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Last week we brought you “The Case for ‘Yes’ You Never Heard” - the truths an independent Scotland would have to face.

Today Scot-Buzz editor BILL JAMIESON brings you the imminent Moment of Truth at Holyrood: the time to do its duty...

Was the referendum campaign really, as many commentators have asserted, a “re-invigoration of democracy” or “an upsurge in political engagement”?

It blinded many to an eternal and inescapable truth of politics, Left or Right, independent or unionist: that it is not just about wish lists and crowd pleasing and nice-to-haves.

It’s also about constraints, of living within means, of listing priorities and making hard, unpopular choices.

Without honesty about these, ‘politics’ is not just stripped of meaning. It is reduced to the toxic manufacture of expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled: an explosive cocktail of aspiration raised and hope betrayed.

Throughout the referendum campaign awkward truths about Scottish government spending and budget constraints were discreetly kept from view.

But over the next weeks Scotland’s parliament will have to wrestle with this reality - this other politics - no less real and no less important.

It will need to make hard choices on the forthcoming budget. The falsehood - that you can have an ever rising health budget, everlasting ‘free’ entitlements, costless tuition fees and still protect public spending in other areas - is laid bare.

And beyond that, some tough realism has to enter the debate about ‘more powers’ before here, too, expectations balloon out of control.

But it’s the imminent exposure of pressures on Scotland’s devolved budget – spending wholly devolved to the Scottish government and over which the parliament has scrutiny and control – that will bring our home-grown political elite back to earth.

Let’s recall the main themes featured in the previous budget approved earlier this year – just before the indy ref campaign took off:

  • £55m to provide free school meals to all pupils in the first three years of primary school from January 2015
  • £59m to expand free childcare to vulnerable two-year-olds
  • £77m for business rate relief
  • Continuation of the council tax freeze and universal benefits like free prescriptions
  • Measures to secure £8bn of infrastructure investment over the next two years.

Much rhetoric was devoted to denouncing the Westminster government’s “austerity cuts”. Rather less was heard of the fact highlighted here last week of the reality behind this ‘austerity’ and the causes of our discontent:  that the UK is soaked in debt, that the government’s debt total continues to rise and that the interest charge on this debt alone this year will hit £53 billion – more than one and a half times the size of the Scottish government’s entire budget.

No Scottish administration has ever called for spending reduction. Nor did the current administration turn down Chancellor George Osborne’s 2013 Autumn Statement pledge of £308 million spending increase for the Scottish government over the next two years. The extra cash means that spending by the Holyrood administration would be cut by less than 0.2 per cent, while most UK departments would need to make savings of 1.1 per cent.

The two main ‘protected’ areas of Scottish government spending are of course education and health. But it was the revelation of a £450 million hole in its NHS budget over the next two years in the final days of the independence campaign that now has to be reckoned with in the budget for 2015-16.

Politicians of all colours place much reliance on “efficiency savings” to make good budget cutbacks and shortfalls. But that is a difficult policy to pursue given public sensitivities to the appearance of efficiencies that look like “cuts”.

NHS managers may agree that on efficiency grounds mental health facilities at Monklands Hospital North Lanarkshire should be transferred. But Health Minister Alex Neil intervened to have this decision reviewed and the proposal was subsequently dropped.

An ageing population, rising expectations of health care and a rate of cost inflation notably higher than the CPI average add further pressure on health managers. So, in order to protect the £12 billion NHS Scotland budget in real terms, other spending departments have to take a hit – or more accurately a bigger hit than the one they’ve already had to endure.

Estimates of the cuts facing non-NHS spending in Scotland over the next three years range up to 25 per cent.

How can resort to new tax raising powers be avoided? At a public Festival of Politics debate at the Holyrood parliament last month, I suggested an early update of the Scottish government’s Independent Budget Review. This was published in 2010 and set out in detail the costs of ‘free’ universal entitlements such as ‘free’ prescriptions, eye tests and bus passes for the over 60s, elegantly set out by ex-Scottish Enterprise chief and SNP supporter Crawford Beveridge.

His Review followed findings by the Scottish Parliament – in particular its recognition that the retention of spending on universal benefits meant less flexibility  in seeking spending cuts in the rest of the Scottish government  budget.

The review ranged across concessionary travel, free personal and nursing care, prescription charges, eye examinations, free school meals and tuition fees and set out in various gradations how savings could be made.

It also drew on a report by the eminent and distinguished Professor Charles Jeffrey on the provision of universal services for older people, particularly free personal and nursing care and concessionary travel.

“Is it right”, Professor Jeffrey asked, “that all people over 60 - including wealthy ones – get concessionary bus travel when people who may need transport services more have to pay for demand responsive transport? Is it right that all income groups should have access on the same terms to Free Personal Nursing Care? If it is legitimate to target policies in some areas, like fuel poverty, onto the most disadvantaged, why is it not in other areas?”

Tough questions from the Professor. And tough answers from Crawford Beveridge.

In political debate in Scotland even to raise such questions is akin to walking barefoot over glass.

Another approach would be budget measures targeted at raising economic activity and growth – last year’s budget was opposed by the Scottish Conservatives for its failure to contain such proposals.

Whatever route is chosen, we are going to hear a politics markedly different in nature and tone from that aired to exhaustion over the past six months. It’s a lot more real and certainly more honest than much of the politics of ‘indyref’.

And it cannot come soon enough.