Swinney has agreed that SNP cuts to the scheme should be looked at again and so the two Liberal Democrats will, I'm sure, continue to make the strongest representations to have work related air travel included.
Willie Rennie also highlighted on Good Morning Scotland yesterday that there was £20 million in the Budget specifically for improvements to women's prisons. This is well overdue, after the damning reports on Cornton Vale.
The SNP know fine that Willie Rennie speaks his mind - he's agreed to support minimum alcohol pricing and now the Budget and spoken out against the dreadful Sectarian Bill. He's genuine and he doesn't play silly games.
Both Rennie and Swinney come out of the Budget process with remarkable credit. Ok, so we didn't get everything we wanted. but our vote was a positive step to doing politics a bit better. I think it's the sort of politics people want to see - honest, genuine and constructive.
Here's the e-mail Willie sent to party members on Budget night:
I am sending this short note to update you on the outcome of the Budget voted on in the Scottish Parliament today. My colleagues and I have been in detailed discussions with Scottish ministers for some time to secure improvements to the Budget. Today saw some fruits from that work. As a result the Liberal Democrat MSPs were able to support the Budget. It’s not perfect by any means, but good enough to vote for. You may have seen in the news that the Scottish Government has produced, at the eleventh hour, extra money for colleges to reverse their proposed cut in student support and increase the money going into colleges. You will know that, week after week since September, I have challenged the First Minister and his government to do the ‘right thing’ for colleges. I have even shown him where he has the extra money available from the UK Government to make it happen. This year is the year when Scotland’s colleges need us most, and we need colleges most. They give opportunity for all, they tackle social inequality and they work for every community. That is why Liberal Democrats put them front and centre for support in this Budget. That pressure has paid off. Thousands of students will benefit. I am also pleased to say that we have had some success in persuading the SNP to increase investment in affordable housing. This is something that many party members have asked me to give high priority to. The same is true for early intervention which has been a longstanding campaign for our party. It doesn’t stop here. Our challenge over the months ahead is to make sure that the Scottish Government is fully focused on tackling the economy and unemployment. I will keep you up to date as we go forward. Best wishes,
Willie Rennie MSPLeader, Scottish Liberal Democrats