This is a story about Willie Rennie, in the main. I have always liked Mr Rennie. He is the sort of MSP we should all want at the Scottish Parliament. He arrived at Holyrood in 2011 with exemplary political experience, which is important for a young parliament like ours. He spent time at Westminster as an MP, and had been a political advisor both at Westminster and at Holyrood. He had private sector experience, too, the importance of which we often fail to appreciate.

He became his party’s leader at its most difficult time, carried out the role with aplomb, and is now one of the most respected MSPs across the entire parliament. So, you get it, reader: I like him.

Last Wednesday, I chaired a political hustings session for the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, at which Mr Rennie represented his party. He was unsurprisingly candid and fearless in his comments. He told his audience of social housing specialists, for instance, that they should embrace the private sector and support the abolition of rent caps, which he said are stifling inward investment all over the housing sectors (he is right; they have caused genuine and dramatic harm and must be scrapped).

However, during a discussion about how to find public money to pay for additional housing, he said something which I think we should all find profoundly dispiriting. He will, I am sure, write to the Editor, or perhaps tweet me, if I have incorrectly paraphrased him, but he told the audience that he knew of areas which could cope with a cut in public spending, but he would not identify them in public. He wants to support his LibDem colleagues in the General Election, and he feared that if he identified public spending cuts as part of the discussion, his political opponents would seize on them and use them to damage his candidate colleagues.


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He is correct, of course. Vocalise a spending cut and he would have found his face on a Twitter meme by tea time.

I raised this with Mr Rennie during a discussion on economic growth on Monday, as part of a Holyrood Sources podcast during which he shared a sofa with Labour’s Michael Marra, the Conservatives’ Murdo Fraser and the Economy Secretary and Deputy First Minister, Kate Forbes.

The discussion was so intimate, so honest, so consensual, that I wondered if all four might consider talking about cuts with the comfort blanket of their mutually assured discussion. They had, after all, agreed that increases in income tax had now gone as far as the economy could stand, and I optimistically hoped they might take the next step. Alas, no.

This is an election where nobody wants to talk about cuts; about saving money. Cuts, or savings, are considered to be an absolute bad, with no room for nuance. All parties want economic growth, with no tax rises but no tax cuts, and no reduction in public spending, along with better living standards. Round pegs, and square holes.

The debate is beginning to scar this election. It need not be the case. There has never been a time of greater distance between what politicians are prepared to say and what people are prepared to hear. It is little wonder, therefore, that trust in politicians is so woefully low.

And whilst I understand politicians’ reticence to be straight with people, I cannot blame the people for not giving politicians the time of day.

Here is what politicians would tell the people if they were unencumbered.

Half of this country’s expenditure - your tax - is spent on a combination of health and care, and social security, including pensions, as well as interest on the country’s vast debt. Half. That leaves the other half for everything else. Education. Housing. Transport. The police. Defence. Absolutely everything else!

Now, you might say “that’s fine, I want my tax to go towards healthcare and benefits”, and you’d most probably be in the majority. However, in the final analysis, the demographic direction of our country gives us no choice but to start from a blank sheet of paper. The proportion of the population who are economically active taxpayers is falling, and will continue to fall, whilst the proportion who are non-working non-taxpayers, and statistically much more likely to be users of state benefits and the NHS, will continue to rise.

It cannot continue. Politicians of all parties know it cannot continue. If you, reader, happen to be a 21-year-old, starting off your working life, you are not going to get a state pension. Ok? Start saving. And while you’re planning your private pension arrangements, I’d also pay into a private healthcare scheme, if I were you. But there is very little chance of a politician telling you that any time soon.

Those are longer-term realities. There are also short-term realities, particularly in the NHS. Far in excess of £200 billion is spent on the NHS - something around £3,500 for every single man, woman and child in the country. It is similar in relative terms to most European countries and, yet, the output is demonstrably poorer. Fewer doctors, nurses, beds and equipment. Poorer survival rates from key killers.

Willie RennieWillie Rennie (Image: Getty)

And why? Not because of money. Because of the inefficiency of a service which is much too big and much too centralised. Many billions could be removed from the NHS budget without negatively impacting a single patient. Or kept in, of course, and used more efficiently to improve outcomes.

All politicians know this. All parties, all ideologies. And people are ready for a mature discussion about it. A British Social Attitudes Survey, earlier this year, reported that fewer than one in four people report satisfaction with the NHS. Almost three in four cite waiting times - the result of bureaucratic inefficiency and a lack of capacity - as the main reason for their dissatisfaction.

Politicians worry there is no first-mover advantage in levelling with people. But the people are well ahead of them. As George Orwell said, in a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.