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A budget using wriggle room

If Finance Secretary John Swinney really was considering calling his budget a "budget for independence", as was widely rumoured, he realised his mistake in time and there was no trace of the phrase in his speech yesterday.

The words "budget for independence" would raise an awkward question: what is the aim of these spending plans - to help Scotland's economy or to help the SNP win a Yes vote next year? A budget should have prosperity and social justice at its heart, not the political ambition of independence.

As it turned out, when Mr Swinney quietly dropped the phrase and got on with the details of his plans, there was some good news. As in previous years, he did not have much room for manoeuvre - partly because the overall budget has been cut by UK ministers, partly because Mr Swinney remains committed to policies such as free bus travel - but the Finance Secretary has proved adept at wriggling within the parameters before and so he proved again.

The good news included £1.35bn for affordable housing, invested over four years, and £522m for colleges next year. Both decisions are welcome, although to some extent Mr Swinney is only undoing damage he has inflicted in previous years, both on the budgets for affordable housing and colleges. The suspicion with the latter has been that the Scottish Government is looking after universities at the expense of colleges - this extra investment may begin to change that perception.

One of the reasons the money for colleges is important is the role they can play in improving employment. According to Mr Swinney, he delivered a budget for jobs, but the timing of his assertion was unfortunate, coming as it did on the same day as the announcement that unemployment in Scotland rose by 10,000 between May and July. The bigger picture, admittedly, is a slow fall in unemployment and Mr Swinney's stated intention yesterday to secure total investment of more than £8bn in infrastructure over two years holds out the prospect of some welcome new jobs. Such investment is also a reliable way of stimulating economic growth.

On the issue of welfare, Mr Swinney's budget is committed to mitigating the effects of the so-called bedroom tax. The tax is farcical and misguided but is Westminster imposing a tax only for Holyrood to spend millions offsetting it the wisest use of money? Mr Swinney says the SNP would abolish the tax in Scotland after independence, but an attempt to do so while Westminster still controls welfare could lead to an open-ended and expensive commitment. Graeme Brown, director of housing charity Shelter, believes the £20m will not truly help everyone affected by the tax.

On this and other issues, Mr Swinney's mantra was familiar: Westminster, he said, is to blame for attaching shackles to my ambitions, although it is worth noting that some of the restraint is self-imposed - on the council tax freeze, for example, or free bus travel, both of which Mr Swinney said yesterday would be maintained. There will come a time when he will have to look at those policies again because they are no longer affordable. His strategy is that he will not have to do it until after the referendum vote.

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