THE Institute for Fiscal Studies has found the three main manifestos – nationalist, Labour and Tory – “divorced from fiscal reality” containing “strikingly big promises without any serious attempt to provide costs or to say how they would be paid for”.

It is a pretty fundamental criticism which should create healthy scepticism about what manifestos offer, not that anyone reads them outside the more diligent newsrooms and opposing party offices.

The IFS makes two basic points. First, nobody knows what lies ahead post-pandemic but we can be pretty sure it will not come cheap. Second, the NHS will gobble up most of the £4.9 billion by which the Scottish budget will increase over the next four years.

There is another option which is to make better use of the very generous funding which the Scottish Government enjoys. At this point, I pause for sharp intakes of breath since the narrative we are normally fed is based on a false premise of penury enforced by uncaring Westminster. It’s not true.

Those who created devolution made very sure Holyrood started with a high funding base, constantly topped up through the good offices of the Barnett Formula. The challenge ahead should lie in spending it to maximum effect – which involves choices rather than add-ons. It also demands basic competence.

READ MORE: Brian Wilson: Nicola Sturgeon's faux drugs death apology is worthless

Let me give you an obvious example, from where I write. Ferry services are in chaos and communities suffering accordingly. Two hulks lie in Port Glasgow with a price tag so far of over £200 million. It will take at least another £100 million if they are ever to be completed.

That story is well-known but how often does anyone consider what else could have been done with such extremely large sums of money? When government operates within silos, each with its own fiscal boundaries, there is no sense of read-across to how serious these follies actually are. Let me try for a little perspective.

An Islands Deal has just been signed off by the UK and Scottish Governments for Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, the last of these “deals” covering Scotland. Negotiations took years and the money was repeatedly squeezed. In the end, it is worth £100 million across three island groups over 10 years. A drop in the bucket, albeit welcome. Now compare it with squandering at least twice that sum on the surplus cost of two ferries.

HeraldScotland: Ferguson MarineFerguson Marine

Yet who has been held accountable? When a Holyrood Committee tried, with a diligent report, it was openly sneered at by the Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, who refused to accept its criticisms. The sums of money wasted are enormous – enough to fund every foodbank in Scotland for years or transform the Inverclyde, never mind Western Isles', economy. But not a single head has rolled or apology offered. Two, three hundred million? Say it quickly and it hardly matters.

Then some genius within the Scottish Government appointed – presumably with Ministerial approval – a “turnaround consultant”, who had never worked in a shipyard and paid him, last year alone, the astonishing sum of £790,000 in fees. Meanwhile, the shipyard and the ferries remain conspicuously not turned around.

This is where I get into the granularity of my point, at a level which no Minister any longer condescends to contemplate. What else could they do with £800,000, or the balance after paying someone a reasonable salary? Well, quite a lot actually. The idea has been entirely lost that government can do many useful things with small amounts of money, as well as large ones. It is time to re-learn it.

The Ferguson’s example is at the high end of the scale but the same mentality runs through the Scottish Government – and maybe the UK one also, just that they are not seeking re-election at present. Over the next few years, if anything new and progressive is to be achieved, choices will be required and sacred cows, large and small, re-examined. The mantra of ‘send more money’ will not suffice.

READ MORE: Brian Wilson: What have the Braveheart politicians given us? Five years of squandered opportunities

When Labour won in 1997, Gordon Brown insisted we should accept the spending parameters of the outgoing Tories. It was absolutely the right thing to do because it created a discipline which otherwise would not have existed. You had to find money to do things within existing budgets which meant questioning everything that already existed.

Scotland is long overdue for a Comprehensive Spending Review looking into every nook and cranny of expenditure. It would pit one budget against another and ask the question: “Which has higher priority”? In fields like education and local government, it would force the question to be answered: “Do we care more about addressing the poverty gap or giveaways to people who don’t need them – because, actually, we can’t do both?”.

This is something all opposition parties should be able to unite around. Even if they have their own differing spending priorities, they should see the need to take a long hard look at how £95 billion was spent in the current year and ask how it can be spent better in future. Because otherwise “fiscal reality” will do the job for them.

If the SNP have a majority, there will be no review, no accountability, no transparency, no change. Just the same old script: “We are being done down. Send more money”. The poor will get poorer and the same lazy profligacy will continue because there will always be someone else to blame.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.