This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Like politicians, elections are never pure. 

They’re meant to be about one thing, but get adulterated by random events. They’re fuzzballs. All manner of mess sticks to them and blurs the outline. 

Contests to choose who runs councils are overshadowed by whatever argument happens to be raging over the airwaves at the national level. Disagreements over pothole repairs are twisted and shoehorned into debates about the Barnett formula. Bin collections become the playthings of far-flung Eurocrats. 

The Holyrood poll is equally likely to be dominated and distorted by shenanigans at Westminster.

Vote for decent folk like us, not that ghastly lot down there, being a common refrain.

Remember Brexit! Remember Iraq! But does anyone remember Holyrood? Not so much.

This week’s final vote by MSPs on the Scottish budget for 2024/25 is another case in point.

On Tuesday, SNP finance secretary Shona Robison secured the passage of the legislation underpinning the £55 billion spending package for the coming year.

Read more:

SNP and Greens accused of 'chaotic' cuts ahead of crunch budget vote

Scottish Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats lined up against her, but the Scottish Greens and her SNP colleagues together had the numbers to ensure a victory.

The big talking points – a centrally-driven council tax freeze, income tax changes and cuts to the affordable house building programme – were genuine Holyrood fodder.

But the less-than-subtle subtext was the approaching general election.

Whenever an MSP opened their mouth, it was with a dual purpose. To praise their own and damn the rest over the budget, yes, but always with an eye to getting votes down the road.

Tellingly, the Scottish Conservatives and LibDems seemed the most subdued. 

They enter the election with six and four seats respectively and will do well to keep them.

They made worthy recitations of complaints, but there was little energy. The real scrap was between the SNP, who have most to lose, and Scottish Labour, with most to gain. 

The finance secretary was big on blame, focussing on unforgivable Westminster folly. Liz Truss was namedropped.

Labour’s Michael Marra majored on incompetence.

The Scottish Government had brewed up a “chaotic” budget, he said. 

Whereas a new Labour government in Downing Street (a mere 400 miles away) would never “play fast and loose with the public finances”.

He quickly went full Party Political Broadcast, trying to link the SNP’s record at Holyrood with the need for change at Westminster – and guess what, Labour is that change. 

There were some decent points on ministers keeping the college sector in the dark about funding, and the panicky council tax freeze, but lots of it was low-brow propaganda.

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Expect lots more of the same. The budget is the SNP’s last before the general election, and so it will be cast up to Humza Yousaf and Stephen Flynn all the way to polling day.

Usefully for Labour, it contains lots of hostages to fortune. 

Despite the SNP coming to power in 2007 promising to protect NHS hospitals, the party has frozen dozens of hospital building projects, a blow to vast numbers of voters. 

Ministers justifiably blame Westminster cutting their capital expenditure, but such subtleties are often lost in an election campaign, and Labour is determined they will be again.

It’s a sign of the Scottish Government’s discomfort that it’s already trying to draw people’s attention away from its own budget by talking about the Chancellor’s next week.

“We are in the absurd position of finalising our budget plans for 2024/25 – when in a week, large parts of it may be impacted by the choices of the UK Chancellor,” Ms Robison said.

The Herald: Deputy First Minister Shona Robison
Mr Yousaf is expected to say more about Jeremy Hunt’s March 6 statement on Wednesday. All the campaign brouhaha and misdirection was a pity because there were genuinely interesting parts to Tuesday’s budget vote, and not just the raw numbers.

In a potentially far-reaching development, Ms Robison suggested she might be willing to ramp up the powers of councils to match their wildest dreams.

For decades, councils have pleaded for “powers of general competence”, meaning they would be empowered to do anything that wasn’t expressly prohibited.

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Critically, that would let them set and raise a host of new taxes, rather than waiting years for Holyrood to grind out occasional sops like the overnight tourist levy.

Ms Robison said she planned “constructive engagement” on the issue. 

If it comes to pass, it will be a huge moment for local government – and all of us. It might even make council elections about who runs councils again. Well, one can dream…